Elementary

Overview

As soon as you enter the Elementary Classroom at La Bella Vita Montessori, you know that something different is afoot. Montessori classrooms are immediately recognizable. The classes are small but the learning is monumental. You will see children working independently and in groups, often with specially designed learning materials; deeply engaged in their work; and respectful of themselves and their surroundings. The Montessori Method fosters rigorous, self-motivated growth for children and adolescents in all areas of their development – cognitive, emotional, social and physical. Montessori education is student-led and self-paced but guided, assessed and enriched by knowledgeable and caring teachers, the leadership of their peers, and a nurturing environment. Our Montessori work environment is supportive and inclusive. Our children undertake daily self-directed work, as well as ambitious projects, in both partnerships and small groups, learning to collaborate and problem-solve respectfully and effectively.

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Within the community of the multi-age classroom at La Bella Vita – designed to create natural opportunities for independence, citizenship, and accountability – children embrace multi-sensory learning and passionate inquiry. Individual students follow their own curiosity at their own pace, taking the time they need to fully understand each concept and meet individualized learning goals. Given the freedom and support to question and make connections, Montessori students grow up to be confident, enthusiastic, and self-directed learners and citizens, accountable to both themselves and their community. They think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly and with integrity. Students choose their work and work partners during the daily work cycle, learning to set goals, challenge themselves, and tackle complex problems. Each child practices leadership and responsibility, playing a role as a mentor to younger students, caring for the school environment, and engaging meaningfully to resolve classroom issues.

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Challenging academic work inspires La Bella Vita elementary students to rise to the occasion, master difficult skills, and develop a broad base of foundational knowledge. Within this framework, careful attention and support is given to each student so that they’re motivated to pursue their own goals and go beyond typical curriculum requirements. Elementary students have mastered basic physical independence, and are ready for the dramatic step of practicing living independently thoughtful lives. We take full advantage of the Montessori three-hour work cycle, where students choose and organize their own work. Our students come to create, understand, structure, and interrelate their learning goals – to work both independently and collaboratively – and to persist in difficult thinking and abstract creative work.

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Students at La Bella Vita Montessori move through the curriculum at their own pace which allows them to strike a balance between challenging themselves and allowing time for full understanding of a concept before moving on. The elementary classroom includes learning materials that spark the interests and abilities of each individual learner. This creates a highly enriching environment. Younger students are motivated by their older peers while older students enjoy the role guide for their younger classmates. The materials are integrated and multifaceted in use to allow expanded exploration as the student’s understanding grows. Mixed age grouping also allows a teacher time to truly get to know her students so that she can better follow their lead. Having a large returning group of students in the classroom each year creates a wonderful continuity of structure, organization and community.

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For content, the elementary-aged student is hungry for structured, abstract thinking—for the whole edifice of human knowledge. La Bella Vita’s elementary program satisfies that appetite and then some, challenging students to grow their knowledge and their knowhow across every discipline.

  • Mathematics: a program of hands-on materials and a precise, rigorous sequence of mathematical content;
  • Literature: learning about human nature, through a curriculum of great works and a pedagogy of deep, personal comprehension;
  • Language Arts: a course of reading and writing skills that fosters reading comprehension, eloquent expression, and objective thinking;
  • Art Appreciation: an approach to “reading” and connecting with the fine arts;
  • Science: mastering evidential, causal reasoning via a foundation of scientific knowledge;
  • History: the chronology of history as a tool to understand the present human world.

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The La Bella Vita Montessori elementary student graduates with an unmatched inner discipline and an internalized system of foundational knowledge. They are well on the trajectory towards becoming a modern citizen of the world—independent, versatile, knowledgeable, and self-possessed. Studies have shown Montessori graduates transition well and excel academically and socially in traditional educational environments. Coming from the unique Montessori multi-age environment, they make friends easily and have a balanced outlook on life.

Work ***New Window***

Work in Elementary

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(How can we break this up to make it look less “wordy”… Pictures with text?)

At La Bella Vita, the elementary curriculum forms an integrated approach to answering the “why” and “how” questions that are so prominent in the minds of elementary aged students. Information is shared in a story-telling fashion and focuses on peaking student interest and curiosity. This curiosity leads them to delve into further exploration in the areas of math, language, history, chemistry, biology, astronomy, botany, physics, culture, art, music and much more. Presented in a respectful and open-minded way, this method helps students gain a deeper understanding of the world and how they fit in it.

We aim to foster a joyous learning environment, one where students truly love learning, learn to pursue their interests, and come to appreciate themselves. A core aspect of this environment is that students learn to tackle the challenges that come with real learning, to persist in a way that enables them to learn about what they love, and that their appreciation for themselves is not based on empty praise but is really earned. A core outcome of our elementary classrooms, in other words, is that students develop a work ethic. Our elementary programs fully embrace this high-structure, high-autonomy approach. At the elementary level, students have tremendous responsibility for their work, and learn to hold themselves accountable with specific tools and techniques. The result is a classroom in which each student is busy achieving a high level of ambition and self-mastery, even as they pursue—indeed, through their pursuit of their schoolwork.

Students in the elementary classroom work on exploring concepts and ideas on a schedule determined, in part, by personal interest. The learner may focus for a period of time on a particular subject area, infusing an incredible amount of attention and energy into the process. At these times, the teacher monitors the student’s progress, guiding and recording, while maintaining the learner’s engagement and focus. Through teacher guidance, group interaction, stimulating materials and all that the classroom environment has to offer, the learner’s interest will inevitably lead them to experience a variety of subject matter and allow for a strong, varied academic base.

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Our Approach to Work Ethic

Our Montessori elementary classrooms give students significant autonomy and freedom over their work. Gone is the day dominated by students moving in masses, from class to class, scheduled in short blocks of time. Gone is the role of the teacher in micromanaging student’s work and responsibilities. The Montessori classroom is instead organized primarily around a three-hour work cycle, a block of protected time in the morning. During the work cycle, the teachers circulate and give lessons and other assistance to individuals or small groups of students. The majority of students, who are not in lessons, are responsible for directing their own work. They organize themselves, follow up on lessons received previously, extending their understanding and mastering their skills. This is no small feat. The child that can do this, who can successfully and productively manage her time, is manifesting in her behavior the deep elements of ambition, persistence, organization, and self-mastery discussed earlier.

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More specific elements of the Montessori elementary approach to the culture of work include:·       

  • An overall culture of responsibility. In addition to being encouraged to develop independence and choose their own work, each child is also responsible for being prepared with all materials for lessons, for completing all follow-up tasks and independent work, and for keeping accurate records of work completed. Active stewardship is a part of the class culture, inclusive of care of the class environment and other jobs that need to be done on a daily basis to keep the class running smoothly. Natural consequences occur and logical consequences for not acting responsibly also ensue and are part of the boundaries of independence.
  •  Features complex work demanding of organizational skills, project planning, and self-reflection. Executive functioning and self-regulation skills are strengthened and practiced through the approach to work. These skills and habits of mind are reinforced as children manage their own schedules and complete follow-up assignments after a lesson or conceive of, plan for, and successfully execute progressively larger projects over weeks, months, or years.
  • A long work cycle featuring few or no interruptions. With fewer daily interruptions, such as bells for recess or regimented lesson intervals, students are able to follow through with persisting with challenging tasks at hand. They are not “saved by the bell” in the middle of a challenging math problem, for example, and have the opportunity to experience the discomfort in a challenge and yet experience the joy following sustained effort and follow through. Children with repeated opportunities to persist in difficult tasks develop greater stamina to work. When a child exerts effort to produce quality work, a sense of healthy pride, self-worth, and satisfaction is kindled.

Math ***New Window**

Mathematics is a uniquely powerful discipline, one that enables us to comprehend and manipulate quantities of all sorts. Advanced mathematics is indispensable for certain, very lucrative careers. Even in everyday life, fairly advanced mathematics is highly useful. From calculating measurements for a DIY project to working out how many weeks of pocket money is needed to buy a new video game, math is versatile and important. However, the study of mathematics offers gifts far beyond numeracy and calculation. It allows children to develop and exercise their reasoning mind. It teaches students how to evaluate situations, mentally test hypotheses, employ problem-solving strategies, derive conclusions, and articulate them clearly. As has been recognized since the time of the Ancient Greeks, math serves as the best model for, and the best practice for, core aspects of human reasoning. These are critical skills that students will need in their future workplaces, in their personal lives, indeed in every aspect of navigating a world increasingly characterized by demanding, rapid change.

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The key outcomes of math education in our elementary programs are two-fold:

1.   A deep understanding of the way numbers work and relate to each other, as well as the ability to manipulate them quickly and easily;

2.   The acquisition of cognitive powers and habits that can apply to all other areas of one’s life.

Our student in mathematics gain:

·         Explicit competence in foundational domains of mathematics, along with an intuitive number sense;

·         The ability to build new knowledge from previous knowledge (by rigorous mathematical inference);

·         The ability to organize knowledge into an integrated, hierarchical structure;

·         The ability to deploy highly abstract knowledge in solving particular problems;

·         The ability to participate in discussion and debate with others using clear, step-wise reasoning and truths (such as measurements and prior axioms)

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Our Mathematics Pedagogy

Hands on Learning

Our math curriculum at La Bella Vita Montessori begins with hands-on materials that foster an intuition of quantity, place value, and geometry. By manipulating these scientifically designed examples of abstract ideas, students build a library of experiences that develop into mental models of mathematical principles. A set of developmentally and mathematically refined hands-on Montessori learning materials, along with unique learning materials developed by our pedagogy team, forms the backbone of the math curriculum. Each learning material not only concretizes but isolates an aspect of mathematics. The cleanliness and objectivity of math is manifest in the learning materials, and reinforced in the more abstract presentations. Definitions are clear and concise, statements are correct and precise, and problems are solved by laying bare every step. The precision and isolation in the materials allows students to practice one skill or concept at a time, repeated as often as needed for mastery.

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A Developmental Sequence for Math

Our program is carefully sequenced to follow each student’s development. As the result of a thoughtfully ordered curriculum, the approach is intelligible to the student at each step. Our general pedagogy demands grounding knowledge in the child’s own experience, progressing from concretes that are directly accessible to the student, up to more abstract knowledge, with each stage providing the foundation for the next. Math is no exception. Each material, lesson, and activity builds on the strong foundation of the previous ones, and seeds are continuously laid to facilitate integrations years later. The binomial cube, for example, presented as a puzzle for Montessori preschool students, leads to a geometric-algebraic integration of binomial expansions.

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Mastery-Based Learning

At La Bella Vita Montessori, the students do work that enables them to fully master the mathematical content. Math lessons are most often presented to individuals or pairs of students. When students need more time or support in a particular area, they have as many lessons and as much time as they need; for students who grasp an area quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. And so, children progress at their own pace, consolidating a deep conceptual understanding of mathematical ideas while creating a solid foundation for future, more complex studies.

The materials, again, are designed to be thoroughly engaging so that repetition, a requirement of mastery, is not punishing but enjoyable. The material grounds more abstract mathematical work, such as word problems, facilitating the ability of students to apply it to the real world. The materials and approach allow them to think in a way that is both fully conceptual and also visual, intuitive, sometimes even literally physical. Students can thus explore and practice the math they are learning to the point where it represents real understanding that can be independently and creatively applied.

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Math in Our Classrooms

The basic implementation of mathematics follows a sequence of teacher presentations and student activities in accordance with the guidelines above: engaging, hands-on, manipulation-based learning, with precise mathematical content that is crystallized into concepts, done at a pace that is challenging and in an order that is accessible. In addition, key units are punctuated by group discussions, guided by the teacher in a way that clarifies and unifies the knowledge of the students.

            The highest-level goals of mathematics education in our elementary program are the cognitive ones listed above. The specific mathematical content that represents the realization of those goals in elementary are:

  • Fluency with non-negative rational numbers and operations. Students in our programs develop a clear concept of non-negative integers, fractions, and decimals and can abstractly manipulate them in any combination using addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. In addition to providing important material for mathematical reasoning and discussions, this content paves the way to fluency with all real numbers in algebra.
  •  Basic skills and knowledge in equations, algorithms, and geometry. These topics prepare students for algebra, coding, planimetrics, and stereometry. Combined with non-negative rational number arithmetic, these constitute the foundation of all higher-level mathematics.

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The topics covered in lower elementary are:

  • Mathematical Conversation (equality and basic operations)
  •  The Decimal System, Categories and Numeration
  •  Addition
  •  Subtraction
  •  Multiplication
  • Division
  • Coding
  • Fraction Prerequisites
  • Preliminary Sensorial Work with Fractions, Exponents, and Squaring

The content covered in upper elementary is:

  • Fractions
  • Mixed Numbers
  •  Decimals
  • Ratios and Proportions
  • Graphing
  • Exponents
  • Negative Numbers

History ***New Window***

The human world into which our children are born is bewilderingly complex. It boasts countless and often conflicting institutions, ever-evolving technologies, and contradictory norms and practices. This is a world that most adults struggle to understand—partially in virtue of the approach to history and civics in most schools, which doesn’t typically provide a helpful framework for thinking about the dynamic human world. But even elementary-aged children want and need to start to make sense this cacophony, to understand the world they live in, to learn to appreciate it, and, ultimately, to be empowered with the knowledge needed to participate in it, affect it, change it. The critical key for understanding for a student to understand, appreciate, and change the culture of their world—in all of aspects—is history. Conversely, the key learning outcome of history is the ability to understand, appreciate, and ultimately change their world.

History, in our elementary programs, is not a list of dates, nor is it a collection of topics and themes. It is a unified story of the development of the modern world—the explanation of the world of the student. It is a synoptic, rich timeline of its arts and inventions, its people and institutions, its arc of events, conflicts, and, most of all, ideas. Students in our elementary history program learn, across the six years of elementary, the unbroken chronology of Western history, from early civilizations through the present.

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History in Our Classrooms

            History is infused into our Montessori elementary classrooms. There are three major aspects of the history curriculum:

1.   The Great Lessons: six key lessons that cover the history of every topic in the elementary curriculum at the highest level, and that are delivered annually to all students;

2.   Civilizations: historical work and lessons focused on understanding how early civilizations came to be and how they addressed fundamental human needs, done primarily by lower elementary students;

3.   Western History: a three-year sequence of Western history, from ancient Egypt to the present, done primarily by upper elementary students.

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The Great Lessons are big-picture history lessons that serve as the integrating and framing context for the entire elementary curriculum. They are given every year, in both lower and upper elementary (with older students who have mastered the lessons assisting in their final years). The lessons are:

  • The Coming of the Universe: an overview of cosmology, covering the origin and historical arrangement of the physical and chemical elements of the universe, all the way to the solar system and the earth;
  • The Coming of Life: an overview of the history of life, covering the emergence of different forms of life, up to and including humans, with associated geological changes;
  • The Coming of Humans: the story of the emergency of early humans and our earliest struggles and discoveries;
  • The Coming of Writing: a big picture history of writing, how it emerged and evolved from pictures to alphabets;
  • The Coming of Numbers: the emergence of counting, then measurement, then mathematics
  • The Story of the Great River: a story that analogizes the human body to an ancient civilization, giving a big picture overview of human anatomy.

Language Arts  *** New Window ***

Literacy is one of life’s most important achievements, and it is best honed primarily during the elementary years. Reading and writing are critically important—as key means for accessing the entire world of human culture, self-expression in an enduring way in almost any context, and the practical work of performing virtually any complex job or task.

And, more fundamentally, reading and writing are tools of thought. It is by learning to read and write well that we learn how to, for example,

  • Make a thought precise – from word choice to sentence structure to paragraph to multi-page work – in a way that is difficult or impossible without the written word;
  • Identify what is important and essential in the midst of a sea of information;
  • Apply objective thinking and reasoning to any domain, producing and evaluating structured arguments, justification, and rationales for conclusions;
  • In our elementary program, students learn to read and write – to analyze and understand written works and to express themselves – and they do so in a way that is constant with learning how to think.

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Our Language Arts Pedagogy

Our elementary program approaches literacy in a systematic way, integrated across the whole curriculum. Elementary students are motivated by their newfound capacity for intellectual work, to know causes and reasons for things, to understand and imagine things beyond their immediate experience, and to do all of this with their peers via the medium of language. What students read and write about is thus the entirety of their learning—their academic work in science, literature, history, and even math, their outside-of-school field trips, their goings out, and more.

Because literacy is so important, substantial reading and writing occur every day in the classroom. Our elementary classrooms foster a culture of literacy, where students write frequently, read each other’s works, receive continuous individualized guidance and feedback from teachers on their writing, and challenge themselves and each other to take risks, reading difficult works, and articulating their most complex thoughts and feelings in writing. Beyond the integrated, motivated approach described above, our elementary programs teach literacy systematically, area by area:

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Grammar

A robust understanding of grammar enables children to express themselves through the written word with sophistication and clarity. When children learn about grammatical concepts, this knowledge can be integrated into the writing process—particularly the revising and editing stages—helping students to see the relevance of grammar to their own writing. The study of grammar also aids reading comprehension, enabling students to analyze the complex thoughts of others and to make sense of them.

The goal of our grammar curriculum is threefold:

·         To offer a concrete representation of the underlying structure of our language;

·         To foster a love of the written word and an appreciation of its power;

·         To improve children’s writing.

Grammar is initially presented as a multisensory, hands-on approach through Montessori learning materials such as the Grammar Box, Sentence Analysis and Verb Tense materials. Once children are presented with the materials and the essential knowledge required for each particular grammar activity, they can explore the grammatical concept by matching, moving, and manipulating words and symbols to create patterns and sentences. This provides an open ended and often playful exploration of grammar, that prompts children to think critically about language.

In the upper elementary environment, children transition from working with the hands-on Sentence Analysis materials to sentence diagramming on paper. Sentence diagramming is a formal, visual-pictorial representation of the grammatical structure of a sentence. Sentence diagramming allows children to move beyond the confines of the Sentence Analysis material, and allows them to parse every element of sentences of unlimited length and complexity.

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Vocabulary and Word Study

Specific words are the instruments by which we do our thinking, and through which we understand the thoughts of others. Having an extensive vocabulary allows one to better understand the world around us—to follow someone’s thinking, to read between the lines, to question what others have to say, to find the word that denotes precisely and connotes most eloquently what one wants to express. And, critically, a rich vocabulary comes into play in the classroom in reading comprehension. Readers cannot comprehend the meaning of a given text without knowing what most of the words mean. A large vocabulary opens students up to a wider range of reading materials across all areas of the curriculum.

Students acquire vocabulary indirectly through exposure to a language-rich prepared environment, reading good literature, and conversing with adults and peers. The Montessori Word Study curriculum is a more direct approach to vocabulary, with lower elementary students examining, classifying and manipulating the properties of words: suffixes, prefixes, root words, compound words, antonyms, synonyms, homonyms, alphabetical sequence of words, rhyme, word families and so on.

In the upper elementary, students study Greek and Latin roots. More than half of the words in the English language have Latin or Greek roots, and this is especially true in content areas such as science and technology. This work helps children become more conscious of words and their origins, giving them keys which they may use to unlock the meanings of many words in their language. Emphasis is also placed on etymology across all areas of the curriculum, drawing children’s awareness to the fact that words have a history, and that both the form and meaning of these words can change over time.

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Reading

To become good readers, children must develop phonemic awareness (an understanding of the sounds that make up spoken language), phonics skills (an understanding of the sounds that letters/letter combinations make), the ability to read fluently and accurately, and the ability to comprehend what is read. Some children enter the elementary classroom with phonemic awareness and phonic skills firmly in place. Others enter ready to learn phonograms and more advanced phonics with multi-syllabic words. Timely, individualized, explicit reading instruction is essential to ensuring children can access all subject areas of the prepared environment, and work collaboratively with their peers. Our approach to reading instruction is based on the following principles:

·         Systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics improves children’s reading and spelling skills.

·         Guided oral reading helps students further develop fluency, decoding skills, recognize new words and comprehend what they read.

·         Ongoing assessment of children’s reading skills are crucial to ensure mastery of the basics, the continuous challenging of each student, and to inform appropriate instruction.

Beyond the basic mechanics, more abstract reading comprehension skills are imperative across every area of the classroom. Without comprehension, words have no meaning and reading is simply sounding out the words on a page from left to right. Good readers use a variety of strategies to construct meaning from what they read, such as:

·         Monitoring their understanding of content;

·         Clarifying confusing parts of the text;

·         Predicting what will happen next;

·         Connecting what they are reading to their own experience or prior knowledge.

When children struggle to comprehend meaning from text, explicit strategies can be taught, modeled and practiced:

·         Identifying the parts of the text they don’t understand;

·         Asking questions before, during, and after they read to clarify meaning;

·         Looking back or forward in the text for information that might help;

·         Restating the difficult sentence or passage in their own words;

·         Creating a visual or making a movie in their head;

·         Making connections: text-to-self connection occurs when students are reminded of something that has happened in their own life; text-to-text connection reminds them of something they have read in another book or text; text-to-world connection happens when they connect with something occurring in the world;

·         Making inferences by putting together clues from the text and making evidence-based guesses about character motives, the plot, the problem, the solution;

·         Synthesizing the text by summarizing what has happened and stating the most important aspects of the text.

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Teacher Read Aloud and Free Reading

Reading aloud to children plays an especially critical role in developing children’s vocabulary, their knowledge of the natural world, and their appreciation for the power of the imagination. Reading aloud also introduces the language of books, which differs from the informal language heard in daily conversations and in the media. Literary language is more descriptive and uses more formal grammatical structures. The value of reading chapter books to elementary children therefore exposes children to a linguistic and cognitive complexity not typically found in speech. Reading aloud introduces books and types of literature—historical fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies—that children might not discover on their own. History, science, and geography come alive through our elementary read-aloud selections, from Ancient Greece (Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad by Rosemary Sutcliffe) to Medieval Times (Canterbury Tales, by Geraldine McLaughlin) to Shakespearean England (Cue for Treason, by Geoffrey Trease). Reluctant readers observe the joy their teacher and peers receive from reading and discussing literature, and can be motivated to pick up a book on their own.

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Writing

We emphasize writing as an essential way to develop, organize, clarify, and communicate thoughts and ideas. As students attempt to write clearly and coherently about increasingly complex ideas, their writing serves to propel their intellectual growth. Children come to understand that writing is a process, not just a product, and that by using specific writing techniques, and following the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing—they can produce consistency high quality writing. (Not every piece of writing the child produces needs to, or indeed should be subject to this process. Much writing in the elementary classroom is everyday writing, such as work journals, taking notes for a science experiment, and so on. Particularly in Lower Elementary, our teachers are cognizant of the balance between holding children accountable for using learnt knowledge and skills in their writing, and creating a culture of joyful self-expression, free of the pressure of constant correction and feedback.)

Writing is omnipresent in our elementary classrooms. Our approach to writing instruction is based on the following principles:

·         The need to hone, step by step, specific aspects of the writing process. We offer students specific lessons on each stage of the writing process, from initial brainstorming all the way to the final draft. Writing is composed of dozens of more particular skills, and our job as educators is to analyze the process and determine a sequence that helps students most effectively and joyously achieve their mastery.

·         The guide as a positive role model of writing for students. Through their passion and enthusiasm for writing, as well as their own writing practice, teachers can show students that writing is valuable and important.

·         Connect writing activities to students’ knowledge and interests. Students enjoy writing about what they know. They also enjoy writing with real purpose for a real audience as a means of social engagement. Therefore, it is key to create authentic writing tasks for students, drawing from both academic and personal context.

·         Create a writing climate in which all writers feel safe to make choices and take risks. Teachers model respect when talking about writing and about student work. Students are taught how to respond effectively and respectfully to their peers work.

·         Find time for students to write every day. Improvement in writing does not happen overnight, nor does it generally happen very easily. Volume is important. Writing should never be an occasional activity. It needs to be something that is effected every day.

·         Focus on each student’s writing strengths and needs to guide individualized instruction. Effective writing instruction is a scaffolded collaboration between teachers and students. Teachers need to know where students are at and what they can do, by collecting writing samples and examining them, assessing where children need support and planning appropriate instruction.

·         Provide students with limited, constructive, and thoughtful feedback. It is important to provide thoughtful and sensitive feedback to students about their writing—to help them find and understand in their drafts both the diamonds and the rough.

·         Encourage peer review. Elementary students often have difficulty revising their own writing even though this stage of the process is as important as drafting. Revising and editing a peer’s writing helps students develop a fresh perspective on the proofreading process, in turn helping them become more aware and reflective as they draft, revise and edit their own work for their intended audience.

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Spelling

Despite the inherent challenges in English writing instruction, the written English language does conform to predictable patterns, and more importantly, those patterns can be taught directly to students. Spelling instruction of reliable patterns enable students to analyze and categorize words, and to spell a high percentage of words without memorization. Our approach to spelling instruction is based on the following principles:

·         Regular weekly spelling work;

·         Differentiated lists to meet students at their instructional level;

·         Lessons should focus on a single orthographic principle, such as a spelling pattern or phonogram;

·         Activities should lead students to generalize patterns, not memorize “rules”;

·         Lessons should balance explicit instruction and authentic reading and writing activities;

·         Activities should be multisensory, engaging students in reading, writing, speaking and hearing;

·         Student involvement in learning—through self-correction, personal dictionaries, and conferencing—is critical.

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Handwriting

            There are two main goals when we teach elementary students handwriting:

·         To help them develop legible handwriting to communicate effectively;

·         To help children develop facility, speed, and ease of handwriting.

In this early stage of elementary, our programs focus on reinforcing correct pencil grip and letter formation. (The early years of schooling are especially critical for handwriting instruction; once children have formed counterproductive habits in handwriting, such as poor pencil grip or inefficient letter formation, those habits can be difficult to change.) To ensure legibility and fluency for those for children needing additional support or remediation, it is imperative to implement individualized handwriting instruction and daily handwriting practice based on the following principles:

·         Consistent formation of letters using a continuous stroke;

·         Focus initially on learning motor patterns rather than perfect legibility;

·         Teach similarly formed letters together;

·         Separate reversible letters such as b and d;

·         Integration of handwriting instruction with letter sounds (for beginning readers);

·         In teaching cursive, explicitly teach connections between letters as well as formation of single letters;

·         Once correct letter formation is perfected, aim for speed as well as legibility.

Science

A basic function of human cognition is to understand why. Why does the sun trace an arc across the sky? How come pine cones fall off trees? Why do I get sweaty when I run? Curiosity about the world around us is at the very heart of human invention and creativity.

The sciences are the disciplines that enable a student to simultaneously sate and fuel that curiosity. For everything from the weather to furniture, from plants to stars, from wheels to light bulbs, students can ask what things are made of, how all their parts work together, what makes them move and how. Our approach to science education enables students to ask and answer questions in a way that is empowering. It instills a sense of intrigue and enables students to develop understanding and then form further questions based both on the knowledge they already have and the insight they wish to gain in the future.

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            The core goal of science education is to allow students to tap into science, both its content and its methods, in a deep way. Elementary students can and should:

  • Learn the basic scientific knowledge that provides a framework for understanding their world. Students should master the foundational content of biology, physics, chemistry—including its most relevant aspects, such as astronomy and geology, human anatomy, and electromagnetism.
  •  Engage in focused practice with evidential, causal thinking. Students begin with observation and then go on a journey of scientific discovery—from the process of asking scientific questions, to observing and gathering information, to refining questions and hypotheses, to experiment and explanation. Children come to understand that the scientific method is an organized system that helps scientists, indeed anyone, answer a question or solve a problem.

The natural sciences are tangible, major drivers of human knowledge and progress because they successfully use the former to generate the latter: they allow us uptake evidence and use it to gain causal knowledge of the world around us.

All academic content areas involve learning about a domain via evidential thinking—even literature. But science is uniquely formalized and powerful in a way that lays that basic pattern of thinking bare. In a similar way as to how math strengthens the foundations of mental functioning in all areas, so does science with a particular eye towards inference from observational evidence. The scientific method is invaluable, even to non-scientists. Students also need to learn the content of key areas in science, the areas that offer a basic understanding of the experienced natural world. Besides the fact that they are tightly coupled—there is no real way to master the scientific method without learning a range of scientific content—there is also the fact that it’s important for everyone to feel at home in the natural world.

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Our Science Pedogogy

At La Bella Vita Montessori, our approach to science reflects the above priorities: to give students a framework of scientific understanding, and to do so in a way that fosters their internalizing the powerful cognitive tool that is the scientific method. The child’s direct experience of the natural world, namely, observation and hands-on exploration, forms the basis of the elementary science program. Teachers look for authentic opportunities to draw children’s awareness to natural phenomena – gardening and other outdoor work is the perfect time to highlight simple classification of leaf shapes; a classroom weather station is the perfect motivation to chart changes in temperature and precipitation; a recently reported earthquake may drive research into plate tectonics.

Our students practice:

·         Careful observation of the world around them, using all of their senses;

·         The ability to record their observations, often over long periods of time: sketching with detail, writing precise and detailed descriptions, keeping charts or graphs and so on;

·         The ability to distinguish between what they observe with their sense, and what they think or infer from those observations.

Terms, definitions, and explanations are also critically important; our students also learn how to conceptualize data, make logical inferences, interpret experiments, and codify their understanding with technical vocabulary. But come at the end of a long process of empirical engagement—not at the beginning. For these things crystallize answers to mysteries, the mysteries must first be discovered and the questions first asked. The content areas are chosen to be amenable to learning the above method, and to really make comprehensible a major swath of the child’s experience of the world.

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Science in Our Classrooms

            Science is the classroom is activity- and experience-based, driving students to learn to ask and answer questions in a scientific way. Science presentations and activities are pursued by each student least once a week, with ample opportunities for extensions. Teachers use many demonstrations to appeal to children’s natural curiosity and imagination. These exciting demonstrations invariably precipitate the question, “How did you do that?,” challenging children to repeat the demonstrations themselves to discover the how and why. Children go on to independently perform many more experiments across all branches of science.

            A meticulously prepared science area with an extensive supply of scientific equipment and materials, allows children to explore any topic of high interest to them (for example, the density of various liquids) and to experiment with variables (e.g. does applying more heat to a liquid alter its viscosity?), thus becoming young scientists. Content is taught through demonstrations, experiments, stories, charts, and books. The curriculum moves through content units in a specific sequence (with lots of variations and offshoots provided for individual interest), providing a targeted foundation of scientific knowledge.

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Students thus enter middle school with a solid understanding of content that is highly relevant to both their future academic needs and to understanding the world in which they live. They have real knowledge of their own body (via a sequence of biology that culminates with human anatomy and cell biology), knowledge of electricity and the ubiquitous technology that enables it to power our lives, and knowledge of the basic mechanics that drive our planet’s dynamics (weather, geological change).

More importantly, they know how to think about these diverse domains. They know how the scientific method is similar and different across biology, astronomy, and energy physics. When one day they want or need to understand more about how a computer works, about climate controversies, or about a family member’s illness, they’ll be able to learn to do so—with curiosity and rigor.

Art Appreciation ***New Window***

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We integrate the arts in our Montessori program not just because they support other academic learning, although they certainly do. The arts demonstrate the ancient human need for communication, with evidence of music, visual arts, dance and theatre from the earliest documented societies. Because we are driven intrinsically to communicate, humans develop increasingly subtle and complicated means of doing so. The arts support our ability to communicate in nonlinguistic modes, to enrich and expand the complexity and nuances of that which we hope to communicate. We want to create environments within which children develop the ability to create meaning through repeated opportunities both to internalize and to express it. The arts allow for purposeful meaning-making. When students can integrate social, emotional, physical and intellectual understanding through the creation or experience of art, that understanding is made more personal, more responsive and more lasting than when students receive it through a single modality.

The arts offer experiences for learners to expand their social, emotional and intellectual expertise, as a process of both creating and communicating meaning and understanding across a diverse range of concepts and ideas. Socially, the arts offer a pathway for diverse cultural experiences, for comparing and contrasting between multiple modalities conveying the same themes or between similar modalities conveying different themes. Experiences in the arts provide distinct opportunities for collaboration and for practical experience in working in groups with diverse contributions. Emotionally, the arts require risk-taking and courage in making visible creative and divergent thinking. Experiences in the arts give learners multiple languages for conveying understanding, building confidence and allowing teachers more focused lenses into student thinking. The skill development that comes with disciplined practice supports learners’ definition of persistence and self-capacity, and offer learners engaging paths to developing their ability to attend to new content . Intellectually, the arts allow interest-driven structures for deeper understanding. Visual arts, theatre, music and dance require complex symbolic representation that interweave cognitive and emotional domains. Further, experiences in the arts to expand meaning-making allow learners to think creatively and critically, noticing and documenting patterns, practicing analysis and developing the capacity to discern subtle differences in meaning. Engaging in the arts allows learners to expand complex understanding, through adopting multiple perspectives or composing original design.

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Our Approach to Art Appreciation

            Most approaches to arts education, as with typical approaches to literature, are relatively technical. They offer students historical context to help make sense of a painting or sculpture. Ultimately, they often try to teach students something about the technique of the art, such as principles of composition, of materials, or of schools of aesthetics that may have informed the artist. Our approach to art appreciation minimizes these appeals art history, technique, and aesthetic schools. Instead it teaches students to approach the fine arts in the same way that they can approach books and movies: by directly experiencing the excitement and poignancy of the content of the artwork.

            Similar to observation in the sciences, the process of “reading” a painting starts with direct observation, and involves suggesting more abstract possibilities followed by testing those “hypothesis” with evidence from the painting. The microcosm of the scientific method used in “reading” comes in the form of solving the mystery of what is happening in the story. Likewise, similar to literature, visual art has characters and a story. However, while the role of a student reading a novel is to grasp the meaning of the words and imagine the world created, the role of a student reading a painting is the reverse: to grasp the meaning of the images and provide the words—their words—to the world they encounter. There is a clear story in the artwork, but they need to be the “author” to fully read and experience the story.

Students learn a series of techniques—such as attending to and imitating a depicted character’s pose, or following a character’s gaze to see where they are looking, or coming up with a title for a painting, or putting a thought bubble or dialog bubble to a character—that enable them to slowly, observationally piece together what is happening in a work of art. They come to notice that a boy’s posture indicates that he is intrigued, that the curve of his hand means he is nervous, that his facial expression means that he excited—and that this is very different from the other boy he is sitting next to. They learn to observe and analyze the human element in the finest details of a scene, experiencing its meaning by putting words to its story.

Finally, the student comes to appreciate the full meaning of a painting or a sculpture, and personally connects with it. Finding a personal connection to the theme gives students a real understanding of the work and, more importantly, an understanding of how the insight of the theme fits into their own life. Connecting the artwork’s theme to the same kind of moments in literature (and sometimes history) is extremely valuable in the student’s understanding of the abstract idea, but a personal connection is what completes the powerfully emotional experience for the student.

This process of self-reflection—of seeing how the abstract meaning contributes insight to one’s own life—is also essential to the subject of literature. The difference between art and literature, in this respect, is that the meaning of a novel takes the duration of the work to experience and may take weeks to come to fruition, while that of an artwork can be grasped in one class period.

Literature ***New Window***

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Almost all schools teach at least some literature to elementary students. Yet we see that children—and adults—are reading less and less. Why don’t students learn to gain pleasure and value from great books, plays, and poems? The answer lies in understanding the purpose of learning literature. Most programs don’t have a clear conception of the purpose for reading literature, and default to technical or standardized-test-based learning outcomes: learning about symbolism or narrative point of view, or learning the bare rudiments of reading comprehension.

On our view, the goal of all education is to foster in a student the ability to live a full life. A guided journey through great literature affords our students the opportunity to develop some of the deepest foundations of such a life: the capacity for empathy and moral reasoning, deep inspiration, and profound self-understanding. There is little more important for a child—or an adult—than knowing how to be affected by and reflect upon great literature.

In math, we scaffold student learning with carefully designed, concrete learning materials. By interacting with particulars that a child can both literally and cognitively grasp, they come to more easily understand abstract quantitative relationships. Literature is the equivalent of math materials for the subject of human beings. A great work of literature offers a concrete experience—colorful characters, charged dilemmas, wrenching decisions, and dramatic consequences—that scaffolds a child’s ability to understand themselves and others. In seeing Anne Sullivan struggle to teach Helen Keller language in Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, they understand patience, empathy, persistence, how connectedness to others and the world foster dignity and self-governance, and much more.

Literature, approached correctly—taught as a series of enthralling mysteries about human beings—is a learning material that allows them to build their own character and practice moral reasoning. In our elementary programs, students learn to understand how to draw an abstract theme out of the choices and events of a story—and how to relate it to their own lives and development. The two key outcomes of our literature program are:

·         The ability to carefully and independently understand a work of literature. Students master the mechanics of reading complex works: such as identifying and learning unfamiliar words, analyzing literary elements, and meta-cognitive skills such as learning to problem-solve one’s own reading challenges. They learn how to do all of the above based on evidence from the text, ensuring that they are really reasoning about and learning from the details of the literary work, even difficult ones such as the poetry of Tennyson.

·         The ability to draw meaning and lessons from a work of literature. In addition to mastering the full stack of reading comprehension skills, our program teaches students to systematically relate the lessons of literature to their own life experience. Students identify the relevance of the characters and events they comprehend, and learn to actively process and evaluate, e.g. the heroism of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the injustice of prejudice in Babe.

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Our Literature Pedagogy

To achieve these outcomes, our elementary programs helps students learn from a specific selection of great literature. Our program uses works of literature that are:

·         Rich and full-length, including novels, plays, and poetry (no excerpts, summaries, or child versions), chosen to offer accessibility to and also challenge for elementary students;

·         Thematically profound, both to children and timelessly so, touching on topics such as courage, honesty, and independence;

·         Exciting, value-driven, and inspiring (even when tragic), and that include strong characters who make choices and act accordingly.

The approach is discussion-based, with students reading chapters independently and coming together for a teacher-guided discussion. The main topics for discussion are related to the outcomes above:

·         Answering critical, specifically selected questions about the plot, theme, setting, and characterization, such as the motivation of a particular character—and what evidence in the work we can use to answer these questions;

·         Drawing out personal connections with the novel, such as what resonates with them and why, parallels they see to their lives, and their own evaluations of the characters and events.

FAQ ***New Window***

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What do La Bella Vita Montessori elementary students do throughout the day? What’s the daily schedule?

At La Bella Vita Montessori, our elementary students have a three-hour uninterrupted work cycle each morning and a shorter work period each afternoon. Students can work both in our indoor classroom and our outdoor classroom extension. Lunch typically happens before outdoor time in the elementary classroom. Elementary children take a very active role in managing their classroom and keeping it clean and organized, so time is set aside daily, typically at the end of each work cycle, for these tasks.

Tell me about class sizes and child-teacher ratios.

As children get older, they become more interested in working with their peers. As a result, in the elementary classroom, the vast majority of lessons are given to small groups of 2-5 or sometimes even given during line time. This instructional ratio far surpasses the typical instructional ratio in elementary classrooms, which is in the range of 1:25 (we recommend researching this for your area’s public and private schools). Our ideal elementary class size is larger than in our earlier programs. This allows smaller peer groups to develop within the larger age range in the program, and for children to find other peers with similar interests with whom they can connect and work.

Do you give tests to the children? How does assessment work?

We think it is neither necessary nor helpful to administer or depend on traditional tests and assessments, especially with young children. Ongoing, detailed assessment happens in lessons, when the teacher presents a new material, often one-on-one with the child (or in small groups with older children) and through daily observation of the child’s work with the materials. As they get older, a child’s completed work becomes more important in the assessment process as well, but early on, the child is primarily working on developing internal skills and understanding, rather than producing a particular external result. Because the child’s aim is to build him or herself, careful observation of the child is necessary. We encourage each child’s intrinsic motivation by responding to and developing the child’s natural developmental interest.

There seems to be a lot of choice given to Montessori students. What if mt child never chooses math/language/another type of work?

Our teachers at La Bella Vita Montessori receive training and professional development in the craft of Montessori education. One of the skills they learn is how to “entice” children and draw their interest. If it happened that your child was not expressing interest in some particular category (this would be very unusual), your teacher would ask herself why, and would closely observe your child in order to figure it out. Then she would craft a plan to help spark that interest, possibly drawing on other areas of interest that your child has.

The Montessori experience is based on the principle of “freedom within limits” or “freedom with responsibility.” Your child is free to choose any work he’s had a lesson on, and to use it as often and for as long as he wishes, as long as it’s exercised responsibly. In the highly unusual scenario that he never chooses work in a given area, the guide has a number of strategies she can employ depending on the age of the child (repeating a lesson with the child, working together with the child, enticing the child to observe or work with other children doing that work, etc.).

In the elementary classroom, children are expected to become active members of their society and expected to learn the necessary skills that will allow them to actively participate. They are coached to master key skills and use those skills to explore and demonstrate their knowledge in all areas of learning.

How does Montessori support creativity?

Children that grow up in Montessori schools are exceptionally creative, and many well-known entrepreneurs and artists grew up in Montessori schools (the Google founders, Jeff Bezos- the founder of Amazon, Anne Frank, and Prince William and Harry, to name a few). In order execute on a creative idea, a person needs to have technical skill; the artist must be able to employ the paintbrush or the clay with skill in order for it to become the thing that he or she imagines. In our classrooms, children are exposed to an abundance of information, and they practice using their hands in many different ways. Finally, they are given real tools with which to do art, from early on. The elementary-aged child has a creative imagination and is exposed to an abundance of information and ideas in the classroom. He or she can then begin to put these ideas together in new ways-as an artist, a writer, an inventor, or an entrepreneur.

Will my child have trouble transitioning to another school?

Children typically transition very easily to other schools from our program. We recommend that you choose a school that is sure to challenge your child, as one of the biggest issues after a transition is lack of challenge. Children from our elementary classrooms are typically sought after by middle schools, and typically become leaders in whichever schools they attend, public or private.