At any given time at Juneau Montessori School, a nonprofit preschool and toddler program, you may find a child busy at an easel painting, tracing letters in a sandbox, or even baking fresh bread.
The Montessori Method, an educational approach that focuses on independent, less structured learning, encourages each child to engage in activities of his or her choosing at an individual pace.
Child-sized tables and chairs are scattered throughout the classroom with various materials on low shelves, including items made of glass and pottery, for children to interact with. They are taught to be careful and to respect their environment, which is reflected in the way each child cleans up his or her work area before moving on to the next activity.
“It’s part of the philosophy of the program; we respect ourselves, we respect others, and we respect the environment that we are in.” said Lupita Alvarez, director of the Juneau Montessori School, “It‘s a wonderful philosophy for life.”
Alvarez was introduced to the Montessori Method and the Juneau Montessori School when she enrolled her son 15 years ago. Her son, now 17, was a shy toddler who was often bullied by other children. Alvarez became a believer in Montessori when she noticed a change in his reaction to children who tried to take his toys at play-time outside of school.
“What I saw is that he pretty soon learned to stand up for himself,” said Alvarez, “He learned to say in a calm, kind manner – ‘I am playing with this, please wait.’”
According to Alvarez, that self-confidence is the key to the learning process, including reading and writing.
In the Montessori school, children learn about letters through play and discovery. Preschoolers love to feel and trace the sandpaper letters, and soon are copying the letters on the chalkboard or in the sandbox. The focus is on learning the individual symbols, the sounds of the letter, and finally, how the sounds make words. Soon comes what Alvarez calls an “explosion of writing.”
“The children discover themselves that they can write!” said Alvarez. “You actually see the kids are amazed.”
Montessori children often write long before they begin reading. Reading is learned indirectly from what the child knows about the letters and sounds. Nothing is forced; self-confidence and cognitive skills are developed simultaneously.
Montessori teachers often take part in extensive training programs to receive Montessori teaching credentials.
“Our teachers are highly qualified with bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” said Alvarez, “They’ve gotten their education in early childhood and Montessori Education. It really takes that level of qualification to provide the best possible care to our children.”
Alvarez doesn’t believe the job of the teachers is limited to working with the children in the classroom. Educators at Juneau Montessori School act as a support network for parents, answering questions, and providing materials, feedback, and encouragement.
“Parents don’t always know that they need to be involved with their children’s education,” said Alvarez. “Our program provides a support system, a system that works with the parent.”
Juneau Montessori School was formed in 1985 as a licensed child care facility and is closely operating with the Montessori Borealis Public School Program (grades 1-8). Dr. Maria Montessori opened the first Montessori school more than 100 years ago. There are now more than 5,000 Montessori schools in the U.S. including cities and communities across the state of Alaska, and at least 8,000 worldwide.