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Education: At Montessori preschool, kids learn how to learn

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Students begin arriving in Pam Rhodes’ classroom around 8 a.m. They put up lunch boxes or jackets and settle in at a table or on the floor. All except Ragan Roper. She is the greeter.

She looks down the long corridor at the Montessori School of Pawleys Island and announces the arrival of classmates.

Brighton Turner takes out a puzzle in the shape of Africa with colored pieces representing each country. He lays it on a mat on the bright oval rug in the center of the room. Next to it he places another mat with a black and white map of the continent with each country labeled. The exercise requires students to reassemble the puzzle pieces on the map.

The schedule calls for class to start at 8:30. By then, Brighton had moved most of North Africa to the map. When Rhodes calls the students together at 8:35, they sit around the edge. Brighton keeps working.

The class is one of two for primary students and has 21 children ages 3, 4 and 5. The multi-age classes are a hallmark of the child-centered “Montessori Method,” set out in a book by that name by Maria Montessori in 1912. The curriculum is one of three approved by South Carolina for private preschools that receive public funds to enroll 4-year-olds from low-income families. The Montessori School of Pawleys Island is one of three preschools that received state approval when the program expanded into Georgetown County this year. The same program provides funds for full-day pre-K in public schools.

The Montessori school has five places for state-funded students this year. Only two are occupied, said Rachel Tomovski, the school director. Approval came after the start of the school year.

The private Montessori school has infants through age 5. Its elementary classes moved last year to the Coastal Montessori Charter School, a public school sponsored by the Georgetown County School District. The private and public schools remain connected. Tomovski serves on the charter school board.

Although charter schools are open to all, the private preschool remains a feeder for the public Montessori school and the charter board has discussed creating preschool programs elsewhere in Georgetown County. “Nobody does preschool like Montessori,” said Kristin Bohan, founder of Coastal Montessori.

The morning gathering in Pam Rhodes’ class is the only group activity of the day. The students do some stretches. They shake hands with their neighbors. Rhodes asks different children to take a geometrical shape from a shelf and the shiny blue objects are passed around the circle. As they go, Rhodes leads a song about the seven continents to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” There’s also a song about the planets sung to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and one about days of the week sung to “The Addams Family” theme.

It’s “calendar day” for Ayla Dzuris, and she leads the count through the dates and days. She holds the flag for the Pledge of Allegiance and picks the song that follows, “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”

Through it all, Brighton, who is 4, keeps working on his project. By the time the class heads outside, he’s already well into sub-Saharan Africa.

“He was absorbed,” Rhodes said later. “I didn’t want to interrupt him.”

Students have already placed cloths over three picnic tables when the class arrives outside. There are oranges and carrots for snacks on one table. The other has plastic leaves on which students place paper and rub with crayons. Some students run to the swings. Others go with Karen Moree, the assistant teacher, to look at the rabbit hutch that overhangs the fence in the school yard.

Rhodes leads a group to look for eggs in the chicken coop next to the hutch. Chickens and rabbits are both mentioned by Maria Montessori. So are plants. They are ways to introduce children to the “phenomena of life” and begin a process of self-education through observation.

Jonathan Ursits, 5, pushes a wheelbarrow across the playing field, which is next to the playground. Rhodes follows with other students carrying garden tools.

“Is this poison ivy?” Rivers Cauthen, also 5, asks before she starts weeding on of the four raised beds.

“None of it’s poison ivy,” Rhodes says.

After an hour, they return to the classroom. Brighton settles in with his Africa puzzle. He’s joined by Cooper Flynn, another 4-year-old, and by Cole Shields, a 3-year-old. Moree explains the purpose of the project to them.

Ben Williams and Jacob Schuback, both 3, work with a collection of blocks and a book of diagrams. As the stack grows in size so does the temptation to give it a nudge.

“Are you supposed to knock that over?” Rhodes asks.

The boys keep building.

Ty Evans, 5, sets up a low table on the rug and does exercises in a workbooks.

Rhodes asks Cooper to help Alya with a math project, counting from 1 to 9,000 with a collection of wood numbers, beads and blocks. The workspace is defined by two cloth mats laid on the rug. This is the first year of Montessori for both, Rhodes explains.

Moree sits on the rug with three books and four children gathered around her. As she starts to read, more students join her.

Although the classwork has no obvious order, exercises are assembled on trays and placed on shelves. They correspond with the curriculum. Rhodes and Moree monitor the students, discussing their work and assessing their progress.

If they see one of the exercises isn’t being used, they take it off the shelf and start it themselves, Rhodes said. That’s all it takes to get the students interested.

At 11:20, they start cleaning up for lunch. Rhodes follows up with Cooper and Ayla. The numbers and the counters are spread out, but there are a few pieces still in a basket. “Check your numbers. Check you count,” Rhodes says. “I don’t want to do it for you. You’re big kids.”

Jonathan takes a dustpan and brush to clean up around one table. “Very good job, Jon,” says Levi Harris, 3, who is still working at the table.

Brighton has moved on from the Africa puzzle, but another student has taken over. But there’s a problem. Burkina Faso is missing.

“Check your pockets,” Rhodes tells Brighton.

Back outside for lunch another line forms, the second of the day. It’s for handwashing, another element from Maria Montessori’s classroom where students had a washstand. Rhodes’ class has a bottle of soap and two plastic tubs set up on a low wall: one to wash, one to rinse.

Pizza arrives for students who didn’t bring their lunch. After they eat, they serve themselves water from a plastic jug in cups with their names on them.

The trash consists mainly of pizza crusts. As lunch winds down, five crows land in a nearby tree, calling loudly. They are destined for disappointment. The students check under the tables, collect the trash and carry the can back into the room along with their utensils and plates.

Moree and the 3-year-olds head to another room for a nap. The 4- and 5-year-olds stay with Rhodes for a rest, each pulling out a work mat to lie down on.

Public school officials who praise the Montessori concept add the caveat that it isn’t for every child. Rhodes, who started as an assistant in 1996 and completed her training in 2000, disagrees. “Montessori is for everybody,” she said.

“We come at it a little bit differently,” Tomovski said.

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