Thursday, April 25, 2019

Differentiation in a Montessori Classroom

I’d like to introduce you to two of my students:

"Look! It's isosceles!"
4-year-old Thea* excitedly points to the isosceles triangle she created with wood blocks.
When Thea joined our classroom last year as a 3-year-old, she spoke no conversational English, but she could identify most print letters and numbers by name. She had an exceptional ability to absorb and remember new vocabulary and concepts. As she gradually developed conversational English, she rapidly mastered identifying the cursive lowercase letters and letter sounds, as well as phonograms (sh, oy, ee), etc. 
Forming quadrilaterals with the
Rectangle Box of Constructive Triangles
As a 4-year-old, she worked with more advanced language materials and began to sound out phonetic words. Likewise enchanted with numbers, she loves to write the numerals we've introduced on chalkboard, exclaiming, "Look, I make 1,000!" She loves blocks and shapes, so while working with the constructive triangles, I started introducing some of the triangle vocabulary, and within two days, she could identify equilateral, isosceles, and scalene triangles.

"Joey*, what color is your shirt today?"
"Yes, it's red! Let's go find some other things that are red."
Many children know their basic colors by age 3, but Joey struggled. I knew that he could see the difference between the colors - he consistently could match the pairs of red, yellow and blue in Color Box 1. He was familiar that "red" "yellow" and "blue" were words associated with colors, but he really struggled to connect the name with the concept. 
In addition to helping children learn new concepts, most Montessori materials  also provide the teacher with diagnostic information about how a child is learning, what they understand, and what might be barriers. If a child cannot accurately match the color tablets, that indicates a difficulty with visually differentiating the colors. When the child can match the colors, but not consistently associate the name with the color, that suggests to me that the challenge is in connecting the language to the concept.

By age 4, when the color names still were a struggle, and the typical level of reinforcement and practice wasn't sufficient, we began a new morning ritual. After our usual good mornings, I would comment, "Joey, you have on a red shirt today.... what color is your shirt?" (They wear red polo shirts as their uniform every day). Giving him the vocabulary before asking him to reproduce it helped him feel successful and confident - it was a fun, playful interaction. Eventually, I started just asking him the color of his shirt without stating it first, and then asking him to name the color of other red things in the room. Once he had mastered that red things are "red," that anchor seemed to help him more quickly master other color names.

Differentiation – adapting instruction to meet the needs of the individual students in the class – is an imperative for effective teaching. While differentiation is one of the greatest challenges for teachers to implement in a traditional single-age classroom, it is one of the greatest assets of the Montessori model. Our classrooms are inherently differentiated because each child is moving through the curriculum at their own pace. 
We see the wide range of skill levels in a classroom as an asset, and intentionally have mixed age classrooms (most Montessori schools group children in 3 year age spans - 3-6yr olds, 6-9, 9-12). Because the children are simultaneously working with different materials in all curriculum areas, there is little direct comparison between peers. I know that every child has the capacity to learn and grow, and I love how the Montessori approach helps me to give each child an individualized classroom experience. 

*Names changed