How the Montessori method is imparting life skills to underprivileged kids in Chennai

The key elements of the Montessori methodology include mixed age classrooms, choice of student activity and a discovery model.
How the Montessori method is imparting life skills to underprivileged kids in Chennai
How the Montessori method is imparting life skills to underprivileged kids in Chennai

Sitting on individual square mats, a group of 19 kids from Chennai Middle School, MGR Nagar (this school comes under the Chennai Corporation) from ages 2.5 to four years are busy with various activities. One is beading, while the child next to him is pouring water into a funnel. Yet another one is busy grating carrots while the child behind is kneading dough.

What are currently on are exercises in practical life (EPL), an important aspect of the Montessori methodology in a classroom setting in Chennai Middle School. This institution introduced the Montessori methodology with three sections in 2013 and this academic year, (2018-19), the number of Montessori sections has increased to seven with each section having 35 students.

Kindergarten students of Chennai Middle School have been able to learn Montessori thanks to the Sri Ramacharan Trust, whose main purpose is providing quality education to underprivileged children.

With the help of Child Vikas International (CVI), Sri Ramacharan Trust established the first Montessori classroom for Kindergarten kids at the Chennai Corporation School in VP Koil Street, Mylapore in 2004. Since then, there has been no looking back. Today, there are 11 Chennai Corporation Schools where the Montessori methodology is imparted to around 1,500 students in the Kindergarten (lower and upper) classes. In addition, the Montessori pedagogy is also present in seven Balwadis (pre-schools run for the economically weaker sections of society by either the government or NGOs) with 250 students benefiting from this methodology.

But the founder president of Sri Ramacharan Trust, Padmini Gopalan, did not envision such a Montessori movement within the government school set-up in Chennai. “We started our trust in 1999 to provide micro-finance to the urban poor. Soon, we found out that many women were actually taking loans to pay school fees for their children. They were very keen to have their kids educated in private schools,” she recalls.

The big moment for Sri Ramacharan Trust came in 2007 when the Montessori system was introduced in seven Kindergarten sections at the Chennai Corporation run school in Jones Road, Saidapet. Today, the Montessori methodology is imparted in nine sections benefiting 350 students in this institution.

Gopalan says that through this initiative, she and other members of the Trust have been able to break the myth that the Montessori method is only suitable for the elite. “We are proud to say that this is the first time anyone, anywhere in the world has taken the Montessori Method to underprivileged children. Even Maria Montessori never intended this approach to be only taught to the elite.”

At the Chennai Middle School, students have taken to the Montessori environment like ducks to water. “The first thing we noticed after introduction of the Montessori methodology was that the LKG and UKG (lower kindergarten and upper kindergarten) students never cried after their parents dropped them off at school. As Montessori environments involve mixed age groups, it’s quite fascinating to see a slightly older kid making presentations to a younger one and the latter paying rapt attention. These result in a lot of interpersonal communication,” says G Rani, Montessori coordinator for the Sri Ramacharan Trust at Chennai Middle School.

Named after Maria Montessori, Montessori is a child-centered educational approach based on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood. Montessori’s method has been used for over 100 years in many parts of the world.

The key elements of the Montessori methodology include mixed age classrooms, choice of student activity from the prescribed set of activities and a discovery model where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than direct instruction. The Montessori educational materials developed by Maria Montessori and her collaborators are often made out of natural and aesthetic materials rather than wood.

The children from this school mostly come from lower income backgrounds with their parents mostly being in occupations like cooking and cleaning or waiting at tables at restaurants such as Sarvana Bhavan. “A lot of the parents are single and, in some cases, the kids are orphans too. As there is no one to look after them at home, many kids are busy working with the Montessori materials till 5 pm,” says Rani.

The testimony to the Montessori popularity in Chennai Middle School is that children from neighbouring Corporation schools have joined Chennai Middle School.

By repeatedly doing activities with the materials, the process of self-learning and self-awareness gets internalised among young students. Some of the Montessori practices are carried back home too. Under this pedagogy, students are asked to place their mats on the floor, take out materials from the shelves by themselves and put the materials back in place and also roll up the mats once all activities get over.

Back home, they have asked their parents to roll up mats, dry the vessels once they are rinsed etc. In addition, activities like pouring water till the marked level leads to hand and self-control. This in turn leads to social control. “Children don’t talk out of turn. They develop preliminary public speaking skills,” says Rani. While there is a repetitive element in the learning process, but once the activity is mastered, children also look to exhibit their newly acquired skills outside the ‘mat boundaries.’ D Tilakavathy, a Montessori trained teacher at the Chennai Middle School narrates an instance of a child who perfected rangoli making and actually ended up being creative by drawing one outside the classroom.

While children are in a group environment, they also work independently on their materials and as per the Montessori ground rules, one child cannot snatch another’s materials. Whatever be the urgency, there is a waiting period involved. After one child finishes with his or her activity and places the materials back on the shelf, only then can another child come and pick up stuff from where it was placed. Tilakavathy shares an interesting anecdote of how a student was eyeing a set of materials constantly but could not get hold of it on one particular day.

“The next day after assembly when the students trooped back to class, this particular child went to the shelf immediately and promptly took out the material set that he did not have access to the previous day.” So, the first signs of rowdyism like usurping someone else’s materials are curbed early on and in its place skills such as empathy are established. The non-availability of materials also instills a sense of acceptance and the child opts for another set instead of getting obsessed about that particular Montessori set. “If obsessions are not curbed early on in life, it can lead to stress on account of intense emotions,” says Tilakavathy.

The teachers and coordinators cite another instance where a child who cut carrots perfectly was so proud of his effort that he ended up sharing the ‘vegetables of his labour’ with everyone. “Overall, the Montessori curriculum has led to positive character building early on. Children take back home values like cleanliness surrounding the environment and hygiene. They develop social skills,” says S Sujatha, headmistress of Chennai Middle School.

Tilakavathy of Chennai Middle School has the last word. “Right after my husband’s death, I stopped tying flowers behind my hair and wearing a bindi. One of the students came and enquired why I did not wear a bindi and deck my hair. I realised the sense of order around the environment is so strong in Montessori and that it had got imbibed and internalised in the child.”

The article is part of One World--Dream A Dream Media Fellowship in Life Skills--2018.

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