A day in the school life of my nine-year-old daughter is not at all how I envisioned her days would be. When I sent her off to kindergarten just a few years ago, I never thought that she would one day be gathering chicken eggs and feeding birds during her hours at school. Yet here she is, getting off the school bus wiser every day, learning not only history and math, but compassion and generosity.
I decided to pull my daughter, Hailey, from public school at the end of her third grade year. It was by far the hardest parenting decision I have made so far, because I knew that either choice could cause potential hurt for her. To take her out of the school she knew, away from her friends and teachers, was very difficult. I was afraid that she would hate this new school, and blame me. I was afraid that it wasn’t the best thing for her educationally, and that putting her back in public school down the road would be a feather in the hat of the administration who tried to convince me that I was making a mistake.
But mostly, I was afraid of leaving my daughter in public school. I was terrified that, because she didn’t learn like 80 percent of the other kids, she would be left behind. I worried for her socially and I worried for her educationally. I worried that the kids were already prone to turn on each other, to exclude each other and try to create drama. I worried that I couldn’t learn common core math, and couldn’t possibly help her with her homework without nightly breakdowns. I worried that because she had a hard time focusing, she wouldn’t actually retain anything because classroom learning moves so fast and the teacher cannot keep going back to the beginning. I worried because my beautiful and vibrant daughter was often sad and withdrawn, sitting by herself at lunch and not participating at recess.
I shared these worries with a therapist, who suggested I check out Fields of Green Montessori School in Vernon, NJ. This conversation was while my daughter was in the second grade, and I went to visit the school with Hailey. I fell in love immediately; she did not. The kids basically go to school in an old farmhouse, with a dog in the classroom, birds, and goats and chickens outside. They believe in active play, and the kids have plenty of time to get their excess energies out throughout the day. My first impression was that we were stepping back in time.
We had a tour of the school, and Hailey smiled politely and played with the dog. She then pulled me into the bathroom and told me no way – goats and chickens? Eating lunch outside with the bugs? No way!
I tried to convince her but she wanted nothing to do with the school, and for various reasons, I wasn’t ready to push her. She returned to public school for third grade, and I continued to worry about her academic future.
A school-year later, I had the same conversation with the same therapist, who gently suggested I return to Fields of Green and give it another chance. So we did – this time Hailey went to school there for a week toward the end of her third grade year. She liked it – she made friends in an instant and felt comfortable. She was given an assignment while there – to write about visiting a new school. She wrote: “It is fun visiting a new school. I love how we wear slippers when we are in class or as I would say, home because it feels like a big family.” I knew then that we had to give this alternate way of learning a try.
She has been in Fields of Green for five months now, and the changes I see in her amaze me every day. She is happy, more at ease with who she is. The kids who go to the school are not judgmental; they just accept each other. The older kids help the younger kids and the younger kids learn from the older ones. She has friends – real friends who care about each other – and an age difference of a few years among them does not make them any less of friends. She is kinder and more empathetic. And yes – she is learning and her math and writing skills have greatly improved.
They learn about the environment and how to take care of themselves. It’s a hands-on learning environment; when they were learning about the forests, they had a guided tour of a wildlife refuge. While they were learning about the sea they went to a marsh. When they are taught something, they are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in it -they can see it, feel it, experience it, smell it, and even taste it. This lets them learn without the pressure of traditional learning – they don’t even know they are in a lesson because to them, it is just life. Gym class consists of riding bicycles on wooded trails, hiking, and skiing. They get the chance to learn and improve new skills at every turn.
Debra Smorto is the founder of Fields of Green. She is also the owner/director, and middle and elementary teacher. She explained to me that a Montessori education is a philosophy of learning that is child-and brain-centered. Each child walks through the curriculum at their own pace, whether it is slow or fast, depending upon their own unique learning abilities and their individual brain development. Maria Montessori developed this style of learning in the late 1800’s after her research as Italy’s first woman physician, focusing on the brain development of children. Her research turned her on to education since she found that her experiments were not only giving her good information, but they were in turn teaching the children she worked with.
In Fields of Green, not only are kids given the time to learn as they are all considered individuals, but even in small group lesson the kids are presented with similar information, yet the teachers know just what to expect from each and every student. It’s like an old-fashioned schoolhouse with mixed age groups, but each child takes their own path through the carefully chosen and creative lessons. The children are taught how to find information and research solutions to problems that are often practical in their applications. Books and tests are minimal – the teachers assess a child’s progress through many ways – not only in the written work of a child, but by observing how each child processes the information taught.
Hailey’s teacher told them once that the best way to get an A+ is to tell her how something they learn applies to their lives. When the teachers see a lesson becomes a part of a child’s life, it is then she knows the lesson was learned. What better assessment is there than that?
When I first found out my daughter was gathering chicken eggs, she had come home with chicken poop on her heels (yes, she is that kid who wears heels into the chicken coop) and my first reaction was, “That is gross – make sure you have gloves on!” But then a few weeks later, I couldn’t buy the local eggs I buy because it was too cold for the hens to lay the eggs that week and Hailey looked up and said, “But my chickens are laying eggs,” and then proceeded to tell me what else could be wrong with them. If something ever happens where the grocery stores are out of commission and I have to survive on my own, I want to be around a kid who knows what poison berries look like and how to make a homemade bow and arrow, that knows how to take care of others and is willing to expand her knowledge outside of textbooks and tests.
Something else I learned from sending my daughter to Fields of Green: It’s okay to slow down, and trust the process. When you send your child to a Montessori school, you can’t dissect or micromanage what they do in a day. My daughter comes home from school and I ask her what she learned, and she tells me that they didn’t really learn anything and they mostly played. Now that I know more about the teaching and learning style, I know this isn’t true, that they are learning without the pressures of sitting in a classroom. To see the real results of a Montessori school, you have to step back and give it time. It’s hard to trust the process sometimes, but I have witnessed how much information these kids have retained. Not only are they learning, in the end, the same basic things that the public schools are teaching, but they are learning why they need the information; why it’s important and how each of them fits in society and can make a difference.
The best part about my daughter being in Fields of Green is that what Hailey “can’t do,” and what her learning “limitations” may or may not be are no longer part of my vocabulary. I have learned to focus on what she can do. And what she can do amazes me every single moment of the day.