By Zack Mazrimas, EduMom contributor
As parents, we want to raise our children to receive a high quality education, but that may look different depending on the needs of our children. The common tie that binds us is the desire to give our children access to the right settings, resources and support that will put them on the pathway towards success — but yet again, politics in Massachusetts often trumps common sense when it comes to education. Which brings us to the curious case of Wildflower.
We know that many of us have no idea about the options available to us — district, charter or private schools — or even the different types of learning environments that exist within each type of school. So you can imagine I was pretty fascinated by my first experience walking into a Montessori classroom.
I’d driven by the Wildflower Montessori School on Broadway in Cambridge many times, but rarely gave them more than a second glance. It looked friendly and inviting from the beautifully painted doorways, but overall my impression of Montessori education was:
- Free range kids not learning any practical skills.
- An option only available to those with big money.
- Unsupervised kids doing whatever they want.
And even after being invited to observe a Wildflower classroom — as I walked into the storefront entry and took my shoes off, many of these assumptions still appeared true.
It was a scene I didn’t recognize from my own days in the classroom or even my experience as a teacher in a traditional district school. There were no rows of seated students and no educator at the front of the classroom lecturing and fielding questions. A bell didn’t signal the beginning of the day, or the end of a period.
Instead, I watched as children sat upon mats on a hardwood floor across two rooms playing games, drawing, building with blocks, and talking with each other. Their two teachers – Erin and Mary — sat cross legged amongst them.
The room itself looked like a typical preschool for ages 3-5 and I expected there would be regular playtime broken up with snacks, lunch, and a nap.
Then a 4 year old girl walked confidently by holding a full glass pitcher of water and I watched as an even younger boy mopping the floor — with a real mop and full bucket!
I decided to take closer look.
The Wildflower School rooms are buffeted by comforting blue pastels on one side and brick walls that are lined with family photos and an abundance of plants even featuring a small garden at one end of the room.
The space was not large, but among the dozen children, there was never a feeling of being crowded. The toys are paper, wood, or even glass. Blocks were used to create mazes that one girl attempts to walk thru with the verbal assistance of another. In another center, a boy worked independently with fractions in quiet deliberation.
Erin and Mary observed each child from different areas of the room, and providing subtle directions that engage each child in his/her learning needs:
“Can you bring me the ‘3’ rod from John?”
“Why don’t you ask Michelle for help and see what she thinks?”
They were unobtrusive, allowing the children to learn, to fail and to succeed. And the communication between the teachers involved eye contact, body language, and a comfortable rapport — including meeting children at their eye level instead of constantly hovering overhead.
It was then that I realized that these children were really learning. They were engaging in practical skills within a comfortable and empowering environment. Students worked with each other, and were expected to discover their own solutions to everyday problems – something than many adults often struggle with.
Montessori schools are based on the research and findings of Dr. Maria Montessori who found that children absorbed knowledge from their surroundings and were highly capable of teaching themselves. She “utilized scientific observation and experience gained from earlier work with young children . . . designed unique learning materials for them, many of which are still in use in Montessori classrooms today, and created a classroom environment that foster[s] the children’s natural desire to learn.”
None of that seems especially radical — although it’s nothing like what we do in a traditional district school.
But what truly struck me was the Wildflower philosophy around a true belief in the ability of students — even at a very young age:
take pride in maintaining the room, and working with the materials in a
careful and thoughtful manner. You will notice that that most of the classroom
is “sized” for children in it. Shelves are low to the ground and designed to be
at the child’s eye/hand level, chairs and tables are smaller to accommodate
“younger” bodies and to make children feel at home. You will not see desks
and chairs, but instead see a classroom environments that reflects how
children really work, play and learn.”
A classroom that is centered around students and meets them where they are?
Makes sense to me!
Overall, there are some key-elements promoted in all Montessori classrooms:
- Children working independently
- Degree of concentration demonstrated
- Ability to choose one’s own work
- Respectful of each other and the classroom
- Positive social interactions
- Children of varying ages working together
- Children free to move around the environment
And as I was a visitor to their space, the children were curious about me as well — but felt comfortable engaging me as a part of their environment. I was even lucky enough to receive a special drawing to remember my experience in their learning environment:
All of this was incredibly interesting, but still left me with many questions for Wildflower Foundation CEO, Matt Kramer.
Aren’t Montessori schools only for the wealthy?
In the case of the Wildflower, the student population is split in thirds between upper, middle, and lower income families. This provides exposure to various perspectives, and the ability to maintain a reasonable tuition for a school that is privately and publicly funded.
How is the day structured?
The day is centered around a 3 hour period, part of which I observed, that is focused on learning. There is also dedicated time outdoors.
This is also complimented by continuous learning and partnership over the weekend, as play groups are arranged within the neighborhood. It doesn’t end at 3PM. Lesson learned during the day are further used in real world scenarios.
What’s up with the glass?! What happens if a kid drops a cups and it breaks?!
The mess is cleaned up.
Watching these children in their environment, and seeing how so many educators and wealthy people with the privilege of choice because of their ability to afford it — you would think providing this kind of option within the public education system for kids who might blossom and flourish in this type of environment would be a no-brainer. And Wildflower was interested in bringing their proven approach to the elementary level.
But this is Massachusetts education politics — and we know anything other than the comfortable status-quo is often crushed when introduced as a possible public option for low-income or children of color.
Earlier this month, a proposal to open a 240-seat Wildflower elementary school in Haverhill that was supported by dozens and dozens of parents in the community was rejected by Commissioner Jeff Riley after they applied for a charter school seats.
Riley says the reason for his objection was “the applicant group is at the beginning stages of developing the necessary knowledge and capacity to implement all aspects of the proposed school design, including governance and management” — we know the real story has everything to do with the politics of approving charter seats. And unfortunately, that means we might just be witnessing yet another example of playing games at the expense of our children’s education.
A Montessori education might not be for every child, but neither might traditional district or charter school curriculum. Each child has specific needs, and parents should have an opportunity to examine all options to be successful. Could this be an option for some of our children who have different learning styles and an option that might keep these kids learning instead of on the fast track to the principal’s office or an IEP? After seeing this first hand, it certainly seems possible.
At the beginning of my visit, I was asked to imagine what learning would look like if all previous experiences, misconceptions, and standard practices were pushed aside, and that education became less of a factory model, and more of an open environment?
What would it look like if we took the same approach to our entire education system?
Let’s at least ask these questions, and see what we come up with for our children.