Today I am joined by Dr. Luz Casquejo Johnston in a conversation about Montessori’s planes of development. With over two decades in education, Dr. Luz has played diverse roles in the Montessori movement since beginning as a primary student in the 70s. Earning her AMS Lower Elementary I Credential, she worked as a Lower Elementary guide in charter schools and served for seven years as a Montessori charter school administrator, before obtaining her doctorate in Educational Leadership.
by Letty Rising
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Formerly an Associate Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California, Dr. Luz has also been a consultant, offering trainings on Montessori elementary education and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to U.S. schools. An international speaker, her expertise includes Montessori education, child development, DEI, and school leadership. You can find our more about Dr. Luz HERE.
(This article is a condensed version of a podcast transcript. For the complete experience, you are encouraged to listen to the entire podcast episode.)
Letty: Welcome to Montessori Talks, where we discuss all things related to the Montessori elementary environment and other Montessori-related topics. Today, I have an inspiring guest who has been nurturing minds and empowering families for years. Please allow me to introduce Luz Casquejo Johnston. Luz is not only a parenting and life coach but also a seasoned Montessori educator. Her expertise in Montessori education spans from the classroom to administration, having served as both a teacher and principal. She received her Montessori training at the elementary level, so she knows firsthand what makes those years special. Luz has also worked as an associate professor at St. Mary’s College, and beyond that, she is a school and leadership consultant and course creator.
One more thing to add: Luz and I have worked together in two different organizations. Sometimes she’s been my mentor, and sometimes I’ve been hers. I’ve always appreciated her calmness, wisdom, and humor. So, let’s dive into our conversation. Today, Luz will share her experiences from this summer, journeying through the first three planes of development. Welcome, Luz!
Luz: Thank you. And you forgot to mention that we’re work wives.
Letty: I was actually going to mention that, but I knew you’d bring it up! For a whole year, we were at each other’s homes, essentially co-parenting. Our kids are exactly two months apart.
I was a newly single parent at that time, and your husband was extra busy with various commitments that year. We spent a lot of time together at a brand-new charter school during its first year, which was quite a whirlwind.
Luz: Absolutely, that could be another podcast episode! We should discuss opening a charter school in its first years. Our friendship has been battle-tested.
Letty: Definitely. You also helped me start another program. We’ve accomplished a lot together.
Recently, you mentioned an intriguing summer experience where you navigated through the first three planes of development. Could you share what that was like?
Luz: Certainly. As you know, I often say “yes” and then later realize my calendar is packed. I think many of us who work in education fall into the trap of overcommitting during the summer. I realized around the end of May that I had activities planned from June through July. Soon, it dawned on me that I would experience all three planes of development within those two months. After leaving St. Mary’s College, I’ve been consulting and coaching while also exploring different teacher education programs and working in both public and private sectors.
Whether it’s with Biff and Maria Velasquez at The Montessori Event or teaching an in-person math course at NCMPS, I often find myself focusing on math. Because I don’t consider it my strong point, I over prepare, watching videos and practicing the materials. Sometimes, I’ve found Montessori math training lacking in explaining the ‘why’ behind the materials, which has always been a frustration for me.
Letty: That’s an excellent point. Doing things a certain way just because that’s how they’ve always been done is no longer acceptable. Montessori children in the second plane are always asking ‘why,’ and as adults, we shouldn’t stop asking either, right?
Luz: Absolutely, it’s integral to the Montessori philosophy to keep questioning and exploring.
Letty: Exactly. And I think it puts us at a disadvantage if we just go into training programs and replicate what’s being done for us without understanding the whys and wherefores of creating our own material. Albums should be more like living documents.
Luz: Yes, we call ourselves guides, but sometimes treat these albums like Bibles, when they’re also guides. My prep for the math class involved going to Khan Academy and other sites to understand the deep concepts behind Montessori math. This prepares the adult learners for questions their students might ask, and allows for innovation in instruction.
Letty: Absolutely. It’s better to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out together,” than to say, “This is just how it’s always been done.” And sometimes, teaching what you initially struggled with can be more effective.
Luz: Yes, when I started learning the math materials, it was like an emotional revelation. Understanding the deep concepts was liberating. But training can be overwhelming, often focused more on getting through material than truly understanding it.
That’s a perfect segue to my next point. This summer, I had the opportunity to audit various courses at Hope Montessori Education Institute in St. Louis, which helped me dive deep into environmental design. However, it’s not just about the physical environment; it’s about our preparation and continuous adaptation.
We can’t prepare the environment unless we have prepared ourselves. I was also intrigued by the lack of didactic materials in the infant-toddler environments, which is typical since their stage of development is heavily focused on self-care and independence.
Letty: Absolutely. And this shifts as children grow. The needs of the infant-toddler phase are different from those of primary and elementary phases. We have to meet them where they are developmentally.
Luz: Exactly. In the primary phase (ages 3-6), the materials help in developing their senses. However, there’s often debate about what constitutes “challenging work,” which can lead to unnecessary pressure.
Letty: Yes, sometimes there’s a push to move skills downward to younger children when it’s not appropriate. For instance, work plans or work journals might be suitable for elementary but are not necessary for kindergarten-aged children.
Luz: Agreed. Understanding the developmental needs at each stage helps us provide the most meaningful experiences. Whether it’s peeling a carrot in the primary phase or keeping a work journal in elementary, it has to be developmentally appropriate.
I think what pushing skills downward does is it imposes an artificial structure on a natural process. The natural process calls for the child to experience the world and gain an understanding of it through their senses. In my opinion, the two most important aspects of the early childhood curriculum are practical life and sensorial. If I can’t orient myself in the world, which is one of the human tendencies, by understanding what’s happening in the sensorial materials, then how can I progress? Sensorial materials are the backbone of mathematical understanding in early childhood. There’s actually no need for rote memorization at this stage. When the time is right for memorization, it will happen, but first, they need experiences. They need to understand the red and blue rods before they can really grasp the concept of odd and even, for example.
After spending my summer in St. Louis, where I taught elementary-level history and adolescent psychology, I noticed a prevalent focus on early childhood within the Montessori community. This is not surprising given that Maria Montessori and her son Mario dedicated significant efforts to this stage, particularly in developing materials for subjects like mathematics. However, this has led to a misconception that Montessori education is solely about preschool, which is far from the truth.
Letty: Yes, the greater national and international perception tends to focus on Montessori at the early childhood levels, likely because that’s where the majority of Montessori classrooms are found. While Maria Montessori did concentrate on this phase, it’s important to understand that the Montessori method extends beyond materials and early childhood.
Luz: Absolutely. The lack of specific materials for infant-toddler and adolescent environments highlights the method’s adaptability. My dissertation explored how Montessori education can be effective even in settings without these specialized materials, emphasizing that the core of Montessori is not the materials, but the observation-centered method.
Letty: That’s an interesting point. Are there many materials available at the adolescent level?
Luz: Not really. Both the unconscious part of the first plane and the third plane have minimal materials. We get so hung up on the materials, but they are not the method; the method is about observation. Observation tells us when a child is ready or interested in something, whether it be toilet learning or moving on to more abstract materials. The method is also about the preparation of the adult.
Letty: So, you’re saying observation drives the method.
Luz: Exactly. I’ve learned that, as a classroom teacher, if you don’t make time for observation, it doesn’t happen. Observation informs us about what the child in front of us needs. It’s the scientific part of the Montessori method.
Letty: It’s both an art and a science, then.
Luz: Precisely. Observation requires us to sit back and not interrupt the child, allowing them the space to figure things out, even if they are struggling. This requires a lot of patience on our part, but that’s the art and science of Montessori. Observation allows us to ask, “What am I seeing in this individual child?”
Letty: Absolutely, observation is the cornerstone. It guides us to understand when a child is ready for toilet training, disengaged with the stamp game, or perhaps needs more abstract materials. Observation also helps us in situations where we don’t have all the resources. For instance, when we started the Montessori charter school and lacked materials, we had to rely on observation to guide us.
Luz: Right, and reflection is crucial. Observing without taking notes and reflecting on them doesn’t help you adjust the environment or your approach. Throughout all Montessori planes, the strength of observation is constant. What changes is how you respond, based on the context.
Letty: True, observation might seem passive, but it’s followed by active reflection and then a response, which could be further observation, an intervention, or even the choice to do nothing if it serves the child’s needs.
Luz: Exactly. The classroom is for the child to build their intellectual capacity, and this can only happen if we, as educators, are observant. Once you get into it, Montessori can be the most relaxing teaching environment because you’re meeting the children where they are, which leads to more rewarding experiences for everyone involved.
Letty: I couldn’t agree more. It’s all about observation, self-awareness, and getting out of the child’s way. We have to shed our insecurities about not doing it right or comparing ourselves to others. Being grounded in the Montessori method allows each classroom to be unique, and that’s perfectly okay.
So, going through the three planes of development this summer that you did, did you feel like the role of the guide was similar in all those patterns or different? What are the common threads you noticed?
Luz: Common threads are understanding oneself.
Letty: Understanding oneself, oh my gosh, Luz, that is, I think, the most important thing. I was actually helping my daughter work with some teachers from India. She works with a program that facilitates a career exchange for people from different countries. These were not Montessori educators; they were traditional teachers from India. When I asked them what the most challenging aspect of working with adult learners was, they basically said it was when the adult lacks the capacity for self-reflection.
Luz: We’re not often given that opportunity as young people. So that’s where the reflection of self comes in. That’s where you trust yourself and get back to who you really are. One of your favorite things to say is that we’re not human “doings,” we’re human “beings.” The ability to self-reflect disrupts our experiences because growing up, we’re quickly taught to label things as good or bad. But self-reflection allows us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and living in the gray.
Letty: I’ve thought about this quite a bit. Self-reflection means at the end of a day as a teacher, you think about what went well and what didn’t, and then you adjust accordingly. It’s about becoming responsive.
Luz: Yes, responsive versus reactive. As Montessori educators, we are meant to be responsive. We’re responding to the environment. That’s why when things get rigid, like when there’s a pacing guide or unreasonably high accountability, it conflicts with the idea of responsiveness.
Letty: For sure. Knowing the method, standing firm in what you know, and being able to articulate why something is or isn’t done in a certain way is vital. Training is like drinking from a firehose. The practicum is so important, but it’s hard to find a supervising teacher with the bandwidth and experience. Many of my adult learners were in unsupervised practicums, and that can be challenging.
Luz: Not having a mentor is really tough. That could be a whole other podcast topic. Going back to what you were saying about self-reflection—most of us didn’t have many opportunities for that as children. In a well-run elementary Montessori classroom, you’re conferencing with the students, giving them opportunities to reflect on their work and goals. That’s something we offer that they don’t get in many other environments.
Letty: And hopefully, we can grow a generation of human beings who develop the capacity for self-reflection. For those who have this ability, becoming a teacher is much easier.
Luz: It’s true. The traditional teacher-student relationship places a heavy burden on the teacher. In a Montessori environment, we release responsibility to the child at every turn. When this shifts, it can be disorienting for a child. Remember our first year? The kids would come up with something really innovative when given the opportunity to work on their own. So, as a species, we often lack faith in the process. Having faith in the capabilities of the children in your classroom is essential for Montessori educators. Most people won’t believe in what kids can do in a Montessori setting until they see it for themselves.
Letty: That’s true. If you expect little, you get little. But if you expect more, you’ll be surprised at how far they can go.
Luz: Yes, and historically, low expectations have hindered the progress of black and brown students. Montessori education, with its emphasis on independence and high standards, can help bridge this gap. The issue is not an achievement gap but an opportunity gap. Montessori education provides that opportunity for all students to rise to their potential.
Letty: We’ve had some great conversations in this podcast, Luz. I think we need to continue these discussions in the future. Thank you for joining us today to talk about your experiences and insights.
Luz: Thank you, Letty. It’s been a pleasure.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.