Montessori Madmen

Advocating Montessori

We're an impatient, ragtag group of dads and advocates from around the world, united by a common zeal to bring the Montessori method to millions more. Our mission is simple: to advocate for Montessori education so that one day it's not called Montessori school; it's just called school.

And The Winner Is...

And the First Place winner of the inaugural Montessori Elevator Speech Contest is:

Brooks Gerber! (#24)

Congratulations, Brooks. And congratulations to our other top five prize winners:

Terri Sherrill (#30)

Todd Webb (#16)

David and Tim Kahn (#34)

Hermosa Montessori (#70)

Thank you to all who sent in entries. We had a great time watching them over and over again. We also hope that your efforts continue to pay off, as Montessorians the world over use these videos to improve their own "elevator speeches."

You can see all the videos by going to the "MontElevatorSpeech" channel on YouTube.

Trevor Eissler and Mark Powell

In Praise of Montessori Teachers: Artists, Alchemists and Advocates

When we speak of the fabric of our society, no one besides a child's family has the power and potential to transform a child's life like a teacher does. Teachers perform the essential role of weaving together social mores, cultural practices and multiple ways of understanding to create a tapestry that tells our story. This work is an ever-expanding creation, made newly rich and complex as each one of us - students all - contributes our experiences and perspectives.

Montessori teachers are artists. They express their love for life and living through the content that they teach - in both the method and materials they share. In an ever increasing search to meet the needs of each child, they transform the classroom environment and the content they study so that everyone might have a personal and meaningful relationship with learning.

Montessori teachers are alchemists. They constantly balance the needs of one child with the needs of another; they cater to each individual, in service of all. Throughout the day, opportunities are made available, and prescriptions are given. In each action resides the scaffolding for more and more complex educational options. Their compass is the warmth and growing light of excitement which we all feel when working with passion and delight.

Montessori teachers are advocates. They greet children with their hearts before they do so with their minds. To move too quickly, to rush head-long into the delivery of content, is to create a space where the teacher is merely performing - dispensing information, regardless of its relevance to or resonance with the children. They work to know both the head and heart of each child. This connection allows for the deep and purposeful exploration of our universe, powered by a trust and faith in each other.

A Montessori teacher's work, and the work of their students, is not static or passive. Rather, theirs is a rich and vibrant world, one where originality and creativity put young thinkers on the edge of new understandings. They are champions of joy and engagement.

Montessori for Dads - Make it Happen

A few months ago I decided that I wanted to try to lead a “Montessori for Dads” discussion at my kids’ school. I had found myself having more and more conversations with various dads about Montessori. Too many of them had no idea what it was or why they should care about it, even some of the dads at our school. I wanted to start changing that. I wanted to share some of my passion for Montessori and start a conversation about why it *should* matter to dads.

If you want to start a similar conversation at your kids’ school it’s really easy. Here are the steps I took:

Talk to the head of school to let them know you are interested in leading a “Montessori for Dads” discussion.

  • They will be thrilled. Trust me.

Schedule a date. Coordinate with the head of school to schedule a date that fits well in the school calendar and will work for most dads.

  • I chose the Thursday night when our elementary class departed for a two day trip to the Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, because I figured a bunch of dads would likely have fewer kids at home to worry about and it wasn’t a weekend night.

  • We started at 6:30 pm so most dads could get there from work if needed.

Get the word out!

  • We started with an email invitation to all the dads (and to all the moms asking them to forward the invitation to dad).

  • We posted the invitation to our school Facebook page.

  • We included a reminder in several regular school emails, on Facebook, in a sign on the school door, and in the school newsletter.

  • Make sure you do this far enough in advance. We sent the first invitation about 5-6 weeks prior to the event. In hindsight we could have done it even sooner.

Prepare your agenda. I made mine super simple.

  • I introduced myself.

  • I did a quick poll of the room so everyone could quickly learn who was a “new” Montessori dad and who were the experienced dads. (“Raise your hand if your kids are just starting...your kids have been here for a year...two years...three years” etc.)

  • I asked each dad to describe one thing they knew about Montessori and wrote each idea they mentioned down on a whiteboard. This also served to get the dads talking so they would understand it was a conversation rather than a lecture.

  • When we finished going around the room I shared why I was so passionate about Montessori, in part because most of the things they mentioned were associated with qualities that we *all* value in our friends and family, in the people we work with, in our leaders.

  • Finally, I opened the floor for discussion with questions: “How do we as Dads use and reinforce the principles of Montessori?” “Why does that matter?” My intention at this stage was to facilitate sharing of ideas from experienced to inexperienced Montessori dads (much the same way that a 6th grader might help a 4th grader with some of their work in the classroom).

Here are few other odds and ends you might be wondering about:

  • The invitation was a call to action, challenging the dads to get involved and “don’t be that dad” that doesn’t know what is going on.

  • We did not have food, but that seems like a reasonable way to try to draw more participation.

  • I invited the head of school to help me take notes and to be able to answer any questions about Montessori that I couldn’t answer. There was also one mom who really wanted to participate. I purposefully wanted to keep it mostly a conversation among dads.

  • We had about a dozen dads show up, only a couple of us with lots of experience. I suspect this was due to the amount of advance notice and timing at the end of the school year. I plan to try again at the beginning of the school year with more advance notice to see if it makes a difference.

So what are you waiting for!? Get planning. And let the Madmen know what happens. What will you do differently? What worked? What didn’t work?


Choosing a School is More Like Making a Friend Than Going Shopping

Choosing a School is More Like Making a Friend Than Going Shopping

A guest post by Mark Powell

Nina Martin makes a great point in her efforts to make the arduous task of choosing a preschool easier ( Martin gives readers “the real lowdown from parents and teachers on the five best-known preschool philosophies out there.” She’s right that it’s important to choose a school with a realistic understanding of what’s on offer, rather than sticking with one because it’s convenient. A private preschool education is a huge investment; if it’s not a good experience for a child and his or her parents, of course something deserves to change.

Because so much money is involved in a private school education, it’s very tempting to treat the task of choosing a school as we would any other shopping decision. But this is not a helpful analogy when it comes to schools. Investing in a child’s education is more like making a friend than it is like investing in any other enterprise. Schools are living, breathing institutions that thrive on two-way relationships between parents and teachers. Parents are as much partners in educating their children as they are consumers of a product. Between teachers and their students a relationship of trust and understanding is essential, and parents play a crucial role in facilitating that relationship.

Developing a rewarding relationship with a school, like building a solid friendship, requires give and take over time. First impressions can often be deceiving, because they are filtered through generalizations that take the place of experience. With schools, what you see on an admissions tour—the educational equivalent of speed-dating—is never all that you get, because all schools are complex collections of multi-dimensional personalities. Moreover, each of the five philosophies outlined by Martin has evolved over many decades, and their benefits and shortcomings cannot be reduced to a neat list of quips and generalizations without seriously shortchanging them. Take the example of Montessori and the issue of play.

Few issues have resulted in more confusion between preschool philosophies than this one, and some common misconceptions about Montessori philosophy are rerun in Martin’s article. Maria Montessori has often been criticized by mainstream educators for limiting the creativity of children by discouraging free play and fantasy in the early childhood classroom. Others, among them some Montessori children, have called her method a system of teaching through play. To see through the fog, it’s helpful to see Montessori’s position as a reaction to the educational politics of her time, rather than as the rigid position which it has come to be seen. Some background will help here.

In some famous early experiments in which she offered her students toys alongside her educational materials, Montessori found that children actually prefer work to play. She believed that human beings never fully reach their potential unless given the opportunity to become “normalized” through work. In her view, imaginary play satisfies only part of the child’s nature, while work touches their whole being by satisfying a subconscious urge in their nature to grow and develop into an integrated personality. Yes, she believed that symbolic play, fantasy poetry, and fairy-tales have no place in the early education of the child. But she did not want to banish fantasy from the child's life completely, and she knew that most Italian children of her time would return home each day to a family rich in oral traditions, with no shortage of adults to entertain them. Montessori believed that the classroom must be separate in the young child's mind, a place to seek reality and pursue mastery over their environment.

In the “prepared environment” of the classroom, Montessori wanted to nurture three qualities which she saw as important for the young child’s development: first, the power of attention and concentration, which can appear almost like meditation; second, autonomy and independence of judgment; and third, an expectant faith which opens the child’s mind to truth and reality. This third quality, she believed, leads to a tendency in young children to dwell on fantasy, which adults often see as evidence of the fertility of their imaginations. Montessori believed that the tendency of the young child to believe so readily in the fruits of adult imaginations was not a proof of their supple imaginations, but of their dependent and powerless position relative to adults. Their uncritical absorption of the world around them makes it difficult for young children to distinguish fantasy from reality in the stories of adults unless the difference is explicitly explained to them. Montessori believed that adults too often inadvertently sabotage the development of the child's intelligence and creativity by substituting their own imagination for the child's, or by taking advantage of the child's natural credulity because they see the child as a passive being for whom they must act. For Montessori, too much fantasy confuses the young child's emerging sense of reality, interfering with their quest to construct their personality by mastering the environment.

Far from wanting to suppress the development of the child’s imagination, Montessori wanted to establish the right conditions for its development. For her, reality—a world of things seen, touched, and experienced—provides the most powerful source of images for the creative imagination. Through concrete exploration and sensorial experiences with a carefully prepared environment corresponding to their needs, Montessori aimed to allow children to accumulate a store of accurate images of the world. Sensorial experiences calm the mind, helping ground its tendency to flit about in all directions at once. To Montessori, children’s preoccupation with make-believe was not a symptom of their powers of imagination, but a symptom of their need to escape from a reality not well suited to their needs. She saw children as inhabitants of a world made for and controlled by adults. In traditional schools of her day, the only freedom allowed the child was the freedom to play. Have things changed all that much in this regard?

Montessori believed that, given the freedom to choose among authentic, meaningful activities designed to suit their developing intellects and bodies, young children would show their natural preference for work over play and reality over make-believe. In an environment prepared with opportunities for what she termed “spontaneous activity” (learning activities which children choose voluntarily), the distinction between work and play may only be semantic. “It is true that in all these activities, the child may be said to be playing. But this kind of play is effortful, and it leads him to acquire the new powers which will be needed for his future,” she wrote in her most famous book, The Absorbent Mind. In other words it was the object of the child’s spontaneous activity, and not the process of self-motivated exploration itself, which Montessori objected to in the notions of Froebel and other play-based educational philosophers who saw symbolic play and fantasy as the basis of early education.

Imagination, based on the images of reality absorbed through the education of the senses in the preschool “Children’s House,” becomes the focus of the child’s intellectual and spiritual development in the Montessori elementary classroom. At this age, the child gains the ability to imagine what they cannot see. With an interest awakened by the power of their imagination, the elementary child begins to look with longing eyes at the wider world beyond the contained classroom. With a focus turned outward, the elementary child is drawn to questions of culture, including the social world and morality. The child wants to understand why things are the way they are, and begins to ponder concepts large enough to last a lifetime.

This is the time, says Montessori, when attentions stray from the classroom and many boys start playing hookey—going off “on birds’ nesting expeditions, or hunting for ‘tiddlers’; or ‘messing about’ with running water—damming streams and making canals.” At this age too, she says, we find them forming themselves into gangs and secret societies, which—for lack of proper direction—may even run foul of the law. Rather than try to control or suppress this need, Montessori proposes “going out” expeditions for the 6-12 year-old child to explore and research the community on their own, away from family and school.

Freedom of choice remains the key to motivating the child at this level also; but now this freedom ideally grows out of a burgeoning love of real knowledge rather than on the curiosity or whim of the preschool child. Rather than spoon-feed the child with details to be memorized, the elementary teacher guides the child in their freedom by offering a vision of the whole within which details discovered by the child through individual research can become meaningful. A series of impressionistic stories provide a panoramic view of the universe and the sweep of human history. These dramatic impressions endeavor to inspire wonder at the grandeur of the cosmic process, nurturing the idea that the universe was formed out of love, that everything has a role to play in the existence of everything else. In the Montessori classroom, content knowledge is in a sense the by-product of a method that is aimed at encouraging independence and intellectual autonomy by exciting the child’s imagination and stimulating them to ask questions and explore the answers for themselves.

Montessori’s catchphrase was “Follow the child.” She saw children, with all their spontaneity and openness to the world, as the teachers of humankind. Her method gives more than lipservice to the term ‘child-centered education.’ She believed that the way to create a world without war and poverty is to raise a generation of children who have been given an opportunity to exercise and develop their own free wills, through which they will have developed a true sense of their interdependence with all people, living beings, and the planet itself. This sense of connectedness arises from an authentic feeling of responsibility for the general good rather than from coercion or a need for ego gratification. Montessori education at its best can work for every child, especially when they have been introduced to it early; but it may not be for every parent. It’s a relationship that deepens and matures over time, rather than a commodity to be purchased.

Why I Want Montessori on Wet Weekends

Why I Want Montessori on Wet Weekends

A guest post by Mark Powell, Montessori dad

What does a parent do on rainy weekends with a child who’s still too young for team sports or play dates? I knew a family in Boston with a large Victorian who kept nothing in their finished attic except a couple of old mattresses, just for days their four children couldn’t go outside. For those of us without that kind of indoor real estate, and with no relatives around, rainy days at home can sometimes feel like a prison sentence! Commercial indoor children’s play spaces like The Bay Area Children’s Discovery Museum, Habitot and Studio Grow are becoming increasingly popular venues for parents with young children, and not just during inclement weather.

As Bella began to crawl we eagerly awaited the opportunity to provide her a more stimulating environment than we could organize at home (not to mention the opportunity to connect with other parents starved of adult conversation!) Habitot offers a padded crawling area for babies, as well as other areas for art, water tables, climbing tunnels and a spaceship for imaginative play. Habitot is affordable, but small and often overcrowded. Studio Grow is a more expensive alternative aimed more at older preschool children with more choices and a larger space, including lots of room for gross motor play. With the largest and most varied spaces, more staff, and interest for the widest age range, The Bay Area Children’s Discovery Museum offers the closest approximation to an educational opportunity for families with children in need of a place to play.

Urban play spaces like these are frequented by middle class parents who believe that their toddlers or young children learn through play. Many of them also buy educational iPhone apps, DVDs or CDs like The Mozart Effect to help give their toddlers an educational advantage. But babies, toddlers and young children are efficient, low-cost learners who absorb language and learn 24/7 from every moment they experience. What they need more than preparation for school is preparation to meet their own practical needs in everyday life.

My own toddler has attended a Montessori toddler program since she was 17 months. Bella has been raised following Montessori principles at home as well, which basically means that we are always looking for ways to allow and promote her independence. Her home environment, like her classroom, satisfies her need for predictable order, reassuring her that everything around her has a place. At the same time these spaces are arranged to empower her to make choices as she learns to take care of her own needs. Her bedroom has a shelf that holds a revolving selection of games, puzzles or toys, discretely contained in their own container, which she uses at a small rug on the floor or at a toddler-sized table and chair, just like she does in her classroom. She is expected (and sometimes reminded) to return these activities to the shelf when she’s done. A low bookshelf in the living room holds a large selection of picture books which she pulls out and reads on her own (making up words to go with the story she creates from the illustrations) or brings to us to read to her. Bella sleeps on a low mattress on the floor so that she can climb in and out of bed on her own at will. Many of her clothes and shoes are also stored within reach so that she can select her own outfits each day. A plastic basin cut into a small bench, with water running from the spigot of a water jug, gives her a sink where she can wash her hands or help prepare meals. And a low shelf on the kitchen island has become a place for her to retrieve her eating utensils and placemat before meals, and to return dirty dishes afterwards. We also leave snack foods and cereal on this shelf which she can help herself to when she is hungry between meals.

Resisting the temptation to do for Bella what she can do for herself can be challenging at times. Often all it takes is a little encouragement, a careful demonstration, or a small change in her environment that makes it more accessible for her little body. It means reminding ourselves that learning how to do is more important to her than getting things done. Our efforts to trust her judgment – even when it’s inconvenient – and listen as she tries to communicate what she wants with her limited vocabulary are helping her grow into a child who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. At two years of age she is potty trained (day and night) and empties her potty into the adult toilet. She takes great pride in dressing herself and placing her dirty clothes in a hamper. She feeds herself without spilling food and pushes in her chair when she’s done. New surprises come daily; she is already growing up faster than our expectations of her. All of these skills were eagerly adopted by Bella because she was shown how and given the choice to do things for herself.

Bella often asks to visit Habitot or Studio Grow on weekends because they offer her a wide choice of physical and creative activities not available to her at home. But while these drop-in play spaces have the physical appearance of a pre-school setting, they do not help facilitate the independent, creative, social being that every young child strives to be. While there are many activities to choose from, the lack of a cohesive community makes it difficult for children to know what they want to do. Adults hover over their children, taking photos, checking emails, watching the time, afraid to let them wander off in a place where they know no one. Outnumbered and overpowered, children find it difficult to resist the subtle or not-so-subtle suggestions to try something that looked interesting to well-meaning parents for reasons that may have nothing to do with the subtle perspectives or needs of the child.

Without community there is little respect for a young child’s developing ability to choose. Bella’s experience at Habitot and Studio Grow has been that, even once she makes her choice, at any moment another child might come up behind her, uninvited, and add to her painting, remove a prop from the dollhouse scene she had just created, or declare that it was now her turn to use the ride-on toy car. None of the many adults has the authority of a teacher that knows each child and is respected enough to adjudicate such a dispute. In these environments, every child is encouraged to be an individual atom, and that freedom to bounce from one activity to another is not balanced by a responsibility to respect the rights of others, to return materials to their proper location (wherever that might be), to clean up one’s mess, or to give others a turn. Contact with other children leaves her edgy, yet there is nowhere safe and quiet where she can sit and concentrate for long enough to discover anything on her own.

Every chance we get, we take Bella to a grassy park, a sandy beach, or for a hike in the woods. But on wet and cold weekends when the natural world is unwelcoming and her home environment is just too small, we wish the calming and welcoming environment of her Montessori classroom was available to help her continue to develop her independence in the social and physical order.