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 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 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 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.