This semester, NMS is implementing a collaborative program between Beginners (our toddler program) and Upper Elementary (grades 4–6). A few Upper Elementary volunteers rotate among the Beginners Classrooms and model grace and courtesy for the younger ones while helping with the lunch routine. Beginners 2 Teacher, Elyse Kalins provides a glimpse into the classroom and the benefits of this program.
The children of Beginners 2 were just settling into an unusually quiet lunch last week, when an Upper Elementary student slipped into the classroom in an unassuming way, typical of someone who has spent time in a classroom with the most distractible of our student population. This particular student has taken a special interest in Beginners, and has been helping out in our level in a different classroom for a couple years now—so she’s a familiar face to the little ones. Even so, Beginners 2 children weren’t used to her being in our classroom, so there was a good bit of staring and craning around in chairs to study her as she settled herself in a small chair at one of the tables.
In our program, we value our multi-age classroom structure highly. When children start their time in Beginners as first years, they have older role models to copy and learn from, and we quickly see our littlest students’ language and social abilities expand as their older peers teach them to reach outside of themselves. As the children progress into their second year, their confidence soars when they are then able to be role models for others. They gently and naturally come to terms with their own development as they understand the privileges and responsibility that comes with not being the baby anymore. We’re always looking for ways to expand the Beginners’ exposure to a wider age range than they encounter in the classroom. We run quick errands around the school so they can see Primary children working in the hallways. During assemblies, the Beginners are often as interested in the audience as they are in the performance. Of the importance of the multi-age classroom Montessori tells us “You cannot imagine how well a young child learns from an older child; how patient the older child is with the difficulties of the younger.” I suspect she may have been on to something as I observe my students bask in our helper’s attention, and marvel at how responsive they are to her guidance.
Toddlers excel at learning from the world around them, but understanding things in the abstract can pose a challenge. As the spring goes on I think the second years begin to understand a little that next year they will be among the bleary-eyed Primary nappers filing out of the gym in the afternoon, but I doubt that they have any concept that they will one day be like our Upper Elementary helpers, trusted to navigate the three confusingly identical floors of our school by themselves with a job to do. I hope, however, that our Upper El buddies, as they fold themselves into our tiny chairs, appreciate the accomplishment of their growth.