Way back in February, Lindsay wanted to know:
I'm new to your blog, so you may have explained this in the past and I've missed it: but could you tell me more about "choice time"? How long does it last? What are the parameters? What ages does it work well with? What is your role as the teacher during this time? How do you get the kids to keep working once they have finished a choice? And do your choices always center around themes? Thanks so much!
And then I promptly went out of town. Honestly, this post about choice time has been kicking around in my drafts folder since last fall, when Melanie and Andrea also asked about it. I apologize heartily for taking so long. Hopefully I'll now be able to answer everyone's questions, although I may have to take more than one post for it. This post is mostly to answer the question:
What the heck is "choice time" anyway?
The short answer: it's our version of a Montessori work period. A real Montessori work period is three hours long. During those three hours, teachers give presentations of new material to children who are ready for them and sometimes (as in the Great Lessons), they might invite children to attend a group presentation. Mostly (as I understand it) the children choose their work independently from the shelves. Elementary-aged children are not as dependent on teacher-prepared trays and other activities as primary-aged (3-6 year old) children, but for the most part -- the work does come from the combination of a prepared environment and a prepared teacher.
"Choice Time" in our house is Montessori-inspired. This means that I've tweaked the basic concept of a three hour Montessori work period to fit my children, myself, my house, and the way that we live and learn. As it stands now, Choice Time is a work period of an hour or two in the morning after our read aloud time and our morning chores. It ends around lunch time. The name "choice time" was something that just sort of fell out of my mouth one day. I needed to distinguish this period of choice from anything that would be required by me... like math. But I also needed to make it clear that this was not a time to play. It was (is) a real work period, but the kids are free to choose whatever it is they want to work on, within certain limits:
- No toys.
- No media tie-ins, such as Star Wars or Bionicle novels, or Junie. B. Jones. (I know that Junie B. isn't media, and I'm pretty sure that Katydid has listened to or read every single Junie B. Jones novel in existence. But it's a free time activity at our house, not for "school hours".)
- No hideously complicated projects requiring lots of parental guidance that you have just come up with out of the blue. (This has to do with the need for a semi-prepared teacher and having four kids under the age of five.)
Here's where a bit of history will come in handy.
Montessori has been sort of a spiral path for us. I would read a little, try a little, read a little more, try a little more, take two steps back, read some more, try some more, switch to classical, go back to Montessori... well, you get the picture. Now that Gareth is almost twelve his learning "quirks" have become a little easier to deal with. But until the age of 10, homeschooling was intensively trial and error. When Montessori finally began to click with me, we were living in a rented farm house with most of our belongings in boxes. Gareth was eight, Katydid just about to turn six. Farmerboy was barely two. The farmhouse certainly had room for shelving -- and actually the finished porch in the front of the house would have made a great learning room once it was denuded of the 70's orange shag carpet -- but since we were getting ready to move again, all I really had available was a window ledge. I put out a few activities -- crayons, beeswax, watercolors, blocks, a plastic set of "metal" insets. The big kids also had a few workbooks to choose from, but we had library books and...
You know, that time in our lives was really tough. All the extra pregnancy hormones from the twins have apparently fogged my memory, because what other activities did I expect them to choose? But I was living in a rosy dreamworld where merely uttering the word "Montessori" would be a magical incantation against tantrums, encouraging my headstrong and "quirky" eight year old to suddenly enjoy writing, doing long math problems, and spelling overnight.
Of course it didn't work that way. Instead, they chose to paint with watercolors.
Day after day. For about thirty minutes at a time. Then -- since it was June and hot in the house -- they wanted nothing more than to escape outside, where they built houses in the woods, collected bugs, examined wildflowers, and played in the water and the mud.
Now that I look back, the kids were the ones being reasonable; I was not. I was gripped in a long-term panic attack, which stemmed from the fact that we had been unschooling that year since October -- reading stack after stack of dinosaur books, drawing dinosaurs, eating and breathing dinosaurs... but not actually reading independently yet (at eight and a half), writing (of any kind), or doing any sort of math (although a few worksheets I'd made up myself using "dinosaur math" had been popular and taught the beginnings of multiplication.)
What I liked most (and still do) about Montessori is the concept of freedom within limits. What I disliked about unschooling in a more radical fashion was the sensation that we were all sort of floating free. I suspected at the time that some of the more traditional unschooling advice ("they'll do it when they're ready," for example; "they'll learn math through living,") wasn't really working for Gareth, who could (and wishes he still could) ignore math in any form as long as he lived, thank you very much. Probably the biggest problem we had, with unschooling on the one hand and more traditional methods of education on the other, was Gareth's extreme reaction to frustration. Because he was (and still is, to some extent) unable to deal with any sort of frustration at all, he would totally avoid anything he found the least bit difficult -- reading, for instance. But if I were to hand down a series of assignments -- even if they were supposed to interest him -- his knee-jerk reaction was always "no". If those assignments contained anything that took him more than 30 seconds to comprehend... we were quickly headed for a meltdown.
So Choice Time and Montessori came about in our house as a sort of middle way between those two extremes. Looking back, if things had been more stable when we first began experimenting with Montessori in the farmhouse, a more patient, gently guided approach would probably have been the thing, perhaps eliminating the need to distinguish a time for choice and a time for not-choice. But since life around here is like the weather -- wait a minute and it will change -- what has worked for us is to require certain basics, using the kids' input on choosing resources, working times and environment, and to allow most everything else to be chosen, with a little guidance from me.
Next up: the nitty-gritty on how choice time is set up.