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Friday, May 21, 2010

The All-Day, All-Year Montessori Community: A Place for Living at School

(At the conclusion of this article is a section that describes the process of 
bringing the parents along on this journey from the perspective of the 
administrative staff. See: “A Few Thoughts From an Administrative 
Perspective”)

By Michele Aspinall 
Winter 2005

I am pleased to have another opportunity to share this story with you. I don’t claim to have a terribly “unique” story, but I found that when I was struggling to develop the all-year program at Countryside, it encouraged me to hear of others going through the same thing. I am also quite proud to retell it again and again because the story is not mine but instead it is the children’s story...
I would like to warn you that the first part of my story could sound discouraging, but believe me when I tell you that this tale has a happy ending. (I’m sure David wouldn’t have invited me if it didn’t!)
            My goal today is not to offer you new information but to present you with information that you are already familiar with (from your training and from your personal experiences) and that, hopefully can be of use when developing your all-year program.
            Some of the changes Countryside made when developing the all-year program were extensive. Not every school is in a position to make grand-scale changes, and I don’t think it’s absolutely essential to have all the same pieces in place. But if you walk out of this session with tidbits that you are able to apply to your program, then I’ve done my job.
            I think it’s important for me to start from the beginning, our day care experience. I’m going to assume that is what you’re interested in and why most of you are here today.
            I started at Countryside fifteen years ago. I was first hired to facilitate the day care. Through my years and countryside, I have worked as an assistant in the toddler, primary, and elementary environments as well.
            In the beginning, the day care was offered in the morning before the children went to their Montessori environments and then again after school when class ended. The room had to be set up daily as it was used for other things during the school day.
            As time passed, day care became a high demand item and our limited hours and small environment weren’t cutting it any more. So we found a bigger room and added more “day care” hours. The new and improved day care was named “Care Club.” There were many options now available to the working parent:
q  Breakfast Club allowed 7:00 a.m. drop-off, which included breakfast;
q  Lunch Bunch allowed 12:00 noon drop-in, which included lunch for children too young to stay for extended day;
q  Finally, Stay and Play was offered from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Care club was open year round, only closed on major holidays. Children could sign up for any or all of those options – some even on a daily basis.
            This new room would accommodate approximately thirty children at one time and would only be used by the day care children. The room was equipped with books, puzzles, blocks, and traditional toys. It was our belief at the time that the children needed a “break” from the materials and from “work” – a time to relax, a time to just be “kids.” We wanted to offer the children an environment that was much like home, considering many would spend up to eleven hours at school each day.
            I directed the day care program. I had no Montessori training and knew little of the philosophy, so I wouldn’t be tempted to use Montessori. But it wasn’t necessary. I would only be “playing” with the children.
            As far as other staff…you name it, we tried it!
            We started with Montessori classroom assistants rotating shifts in the day care after their school day was over. We then had new employees come into the school and work just in the day care environment (they had no experience with children other than at day care). And finally we hired full-time day care assistants. Needless to say, it was a revolving door for adults. The children could never really be sure of who was coming and going. Keeping group rules consistent was simply out of the question. The children often used this to their advantage.
            Adults aside, the number of transitions in the children’s day was enough to make anyone dizzy. A typical day went a little bit like this; try to keep up with me.
            Having been pulled out of bed early in order to get to school in time to have breakfast, the days started badly for many children. After breakfast they played with toys for a short time and then were asked to gather their stuff again and go to their Montessori classes. After the morning Montessori class, all non-extended day children would come back to the day care room to have lunch and nap. After naps, they would play for awhile and at 3:00 the extended day and elementary children enrolled in day care would join us. The day care room was located in the middle of the school so there would often be groups of children walking through the room to go home. For the day care children, this was yet another reminder that they were different. Looking back, it is so clear why they weren’t interested in attaching to anything: They were simply waiting. Waiting for someone to tell them where to go next.
            The toys used in the day care were carefully selected (well, at least I thought so at the time, considering I was the one selecting them). The first year that I directed the day care program, the toy selections were absolutely endless. The children only wanted more! So I decided to limit the amount and put more thought into the toy itself. I did my best to stay away from toys that promoted a movie or TV show. I brought in toys and games that involved concentration and cooperation. From Candy Land to checkers, we had them all! It didn’t take long to figure out thatit made little difference what kind of toy I put on the shelves, they were equally abusive with each one. Day after day I would witness endless battles between the children over who would get the blue Legos. It was defeating, to say the least.
            By this time I had also been observing in the Montessori classes, and I had learned how important it was to make the activities beautiful. Well, this was right up my alley. You see, shopping is a hobby of mine. I had also observed how careful the children were with the Montessori material. This was a revelation! All I would have to do was to spray paint a few baskets, tie on some bows, beautify the environment, and voilà – the children would be just as mindful as they were in the classrooms. Well, I was wrong.
            Despite my efforts, the children were just as possessive and just as careless with the toys. But it was more than that. There was something different about the day care children. They were detached and uninspired in their Montessori classrooms as well as their day care environment. In the day care environment they bickered, destroyed things, and were careless and uninterested; in the classroom they were only interested in being with each other and waiting for Care Club to begin. These children were beginning to stick out like sore thumbs. This made us more determined to get to the root of the problem.
            What were the children trying to tell us? We continued to observe and explore, exhausting many possibilities along the way. We tried adding more toys, limiting toys, adding service-oriented tasks for the activities. After all of our best attempts failed, we decided to appoint a Montessori-trained primary directress to work with these children but did not change the basic elements of the program. Of course, her endeavor also did not result in the kinds of changes we had hoped for.
            We were desperate. It was time to seek outside assistance. This is when a lady by the name of Carol Alver entered into my world. I remember the very day that Carol and I sat down to talk about Care Club. I really thought she would give me a few enlightening suggestions on how to make it work, maybe even compliment me on how beautiful the environment was. I couldn’t have been more off!
            In a nutshell, Carol said that everything had to go. The toys, the games, the “day-care” environment had to go. She proposed that we create an all-year Montessori environment with hours that would accommodate working parents, but most importantly provide the children with a place that they could call their own. I was in shock.
            The school, however, was intrigued. But we were not in the position to make the changes that were necessary to do it the right way. So I continued on, doing my best to offer the children an enriching day care environment. In the meantime, I also decided to embark on the AMI primary training.
            At the same time, our Head of School charged Wendy Calise, our educational director, with the responsibility of devising a day care program that was pedagogically sound. She was specifically not to be influenced by the needs of parents, the realities of staffing, the space for such a program, the cost of such a program, or even whether we wanted to do such a program. While I kept myself busy with the training, Wendy was doing her own homework on how to make Carol’s idea work.
            Two years later we took the plunge. These were the parameters that Wendy had devised for a new all-year environment:
q  All children enrolled in all-year Montessori (AYM) would be in one class. This would mean pulling them from other primary classes and forming a new fourth class.
q  The day care hours would be shortened, taking half an hour off each end of the day.
q  There was no reason that children should not be in a Montessori environment all day.
q  Transitions needed to be limited.
q  Three staff members for the AYM class were probably sufficient, but we would start with four (two Montessori-trained and two assistants). The reason for two Montessori-trained adults was that in the absence of the teacher the class could still function as a Montessori class.
q  In order for the AYM teacher to not feel second-class, her time off would be the same as that of all other teachers.
q  The class size would be thirty to thirty-five children.
q  AYM would need more space than a traditional class.
q  The room would be located so that no other children would need to pass through to go home.
q  There would be a place (vestibule) for parents to wait when picking up their children.
q  And finally, the program needed to be pedagogically sound.
Wendy then submitted this plan to administration for the financial aspects of space, budget, and staffing. At our school, this plan was not being submitted for approval, but instead for how it could be made to work!
I had almost completed my training and the school was considering the major renovations in order to provide space for the new class.
Now it was time to meet with the day care parents to present the new program. While talking to a number of all-day pioneers in the past few years, I’ve found that this aspect seems to be the most frightening to them. And it can be.
But at our school, parents know that they will not have input on matters that are basically pedagogical, so we were not meeting with them to ask for their opinions. We were telling them what the program would be like beginning with the next school year. We were fully prepared to lose families over our decisions. We held an evening meeting and presented the parents with the plan. There were questions: When will the children have time to play if they are in a Montessori environment all day? Why the shorter hours? One parent said, “If I know my little Tommy, he will be working non-stop. He will be so exhausted by the end of the day.” And,“I’m not happy to leave the classroom and teacher I’ve been with for two years.”
Teachers who have visited my class asked, “How did you get the other teachers in the school to agree to the change?”  “Weren’t they upset about losing their children to the new class?” My answer is the same, “They knew that it was the right thing to do for these children.” Needless to say, the strong support of administration was key.
Despite all of the questions and misgivings, we only lost one family to the change.
In the summer before the change, before construction was complete we thought that it would be smart to place most of the soon-to-be all-year children together in a traditional primary class – other than the one that would be theirs in a few months – a sort of “trial” period.
Well, there was no calm before the storm. This was not well received by the children. They were resistant to doing anything within the environment. At times, they were abusive with the materials and with each other I was almost afraid to tell them about their new environment. Still fresh from training, I was hopeful. Hopeful that the children were going to be so delighted and appreciative of the new class that they would put any animosity aside.
We visited the new under-construction class on a daily basis. The children and I had many discussions about the changes that would take place in the fall. This was a perfect opportunity to begin offering these children some control over their own lives, by simply filling them in. If you have any experience with day care children, you understand that they are often swept from one place to another with little to no explanation of what’s coming next. How awful that must feel.
Some were eager and some were confused about the change. A few were concerned about losing Care Club. They would ask, “What will happen to all of the toys?” I would explain to them that our new class wouldn’t have all of the same materials that Care Club did, but that they would have beautiful and exciting materials that they could choose from every day and how wonderful it would be for all of us to be together,
This raised the question of whether or not I should include some toys alongside the traditional Montessori materials, another aspect that many all-day directors struggle with. My instincts told me no. I had seen firsthand how the children behaved with the toys. But maybe it would be different in this new environment. I gave it a whirl. While Barbies wouldn’t be an option, I did set aside one shelf that was reserved for a jump rope, a yo-yo, and some bubbles to be used on the patio. The children were given lessons on these activities based on interest.
While I was laboring over what material would go in the room, Wendy was still struggling with the room itself. After knocking down a number of walls that separated many small areas, we would have two large adjoining rooms. The new all-year Montessori class would occupy 1950 square feet.
The classroom would have natural wood floors and be tiled in the practical life area. There would be many low windows installed and a small patio. The adjoining room would serve many purposes. This space would have a fully equipped kitchen and a range of small tables to be used for dining and for food preparation. If some of the children needed to rest they could set up small cots in this room as well. The other room would be set up as a traditional Montessori primary classroom.
After all of the construction decisions were finalized, it was time to focus on staffing this new class. When considering how many adults would be rotated throughout the day, we were faced with how undesirable the length of the day had been in the past. And if the Care Club adults were feeling burned out, how were the children feeling? Care Club had been in session from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and many children were there from open to close year-round. The shorter session of 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. would now meet the children’s needs but what about ours?
We planned for the program to be staffed by me as the primary directress, and another Montessori-trained teacher and two assistants. Our plan was to have at least one trained adult in the environment at all times. We made certain, however, that only two adults were in the class at one time. The AYM staff would have alternating shifts that consisted of an eight-hour day. While two of us were in the class, the other two would make or repair material or make parent phone calls. It seemed like a lot of staff, but we thought we would need that many. In the beginning there was plenty for everyone to do.
September was upon me, and it was finally time to put all I’d learned from the training to good use. But the children were not interested in my agenda. They had been scooped out of their classrooms, out of Care Club, environments that were familiar to them, and placed into this new space with no say in the matter.
They were furious. There were thirty children enrolled in AYM, and at least twenty of them were throwing daily tantrums, mistreating the material, or harming each other.
Assisting in Montessori classes in our school before taking the training had given me some experience with children with deviations. However, I had never seen anything like this. The normalized children were in the minority and the others were beginning to form a negative bond with each other. These young rebels would work together and find new ways to misbehave. There were weeks when much of the class had to be dismissed outside at various times in the day in order to release some of this negative energy. This allowed the children who were interested in the material to receive lessons and to work.
It wasn’t until the third month of the all-year transition that the children’s anger began to fade. They were going through another emotional shift. Sadness had overcome many of the children. Throughout each day you could find three to five children weeping, whining, or just feeling discouraged. It was very difficult to entice these children. They were not even responding to comfort from an adult or from another child. They could not verbalize what they were feeling. They needed some sort of outlet in order to work through what they were experiencing.
So we would gather, sometimes ten times a day, in small groups of three or four children, and problem-solve. The topics would vary depending on what the day had brought. Some of the things they wanted to talk about were too silly to even mention; other topics included wanting to go home or missing their moms. There were days we even found polish poured over a lamp; we found writing on the walls and on the cabinets. We talked about all of it.
The next couple of months brought some changes with staffing in AYM. The other trained teacher left her position at Countryside for personal reasons. And after some thought, we decided that three adults would be sufficient.
It was six months into the program and the children were not yet comfortable in their new surroundings. Carol advised making every effort to offer the children ownership of the class. I guess I thought I had already been doing that. But simply changing the way I or anyone else referred to the class – “their class” instead of “my class” – began to alter their way of thinking. I also stopped being responsible for things that they needed to be responsible for. For example, in a traditional Montessori class, the assistant and directress often have time set aside in the morning and in the afternoon when they can prepare the environment. So when the all-year children arrived at school they would see me or my assistants scurrying around to get the class ready, though they themselves were perfectly capable of wetting the sponges or putting the art paper out. So we had consciously built this out of our all-year class. But we realized that this was in error. It was actually a nice way for them to ease into the day – like waking up in the morning and preparing a fresh pot of coffee.
The first year was almost behind us. There were many days I didn’t think I would make it. But I was finally beginning to see progress. Most of the children were settled in and beginning to find joy in their work. It was time for me to step back and take a good look at the program. What worked? What didn’t work? Did I want to continue to work after the last year? They were all questions that needed to be answered. And I promise you I will answer them with great detail as soon as we return from our break.

Part 2


     
I realize that the significance of a “beautiful environment” has been drilled into our brains again and again, but I think it’s important enough to stress yet again when we are discussing an all-day setting. As much as I care for the children and want them to love their class and everything in it, I have to come to this place every day, and I want to love working in it as well.
I am fortunate enough to be working at a school where they planned for such a renovation. As I said before, your school may not be in a position to do the same. I truly believe that it is the attention to detail given to each exercise and to the environment itself that becomes the direct cause of love for the environment, interest in the materials, and a genuine respect for the surroundings. Finding just the right fabric to use for art aprons or the perfect pitcher for flower arranging has always been a personal mission. And I don’t think that we all have to be “power shoppers” or have an endless budget to create an environment that the children feel at home in. (I did bring a few examples of exercises that I recreated to add some warmth to the class. I spent less that $12 on each of them. Fabric makes a difference and goes a long way.)
Well, getting back to the children’s story: It wasn’t until late in the first year when I finally began to see an appreciation of the environment and the children taking ownership of it. I was beginning to see light at the end of that dark tunnel. (I told you I would have a happy ending for you.)
This was the perfect time to take another look at our schedule and to consider again if I had gotten rid of all those uncomfortable transitions. There was no doubt that these children were particularly sensitive to transition. So I made certain that there were few variations that occurred in their day. This meant keeping them abreast of what was ahead.
For example, I have a dry erase board mounted in the class. Every day, the day of the week, date and year are written at the top, and at the bottom my name and my two assistants’ names are written along with the time that each of us will be leaving on that day.
“What an insignificant thing” some of you must be saying. But it meant the world to the children. A young boy named Asher kept careful tabs on this board well before he was even able to read. He would hunt down one of the older children to get he scoop on what was in store that day. One day another teacher entered the class asking for me. Asher took it upon himself to lead her to the white board to show her that I was out that day and explained to her that I wasn’t sick, I was just taking a vacation day and would be returning tomorrow.
It became obvious that the children appreciated having some control over their own lives. The constant rotation of adults in their lives also needed to be considered. Now that we were down to just three adults in AYM, it would provide the children with more consistency. You have to realize that some of the children were at school for at least nine hours and then picked up by a nanny or babysitter at the end of the day, sometimes not even seeing their mothers or fathers before bedtime. All the more reason to make the all-year class a place where the children could feel comfortable and at ease.
Today, six years into the all-year program, the class is in a new and exciting place. I am the directress in the environment, and I have two assistants. One of the assistants is Montessori trained, though she is not responsible for the class. This enables the class to conduct itself as usual when I am not present.
A typical day in the class begins at 7:30 in the morning. Children are escorted by their parents into the vestibule that is attached to our environment. After good-byes are said, the children walk directly into the classroom and the parent goes off to work. At this time, the children have the choice of either having breakfast that is being prepared by their peers or beginning their day in the class.
The children continue to arrive until 8:45. From 7:30 to 11:30, the children are choosing work independently, working in small groups, receiving lessons, or observing a friend. We begin to get ready for lunch at 11:30. This used to be one of our most uncomfortable and stressful transitions. Let me tell you why: 11:30 would come, and I would ring a cute little bell and say, “It’s time for lunch, children.” They would scurry around the room until they finally gathered in a large group, then either I or one of the children would call children to go and wash their hands.
Now, when 11:30 rolls around, one of the children notices, tells a friend or two, and they slowly begin to set up for lunch. At 11:45, there might still be a child finishing up a word that he wants to get down on his rug before lunch.
Preparation, eating and cleanup takes us an hour and a half. After we are finished, we retreat to our backyard. We do have a couple of children who need a nap around this time. So an older child who can read sits with the nappers and reads to them for about twenty to thirty minutes. If someone hasn’t fallen asleep by this time, it’s usually not going to happen. So they join the others.
When the children are ready to come in from outside, we gather for a couple of minutes to discuss the day or what’s to come in that particular week. I then read to children who want to listen, and the others begin their afternoon by making work choices or getting back to something that they had left out in the morning.
Through my observations, I have found that the children who are regularly inactive in the mornings do their most concentrated work in the afternoons, sometimes not starting until 3:00PM. Another observation that surfaced in the first year and is still apparent today is that the children are uninterested in the traditional practical life activities. My interpretation is that they are doing real practical life – washing breakfast dishes, crumbing the tables, folding napkins, scrubbing tables after lunch. But no matter how beautiful I make the traditional exercises (my table scrubbing is all silver) they just are more attracted to the real thing.
For the last hour the all-year elementary children (about five to ten children) join us. What we do together varies a bit, depending on the children: Reading to each other, drama, work in the gym, end of the day cleaning, or simply playing outside are a few of the activities that take place. The primary children truly value their time with the elementary group. In addition, it is another wondrous occasion for peer teaching to take place.
There are a few activities that have been a wonderful addition to the all-day program that I would like to touch on today. The first is baking. Baking is one activity that sparked interest in the children who were uninterested in doing anything.
The next activity that is a must-have in all-day is gardening. Living in Illinois, we are lucky to get a couple of months of gardening in each year. When searching for new ways to involve the parents, the children and I came up with the idea of a “Garden Walk”. We choose a day at the end of the summer where the parents are invited to view the garden with their children and stay for refreshments afterwards. The children look forward to it every year.
Music and the art material are the last couple of areas that have had a positive impact on the all-day environment (and on the school, for that matter). Sanford Jones has worked with our school for a number of years, but it was four years ago when he began a three-year program with our staff to make us all more comfortable with music and movement. There is one lesson that the children particularly enjoy. Sanford has a tape of “Movement Songs”. He has put old nursery rhymes to music and added movement. So after a child is shown how to use the tape player, she can facilitate a small group using the movement games. This is a perfect structured way to meet the needs of those children who crave some kind of large movement during the day.
The art material- well my talk today is going to seem like an endorsement for Carol Alver’s services. I guess it is, because our school hasn’t been the same since Carol did a workshop years ago on the art materials. The children are exposed to the uses of charcoal, pastels, watercolors, and more.
My children get very little time for movement at home because they are at school more of their waking hours. Our school has had a physical education program since the early 70’s. From the first day, it was always a work choice—not the whole class going at once. This year we put the final piece in place by having the program directed by an AMI-trained Montessori teacher. So now, all the elements that exist in the classroom are also present in the gym—repetition, choice, individual lessons, protection of the work cycle, and, best of all, the same expectations for behavior. The children’s movements are more coordinated, their attention more focused, and their need for movement directed into productive activity.
When considering the impact that baking, gardening, music, art, and movement had had on the class, I realized that it was not necessarily unique to an all-day class. Those activities are happening in many half-day programs all over. But it is the strong sense of community within the all-year class that makes this program so special. The children support and guide each other as siblings would without any hesitation. I observe acts of kindness, comfort, and generosity each day.
Just last month I was reading a book on Antarctica and explaining how the male emperor penguin stays back to nurture and watch over the eggs while the mother goes off to feed herself. When the female returns it is then the male’s turn to get food. When I finished the story, Ali, a four-year-old girl who rarely has much to say, said, “Mrs. Aspinall, that sounds like you, Miss Book, and Miss Sheehan.” I asked her to explain, and she went on to say, “When you leave you always come back to take care of us and then the other adults take their turn.” Wow.
Two years ago a young boy named Austin, who has serious speech problems, joined our class. Day after day Austin threw intense tantrums and even after he was able to settle himself down he still was unreachable. Regardless, the children persisted in approaching him with hopes that someday he would respond. Austin was having a particularly difficult time one day. He was just winding down from a furious fit where he had managed to untie his shoes in the process. Many children approached him asking if they could help him to get his shoes tied. Well, four-year-old Cole sat in front of Austin and asked a couple of times if he could help. Austin mumbled no and looked away. Cole proceeded to touch Austin’s shoes in a very gentle and loving way. He then began singing softly to Austin, never really making eye contact. While he continued singing, Cole began to slowly tie Austin’s shoes. When Cole was finished, he went on his way.
While all of us, as Montessori directresses, are fortunate enough to witness these types of occurrences in any Montessori environment, it is the all-day environment where the children are allowed to cultivate such a love for community and for their environment.
The parent community has also changed substantially since we initiated the program. The parents were perfectly happy with the many day care variations we had offered. But they didn’t know any better. Now, they are more informed and are aware of what the program can be. There is no doubt that the AYM directress has much more contact with her parent community than most other regular-day directresses. We have to; we are basically raising their children.
And you can be creative in how you go about this. I mentioned before The Garden Walk. I have also hosted a couple of AYM-only parent eds where we watched a video of a typical day in the class. One family hosted an “Ask Michele” parent night at her house. The list goes on.
A partnership with the parents is crucial when working with their children ten hours a day all year long. But I don’t want to discount the importance of supportive staff members. I mentioned in the beginning how the other teachers recognized the need for this class even though it impacted them and the make-up of their classes. Without the collaboration of administration, co-teachers, and staff, an all-day environment is a lonely place to be a part of.
Our primary goal when developing an all-year environment was to follow the needs of the children. And when enrolling new families we are determined that parents understand and accept that we are going to put the needs of the children before their needs.
After six years I can honestly say I still love it! I wouldn’t want to teach any other class. The children often refer to our class as a family. And I feel the same way. It was worth every bit of what we went through, and if you are thinking about taking this step, I say, “Go for it!”

A Few Thoughts From an Administrative Perspective

The following information adds to the story above the work of bringing the parents along on this journey from the perspective of the administrative staff. It was published in the AMI/USA Newsletter in 2001. Included is a letter written by a parent to Annette Kulle, Head of School. As Educational Director and designer of the program, I was called upon to write a response. That letter is included as well. Because so many people continue to embark on this endeavor, I thought it might be helpful to read about our experiences not only with the children but also with the parents.

Wendy Calise, Director
Montessori Teachers Institute for Professional Studies
MTIPS.org



            As described, our original effort at accommodating working families consisted of an add-on program before and after school and on holidays. For the first few years, when the children were few, the program went along just fine, for the most part. But as the population grew we began to see a change. Each year that went by the situation got worse. In the last year we continued this program, these children could most often be found in their classrooms idle and waiting for the end of the day to come. At the same time, staff members were becoming exhausted. Even still, before we finally conceded defeat, we tried every possible permutation of the program. But in the end we came to terms with the idea that all the effort had been in vain.
            We undertook a complete overhaul of our program. No longer would there be a separate place in the school for hours outside of the school day or holidays. All the children in the program would be joining together in one primary class. The elementary children in the program would stay in their classroom as well. The new environment for children who needed extra care would be just like any other classroom.
            When we were secure in our decision, we started to contemplate our next task: sharing the decision with the parent body. By this time there were over 40 children in the Care Club program. Our changes were going to affect a significant percentage of our population. Most of our parents, if not all, were quite happy with the program as it was. They wanted their children to have toys and a break from the school day. Still, it was clear to us that we had no choice. This change was the best decision for the children, but that did not make the task of convincing the parents any less daunting.
            After some discussion about how to proceed, we decided that we really didn’t want to convince anyone. We sent a mailing early in the school year to all families inviting them to come to a meeting to hear about the changes that would be in place the following year. On the evening of the meeting we had a group of about 25 families and we described the following:
We discussed our observations of the children in the program as it was. We outlined all relevant Montessori theory that we had used to come to our decisions to change the program. Hours would be shortened to 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., taking off one half hour at the beginning and end of the day. We also announced that tuition would steadily increase for the next several years to cover the cost of more trained staff and remodeling of the physical site. The classroom would be reconfigured to allow sufficient space for all Montessori materials and work space and also a 600 sq. ft. kitchen and lunch area. A small addition to the building would also be undertaken in the form of an anteroom where parents and children could part from each other.
            The immediate response was silence. They were in shock. We spent the last hour answering questions. Most were friendly, some were not. But by the end of the meeting we felt we had done the best we could in sharing our views about the change. Our job was not done yet, though. In the following days, as discussion amongst the parents continued, they realized they had more they wanted to express to us and more questions to be answered. A parent volunteered to gather all the questions and put them to us in writing. We gladly accepted. Following is their letter and the letter we wrote in response to those questions.


January 14, 1999

Dear Annette,
            As promised, here is a compilation of questions and comments regarding the changes in Care Club that I have received over the past few weeks.
            Many parents expressed concern regarding the changes in hours. Some parents who work downtown stated that it would be absolutely impossible for them to make it to Northbrook by 5:30. Forcing parents to bring work home is not considered to be in the best interest of the children. Many commented, in contrast to teacher report, that at the end of the day their child is not pining away waiting for them but rather engrossed in an activity. It is not until 5:55 when they are sitting at the door with their coats on that “whose mom is it?” becomes an issue.
            Another concern regards the isolation of the Care Club children from the rest of the school. Some parents felt that their children were being ostracized for having working parents. Questions regarding the interaction/integration of these children with the rest of the school in instances other than gym class were asked. Also, is the separation of the younger and older children in the care Club program not contrary to basic Montessori philosophy?
            Questions regarding the actual classroom were also expressed. Particularly, how to ensure that children will continue to receive the same level of Montessori work, now that they can also choose “Care Club” activities all day long. What will keep the children from being fatigued/bored/disenchanted now that their days are the same all day long, every day, day after day?
            And finally, great concern was expressed with regards to the lack of parent input/participation in such changes. It was commented that parents are not welcome as a cooperative member of the school environment, but rather only called upon for different tasks that need to be accomplished. Suggestions included forming a Parent Advisory Committee to express the needs of the parents, and a thorough evaluation of the academic year and summer program at the year’s end.
            I think many parents are still somewhat unsettled but would rededicate themselves after some of these issues are addressed.

Thank you,
Diana


January 20, 1999

Dear Diana,
            Let me first thank you for requesting the opportunity to gather questions and comments from the parent body. It is a reflection of your commitment to this school and your fellow parents. I feel most organized to respond to the questions as they appear in your letter.
q  Regarding the changes in hours:
I can only reiterate our observations of the children at school. It is not the length of the day that is in question. Nor is there any magic in the hours of 7:30AM to 5:30PM. The problems we have observed are related to the number of children at school before 7:30 and after 5:30. The dwindling numbers make the atmosphere less than joyful. While great efforts have been made to make this time the best it can be, it is our evaluation that the time is still emotionally difficult for the children. Consequently, staying open from 7:00 to 6:00 and limiting the hours does not resolve this particular problem. It is by no means our intention to “force” parents to bring their work home with them. As a working parent I would only mention that when I have the choice of doing my work at school or bringing it home to be with Dante I am always grateful to spend more time with him, even if my attention is not undivided.
q  With regard to “isolating” the children and “ostracizing” the families or the working parents:
The motivation for grouping these children together is to foster their sense of community, to give them someplace that feels like home. Bonding to two communities, both the community of the class and the community of Care Club, in our observation, is not happening. The staff members of Care Club over the years have observed an unwillingness on the part of the children to treat each other with the same level of kindness and caring that they do in the classroom. While an establishment of the elements of service this year has made a difference, it is still not the same. With regard to the “ostracized families,” they are no more ostracized to one class than those that are “ostracized” to another. It is disheartening to hear these two words used with regard to the intention of the CMS staff.
q  With regard to the mixed age group of elementary and primary children:
Montessori observed great differences in the nature of the child from birth to six years of age. It is for this reason that the Montessori classrooms are divided into these age groups. So not only is it not contrary to Montessori philosophy but is in fact more in line with it.
q  With regard to ensuring that children receive the same level of Montessori work:
It is the task of the classroom teacher to make just such an evaluation for each child each day. All children have an inner guide that directs them to the particular work that will help them develop and to when and how long they need to work and rest. In some cases the judgment of this “inner guide” is clouded by life experiences and these children will not automatically choose the work that will help them to grow and learn. It is in these cases that the teacher offers more direction, just as in all classrooms. I can offer nothing else but what we ask of every parent in every class of the school: this is a matter of trust. If one does not have this level of trust there is no more information I have to offer that seems relevant. Let me suggest, however, that change inevitably brings about doubt and worry. In light of this I would reassure you that the Montessori trained teachers will be carefully making just such evaluations, that I will be overseeing this program, and our AMI consultant will also be back next year to make observations and suggestions.
q  With regard to children being “fatigued/bored/disenchanted:”
When we consider the experiences our children have and attempt to make decisions on their behalf there are many instances when comparing them to adult preferences is appropriate. It is our understanding that the desire to have variety is not one of those instances. Variety is not the spice of life for the young child. Transitions are not fun and interesting for them, but rather difficult and unsettling. The more they have to cope with, the further their sense of security is eroded. If there is any supposition that the Montessori classroom is fatiguing, boring or disenchanting I can only suggest a visit.
q  With regard to the lack of parent input/participation in changes:
Since the school’s inception 30 years ago CMS has been an authentic Montessori school. Unfortunately for the Montessori community, the name Montessori in itself no longer has any definitive meaning. Any school can use the name Montessori without regard to observing even the most basic of Montessori principles. I can assure you that this is not the case at Countryside. We have always striven to meet the criteria set forth by the Association Montessori Internationale.
Over the years we have made several changes with the intention of bringing our programs more in line with Montessori philosophy. The Montessori community itself is in the process of discovering how best to fit this program into the Montessori framework. It is therefore logical that we would turn to members of the Montessori community for guidance in the process of making changes to our own program.
We have never consulted the parent community on matters of pedagogy because we have never had parents with the Montessori background necessary to give us appropriate advice. We are relying on countless hours of our own work with children and the wisdom of consultants who have devoted their lives’ work to the education of children to shape and influence our decisions. While this may be offensive to some of the parents, it is precisely what motivates many other parents to be at this school. It is exactly the expertise and commitment to Montessori that is one of the defining qualities of CMS. To base programs on what each parent “would like for his child” would quickly erode the adherence to Montessori philosophy. CMS has at its foundation the Montessori philosophy and all decisions are made within that framework. In light of this it seems that a “thorough evaluation of the academic year and summer program by a parent body would be inappropriate.”
q  With regard to the formation of a Parent Advisory Committee:
Because the school would not, as a Montessori school, be in the position to accept pedagogical advice it seems a Parent Advisory Committee would not have a significant purpose. If any parent feels that there are no parents who are called on to make a significant contribution to the school I would mention that parents are constantly solicited and to participate in areas of marketing, organizing “going out,” financial experience, etc.
Perhaps the question being raised is who should be making decisions for people’s children. Invariably the decision about what program a parent feels is best for his child should be completely at his discretion. But I would offer that the discretion in this case should be exercised in deciding which school offers the program most in accordance with what each parent wants, including choosing a school in which parents oversee the programs. There are many different school models, some of which involve parents in pedagogical decision making. CMS does not follow one of these particular models.
Please feel free to make this letter available to those who submitted the questions and comments and also those whom you feel it would be relevant.

Sincerely,
Wendy Calise, Educational Director

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

As far as we heard, the response to our letter was well received. In making the transition we lost only one family, and those that stayed did so with full understanding of the changes that were to take place. While they were still unsure and tentative, they supported our efforts and trusted our judgment.
As the program is organized now, the children are arriving between the hours of 7:30 and 8:30. Many can be found joyfully attending to the details of readying the class for the day: folding towels, emptying the dishwasher, turning on lamps, wetting sponges. Others are in the kitchen working with elementary children to prepare a hot nutritious breakfast from scratch. When breakfast is over they clean the kitchen and then enter the classroom where they spend the remainder of the day. No additional materials have been added to the environment. No toys. No games. And the children regardless of age, work happily all day long. They do not tire of the Montessori materials or have difficulty exhibiting appropriate behavior for the entire day. The All-Year Montessori is a peaceful place of joyful work. The parents are completely satisfied with the new program, as are we. We have absolutely no regrets. We extend an open invitation to any who would like to observe the program, call with questions, or share their own experiences.

Wendy Calise, Educational Director

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1 comment:

Laura Holt said...

We run a full-day, year round, Montessori program in Seattle, WA. For 31 years we have stayed true to our mission of serving working families and staying true to Montessori. We do not have a 1/2 day program. All of our children stay at least 9-3 with the majority of them full day, 7:30-5:30. We do offer 3,4,5 day options, but most of our families accept full time. Since 1989 we have been NAEYC accredited. However, with the stricter NAEYC standards, we are considering letting this accreditation go and just having AMS accreditation. Our teachers are Montessori trained through MACTE accredited training programs, but we seldom get AMI trained candidates when we do have a lead teacher opening. We specialize in providing a strong anti-bias curriculum with lots of parent involvement. You can check out our web site at www.learningtreemontessori.com.
Thanks,
Laura Holt-Assistant Director