Mamatoga Q&A: Kerry Brader Henley, Head of School at Malta Montessori School

Maria-Montessori-3January might not feel like Back to School time, but it is registration time for next year's preschoolers. This month on the blog I'm going to be featuring some Q&As and highlighting some local preschools to give you all an idea of what options are out there for your little one. Today I'm talking with Kerry Brader Henley, the Head of School at Malta Montessori School about the Montessori approach to learning and what makes their school special. To learn more, visit their website here. Mamatoga: What are some of the key ideas about the Montessori approach to teaching children?

Kerry Brader Henley: Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy's first female physician, devoted much of her life's work to observing young children in a learning environment.  She did so with the keen mind of an educated physician and out of those observations, she became acutely aware that children are born with very absorbent minds and quite naturally soak up information from their environment with ease.  Dr. Montessori maintained that given a beautiful, orderly environment that allowed students to explore concepts at will, children will educate themselves at a pace and manner that is filled with ease and wonder, rather than stress and struggle.

One might wonder "How on earth did she think letting little kids run around and 'explore' stuff without 'teaching' them would be a workable plan? That plan, it may seem, is one for chaos!"  And so goes the popular myths about Montessori classrooms, that kids get to do whatever they want and they somehow magically learn things.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Montessori teachers are trained extensively in creating a "prepared environment" in the classroom.  This means that Unit topics are chosen for their importance and relevance to the lives of preschoolers. It means that learning materials are carefully chosen and placed in the classroom to maximize the absorption of information by chubby little hands.  Many, many lessons are given on those learning materials.  Story books are chosen that accentuate the interesting facts about a particular topic and many discussions are held with all of those curious little minds in the classroom about the topics at hand. Many more lessons are given to young students, both individual and very small group lessons. Teachers train the children daily on the proper way to conduct themselves within the environment and they follow through, follow through, follow through.  It is important to note that lessons are given on gracious and courteous behavior, as well as math, language and geography and culture. It's the expectation of gracious and courteous behavior that shapes the very atmosphere of our classrooms.

M: What can people expect to find in your classrooms?

KBH: Typically, Montessori classrooms are divided into several curriculum areas: Practical Life, Language, Mathematics, Sensorial, and Culture and Geography.  Each area has specific learning materials that facilitate the learning of skills related to the curriculum area.  For instance, the Practical Life area is usually set up near the kitchen area because many skills taught in the classroom are related to cleaning up after oneself. Dishwashing, floor sweeping, pouring themselves a drink: these are all lessons given to Montessori students with the expectation that not only should they be expected to clean up after themselves, but that they will do so because the enjoy caring for their environment and experience themselves as an important contribution when doing so.  In fact, lessons on caring for the environment and caring for oneself are  integral to the Practical Life Curriculum.  Most Montessori teachers (and parents) will tell you that in this part of the curriculum, a student's sense of independence expands dramatically, because they have been dignified with the opportunity to do things for themselves.  Their sense of self-control becomes evident in their willingness (and if they are three....passionate insistence!) to do things "myself"!  In all areas of the Montessori curriculum, children are first given lessons on specific learning materials and are then invited to practice those lessons using the materials as often as they like, until they reach a level of mastery and become ready for advancement to another lesson. Teachers regularly check for progress with all students and track progress.

M: What makes the Montessori approach different from the more “traditional” types of education?

KBH: When visiting a Montessori classroom, most adults are surprised to find children moving about calmly and freely and taking trays off shelves and carrying them to tables to work, or laying small rugs down on the floor for designated work areas. Choosing one's own work is integral to the Montessori environment.  If a child has a hard time selecting materials, the teacher will gladly assist them in choosing learning materials that are appropriate for their level.  Children might be sharing work, such as completing a Continent puzzle map.  Some may be working independently, some may be sitting at the snack table, finishing up snack and getting ready to wash their own dish at a child-sized sink.  All children are expected to clean up after themselves and restore order to the classroom, even the tiny 3 year olds, who are so proud of themselves! The classrooms are usually quieter than traditional classrooms because teachers model whispering in the classroom and take on the role of guide rather than director.  Only on rare occasions does a Montessori teacher address the entire class as a whole.  All Montessori classrooms are multi-age groups, meaning they contain children ranging in ages from 3 to 6. This allows the oldest children to model skills for younger children, such as higher levels of counting, reading and mathematical operations such as addition and subtraction. For this reason, teachers do not give lessons to the entire class at once, since multi-age grouping naturally contains multiple levels and rates of learning.  Classroom wall decoration is kept to a minimum, resulting in a very clean, uncluttered style. This is to avoid distracting children from their primary task of learning and building their powers of concentration.  It also trains children to appreciate a sense of order in their environment.

M: What is a typical day like at Malta Montessori?

KBH: A typical day at a Montessori Children's House classroom begins with children arriving and storing their belongings (removing their own shoes, hanging their own coat) and getting right to work by choosing their own materials, maybe something on a tray or in a basket that peaks their curiosity. One child is responsible for bringing and preparing snack for the classroom. When they are finished and snack is ready, children are invited to serve themselves snack and clean up after themselves. Daily circle sessions usually include a story about the monthly Cultural unit and a presentation. For the month of November, the Monthly unit is Native Americans, so children might have a "tasting experience" of corn, beans and squash to learn about the 'Three Sisters" of Native American lore and diet.  The work period resumes after circle and children are encouraged to choose their own work. The morning period ends with an half hour on the playground, enjoying fresh air with friends.  After recess, lunch resumes and children assist in setting up the classroom for lunch with their classmates.  Once again, classmates clean up after themselves and restore order to the classroom before resuming classroom work.  The day ends with a second dose of fresh air and fun on the playground.

M: If you could tell readers one thing about Malta Montessori, what would you want them to know? KBH: At Malta Montessori, parents can expect to find a school atmosphere that truly celebrates many world cultures and welcomes their expression. The parents who choose to send their children to the Malta Montessori School are looking for a rich learning experience where their children can learn at their own place.  We are a community of students, teachers, parents and families whose primary aim is to rejoice in the short span of time that is childhood and infuse it with the richness brought by curiosity, intelligence, wonder and dignity. We are happy to have families join us!

Many thanks to Kerry for giving us a peek into the world of Malta Montessori, stay tuned for more in depth features on local schools. You can also find out more about many local preschools at the upcoming Preschool Fair (see flyer below for details).

2015 Preschool Fair Poster [FINAL]