A preschool-aged boy is spraying water on a full-length mirror and carefully pulling a squeegee up and down it. A few feet away, a group of girls wash and dry pint-sized plates while other children paint on easels, act out scenes from the children's book Where the Wild Things Are with handheld puppets, or do miniature science experiments in a bowl of water.
It's mid-morning in a preschool/kindergarten classroom at Pioneer Valley Montessori School, where children learn concentration and independence by choosing their own activities within a stimulating environment.
The educational facility is the only fully accredited Montessori school in Western Mass. And although it has been in Springfield for nearly 50 years, many misconceptions still exist about what goes on inside its walls.
"People are very confused about what Montessori is," said Head of School Molly Reynolds, adding that many institutions use the name Montessori but do not adhere to the practices and philosophy set forth by its founder. "Some people think we are a religious school, some think we are a school for special needs, and others think this a place where children can do anything they want. But none of that is true," Reynolds said. "Our students are typical children who are busy learning using an educational approach that works well for most."
The Montessori method of education was designed by Dr. Maria Montessori of Italy. She bucked tradition by attending a boy's technical school at age 13, and was the first woman in her country to receive a medical degree. Her interests were psychiatry, education, and anthropology, and her beliefs were not in line with the times. Montessori professed that each child is born with a unique potential that needs to be individually nurtured and developed through child-centered education.
In 1907, she proved her theory in a little school she called a Children's House, with a group of 50 children who lived in a poverty-stricken area of Rome. Their achievements were so remarkable that news spread quickly throughout the world, and her teaching principles were soon adopted internationally.
"The Montessori philosophy is based on the belief that children learn best when they are allowed to make choices about their activities," Reynolds said. "By the time they have been here for several years, they can really concentrate. The teaching method encourages the development of an organized mind, and the classrooms are very organized to help that occur. We want the children to become independent, be sensitive to one other, have social awareness, and become active listeners."
In order to keep children enthusiastic about learning, they are allowed to choose their own activities during a three-hour period each day. They are also taught to resolve their own problems by raising awareness of the effects of undesirable behavior. If there is a dispute, the children involved in it take turns stating what took place and how they felt as a result. "By age 4 or 5, they can often solve their problems themselves," Reynolds said.
Peace education is also a key theme, and families are invited to share their cultural customs in the classroom. In addition, Montessori students are exposed to multicultural music, books, and other offerings.
Early Beginnings The Springfield school was started as a nonprofit organization in 1963 by a group of physicians' wives, and was incorporated in June 1964. "One of them had heard about Montessori, and they hired a teacher from France," Reynolds said.
During the school's first few years, classes were held in rented space at American International College. However, Richard and Emma Wilder Anderson, former owners and operators of Camp Wilder, soon donated a plot of land to the group adjacent to their private day camp, and in 1966, a one-classroom building was constructed at the Parker Street site.
In 1971, a second classroom was added, and in 1981, a two-story addition was built so the children could advance from preschool and kindergarten classes to Montessori elementary school. "They added one grade at a time," Reynolds said, explaining that the parents felt strongly about having their children continue with the Montessori educational model.
Today, the Parker Street facility houses three preschool classrooms. One is for children between 18 months and 3 years of age, and the other two cater to 3- to 6-year-olds. Kindergarten students mix with preschoolers in the morning, but are taught separately in the afternoon. An adjoining wing contains one classroom for children in first through third grade, and another is home to fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders.
Although some people might question the idea of having children in different grades learn together, teaching is geared to the individual rather than the group, so each child moves through the curriculum at his or her own pace, said Reynolds.
The children do math and English-language arts in the morning and, after completing their lessons, are free to choose more math or science, geography, art, or computer coursework. In the afternoon, they can take part in Spanish, art, and yoga sessions. Students at Montessori have very little homework, and what there is usually takes the form of a long-term project.
"They work hard and progress quickly here, so they don't need it," Reynolds explained. "Homework is generally pretty tedious, and we want them to stay excited about learning. Plus, studies do not support that homework has any value."
The third- and fifth-grade students take the Stanford Achievement Test each year to make sure they are doing well. "They usually average two years ahead of grade level," Reynolds said. "We have kids here doing high-school grammar."
It is rare to have a teacher stand in front of the entire class and teach. Instead, teachers give mini-lessons to individuals throughout the day. "The teachers are trained to be excellent observers and take the time to notice how each child is doing and interacting with others," Reynolds said, adding that, in addition to being licensed by the state, Montessori teachers must undergo specialized training.
Upper-elementary teacher Pamela Kinn says the method of teaching is very different than what occurs in a traditional setting. "In a Montessori classroom, learning is an active experience. It doesn't happen by teachers telling children something. Everything goes from the concrete to the abstract," she said. Special materials are used to accomplish this goal. For example, every part of speech is symbolized by a shape or color and has a little story associated with it to help children remember and understand its purpose.
Since the school is small - the current enrollment is 112 students - the teachers know their students well, and as they progress through the system, the educators share ideas and observation as to how to get them to excel. "We can meet the needs of gifted children as well as children who struggle. We are not a special-education program, but can also meet these students' needs," Reynolds said.
Grade Expectations Susan Hershey has been teaching at the school since 1972, and thus has a great deal of experience - and perspective - when it comes to the Montessori methodology.
"I really like the freedom that children have within this structure," she told BusinessWest. "The preschool foundation is based on practical life skills to help children develop coordination, concentration, a sense of independence, and order. The Montessori curriculum is very clearly delineated and taught."
It's an atmosphere where students are happy as they help to direct their own education.