Moving Towards Montessori

Maria Montessori with children in class

No, I’m not leaving my sunny southern California home for some European vista.  Montessori is the last name of the old Italian gal, Maria, pictured above.  Montessori was a physician and educator, living around the turn of the century, who studied young children and how they learned — and ended up developing certain teaching methods that she believed matched these growth-phases better than what was found in traditional teacher-led classrooms.  Some of her earliest work was with children with mental disabilities who were living in asylums, but her ideas and methods quickly spread throughout the Italian education system… and then spread out into the rest of the world.

Fast forward about one hundred years, and here’s me, Mark Mushakian, studying to become a teacher, myself.  When I first went back to college, with the intention of leading my own classroom one day, I had no real clue which direction I was going to take.  I like working with younger kids, watching them discover the world, but older kids can be really interesting, too, with their ability to grasp deeper concepts and have more intellectual conversations.  Then, for an assigned observation requirement, I visited a special ed. classroom and fell in love with that more specified notion.  Again, the age-range wasn’t something I’d nailed down, but I transferred into Cal. State Fullerton aimed at obtaining my special education teaching credential.  I mapped out the remaining two years to make that as easy as possible (taking a credential-based elective here and there to make up units and to ease the course load I’d have to take during the year-long program), and I was pretty content with this future.  The interesting thing with special ed., too, is that the program covers K-12, which meant that my options were even more open, and anyone in the system that I mentioned my goals to applauded my choice and said that I would have no problem finding a job.

There was something that still gnawed at me from the back of my mind, though.

I chose a teaching career primarily because I love kids.  At the historical foundation of this decision, though, was the fact that I grew to hate school at a fairly early age.  By the time 5th grade came into my life, I was already checking out.  School was about regurgitating information, following rules, and never being encouraged to question any of this.  Think about it: grades, tests, homework… our school system pushes children to focus on one to achieve a better score in the other, but the one thing I could never get out of my teachers was an answer to the question of “why?”  I entirely admit that I can be naturally stubborn and ornery, but I sometimes wonder whether or not this natural inclination was only enhanced by growing up with a dad whose views were narrow and unwavering and in a school system that discouraged any attempts to get around its tight rules or restrictions.

So then, what kind of teacher WILL Mr. M. be?  I certainly would try to avoid being what I hated growing up, but how easy, or possible, would that be within a school system that still doesn’t flow that way?  I read up about the education field quite a bit, and I come across story after story of teachers who have left the field because they just couldn’t handle it anymore.  It’s not the unruly children that drove them away, nor the profoundly annoying parents (though both are certainly negatives of the profession), but more often than not it’s been the fact that school has become about test scores and lapping up government goals to achieve sustainable funding.  This isn’t always the case, and there are certainly great schools and educators out there (I know, I’ve spent time working with them), but in the back of my head I walked around with a growing trepidation about taking on a lifetime of “fighting the man” just to be able to try to encourage curiosity and a love of learning in my students.

So, I found another way.

Remember earlier, before I started waxing bitter about the state of our current, traditional school system, when I talked about Montessori’s methods?  Well, that’s the way I’ve chosen.  I’ve been aware of these schools for a long time, of course, but it wasn’t until really spending time in regular classrooms again and learning about the Montessori methodology that I found out what it was all about.  I won’t delve deep into the system, which is something I don’t exactly have lengthy training in anyway, but basically the Montessori method revolves around child-led learning.  Dr. Montessori said that children seemed to learn best when they were free to physically engage with the concepts — which one can observe by seeing how babies discover the world or how older kids play.  The modern Montessori classroom doesn’t generally involve tests, homework, or even letter grades, instilling the notion of intrinsic motivation from the get-go.  Kids may be given a series of assignments to complete for the week/day, but then it is their responsibility to get them done… in the order and at the time that they see fit.  So, there’s that lovely personal responsibility being taught, too.  Classrooms aren’t separated by single-age grades, but are rather combined into multiple ages; you’ll find children in traditional grades 1-3 all in a combined classroom, which, among other reasons, helps with the idea that the children can learn from each other (younger can learn from older, and older can learn to work with younger).  There is so much more to it all, but the simple notion I took away from learning about Montessori schools is that they foster a genuine affection for curiosity (the foundation of learning) by tapping into a child’s natural inclination to seek out information… instead of shoving it down their throats, no matter if they’re interested or not.

I was on the cusp of considering Montessori as a new teaching path, so earlier this year I went and visited a classroom… not for any class assignment, but just for my own knowledge.  It was absolutely brilliant 🙂 .  The students took care of their own classroom, they walked around freely and engaged with one another, and it all simply just worked.  It was actually relaxing, as opposed to other classrooms I’ve spent time in that feel more hurried or oppressive.  I don’t think a smile left my face the whole time I was there.  The class was filled with about 25 students, with one lead teacher and her assistant.  The students had desks to work at, but they spent a lot of their time on the floor or working at other centers… again, moving about freely as they so chose.  If they felt like eating, they went and grabbed a snack and sat at a certain table and ate.  During the group’s circle time, two students apparently felt that cleaning up the day’s kitchen mess was more important than singing songs with their classmates, so they cleaned.  There is, of course, a natural inclination to wonder how these kids can learn to live in the world if they’re just doing whatever they please in the classroom, but ya know what… I was standing there, a stranger in their classroom, and these children were engaging me at an intellectual level that I hadn’t found in any other classroom observation.  There was a light of curiosity in their eyes and in their line of questions.  They excitedly told me about the class projects they’d all done together or what they were personally working on that day.  They may have “had” to do some of this stuff, but I didn’t see one smidge of that word’s weight on their faces as they talked about their accomplishments.  Kids naturally ask a lot of questions (if you’ve spent time around them, you know I mean a LOT), and it was so encouraging to see that this curiosity was still present in these kids.  This is the type of curiosity that outside-thinking that helps mold entrepreneurial mindsets, like those of the founders of Google or the fella who founded — all of whom are Montessori grads and speak highly of its positive influence on their lives.

SO, where does this leave me?  I’m finishing my B.S. at CSUF, but I’m not planning on enrolling in the credential program.  After Christmas, I’m going to start applying to every local Montessori preschool I can find (I still need part-time, with my college schedule), and for my final set of internship hours I need to complete for my degree, I am hoping to do my work at a nearby Christian Montessori elementary school.  In all sincerity, that sounds like a really ideal after-graduation work environment, too.  I’m a Christian, of course, but I love to question things… which didn’t work too well in the more traditional private Christian school I went to.  It’d be like combining everything that I love, my faith, my curiosity, my love of kids, into one splendid little career path.  But, that’s getting ahead of myself.  Right now, I’m simply looking forward to getting used to the system and obtaining that daily experience with it.  Haha, I’m still actually pretty out there in terms of what age-range I want to teach, too; when I thought about it, suddenly the idea of working for a Montessori preschool (babies-age 5) kinda seemed okay.  So, maybe NEXT time I write about my career path it’ll be to mention a specific age group 😉 .

Either way, I’m darn excited about seeing what comes of this new path… and I’m glad I finally wrote about it here, after teasing it in a number of posts .  Now, I’ll leave you with a great little clip from the YouTube, that doesn’t go deeply into the “how” of Montessori, but it certainly nails the “why”… and I really love that question 🙂 .


About Mark Mushakian

Just a man who loves God, women, kids, dogs, movies, and every other lovely thing in life :)
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