Early Musings on Planning for a Montessori High School Experience


So next year a really crazy thing is going to happen.

Aidan starts high school.

I remember way back when we started homeschooling and one of the first questions people would ask, "Are you really gonna go all the way through?"  Back then, I admit I wasn't sure.  Keeping my head straight for an entire school year seemed like enough at any given time.  Now, I really don't consider any other option.

For the past couple years I've been reading, quietly listening, and asking questions of friends who have homeschooled through high school and it didn't take me long to realize that this is going to look different in our house.  Not just different from other homeschool families, but also somewhat different than what we have done before and I needed to do even a little more prep work than I realized.

One of the first things we needed to address is graded work.  We have never had much use for grading (which is not to be confused with providing appropriate feedback).  I decided to start this fall in 8th grade, adding one graded subject each term (6-8 weeks) just to get a feel for it.   We are up to four subjects this term.  I could have continued not grading Aidan's work, but I think if high school is preparatory for college then it is highly appropriate and important that some level of graded work be used.  While generally flawed as a motivator, grades do provide a quick measure of progress.

One natural domino effect from grading is that I am getting more creative and organized in designing his "courses".  I quickly realized that I needed to lay out at the beginning of each term what would be graded and what would not.  We couldn't entire follow our whims and fancies in quite the same way!  Tim helped by pointing out that I wasn't providing quite enough opportunities for points because if Aidan struggled with one assignment it was enough to overshadow the rest of his accomplishments.

I was uncomfortable, however, providing no choice, direction, or ownership for Aidan in the planning process.  I feel like that's a key component of the adolescent period of development.  I made a remark on Facebook last week that I think I might be a closet unschooler.  It is starting to feel like the natural development of an authentic Montessori experience.   Grades are what other people need of Aidan's high school experience, and have value in helping him prepare for college expectations, but I believe the natural progression of his Montessori education is to take a lead role in directing it.

Last year, a friend shared a copy of Activities & Assessments for the Differentiated Classroom and it turned out to be the perfect starting guide.  The book provides learning follow up activities at a variety of levels based on a large amount of controlled student choice.  It also provides suggested grading rubrics/criteria for the projects.  This helped Aidan and I find the balance between providing grades and also allowing him more ownership and accountability in his learning.  Overall the topics and projects in the book are aimed at a more elementary and very early middle school level.  We had to modify some of the difficulty to use it for middle school, but it worked perfectly as a guide for us in planning!  It was a good transition between Montessori and a more traditional graded subject by subject approach: a first step in being a leader in the total planning.

The more I read and the more I reflect, the more I am convinced that a Montessori high school experience should continue the hands-on research & collaboration started in the younger years and bring the work to even greater levels of relevance to planning for a future beyond high school and even college.  Authentic community experience and involvement should be at the front and center of the curriculum.  Since our homeschool thus far has looked very different from that of our friends, the natural thing for me to do was to take the one resource my more classically and traditionally minded friends have not liked and purchase it.   That may seem crazy, but when you homeschool differently than all of your friends, when they don't like something it often turns out to be the right fit!

That being said, a couple months ago, I purchased High School of Your Dreams Guidebook, by Catholic Heritage Curricula.  Even though it wasn't how the curriculum was intended (to my knowledge), as I browsed the manual, I realized this was what I was looking for from a Montessori secondary education.  The premise is that for a given subject student and parent will work together to select appropriate resources and activities and then the student is responsible for tracking their hours of study and executing the plan.  When an agreed upon number of hours (between 150-180) have been reached, 1 credit is awarded.  The guide book gives credit suggestions and has an entire section dedicated to helping the student learn how to plan their own courses the way that I have been previously.  As an instructional designer, I can say the approach they use is solid.

My only disagreement with the curriculum is that I believe the technical and vocational tracks can be equally as appropriate for college preparation as the "college prep" track.  Colleges are increasingly looking for more hands-on experience.  I have no intention of going back and purchasing the course guides, because we will continue what we have done for the last several years of selecting appropriate materials and subjects to create a core curriculum based on Aidan's goals (For my Catholic friends and readers, we are working through the Lifework text this year and quite liking it for this purpose!).

I have no relationship with Catholic Heritage Curricula, this is just my humble opinion of a way to provide a little direction in an area that Montessori families are left on their own due to a lack of published materials and being in an increasing minority among their homeschooling peers.  Maria Montessori wrote very little other than a description of the planes of development beyond the elementary years.  The adolescent and secondary programs in existence were created by more modern scholars attempting to do in the schools what I am attempting at home.

We have floundered a bit as Montessori homeschoolers through middle school attempting to find a balance between academic progress, community collaboration and involvement, and self vs. teacher direction.   At many times I have been tempted to abandon Montessori completely in the later years.  Unfortunately, I find the more I abandon it for the older ones the more I abandon it for the younger ones.  A tension is created between what I know to be ideal and simply surviving such a broadly mixed group of needs.  I guess middle school had as many growing pains for me as a teacher as it did for Aidan as a student...maybe more!

One cornerstone of Montessori is the prepared environment and another is the preparation of the teacher.  In absence of formal preparation or materials in this area, I am grateful that others have fought ahead of me in providing a student-led educational approach even if they don't know they are doing it in a Montessori way!

Are you homeschooling or planning for a high schooler using the Montessori method?  I would dearly love to hear from you!  Leave me a note and share your wisdom!


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My Boys' Teacher said...

I love that sentence that says, "We have never had much use for grading (which is not to be confused with providing appropriate feedback)."

I laughed when you admitted you are a closet unschooler. I just discovered I really should have been a Charlotte Mason homeschooler. I think adolescence is when moms accidentally discover all these little ways in which their inner wiring matches something else better than it matches the plan they've been using. I guess our two choices are to note it and then continue with the plan or to change plans.

Heidi said...

MBT- At least thanks to homeschooling we don't have to be entirely locked into the way we've always done it!