Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tessa's first year of school, age 13, from her parents' point of view

In 2010, Tessa decided she'd like to experience school, and enrolled in a Montessori adolescent programme. Our feelings about the year are mixed.

On the down side, the school day is long. Tessa comes home from school tired and drained more than I feel is to be expected. I would be in favour of a reduced school day because of the opportunity cost to students of time spent on schoolwork, which could be spent pursuing their own study. Unfortunately, the school Tessa goes to holds the opposite view and chooses to extend the school day to 7 hours plus approx 1+hrs/day of homework plus homework in the holidays. In my view, a school issuing homework for the long, summer break is saying to students, we don't trust you to make good choices about how you spend your own time, and the work we come up with is more important and valuable than your other activities.

Homeschooling parents sometimes worry about whether their children are keeping up academically with school children of the same age. I can offer some reassurance: I believe it would be difficult for any homeschooling child to make less progress in maths than Tessa has made this year. This is greatly frustrating as Tessa has always loved maths, especially geometry. I wonder if maths is particularly well-suited to a mix of one-on-one instruction and independent exploration, progressing at the pace of the individual learner, because maths is so much about grasping new concepts, exploring them so as to fully comprehend them, and then building on them with further new concepts.

Tessa's school began the year teaching French as a second language but failed to secure a replacement French teacher when the first one left so switched to Spanish, after a break during which there was no foreign language teaching. Now, just as Tessa has reached a point in Spanish where she is beginning to really enjoy it, the school has decided that Mandarin would be a better language to teach and is hoping to offer Mandarin rather than Spanish next year. The year before Tessa joined the school, her classmates were taught Italian.

If different Montessorians were asked to list the principles of a Montessori education in order of importance, the lists would probably vary. To me, freedom (with responsibility) is the most important element of a Montessori education. Sadly, there has been almost no freedom of choice for Tessa and her classmates in their schoolwork this year. I believe the students would get a superior education if they were allowed to choose their own subjects and topics for study, and study those topics in their own ways.

But, on the plus side, Tessa has had the privilege of being part of a community of wonderful people: two classroom teachers and an outdoor education teacher, and 14 students aged from 11 to 15. I feel grateful to have had these lovely people in my daughter's life. The school has made it a priority to build a strong sense of community; the year started with a camp, another camp took place in the middle of the year, and the class holds a community meeting each week to discuss issues and make decisions together.

The students are expected to take a lot of responsibility for organising some of their activities. This has given rise to great learning experiences, including creating a menu plan with shopping list for the class's second camp; designing, pricing, constructing and maintaining a hen-house; all aspects of running various fundraisers; and holding a presentation of their work at the end of each term, at which the teachers keep very much in the background.

Tessa has had to venture out of her comfort zone on a few occasions, interracting with different people in the community: interviewing a local resident about the history of our suburb; discussing purchases with staff at the local hardware store; visiting residents in a retirement home.

Despite the down sides, Tessa wishes to return to school for another year, so we will be trying to make the most of the positives, and to support Tessa to minimise her involvement in optional school extras and do her homework efficiently, to free up a little time to pursue her own interests.