by Eleanor ZuckerIn mixed-age classrooms, older kids learn to help care for the younger ones, and become teachers in their own right, as the younger children look to them for help.
Observation plays an important role in Montessori education, for all the different people involved in a school from the students to the teachers to the parents. Montessori guides (teachers) make regular observations of each child's progress and individual developmental trajectory. On the basis of these consistent observations, the guide determines when the child is ready to be introduced to new learning materials in the classroom. The guide also uses this information to give a detailed summary of the child's progress to his/her parents twice a year during teacher–parent conferences.
Children in the classroom are also encouraged to observe other children working as a way to learn from their peers. The reason behind the Montessori use of mixed-age classrooms is so that younger children can learn from those who are older. Kids may also watch as the guide gives a learning presentation to another child, helping them mentally prepare for the types of activities they will be expected to work on in the future.
At Otoch Paal, every February parents are required to come to the school and observe their child working in his/her classroom. They fill out a worksheet which helps structure their observations and gives feedback to the guides about what the parents observed. Any questions or complaints expressed by the parents are answered by the guides in writing, creating a communication link between family and school, based on the classroom observation.
And, of course, visitors are always welcome to come observe at Otoch Paal. Below we share the observations of a visitor who came to the school in January.
A Visit to Otoch Paal Montessori School in Akumal
by Guest Author Betty Gilgoff
Being a "teacher on leave" from my school district in Vancouver, Canada, I am always curious about school systems in any place that I travel to, so when I was invited to visit the Otoch Paal Montessori Preschool/Kindergarten, I jumped at the chance. I'm familiar with the Montessori philosophy and recently having had visited the site of another Montessori Kindergarten opening in Tulúm, this opportunity to see a school in action was a treat.
The site itself, at the northwest end of the pueblo, is impressive. The compound has a large, open-air court intended as a kitchen, a basketball/play field, a pen for chickens and animals in one corner, an office, and then four beautifully crafted, round classroom buildings. These originally had been designed with traditional Maya construction in mind including palapa-style roofs, however to meet the building requirements of the Mexican Secretary of Public Education, the grass roofs have been changed to cement. Still the space inside is bright and inviting.
At the front gate, we were greeted by the school director, Graciela Avila, and then invited to visit each of the three main classrooms, as well as the fourth where the English classes are taught. True to the Montessori philosophy, the three classrooms are multi-age groupings, each with a teacher, or guide as they are often referred to in the Montessori system, as well as two aides. In addition to being well staffed, the classrooms are generously equipped with beautifully crafted materials: tables, chairs, shelves, carts, mats and a wide variety of developmentally appropriate activities, all intentionally designed to shape a well planned environment for learning. This too is all Montessori: control the environment, not the child. Also true to Montessori form, the rooms are quiet, clean, orderly, yet busy. In each classroom we were offered small chairs near the door where we could quietly observe the students without interrupting the flow or structure of the student activity. I appreciated the opportunity to sit quietly and take in all that was going on, because there was so much to observe.
In the rooms we visited, the small groups of children noticed us. Some smiled, or quietly acknowledged our entrance. In one classroom a child stopped what he was doing to bring us glass of water, explaining quietly that they do that for all of their guests. Generally though, after some initial curiosity from afar, all of the children comfortably carried on with their work, ignoring our presence.,I believe this was for the most part because they were engaged in their own activities. One young girl was washing the morning dishes at a basin all appropriately sized for her four-year-old self. Another was using a small watering jug, complete with a small towel for mopping up drips, to water the plants placed strategically on the groups of miniature-sized desks. In a few cases, we saw children interacting with each other. Two young girls working on matching word cards to pictures, with clearly two different sets of materials, started helping each other out. In another instance, in another classroom, a boy and a girl paired up to complete an activity with blocks. As a child finished an activity, he/she would quietly clean up the material, put everything properly away and then move on to something else, all with very little overt adult intervention. All were seemingly excellent examples of individual choice and freedom for self-directed learning, with the exception of only one young girl who seemed at loose ends, apparently upset about a parent not being there; however even she sulked quietly, turning occasionally to the adults in the room but mostly standing near the door on her own.
The adults in the rooms spoke quietly and tended to spend their time interacting with children individually, asking them about the materials being used or in some cases gently giving instruction or introducing something new, all one on one. Only in the English class, where the activity was clearly more teacher directed, were children waiting on adult interference. Overall I was impressed by the tone of the school, which from the outside looking in could easily have passed for a living testimonial to the success of the Montessori philosophy.
As an educator, what is perhaps even more impressive to me is the little bit that I've learned about how this particular school works within the local community. As well as teaching English, the Mayan language and culture of the people in the community is embedded into the program. The guides are local women who have completed a certification program. As well, to make the program available to any family in the community, tuition is accepted "in kind" through a contribution of time and labor rather than full fees. With small classes and a nurturing and well-planned environment with good staff support, this is clearly an unusual school. Yet its juxtaposition to the local, somewhat crowded, under-equipped public kinder situated right next door, is notable.
About Betty Gilgoff: Betty used to work as an Inservice Faculty Associate for Field Programs at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., Canada. Currently she is a teacher-on-leave from the Vancouver School Board. For this school year from September 2009 through June 2010, she is traveling with her husband, Robert, and 15-year-old daughter, Hannah. The goal is to settle in various communities so as to get involved, experience a different side of life, see a bit of various education systems, improve in Spanish and learn about living life gracefully in another culture. Since September they have lived for several months in both Mallorca, Spain and Akumal, Mexico. They are currently in Akumal until March 31. See a photo blog of their trip.
To see a Montessori preschool in operation, come visit Otoch Paal Community Center in Akumal Pueblo. Otoch Paal welcomes visitors who are interested in seeing how a Montessori center operates. Classes are in session from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday. Visitors are asked to come between 9 and 10:30 a.m.
How you can help. As a non-profit community-based learning center, Otoch Paal does not generate sufficient funds to pay for all necessary school improvements. Monetary donations and donations in kind are always welcome. Donations can be made directly at the school or contact the school Director, Gabriela Ortega.
Are you associated with a Montessori school that could donate used learning materials for the preschool/kindergarten classroom or support the school in some other way? Contact the school principal, Graciela Avila.
Directions to Otoch Paal: The school is located near the back of Akumal Pueblo, on the northern edge of the town. It can be reached by following the Pueblo's main street (avenida) to the fourth block on the right-hand side of the street. After passing the secondary and kindergarten schools (which are on the main street), turn right at the corner where the kindergarten is located, and continue to the next corner. Otoch Paal is next to the kindergarten and the entrance is at the far corner, near the town's edge.
Children observe a classmate working.
Two girls collaborate in the classroom.