What is Montessori?
Dr. Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy, and she developed the educational approach known as "Montessori" schooling today. She didn't initially set out to create an academic approach, but when she was given charge of the children left running unattended in project housing, she took the opportunity to study their natural tendencies and development. The stories of her first years are so fascinating, and we'll be happy to tell you more about them!
The name "Montessori" was not copyrighted, so what you'll find inside a school claiming to be a "Montessori" can vary widely. However, in an authentic Montessori program, you should find the following:
Beauty. This doesn't mean that every classroom will look like the Ritz Carlton, but you should see beautiful items in good repair arranged in an orderly fashion in such a way that the children can easily access them throughout the day, rather than behind locked cabinet doors. The facilities should be clean. Likewise, the adults in the classroom should practice good hygiene and have a finished look, even if they are wearing jeans. In The Hearth Room, we prefer our classrooms to feel very much like a home.
Three-hour work periods. This allows students to become engrossed in their lessons, and to repeat them as many times as they like. When the day is broken up into 30-60-minute blocks, or students are frequently called out of class for extracurriculars or group meetings, students may be interrupted just as they are starting to really grasp a new concept.
Mixed age classrooms. In an authentic Montessori school, you will not find a "4-year-old" class, or a "2nd-grade" class. Because each child progresses at a unique pace--with some moving ahead rapidly in one subject while others take more time--students remain within the same environment for three years at a time. The room is prepared with appropriate materials and a prepared adult to facilitate all the appropriate learning during that stage of development.
Meaningful work. Although adults often think that children can't focus for very long, Dr. Montessori observed that when given time to become engrossed in meaningful activities, appropriate for their level of development, children come away satisfied and peaceful. For this reason, you are unlikely to see "pretend" activities in a Montessori school. Humans of all ages desire to make significant contributions, so we invite them to actually do so. In the Primary classroom, "meaningful work" might include learning to zip one's coat, mopping a floor (kids love this), folding cloths, counting, or practicing letter sounds. In the Elementary, students might feel very alive when creating their own coded language, reading about turtles, or tending to a garden.
Independence. This is not to say that it's a chaotic free-for-all, or that the children won't interact with one another, or that the class will never gather to sing or hear a story, but you should find that for the majority of the work period, students are working with hands-on lessons at their own table or rug, rather than doing worksheets at a desk or listening to an adult lecture to the whole class. Also, the adults in the class should be guiding the children to master challenging processes themselves, rather than "assisting" them with it. Although you will rarely see a Montessori teacher tying a child's shoes for them, the children all seem to find a way to be shod when it's time to go outside!