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Montessori High

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #49, 2002.

Montessori education is not just for preschool anymore.
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Mary Pride

Many homeschoolers have become intrigued by the educational philosophy and techniques developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori a century ago. So what do you think of when you hear the phrase "Montessori school"? A preschool program? Or perhaps a school that goes from preschool all the way to age 9, or age 12?

Although most parents don't know this, Montessori middle and high schools have been quietly opening for several decades.

According to Tim Seldin, President of The Montessori Foundation (www.montessori.org), and himself a graduate of a Montessori high school:

Today there are perhaps two hundred Montessori middle school programs across North America, and many more are in various stages of development. They range from small programs found in independent Montessori schools... to large public Montessori middle school programs found around the country.1

You might be curious, as I was, about what exactly goes on in those Montessori middle and high schools. What are they doing that's so different from the typical public school, Christian school, or prep school? Is it working? And what can homeschoolers learn from these years of Montessori teaching and experimentation?

For answers, I turned to two sources: Tim Seldin, one of the world's greatest experts on Montessori secondary education, who you have already met above, and Dr. Betsy Coe.

A past president of the American Montessori Society (www.amshq.org), Dr. Coe is not only the founder of the School of the Woods, a middle school and high school based on Montessori principles, but is also the Director of the Houston Montessori Center of Teacher Education, the only accredited program in the world to provide preK-12 teacher education according to Montessori principles. Today, she regularly visits other Montessori middle and upper schools across North America and around the world, observing and consulting.

Still, we homeschoolers have learned to be wary of mere credentials. We want to see the results before we consider anyone an expert. So I was as impressed as you likely also are to find that last year an amazing 20 percent of School of the Woods graduates were National Merit Finalists, an honor achieved by less than 1/4 of 1 percent of those who take the PSAT/NMSQT. Yet the school does not prescreen its students for genius status, or even teach to the test.

Becoming a National Merit Finalist requires more than just great test scores. Semi-finalists, chosen on the basis of those test scores, have to write an essay, provide a high-school transcript, and also a resumé of their activities, work experience, hobbies, etc. A student has to have an impressive background in many areas, as well as great academics.

I was able to track down Dr. Coe and get the speech she gave at the American Montessori Society conference this year.2 She also graciously sent me the PowerPoint sides that accompanied her talk.

After hours of studying Dr. Coe's speech and Tim Seldin's article, obviously I'm no expert on Montessori secondary education. And in this short article, I can't possibly tell you everything they covered. But, like an explorer surveying a new land, I can at least spy out the mountains and valleys. So please allow me to share with you the main features that struck me about Montessori middle and high school education.

Meetings 'R Us

Each day at a Montessori school starts with a community meeting in which as far as possible everyone sits in a circle. Students take turn leading the meeting, and everyone is expected to behave with respect.

These meetings are not mere window dressing. The students are responsible for creating school policies, dealing with infractions, and running some school functions.

Unschoolers are smiling and saying, "We already have family meetings!" Those of us from a more traditional background will be interested to learn that when the kids are involved in making the policies, the kids are more likely to obey the policies.

However, it's not all just laid-back good feelings. Montessorians take meetings very seriously. The kids learn to follow Robert's Rules of Order, the standard for parliamentary procedure. Since in the adult world people perceive the person who keeps a meeting on track as the real leader, regardless of title, I would say that these kids are learning to be leaders.

What the Kids Get to Do

Kids do a lot more in Montessori schools than typical schools. This includes work, simulation of real-world challenges, some actual real-world adventures, community service, and lots of hands-on projects.

For instance, just as many homeschool families and teens have their own businesses, at School of the Woods the middle-school students run their own for-profit soup and salad bar.

High-school students take the entire month of January for community service. Ninth graders work in their local community. Tenth graders usually go to Latin America for a service project. The juniors, who are involved in college preparation, spend part of the month living and working in a Montessori middle school somewhere in the Western hemisphere. They further prepare for college by coming back and living in their classroom, which is temporarily turned into a dorm.

Let me talk a bit more about college prep. School of the Woods actually brings in an experienced adult to help its students practice interviewing and takes them on trips to local colleges. Then the fourth week they go with their families to look at colleges they are thinking of attending.

Senior year, the students spend January apprenticing at a business they think they'd like to work in.

Middle-school students at School of the Woods get eased more gently into the world of work. They intern for a week in a business of their choice each year. They write a resumé and a business letter to get the job, then work for a week.

A ropes challenge course, an annual canoeing and camping trip, and student exchange programs are other ways School of the Woods students pick up their "preparation for life."

How the Kids Learn

You probably won't find a group of people more interested in learning styles and techniques than Montessori teachers.

When School of the Woods students make a report or a presentation, it has to include elements that appeal to at least four of Howard Gardner's "multiple intelligences." This helps their peers, who are watching the presentation, understand it better and makes them better teachers.

Textbooks are rarely the core of the students' studies. Instead, they pursue what looks an awful like good ol' fashioned homeschool unit studies: lots of hands-on projects and research that combines two or more academic topics. For instance, history and literature are studied together. Sounds familiar?

There is some age integration, with older students helping younger ones, etc. However, unlike at home, full integration of ages is not really a possibility, due to the classroom setting.

Failure is not an option. Homeschool parents are familiar with the dictum, "Do it right or do it over!" At School of the Woods, a student has to make at least 90 percent on any written assessment for a project to be considered done.

Long-term projects are also a big part of the curriculum. Work is given in five-week chunks, and students are taught how to "pace" it. They have to do one-fifth of the work each week.

Students also get to pick an independent study topic that runs a semester. Something is due every two weeks, so the kids can't try to do the whole thing the night before the final deadline. During this project, they are taught how to gather information, how to make notecards, how to use the notecards, how to write a thesis sentence, how to write a draft, and how to manage their time. This will be a big help in college and in life.

What Is Normal?

Maria Montessori believed her method would unfold the "normalized" child - one who had not learned to play phony games and indulge in dysfunctional behavior. Many of us homeschoolers feel that the artificial and often dysfunctional school environment is what produces what has come to be considered "normal" behavior (the opposite of Montessori's "normalized" ideal): teen rebellion, peer dependence, worship of rock stars, and so on.

With the Montessori method's extreme concentration on observation of the learner, it's not surprising that a lot of Montessori teacher training is about child development - what happens at what age. However, it's important to remember that the research on which theories about what's normal at what age are based was almost all gleaned in classroom settings. Even a Montessori classroom is an artificial slice of the world, with only a small segment of ages present, and with the tensions that come with post-pubescent nonfamilial coed groupings. To meet hordes of truly normalized teens, who get along well with all ages and are friendly, outgoing, and confident, you need look no farther than your local homeschool convention.

The Montessori environment, though wonderful in many ways, often is just an approximation of what we already have in our homes. And in some areas, even the Montessori educators I have seen don't bring children as far into the real world as they could.

So, although we have much we can learn from Montessori educators, I think there is much they can learn from homeschoolers as well, as we mutually strive towards the goal of bringing up fully prepared, delightful young adults.

* Footnotes

  1. Tim Seldin, "Adolescence Without Tears: Montessori High Schools." Many of his excellent articles are also available at www.montessori.org.

  2. Sadly, no transcription of this talk is available to my knowledge, but you might be able to purchase the cassette of her speech "An Adolescent-Friendly Environment" (be sure to mention it was part of the 42nd Annual American Montessori Society Conference) from the company that did the taping, EGAMI A/V, at (800) 735-1446 or (817) 577-2564. You can also purchase a video showing two Montessori middle schools in action, one of them the School of the Woods, at www.edvid.com/bridge.asp. That web page also includes a partial transcript of the narration of the video, which includes many of the points Dr. Coe made in her talk.

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