One of the neat things about Montessori is how “customizable” it is. I doubt that any two Montessori classrooms anywhere are identical – not only do the materials and the set-up vary, but the way everything is done can differ greatly. This can be a negative, too, but right now I want to focus on the positive aspects of it.
When I was knee-deep in the Montessori training (you know, making materials day and night, talking non-stop about Montessori theory), I asked my husband this question: “What do you really think of the Montessori method? Is it a viable way to teach children?” I figured by then he had heard enough to form some kind of opinion. His response: “It really depends on the person doing it.”
He’s right; the beautiful materials, the prepared environment, and all the philosophies in the world are still dependent on someone being able to implement them correctly in day-to-day classroom life. I often hear Montessori teachers referred to as “Renaissance people”, that is, people who are interested in a wide variety of topics. It’s definitely true, and the kids are interested in so many different topics that you often have to study a wide variety of things just to survive their questions! That said, I think that most of us have areas in which we feel stronger or more confident than others.
Most of us attempt to bring every curricular area into the classroom, regardless of our own personal preferences. That’s a great thing, but within that framework there’s room to focus on areas that we personally really enjoy. For instance, at my last school, one of the 6-9 teachers was a math major. The kids in her class did lots of great math stuff, even beyond the traditional math materials. For my part, as a history major, I brought my love of history into the classroom through lots of interesting books and activities.
It wasn’t that her class didn’t study history, because they did; and certainly my class did plenty of math. It’s just that we were able to bring a fullness to the curricular areas that we liked the best. (That’s one reason it’s nice to switch teachers, combine classes or have students work in other rooms from time to time; they get a different experience in each classroom).
Within the rather large context of “history” fell my very personal favorite, East Asian History. In college, I eschewed US and European History and took only East Asian History classes. I believe that the reasons behind this could be chiefly traced back to a trip that my family was fortunate to take when I was in 6th grade. As I’ve mentioned before, my dad is a pastor. When I was 12, he was invited to go to China and speak to college students. The person who organized this event said, “Go ahead and bring your family!” and so we all went to China for two weeks. Here is a picture of me (on the right) and my sisters in a Chinese garden (this has always been one of my mom’s favorite pictures):
Keep in mind that this was in 1984; the country was completely closed to outsiders. Our visit was very controlled; we saw exactly what the government wanted us to see. And much of our sight-seeing was of the most “touristy” kind – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs. We also visited a school and a rug factory. The people were fascinated to see Americans; one of my sisters, Lynn, was especially interesting to them because she had blond hair. Wherever we went, we were surrounded by spectators.
This trip was eye-opening in so many ways. American Chinese food was nothing like real Chinese food. We were served snake, fish eyes, and all sorts of other unusual things. The freedoms we have in the US are breathtaking; indeed, when we first arrived in Beijing we had to wait in the airport for 8 hours because the government wanted to make sure that we were not there to sow dissidence. While waiting, I took several pictures of the airport. After a few minutes, some officials came over to me and confiscated my film. I was 12 years old!
Sometimes the cultural differences were bewildering. But I loved our trip. I loved the people and the culture; the sense of history that stretched for millennia. I loved the artwork and the architecture. Once I started teaching, I wanted to pass that appreciation on to the children in my classes. While we were in China, my family purchased lots of souvenirs, so these objects naturally became a part of my classroom. I enjoyed bringing in photo albums of my trip and talking to the kids about what I had learned. These personal experiences helped make China more real to them.
Kids get excited about learning when they can tell that you are excited too. Whatever unique experiences or interests you may have, find a way to bring them into your classroom and the results will be amazing.