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.