I did not attend what probably anyone would consider a normal elementary school.
My mom was a Montessori teacher who started a new job at this particular school about a year or so after my family had moved to Minnesota for my dad’s job. She decided it would be a good idea for my brothers and I to attend the school she worked at so she could drive us to and from school and be close to us throughout the day. We were all young when we started here. I was entering 2nd grade with my younger brothers entering kindergarten and preschool respectively. I had gone to a Montessori preschool when we lived in Milwaukee and loved it. I didn’t have a problem with the public school I was attending except that they wouldn’t let me write in cursive “because we don’t do that until 4th grade,” but this move certainly made sense.
I stayed here all the way through 5th grade. It was a very small school in a small town in Minnesota. I guess it wasn’t even considered a town but rather a township. Anyway it was a small building containing the preschool/kindergarten (which was technically a different school), two classrooms for 1-3rd grade students, and one classroom for 4-6th grade. My mom taught one of the 1-3rd grade classes so I was in the other class. This meant that eventually my little brother and I would be in the same class. That wasn’t great. I was so mean to him… Like the time my mother put us in matching Christmas sweaters and I told everyone in class that my brother had clearly worn “girl clothes” to school. As I recall he spent much of that morning crying in the reading area.
What Made My School Unique?
We didn’t do desks
Each class had a large platform on the floor that we would gather around for stories, songs, or lessons. We also had a series of tables that were used as work spaces, a restroom, a kitchen, and a reading nook complete with bean bag chairs. We were free to go anywhere in the classroom throughout the day as much of our work was done independently. That means none of that crazy bathroom pass nonsense!
My Teacher was Bob
(you’re on a first name basis with teachers in Montessori school)
He was my teacher every year I went there with the exception of 4th grade. I would describe him as a hippie. He had a goatee, he sang and played guitar, loved nature, was a vegetarian, had spent a number of years living in Japan, and didn’t believe in the traditional school system. He was also the principal and founder of this school so he was responsible for creating the policies we held. He valued art and creativity and would always say he felt learning happens best through real world experience. Also Bob has a youtube channel where he has personally recorded many of the songs we used to sing. I am so posting links.
Each day we came in and there were the “problems of the Day” printed on the whiteboard. We had to analyze a great saying and do a math problem. We would divide into small groups (based on what grade we were in. There were only about 6 or 7 kids per grade) and have lessons with Bob. Bob’s lessons were particularly interesting when he attempted to teach us geometry without speaking. We all attempted to guess how geometry worked while he communicated through hand gestures. I was astronomically behind in math when I began public middle school. This song was everything I knew about math: Point, Line, Plane, Solid.
After each lesson we would be given a follow up assignment to complete on our own. Much of our day was spent doing independent work of our choosing. We did have weekly tasks. By the end of each week we were to have read a book (of our choosing) and write a report. We were to select a list of spelling words from the binder and complete a spelling test. Lastly we were to memorize a poem from the poem basket. I believe we were also supposed to be completing journal entries? We could complete these tasks at any time as long as they were turned in by the end of the week. Beyond that we simply followed our own personal interests.
After lunch we would take astronomically long recess breaks. I remember my mothers class always went back inside long before my class did. There was a lot to do outside. We had a playground, a garden, and some forest on our property. Most kids would play a ballgame with Bob for about 30 minutes. I didn’t ever participate in that because of my JRA. Instead I spent that time building forts in the woods. After the first 30 minutes we would often walk over to a nearby field to continue playing. We were free to participate in some group activity, for example In the winter our class would create a communal quinsy (essentially an igloo) to substitute our wooden forts. Or else we could play our own games on the field, in the neighboring woods, or on the beach in the springtime.
Recess activities included:
sledding, hiking, playing in the lake, digging up clay, playing with mud, building forts, playing with sticks, sports, gossip, very serious pretend weddings or court cases (usually regarding various divorces), all kinds of imaginative kid games, carving the word “adventure” into a piece of driftwood using Bob’s pocket knife, discovering abandoned knick knacks in the woods, running around with wagons, pretending to live in a shed, gardening, building quinsy’s, assuming the role of “nature police” and ticketing each other, or whatever else we came up with.
A typical punishment for misbehavior was 5 minutes off recess where you had to sit with Bob at the beginning of recess and reflect on your poor choices instead of joining in on the fun. Like when Sean pushed Clare onto the ground and began punching her repeatedly he was given 5 minutes off recess. (Karma got him back because the next week he fell into the creek and nearly drowned.) Another boy stabbed my brother with a pencil and was given 5 minutes off recess. Can you imagine the size of the file cabinet we would have had if we filed accident reports?
After recess we would come back inside and Bob would read to us for about an hour while we colored. In the winter we would make hot chocolate to warm up our tiny hands, and on Fridays we would prepare freshly baked bread and homemade butter as a treat. Some of the many benefits of having a classroom kitchen.
Then we would have more independent work before putting on some music and cleaning up the classroom. I loved taking out the trash. This was my favorite activity until I was told that dragging the trash bag all the way up the path to the dumpster as I watched the bag tear and watched the contents slowly spill onto the pavement was SOMEHOW INCORRECT.
Then we would gather for our end of the day singing session. Wrangle up the class pets and grab the guitar! We also had a morning song gathering featuring many beloved classics like the Beatles ‘help’ and ‘yellow submarine’. We learned some songs in Swahili and Japanese. We also had a great number of original pieces. I personally helped create this one: Adventure. Bob helped us write songs all the time. This one is on point: Easter Island. And that was a typical day in the life. There were many not so typical days as well.
We went on many field trips
We visited the community pool for swimming every few weeks. Of course we would go to museums and the zoo, the arboretum, farms, nature conservatories and that sort of thing. A trip to the fair got rained out and we ended up having lunch at a mall food court and seeing a movie. There was a school camping trip that I was not allowed to go on. Eventually Bob bought a bus and got his license so he could take his students on field trips personally. This allowed for more enthusiastic bus singing as there was no cranky driver harshing our vibe.
We had a lock-in every year where we would sleep over at school, stay up late playing games, watching movies, and running through the woods. I was outraged when they changed the fire safety policy. Students had been allowed to assist in starting the campfire and roast marshmallows themselves on sticks that we would then set on fire and carry through the woods for fun. the moment I was prohibited from wielding a flaming torch at school, and was given a flashlight instead, I was kind of over the lock in but it is what it is. Someone always threw up but only once did a student bite a parent volunteer on the ass. She was promptly sent home… a great injustice in our eyes.
We would put on talent shows where I would perform my original work and my brother would sing along to his hit clips… And we had big annual school wide performances at the local church where the students would put on original plays. I was taking theatre classes on the weekends and during the summer so I put myself in charge of the theatre department. The school did in fact produce plays I had written for parents. I remember spending a whole day creating my set and props with poster board and paint. It was a play about pioneers and featured a very dramatic birth scene.
The Time Our Elementary School was a High School
There was even half a year where the school was under construction so we were moved to a classroom in the nearby high school. We would arrive at school and then take a bus to the other school where we spent a great deal of time wandering the hallways serenading the high school students with our brilliant music. Bob called us the Troubadours. Good times.
The education I received was potentially questionable. Letting students choose what they wanted to do during the course of the day doesn’t necessarily help them develop a well rounded skillset. Letting students assign their own homework means no homework ever. I spent most of my school days writing. I invented languages, created songs, wrote poetry, and crafted incredibly long stories using no capitalization or punctuation whatsoever… because I did not see the point and nobody told me I was wrong. I spent little time on math or science.
On the other hand we were definitely encouraged to express our creativity. I obviously went on to study theatre so I think it had a pretty profound impact on me. One of my poems was on display in the hallway, I was never told that inventing a language was a waste of classroom time, and if I wanted to spend the day building a shrinking machine out of garden pots and string then I could gosh dang it! As long as I summarized my experience in an essay afterwards. I’m pretty grateful for the experience I had there because I think they, for me, achieved what many schools fail to achieve, and that’s instilling in students a lifelong love of learning and the ability to think independently. I also had a hell of a time switching back to public school…