Thursday, January 23, 2014

Nature's Way Montessori: Knoxville, TN

Sunrise over the elementary building
I spent the past few weeks in Tennessee with my partner, visiting friends and family. Continuing the search for schools with a strong outdoor component, I visited Nature's Way Montessori, northeast of Knoxville, TN.

For those unfamiliar with Montessori, there are a few progressive practices common to these schools: Mixed-aged classrooms, no punitive grading, and little to no homework (if work is turned in with errors, students complete "remedies" to ensure mastery). Children are grouped in three-year swaths: K-3, 4-6, 7-9. Most of Montessori's teachings focused on the early years, so while many schools serve only elementary school students, Nature's Way welcomes children through 8th grade.

My tour began with the middle school group: an 8th grader took me through their homey workspace which encompassed a kitchen and a handful of classrooms, separated by sliding doors or sometimes just a curtain. The open and airy space felt much more like a well-designed office than a school; students and teachers have mailboxes that the community uses to assign, turn in and hand back work, among other things. In the classrooms, walls of shelves held neatly organized materials and tools.

The middle schoolers were in the middle of a 6-week "mini-cycle," a short block where students select, research and present on a topic of their choice. Core classes shift to support their projects: "Life-Language" becomes a class on presentation skills, while a humanities class teaches research skills. My bubbly guide told me that she was appreciative of the freedom to follow her own interests, of the caring relationships between students and teachers, and how much class discussion was encouraged, "because, you know, we love to talk and argue with each other."

I next stepped into the building that houses the youngest students, and was struck by how hushed and focused the group of 44 first through third graders were. Their two long rooms were dotted with small groups of children focused on independent work-- in my limited experience with Montessori schools, this quiet, focused work is common (a very, very different noise- and energy-level than I've seen in children at free and democratic schools).

Children are given a one or two week "work plan" (examples above), a type of work contract that grows increasingly larger and more complicated through the grades. Children are responsible for completing their assignments during independent work time, choosing which pieces to complete at their own pace. While there is no additional homework, if they do not complete the work plan on time, they're expected to complete it at home.

Two little boys were working with "exchanging" (subtraction), using the Montessori tools pictured below. These tools allow students to experience the base-10 system in both a visual and tactile way, making what can otherwise be an abstract concept very concrete. As the boys worked, a teacher came past, gave them some quiet encouragement, and continued onwards.

These mixed-age classrooms with flexible, open work periods allow plenty of opportunity for mentoring, reteaching, and allowing students to work at their own pace. In the small groups, students of different ages work together, the older students mentoring the younger, and the younger students encouraging a spiraling, deeper understanding for the older.

The school takes excellent advantage of their outdoor space to integrate environmental stewardship and connection with the natural world into their curriculum. Each age group has their own garden used exclusively to grow vegetables to enjoy in their classrooms. The school also boasts an outdoor classroom, reached by a nature trail that meanders around the periphery of their property. There, the children learn to identify local plants and animals-- there is a sand area that can be raked clear, and revisited to observe animal tracks. A small pond allows further opportunity to learn and appreciate nature.

Students gain increasing responsibility for their social and environmental community as they grow: the youngest students water plants, tidy the classroom, and prepare snacks, while the older children have small office duties, mentor younger students, and participate in the "micro-economy." This includes bee-keeping, tending to the chickens, and cultivating and harvesting vegetables. The children have a small farmer's market where they sell a portion of their products.


Children at Nature's Way seemed to be really engaged in learning-- I saw many examples of students going above and beyond what was expected of them on their assignment to answer a question prompted by the work: e.g., a group of 4th and 5th grade boys working on a summary of the Devonian Period, saw that it was named after Devon, England, and wondered where in England it was located. Which led to one boy looking first to the world map on the wall, then into a large atlas, and finally searching for more information on the computer.

What do you think? Is the freedom to follow meandering questions and curiosities important in our schools? 

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