I recently returned from the AMI Elementary Refresher Course, and I enjoyed it so much that over the course of the two days I took 25 pages of notes!
Alison Awes, the presenter and a Montessori trainer, was a very inspiring and engaging speaker, breathing fresh life into some familiar concepts, lessons, and theories, while also sharing some new insights and practical ideas. Here are some of the pearls of wisdom that sparked my interest!
For elementary children, repetition happens through variety.
While children ages 3-6 demonstrate repetition by doing the same thing over and over, repetition in the elementary classroom happens through variety. 6-12 children get bored with doing the same thing over and over again! A child might repeat their writing skills by compiling a variety of research reports based upon their particular interests. Children might want to demonstrate the repetition of a lesson by creating a diorama to show a part of a story or presentation that was meaningful to them. A child might tire of using the bead chains or bead bars for skip counting and multiplication, but their interest may be reignited if they can skip count while bouncing a ball or jumping rope. Alison suggested the idea of pulling out the decimal board and using only the whole number side for children who need additional practice with the operations and are tired of the golden beads.
Also, you are allowed to insist that children repeat when they are not repeating on their own, particularly in areas of math and writing, where societal expectations call for children to develop a certain level of understanding. You can give choices on how they repeat, with whom they repeat, and what time of the day they repeat. It’s okay to say “Do you want to practice fractions now or during the afternoon work cycle?
Practice helps deepen a skill.
If they can’t do independent work after our presentation, we have to ask ourselves: Why they aren’t repeating?
Have we presented the material in a clear, thoughtful way? Do they understand what it means to engage in practice or follow up work? They need a next, clear step. Maybe they don’t know how to practice, perhaps they don’t know it’s expected, or maybe they are used to the teacher telling them exactly what to do.
You might want to ask the following questions:
- How do you go to the shelf to make a choice?
- What do you need in order to practice this work?
- You want to make a game as a follow-up activity, how do you do that?
- In what kind of ways can you follow up on this lesson?
- What do you need to know in order to work in a group?
- How often do you think you need to practice this lesson?
We can give them ideas and suggestions about what comes after presentations, and help them get into the habit of repeating by modeling various possible ways to repeat after a lesson.
“Do you want to do one long checkerboard problem on this adding machine paper, or would you rather fill up a page with problems?” Or “Would you like to write a story about what it would have been like to live during the time of early humans, or do you want to act out a skit?”
Adults can model engaging in follow-up work with the children, and later after these skills have been repeatedly modeled and reinforced, they can apply them to collaboration with their peers with minimal adult support. Remember that the presentation is there to spark interest and that children learn most by doing.
You can’t show a child something once and expect that it will work.
You will have to give the same presentation to many children more than once. You will have to give that presentation to some children 4, 5, or 6 times. And just as you might need to show them division with the stamp game more than once, you also might need to show them how to put their work away, tidy up their space, and be kind to their classmates, more than once.
I remember hearing a teacher express frustration about classroom behavior. When I suggested that she sit down and have a meeting about it with the children, she exclaimed, “I’ve already done that!!” Well, they will need to hear it again. And next week. And the week after. As was mentioned above, children learn through repetition, and an aspect of this repetition involves the adult saying the same thing over and over, often in a variety of ways.
It may not be in your album
In elementary we will see some children who don’t demonstrate some skills that we would expect them to have.
Some children won’t know how to tie their shoes, read, make work selections, collaborate on a project with their peers, behave in a lesson, navigate conflict, or express their needs. They will require presentations in these areas to close the gap. They will need activities to be analyzed, and broken down into tasks. You will need to consider what strategies they will need, and create presentations for these areas of struggle. There are many lessons we give to children each day which extends beyond the scope of our albums, yet is necessary for the children to be able to navigate the environment independently and successfully.
Fun, new, and interesting work
Because they are no longer in the absorbent mind stage where learning happens effortlessly and naturally, elementary children need to WANT to learn, and this want comes from the WILL. They need to feel that the work is fun, new, interesting, and varied to want to continue.
This doesn’t mean that you have to spend hours after school creating nomenclature cards for the variety of topics children are interested in. The children can generate their own variations that appeal to them to practice skills or concepts, creating products that are meaningful to them.
Children are much more engaged with work that is chosen from the heart. If a child is interested in tortoises, they can take a book from the library read the information, and create their own “parts of the tortoise” nomenclature complete with beautifully designed illustrations. They may need some support and scaffolding at first, but after you have helped guide them in a few successful projects, they will have a lot of input on the kind of activities they want to engage in.
Don’t sacrifice cosmic education
We cannot focus on missing skills and fail to present the rest of cosmic education to the child because we are worried that they are falling behind in certain areas.
Just because a child hasn’t yet learned to read, doesn’t mean that they have to spend the entirety of their days engaged in listening games, practicing phonogram booklets, and labeling the environment. Making a child focus on reading and math all day because they have lagging skills will result in a bored and resistant child.
There is only so much drill and repetition that a child can handle during the day! Include those children in as many lessons as possible. Most beginning lessons in our albums are sensorial in nature, which leads to a great starting point. Also, you can find a way to involve the non-reader! An idea was suggested to write a label for a word, and let the non-reader place the label in the appropriate spot (e.g.: Here I have the ticket for “equilateral.” Can you put the word “equilateral” next to the equilateral triangle?). The child isn’t reading the word…you just told them the word, now they have a way of being a part of the group.
Children who are lagging in reading, writing, and math fluency need exposure to history, geography, biology, art, and music, and emergent readers can benefit from listening to the content of these lessons in order to develop their knowledge bank, which helps them to activate prior knowledge when they become fluent readers. In addition, follow up work doesn’t have to be in writing! You can invite a child to provide an oral summary of the story you told, the child can draw an illustration, and you can have them retell you a story that you write down and they copy. There are lots of ways to get non-readers involved in all areas of Cosmic Education, and lagging skills are not a reason to exclude.
Work doesn’t look the same as it does in 3-6.
Unlike a Montessori 3-6 classroom where children do a lot of work individually, work in the elementary class happens largely in pairs or in groups. The children will be discussing, negotiating, collaborating, debating, deciding. The room will not be quiet! Also, you won’t need the same orderly layouts that are so carefully presented in 3-6.
The children are developing their internal sense of order, and forcing them to have the same kind of physical order as they do in the 3-6 will slow them down because their mind is moving faster than the materials. You want the materials to be an aid to development and not an obstacle!
Of course, it is always important to remember that the classroom needs to be restored to order at the end of each day so that children have quick and easy access to the materials they need in order to construct themselves. But a portion of the classroom might look like a disaster area when a group is in the middle of a project!
Elementary Practical Life
Practical life at the elementary level is interwoven throughout the school and into the community…it is not confined to a shelf or onto a tray.
Maria Montessori didn’t develop practical life for the second plane in the way that she did for the first. At this age, they are moving from acquisition to application. The young child will wash a table for the sake of washing because they are driven by an impulse to develop a skill. The elementary child generally doesn’t wash a table for the sake of washing itself. They wash the table because it is dirty!
Practical life in the elementary years becomes a drive to serve the community vs. an inner impulse to perfect a skill. Practical life can be evidenced in the execution of science experiments, in going out excursions, in activities for the classroom community (making a meal for the class, classroom chores), in grace and courtesy, and in executive functioning tasks (making work selections, collaborating with peers)
Developing reading proficiency
For the typical child, it will take about 15-20 minutes of class time per day for 15-20 weeks for the children to become proficient readers. This happens by way of short, consistent, daily lessons. Children aren’t going to learn how to read by you directing them to a shelf of reading materials alone. You as the guide will need to work with your non-readers, consistently, every day, for 15-20 minutes. This learning will be a gradual, systematic progression and should be phonics-based. As a guide, you might feel overwhelmed by the thought of teaching several non-readers, but if you can keep the idea in mind that it will only take a few months for a typical child to develop reading skills with consistent practice, it will help you stay on track.
Low expectations lead to low output, high expectations lead to high output.
The perceptions that parents and teachers have in regards to what they think a child can do are generally what ends up happening. I believe that this was the most important pearl of wisdom shared all weekend, and something I want to repeat over and over again. If you don’t think a child can do a lot, if you think it’s too hard for a 3rd grader to complete a paragraph, if you think a 4 digit number will be easier and more manageable to solve than a 7 digit number, then you will get what you believe will happen. If you think that your third grader is capable of writing a narrative essay and squaring a binomial, then they will likely rise to the occasion. This is true for adults as well!
If we expect that we won’t experience success when guiding a child, then it’s likely that this will be our reality. And if we believe that we can be successful as a guide, then we will be. Having high expectations of both ourselves and the children will lead to everyone reaching great heights.
Letty Rising is an international Montessori consultant. She holds an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as Montessori Elementary Teacher, Education Coordinator, and Head of School with several different Montessori communities over the years, including the LePort Schools. See More