Curriculum Matters: November 17, 2013


Middle School Occupations

When entering a Montessori Primary classroom, the observer’s eyes are often drawn
first to watching Practical Life activities. While students busily work on a variety
of endeavors, watching the young methodically pour water from a pitcher into a glass,
sweep up an area of the floor, or fasten one button after another is an experience
so unique to the Montessori classroom that I will boldly call it iconic. Part of
the beauty and awe it inspires comes from seeing the young child transformed through
her work- she so values the activity for the independence it offers her.

In the Middle School environment, the adolescent is also transformed through his
Practical Life work and also values the activity because he gains independence
and confidence.  The middle school student calls her Practical Life work an occupation,
because she has been presented with a true role: real work with value in the adult
world. The skills he gains in an occupation are real skills that could one day contribute
to his economic independence within society.

To work effectively in a kitchen baking and producing appetizing and nutritious
meals requires a diverse skill set. Many of these tasks are complicated and abstract,
but the hands-on sensorial nature of working with food is central to the work and
inspires the engagement of the mind to solve the real problems that inevitably pop

Although adults present tasks, these are not chores, not tokenistic work.  Adults
support    students who plan and execute tasks with the larger goal in mind. When
working on the woodworking occupation, for instance, students had the goal of making
a coat rack and bench. This end goal made clear the necessity of learning how to
work with tools, as well as how to design and measure. The students come to appreciate
the adult delegation of tasks to facilitate the larger goal as an important role
itself, and one that they also take on from time to time.

Micro-economy helps the students understand human bonding through economy. Whether
baked products sold at a coffee shop, beautiful woodwork enhancing the environment,
or cherry tomatoes grown in our greenhouse, the economic value of the student’s
hard work is clear to them. They work within a business model to determine how to
make products more economically profitable while meeting the variety of goals set
by the students. Students use Excel spreadsheets to calculate costs for the Community
lunch program. They are responsible for meeting established financial goals  and
must adjust if not successful. This student ownership of decision-making is another
hallmark of the occupations. Students also use Excel to determine proper portioning
when baking for Coffee Shops. Students are trained in customer service, taking inventories,
generating shopping lists and programming the cash register before each event.

Maria Montessori spoke frequently about the role of the adult in offering the developing
child the keys to unlock their potential within the context of Practical Life work.
At each developmental stage, these keys unlock different things: the physical world
for the Primary child; the universe for the Elementary child; and society for the

It is important for adolescents to try on many, many roles within these occupations
to feel for their “fit”.  Like the story of the young King Henry who is unaware
of his responsibility until Falstaff places the crown on his head, it isn’t until
the adolescent has fully taken on the role that she is aware of her potential and
responsibility within society.

In our Middle School, students choose their occupations every 5 weeks by requesting
their top choices. Teachers make groupings based on these requests. So far this
year occupations have been baking, land stewardship, stained glass, woodworking,
and micro-economy.