Monday, March 19, 2012


Montessori as a Foreign Language.  You have heard about it, know the basics, but really aren’t quite sure what it means.  It reminds me of a trip with my little sister to France.  I thought I knew the language, yet every time I simply tried to order tap water, I was served with a bottle of sparkling water and a bill for 6 Euros.  Confusing.  Truth is, while I knew the language, understanding it, was another story.


 And then we met a man.

He introduced us to 'His Paris'.  As we slowly strolled through the famed fashion district, I studied him and his interactions with his fellow Parisians.  That is when I came to understand, that knowing how to speak French and understanding the French are not the same thing.

The same holds true for the World of Montessori.  What you may think you know about Montessori may be vastly different from what children actually experience as Montessori Students. 

Allow me to give you a simple, yet comprehensive tour of Montessori.  After gaining a better understanding of what makes a Montessori classroom, I invite you to schedule a visit, and experience it, as intimately as I experience Paris, for a day.

Montessori Preschools (3 - 6 years)

Children in the primary program possess what Dr. Montessori called the absorbent mind, the ability to absorb all aspects of one's culture and environment without effort or fatigue. The primary classroom is made up of children varying from ages 3 to 6 years old. These young children are exposed to various lessons found in four main areas of the classroom - Practical Life, Sensorial, Language and Math.

As an aid to this period of the child's self-construction, individual work is encouraged. The following areas of activity cultivate the children's adaptation and ability to express and think with clarity:

·      Practical Life exercises instill care for self, for others, and for the environment. Through the Practical Life exercises, the children gain OCCI order, coordination, concentration, independence and the will to learn more while completing purposeful daily activities. Activities include many of the tasks children see as part of the daily routine in their home, such as preparing food and washing dishes, along with exercises of grace and courtesy. They learn to work at a task from beginning to end, and develop their powers of control and concentration.

      In a nutshell?  Practical life looks like they are pouring water, but they are getting ready to dive into Math and Reading, with success.

·      Sensorial materials serve as tools for development. Children build cognitive skills, and learn to order and classify impressions by touching, seeing, smelling, tasting, listening, and exploring the physical properties of their environment. All of the child's senses are enhanced and sharpened through the exposure to the Sensorial materials. It is through the isolation of each sense and the work with the Montessori materials that this is made possible. 

      In a nutshell? Sensorial work prepares the senses and entices the children into Math and Language, with a greater understanding of the vastness of their possibilities.
·      Language development is vital to human development. Throughout the classroom language is heard and expressed constantly. The Montessori environment is rich in oral language opportunities, allowing the child to experience conversations, stories and poetry. The primary teachers take note of each child's state of language and will then fill the inadequacies and deficiencies, correct mispronunciations and wrong usages of words and will enlarge the vocabulary already learned. The sandpaper letters and moveable alphabet help children link sound and symbol effortlessly, encouraging the development of written expression and reading skills. 

      In a nutshell? Language happens while the kids play, and they learn to read, "All by Myself!!!"

·      Geography; Biology; Botany; Zoology; Art and Music are presented as extensions of the sensorial and language activities. Children learn about people and cultures in other countries with an attitude of respect and admiration. Through familiarity, children come to feel connected to the global human family. Lessons and experiences with nature inspire a reverence for all life. The comprehensive art and music programs give children every opportunity to enjoy a variety of creative activities, as well as gain knowledge of the great masters. 

      In a nutshell? The children have fun, while exploring all that the world has to offer!
·      Mathematics activities motivate children to learn and understand the concepts of math by manipulating concrete materials. In Montessori, the children work from the visual to intellectual, from the concrete to the abstract. They begin by handling and manipulating "real qualities" in different ways until the abstraction is reached. This work gives children a solid understanding of basic mathematical principles, prepares them for later abstract reasoning, and helps to develop problem-solving capabilities. This joyful process is part of the child's inner development and creation of him or her self.

      In a nutshell?  Children love a challenge, and every math problem is a problem they are able to solve!!!     

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pouring water? Spooning Rice?

Questions and concerns regarding the Practical Life area in a Montessori classroom, come in many different forms; My child is in a Montessori school for the academics, not to pour water or spoon rice!  Why is my kindergartener wasting time making hot chocolate, when he should be learning to read?  When is he going to become a Math Genius? Can you tell my kid that they can’t do practical life any more?  No, I can not and trust me you do not want me to!  The practical life area is an essential part of a Montessori classroom, often considered the foundation of Montessori education.  The philosophical goals of Montessori are fully in evidence in this area.
Yes, practical life teaches children the skills needed to function in everyday life.  More, it is through the development of these skills, that they are also developing Order, Concentration, Coordination, and Independence (OCCI), skills that are essential so that the child can successfully attempt academic work.  How can a child tackle a math problem, if they do not appreciate the need for order and sequence?  Without coordination of the fine motor skills, how can a child successfully write a letter?  The ability to concentrate is important, if the child wishes to stay on task and complete and repeat an activity.  If the child does not discover the joy of independence, how will he/she become self confident in his/her own abilities?  Without learning that they can successfully complete a task in varying degrees of difficulty, will they ever feel confident enough to separate from the adult enough to challenge themselves? 

Each activity is especially designed to develop these attributes in children.  Because of the simplicity of design and the careful presentations given to the children, they discover the need to follow a specific sequence to help achieve success.  They come to appreciate the need for order, to prevent chaos.  The practical life area develops the child’s fine motor skills. Through varying degrees of difficulty, the children achieve success in the actual activity, while fine honing their coordination and concentration.  The child becomes self-motivated to achieve success and is stimulated to concentrate on his/her task to achieve self-satisfaction.  Developing simultaneously with these skills is the need for Independence.  The child is becoming self-motivated through the work provided, and develops the need to “do it all by myself!”, realizing his/her potential and developing the need to do things independently. “No, thank you.  I don’t need help! I can pour myself a glass of milk.”  When a child can say this, they have reached the highest degree of success.

Along with the direct aims of OCCI that help prepare the child for success in the other areas of the classroom, actual skills and concepts are introduced and developed in Practical Life.   It is an area of the classroom that is considered an extension of Pre-Math, Pre-Language and Pre-Writing.  Beginning counting skills are introduced in tonging and spooning activities.  Perhaps the child will count the number of balls while concentrating on spooning them into the empty bowls.  An introduction to fractions is taught to the children as they are pouring grains from one pitcher into two or three cups.  Language skills are enhanced by exposing the children to new vocabulary such as in the spooning exercise mentioned above.  The children are introduced to the concepts “full” and “empty”.  The whole sequence for Care of the Environment develops the fine motor skills and coordination needed for writing.  Tonging and tweezing, for example strengthen the muscles in the prehensile grasp needed for the act of writing. 

Practical life is essential in creating a well rounded education where the children become individuals who are secure in their abilities and enjoy the discovery of challenge and learning. So don’t be worried that your child says she spent her day making oatmeal.  Know that she is learning to concentrate and understanding the need to complete a task successfully by following the directions. And know that when she finally goes to the math area she will sit down and be undaunted by the task of adding 2472 + 458.  She will take the time to prepare her work.  She will successfully complete the equation.  She will write down her results and then ask the teacher for another more challenging problem.  All for the very first time!

Joanne Shango is a certified Montessori Teacher and Mom with 20 years experience.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Is a Montessori classroom really social?

As a Montessori teacher I am often confronted by parents who “want to know!” more about Montessori.  The questions usually follow the same lines.  Is a Montessori classroom social?  Isn’t a Montessori classroom very structured, how can kids be kids if they aren’t interacting freely?  Does a Montessori classroom promote socialization or individualism?  With all the freedom in the classroom, isn’t the atmosphere too chaotic to allow for appropriate social interactions?  These questions, contradictory in nature, are frequently asked, and remind me that Montessori is a relatively unknown philosophy, especially in regard to socialization. 

In a Montessori classroom individuality comes first and through the discovery of oneself, the child discovers the magic of friendship.  A child entering a new environment must first feel safe before he/she can develop relationships with other children.  With the beginnings of these social interactions comes a respect for each other, the materials, and the environment.  A desire to take care of themselves, their classroom and their friendships is developed.  The social interactions amongst the children are healthy, imaginative and exciting.  A true Montessori classroom provides the tools for children to discover for themselves the joys of learning, both academically and socially.

Socialization is based on freedom and cannot be forced on anyone.  If someone was placed in an over-stimulating environment it might be detrimental to the socialization process.  When people cannot feel comfortable with themselves in foreign situations, they tend to alienate themselves. In the structured environment of a Montessori classroom, where children have liberty within limits, they feel secure and confident.  Within the boundaries of the classroom, children are free to discover themselves, their minds and their friends, safely.  They make solid friendships that they carry with them for a lifetime.

Socialization in large groups also occurs in the Montessori classroom. During circle time the children enjoy sharing special stories of their lives with their friends, while learning how to listen and respect what their friends have to share.  They enjoy singing and playing games with each other.  The playground offers a wider freedom where kids run and play, where imagination and discovery soars.
During my course of teaching, I have seen the socialization process form confident and independent young children who enjoy each others company but are not dependent upon it.  They strongly influence each other in a positive manner, taking on the role of teacher, assisting each other in all areas of the classroom.   In all of my years of teaching, there was one child who exemplifies the success of this process.

Julianne was new to Montessori, but not to early childcare.  In her prior experience she was labeled shy and was not provided with a nurturing environment that promoted her individual growth.  Her first two weeks at school were spent in virtual solitude.  Any approaches made towards her were gently but consistently rebuffed.  She spent all of her time discovering the carefully designed materials in the classroom and observing the class.  During line time, she remained mute and declined any attempts to include her in the activities.  Gradually, as she discovered her place in the classroom, her confidence began to flourish and she started to seek and cultivate relationships with her newfound friends.  Her comfort with teachers took longer.  She saw us as an intrusion to her peace and actively avoided any direct involvement.  Eventually, through observation, she became trusting of the adults and began initiating conversations, opening the door to communication and academic nurturing as well as socialization.  Julianne gradually discovered herself and her potential, and made the classroom her own. 

Before Julianne became socialized in the classroom, she became individualized.  Both of these qualities are in evidence in normalized adults and are considered assets.

As Julie Washington, parent, once stated “These Montessori kids are so social, but it is more than that.  Even at birthday parties, you can see that they really enjoy each other and know how to play together. Never before have I been to a kiddie party where the children are playing so beautifully that the parents can sit down and relax without having to interfere in the children’s play, or rather, their conflicts.  That is so nice to see.”

“A classroom in which all the children move about usefully, intelligently and voluntarily without committing any rough or rude act, would seem to me a classroom very well disciplined indeed.”  - - Maria Montessori.  The Montessori Method, p. 93
Joanne Shango is a certified Montessori Teacher and Mom with 20 years experience.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


I have had that heart stopping, “OMG! Is my daughter learning anything????” moment, a few too many times.  And let me tell you, I hate that feeling!!!

My girlfriend mentioned that her brother was concerned that his 1st and 2nd graders weren’t learning enough.  They went to a tutoring center and were told that their daughters were behind in math.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Maybe the acclaimed Montessori math didn’t really work.  OY!!!  No way. So, later that day, I casually tested my daughter, what is 1 + 1?  “That is easy, MOM! 2.” Whew! But she was right, it was too easy. What is 2 + 2?  She lifted up her fingers, counted and answered correctly, “4.” Hmmmm…What is 4 + 3? Again, she counted her fingers, “7.”  Shouldn’t she know these simple math facts by heart?
Concerned, I met with my friends and the elementary teacher.  She started explaining the advanced math in the classroom and the 3 year curriculum, where children are learning both individually and as a group.  OK.  I knew all of this and my friends were reassured.  But why didn’t our kids know their basic math facts, when they could do square roots? Was something fundamentally wrong?

As I drove home, my mind turned over everything I knew.  A memory crept in; my, “Aha!” moment.  Grace was 4 and Zaia was 3.  We were in a hurry and picked up chicken nuggets.  I gave each of them 4 nuggets.  Zaia finished and asked for 2 more.  Grace pipes in, “Wow, Zaia you were hungry, that’s 6 chicken nuggets!!!”  Five minutes later I gave him 1 more.  When we got out of the car, Grace informed me, “Mom, did you know that Zaia had 7 chicken nuggets and I only had 4? That is 3 more than me!”  (Addition and Subtraction!) “Yes, you guys ate a lot.” “Yea. 11! That is too many, right???”

With the memory came reassurance.  Yes, my daughter is learning.  Yes, she knows and loves math.  She is excited about the golden beads and the chains.  She is inspired and challenged by the work that her friends are accomplishing.  Montessori math does work.  So it begs the question.  Why, when quizzed about their basic math facts, do the kids not respond? 

The math that is taught in a Montessori classroom is explored in concrete, manipulative works.  They touch, feel, count, repeat, absorb and learn.  The concepts become ingrained in them. So that, when the learning moves from the concrete to the abstract, it is seamless.  Rather than the rote memorization, that occurs in traditional methods when teaching addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, Montessori children are learning the mechanics of why and how.  The children aren’t tested for their knowledge.  Their teachers are working with them and observing them, watching as they explore.  They work, repeatedly until they are satisfied with their mastery of it, not because they are told they must, but because internally they feel that they must.  Through the repetition, the abstract concepts of mathematical equations are cemented into their minds. 

Yesterday, when a friend told me that her daughter, who attends a local Catholic School, counts by 5’s and 10’s to 100, (as does her 3 ½ year old!!!) I experienced that Heart Stopping moment again.  Hmmm…Does 6 year old Grace? Let alone 4 ½ year old Zaia?  I couldn’t help myself.  Driving to school today, I tested my daughter, again.  I asked Grace to count by 5’s.  “Sure, Mom, 5, 6, 7…” I thought, OMG!!! Taking a deep breath, I explained, “Actually, I mean by 5’s like this 5, 10, 15…” Grace chimed in…”20…25…30” You could see the gears working in her head as she stumbled through the first few.  “35, 40, 45, 50…” She then sped up through 100 when she figured the sequence.  Zaia piped in.  They did it twice. The language was different, but the knowledge was there.  They didn’t know it by rote, in that singing the ABC’s kind of way, but by understanding the concept, of adding 5 units to the numbers to create a jump sequence in counting.  She then decided to do 10’s and 2’s.  Her only frustration was that she couldn’t complete her 2’s, before we got to school.

So, yeah, “Heart Stopping” moments, be damned.  Montessori kids not only “know” math, they understand it, live it, breathe it and are able to use it in every day life.  Knowledge vs Rote.  I don't know about you, but I will take the knowledge any day of the week!

Joanne Shango is a certified Montessori Teacher and Mom with 20 years experience.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Tips for finding the perfect preschool for your child

The first parent tour, to come through my classroom, is forever imbedded in my memory.  With only a 5 minute notice, I took a deep breath and glanced around.  Paint was splattered on the easel.  Music was playing on the record player.  There were children gathered around a couple of soda bottles, conducting a science experiment.  My assistant was sitting on the floor with 3 kids and the moveable alphabet, watching them build a story.  Just as my director, Lyn, escorted the parent into my class, 3 year old, Nevada, called my attention.  Minutes later, as they turned to leave, I rushed to greet the prospective parent and apologized for my delay.  Lyn turned to the mother, asking, "And how do you feel about that?" She replied, with a satisfied smile, "Well...I feel good.  I guess it tells me that your teachers are more interested in their students, than they are in the parents." Lyn returned the smile and asked "Are you ready to enroll?” 

There are many ways to find the right school for your child.  You could flip a coin and say a prayer or you can follow these simple steps and trust your-self. 

The top 3 ways to start your search

1.   Referrals.  The best way to begin your search is to ask friends, family, church members   and      neighbors, where they send their children and why.
2.   Local Parent Magazines and Newspapers. Skip the advertisements and look for articles about the best schools in your area. In Michigan, Metro Parent lists a premier guide to preschools in Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor in their annual education issue in February.
3.   Web Searches Engines:,, In these listings, the schools are categorized either by location, grade levels or genres, and often have ratings and parent reviews.

Narrow Down your search

1.   Categorize.  Figure out what philosophy each school operates under; Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, faith-based, play-based, co-op, etc.  Understand what each has to offer and figure out which ones would work best for you and your child. 
2.   Open House.  Once you’ve narrowed your selection down to 2 or 3 schools, visit during an open house (these usually occur February through spring). 
3.   Classroom visit.  Have your child spend an hour in the classroom. 
a.   Watch to see if he is comfortable, interested and willing to explore.
b.   Observe the entire class.  You will learn more watching the student and teacher interactions, than you will, watching your own child.
c.   Look at the actual classroom
A.     Is it clean?
B.     Do the children seem comfortable?
C.     Are there enough works/toys to engage the children?
D.     Is the environment safe and suited to children?
E.      Is the classroom peaceful or chaotic?
F.      Is there art and music?

4.      Interview.  Ask questions.  Remember, you are interviewing them, they aren’t   interviewing you.

Critical questions to ask a prospective school

a.   What is the teacher/child ratio?
b.   What is the staff turn-over rate and what are the lead teacher’s degrees?
c.   Is the facility licensed and privately accredited? (The National Association for the  Education of  Young Children NAEYC, Montessori AMS and AMI, Waldorf AWSNA to name a few.)
d.   What is the school’s philosophy towards academics?
e.   What is the school’s philosophy towards socialization?
f.   What are the school’s policies regarding discipline, tuition, nutrition, security?
g.   Does the school have an open door policy for parents?
h.   What are their hours of operation?
When I was a director, I did most of the talking during prospective parent visits and open houses.  I answered questions, wanting to make sure that the parents knew who we were and what we had to offer. 

When I was a Montessori Mom, looking for the perfect school, again, I did most of the talking.  Making certain that the director knew what we were looking for.  I was satisfied that she understood my needs, but what I didn’t find out, was their philosophy or what they actually had to offer me.  I forgot to ask them questions and to listen to their answers.  It was a crucial mistake.   I came to realize that the school wasn’t the great fit I wanted it to be.  I started my search again, this time following the simple rules I outlined above.  My girlfriend referred it. confirmed it.  They were licensed by the state and accredited by AMS while in the process of achieving their AMI accreditation, as well.  When I visited, I asked my questions and listened to their answers.   I observed the whole class, not only my daughter. Check. Check. Check.  I signed the check and submitted my application. And may I never have to go through this process, again! Or, at least, not until Middle School.

Joanne Shango is a certified Montessori Teacher and Mom with 20 years experience.

Monday, February 6, 2012

How do the decisions from your past, predetermine the decisions of your future?

When I was nineteen and a Fine Arts student at U of M, I needed a job.  I found the most charming little Montessori School located in an old train station known as the Ashley St. Depot, just blocks from my apartment.  I was hired as the extended day teacher and subbed in the Montessori class.  A year later, my boss and mentor, Lyn, sent me to do my Montessori training.  I fell in love with the philosophy, the teaching and the students I worked with.  Montessori became a part of me.  I studied art at the University and taught at the Montessori school and set the foundation for the rest of my life.

Thirteen years later, I became a wife and mother.  When I first held my precious daughter in my arms, I saw her future.  I stared into her beautiful brown eyes and envisioned her, in pigtails, on her first day of Montessori school, Catholic school, as a Mercy Girl and then walking across the stage in Maize and Blue at the University of Michigan. Seconds had passed, and her Academic Career was planned.

Days later, we left the hospital and I began raising her in true Montessori fashion, talking to her, singing to her, surrounding her with toys that I knew would inspire her.  Next thing I knew, my Grace was ready for preschool.  It felt like only seconds ago I was staring into her gorgeous brown eyes for the first time, but in reality 2 ½ years had passed and the time had come.  I already knew that she was going to a Montessori School, so this should be easy.  I started touring open houses and quizzing directors of education.  I was a Montessorian, I knew what I wanted, what my sweet child needed, yet, for all of my knowledge and confidence in the Montessori Method, I could not decide which school would suit her best.

Montessori is Montessori, isn’t it?  Unfortunately, no, not all Montessori schools were created equal.  In 1967, the US Patent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that "the term 'Montessori' has a generic and/or descriptive significance", therefore, the term can be used freely without giving any guarantee of how closely, if at all, a program applies Maria Montessori's work.  I realized the decision to select a Montessori was going to be a challenge.  And if it was this difficult for me, what were other Moms struggling with.  Well, the truth is, it was probably exactly the same, because as much as I knew, as a Montessorian, I was simply a Mom, a Montessori Mom who wanted the best for her beautifully, blossoming genius.

I finally chose a school.  One that I felt was as close to the standards, I, myself, adhered to, as a teacher.  I made a classic rookie Mom mistake.  I told the director what I expected out of a Montessori school.  And she sold me, exactly what she knew I wanted to buy.  The product we received was vastly different.  Yes, they were a Montessori school.  It was beautiful, full of Montessori materials and certified teachers.  However, the director was adapting the Montessori Method to meet the academic demands of parents.  She was manipulating the materials in the classroom for the highest academic output and forgetting the core of the philosophy:  Developing within the children a love of learning.  The learning itself is an exceptional bonus, a fabulous, awe-inspiring bonus!

This was not the first, last or only Montessori school to do this.  In a society looking to raise geniuses, schools nationwide are developing stricter academic goals.  It can be done, by extracting only the academic portions of the program. Maria Montessori scientifically created an entire curriculum of hands on manipulative works that promote children’s natural abilities to write, read, do arithmetic and geometry, geography and science at advanced levels. So, yes it can be done.  But, more importantly, it can be done to PERFECTION, when using the Montessori Method in its entirety.  Through her understanding of the nature of children, Maria Montessori also designed the work to be self-motivating and self-correcting.  Because of this, the children learn and explore independent of the teacher.  The teacher’s role should be observer and silent conductor.  The kids thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and the classroom is an open palate for them to explore.  They love what they are doing and learning without conscious thought; Spontaneously.  Learning is a joy, rather than a chore.

The most common catch phrase in Montessori is “Follow the Child,” but in a teacher controlled environment, the catch phrase turns into the traditional, “Follow the Teacher.”  Therefore, the freedom of the child is taken away, and if our children aren’t free to explore, where does the desire for exploration develop?  It doesn’t.  Our budding geniuses will have to complete another dozen years of schooling, more at University, without the intrinsic desire for learning that a Montessori school should naturally instill with-in them.  Don’t you want your children to love learning? Not dread it? I know I do.

I am now a mother of three.  My daughter, Grace, is five, my son, Zaia, is four and my baby, Sevi, is eighteen months and they are Montessori kids.  Every other time I step out of the shower, the bath rug is missing, because one of them is practicing “the rug rolling” work.  My daughter reads to her brothers every night before bed.  My family and friends tell me that they love the conversations they have with my four year old, and not just because he is super cute.  They tell me he talks intently, animatedly and informatively, and he looks them straight in the eye, with confidence.  They may not know or care about Stegosaurus, but they know, they care to talk to Zaia!

So, this takes me back.  If the day I decided to become a Montessori teacher predetermined the course of my children’s education.  How will my decision on the specific Montessori they attend predetermine their academic potential?  The weight of it lay heavy on my shoulders.  I changed schools. Twice.  One was too focused on what they thought they knew academically, the other just didn't know enough.  I now drive nearly 25 minutes for my children to attend Montessori Children's Academy, a real, true Montessori school.  It is worth every minute, every gallon of gas, and every dollar in tuition.  If I don’t invest in their education now, when they are young and eager for learning, then how can I be certain that there will be a college to invest in later?

Joanne Shango is a certified Montessori Teacher and Mom with 20 years experience.