Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Tales Out of School

By Roseana Auten

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  Nestled in the shadows of the very "establishment" Sunset Valley Elementary School next door, the Austin Montessori School (AMS), strung along four or five refurbished tract houses on Sunset Trail in South Austin, is so unassuming you might miss it as you drive past. And inside, the same homelike, anti-institution atmosphere prevails. Every corner of the campus seems to murmur, "This is not your mother's school," from the sun-filled music room/library, to shady back porches spilling out from domesticated classrooms, where pine tables are set for lunch with placemats and napkins, to the cheerful rooms filled with busy, busy children. It's clearly not the setting for every parent -- but is it the setting for any child? For some progressive educators, the Italian thinker, teacher, and physician Maria Montessori (1870-1952) is their Martin Luther. At the risk of making her life's work sound simplistic (it's not), the Montessori philosophy revolves around several basic assumptions about how children learn and develop -- assumptions that were pretty radical at the turn of century, and are still radical now. Chief among them is that children aren't intractable little animals who must be conquered and shown who's boss; when left to (mostly) their own devices, children will pursue activities that are not only fun, but good for their minds, bodies, and hearts; although children go through certain stages of development (Montessori called them the "four planes" of growth), no child goes through them at the same rate as another, nor do children pass through the stages in neat, tidy increments -- sudden "breakthroughs" in learning and behavior are not uncommon.

What does all this mean for the Montessori classroom? First of all, it means lots and lots of "sensory" and "hands-on" materials (which are never referred to as "toys"), things that children can touch, manipulate, arrange, measure, color, draw, sew, sculpt, write with, and play music on (activities that are never referred to as "play," but "work"). The idea is, manipulation of concrete objects early in the child's development makes the transition to abstract thinking, such as in mathematics, easier later on. It also helps develop fine and gross motor skills, say Montessorians.

Classes aren't broken up into grades, but by ages. At AMS, there is a class of primary school children aged 21/2 to 5, two classes of elementary kids aged 6 to 9, and two classes of upper elementary kids aged 9 to 12. (AMS operates another small campus in Northwest Austin and a middle school in Oak Hill.)

Another key to the Montessori classroom is that the children mostly direct their own learning, choosing an activity (or piece of "work") themselves, doing it for as long as they want -- even choosing it repeatedly for days. (This purportedly helps extend the child's all-important attention span.) They record their activity in a journal, and share their work with the teacher (or "guide"), who does not give them an exam or a grade, but merely tells them if they've done it correctly and completely. A teacher might guide a child toward a new activity, but teachers never order a child to stop whatever they're doing.

"This is a free environment, but it's freedom with a lot of responsibility." -Amber Miller, pictured above at the Austin Montessori School with students using educational tools common to Montessori classrooms
photograph by Jana Birchum

Children work solo, but more often they learn in pairs or small groups, which advances social and personal skills. In diametric opposition to traditional schooling, the Montessori teacher rarely stops the entire class to lecture. He or she often draws a small group aside for a lesson -- on the day of my visit, AMS founder Donna Bryant Goertz was leading a cluster of about six or seven elementary children in a poetry writing lesson -- but there's none of that "Your ears open and mouths shut!" you hear so much in a traditional classroom.

"This is a free environment," admits Amber Miller, AMS' director of admissions and parent liaison, "but it's freedom with a lot of responsibility." Every child has a household chore around the campus, whether it's setting up for lunch, washing dishes, or turning the compost heap. It's this "real world" aspect of Montessori education that has the potential to really astonish parents of small children when they see their youngsters finally picking up after themselves at home. AMS, in particular, has a few school rules: No junk food in lunches, no T-shirts emblazoned with movie or product logos, no TV on school nights. Parents are expected to read to their children nightly, and to keep kids' computer use to a minimum. "We do get called `the brown rice nazis' sometimes," says Goertz.

And it's easy to see how "establishment" education, including public and private schools, has borrowed liberally from the Montessori concept. Multi-age, ungraded classrooms, with the teacher as "guide," and heavy use of "hands-on" materials have been all the rage for years. And those schools still have a lot they could learn from Montessori, says Margaret Bridgeman, a former Montessori school aide, now a middle school special education teacher in the Del Valle school district. "What Montessori schools do is make the teacher the `good guy,' and put the child in control of learning, which makes it a fun and positive experience," she says.

And unlike traditional schools, Montessori schools like AMS haven't cast their fate to the winds of other hyped-up strategies for school improvement -- such as stressing "accountability" (testing kids, ranking schools, and rewarding teachers), or flooding schools with technology. The same holds true with ideas about achievement. A public school child who's not up with his peers in reading is likely to be diagnosed as having a problem, and whisked away for remediation. But say a Montessori kid is eight years old and still not reading. That's no problem -- Montessorians believe reading is developmental: He's just not ready yet, and forcing him will only make him hate reading.

Well, maybe, but where's the line between a kid who's not ready to learn, and one who flat doesn't want to? One parent whose child spent his early learning years in a Montessori school finds Montessorians' reluctance to "force" anything on a kid -- even acquisition of basic skills -- to be very frustrating. "There's no accountability," said the parent, who asked not to be identified. "The only thing that's worked is to actually `make' my child sit down and do a little rote learning. And it's working."

And indeed, it's how Montessori schools account for a child's (dare we say it?) progress that poses a bit of a dilemma. With no exams and no grades, assessment takes a different form. The guide, says AMS director Goertz, just knows when a student has gotten the most out of his work. "It's so obvious," she says. This information is relayed twice yearly in a conference with the parent, where the child's work, and character and personality development, are reviewed, and goals for the future are set.

What about children who seem to be having trouble because of a learning disability, such as dyslexia? Goertz says she eschews the labels and diagnoses that other educational institutions seem to rely on to explain why a child is not advancing at a specified rate. Montessori education, obtained early enough, renders those problems a non-issue, she says.

Goertz's arguments won't convince a lot of parents, especially ones hell-bent on "seeing" achievement in the usual way it is measured. But while Montessori is not for everyone, it obviously is for someone -- AMS celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. "I have never seen a child who didn't do well in Montessori," says AMS' Miller. "I have seen a lot of parents who didn't do well in Montessori."

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