Montessori: A different way to learn

New middle school program plans to expand

Posted: Friday, April 30, 2004

It was the weekly seminar at the Montessori adolescent classroom downtown, and teacher Dominic Bradford sat quietly and listened.

The 14 students gathered Wednesday morning discussed a newspaper article about brain imaging. It lets researchers know what part of a child's brain is most active and therefore most receptive to learning.

The talk was brisk, without lags, and the students were articulate.

Seventh-grader Miranda Noel suggested that people would stop being diverse and wouldn't be as interesting if their education were guided by machines toward what is optimal.

"It would be sort of monotone," she said.

Eighth-grader Clairen Stone said some people believe in God and that God made people as they should be, and therefore scientists shouldn't "mess with it."

"They're not messing with personality," eighth-grader Kai Christian said. "They're not messing with who you are. They're just messing with what you learn."

This is the first year for the Montessori Adolescent Program, housed in a large room in the Articorp building on Harris Street. Students attend from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and are home-schooled in the afternoon or take courses such as art and physical education at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

The Montessori parents enroll the students in the Juneau School District's cyber school, a home-school program that gives parents $1,400 stipends for materials or instruction. They also receive computers to use at home.

The parents put the stipends toward the Montessori program. The nonprofit Southeast Alaska Friends of Montessori is a major funder of the classroom, and families also raised money for the roughly $90,000 budget.

Louanne Christian, mother of Kai, said the Montessori program is a safe environment.

"At this age it's really important for kids to have a safe environment. They learn to work things out. They become a community," she said.

Bradford, who has taught in Montessori programs in Canada and India, said adolescents want to socialize. He tries to steer that impulse into schoolwork.

"We can do everything we do in groups," said eighth-grader Clairen Stone.

"Clairen, we won't do your math for you in groups," Bradford joked.

On Wednesday, students held their seminar, had a math lesson, worked alone or in groups on math or essay proposals, rehearsed "The Tempest," wrote in their journals and cleaned up the room, which is furnished with couches, tables and chairs.

"You have to give them that choice to work (on their studies) or not to work because that's the fundamental choice - to decide to work," Bradford said. "The job of Montessori is to set up the environment so that they learn in a different way, and they aren't conscious of it."

It's hard to pinpoint what is Montessorian about the classroom.

"It's kind of like a big, giant homework club with lessons," seventh-grader Elizabeth Bauer offered.

"Most of it is probably how they teach us," Noel, the student, said. "They don't really put textbooks in front of us, except for math, and say, 'Do this and this.' "

For next school year, organizers plan to enroll 22 students and add a second teacher, who will specialize in math and science. School will run all day.

As a way of using their academic knowledge and social skills, students will run a business making and selling lights that alleviate seasonal affective disorder. They'll also more frequently study science and other topics outdoors, such as at Montana Creek.

After a nearly 45-minute seminar Wednesday, Bradford called over nine students for a math lesson that touched on algebra.

"What we are looking at now is to see if you can go one step," Bradford told the students.

On the whiteboard, he wrote an equation that they're used to and walked them through a step to find the common factor. Gradually the students got the point.

It may be Montessori, but it's still middle school. A couple of boys pushed each other and laughed. Bradford quietly told one boy he's "just about had it" with his talking. He moved an inattentive girl to the apex of the semi-circle of kids. He handed out homework and fended off complaints.

Students seemed to enjoy school, but some would rather be in a big school, where they can socialize with more kids.

"This program is fine, too," said seventh-grader Sam Buck. "It's OK. It would be nice if there were more people."

Seventh-grader Elizabeth Bauer said she liked splitting the school day between Montessori and Dzantik'i Heeni.

"I'd like it more if I went to Dzantik'i Heeni full-time, but it's a good compromise," she said.

But for Kai Christian, a former Dzantik'i Heeni student, the big school wasn't always academically challenging and she was harassed by other students. In the classrooms there, "it's crowd control," she said.

At 11, the students started rehearsing "The Tempest." Later in the school year they'll write an essay related to critic Harold Bloom's comment that the play has a deliberate absence of images.

For now, Bradford said of the actors, some of whom had been armed anachronistically with plastic guns, "I want to see the goods. I want to see you be the character the whole time."

Parent Rebecca Easton said she enrolled her son, Joel, because of the small class size, its environment, the opportunities for trips such as a drama camp in Whitehorse, and her close contact with Bradford on her son's progress.

Joel, a seventh-grader, spent sixth grade and part of this school year at Dzantik'i Heeni.

"He was just kind of getting lost in the confusion there, all the little assignments," Easton said. "Here, they get to work on one big project. It's better because he can focus better. ... He gets more of his work done at school, so you can have more time to be a family."

At 11:45, as the school day wound down, Bradford pulled the students' journals out of a cabinet and asked them "to think about what's happened today."

Then they did what Bradford called "dangerous writing" - dangerous because they "kind of let go."

He gave them a sentence to start with, about a man coughing, clearing the dust from his throat, opening his eyes and seeing ... what?

For Bauer, the story was about Santa Claus coming down a chimney and finding no tree, no presents. "He just finds attack dogs and runs." The kids laugh.

At 12:30 p.m., the end of the school day, Bradford stood at the door, looked every student in the eyes and shook his or her hand.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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