New Montessori program fosters teens’ independence and curiosity

(From the Big Bend Gazette May 2019 issue and Big Bend Sentinel May 2, 2019 issue)

ALPINE—At Alpine Montessori School, seventh-grade students eat lunch at a picnic table they built themselves. The weathered wood from recycled pallets and the unusually lofty design embody the school’s distinctive approach to educating teens.

“The students made their picnic table really tall, because they wanted to stand at it, which is a very adolescent thing to do. They like to walk around and talk while they eat,” says Joyce Downing, the school director and adolescent program guide. “They worked with drills and hammers, using materials that would just go to waste if we didn’t use them. Eventually they decided they’d also like to sit down. So one of the students figured out the Pythagorean theorem and did all of the math to design benches tall and strong enough to support them.”

One of Dr. Maria Montessori's core directives was to “follow the child.” This tenet especially shines in the new seventh- and eighth-grade program which Alpine Montessori School piloted this year. The program builds on primary and elementary programs that Alpine Montessori School pioneered in the Big Bend region 30 years ago. The adolescent program is tailored to the unique gifts and challenges of teenagers. The school is hoping to enroll more adolescents, so the program can continue next year.

Building the picnic table was one of many hands-on projects that teach practical skills and apply abstract subjects like math and physics to real-world problems. The table project also captures many other hallmarks of Montessori education: fostering curiosity and self-directed learning; encouraging independence while instilling a shared sense of responsibility for the classroom; and inspiring students to become good stewards of the earth’s resources.

The table project also “followed the child” by giving students an arena to take risks and be social, needs that drive much teenage behavior. Because teenagers are so social, the first half of the Montessori day is devoted to group work, so talking and collaborating are constructive parts of the curriculum. The adolescent program provides other outlets for taking risks in safe and developmentally appropriate ways, such as walking on a ropes-course beam 30 feet in the air, jumping in the Rio Grande, and giving a speech in front of peers.

“The teenage years are such a sensitive time. The more independent we can make them, the less they’ll react to being controlled,” Downing says. “All of the research says it’s normal for them to want to take risks. So we are helping them choose which risks to take.”

In addition to standard academic subjects like math and language, the middle-school students also run a business. They make and sell burritos once a week, which Downing says has taught the students about food preparation, marketing, customer service, and basic business concepts like profits and losses.

“Running their own business has taught my child about economics, finance, organization, time management, and cooperation,” says Linda Rothey, a special-education teacher and parent of an adolescent student. “This practical experience is something that will enhance their learning and their lives.”

Students use proceeds from the burrito business and their own independent fundraising efforts to pay for a key part of the adolescent program: immersive week-long field trips that reinforce the real-world significance of what students learn in the classroom. The students must budget, plan, and pay for these field trips themselves.

“We make them responsible for themselves,” Downing says. “So they really appreciate what they’re doing on these trips, how much money it costs to travel and do things of value.”

The adolescents have learned about orienteering, horseback riding, archaeology, and the natural world during trips to Prude Ranch and a rafting trip on the Rio Grande. They attended a camp near Houston where they learned outdoor skills with other Montessori adolescents from all over Texas. Downing recalled one of the most important lessons they learned at that camp.

“The first day, they took all the food and water that kids didn’t drink or eat and weighed it. They had 11 pounds of waste,” she says. “Three meals later, they were all down to zero. So it was making them think, if you’re pouring a full glass of water, you need to drink it all. And don’t put things on your plate you’re not going to eat.”

The students most recently traveled to Austin, where they learned about Texas history by touring museums and libraries. They learned about elections, lobbyists, and their state representatives during a visit to the Capitol.

“The students were able to see lawmaking in action,” says Amelie Urbanczyk, the school administrator and an adolescent student parent. “From demonstrations on the front steps, to informational sessions happening inside, to the final step of legislative debate and voting in the senate chamber.”

The introduction to Texas government helped prepare them for upcoming social action projects, in which students pick a cause they are passionate about and take action by writing letters.

“Then they feel like they can do something, that their voice is important. Because they’re 13 doesn’t mean their opinion doesn’t count,” Downing says.

Rothey has proudly watched these aspects of the program develop her child’s confidence and abilities as a leader and critical thinker.

“My child is more inquisitive, has a broader perspective of the world around her, and is wanting to affect change by calling senators and starting movements to better the environment,” she says.

That sense of empowerment and inquisitiveness flourish in the Montessori school’s nurturing environment. Like the lunch table the students built, their educations are their own constructions and a launchpad for a lifelong love of learning.

“My favorite thing about the classroom is the fact it feels like home,” says Grace, a student in the adolescent program. “I like the freedom I am given to choose what I do and to pursue my interests.”