Sunday, 7 September 2014

School just got Real

In between my travel write ups (we did too much traveling this summer--I've got New York and Washington DC to add now!), I should catch up with actual goings on. Such as my son's graduation from Children's House to the Elementary Class.

We've kept him in his Montessori School, so he's in a mixed age six-nine classroom, but it's the equivalent to first grade. I.e. moving from pre-school to honest-to-goodness school.

The significance of this transition hadn't occurred to me until August when we got the class supply list, featuring binders and notebooks instead of paints and kitchen roll. It really hit me when we had the parent orientation evening, and we were talked through expectations such as... homework.

In many ways, up until this point, I've considered the children to be at school to learn practical skills and socialisation. Any academic advancements have been a bonus. Yes, I stressed about his reading, but there was always the feeling that it didn't really matter. And now it feels like it does.

It's still Montessori, it's still child-led, so my son will still go at his own pace, and there isn't really a specific standard in each subject that they have to achieve in the three years of elementary. But there is an expectation now that they will stay in line with the rest of the country--and there's an element of preparing them for a non-Montessori academic future, with work-sheets and tests and such like.

And the aforementioned homework. Homework is not really Montessori, which is designed around using materials that are in the classroom and not the home. His teacher's solution to this is to get the children to work at home on the stuff they need to burn into their memories for the long term.

For now, my son's homework is one or two worksheets a week to practice his 'math facts' (multiplication tables, 0-9 sums, etc.) In a few more weeks, spelling will be added to the mix--two nights of studying the words, and two nights of choosing his own activity out of a range from 'write your words from shortest to longest' to 'write a poem using your words.') This will mean something to do every night of the week.

He is taking this development with all due cheer and enthusiasm. I am all anxiety (well, outwardly, I strive for a mask of cool confidence, but inwardly I'm first-world-probleming 24/7). My own homework practices at school were atrocious and thus I am resolved for my children to do better. I want to have a routine time where he sits at the table and does homework, and I am available to help him, discuss it with him or otherwise show interest--but equally, I've got to find something to keep my daughter engaged without distracting him at the same time.

So far it's been very easy because he doesn't seem to have a problem with maths. (That in itself is interesting because up until now, he's always done maths with concrete materials: unit beads, ten bars, hundred squares and thousand cubes, etc. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time he's sat down with a piece of paper and done it in his head--and he can. My husband and I were both mathematically inclined, so this might just be genetic luck easing the transition, but it was fun to listen him read the questions dramatically as if it was the most insane thing he'd ever been asked before declaring: "Well, it has to be [answer].")

I am more worried about how the spelling will go down, but then again, this is just the tip of a fifteen-year long iceberg. It's going to get tough eventually... I should enjoy staying afloat while I can.

The other thing that's starting to concern me is keeping up with his British peers. Technically, he's skipped a year in the US system (it's really a little more blurred thanks to the Montessori system and his early start in that), but in the UK, he'd be starting 'proper' school this year too. The BBC recently ran this article on the new national curriculum, which made me realize I should be keeping an eye on what he's expected to know there.

From my own experience (educated in the US from the age of nine to eleven, before returning to the UK for high school), the US is perhaps more academic than the UK at the primary level... but that was twenty five years ago. To use the examples cited in this article, I know my son will be learning fractions, though computer coding was not mentioned in the elementary class overview! Handily, my husband's a computer guy and I'm sure there are all kinds of apps for that, but what else lurks in the pages of the National Curriculum?

My first thought was to panic, download a PDF of Key Stage One expectations, make extensive notes and start googling downloadable worksheets, to keep my son abreast of the UK standards...

And then there was the second thought which is that I have better things to do with my time, so does my son, and my whole thing about Montessori is that I don't like forcing children to a standard anyway.

So I probably will try to keep aware of what's going on in the equivalent British class. But I'll also acknowledge that there will always be gaps he'll have to bridge when he starts school there. And that's OK. He's going to have huge blind spots in his history and geography, but let's seize the opportunity we have to learn about American history and geography.

Right now, the most important thing is his enthusiasm for learning. That's what I want to celebrate and sustain for as long as possible. Besides, almost six years on from his birth, there are still few things more enjoyable than watching him learn and discover the world around him.

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