When students attending Northwest Montessori Middle School, near Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, arrive on Monday morning, they assemble for a community meeting. Cynthia Yost, classroom co-teacher, greets the 10 students in the class and outlines the integrated subjects they will study during the week.
Working individually and cooperatively, the students will continue studying the Early Americans – from the first human migrations 20,000 years ago to the first encounters with European explorers and settlers. This is the thematic topic for the year in science and social studies.
This week the students are focused on the Paleolithic or Stone Age period. For earth science, they will learn about the mechanisms of cave formations. For social studies, they will take a trip to the nearby zoo to identify a spirit animal as the cave dwellers did. And for art, the students will mix animal fats with earth pigments and paint their spirit animal on a surface that mimics limestone caves. Writing a spirit animal legend, reading and research about the Paleolithic period, and ongoing study in mathematics will round out the week.
While much learning will be accomplished, the middle school students will not use a textbook to do it. Instead, they will answer questions in as many ways as possible and employ many different types of thinking in the process.
“The Montessori approach supports the growth and formation of the whole person – one who is independent, able to think critically and able to solve problems in a variety of ways,” Yost says.
This holistic approach to learning is the basis of the Montessori methodology and can be found in accredited Montessori middle schools, which now number six in the Puget Sound area. (See related story.)
Growing National and Local Trend
Perhaps best known for preschool, Montessori actually continues into elementary, middle school and high school. Throughout the United States, more than 5,000 Montessori schools are in operation; 80 of those are in Washington.
While the majority of the Washington schools offer preschool for 3- to 6-year-olds, or elementary for 6- to 12-year-olds, a growing number are adding middle schools for 12- to 15-year-olds. Two of the middle schools in the area, for example, have opened recently: Northwest Montessori in fall 2001, and Woodinville Montessori this fall.
Much of this growth is prompted by parent interest. “Parents say they want an alternative to traditional public and available private middle schools,” says Sharon Dunn, middle school teacher at Woodinville Montessori.
One such parent is Gina Holt, whose daughter Meleigha attended Woodinville Montessori from kindergarten through sixth grade, and then transferred to a local public junior high for seventh grade. “It was a year of ups and downs for Meleigha,” Holt says. “After getting used to small class sizes and individualized attention in Montessori, we were frustrated with a public system where the teachers are dealing with a great volume of students.” She promptly re-enrolled Meleigha when Woodinville Montessori launched its middle school program.
Bob Huebner, whose son Nick also attends Woodinville Montessori Middle School, says he selected the school because it fit his son’s independent learning style. “The school also mirrors my philosophical stance about grading,” Huebner says. “Here Nick can focus on the mastery of learning, not on the grade as the achievement,” he says.
Still other parents have switched to the Montessori system after years in public school. “Middle school is extremely formative, and it needed to be the right experience for my son Alex,” says Catherine Weatbrook, who evaluated a number of parochial and private middle schools before making the decision to send Alex to Northwest Montessori. “I wanted to encourage Alex’s natural curiosity and help him remain excited about learning,” she adds.
The Montessori Approach
How does the Montessori learning environment work? According to the American Montessori Society, while many educational programs focus on cognitive development measured by standardized tests, the Montessori approach also looks at physical, social and emotional development during four key phases of growth. These developmental planes are early childhood ages infant to 6 years, elementary ages 6 to 12, secondary ages 12 to 18 and young adult 18 to 24.
Starting with early childhood and progressing through secondary education, the Montessori classroom operates on the principle of freedom within limits. According to the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association, under the guidance of a trained teacher, children are allowed to choose from a diverse selection of learning activities and to work alone or with others. Children are also allowed to progress at their own pace, according to their individual capabilities. This helps students become independent learners.
As children mature from preschool through elementary-age and then into adolescence, the scope and manner of the Montessori approach changes as well.
Montessori in Adolescence
The Association Montessori Internationale states that the Montessori program for children ages 12 to 18 is based on the recognition of the special characteristics of adolescence, namely social development, self-awareness and self-critique.
“As we know, adolescence is a stage of emotional volatility,” says Yost of Northwest Montessori. According to Yost, adolescence is the last phase of brain growth and connectivity. Kids are still developing and need a safe, optimal environment at home and at school. “One way we at Northwest Montessori support each student emotionally is to give them work they find meaningful,” Yost says. For one student, this might be community service work; for another, it might be the study of the Crusades.
Also central to the adolescent stage is helping students find their place in the larger community, outside of the family. As a result, Montessori programs at the middle school level emphasize community service. “When caring adults place trust in them, students can usually excel and find ways to contribute to society,” Yost adds.
For example, her class planned and developed a butterfly garden at Magnuson Park, as part of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department’s master plan to convert the former naval station into a community-friendly park. The students can work together to tend the garden and solve problems as they arise.
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A Closer Look at the Curriculum
style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">While Montessori offers learning flexibility, it is done within a carefully constructed framework. The subjects taught at the middle school level use thematic- or cycle-based curriculums. These curriculums include science, technology, history, humanities, creative and performing arts, foreign language, music and more.
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style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">At Woodinville Montessori, teacher Dunn planned five six-week cycles for the year. The theme of one cycle, for example, is forces. For science, Dunn’s students will study geophysical force, nuclear force and electromagnetism through reading, discussion and lab work. For humanities, they will study force in the context of revolutions, such as the American and French Revolutions. Mathematics, vocabulary and language arts will be studied on a continuum. Dunn will also emphasize writing by encouraging the students to express themselves through fiction, poetry and debate.
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style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Each cycle also includes an immersion week to supplement classroom learning. Planned immersions at Woodinville Montessori include environmental stewardship, drama and community service. Finally, the students will be asked to complete an independent study project in an area that piqued their interest and will help organize a research trip away from home at the end of the year.
Making the Montessori Decision
style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">While Montessori may be the right fit for some middle school students, it is not necessarily the answer for every parent or child.
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Time is one reason. It requires considerable parent commitment and involvement to help administrators and teachers run a Montessori program. To launch Woodinville Montessori’s middle school, for example, parents joined task forces to research grant availability and local opportunities for music, art, environmental studies and travel options. Now that the school year is under way, parents are volunteering their skills to supplement the planned curriculum. One parent also serves as the P.E. teacher.
School size can be another issue. While some parents appreciate the smaller classrooms of about 10 to 12 students per class, others are concerned that Montessori middle schools may provide fewer social options or extracurricular activities, such as athletic programs, school-sponsored dances, organized clubs or marching band. Some parents compensate for this by encouraging their children to be active in city leagues, bands or independent sports clubs.
Finally, costs can be steep. Tuition for Montessori middle schools averages $8,000 per year plus miscellaneous fees. This can add up quickly, especially for parents who have more than one child involved in Montessori programs.
Montessori in the Public System
However, cost has ceased to be a factor for some parents. One public school in Western Washington – Aki Kurose Middle School in Seattle – has used the Montessori approach in two classrooms for the past three years. Basic funding for the program is covered by the state.
“This year we have 21 children in sixth grade, and 29 in the seventh and eighth grades combined class,” says Carol Bradley-Williams, middle school teacher. Although not an AMS or AMI certified school, the curriculum does include social studies, language arts and reading. For other subjects the students integrate with the rest of the school. Also true to the Montessori philosophy, Aki Kurose Middle School students complete community service projects, attend leadership training and camp and participate in arts and drama programs.
The Montessori formula is also working in a few public elementary school classrooms: Graham Hill Elementary in Seattle, which is a feeder school for Aki Kurose; Daniel Bagley Elementary in Seattle; and Bryant Elementary in Tacoma.
Birgit McShane, principal at Daniel Bagley, is pleased to offer children in public school a quality Montessori experience. Of the roughly 250 students in the school, half are in the Montessori track and half are in the regular program.
Parents of kindergartners at Daniel Bagley pay $150 per month to cover the half-day of schooling not funded by the state; the elementary Montessori program from first through fourth grade is free. “The program is popular. We have a wait-list for every class,” McShane says, noting that discussions for expanding to a middle school are already in progress.
McShane adds that Montessori may not be the best learning style for some children. “It works best for kids who are self-directed or self-motivated at learning,” she says. For those who need more structure, a contemporary classroom where a number of other teaching methods are used may be a better fit. “At Daniel Bagley, kids can switch from one program to the other, based on their individual needs,” McShane says.
Interested in local Montessori middle schools?
· Aki Kurose (Seattle) 206-252-7700
· Arbor Montessori (Sammamish) 425-392-3866
>Montessori School of Snohomish County (Everett) 425-355-1311
· Northwest Montessori School (Seattle) 206-524-4244
· Pacific Crest School (Seattle) 206-789-7889
· Spring Valley Montessori (Federal Way) 253-927-2557
· Woodinville Montessori School (Woodinville) 425-481-2300
Debbie Van Der Hyde is a Seattle-based freelance writer and mother of two.