Competition and Montessori: can the two peacefully coexist?

On Monday afternoon, we held our annual faculty/staff vs. students soccer game. I consider myself to be quite the armchair soccer expert, but what my brain sees and how my feet move are two completely different things. Nevertheless, I suited up for the match.

It was seven on seven, with our fearless gym teacher coaching. A group of faculty and staff spanning some 45 years in age lined up ready to take on our 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. A crowd of students and parents cheered and waved signs. When the whistle blew and I felt the first accidental shoe crash into my shin, I began to think about how the game would progress. Should we take them on as if our lives depended on it? Should we let them score early and often? What were the lessons they would take away from both of those approaches? And which ones were right?

Having seen similar age groups play team soccer over the years, I expected that we would have a pack of kids trailing after the ball without much thought for strategy or collaboration. It became clear rather quickly that we were in for a different sort of game. During water breaks and time outs, there were huddles and discussion. They communicated, made suggestions, tried different things, set up their plays. They encouraged each other, high-fived their keeper after every save, picked each other up (and sometimes us!), checked in, and went on. And they played HARD. For the record, so did we.

The final score was 3-2 students. They earned every goal, and so did we. Life is naturally competitive. School should not teach us otherwise. But as we lined up to shake their hands after the game and laughed about what fun we’d had, it struck me that the principles we foster in the classroom are alive and well on the soccer field. Collaboration, creativity, kindness, and acceptance of our differences are as much of a presence there as they are throughout the school day. And most importantly, we all seem to understand that the joy of accomplishment is as much in the doing as it is in the winning.

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Seeing is believing … the power of a Montessori education

Yesterday morning, an unusual group of students descended on the NMS gym. Instead of the regular morning activities with cones, obstacles, and the sounds of energetic Primary children playing “What Time is It, Mr. Fox” under the calm instruction of Mr. Abe, this group arrived with a different purpose.

Yes, they were all Montessori students. Yes, they had all walked the NMS halls at one time or another. But they weren’t in their indoor shoes. They were in jackets and ties, in skirts and dresses, ready to talk with parents and then head off to their high schools—at Winsor, St. Sebastian’s, Newton Country Day, Newton North, Newton South, and a variety of other places.

Joined by admissions directors from Dedham Country Day, Newton Country Day, and Meridian Academy, these articulate, enthusiastic young men and women spoke with current parents about the impact that their Montessori schooling has had on their studies and in their lives.

As I listened to each of them answer questions and share thoughts, I was amazed. These students were interesting—each and every one of them. Their passions ranged from writing and history to physics and ice hockey. They were smart. They listened. They connected. They were funny. They were aware of their challenges. Proud of their achievements. Humble. Resilient. Thoroughly engaged with their audience. And utterly infected with a passion for learning.

The Admissions Directors shared their own experiences with Montessori students. They had much to say about their preparation in the classroom, and the capabilities and gifts that each of them bring to their communities. But what struck me the most was their unilateral view that “Montessori kids have a true sense of who they are. They know how to learn for the best intrinsic reasons.”

As an administrator, I had yet another glimpse into the vital importance of what happens here every day. Our students are learning the fundamental life skills needed to be successful in a complex world. Our mission to create lifelong learners is not just a paragraph tucked into the parent handbook; it’s a living, breathing goal that has been realized by the students on that stage and unfolds each and every day in the classroom. And as a mother, I can’t imagine a greater gift than someday seeing my seven-year-old sitting on that stage with the self-confidence, poise and skill set to take on the world.

The Real-Life Importance of the Primary Y3 Year – Musings from a Montessori-turned-public kindergarten mom

Our decision to transition from Newton Montessori School to a public kindergarten program was a difficult one, as our connection to this community was strong, as was our belief in the learning that happens here. But let’s face it—life is complicated, and a number of factors had to go into our decision. Having been through it, I thought it might be helpful to share our experience with parents who are in the midst of making the same choice—to stay for the kindergarten year or not.

My daughter—let’s call her Jill—left NMS after two happy and productive years in Primary. As a family, public school in a highly rated district offered us a chance to reallocate our financial resources to serve different family goals. We were prepared for a transition; what we were not prepared for were the incredible differences and difficulties we were about to face as we transitioned our Montessori child into public kindergarten.

As parents, we are acutely aware of the vast differences between children from the same family. While our eldest had been someone shy and introverted as he entered school, Jill seemed to own the NMS playground from day one. She became an early leader in her Primary classroom, and thrived on caring for all those around her while inhaling knowledge. In her second year she became an avid reader—and although it seemed to happen overnight, we know that it was the quiet and thoughtful guidance of her wonderful teachers and her classroom environment that allowed this remarkable gift to surface. She devoured books throughout the spring of her second year.

While we struggled with the decision to move her, our family finances won out, and we let her teachers know that she would be moving into public kindergarten in the fall. Above all, we were confident that her two years at NMS had resulted in a love of learning and a self-confidence that would see her through any situation.

Jill’s transition to public kindergarten has been difficult, both academically and socially. We quickly realized that Jill was in a very different place than her classmates, many of whom had been in traditional daycare until this year. Academically, she was way ahead of the curve—and being asked to do less, not more, in order to maintain equilibrium within the classroom. We became fierce advocates for Jill’s continued development and progress, campaigning daily for her to be challenged instead of held back. Our socially confident, bright daughter was quickly becoming bored and disengaged, unable to find peers to connect with or work to challenge her.

Through countless hours of meetings, roadblocks, and finally, the services of a wonderful and helpful guidance counselor and enrichment coordinators, we were able to switch Jill into another Kindergarten classroom mid-year with a teacher who is better suited to teaching children of all learning levels and styles. We are grateful that our perseverance resulted in this shift, and are anxiously awaiting the fall, when she will move into the first grade and a more stimulating environment.

As a family, we believe in thoughtfully learning from all experiences. On the bright side, we learned how much NMS taught her in two years, and the resulting persistence and flexibility she demonstrated as she navigated her way in a new environment. But we also have a much clearer understanding of what an invaluable experience Jill would have had from completing her third year in Primary—and that the benefits would well have outweighed the costs.

Positive Peace

Averting war is the work of politicians; establishing peace is the work of educators.
– Maria Montessori

Dr. Montessori placed a great deal of value on peace education. Instead of focusing on stopping violence, her approach was to promote positive peace—the values that are important to humanity, such as justice and harmony.

Look inside a Montessori classroom and you will find a peace rose. When a conflict arises, a student or teacher will get the peace rose and offer it to the other person in the conflict. This simple gesture opens the door to discussion of the matter at hand. A conversation about differing feelings, opinions, and beliefs takes place, and finally, agreement about how to forgive and coexist peacefully as human beings is reached.

The peace rose is perhaps the most pure form of learning by doing. From the earliest stages of development, its use encourages students to listen, to gain an understanding of and respect for individual differences, and to solve conflicts independently and without violence. This is a skill that each and every child will carry with them for a lifetime.

In the wake of Friday’s tragedy, most of our young students remain unaware of the violent and horrific events that took place. But each and every teacher and administrator is acutely mindful that in a world where bad things inevitably happen, we must all do our very best to give the next generation the skills and abilities to become thoughtful, respectful, compassionate adults with a desire to promote positive peace in the world.

Our hearts and minds are with our fellow teachers, students and families in Newtown, Connecticut. Above all, we wish them peace, now and in the days ahead.

The “Value Add” of Learning by Doing in the 21st Century

Pioneer: one who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise, or progress

Dr. Maria Montessori was a pioneer in every sense of the word. Born in 1870, she studied mathematics, history, geography, geometric and ornate drawing, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, and two foreign languages before contemplating advanced studies in engineering and finally earning a medical degree. But her true passion centered on the developing minds of children. She went on to develop a groundbreaking philosophy of teaching; one that is alive and well around the world today.

But how does a learning method developed over one hundred years ago remain relevant—much less pioneering—as we enter an age where access to information is limitless, and distance is transcended by technology and connections beyond Dr. Montessori’s wildest imagination?

The fact is, Montessori education has never been more relevant than it is right now. Today’s students must be poised to become tomorrow’s leaders in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before. Success will require them to be

  • creative in their approach to solving problems;
  • collaborative in their thinking;
  • flexible in their interactions with others;
  • versatile in adapting to change; and
  • shifting the focus from knowing to doing.

Dr. Montessori said, “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.” As she already knew, it is no longer enough to memorize facts in school—more than we could possibly absorb in a lifetime are literally at our fingertips. Real learning—that which enables us to assess situations, make appropriate choices, and find answers in all kinds of ways—happens by experiencing, by doing.

And in the doing, our pioneers of tomorrow are given freedom today: to explore, to question, to solve, to create. The Montessori experience across all levels builds confidence and self-esteem, all in an environment that provides almost endless variables—much like today’s world.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring many of the materials and learning principles that equip our students for the future. We hope you’ll join us in learning more about them and the “value add” that comes from learning by doing, both in and out of the classroom.