Today I will out myself in a way that I believe only one other blogger listed here could and I am hoping to beat him to the punch on this topic…
Here is the big announcement: I am the mother of a Milwaukee Public Schools Montessori student. Our oldest son, whom I refer to as “Big” has been cultivating a life long love of learning in a K3-8th grade MPS Montessori School since K3. He is excited to be starting 6th grade in just 75 days.
In 2004 when Big was three years old, we had been living in Milwaukee for nearly two years and I thought it time to start looking at schools for him, get a jump start on Kindergarten. I believe in public education as a corner-stone of our Democracy, I attended fantastic public schools in Eau Claire, Wis., and had never even considered that I would someday send my child to a private or parochial school. That is I never considered it until I began reading about the Montessori Method; multi-aged classrooms, a child-centered learning focus, embedded attention to grace and courtesy as well as a host of lessons regarding practical life skills and much more greatly appealed to me.
A “Montessori” education is one based in the teachings of an Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. She created her extensive curriculum based on her observations of what children can do with appropriate guidance, materials and in a prepared environment (What does that look like? Look here: montessori-ami.org/montessori/environment.htm).
My dedication to public education now sat in great conflict with my desire for him to attend or ‘try’ a Montessori school – at the time I believed that the only Montessori options were parochial or independently private schools (which is still very true for most communities). I accepted that fact that a public Montessori opportunity for Big was not available and went the Milwaukee Public Schools Central Office to learn about the schools in our neighborhood, at the time we lived just off of 60th and Oklahoma.
After finding my way (finally) to the right person to discuss schools in our area I became instantly overwhelmed… As much as I love choices and opportunities there were a million decisions suddenly thrust in front of me. The woman behind the desk rattled off information and questions:
- Do you want a bilingual or immersion language education?
- Are you considering pre-K or early childhood?
- MPS offers a number of charter schools.
- There are vouchers available, if you qualify, you can use it to pay tuition at a private school.
- You live on the suburban board have you considered Open Enrollment? (Yes, the MPS staffer asked me if I we considered sending our son out of MPS).
- Are you seeking any particular focus like art or science?
My head was swimming when I casually said something to the effect of “Wow, so many options too bad none of them are Montessori schools.” She looked up and unenthusiastically said, “We do have a few Montessori schools.”
What a PUBLIC MONTESSORI SCHOOL? Not one, but (at the time) five!
The long and the short of this part of the story is that my husband grew up in the southern suburbs, he attended private schools kindergarten through high school and then went on to UW-La Crosse for college (good thing he tried the public school thing when he did or we wouldn’t have met). He trusted my choice to “try-out MPS” and said that we “would see” if the Montessori thing worked. At the time I think his consolation was that Big was only three – could MPS and Montessori do much damage to him at his tender age?
Now we had to choose a Montessori school – more choices; Fernwood Montessori was in our bus region but their primary (combined ages K3, K4 and K5) classrooms were full for that fall. I had planned to continue my education at UWM and found Maryland Avenue Montessori just one mile from campus – they had seats available and I worked my classes around his half-day school schedule.
His first day of school he was greeted by his teacher – she sat on a tiny chair, making eye contact, shook his hand, and said “Good Morning” (As she would for EVERY child, EVERY morning, EVERY DAY, for the ENTIRE YEAR). The classroom bustled behind her with older children carrying trays of beads, water, vases, their “work” to and from perfectly arranged tiny tables and tiny chairs. The room was calm but still very busy. Over the course of that first year if you asked Big what he did at school that day he would say “nothing” or “I don’t remember.” He was performing practical life tasks that enabled him to gain control of his body, and refine his fine-motor skills. He sorted tiny beads or polished silver. What he described as “nothing” was really something special.
In the Montessori classroom children – all children- are never under estimated. The expectations for behavior and choices are very high because all children have the ability with patient guidance to not only perform these tasks but excel at them and in turn the successes reinforce their ability to make sound decisions regarding their own actions.
At the end of the year we reviewed his “work,” now at age four he could write in CURSIVE at least half of the alphabet and recite their phonetic sounds. He could identify each of the seven continents on the globe and brought home “work” based on zoology and botany. By then end of the year he could tell you all about the “one unit” – a single golden bead – that creates the framework of mathematic learning in the Montessori classroom through middle school. Using that single bead he could build ten chains up to 100 places and independently build the binomial cube.
Binominal Cube? Don’t worry, look here: infomontessori.com/sensorial/visual-sense-binomial-cube.htm
Along with his peers, and regardless of socioeconomics or race, he had gained control of himself and his choices and actions. He had learned innumerable life skills and although he was still very much a four year old, he understood choice and boundaries. Amazing. We bought in hook, line, sinker and cruise ship – this is where Big needed to be. Montessori in MPS for us was no longer an experiment. Here we are now all of these years later still a Montessori family, patiently waiting for Little (Big’s brother nine years his junior) to start his Montessori in MPS education in the fall of 2013.
So there, I outed myself, I am a Montessori mom. When I walked into MPS Central Office in the spring of 2003 I had no idea that I was so naïve to the problems within the Milwaukee Public Schools system. I learned that day that I had been living largely insulated from the big picture challenges that the city of Milwaukee faces. I discovered that day that Milwaukee has one of the largest and most progressive public Montessori communities in the country. I know today that (aside from an all expenses paid minimum of three month trip through Europe) there isn’t anywhere I’d rather be.
If this post seems like an abrupt end to the beginning, you are right and I am tired.
Check back tomorrow for part two: Montessori in MPS or what I fondly refer to as “Maria in the Machine.”
I know I still owe you part two… but we have had sort of a Montessori overload of posts… so you will wait.