Our Elementary Program
Grades 1 to 6, for ages 6 to 12
Our elementary program is truly unique: a mixed-aged Montessori community, with first through sixth graders learning alongside one another in a rich social environment. It continues the Montessori approach of practiced autonomy and self-mastery; of highly individualized lessons and extended periods of concentrated work. Within that framework, we embed a sequence of classical academic content in the humanities and the sciences, which motivates student-led project-based learning.
Elementary students have mastered basic physical independence, and are ready for the dramatic step of practicing living independently thoughtful lives. We take full advantage of the Montessori three-hour work cycle, where students choose and organize their own work. Our students come to create, understand, structure, and interrelate their learning goals—to work both independently and collaboratively—and to persist in difficult thinking and abstract creative work.
You can read more about our culture of autonomy and work, and the character that it fosters, here. Executive functioning skills and work ethic are a core part of Guidepost's elementary program.
For content, the elementary-aged student is hungry for structured, abstract thinking—for the whole edifice of human knowledge. Guidepost's elementary program satisfies that appetite and then some, challenging students to grow their knowledge and their knowhow across every discipline. Read more about our approach to each area of academics:
Mathematics: a program of hands-on materials and a precise, rigorous sequence of mathematical content;
Literature: learning about human nature, through a curriculum of great works and a pedagogy of deep, personal comprehension;
Language Arts: a course of reading and writing skills that fosters reading comprehension, eloquent expression, and objective thinking;
Art Appreciation: an approach to “reading” and connecting with the fine arts;
Science: mastering evidential, causal reasoning via a foundation of scientific knowledge;
History: the chronology of history as a tool to understand the present human world.
The Guidepost elementary student graduates with an unmatched inner discipline and an internalized system of foundational knowledge. She is well on the trajectory towards becoming a modern citizen of the world—independent, versatile, knowledgeable, and self-possessed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Purpose of Mathematics Education
Mathematics is a uniquely powerful discipline, one that enables us to comprehend and manipulate quantities of all sorts. Advanced mathematics is indispensable for certain very lucrative careers that it makes possible. Even in everyday life, fairly advanced mathematics—of the sort that, until recently in history, was learned by a tiny minority—is highly useful. From calculating measurements for a DIY project to working out how many weeks' pocket money is needed to buy a new video game, math is versatile and important.
However, the study of mathematics offers gifts far beyond numeracy and calculation. It allows children to develop and exercise their reasoning mind. It teaches students how to evaluate situations, mentally test hypotheses, employ problem-solving strategies, derive conclusions, and articulate them clearly. As has been recognized since the time of the Ancient Greeks, math serves as the best model for, and the best practice for, core aspects of human reasoning. These are critical skills that students will need in their future workplaces, in their personal lives, indeed in every aspect of navigating a world increasingly characterized by demanding, rapid change.
And so the key outcomes of math education in our elementary programs are two-fold:
A deep understanding of the way numbers work and relate to each other, as well as the ability to manipulate them quickly and easily;
The acquisition of cognitive powers and habits that can apply to all other areas of one’s life.
Our students, in mathematics, gain:
Explicit competence in foundational domains of mathematics (see below for a content list), along with an intuitive number sense;
The ability to build new knowledge from previous knowledge (by rigorous mathematical inference);
The ability to organize knowledge into an integrated, hierarchical structure (e.g. logical chains);
The ability to deploy highly abstract knowledge in solving particular problems (e.g. word problems, heuristics, models);
The ability to participate in discussion and debate with others using clear, step-wise reasoning and truths (such as measurements and prior axioms).
Students who study math, in short, gain the ability to better form and deploy complex knowledge—in general. Whether its solving a difficult engineering problem or solving a thorny personal problem, one needs to be able to: identify and separate different operative factors, organize these factors, bring different elements of knowledge to bear on the problem in a systematic way, and pressure-test one’s thinking for mistakes, problems, and weaknesses. These are the skills that our elementary programs impart when teaching mathematics.
Our Mathematics Pedagogy
Our approach to math in the elementary years is guided by principles of intelligibility through hands-on learning, precision through thoughtful curricular materials, and mastery through engagement and practice.
Our math curriculum begins with hands-on materials that foster an intuition of quantity, place value, and geometry. By manipulating these scientifically designed examples of abstract ideas, students build a library of experiences that develop into mental models of mathematical principles. A set of developmentally and mathematically refined hands-on Montessori learning materials, along with unique learning materials developed by our pedagogy team, forms the backbone of the math curriculum.
Each learning material not only concretizes but isolates an aspect of mathematics. The cleanliness and objectivity of math is manifest in the learning materials, and reinforced in the more abstract presentations. Definitions are clear and concise, statements are correct and precise, and problems are solved by laying bare every step. The precision and isolation in the materials allows students to practice one skill or concept at a time, repeated as often as needed for mastery.
A Developmental Sequence for Math
Our program is carefully sequenced to follow each student’s development. As the result of a thoughtfully ordered curriculum, the approach is intelligible to the student at each step. Our general pedagogy demands grounding knowledge in the child’s own experience, progressing from concretes that are directly accessible to the student, up to more abstract knowledge, with each stage providing the foundation for the next.
Math is no exception. Each material, lesson, and activity builds on the strong foundation of the previous ones, and seeds are continuously laid to facilitate integrations years later. The binomial cube, for example, presented as a puzzle for Montessori preschool students, leads to a geometric-algebraic integration of binomial expansions.
Math in Our Classrooms
The basic implementation of mathematics follows a sequence of teacher presentations and student activities in accordance with the guidelines above: engaging, hands-on, manipulation-based learning, with precise mathematical content that is crystallized into concepts, done at a pace that is challenging and in an order that is accessible. In addition, key units are punctuated by group discussions, guided by the teacher in a way that clarifies and unifies the knowledge of the students.
The highest-level goals of mathematics education in our elementary program are the cognitive ones listed above. The specific mathematical content that represents the realization of those goals in elementary are:
Fluency with non-negative rational numbers and operations. Students in our programs develop a clear concept of non-negative integers, fractions, and decimals and can abstractly manipulate them in any combination using addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. In addition to providing important material for mathematical reasoning and discussions, this content paves the way to fluency with all real numbers in algebra.
Basic skills and knowledge in equations, algorithms, and geometry. These topics prepare students for algebra, coding, planimetrics, and stereometry. Combined with non-negative rational number arithmetic, these constitute the foundation of all higher-level mathematics.
The topics covered in lower elementary are:
Mathematical Conversation (equality and basic operations)
The Decimal System, Categories and Numeration
Introduction to Coding
Preliminary Sensorial Work with Fractions, Exponents, and Squaring
The content covered in upper elementary is:
Ratios and Proportions
What is necessary is that the individual from the earliest years should be placed in relation with humanity. … Every achievement has come by the sacrifice of someone now dead. Every map speaks eloquently of the work of explorers and pioneers, who underwent hardships and trials to find new places, rivers and lakes, and to make the world greater and richer for our dwelling.Maria Montessori
The Purpose of History Education
The human world into which our children are born is bewilderingly complex. It boasts countless and often conflicting institutions, ever-evolving technologies, and contradictory norms and practices. This is a world that most adults struggle to understand—partially in virtue of the approach to history and civics in most schools, which doesn’t typically provide a helpful framework for thinking about the dynamic human world.
But even elementary-aged children want and need to start to make sense this cacophony, to understand the world they live in, to learn to appreciate it, and, ultimately, to be empowered with the knowledge needed to participate in it, affect it, change it.
The critical key for understanding for a student to understand, appreciate, and change the culture of their world—in all of aspects—is history. Conversely, the key learning outcome of history is the ability to understand, appreciate, and ultimately change their world.
History, in our elementary programs, is not a list of dates, nor is it a collection of topics and themes. It is a unified story of the development of the modern world—the explanation of the world of the student. It is a synoptic, rich timeline of its arts and inventions, its people and institutions, its arc of events, conflicts, and, most of all, ideas.
Students in our elementary history program learn, across the six years of elementary, the unbroken chronology of Western history, from early civilizations through the present.
History in Our Classrooms
History is infused into our Montessori elementary classrooms. There are three major aspects of the history curriculum:
The Great Lessons: six key lessons that cover the history of every topic in the elementary curriculum at the highest level, and that are delivered annually to all students;
Civilizations: historical work and lessons focused on understanding how early civilizations came to be and how they addressed fundamental human needs, done primarily by lower elementary students;
Western History: a three-year sequence of Western history, from ancient Egypt to the present, done primarily by upper elementary students.
The Great Lessons are big-picture history lessons that serve as the integrating and framing context for the entire elementary curriculum. They are given every year, in both lower and upper elementary (with older students who have mastered the lessons assisting in their final years).
The lessons are:
The Coming of the Universe: an overview of cosmology, covering the origin and historical arrangement of the physical and chemical elements of the universe, all the way to the solar system and the earth;
The Coming of Life: an overview of the history of life, covering the emergence of different forms of life, up to and including humans, with associated geological changes;
The Coming of Humans: the story of the emergency of early humans and our earliest struggles and discoveries;
The Coming of Writing: a big picture history of writing, how it emerged and evolved from pictures to alphabets;
The Coming of Numbers: the emergence of counting, then measurement, then mathematics
The Story of the Great River: a story that analogizes the human body to an ancient civilization, giving a big picture overview of human anatomy.
Lower elementary students, with a combination of charts, presentations, and other learning materials, start to learn history at the earliest stages. They study a variety of early civilizations and come to understand the full range of fundamental human needs a civilization evolves to serve, from material to political to spiritual.
Building on these foundations and hungry for ever-more abstract and relevant explanations, upper elementary students begin a more systematic study of history. They receive monthly presentations, 24 over the course of three years, that cover key topics and epochs in history in sequence.
The sequence varies somewhat by student grouping and by year, but goes roughly, over three years, from Ancient Egypt through the Renaissance, from the Age of Exploration and colonialism through the end of the American Civil War, and from the Industrial Revolution through the modern era of “Pax Americana.”
Students build a timeline based on these 24 key lessons as they move through the program. Moreover, each of these key, high-level lessons provides the opportunity for extensions—more detailed, sub-timelines that unfold under the heading of the broad timeline. For example, all students learn important basics about Columbus and Magellan in the key lessons on the Age of Exploration—but there is a more detailed sequence of lessons that follows the establishment of the entire Columbian exchange in the 16th and 17th centuries far beyond the initial excursions from Europe, establishing a worldwide, closed circuit—one that included trade between Asia and the Americas, further exacerbating the conflict between global trade and mercantilism, and setting the context for modern globalization. There are even opportunities, for the interested student, to go into controversies over how to understand particular epochs in history.
Not every student will go into this much depth on this particular topic—but all students will go into that much depth on some topics in history, and have a robust sense both of what they know and what there still is to learn.
Because of the focus on intellectual history, presentations are often followed by rich discussions, with students engaging in a mixture of historical fact-finding and philosophical debate. Writing is a critical part of solidifying understanding in history, and history is often grist for our writing curriculum.
These three elements add up: students enter middle school with an incredible rich, solid understanding of where their world came from. They have:
A complete outline of Western history, held in a way that is both chronological and meaningful;
The context of historical knowledge to go into much more depth on any topic in history (Western or otherwise);
A nuanced understanding of what it takes to understand an aspect history in more depth;
A particular understanding and appreciation for intellectual history, for the development of enduring ideas that shaped and continue to shape our world.
The Purpose of an Education in the Language Arts
Literacy is one of life’s most important achievements, and it is best honed primarily during the elementary years. Reading and writing are critically important—as key means for accessing the entire world of human culture, self-expression in an enduring way in almost any context, and the practical work of performing virtually any complex job or task.
And, more fundamentally, reading and writing are tools of thought. It is by learning to read and write well that we learn how to, for example,
Make a thought precise—from word choice to sentence structure to paragraph to multi-page work—in a way that is difficult or impossible without the written word;
Identify what is important and essential in the midst of a sea of information;
Apply objective thinking and reasoning to any domain, producing and evaluating structured arguments, justifications, and rationales for conclusions;
In our elementary program, students learn to read and write—to analyze and understand written works and to express themselves—and they do so in a way that is consonant with learning how to think.
Our Language Arts Pedagogy
To those ends, our elementary program approaches literacy in a systematic way, integrated across the whole curriculum.
Elementary students are motivated by their newfound capacity for intellectual work, to know causes and reasons for things, to understand and imagine things beyond their immediate experience, and to do all of this with their peers via the medium of language. What students read and write about is thus the entirety of their learning—their academic work in science, literature, history, and even math, their outside-of-school field trips, their goings out, and more.
Moreover, students learn these things with a variety of tools. See below for the specific curriculum we provide our students—which include systematic instruction in grammar, reading skills, reading comprehension, spelling, vocabulary, and all elements of the writing process.
At the most general level, our approach to reading is guided by:
At the earliest elementary years, a mastery of foundations such as phonemic awareness and phonics instruction; on an ongoing basis, mastery of spelling, vocabulary, and grammar;
Treating reading as a way of learning, by coupling reading comprehension skills, such as identify context and analyzing unfamiliar content, with engaging and challenging topics across all subject areas;
The need to develop a love of reading in children, via a variety of motivated, engaging reading material, such as that provided in our literature circles.
Likewise, our approach to writing is guided by:
The need for mastery of the physical mechanics of writing, handwriting and keyboarding, to the point of enjoyable efficacy;
The recognition that complex writing is not a product, but a multistep process (outlining, drafting, editing, revising, etc.) that requires analysis and systematic mastery;
The connection between clear writing and clear thinking, so that students fully experience the power of clarifying and expressing their own thoughts.
Because literacy is so important, substantial reading and writing occur every day in the classroom. Our elementary classrooms foster a culture of literacy, where students write frequently, read each other’s works, receive continuous individualized guidance and feedback from teachers on their writing, and challenge themselves and each other to take risks, reading difficult works, and articulating their most complex thoughts and feelings in writing.
Beyond the integrated, motivated approach described above, our elementary programs teach literacy systematically, area by area:
It has been said that the study of grammar is to language what the study of anatomy is to science. We all readily learn to speak in sentences; essentially, all humans can all “do” grammar. But to understand how grammar works is a greater challenge, requiring us to understand the function of words, word groups that make up sentences, and the structure of sentences themselves.
A robust understanding of grammar enables children to express themselves through the written word with sophistication and clarity. When children learn about grammatical concepts, this knowledge can be integrated into the writing process—particularly the revising and editing stages—helping students to see the relevance of grammar to their own writing. The study of grammar also aids reading comprehension, enabling students to analyze the complex thoughts of others and to make sense of them.
The goal of our grammar curriculum is threefold:
To offer a concrete representation of the underlying structure of our language;
To foster a love of the written word and an appreciation of its power;
To improve children’s writing.
Grammar is initially presented as a multisensory, hands-on approach through Montessori learning materials such as the Grammar Box, Sentence Analysis and Verb Tense materials. Once children are presented with the materials and the essential knowledge required for each particular grammar activity, they can explore the grammatical concept by matching, moving, and manipulating words and symbols to create patterns and sentences. This provides an open ended and often playful exploration of grammar, that prompts children to think critically about language:
Can a word be two different parts of speech?
Does it make a difference where I put words in the sentence?
Are there other ways that this sentence could make sense?
What if I remove this part of speech? How does that affect the sentence?
How can these words be arranged to say what I really want to say?
Are there other words or phrases I could use that would express my ideas more clearly?
In the upper elementary environment, children transition from working with the hands-on Sentence Analysis materials to sentence diagramming on paper. Sentence diagramming is a formal, visual-pictorial representation of the grammatical structure of a sentence. Sentence diagramming allows children to move beyond the confines of the Sentence Analysis material, and allows them to parse every element of sentences of unlimited length and complexity.
Vocabulary and Word Study
Specific words are the instruments by which we do our thinking, and through which we understand the thoughts of others. Having an extensive vocabulary allows one to better understand the world around us—to follow someone’s thinking, to read between the lines, to question what others have to say, to find the word that denotes precisely and connotes most eloquently what one wants to express.
And, critically, a rich vocabulary comes into play in the classroom in reading comprehension. Readers cannot comprehend the meaning of a given text without knowing what most of the words mean. A large vocabulary opens students up to a wider range of reading materials across all areas of the curriculum.
Students acquire vocabulary indirectly through exposure to a language-rich prepared environment, reading good literature, and conversing with adults and peers. The Montessori Word Study curriculum is a more direct approach to vocabulary, with lower elementary students examining, classifying and manipulating the properties of words: suffixes, prefixes, root words, compound words, antonyms, synonyms, homonyms, alphabetical sequence of words, rhyme, word families and so on.
In the upper elementary, students study Greek and Latin roots. More than half of the words in the English language have Latin or Greek roots, and this is especially true in content areas such as science and technology. This work helps children become more conscious of words and their origins, giving them keys which they may use to unlock the meanings of many words in their language. Emphasis is also placed on etymology across all areas of the curriculum, drawing children's awareness to the fact that words have a history, and that both the form and meaning of these words can change over time.
To become good readers, children must develop phonemic awareness (an understanding of the sounds that make up spoken language), phonics skills (an understanding of the sounds that letters/letter combinations make), the ability to read fluently and accurately, and the ability to comprehend what is read.
Some children enter the elementary classroom with phonemic awareness and phonic skills firmly in place. Others enter ready to learn phonograms and more advanced phonics with multi-syllabic words. Timely, individualized, explicit reading instruction is essential to ensuring children can access all subject areas of the prepared environment, and work collaboratively with their peers.
Our approach to reading instruction is based on the following principles:
Systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics improves children's reading and spelling skills.
Guided oral reading helps students further develop fluency, decoding skills, recognize new words and comprehend what they read.
Ongoing assessment of children's reading skills are crucial to ensure mastery of the basics, the continuous challenging of each student, and to inform appropriate instruction.
Beyond the basic mechanics, more abstract reading comprehension skills are imperative across every area of the classroom. Without comprehension, words have no meaning and reading is simply sounding out the words on a page from left to right.
Good readers use a variety of strategies to construct meaning from what they read, such as:
Monitoring their understanding of content;
Clarifying confusing parts of the text;
Predicting what will happen next;
Connecting what they are reading to their own experience or prior knowledge.
When children struggle to comprehend meaning from text, explicit strategies can be taught, modeled and practiced:
Identifying the parts of the text they don't understand;
Asking questions before, during, and after they read to clarify meaning;
Looking back or forward in the text for information that might help;
Restating the difficult sentence or passage in their own words;
Creating a visual or making a movie in their head;
Making connections: text-to-self connection occurs when students are reminded of something that has happened in their own life; text-to-text connection reminds them of something they have read in another book or text; text-to-world connection happens when they connect with something occurring in the world;
Making inferences by putting together clues from the text and making evidence-based guesses about character motives, the plot, the problem, the solution;
Synthesizing the text by summarizing what has happened and stating the most important aspects of the text.
One way we help students develop and practice these skills is through Literature Circles. Literature Circles pose targeted discussion questions requiring students to share their perceptions and ideas with their peers, consistently requiring textual support for their responses. They help student become close, insightful readers.
Preparing key word outlines to summarize nonfiction text is another way children can develop and practice reading comprehension skills within an authentic context. Children read nonfiction text“often from history or science”and are required to essentialize the information in their own words, before writing a report or presenting that information in some format to their peers.
As with reading mechanics, reading comprehension is formatively assessed by the teacher on an ongoing basis.
Teacher Read Aloud and Free Reading
Reading aloud to children plays an especially critical role in developing children's vocabulary, their knowledge of the natural world, and their appreciation for the power of the imagination.
Reading aloud introduces the language of books, which differs from the informal language heard in daily conversations and in the media. Literary language is more descriptive and uses more formal grammatical structures. The value of reading chapter books to elementary children therefore exposes children to a linguistic and cognitive complexity not typically found in speech.
Reading aloud introduces books and types of literature—historical fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies—that children might not discover on their own. History, science, and geography come alive through our elementary read-aloud selections, from Ancient Greece (Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad by Rosemary Sutcliffe) to Medieval Times (Canterbury Tales, by Geraldine McLaughlin) to Shakespearean England (Cue for Treason, by Geoffrey Trease). Reluctant readers observe the joy their teacher and peers receive from reading and discussing literature, and can be motivated to pick up a book on their own.
The Study of Literature
We offer students a program for the systematic study of literature that bears heavily on all aspects of reading comprehension and writing. Please see this page for a full description of that program.
We emphasize writing as an essential way to develop, organize, clarify, and communicate thoughts and ideas. As students attempt to write clearly and coherently about increasingly complex ideas, their writing serves to propel their intellectual growth.
Children come to understand that writing is a process, not just a product, and that by using specific writing techniques, and following the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing—they can produce consistency high quality writing.
(Not every piece of writing the child produces needs to, or indeed should be subject to this process. Much writing in the elementary classroom is everyday writing, such as work journals, taking notes for a science experiment, and so on. Particularly in Lower Elementary, our teachers are cognizant of the balance between holding children accountable for using learnt knowledge and skills in their writing, and creating a culture of joyful self-expression, free of the pressure of constant correction and feedback.)
Writing is omnipresent in our elementary classrooms. Our approach to writing instruction is based on the following principles:
The need to hone, step by step, specific aspects of the writing process. We offer students specific lessons on each stage of the writing process, from initial brainstorming all the way to the final draft. Writing is composed of dozens of more particular skills, and our job as educators is to analyze the process and determine a sequence that helps students most effectively and joyously achieve their mastery.
The guide as a positive role model of writing for students. Through their passion and enthusiasm for writing, as well as their own writing practice, teachers can show students that writing is valuable and important.
Connect writing activities to students' knowledge and interests. Students enjoy writing about what they know. They also enjoy writing with real purpose for a real audience as a means of social engagement. Therefore, it is key to create authentic writing tasks for students, drawing from both academic and personal context.
Create a writing climate in which all writers feel safe to make choices and take risks. Teachers model respect when talking about writing and about student work. Students are taught how to respond effectively and respectfully to their peers work.
Find time for students to write every day. Improvement in writing does not happen overnight, nor does it generally happen very easily. Volume is important. Writing should never be an occasional activity. It needs to be something that is effected every day.
Focus on each student’s writing strengths and needs to guide individualized instruction. Effective writing instruction is a scaffolded collaboration between teachers and students. Teachers need to know where students are at and what they can do, by collecting writing samples and examining them, assessing where children need support and planning appropriate instruction.
Provide students with limited, constructive, and thoughtful feedback. It is important to provide thoughtful and sensitive feedback to students about their writing—to help them find and understand in their drafts both the diamonds and the rough.
Encourage peer review. Elementary students often have difficulty revising their own writing even though this stage of the process is as important as drafting. Revising and editing a peer’s writing helps students develop a fresh perspective on the proofreading process, in turn helping them become more aware and reflective as they draft, revise and edit their own work for their intended audience.
Despite the inherent challenges in English writing instruction, the written English language does conform to predictable patterns, and more importantly, those patterns can be taught directly to students. Spelling instruction of reliable patterns enable students to analyze and categorize words, and to spell a high percentage of words without memorization.
Our approach to spelling instruction is based on the following principles:
Regular weekly spelling work;
Differentiated lists to meet students at their instructional level;
Lessons should focus on a single orthographic principle, such as a spelling pattern or phonogram;
Activities should lead students to generalize patterns, not memorize “rules”;
Lessons should balance explicit instruction and authentic reading and writing activities;
Activities should be multisensory, engaging students in reading, writing, speaking and hearing;
Student involvement in learning—through self-correction, personal dictionaries, and conferencing—is critical.
One notable tool is the personal dictionary, of which our Montessori classrooms make great use. When a student comes to the teacher for the spelling of a word, or asks the teacher to check the spelling of a word, it is written in the child's own personal dictionary. These are an excellent tool for emerging writers: the words are important, often being high frequency words, and they are part of the child's individual writing vocabulary. Personal dictionaries create independence for young writers around the writing process, reinforce spelling memorization of high frequency words, introduce the concept of alphabetical order, and are the precursor of dictionary use.
Handwriting and Keyboarding
There are two main goals when we teach elementary students handwriting:
To help them develop legible handwriting to communicate effectively;
To help children develop facility, speed, and ease of handwriting.
In this early stage of elementary, our programs focus on reinforcing correct pencil grip and letter formation. (The early years of schooling are especially critical for handwriting instruction; once children have formed counterproductive habits in handwriting, such as poor pencil grip or inefficient letter formation, those habits can be difficult to change.)
To ensure legibility and fluency for those for children needing additional support or remediation, it is imperative to implement individualized handwriting instruction and daily handwriting practice based on the following principles:
Consistent formation of letters using a continuous stroke;
Focus initially on learning motor patterns rather than perfect legibility;
Teach similarly formed letters together;
Separate reversible letters such as b and d;
Integration of handwriting instruction with letter sounds (for beginning readers);
In teaching cursive, explicitly teach connections between letters as well as formation of single letters;
Once letter correct letter formation is perfected, aim for speed as well as legibility.
Perfecting handwriting is important work for the lower elementary child. Keyboarding skills are introduced in the upper elementary environment. The foundational keyboarding skills students need to acquire are touch typing (with an emphasis on correct technique and good form, rather than speed) and word processing, with a view to typing up final drafts of work for publication. After students have mastered key placement, and are working on fluency and speed, the goal is for students to touch type with sufficient accuracy and automaticity to be able to record their thoughts.
The Purpose of Science Education
A basic function of human cognition is to understand why. Why does the sun trace an arc across the sky? How come pine cones fall off trees? Why do I get sweaty when I run? Curiosity about the world around us is at the very heart of human invention and creativity.
The sciences are the disciplines that enable a student to simultaneously sate and fuel that curiosity. For everything from the weather to furniture, from plants to stars, from wheels to light bulbs, students can ask what things are made of, how all their parts work together, what makes them move and how.
Our approach to science education enables students to ask and answer questions in a way that is empowering. It instills a sense of intrigue and enables students to develop understanding and then form further questions based both on the knowledge they already have and the insight they wish to gain in the future.
The core goal of science education is to allow students to tap into science, both its content and its methods, in a deep way. Elementary students can and should:
Learn the basic scientific knowledge that provides a framework for understanding their world. Students should master the foundational content of biology, physics, chemistry—including its most relevant aspects, such as astronomy and geology, human anatomy, and electromagnetism.
Engage in focused practice with evidential, causal thinking. Students begin with observation and then go on a journey of scientific discovery—from the process of asking scientific questions, to observing and gathering information, to refining questions and hypotheses, to experiment and explanation. Children come to understand that the scientific method is an organized system that helps scientists, indeed anyone, answer a question or solve a problem.
The natural sciences are tangible, major drivers of human knowledge and progress because they successfully use the former to generate the latter: they allow us uptake evidence and use it to gain causal knowledge of the world around us.
All academic content areas involve learning about a domain via evidential thinking—even literature. But science is uniquely formalized and powerful in a way that lays that basic pattern of thinking bare. In a similar way as to how math strengthens the foundations of mental functioning in all areas, so does science with a particular eye towards inference from observational evidence. The scientific method is invaluable, even to non-scientists.
Students also need to learn the content of key areas in science, the areas that offer a basic understanding of the experienced natural world. Besides the fact that they are tightly coupled—there is no real way to master the scientific method without learning a range of scientific content—there is also the fact that it’s important for everyone to feel at home in the natural world.
Our Science Pedogogy
Our approach to science reflects the above priorities: to give students a framework of scientific understanding, and to do so in a way that fosters their internalizing the powerful cognitive tool that is the scientific method.
The child's direct experience of the natural world, namely, observation and hands-on exploration, forms the basis of the Guidepost elementary science program.
Teachers look for authentic opportunities to draw children’s awareness to natural phenomena – gardening and other outdoor work is the perfect time to highlight simple classification of leaf shapes; a classroom weather station is the perfect motivation to chart changes in temperature and precipitation; a recently reported earthquake may drive research into plate tectonics.
Our students practice:
Careful observation of the world around them, using all of their senses;
The ability to record their observations, often over long periods of time: sketching with detail, writing precise and detailed descriptions, keeping charts or graphs, and so on;
The ability to distinguish between what they observe with their senses, and what they think or infer from those observations.
Terms, definitions, and explanations are also critically important; our students also learn how to conceptualize data, make logical inferences, interpret experiments, and codify their understanding with technical vocabulary. But come at the end of a long process of empirical engagement—not at the beginning. For these things crystallize answers to mysteries, the mysteries must first be discovered and the questions first asked.
The content areas are chosen to be amenable to learning the above method, and to really make comprehensible a major swath of the child’s experience of the world.
Science in Our Classrooms
Science is the classroom is activity- and experience-based, driving students to learn to ask and answer questions in a scientific way. Science presentations and activities are pursued by each student least once a week, with ample opportunities for extensions.
Teachers use many demonstrations to appeal to children's natural curiosity and imagination. These exciting demonstrations invariably precipitate the question, “How did you do that?,” challenging children to repeat the demonstrations themselves to discover the how and why. Children go on to independently perform many more experiments across all branches of science.
A meticulously prepared science area with an extensive supply of scientific equipment and materials, allows children to explore any topic of high interest to them (for example, the density of various liquids) and to experiment with variables (e.g. does applying more heat to a liquid alter its viscosity?), thus becoming young scientists.
Content is taught through demonstrations, experiments, stories, charts, and books. The curriculum moves through content units in a specific sequence (with lots of variations and offshoots provided for individual interest), providing a targeted foundation of scientific knowledge. In lower elementary:
Foundations of physics and chemistry
The Coming of the Universe [link to Great Lessons]
States of Matter
Composition of the Earth
Combinations of Elements
History of Biology
The Coming of Life
Types of Animals
Composition of the Earth
Combinations of Elements
Animal Behavior and Characteristics
The Needs and Functions of Plants
Types of Part of Plants (types of roots, stems, etc.)
Photosynthesis, Pollination, Dispersal
Geology and Astronomy
The Sun and the Earth
The Work of Air
The Work of Water
In upper elementary:
Geology and Astronomy
Observing the Night Sky
The Solar System
The Water Cycle
Conductors and Insulators
Students thus enter middle school with a solid understanding of content that is highly relevant to both their future academic needs and to understanding the world in which they live. They have real knowledge of their own body (via a sequence of biology that culminates with human anatomy and cell biology), knowledge of electricity and the ubiquitous technology that enables it to power our lives, and knowledge of the basic mechanics that drive our planet’s dynamics (weather, geological change).
More importantly, they know how to think about these diverse domains. They know how the scientific method is similar and different across biology, astronomy, and energy physics. When one day they want or need to understand more about how a computer works, about climate controversies, or about a family member’s illness, they’ll be able to learn to do so—with curiosity and rigor.
The Purpose of an Education in the Fine Arts
In our literature program, students are inspired and enabled to learn skills like moral reasoning, empathy, and even virtue. They do so via the concrete learning material of a work of great literature, which they learn to read closely and treat as evidence for thinking about the deepest aspects of human nature.
Art appreciation teaches a related skill: that of learning to apply these concepts to the world of perceptual experience. Students don't just learn how to reflect on moral meaning and spiritually significant aspects of life—they learn to see it, to “read” it into the world around them as they experience it with their very eyes.
The two fundamental skills imparted in our art appreciation curriculum are:
The ability to “read” a work of fine art (painting or sculpture). Students learn to immerse themselves in the details of a scene or figure, and grasp the “story” being depicted. This skill of “reading” involves a combination of observation, induction, integration, and imagination—using one one's powers of analysis, like a detective, and bringing the scene to life through one’s creativity, like a poet.
The ability to personally connect with a work of fine art. A student can, based on her rich understanding of a work of art, draw connections to experiences she has had. This works to imbue her past experiences with a deeper and more conscious meaning, sensitize her to be on the lookout for analogous experiences in the future, and deepen her reading of the work by the richness and nuance of her own experience to bear on its interpretation.
Our Approach to Art Appreciation
Most approaches to arts education, as with typical approaches to literature, are relatively technical. They offer students historical context to help make sense of a painting or sculpture. Ultimately, they often try to teach students something about the technique of the art, such as principles of composition, of materials, or of schools of aesthetics that may have informed the artist.
Our approach to art appreciation minimizes these appeals art history, technique, and aesthetic schools. Instead it teaches students to approach the fine arts in the same way that they can approach books and movies: by directly experiencing the excitement and poignancy of the content of the artwork.
Similar to observation in the sciences, the process of “reading” a painting starts with direct observation, and involves suggesting more abstract possibilities followed by testing those “hypothesis” with evidence from the painting. The microcosm of the scientific method used in “reading” comes in the form of solving the mystery of what is happening in the story.
Likewise, similar to literature, visual art has characters and a story. However, while the role of a student reading a novel is to grasp the meaning of the words and imagine the world created, the role of a student reading a painting is the reverse: to grasp the meaning of the images and provide the words—their words—to the world they encounter. There is a clear story in the artwork, but they need to be the “author” to fully read and experience the story.
Students learn a series of techniques—such as attending to and imitating a depicted character’s pose, or following a character’s gaze to see where they are looking, or coming up with a title for a painting, or putting a thought bubble or dialog bubble to a character—that enable them to slowly, observationally piece together what is happening in a work of art. They come to notice that a boy’s posture indicates that he is intrigued, that the curve of his hand means he is nervous, that his facial expression means that he excited—and that this is very different from the other boy he is sitting next to. They learn to observe and analyze the human element in the finest details of a scene, experiencing its meaning by putting words to its story.
Finally, the student comes to appreciate the full meaning of a painting or a sculpture, and personally connects with it. Finding a personal connection to the theme gives students a real understanding of the work and, more importantly, an understanding of how the insight of the theme fits into their own life. Connecting the artwork’s theme to the same kind of moments in literature (and sometimes history) is extremely valuable in the student's understanding of the abstract idea, but a personal connection is what completes the powerfully emotional experience for the student.
This process of self-reflection—of seeing how the abstract meaning contributes insight to one's own life—is also essential to the subject of literature. The difference between art and literature, in this respect, is that the meaning of a novel takes the duration of the work to experience and may take weeks to come to fruition, while that of an artwork can be grasped in one class period.
The Fine Arts in Our Classrooms
Art appreciation lessons are given in small groups at least once per month. The format of the lesson is:
A guided reading of the artwork, which includes a slideshow presentation by the teacher and corresponding written exercises for students. The teacher helps the students read the artwork through a succession of selected close-ups of the artwork (which unfold like the pages of a storybook), while having the students exercise “reading” techniques. The teacher alternates between discussing the work as a class and having the students respond independently to the corresponding questions on their worksheets. In this group exercise, students have the opportunity to hear the variety of insights and eloquence possible in reading the artwork, and they have the opportunity to share their own insights and see those insights contribute to other’s understanding.
A discussion of the artwork's theme and its personal connections. The teacher leads the discussion to the point where basic understanding of the scene is reached and its deeper themes can be grasped When the discussion turns to personally connecting to the artwork, students have the opportunity to share something of themselves that fits with the theme of the artwork, while hearing the personal stories of others that are similar to their own. Sharing these personal moments with each other and their teacher, the students are actively engaging in empathy and self-understanding.
Artworks are selected with age-appropriate themes in mind. Here is a short list of examples:
Perseverance in the face of tough obstacles
Joy at seeing the return of a loved-one
The heartbreak seeing a loved-one depart
Being inspired by the tales of an adult
Admiring the talents of a friend
The sense of pride at accomplishing a goal
Being engrossed in a personally meaningful activity
The challenge of joining a new, unfamiliar group
A sample of works included in the curriculum include:
The Boyhood of Raleigh, John Millais
The Rookie, Norman Rockwell
Childhood Idyll, William Bouguereau
The Painter's First Work, Marcus Stone
The Accident, William Geets
Echo and Narcissus, John Waterhouse
A Reading from Homer, Lawrence Alma-Tadema
The Astronomer by Candlelight, Gerrit Dou
The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse… It consists really in this: that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history…Aristotle
The Purpose of an Education in Literature
Almost all school teach at least some literature to elementary students. Yet we see that children—and adults—are reading less and less. Why don’t students learn to gain pleasure and value from great books, plays, and poems?
The answer lies in understanding the purpose of learning literature. Most programs don't have a clear conception of the purpose for reading literature, and default to technical or standardized-test-based learning outcomes: learning about symbolism or narrative point of view, or learning the bare rudiments of reading comprehension.
On our view, the goal of all education is to foster in a student the ability to live a full life. A guided journey through great literature affords our students the opportunity to develop some of the deepest foundations of such a life: the capacity for empathy and moral reasoning, deep inspiration, and profound self-understanding. There is little more important for a child—or an adult—than knowing how to be affected by and reflect upon great literature.
In math, we scaffold student learning with carefully designed, concrete learning materials. By interacting with particulars that a child can both literally and cognitively grasp, they come to more easily understand abstract quantitative relationships. With the checkerboard, younger elementary students can see the decimal system at work as they master multiplication. With the binomial cube, they learn to visualize the mechanics of the algebra of binomial expansion.
Literature is the equivalent of math materials for the subject of human beings. A great work of literature offers a concrete experience—colorful characters, charged dilemmas, wrenching decisions, and dramatic consequences—that scaffolds a child's ability to understand themselves and others. In seeing Anne Sullivan struggle to teach Helen Keller language in Gibson's The Miracle Worker, they understand patience, empathy, persistence, how connectedness to others and the world foster dignity and self-governance, and much more.
Literature, approached correctly—taught as a series of enthralling mysteries about human beings—is a learning material that allows them to build their own character and practice moral reasoning. In our elementary programs, students learn to understand how to draw an abstract theme out of the choices and events of a story—and how to relate it to their own lives and development.
The two key outcomes of our literature program are:
The ability to carefully and independently understand a work of literature. Students master the mechanics of reading complex works: such as identifying and learning unfamiliar words, analyzing literary elements, and meta-cognitive skills such as learning to problem-solve one's own reading challenges. They learn how to do all of the above based on evidence from the text, ensuring that they are really reasoning about and learning from the details of the literary work, even difficult ones such as the poetry of Tennyson.
The ability to draw meaning and lessons from a work of literature. In addition to mastering the full stack of reading comprehension skills, our program teaches students to systematically relate the lessons of literature to their own life experience. Students identify the relevance of the characters and events they comprehend, and learn to actively process and evaluate, e.g. the heroism of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the injustice of prejudice in Babe.
Our Literature Pedagogy
To achieve these outcomes, our elementary programs helps students learn from a specific selection of great literature. Our program uses works of literature that are:
Rich and full-length, including novels, plays, and poetry (no excerpts, summaries, or child versions), chosen to offer accessibility to and also challenge for elementary students;
Thematically profound, both to children and timelessly so, touching on topics such as courage, honesty, and independence;
Exciting, value-driven, and inspiring (even when tragic), and that include strong characters who make choices and act accordingly.
The approach is discussion-based, with students reading chapters independently and coming together for a teacher-guided discussion. The main topics for discussion are related to the outcomes above:
Answering critical, specifically selected questions about the plot, theme, setting, and characterization, such as the motivation of a particular character—and what evidence in the work we can use to answer these questions;
Drawing out personal connections with the novel, such as what resonates with them and why, parallels they see to their lives, and their own evaluations of the characters and events.
Alongside discussion, there are frequent opportunities for writing. Assignments range from short responses that are closely coupled with and foster discussion, to longer works that go through multiple drafts and represent a more enduring and synoptic understanding of the work.
Literature in Our Classrooms
Students cover the equivalent of approximately six novel-length works of literature per year. Each work is covered for four to five weeks.
The units begin with some motivation context about the work to be read, move on to the discussion-based approach outlined above, and conclude with post-reading discussions and culminating activities (integrated into our writing program) that solidify understanding and extend learning.
A sample of Lower Elementary works:
The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, Alice Dalgliesh
The Sword in the Tree, Clyde Robert Bulla
Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan
The Courage of Sarah Noble, Alice Dalgliesh
The Cricket in Times Square, George Selden
Trumpet of the Swan, E. B. White
Indian in the Cupboard, Lynne Reid Banks
A sample of Upper Elementary works:
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
The Golden Goblet, Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Call it Courage, Armstrong Sperry
The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain
The Giver, Lois Lowry
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
Beowulf: A New Telling, Robert Nye