Learning the Montessori way
New/old teaching method takes root at Buena Vista

       Paula Strobl teaches the Montessori classes for ages 3 to 6 at Buena Vista Elementary. Clarice Hastings teaches 6-9. Next year, when the program expands at the school, there will be a 9-12 class.
       The overlap in years - as well as the broad class age groups - reveals some of the century-old Montessori philosophy.
       The overriding goal is education, couched with the understanding that not all children develop at the same pace. So any 6-year- olds who still benefit from the tools/activities in the 3-6 group may remain there a while, while those moving forward a little faster will go to the older age group.
       It's not that big a deal, according to the teachers. As Strobl noted, “They (the students) aren't on a schedule.” Besides, older kids in any Montessori age group have a separate job, which is to set an example for the younger ones who look up to their elders and follow their lead, both teachers explained.
       A main reason the rate of progress doesn't matter as much is that each child works on his or her own much of the time, learning educational basics in an increasingly concrete manner through a variety of hands-on study materials. For example, the teaching of world geography starts at younger ages with materials that simply show the world with land as sandpaper-rough and water as smooth; later, students see the continents defined by different colors. From there, they work up to puzzle maps, showing how pieces of the world fit together. “Gradually we start using a regular political globe,” Hastings said. “We want to give the big picture first.”
       Key to this process is students demonstrating they understand the subject matter - and the Montessori process allows them to see that for themselves. As Strobl said, “They've done it, not someone telling them they have.”
       A visit to the 6-9 class
       “Stay low,” Clarice Hastings instructs a visitor to her class, “so they don't feel as if you are hovering over them.”
       The result is an adult sitting on the floor, at eye level with youngsters who have spread out various colorful groupings of shapes and numbers and beads and even (apparently) money over specially made boards. Not all are doing the same thing. A girl is by herself with pie-shaped plastic pieces representing fractions. Two others are counting the “money” (circular pieces marked as 1s, 5s and 10s). A third is using a device informally called a 10-chain to illustrate how 1s add up to 10s, how 10s add up to 100s and so forth.
       A child moves from a previous activity to the 10 chains, joining someone who's already working there. No problem. The new child helps out by handing chains to the first.
       (There is a structure to such a move, Hastings explained later. First, students who move “need to take care of the things they were supposed to do before [putting materials away, if necessary], and get the OK from the student at the next task.” This is part of an overall theme of respect - for fellow students and the materials being used.)
       The kids seem generally satisfied with their efforts, . The visitor in their midst prompts them to explain what they're doing.
       Elsewhere in the room, Hastings is helping a child having trouble with an activity at one of the little tables. An assistant is working with another group of kids. With occasional exceptions, the only talking is among children teaming up on a task. Everybody seems pretty focused, except for two bored or befuddled boys at one of the floor activities, who will probably get attention from Hastings or the assistant soon enough.
       It was a fairly typical day, Hastings said afterward. Sometimes, due to weather changes or other distractions, the students get a little noisy, and she has to ring a bell to get their attention. Other times she might remind them of the “constitution” they all agreed on during the first days of school. In this process, they jointly worked out (and signed their names to) a document listing positive goals for the class and the necessary behavior to achieve them.
       The constitution is not a Montessori requirement, just an approach Hastings has used to help get across to the kids that their individual learning is really up to them. “We prepare the environment so children can take out what they need,” she said. “We provide direction, but not so much top down. We want them to take responsibility for their education.”
       A visit to the 3-6 class
       In Paula Strobl's class, the bodies are smaller and the activities a little simpler, but the strategy is much the same. There are different toys/activities, with two to three children at each one, helped by Strobl or an assistant. A parent with two kids in the class (ages 3 and 5) also pitches in.
       At a glance, two children appear just to be stacking blocks. But later Strobl pointed out that they're actually called “knobless cylinders,” which come in different dimensions (height and width) and teach preliminary lessons about math. Before students are allowed to stack them, they must be able to recognize the differences in the shapes, she said.
       Other lessons are going on at the same time. One of the kids stacking blocks playfully knocks over those of the other child. The second child doesn't get angry, but earnestly appeals to the first as he re-stacks, “Don't knock them over again, OK?” The first child says nothing in response, but does refrain from being naughty again.
       A short time later, Strobl comes over. There is no punishment, just an effort to help the first child better understand the purpose of the exercise.
       “We want to educate the whole child, but let them be creative,” Strobl said of her age level. But it's also not as if she just hands out materials and tells the kids to knock themselves out.”A lot of language is involved,” Strobl said. “The children have to know the philosophy involved. It takes a lot of time and patience.”
       At her younger age level, Strobl can be a little less structured than the older class in terms of work pace. If a child is fascinated with an activity and is clearly gaining from using it, “I let them experiment, as long as they show respect for it and aren't just rolling the pieces around.”
       A parent's thoughts
       Lynne Casebeer is a parent and former teacher who helped lead the advocacy to make Buena Vista the first Montessori school in District 11. What appeals to her about Montessori, she said, “is that it really stresses the whole child, that child needs to develop all aspects of themselves, intellectually, socially, academically. It's not a classroom where the teacher says, 'You sit and I'll teach you all I know.' It's 'I'll help you learn what there is to learn.' ”

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