Thursday, June 23, 2011

University has pushed me further towards Montessori

Spring semester took its toll on me. I was so stressed, I really had no time for anything else but school, pre-student teaching, and 20 hours of co-op internship work. I had no time at all to research anything on my own time and never once cracked open an education book. As I progress further into my education, I get to experience more and more what it means to be a public school teacher. And I hate it.

During spring semester, I taught science and social studies to second graders in a technology-focused magnet elementary school. My cooperating teacher says I did great, but my science professor (who graded all of my work) wasn't as fond of my ideals and practices. I felt more comfortable addressing the students Socratically, through dialogue and thinking aloud. Unfortunately, I was graded most of the semester on how well I could adhere to the Inquiry model of teaching, which works well for science lessons a lot of the time, but not 100% of the time, and not much at all with other subject, specifically the other subject I taught, social studies. It's a good model. It focuses on students learning scientific concepts by working hand-on with experiments and developing thoughts on their own about what they're seeing and doing, rather than being spoon-fed the concepts and doing the experiments to see if they can apply the knowledge well enough to get it to work. Perfect for a science classroom. But I'm not running a science classroom.

For the unit I taught, I was required to administer a pre- and post-test in order to calculate growth and, therefore, the accuracy of my teaching. I used backward planning, creating unit objectives, basing a post-test based on the objectives, and finally, developing lessons to reach the objectives. And then, as I taught the lessons, before I realized it, I... I was teaching to the test! Me! The non-traditional teacher! Teaching to the test! *sigh*

It wasn't a total disaster, though. I did teach a lesson on the March 2011 Japan natural disasters. The students learned a lot and wrote about what they thought the world could do to help. I was inspired. My science professor was outraged. She sent me an angry email saying that she did not approve or think the lesson was appropriate. She said she would not like her second-grade-aged niece learning what I taught in the school. I promptly responded with an email stating that I thought it was not only appropriate for second-graders to learn current events happening in the world around them and how to rise up and show compassion for their fellow man, but it was imperative. Personal regards to philosophy of educating family members not withstanding. It goes without saying that I received the poorest of my grades for that lesson, regardless of my justifications.

I also taught a couple of lessons about environmentalism, which I thoroughly enjoyed. We learned what composting is, what kinds of materials are recyclable, how to sort them, and even how long certain materials take to decompose (which, I admit, may have been over their poor heads. I wish I had had more time to explain that part). I even got them writing a little, which their classroom teacher didn't hardly bother with because of the high ESOL population (which I thought was all the more reason to focus on it). Good times were had.

I can't decide whether or not I'm looking forward to next semester and my senior year. I'm excited to meet the students I'll be working with next year, and I'm excited to teach and interact with them. But I'm not looking forward to having the lessons I want to teach frowned upon and more teaching to the test.

Public school teachers, I've found, have their days practically already planned out for them. Lunch, recess, and "specials" (music, art, and PE) are already pre-set, and teachers work in grade teams to determine the rest of the schedule. Schedules and routines are great for children. They thrive with a daily schedule. But it leaves no room for spontaneity, which grows flexible children. What if a lesson sparks a big dialogue? In my ideal classroom, we'd continue it because the students are engaged and learning from one another. Who am I to say, "Stop, we don't have time to finish that thought"? Who am I to say, "Stop, we've talked about this enough today"? But that's exactly what the public school teacher would do. What if students are incredibly more focused in math one day, for whatever reason, because somehow something just finally clicked. Why would you say, "I'm glad you finally understand, but now we're going to switch gears and go into English" instead of giving the students more time to apply what they've just figured out?

Unfortunately, I think I know part of the answer. It comes down to funding, No Child Left Behind, and assessments. It always comes down to one of those three these days. It's rush rush rush in public schools. It makes me frustrated, angry, and sick.

At the end of spring semester this year, I took a day to visit the other Montessori school in town, the one I had never been to. It was bigger than K.'s Montessori class of 6-7 students. This one had roughly 10 students per class, pre-K through fifth grade. The students shared three open spaces, one for Kindergarten and pre-K, one for 1-3, and an upstairs for 4th and 5th. The most distinct difference I found in this Montessori school was that they seemed to teach a curriculum based half on traditional Montessori and half on whatever the public school district taught. How unique! They had also embraced technology, from what I could see, something I was thrilled to see! The teachers were friendly and chatted amiably with me about any questions I had until the director kicked me out because the students 'needed to stay focused,' or something. I asked if I could return in the future, but the director edged around saying no. The reasoning seemed to be that I interfered with the atmosphere. Sadly, it appears that they have a closed door policy.

As I fell asleep the other day, I had a random memory of a small marimbula I saw in a store recently. I began to imagine, in the haze of sleep, a scene in which students could pick small instruments, such as the marimbula, a small flute, an ocarina, a triangle, etc., out of a basket to play. I humored the thought for a few minutes until I realized that this scene would not be practical in a traditional public school setting. At that moment, suddenly wide awake, I rejected public schools entirely. It would be acceptable in a Montessori classroom. And at that moment, I fully embraced Montessori. I wanted to be a Montessori teacher.

I did a little research on getting a Montessori license before I went to the second Montessori school at the end of spring semester (which I should call the first, as it was founded in 1985, I believe, and K.'s school will be beginning its third year of operation in the fall). There are few schools that offer Montessori training, and even fewer that offer it for elementary level. And they are far from where I live. And they are expensive, upwards of $10,000. Another option is an online license for around $4,000, which is not recognized by either school of philosophy (AMI--Association Montessori Internationale, AMS--American Montessori Society) but may still get me a job if I try hard enough.

My husband had a job offer for a computer science company that offers Montessori as a company preschool. Wouldn't it be amazing if they hired us both? But I don't want to work with Early Childhood, even though it'd be nice. My heart lies with the elementary age.

The only other thought I had was, with an immediate panic, "What about my pledge!?" Traditional Montessori doesn't lend itself to "Living in the Age of Technology," the fourth section of my Pledge to Guide Today's Students. But then, perhaps I don't want to work in a traditional Montessori school. Nontraditional here, remember? What's more important is that I've decided that I want to pursue a Montessori license, not the particulars of what goes on in the classroom. The Montessori school I visited recently used technology, what's to say I won't end up working in a school more like that?

In the meantime, it just so happens that I'll have Fridays off next semester. I think I'll do some more volunteering, if I can.

EDIT: I didn't want to add this last night because I didn't want to admit it to myself and I needed to rethink a couple of things. Going into Montessori to some people (namely, my husband) means giving up on public schools. It means not reaching as many students. It's hard for another part of me to accept that--the activist part that shouts, "Education is a right!" and wants higher taxes and a good, quality education for all.

But I'm not giving up on public education, per se. I don't want to be the elitist teacher of the private, prestigious Montessori school, I want to be the brave teacher at the alternative school (which just happens to be Montessori) that accepts children that public school has rejected and helps them find success. And besides, there are public school districts that have adopted Montessori methods into their curriculum. I found them during research one day. They don't accept teachers without a Montessori license.

So I'm not going into Montessori to reject public school. I fully support public schools, I just think they need to be remodeled. Having lost the full-out activist kick I was on a few years ago, being a Montessori teacher is doing my part in education, but not having to put up with the system in its current state, and without having to barrel head first into the activist world (and maybe, maybe not making a dent).

Yes, he's right, I won't reach as many students that need my help, but I may be able to help the students that need the MOST help, assuming I find my destined school (or start my own, WHEW, WHAT WORK!). Besides, from what I experienced last year, going into public schools at this point may spell early burn-out for someone like me. And then where would we be?

Who knows what the future will really bring. All I know is that my heart is telling me that going into Montessori teacher training is the next step, and I hope to have the courage to listen.