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Learning by doing, the Montessori way

Students in Sally Palow's fifth-/sixth-grade Montessori class at Birch Lane Elementary School work together to make a banner representing ancient Chinese dynasties. From left are Bjorn Krall, Grace Johnson, Kelsey Calhoun and Miyan Grasso. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | March 15, 2013 |

The noise level had slowly but steadily risen in Sally Palow’s classroom at Birch Lane Elementary School on Wednesday morning. So Palow stepped to the front of the room and gently rang the wind chimes hanging there. Silence immediately ensued among her fifth- and sixth-grade students.

They were spread out all around the room — some on the floor, others sitting at tables, some working alone, others with partners. Two groups of students were making banners representing ancient Chinese dynasties. They searched through books to find appropriate symbols to copy onto the banners, consulted each other along the way, and later they would each write their own reports.

On the floor, a couple of students worked on their note-taking and outlining skills, while in the back of the room, Palow had gathered with a small group of fifth-graders, until the quiet hum that is typical of a Montessori classroom increased to the point of distraction.

“We’re all doing different things,” Palow reminded the class after ringing the wind chimes. “We’re working in pairs, small groups, independently … whatever floats your boat. But the noise level needs to stay low.”

A quiet hum of activity resumed.

Across the Birch Lane campus, second- and third-graders in Bonnie Walther’s classroom were not only spread out all over her classroom, but also outside, where they took turns making papier maché planets with the help of parent volunteers.

Dylan Raven was making Saturn.

“When we’re done, we’re going to hang them up,” he said. “Then we’ll make the rings.”

Inside the classroom, at one of the tables, a few students worked on their solar system research projects while waiting their turns to go outside and create a planet. Second-grader Edward Beckon, meanwhile, played the stamp game on the floor.

Using tiles that represent thousands, hundreds, tens and ones, Edward performed a long-division problem, writing his findings in his notebook as he went. He talked his way through the problem.

“How many sevens are there in 15? Seven times two is 14. Now, bring down the six.”

He solved the problem, checked his answer and threw up his arms in celebration.

Next time, he said, he’ll do a division problem with a remainder.

The stamp game also is popular in Eliza Sater’s K-1 classroom across from Walther’s. But there are many other fun jobs to tackle as well.

First-grader Ashley Chen built sentences from the book “The Cat in the Hat” by placing cards printed with individual words in the proper order. Soon she had a whole page of Dr. Seuss laid out.

Nearby, Sater worked with kindergartners Andrew Mysliwiec and Jack Collins on a controlled word-building job.

From a little basket, they took out a handful of objects and a bunch of wooden letters. With the bat, hat, sun, dog and bib lined up on a mat — after the hat had spent a little time on Andrew’s head — they figured out the sounds of the object’s name, then the letters that create the sounds. Soon, working together, they had the words spelled out below each object.

“You guys are such amazing spellers,” Sater told them.

Students at work

Whether filled with the youngest children in Sater’s class or the oldest in Palow’s, there is something unmistakable about a Montessori classroom at Birch Lane: multi-age environments, a choice of work activities, Montessori materials and, always, the hum of students at work.

In each classroom, teachers consider themselves more guide than instructor, linking each student with the activities appropriate for his or her interest, need and developmental level. All of the students have their own unique work plans, tailored to where they are in each subject area, and they complete tasks in the order they choose.

It is, in a sense, the ultimate form of differentiation: In a classroom of more than 30 students ranging over two or three grade levels, each child is learning at his or her own pace.

“I like to say I have 33 IEPs in here,” laughs Palow, referring to the individualized educational programs used in special education. “Everybody is doing different things.”

And that’s just one of the reasons the program has proved so popular in its 12 years in Davis, growing from 80 students in four classrooms in 2001 to 240 students in eight classrooms — with a sizable waiting list — this year.

Information night

The program will hold an information night on Tuesday for parents interested in registering a child for next year. The event will be in Birch Lane’s multipurpose room, 1600 Birch Lane, beginning at 7 p.m.

Teachers will be on hand, as will Principal Kathy Tyzzer, and many Montessori parents. Following the program, Montessori classrooms will be open for parents to tour.

“This will be a very good time for parents to ask questions and get answers,” said Nicki Guistino, president of the school’s Montessori Parent Advisory Committee.

Guistino has two children in the Montessori program — Ava, a third-grader, and Dominic, a fifth-grader — and came to Birch Lane from a private Montessori program in Ohio.

There are differences between a traditional Montessori program and one set in a public school, she said, such as more students and the use of standardized tests. But those differences are, for the most part, small differences, she said, “and the materials are the same, the philosophy is the same.”

“These teachers are so dedicated to what they do,” she added. “It makes up for anything you would lose.”

What Lisa Wright particularly loves about the Montessori teachers is their approach.

“What’s really striking is whenever you start a conversation with them, like at a parent-teacher conference, it always starts with, ‘Well, developmentally, this is what we would expect for him,’ ” Wright said. “It’s the ‘whole child’ perspective.”

Like Guistino, Wright has two children at Birch Lane — Ryan, a fourth-grader in a Montessori class, and Julia, a first-grader in a neighborhood program class.

While Ryan has taken to the Montessori system since preschool, Wright and her husband thought Julia, with some special needs, would do better in a more structured neighborhood classroom. But they plan to move Julia into Montessori next year, Wright said.

After all, she noted, serving children with special needs was always a hallmark of Maria Montessori, who created the educational philosophy more than 100 years ago after working with children with disabilities.

And that’s continued.

“We want these children,” said Lakshmi Aradhya, who teaches a 4-5 Montessori class. “We’re trained to teach these children, with these materials.”

That’s why children in the Special Day Program, which serves more severely disabled children in a separate environment, are placed in Montessori classrooms at Birch Lane for part of each day, Palow said.

“Because it’s so good for them,” she explained.

Some concerns

A number of teachers and parents in Birch Lane’s neighborhood program see it differently, of course. Several have spoken before the school board in the past few weeks, arguing that there are inequities at Birch Lane, with Montessori classrooms having fewer low-income children and English language learners, as well as fewer special-needs kids.

While their counterparts in the Montessori program dispute those statistics, they’ve decided to be proactive nonetheless, and are undertaking a recruiting drive that has included meeting with parents at area preschools — including those with populations of low-income children and English language learners — staffing a booth at the Farmers Market and generally getting the word out to communities that might not be familiar with the program.

However, it is a double-edged sword, Palow said.

The Montessori program always has struggled to meet demand, and year after year the lottery process used to fill kindergarten classes leaves children on a waiting list. For many years, the school district discouraged parents and teachers in the program from recruiting in the community so as to keep the program from growing.

Ironically, one parent who served on the Montessori Parent Advisory Committee a few years ago actually predicted if the program was not allowed to recruit in the community, it would become exactly the kind of program its critics now claim it is.

But under attack this year for being elitist, the program is in full recruitment mode now, including encouraging anyone curious about Montessori to attend Tuesday’s parent information night.

There is much to appreciate about Montessori, Palow said, but chief among the program’s attributes is the preparation it gives children for their futures — to be able to work collaboratively and yet be self-directed. Beginning in kindergarten, students are given a work plan with the expectation they will complete all of their tasks — some by the end of the day, others by the end of the week.

“My kids actually have a contract,” Palow said.

And so successful is the program at allowing children to learn at their own pace that about 90 percent of GATE-identified children remain in the program through sixth grade, Palow and Aradhya said.

Maria-Ines Benito plans to.

Benito has two children in the Montessori program — 6-year-old Andres in Sater’s class and 8-year-old Analia in Walther’s class.

The family was new to Montessori — the children didn’t attend a Montessori preschool — “and the experience has been great,” Benito said.

She’s seen how in the right environment, with the right materials, “they want to learn.”

“I’m very content with Montessori,” she said. “I see us staying through sixth grade.”

The Montessori program is open to any student living in the Davis Joint Unified School District. While siblings of students already in the program have priority, any other kindergartner who registers for the program between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 28, in the Birch Lane multipurpose room, 1600 Birch Lane, will be given equal priority.

If there are too many kindergartners for the available spaces, all students will be placed in a lottery.

For more information about registration, including the process for older students who wish to enter the Montessori program, call Birch Lane at 530-757-5395. Learn more about the Montessori program at www.birchlanemontessori.org.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

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