Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Montessori: Our final verdict

I haven't written about K's school in quite a while. The short answer being that we aren't too thrilled with it...

We had reservations from the beginning (see "education" tab for a few, though I didn't mention them all) but didn't have many options and thought a bilingual school might be a good halfway house before Czech schools.

The "bilingual" aspect was disappointing, since the classroom teachers are non-native speakers of both Czech and English and seem to spend all their time speaking to the children in English, anyway. I noticed that at pick-up the "Czech" teacher always spoke English to K, which made me suspect that she might ALWAYS speak English to K, and when I went for parent observation in November that was confirmed in the classroom. Then I went for K's birthday celebration and saw that again, everything was in English (birthday celebration during morning circle time) except what was addressed specifically to K's grandmother, who came with me and doesn't speak English.

So "bilingual" = "actually we pretty much speak English", which is great for Czech parents wanting their kids to learn English and probably ok for foreign parents who don't much care whether their kids learn Czech or not, but for a Czech-speaking family wanting to help their child learn Czech after a few years abroad (it's us! it's us!), not so helpful.

More problematic than that, though, was the atmosphere at the school. I'm not sure if all Montessori schools are like this or if it's just this one, but the classroom sessions we observed were incredibly sterile, controlled and not very engaging. A classroom full of preschoolers working was almost completely silent: the teachers whispered to the students, who were also expected to whisper.

I also watched my daughter working with one of the activities and trying to play with it in a different way: building a tower out of the blocks instead of lining them up in the determined way. The teacher, who was sitting right there, didn't exactly chastise her, but redirected her and when K persisted in building, the teacher suggested she go and get the tower-building blocks. I was surprised that the expectations were so rigid and that there wasn't more support for thinking outside the box, which to me says good things like Creativity and Resourcefulness and I Am Not Even Three Years Old, What Do You Expect? Haha.

The birthday observation was also instructive, since I got to see how "ellipse time" looks at least loosely. There was a lot more sterility and long stretches of silence. K was thrilled to be sitting in the special birthday chair, but was otherwise obviously uncomfortable with the extra attention and didn't understand what was expected of her. The teacher did not, in my opinion, do a good job of explaining what was expected, either. That is, she explained, but not fully enough for a newly turned 3 year old to understand. The expectations weren't complicated, but were expressed in sentences too complex for a child this age under stressful conditions to fully grasp. When I touched K's arm and told her the same thing in a different way, also in English, she responded instantly. Or, for example, when the teacher brought out the birthday cards the children had made, she showed each one to the class and set it on the floor in front of her. K, predictably, wanted to get the cards herself - they were HER cards! Since the teacher didn't let her have them and didn't explain (first we all look and then I give them to you), K spent that time pouting and wanting to leave the circle. They didn't actually do the full Montessori birthday ceremony, either because there wasn't time with all the long, long pauses or because they thought K wasn't being cooperative enough (since she was uncomfortable and confused).

Any time the children moved off the designated ellipse or raised their voices above a quiet indoor voice, the teacher got their attention by chanting a quiet two-tone "thank you" or the child's name. I found the chant-singing oddly creepy, if effective. Also when the teacher randomly asked a child to pick a song (I think because the child was being too active or wanted to sing?), that child was the only one who sang it while everyone else listened. Is that a Montessori thing?

I also went for a parent-teacher conference a few weeks ago. They gave us an evaluation of the child in advance that assessed skills in various areas, graded on a scale of beginner - making progress - advanced (or similar). The only area where K had top marks was in "speaking English". Guess I'm doing my job on that front! The other areas, though, were all marked as beginner or at most making progress - even areas where I know K's abilities to be at or above age level. It made me wonder what standards they were using, if children are judged against the whole age range of the class (3-6 year olds) or if each age is judged separately (separate standards just for 3 year olds). Because, sure, my daughter's knowledge of, say, colors is probably not as advanced as a 5 or 6 year old, but she knows them all and mixes them up rarely, which to me is where a 3 year old should be. Either the standards are impossibly high or quite possibly K, like many other children, doesn't demonstrate the same abilities in the classroom as she does at home. That's fair enough, so I didn't give it much more thought. In the conference itself the teacher made a few observations that I thought were accurate and a few I thought weren't, which is probably pretty typical.

I do admire the level of discipline the teachers are able to keep in the classroom, but it's not my style. There were things I did like in the few glimpses I had into the classroom, like looking at the map and talking about different countries or making a poster with the birthday girl's name, picture and age for the classroom door. We still have it hanging up at home.

But overall, too controlled, too sterile, too rigid. Not Our Style. K seemed to like it at first, but over time has been more and more reluctant to go. She's also been going through a major mommy-phase recently, which I only this week realized could be connected to being unhappy at school. She is unusually clingy and wants me to dress her, read to her, etc. - not anyone else. Most tellingly, when I tell her she's going to school tomorrow, she says, "I don't want to go, Mama, I want to stay home with you." That, people, is NOT my Baby K. If she said that at 7 am when she doesn't want to get out of bed that would be one thing, but in the afternoon the day before it seems more like she really means it.

I could get over the seaweed they feed them at lunchtime (oh, how I WISH that was an exaggeration), I could get over the not great English, I could get over the very, very difficult daily commute (takes 45-60 minutes one way), I could get over the very high school fees, I could get over pretty much any one of these negative points, but taken all together it just becomes too much to accept. K isn't happy there, I'm not happy sending her there. This particular Montessori school gets a thumbs down from the entire Where Going Havo family.

But! Coming up next time (because this one got long), the happy ending. We found a new school...


  1. I believe it is definitely a montessori thing you experienced at k's school. The whole idealism behind the montessori movement is the order and control (and IMO lack of creativity).
    For some kids, that is exactly what they need. For others - a more lively and spontaneous experience is necessary.
    I hope it works out for K at the new school! Good luck!

  2. crystal, that was another concern I had - very little support for creativity, and a certain amount of suppression of it. and for us I definitely think a more lively and spontaneous environment, as you say, will be a better fit. not sure if the new school will be ideal either, but it can't be worse and at least it's closer to home!



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