The Montessori story

Both Google founders went to Montessori schools. Should your kids?


Paige Hobey

Haley Kramer, now 3½, took her first steps toward an education at Chicago’s Near North Montessori soon after she could walk.

After hearing great things about the school, her parents applied for the parent and infant program when Haley was 18 months old. From there, she entered the preschool class. She was one of the lucky ones.

Near North, which has 556 students in parent and infant classes through eighth grade, received eight applications for each open spot in the current preschool class, says Director Jacqueline Bergen. Other Chicago-area Montessori schools also have more applicants than openings, their admissions directors say.

Because the Montessori name isn’t trademarked, it’s hard to track how the number of Montessori students has changed over the years. But according to Dennis Schapiro, editor of Public School Montessorian, a quarterly newspaper, the number of Montessori schools in the United States has increased steadily since his organization started tracking it in 1988. And as parents explore today’s educational offerings, many are taking an interest in the potential of the Montessori method to actually leave no child behind.

So is Montessori simply a compelling brand name in the world of alternative education, or do these schools offer a better way to learn?

It depends on whom you ask. Advocates say Montessori schools are in demand because they offer a child-directed, interactive approach to learning, allowing students to investigate the world at their own pace. Some parents, however, feel the method is too loose. And others actually say it can, at times, be too rigid.

The history

Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman doctor in Italy, designed the Montessori method based on her observations of early childhood learning in the early 20th century. She proposed a revolutionary idea at the time—that children learn best when given the opportunity to follow their natural curiosity within an enriching environment.

Montessori believed all children are innately self-motivated to learn, and she identified the importance of sensory motor activities as a way kids understand the world. Her lessons built on this insight, often engaging all five senses and requiring students to manipulate objects. To teach the alphabet, for example, Montessori used phonics, visual cues and even sand paper letters designed to be touched.

Montessori introduced her method in the United States almost a century ago, but it didn’t hit the American mainstream until the 1950s and ’60s.

Today, many of Montessori’s key insights—such as the importance of sensory motor activities—have been integrated into traditional schools, especially at the preschool level, says Barbara Bowman, chief officer of Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Early Childhood Education and a professor at the Erikson Institute. Setting up kid-size tables and chairs to make the classroom feel like a community of children, for example, was one of Montessori’s strategies. Now it’s standard in most preschool environments.

How it works

There are several key principles that make the Montessori method unique, according to Bergen and Richard Ungerer, executive director of the American Montessori Society:

 Montessori materials. Dr. Montessori designed hands-on learning tools that children can manipulate independently. A preschooler can play with cylinder blocks while building fine motor, analytical and comparative language skills. A fourth-grader can learn about geography using interactive maps.

 A holistic curriculum. Lessons include social, academic and even real-world subjects such as washing dishes. Manners, respect and a sense of community are emphasized. "My daughters are more gracious and helpful at home because of the practical things they’ve learned at school," says Stephanie VanEekeren. Her children, Katie, 4½, and Ellie, 2½, attend Lor-Jon Montessori in Elmhurst.

 A structured environment. "We set up the classroom environment to help the kids learn to be responsible and make decisions themselves," says Debbie Kelley, principal of Brickton Montessori School on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Classrooms are laid out so students can access the learning materials as needed and have space to do their work quietly. In fact, the term "work" is used even with preschoolers manipulating blocks. The goal? To give children a sense of pride about their explorations.

 Self-directed learning. Montessori students choose their work each day from available lessons. Teachers guide the process and ensure all academic bases are covered—but each student defines her own pace and timing.

"My daughter tends to pursue different interests in spurts," says Ellen Pavelich, whose daughter, Mari, is a fourth-grader at the Montessori School of Lake Forest. "One month she may be interested in geography and focus a lot of her time on learning the maps of Europe. Then she might spend three weeks primarily interested in language and diagramming sentences."

 Mixed age groups. Classes are grouped in three-year increments. So 3- to 6-year-olds, for example, are classmates. This approach, which models families, allows younger kids to see where they’re headed and older ones to learn leadership and understand the material at a deeper level through teaching, says Jeff Keiser, assistant director of Seton Montessori School in Clarendon Hills.

"Children will be drawn to what they need," says Traci Tyszka, educational director of Hope Montessori in Tinley Park. "Sometimes I have a 3-year-old interested in letters, so he might work with a 4-year-old. Children aren’t being held back."

 A collaborative approach. Montessori students are encouraged to work independently or in small groups. And when a 6-year-old learns to tie her shoes, she’s encouraged to teach other classmates. Instead of report cards, students receive progress reports and informal feedback. Grades "compete with the idea that each individual is working towards her own potential," says Beth Caldwell of Chiaravalle Montessori in Evanston. Students generally do, however, take annual standardized tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

 Trained teachers. After completing a bachelor’s degree, Montessori teachers typically undertake an additional year of certification training. Their role in the classroom is to introduce new learning opportunities, answer questions, establish goals and help students meet those goals. Rather than lecturing, a teacher might sit at a table and pull out a new activity. Interested students simply come over and participate. "Teachers help move the children forward," says Caldwell. But the speed and path varies depending on the child.

Dr. Montessori established birth to age 6 as a sensitive period for language acquisition, so many programs also incorporate foreign language lessons. Some even provide immersion programs, in which part or all of the school day is conducted exclusively in another language.

Is Montessori a good approach?

Advocates say the Montessori method encourages a child’s intellectual curiosity, offers a well-rounded learning experience, fosters independence, builds confidence and instills respect.

"Children in Montessori programs learn to respect themselves, other people and their environment," says Peg Dowling, head of Intercultural Montessori Language School in Oak Park.

VanEekeren has been very happy with her daughters’ academic progress and strong sense of self reinforced in the Montessori environment. They pursue learning opportunities for themselves, she says, rather than for a teacher’s praise or high test scores.

Critics argue Montessori is too loose or, ironically, too structured. The freedom of self-directed learning can make parents accustomed to traditional class schedules uncomfortable.

"I know some parents worry that if their children are choosing their school work each day, they might not ever choose math, for example," says mom Marty Clemons. "But the teacher would always step in if that was happening."

And when Clemons’ 2-year-old daughter, Zoe, wanted to learn how to wash the table in her parent/infant Montessori class, the teacher taught her a pre-defined, multi-step process. This approach, which some feel is too rigid, is applied to many Montessori activities.

Sherri Duskey-Rinker and Dave Rinker felt the Montessori school they visited seemed too quiet for their high-spirited child. Other parents worry about the transition from Montessori to a more traditional environment. Some Montessori programs end with preschool. Others go up to ninth grade. At some point, a child will have to make the switch.

But Montessori school directors report positive feedback from alums. "Children in Montessori programs come to understand how exciting learning is and carry that belief with them to other schools," says Keiser.

Bowman says the shift does require an adjustment. But, she says, most Montessori students shouldn’t have much trouble.

Finding a Montessori school

In Illinois, dozens of schools use the Montessori name—with varying levels of accreditation. Some closely follow Montessori’s original tenets. Others make their own interpretations. School sizes range from fewer than 30 kids to more than 500. And while there are a few public Montessori schools in Illinois, the vast majority are independent, with annual tuition ranging from $4,000 to $10,000.

If you’re interested in the Montessori approach, visit schools in your area and ask about accreditation, teacher training, classroom organization, materials, scheduling, student population and the educational philosophy.

Ultimately, look for an environment that feels right for your child and your family. Dr. Montessori wouldn’t have it any other way.


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