by Jennifer Wester and Kelsey O’Keefe
Choosing a school for your children can be daunting and confusing, especially in regards to the ability to independently recognize pedagogical authenticity. For this reason, and after many discussions with Montessori groups (including attendance of the Montessori for Social Justice Conference) and parents internal and external to the Montessori community, we have decided to write this guide to touring Montessori schools.
I.E. What to Look for In A Montessori School Today
Note: Montessori is not trademarked, so a school may use the name, regardless of whether the program utilizes the practice and principles that define the Montessori approach. Within Montessori communities, schools only using the Montessori name or minimally applying the Montessori educational philosophy are called Watered-down Montessori — describing environments where elements of the Montessori method are applied for show but little regard is given to the reasons behind the aspects chosen or dropped from the curriculum, and often ignorant of the ramifications of such alterations on the overall Montessori community. Watered-down Montessori schools engage in a reckless application of Montessori for the sake of an income. They are places of business rather than education; detrimental to a greater social understanding of what sound Montessori methodology can provide. For this reason, parents need to know what to look for in identifying authentic Montessori environments.
Dr. Maria Montessori dedicated her work to the development of the whole child, regardless of social status, income, race, nationality, homelife, or disability. Through careful observation, Dr. Montessori found that children became engaged learners through a variety of activities and experiences, and she developed methods that provide children with a platform on which to continue their academic and personal development throughout their lives.
We discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. ~Maria Montessori
Therefore, the environment of a Montessori classroom is explicitly supposed to feel home-like — representative of all identities in the classroom; a safe communal environment. The room should be inviting, warm, and peaceful with ample space for the children to work independently as well as in groups in each core aspect of the curriculum: Practical Life, where children build everyday living skills; Sensorial, where children develop sensory skills; Math; Language; and Culture, which includes music, art, geography, and science.
With this in mind, here is our Best Practices Checklist for parents touring Montessori establishments:
ACCREDITATION / TRAINING / CERTIFICATIONS:
Schools may or may not have accreditation as a whole from an organization such as Association Montessori International (AMI) or American Montessori Society (AMS). Small or new montessori schools will likely not have or yet have an overall school accreditation, which may be due to strict requirements; for example a requirement that the school be operating for some minimum period prior to accreditation. Additionally, consider that accreditation has a large price tag attached to it, and that there is not one standard accreditation, rather there is a range of accreditations that signify various application levels of Montessori and organizational alignments. (You can find information for each level of AMI or AMS accreditation on each organization’s individual websites, included in the resources below.)
That being said, regardless of school accreditation status, you want to make sure that at least one teacher in each Montessori classroom has Montessori certification for the level being taught. You should feel free to ask about this and for proof of teacher certifications.
In short: Simply seeing an overall school accreditation does not necessarily guarantee that every teacher is trained in the Montessori method, so always ask about teacher training and certifications specific to your child’s room. It is also beneficial to ask if the owners of the establishment are trained in Montessori, as this increases the likelihood for continued and appropriate application of the Montessori method in all aspects of the environment.
The 3 hour work cycle should be a talking point when discussing the daily schedule of a Montessori classroom.
Personalized Learning — teachers (known as Guides in the Montessori environment) should have in their ‘planning materials’ a tracking of each student’s individual progress in each area of the curriculum. As opposed to a grade for each student on an overall subject, this tracking should look more like a workflow and plan for each student to progress forward at their own pace in all areas of development included in the curriculum.
IN THE CLASSROOM:
Well-defined spaces for each essential aspect of the curriculum (noted above to be at minimum: Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, Language, and Culture )
Photos of all the students’ families framed around the classroom.
Tapestries and other representations of cultural arts pertinent to an array of communities, especially all those represented in the student body and local town/city/state/country.
Live plants (preferably contributed by a child when he or she joined the classroom), as children in Montessori are encouraged to be “imbued with nature”.
Class pets such as fish, birds, crabs, hamsters, or other such classroom appropriate animals for which students can provide care (feeding, cleaning, etc.).
Globes and cultural pictures from around the world — specifically inclusive of a range of local and community appropriate cultural art, imagery, colors, and objects.
Background music — soothing, instrumental, often classical but also to include composers representative of all the identities and cultures of the world.
Trays, rugs, and placemats for use in working with and transporting materials.
Cleaning supplies and cleaning stations — the children should be an active part of caring for themselves and their environment and the materials for such care, including safe cleaning supplies, should be readily available for children to access.
Child Scale Shelving and Tables appropriate for the size of children in a classroom to promote independence (you should see a change in scale when visiting toddler vs. primary vs. elementary level classrooms to reflect the changing sizes of the children in each)
Order including visible and accessible materials on all shelves progressively increasing in difficulty (but don’t mind if you can’t naturally understand what is a more or less challenging work on a shelf; the point here is that there should be ample materials accessible to children and neatly organized)
Little to no plastics in the environment to ensure children learn to care for and act appropriately around materials (you should see the use of metal, porcelain, stoneware or glass cups and plates, metal silverware, wooden items and a general distance from throw-away culture, extending to washcloth and hand towel use over paper products )
Montessori materials, depending on classroom level, should include the “pink tower”, “sandpaper letters”, “golden beads”, “bead chains”, “knobbed cylinders”, and other tactile activities. Feel free to ask about these items and for explanation or demonstration of how any material present is used.
Mixed age groups in classrooms: 3-6 year room known as the ‘primary’ class; 6-9 year old room for ‘lower elementary’; and so on. The age range is typically a 3 year span with the EXCEPTION of todder (younger than 3) and infant rooms where care is taken to make spaces appropriate for walkers vs. non-walkers and typically these two groups are kept amicably separate for safety concerns. Additionally, state licensing requirements may require that toddlers and infants be separated.
A ‘Peace Table’ where students are taught healthy conflict resolution practices with communication (rather than pun ishment based).This kind of table should be present in every classroom.
No cribs in infant room with the exception that some states may not allow the absence of cribs unless by special permit; do ASK the head of school or guide about the existence of cribs to ensure that they have thought about this deviation from the Montessori philosophy and understand their reasoning.
FOOD / BANNED FOODS:
Talk to the school you are touring about their nutritional philosophy for students. Their plan should be well thought through. Often sugar, in the way of candies and other refined sources, is banned from the Montessori environment and effort is taken to expose children to fresh meals, a variety of healthy food choices, and natural beverages with an emphasis on good hydration (drinking water).
In alignment with the Montessori focus on healthy habits and environmental care and cultivation, it is common for Montessori schools to have a gardening program; ideally one that will allow children to plant, care for, and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables for their school meals across the course of the year.
And finally, RED FLAGS to question:
Austere environments lacking in cultural reflection of their surrounding communities or student bodies. (remember, spaces for students should feel like their own)
Overt deviation from the Montessori method’s basis in realism, environmental consciousness, and culturally broad development. For example, a Montessori school may opt to integrate a drama class and student theatrical presentation, but typically will not include fantasy play in the academic work cycle. Similarly, students will typically not have ‘toys’ in the classroom unless they are aiding in a lesson or an extracurricular event is being held. Instead, materials that encourage more imaginative and developmentally appropriate play will be available such as blocks, curved structures for manipulation and building, puzzles, and the like.
A descriptive misinterpretation of the Montessori term ‘normalization’ which is meant to refer to a child’s sense of comfort and adaptation to their worldly environment, rather than insinuate a need for any individual child to act as another or in concert with a randomly assigned average.
We conclude with a reminder that the mere presence of Montessori materials does not guarantee that a school is implementing the essential aspects of Montessori philosophy, wherein the individual child realizes full academic, social, and emotional development. A tour of any prospective school is the only way to see that Montessori space and verify its adherence to the Montessori method prior to enrollment.
You are your child’s advocate and any educational institution should respect that, especially when you are touring their facilities. Be confident in your ability to understand the environment and the materials or philosophies being presented in your school of choice. If those leading you through a school can’t break-down the environment, educational method, and any concerns you have in an understandable manner, trust your instincts, walk away, and look into other options.
GOOD LUCK! And if you are interested in additional reading on any of the above matters here are a few resources:
American Montessori Society Accreditation: https://amshq.org/School-Resources/AMS-School-Accreditation
Association Montessori International – USA Accreditation: https://amiusa.org/becoming-an-ami-school/
AMS In Montessori Classroom: https://amshq.org/Montessori-Education/Introduction-to-Montessori/Montessori-Classrooms
AMI Classroom Standards:
Montessori Foundation: http://www.montessori.org
Also, this is what the Pink Tower looks like:
And here are the knobbed cylinders for visual reference: