Teaching Ideas from Montessori Schools

Samruddhi is a teacher with more than 2 decades of teaching experience. She had visited Peepal Tree Pune when it had just opened. She was running a science lab then. She had been the Principal of a school prior to that. Neelam joined PTP through her reference. Samruddhi has spent about 2 years in the UK. Later on she shifted base to Texas. At Texas, she has been training herself on the US teaching system. She came to share her learning with the PTP team. We were joined by Neelam, Trupti and Varsha, who were Samruddhi’s colleagues earlier.

Unlike the syllabus focused approach in India, the US worries more about the social and emotional development in its kids. Apart from learning by doing, the system aims at making students independent at an early age. There are no Mavshis(helpers/aunties) in US Kindergartens. Possibly, the school can’t afford them – and diapers, however environmentally unfriendly they may be, end up being helper surrogates 🙂 This independence extends even to friendships. No BFFs (Best Friends Forever) at the Kindergartens, please! The idea is to wean away the kids from emotional dependence. Every morning, when kids enter class, they have to write their name on a slip of paper. These slips are crushed into balls, and thrown onto the floor. Whatever chit gets picked up by the kid, is the person she ends up ‘friend’ing for the day.

Another concern area that US teachers have is about ‘special children’. Unlike Indian teachers, American ones have to be careful in disciplining kids. Teachers are the epitome of politeness when dealing with rudeness. Tools used: Getting to eye level with students; Eye to eye lock; Distraction. If nothing else works, a time out – which prevents the kid from indulging in his favourite activity.

The first lecture of the day is assigned to be a fun one. In PTP’s case, we should have one which involves a lot of activities. They are free to play on slides. Teachers greet the young ones with hugs. The last session is that of reflection. They recall what all they have done through the day. We need to emulate this too at PTP.

The attempt is to make kids conversant with reading before they move to writing. Kids younger than 4 are made to write using chalk and fingers. For finger writing, they have an interesting salt bed. Instead of chalk, we can use markers at PTP. We need to get at least 5 markers for the Kindergarten classes, so that student groups can use the tables and boards in parallel. Instead of giving instructions, students are encouraged to observe and copy. Another input teachers concentrate on is sensory. They include things like sensory beads or jelly balls, slime with borax, maybe even corn starch can make a good playdough. Samruddhi felt that teachers also need to talk about non-syllabus stuff in their class. Call it GK if you will. She felt that US Kindergartners are quite knowledgeable about politics, history, science and geography – thanks to teacher initiatives.

Concepts are taught at 3 levels: The Concrete. The Pictorial. The Abstract. For example, when we deal with shapes, we look at actual triangles when we do concrete. Photographs and origami represent the pictorial. And the abstract can come through the idea of a triangle, the concept of sides and vertices.

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To develop thinking skills, students are taught to ask 3 questions: What? Why? How? What is the problem? Why is it given to me? How can I solve the problem? Teachers have to follow a core curriculum, which is more of a guideline, but they are free to use whatever resources they want to develop skills.

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Using a clip to match colors with objects

We discussed our pet peeve – students don’t end up knowing too much of English. We had a belief that US kindergartners have it easy, as everyone speaks English all the time there. Samruddhi corrected us. She told us that there are a lot of Hispanic kids in her class, whose parents only speak Spanish. So English is taught more in school than at home. Having said that, Hispanic parents do have an important role to play in education. Parents are handed over yellow cards to fill in about good work that students have done at home. They hand them over to the teacher – who then publicly praises the kid in her class. Parents are also expected to supervise HW. Which btw, is mostly interesting tasks. In the US, HW starts with middle school. Samruddhi’s suggestion was that most of the HW should be math – and in English it should be based on RCs. Students need to come back to class and make presentations on their HW.

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Talking of math, the use of dominoes was encouraged by her. Nisha pitched in with the idea that we can actually make dominoes from thick cardboard ourselves. Samruddhi mentioned how complicated problems like 3 + 4 + 5 + 2 are solved by KG students counting the dots on dominoes. Alternately, you can also count using ice cream sticks or rajma beans. On the topic of addition, she had an interesting insight to offer. In the American way of adding two digit numbers, students start with the tens instead of units. So a 20 + 42 + 32 becomes 20 + 40 + 30 + 2 + 2 = 90 + 4 = 94. To aid this, doubling is drilled into students: 2+2 = 4, 20 + 20 = 40, etc.

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Teachers use activities to help develop language skills. There are separate books for separate phonic sounds. They use newspapers in order to circle sight words. They use books to identify magic words like Thank You! They discuss books like Henry’s Show and Tell, where the discussion is on the problem that Henry bear faces when he has to do a show and tell in class. And he is nervous. The story is stopped in the middle – and kids are asked, what do you think happens next? These discussions lead to the development of thinking skills. Students are asked to share with their friends whatever they have read in class. This reinforces learning. Another thing that she discussed was the use of the Marion Richardson script for KG – it’s a mix of cursive and print scripts.

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One kaizen she showed us is a transparency paper made pouch. You can insert your worksheet into the pouch – and students can use a sketch pen or marker to actually scribble on the plastic without actually marking the paper. The worksheet can be a math one, a puzzle – or just about anything. The idea appealed to me from a frugality perspective. Samruddhi informs me that her Dallas classroom has a stock of more than 50 such transparency pouches. Sometimes this gets augmented by the use of small whiteboards and markers.

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Samruddhi discussed an interesting phonics teaching tool. There are some alphabets with two different sounds. We normally use single sounds when we instruct students. In US schools, they are taught to correlate an alphabet with multiple sounds – for example ‘e’, says ‘eh’ and ‘ee’ both. So e says ‘ehe’, ‘eh’, ‘ee’. Samruddhi had an interesting philosophy in spellings. Five repetitions are usually enough for mastering a spelling. She uses an interesting piano action to reinforce spelling. The right hand fingers play the piano alphabets on the left arm, with a final sweep to inform that the word is done! Their own names are very good beginnings in the word journey of children. Who is not excited about writing her own name?

 Maithili had a question on wild vs domestic animals. Samruddhi’s interesting counter-question to her was: why just two categories. We can classify animals in many more ways. She went on to gift PTP a few animal charts. Questions were documented behind the chart, making life easy for our teachers. Our teachers were asked for feedback about Samruddhi’s session the next day. They loved the disposable cups – and thought that it they would be a versatile tool for teaching a lot of stuff that requires you to combine objects. Language and math are obvious application areas.

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Even flash cards – which we can also develop for the phone. The equivalent of salt pits can also be done – probably by using sand. The focus on observation was also felt to be important. Even project work. Nisha’s suggestion was that we need to have dance built into our timetable. Maybe in the morning assembly?