[Hall Monitor] The McNeels Choose a School, Part Three–Why We Love Montessori So Much

Note from SA Charter Moms: We are proud to share guest posts from hallmonitor covering San Antonio’s public schools.

[Hall Monitor] The McNeels Choose a School, Part 3: Why We Love Montessori So Much | San Antonio Charter Moms

It takes Lewis McNeel approximately three weeks of internet research to buy a light fixture. In our old house, he designed his own entertainment system, suspended from the ceiling by pulleys and counterweights. It took months.

So, now that we are picking a school for our kids, we are being thorough.

It’s hard to be more thorough than I’ve been at Steele Montessori. I wrote about it with Texas Public Radio‘s Camille Phillips back in March. We interviewed families, administration, and teachers. We attended “Watch Me Work” night.

Plus the most novel part of Steele is its faithful adherence to Montessori curriculum, and our kids have been in Montessori schools for the past three years. So that part was also familiar.

We mostly went on the parent tour of Steele so that Lewis could catch the vibe of the campus. The vibe, he soon discovered, is very . . . Montessori.

He loves the natural light, neutral colors, and largely tech-free classrooms of Montessori. Montessori classrooms are peaceful and lovely.

I love the cultivation of weirdness. Montessori allows students to develop at their own pace, assuming that their inherent dignity will lead them to want to master the skills needed for life. It also sees their quirks as potential strengths, like little buds waiting to flower into genius.

Except that Montessori is not big on “genius” as we think of it . . . which I also love. More on that in a minute.

We both love the personal responsibility and practical life skills emphasized in Montessori. Let’s be honest: What parent is going to sneer at a kid who suddenly asks to help with household chores and insists on putting things away before moving on to the next activity?

Montessori was developed by Maria Montessori in 1897 as a way to teach the children of factory workers. It is equitable and practical by design. These were children who would not be raised by nannies and governesses attending to their every whim. They would need to do for themselves in many ways.

[Hall Monitor] The McNeels Choose a School, Part 3: Why We Love Montessori So Much | San Antonio Charter Moms

Montessori small motor works

Montessori knew that these working class kids would not have access to all the fanciest trends and fads of education—as equity wasn’t so much part of the general vernacular during the Industrial Revolution and we had yet to have the Civil Rights movement—so Montessori classrooms have not risen and fallen with the times. They have not succumbed to experimental teaching practices that are later revealed to be nonsense.

The method also eschews much of the flat, comparative measures that drive inequity. The University of Virginia (Lewis’s alma mater) recently published research on Montessori schools’ inherent benefits for children from minority and low income households, almost erasing an income gap that would otherwise grow in the first years of conventional school.

I believe that privileged children also benefit from equitable systems, and I saw why at our daughter Moira’s first teacher-parent meeting at St. Paul’s Episcopal Montessori, just after her second birthday.

Moira is one of those children who instantly draws attention. By 15 months she had hundreds of words in English, and was fully bilingual in French, thanks to our nanny. She’s an extrovert, so she’ll happily share with you all that she knows about cephalopods, insects, herbs, or whatever else she’s been exposed to lately.

But that’s the key: she’s been exposed to a lot. Lewis and I are both bibliophiles, so our shelves are stocked with books hoarded since childhood. We have the leisure time and expendable income to visit museums, see plays, and travel. Our kids are soaking all of that privilege in, and because they are highly verbal—spitting it back out.

Don’t get me wrong—Moira and Asa are bright. They are intuitive and creative and two steps ahead of us most of the time, which has its challenges. Both have attention to detail that is both remarkable and crippling.

In a regular classroom, Moira would stand out early on, and likely be given access to more and more advanced material. The egotistical, competitive mom in me couldn’t wait to put her in school so that teachers would oooh and aaah over her.

So imagine my surprise when, at the first conference, her teacher/guide said, “So obviously Moira is very precocious, very bright . . .” and then launched into her development and maturity not as an academic phenom, but as an independent person. Her vocabulary was of little consequence to her, say, taking responsibility for cleaning up after herself. Or her impulse control when it came to the strong desire to interfere with other children’s work.

I was, on one hand, disappointed. I had wanted them to say, “Oh she needs more special resources! We need to do more to challenge her.” Instead, she had plenty to work on, going at her own pace.

However, without the pressure to perform at school, my appreciation for Moira changed as well. We could focus on her humanity, channeling her energy and responding to her interests, without thought of how to showcase them, or use them to impress her teacher.

Asa is in Montessori as well, but bless his heart, this entire year has been about learning to let mom out of his sight, which, turns out, does not come naturally. He tells me often that he loves his school, his guides, his fellow toddlers. But when I asked him once if he was going to be a “happy guy” at school today, he said, matter-of-factly, “Nope. I’m a guy who cries.”

It’s just something he’s committed to. He’s also quite bright and progressing well, but for Asa, successes and emotions don’t always go hand in hand.

As Moira has progressed, her guides continue to delight in her, for all the same reasons that we do. Her imagination, her unique blend of boss and advocate. Her natural inclination toward order, patterns, and lining things up.

Instead of worrying about her reading level, I’m delighting in how she experiments with writing forward and backward. Instead of wondering if she’s advanced in math, I’m letting her figure out how many plates we need when we have people over for dinner.

Moira’s precocious love of language could have been toxic for her, me, and our relationship. There are so many times that I realize, as much as my kids need me, they also need me to be removed from certain equations. I’m thankful for Montessori’s lack of concern for the advantages of privilege, and focus on the internal motivation—a resource that money can’t buy.

Up next: The McNeels Choose a School, Part Four–Waitlists

Originally published as “The McNeels Choose a School, Part 3: Why we love Montessori so much,” Hall Monitor, December 15, 2018

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