Category Archives: School

Photo Credit: DQmountaingirl on Flickr

The Schooling Dilemma Part 3: Where it All Leaves Us

I have been exploring my own feelings about schooling and education as our daughter nears “preschool age.” First, I looked at my own educational experience in parts 1 and 2, and here I describe my resulting thoughts on the current best system for child education. Feel free to skip down to the summary if you’re short on time.


Photo Credit: DQmountaingirl on Flickr

Given the wide variety of options for schooling in the US today, the question is no longer so simple as public school, private school, or homeschooling. Thanks to charter schools and the vast resources available to homeschooling parents, it’s actually possible to have some version of “Montessori” school in any of those three settings, so the first question for me is really what my guiding philosophy of education is, and the second is where I feel that is best carried out.

What I value most in education, particularly in early childhood is freedom. As an extension of this, I deeply value a sort of education that maintains trust in and respect for the child and their process. Continue reading

The pre-language area in my former Montessori classroom in Austin.

Three Approaches to Natural Learning: Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf

I have been reflecting on education and pondering the different options available to us when it comes to our children’s “school years,” a subject I plan to wrap up tomorrow. With all that on my mind, it seemed only appropriate that I post this article, which was originally published at the Natural Parents Network. For those who did not read it back then, I hope you enjoy! I would love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these methods. I’ll also be linking up to Montessori Monday at Living Montessori Now.


The pre-language area in my former Montessori classroom in Austin.

While the multitude of options for child education are a wonderful thing, wading through the various guiding philosophies can feel a bit overwhelming. To make it a bit easier on parents, or perhaps to spark some interest, I’d like to give a brief overview of three of the most common “alternative” methods of child education. Be aware that there is so very much more to each of these. This is merely a bit of info to give you some background knowledge or perhaps to be a starting point for your own research.

The Origins of Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf

Montessori is the philosophy and practice developed by Dr. Maria Montessori of Italy. Dr. Montessori attended medical school at a time when women doing so was virtually unheard of. Upon graduation, she began work with institutionalized and mentally disabled children. She developed a range of materials and methods to aid them in their development, cognitive and otherwise. When her students, who had significant challenges to learning, performed just as well as did the “normal” children in the education system of her time, Montessori began to question that system and set out to try her methods with “normal” children. She established the first Casa Dei Bambini (“Children’s House”) for young children living in tenement housing in the San Lorenzo district of Rome, Italy in 1906. Continue reading

Waldorf and Montessori on Play, Fantasy, Toys, and the Social Life of the Classroom

An article on The Magic Onions, a beautiful Waldorf blog that I subscribe to, recently caught my attention. While I’m not an advocate of Waldorf education, per se, I certainly find ideas and inspiration, both in the philosophy and on blogs like The Magic Onions, that I appreciate.

The article was shared from Why Waldorf Works and while it was put forth as a simple comparison of Waldorf and Montessori, I feel that (however intentionally or unintentionally) it wrongly painted Montessori in a negative light. I began writing a lengthy comment on the original article, which you can read here, but then decided that my detailed comments may be more appropriate for my own space. I do not feel the need to go into every aspect of Montessori philosophy that the author presents, but I feel compelled to comment on her discussion of fantasty, play, and toys, as well as her thoughts on the social life of Montessori classrooms.

Fantasy, Play, and Toys in Waldorf and Montessori

An example of extension work with the Pink Tower and the Broad Stair. Photo courtesy of Jojoebi ofA Bit of This and a Bit of That, A Montessorian who fully embraces her son’s imagination ;)

Regarding play, fantasy, and toys, the author rightly explains that Montessorians believe, “fantasy should be postponed until the child is firmly grounded in reality.” It’s important to note, however, that we would never discourage or reproof a child who is engaged in imaginative play of their own design. It is not the allowance of fantasy that is postponed. We simply take care to avoid the planting of fantastic ideas in children’s heads. Remember that Montessori herself asked:

How is it possible for the child’s imagination to be developed by that which is in truth the fruit of the adult’s imagination?

Imaginative play is a wonderful thing, but I don’t believe that children need adults to give them fanciful stories or objects in order to encourage them to use their imaginations. They do this quite well on their own.

The author also talks about the set purpose, or the aim of each material in Montessori classrooms. As she puts it, “Math counting rods…are not to be transformed into castle walls.” This is true to an extent, but not entirely. Every Montessori material is designed with a specific purpose in mind, but children are allowed, even encouraged, to freely explore a material that they have mastered. We call these explorations “extensions and variations.” The ever-popular pink tower, for example, is meant to be built with one cube on top of another, all ten stacked from largest to smallest. There are many variations on this layout, however, and I have seen children turn the graded cubes of the tower into anything from a snake to a sunburst. The pink tower also coordinates beautifully with the material known as the Broad Stair or Brown Stair, and children often create fascinating connections when they join the two together.The opportunities are limitless.

She goes on to explain that, “Montessori said that it is a mistake for children to amuse themselves with toys…” This is, in my opinion, an incorrect interpretation of Montessori’s words. She never called play with toys a “mistake,” and truly many of the Montessori materials are virtually indistinguishable from that which we would call toys. Rather than add another person’s (my) interpretation to the mix, I’ll include exactly what Montessori did say about children and “toys.” This from The Secret of Childhood:

Although the children in our first school could play with some really splendid toys, none cared to do so. This surprised me so much that I decided to help them play with their toys, showing them how to handle the tiny dishes, lighting the fire in the doll’s kitchen, and placing near it a pretty doll. The children were momentarily interested but then went off on their own. Since they never freely chose those toys, I realized that in the life of a child play is perhaps something of little importance which he undertakes for the lack of something better to do. A child feels that he has something of better moment to do than to be engaged in such trivial occupations. He regards play as we would regard a game of chess or bridge. These are pleasant occupations for hours of leisure, but they would become painful if we were obliged to pursue them at great length. When we have some important business to do, bridge is forgotten. And since a child always has some important thing at hand, he is not particularly interested in playing.

Because a child is constantly passing from a lower to a higher state, his every passing minute is precious. Since a child is constantly growing, he is fascinated by everything that contributes to his development and becomes indifferent to idle occupations.”

Montessori had tremendous respect for the freely chosen work of the child, and if that work involved happy play with dolls or play silks, I simply do not believe that Montessori would have viewed it as a “mistake.” This attitude is completely contrary to everything she taught.

Clearly Montessorians and proponents of Waldorf education methods have very different views of play, and I have no desire to prove one’s correctness above the other. I believe that both come from a place of respect for the child and for childhood, and from a desire to provide children with every benefit.

Barbara Shell, author of the article in question quotes Joseph Chilton Pearce as saying,

The great rule is: play on the surface and the work takes place beneath. For the child, the time is always now; the place, here; the action, me. He has no capacity to entertain adult notions of fantasy world and real world. He knows only one world, and that is the very real one in which and with which he plays. His is not playing at life. Play is life.

I do not disagree with this statement at all. Often the child’s activity appears trivial to adult eyes, but is actually important, formative work for him or her. It would be easy to get caught up in semantics, and I think it really is these words work and play  that make it feel as though we disagree, but I believe Montessori and Waldorf educators and parents alike are in agreement when it comes to wanting to allow for and protect the spontaneous activity of the child. In many cases, upon seeing the same child at the same activity, a Waldorf educator might say he or she is “playing” and a Montessori educator that they are “working.” It comes down to which aspect – that which takes place on the surface (play), or that which takes place underneath (work) – we take notice of.

The Social Life of the Classroom

Children happily enjoying a snack together at their Montessori school in Bangalore. Photo credit: Nagarjun on Flickr.

The author moves on to discuss social development and I’m afraid that her description of this aspect in the Montessori classroom is a gross misrepresentation. In Montessori classrooms, she says, “Each child works independently on a small rug, doing a different task from the other children. Only the teacher, as facilitator, may intervene if the child requests help. Socialization takes place in not bothering other children working, in helping a younger child learn to do a new task, or in waiting one’s turn if the child wants an activity already in use.” Certainly children in Montessori environments learn not to bother a child who is in the thick of some big work, and they absolutely learn by helping one another. They also learn that they need to wait for an activity to be returned to the shelf before they can use it. To say that only the teacher may intervene if a child requests help, however, is simply incorrect.

Montessori classrooms are vibrant communities in which each member is valued, and children learn to help one another. As a teacher, I witnessed younger and older children spontaneously offering help and support to one another on countless occasions. The role of the teacher is first and foremost as an observer, and any facilitating that he or she does is based on what is observed – on what needs are exhibited by the children. If another child helps to meet a friend’s need, all the better. The ideal for the Montessori teacher is that his or her presence in the classroom will be virtually undetectable – that the children will happily work together without the need for “intervention.” That is not to say, of course, that the teacher is not happy to intervene and to interact with the children if his or her help or presence is desired.

As a preface to Shell’s article, Donni of The Magic Onions discusses the common misconception that Montessori and Waldorf have essentially the same guiding philosophy. It is true that there are many differences, and Montessorians and proponents of Waldorf have very different ideas and practices, but I believe that this misconception has persisted for good reason: we are all passionate in our respect for child life. It is for that reason that I have tremendous respect for all of the Waldorf educators and parents I know, despite having different ideas philosophically. It’s all for the children.

What are your personal views on play, fantasy, and toys for children? On the Waldorf and Montessori views? How about models for allowing normal development of the child as a social being? I would love to hear from you!

The Schooling Dilemma, Part 1: My School Experience

Photo Credit: usag.yongsan on Flickr

School has started in our neck of the woods this week and it feels a bit strange. This is only the second year since I was a young child that I have not been going back to school, whether as a student, a teacher, or both. School has been such a huge part of my life for so long that it feels strange watching the back to school busy-ness from a distance. I am involved, however, in that I’m reflecting a great deal on my own school experience as I work through my thoughts and concerns about school now that I’m a parent. 

As someone who previously made a career in the field of education, I find the subject of school to be an important one. Until recently, I thought my options were pretty simple: public school, private school, or homeschooling. Thanks to the blogging community, however, I have discovered the concept of unschooling as well, and the existence of a whole spectrum between unschooling and rigid, hyper-structured schooling. It seems I have a multitude of options. Two years ago, I would have told you that my children would go to Montessori primary school and transition to a public elementary around first grade. The daddy, on the other hand, would like to see our children homeschooled. 

As she gets older, I believe the choice should largely be left up to Annabelle. I was so inspired by the way MJ trusted her own children on the schooling decision, and I wholeheartedly agree with the value of doing so. Still, I think it’s important that the daddy and I examine the pros and cons of various possibilities in the months and years to come so that we are prepared for our part.

All that said, I have come to realize that I have a great many biases when it comes to the issue of schooling, and I think it’s important for me to examine them now, before they creep in and influence my choices as a parent.

My Schooling Journey

My official education began at a private preschool in Arizona. My memories of this time involve tricyles, one special friend, having to sit in the corner during rest time, and that one day that we got to roast marshmallows and make S’mores outside. 

By my kindergarten year, we had moved states and I was attending a public elementary school, my memories of which include painting, being grossed out by a boy who ate glue, and walking to and from school. That’s about it. Before first grade, we moved again, this time to a rural area where my sister and I went to a new public school. I did well and enjoyed my class, but there were a couple of girls on the playground who singled me out and teased me regularly. It bothered me a great deal because they insisted I was stupid, and I identified very strongly as exceptionally smart, so this drove me crazy. The whole issue really upset me, and subsequently my mother who decided to pull me out of school halfway through that year.

My mom worked with me one-on-one for the rest of the year, simply teaching me things as she saw fit. I enjoyed learning new things, but when the next school year started, I eagerly went back to my public school. By this time, I had received enough one-on-one attention to be far ahead of my peers in terms of academic skills. I was restless, and I was also the “teacher’s pet.” I always finished my work very quickly, so the teacher would look over it to make sure all was correct. My job for the rest of the time would be to collect the rest of the students’ work and mark it against my own, then set it aside for the teacher to record. Other times, I was sent off to the library by myself to choose and read books which I would write reports on to present to the class. My teacher’s husband happened to be my sister’s 5th grade teacher, and I was often sent me up to his class as well. 

As you can probably imagine, this didn’t do much for me socially. I developed a superiority complex and took my role as, “like, the smartest kid in class” very seriously. I can only imagine how obnoxious I was, and how rude to some of my peers. My sister was never one who cared for school, and I’m surprised we have maintained such a close friendship since I liked to point out, at every opportunity, the fact that I could answer questions in her class that she couldn’t (this probably happened once and I never let my poor sister live it down). I also loved to brag about my adventures in the 5th grade when I returned to class with my ordinary 2nd grade peers. 

My parents wanted me to skip a grade, but the school district was firm in their policy of keeping children with students their own age wherever possible, so it was decided that I would go to a private Christian school the next year. This school used the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, consisting of fill-in-the-blank booklets that students completed individually and checked against score keys. Because the school was expensive and a 45 minute drive from our house, it was decided the following year that my parents would purchase the curriculum and I would use it to home school. 

I started off strong, but eventually realized there were far more enjoyable things to do than fill in workbooks, so I started copying answers from the score keys before my mom woke up. After a while, I realized that no one else was checking my work, so I left entire booklets blank and simply took the tests. I remember spending the following summer with my grandparents in another state and waiting nervously every time my parents called, certain that someone had looked at my work from the school year and found me out. No one ever did. 

Fifth grade was similar and in the years that followed, I don’t remember having a set curriculum, but it’s possible that we continued with the same. Despite my lack of interest in the official curriculum, I loved to learn. If I could convince my dad to take me to work with him, I would ask to be dropped off at the library and spend my days reading. At home, I would sit with the encyclopedias and read up on any issue that sparked my interest that day and flip through, reading all of the “see also” references, getting lost in the same way that I do nowadays when following endless links from Wikipedia. 

Speaking of Wikipedia, in hindsight, I’m pretty proud of myself for discerning at such a young age that our curriculum wasn’t worth my time. This from the wiki on Accelerated Christian Education:

“D. Flemming and T Hunt of the education journal Phi Delta Kappa wrote in a 1987 article regarding the emphasis on rote learning.
“If parents want their children to obtain a very limited and sometimes inaccurate view of the world — one that ignores thinking above the level of rote recall — then the ACE materials do the job very well. The world of the ACE materials is quite a different one from that of scholarship and critical thinking.”[14]

During these years of homeschooling, I struggled a lot with the lack of social stimulation. Many homeschoolers have fantastic cases against the argument that you have to send kids to school in order for them to learn social skills, and I definitely side with the homeschoolers on this one now. Still, back then I was starved for good friendships. We lived in a very rural area, thirty minutes from the nearest gas station, post office, and grocery store, and thirty minutes from all of my friends. At eight years old, the friendships I had built were based entirely on attending the same school, so when I stopped attending that school, the friendships dissolved. I remember crying alone in my room on my ninth birthday because I wanted a birthday party, but I realized I had no one to invite anyway, so there really wasn’t a point. It was pretty sad.

The summer before starting high school I also convinced
my parents to let me go to St. Petersburg, Russia.

When I reached middle school age, I started attending a church youth group and finally started making a few good friends. I didn’t get to see them nearly so much as I would have liked, however, because of the distance. I was dying to go to school. Finally, the summer between what would have been my 7th and 8th grade years, I wrote a long letter to my parents detailing all of the reasons I felt it was best for me to go to the public school, and they agreed. My parents still felt that it would be “too easy” for me, however, so we went to the district and they agreed to let me take a placement test. I did well and they agreed that I could skip 8th grade and start at the public high school the following year. I couldn’t have been happier!

To be continued…

(Update: You can find Part II here and Part III here.)

What type of school did you attend? Has your experience colored your decisions surrounding your own children’s education?