Why and How Larger Classrooms Work Well In Montessori
Part 2 of 2
How we build new classroom communities and what it takes to make large classrooms work well
In Part 1 of this post, we discussed that smaller class size is often beneficial in traditional elementary school, yet larger classroom communities function better in Montessori. In Part 2, we’ll discuss some of the prerequisites for making these larger classrooms work and explain how we build them for success.
It’s important to note that the “bigger is better” approach has certain prerequisites to work well, even in Montessori preschool or elementary:
The classroom must have a robust mix of ages (which is one reason we don’t fill a new 24-student preschool classroom with 24 three-year-olds in its first year). It must have a sizeable group of children who have learned the classroom rules and routines and have discovered the joy of independent, concentrated work and are ready to support new children.
The teacher must be strong and capable of handling a larger room: a 36-student elementary room may be too much for some new teachers to lead on their own right out of training, without any previous teaching experience (whether in Montessori or another setting), no matter how passionate and well-intentioned the teacher is.
When we open a new Montessori classroom in a new school some of these requirements for large Montessori classrooms are not met in the first year or two of running the school. That’s why we carefully build up to larger class sizes, usually over a three-year period.
New rooms purposefully start smaller, younger, and build over time. A new preschool/kindergarten room (even one with a 30- or 36-student capacity) will typically start with 12-18 children, many of them three-year-olds, with a few four-year-olds mixed in. We’ll only accept 5-year-olds (=kindergarten children), if they are a great fit—typically, if they are transferring from another Montessori program. We’ve learned that 5-year-olds who join from a non-Montessori preschool or daycare setting are typically not good leaders in a newly formed class: they are not used to the way a Montessori class works and find it hard to adjust. If they exhibit negative behavior, the younger ones eagerly imitate that behavior—and it becomes harder to work up to a well-functioning classroom.
With fewer children, there is more adult attention. With just 12-16 children in a new preschool class, the teacher has more time to give many lessons to all the children. Both the head teacher and the assistant have the capacity to pay close attention to behavior and get the norms established in a kind but firm way early on. They can provide help that, later on, will come from older children—whether that’s tying shoelaces on the way out to the playground, or helping open lunch boxes that are too much for a three-year-old’s hands.
The pioneer children get to be the ones establishing the community rituals and routines. Starting a new preschool or elementary class can be fun for the children who begin the new community. Together with their teacher, they develop the rituals and the character of their classroom and school. Parents, too, are able to participate in this pioneering building work—for example, by organizing community events, playing an active role in helping the teachers create materials, offering ideas on after school programs, field trips, or local resources.
New children join, both mid-year and during the summer/at the start of fall. As the community becomes steady and children learn the rules of the classroom, new students join. In many cases, toddlers move up to preschool classrooms in the middle of the year, when they are ready (as judged by both the toddler and preschool/kindergarten teacher, and under guidance from the Head of School). We may also accept a few outside students who help complement the community by age and gender. Typically, July through September see a larger number of new arrivals in time for the new school year. By the third year, the classroom will be mature, with a good number of kindergarten students, and will grow into its final capacity.
As the classroom grows, we’ll introduce a third adult into the room. A strong, well-established Montessori classroom can work well with 30 or even 36 children and two adults. But in most areas, we run our classrooms with more than 24 students with three teachers. As the class grows, we’ll judiciously bring in either a second Assistant Teacher, or (in some classrooms with experienced Master Teachers) a Montessori-trained Junior Teacher, who helps to manage the classroom, gives some lessons to the children, and benefits from the mentoring and coaching of the more experienced lead teacher for a year or two, before she takes on her own classroom.
The pioneer children become the first leaders as they age, being mentors in turn. The first preschool class of young ones benefits from more teacher attention early on—and experiences the benefits of being mentors as younger children join the class over the next two years. By the time they are five or six years old, the pioneers will be in a balanced, larger classroom with up to 30 children. They’ll be the helpers—the ones to tie shoelaces, to help newcomers understand the routine and the proud elders who read books to the younger children who look up to them admiringly.
Whether your child is in a smaller, new classroom, or larger, established room at LePort Montessori, we hope understanding Montessori better helps you appreciate the great experience you are giving your child by investing in his education. Montessori materials, mixed ages and the three-year-cycle of learning are fundamentally different than traditional education—and at LePort Montessori, our team ensures that children receive the benefit of the unique Montessori approach in every classroom, whether new or established, small or large.
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