"Do you like your new preschool?"
"What's your favorite toy?"
The girl looked confused and said, "We don't have toys. We have tools. I like the binomial cube."
So much for small talk with a 3-year-old.
Binomial cubes are one example of Maria Montessori's specifically designed tactile math materials. They function like brightly colored puzzles to a 3-year-old, but also teach fundamentals of trigonometry. The unique learning materials are just one reason parents pay up to $500 a month for this type of private preschool.
Winning the Lottery & r & Leslie Moore's 6-year-old son Ryan wanted to be the Statue of Liberty last week. He looked it up on the Internet and in an encyclopedia, then made a picture book, a torch and a crown out of a paper towel roll and tape.
"My husband and I looked at each other like, 'Who is this kid?'" says Moore, "He said he didn't know where he got the idea, but I know it's part of being raised in Montessori."
So it's understandable that when Spokane Public Schools opens its four publicly funded Montessori classrooms for enrollment, there is a very long waiting list. The demand is so great for these open slots at Jefferson and Balboa Elementary (there are two classrooms for children, ages 6 to 9, at each school), they are filled by a lottery.
Money from SPS's renewal levy will finance a new classroom next fall, which means there should be roughly 16 additional slots, creating the best odds of "winning" in several years.
The Moores tried and failed at last year's Jefferson lottery, but they weren't concerned Ryan would miss out by going to his neighborhood public school. "Montessori just provides such a strong foundation," says Leslie. "They really teach kids to be self-motivated."
But Mindi Finch wanted more than a foundation for her first grader and got it. Winning the lottery "was the end-all, be-all," for our family, she says. "There was absolutely nothing better on all levels: Financially for us, and emotionally for my son."
Once one child gets into the six-year program, his siblings are guaranteed slots, which means the academic futures of Finch's 3-year old and newborn were at stake, too. Like many lottery players, she applied for Montessori programs at both schools.
"My only goal in life is to have my children be happy, productive members of society," says Finch, "and I think Montessori is a key component."
The Montessori Method & r & Maria Montessori, Italy's first woman doctor, used her scientific observation of children's early learning processes to create her own educational method in 1907. Nearly 100 years after she started the first Montessori preschool ("Casa dei Bambini") in Rome, her beliefs about the nature of children are still considered revolutionary.
In her book The Absorbent Mind, Montessori says, "The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim in the development of these hidden possibilities ... [the child] has the power to teach himself."
Paula Gibson-Smith teaches one of the popular Jefferson classrooms, although Montessori refers to teachers as "guides." Her classroom walls overflow with multi-sensory work centers for each subject area: Skeletons and solar systems on the science wall, a keyboard in the music area, a social studies area with Japanese sight words, dozens of wooden math materials (including those binomial cubes), hundreds of books and several species of animals. Even with all the materials, Gibson-Smith says Montessori's view of children drives the learning.
"The core of Montessori's thinking is that children are not a clich & eacute;. They aren't 'the future,' they are the now," she says. Each student works at his or her own pace in three-hour uninterrupted blocks. They are not graded or tested, except for state-required standardized tests; they are assessed only by observation.
"Montessori's mantra, 'Follow the child,' to me means following the path of creating the questions, more than seeking to find the answers," says Gibson-Smith.
Parents who pack the Jefferson gymnasium each year to apply for the lottery (this year it was Feb. 28; winners of the Montessori spots will be announced April 1) often wonder why there aren't more Montessori classrooms.
According to a Spokane Public Schools administrator, there's a lack of trained teachers. Jefferson's program is rare; only 50 school districts in the country have an AMI-certified public Montessori. AMI is the Association Montessori Internationale, and its training is year-long, expensive, and only offered in two U.S. cities.
In the absence of more classrooms, Montessori supporters need to consider just how much different it is from other public schools classrooms, where all but a handful of children will end up. Ryan admits it was an adjustment to move to Moran Prairie for first grade. "It took a couple of days to get used to sitting in a desk," he says, "and you have to do the work the teacher gives you. It's OK because most of the sheets of paper are kind of fun. You get to outline the numbers with marker."
"Our classrooms aren't as different as some might think," says Roosevelt Elementary first grade teacher Gail Jessett. "I am not an authority who is disseminating information, and they're not in rows of desks and asked to listen. Children have a lot of choice, which may have been missing 10 years ago." Jessett says that part of building her classroom community includes establishing routines, teaching students to listen, setting goals and using time wisely.
She uses an "apprentice model," which she believes is similar to Montessori's guide model. "I am an expert, and they are the apprentices. I model what an expert reader does, I let them practice, then I send them off to work on their own."
While Jessett has a same-age classroom, "We are highly individualized," she says. "All children are reading and doing math at a different pace. We have Literature Teams where children are broken into groups by same need," she explains. Like Montessori, Jessett's own learning materials, including lots of tactile math tools, and hundreds of books of different levels, are all developmentally appropriate.
"Our delivery is just different," she says.
No Loss of Freedom & r & Those who train teachers say there is a gap between Montessori's child-centered theories and the methods used in her classrooms. Fran Sherwood, a professor of early childhood development at Eastern Washington University, says that Montessori's claim to be child-centered is misleading. "In comparison with other programs, [it] allows children an opportunity to be themselves," she says. "But Montessori is far more curriculum-centered, with its very definite set of materials and structured environment."
Sherwood says Montessori's "limitation is that there isn't an opportunity for collaboration or a child voice in developing the programs." While freedom to move around and choose work is one of the students' and parents' favorite aspects of Montessori, Sherwood suggests that freedom is limited: "It seems like children are choosing, but the materials are driving these choices."
While child-to-child teaching may be going on in a Montessori classroom, says Sherwood, "The whole aspect of working together is not an emphasis, where certainly it is in early childhood [education programs]."
Do the collaboration, student choice and math manipulatives offered in standard primary-school classrooms offer enough creative challenge and sense of community to satisfy parents looking for an alternative?
Maria Montessori would ask the child. As for Ryan, one of her alums, the fifth-grade-level reader, Statue of Liberty expert, and outliner of worksheet numbers isn't a cheerleader for either method. But he does know why he loves his public school: "The playgrounds are way bigger."
Now that is developmentally appropriate.