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Why I Love Montessori


I should have titled this post, “What I remember about about the dozen or so Montessori books I read three years ago.”  I’m not hitting up Wikipedia to check my details or anything, so take all of this information with a grain of salt.  But this is usually what I tell people when they ask me about Montessori preschool, and why I loved it so much for both of my children.

First, a brief history:

Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy, over 100 years ago.  She faced a lot of discrimination getting through medical school, and then once she graduated, had a hard time actually being allowed to practice medicine due to her gender.  At some point she started working with children who were learning disabled, and whom the established medical community had given up on.  She invented a lot of learning tools for the children to use.  Blocks with pegs that they could pinch, grab and pick up to develop fine motor skills, and other such materials.  By the end of her experiment, the disabled children were scoring as well as nuerotypical children.  The logical question was then, why aren’t nerutypical children scoring even better?

Unfortunately, sexism hit again and nobody would let Montessori near regular, middle-class children.  So she went into the tenement slums of Italy and found a neighborhood that was so poor, that they didn’t care if she was a female doctor.  She found an abandoned space, hired a couple of teachers, and imported all of her methods.  By this point they also included having carpenters build child-sized table and chairs for children to sit on, as well as step stools so they could reach things.  Nowadays, this is standard furniture in all types of preschool classes, but back then it was an innovative idea.

Since the children were so impoverished, she also incorporated basic cleaning and hygiene activities into her program.  Children learned how to polish shoes, polish silver, clean up after themselves, set the table, do the dishes etc.  Montessori hoped that the children would bring these skills back into their home lives, which were often disorderly due to the utter poverty in which the children lived.

The classroom itself was multi-age, meaning that it wasn’t just a room full of three-year-olds.  Older children helping younger children was an important part of her methods.  The teachers also taught letter formation and sounds, before they actually taught reading, and by 3 or 4 ish, a lot of the children were spontaneously learning to read, all at the same time.

Montessori’s results were so amazing, that her teaching methods were imported all over the world.  She entertained controversy however, because at some point she was associated with Mussolini.  (But I don’t remember that part of the story very well.)  She was also staunchly Catholic.

It is important to note that “Montessori” is not a licenced term.  Anyone can slap the name Montessori in front of their preschool or day care and it doesn’t necessarily mean squat.


How to Identify a True Montessori School:

  1.  The children do not “play”, they “work”.  All the learning they do is considered really important.  School is different from play time.  There is a quite hum in the classroom of busy children engaged in activity.  Some of them might even be sewing.
  2. There should be lots of objects in the classroom you have never seen before in your life.  Pink block towers.  Weird wooden cylinder things.  Not a lot of plastic.
  3. The children do their work on mats.  If there is something they want to work with, they get out a mat, get out the item, do their work, put the item away, roll up their mat, and put their mat away.  If another child wants to play with the item in use, they have to be invited onto the mat of the child who is using the item.
  4. Children are actively taking part in cleaning the classroom.  They water plants, help get snack set up, push in their chairs, and keep things tidy.
  5. Maps, geography, and world cultures are taught and celebrated.  Often times a second language is introduced.
  6. Math activities are taught in a manipulative way, usually in small groups or one-on-one with the teacher according to ability level.  Choice is emphasized.  Children choose what to do for the majority of the day, although sometimes they to “have-to” work that the teacher introduces.
  7. The classroom is multi-age, and children progress in learning according to their individual needs, not their age level.  Sounds, and writing are taught starting at 3, and many children are reading independently by four.
  8. There is no dress-up or dramatic play area.
  9. There is lots and lots of fine motor work going on.  Some of my kids’ favorite activities were using tweezers to pluck kernels off of Indian corn, grinding cloves with a mortar and pestle, and squeezing colored water with an eye dropper.
  10. Courtesy is emphasized at all times.  As part of this, in a true Montessori classroom parents are usually not allowed to even cross the threshold.  The classroom is  respected as the children’s’ space, in which to conduct important work.  If you visit a “Montessori” school and see lots of parents in the classroom, it might mean that it’s not a real Montessori program.

Finally, the school should be affiliated with a national or international Montessori association.  (I think there are two main groups out there, but I might not be remembering that correctly.) Here’s one link: http://www.montessori.org/  Here’s another: http://montessori.edu/ The teachers should also be trained in the Montessori method and have some sort of degree or program certificate.

Why I Love Montessori:

My son was (and is) a super active child.  At three, he could drive me up the walls with his energy!  So putting him in a quite, orderly classroom with no recess time might seem like a crazy idea.  But heck, it was only three hours a day, and I took him to the park outside immediately afterwards to play with his classmates.  As it turned out, my son thrived in Montessori!  It was like he needed the quiet hum of the classroom to help him calm down and focus.  (On a side note, lots of good Montessori schools out there do have recess time.  Our school just happened not to, because of insurance issues.)

My daughter loved Montessori because of all of the arts, crafts, and social relationships. Montessori was a source for a lot of play-date friends.  Yes, the children are not being taught to “share” in the traditional sense. They are being taught curtesy, grace, manners, and waiting their turn instead.  They are being taught to respect their environment and each other’s personal space.  There is a lot of socialization going on on a Montessori classroom

The individualized learning that Montessori provided was really important to both of my kids. All the children were working at their own level, and that was okay.  From the outside looking in (through the one-way window), it seemed liked all of the children were exiting the program at five with a lot of excellent skills for Kindergarten.  In fact, a lot of the work that my kids came home with from Montessori, was more advanced than Kindergarten.

Your Thoughts?
Everyone has a different experience with preschool, so I’d love to hear back from what other’s think using the comments section below.  Montessori might not be for everyone.  Play-based, academic based, Waldorf, Coop….there are a lot of other choices out there.  No judgement if you have chosen something else for your child!


Pizza Wanted!

Bruce has been apparently unhappy with my cooking lately. I came downstairs to find the following taped to the kitchen wall.

“Pizza Wanted.  Award: Get to eat it and get $100”  Notice the Zs are backwards, and the $ sign is still in the wrong place.  For more information on letter reversals and what is considered normal, please see my previous post.

The companion poster, of course!  I guess I should probably take a night off from cooking…

When it’s okay to point, Part 2

My husband captured this picture of Jenna this weekend, and I was so absolutely excited to see it!  Jenna was sitting in the playroom reading books, and pointing as she “read”.  I’ve modeled this to her about a thousand times, and I am so pleased to see that it is sinking in.  Maybe one day soon she will actually be pointing at the words!

For more information on why pointing is so important, please see my previous post here: http://teachingmybabytoread.blog.com/2011/03/05/when-its-okay-to-point/

Review: Right Start Level C

We have been using Right Start Level C as part of Bruce’s afterschooling for about seven or eighth months now.  We switched over to Right Start, after Bruce completed year of Horizons 1st grade math.  I thought Horizons’ first grade program was okay, but that the second grade curriculum focused too much on algorithms.  For more information on our experience with Horizons, please see here: https://teachingmybabytoread.com/2011/05/01/horizons-math/

I believe in teaching children math through the Constructivist method, which is where they discover mathematical concepts and strategy themselves, sometiems through hands on discovery. I was very impressed by the philosophy of the Right Start program which stresses understanding over rote memorization.  Additionally, I was familiar with Right Start, having used components of the program when I taught 3rd/4th grade at a Charter school.

I decided to shell out out the big bucks and bought the homeschool deluxe set for level C, and I am really glad I did.  It has tons of math manipulatives that are useful for Bruce, Jenna, and other math activities we do as well.  It also has all of the books, including the Teacher’s Guide.  I used the Right Start manipulatives a lot to help explain concepts in Bruce’s school math program, Houghton Mifflin Math Expressions, and we have also used them to help with Life Of Fred Fractions.

The Right Start program has a teacher’s guide that is very creative, detailed, and goes above and beyond what is just in the worksheet book.  If you were using Right Start as a stand-alone curriculum, you would really need the teacher’s addition.  We were using the program as a supplement to Math Expressions, so we didn’t follow the lessons plans exactly, although Bruce did do almost all of the worksheets.

Since I’m a teacher myself, I read the teacher’s guide almost cover to cover, and then just “winged it”, or taught the lessons intuitively according to all the training I’ve received in teaching mathematics from a Constructivist perspective.  But I would definitely recommend following the teacher’s guide, to anyone who was new to the Constructivst approach, or who was using Right Start as their child’s sole mathematics curriculum.

The hallmark of the Right Start program is the abacus, which I was really excited about when the box arrived.  My husband is an engineer, who has had the opportunity to work with a lot of coworkers from China, many of whom are abacus devotes. (But a different type of abacus, I should point out.)  One of these friends told my husband he could “see the abacus in his mind,” and that’s why he had such exceptional mental math skills.  This is the same claim that the author of Right Start makes.

I am still super excited about teaching with an abacus, and intend to do this with Jenna as soon as she is old enough for Level A.  The problem with Bruce and the abacus, was that he rejected it from the get-go.  You know how there are little babies who reject the pacifier or the bottle?  You think, “Did that mother really try hard enough?  I mean, did she really try?”  Well yes in fact, I did!  Bruce would not have anything to do with the abacus at all.  Probably his math skills were developed enough already that imposing the abacus into his thinking was something his brain just did not want.  He was five years old at the time and had already finished the Horizons first grade workbooks, and half of Hougton Mifflin 2nd grade.  This is also party the reason that we could not follow the Right Start lesson plans exactly, because so much of them are abacus based.

Not using the abacus turned out to be okay for our family, because I am not teaching the traditional algorithms of borrowing or carrying to Bruce at this point.  The way the Right Start lessons set things up, they use the abacus to teach borrowing and carrying in a manipulative way.  So I would have skipped over those parts in the Teacher’s Guide anyway.   (For those of you thinking, “What the heck!  This lady doesn’t teach borrowing or carrying?”, please see my previous post on subtraction: https://teachingmybabytoread.com/2011/03/15/subtraction/.)

A final point of note.  Bruce has almost finished all of Level C, and I’m still stumped by what exact grade level it is.  I’ve thought about it a lot, and reread the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade standards in our state.  I’ve also taught 3rd grade for two years, and a 3rd/4th combo for two years.  And yet, I’m still a bit perplexed, because it introduces some concepts that aren’t usually taught in public school until later.  In general though, I’d say Level C seems to be in the 2.5 grade – 3.5 grade range.  They also have a good placement test online to help you determine which book to choose for your child.

Science in the Kitchen

Think about this experiment the next time you reach for a bowl of candy! 

After watching the last episode of Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution, Bruce and I decided to do an experiment with some left over candy.

We put about five or six pieces of candy into two glass jars and filled the jar with about 1/2 of water.  Then we set the timer for five minutes.

This is what the jars looked like when the timer went off.  Does anybody want to eat some candy?  How about that colored sludge water to go with it?  Yuck!  This simple experiment really left an impression on Bruce, who immediately asked to throw the rest of the candy away.

Guided Reading with Post-its

Here’s a tip that you can incorporate at home to make reading chapter books more meaningful for you child.  It is a trick that classroom often use when conducting Guided Reading groups (also sometimes called Literature Circles).  That’s when a teacher or trained parent and a small group of students are all actively engaged in reading the same book together.  Everyone shares their thinking and opinions as they go along (if they are reading side by side), or later on when the group meets after having read a few chapters on their desks.

To prepare for a Guided Reading group, teachers and students often write down thoughts, opinions, or questions on post-its and stick them on the corresponding pages to refer to later.  This is something parents can do at home too.

In a perfect world, you would have two copies of the book and you and your child would leisurley be reading together before a fireplace, munching on popcorn on a rainy afternoon.  You’d stock your post-its as you read, and then share your thinking every twenty minutes.  But, um…that’s not exactly how things work in my house!  So here are two real world modifications.

#1 (The so-so way) Read in advance a book your child is going to be reading independently.  Stock it with post-its, and underlined passages.  This will turn your child’s Independent Reading time, into a quasi Guided Reading activity.

#2 (A better way) Read a chapter ahead of the book your child is reading, and mark it with post-its in your color.  Then your child reads that same chapter on his own, and marks it with post-its in his color.  At the end of the chapter, he shows you his post-its and you discuss what he has read.

For more information on how too choose the right level book for your child to read, please see my previous post at: https://teachingmybabytoread.com/2011/03/01/the-three-types-of-reading/

What are the Three Types of Reading?

(This is a refresher, from an earlier post.)

Teachers know that there are three different types of reading: Independent Reading, Guided Reading, and Read Aloud.  Knowing the difference, helps teachers choose appropriate books for children that will continue to stretch their abilities and interests.  Teachers also know that it is important for children to be engaged in the three different types of reading every day.  This is contrary to the message popular culture keeps promoting “Read to your child!”  Reading to your child is of course essential, but that’s just hitting upon one type of reading.

Independent Reading, is when a child can sit down by himself and read a book.  For Jenna, this means sitting down by herself, paging through books, and looking at pictures.  For Bruce, it means staying up until 9:30 because he’s insisting on finishing Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger

Guided Reading is when you and your child are both engaged in reading a book together, and sharing your thinking and opinions as you go along.  Guided Reading may involve reading silently inside your head, or reading aloud.  When Bruce and I were reading the Little House on the Prairie series last summer, I’d often have him read the left hand pages, and I would read the right.  We’d talk about the story as it went along.  Jenna can’t really do Guided Reading yet, but she’s beginning to a little bit when I ask her to point out letters or pictures she can name in the books we read together.

Read Aloud is when the adult reads the book to the child.  This is what most parents do very well.  A few months ago my husband read The Hobbit to Bruce, and we read dozens of picture books to Jenna each day.  

When choosing books for your child you should remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Read Aloud books should be too hard for your child to read on their own.  Independent Reading books should be too soft (meaning easy).  Guided Reading books should be just right.

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The Froggy Computer (aka ClickStart)

I’ve been riffling through the garage trying to find the extra potty seat for Jenna (still no luck), and I found what Bruce use to refer to as “The Froggy Computer”.  Actually, it’s a Leap Frog ClickStart, but it is green.  I decided to drag it out and give it a try with Jenna, who is almost two years old.

My MIL bought this for Bruce when he was around two or three years old and had ripped off the “o” and “i”  off of my lap top.  (For a while there, all of my emails looked like this:  Hell0.  H0w are y0u?  1 am f1ne, but Bruce has r1pped 0ff the 0 0ff 0f my c0mputer.)

By the time Bruce had the froggy computer, he already knew all of his letters and sounds.  So while ClickStart wasn’t very useful in teaching him phonics, it was a great outlet for him to play with a keyboard and learn early mouse skills.  It’s a QWERTY keyboard, and thankfully the “o”s and “i”s are really stuck on there well!

At 23 months, Jenna is only interested in pounding on the keyboard for about five minutes, and watching the letters pop up on the television screen.  This is enough time for me to dust and pick up the family room, so I consider her first encounter with the froggy computer a success.  I probably won’t plug it in again for her until she is a couple of months older, though.  It’s really meant for 3 year olds.

Peanut Buttering (Reducing) Fractions

Today for fun, we repeated an activity Bruce and I had done a while ago, called Peanut Buttering fractions.  This is a lesson on reducing fractions that I learned with I was going through teacher training for Constructivist math.  It is a wonderful example of a hands-on activity helping children construct their own understanding of a mathematical concept.  The whole word “reducing” doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it, because the actual quantity of the fraction your reduce never decreases or diminishes.  Peanut buttering, makes a lot more sense.

To start, I asked Bruce to tell me which fraction of the MnMs were red.  He answered 3/9. 

By this point, Bruce totally remembered what to do next, which was the reduce the fraction with peanut butter.  But with a child new to the activity, there is a lot language prompting you can introduce to help guide them to discovering how this works on their own.  “Look for groups.  Do you see a way to group the candy evenly?  Instead of having so many red candy, can you make a clump with peanut butter?  Oh, you make a red clump of three, can you make green clumps of three?”  etc.

After peanut buttering, 3/9 of the candy being red, becomes 1/3 of the candy. 

Here’s another problem we did.  By this time, things were getting pretty sticky!

What fraction of the candy is green?  10/20

Bruce’s first attempt at peanut buttering, and he turned 10/20 into 2/4.

I asked him to if he could peanut butter even more, and he made 2/4 into 1/2.  1/2 of the MnMs were green.

On a side note, my MIL brought that giant tub of Jif over to our house when my husband and I were in Europe.  We usually eat organic peanut butter instead.  The hydrogenated stuff actually works better for this activity though, because natural peanut butter is a bit too slippery.

“m” Sound Box

Sound Boxes are a wonderful ways to encourage phonemic awareness with young children. Here’s our latest Sound Box, for “mmmmm”.  It was slim pickings around the house for this sound, let me tell you!  But we finally found milk, a muffin and some monkeys.  If could find a picture of myself I guess we could add mommy latter on.

We also got out the “t” box and decided to add Jenna’s toes, and Bruce’s tie.  It’s so much fun to see how Jenna is learning her sounds!  I need to get more tissue boxes that are the right size, so we can make more boxes.

Here is our “c/k” box, from a few months ago.  The next sound on our list to make will be /p/.

Square Numbers and Square Roots


Bruce is nearing the very end of Life of Fred Fractions, and one of the last lessons was about square numbers and square roots.  He had learned these concepts a while ago, when I taught him the basics of multiplying, but he was unfamiliar with the square root sign.  This lesson was a good review.  To me, it is also a perfect example of how a Constructivist approach to teaching mathematics solidifies conceptual understanding.

First we built out multiples of 2, 3, and 4.  Then we looked to see which arrays were square, and which were rectangle.

Next we labeled all of the numbers.  I then asked Bruce to identify the “square” numbers.

Since we hadn’t built out the fives, I had Bruce square 5 on the whiteboard.

We then moved onto the concept of square roots.  Bruce is still a bit confused on this point.  To be fair, we had just started the square root portion of the lesson when Jenna came running in and scattered all of the blocks!  We’ll have to try again later.

Independent “Reading” for Toddlers

I snapped this picture last night while I was making dinner.  Jenna is 23 months old now, and very interested in books. It’s hard to tell what is actually happening in her brain in moments likes these, but I know it’s momentous.  She has most of her favorite books memorized now, so she might be retelling them to herself in her head, or she might just be looking at pictures.  I try to make sure she does at least 5-10 minutes of independent reading each day.

Another Outside Fraction Lesson

Bruce and I are still reviewing reducing and multiplying fractions.  We did this lesson out in the yard, and afterwards looked at the problem again on the whiteboard. 

2/8 of the flowers are pink.

“Peanut Butter” them together, and 1/4 of the flowers are pink.

Share half of the pink flowers with Jenna.  1/2 of 1/4 = 1/8.  Jenna gets 1/8 of the flowers.

That’s the same whiteboard I use for the Morning Message by the way.  It get’s a lot of use!

Old-School Leap Pad


I dug up Bruce’s old LeapPad for Jenna this morning, to see what would happen.  I had bought the whole system, three boxes and the LeapPad, for $30 at a Fred Meyer several years ago.  I couldn’t find an identical package online, but I think it is similar to this:

It’s interesting because it has all of the characters as the Letter Factory and Talking Words Factory videos.  There’s Leap, Lilly, Professor Quiggley, and the Word Bammer.  They must have been meant to be used together.

It’s hard to tell how effective all of this will be with Jenna, who is currently 23 months old.  We were having a really special moment together when I got it all out, but then Bruce came in with his walkie talkies and caused a bit of a distraction.  I had to have a stern talk with him about not interrupting his sister’s learning time.  So, I’ll try again tomorrow when Jenna’s ready to pay attention again.

Outside Fraction Lesson

We took our fraction lesson outside today.  Bruce has been reading Life of Fred Fractions and is now on chapter 28th.  I like to try to include as many hands on lessons as possible, so we did this one spur of the moment, on reducing and multiplying.  Normally I’d do this activity with M’nM’s and peanut butter, but I didn’t have any.

Here we start with a review of naming fractions, and the terms numerator and denominator.

This is where you “peanut butter” them together, (if we had peanut butter), to reduce the fraction.

Next we reviewed multiplication.  First we did with the algorithm from Life of Fred.  So starting out, Bruce knew the answer was going to be 1/6.  Then he needed to prove it by ripping the leaves in half and sharing 1/2 of the green leaf with me.

Here’s the answer shown in leaves and Bruce’s own handwriting.  1/6!