Listen to my interview with teacher Benedict Bossut (transcript):
Until five years ago, I had no idea what Montessori was. When I heard people use the word, I assumed it was some early-childhood thing, some kind of school that was maybe a little esoteric and maybe a little privileged. Then, when my oldest child reached preschool age, and then the next kid and the next, I sent them to a Montessori preschool. During those years, I became more familiar with Maria Montessori’s philosophy, pioneered over 100 years ago in Italy, and I liked it. Still, I figured it was a preschool thing. When it was time to enroll my kids in elementary school, they went to the local public school and that was that.
For some parents, it wasn’t that simple.
Several years ago, a tiny educational revolution started in Bowling Green, Kentucky. At that time, parents of elementary-age students could choose between traditional public schools or private Christian schools. A small group of these parents found themselves wanting more. They all had children enrolled in Montessori preschools and wished their children could continue to benefit from that approach; what they wanted was to start a Montessori elementary school right in their town. Other schools like this existed in other parts of the country, but not there.
First, they held several meetings to see if enough families would be interested in the school. Once this was established, they scouted possible locations and settled on the Montessori School of Bowling Green, a primary school that was already established. It was decided that the elementary “wing” of the school, which would serve ages six through twelve, would be housed on the upper floor of the school.
A shelf of math materials. Montessori classrooms are designed to be simple and uncluttered, with materials organized in a way that makes them easily accessible to students.
The only problem was, no one in town was certified to teach with the Montessori method at the elementary level. So one of the parents, Benedicte Bossut, who had a year of experience as an assistant at a Montessori preschool, enrolled in an intensive, one-year certification program in Cleveland, Ohio. With this completed, the school opened in August of 2012 with an enrollment of 10 students.
I visited the school a few weeks ago to learn more about how the Montessori philosophy is applied at the elementary level. I was expecting to find something, well…nice. I expected it to be calm. I expected the natural wood furniture, the sparse decor, the mats on the floors. I expected to see the beads for math study, the same ones I’d seen in my kids’ preschool. Nice. Possibly lacking in academic rigor, I thought privately, but nice.
What I didn’t expect was the attitude of the students: They were focused. They were calm. They retrieved their lessons and worked at them seriously, while still maintaining a sense of humor. And their work was plenty rigorous: They researched sharks, performed multi-digit multiplication, wrote letters, studied — in great detail — the geography of Australia, New Zealand, and all of its surrounding islands (none of which I had ever heard of). As I sat watching, drinking a cup of pumpkin spice tea one student fetched for me from the kitchen, I was overwhelmed by all of it. Because I didn’t really think this kind of learning was possible in a school. I had been spending a lot of time lately following online arguments about Common Core and Race to the Top and testing and data and accountability and…none of that felt like this.
And I thought, what they have here, couldn’t we have some of this in a more traditional school? To convert all of our schools to the Montessori method would be amazing and wonderful, but that feels like too big of a dream. What about right now? Is there anything a teacher in a “regular” school could do right now to apply these principles to his or her own students?
I think we could. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s look inside the school to see how it works.
A student chooses a lesson from his agenda. Each student has a personalized agenda of lessons for the week.
A Typical Day
The school day begins at 7:30 a.m. As they arrive, students go to their agendas, folders maintained by “Miss Benedicte” containing a chart of suggested lessons for the week. Students choose whichever lessons they’d like to work on first, retrieve the appropriate materials for those lessons, and begin, working on whatever surface is most comfortable. For some, this means setting up their lesson on one of several tables. For others, it means rolling out a mat on the floor.
Four lessons in progress on floor mats. Students and teachers regularly discuss the importance of treating other’s lessons with care, so if a student needs to leave a lesson for a while, these mats remain on the floor undisturbed until the student is ready to return.
A little after 8:00, students and teachers do some tai chi or yoga, and at 8:30 they assemble on the floor for the morning group meeting, where Ms. Bossut goes over the plan for the day and students have an opportunity to share stories, thoughts or questions.
After Morning Group, students and teacher enter into a 3-hour work period. Those students who began lessons earlier in the day continue with those; others start new ones.
Around 11:45, the group gathers again to give students another opportunity to share and present what they are learning with the rest of the class. This is followed by lunch and some time outdoors, and then another 90-minute work period, which includes reading groups and other reading work. At 2:30 the students do classroom maintenance chores, which are done on a rotation. Dismissal is between 2:45 and 3:00 p.m.
The Montessori Difference
Clearly, the structure of a Montessori school day is different from what you’d find in a more traditional school. But apart from that schedule, what fundamental characteristics make Montessori schools unique?
Individual Pacing: The most noticeable difference between a traditional school and a Montessori school is that students move at their own pace. Rather than participating in a teacher-led lecture or activity, where all students perform the same tasks and are put on a path to meet the same academic goal each day, each student works on lessons that are precisely fit to their current ability level.
The “checkerboard,” where students use chains of beads to learn multiplication. On the morning of my visit, the student who worked with this lesson stayed on task with it for over an hour.
Moreover, they choose which lessons to do when. Although Bossut’s intention is for students to complete all the suggested lessons in the week, students do them in whatever order they like, and for as long as they like. If a student is really absorbed in a math lesson, for example, she can spend three hours on it in order to master the skill. And if a student shows a particular interest in a topic, say, the Amazon River, Bossut will work to tailor the activities in the agenda so that they incorporate more of that topic, while still meeting the curricular goals.
Mixed Age Groups: Maria Montessori believed that mixed age groups were of great benefit to students, that the role-modeling and collaboration possible in this kind of blend could enhance not just learning, but social and emotional development as well. So students from ages six to twelve all work in the same space. The older students often naturally take on leadership roles, and help set the tone for a working environment, but younger students also find ways to lead, whether through their growing knowledge in a particular subject area, a special talent, or with their own unique set of social skills.
When a student has trouble choosing an activity to work on, his teacher gets him started on a plant lesson.
After this one-on-one time, the student is fully engaged in the lesson and continues to work on his own.
Mixing age groups also allows for more differentiation. If students aren’t separated by age, they can more easily be paired based on readiness or interest. When a Montessori teacher needs a student to demonstrate a skill for another student, she isn’t limited to only kids in that student’s age group — she can choose the best student for the job, regardless of their age.
Flexibility: Although the school maintains a regular schedule of daily activities, they also allow for changes to accommodate special events. The morning work period may sometimes be used to welcome visitors or for “going out” lessons to the local library, field trips to local businesses, or shopping for classroom snacks and community meals, all of which are planned and served by the students themselves. This kind of flexibility is something homeschoolers also tout as a huge benefit to their kind of schooling — the ability to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, rather than being held too closely to a set schedule.
Focus on the Whole Child: Although students do academic work every day, the Montessori curriculum focuses on developing the “whole child,” emotionally, physically, socially, and academically. “When people look at an academic program, they specifically look at academics. But Montessori is in the philosophy that academic is insufficient to the whole child,” Ms. Bossut explains. “It’s independence, it’s capacity for concentration. It’s capacity for sharing space. It’s respect for the community.”
This philosophy is apparent in the way students are treated. If a child is getting distracted or is having trouble focusing, Bossut does not reprimand him. Instead, she tries to re-ignite his interest, determine what is confusing him, or help him find another task that’s more appealing. Students are also given plenty of responsibility for maintaining the classroom, planning meals and snacks, and working through problems as they come up. All of these are not seen as distractions from the curriculum, but important parts of the curriculum itself.
What, if anything, can teachers in traditional schools do to incorporate some of the Montessori philosophy in their own classrooms? Although some may argue that this approach is an all-or-nothing thing, and certainly the environment in a purely Montessori classroom is optimal for student learning, I think there are small steps we can take.
The first step might be creating centers students can use themselves with little or no help to develop skills or explore interests. This sounds like a massive project, but it’s possible to start small and simple. Materials related to the current unit under study can be brought in and made available to students. Or even unrelated — find out what your students are interested in and point them toward materials that will help them explore these interests. In traditional school settings, we are used to chopping up and dividing content areas, but if a student has already met the goals we’ve set for a certain content area, why not let them explore an entirely different subject?
In a Montessori environment, where the curriculum emphasizes respect for everyone’s learning, concentration, and space, students are given room to initiate their own projects.
Something else to consider would be setting weekly goals, rather than trying to plan our classroom tasks on a day-by-day basis. Three or four goals may be the same for all students, but other goals can be set — or suggested — for individuals. Too many students to manage this? Help students learn to set their own. Again, consider allowing students to explore areas that are not strictly related to your content area (or, in an elementary classroom, to the content area designated for that time period).
The key to both of these changes working is to provide time for discussion, modeling, practice, and feedback on how to create an environment that is conducive to independent learning. This will not come right away, so it will require patience, but we can try to view these discussions and lessons as part of developing our students’ whole character, rather than a diversion from academics. And the content will likely sink in more effectively after this environment has been established: Any step we take toward developing students’ capacity to learn on their own will ultimately lead to them learning more, not less.
Finally, we might start to approach student misbehavior differently. Instead of treating student resistance or off-task behavior as defiance or disrespect, we could treat it as a symptom. In my interview with Benedicte Bossut, she told me she simply does not have discipline problems. Students who get frustrated with their work are offered another activity or advised to take a short break. If a student has trouble staying on task, Bossut interprets this as a sign she needs to work harder to ignite his interest in the lesson.
After visiting the school, I have become a huge fan of the Montessori method. We may not be ready to convert every school to this method, but it’s definitely worth considering. It has certainly outlasted every other teaching approach out there. And the way things are going lately, it might be time to look for a whole new way of doing things. Even if that “new” way is actually kind of a classic. ♦
To learn more about the Montessori School of Bowling Green, visit their website.