A few months ago, I became unhappy with Wombat’s schooling. Unhappiness was motivated by these factors:
1. Wombat started every day with “IDONWANNAGOTOSCHOOOOOOOL!!!! NOOOOOO!”
2. Wombat ended every school day with “I waited for you AAAALLL DAAAAY!”
3. I wanted to pay less in tuition so we could make ends meet while I work part-time.
I decided to try to move Wombat to a Montessori program. I chose Montessori because Iggy had done it as a child and loved it, because it sounded like something I myself would have really enjoyed when I was little, and most of all because it seemed to fit Elijah’s personality. You see, for weeks now I would arrive to daycare to find him building huge projects out of blocks – projects he clearly worked on for hours, all by himself, while all other children were bounicing around by the window hitting each other over the head with pillows. Hitting each other over the head with pillows is what the school directors refer to as play-based curriculum. It’s great if you like that sort of thing, but Wombat seemed to want a more structured environment.
He didn’t hit it off with the teachers, either. He started at this center with Miss Shamima, and he was quite attached to her. She also loved him. After moving to the 2s classroom, he never developed a close relationship with the teachers there. It seems to me that the teachers there did not take to him either. I would come in to pick him up and find him laying on the kiddie couch, staring up at the ceiling,clearly bored to tears while the teacher would sit over by the window, braiding hair of girls in the class. (I am sure hair-braiding is also part of the play-based curriculum.)
Ignoring a student is definitely NOT a part of the play-based curriculum though, and that’s what was happening.
“How was Elijah’s day?” I would say when picking him up. “Fine!” the teacher would respond with a polite blank stare. “What did he do?” “Um, he played!” “I should hope that he is fine and that he played! What did you TEACH him today?!” I wanted to say, but instead I would just meekly look at her, hoping that my incredulity would somehow seep in by osmosis and she will clean up her act. Never happened. She really had a way to talk without actually conveying any information. This woman would be a great asset to the CIA. Sadly , her talents are wasted in the childcare sector where parents actually do want to know the details of their children’s daily activities.
We tried to communicate with them better, to no avail. I finally came to realize that if I asked the teacher what Elijah liked, or what his favorite toys were, or his favorite games, or his favorite foods – anything about him, really, I don’t think she would be able to answer. I dont’ think she cares for Elijah much, and he clearly feels the same way about her. Time to cut our losses.
I scouted all Montessori schools in the area, searching for the perfect combination of schedule, cost, curriculum and degree of dogmatism. I wanted to only send Wombat to school 3 days a week – partly to save money, but mostly to maximize my time with him. As long as I’m at home, I’d like to hang out with my Wombatito, and, sadly, not sending him to preschool at all is not an option. But I can at least send him there part time, and provide educational activities for him at home the rest of the time. Right. Like building forts out of couch pillows. Or baking bread. Or tickle fights. Enrichment activities, in short.
In case you are not familiar with Montessori, you can read all about it here. It’s a system of education that allows the child to advance at his or her own pace. Children work individually, on tasks of slowly increasing difficulty, with each child being assigned a task at exactly the level of challenge he needs. Classrooms have mixed-age students, from 3 to 5 years old, with older students helping out the little ones. The emphasis is on learning concrete before the abstract, on using your hands as a way to encourage implicit learning of complicated concepts and on treating learning as exciting, joyful work that is to be taken seriously and passionately. In other words, it is a perfect environment for someone who, at age 3, wants to spend a few hours planning, staffing and building a small city block out of his LEGO set, and who does NOT appreciate being pulled away from this project in order to do some useless song about old McDonald and some money-wasting farm he had.
I picked out several schools in our area, trying to find and tread the line between pedagogical value and social mobility that most schools here offer. Some schools say they focus on child development only – they tend to have a mediocre reputation, a play-based curriculum and a location in a low-earnings neighborhood. Some schools focus on academics as a means to attract the right kind of parent. The kind of parent who would appreciate these academic choices (try Mandarin one time a week, or yoga…. ). And yet some other schools focus on academics combined with a high tuition, so the REALLY right kind of parent can be found – the one who can afford this tuition and the one who appreciates the academics. Preschools are really miniature country clubs in disguise, you see.
Given that we do not have the funds to keep up with the Joneses at preschool country clubs (not to mention my low argyle sweater tolerance), I decided to go with the intermediate school tier: focused on the right kind of parent, yet not totally class-obsessed yet. My objective evaluation of school websites yielded several institutions, and I visited each.
Children’s Manor Montessori:
It’s nice enough, but not that great. The teachers, at first glance, look like they are not being paid very much to be there. Rooms were clean and well-maintained. Playground is very minimal; the school itself is basically in the parking lot and has very small outdoor areas. There is virtually no green space around the school. When I was there, a music class was being conducted by a slightly creepy instructor; several classes of children were there at once, making the lobby space crowded. The school is also not AMS accredited – only AMI; for some parents, that’s an important distinction. At the time, Elijah still attended Bright Horizons, which was not spectacular as I said… and I left Childrens’ Manor thinking that Bright Horizons is not worth leaving for this place.
We only visited the school in Gaithersburg, and it was very nice. Too nice, for my taste. The staff came across as somewhat dogmatic about Montessori approach; the furniture looked like something out of grandma’s house, complete with doilies and china (I understand Montessori requires that the classroom have domestic appearance, but I don’t think it requires that the appearance be circa 1600). Everyone took themselves very seriously. The high point of the visit for me was when the tour guide informed me that as part of practical skills, children polish silver. After a brief euphoric moment when I thought that I must look like a member of the rich elite, I wondered how polishing silver is in any way a practical life skill. It smelled of dogmatic interpretations of Montessori philisophy, and I become very concerned whenever I see dogma. On the walls, there were samples of impeccable student writing. It looked a little too pushy to me for a 3 year old. In short, I felt that this school was tip-toeing too close to looking for not just the right kind of parent, but the right class of parent, and that might be too much.
This school is part of the same network of schools as Franklin. The network has several different school brands, all with their own personalities. Jefferson has a more relaxed feel; it’s located in a more rural area with more land, more woods and more nature surrounding it. There are 2 large playgrounds with great landscaping, and one of the playgrounds includes a little garden for the kids! Children get to plant, harvest and tend to the vegetables, which is super important in my book. Art from students decorated the walls. The director I spoke with was attentive, very detail-oriented and with it, and had things under control. The classrooms were large, spacious, with big windows, loads of light and well-organized materials. And no one polished silver. We signed up.
P.S. We are in our second month of Montessori now, and so far things are going pretty well! (Knocks on wood, spits over the shoulder 3 times). Elijah has been excited to go to school, and he clearly likes this approach better. The teacher tells us he has been choosing practical life skills area a lot, which is fun for him. He is inspired by having older kids around, he is doing lots of new things, he has become more confident. Most importantly, the Montessori method gives him a feeling of control and direction, which has made him less anxious and let him enjoy school way more. Lately he has started saying that he is getting pushed around by some of the older kids a bit, but that might be a good experience for him – better learn to stand up for yourself now than in elementary school, right? Right? And as far as the actual academics go, he is definitely way more engaged and spews out loads of new knowledge on the ride home in the car (“Giraffes have to put their legs far apart when they eat because their necks are so long! Geisers spew steam! It’s very hot!”)
So at least in this one choice, this one change, we seem to have done ok. So far.
There is a new documentary about Elmo!