We were invited by the kids’ school to go for an observation this week. This is an aspect of their school that I can’t praise enough. I’m sure all parents are itching to know what stuff their kids do in school. Kids are, typically, less than forthcoming. The Montessori system does not require notebooks or textbooks in the first two years, so we know even less than we might in the kindergarten system. An observation is our opportunity to find out what our kids are doing in the three-plus hours that they spend in school. We had been for it last year as well, and came away enlightened and delighted in equal measures.
Mriini-Tara were quite thrilled when we told them we’d be going to sit in their class with them. They led us into class somewhat shyly and spread their mats out in a corner next to each other. Their teacher told us they don’t normally sit next to each other and Mrini had already told us in the car, “Nandu and Nirupama and Vaishnavi are Tara’s friends. Navneet is my friend. Only Navneet.” She was very firm about it. (Yes, Navneet is the same boy she kissed a couple of weeks ago – at least she’s constant. And yes, the teacher confirmed that the kiss did, indeed, happen!)
Amit and I sat down on the floor next to the two of them. To start with, Mrini went through several very easy jigsaw puzzles, while Tara worked with great focus on some number-related activity. Eventually, with some effort by the teacher, Mrini was also persuaded to work on number-related activities. There were several different activities. The one I’d heard most about was number rods – a set of rods with length from one to ten units. The idea was to arrange the rods in sequence and then count the striped units on the rods and the correct number symbol with each rod. There was another counting activity that involved putting the right number of sticks into various slots; and another activity involving putting some kind of counters in front of the number symbols. What impressed me most was a set of beads. There were ten beads, nine strings of ten beads each, nine square mats made up of ten strings of ten beads each, and finally, a cube, made by stacking ten mats on top of each other. So you had units, tens, hundred, and a thousand, visually reinforcing the numerical, geometrical and decimal relationship between all of them. It was so simple it was beautiful – I wish I’d seen it this way when I was four. This basic concept – especially the concept of square and cube, and of zero (dot) one (string) two (square) and three (cube) dimensions – was never actually tied to the real, physical world when I was a student. They were abstract concepts which I didn’t get my head around until much later. Not that Mrini and Tara have any concept of square and cube right now, or of the decimal system or of dimensions of any kind or number; but when they do begin to understand those concepts, they have something real and physical to understand them by. That is just so nice.
The other activity that their teacher made sure they showed us was sandpaper letters. Both my girls can associate vowel sounds with vowel letters and many/most of the consonant sounds with consonant letters. Mrini can do a few more than Tara and other kids in their class can do more than both, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact is, my girls almost know their letters! Wow! Of course I was swept away by dreams of buying them a truckload of books each – I can hardly wait for them to discover the joy of reading! – but when I asked their teacher, she said it would take another year or so before they learnt to read. Can it possibly take that long to get there once you already know the letters???
Their teacher told us they were now much better at putting away stuff they had worked on – something we still have to get after them to do at home – and that they both were very independent in class. She also said it was possible now to have real discussions with them, which was nice. She pointed out some of their art work, mentioning that it was quite neat now, and they were probably ready to start writing. I told her they’d been practicing zig-zags, 5 and 2 at home.
We sat with them for about an hour. Towards the end, I was getting itchy. I think Amit would have sat there the whole morning, he’s that kind of a doting dad, but I thought the teacher had better give some attention to the other kids in her group as well. With a maximum of 30 kids, 3 teachers and an akka, they weren’t too stretched at any point, but you can’t hog the teacher’s time for too long all the same. Other kids came up to her to ask for work or to show her what they’d done. Several kids showed her words they’d written, and one boy brought his notebook and asked for sums. Yes, he asked for sums! He even knew what numbers he wanted to add – and the teacher let him dictate the questions! And when he didn’t like the colour of the pen she was using, she let him bring her another one.
Meanwhile, the girls were getting itchy too! In the middle, Mrini wandered off to join her friends and find out what Navneet was up to. She came back soon, but not for too long. We kept telling them we’d be leaving in “five minutes” – standard procedure for brining any fun activity to a graceful end – but when we still hadn’t left at the end of fifteen, Mrini gave me a disgusted look and said “bye, mummy,” much too firmly. We took the cue and left!
I was talking to their daycare teacher about it later that day. Their daycare runs a primary kindergarten school, where things are done rather differently. I mentioned to her how much freedom the kids had in the Montessori environment. She surprised me by saying, “It is one of the most disciplined methodologies.” I started to tell her how little discipline there really was, but she was two steps ahead of me. “It allows kids a lot of freedom, so they learn to do their own work, at their own pace, and to enjoy the freedom of being able to walk around without disturbing other kids. That’s what discipline really is. Not being made to sit in one place and be quiet, but knowing that you have to do your own work without disturbing others.” That was a good point.
Overall it was a very nice experience. It is nice to know that one’s kids are actually learning something in school, even if they refuse to show off or even talk about it at home. It’s nice to see the manner in which they are learning, and how much fun it can be. It’s great to watch the independence, freedom, and responsibility that this environment allows them. Best of all was the atmosphere in class. When I sat in class with the girls in June last year, when they had just joined school, it looked like complete chaos. But now it’s August and the class has settled down. A couple of the new kids are still shy, and one boy howled for five minutes when his mother handed him over to the teacher, but apart from that, the kids were all comfortable, happy, and mostly engrossed in their work. The teachers were comfortable, cheerful, firm and un-hassled. Kids were completely comfortable with the teachers, they didn’t even hesitate to sit in the teacher’s lap. Yet… this was school – not somebody’s home, not a playschool, not daycare – this was school.
I don’t have a very clear recollection of what my school was like at this age, but I’m sure that it was nothing like this! I’m so happy our girls are in this warm, bright, and happy place for three whole years.