Friday, August 14, 2009

Is Montessori for you?

A year and a half ago, when my husband and I decided to relocate to the Philippines, I decided to send my kids to a Montessori school. My requirements were simple- close to home and MONTESSORI. In the end, my daughter did go to the same Montessori school I went to more than 30 years ago, even if it wasn't so close to home.

For a lot of other parents, it is not quite this simple. Given the vast array of choices in schools, I often feel pity for moms and dads who have to sift through the rubble before they find the "right" school for their child. In the end, however, there is no "right" or "wrong." In the end we choose schools that have the best "fit" for our families- one that upholds the same standards of academic excelence we believe in, embodies the same values we cherish, is located at a distance that we are willing to drive, and costs as much as we can afford.

Of course there are those for whom the school searching process is not as tedious; those who want to send their kids to schools in honor of tradition- Ateneo! La Salle! St. Scho! Assumption! I guess I was one of those... "Montessori!" I used to think that it was "shallow" to be so loyal to one's school (and maybe their parents' and grandparents' schools) until it happened to me. The reason my choice was so easy (as well as for those die-hard Ateneo-LaSalle-St. Scho-Assumption parents) was because the choice had already been made for us a long time ago by our parents (or grandparents). Personally, I'm glad my parents chose Montessori because having lived it, I know that it will be the best for my kids- in terms of academic methods, standards and values.

Why, then, should you choose Montessori? Having been so involved with school operations in the last 2 months, I believe now that Montessori is not for everyone. In the end, don't even do it if you are not willing to embrace the philosophy. It is not just a school you will be entering your family into; it is also a way of thinking. NO, it is not a "cult" like skeptics will want you to believe; but in order for your child to blossom in a "real" Montessori school, you as a parent should embrace what Montessori is about.

In general, Montessori parents believe that learning should be fun (not easy, not spoon-feeding, challenging but fun). At Montessori we have a lot of "Montessori materials" that make learning concepts a treat. My husband, a product of an all-boys, Catholic and ultra-traditional school, said during our daughter's open house last year, "it's amazing how the "parts of speech" were taught... it must have been fun learning it that way!" Through the manipulation of the materials, very important concepts in various subject matters are delivered to your kids in a fun, interesting and engaging way.

Gabby using Montessori materials to demonstrate "parts of speech."

Montessori parents are tired of seeing their kids struggle with extra schoolwork after school. Nowadays, unlike during my time, this is more the norm than the exception. In a real Montessori set-up, majority of work is done in school. In the higher grades homework is given but not to the point of stripping your child of valuable play time. Many times, homework is of a more active nature like going to the museum, cooking a dish with one's parents or making a travel journal while on vacation.

It is not uncommon to see Montessori parents involved in the school activities. Often times, parents are eager to volunteer to share any of their talents or customs. In my daughter's old Montessori preschool in the US, Indian parents would come to talk about the Diwali festival or Jewish parents would feed the students latkes and talk about Hanukkah. I personally came to school in my Filipino attire and talked about our country, traditions, games, national symbols. Then I fed them polvoron from Goldilocks ("shortbread" is how the Goldilocks polvorons are labeled in the States). I even taught them to dance tinikling and pandango sa ilaw (with plastic cups, of course)!

Gabby and I in our Filipino costumes teaching a little girl how to dance "pandango." Notice the bag of Goldilocks polvoron on the table in the back.

Last but not the least, I would say that Montessori parents do not want their children to compete against each other for school- or teacher-imposed rewards. We believe that competition that develops from within children is healthier and occurs naturally in class. Therefore, we are supportive of non-numerical grades and the abandonment of the first-honor or gold medalist concept in our schools. For all of us, our children are achievers and wonders in their own right. Some may develop and absorb faster than others but those are none the more superior than those who are slow learners. In the end, we believe in our children's intelligence and that eventually they will realize their full potential, in their own time.

Parents who decide to send their kids to a Montessori school want their kids to be well-rounded- that it is not just academics that matter, but just as important are their social and emotional development. We believe that our children will have more fulfilling lives as adults if they are better equipped with the skills necessary to live in the real world. This is what a Montessori education is about- it is education for life.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Baby Boys Forever

It's August 11 now. School started in June 22 so it's been almost 2 months since my 2-year 10-month old son Ton has been going to school.
On his first day, he walked straight into the classroom without looking back. But for the next 6 weeks (2 weeks of which saw classes being suspended for one reason or another), Ton would refuse to go into the classroom without me tailing after him. His yaya also had to be within sight.

Ton's first day of school

Ton in his Montessori shirt

When I would try to slowly step away he would run to me and cling to my leg. Of course sometimes he would be so preoccupied with his Montessori materials that yaya and I would manage to sneak away to the hallway only to hear him screaming and crying a few seconds later. His teachers would then run after him as he tried to escape and eventually, in order for him to stay in the classroom, they would close the door.

Yesterday, however, was different. I was expecting him to cling since it was Monday (and he usually is more clingy after a weekend) but instead he went into the classroom then looked at me to make sure I was still standing there. I looked at him and said, "bye Ton, I'll see you later," to which he walked away towards his teacher.

I hurriedly ran out the door and braced myself for screaming... but there was none. I waited for the teacher to close the door, but she did not. Finally, Ton has adjusted to school. At last, he is not clinging to me. I was relieved; but I was not happy. I had gotten so used to Ton needing me all those early mornings that when he finally got used to being left behind, I felt sad.

It's funny how from June to July, Ton had separation anxiety so intense that he would sometimes cry for two hours straight in the classroom. Yesterday, it was his mom who felt the separation anxiety. Call me O.A. but I wanted to cry.

When I picked him up after 3 hours of school, I noticed that the door was closed. I asked the teacher's aide who was sitting in the hallway why the door was closed and she said, "sinara e." A part of me was excited to hear that Ton was looking for me again but the aide said, "sinara ng anak mo para walang lumabas." I smiled because my baby had finally learned to see school as a safe and happy place.

I think now of my original baby boy, Paolo (who just turned 18 last Sunday). Soon, I will see him off to college. In the US, "going to college" is not quite the same as it is here in the Philippines. Paolo's choice of universities are not in our home state of California. In a few months, all he will have time for is a short phone call every quarter. Maybe he will visit us on Christmas or during his summer break... maybe not... most probably not.

Paolo then...

...and now.

Two baby boys. One story. For me, the feeling is the same. I'm proud that they're growing up. I'm glad that my efforts are paying off..but mama's boys they will always be. Whether toddler or teen, I just wish they would cling to me a little bit longer.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Montessori at Home

I am a devout Montessori believer because I've seen what it can do to a child. I know first-hand how I love learning. Up to now, I can't stop picking up a new hobby or skill. My husband keeps pushing me to launch businesses using my different skills but to me it's all about fulfillment. I love learning new things and working hard to excel at them. So when people see one of my balloon sculptures and ask, "how did you do that? Did you enrol in a course?" I always say, "no, I just imagined how it could be done and worked at it."

Easter Bunny and Thanksgiving Turkey

I always felt that a Montessori school was best for children but it was only recently that I realized that Montessori goes beyond school. Many families apply Montessori's teachings even in their homes. I wonder now, "if my Montessori education has touched my life this much, what more if I lived it at home? Imagine if my kids grew up the Montessori way in school and at home? But how?"

To give me an idea how I could apply Montessori at home, I observed my son's preschool classroom and my 7 year-old daughter's elementary classroom. In both classrooms, I noticed that the rooms were well-organized; there seemed to be "proper" places for everything. There was also an area for "practical life" skills. For preschoolers there was an area for buttoning, pouring, sweeping, even watering the plants. For elementary the practical life area was smaller but there was a "mini kitchen" with utensils, plates, pitchers, sink. The rooms were well-thought of, with furniture just right for their sizes.

Then I observed their teachers. Both were very calm and spoke in soft tones. Mostly because Montessori instruction is mostly individualized (or for the elementary, in small groups). They usually present the use of materials to a table of one or 2-3 kids therefore there is no need to modulate. You also will not see them calling out to kids, "don't do that", "quiet please", "face the wall!" Instead they slowly approach children and seemingly suggest a mode of action which the kids usually follow. ("Usually" because my son who is 2 will, more often than not, throw a tantrum.) Teachers are not dictators in the classroom, but merely "guides." They are not feared by the kids but still have a mysterious "power" that encourages children to follow.

Back at home, I looked around and realized that setting up the Montessori way was impossible- there was just not enough space in my condo for multiple low-height shelves to store all my kids toys. But I rearranged the toys so that the ones for the babies would be in the lower drawers and therefore more accessible by the babies themselves. I also told the yayas to allow (in fact, encourage) the kids to do things on their own. If Ton (2 years old) wants to sweep the floor, let him be. If Tessa (1 year old) wants to reach for magnets high up in the fridge door, don't reach the magnets for her without letting her try her best first.

Ton sweeping & Tessa playing with fridge magnets

These, however, are easier said than done. Yayas have this tendency to do things for their wards that eventually handicap the kids. Example, Gabby (7 years old) used to be so independent in the US. After one year of living in the Philippines, when she needs a glass of water she doesn't run to the kitchen instead she asks me to call the yayas on the intercom to get her a glass of water. Simply because she has been so used to ordering them around. Her yayas would rather give in because they don't have the energy (or vocabulary) for an argument with a little girl who speaks English so fast and with an accent.

Gabby: (bossy voice) "Idon'twannadrinkvitaminsyetI'mgonnatellMomyou'reforcingme."
Yaya: Ookee... (then runs to me)...Ate ayaw daw mag-vitamins.

As for me, I've been noticing lately that I've been trying my best to be a Montessori parent, in the true sense. Oh, but MAN is it difficult! At home, Gabby doesn't seem to respond to me the same way that she does to her teacher. I guess it's because the relationship between teacher and Gabby was started with all the Montessori parameters in place and here I am undoing my old ways and trying to be calm (very difficult for hyper and dictatorial ME).

The other day, however, it seemed to work. Montessori teachers do not exercise authoritarian rule to instill discipline. Instead, they give positive options from which children can choose instead of the bad habit. This then develops self-discipline and teaches kids that there is a better choice than the one their urges push them to do. So, one day, there was Gabby, whining again about how she did not like the food.

Gabby: "But I don't like good pancit; i want bad pancit canton (Lucky Me)."

Me: "No, you can't have bad pancit canton again. You already had it this week."

Gabby: "Okay, then I want tofu siomai." (tofu soaked in oyster sauce, wrapped in siomai wrapper then fried)

Me: "No, we will not keep cooking something special for you everytime you don't like the food."

Gabby: (crying-acting voice) "I just want bad pancit canton and tofu siomai."

Me: (sungit voice) "Gabby, ano ba?! Don't be arte!"

Tingining-nginingining (fairy music)....Montessori power!

Me: (calmly as if possessed by Montessori spirit) "Okay, if you want you can look through the fridge for any leftovers that you want but you cannot eat bad pancit canton or tofu siomai."

And they lived happily ever after... she found leftover pizza from the night before.

Of course in reality I know how hard learning this new skill will be. Ever since I started working, when I get home I just want to plop on the bed and rest. The last thing I want is an argument with Gabby or a yaya training seminar on the Montessori method. But I want to try this. I want to see if it will help my children help themselves. Maria Montessori believed in the child's potential and their innate intelligence. Now I know how I, and the yayas, have been stripping my kids of the chance to develop into the "complete" individuals they were meant to be.

So as I try to be a true Montessori parent, I realize that I am merely learning a new skill and (with true Montessori spirit) embrace it with excitement. Soon enough I hope to excel in this new talent that I call.... MONTESSORI POWER!!!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Montessori Schools and Homework

I asked my mom recently why she sent me and my 3 siblings to Montessori as early as the 1970s when it seemed like very few knew about the Montessori method. She said, "we read about it and heard that it was a great way for kids to learn." I was thinking, "wow, my parents were so cool when they were younger," but then she added, "and we heard there was no homework." She defended herself by saying that because both she and my dad had full-time jobs and so they knew they would not be able to tutor us after long days of work.

I'm sure to this day there are some parents who send their children to Montessori schools for that reason, but I think most will say that it's child stress that they're avoiding (well, I'm sure they're glad they don't have to spend hours on homework either!). What is widely misunderstood, however, is that there is ABSOLUTELY no homework in Montessori schools.

In the preschool level (called Casa), children do not have homework at all. Their days are full of discovery and absorption through Montessori materials that are tailored to develop the necessary skills for their age group (3-6 years old). It is therefore not customary for teachers to ask Casa students to bring home homework. Personally, I think doing so will lead to premature child stress.

My 2 1/2 year old son, Ton, working in his Casa class.

In the lower elementary levels (Grades 1 to 3 in traditional schools), homework is given to students who need extra work to master skills necessary for their grade level. For example, in my daughter's class, everyone had to bring home their Filipino workbook for summer because all the kids in the class were not able to finish answering questions in the book. Usually, too, the homework given is so "everyday" that as a parent you will wonder why it's called "homework." When my daughter spent her summer vacation in the US, the teacher asked her to do "homework." She wasn't given tons of worksheets but was asked to prepare a "picture journal" for her to share with the class when she gets back.

My (then 6 year old) daughter, Gabby, measuring her foot

In the upper elementary levels (typically Grades 4 to 6), homework is given more frequently mainly to teach Montessori children to adapt to increasing school demands. Homework is never in the traditional form of "read 6 chapters tonight and answer the questions from pages 1-240 and finish your science project today and write an essay for the school newspaper (or else you will kneel on mongo beans)." (My friend was actually asked to kneel on mongo beans in the 1970s at an all-girls Catholic school.) In the upper grades homework is usually in the form of real-life tasks and activities such as, "watch The Chronicles of Narnia" (in preparation for a book report to be done in school) or "visit Ayala Museum's exhibit of artwork by Romeo Tabuena" (for a future discussion on modern Filipino art, for example). Sometimes, the teacher feels that reinforcement is needed for a particular lesson and therefore gives some worksheets for supplementary practice.

One of the biggest criticisms about Montessori and the (apparent) lack of homework is that it will not teach the child how to handle the stresses of school life in high school and college. Some say this eventually leads to frequent procrastination even in the Montessori adult. I will not object violently because I have my moments of procrastination but I am also a great planner. I love party planning and scheduling and executing according to my timeframe. I believe that the procrastination is not exclusive to the Montessori high schooler, college student or adult. It's random.

As a high school student at Manila Science High School, I would prepare for exams early by typing out reviewers (left side in red ink containing the answers, right side in black ink containing the description or question). In college I went more "high tech" by preparing audio reviewers for myself a week or so before my exams. (Hey, the walkman was still pretty high-tech back then!... I hear my daughter asking, "what's a walkman?") Of course I wasn't perfect because there would be days when that reviewer would be typed the day before the test and I would be forced to stay up until 4am to review. But heck, even when the reviewer was prepared days in advance I would not relax until I was confident I would do well... even if it meant sleeping at 2 am.

I always look back at my Montessori years and remember so many fond and happy memories. I never dreaded school, I didn't like being absent, I always wanted to challenge myself by asking the teacher for homework even if I didn't need it. For me, homework was like a treat. And I looked forward to answering the questions and bringing it back the next day.

I would not say the same for my high school life. There would be days when the stress would weigh me down. There would be days when admittedly (Hi, Mama, don't get mad) I would fake an illness just to be begged by my mom to stay home ("Hahaha, it worked! Now time to wipe off that fake slime off my nose...")

Now that my daughter is in a Montessori school- do I worry that she will not be able to handle the stresses of high school life? YES (all parents, Montessori or not, worry). Do I think she will survive? DEFINITELY. Because in the end that is what Montessori has taught me to do- to trust in the intelligence of my child. Many parents have done so and many have not been disappointed.

Friday, July 24, 2009

My Husband's Leap of Faith

Even when I lived in the US, there was no other option for my kids except a Montessori school. My husband was partly a product of a very strict, Catholic, all-boys elementary school and a very strict, traditional, geek factory of a science high school. So it was a little bit difficult for me to convince him to give up his notion that "child stress leads to adult success."

I guess what eventually made him give it a try was living proof- me and my siblings all went to a Montessori school for preschool and elementary and he was amazed at (pardon the humility) our intelligence, creativity and adaptability. He would call us sisters "Renaissance women." My "ate" (older sister) is a B.S. Statistics graduate who gave up a computer programming career to be a model and then an editor for Cosmopolitan magazine Philippines. My other sister is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, a journalist and now works in Wall Street. I have not achieved such great lengths but I am a Food scientist, occasional writer, balloon decorator, party planner, baker, quilter, and jewelry designer among others.

I think he was able to envision our 6 year old daughter (she was 2 back then) turn into one of us. Maybe it's genes or the whole Montessori experience but lately she is showing signs of eventually becoming one of us (it's sounding like an alien movie... "come, be one of uhssss... teeneeneenee, teeneeneenee (UFO music)).

A few months ago, while my husband and I were off to an island vacation, she convinced my mom to help her put up an "art show." The day before the show, she asked all the yayas (nannies) and her little brother to make some drawings for the art show. Of course she made a few of her own as well. On the day of the art show, she made name tags for all the participants- 2 baby siblings, yayas, and her grandparents. She posted all the artwork on the wall of my mom's guest room. Everyone was required to wait outside the room for the "ribbon cutting" ceremony. After everyone entered the room, they were served "tea." The day ended with her lolo and lola (grandpa and grandma) buying some of her pieces for P 50 (over a $1) each.

Yayas admiring their artwork

Lolo buys a drawing...Gabby made P150!
(hey, how come no one bought the yayas' drawings???)

For me, maybe that's what is wonderful about growing up Montessori. It's great to see kids conceptualize a concept, prepare and plan, and then execute. It's great to see how they are able to see the tiny details that many of us grownups overlook. It's great to see them carry out their ideas with confidence and pride. But the greatest thing is always how happy they are doing it. In the end, that's one of the things we Montessori parents want for our kids- to see them happy doing their work and to see them happy learning.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Montessori Child comes back home

Eight years of my childhood I spent in a Montessori school. I wasn't aware of it back then, for me it was just fun, but little did I know that all those days i spent working with those Montessori materials and doing practical life exercises (buttoning, sweeping, pouring water, etc.)- those days would shape me into who I am today.

That's me, leftmost, at age 4.

It's been 27 years since I left my Montessori elementary school. But today I've come back. I've come home to what's familiar, what's comforting, what I believe in. I am starting real "work" again today after 8 years. I didn't have to- my husband (though he probably hated it) was supporting me and all my needs and wants. I really didn't want to either- for all those 8 years all I knew with certainty that I wanted to do as a a career was to teach. I was a preschool teacher once 9 years ago and I have never stopped believing (until now) that those were the best years of my working life.

That's how it happened. My daughter, Gabby, is a student at the same Montessori school that I went to many years ago. She's been there a year now and for a year I've been pestering Gabby's teacher as to whether they would take me in as a CASA (preschool) teacher if I applied for the job. She would say yes, but also "is that what you really want to do?" And I wouldn't know the answer... until I was formally asked one day by the School Director, "I heard you want to be a part of the school? Let's talk." And that's how it began. That's how I ended up being the Admissions and Alumni Coordinator of my Montessori school.