Thirty-nine early childhood education students from NIU recently enjoyed inside looks at a Montessori school.
Donations to the NIU College of Education from alumni Anthony L. Kambich (B.S. ’59, Physical Education) and Carolyn A. Kambich (B.S. ’60, Elementary Education), founders of North Shore Montessori Schools in 1966, financed the Tuesday, Feb. 13, and Tuesday, Feb. 27, trips.
“When I talked to our chair, Greg Conderman, he said, ‘Well, we happen to have this funding to start to infuse some of the Montessori style and approach to teaching and learning in our classes to just expose our students to this other world of teaching young children,’ ” she adds. “This semester was kind of our first step in doing that.”
NIU students watched demonstrations by the school’s teachers and were able to ask questions of the faculty.
Montessori education, according to the North Shore website, “is based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s scientific observations of the young child … young children learn with great ease by simply ‘absorbing,’ like a sponge, everything to which they are exposed, rather than learning through logical analysis.”
Riverwoods Montessori School – one of three under the North Shore umbrella – provides a toddler program for 2-year-olds, a preschool classroom for ages 3 to 5 and a school-age classroom for children kindergarten through sixth-grade.
Arranged “in a homelike fashion for students to feel like they’re home,” DeSpain says, it features a living room of sorts in the middle of the school. Other familiar spaces include a regular kitchen, a dining room and a laundry room.
“It really does feel kind of like a home,” she says.
Called a “prepared environment,” the classroom is, according to the website, “designed to support these (developmental) periods of the children and allow them to easily learn at their own individual rhythm.”
A few Huskies were able to watch children in action as they stacked blocks and counted colored rods – these are called “manipulative materials” – to learn concepts such as quantifying and fractions.
Manipulatives, according to the website, are located “low on small shelves which are easily accessible to every child. This gives the children freedom, within the limits of safety and respect, to choose activities for themselves that they will succeed in doing. Many little successes build self-confidence and develop knowledge.”
“They have a three-stage lesson: I demonstrate, I have you show me and then I have you do it. That’s kind of how all their teaching is,” DeSpain says.
“When it’s introduced in our textbooks, it’s as a very child-directed approach to teaching, a natural environment where the teacher just serves as a guide and the children watch that guidance,” she adds. “We’ve not necessarily had that as a component of our program before. It’s a little bit outside of what our students are familiar with. That prompts a really good discussion, like, ‘Wow, how do I do these things when they’re child-directed?’ ”
Lauren Van Havermaet, a junior early childhood education major from Inverness, IL, enjoyed the trip.
“I thought it was very insightful because I hadn’t known a lot about Montessori,” Van Havermaet says. “They did a good job of showing us what the teachers do and what the kids do, and they showed us a different way of teaching.”
Van Havermaet was fascinated to see the Montessori teachers “never telling the kids that they were wrong” but focusing on “more of what they’re doing right.”
Children were interested in learning, she says, partly because they were able to choose their activities. One 4-year-old girl even was learning to sew using a shoelace.
She also noticed parallels between the Montessori method and the education of her boyfriend, who was homeschooled by his mother.
“The children were so well-behaved,” adds Van Havermaet, who appreciated that the children were generous in their sharing of toys and manipulative materials. “The whole classroom is very calm.”
NIU students also were curious about how Montessori schools serve children from diverse backgrounds, DeSpain says.
“When we talk about working with young children with special needs, we talk about supports and modifications,” she says. “In a Montessori school, children all work very independently. They grab the materials they want. They do the work they want. For a child with a disability, that might be more difficult.”
Those students who visited were grateful and excited by the opportunity to do so.
Early childhood is a unique field, DeSpain says, that offers careers in public preschools, private preschools, church-based preschools, Head Start programs and, of course, Montessori.
“Our candidates get a chance to go into a lot of early childhood settings, but Montessori is not one they typically get. With the donor funding, it really allowed us to go in and get that exposure to this other type of programming,” she says.
Some already have expressed a desire to undertake their student-teaching in a Montessori school, she adds.
“If a few students in your cohort walk away feeling inspired, empowered and passionate about the job they want to do, then these trips are worth it,” DeSpain says.
“At the end of the day, we want our students to go and get jobs. Everyone needs to feel like they’re going to work somewhere that fits them, and this gives them that exposure and helps them to understand what they need to do to become a credentialed Montessori teacher, which requires some more training,” she adds. “Or, if they found ideas to implement in their future teaching, but realized that Montessori was not the right fit for them, then that’s empowering as well.”
DeSpain hopes to make the field trips to Riverwoods a regular event, and also is planning to use some of the donor dollars to purchase some Montessori materials to place in a designated NIU College of Education classroom or the Learning Center.
That is likely to please Van Havermaet, who is open to borrowing Montessori concepts for her classroom.
And no matter where she finds work, she is eager to start.
“You get to teach kids the first things they learn, and that’s something they’re always going to take with them. They’re always going to need their social skills. They’re going to need their numbers, colors and words,” she says. “That just kind of draws me there, just to see the kids grow.