Thanks to those who commented on my last Montessori post. We are still struggling with Zack’s daycare situation, and it’s absolutely the most emotional and difficult thing I’ve dealt with as a parent to date. So here’s an update.
Zack cried for three days straight, calling for me pretty much the entire time. We kept thinking that surely he couldn’t persist for another day, and he would acclimate somewhat, but it was going very, very slowly. Finally, on Wednesday night, he was a bit hoarse from crying, and it seemed like he was depressed. He wanted to do nothing but lie around, and when asked, he said he was sad.
So we came up with a plan. My husband took Thursday off from work and went to Montessori with Zack. I took off Friday. My husband’s a freelancer, so he made up his hours on Saturday. I’m a probationary employee at my new job, so I have no sick days or family leave yet. So I just ate a day. Whatever. Totally worth it.
When I did my day, I got to see first hand how the school operates, and I found several troubling issues. First, I’m embarrassed to say that I did not notice how dirty the school is until I was there for many hours. The backs of the little chairs are covered with a layer of grime, left behind from years of grubby little hands. There is no place for our son’s diapers or extra clothes, since his cubby is too small, so those things stayed in a bag on the floor. The playground in the back has many trip areas due to old carpeting or mat edges not being tacked down. The Montessori materials have the same grimy layer as the chairs. When my son was playing with some little bears that he sorted into cups, he said, “There’s a tiny bug in the cup!” And there was. Okay, it was just a little gnat, which could happen even in a pristinely clean school, but bug in the cup didn’t add to my overall impression that the environment is a little gross.
The food isn’t the best, and I knew that when we signed up, but when I saw that Friday pizza day was Papa John’s, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. My son doesn’t like pizza, so he ate some lunch I brought from home. If he starts to like pizza and has it once a week, I can’t see the harm in that. But again, seeing delivery pizza on paper plates for lunch just kind of leant to the overall honky tonk vibe.
The teacher, Ms. S., is from Sri Lanka, and while she’s clearly very kind at heart, she has a sharp way of speaking to the children that bothered me. Her assistant is from the Philippines and has a similar manner. Both of them are somewhat older–over 60–which is certainly not a drawback in teaching or caretaking, but they did strike me as somewhat tired. On the playground, they sat to the side. I played chase with the kids.
I thought I smelled a poopy diaper outside, and no one took care of that for quite a while. And that’s probably because no one smelled it, since the teachers were taking the outside time as rest time for themselves. I also noticed no one changed Zack for quite a while. I did it, but when I asked, I was told it would happen after lunch. At our old daycare, diaper changing was every 2-3 hours, on a schedule. Here, most likely because many of the kids are already potty trained, it’s pretty lax. There’s no diaper changing table. Changes happen standing up. And that’s fine; we do that at home. But the fact that there’s no area and no assigned time for changes tells me my kid will stay in the same diaper for four hours, and if he has a BM, no one will really notice.
One kid had a dirty face and a runny nose all morning, and I was always the one who pointed it out to the teachers, who simply instructed him to wipe his nose. At our old daycare, the rule was the teachers would wipe the mucus and then wash their hands and the kid’s hands. I’m sure they took shortcuts with the hand washing, but I never saw a kid walk around with green snot for longer than a minute.
After playing outside for a bit, which got Zack warmed up to the place a little, we went inside. Anytime there’s a transition between areas, the kids have to line up with their hands behind their backs, and only when they get into this formation are they allowed to proceed. While I found this strictness startling, I have to believe that ultimately, this kind of crowd control is positive and probably prevents many of the issues we had with Zack at the old school. Still, it struck me funny, being the laid back sort of parent that I am.
Once they got inside, the kids had to sit in a line on a rug. Again, they had to sit nicely before things got going. Then Ms. S. brought out a little American flag, and they had to stand, put their hands on their hearts and sing the pledge of allegiance. Then they sang My Country Tis of Thee. I found this to be annoyingly retro and unnecessary. On the other hand, I couldn’t see why it’s bad to learn these things, and I remember saying the pledge every morning in school. Except for the obvious “under God” thing, this kind of indoctrination doesn’t bother me too much.
Well, I’m lying. It bothers me overly much. I hate it, actually. But hey, is that the worst thing that could happen? Not really. Prayer would be worse. I know friends who have their kids in religious preschool, and they overlook the prayer and the bible songs. That I could not do. The pledge? Meh. I hate it. I think kids that young don’t need to say it for sure. But this is the least of my worries at this school, and whatever. Eventually they will learn the pledge, so why not now? Who cares?
Okay, I care. It bothers me, I will admit. But enough about that.
After the brief patriotic brainwashing session was over, the kids sang some songs, said the months of the year, and then they separated into two groups. The older group did some writing lessons, and occasionally, I could hear Ms. S. speaking to them in sharp tones: “That is not a three. How will you go to the next class if you write like that?” Definitely not my style of speaking, and I didn’t like it.
But here’s the big question: is it okay for teachers to be strict and a little negative, as long as my kid is getting unconditional love at home? Ms. S. told kids to “Sit properly!” all day long. When one girl fell off a bench at lunch, Ms. S. told her that it was because she didn’t sit properly. Of course, she also made sure the girl was all right, but she definitely drove home the cause and effect of the situation first, whereas I would have covered all the emotional ground before the lesson, and it would not have been a scold. “Were you scared? Are you okay now? So look, next time you know that when you lean back, you might fall.” That’s the Julie style. With Ms. S., it was straight to the point: that’s what you get when you don’t sit right! But hey, isn’t it true? And isn’t school where you learn that you have to wake up and follow instructions?
The teachers were also all about: “You have to listen to teacher.” Boy, do I hate that. But you know what? You do kind of have to listen to the teacher. I’m not sure about this, but maybe being strict in a school setting is appropriate, and these teachers are laying the groundwork for kids who know how to behave in a school setting. It’s not my style, it rubs me wrong, and yet, I sense some kind of truth in it. At a basic level, there is a way to behave in a group that must be respected.
While the older kids were writing, the younger kids sat in front of the assistant teacher, who used some flashcards to review numbers, letters, and shapes.
We were sitting with the younger group, and Zack was young even in this group. Everyone else was over three. But Zack shouted out the shapes and colors before all the other kids. He zoned out a little during the numbers. He can count, but he’s not completely clear on the relationship between numbers and objects, yet, which I always find interesting. If you ask him, “Zack, how many eyes do you have?” he says, “One, two, three, four!” He simply likes counting to four. So that was probably the bit that challenged him the most.
At this point, I realized to some extent that my son probably doesn’t need preschool for things like numbers, shapes, letters, or months. It seems to me that he’s a kid who will pick stuff up when he’s ready, and he’s got a mind like a steel trap. It’s not a problem to memorize stuff like that for him. This realization made me wonder just what preschool really should be doing for a kid like mine? Should he be more involved in planting tulip bulbs, helping bake bread, or other more real life experiences? Should he just be left alone to play all day? What’s going to help him be happy and learn–or more importantly, just be happy? I don’t see learning as an issue. It looks to me–and a lot of this is my gut level feeling, or perhaps just my own projection and I’m putting a lot of my own baggage into this–like he’s going to learn no matter what. It’s not a problem. So what do we want to teach? And is what we want to teach more about who he is and how to think than just this stuffing of various items into his head? And also, wait, he’s not even three, so when do we care about learning more than just making him comfortable and ensuring that he’s okay emotionally, that he feels connected to those who are caring for him, and that he’s not going to cry all day and be hurting in ways he can’t describe yet?
My feeling is, we care about the emotions more now. I’m not sold on this particular school as the answer for us. I don’t think they are nurturing enough. On my last post, a commenter said that Monstessori teachers from Sri Lanka tended to be a bit authoritarian. I can’t quite make myself like it, although I see that there is some good to it. But it’s not what I want for my son.
However, the Montessori technique itself turned out to be incredibly interesting.
When the groups broke up, and it was time to use the Montessori materials, I was suddenly very engaged, and so was Zack. That stuff is amazing. I didn’t understand how it all worked before I saw it in action, although I’d heard that kids pick their own activities and work on one thing at a time. This was a mystery to me.
So here’s how it works, and I might end up posting some video later so you can really it. Zack picked at first some little cups and little plastic bears. (I’ve read that in some Montessori schools, the toys are never made of plastic, and in ours, the toys are mostly wood, but this activity was made out of the dreaded plastic.)
The cups were two different colors, and the little bears were the exact same two colors. And Zack sorted the little bears into the two cups, and he did it over and over again. And he was perfectly content to sit there and do that, and it absorbed him completely.
I was fascinated by this whole encounter. As I said, he knows colors, so he wasn’t learning colors. So what was he learning, if anything? What he was emanating was calm, organization, and contentment. Every time he sorted the bears, he looked up at me and said, “Good job, Zack!” And he liked the way the bears felt in his hands (or so it seemed to me), and he liked to empty them from the cup back into the little tray. And sometimes he put the “wrong” color bears into a cup, and then he would dump them all into the other cup, and it seemed to me that he enjoyed the sound they made. Or maybe only I did. Not sure.
This task required no intervention or instruction from anyone. Zack selected the materials and intuitively understood how to use them.
He later chose some concentric plastic shapes–triangles, circles, and squares. He sat and put them together and took them apart, triangles within triangles, squares within squares, again and again. It seemed to provide him with a quiet satisfaction.
I was seriously entranced by all of this. There were puzzles with magnets and little fishing poles, designed apparently to help with eye hand coordination. There were puzzles with pegs and shapes, and you could put the pieces on different pegs and see the relationship between the shapes . It was amazing. So when I got home, I did some research and looked up another Montessori school’s website, which offered a more detailed explanation about what is happening when kids use these materials. The idea is that they gain a sense of mastery, confidence, and concentration by doing these tasks that are specfically designed to be interesting to them at their particular developmental level. They are able to work on their own and associate learning with a positive experience.
My skeptical bells go a-ringing when claims like this are made. So…really? These toys are better than any other old toy that kids find interesting and absorbing? They’re better that say, a hose? Or some dirt? Really?
But I had to admit that watching my son work with these things, I certainly did feel like exactly what was described was actually happening.
Then it was lunch and nap time, and then the oddest thing of all happened.
When the kids were all asleep, Ms. S., a tiny woman to be sure, crawled onto the stack of toddler mats, which are encased in a little crib like structure. She pulled a curtain around herself, and she zonked out in there. She took a nap. On a stack of toddler mats.
No, it’s not bad. Hell, I’d probably do the same thing. But I just found it weird is all. And kind of funny.
During nap, I played Scrabble on my iphone and hung out. The assistant talked to me about teaching. She said she had taught in the Phillippines for many years. Her husband is a surgeon. She has two adult children, one of whom just graduated from medical school. I found myself thinking, well, this lady knows how to bring up smart kids. But watching her all day, I felt like she was not very involved or interested in these kids.
By the way, all the kids fell in love with me. They wanted to sit next to me. They called me “Teacher.” Or “Mommy.” I think I just paid more attention to them than their teachers. And I was a novelty, of course. But I was the popularity contest winner. It made me want to go back to teaching little kids. I taught four-year-0lds when I lived in Japan.
In fact, most of my feelings about how to deal with very young children were quite influenced by my year in Japan, where preschool lasts three years, and it’s mostly quite strict. But home life is very permissive. Mothers sleep with their kids (which we’ve adopted in our home) and indulge them, even while they send them to cram school in second grade. I didn’t like the pushing of kids, but I definitely saw that they have more potential for learning than we take advantage of here, for the most part, in the US. So I see the benefit of having Asian teachers who might be part of that tradition of school strictness alternated with home sweetness, if that makes sense.
I realize I’m making huge generalizations here, and that’s because I only spent enough time in Japan to get a whiff of what happens there in families with young children. I taught at an English immersion kindergarten and grew quite close to families there. I was invited on trips with them. I spent holidays with them. I saw family dynamics at work in a way most Westerners would not, but still, I was an outsider the entire time. So if anyone wants to correct me on my assumptions, yes, I admit these are anecdotal observations layered with my own guesswork about how things work in Japan.
At one point during the day, Ms. S. invited me to observe some presentations the first graders were giving. And that’s when my mind got truly blown. These kids were doing science presentations. Way to hook the skeptical mom, guys. Well done. A girl presented her diorama about whether salt or fresh water boiled faster. She had a hypothosis, a method to test it, photos, and she explained in detail the molecular structure of water and the way salt lowered its boiling point. Then she took questions from her peers. She spoke like an adult. Sure, one kid couldn’t get past the balloon on her diorama, which really had no purpose other than to be blue ( you know, like water). But still, the whole scene was so sophisticated. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Tell me, anyone with a first grader, is this normal? Or is it really advanced?
So if this is where the strictness and the Montessori and everything else is headed, there’s definitely a value to it all. If these folks would just clean their room better, I might be sold. But in the end, I don’t think this is the school for us.
We had a near anxiety attack about the situation last night, and we finally called Zack’s infant careworker, who used to work at his old center, to check her availability, in case school is a no go this week. But then we sent him in again today. How can we tell if the work we put in, staying with him for two days, did any good, unless we send him back? The school has instructions to call me if he cries too much, and I will go and get him.
So stay tuned. I”ll let you know how it works out. We are looking for another place, most likely another Montessori school with a more laid back teaching style and a cleaner environment. In the meantime, if Zack can get used to this school, I think he will learn and not be in harm’s way there. It’s just not an ideal place. But since it’s obviously so hard to transition, if he can deal with it, it might be the place for now.