Neither my husband nor I grew up in Rochester, so without much exposure to any of the local schools, we went into evaluating preschools blindly. Every school we toured had at least one thing that we didn’t like, but we expected to find both pros and cons with each school, so any dislikes we discovered weren’t overly concerning.
My understanding of Montessori schools up until that point was built on anecdotes from other adults who believed some variation of the schools being places where hippy children run wild doing whatever they please. So, when my husband and I scheduled a tour at Rochester Montessori School, I wasn’t expecting to find the school for our family.
When we toured Rochester Montessori School (RMS), we were struck by the expanse of natural land that makes up the school grounds. Remembering my own elementary school, I spent recess time on a giant concrete slab without any play equipment other than a couple of kick balls. The inside of the school didn’t seem that different than any of the other schools we’d toured, that is, until we peeked into a classroom.
Every aspect of Montessori classrooms are designed for the children who spend their time within their walls. Children’s House rooms, which contain ages 3, 4 and the Kindergarten year, have low bookshelves, tables and tiny chairs. Everything is at a child’s level on open shelves where the materials can be easily seen and reached by even the smallest student. The rooms often contain live animals and plants, which add to the natural backdrop outside the windows. The adult leading the class is called a “guide,” as their focus is to guide a child’s learning and discovery. They effectively are there to provide instruction to the children on how to learn. Teaching comes from the materials used to demonstrate math, science, geography and language concepts and practical life skills. The materials also allow each child to learn at their own individual pace.
When we peered into a classroom we could see that the children (again, ages 3-5) were just finishing up their lunches, which they ate on ceramic (breakable!) plates and drank from glass cups. We asked the tour guide if the children ever break these items as surely our own child could not possibly handle this responsibility. He said that yes, they do – in the first week, but once a dish is broken and a child has that experience, they are not likely to do it again. It was then that I spotted a child doing something so unbelievable to me that the sight changed something in me. A small girl who couldn’t have been much over 3 years old was standing on a stool at the classroom sink with a plastic apron delicately tied around her waist, washing her own dishes. I never heard any of the adults in the room ask her to do this. She silently picked up her plate, cup and utensils from her lunch table, carefully carried them over to the sink and got to work. It was in that moment that I thought to myself, “If this school can teach MY son to do this, I will pay them any amount of money!” I could have signed him up for preschool right then and there, but we continued our tour and found many other things to love about the school.
My son is now in 5th grade at RMS. Does he wash his own dishes? Sure, at school…when he’s been asked. No miracles were achieved, but did the school, its guides and its Montessori philosophy turned my overly boisterous preschooler into an independently thinking, kind, respectful, compassionate, but still boisterous almost-middle school student? Yes, absolutely. For our son in particular, the framework of Montessori learning and the classroom environments work well with his very curious and very easily distracted mind. Instead of sitting at a desk for hours, listening to a teacher lecture on subject after subject, he is given the freedom of choice within a structure of activities he must complete on an established timeline. As long as his required work is completed by the week’s end and he isn’t disturbing his classmates, he is free to explore his environment being led by his curiosity. Though it isn’t part of their assigned work, he and his classmates might decide to work together on designing a board game based on a discussion they’re having in a history lesson or film a movie with each child taking on a leadership role within their group collaboration.
I am a product of a public elementary school and I know that I received a good education. Now that I have seen a way to educate children outside of the traditional schooling model, I have to wonder why more schools aren’t set up to provide an individual learning experience. I don’t think that the Montessori philosophy is the sole answer to providing a great education to children, but some of its foundations seem like obvious choices when it comes to leading kids toward successful adulthood. Regardless, Montessori schools are not the free-for-all many people believe them to be. Also, the families who have children enrolled in classes at RMS are as diverse as the community of Rochester, so I would say that the stereotype of hippy families is pretty off-base, too. We love our school and the community it has created for us and our children, even if when we have to answer “What school do your kids go to?” we have to come up with standard responses like: “Rochester Montessori School. No, not Franklin Montessori” or “Yes, the one on the way to Byron” and “It is different from other schools, but we wouldn’t have it any other way!”