Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Giving Students Room to Learn

Giving Students Room to Learn

Photograph via Flickr by John Morgan

I attended Montessori schools from first through eighth grade. I can’t speak for other Montessori-educated folks, but I credit those years with establishing some of my lifelong academic interests, including my love of reading and writing. And while I won’t pretend that introducing the Montessori method into education reform discussions would cure the American public education system, I do believe that many students would benefit from incorporating Montessori techniques into the current standards-based curriculum.

You might think that Montessori schools are places where students get to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and when the Montessori method is poorly executed, that’s exactly what happens. (My junior high experience proved that.) However, when done well, Montessori programs ensure that students get the individual attention they need to stay at grade level, allow them to explore academic areas of personal interest, and give them opportunities for social growth. At my elementary school, we had weekly lessons and assignments in every subject, and our lessons were based not on our grade levels, but on our abilities. We were allowed to work individually or in groups, as long as we stayed on-task and didn’t talk too loudly. When we finished our week’s assignments, we could work on anything we wanted. If we fell behind, we stayed in during recess and worked one-on-one with a teacher until we were caught up. By the time I graduated from sixth grade, I was reading beyond a college level, I’d studied and acted in school-performed Shakespeare plays, I’d started writing short stories, and I’d spent many recesses catching up on my math homework because I hated that subject. By the time my brother was in second grade, he’d memorized all of the countries’, capitals, and major landmarks in the world. And we weren’t nerdy exceptions to the rule: everyone had a subject they explored above and beyond the normal elementary school scope, and almost everyone had a subject they tried to avoid.

Compare that experience to the standards-based curriculum followed by most public schools. Because teachers must teach to district benchmark exams and year-end achievement tests, there’s little space even for elementary school students to pursue a subject that interests them in class—and these students don’t have the resources to explore a subject outside of school. By the time they reach ninth grade, they’ve come to see school as a chore. As a result, some drop out, while others swear that they won’t go any further than high school. When I taught tenth grade, many of my students had favorite teachers, but very few had favorite subjects.

The best unit I ever taught introduced some Montessori sensibilities to my senior English classroom and gave my students room to learn. It took place after the Advancement Placement English exam in May, when there were no more tests left to consider. I spent a week showing my students film adaptations of the books we’d read that year, taught them about the movie-making process, and then told them to get into groups, choose a scene from one of the books we’d read, and spend the next five weeks adapting it into a movie. At the end of the unit, I screened the students’ films, burned DVDs for everyone, and awarded mini-Oscars to the best projects.

Most of the groups came up with tremendous films, complete with special effects. I still keep them and like to show them to people when I want to make a point about what educationally disadvantaged students are capable of with the right tools and interest. Along the way, my kids learned how to write a coherent movie script based on textual analysis, manipulate editing software, and work as a team to produce a high-quality product under strict deadlines—lessons that both served an academic purpose and prepared them for potential real-life situations. Because of that project, two students decided to major in film studies once they got to college.

If all children had the opportunity, from an early age, to profoundly explore academic areas of personal interest during school hours, then perhaps fewer students would drop out or give up on the idea of school. But by adhering to strict academic guidelines, the educational system is creating apathy among students who might otherwise become great American innovators, artists, or researchers. Ironically, we’re doing the very thing that education reform is supposed to prevent: we’re stifling our future.