Thursday, October 14, 2010

Unipedes, Metal Insects, and Southanqueues: The Montessori Language Divide

Montessori school words become integrated into the child's mother tongue, but they are always a second language for parents. How does this play out in a parent's ability to understand the child's school experience?

Thank you, NOLAMom! I do miss this blog, and see how she's grown! I know it's kind of a fashion-y picture, but we're all fashion-y now, and if she could pick a photo for you to know her by, this would be the one. Nuvy is a very more-ish four-and-a-half. Silver hair ribbons to match her shoes, twirly rainbow flower skirt and twirly hair, twirling and twirling all over the piazza. Her image is heartbreakingly important to her now, and she loved how she looked on this day.

She's in her second year of the primary curriculum, and what a difference a year makes. I'm pretty sure she spent the better part of the first year "normalizing" (read, "as a forceful and challenging personality"), but this year I don't hear about her "having time out"--which phrase I am assured nobody ever uses with her, so it's curious that she persists in using it herself--I guess other kids gave that experience that name for her. Last year I heard about "time out" most days at pick up time.

This year, I am beginning to hear the words I have been listening for. "Unipedes!" she said proudly! I have spent a lot of time around children in Montessori classrooms, so the translation to "unit beads" was made almost without my noticing it, and before she ever rattled off "tinbars" and "southanqueues" (If your child comes home speaking in tongues in this way, she is talking about the bank game--very big work!).

In a school like Nuvy's, though, that experience makes me wonder what it must be like for un-trained parents. Even for those of us who stay at home and are able to volunteer at school, Montessori school can be a bit of a black box. The classroom is for the children, and parents--when they are invited in at all--are at the extreme periphery. We man the Christmas ornament project or the Thanksgiving feast. We try to be very quiet and respectful on observation days, and we try not to overstay our welcome. We understand that the classroom is for the children, and buy all the reasons why we should allow them that space, but I wonder what a parent who really has only a parent's-eye view must imagine when faced with words like "unipede", "tinbar", or "metal insect". Are these biological curiosities I have either forgotten or never learned? What are the locomotive habits of the unipede? is it terrestrial? aquatic?

Different schools have different means of addressing the Montessori language divide, and I think they are widely various in their success. Nuvy's school seems very much in the black box category. I drop her off in a car line, pick her up in a car line, and am invited to observe her in the classroom for half an hour, twice a year, and have a mid-year conference. I am invited to a curriculum program each year, and am free, of course, to ask any questions that arise.

My "old" school was not much more communicative, except from an advertising angle--but we did have curriculum tours, two curriculum programs a year (sensorial/math and practical life/language), and a kindergarten "tea", to demonstrate the value of staying for year three instead of going off to the well-regarded local public kindergarten. Parents still stayed out of the classroom and out of the curriculum, as I believe is appropriate, but it must pique the curiosity, no?

How does your school handle this?


melissa joanne said...

Great topic!

I don't have a child in Montessori school yet, but the schools I have worked in were drastically different on this. In the school where I interned, parents were always welcomed into the classroom and often came in and did work with their child, or interacted with other children. They may stay as long as an hour or more some days. They also acted as substitutes when a teacher was ill.

Most recently, I worked in a school much more like Nuvy's - parents were asked to kindly say goodbye to their child outside the classroom door in the morning, and to let *them* open and close the door, entering on their own. They, too, were invited to observe twice a year, and for a mid-year conference, and we had various "parent education" nights where they could come in and learn about the curriculum and the philosophy. I really preferred the second set-up, as I felt that it respected the children's space and their work so much more, and it made it much easier on me as a teacher for a great many reasons!

Renee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Renee said...

YOU ARE BACK!!! Even if only for one post, I was delighted that there was a new post today when I opened the blog on a whim!

My son has just started in a toddler class at the school where I assisted for the past 3 years during my AMI training. I am currently off of work to have our second child, so I am starting to get a little more of the parent's-eye-view of the school. I am realizing how vulnerable the parents are... and that is WITH an AMI diploma!

As an assistant, I observed parental observations abused one year (to the point that parents were writing aggressive e-mails and spreading outrageous rumors about both myself and the teacher of the class). The parents would come in for the whole morning, interrupt the children's work, and interact with their children more than they would observe their children. It was really difficult to work in the room - I am pretty confident that I seemed more frazzled on days that parents observed, it was evident that the children were out of sorts when parents were frequenting the classroom, and the tone of disrespect for the environment was clear.

I think that as a teacher in the future I will provide a printed instruction card for observations, limit the amount of time a parent may observe, and offer a form/worksheet for the parent to use as a note-taking aide. I think that so much of the confusion and disrespect could have been avoided by simple phone conversations with the teacher, as opposed to lengthy "observations" and extra conferences.

That experience really indicated the importance of direct communication between parents and teachers. Waiting until a problem becomes a catastrophe only makes the situation, well, catastrophic.

Welcome back to the blogosphere!

NOLAmom said...

She's lovely. Doesn't it take your breath away to see her so grown up? I find myself staring at my kiddos' baby pictures trying to figure out how we got from there to here so quickly.

They don't go to Montessori school (unfortunately), but I still feel in the dark somewhat about what actually happens during the school day. I have often wished for a two-way mirror!

Because of our particular circumstances, we've spent time in a variety of schools, and they all seem to struggle some to get the right balance. I'd like to see teachers use email more; they could send a quick update about the day (or week) to the parents and communicate one-on-one as needed. Occasionally posting a video clip or some pictures would be a nice too, and easily done.

I was delighted to see this post, by the way. Reading your blog has helped me work my way through some big parenting questions. It's helped me figure out how to make my personal parenting philosophy and beliefs work with the real-life challenges and responsibilities I have. (If that makes any sense.)

Welcome back, Testdriver.

Deb Chitwood said...

Lovely photo! I had my Montessori school over 20 years ago, so I would definitely do parent education a bit differently now with the benefit of advanced technology. I found it very helpful to have monthly newsletters and parent education nights at least twice a year. At the parent education nights, I always discussed basic Montessori philosophy and showed slides of the children at work, along with explanations of each of the curriculum areas. At the parent conferences twice a year, I had a scrapbook with photos of the Montessori materials so that I could easily show parents which materials their children were working with at the time. I think parents found those more useful than observing the classroom.

Emily said...

I'm so glad you've updated your blog! I'm filching your prepared environment stages for my own home with my 9 month old son. Thank you, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!

Nicole said...

My daughter has just turned 4, but because of an out of state move she is in her second Montessori school. Both schools are very good and faithful to the method and therefore create the kind of “black box” effect you mention in your post (drop off /pick up in car line, twice a year conference, short silent observation by appointment only.) Although I am not trained in the Montessori, I had learned as much as possible before enrolling our daughter so when I heard about the “metal insects” I understood. However, my husband was often confused and of course there were many days when we didn’t hear much of anything besides what was for snack and what she created in the sandbox. This made us both wonder if she was even engaging with the materials. Which brings me to my point; our second school is simply amazing at using technology to give us parents a glimpse of “the magic.” Each month, they send us a link to an enormous set of digital photos that we can view online and see the children working. Our daughter loves to look at the photos with us and these visual clues give her the ability to explain all the various works. In addition, they regularly update a facebook page and even a twitter feed with quick photos and captions about special occurrences and topics of study. I know using twitter sounds very incongruent with Montessori, but the children have no idea that it’s going on – none of the photos mentioned above are posed etc.. and it really allows us to communicate and reconnect with our daughter in a more meaningful way each evening. It takes a lot of effort on the part of the teachers, but we so appreciate this ability to stay connected without interfering in the process.