Montessori Elementary Homeschool Blog - with documentation of our infant Montessori, toddler Montessori, and primary Montessori experiences; as well as preparation for the upcoming adolescent Montessori homeschool years.

Primary Student Teaching

I have received many private requests for more details on my first primary level student teaching experience - the children were not engaging and how a fantastic sub and myself were able to turn the class around, with astounding results. This page is a work-in-progress.

You will want to read that post first, so that the rest of this makes sense.

Additional background:
The lead teacher has bi-polar, but none of us knew it for sure. She was also in the middle of a crisis of her faith (she had left her faith years before but was feeling pulled to return) and her father was on-again/off-again dying. He too was suffering from a mental illness. He was in Europe; she was in the States.

I babysat her two sons occasionally throughout the year (they attended a different elementary Montessori school and had a part-time nanny as well).

She had trained at the same center I had, 2 years previous, so this was her second year in this classroom; thus that year's kindergartners had a different teacher their first year. She had a quiet manner with the children, but was "fun". The children enjoyed her and she seemed to connect well with them.

She had one aide in the classroom, no Montessori background; and a hallway aide to monitor the hall and bathroom and to be there for licensing purposes. The original aide she hired called in once or a twice a week and I subbed for her on those mornings. We had a loose agreement that I would always be available Tuesday mornings at least (our papers were due on Tuesdays - mine were always done Friday night or Saturday - she did hers Tuesday morning...). She was unmarried with no children and had financial support. I was also unmarried, with a 3 year old son, living on meager savings, student loans and food stamps. I had applied for the job 3 days too late!

By October, she had put in her resignation - it coincided with our time of observing in various Montessori schools, so I officially took over after the required full-day observations. She then subbed for ME 1-2 mornings a week so I could get in the remaining required morning observations.

There was a LOT of trepidation on the part of the (parent-run) school board - if she couldn't handle the stresses of training and the job, how could Jessica possibly handle it!? Jessica had someone to live for, that's how! Legoboy's need for snuggling, food, bedtime, prayer, and general attention from mommy, kept me from wasting any precious moment of focus. I know he needs food in half an hour, I WILL get this section of this paper done by then. End of discussion.

I was also working a very part-time job at a church nursery on Sunday mornings after we attended Mass at our own church - great time to socialize with non-Montessori families. Once a month I helped to clean the adoration chapel as our devotional time. It kept me scheduled; it kept me focused; it kept me from totally losing my mind from TOO much focus. Just the right amount of distraction. A friend treated us to a cabin rental at a resort for Thanksgiving - we took food and prepared it and ate it; and watched a few shows on Sci-Fi, took walks in the snow and otherwise just took a true vacation. It's the last one I ever took until now ;) I didn't need to go out with friends to relax - I could snuggle with a 3 year old and watch Milo and Otis ;)

It wasn't easy. But it was temporary.

I started out the year using those morning hours to stay ahead of the work load; then I was allowed to work on some things while sitting in the hallway (more often than not I was on the computer typing things up, but was always available when a child went to the hall). I prepared and repaired materials, prepared the room beforehand, set up new presentations, searched the storage room for missing or replacement materials, created materials on the computer, answered phone calls, prepared registration packets, assisted with creating grant requests and materials orders, fixed copy machines, and other than BEING the administrator, was really involved in ALL of it. Two years later, after moving half a country away, I still received phone calls and e-mails requesting my insight on areas of administration and background organization.
(the new teacher the following year was in training with me, and while she was getting her own feet wet in her full-time position, she too consulted me rather routinely the first year - more to make sure she was on the right track, sometimes to see if there was any background info she could use for a particular child). I visited the school at the end of both of those school years (a good friend of mine lives in that area and was in process of being ordained to various Holy Orders; I combined those trips with observations and student teaching in local elementary schools) and Legoboy got to return to "his school". It was a very different and a very wonderful place :)

I was giving presentations to the children as early as October when I was asked to work with a boy on the puzzle maps. The guide just needed another pair of hands for a few minutes. These sort of incidents picked up in intensity until January when I subbed probably 1-2 mornings a week for the guide (lead teacher). In addition to 3-4 times a month for the morning aide; I was ultimately in the classroom a LOT. When I was in there I expected the children to work. Some thought I had 3 heads, but I was always firm and took to heart what my trainer had taught me about normalization - it is OK to give choices if the child can't choose for himself, then give him more freedom as he is capable. Keep the least normalized children close by, the most normalized have a greater circle of freedom.

February things calmed down subbing-wise and became March. Enter student teaching.

By this time, I had seen evidence of the children riding on each other's back during their morning work cycle, playing pretend, using the materials disrespectfully, and if I hear, "what-the!?" one more time, even now, years later, I will probably say something not nice. The children never finished that phrase, it was all one word to them. But it was obnoxious! And NOT the attitude we want to nourish in a Montessori environment.

Day 8:
Day 8 began with welcoming the before-school-care children VERY sweetly and warmly and lovingly.

Then I took the golden bead group (including the hair-cutting girl) into the children's house before the morning work cycle. "Come with me," I said to each one - still sweetly, but firmly. I held two of their hands in mine and we walked right up to the epicenter of the golden bead mess. My words to them follow, note that I did NOT ask "who" or "why". The fact is it happened and it had consequences.
You have used this material inappropriately. I will show you precisely how it works later this morning. Right now, you will gather every single bead and organize it thus. (I placed a sample of each item where it belongs) Come get me when it is properly in place. Do not touch the fish tank. 
I then left them in the children's house to clean it up. My firm (still loving) voice alone was enough to let them know they best not argue and they best get it done. They did a decent job; missing just a few items that were trickier to get (rolled underneath shelves, in the fish tank, too deep inside of narrow containers). When I came back to inspect, I gave them sticky notes.
Place one sticky note in each large location where more beads are located. Place all small items that contain beads onto this table (indicated). Come get me when you are done. (to the girl with the scissors, I walked her to the broom and dustpan) You may take this broom and sweep up every hair from the floor. Ask the other girls to check your work when you are done. Then come get me. 
When it was time for the morning to begin, the sub had arrived and I spoke with her briefly - quick summaries of our respective situations. We agreed to talk more at lunchtime, but we made a plan for the day - I would teach and she would observe, for the most part. Our primary goal sounded similar - let's get these kids working.

I welcomed the children into the children's house in small groups, sitting down at the entrance between the coat room and the children's house to greet them warmly, shake their hands, and explain that there is something special in our room today. There will be sticky notes in various places. They are to leave those notes where they are because they indicate work I need to do in those areas during their lunchtime. I asked the children to tell me their first work choice of the day. If they didn't know (or it wasn't something that would be available), I told them they could walk on the line until I came in with the last child. I did NOT have time in this moment to ascertain which children were at which stage of normalization - thus, they had freedom to pick if they knew what they wanted, or I just picked for them.

When the last child arrived, all the children who were working put their work completely away (some with help).***  I gathered all children to the area near the line and we went through walking on the line. They'd had it early on in the year, but it needed to be reinforced. The official sub was introduced and greeted.

We then gathered together on the floor and I proceeded through the earliest presentations on the bells, having each child practice picking up and carrying a bell. NO, this is NOT group work, but we are talking about a group of seriously UN-normalized children in the middle of the school year with a new teacher starting that day and control of self was simply not happening. For a time, our wills would be replacing the children's. THIS IS MONTESSORI if used sparingly and only in dire situations.

The children, for the most part, were intent to please at this point. I was pretty firm when needed, and loving/inviting the rest of the time; they were familiar with me and had trust in me; but I did need to give some reminders to a couple of children who suddenly decided group time was done and they wanted to ride ponies on the line. Nope. "Come back and sit with us. Now."

The bells were out of order (are you surprised?). So I had the children return their bells after practicing carrying them, to a small table next to the bell cabinet. As a group, we then went through a basic listening exercise. Typically, this should be a basic bells presentation of choosing 3 pitches to take out of place, listen to the white bell and find the brown bell that matches. HOWEVER, this was a serious situation to which I wanted to draw LOTS of attention: proper use, care and replacement of the materials. Throughout this time, I continuously demonstrated how to hold the mallet, how to ring the bell, how to dampen the sound, how to carry the bell and place it on the shelf. Few words, and pointing when needed. Rather exaggerated movements and pauses to emphasize the main points.

I played the bells up and down at the end. Then once more. "They sound so beautiful!" I proclaimed! "Let me show you to strike the bells up and down!" And I played the scale two MORE times.

I then quietly sat down next to the bells after replacing the mallet and damper to their place. I sat quietly for the moment and the children just watched and waited. I had their attention! "I will call each of your names. Please come to me and tell me which work you will be doing now. I will help you select your work if you need help. If you already know, you might quietly place your hand on your shoulder and wait for me to call you." This gave them time to select their work before being called. Some of the children chose appropriate work. Some wanted to play dragons. I did allow 1 child to take the colored pencils and draw pictures for a short time. The sub took a small group of children to work on the early sensorial material; I observed and re-directed and gave quick "reminder" presentations or gave presentations where I could be showing something for the child to DO and still be speaking with another child. When the sub was done, I took a group of 5 year olds to do an extension (game) with some of the sensorial material - building the tower, scattering the items around the environment and locating them in a particular sequence with particular language (bring me a cube in the middle; now bring me one smaller than this; now bring me the one just larger than this one; etc.). Not as easy as it looks!

The girl who'd done the hair-cutting received a new presentation on cutting with scissors, by keeping the tip touching the table.

From there, it was really just reinforcing, "Here are your work choices. Choose A or choose B." And a lot of showing some shorter presentations. Because of the nature of the environment that morning, I told the one group of girls I would meet with them that afternoon.

We gathered them into a group again at the end, the sub shared a little bit about herself and where she was originally from (her mother actually trained with Maria Montessori and she herself was in a Montessori school her entire childhood....).

Over lunch, we discussed a LOT more details, we discussed the lay-out of the room and my ideas for it (which came from training) - she thoroughly agreed and helped me to fine-tune my thoughts; gave her requests. I told her we would make it happen after school that day.

That afternoon, we took the kindergartners and worked with them separately. She took the children who had not created the mess the day before; and I took the children who created the golden bead mess. One girl was not in kindergarten but she was in the afternoon-care, so I went to that room to get her. The afternoon-care teacher was not happy I was taking "her" child, but I assured her that the young lady had some work to do. (Why is it that adults are so afraid of good things for children???? At least the morning aide (who does naptime then is the aide for the afternoon-care teacher, stepped up for me to say, "no, really, she needs to back to the children's house.") We went all around the room to move shelves, use tools and everything else we needed to get our golden beads back, including using a strainer to get the items out of the fish tank. We washed them all off; then I presented the change game to them. They'd seen it; but needed a new presentation. Then we reviewed the operations they knew. By this time, our time was up and they cleaned everything up and put it away entirely properly.

Re-arranging the environment: 
The sub left for the day, and I pulled out my albums and the normal teacher's albums. I started to get a sense for what would go where. The morning aide came back in when most of the children had gone home and helped me rearrange - we didn't really move shelving very much - it was more of what was on the shelves and where. I let him know which children were allowed in certain areas (for example, I set up the farm such that its area was rather blocked off - it would be easy to maintain ONLY the oldest children in that area).

All the materials were placed in order of use according to the album scope/sequence; many materials needed to be gathered from other places because they'd never been out. We got the rest of the bead chains hung up (no bead cabinet at this time - that came the following summer). In the end, the environment became a very visual environment for me.

I removed ALL items that were not alluded to in the albums. There is some leeway with some things, variations that are acceptable. But the lead teacher had brought in dry erase worksheets for the children to trace for writing practice (line drawing on laminated pages?) - I removed them and placed the sandpaper letters in a place of honor next to the sand tray for the oldest children. I removed the coloring pages and the mazes worksheets she'd many times had the kindergartners working on to improve their handwriting and gave them the metal insets presentations, challenges with the knobbed cylinders, and honed in on the remaining language album presentations.

I cannot stress these enough:
  • ONLY what is in your albums
  • ALL that is in your albums (some wiggle room for introducing materials that need to be made or purchased or to keep something special)
  • in the ORDER it is in your albums (some wiggle room for display purposes; and some things have no particular order)
  • *carefully* consider each and every practical life item - does it truly meet each of the key principles for practical life or are you introducing something that will distract from the core materials? 
  • At appropriate times, remove some of the practical life. If the children no longer need it for skill development on that skill or skill development on focus/concentration/order-of-use/work-cycle, then let it go. You can always get it back out if/when needed. 
  • Advanced practical life specifically for the 5-6 year olds
  • handcraft work - sewing, weaving
  • cooking - is there food preparation available other than snack? Could be something for the fun of it; could be something they are helping to prepare for a group meal (like chopping vegetables for a stew); could be something they prepare and share with a friend or prepare and take home. 
  • plant/animal care - with clear instructions available
  • Bells - Line - Silence - are they happening??? Every day? 
  • Do you have all the extensions noted in the albums? (not printed cards with pictures of the sensorial materials - I mean language labels, blindfolds, advanced command cards that go beyond the basic phonetic and phonogram commands already provided)
  • REMOVE ALL HINDRANCES to development - ALL hindrances to trust in the child's development. 

(then once the children are normalized, you can introduce items of interest that will continue their development - there IS room for variation - make sure it is child-led and child-needed, not something the adult thinks "would be cute" to do. Will this activity actually advance or strengthen this child's development, or will it diffuse his energies?)

Summary of the Day: 
Was I strict that day? YES! Was this anti-Montessori? NO! I respected their needs, I let them know the boundaries were firm, but I didn't threaten or dole out punishments. "Here is what you did; here is the consequence - this all needs to be corrected. I see you need to learn how to use this material properly, I'll show you." They still had choices according their ability to be respectful of themselves, their classmates, and the materials.

DAY 9 and onward: 

We repeated the morning procedure - tell me your work choice or I'll give you two choices (a couple of children were given their only work choice). Then it was a lot of presentations from both myself and the sub. She focused on the sensorial materials and some practical life. I focused more on the math and reading.

Group time varied throughout the morning to give some of those large group presentations, grace and courtesy, share stories, etc. The children could call group time and whoever wanted to come could do so.

We did have to specify time and again which behaviors were not ok in the children's house (the afternoon care person allowed the pony rides - and her space was even smaller!). But this eased up.

Walking on the line happened daily; silence activity daily by the end of the first week.

I used some of the before-school time, the after-school time, and the afternoon time to get together with small particular groups or individuals on specific skills.

In summary, these children needed real work, straight from the albums, delving deep - sometimes going back before their "age" and sometimes just giving them what they needed - YES, 5 year olds should be using the sensorial materials (one sample described above). As they picked up reading skills, I wrote out what they needed to bring rather than saying it.

3 girls in particular did very well working together in reading. I did use a set of booklets found in the storage closet after we went through all the phonetic and phonogram reading exercises and they still didn't have proper reading confidence - an environment with all the booklets listed in the albums wouldn't have needed these (we had minimal booklets and I am not opposed to using little readers for confidence-building - I would NOT use them as the teaching tool itself). By the end of those 2 weeks, a total of 9 children went from no or minimal reading skills to 2nd grade reading level; 2 of those children jumped to 3rd grade at the end of those two weeks. By the end of that school year, all of these children were reading approximately 5th grade level books at home. Other children in the class also gained reading skills but I did not record their progress as much because they were younger and had so much time with it.

We laughed a LOT. We sang songs a LOT. We cried at times - particularly when an older child knew they should be able to do something and they couldn't, so they were doing a "baby work" to learn it. Many times I'd take these children into the other room so that the usual aide could be back in the children's house and the child in question could learn the skill in peace - and usually very quickly when the pressure was off.

My trainer came to observe and I was trying so hard to JUST be the student teacher (not the lead teacher) that it just didn't go well. She never did meet with me about the details, but she said, "Mistakes were made." I do wish she had specified! I can guess a couple, but I think she chose not to harp on any of it because she recognized the situation was not ideal for a student teacher and if I'd been the lead teacher the "mistakes" made would not have been mistakes. In other words, the mistakes in question are role-specific. I'll tell you one mistake - I made a child come receive a presentation even though at that time ALL the children were actually working fine. But Molly was there and needed to see a presentation given. I even told the child, "My teacher is here to see how I give presentations, and I know you've not yet seen the metal inset work done properly." NOT the thing to say in front of your trainer! But I was honest with the children about the situation.

During the two weeks I was at the other school, I was the after-school teacher (from 3:30 to 5:30), so I was able to use some of that time to just chat with the children, find out their interests and ultimately bring those interests into their daytime work.

For those of you who noticed the discrepancy between school closing at 5:30 and me picking up my son at 5:40 - our training sessions ran from 1:00-5:30 daily. When we first visited with the teacher at his school and asked if there was someone she recommended could babysit him for that little extra time she said that I would never be charged late fees as long as I got there at 5:40. The afternoon person needed to use the time from 5:30-5:50 to clean up anyway and was not supposed to do that cleaning when the children were present. So Legoboy would go back into the children's house by himself (door was open) while she cleaned. Typically when I picked him up, I'd hang out in there anyway to spend more time with some material or practice giving him a presentation - or more likely work on illustrations ;)

Notes from above:

*** I FIRMLY believe that most children should NOT leave their work out; if you are calling for a small group meeting, announcements or the like, they can leave their work out; if the presentation you are going to give or the activity you are going to do might change their work choices, best to put away their other work. If the interest was still there, it will remain and they will return. If you are calling them to an activity that is more than a few minutes, their energies might be directed elsewhere, so still best to put their work away. FOR THE MOST PART, children who leave their work for more than 20 minutes don't come back to it and sometimes don't remember to put it away or HOW to put it away. We also want to develop in primary the habit of always cleaning up after one-self, so that in elementary when they don't have an inclination to clean up (and they have BIGGER projects), they will be much more disciplined about cleaning things up as they go - not perfect, but better!

*** Having all the materials out at the start of the year? I see the benefit of limiting some choices in the beginning; but I do not see the benefit of keeping the shelves bare through more than the first month. If the children are being properly normalized, it's just not necessary to limit their choices - and you have 3 years' worth of children who should have the opportunity to go back to anything they've already seen. And they need to see what is coming - incentive to work hard and well on what they have, because they SEE that it leads somewhere and they'll need this knowledge to have success with that next item.

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