There are many things about a Montessori classroom that stand out as different from that of a typical elementary school. Taking even a cursory glance around, someone who was expecting a more standard classroom set-up would certainly take note of the free-flowing nature of the class, the organized chaos, the clusters of students sitting criss-cross on the carpet, some drawing maps of Asia and others building models of water molecules. More still, on the far side of the room, practicing their weaving on miniature looms, and in the corner it would be hard not to notice the 3 ½ foot long Argentine Black and White Tegu lizard having its mid-day frozen mouse dropped into its tank by two squealing fourth graders.
I can see myself in there, sometime mid-2008, although it might take you a while to spot me. I’m not by the back window, taking advantage of the extensive and expensive science equipment, nor am I taking in the brief lesson on basic trigonometry happening on the floor. I’m sitting alone in a small, rectangular space hidden between three shelving units, huddled over a copy of Animal Farm. We called this “The Silent Reading Corner,” and no, it was not considered a form of punishment.
The Senior Elementary classroom at Escuela del Sol had everything that an elementary school classroom should have in it, and also what most of them lack. I loved the Mac computers, the live plants and animals, the beautiful Montessori materials, the Spanish classes and music lessons. I loved the books most of all though. They were real books, used books, not carefully selected for their pedagogical value or political correctness, but accrued over many rounds of donations, and they just sat there, on two black wooden shelves in the corner. Nobody ever forced me to read one, and nobody ever told me not to. It was an open invitation to the world of literature, and I ran through almost all of them in my two years there. I read the childhood classics of my grandparents generation, from The Count of Montecristo to The Swiss Family Robinson, I read the what my parents considered classics, from The Outsiders to The Phantom Tollbooth, I read what I will certainly tell my kids are classics, starting with all seven Harry Potter books.
Near the end of my fifth grade year the reality of assimilating into the greater educational system began to set in and it came time for Escuela to expose us to the most banal of assessment instruments, the standardized test. While I remember a certain amount of controversy and anxiety surrounding this event, I felt none of it myself, and was in fact totally uninterested in the round of practice testing as I was deep in a run of Shakespeare plays at the time that was more or less dominating my time at school and my mental energy. Each day that week I would race through whatever section of test we were working on as fast as I possibly could, then pick-up the class copy of Hamlet and devote my undivided attention to that until lunch and recess. I do not know what my scores on those tests were, but I did get into the private middle school of my choosing, and when it was time to go to college and take the ACT, I got a perfect 36/36 score on the reading section. I credit the silent reading corner.