It's that time of year, when families are thinking about their children's registration for the Fall semester and visiting different schools. Observing in a Montessori classroom offers an insight into the rhythm and climate of the prepared environment, but it sometimes needs a little translation. Because so much of the peacefulness and productivity of the Montessori classrooms is tied to the preparation of those classrooms (including the preparation of the adults within them,) observing them "in real time" means preparing yourself for the experience.
First, expect that there will be rules for how to observe. If you haven't thought ahead about it, this might come as a surprise, and you may wonder whether the school is being too restrictive or too controlling in asking you to follow some guidelines in the classrooms. Quite the opposite: it is because we are protecting the freedoms for the child that we suggest some limits for the adult. The Montessori classroom you'll observe in January is not the same as the one you'd see in August or September: children have settled in to a rhythm and pace for the classroom. They are largely self-directed. They know how the classroom operates and they understand the ways in which they are responsible to each other. And within those parameters, they have great freedom. The a peaceful climate of twenty-four or thirty children at a time exists because of the small dynamics that are unfolding between them, the way a dancer's body may look graceful and at ease but is dependent on the coordination of over 600 muscles all at once. To protect that, you may be asked to observe from behind glass, or to observe only at particular times of day or on particular days of the week.
You'll likely be asked to sit in a particular chair or observe the classroom from behind glass. This is to allow you to see as much of the classroom as possible without interfering with that dance that makes it possible. Allow yourself the time and quiet for this observation. Take the time to watch carefully: notice what materials children select from the shelf. Notice the attention they pay to the lessons in front of them. Listen in for the conversations between children and their teachers, or the conversations children have with themselves under their breaths as they're moving about the room. Notice how the room may feel busy but the work of any one child may be focused and mindful. Notice when children exclaim, when they are too excited about something they've discovered or realized about the world to hold it in. Make yourself comfortable with the quiet space of the observer.
You may find yourself greeted by a child. In some classrooms, a child may invite you to sit down or offer you a cup of tea. If a child treats you as a guest, offering you a drink or asking if there's anything you need, understand that this is a part of the Grace and Courtesy curriculum. If you're thirsty, accept the tea. If you're not, graciously decline. The children may treat you like an honored guest in their environment - as you are! Feel free to accept or decline their hospitality in the same way you would at a friend's house. Be careful, though, not to interrupt children while they're working. Feel free to smile and acknowledge children who acknowledge you, but otherwise try to blend into the background and draw less attention to yourself. You'll get a more authentic look at the classroom if you do.
While you're observing, look for the keystones of Montessori education: independence, concentration, coordination and order. You should see children demonstrating varying capacities in each area. Some children may be deeply attentive, but still need support with some of the skills required for full independence in the classroom. Some may be clumsy or wobbly, but once they get their materials to a table, precise in the layout and organization of their work. These are skills that develop over three years, but you should be able to see evidence of the ways in which they are supported.
Then, gauge the climate of the classroom. Although likely more quiet than you were expecting from a large community of small children, are the children seemingly at ease? Are the teachers calm in their demeanor? Are conversations happening between people, instead of announcements from the teacher toward the class? Do you see children who seem to understand how to contribute to this space? Do you see them engaging with each other in a variety of activities? Does it take you a while to notice the adults? You should feel like you're peeking in to a community of mostly equal participants, in which any individual is moving about his or her activities, aware and attentive to their impact on the classroom, but not all at the same time or directed by an adult. It should feel more like you're observing a busy society at work (like the layouts in the old Richard Scarry Busy Books) rather than a traditional classroom lined with desks in rows.
Finally, make note of the things you don't understand, and be sure to ask about them when you're out of the classroom. Are there particular materials that grab your attention? Are there interactions between teachers and children that seem interesting or curious to you? Ask questions after your visit that help you to make more sense of what you've seen.
While you can't get a complete picture of any school in a single day's observation, you can get a sense of what it might feel like to be there more often. You should use your observation to identify new questions you'd like to ask, but understand that any moment is only a single moment; begin by asking whether your observation is typical for most days in the classroom. You should be able to notice whether the contributors to that community seem at ease and comfortable. You should be able to notice whether the space seems driven by children's interests or directed by adults. And you should be able to begin to imagine your own child, despite how different things may be at home before Montessori, thriving in the classroom you see. Observing in a Montessori classroom should be one of the first steps in developing an ongoing relationship with the other members of that community, a relationship that will grow and deepen as your child's influence there does as well.