Skills Some Kids Don’t Learn Until College: Inly in the First Grade

By E.S.S., Inly Parent

It was easy to choose Montessori when my daughter was just three years old. She was my first kid, and I wanted her in a learning environment that was loving and nurturing and not too traumatic for me to drop her off every day.

But once I got in the swing of things as the mother of an autonomous person I started having greater needs from her school than just being a place I didn’t feel guilty leaving her.

The time had come to make choices about where to send my daughter for first grade. Could this child-led theory of Inly’s actually result in a high-quality education in addition to all the good stuff it was doing for her self-esteem? As the deadline to enroll her in first grade loomed, I did a lot of research. I knew for sure that it was wise to spend private school dollars in elementary school, even if it meant not having those dollars for prep school later. This was the time she was learning critical study skills that would ensure she could thrive no matter where she ended up later.

My question was whether Montessori was going to set her up with those skills.

My daughter is now in second grade at Inly, taught by Pattyann Zotz and Caren Baker. She is a voracious reader (halfway through the second Harry Potter book), she manages her own homework schedule, and completes her assignments with little input from me. She is self-possessed and independent and often startles me with her facility at interacting with other children–both those with Montessori background and those without.

It turns out that Montessori offered exactly what I was looking for–study skills and basic academic foundation that I believe will set my daughter up to succeed in any environment.

I was curious about exactly how this works–why it works–what makes the Montessori method so successful academically as well as socially.

So I asked Pattyann to sit down with me, and to let me share our conversation with you.

ESS: What makes the first grade year special?

Pattyann: The 6-9 year development includes the age of imagination, when the child can imagine so much and wants to imagine even more. They love great stories, to learn about the things that came before them. That’s why these children love dinosaurs!

In Children’s House they are in the sensitive period: they like order. Even though they like order in first grade, they are not as neat and organized as they used to be. So you will see your child’s interest in neatness diminish.

ESS: I am so glad you said that. Now I can blame development instead of myself.

Pattyann: Well, you can also blame development for something else: 6-9 years-old is the age of rudeness. They are questioning authority. “How do I talk to people, who is in charge here?” They are striving to be independent and responsible.

ESS: And my instinct – the traditional instinct – is that you need to get a handle on this kid and clamp down and make her get to work and behave herself. As a parent, this is what makes me nervous about the Montessori method – that she won’t be able to function in the real world if she’s being indulged.

Pattyann: Montessori says that she’s not misbehaving, she’s learning. They know that their job as a child and student is to learn. They are expected to use the time given to them to complete assignments, and make good work choices.

It is within this structure that a child is given the freedom to choose their workplace and who they collaborate with. Watching their peers is often the best learning they could get. If they are disturbing others or not making the best choices, often it is these peers that help them through this by reminding of the rules. Of course, if they are not able to handle this responsibility the teacher is there to help them make a better choice—sometimes they might need to sit near the teacher so that we can gently coach them through this skill.

And a huge part of this stage is letting the students learn the social rules. The work of a 6 year-old is building friendships. They really want to discern how that works. It’s the era of tattle-taling, the age of figuring out right and wrong. This is also a herding group. They want to be together to work and plan and create and learn. They are growing away from home and towards their friends for the first time.

They learn much more through collaboration and group work–it’s actually how they learn to function in the real world.


ESS: And in a traditional classroom the desire to work together is seen as – well, almost as something bad. Like they’re cheating, or socializing instead of working.

Pattyann: When you look at schools that teach this age, ask yourself whether the school is meeting the child’s needs or competing with them.

We know that talking to each other is a very important part of this stage of life. So our classroom is set up to support collaborative work.

The environment allows them so many opportunities to work out the social rules that are such an important part of the work of this age. It’s not just taught as a lesson once a week—it’s done all day in our classroom. They learn by constantly having to negotiate life. “Where do I sit, what do I do, who’s allowed to do what.”

ESS: As a parent what astonishes me is that I know this is a good set up socially, but I am continually surprised at what a great result there is academically. My kid sits and does her math homework at night. No fuss, just does her page and slips it back into her folder and then gets a book and reads to her sisters. Honestly, it’s bizarre. Great, but bizarre.

Pattyann: I know, it really is amazing what kids this age can do. Before I came to Montessori I never would have thought a six year old could do what they could do. In a traditional setting we used to do everything for them because we didn’t think they could. They couldn’t go to the library by themselves—we took attendance, we told them when it was time to work. In this classroom, the students do all that themselves.

It’s interesting that you talk about your daughter taking the initiative to read to her younger sisters. That’s a very big part of what we do here. The multi-age classroom allows students to learn from each other and also to set an example for the younger children. So it is natural to her to plan out her own work—do her math page—and then go on to help her sisters in their work by reading to them.

That takes so many skills all at once and these are skills that most kids don’t learn until they go to college. Six year olds are keeping track of what they do all day, being held responsible for making sure it’s done by the end of the day or the week. They are figuring out how they personally learn best, and they are learning by teaching others.

This is not a new concept to these first years…they were asked to do this in Children’s House and will be asked to do it all the way through Middle School. The difference is the level at which they do it.

In Lower Elementary, each new student is taught how to read and how to fill in daily work choices in their work journal. They are given a guide to use for all the various choices they can make. They use this to refer to when choosing their work as well when trying to spell them while recording their work for the day. We meet with them each morning and discuss the different lessons they have been given and help them to learn what a “good choice” might be for them that day. It is wonderful to see them start the year needing a lot of support and then progress to independently walking in the door and completing their day all on their own.

ESS: So how does the stuff that’s so great developmentally impact teaching them the things we all know they need to know? How are you making that leap between “my kid needs to socialize and imagine” and “my kid needs to know math?”

Pattyann: This is when the child is very creative and loves to work with big numbers and hear big stories.

Most six year olds are working with single digit numbers, adding them and learning to sequence them in the right order. In our Montessori classrooms, the children are able to add numbers in the thousands. The Montessori materials allow for this higher understanding of place value by design. The numbers are so concrete with these materials that the numbers come alive for the students, thereby allowing for a much deeper understanding of numbers. So this allows the students to reach that desire of working in the “big.”

Imagine how a first year feels when he successfully adds 7,654 + 1267? Those are big numbers AND they needed to be carried over to the next place value! How about multiplying 5632 by 3? In first grade! The look on their face is full of amazement when the complete this big work! It is a proud moment!!!

A six year old is typically taught where they live–their address, their town, the things they see around them.

Maria Montessori said, “Let’s give them the Universe.”

So we do that: we give them the whole universe and work down to the details.

We give them the five great stories that tell the story of how the Universe was formed, it helps them to think back to when humans first entered the Earth and how that evolution happened.

So we’re thinking big, and getting the students excited about big things—which, again, is consistent with this age. They get to work with millions of numbers not just units or tens as they do in traditional classrooms. They take that desire to imagine and use it to learn the stuff they need to know.

ESS: What’s your favorite part about working with this age?

Pattyann: I love their innocence and that they are so willing to try anything and learn something new. I never have a student walk in and say: “I don’t want to do that.” They just want more and more. Watching them make sense of their world at this age is just so much fun.

The way the Montessori classroom is set up, a student can get involved in a work for a long period of time—not have to give it up and go back to it tomorrow. Don’t you see the most learning when you’re really interested in something? That’s the fun of this age, in this setting.

They don’t do it because the teacher wants them to, they do it because they want to learn.

[Originally published in Rhythm & News, the Inly School newsletter, January 29, 2010.]

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