With a long history of Montessori in her own life, as a student, a teacher, and a parent, Lisa Kuh, director of early education for Somerville Public Schools, was always looking for ways to incorporate Montessori approaches to curriculum into professional development for the teachers she supports.
Two years ago, on her way to give a presentation in Philadelphia on the concept of beauty in Montessori, Lisa ended up on the same airplane flight as a group of teacher-leaders from Wildflower, and a budding partnership began. After hitting it off with the Wildflower team, Lisa observed in several Wildflower schools.
“Because of my background, I had been offering professional development at the district that had a Montessori influence, and early grades teachers were starting to show up in greater numbers,” she said. “I felt like the time was right to be intentional about incorporating Montessori into our practice.”
Lisa and Dandelion teacher-leaders Micki Sausen and Lindy McGrail forged a partnership and set about to create a professional development opportunity for early grades teachers in Somerville Public Schools. This past spring, they jointly created a curriculum about Montessori practice — including talking through any preconceived ideas the teachers may have had about the teaching model — followed by hands-on experience and learning at Dandelion, then reflection, and follow up.
“The teachers were so enthusiastic that they wanted to know how they could continue the work after their time at Dandelion was over; they had these profound experiences in their observations,” Lisa said. “One teacher told me afterward, ‘I was a skeptic, but now, I don’t even have words for what I observed. I never knew teaching could be like that.’ ”
Micki, who herself worked in public Montessori schools for 17 years prior to joining Wildflower’s network, said she finds the partnership with Somerville equally inspiring.
“The idea of working with public educators in public school systems means we are continuing to broaden that conversation about how important Montessori is,” she said. “This partnership is taking Montessori out of just the private sector and making it available to people beyond those who can afford it in its current context.”
Although the participating teachers are not planning to transition to a full Montessori curriculum, Lisa said incorporating some key principles has been helpful already. For instance, Micki and Lindy gave them tips on how to structure lessons and teach practical life skills such as cleaning up the classroom or filling up a pitcher with water and pouring it into a glass, to foster independence in their students. They talked about a progression of phonemic awareness, a central tenet of Montessori education, that can help young children learn to read. They even talked about changes to the teachers’ physical classrooms to make them more peaceful and aesthetically pleasing, such as choosing solid color rugs, incorporating open shelving, and taking down some of the busier wall décor.
“I really believe that Montessori can work for all children, and the idea of sharing the pedagogy and philosophy with teachers who are new to it is huge for me,” Micki said. “Wildflower’s roots are in the context of the lab setting at MIT, and two of our principles are innovation and this ever-expanding community and network. I think the experimental aspect of Wildflower also really lends itself to collaborating across what might seem very different educational disciplines.”
While the future Wildflower-Somerville Public Schools partnership is evolving, everyone involved is certain they want to see it continue. Micki and Lindy have already agreed to keep serving as mentors for the public school teachers, allowing them to come and ask questions and observe at Dandelion. And starting this school year, Lisa plans to launch a professional learning community focused on incorporating Montessori materials into non-Montessori classrooms.
Somerville is committed to partnerships between public schools and early learning providers like Wildflower, Lisa said, part of which may include subsidized slots for income eligible families in partner programs.
“We feel lucky in Somerville to have a Wildflower school where teachers can observe and learn new ways of working. But we also know that Wildflower is working to provide equitable access to high-quality programming – and that is an important part of the early education landscape in Somerville.”