The Hide-and-Seek of Remote Learning: Behind the Scenes of How Toddlers Took on Montessori Learning at Home

Fall 2020

By Michelle Blake

On Monday, March 16, I returned to the classroom from the American Montessori Societys Emerging Leaders Fellowship Event, in Dallas, Texas. My trip had been cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon returning to our intimate, inviting Montessori school in beautiful rural New Jersey, we had full attendance and the mood throughout was hopeful. The faculty, as the true Montessorians we are, protected the childrens psyches from the rapidly unfolding news of the pandemic. In my classroom, the children were seen focused on their everyday work. One student poured purple sand through a funnel. Another loaded bean bags into a basket suspended from a pulley. A third peeled and sliced his third banana. Later that morning, children busily made cots for later naps, while others set the table with stoneware plates, glasses, and napkins. The transition to recess was the usual: switching indoor shoes to outdoor shoes. Some shoes were put on left to right … but a proud accomplishment nonetheless. Once on the playground, kids filled it with joy and continuous romping.

On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, we had two fewer students in our classroom. Nonetheless, we joyfully sang our good morning song, a simple tune filled with purpose. Fast forward to Thursday. There was only one student and three teachers in the classroom, and the one student was the child of a faculty member. By Friday, teachers began planning and making Montessori materials for the children to use come the inevitable—the mysterious remote-learning thing. On that day, I heard unusual chattering from teachers in other classrooms, awaiting an ultimatum. Shortly after, our head of school walked into my classroom with the news: The Governor has announced a statewide stay-at-home order. We are closed.

The Seek

Montessori schools, like all others, had to embrace remote learning. Montessori and remote learning are at two opposite ends of the learning methods spectrum. Dr. Montessori’s philosophy is based on experiential education with personal tactile explorations.

Our faculty quickly met, exercising social distance, and began to consider many hows.” How do we effectively use distance learning to support early childhood learning in Montessori education? How do we avoid the degradation of the Montessori tactile method when students use a screen? How can we expect children to learn online? How will we affect the development of the children by exposing them to extended lengthy screen time? How will our young learners adjust to learning at home? Tongue-in-cheek, I said, “Just like the starship Enterprise, we are voyaging where no one has gone before.”

That afternoon, I sat in the schools parking lot and contemplated: How can we, I, keep that connective tissue through a screen? Will the families be willing to partner with me to maintain that connective tissue? How will I observe the development of our toddler learners? Then my mind began to race beyond the immediate concerns of remotely caring for my students and onto the bigger picture of the school. The giant elephant in the room with the polka-dotted dollar signs had to be acknowledged: How will parents feel about affording childcare/remote education when they themselves are caring for their children and working from home? Would they now consider a Montessori education worth the cost? I was fearful for our school.

After such pondering, I embraced the moment and decided to create an exceptional remote learning program that would engage the children and be supported by parents. After comparing asynchronous learning to synchronous learning and considering my students’ age level and their parents’ available time, I created a remote instruction model weighted toward synchronous learning. For this, I created a YouTube channel of doable Montessori lessons that children and parents could tackle at home. Our families were given links to the channel, which they could access at their convenience.

The Online Pedagogy

Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.—Dr. Maria Montessori
Remote learning was now our new environment where students experienced guided learning. With biweekly schedules and lesson plans, How to Montessori At-Home” was born. The lessons were packed with suggestions and thematic subjects. They addressed the common interests of our students and were bundled into take-home packets. At my home, I commandeered our childrens rec room and transformed it into an extension of my brick-and-mortar classroom.

I tried my best to keep our classroom customs, bringing home our Gathering Drum,” which evoked familiar sounds of the classroom. I also included our Walk Around The Sun” material in preparation for four upcoming birthdays, and I added many books. I scheduled two types of group meetings for our remote learning. Our morning Zoom meeting resembled our in-person gathering time, and our afternoon Zoom meeting was Music and Movement. Our first Zoom went live; we had almost all of our students in attendance. The students, parents, and teachers alike were giddy with delight to see each other—even though it had only been a few days since we had seen each other last.

This early navigation of Zoom was bumpy, but we kept going with great smiles. We pulled out our familiar morning routine songs: Where is James, where is James, jump up and wave…” And without missing a beat our students were listening, patiently waiting for their names to be called so they could jump up and wave hello.

It was simply joyful to have our classroom back! My eyes filled with jubilant tears as I watched the children. My assistant cried too. We made poor attempts to cover up our tears with chuckles. We pulled ourselves together and, just as we do in the classroom, checked in on the children. I went around the Zoom squares and asked each child and teacher, including the head of school and participating parents, to share, What did you do this morning? What was your favorite part of breakfast?” Some children offered a lengthy recap, and some chose to listen. It was our time to be together as a family.

The Hide

Montessori, mixed with the thematic activities, presented many hidden learning opportunities that unfolded on the screen. Some were more overt than others. Language development blossomed as the children attempted to communicate more with each other. They also developed greater focus, quickly falling into the routine of attending the Zoom sessions. The children maintained their Grace and Courtesy” skills. We had sibling squabbles, which were solved on-screen with the help of other classmates from their own Zoom squares. Occasionally, we had meltdowns, which I or a parent handled. What was also astonishing was that the children learned how to navigate their screens when their parents were elsewhere.

The Experience

As a directress, my experience with remote learning is one of gratitude. I am grateful to have observed my students with their families in their homes. I am also grateful that we had technology to support our students. Remote learning has made permanent changes in the Montessori teaching” and learning method. For Montessori traditionalists, the proof will be in the pudding.” Many teachers and Montessori purists” may have believed, and still may believe, that screen learning has no place in Montessori education. Ironically, but for the availability of screen learning, Montessori learning would have ground to a full stop during the COVID-19 shutdown. In fact, Fred Rogers pioneered remote learning with “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center issued a joint position statement and report in 2012 that explored key issues, latest research, and best practices for using technology and interactive media to support whole-child development and especially childrens social-emotional skills. The report states that children can benefit from learning through technology, as long as the technology is harnessed properly.1

Overall, despite meltdowns from some of our students, a few parents throwing in the towel, and the initial technical challenges, I felt confident in the learning my students experienced virtually. The children were eager, including those more reserved, to share their latest finds from their nature walks, the results of one of their remote learning-packet activities, or a story or song they wanted to share with their community. I could feel us evolving into a special online family. We had grandmas and granddads as guest readers. We also had a Bring Your Pet to Zoom Day, an insightful experience. We even had visiting artists Zooming in from a foreign country to paint live with the children. Parents were open and joyful about sharing pictures of their home activities and socially distanced outings. Through the screen, I could effectively observe and guide in a manner very similar to what I do in person. In the one-on-one lessons I gave, the parents were present for technological assistance (and for curiosity), but the toddlers participated independently.

Remote learning is not our preferred method for enhancing the young minds we steward, but the pandemic gave birth to it, and I had to embrace and nurture it as a spiritual embryo for the children. It provided a place for our families to land in the midst of the uncertainties. It was more than just learning for the children; it also provided support to the parents, who had their very own Parents Zoom Socials. It was also a safe space for my team and me to further bond with our students.

The tears flowed again on June 19 when we said goodbye to our little Blossoms (my classroom’s name is Magnolia Blossoms, and I refer to our students as Blossoms).  Remote learning piqued my curiosity and lit a fire in me to create a space for the child that embodied hope and wonder. I will continue to embrace Dr. Montessoris legacy in my remote learning with my students. As a forever learner, I have also grown with the times. As Dr. Maria Montessori stated, If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man's future.”

Notes

1 A Joint Position Statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College: Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8, found online at https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/topics/PS_technology_WEB.pdf.
Michelle Blake

 
Michelle Blake (thehaventhree@gmail.com) is a certified Montessori Infant/Toddler Directress by the American Montessori Society, and she trains the assistant Directresses at her school. She is a 2020-2021 AMS Emerging Leaders Fellow and was recently a presenter at the New Jersey Montessori Association Corporation (NJMAC). She is currently in her fifth year as lead toddler Directress at a Magnolia Montessori School in Whitehouse Station, NJ.