Saturday, July 02, 2005

Chinese-immersion Montessori school

OK, so here's a report on our first preschool visit. I won't name the school, to avoid pissing them off in the unlikely event we decide to enroll Nutmeg there, but I'd be happy to email its name to any who are curious.

We arrived at the school half an hour late due to oversleeping, heavy traffic and difficulty finding it. It looked like a sort of dumpy building on a busy street, down on the Peninsula. We parked and saw a bunch of gradeschool-aged kids (it's preschool through grade 6) jumping in a bounce house. We didn't see any adult supervising them (but we asked about this later and were assured that there was someone watching them who we had just failed to notice).

We went inside to find a long hallway that looked typical preschool, with shoes, coats, etc. arranged all along the walls and a mural made by the children decorating the hall. We were welcomed warmly despite our lateness and invited to start observing the "infants' community" right away while the other couple on the tour finished watching the indoctrination video. We sat on two little chairs in the back of a large classroom and watched while a dozen kids, ages 18 months to 3, puttered around under the supervision of three teachers. One teacher spoke only English, one only Chinese, and one only Japanese. We only saw one little boy who wasn't Asian. The room looked quite different from your average preschool; there were no plastic toys. The "materials" as the Montessori people call them, were arranged on low shelves in baskets and on trays, and they were things like wooden blocks and puzzle-type things, or tiny porcelain pitchers and other small vessels. There was an easel with paints in one corner, and a small bookrack with books at the other end. About half the children were seated in tiny chairs at little desks, working with great concentration on these materials, and looking quite content if not boisterously happy. Two children were looking at a book together. One child looked over the painting supplies but opted not to paint. While we watched, a teacher began reading a story to the two who were near the bookrack, and several other kids walked over to hear it. One or two kids wandered aimlessly.
The room was pretty quiet. The teachers would usually speak with one kid at a time, and mainly seemed there to assist in the children's activities as opposed to leading them. Epu noticed that there was no children's art displayed on the walls. Instead there were some laminated nature photos like flowers. There were also some live plants in pots.
One interchange that I didn't like too much: The wandering boy, who loooked like he was under 2, kept trying to get our attention. We did our best to ignore him because we were told "please don't speak to the children." Eventually a teacher came over and led him to the desk he had been at earlier, and sort of roughly sat him in the chair. As she walked away, he lost his balance and fell off the chair, probably from the momentum of her firmly placing him there. He began to cry, and she just watched over him sternly as he climbed back into his chair. He stopped crying within a moment and quickly became immersed in his activity. It seemed like alls well that ended well, but I really didn't care for the stern way she handled him. I would have prefered to see him get a little hug and some of the attention he seemed in search of.
Then we went to a little office with a window overlooking the 3-6 year olds, where the other parents on the tour were already sitting. We watched for awhile, then asked the director some questions. This is where I really began to feel weird vibes about the place.
The director, who I know from my research has done years of research on child development at Stanford in addition to the Montessori training, seemed to feel that she -- and the kids -- would be much better off without all us meddling parents. One of the first things she said was that many parents didn't understand Montessori and therefore withdraw their children from the school before they graduate from 6th grade. Here are some of her other answers:
Q: Do you think an 18-month-old child is better off at home if one of the parents can be home with her, and that coming here would be second best? Or do you think they're best off here?
A: (I'm paraphrasing) We have lots of parents who stay home or have full time nannies, but they still send their children here five days a week. We can give them the best start in life and get them on the right track.

Q: Do you recommend children come for the full day?
A: In the afternoon we have naptime (and no activities). If the parents can get their children to nap in a disciplined way at home -- not napping some days but not others -- then it is ok to bring them home for the afternoon. But if the parents can't do this, then we recommend you leave them here in the afternoon.
Sometimes parents coddle their children and aren't aware of what their children are capable of. Look at how self-controlled the children are here (gestures to children in the classroom, most of whom hold their hands behind their back while watching other kids work). The children in the infant community can all walk, but what is the first thing parents do when they come get their children? They pick them up and carry them.

Q: What if the children in the infant's community cry? Do they get hugged or picked up?
A: If the child really requires it.

Q: It doesn't sound like you are positively inclined toward attachment parenting.
A: Well, I don't want to get into jargon.
(I explain briefly that we practice attachment parenting which encourages holding, hugging, cosleeping, etc.)
A: Often these things are for the parents' benefit more than the childrens'.

Q: I read on the Internet that parents feel you discourage parental involvement.
A: Absolutely. We cannot have parents volunteering in the classroom, because we cannot have anyone in the classroom who is not trained in the Montessori system.

Q: You mean if I was really interested in Montessori and took a class in it, then I could come volunteer?
A: No, no. Our teachers take a rigorous course and are certified by Associated Montessori Internationale (AMI). We encourage parents to observe the classroom if they like, but not too early on when their children are still adjusting to the environment. And we have parent education evenings so the parents can learn more about the Montessori method.

As you can imagine, we left feeling like we would have to be self-loathing people with no faith in our own ability to parent to turn Nutmeg over to this woman. The nap answer really got my goat. What parent really thinks their problems getting a kid to nap are best solved by leaving the kid in the care of professionals -- not because you have to work, but because you just aren't up to the role of parent? Did I mention that the school requires 5-day-a-week attendance, even for the 18-month-olds?
Not that we're completely dismissing the Montessori concept. We were actually fascinated by the independence and yes, self control of these children as they followed their own interests within the strictures of the Montessori set-up. And in reading the article they sent along with us, I liked the emphasis on developing the child's moral sense, their sense of their role in the community, etc.
We did wonder, why is no one playing with clay, playing musical instruments or singing? Would she really get to talk and listen much in the language she's supposed to be getting exposed to if she spends most of her time by heself, doing little independent projects? Isn't this too much like schoolwork for little babies who have such a limited time to discover and play before their formal education starts?
Oh, and a funny footnote: Yesterday, a family came over at 5 p.m. to meet the Nanny and us and to discuss a possible sharecare arrangement for their 18-month-old daughter. It was the same family who had been on the tour Wednesday. I didn't even recognized them, and in fact the wife didn't recognize me either -- we both were too absorbed in absorbing the school -- but the husband did. They were at my house half an hour before he finally broke down and asked if I had been there Wednesday, and then we all cracked up. Even if they don't end up sharing the Nanny with us, they seem pretty cool, and I hope we keep in touch.
And, they said they have just enrolled their older daughter in the school we visited. They shared some of our reservations, but seemed to think the language opportunity outweighed any other doubts they have. Funny, the visit actually made Epu and I consider the opposite: That we don't want to put so much value on Nutmeg getting a bilingual education that we sacrifice the overall quality of her schooling.
OK, well another fabulously easily achieved nap is drawing to a close, so I better go. Happy Fourth!


Anonymous said...


I've been teaching for 11 years. I've taught in public and private schools, French Immersion, Geography, Math, French and Small Business. I've taught in middle and high schools in both Ontario and Michigan.

I'm currently researching Montessori and her method of education. My curiosity was sparked since students who came from Montessori education had an innate desire to learn, treated me like a human being, and were able to withstand some arduous activities much better than students who came through the regular system.

Dr. Montessori's basic philosophy is that children have an innate curiosity and ability to concentrate if given freedom within a prepared environment and free from obstacles that adults often put in their way, unknowingly. She studied children for years and discovered they go through stages at which certain types of learning are intriguing to them. If missed and the child doesn't learn something fundamental like reading or writing, she can struggle greatly later on.

From what I can tell in my research, using the prepared materials over and over again causes the child to do the inner work of learning with little interference from adults. The key is that the materials are designed with purpose and have the control for error built in (no need to correct a child since the material does that for them). Hence relationships between adults and children can be joyous since the adult doesn't have to worry about correcting the child.

Working with clay comes much later. More and more freedom is given to youngsters as they move from concrete to abstract. Art and music are celebrated as children learn to discern difference in sounds, tones on bells and colour grading. It's all done with specific intent. As far as I can tell, it doesn't stiffle a child's creativity because they desire order at young ages. The creative freedom comes later when they are in the stage that causes them to want to think outside the box (as the saying goes).

As for discipline... I don't think your child will get hugs from public school teachers... given the liabilities...

My suggestion is to do some more research by reading Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook (it's very readable and gentle). As a parent, you are responsible for the education of your child... who you choose to help you with this monumental task is up to you.

All the best!

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