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Hands-on, independent learning

Montessori teacher Amy Rice works with a student on Sept. 7 at Cooper Elementary School. Rice is among nine fully-certified and full-time teachers part of the Montessori program (Jason Arndt/Southern Lakes Newspapers).

District’s Montessori program continues to help children

By Jason Arndt

The Burlington Area School District is one of few public institutions in Wisconsin to offer a Montessori program for children.

The Montessori program, located at Cooper Elementary School, started in 1998 and has since seen hundreds of students benefiting from the unique educational environment.

Ryan Heft, Montessori principal, said the program’s components focus on following the child, learning from each other, hands-on educational materials, freedom and positive guidance, communication and curriculum while having the teacher serve as a mentor.

Additionally, unlike the traditional classroom environment, which consists of one grade level per classroom, the Montessori program allows students from a specific three-year age group to work together in one classroom.

For example, at Cooper, the Montessori offers three sections of 4K and 5K, three sections for first through third grade, and three sections of fourth through sixth grade.

“When you walk into a Montessori class, you will see a lot of materials, things that students get their hands on and learn by doing,” said Heft, who has two of his own children enrolled. “It is also extremely personalized. Students work off of a work plan. They are responsible for learning all of the same standards and skills implemented in a traditional setting.”

“It really fosters a sense of independence for children so they can learn independently, they work either on their own, or in small groups,” he added.

Heft said teachers will pull students into small group instruction, instead of direct instruction with an entire classroom, which most people have grown accustomed to.

The Montessori program, Heft added, has shown increased engagement from students who have opportunities to learn more about their interests.

“The level of engagement in a Montessori class is very, very high,” Heft said. “Students are very interested in what they are learning. There are a lot of opportunities for student choice and voice, too.”

BASD officials wrote on the district website that the curriculum covers all traditional subjects.

“The curriculum encompasses a full range of subjects including reading, writing, mathematics, geometry, science, geography, history, art, physical education and music. Field trips take learning beyond the classroom and expose students to the rich variety of resources available in the local and surrounding communities,” BASD wrote.

The long-standing program has drawn praise from teachers and parents at Cooper Elementary School.

Teachers laud Montessori
Debby Trewyn-Way, in her 21st year at BASD, started as a teacher in Franklin Public Schools.

At the time, she taught in a multi-age classroom in Franklin, but received encouragement from her sister-in-law – who teaches at Karcher Middle School – to check out Burlington’s Montessori program.

During a classroom tour a little more than 20 years ago in Burlington, Trewyn-Way immediately found the environment appealing, and obtained a special Montessori licensure.

BASD, which has nine full-time licensed classroom teachers, sends instructors to Montessori training schools.

“It was hands-on. We were like Montessori students. We were on the ground and doing the work,” she said of the training. “We were creating the materials. We were really heavily involved in going through the process ourselves.”

While most BASD instructors received licensure through Midwest Montessori Teacher Training in Illinois, according to Trewyn-Way, others enrolled in similar programs in Waukesha or River Falls.

Trewyn-Way said the Montessori program carries distinct differences to a traditional setting.

“When you look in a Montessori classroom, you will notice that one of the huge differences is that we don’t have desks. We don’t have chairs, so the students all have individual workspaces,” she said. “They have lots of tables and chairs set up like a home setting for students so they feel comfortable in the environment.”

Trewyn-Way, like other Montessori teachers, guides small group discussions with students from each grade level while the others work on required coursework.

Additionally, since the classroom has multiple grade levels, the environment encourages mentorship between younger and older students.

“I like that children can explore things at their own pace. I like that the children can dig deeper into their interests and become an expert in that area and share with their peers,” she said. “In that multi-age setting, we have mentors, so we have older students who are mentors for the younger students. It is really beautiful because students can become such great friends.”

While students work at their own pace, Heft and Trewyn-Way each said the Montessori program still requires the same district benchmarks and standards, as approved by the Board of Education.

The Montessori program also has an added benefit of challenging students.

At times, Trewyn-Way has seen students exceed expectations, and often brings them up to the next grade level.

Montessori origins
According to Milwaukee Public Schools, which has its own program, Italian pediatrician Dr. Maria Montessori founded the methodology more than a century ago.

She believes that when children are given the freedom to chose their own learning activities, a self-confident, inquisitive child emerges, MPS wrote on its website.

“By observing the way children learn through exploration, Dr. Montessori developed a new system of education,” MPS stated on its website. “Her philosophy allows children to grow their skills through hands-on learning.”

Additionally, according to the website, the sequence of Montessori learning lessons exceeds state learning standards.

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