When students at Chicago’s Near North Montessori learn about sea turtles in the classroom, they can picture in their minds what a sea turtle looks like and draw it on paper. Or they can take their intellectual curiosities to Annie Stone, arts director at Near North Montessori’s new Innovation Building, where they can build a model of a sea turtle out of clay, paper, wood, metal, 3D printed material or one of many other tools and materials available in this new 15,000 square-foot space.
Stone describes the Innovation Building as “more than innovative, but responsive” to the educational experiences of the 575 2- to 14-year-old students at Near North Montessori, where her role as an art adviser supports and extends classroom learning.
The Innovation Building opened in February and houses a chef’s kitchen, an Arts and Textile Studio, a Technology Studio, two black boxes for video and sound production, a woodworking area and a small theater space, as well as a spacious, open communal area and community room. The entire space is topped by a 5,000-square foot rooftop urban farm for lessons in sustainability, science, economics and nutrition.
Indoor grow labs allow students to cultivate vegetables, fruits and grains, observe animal behavior and discover the value of land stewardship through the school’s immersive outdoor curriculum. A second, ground-level urban farm produces eggs, honey and produce that supplies the Sandwich Shoppe, a student-run farm-to-table business where students learn the principles of entrepreneurship and microeconomics. This year, the Sandwich Shoppe space will be used for learning practical life skills, food science and history, and budgeting.
Developed from a community desire to broaden access to learning tools that pique children’s natural curiosities in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM), the Innovation Building is a place where students of all ages can gather and extend the value of multi-age learning that is fundamental to Montessori educational philosophy. One of the things that distinguishes Montessori from more classical educational approaches is the way children are encouraged to learn by touching, feeling and doing. Here, students can code robots and create animations. “They can balance this by revisiting traditional crafts like spinning, felting and dyeing,” Stone says. Students who are studying Roman history can build a model of a colosseum, then follow a pattern to cut fabric and sew costumes.
“We have set up all the basic tools like a bigger Montessori classroom, and students come in and show us how they want to continue their learning. I’ll provide an orientation to the sewing machine and when they know how to use it, they’re empowered to explore further,” Stone says.
Earlier this year, students who wanted to create sustainable food wrap came to Stone for fabric and an iron, sourced wax from bees on the roof, and created beeswax-coated storage cloths to sell on their farmstand.
Students blend new ideas and technologies with age-old techniques for multidisciplinary exploration, says Stone. “The whole space is really responsive, and innovation is certainly a part of that. But it’s richer when it comes from an understanding of traditional things; it can become hollow if it’s not grounded in history,” she says.
Stone’s work as arts director is mirrored by that of a sustainability and urban farm director and a director of educational technology. “Working together to support students and teachers as a cohort is a new thing and that is really fun,” says Stone. “All the really good things about innovation come from play.”
As a Montessori learning laboratory, the Innovation Building encourages students to question the world around them and build resilience. As the larger world finds ways to navigate the pandemic threat safely, the Innovation Building and Near North Montessori can exercise flexibility.
“As a school, we have the liberty to figure out how to move forward, and the responsiveness of this space and our educational group can help with that,” says Stone. “Perhaps next year, we can create a radio station and have a film festival that families can experience from home instead of a theatrical play.”