Thanks to Anne Christensen Pollitzer of St. Helena Island for sharing an inside look at Montessori education.
Anne is the founder and former administrator of the Eleanor Christensen Montessori School on Lady's Island. The school, known as E.C. Montessori, is named for her mother, an educator in Beaufort schools from 1952 to 1964. The school began as a traditional elementary school, but adopted more and more of the Montessori learning program until becoming fully Montessori in 1993. Because of competition from public Montessori programs, the school has been losing enrollment and might have to close its doors in the fall.
By Anne C. Pollitzer
There is a lot of local interest in Montessori education, which has been a part of the landscape in Beaufort County for more than 40 years.
Beginning with Sea Pines Montessori Academy, founded on Hilton Head Island in 1968, and Eleanor Christensen Montessori, founded in Beaufort in 1973 along with a few single-class efforts, the popularity has grown.
Next year, we will see three classes for first- through third-graders and two for fourth- through sixth-graders at Beaufort Elementary School as a part of the parental choices available in our public schools.
In addition, the Lowcountry Montessori Charter School is planning to open this fall with classes for kindergarten through eighth grade. They have a full enrollment and waiting list.
But what is Montessori schooling all about? What do the students do all day?
It is true that Montessori education is different from the traditional programs most have experienced. Traditional teaching methods were designed to be efficient, which means teaching the maximum number of children at the least expense. For this reason, children are taught in specific age groups, with one teacher using the same learning materials for all.
Testing is done to be sure they are all in the same place academically, which they never are. Some children do well in one area, others in another; some learn rapidly, others need more time.
This is not working too well, so many different educational ideas have and are being tried to find a more successful model. Some of these include technological aids like computers and iPads, arts-infused or science-rich curriculums, separating boys and girls, etc. But all are following a classic, traditional teaching process with text materials, teachers guides and tests.
Montessori schooling is different. It allows children -- like Princes William and Harry, or our own Erroll Fields, who became a doctor; Kate Rowland, a CPA; and Bertrand Dore, an attorney -- to do well in school and in life after beginning with a foundation of Montessori training from an early age.
In a Montessori class, all children are not expected to do the same work at the same time. The class is mixed in ages so that more advanced children can set an example and even help teach the younger ones. In such a setting, children can work at different levels in different subjects as their talent and interest dictates. Children can work for long periods and at different levels in different subjects. This is accomplished using what Maria Montessori, the founder of Montessori schooling and author of "The Montessori Method," called the "prepared environment."
Montessori classrooms are set up with shelves that make the learning materials available in each of the work areas. Early on, practical-life work such as pouring, polishing and attaching are begun. Then, sensorial exercises -- learning a sense of order by size, shape, color, texture, sound. This work lays a foundation for language (word building and reading) and mathematics at ages 3 and 4. That includes geography, plant and animal studies, music, art, foreign language, and more. Hands-on materials are the key to this advanced progress long before hand-eye coordination allows for writing.
The other essential element of a Montessori curriculum is a trained teacher.
These teachers must keep in mind that they are not the central character in the learning experience of their students -- the students are. The children must learn to take charge of their own learning. This is easy when one begins with toddlers because very young children wake up every day eager to try out the things they learned the day before and to try out new experiences and materials.
Montessori capitalized on this trait because she herself was not a trained teacher. She was the first certified female medical doctor in Italy, and her colleagues shunted her off to care for the children in the local mental hospital. There, she found children playing with dirt and sticks, neglected and forgotten. Her mantra became "follow the child." She developed her learning materials to challenge the interests and abilities she found in her group and within a few years, they had bettered their peers in the public schools in Italy.
The Montessori teacher sets up the "prepared environment" each school term with simple equipment and exercises, and rotating these throughout the year to include the more sophisticated and complex materials. The teacher must keep each child's progress in mind and teach individuals and small groups each day to use more complex reading, math, map skills, geography and science.
From day one, the children must be taught to care for their things, select their own learning materials, find their own work area (which is often a small area rug on the floor), be respectful of the work of others, practice the exercises the teacher has taught them and replace materials on the shelves. Each day begins and ends with a whole-group experience with the teacher or teachers, which gives structure to the learning period. They play outside every day and take part in snack and lunch times.
The children are not graded or tested, but parent conferences and reports from the teacher keep the family informed of progress. The children themselves are thrilled to be mastering new skills and knowledge and willingly tell their parents what they are learning and/or show it to them in the classroom.
Students do not require artificial and competitive grading measures to make them progress. Standardized testing once per year gives them practice in test-taking and gives the parent and teacher a glimpse at how they measure up. They test well later in life and perform well in other schools later on, using the learning skills they master in Montessori.
Putting materials in the classroom will not result in a Montessori program. It is the trained teacher who has learned to guide rather than direct children who makes it all happen. To produce an independent learner, the teacher must know the progression of skill work and keep track of each child's progress. The classroom must be kept clean, beautiful and stimulating.
The goal of Montessori teaching, whether with toddlers, primary or older children, is to produce lifelong learners who do not always need a teacher, but enjoy using their minds. The goal is for students to remain inquisitive and engaged throughout life.
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