Work in Elementary

Grades 1 to 6, for ages 6 to 12

Our elementary programs are truly unique: mixed-aged Montessori communities, with multi-year age bands learning alongside one another. Within the Montessori framework, we embed a sequence of classical academic content in the humanities and the sciences, which motivates student-led project-based learning.

A calm, serene child begins to achieve his elevation through work.

Maria Montessori

A Culture of Work

We aim to foster a joyous learning environment, one where students truly love learning, learn to pursue their interests, and come to appreciate themselves.

A core aspect of this environment is that students learn to tackle the challenges that come with real learning, to persist in a way that enables them to learn about what they love, and that their appreciation for themselves is not based on empty praise but is really earned. A core outcome of our elementary classrooms, in other words, is that students develop a work ethic.

Education and Inner Discipline

The ability to do hard work, when elevated to an ethic, represents a profound achievement of character. It means that one is ambitious and can challenge oneself; that one is capable of being persistent and organized; that one is purposeful with one’s time and self-aware about one's energy and motivations.

Particular academic disciplines contribute to this outcome by offering work that is both engaging and worthy. But systematically developing this sort of inner discipline within each student comes primarily from a structural approach to our elementary classrooms.

Montessori's great insight was that, by blending without compromise engaging, worthy content on the one hand, with respect for a student’s autonomous activity on the other, that children learn to master themselves. By engaging with the world with enthusiasm and intelligence, they come to embed deeply into their character the essential features of that engagement: purposefulness, persistence, and an appreciation for noble, productive activity.

Our elementary programs fully embrace this high-structure, high-autonomy approach. At the elementary level, students have tremendous responsibility for their work, and learn to hold themselves accountable with specific tools and techniques. The result is a classroom in which each student is busy achieving a high level of ambition and self-mastery, even as they pursue—indeed, through their pursuit of their schoolwork.

Our Approach to Work Ethic

Our Montessori elementary classrooms afford students significant autonomy over their work. Gone is the day dominated by students moving en masse, from class to class, scheduled in short blocks of time. Gone is the role of the teacher in micromanaging student's work and responsibilities.

The Montessori classroom is instead organized primarily around a three-hour work cycle, a block of protected time in the morning. During the work cycle, the teachers circulate and give lessons and other assistance to individuals or small groups of students.

Our guides circulate through the classroom, constantly giving individualized and small-group lessons.

Our guides circulate through the classroom, constantly giving individualized and small-group lessons.

The majority of students, who are not in lessons, are responsible for directing their own work. They organize themselves, follow up on lessons received previously, extending their understanding and mastering their skills.

Students independently following up on their lessons in different classroom areas.

Students independently following up on their lessons in different classroom areas.

This is no small feat. The child that can do this, who can successfully and productively manage her time, is manifesting in her behavior the deep elements of ambition, persistence, organization, and self-mastery discussed earlier.

More specific elements of the Montessori elementary approach to the culture of work include:

  • An overall culture of responsibility. In addition to being encouraged to develop independence and choose her own work, each child is also responsible for being prepared with all materials for lessons, for completing all follow-up tasks and independent work, and for keeping accurate records of work completed. Active stewardship is a part of the class culture, inclusive of care of the class environment and other jobs that need to be done on a daily basis to keep the class running smoothly. Natural consequences occur and logical consequences for not acting responsibly also ensue and are part of the boundaries of independence.

  • Features complex work demanding of organizational skills, project planning, and self-reflection. Executive functioning and self-regulation skills are strengthened and practiced through the approach to work. These skills and habits of mind are reinforced as children manage their own schedules and complete follow-up assignments after a lesson or conceive of, plan for, and successfully execute progressively larger projects over weeks, months, or years.

  • A long work cycle featuring few or no interruptions. With fewer daily interruptions, such as bells for recess or regimented lesson intervals, students are able to follow through with persisting with challenging tasks at hand. They are not “saved by the bell” in the middle of a challenging math problem, for example, and have the opportunity to experience the discomfort in a challenge and yet experience the joy following sustained effort and follow through. Children with repeated opportunities to persist in difficult tasks develop greater stamina to work. When a child exerts effort to produce quality work, a sense of healthy pride, self-worth, and satisfaction is kindled.

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Our Classroom Culture

The above represents a vision of a classroom culture that is an achievement. It is achieved by specific classroom tools and teacher practices that, over time, create and sustain an ethic of work at the level of both individual students and the entire classroom.

Some of these tools:

  • Learning journals. The learning journal, also known as a record book or work journal, is the child's personal record of their work choices and use of their time. Keeping records is not an automatic or perfected skill but requires scaffolding. One of the first habits an elementary student acquires is keeping track of his lessons, follow-up work, and other commitments in his learning journal. It stands as a record of work completed and as a planner indicating work to be done. A series of lessons is given to each student early on indicating how to use the journal. The practices in these lessons are reinforced consistently by the teacher at the outset of a student’s enrollment in the classroom, for as long as it takes for the student to absorb and internalize them.

  • Conferences. The learning journal takes on a deeper meaning when used in conjunction with the individual meeting between the student and guide.  Depending on the child’s age and capacity for self-reflection and planning, the student may use this conference to reflect on their work habits, set increasingly specific and ambitious goals, consider how to achieve them, and/or consider making adjustments to their work habits and especially in the upper elementary use this as a planning tool. During initial meetings, the guide may take the lead in asking questions and guiding the meeting. Eventually, the child starts to prepare for the individual meetings themselves and comes prepared with their learning journal, goals, questions and reflections since the previous meeting.

  • Guide observation and redirection. Classroom teachers observe specifically for student productivity, and offer persistent redirection for students that are not using their time well. For students who are not yet capable of fully directing themselves, they are held accountable via their teacher, who provides gentle reminders and individualized strategies.

  • The opportunity for great work. Nothing is more motivating to a student’s ethic of work—their persistence, ambition, productivity, and even organization—than when they themselves are excited about a project. The Montessori approach, with its individualized approach to instruction and its three-hour work cycle, is built to accommodate this sort of passion project when it emerges. The possibility of earning the ability to pursue this sort of work is also used by the teacher to motivate staying on top of other responsibilities.

The result of these practices is work ethic—and not the joyless work ethic of a puritan, but the energetic work ethic of an inspired artist or an ambitious entrepreneur. Students learn to a sense of efficacy through persistence and organization, and they learn that persistence and organization are critically efficacious tools for amplifying their pursuits and ambitions.

Two students take their turn setting the table for a community lunch.

Two students take their turn setting the table for a community lunch.

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