'Freedom with limits' Montessori: Teachers say they function as guides for their students rather than authorities.

January 15, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Despite the dozens of Montessori schools in Maryland -- and thousands around the country -- the concept of Montessori education is largely a mystery. Many people know it only as a free-form approach to teaching young children in private schools "where the kids do what they want to do."

Well, not exactly.

"The freedom in Montessori is not a license," said Virginia McHugh, executive director of the Association Montessori Internationale in this country. "It's freedom with limits. We want to be building responsibility."

Montessori instructors say their students write early and often, frequently read by age 5 and tackle multiplication in kindergarten-level classes.

With the announcement last week that Loyola College in Maryland will merge with a Washington training center, the teaching method seems poised for growth in the region.

Loyola's Timonium graduate center will begin offering a master's degree in Montessori education in the fall. The flow of graduates is likely to spur new schools and help the existing ones accommodate larger enrollments, especially among 9- to 12-year-olds, a state education official predicted.

Italian doctor Maria Montessori established the method in the early 1900s. She based her approach on beliefs that all children develop certain mental functions, such as language and

movement, at about the same age and that each youngster has an "absorbent mind" that makes for effortless learning until about 6.

She further believed that given the appropriately stimulating environment, youngsters would "discover" what they need to know with minimal adult help. Teachers are supposed to function as guides rather than authorities.

This is what often leads to the impression that children get to do what they want.

At The Montessori School in Lutherville recently, 26 children, age 3 to 6, busied themselves on a dozen different projects in Sulocha Fernandopulle's classroom. There was a hum, but not a din, of activity as some youngsters crouched over throw rugs that held their work, beads to count and puzzles to put together. Others sat by ones or twos at small tables, making construction-paper necklaces or printing words in a note book.

"For them it's fun, but everything has a purpose," says Fernandopulle. For instance, the counterclockwise motion used for table scrubbing -- one of the daily living exercises for even the youngest students -- is the same circular motion used in writing c's and a's and o's, she says, making broad circles on the tabletop.

Teaching tools

Likewise, the blocks used to teach colors and shapes in the primary class help older students tackle geometry.

"Every piece of work is really preparing them for something to come. Each piece of material builds into something else," said Fernandopulle, showing how one "golden bead" becomes part of a string of 10 and how 10 strings of 10 beads placed side by side form a square of 100 beads.

As a math-teaching tool, the golden beads are among the materials particular to Montessori classrooms. All Montessori schools share structure, as well as a philosophy:

A three-hour block of time daily during which children work independently on assigned tasks.

Multiage groups with 3- to 6-year-olds in one classroom, 6- to 9-year-olds in a second, and 9- to 12-year-olds in another. Students remain with the same teacher for three years.

Children learning daily living skills, such as tying shoes, zipping coats and making snacks, to make them self-sufficient.

They are also learning "grace and courtesy," which for Fernandopulle's youngsters includes "how to greet each other, how to wash their hands, how to blow your nose." She begins each day with a lesson in these behaviors because "grace and courtesy are the crux of Montessori."

At a time when other private schools tout small classes and public school officials anguish over large numbers of students in one room, Montessori purists encourage classes with 28 to 35 students and no more than one teacher and one assistant.

Teaching independence

This ratio keeps children from becoming too dependent on the adults, and the size brings a variety of experience, abilities and backgrounds to the group, McHugh maintained in a Montessori publication. Combining older and younger children encourages them to help, and learn from, one another.

Montessori schools stress traditional subjects -- reading with a phonics base, spelling, punctuation, parts of speech, fractions, decimals, geography, ancient history, world cultures.

Children are, however, encouraged to follow their interests and to move ahead or repeat skills, as appropriate. The curriculum adapts to children rather than vice versa. "You will never be bored here because you can keep going," said Susan Bogart, assistant head of Free State Montessori School in Fork.

There are no traditional desks in Montessori classrooms, so students can move around freely and often sit on the floor.

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