What you need to know about the Montessori Method

Montessori schools emphasize independence, respect for self and others

Walking into a Montessori classroom, a parent might be surprised there is a classroom full of kids, but it's quiet.

"When you walk into a Montessori classroom, it typically has a quietly energetic feel," said Laura Mammarelli, president of the NH Montessori Association and lead teacher and director of the Blue Heron School at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, a Montessori program. "And that's not because the teacher is imposing her will on them and making them be quiet. They are just busy working."

There are several Montessori programs throughout the state. The majority is PreK and Kindergarten programs; however there are a handful of schools that continue through eighth grade. One, Hollis Montessori School, goes through ninth grade. Montessori schools are private and tuition varies depending on the program.

More than a school, Montessori is a method. Developed more than 100 years ago by Maria Montessori, who was the first female doctor in Italy, the Montessori Method is a child-centered approach the doctor developed after time spent observing children and how they learn. What she saw was that children learned best by doing, and in particular, doing what interested them.

She took her observations, combined them with the work of German scholar Friedrich Froebel, anthropologist Giuseooe Sergi and French physicians Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin, added ideas that she found in medicine, education and anthropology, and created the framework for the Montessori Method.

Not much has changed in the intervening years. At its core, a Montessori education emphasizes independence and respect for self and others. The classes are mixed ages. Mammarelli said this allows younger children to learn from older children and older children a chance to be mentors. Even better, after a couple years, the children who were once the younger ones are now the big kids in town.

"Everyone gets to experience being a leader," Mammarelli said.

The children may work on an activity alone or in a small group. The program is individualized for each student. What that means, Mammarelli said, is that the activities and work for the day are largely guided by the students, their interests and their skill level. Teachers observe what a student seems interested in and gets them started with that activity. Each item in a Montessori classroom is designed to allow a child to use it without extra help from the teacher.

Activities are usually taken from one of several areas set up in the classroom such as practical life, where students learn to care for themselves. Here they use towels to clean up spills, prepare their own snacks, sweep and mop, feed the class pet and water the plants. Mammarelli said this not only helps them with their fine motor skills and a respect for caring for their environment, but it also gives them a great sense of accomplishment and pride in their own abilities.

Other areas include a sensorial section that helps kids, "explore and learn about the world by taking it in through their five senses," Mammarelli said. In the math and language sections, kids are introduced to these concepts through counting and letter activities that move from concrete to abstract as they gain more skills. Art, science and nature, and geography sections round out the room, all of which use hands-on activities.

"Beginning lessons inherently focus on providing children with an independent experience that allows her to build on skills of concentration, coordination, independence and order," according to the NH Montessori Association. "The classroom is prepared in a way that children slowly gain independence as they practice each skill and gain knowledge (primarily about themselves and their environment.)

"It is with these skills that they build an understanding and ownership of their classroom, which not only allows them an opportunity for independence, but encourages them to teach as well

As students move up through the grade levels, the basic principles stay the same, said Kari Headington, head of school at Hollis Montessori, which has students through ninth grade.

The upper grades are also mixed ages and classroom subjects are integrated. What that means is, instead of having discrete math, science and language classes for instance, students instead take on real-world issues using all of those skills and more including economics, humanities and writing.

Headington said the objective of these projects is developing a successful process and innovative approach, rather than rewarding an expected answer. The arts and physical education are also integrated into these projects along with a student-run business, educational travel and community service.

The math and foreign language classes are the only courses separated by grade level. All other courses are taught to the mix of seventh- to ninth-graders, Headington said.

"The program is cyclical in that it presents material over the course of three years, the exception being math and foreign language," Headington said. "For example, a theme is chosen for each trimester then studied through a variety of lenses: scientifically – biology, chemistry, physics, Earth sciences; historically, sociologically, culturally, morally. … Literature and writing assignments often relate to this topic.

"This program seeks to address the unique needs of the adolescent child. As in all Montessori programs, purposeful work, student independence and engagement, respect and becoming part of a working community is key."

For more information on Montessori education, go to nh-montessori.org.

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.

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