This is a piece written by a teacher at our Midtown Elementary Campus, Ms. Elizabeth Roschman. She is affectionately known to her beloved students as “Ms. Beth”. It was published in the December 2020 issue of Montessori International magazine. We are so proud to share it today, on Earth Day, with our Clover community. To check out this issue of Montessori International, please click here.
“Look at the bird!” Violet gasped, arms extending in front of her, eyes bulging in amazement. “It’s the Blue Heron!” The children turned toward the sight of the graceful bird flying low across their path towards the reeds in the shallow waters. The students had seen the Great Blue Heron on other visits to the park, but it had never flown this close to them before. Its long legs trailing behind it, the Heron seemed to be moving in slow motion. Each child held their breath, mesmerized by the vision of the slender, bent neck and the huge wings beating slowly and steadily. In that moment, I remembered why we had come to the park, and just how lucky we were to be there on that lovely autumn day.
Seven months prior to our avian encounter, we were beginning our two-week spring break, blissfully unaware of the challenges that the next few months would bring. The Clover School is situated in the Midtown region of Toronto, Canada. The population of the sprawling Metropolitan area surpassed six million people in 2015.1 As one of the world’s most diverse and globally connected cities, Toronto is the seventh most visited city within North America.2 The number of people infected with COVID-19 in our country’s largest city was on the rise, and like the rest of the world, we were thrust into a shutdown situation. Everything that we had ever trained for as Montessorians was seemingly thrown into question. How could we teach without materials? How would we follow the child, given our new online format? How would we meet the spiritual needs of each child, when they are stuck in front of a computer? The answer was unsurprisingly Montessorian: adaptability, resilience, and most importantly, connectivity.
Long before adaptability and resilience became the buzz words of the decade, Montessorians had been honing these vital skills of survival in a continuously changing world. We learned from the best: Dr. Maria Montessori. Our founder developed her pedagogy as a direct result of observing and adapting to the needs of the children that were in her care. She further developed her educational philosophy in response to the political and cultural climate in which she found herself living. There is no doubt that her Peace Education, and her work in developing the rights of the child, were directly influenced by her experiences in turbulent times. Her years spent in India greatly influenced her philosophy of Cosmic Education, which became the foundation for the elementary program. If Dr. Montessori were alive today, there is no doubt that she would have some visionary approach to teaching in these unusual times. Not only are we faced with a global pandemic, but once again, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable political climate that is increasingly authoritarian. Add to that the potentially life-ending climate crisis, and we find ourselves teaching a growing population of students suffering from anxiety. When we found ourselves facing the challenges of a shutdown, therefore, we knew we had to adapt.
One of the greatest challenges during the shutdown was creating an educational experience that was true to the Montessori methodology. I found myself creating interactive lessons in presentation format, that I could screen share with my students. I drew on my experience of materials-based presentations in the classroom environment in order to develop engaging virtual presentations. For example, I recreated the 2-dimensional plane figures and the blue solids on the screen and asked the students to help me sort them by shape, number of sides, or number of vertices. I also drew on conventional methods of teaching to fill in the gaps when Montessori methods were limited by the format. The same important principles applied, however; whatever I was teaching, I had to ensure that I was teaching to the child’s level and meeting the needs of each individual the best that I possibly could. This meant that each part of a lesson was painstakingly designed to ensure the maximum amount of feedback and interactions with the students.
I soon realized that I was not the only one adapting to the new style of learning; my resilient and experienced Montessori students were well suited to working independently. After all, independence is one of the key strengths of the elementary child, and they had been developing this skill long before the shutdown. Students participated in small group lesson for language, math and culture each week. In addition, I met virtually with each and every child one-on-one so that I could spend time connecting with them and helping them with any difficulties that they were having. I also used this time to pursue their individual interests, and to encourage exploration. We used a variety of online tools to assign follow-up activities. Students were asked to gather supplies and conduct specific experiments at home. They built vessels that could float and tested them in pools or bathtubs. They conducted research on ancient civilizations and presented them virtually to the class. I even gave two of the Great Lessons via Zoom. For three and a half months we adapted and reinvented Montessori lessons, and connected with our students online. While it was not ideal, it kept the spark alive, and students were able to experience purposeful work.
Most of all, however, the children valued the connection time with their teachers and peers. They looked forward to virtual circle times when they could see their friends. They eagerly attended their one-on-one time slots, and we shared so many wonderful moments, despite the geographical distance between us. Again and again, however, I would hear the students say that they missed being in school, and that they could not wait to get back. When the time finally came for the new school year, nothing could prepare me for the joy that I felt at seeing them all face to face.
Leading up to the new school year, much of our preparation was centred around the logistics of social distancing and finding ways to ensure that the environment was clean and safe. We wondered how the students would react to teachers in full face masks and shields, and the necessity of wearing their own masks while inside. We put away some materials that would be difficult to clean, moved the chairs and tables apart, and split the student population into smaller groups, so that we could keep our cohorts separate and safe. Armed with PPE, cleaning schedules, and a list of outdoor learning opportunities, we opened our doors with trepidation.
The first few days were the most difficult, of course, as we went over the expectations, and adjusted to the new reality. The students were so excited to see their friends again, but they had been without a fully structured schedule for so long that relearning the daily routine was especially challenging. As always, however, our students proved just how adaptive and resilient they could be. The worries of September soon faded away into exciting project work and the personal achievements of October.
Our focus, once again, has turned towards helping each and every child find the means to meet their academic, social and spiritual needs. A large part of this is achieved through our weekly outdoor education program. Each Friday, we travel the 3.7-kilometre distance to the 127-acre oasis that is our extended classroom. We start our excursion with a gratitude circle, during which sincere, heartfelt thanks are never in short supply. The botany, zoology and science curricula are easily woven into the adventures that we take along the trails into the ever-changing forest. Autumn in Toronto is extraordinarily beautiful, as Maple leaves turn to fiery red, Sumac to stunning orange, and Poplar, Birch and Willow dress in hues of yellow. “It smells so good here,” a child murmurs next to me along the trail. Gone is the sterile scent of disinfectants. In the forest, the world is as it should be. The cycle of the seasons continues, and the birds take up flight in migration. We know that there is a long, cold winter ahead of us, full of uncertainties. In spring, however, the flowers will bloom again, as if to signal the hope that comes with renewal. Our students are like those flowers: resilient and strong enough to weather this storm. They are a new generation full of life and hope for a future full of promise.
As a teacher, mother, and member of the world community, I have a new appreciation for these moments of clarity, and a stronger determination to be the guide I need to be. Now, more than ever, I understand the importance of Dr. Montessori’s statement that, “the child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.”3
National Post. “Metro Toronto Population Blasts above Six Million According to Stats Can. Montreal at Four Million.” National Post. Postmedia Network, Inc., February 13, 2015. https://nationalpost.com/news/toronto/metro-toronto-population-blasts-abovesixmillion-according-to-stats-can-montreal-at-four-million.
Abadi, Mark. “The 12 Cities in North America That Attracted the Most Tourists from around the World.” Business Insider. Insider Inc., December 10, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/most-tourists-north-america-2018-12.
Montessori, Maria, and Claude A. Claremont. 1969. The absorbent mind. [New York]: [Dell Pub. Co.].