The School That Dares To Look In the Mirror
It’s easy to “maintain.” It’s easy to look in the Rule Book and do what’s always been done. That’s what so many schools do. They maintain methods, traditions, and continuity. Quite frankly, the institution of school strongly resists change. Huge reforms from on high are often looming, and when changes are slowly made after emotional political debate, it only happens because they have been mandated.
Beginning With Common Ground
Children’s Garden Montessori School in Denver is nearly 10 years deep into their process of creating a hybrid of two exceptional approaches to early childhood education. The Montessori Method and the Reggio Emilia philosophy do not dovetail together easily in the unsolved educational puzzle, but both find common ground in the most important way: respect for a young child’s needs and rights, and the child’s remarkable ability to learn from their surroundings. The Children’s Garden has wholeheartedly committed to build on the foundation of each approach, and search for valuable connections between the two strong views.
Mindset of a Staff
There is no outward pressure for this school to change. Children’s Garden Montessori has earned over 40 years of respect in the Montessori community of Denver, the state of Colorado, and beyond. This thriving school has every right to “maintain.”
So, I wondered, where does this aspiration for change come from? I think it must come from two places. Individual teachers who can articulate and practice their craft on a very high level, are able to tolerate uncertainty, and see exploration as healthy growth. It also comes from a teacher community of researchers and seekers whose culture (and administrator) sincerely encourage experimentation, and makes the time to communicate and problem-solve effectively.
It was clear from my visit, that these teachers love to learn both individually and as a team. Wait! That is the goal for their students!! Isn’t it more than a little cool that these teachers are learning just as we hope children learn to learn? These teachers read about teaching. For pleasure. They discuss children. For pleasure. They teach other teachers and write about teaching. For pleasure. They toss opposing and new ideas around. For pleasure. Their learning is ongoing, incomplete, and it is inspired by their peers, the children before them, and their personal passions.
I admit that I have never been part of a staff that had such patience with a “laboratory mentality”, and were willing to endure the uncertainty and unavoidable inefficiency. I think the process would also require great scientific discipline to measure and analyze outcomes. The opportunity to implement fresh ideas and discuss the results would be a dream come true for many. It’s not for everyone, though. I am sure that some teachers do not enjoy it at all, and probably leave to find comfort in a different school.
Inspired By Differences
Montessori and Reggio both fundamentally serve the child, of course, but go about it in different ways. For me, I am intrigued to see teachers draw inspiration from differences rather than resist them. At Children’s Garden Montessori, the debate helps them stretch and test their long held beliefs, but I’m sure theory and ideas are easier to talk about than to implement.
…would a school be able to meld an approach that champions independent learning, with one that believes children learn mainly through social interaction and relationships?
…would a school be able to meld an approach that connects children to a prepared environment then steps back, with one that regularly engages groups of children with questions and discussion?
…would a school be able to meld an approach with a highly developed curriculum, with one that waits for a child’s interest to create the path?
…would a school be able to meld an approach that is concrete, with a soft or undeveloped one?
…would a school be able to meld an approach that presents specific uses for didactic materials, with one that offers many materials to be used in open ended and expressive way?
What Have They Learned?
The school is quick to say that they are a Montessori school that is inspired by the practices of the Reggio schools. They are not trying to become a Reggio school, but are finding ways to use the Reggio approach to enhance what they already do well. There are a good handful of essential Reggio practices that have found their way to Children’s Garden Montessori School, and there are others that remain on the table for discussion.
The art studio is the physical and emotional heart of the school, and is a key feature in Reggio Emilia schools. There is light, natural and handmade beauty, and freedom to express ideas and feelings through a wide spectrum of mediums. A trained artist and teacher, is called the atelerisita. She is a co-learner, facilitator, and documents conversations and artistic expressions. She works in conjunction with the pedegogista that oversees the developmental growth and curriculum paths of the children.
In the art studio, children can explore the verbs and souls of the natural world through art, while in the Montessori classroom, all of the precision and science is at their fingertips. The balance of the poetry and expertise sounds so ideal, and for me it articulates the Montessori approach that balances the mind and heart so well.
Challenges: How to sensitively ensure that children balance their time in their Montessori classroom with time in the art studio. How to determine what is the most effective use of the children’s time. How to make the different learning approaches feel fluid for the children by keeping familiar Montessori grace and courtesy lessons in the art studio and also encouraging spontaneity and collaboration.
I saw a very good snapshot of the thinking and judgement required by teachers as they decide how to use the children’s play and conversations as a springboard to further activity. The curriculum in a Reggio setting is often negotiated and provoked by the children and their responses to experiences. Atelerisita Angelina Lloyd is Montessori trained, and is currently earning her masters from the University of Colorado. Angelina has multiple tools, experiences, and streams of knowledge that help her see children from several perspectives. She kindly gave me an idea of the feeling and judgement required to know how to guide discussions and projects based on the children’s interests.
After her description, I had a bit of an epiphany. This so called “soft”or “undeveloped” curriculum can be responsible for very intricate and even rigorous thinking.
The documentation on the walls when I visited, was mainly centered around “Good Guys and Bad Guys.” It was a topic that Angelina helped them develop after hearing multiple conversations during block play concerning “Bad Guys” and “Good Guys.” She shared with me that it was a topic that was tempting for her to redirect or ignore. Rather than steer the conversation to something else, Angelina realized it was on their collective minds, and so in a group conversation she asked the children to define “What is Good and What is Bad?” with both words and pictures.
Angelina told me,
“I believe so strongly in children’s voices and the power of listening to what they have to say and representing their voice to others.”
She takes written notes, video recordings, photographs, and collects work samples to records their weekly conversations in many “languages.” The documentation is later displayed where children and parents can see. It helps teachers communicate and plan, but it also provides a visual reminder to children about their process and suggests further work.
Angelina explained further,
“The children have titled their project “Life Changer School: A School for Everyone.” It is really an emergent project that has progressed from battle play and exclusive/punitive concepts, toward inclusivity and community. The children identify the transformative nature of quality inclusive education in equalizing the behavior and positive impact of all people.”
More simply, the consensus is positive and powerful: “Good guys need to include everyone, and help “bad guys” learn how to be better. “Bad guys” can teach “good guys” how important it is to share resources so everyone has enough to feel equal.” The children are currently designing a school as part of their project. They physically make it from cardboard and blocks for all types of children, because in their discussions, the children have decided that if “Bad Guys” are isolated, they will have no Good models to learn from. In the process, they talk about activities and decorate spaces to include in their school.
I noticed at the end of their list was a sentence that said, “Maybe everyone is a little good and bad sometimes.” Profound wisdom coming from the children is in evidence on the wall. Big and important ideas.
Challenges: How to confidently know which of the children’s interests to develop. How to find time to post and learn from the documentations.
Small Group Learning
Collaborative learning and communication skills are two things that serve us very well in life. Reggio teachers work with small groups of three to five children. The children respond to an activity and also hear what others think. The teacher actively documents their conversations. It must convey a sense of importance to their thoughts to see an adult show so much interest in what they say and do.
The ability to learn independently is also very valuable, and serves us well in life. There are always differences in learning style within a group. Some will love to speak up, others prefer to listen, and others want to do it alone. A school that offers multiple kinds of opportunities and sees value in every learning style is a school that I would like to learn in!
Challenge: How to help every child feel comfortable and learn from both independent work and collaboration.
The dreaded staff meeting. It’s at every school, of course, but an effective one requires preparation and participation by the entire staff, not just the administrator.
My impression is that teachers in a Reggio setting have daily discussions that recount and evaluate a days work and make decisions for how to proceed. There is a constant questioning, experimentation, and creation that happens based on the day. It does not sound like an efficient process with a clear and tidy ending. Time is a luxury many schools do not have, but if staff communication is deemed to be a priority, the time is well spent on collaboration, brainstorming, and respect for every teacher’s comfort level and opinions.
Certainly, a valuable staff meeting, in a school like this, is considered more of a learning opportunity than a top-down informational meeting of dates and handouts.
Challenges: How to accommodate differences of opinion among teachers. How to have enough time to research, develop ideas, and document results. How to turn their dialogue into action.
Looking In the Mirror
Can the Montessori and Reggio approaches be enhanced by one another? Or, will they be diluted? Surely, there is not clear agreement, but if you ask the staff members at Children’s Garden Montessori School, I think they could tell you what they think works for them at this time. They don’t claim to have answered all of their questions, which is OK with them.
According to Head of School, Kathryn Ross,
“Finding the way to combine the two viewpoints is a rigorous and never ending conversation. Questions remain unanswered, and that’s OK.”
The questions are ongoing and fascinating. The teachers are learners by choice. The school is alive and intentionally evolving day by day. And the children? They are doing what children do naturally. Constructing themselves in a school designed to honor them in every way that it can.
To the Staff of Children’s Garden Montessori School of Denver: Thank you for your ongoing reflection and honesty.