Visiting the Elementary Classroom
So, maybe by now you know that observing in your child's classroom is going to be its own special adventure. You'll see some things that make you curious, some that make you proud, and maybe one or two that make you think you might be a little wacky to have agreed to this Montessori thing. Visiting your child's Elementary classroom promises to be all these things and more.
First, buckle up. If you're expecting the quiet, peaceful wonderment of the Early Childhood classroom, think again. Montessori Elementary classrooms reflect the very different developmental needs of 6-12 year olds. They're far more active than the Early Childhood classrooms. They're louder. They're often much messier. In the same way that one seven year old can be the same size as the five year olds in the Early Childhood classroom and another one has legs too long to fit under a table anymore, the Elementary classroom is wildly diverse. If you're familiar with the simple parallel play or deeply focused engagement of the Early Childhood classroom, the Elementary classroom might look, at first glance, like you're watching a pack of feral children.
It's ok. I promise.
Children at this age are in erratic bodies, thinking big thoughts and absorbed by social engagements. They have both the intrinsic desire to be an active part of their peer groups and limited experience knowing how to do it. They want social justice and fairness, equality and equity, and also they sometimes grow three inches over the weekend and their bodies hurt. It's a bumpy time.
When you're observing in an Elementary classroom, you may see children who are deeply engaged in personally motivating intellectual work, but you're just as likely to see children working in groups of four or five children at once and paying much more attention to the socialization than to the work. That's part of this period of development. You may see teachers who seem largely hands-off but who then seem to know how to swoop in just before a conflict arises or just after, when it's not too fiery, and help children to slow down and articulate their perspectives more clearly. You're likely to see adults who function like air traffic control, keeping the many moving parts of an Elementary classroom moving all at once and, most of the time, in the same direction.
You might wonder how the children get anything done.
You might wonder if all they ever do is socialize.
You might wonder if the teacher could possibly have all this movement in their head at once.
Simply: they get lots done, often through socializing, and, yes, the teachers are on top of it.
This is a great time to frame your observation in terms of, "I was expecting to see... and I saw ..... instead." Then, when you are talking with your child or their teacher afterward, you can ask follow up questions that identify what your presumptions were about this age or this level classroom and also what parts of the classroom you noticed most. For example, you might have been "expecting to see kids sitting at desks working on paper based projects," and instead you saw, "children flopped on the ground talking about paper airplanes." A parent who offered that feedback to their child or their child's teacher would be able to open the conversation both to what they think learning in Elementary should look like and the place they thought was the most distinct from it. From there, your child (or their teacher) is likely to tell you more than you ever imagined about why we don't sit at desks and work on the same project all the time and why we do actually learn quite a lot in engaged, seemingly floppy conversations about things like paper airplanes. Because the Elementary program can be so vividly reflective of the dynamic lives of the children there each day, having specific things you noticed to ask more about will give you a better starting point to realize just how much the teachers know, and just how much the children really are learning here.
Part of why many Montessori schools offer fewer Elementary classrooms than Early Childhood is because the Elementary program is so distinct from what traditional classrooms look like that it can be a bigger leap of faith for parents. You know that going in. Use your observation to better understand how what you observe reflects deep, meaningful and sustainable learning. Let it be the beginning of an ongoing conversation about how children develop in general and how your child in particular is developing. The more you know, the less curious these spaces will feel, and the more confident you'll be that, even when it looks weird, children here are learning deeply, in a way that reflects their unique development and which will support them for years to come, even if they choose a more traditional setting in the future.