Monday, January 12, 2009

Choices: Observations in the Co-op Preschool

As you all know, I am busy agonizing over Nuvy's next year in preschool. Do we stay at our current sort of "non-denominational" (in preschool terms) school, or do we make a change to the local Catholic Montessori, and take our Montessori with a side of Catholic?

I have crossed the Grande Dame school out in the main line off our list because of the commute (30 minutes each way= 5 extra hours a week in the car for her, 10 for me), and honestly, I think the tuition is outrageous, and not comparable to other quality Montessori programs in our area. Yes, Montessori schools can be expensive, but when preschool tuition starts pushing $2000/month for a 9-3 program that includes a two-hour nap (that's with a "finance charge" of 7.5% for not shelling out your $15,000 all at once in August--when they say poverty is expensive, this is akin to what they mean!), I have to ask myself what I am willing to give up in other life enrichments to send my daughter (and son!) to this school. After all, I'd also like to send them to piano lessons, college and abroad at some point in their lives...

So we are back to our own neighborhood and our two choices. This morning I had an "observation day" in the four-year-old class at our current school, and I have a tour Wednesday of the Catholic Montessori up the street. Here's what I observed.

I Loved:

I loved what I always love about this school. I loved the dad who was on co-op today, hanging out at the sand table chatting up the boys.

I loved the cardboard boxes that had become bear caves for hibernation. This is very Waldorf to me, and is one of the things I like about Waldorf.

I loved the calm atmosphere and the languid, quiet voices of the teachers giving almost imperceptible guidance--leading the children with the lightest touch, with the utmost respect, but with absolute authority. You don't see that everywhere.

I loved the freedom and peace with which the children moved in the space. It is the hallmark of a well designed environment that there is no "track" that calls children to roar past their work choices with undue speed to some attractive destination across the room. The room is arranged to invite lingering over one's choices from the first steps into the environment.

I Noticed:

I noticed that the teachers deftly redirected individuals and groups when their play became chaotic, but that the chaos might have been put off a little longer by more careful planning of the smaller elements of the environment. The foods that the bears pretended to eat were presented in big plastic bags without any obvious orderly way to play with them (no feast to arrange, or matching work, or plastic bush to gather the berries from), so they became projectiles pretty quickly. At one point, I saw that the teachers started a little guided imaginative play in that the concept of a park ranger was introduced, and an idea of bears eating "natural foods" rather than things stolen from park visitors came up--which seemed to move the whole natural bear environment into a more human-controlled arena. Not necessarily bad, just not where my mind tended to take the scenario.

I noticed that the room was dominated by "art" work, and that the children were not particularly drawn to the painting area. In Montessori classrooms, we often struggle to keep kids away from the drawing materials and guide them to the Montessori work--because it is seen as rather an undefined activity--which may be what draws the children to it in the classroom. In this room, the painting area was available and attractive, but I was struck by the degree to which the children failed to flock to it. Other areas of the room seemed to hold equal appeal.

I noticed that morning cleanup was a big job, but that the children willingly participated itn it. Because everything was left out for the children to use, they had no concept of taking something out, using it, and putting it away for another person's use. In a Montessori class, this is something four-year-olds do pretty well. The teachers made a game of the cleanup (assigning objects to put away by color, and coordinating the color with something the child wore), and the children cooperated well. It was a pleasant, creative approach, but it seemed a little foreign to my Montessori sensibility.

I noticed that the children went outdoors even with icy mud on the playground. You don't see that everywhere, either. I admire the teachers for that.

I noticed that everyone was very, very polite. That was nice.

I Missed:

I missed order. I missed the children's lessons in care of the environment. I missed trays and mats. After my observation, I bored my husband to tears (I'm sure) with a discussion of the benefits of presenting individual portions of play-dough on trays on a shelf for each child to manage, over the more usual preschool presentation of a "play-dough station" where a table is laid with portions of play-dough at each chair for children to come to, play with, and leave where they found it. (If anyone wants more discussion of that, let me know in the comments)

I missed depth in the planned curriculum. The children made bear caves for hibernation, and imagined that they were bears, and hibernated inside. This is a theme for the time of year. Good start. Now, I want to see fruits and berries that bears would eat available with matching/labeling cards. I want to see available activities for identifying different species of bears, different places a bear might hibernate (do they find a cave? dig one?)I want to see other animals that hibernate inside a cave to be taken out and discovered. I want activities about snow and cold weather, zipper frames for learning to close jackets, and bear costumes. I want more choices for the hibernating bear activities.

I missed the mixed age group. I wanted to see five-year-olds working at complicated things, and three-year-olds working at simpler things side by side. I wanted to see more opportunities for children to teach and learn from each other. Yes, I love the long chain bead work and the banker's game, but wow. I really love young children learning from older children, and miss it more than I'd realized.


NOLA mom said...

My first thought after reading this was, wow, you really know your stuff. This is a co-op school right? Well, would it be possible for you (or would you be interested in) contributing your ideas to the school? Maybe you could get some of the things you are missing and also keep her in what sounds like a wonderful environment.

I'm intrigued by the play doh protocol you alluded to. I've only ever seen the play doh station technique, and I don't think I fully appreciate the importance of the mats and trays. Why do you miss them so? I realized after reading your post that I am dying for details about the mechanics of Montessori in the classroom. Your husband may be (but probably isn't) bored with the benefits of play doh set up on trays, but I want to know!

I also realized that I need some lessons on care of the environment (and on how to impart those lessons to my children). Take one toy down then put it back when you are done? Unicorns and rainbows! Is such a thing really possible? If only you could see the explosion of toys and STUFF in my living room. Are there Montessori lessons for adults?

And last but not least, I'm revisiting my old internal debate about "academics" in preschool. My son's preschool has lots of sitting still in circle time and tracing letters with a pencil. They play in stations, but most of what they do is highly structured. I wonder if he would do better in a Montessori or Waldorf environment or if the structure of his very traditional preschool will serve him better.

We actually have a Waldorf school locally (which is really surprising to me), and there are several Montessori schools but many of them are probably Montessori in name only. It would be a lot harder for me to figure out which one would "pass the sniff test," as you said.

Why do you like Montessori better than Waldorf? Will Nuvy have access to a Montessori school that goes beyond preschool/kindergarten? Or will she go to public school in a couple of years?

Sorry, I think I'm starting to babble. I have to stop checking your blog right before bed!

Testdriver said...

Oh, how I would love to rework our co-op preschool in my own Montessori image! However, the school already has a director, who already has a philosophy and a coherent image of how the school should be, and I think it would be disrespectful of her, and of the rest of the folks who are really in step with the program, for me to try to step in and have fundamental program input. It is such a fundamental difference, that it would require a significant change in techniques on the part of teachers and administrators who already know what they're doing--they just aren't doing what their counterparts are doing in Montessori schools.

Testdriver said...

Oh, and more about the play-doh thing to come!

Claire said...

Very interested in your quandry...similar situation with my 4 year old. She was montessori-homeschooled when she was 3 [which we both loved], then in my own church's traditional preschool currently. I would describe this current preschool as "lovely" and I expected mild and unchallenging academics with a lot of abstract silliness. We did not apply in time for the Montessori school so I thought that this would be at least a great social opportunity for her (3 days per week) while I worked with her at home in a Montessori style. While she seems in general to enjoy school very much there have been a few disappointments with this scenario. The biggest complaint is with her behavior upon being picked up and arriving at home. She seems very angry and sullen and is often agressive in insisting that her 2.5 year old sister "play" by following her instructions exactly. This is in complete contrast to her "normal" behaviors on a non-school day. It may just be exhaustion but my gut feeling is that the constant compulsion to participate as part of a "group" without time to independently explore/learn is creating resentful feelings of anger. While they do have "center time", the centers are occupied by 2 -3 children and teachers apparently often interupt to encourage children to move to different centers. Another complaint is the difference with regard to language teaching. I have been very careful to encourage referring to letters by their phonetic sounds and to focus on lowercase letters. At school, she refers to letters by letter-name and focuses primarily on capitals. Which is fine because I know that she already knows how to read but frustrating when she argues with me and little sister about whether we should refer to the letter by its sound or name. Is the teacher right or is Mom right? Finally, the focus of Montessori with creating a desire for precision is something that I've struggled to inspire her toward. And I definitely feel that the low expectations of her teachers and observing the sloppiness accepted from her classmates (in writing, for example) has taken us back a few steps.
I don't mean to be discouraging at all but I'm wondering, with your Montessori passion, how you would deal with this issues.

Making of a Montessori Mum said...

Hi I'm intregigued about the play-dough too. Our Montessori playgroup (15mths - 2yrs) has it at a table. Dont know if the same for the other age groups (once they turn 2 they can do 2.5hrs at the centre alone, and once 3 can do whole days ,or half depending on your need. Keen to hear more.