On one side of the room, a woman crouches on the carpet with a young girl. They play with a herd of small plastic animals. Their interaction is simple, one that most people would remember from childhood. “¿Cuál es el nombre de esta cosa?” (“What is the name of this animal?”) asks Lety Arroyo, the classroom’s Spanish language instructor. When the student does not answer, Arroyo says, “vaca” (cow), and the child repeats it. Arroyo then asks the girl to tell her what color the animal is. “Blanco,” the child answers, and she is correct. “Mooo,” Arroyo intones. The child responds with laughter.
Ten students between the ages of 3 and 6 populate the spacious, organized classroom of Castle Island Bilingual Montessori inside the Delaware Avenue Boys and Girls Club in Albany. Soothing classical music emanates from a stereo in the corner. Most of the class time is not officially scheduled; rather, the children are free to engage with whichever material interests them. Students designate their space by unrolling individual rugs on the carpeted floor to work on their lessons. The lead teacher, Patricia Ferry, and Arroyo walk around the classroom to supervise and provide individualized instruction.
Now in its first academic year, Castle Island Montessori is the first school in the Albany area to offer a Montessori-based education while also immersing students in both English and Spanish. According to its website, the school “believe[s] that the hands-on, learn at your own pace method of a Montessori education will support second language learning. While some of our students will come to us already bilingual, most will benefit from the Montessori environment as a safe place to acquire their second language in the context of our concrete materials.”
One student lays out 10 rods composed of small cubes on his mat. Each rod represents a number between one and 10. He arranges them in ascending order from left to right. “Let’s count together,” says Ferry. The boy places his hand on the first rod. “One,” they say in unison. Gently, Ferry places her hand on top of his, presumably to remind him to touch each cube individually and glean the full tactile effect of the exercise. “One, two,” they count the cubes on the second rod. When they reach five, Ferry exclaims “Whoa, you’re good at this!”
Once the student completes the exercise, Ferry asks him if he wants to match numerals (cards with each number printed on it) with the corresponding rods. He hops up and heads for the mathematics shelf to collect the numeral cards. This exercise starts the same way as the previous one, beside the added wrinkle of placing the numeral card at the base of each rod after making an accurate count. This time the student counts alone. “I like the way you do that,” says Ferry as he reaches four. Emboldened by success, the student begins to count the rods less methodically without the need to touch each cube. “Can we do it slowly? Can you count with me?” asks Ferry.
“What’s the second sound in leg?” asks a nearby student. “Luh-EH EH EH,” pronounces Ferry, unfazed by the sort of harmless intrusion that likely happens to her a dozen times daily. The student gets the clue and arranges the letters on the tablet in front of him to aggregate the sounds into a word that at his age and skill level, he probably wouldn’t have been able to legibly compose with a pencil on paper.
“Can we do it slowly?” repeats Ferry to the first student who, by this time, is harvesting diminishing returns on his counting exercise. “Can you count with me?”
“I just want to count fast,” he pleads, clearly frustrated. “When you count fast you don’t touch the rods,” reminds Ferry. After a few seconds it is apparent that they have reached a standoff worthy of a spaghetti western. Ferry asks him if he is done with his work, and he nods in the affirmative. “I like the way you do that—so tidy,” she remarks as he carefully brings the rods back to the shelf in order from one to 10.
Castle Island Montessori has written a curriculum that flouts traditional models for education. Contemporary public education in the United States, some educators believe, is riddled with rigid, harshly quantifiable benchmarks that are supposed to evaluate how well our children learn. Just as a corporate executive is singularly responsible for his company’s bottom line, teachers are often judged based on their ability to shepherd their diverse array of students through a homogenous maze of standardized testing.
This approach enjoys largely bipartisan support. President Barack Obama’s comprehensive education plan Race to the Top reiterates the central tenet of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind: The best way to gauge our collective educational progress is by rigorous, annual testing, even for children as young as 4 years old. In a letter that became the focal point of a New York Times “Sunday Dialogue” conversation regarding educational reform, high-school author Nikhil Goyal laments that our schools have become “test-preparation factories with a stress on drill, kill, bubble-fill methods.” Legislators are forcing teachers into a results-oriented approach with a very inflexible definition of “results.”
At Castle Island, the dynamic processes that spark a child’s mind are as important as the end result. “Montessori teachers are trained to do specific things to show the process behind a lesson,” says Ferry. “This is a whole sensorial, tactile way of doing things.”
“Montessori provides for social, emotional, and creative development with equal weight,” adds Diane Nickerson, Castle Island’s director. “The curriculum follows the child, as opposed to the child following a standardized state- or district-mandated academic-only curriculum.”
Skeptics might be tempted to dismiss these claims as idealized rhetoric to prop up a utopian ideal of a classroom that seems unable to exist in today’s world. It is, however, harder to question the efficacy of the Montessori method after seeing it in action. It is surprising how much autonomy each child wields over his or her lesson. Why was it beneficial for the child learning to count to be allowed to stop partway through? According to Montessori theory, if a young child has exhausted interest in a lesson, he or she will gain almost nothing from an instructor trying to hammer it into his or her head. Considering the many other options for valuable alternative lessons, it makes sense that exploring a fresh topic might be a more efficient use of time than drilling an exercise that is no longer stimulating the student. This sort of flexible agenda is less feasible logistically in a public-school classroom with one teacher and 23 chattering children facing a looming standardized exam.
Ferry reports that 3- and 4-year-olds are generally allowed to freely transition from activity to activity unless they are idling or working on a lesson that isn’t challenging enough, in which case one of the teachers will suggest more appropriate material. The kindergarten students may have a very flexible schedule to make sure that they cover each subject area, but most children organically choose to tackle most subjects most days. Nickerson notes that Castle Island charts student progress through “careful, personalized observation and record keeping on every child,” and that educators “ask individualized questions with open-ended answers for children to explore and discover their own path to solving problems and developing skills.”
One of the main reasons the Castle Island staff extols the virtues of exploratory learning is to catalyze children’s progress during “sensitive periods,” or times during young children’s intellectual development when they show a special proclivity toward mastering skills in a certain subject area. The staff stays vigilant for signs of rapid progress. “If I’ve noticed a student really taking off in math, I’ll facilitate his or her sensitive period in math. I’ll take them to the next level by challenging them with higher level work,” says Ferry.
The students at Castle Island are an exceedingly chipper bunch, but not even lining up to play in the gymnasium elicits the sort of unbridled excitement that Arroyo’s Spanish circle time sparks. Circle time begins with a song sung entirely in Spanish, with a rousing chorus of “Buenos dias!” Some eager soloists are serenaded with enthusiastic applause from the rest of the circle. Arroyo leads the entire class in this way—a fully immersive, interdisciplinary session where no English is spoken; even the instructions are in Spanish.
Arroyo has seamlessly incorporated science and mathematics into the lesson as she presents graphical representations of various flowers. She says their names in Spanish, and the children repeat them back to her. Next, the students identify the type of flower by name and color. Arroyo reminds the children of a poster they completed detailing the anatomy of the flower. Unlike most children around the age of 6, they are able to point out the stamen of the plant—en Espanol. Arroyo reinforces the students’ mathematical progress by encouraging them to join her in counting the petals of the flower. Afterward, the students identify pictures of geometric shapes (“Triangulo!”) with the sort of regularity that pleases their instructor (“Excellente!”). Finally, the students engage in an alphabet exercise in which they articulate the letter pictured on a flash card, vocalize its primary sound three times and call out the animal pictured under the letter. Although a majority of the students are native English speakers, none of the them are merely learning Spanish—they are learning in Spanish.
The staff at Castle Island has clearly internalized the importance of balancing a free-flowing curriculum with organization and structure; this is not an exercise in haphazard, improvisatory education. “Everything we do appeals to the child’s sense of order,” says Ferry. These measures help children develop accountability and shoulder responsibility, such as taking off their own coats and shoes and storing them neatly in their cubbies. “We’re fostering independence. [Curriculum founder] Maria Montessori noticed that the child said “Let me do for myself,” adds Ferry.
Students serve themselves snacks every day and wash their own dishes in the classroom’s “practical life” area. The room is further segmented into “sensorial,” “language,” “cultural/science” and “math” sections. Even the sub-areas are minutely organized. In an effort to mirror the way children’s eyes track printed text when they read, the math section’s materials are arranged from left to right, and top to bottom according to the increasing difficulty of the material. Castle Island’s teachers have used their professional latitude to pay attention to small details.
“I’m planning on this being my last year as a traditional classroom teacher,” says Nickerson. She has been balancing her duties as a full-time ESL teacher at Hackett Middle School with the arduous task of launching and maintaining Castle Island’s day-to-day operations since September 2012. Considering Castle Island’s burgeoning future, the transition is a timely one. “We are currently partnering with a local community-minded real estate developer and are in the process of expanding and relocating to a permanent home in an historic building in downtown Albany,” Nickerson says.
Community support has been absolutely essential to the school’s success; private donations allow families to pay tuition (regularly $9,000) on a sliding scale. “We aren’t playing, we’re working,” says Ferry. “They think it’s play, but they’re working towards the adult they’re going to become.”
The students at Castle Island Bilingual Montessori don’t seem to be racing to the top. They’re learning how to get there on their own terms.
Dan LaFave is a freelance journalist and a certified teacher’s assistant who has taught as a substitute for Catholic High School in Watertown, N.Y.