Learning the Montessori Way: A Hands-on Approach to Education
By H.M. Cauley
As you navigate Atlanta’s educational landscape, you’re likely to comeacross many types of schools that sound somewhat familiar, including magnet, charter and special needs schools. One kind of school you may not be as familiar with, one that’s gaining more and more ground in the metro area, is Montessori.
Named for Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, Montessori schools are independent schools rooted in the idea that children learn best through hands-on exploration, and at their own pace. Her first school, opened in Rome in 1907, was so successful that it inspired her to share her methods with other educators, resulting today in more than 22,000 schools in 110 countries around the world.
Montessori schools typically serve children through preschool age into the elementary grades and, in some cases, middle school. The Montessori approach focuses as much on social, physical and emotional development as academics. In addition to learning about science, mathematics and other traditional subjects, students are taught such life skills as responsibility and respect for the environment. Learning objectives are accomplished through experiential, practical and sensory activities in an organized environment.
“There’s A Lot of Freedom”
Montessori differs from traditional public and independent school education in some fundamental ways. The Montessori classroom is a less rigid environment, where the student, not the teacher, is the focus; you won’t see rows of students sitting in desks. Students, grouped by age ranges rather than by grade, work independently, each learning at his or her own pace. Instead of taking in information from textbooks or computers, they learn concepts by working with materials in a hands-on environment. Rather than giving a lecture or handing out assignments, teachers work with students one-on-one, providing guidance as necessary. They don’t give grades, and don’t set limits on how long the child follows a particular area of interest.
“Montessori is a different way of looking at the child,” says Denise Harold, director of Johns Creek Montessori School of Georgia. “Rather than a traditional school that sees a child as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, we see they have potential within them.”
Montessori educators begin helping children realize that potential early on. At Johns Creek Montessori, children work in groups ranging from 15 months to 3 years old, or from 2 and a half to 6 years. Medlock Bridge Montessori, also located in Johns Creek, serves 105 students ranging in age from 2 and a half to 6, and also has a pre-primary program for students as young as 8 months.
“We are an authentic Montessori program with the academic materials to teach to a third-grade level,” says Head of School Deborah Manger, who plans to add a second grade class next year.
In a Montessori environment, children are allowed the freedom to explore activities that interest them. At Johns Creek Montessori, students may work on as many activities as they like, Harold says, while the teacher moves from one to another, giving individual attention and observing what the child is most interested in and focused on.
“That helps us determine what lessons to give in the future to build on those strengths,” says Harold. “There’s a lot of freedom, but also a lot of structure. Everyone’s doing purposeful work. There’s not a lot of chaotic movement.”
Teaching the Whole Child
That mix of freedom and structure allows teachers to pay attention to changes in the development of their students, and to adapt their lessons accordingly. It’s an approach that helps students grow not just academically, but personally.
“A lot of people talk about whole-child education,” says Jan Deason, head of school at Arbor Montessori, which teaches children ranging from 18 months to 3 years old at two locations in the Decatur area. “But that’s been Montessori’s belief from the beginning.”
At Springmont, the longest-running Montessori school in the Southeast and one of the metro area’s leading Montessori schools, approximately 300 students work with an experienced faculty that understands their individual and personal strengths.
“This awareness is empowering in our students, which clearly distinguishes them among their peers,” says Head of School Jeri King. “Our capstone middle school program is a particular advantage in that the opportunities often reserved for high school, such as running a business, planning class trips or participating in work internships and community service, provide our students with the means to appropriately develop their independence.
“Our faculty serves as coaches for students during this uniquely difficult time in development,” she adds. “They individually guide students as they meld their views, values and self-expression while also choosing to stretch themselves academically.”
As a result, she says, “Many of Springmont’s students go on to some of the area’s most competitive schools.”
Making the Child the Center
If you’re considering a Montessori education for your child, be prepared to ask questions. Not all Montessori schools are created equal, and since the term is not trademarked, any school can refer to itself as a Montessori school. Some schools, for example, may claim to follow an “alternative” or “hybrid” Montessori program, or offer Montessori instruction for part of the day.
Typical signs of a “true” Montessori school include a comprehensive, all-day Montessori curriculum, open classrooms free of desks, and classes of 15 to 30 students grouped by age (for instance, ages 3-6). Another reliable sign of a school’s adherence to true Montessori principles is certification. Teachers at authentic Montessori schools are trained and certified in the Montessori method.
What’s more, schools that have been accredited by organizations like Associated Montessori Internationale (co-founded by Maria Montessori) and the American Montessori Society have been investigated and determined to be operating in accordance with Montessori standards.
While some Montessori schools may differ in size, age range and approach, they all offer something other schools don’t, says Deason.
“Montessori is very individualized,” she says. “It offers a child the chance to be in a multi-age classroom where situations naturally occur and problems get solved. We teach problem-solving and mediation skills at a young age. And we are in partnership with parents, all for the good of the child. Every decision we make is based on how it’s going to affect the children.
“What it really comes down to,” she says, “is making the child the center.”
For More Information
Arbor Montessori School
Johns Creek Montessori School of Georgia
Medlock Bridge Montessori
American Montessori Society
Association Montessori Internationale
Atlanta Montessori School Directory
The Atlanta area is home to a great many Montessori schools that offer individualized instruction and foster hands-on learning. The following profiles represent some of the highest-quality Montessori schools that serve metro Atlanta.
To prepare for success in a world not yet envisioned, today’s students will need the tools and skills to adapt. At Springmont, students thrive by gaining confidence and a sense of self along with problem-solving skills, social acumen, creativity, compassion and intellectual pursuits.
Families joining the Springmont community come from all over the world. More than a dozen languages are spoken, and Springmont families hail from countries on six continents. All major religions are represented, as well. This rich cultural and ethnic diversity is celebrated in the school community and woven into classroom studies as well as special events that celebrate Springmont’s mission and core values.
Accredited by SAIS and SACS and recognized by AMI, Springmont has 31 full-time teachers and assistants, 50 percent of whom hold advanced degrees, and the average teacher has 15 years teaching experience. Students’ intellectual abilities grow alongside their character in a warm and safe school community. As a result, graduates matriculate to their choice of Atlanta’s private and public schools.
Springmont is located in Sandy Springs at 5750 Long Island Drive. For more information, call 404-252-3910 or visit the website at www.springmont.com.
Johns Creek Montessori School of Georgia
Located near the intersection of Highway 141 and McGinnis Ferry Road in Johns Creek, Johns Creek Montessori School of Georgia provides excellence in Montessori education for children from 15 months to 6 years old. The school’s vibrant, multi-age classrooms and high-quality Montessori materials inspire organic learning and foster collaborative relationships.
Specially trained, Montessori-certified teachers act as “guides” to the extensive curriculum, planting a seed of wonder that grows into a desire for greater knowledge. This dynamic, structured environment nurtures a strong work ethic, love of learning, and a passion for discovery not found in other schools.
Dr. Maria Montessori wrote: “Education should no longer be mostly imparting of knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentialities.” Help your child to reach their full potential.
The Johns Creek Montessori School of Georgia difference is best experienced in person. The school is located at 6450 East Johns Crossing in Johns Creek. Please call 770-814-8001 to schedule a tour to observe the “Montessori Magic,” or visit www.JCMSOG.org.