Educators and parents find century-old pedagogy newly relevant for day schools.
At Luria Academy, it’s not unusual to see elementary-school-age children lying on their stomachs on rugs, or sitting cross-legged on the floor, or leaning against a wall. Or, like one girl on a late morning this spring, comfortably wedged in a cozy space behind a cabinet.
But, despite the relaxed atmosphere, what is striking on a recent visit to this Prospect Heights, Brooklyn Jewish day school “at the intersection between open Orthodoxy and pluralism” is the seriousness of the students: each is focused on a particular task, whether arranging laminated strips with Hebrew and English words in the correct order to complete a prayer, or reading a book, or solving multiplication problems using a rack of beads or conferring quietly with a teacher about an essay in need of revision.
Luria, which started the new school year last week with 140 students (up from 107 last year) and a newly expanded facility, is one of more than 40 Jewish Montessori schools in North America. More than 20 of them have, like Luria, opened within the past decade, forming a small but growing movement, a bright spot within a Jewish day school world where (with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox community) flat or declining enrollment is the norm.
Just one neighborhood away from Luria, in Crown Heights, stands Lamplighters Yeshiva, a Chabad-run Montessori elementary school that opened its current program in 2012 (the school was founded in 2010, but was not initially Montessori) and has 72 students, up from last year’s 42.
While fewer than 1,000 Jewish elementary day school students in North America are enrolled in Montessori programs, the numbers at the eight largest Jewish Montessori schools have jumped by 75 percent in the past five years, according to the New Jersey-based Jewish Montessori Society.
The individualized yet highly structured pedagogical approach, developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori, has been around for more than a century. But in recent years, it has become increasingly popular in both Jewish and secular educational circles, including public schools.
According to Ami Petter-Lipstein, who together with her husband Daniel founded the Jewish Montessori Society (JMS) in 2011, Jewish Montessori has been growing over the last 15 years, and has experienced “exponential growth” since 2005.
This fall new Jewish Montessori schools are opening in Chicago, Denver and London; in Ohio, Cincinnati Hebrew Day School is opening a separate Montessori track alongside its traditional program. A school in Los Angeles is about to start its second year, while Alef Bet Montessori, a school begun eight years ago in Rockville, Md., last year expanded from nursery-only to elementary school. Meanwhile, several groups around the country are planning new Jewish Montessori programs.
While most Jewish Montessori schools are nursery, or nursery and elementary, several run through eighth grade or, like Luria, Alef Bet and Lamplighters, plan to. While Petter-Lipstein said she knows of no Jewish Montessori high schools, “I think someone will do it in the next decade.”
Exactly what is Montessori, and why is it taking off now?
Originally developed for educating children with special needs, Montessori is a method in which children largely work independently and in small mixed-age groups at their own pace; specially trained teachers closely monitor the students’ progress and are available to help, but spend little time lecturing to the whole class.
Montessori’s classroom materials tend to be tactile and multi-sensory: things like beads, sandpaper, fabric, and wooden boxes and blocks.
Montessori works, says Bryna Lieder, the educational director of Luria, because, “Children are naturally inquisitive and crave a sense of mastery.”
Why the recent interest in a more-than-100-year-old pedagogy that, in the United States at least, was previously confined primarily to secular private schools?
Keith Whitescarver, director of the 15-month-old National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, says new neuroscience research about learning and the importance of early childhood education has validated much of Maria Montessori’s original findings. There are an estimated 480 publicly funded Montessori schools (40 percent of them charter), half of which were founded within the past decade. Whitescarver speculates that the growth in his network of tuition-free Montessori schools has been fueled by the charter movement’s growth, along with “reaction to the current reform model in the public schools, which focuses on testing and accountability. While public Montessori schools are required to give [standardized] tests, like any other schools, it’s not the focus of the curriculum and Montessori students still do as well as, if not better than, their peers.”
Montessori also dovetails nicely with other education trends, which include an emphasis on imparting “21st-century learning skills” such as critical thinking, self-discipline and collaboration; a heightened sensitivity to students with learning disabilities and other special needs; growing respect for “experiential” and hands-on learning and a shift away from “frontal” learning.
Scott Goldberg, vice provost for teaching and learning at Yeshiva University and a professor at its Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, praises the “child-centered” and “hands-on” approach pioneered in Montessori schools, noting they are key ingredients in “the best teaching and learning environments.”
However, he emphasizes that while few follow the full Montessori model, a growing number of Jewish day schools — not just Montessori ones — have these “child-centered” and “experiential learning” qualities.
He also urges Montessori schools to consider adding more high-tech resources to their toolkits.
“If one thinks about the hallmarks of Montessori — creating learning spaces that are authentic and that are familiar to the children, one wonders why you don’t see more technology in Montessori schools today,” he says.
Jewish proponents say Montessori is uniquely compatible with Judaism, and not just because of the frequently cited Jewish proverb, “al pi darko,” about teaching each child according to his own way.
Rivkah Schack, educational co-director of Lamplighters, says Montessori offers individualized attention and encourages “creativity,” but also has “rule sets and an emphasis on responsibility to the group.”
“There’s a backbone and curriculum behind Montessori, which is why it’s so compatible with Jewish education,” she says.
Montessori’s emphasis on collaboration also works nicely with chevruta learning, the tradition of studying Jewish texts with a partner, Petter-Lipstein says.
Offering a Montessori track can help established Jewish day schools, many of which have struggled to maintain enrollment and attract new families, Petter-Lipstein says. “Montessori is a tremendous way to fill seats,” she explains.
But it can be difficult for a parent to distinguish between schools Petter-Lipstein calls “Monte-something,” and those adhering to the full Montessori approach.
“You can’t throw the word ‘Montessori’ up on a doughnut shop,” she says, noting that her group lists schools on its website only if they have “at least one Montessori-trained teacher in every room.”
Multiple agencies, including Association Montessori International-USA and the American Montessori Society, accredit and train Montessori teachers, with each agency requiring a slightly different combination of coursework and practical experience.
Finding Montessori-trained teachers — particularly ones who are versed in Jewish studies — is a major challenge for the growing movement, Petter-Lipstein says.
“There aren’t enough Montessori-trained teachers even for the general Montessori field,” she says.
Both Lamplighters and Netivot, the Modern Orthodox Montessori school in Edison, N.J., that the Petter-Lipsteins’ children attend, run summer training programs. The Jewish Montessori Society is also in conversation with the Israeli Montessori Society about getting more native Hebrew speakers who are Montessori-trained — important since many Jewish Montessori schools also seek to offer Hebrew immersion.
Neither of the Petter-Lipsteins — she used to work in corporate marketing and coaching, whereas he is an attorney — grew up attending Montessori schools. But their excitement about the 12-year-old Netivot inspired them to start the Jewish Montessori Society.
“My kids jump out of the car in the morning and run into school,” Ami Petter-Lipstein says. “Every child deserves that.”
Many other parents of children enrolled at Jewish Montessori schools are similarly enthusiastic, raving about the schools’ abilities to serve students with a wide range of abilities and to spark their enthusiasm for learning.
Shana Schochet Lowell, another Netivot parent, says that all three of her sons have very different learning styles, but each is thriving at the school.
One, who has “attention issues,” had difficulty in a traditional nursery school “because he couldn’t sit still at a desk,” but “at Netivot he’s one of the stars of the class.”
While many parents in traditional schools, Schochet Lowell says, “assume you only have to consider Montessori if your child is special-ed,” she argues it also “works very well for gifted children.
“Without the hours of homework, without all the tests, they are achieving the same, if not much, much more,” she says.
Shannon Green, who has two children at Luria (one in nursery school, the other going into kindergarten), says that she and her husband had initially planned to enroll their children just for the nursery school years, “but we were impressed.”
“We’ve found the educational model to be extremely successful for our kids and the other ones we observe there,” she says.
“There’s a range of abilities in the classroom and the Montessori structure allows kids to focus on the subject area that comes more easily to them and do extra work in the areas that are more challenging, without feeling like they’re not measuring up,” she adds.
David and Evelyn Salama’s 6-year-old daughter transferred to Luria from a large, Modern Orthodox yeshiva after the couple visited the Montessori school and was “beyond impressed.”
While not unhappy with the yeshiva, which both parents themselves attended, the couple felt Luria’s size and structure made it better suited to challenge their daughter and give her the attention she needs.
David Salama describes Luria as “the difference between a one-size-fits-all mass-production type of factory and something that’s custom-made for you.”
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