Uprooted: Molding Montessori Methods During the Pandemic

Fall 2020

By Saloni Mathur

When you are grateful, fear disappears and abundance appears.—Tony Robbins1

Uprooted...

Friday, March 13, 2020, was the first day of the pandemic school closure for my Montessori school in New Jersey. I teach a mixed-age classroom of 3- to 6-year-old children and was separated from my young friends abruptly, without so much as a goodbye. It is difficult to express the myriad thoughts going through my mind that day and in the days to follow ... uncertainty, grief, anxiety, fear, and a feeling of being uprooted. Yet, there were unexpected feelings bubbling inside me, a feeling of excitement for entering a new realm, a feeling of responsibility, and a feeling of gratitude for being able to shoulder this responsibility.
 

Montessori Triad

Amid all the uncertainty of those initial days, one thing was certain: We had to continue to serve our children. They needed to stay connected with their friends, and they needed to continue learning in meaningful ways. But how? The answer came from a basic tenet of the Montessori method. The child, the teacher, and a well-prepared environment together form the Montessori Triad. Yes, we had lost one component—our revered, prepared environment, but what of the other two components in the Triad? I was still present and so were my tenacious students. They were the same vibrant, young people Id grown to adore! I knew my students and I understood their needs. We would just have to carve out a new learning environment to suit them best. We decided to go virtual.

On Screen

My school planned to gradually establish our virtual presence in our childrens days. We started by creating videos to post on our YouTube channel. Our students were thrilled to see their teachers on their computer screens! Some of them even shared their own home videos. We became famous” (to the children) overnight! Many of my videos came either from my backyard or from my kitchen. The first one was inspired by a bright yellow forsythia bush outside my kitchen window. It was in full bloom at the time. My own children became my expert camera team” and tech support.”

However, by this time, we had realized that the pandemic was here to stay for longer than we had anticipated, and we needed to give something more to our students. We would have to add more structure to their days, provide more articulate lessons to continue their progress, and create a space for them to gather and share. And, the biggest reason of all—we needed to see our children! So we started our own virtual Montessori classroom.

Challenge

The Montessori method of education was founded in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori, based on her observations of childhood development. Children gain independence and confidence from learning practical life skills, and they learn best through sensory experiences. So, Montessori designed specialized hands-on learning implements that are important components of all Montessori classrooms around the world. This school closure challenged us teachers to follow in her footsteps and design our lessons around materials the children could find in their homes. This challenge inspired some exciting innovations.

Montessori Quad

Our virtual classroom, in real time, came with real challenges. My youngest students found the mute button on their screens to be quite amusing, while the oldest had so much to share, they hardly needed a teacher to conduct the class! Some just decided they had better things to do in their backyard. We had many great triumphs, too. The children enjoyed baking cookies together over Zoom. We recorded the recipe in our notebooks, using a flowchart with geometric shapes. We counted, measured, and mixed the ingredients. Then we packed up our sweet treats and delivered them to healthcare workers.

In the ebb and flow of our virtual learning, I learned to keep my expectations in check. The children were adjusting to their new environment. Yes, the environment! We were on our way to completing our Montessori Triad. Well, the triad had become more of a quad now—child + teacher + prepared environment + parents of our students. The adults in our students’ homes became our essential allies. They helped with setting up the childrens workspaces, establishing Zoom etiquette, giving us weekly feedback, and much more. This was the silver lining! It was the ultimate parent education opportunity. In the past, we had focused on helping parents understand why” Montessori education works. Now they got to witness the how.” With a lot of planning, regular communication, and a few difficult conversations, we got this experiment to work.

Observe and Serve

Once, while addressing a worldwide assembly of Montessori educators, Dr. Montessori said, For many years I have been pointing to the child, and you have been looking at the end of my finger.” How profound do these words ring at this time of upheaval! Education is not limited to a philosophy or a curriculum for us to follow. Instead, it is a mission to empower our children, so they can become the best versions of themselves. Didactic materials and lessons in our classrooms are means to fulfill this purpose. The most powerful revelation of our work is the wisdom to observe the child and let her lead the way. My job is to keep the torch lit.

I understand now that feeling of excitement I had at the beginning. It was hope—the hope of reuniting with my students! I was excited in anticipation of a different kind of connection with my community.

Notes

1 Tony Robbins, quoted in Karim Boubker, “Finding Happiness in Gratitude,” Medium, August 27, 2014; online at https://medium.com/living-with-courage/finding-happiness-in-gratitude-541193ff8916.
Saloni Mathur

Saloni Mathur (salonipcs@hotmail.com) is a teacher and curriculum coordinator at Long Hill Montessori School in Stirling, NJ. She is a member of The American Montessori Society’s Emerging Leaders Fellowship Program.