Jody Quam and Katie Hunt co-teach in a Lower Elementary Montessori classroom in New York City. Their classroom is made up of twenty-plus students, ranging from first through third grade. They teach all subjects using a Montessori approach, in which they guide students to become independent learners and thinkers using a carefully crafted curriculum and set of methods.
According to the American Montessori Society (AMS), true Montessori schools share the following principles and characteristics:
- Multi-age classrooms
- Student choice within a range of options
- Long blocks of uninterrupted work time
- Student learning through exploration and interaction with a carefully prepared environment
- Specialized materials developed with Montessori principles in mind
- Student freedom of movement around the classroom
- At least one Montessori trained teacher in each classroom
Katie and Jody’s classroom certainly exemplifies all of these. As a way to supplement and compliment their strong Montessori curriculum, Katie and Jody implemented reading and writing workshop during the 2012 – 2013 school year. Katie and Jody were part of a school-wide initiative to reimagine the literacy portion of the Montessori curriculum. The decision to supplement the Montessori approach to literacy with reading and writing workshop was borne out of several recognized needs. One need was to provide teachers with a strong, clear framework for literacy instruction, particularly at the emergent reading level. In other subject areas, such as math and cultural subjects, the approach was fairly consistent from classroom to classroom. Teachers had shared language they used to discuss students’ progress, but they didn’t have this same language when discussing children’s progress in reading. Another need was to support not just decoding and phonics, but that crucial other arm of reading development, reading comprehension. Teachers had long noticed that there were gaps between the words that children were able to read and the meaning they were making from their reading. This gap became increasingly pronounced as children became older and expectations became higher.
But the adoption of reading and writing workshop methods across the school was not without challenges. One particular challenge is that the reading and writing workshop curriculum is designed for single grade groups. Another is that it is designed for classrooms in which one subject is taught at a time, simultaneously to the whole class. Katie and Jody not only embraced reading and writing workshop with open arms, they designed solutions for some of the toughest integration challenges. Following is an interview with Jody and Katie, in which they offer some insights into their process.
Q1: First, why reading and writing workshop in a Montessori classroom? How does it benefit the students?
JQ & KH: A reading and writing workshop approach helps students to be more independent, more motivated, and more aware of their strengths and weaknesses in reading and writing. Students learn to monitor their own learning through goal setting and reflection. This kind of instruction lends itself well to cross-curricular integration because it is taught in the context of the world, as well as the context of the other topics we are learning about in school.
Q2: What are a few key ways workshop teaching fits with Montessori principles?
JQ & KH: The workshop approach has more differentiated instruction than other programs offer, and that is the whole goal of the Montessori philosophy, to follow the child. Workshop teaching promotes independence in that children choose their own books and they keep track of their own reading. Also, children choose their own writing topics and decide how to revise and edit their own writing. Finally, they set their own goals for both reading and writing.
Collaboration is another large component of the Montessori philosophy which aligns perfectly with the reading and writing workshop, because there are book clubs in which children collaborate with each other, many opportunities for peer feedback, and one-to-one conferencing between the teacher and child to tailor instruction.
Q3: Reading and writing workshop curricula are mostly designed for single-grade classrooms. How do you plan and implement instruction for multiple age groups in a Montessori classroom?
JQ & KH: Teaching in a multi-age setting is really not much different than teaching in a single-grade classroom because you still have students of different abilities, it is just different in that the span of abilities is greater. Therefore, you plan according to the abilities of the students. For example, if you have second and third graders that are around the same instructional level, you would put them in a group together and make the teaching points match their needs.
Teaching such a range of students definitely requires a lot of planning ahead of time because you need to be familiar with more than just a single-grade level of curriculum. Once you have become familiar with the curriculum it helps you see the larger picture and the general scope of where the curriculum is headed. For example, the first grade unit about getting to know characters in books provides the foundation for the more sophisticated character analysis and inferencing work that is taught in the second and third grade character units.
With two teachers, it is really only possible to teach two mini-lessons a day, so instead of teaching each grade level separately, we break up our class into two different groups. All of the students receive the first grade curriculum during their first year with us to lay the foundation, and for the older students we pick and choose from the second and third grade units depending on student needs. We might repeat some units every year (such as the poetry unit) and we may only teach some once (such as the mystery reading unit or lab reports writing unit).
In a Montessori classroom, we approach the reading and writing workshops like any other lesson that we teach. We don’t have time to teach a mini-lesson every day because of the importance of providing students with independent work time; therefore, give a full reading and writing workshop three times each week, making sure to hit the teaching points that will benefit our students the most. Students can always choose to work on their reading and writing during independent work times, which gives them even more practice.
Q4: Studying children’s work process and meeting individual children’s needs are very important in Montessori teaching. How does workshop teaching support observation, feedback, and individualized instruction?
JQ & KH: One-to-one conferencing: When we meet with students one on one, we ask them to read or share some of their writing with us. We give a compliment and some targeted feedback, and then we give them a next step, which is individualized based on our observations and feedback from the conference.
Running records: The running records provide us a structured opportunity to observe and assess our students’ reading. We give feedback based on our observations, which allows us to ensure that each student is reading at a level that is correspondent to their current reading ability. Then, we can provide individualized instruction based on each child’s reading level.
Also, due to the fact that a Montessori classroom typically only has 5-10 kids at each grade level, the mini-lessons can be tailored specifically to each group, essentially creating ready-made strategy groups.
Q5: What are your biggest challenges in embedding workshop methods in your Montessori classroom and how do you surmount them?
JQ & KH: The two biggest challenges are scheduling and planning. We talked a bit about planning already. Scheduling can be tough, and we are always making tweaks to the schedule and trying out different ways to fit in reading and writing workshop. Of course, we always want to make sure to preserve the Montessori work cycle. We’ve found that when we do either reading or writing workshop at the very beginning of the day, and the other at the very end of the day, that seems to work well. We might flip which one comes first each year, or perhaps more often, because children have different attention levels at the end of the day versus the beginning of the day.
Last year, we gave all of the children reading or writing workshop at the same time, and this year we don’t. This year, we put it in the schedule for each age group like any other Montessori lesson. Because the second and third years have the same curriculum, this means sometimes we give the same minilesson twice. After we give a minilesson, we ask that the children spend some time engaged in reading or writing so that they can practice the strategies they learned in the lesson. During that time, we confer with them.
We give a minilesson to each group 3-4 times per week. We feel consistency is really important. On days that they don’t have a minilesson, we encourage the children to choose reading or writing during their work cycle to practice what they have been learning.
We do a lot of goal-setting with the children on working within time frames while still maintaining their independence. We might discuss deadlines well in advance for particular parts of the writing process (for example, everyone should have a draft finished and should be starting revision by such-and-such date), but the children can choose when during their work cycle they complete this work.
Q6: What are three tips you would give other Montessori teachers considering adopting a workshop approach?
JQ & KH: One, become familiar with the curriculum. Read units of study carefully so you can pick out the important parts and let the rest go. Remember, you always have next year – if you didn’t get to a teaching point or even a whole unit this year – teach it next year!
Two, allow yourself to make mistakes. Phase workshop in gradually, and don’t expect to launch it fully the first year.
Three, try social media! Pinterest is your friend, and so is Chartchums. Google image searches for charts is also really helpful. Remember there is a whole community out there doing this kind of teaching, and there is tons of support to be found.