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A Montessori Success Story

by Bev

My oldest son, now eleven, was finally formally identified as profoundly gifted this spring. He had the standard PG pattern of precocity as an infant and toddler: he knew the alphabet (both upper and lower case letters) at sixteen months, taught himself to read at 23 months, and was counting past 1000 at 30 months. His development was very uneven: he crawled at 18 months and walked alone the same week he learned to read. Socially, he was very backward: at age three and a half, he had never had a conversation with another child (although he was chatty with adults), and knew people by their birthdays and ages rather than by their names.

I was very concerned about his social development, and felt that preschool was essential for him. Since my baby sister had wonderful experiences attending Montessori preschool, I decided to observe at the local Montessori preschool. What I saw convinced me this was the optimal environment for my son: the Montessori math and reading materials looked enticing, and better still, there were other children using them. I felt that the only way other children would interest my son would be if they were doing interesting things, and his definition of interesting was clearly "math and reading".

He started the program at three and three quarters; he launched himself zestfully into the math materials and was gradually lured into other areas of the room by his teacher. She had a special education background, which turned out to be key to her success with my son: while he was very strong academically, he needed to learn social skills, such as how to greet another child, how to enter a group, and what to do once he'd said hello. She was able to break each of these social skills into steps that he could copy and then learn. He was in her classroom for three years; at the end of his kindergarten year, he could usually cope in social situations, although he was by no means socially adept, and had moved with phenomenal speed through the Montessori materials. Achievement testing at the end of that year revealed that he was functioning at the sixth grade level in most academic areas, yet he had been successfully challenged in his classroom for most of the time he spent there.

At the end of his kindergarten year, we had a conference with his teacher, the school administrator, and the school psychologist who had tested our son, to decide what to do about elementary school for him. The gifted coordinator in the local public schools had strongly encouraged us not to even try working with the public schools; she felt that continuing with Montessori was the best option. This would necessitate a commute to the nearest big city, sixty miles from home. At the conference, we agreed that, onerous as this would be, it was necessary: the combination of our son's volatile personality (impulsive, prone to loud upsets when he was frustrated or worried) and his intense academic drive would have made any other alternative untenable.

He spent the next five years in the distant Montessori elementary program, from which he will graduate this spring. It has been an unqualified success. Academically, he is achieving at a level that is (mostly) commensurate with his potential. His Montessori teachers have allowed him to progress at his own pace in all subject areas; this has meant incorporating the EPGY K-8, Algebra I, and Algebra II courses into his program, followed by pre-calculus and geometry as independent study courses. He has been essentially self-directed through the last two topics, using the EPGY-recommended books and having his work checked by my husband once a week. He has also moved at his own pace through the language materials; he did ALL of the language boxes in eight weeks last fall for fun, even though he had worked through them once before. His CTY drama instructor from last summer pronounced his grammar "perfect"; he is working now on improving his essay-writing skills. His SAT scores reflect his achievements; he scored at the 99th percentile of college-bound high school seniors on the SAT-M, and at the 79th percentile of college-bound high school seniors on the SAT-V.

In history, he has focused on the Civil War; he has used books by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote for independent research, and is currently working his way through the Carl Sandburg Lincoln series. He has also developed a love of opera, thanks to the required school field trips to preview performances at the local opera house; he has been one of the leads in the school play two years running; and he has made wonderful progress in art, with experiences ranging from Cray-Pas to batik to bead weaving. He has even enjoyed physical education, thanks to his school's emphasis on individual skill-building over competition.

Socially, he has also made great progress. He has gained control over his upsets: while he is still very emotional, he has learned to move away from the group when he feels upset, and can turn off strong emotional reactions when they are inappropriate. He is able to negotiate with other children and can frequently see their point of view in addition to his own. While he has not developed any strong friendships at school, he feels like an accepted member of the class. He is sad to be leaving, but he has reached a point where his teacher can no longer provide appropriate group experiences for him; it is time to move on.

I see my son as very much like Miraca Gross's "Ian Baker"; many of the parallels are striking. "Ian's" story shows the kind of damage that can be caused by inappropriate schooling for a exceptionally gifted child; I think that my son's Montessori story shows what can be accomplished by a school that respects the individuality of each child and emphasizes respect for all children.


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