It only takes one visit to our Montessori elementary classrooms to realize that something magical and quite different from a traditional school setting is happening. There’s an active hum about the class; children move about freely, carrying brightly-colored materials from shelves to tables or work rugs on the floor; there are groups of two or four children talking in quiet voices, others are curled up with a book, yet others prepare food in the kitchen, or set up a science experiment in the corner, or make music with a the Montessori tone bars. It may take you a while to find the teachers: there, one is on the floor, seated next to a child working on long multiplication with a the Montessori checker board; another one is seated with a group of four children, working on Chinese characters.
Before you come to visit our program (which we, of course, invite you to do if you are considering AIM’s elementary program for your child), it’s good to understand some of the key differences between a Montessori elementary program and traditional schools.
- An extended, uninterrupted work period—instead of 45- or 60-minute, adult-directed schedules. Can you do your best work, if you know you only have 30 minutes to the next meeting? No? Neither can children: they need time, lots of it, to immerse themselves in the fascinating job of learning about the world, especially since they are new to lots of it, and thus less fast than us experienced adults. That’s why each day, we offer a three-hour, uninterrupted work period in the morning, where children can focus on doing the important work of learning, without having to shift gears at a teacher’s command every 45 or 55 minutes.
- A mixed-age, family-like community—instead of a strict separation of children by calendar age. Where in life, other than school, do we herd people together within a narrow one-year-age group, and expect them all to do the exact same thing, at the same time? Nowhere! So why do we unquestioningly accept this absurd approach for our children’s most formative years?! In Montessori, we instead have mixed-age communities. In our elementary program at AIM, children can interact across a six-year-age span: a first grader may ask a 4th grader for help with spelling; an 3rd grader precocious in math may work with a group of 5th graders; a 5th grader may find joy in reading aloud to a group of 2nd graders, practicing her Japanese skills in front of a receptive audience.
- One-on-one or small-group lessons, tailored to each individual child—instead of pre-set, grade-by-grade, one-size-fits-all curricula and lectures. How likely is it that a group of 24 eight-year-olds is all at the same level in their math skills—or interested in the same science question, at just the same time? Children are individuals: they progress at different paces through the core curriculum; they become fascinated and eager to explore a wide range of content in the social and physical sciences; they have different rhythms of study. That’s why, in the Montessori elementary program, most lessons are given individually or in small groups based on interests and skill levels, not merely age. By tailoring our teaching to each unique child in front of us, we can sustain intrinsic motivation, which has been shown to be essential to meaningful, lasting retention of learning—instead of needing to rely on grades, stickers or threats to enforce compliance with a curriculum that just plain doesn’t meet the students’ needs.
- Learning through activity—instead of worksheets and boring textbooks. One of the most striking features of the elementary environment at AIM is the richness of materials that surround our students. There is a shelf with human skulls from early humanoids to modern homo sapiens; there are colorful math materials—beads, abacus-like frames; tubes and skittles; there are boxes of language materials, almost like puzzles, which help students self-teach key concepts in grammar. We even have and use our kitchen for cooking (a great way to integrate language, math and chemistry!), and have a well-stocked chemistry shelf, as well as several cages with living animals and a student-tended school garden. Learning, in Montessori, is largely about getting short lessons, then applying them toward mastery. We don’t do workbooks, nor do we rely on dry, boring text books—but we do have a 4,000 book library, stocked with great fiction and non-fiction books in English, Japanese and Chinese, and our students are free to read throughout the day, in addition to a regular, sustained silent reading period.
- Autonomy and guided growth of responsibility—instead of an adult-directed environment fostering obedience. College professors often complain that their students are unable to plan their time, to keep them selves organized, to take notes, to prioritize their activities. No wonder: throughout the early years of traditional schooling, none of these skills are expected of children. A rigid schedule is set by adults; homework is assigned and often defined by completing repetitive worksheet tasks; choice is practically non-existent, limited (maybe) to an occasional free-choice book to pick or the selection of one of five essay topics. In contrast, our Montessori first graders learn how to make and complete a weekly work plan: With the help of a teacher, they identify what lessons to get, what activities to complete, what work that wasn’t completed in the prior week to put at the top of this week’s priority list. If they demonstrate responsibility, they have much freedom: they can choose in which order to complete the work, where to do it (a table, a rug, a beanbag), whether to do it alone or with a friend, and how to do it (in one long session, or split up over several days.) Montessori elementary thus imparts the exact executive function skills that researchers have identified as essential to life success—and that most traditionally educated students lack even in college!
- A combination of strong subject skills and cross-curricular integration with the Great Stories—instead of siloed subjects or artificial "themes." In Montessori, we emphasize both strong subject-matter skills, and cross-curricular integration, which is essential for children to understand why what they learn matters. Our teachers are constantly guiding children to see connections—for instance, by taking several thousand chains from the math area, to bring to live historical time lines, or combining art, history and geography in the making of maps. The Montessori Great Stories also serve to integrate and motivate the curriculum: Each year, our students hear about the key developments in history—the beginning of life, the coming of man, the history of writing and mathematic. These all-class lessons are material-supported stories: for the history of writing, the teachers lay out cave drawings, a copy of the Rosetta stone, and samples of Greek, Roman and other writing. These stories bring together history, language, math, science, in an integrated perspective that is empowering and motivating, in a way not found in any other educational approach.
- An opportunity to learn and practice social skills all day long—not just during recess. Traditional education has it all backwards: at age three or four, when children naturally are more self-centered, and, when left to their own devices, prefer to spend time in solitary activity, they are encouraged to engage in unending group activities. Later, at age six or eight, when they’d love to work with peers, they sit at individual desks, and focus on solitary activity, with recess as the only reprieve for their social nature. Not so in Montessori! We recognize and respect both the young child’s need to form himself as an individual—and the elementary-aged child’s social nature. That’s why our students can freely interact with each other throughout the day: they have never-ending opportunities to practice being gracious, learning to read other’s emotions, and dealing with the challenges of navigating social relationships. Montessori is the best way we know of building strong social skills, from the start!
- Integration of art, music, movement into the core of the experience—instead of relegation to occasional specialist classes. In our Montessori classrooms, children have opportunities throughout the day to be creative, to move, to make music. In addition, we offer yoga, karate and singing classes integrated into the main school day, at no additional charge.
- A focus on applying and joyfully experiencing knowledge in real life, via "going out", field trips and an annual, multi-day camping trip—instead of "waiting for the weekend" for real life to begin. Montessori is education for life—not for the "college and career readiness" of the Common Core Standards. We want our students to appreciate knowledge as a tool for action; we want them to see learning as an integral part of their lives, as something they want to do, not something they have to do. That’s why we create opportunities throughout the school year for students to take their knowledge into the world, and to learn from the world. Our trips integrate to the subject matter we study at school: a day-trip to the Bay Model complemented the study in science of the work of wind and water; a multi-day camping trip included white water rafting, in support of the same year-long theme. On all of these trips, our students get to deepen their understanding of the materials studied in class, and to gain that invaluable confidence that comes from acquiring and using the skills that allow them to act increasingly independently in the world around them.
- A homework approach that protects free time to pursue passions and live as a family. In contrast to many other schools, which equate extensive homework with academic rigor, at AIM, we believe it is our responsibility to ensure that children learn while at school—and then have much freedom to pursue other interests after school. Homework in our program is very limited for the early elementary grades: while we offer weekly suggestions based on each child’s learning goals, we give family quite a bit of freedom on whether and to what extent to follow those suggestions. We know that there are many non-assigned value-added activities—from joint grocery shopping and cooking, to nature hikes or playing ball—and we encourage families to work with us on a homework plan that works for each unique child. We do ask that reading be a part of a child’s daily life—by both parents reading aloud to the child, and children reading to adults; but even here, we leave the selection of books up to you and your child. We also strongly recommend that, starting in 2nd grade, children complete a limited amount of work on repetitive tasks at home—such as practicing Chinese and Japanese characters, spelling words and math facts. In the upper grades, we do assign homework in the more traditional sense-usually focused on skills that require repetitive practice, such as writing Japanese or Chinese characters, or improving math facts speed.