I've been in the Montessori classroom for over four months now and there are many aspects I really like. There are also many elements of the Montessori philosophy that can be applied in a general classroom, elements that I think would help a classroom run more smoothly and promote community and kindness in the classroom.
For example, in the Montessori classroom the teacher is quiet and should not be "the main event" or the central figure. In our classroom we speak in hushed voices and encourage the children to do so as well by teaching them about volume control and practicing silence. When the teacher requires full group attention she will ring a small bell and, if appropriate, sing a short song, such as "It's time to put your work away and come to the rug." When I first started here I was amazed at how quickly the quiet bell drew the children's attention. The older children know to listen for it and the younger ones quickly learn.
This could be implemented in other classrooms by using quiet voices, teachers and students, which requires people to move their bodies instead of just using their voices. Instead of a call across the classroom to a student, the teacher walks over and talks quietly to the child. Children are encouraged to do the same with their classmates and teachers. A friend of mine, who teaches in a public school, recently said, "I wave my arms, dance around, raise my voice... what more can I do to get their attention?!" I thought, hmm... maybe there is a better way.
The Montessori classroom is about building independence and self reliance in children. Materials are placed at child-accessible heights, sinks and toilets are small, and children are encouraged to be as independent as possible. This could be replicated in a public school setting by thinking through each request a student makes and deciding if that could be done more independently. Do the students really need to ask to use the bathroom, get a tissue, or get a drink? Do students know where to put their papers or find materials without assistance? Of course it depends on the school and the children's age. I think it is worthwhile to make the classroom as accessible as possible to promote confidence and independence in the students.
In the Montessori classroom the students have a lot of responsibility for themselves and others. Each child has a job that they are responsible for completing each day. We rotate the jobs every few weeks so the students get the opportunity to learn all of them. Students also have more independence in group settings, such as show-and-tell where they chose who goes next, and lining up where one child may be asked to line the others up when they are ready. The students offer their assistance to one another in the coat room when they are zipping coats and tying shoes. These behaviors are encouraged and may could be replicated in any classroom setting, building both the child's independence and the overall sense of community.
Students in a Montessori classroom do much of their work on mats on the floor. This works well as they are each working on individual tasks. The mats also help the children contain their work and define their work space. Children are taught to keep their work on the mat and to be respectful of other people's mats. In a public school classroom the children generally work at desks or tables, but perhaps in some situations working on mats would be helpful. During free play time, keeping work (or toys) on the mats can help the child stay focused, and during work time some students may benefit from working on the floor instead of at a table or desk. Having the mats available and the procedures defined promotes flexibility and independence.
At the core of the Montessori philosophy is that young children are rooted in the real, the "here and now" and learn best by doing practice, real-life activities. Magic and fairies and stories are all fine for the older children, but for the young ones they need to be grounded in the real world. Much of the materials or "work" in the Montessori classroom is focused on developing those real world skills. Classrooms often have material focused on individual skills, such as buttoning, zipping, tying, snapping, polishing, folding, and washing. These materials, while teaching individual skills, also build eye-hand coordination, encourage wrist and hand movements, and set the stage for successful writing movements later on.
While a public school classroom may not have the budget for all of the fine Montessori materials, much could be done with specific, targeted materials to help children develop the skills they need to be independent and confident, thereby setting them up for continued success in school.