December 9, 2015
The Mean Grades
I remember one morning finding a heart-shaped stone. It was sunny outside and I was playing near the structure in the gravel at my school. After absorbing the uniqueness of the event and then the hard, dusty, tactile sense of the rock, I took to showing it off to a few of my friends; it was rose-colored and about the size of a dime. I got to enjoy it for a few minutes but then dropped it. It happened so fast. What I couldn’t understand was how something could fall a mere foot-and-a-half down to my feet and be lost so quickly. I pawed around in the pebbles but couldn’t find it. I was heartbroken.
I remember other things too, like how the pebbles in which I played near the structure spilled out onto the blacktop. That same blacktop turned into a path that made its way out to a side field the school used for large events. In this field stood a half-dozen large redwoods whose canopies obscured the sky. The school I attended was a Montessori school in a little suburb of Los Angeles called Montrose. It’s still there today, 30 years after its founding.
Maria Montessori began her original school (called the Casa dei Bambini—Italian for “The Children’s House”) in 1907 at the behest of bankers and benefactors. They were looking to get the untended children of Rome’s San Lorenzo neighborhood off the street and cared for. Montessori was Italy’s first-ever female medical doctor and so she took to this task—of caring for the children in her charge—from an observing, scientific standpoint. She believed in educating the whole child. Her term “education of the senses” applied to the full engagement of the student in his or her environment. The environment at Montrose Christian Montessori was keyed to the accommodation of each child’s unique interests and proclivities as they pertained to the subjects at hand. The method she developed during the years teaching at the Casa dei Bambini provided a means of education for each child, both physically and mentally, and also spiritually, if so desired.
My school was doing well. The proprietors, Chris MacReynolds and his wife, were soon to expand, adding another blacktop and a number of other buildings and classrooms. It was an exciting time but it wouldn’t last. My mom had taken another nursing job in Glendale and so we moved. There, I began attending large, impersonal Glenoaks Elementary school and would sit in the back of the class, weeping throughout. Six months passed and my parents had grown tired of the greater LA area. At this time, my mom applied for and got accepted for a nursing-educator position at a hospital in Medford, Oregon. My dad was ready to leave, purely by virtue of having realized that there were 20 million people living around us. So we moved again.
I had attended Montrose Christian Montessori School from preschool (there was an earthquake on the first day) through about half of second grade, during which time I came to love learning. I was reading at eight months old and the Montessori method only complemented my quest for more literature. I had grasped long division by first grade—not because I am a math prodigy—but because my interests were able to grow unfettered within the structure of the Montessori method. I was creative, too, with Legos and visual art. We also gardened and made orange juice and had a pet rabbit whose name I forget. The time spent at Montessori was an educational idyll so when I first began attending Wilson School on Johnson Street in Medford, a public school, about halfway through third grade (January, 1992), I only receded further from the educational environment I had grown accustomed to and that had already sustained a blow due to my time at Glenoaks.
Educators Gökhan Kayili and Ramazan Ari found that “In the Montessori Method the child acquires the language and arithmetic skills in lie [sic] their desires and exploration, which makes learning more permanent” (Kayili & Ari, ). This was true for me in that reading and writing and creativity were firmly established in my mind and brain. However, I began to struggle with my schoolwork while at Wilson due to the fact that the lessons weren’t taught in the way I was used to. In addition to this transplant-shock, my sensitivity was mislabeled as homosexuality during a particularly traumatic experience one morning on the playground. After that incident, I didn’t just have a new learning style to cope with, I also encountered schoolyard bullying. I spent two-and-a-half years at Wilson getting progressively worse in my test scores and study habits when my dad (unaware of the social struggles I faced trying to fit in) pulled me out of school to homeschool me. This started about halfway into my sixth-grade year and lasted through high school.
In light of my personal experiences with the public education system, it is this writer’s belief that the traditional school system in America needs to change. Furthermore, it is this writer’s opinion that individual elements of the Montessori method, if introduced into the traditional way of education, would go a long way to bettering students’ overall experience in American public schools.
If a researcher searches the topic “How would one integrate Montessori elements into public school?”, the first match they’ll see is the North American Montessori Educators’ Association homepage. Director David Kahn lines out ten steps, one of which is to staff the school board with a Montessori specialist—like a liaison. It’s simpler than that, it has to be. I interviewed Montessori educator Amy Maukonen, who runs The Valley School on Riverside Avenue in Medford. We sat down in the library of the retrofitted Mexican restaurant in which she runs her school and asked her how she would do it. She first answered that The Valley School is a free public charter school under the auspices of the Medford School District. So she’s already doing, in some form, what Kahn suggested in his list. She answered my question with one word: “relevance”, she continued then, to describe a term Montessori educators use: “valorization”. Valorization—defined in a Montessori way—refers to the training a child needs in order to take their place in the world and to use their inherent talents and abilities to make a difference. She says “Students aren’t vessels to be filled by teachers. We’re not preparing them for the real world when we teach them that way, the traditional way.” This would be one of the reasons why I felt a disconnect when I was studying at Wilson: the lesson plans and textbooks were presented in a way that I didn’t care about. I couldn’t see how it applied to what I was inherently interested in nor how it played into the rest of my life in a holistic way. “Students need to love learning.” says Maukonen, “You can inspire students in a number of different ways, that’s not necessarily Montessori specific. I think any good teacher instills love for learning; it’s essential in a Montessori school, I think.” She summarized. While the Montessori method holds many of these elements in their charter, these components—love of learning, valorization, education of the senses, etc.—don’t have to be exclusive to Montessori schools. They can filter into other schools and educational environments.
Ms. Maukonen also spoke at length about preparing the educational environment: “In order for students to be able to learn without being expected to sit in rows and be quiet, you have to have an environment rich with learning opportunities.” The classrooms at Wilson, from third through sixth were all variations of the same arrangement: rows of old, wooden desks with little-to-no breathing room or open space to explore or lay about with a book or with learning materials. “Preparing the environment to run a Montessori program is a bigger deal than anyone knows.” She said.
The student, she asserted, needs to feel important, they need to feel that they “have something to bring to this world, to my community.” Teaching to the individual and preparing the classroom environment to cater to the curiosity of that child are two ways that we as a country can retrofit our educational system to better the children that we serve.
I also interviewed Rogue Community College Psychology and Social Science instructor Brandon Atkins. The tenor of the interview wasn’t with reference to the Montessori method, just more in line with basic education reform. However, the things he brought up ran parallel to Maukonen’s ideas for Montessori implementation. Mr. Atkins suggested that we make the lessons contextualized. He spoke of his twelve-year-old nephew who, he said, has little interest in science or mathematics. “But apply the mathematics and physics to a robot (something he’s very much interested in) and he’s gonna listen.” Atkins also suggested more training in classroom management. “Classroom management is front-end work.” He says. “Otherwise you’re just dealing with the behavior [of the child] afterwards, which is a problem because the culture’s been created.” With reference to the opening up of a classroom in order to better serve the students, Maukonen had this to say: “The basis of Montessori is that students are moving about their environment in a natural way with the least number of barriers and restrictions and interventions.” Give teachers more training in preparing the classroom environment and have them implement an open floor with tables and chairs more in line with a dining-type atmosphere, for instance, and students won’t feel restricted, having been bound to one seat for the entire school year.
The last suggestion this writer would put on the table for the betterment of traditional American educational is that of reforming the grading system. The Montessori method uses an individualized sheet to monitor each particular child instead of a standardized letter-grading system. Doing away with the top-down, letter-based grading system would also dissolve a culture based on classification and achievement. Atkins had something to say on this topic: “This is what I call a “power with” versus a “power over” approach. “Power over” is part of the competition of win/lose and if a student is win/lose, that means that they wanna win and that means that other students lose. It doesn’t create the best learning environment.”
I can’t say for certain that the standoffishness I felt at Wilson was based on the fact that the students cared about getting “A’s”, something that would have fostered a culture of competition. Progressive educator and writer Alfie Kohn says in his essay “Degrading to De-Grading” that “when students are told they’ll need to know something for a test—or, more generally, that something they’re about to do will count for a grade—they are likely to come to view that task (or book or idea) as a chore” (75). If students aren’t enjoying school for learning’s sake—one of the main reasons they’re there—other things such as humanity, kindness and compassion won’t be there either. After I started getting bullied, I stopped caring about my schoolwork and became concerned about fitting in; as such, my schoolwork suffered. It started with the heart. If the student doesn’t receive these abstract elements of the heart at home, where else will they get them if not at school?
At this point in my life, it is this writer’s opinion that the best method for the education of the child is homeschooling. An involved, authoritative and loving parent who knows the child will be the best teacher and guide the child could ask for. The next-best method for the education of the whole child is the one pioneered by Maria Montessori. In closing, the three things this writer feels would better the American public, or traditional, education system are as follows: teachers should speak to the heart of, and teach towards, the individual child. Secondly, they need to open up the classroom to let creativity and imagination grow alongside the students’ study of the subjects specific to their grade. Thirdly, a better grading and observation system needs to be implemented so that students aren’t seen as failures if they don’t learn the same way everyone else does. These three things would work wonders in our nation’s schools.
While I never found the heart-rock that I dropped on the playground in kindergarten, I have found several heart-shaped rocks throughout my life. Each one reminds me of the original. This little story presaged my schooling experience—at least that’s how I’ve come to see it (Cosgrove & Ballou, 2006). Had I stayed in Montessori, or, more precisely, had the heart of the schooling I’d cut my teeth on continued into my elementary years, I may not have needed to be homeschooled. The American educational system could learn a thing or two (or three) from the Montessori method.
Atkins, Brandon. Personal interview. 18 Nov. 2015
Cosgrove, Sara Anne, and Roger A. Ballou. "A Complement To Lifestyle Assessment: Using Montessori Sensorial Experiences To Enhance And Intensify Early Recollections." Journal Of Individual Psychology 62.1 (2006): 47-58. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
This paper is clear and to the point. Researchers will find as much material on the Montessori method to augment research particular to the field of education as they will on psychology. This paper deals with both topics and reaches valid conclusions as to the effectiveness of Montessori and the effectiveness of Adlerian psychology (a holistic approach to clinical psychology; see alfredadler.org for more information on this method). The authors’ statement of “Early recollections are treated as metaphorical statements” (53) precisely identifies my story of finding and losing a heart-shaped rock and then allegorically relating that to the hardship I’d encountered in public school.
Kahn, David. "Ten Steps to Montessori Implementation in Public Schools." Ten Steps to Montessori Implementation in Public Schools. North American Montessori Teachers’ Association, n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
Kayili, Gökhan, and Ramazan Ari. "Examination Of The Effects Of The Montessori Method On Preschool Children's Readiness To Primary Education." Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice 11.4 (2011): 2104-2109. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
I appreciated what the authors did with this study. They distilled a lot of research and finding into their statement. However, toward the end of the paper, they began to refer to Montessori using a male pronoun. Either they were entirely out of touch with the source of the educational method with which they sought to substantiate their findings or else they diverted back to a default (male) pronoun. Part of the wonder of what Maria Montessori did was due to the fact that she made it through an all-male medical school without being expelled because of her gender.
Kohn, Alfie. What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 75. Print.
Maukonen, Amy. Personal interview. 6 Nov. 2015
Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003. Print.
This book, written in 1912, holds so much promise for en masse educational reform in spite of the occasional scientific anachronism. It truly is the place to start when thinking and talking about Montessori.
"Welcome." Montrose Christian Montessori School. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.