I spent the other morning in my son’s Montessori classroom. It’s a beautiful, old-school room with high ceilings, large windows and plenty of space, which is good because it’s filled each day with twenty-eight 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. No small task.
I’ve been in Montessori classrooms before, yet I was still surprised when the day was never officially called to order. Instead the children took off their shoes, found some work (or not), and began their day in twenty-eight different ways while their two teachers, Ms. Luz and Ms. Allison, surfed in between them to check in and gauge where each child was at on that particular morning – hungry, happy, angry, sleepy.
This flow of atoms continued for the next four hours. When it was snack time, rotations of five children ate in self-organizing shifts – the order determined entirely by the classroom’s five Mardi Gras-style necklaces. (If you weren’t wearing one, it wasn’t snack time.)
Sometimes, the teachers joined a student to inquire about his work or perhaps to add a wrinkle to what she was doing, as Ms. Luz did when my son took out a container of plastic animals. She stood by as he spread the animals out on a colored mat, and then quietly asked him in Spanish (it’s a language immersion school) to identify the different figures. When he found the right one, he would get up and cross the room to repeat the Spanish name of the animal to Ms. Allison, who would either help correct his pronunciation slightly or simply say, “Exacto.” Then he would return to the mat of animals, and Ms. Luz would be ready for the pattern to repeat itself, while all around her a swirl of similar teaching moments provided plot points for the classroom’s chaotic graph of individualized ebb and flow.
When the children gathered in a circle for their first all-class activity, at 11:15am, I watched Leo’s teachers to see how they were doing. I remember reaching this point of the day as a teacher and feeling enervated, parched, and desperate for a break in the action. But because Ms. Allison and Ms. Luz had hadn’t spent the morning trying to corral all 28 students into a single activity (or into a state of singular attention), they mirrored the spirit of the children – fresh, engaged, centered.
Energy vs. entropy. Corraling vs. allowing.
There is great wisdom in a learning environment that allows the motivation and self-direction of the participants to drive the activity, and in which skilled adults work with the natural flow of energy and attention to help children develop a sense of themselves, their interests, and their place in a community. Imagine how much better both child and teacher would feel if this sort of environment was the norm and not the exception?