Nothing can substitute the beauty and spontaneity of a real classroom observation. But if you have ever wondered what it is like to sit in a Montessori elementary classroom, here are some of the areas, work, and interactions you might see!
If you have been a Montessori parent of younger children, you will often see the guide, or teacher, giving a one-on-one lesson to a child. In elementary, lessons are given in small groups. This is because Dr. Montessori recognized that the social needs of the child change at this stage of life, and much of the work in elementary is done collaboratively.
You may even have trouble spotting the guide, because unlike in a traditional classroom, she is not standing up at the head of the class! She is sitting with her group at a table or on the ground. Once the children understand the concept and have reached a level of self-sufficiency, the guide will often leave and move on to another lesson while the children continue working independently.
You might see a group of children working with a hands-on classification material for plants called Kingdom Plantae or for animals called Kingdom Animalia. It introduces them to a taxonomy to categorize a species. There are branches that narrow as the child gets closer to identifying a particular species, beginning with the kingdom, then phylum, class, family, genus, and, finally, species. The material is intentionally incomplete to encourage the child to explore and fill in the material with her own examples.
You may see a couple of children roll out a timeline — perhaps the Timeline of Life — that is longer than your dining room table! There are different versions of this timeline, but as the children become more familiar, they might try the blank timeline. This one requires them to fill in the different eras with the associated plant and wildlife that came into existence over the history of the earth. The children learn about, for example, the explosion of plant life during the Devonian and the evolution of animals that led to the first mammals.
Remember the beloved puzzle maps of the Children’s House? In elementary, geography gets far more sophisticated. You might see children working with a chart of the ocean currents. After a series of demonstrations and experiments about the relationship between warm and cool air, the child will explore its impact on the oceans and learn about the different kinds of currents and their names.
A group of children may be engaged in a discussion to plan a trip outside the classroom to interview an expert as part of an extension to their research. You may see a child making a phone call to arrange an appointment or to ask for help with transportation.
Most elementary children adore the wooden cubing material. This beautiful, colorful material allows children to build physical representations of exponential growth and to do cubing work. The child can visually discern the difference between the size of 3-squared and 3-cubed. It is not uncommon for a group of children who are working with larger exponents to excitedly ask to borrow another box of cubing material so they can build the next larger exponent!
Sentence diagramming takes on new life with the sentence analysis materials. Children write sentences on long strips of adding machine paper, dissect them into words and phrases with scissors, and use wooden arrows to guide them through questions that will determine their function in the sentence. Looking for the subject? Ask, “Who is it that? What is it that?”
So many people learn the Pythagorean Theorem as a memorized formula in middle or high school. In a Montessori elementary classroom, you are likely to see children huddled around the Pythagorean plates. Many children extend the work by seeing if it works for other figures! Is it only squares that are built on the hypotenuse and sides that make this possible? What about hexagons?
The tone bars are a fixture in the elementary classroom. You may hear a child practicing scales before composing a song. This provides pleasant background music while other children are working on other tasks.
You may see a child illustrating the cover of a story he is writing. Another child may be sketching the margin of a leaf he is classifying. Clay is a popular medium for creating models for research projects. Handwork and embroidery begin in Children’s House and continue through elementary.
You won’t see many computers in an elementary classroom, but you may see a few children typing a draft of a research paper or another using a typing program to improve keyboarding skills.
It is common to see a group of children preparing a snack or a dish. By this age, they can create a meal for the entire class. Cooking is incorporated throughout Montessori, but elementary children can follow increasingly complex recipes and test their understanding of fractions when they are making multiple servings!
Many elementary communities are fortunate enough to have a gardening space that children manage. You may spot a group of children grabbing their gloves to weed or harvest some vegetables and herbs for the soup they are preparing tomorrow.
You may see children with goggles on following a card with instructions for an experiment. By the end, they have gained hands-on experience with creating — as an example — a solution, a suspension, and a colloid. These aren’t just abstract terms. Their experience gives them a context for understanding!
Isn’t a Montessori elementary classroom exciting? There is a hum of activity and collaboration. This is a community of confident, engaged learners!