This is our first week of school, and I’m a Montessori school librarian, specializing in early childhood. What does Montessori have to do with it? The majority of Montessori students are in the first plane of development, between two and a half years and six. These students are finding their self-motivation and their self-control at the same time they are learning to learn from friends and their teachers.
No matter where you are in the world a school library exists to enhance the children’s experience, teach them to use reference materials and to extend curriculum. In Montessori schools this is almost double. We have such opportunity because the schools delve deep into responsibility and creative curriculum exploration on top of the Montessori curriculum. Montessori teachers have the opportunity to structure their exploration of the continents in Primary (Early Childhood) or in their science curriculum to an extent that I haven’t seen outside of classical education models. Teacher classes have the same students for three years. That means a student will be with the same group learning and then practicing and then leading and demonstrating. Teachers can choose to follow an art path through Africa one year and an historical path though Asia that touches on art to intrigue the students who were with them last year the next. These students can then independently access free-choice materials like books and small artifacts to follow the interest they developed the previous year and to teach their friends what they know. If the students take up art as their special interest Montessori (like many early childhood schools) has the flexibility to allow the teacher to pivot mid-quarter and follow up on that idea. They might spend a weekend looking for their new works or curricula, but the librarian has curated quality material and can offer that to the classroom in less time than the teacher would spend on the internet. That gives the teacher more time to find ways to introduce and experience the ideas and less time worrying about inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity because that work is done.
Learning to respect our materials takes time in the classroom and in the library, too. Montessori students are accustomed to receiving lessons in how to treat objects. This makes learning to check out books and how to use them in the classroom a breeze when the library first gives these lessons. There have been times that I was pulling books off the shelves quickly to replace an insensitive reading group book and had students tell me that I was handling books too roughly, and you know I’m careful!
With these opportunities and structured interactions the library and books remain a beautiful environment for the guests to experience. They have the opportunity to explore at will and with directed lessons in a quality environment that welcomes them and respects our visitors. In Montessori environments we want the books in the classroom, but while the teacher is curating books for the current lessons and for the season and social interactions (and fun!) we have so many books that could be doing good elsewhere in the school that are locked away in boxes.
Why don’t more Montessori Schools have school libraries? Partly this is a chicken and the egg story of financial resources and available space. Because schools everywhere run on slim budgets, Montessori teachers (like their public school counterparts) purchase books with their own budget. If the school sets aside resources or partners with a local bookstore (even Barnes and Noble) to host a book fair then there will be a non-tuition-based funding alternative for a curated library space. The curation is key to filling gaps and to ensuring the appropriateness of the media to lessons and school philosophy. How many teachers have had a parent offer an interesting book only to find that the philosophy does not meet our community? School librarians can also spot literature trends and ensure support for inclusivity as our student population changes and as more voices emerge on the book scene. In my school I also find and distribute teacher education material to float staff and distribute new means for learning that teachers bring back from conferences.
In addition to the physical media, a library specialist provides media support. Montessori is a screen-free zone for most of the program. In Lower Elementary students learn to write a paper and, in my school, produce power point presentation of their passion project research that they share with friends as a capstone to their learning. The library specialist offers opportunities outside these scripted and well-trod activities to enhance writing opportunities, safe self-publishing for the elementary students, audio books for the primary (early childhood) classes, programming and further Microsoft Office (or Linux!) training for the elementary students to allow them to complete more complex tasks and to integrate into public elementary or middle school more efficiently.
A school library is a luxury that most Montessori schools may not have, but it is a necessity for students and educators.