The First Two Weeks of Montessori Homeschool
By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #42, 2001.
How to get started? Here are tips for the first two weeks of a Montessori homeschool.
In the first two weeks of school you will prepare an inviting learning environment and then instruct your child in the care and use of it. This creates a three-sided approach to learning - the teacher, the environment, and the student - rather than the typical teacher-driven method, giving your homeschool three sources of energy instead of one.
The Environment: Location, Location, Location
Before your official first day of school you will want to create a sparse environment of carefully chosen materials that invites your child to work, concentrate and enjoy. Each subject area - math, language, geography, history or cultures, science, and practical life - will have a place of focus in your home. Your goal is to create a balance among these areas so your children will be drawn in turn to each. You will also be rotating materials within each area, noting when a new material is needed or another material has grown stale. Moreover, in the science and history areas you will be creating units based on your lesson plans.
All academic areas begin with a "big picture" organizer such as a timeline, chart of plant kingdoms, or multiplication table, and proceed to finer understanding using this "key." Fortunately, there are manuals and even downloadable instructions that give explicit instructions for this process. (See the resources at the end of this article.)
Besides the academic areas you will need areas for snacks, for handwashing, for art, for reading, and for practical life skills. Since the home is a more natural environment than the Montessori classroom, I often can use the natural work stations we have in our home. I usually first teach the skill or subskill in the school room, and later develop a routine for another part of the home. For instance, younger children might be taught in the school room how to cut an apple, serve it with a napkin on a tray, and clean up for themselves. Later on, I will leave a basket of apples in the kitchen with a cutting board and apple cutter nearby, and trays on the shelf.
The trays, by the way, catch 90 percent of what used to land on the floor. One of the wonderful side benefits of the Montessori method is that every job seems to be presented on a tray. This has proved to save us all from lots of frustration with lost pieces and messy creativity.
To complete the environment, a few beautiful art reproductions are placed at a child's eye level, classical music is played softly in the background, and flowers are gathered for cutting and arranging in vases around the classroom.
Prepared Teacher: Restraint, Responsibilities, and Recordkeeping
"Wait while observing," was Dr. Montessori's motto. She said, "It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel her presence to much, so that she may be always ready to supply the desired help, but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience." (From Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook)
Your job as a teacher will be to observe your student and know when to refrain from teaching, while observing what your child needs and when a mini-lesson might be needed.
For example Heidi, age 2, wanted to do the eye-dropper job. I carefully showed her how to squeeze and release the bulb in the full glass of colored water and then squeeze the dropper full of water into the empty glass. She watched fascinated. Over the course of days she would try to master the dropper, and on occasion I would come over and ask if I could show her again. Usually she would scream, "No!" (having four older brothers she has mastered that well) so I would wait with my hands folded. Seeing that I wasn't going to take it away from her, she would sometimes ask me again to do it. At other times my "help" would simply have interrupted her focus. It is her focus I most want to build, far more than her use of an eyedropper. We must learn to see our goal not as getting our child to complete activities, but rather as leading the child to explore, to refine his or her abilities, and to notice details. The pincer grip Heidi is using and her attention to detail (getting all the water out of the cup) are preparation for her later writing.
Having an understanding of your role as observer and using restraint, you will next focus on teaching your children how to be responsible for the classroom and how to work together. The children have daily jobs that keep the environment ordered and clean, whether it is to sweep the classroom, put away the shelves, fix lunch for the rest, or sweep the stairs. Each job is introduced and taught during the first two weeks of school during line time. Graces that are taught include: How to sit at a table without scraping the chair and how to return the chair under the table on arising. How to use a rug for jobs. How to get a job off the shelf and replace it. How to ask to observe another. How to walk around and not disturb each other, and how to ask an adult for help without interrupting.
Social problems that come up are addressed in ways that don't shame or blame or demean the children. You might notice interactions between your children that are less than gracious, so you make a note about how to share toys or mediate a problem, or listen to another's feelings and not just their words, and then you play act this during your morning line time.
Recordkeeping is much easier in the Montessori environment than you would think. I simply give each area its own page in a record book, listing all possible activities within the area. I mark in a "p" when I have presented a job to a child, a "Pr" when I have observed them practicing it, and a "M" when I see that they have mastered it. The lesson plan section is a good place for preplanning and recording observations. As soon as possible, children should take responsibility for marking off their own completed work.
Prepared Student: Routine, Routine, Routine!
For the children to settle into their work, they need to understand how to work in a settled way. Decide such practicalities as where to keep the record book, where children should store their projects and any workbooks, and what your daily schedule will be. In the first two weeks start with shorter days, a shorter week, and few items on the shelf. Gradually ease in more job time and more jobs left out on the shelves until your children can look forward to a full three hours each morning of uninterrupted concentration, and older children may need another "homework" period in the afternoon.
Finally, after establishing the procedures for the orderly functioning and maintenance of your homeschool, you will need to invite your children into the wonderful world of learning that you have created for him. Maria Montessori did this by creating a context for all the subject areas in the form of a story. The human mind is not a fact processor like a computer, but is always looking to make "sense" or actually "story" out of information and impressions. We were created to think in story and so facts must be presented in a way that fits a bigger picture. All of life lies within the context of a great narrative, a redemptive story with a hero (God) and a beautiful maiden (His people) to rescue, placed within the setting of a beautiful yet fallen world.
"The God Who Has No Hands" is the grand narrative as Maria Montessori told it. She began by introducing the concept of God, moved into the physical sciences (states of matter, etc.), chemistry, and earth sciences, then botany, zoology, and man. Man was followed by the story of writing and the story of math. She introduced this story within the first weeks of school for 6- to 12-year-olds, and then invited them to explore the particulars of that story in her classroom.
Theistic (God-directed) evolution was the dominant theory in churches at the time Montessori wrote, so her narration was written from this perspective. I have modified her original story by using Ruth Beechick's Genesis and funneling subject areas into a wall chart depicting the six days of creation. Over here are God and the natural physical sciences of chemistry, light, states of matter. Over there is earth science, plus sections for botany, zoology, and man. Man is followed by lines showing medicine (for a later lead into the study of the human body), a history timeline including writing and math, and a technology timeline. I chose to include a technology timeline because it gives me a way to differentiate those physical sciences that are natural, such as electrical energy, light and heat, from the way we have captured them to do work, such as steam engines, electricity, computers, and rocket ships.
With a beautiful prepared environment, peaceful order, inviting beauty, a story that unfolds, a teacher ready to help without interfering, and children trained in grace, your homeschool environment will be part of the overall life that you had always hoped to create for your family.
I find myself at times totally captured by the intensity of my children's work. At the same time, teaching with such intent observation and training requires periods of relief and refreshment, so create a way to close your beautiful environment and get out of the house as well!