Learning the Montessori way

Traditional methodology gets different approach in alternative school

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— There are no desks in the classrooms at Montessori Peaks Academy in Littleton. Students don't have textbooks to read or nightly homework problems to complete.

Traditional letter grades don't exist there, either.

Instead, classroom shelves are lined with hands-on learning materials. Teachers don't necessarily instruct; they assist. Students work independently or in small groups, learning from one another, not a textbook.

Sound like your childhood education? Probably not.

The Montessori methodology has existed for nearly a century, but only recently have the teachings of Italian Dr. Maria Montessori gained widespread acceptance in the U.S. Private and public Montessori schools in the U.S. number in the thousands, and it is estimated that more than 1 million American children are being educated through the Montessori method.

"The education of the whole child," is the focus of Montessori education, Montessori Peaks Academy Principal David Hickey said. "It's not just viewed as a cognitive and academic program. It also concentrates on the physical, social and emotional aspects of a child."

A sense of community and mutual respect is essential to the Montessori method, and Montessori's multiage classrooms help foster those traits, advocates say.

"Dr. Montessori found that young children are more apt to take info from a peer than an adult," Hickey said.

Older students help their younger counterparts through activities and tasks, reinforcing their own knowledge while establishing a sense of community and respect for their classmates. When the older students graduate to the next age group, the roles will be reversed, and they will be taught and mentored by their older peers.

"A lot of people think Montessori is academically based," said Lesa Radford, director of Steamboat Springs' Yampa Valley Montessori Education Center, a private preschool. "For me, the important part of Montessori is the moral part of the classroom. Caring for each other is the primary thing we try to focus on -- moral education."

Montessori teachers fill a different role than a traditional school teacher, Hickey said: "The teacher serves as a guide."

Instead of being told what to do, Montessori students work with their teachers to come up with a weekly schedule detailing what activities each child will accomplish.

From there, the student must take the initiative.

"It becomes the student's responsibility to accomplish the tasks during the week," Hickey said.

And what one child schedules for the week has little or no bearing on what any of the other children do, Hickey said.

"You can't expect Johnny and Sally to be at the same place in math, because they're different people," Hickey said. "Children are like snowflakes -- they're all different."

Students move freely around the classroom as they work from activity to activity.

"There are no desks," Hickey said. "You don't see rows of students. You see students working independently and with groups of other students to accomplish certain tasks."

Despite the freedom and individuality nurtured in a Montessori classroom, students are supervised and monitored. Teachers interfere only when necessary, Radford said.

"A very big part of Montessori is that it's self-correcting," she said. Kids need to learn to identify mistakes on their own, Radford said.

The Montessori method continues to gain popularity, Hickey said.

In its sixth year of operation, officials at Montessori Peaks Academy have watched enrollment jump from 61 students in the Jefferson County charter school's first year to 320 this year.

"Word of mouth gets around that Montessori is a strong educational approach. People like it," Hickey said.

"A Montessori charter is the best of both worlds," he said.

Because they're public schools, they are still accountable to state standards. But they retain the freedom to implement a unique and effective method, Hickey said.

Despite growing popularity, misconceptions still abound about Montessori, Hickey said.

"People sometimes think the Montessori (people) are pointed-hat people who dance around candles," he said, referring to a traditional Montessori birthday celebration. People also mistake Montessori as a religious method, he said.

Not all Montessori schools are exactly alike, but Hickey said there are certain features found in all of them, such as a sense of community, self-discipline, individuality, respect and multi-age classrooms.

"There is a great deal of freedom for schools to set up their own programs," Hickey said. "But most of the time, you will see certain features across the board."

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