Milwaukee’s Montessori boom
October 1, 2012
By Jay Bullock
The method behind the magic
Though they are only in the first stages of their year-long training, the students are well into the process of learning Maria Montessori’s specialized techniques, becoming familiar with Montessori’s unique learning tools, as well as developing their own personalized teaching manuals for every lesson.
Milwaukee is seeing a bit of a Montessori boom in recent years, with several new or expanded Montessori schools in the Milwaukee Public School district. Though only about 3% of MPS’s students are enrolled in Montessori schools, their statistics—from test scores to attendance and discipline—far outpace the rest of the district as a whole, making expansion attractive to the data- and results-driven MPS administration. The district is hosting a region-wide Montessori Community Summit for parents, teachers, and community members on October 6, the first of its kind in southeast Wisconsin, to expand support for Montessori education.
So the institute’s students are learning Montessori’s methods at just the right time.
But what are those methods? What sets Montessori education apart from a traditional classroom?
What is Montessori?
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was a physician in Italy at the turn of the last century, in fact, Italy’s first female physician. She was a psychiatrist who, early in her career, worked with juvenile delinquents and children with mental retardation.
According to a biography of Montessori on the American Montessori Society’s website, she developed an interest in education, attending classes on pedagogy and immersing herself in educational theory. Her studies and observations led her to call into question the prevailing methods used to teach children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
breakthrough was her ascertainment that the children she studied learned and interacted with their environment naturally, without any imposed adult structure. Based on those insights, she developed materials and teaching methods that work with, rather than against, the students’ instincts to learn.
She became a lecturer at a pedagogical school in Rome, training teachers how to work with disabled children and developing many of the methods and materials still in use today.When given the opportunity to oversee the education of a group of non-disabled children in Rome in 1906, Montessori applied what she had learned about children’s development and set up her classrooms accordingly, which resulted in tremendous success. Her methods suited the students’ tendencies to interact with their world and learn from their experience—their natural tendencies.
These tendencies, according to Montessori theorists including Mario Montessori, Maria’s son, include such elements as exploration of novel objects and ideas, manipulation of their environment, repetition of activities, and a need for order and cleanliness.
A child’s first Montessori classroom, usually with a group of students from ages three to six, has some very specific characteristics, according to Allyn S. Travis, Executive Director and Co-Director of Training at MIM.
“Montessori provides a uniquely prepared environment,” Travis said. First of all, there has to be a specially trained teacher. But the most visible difference is the use of “didactic materials that appeal to learners of all types,” Travis said.
This is why on any given day you might find MIM teachers-in-training sitting on the floor with a yards-long timeline of earth’s geological periods, or using colored pieces of cardboard to explore weather in the world’s different climate zones, or learning basic musical elements on “the bells.”
All Montessori classrooms include a set of these bells, as well as dozens of other items for children to manipulate and explore, such as a moveable alphabet to learn phonemes and objects to learn counting. Many of the materials and exercises are designed to build skills that will be useful later. Manipulating cylinders, for example, in early lessons about size and shape, prime a child to hold a pencil later, when it comes time to write.
Maria Montessori recognized the connection between experience and learning a century ago. Contemporary theorists, such as pediatric neuropsychologist Steven Hughes, PhD, see experiential learning as using the brain’s method of developing neural pathways to the child’s advantage. “This is an example of how the networks in your brain function,” Hughes wrote in 2009 in a journal for Montessori parents. “The novel task of holding a pencil is supported by previous activities.” Hughes, Chair of the Association Montessori Internationale Global Research Committee, specializes in assessment and treatment planning for people who have problems with attention, concentration, organization, planning, and related executive functions.
Hughes calls Montessori’s experiential learning concept and practices “the best brain-based model of education,” even though Maria Montessori conceived her insights before the invention MRI technology to observe brain function.
Further, Montessori classrooms stress social skills. Responsibility is one of these. Students learn how to safely and neatly use materials and how to put them back so that they are ready for the next child who wants to use them. Students also have jobs in the classroom, such as sweeping the floors or watering the plants. Likewise, MIM’s teachers-in-training must clean up and care for the plants before they leave for the day.
Travis said that in addition to the material that children work with in a Montessori classroom, it is important to implement Maria Montessori’s guiding principles with fidelity.
She named three principles: Limitation—there is usually just one of each of the materials in a classroom, so that only one child at a time can use it. Isolation—by working alone, each child can focus on each concept to be learned. And freedom—freedom to move about the classroom, freedom to work with others, and freedom to choose the learning activity that interests them.
In the elementary Montessori classroom, with students six- to nine-years-old, teachers allow for a child’s developing social awareness. The students work in small groups to develop collaborative and cooperative skills. “They’re ready to put the individual into a social context,” Travis said.
Beyond that, the Montessori lessons are designed to promote social responsibility. “Montessori students understand their place in their world, and realize there’s a reason why they’re here,” he said. “The central theme of our stories from early on, in texts and materials, is that everything that has come and been on the earth is here for a reason. Everything has a purpose.”
Montessori’s methods contrast sharply to those experienced by the vast majority of students in their non-Montessori classrooms, where all students learn the same thing at the same time, often in the same way.
Also, the hands-on, experiential training for Montessori teachers is very different from the classroom lecture and reading experience teachers receive in most preparation programs.
Montessori in U.S. and MPS
When Montessori first brought her ideas to the United States in the early 1900s, she was set upon by the leading education theorists of the day, including Thomas Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick. The constructivist nature of Montessori—the idea that students build their own meaning out of the experience of the world—was diametrically opposed to the establishment’s views, particularly Dewey’s. He believed that socialization (not isolation) and imaginative play (not intellectual stimulation) were the keys to proper childhood development.
Because of these criticisms, Montessori education was largely abandoned in the U.S. until a revival in the 1960s. Fifty years later it is still not well known or understood by many parents and non-Montessori teachers.
Moreover, the Montessori method runs completely counter to MPS’s Comprehensive Literacy Plan and Comprehensive Math and Science Plan, the district’s strict guidelines for what gets taught when and how in MPS schools. The comprehensive plans were designed to standardize practice across a district that had as many as two-dozen different reading programs. However, after a rocky period when the plans were first instituted—including in Montessori schools, MPS has allowed Montessori schools to remain faithful to Maria Montessori’s methods.
Students usually stay in Montessori until age 12, or “eighth grade.” Milwaukee has just one school with a Montessori program for high-school-age students—MacDowell Montessori, which serves students from age three until graduation. However, Maria Montessori did not set many guidelines for educating children older than 12. Consequently, most Montessori students in Milwaukee and across the globe move into traditional schools after age 12. By the time a child leaves the upper elementary classroom, Travis says, students are usually very well prepared to transition to high school and on to college.
“Montessori kids have a love of learning,” she said. “They have an ability to work with others, and they know how to pursue their interests. They don’t necessarily know more than other students, but they can think clearly, and for themselves.”
“The big surprise,” Travis added, “is that they find other students don’t like school or learning.”
J. McKeever, MIM’s Co-director of Elementary Training, said that Montessori students have a particularly well-developed sense of themselves and how to make decisions. She contrasted that with her experience in a traditional setting. “I was a high school English teacher in Missouri, in a modern building with lots of choices for students,” she said. “But I found that students couldn’t handle choice. By the end of Montessori, they know how to make choices.”
Expanding Montessori is not easy; there are set-up costs that MPS, for example, has pegged at more than $400,000 per school over the first six years. Travis says that those initial costs mask savings that may come later, since the materials—produced by just a few specialist companies to exacting standards of quality—can last for years. “If the materials are properly taken care of,” she said, “They don’t need to be replaced like textbooks.”
The materials are not the only expense; teachers and aides must be trained. (Every classroom must have at least one adult aide.) Plus, the state reimburses MPS for teaching four-year-olds at a lower rate than older children, and does not pay for three-year-olds at all.
However, MPS school board member Meagan Holman, a parent with four children enrolled in a Montessori school, has argued that Montessori schools can pay for themselves by capturing students who, were it not for the Montessori option, would otherwise not attend MPS. These students boost MPS’s enrollment numbers and, therefore, income.
The high achievement scores of Montessori students also benefit the district as a whole, she said. There is little doubt that MPS both needs more high-achieving schools and that, in general, its Montessori schools do better than the district as a whole.
But its Montessori boom still faces challenges. Kosciuszko Montessori School has seen MPS restrict its enrollment, for example, because it has not produced very good results or drawn many students to its near-south side building in Lincoln Village.
At the end of the last school year, MPS did not renew its charter agreement with Montessori High School after years of low enrollment and mediocre scores. MacDowell’s performance in grades 9-12 will be closely watched to see if that school, which is taking on Montessori High School’s staff and students this fall, can produce the same success with their high-school-age kids as Montessori students ages 3-12 have achieved.
And even now, at the end of the first month of the 2012-13 school year, MPS has not filled the available seats at the new Howard Avenue Montessori School, despite the demand the district believed exists for Montessori preschool. Nearby Fernwood Montessori had a waiting list for three- and four-year-old classes larger than Howard Avenue’s expected total enrollment. MPS has been heavily plying social networks like Facebook and Twitter to attract additional parents
MPS is heavily promoting its Montessori Community Summit, and they will use that gathering to provide “Montessori 101” to parents to try to convince more of them to enroll their children in Montessori schools. The summit’s program includes “Glass House,” a chance to watch Montessori students-in-action in a Montessori classroom.
If MPS can make its case to parents who then demand it for their own children, and can show success with its recent expansions, expect the Montessori boom in Milwaukee to continue.
More info about Milwaukee Montessori Summit here.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School. He blogs at schoolmattersMKE.com and jokes a lot on Twitter as @folkbum
Read Jay Bullock’s story about the new Howard Avenue Montessori school: bayviewcompass.com/archives/11936
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.