Since 2012, Harriet Tubman has had a unique feature for its youngest students: combined K-1-2 classrooms. Now, school leadership is implementing yet another innovative program: Montessori-inspired classrooms.
Tubman is passionately open-enrollment, meaning that they welcome students of all levels and needs.
“Most of our kindergarteners haven’t had any prior schooling experience,” shared Principal Julie Lause. “But our combined grade program really works to raise the level of rigor for our kindergarteners and get them engaged quickly.”
Tubman has six classrooms that each contain 2 teachers and 30 students: 10 kindergartners, 10 first graders, and 10 second graders. Tubman prioritizes small group work and lots of independent practice so scholars can master academic skills.
For the past four years, Tubman’s K-1-2 classes have been organized with 10 students working with one teacher, 10 students working with the second teacher, and the remaining 10 students doing independent work. Students would then rotate so that each group spent time with both teachers as well as working independently. Students worked this way for lessons in science, social studies, ELA, and math.
“We liked that structure pretty well,” said Principal Lause. “Except, we could do a better job with students who were doing independent work. Teachers didn’t have enough time to talk with students while they were working independently or struggling to understand a tough concept. We also wanted to increase their overall interest in learning and the pride they take in their work as well as start tracking how long our youngest students could focus on a project.”
“Learning is all about making connections in our world and being curious. This approach will help ignite that spark and passion for learning in our scholars’ first year in school,” added Lause.
Lause and her team studied the Montessori education model, believing that this approach would increase student ownership, independence, and depth of knowledge.
“Although Tubman is not a Montessori school, over the past year we visited Montessori schools in Louisiana and Texas, both public and private. We believe the hands-on approach of the Montessori method, combined with our focus on standards-mastery, will increase student achievement in our K-1-2 classrooms,” said Lause.
Tubman already had combined K-1-2 classrooms, which is a Montessori feature, as well as small group instruction and independent work time. Lause and her team spent the summer on curriculum planning and creation, making a number of changes for the 2016-2017 academic year.
First, teachers changed the physical space, doubling the size of the K-1-2 classrooms to accommodate the shelves needed to organize more experiential activities. These projects will enable students to determine themselves if they have correctly finished a project. These hands-on activities are called “works,” and they consist of challenging problems to solve or skill-building activities. Students are assigned works on their weekly worksheet, and have lots of choice about when to work on a specific activity. Student works build pride of ownership, and the hands-on nature of the activities is engaging for students.
Tubman also changed the structure of the day for students. Students will have two-hour work blocks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, where they are taught directly by teachers in small groups of ten students. When they are not with a teacher in lessons, they have long uninterrupted periods of work time and a second teacher to help connect them to work.
“We’ve moved from having a teacher-driven curriculum to having a huge variety of experiential materials for kids to work on,” said Lause. “Most of the students’ day is working independently on hands-on skills practice of their choosing: making math manipulatives, piecing together geometric shapes, using three part cards, and writing in their journals.”
Finally, Tubman has incorporated several elements of the Montessori approach to help students develop pride in their personal workspace and the classroom, as well as additional freedom. Students lay out their work on a mat, which is their workspace, and take ownership for not only their work but for keeping the classroom materials tidy and set up for the next scholar.
“You see this kind of structure and set up much more frequently in private schools, which have fewer kids and more resources,” said Lause. “We are doing this with the same resources we’ve always had and more kids than ever, but with tweaks to the schedule and teaching structure.”
“So far, a month or so into the new school year, we are really seeing a difference in our scholars’ engagement and excitement about learning. For a lot of our kids, that enthusiasm is turning on for the first time. Incorporating some of the traditional Montessori methods into our school structure has really helped us support and inspire our youngest scholars to become passionate learners.”