What You Need to Know About Montessori Albums

When you find out that Montessori exists and how amazing it is for children, you want it, and you want it now! I completely understand. Even growing up Montessori with all of my mother's knowledge, books, and notes at my fingertips, when I first started teaching I felt desperate for more access to the information offered in Montessori teacher certification programs, and I'd have paid for it. Unfortunately, I didn't feel that it was possible to take the training at the time. I had just spent the last five years in college accruing a massive amount of debt, a degree in Elementary Education and I was still shelling out money for thesis hours to complete my Master's!  I was committed to teaching a class of fourth grade ESL students, but I wanted - no, needed, to know more Montessori. For my own sake. For the sake of my students who were in my class.

The internet was a baby, but I went online and searched and searched. I came up empty handed. There was little to nothing on the web about Montessori at the time, and I was incredibly frustrated. I talked to as many Montessori elementary teachers as I could, and I read all the books on Montessori I could get my hands on. And then one day I stumbled across a free, printable Montessori album. It was loaded with typos, and each lesson contained a bare-bones description of the Montessori materials. But I felt that I had discovered a treasure. I printed out every page and plopped it into a binder. And then I periodically studied it for insight on teaching children.

Despite my interest and devotion, the album was surprisingly unhelpful. The needs of the children in my class were so great and so emotionally consuming that I found myself obsessing day and night about how to help each and every child. Soon, the album made its way into the back of my file cabinet. I stopped looking at the papers and began truly observing the children. I took a yoga class and learned to meditate. I fell in love with Jonathan Kozal, who wrote beautifully about the plight of low income students in public schools. I brought nutritious snacks, lit candles in the classroom, and read poetry to my students in the darkened room after school. I peppered their desks with love notes and cried myself to sleep at night because I knew that none of them would pass the state mandated standardized test. I grew up. But was I growing up further away from Montessori? I thought maybe so. What Montessori approved or disapproved of didn't matter in my world. It was my students and my relationship with them that mattered.

Years later, it dawned on me what Maria Montessori was trying to convey to us in every word of The Absorbent Mind. She says it herself pretty clearly.

The real preparation for education is the study of one’s self. The training of the teacher is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character; it is a preparation of the spirit.

— Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

So there you go. The secrets to effective teaching practices are not found in albums.

Let's talk now about what albums really are. Albums are, in the most simple terms, the notes a Montessori teacher takes when he/she takes classes that lead to Montessori certification. These notes may contain bits of wisdom passed on from the teacher trainer, drawings of Montessori materials, and tips for giving effective lessons with these materials. The notes would be written in the student's own words so that he/she may remember it personally and retain the information. Through the process of taking notes and deciphering what information is most meaningful - the literal act of doing this - the information becomes meaningful to the student. Sometimes teacher trainers compile this information for students and photocopy them so that everyone has the same copy. When the student is certified as a Montessori teacher, he/she will always have these special notes to refer to if needed but most likely will not refer to them constantly. You see, by then the Montessori know-how is inside the teacher.

In recent years, some Montessori trained teachers have been publishing their albums on the internet. In one sense, this seems like a great idea. Believe me when I say that more than anything I want Montessori demystified. I want homeschoolers to follow their children. I want public school teachers to incorporate practical life lessons into their classrooms right along with the academics. I want Montessori teachers to collaborate and exchange ideas. I want teachers in countries far away who are unable to take training to be able to learn what Montessori is and even more importantly what it is not so that they know they are offering quality, developmentally appropriate programs. I believe in blogging about one's own experiences, writing (and publishing!) books, teaching strategies, hosting discussion groups on Facebook, connecting with the larger community, taking photos of children and materials and describing the learning process, and designing Montessori-inspired curriculum resources for parents to use at home with their children. All of these are helpful to the Montessori movement.

What is not helpful to the Montessori movement is typing up one's albums to sell for profit, and this is (to my utter dismay) what I see happening online all too often these days. I am very concerned, and here's why:

1. It is misleading to the consumer. Albums were never meant to stand alone.

They were certainly never meant to be sold without the heavy philosophy component. The theory behind the lessons is so much more important than the lessons themselves! Outside of the context of the training, the albums offer mere reminders to the teachers who created them. Not to downplay this aspect too much - some albums can be deeply personal - treasures to the teacher who created them. It's just that they represent just one tiny piece of the big picture. While a set of albums may be organized in a particular order, the well trained Montessori teacher will know that every child is different and will understand through experience how to modify the lessons. Depending on how the album is written, it may also give a skewed view of the scope and sequence.

2. It could be plagiarism. Unless you have express permission.

Say you want to take a class from Dr. Nell, a reknown physicist and college professor, whose family has been contributing to the field for generations. You have to fight hard to get into the class because it is an honor to be able to take a class from Dr. Nell. His teaching style is so dynamic that the class is always full. It's also expensive to take this class, but you've taken out a student loan that you'll pay back later, and as soon as registration opens, you plug in your course number, and you are accepted into the class! You begin taking detailed notes of every lecture. After the class, you decide that Dr. Nell's theories are so powerful that you'd like to share them. And then you think - wait - to pay back your student loans, maybe you can SELL your notes from the class to recoup the cost of taking the class! You create a website around the whole brilliant idea. You're making so much money now that you've been selling Dr. Nell's lectures to the entire internet, and Paypal makes this incredibly easy. The only question is...how does Dr. Nell feel about this? Would he approve? Did you even ask?

3. It is unethical. I see several albums (for cheap!) being sold as AMI-style or AMS-style albums. Let me be very clear. This is hogwash. 

High quality, in-person Montessori training, such as AMI or AMS offers, is very intense. It often involves over a year of coursework and possibly an entire year as an intern under a trained Montessori guide who acts as a full time mentor, not to mention the continual self reflective assignments and formal evaluations! The teacher trainers are also paid for their work guiding their students, and thus completing a quality Montessori training program, not unlike a college degree, is not generally cheap. If you see (as I have) a Montessori "expert" online offering to sell you AMI or AMS style albums and "train" you in the style of AMI or AMS, you need to know that this is wrong on so many levels. You are, unfortunately, going to get exactly what you pay for, and I can pretty much guarantee that what you are getting is NOT equivalent to a what an AMI or AMS affiliated Teacher Education Program offers its students. Only AMI or AMS can sell AMI or AMS affiliated resources to the public. Please be skeptical of these Montessori fakes out there on the web pretending to be something they are not. I know that affordable Montessori training can be difficult to find, and I am certainly not opposed to distance learning, but you will never see me advocating for snake oil, and nor will I ever be selling it. 

4. It is disrespectful to the teaching profession. 

By claiming that one can become a fully certified Montessori teacher by downloading a set of albums, answering some true/false questions, and chatting in an online forum, we are sending the wrong message to the world. Let me make an analogy here. One of our favorite family animated films is Ratatouille. Have you seen it? It's the story of an unlikely hero: a rat named Remy who does not desire to eat garbage with the rest of his family. No, he has the inclination to learn to become a great chef. He follows his instincts when it comes to combining foods and also applies himself to learning technique. He greatly admires Gusteau, a now deceased chef and author of a famous cookbook. Although he knows it must be a product of his imagination, the likeness of Gusteau himself appears in order to offer Remy encouragement to follow his dreams. In the words of Gusteau, "anyone can cook!" Even a rat can learn to cook in Ratatouille, it's true. But as we find out in the end, it takes more than following a recipe to become a true chef and create a remarkable meal. It also takes patience, determination, experience, and raw talent.

It is the same with teaching children. Anyone can follow a lesson plan. If simple lesson plans and materials (which is what is inside most albums) led directly to the Montessori method, we would not need teacher training at all. Becoming an effective Montessori guide is more art than science, and one can only truly experience authentic Montessori through intense studies, mentorship, and experience. Let's value the work that goes into preparing to become a guide. It is for this reason that I am a fierce advocate of quality Montessori training.

5. Purchased teacher albums can make parents teaching Montessori at home feel inadequate.

Here on one side is the child at home in the context of a family, alight with the natural disposition to learn in the unique environment which surrounds him! And here on the other side is an album, which we now know are notes from someone else's coursework, possibly organized in a rigid list of materials and how-tos designed for the use of 30 children in a single classroom. These two rarely make sense together. I know some very determined and energized homeschooling parents who take an extensive curriculum within an album sold online and make sure that every Montessori material is acquired and presented at the designated age in the order which the album prescribes. The structure that the album provides comforts them.

I know many, many more homeschooling parents who give up because the materials are expensive, the lessons stilted, and their children engaged in a battle of wills. This is where many parents leave Montessori in the dust. It's just too hard to follow a prescriptive approach, keeping your children from mixing up your freshly designed shelves while you take five minutes to wash the dirty dishes in the sink. I agree, and what's more, I don't believe that it's healthy for a child. It's silly to even try when the child is right there in front of us showing us what he/she is interested in learning - if only we will observe and support this natural process! I believe that homeschooling Montessori must look fundamentally different from teaching in a large classroom setting, and the resources available to homeschooling parents must work to take the pressure off so that the environment is a healthy and nurturing one for the child.

In the words of my dear friend Andrea Lulka....

"You can't follow an album and follow a child at the same time. Quality training courses show us how to focus on the child, while keeping the potentiality represented by each piece of work in mind."

I couldn't agree more. Maintaining the integrity of our profession while making authentic resources available to those who are interested in learning more about Montessori is a very tricky balance. The cat, so to speak, is already out of the bag, and it is up to us to inspire the next generation of Montessori teachers. If you are considering becoming a certified Montessori teacher, I urge you to find the most highly respected training center that is accessible to you.

I also want to be very clear about this: the parents and teachers who are downloading these online albums are not at fault for wanting to learn more about Montessori and pursuing help online! Let's give them some alternative resources that make sense. I would like to encourage parents using Montessori at home to make their own meaningful albums. There are so many wonderful, legitimate resources for information on Montessori that I truly think it can be done! After all, it is in the process of preparing the albums - not owning them - that is the key to their usefulness.

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