When I talk about my work, most of the time people have at least heard the word “Montessori”. Sometimes they think it’s a religious school and sometimes they think it’s a preschool system. Even people who know quite a bit about Montessori for elementary often have no idea that there are Montessori middle schools or what they are. This article explains what Montessori for middle school students is; what they learn, how it’s different than traditional school, and what I think is the best part about it.
What is Montessori?
To explain Montessori for middle school, I do need to start with a brief description of what Montessori at the elementary level is. Maria Montessori was a doctor, psychologist, and educator in the early 1900’s. Through observation, trial, and passion she created an entirely different way of teaching children. Here are some of the basic principles in the classroom:
- Montessori follows the development of the child from pre-birth through age 24. The educational system provides parent education as well as school communities to support this development.
- The development is broken up into “Planes” that are 6 years long each (0-6, 6-12, 12-18, 18-24).
- Classrooms (also called environments) are often broken up into 3-year age groups. So, your child might start at age 3, for example, and be in the same environment, with the same teacher until they are 6.
- Moving from a younger to an older environment can occur at any point. Students often move up into their new environment when they are ready. So, for example, a 6-year-old may be ready to move from the 3-6 environment to their 6-9 environment in February, and schools try to allow this transition to occur naturally.
- Environments are organized with choice and development of the child in mind. The materials are carefully placed and maintained by the teacher and students are allowed to choose their work. Teachers are “Guides” that can sit and give short lessons but often observe and change the environment as needed. Materials focus on hands-on work. Practical life skills are just as important as mathematics and reading.
- Work cycles are long—students are allowed uninterrupted work for 2-3 hours at a stretch. They are encouraged to choose things that are most engaging and given the space to start and finish tasks at their own pace. They are allowed to repeat materials as often as they would like. Guides are there to observe, answer questions, and guide students to new areas of academics.
- The sequence of providing materials is very different than traditional school. For example, students are given cursive writing materials at age 3-6. When provided with the full range of writing exercises and vocabulary work, students often transition naturally into “discovering” reading on their own. Materials are intended for students to discover knowledge rather than be taught directly.
What is Montessori for Middle School and How is it Different than Traditional Learning?
Montessori for middle school uses many of these same principles but takes the developmental age of 12-18 in mind. There are many ways in which the adolescent is different than the elementary child in both their body and their mind.
Puberty is one obvious difference. Children grow rapidly, have new hormones in their bodies, and new drives to contend with.
What is less obvious is their new outlook on the world. Suddenly they begin to see social circles and the way that communities are constructed. They begin to ask questions like “Where did we come from?” and “Where do I fit in?” Montessori called the 12-18 year-olds “Social Newborns” for this very reason.
These two factors cause a whole slew of issues. Suddenly, the young child now views himself as an adult. He struggles with inner turmoil and anxiety about his place in the world while at the same time is driven to make deeper connections with peers. Social drives conflict with academic drives. This can add up to conflict with families who still view the child as…well, a child.
Educating the Adolescent
Montessori for middle school takes into consideration this transformation that is happening within the child. It provides rigorous academics, as adult-like in quality as possible, while giving equal regard to their exploration of society. Montessori believed it was best if the child was able to separate from the family, create a micro-society, and explore different roles until the transition calmed down. Here are some of the basic principles of educating the adolescent—and in particular the middle school student:
- Ideally, students live and study away from the family. There are only a few boarding Montessori middle schools in the world, but these are intended to give students space in which to grow into their adult selves. Other Montessori middle schools try to give students as many “odysseys” away from family life as possible.
- Students are in charge of their environments and are given opportunities for practical work that accompanies their academic studies. For example, rather than reading about the four stomachs of ruminants, they may actually raise some cows, or goats, or sheep. Then their studies include both the biology to learn about the animal as well as the work it takes to care for one.
- Similar to elementary, academic lessons should provide materials to work with their hands as much as their minds. There are much fewer “Montessori” materials at the adolescent age because Maria Montessori died at the very beginning of the 12-18 work. However, materials are most commonly found in organic ways such as the microscope to view animal cells, wooden tiles to manipulate algebra equations, and the shovel when cleaning a stall.
- Ideally, the environment is still prepared and students are given large blocks of work time with multiple ages. This tenant has proven to be challenging for many middle schools as state standards require testing for individual subjects. But, the transition to integrate subjects and provide large work cycles is improving all the time.
- Specialists and professionals are often brought into the classroom. Students are often brought to them. Experience with the adult world is paramount to their motivation to learn. They are constantly asking themselves “How will learning this help me?” Montessori for middle school attempts to answer this question by connecting their learning to the adult-world.
- An understanding of the needs of the social newborn are worked into the plan of study. This means that time for reflection is set aside so students can slow down and process their learning: physically, socially and academically. Conflict resolution is intentional and guided as students “bump up” against each other in their practice of society. Wellness is incorporated in their daily lives whether it is physical activity, meditation, or creative expression.
- And finally, the family and local community are very much a part of the process. The students reach out to volunteer in their community. Families are brought into the school to participate and educate each other on their child’s new development.
What is the Best Part about Montessori for Middle School?
In my opinion, the best part about all of Montessori education is the type of people that our children become. Care of self, care of others, and care of the environment is a big part of their education from pre-birth to 18. When this is as much of a focus as academics, the result is a pretty amazing group of children.
Just as importantly, this type of education provides what Montessorians call “valorization”. Valorization is the ability to work with joy and confidence, self-discipline and caring, and above all the unshakeable inner knowledge that one can succeed. For years I’ve watched the transition from elementary child to confident young adult and it is remarkable.
Finally, I would say the last best part of Montessori for middle school is the ability to explore choice and unique learning opportunities. Whether a child is a typical “book worm” or an “overactive young man”, Montessori provides the ideal setting. Students are given a choice to explore their own best learning practices and also their own passion. They are given the confidence that their passions can support themselves in adulthood.
Isn’t this exactly what we all want for our children?