By Jessica Beckinger, K/1 Montessori Teacher at Birch Lane
The Montessori kindergarten and first grade classroom comprises five distinct areas: practical life, sensorial, cultural, math, and language. Some of these areas will change in the upper grades to reflect the needs of maturing children. For example, one will not typically see practical life or sensorial shelves in second and third grade classrooms, but there will be new areas like geometry. Many of the more advanced math and language materials in our classroom will also be on the shelves in second and third grade. The materials are designed to build upon one another throughout the years.
Materials (called jobs) are always kept on open shelves and thoughtfully organized into subject-matter groupings. Students should be able to access materials at all times and know each job’s precise “home.” In most areas, the jobs are laid out from left to right, most simple to most challenging. Jobs are presented in this order during our daily lessons (which are mandatory). Students are then able to use the jobs that interest them during job times (free choice time).
In the practical life area of the classroom, one will find a variety of jobs that are intended to help children become more independent. In our classroom, the practical life area is located underneath the PEACE paintings along one side of the brown rug. The bookcase to the left always contains pouring, scooping, and tonging jobs. These materials help students learn to manipulate tools, pour and carry without spilling or breaking containers, and improve fine motor control and coordination. The bookcase to the right holds a variety of materials that teachers change out every two to three months. The top shelf always has water jobs as well as the dressing frames. The lower two shelves will have a range of jobs that impart life skills such as opening containers, using a screwdriver or a measuring tape, lacing with strings, shoe tying, opening locks, folding clothing, and more. The practical life area is also seen in Montessori preschool classrooms, and this is the first area we present to our incoming kindergartners. A main tenant of Montessori philosophy is promoting student independence, and the practical life jobs are just one way in which teachers achieve this goal.
The sensorial jobs are very interesting. They develop and refine the senses as well teach students about shapes, colors, sorting, and sequencing. These jobs constitute the next level of difficulty following practical life. In our classroom, the sensorial jobs are located in the center island on the two bookcases to the right that face the circle area. The sensorial area houses some of the iconic Montessori materials like the pink tower and the brown stair. These types of jobs ask children to order materials from largest to smallest, or smallest to largest. There are also more challenging extensions students may try if they choose to do so.
Our sensorial area contains jobs that utilize the auditory, olfactory, visual, and tactile senses. For example, students can match shakers filled with different materials by sound (the sound cylinders) or put on a blindfold and match candles by scent with our teacher-created smelling job. Children grade colors from lightest to darkest with the color tablets and identify three-dimensional shapes by touch with the geometric solids (sphere, cube, cone, cylinder, etc.). The binomial and trinomial cubes are three-dimensional puzzles that prepare children for the future math work of squaring and cubing. The sensorial area is the second area we present to our students during our introductory period.
Cultural Studies/ Social Studies & Science
In kindergarten and first grade Montessori classrooms, the cultural area holds materials that teach children about zoology, botany, geography, history, and culture. Our cultural area is located in the center island. We begin our year by presenting the zoology jobs. Students learn about the human body, the animal kingdoms, parts of the animals, insects, life-cycles, habitats, which animals live in which continents, and more. We then progress to the botany jobs. Students learn about the needs of plants, the parts of the plant, the parts of the leaf, parts of the flower, parts of the tree, leaf shapes, and seasonal changes in plants and trees, among other topics.
Our geography materials include the large continent puzzles, the flags of the world, continent pin-poking, and many earth and space jobs. Students will learn about states, countries, and continents, our solar system, land and water forms, seasons, weather, earth’s resources, and more. We intersperse our studies of history and culture throughout the school year. For instance, we study a different continent each month: North America, then South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and finally, Antarctica. We read books about national and world holidays as they occur and discuss the events that led to the creation of the holiday. We learn about past presidents and important historical figures as well as major events in American history (in child-friendly terms). We invite parents and guest speakers into the classroom to share their expertise on many cultural subjects.
The Montessori math materials are particularly well developed. They move children gradually from the concrete towards the abstract. All the jobs have manipulatives (pieces children can see, touch, and move) that bring meaning to concepts and increase student success and independence. Math materials are located underneath our art display board and are laid out from left to right, most simple (or concrete) to most challenging (or abstract). We begin with number recognition and counting, number writing, number and quantity correspondence, odd and even numbers, and patterns. We move on to single-digit addition and subtraction, sums of ten, counting by multiples, and weight and measurement.
First graders have lessons on place value, static and dynamic addition and subtraction of multiple-digit numbers, telling time, using money, fractions, and single-digit multiplication. We supplement the Montessori math materials with the workbooks provided by the district. A math lesson will usually consist of a presentation of Montessori material followed by a few pages in the workbook. Students are allowed to use their workbooks (both math and language) as they choose to during job times as well.
Language & Literacy
Our language area is located along two walls under the front window. It includes several bookcases of materials, the library, the small writing desks, and the gray boxes with little pullout drawers (called skyscrapers) underneath the whiteboard. Again, the language materials are organized from left to right, beginning concepts to advanced. The left to right order is always used in Montessori classrooms as it is the direction in which we read. The materials begin with letter recognition, letter tracing, and phonics (letter sounds).
There is also a pre-writing material, called the metal insets, with which children trace shapes to build hand strength and fine motor coordination in preparation for writing. Once we complete our lessons on letter sounds, we introduce students to our word building program. Students use wooden alphabet letters, called the moveable alphabet, to build, read, then write increasingly challenging words. The program has three levels. The pink level contains CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words (like cat, bed, pig). These words are phonetic (students are able to sound them out). The blue level moves children on to consonant blends (words that have sh, th, ng, st, ch, tr, etc.). These words are longer and not always phonetic. The green level introduces students to vowel digraphs (words with ee, oo, ai, ea, etc.) and silent e words. Students progress through this program as they choose. The small desks under the window house a letter writing station. Students improve their writing skills by writing letters to one another and “mailing” them in the mailbox. The bookshelf under the rainbow contains easy reader books at various reading levels, student dictionaries, and jobs that teach spelling, rhyming words, sentence structure, and parts of speech, among other concepts. In first grade, we cover nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
The most advanced language material in the K/1 classroom is the skyscrapers. The pullout drawers are labeled A-Z. Each alphabet letter covers a different concept (such as compound words, prefixes, suffixes, punctuation, etc.). We introduce this material once the students reach a certain reading level (some students will be ready in first grade and some will not), and students may progress through the levels as they choose during job times. Students are not expected to complete the entire program by the end of first grade. They will continue skyscraper work in the upper grades. Just as in math, we supplement the Montessori language materials with workbooks and leveled readers provided by the district. Daily journaling, story time, reading groups, and the weekly writers’ workshop (for first grade) round out the language curriculum for our students.