Dr. Alan Carter is no stranger to Montessori “ah-ha moments.” His first experience happened when his son came home from a Montessori preschool enthused about learning early academic concepts by engaging with continent work and materials. Carter saw connections forming in his son’s mind so clearly that he and his wife looked at each other and said, “Yes. This is what we want to do.”
Today, Carter — an educator and administrator for more than 20 years — is Headmaster at Creative Montessori Academy, a tuition-free K-8 public school in Southgate. He says he witnesses Montessori ah-ha moments in his students — and their parents — regularly.
“Until parents see and feel the Montessori environment, they might not understand how impactful the learning experience is for their children,” Carter says. “There are so many qualities that set Montessori apart and it’s wonderful to see children so engaged in their learning here at Creative Montessori.”
What’s unique about Montessori education? Carter shares a few of the most engaging aspects.
Student-centered exploration and respect for the learning environment
Activities that some educational methods label “play” are recognized by the Montessori philosophy as student self-creation through purposeful activities — and this is exactly what Carter saw in his own son. But this exploration doesn’t necessarily happen by accident, Carter says.
“Teachers trained in the Montessori method spend a lot of time preparing the classroom for the child — from kindergarten through eighth grade — to come in and literally use the room to explore learning and ideas,” he explains. In a Montessori school, children thrive academically when they can learn through exposure to a variety of resources and hands-on activities. The youngest students, for instance, learn about numbers physically through blocks and beads. This eventually leads to the abstract concept that numbers can create complex equations.
Throughout their experiences, students also learn to care for the physical spaces in their learning communities. “They grasp from a young age that the elements of the classroom should be cared for and shared, and this is part of the critically important social-emotional piece that is so important to Montessori,” Carter says. When students learn these practical skills, they build a foundation for lifelong contributions to their communities.
Students are expected to be responsible for their classroom and encouraged to take this sense of responsibility home. “Schoolwork done at home should be ‘home’ work — helping prepare dinner, selecting and measuring ingredients, doing the dishes and learning time management,” he says. “This builds engaged kids who are socially aware and responsible enough to recognize the value of working with family and neighbors to build kinder, more graceful, more forgiving communities.”
Building on the enthusiasm of peers
The Montessori philosophy recognizes that students are not little adults, but unique individuals who learn uniquely through different methods — they even learn from each other. “There may be times when a student struggles with a concept, but sees a fellow student master it. When that student shows them, they have their own ‘ah-ha moment.’ It could be diagramming a sentence or understanding a key concept from a story. This is academic exploration in a social setting,” explains Carter. “It ignites the student to go further.”
In a Montessori classroom, students are encouraged to question and explore, and teachers welcome brainstorms from students. If a student finds passion for a particular subject and wants to explore it in the context of the current academic lessons, all the better.
“One year, a middle school student was super ignited about set design and asked if he could build sets and props for the teacher to use to illustrate a lesson’s concepts. The teacher said sure, you can do that! So, on his own, he built a set to be used for the whole week’s study unit. Pretty soon other students wanted to help and the whole student community built sets to make the story of the lesson better and more memorable,” Carter says.
When a student is encouraged to follow their individual passions to better engage with the academic content, there is more opportunity for building connections between high-level thought and real-world applications.
Learning from mistakes
Not every classroom experience goes smoothly, yet there’s value in failure, too. By nurturing the whole child, the Montessori education makes room for risk-taking and learning from the experience if things don’t go exactly as planned.
“We recognize from a cultural standpoint we’re learning to see the value of failure,” says Carter. “We ask what we learned from this and how can we move on? How can we improve, do better and get stronger as a result?”
Whatever passions students develop in their Montessori classroom, they are encouraged to take home and continue to explore. Whether a child finds creative expression through dance, or builds detailed architectural homes with blocks, or rebuilds engines in their spare time, parents can see sparks of engagement that are kindled and nurtured in the Montessori classroom, Carter says. “Parents recognize the hard work that is being done through a Montessori education,” he says.
In addition to offering kindergarten through eighth grade, which is free to all residents of Wayne County, Creative Montessori has a fee-based preschool program. For more information on Creative Montessori Academy, visit creative-montessori.com.