Before I spoke to Kevin Kalra of Houston’s Montessori Preschool, I would have thought “digital Montessori” education was an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp,” “rolling stop,” or “civil war.”
After talking with him, I was so impressed by the thoughtful way he and his compatriots are working through a difficult situation and trying to provide a Montessori education for their students in their homes.
Montessori Preschool is a network of three preschools in the Houston, Texas area. It serves students from 6 weeks to 6 years old using the methods developed by Maria Montessori in the 1920s.
For those who are unaware, the Montessori method is a highly tactile, community-based learning model where teachers (often referred to as “guides”) provide ground rules for students, but generally allow a lot of choice and freedom to help them find things that they are passionate about. There are lots of art projects and lots of hands-on demonstrations of concepts in math and science.
How on earth can that be moved online?
As it became clear that the school was going to have to move digital in response to COVID-19, school leaders and educators brainstormed within their school and with other Montessori schools to think about what could be demonstrated online, what materials parents could get to create similar hands-on projects, and how teachers could create the same community atmosphere that exists in the traditional Montessori classroom.
Of course, it is not an ideal situation. But given the circumstances, they are coming to a much closer approximation than many would have thought possible.
They are also learning lessons that other schools, Montessori and non-Montessori, could learn. Kalra shared several of these with me:
Lesson #1: Teaching online is different from teaching in person
Sure, this one might seem obvious, but there are subtleties to online learning that might not be obvious at first blush. Kevin mentioned that teachers are finding that they need to be extra dramatic and speak with a louder voice than the otherwise might. They have to be extremely active on camera with big bold expressions and movement in order to keep kids engaged.
The timing of lessons matters, as well. Lessons that might be an hour long in a traditional class might need to get condensed to only 15 or 20 minutes online.
But perhaps what is the most jarring for teachers, especially those of young children, is not having the instant feedback of an audience in the room. Skilled teachers have developed the ability to read a room and switch things up when they notice attention or energy flagging. That is so much more difficult to do in an online environment.
How can schools cope with this? Kalra recommends giving “inspirational examples.” If there are teachers who are more comfortable with technology, have them demonstrate for teachers who are less comfortable. Have teachers re-watch their classes and observe themselves as a student would. School leaders can also share examples of great online content from YouTube or other platforms. All of these can help show teachers what is possible.
Lesson #2: Become a part of families’ routines
Given the age of the children that they serve and the logistics of creating what they are trying to create, the school is not trying to recreate the same schedule as their normal school offerings. The lessons and projects that they are created will be episodic, perhaps once a day, or every other day.
As a result, they are able to work with families to have lessons become part of the routines that families are already creating in their homes. Given the time commitments that many parents who are now working from home are already having to make, trying to wedge lessons in at times that are best for the school would breed headaches. Instead the school is trying to work with parents to understand what times and formats work best for them and are being flexible.
This requires open communication lines and a strong culture of honest feedback and respect between teachers and families. Parents that are more savvy with videoconference software because their work uses it can help teachers and other parents use it. It has to be a team effort.
Lesson #3: Pilot, Pilot, Pilot
Kalra and his team are not trying to stand all of this programming up immediately. They started by piloting a single lesson and will continue to roll things out first in a smaller iteration before scaling up.
Kalra recommends that all schools do this. He recommends testing the technology and testing how both students and teachers experience it. In one of their first online classes, they had another staff member observe, so the teacher didn’t have to both conduct class and evaluate it at the same time. Having administrators or other teachers sit in on classes could be very helpful, as could having other teachers act as simulated students in a pilot session.
Lesson #4: Expectations
“Schools should not feel this has to be a high budget production.” Kalra believes that families have realistic expectations when it comes to video lessons and online content created on the fly. As he puts it, no one is going to be upset if a dog runs into the picture. In fact, I’d bet kids would love that!
Kalra puts it succinctly, “There is no other choice. We have to face these new challenges…This is going to be a community effort.”
Parents are reeling, and they know that schools are reeling too. They want schools to do something, and they are willing to work with them. The upshot? Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Parents will understand if there are hiccups. But by continuing to communicate and continuing to be kind, both to children and parents who are struggling to themselves, educators can create workable, if imperfect, structures moving forward.
If you would have asked me before talking to Kevin Kalra if a Montessori school could transition to online learning, I would have said you were crazy. But they’ve done it!
It is not perfect, and it is far from the ideal of Montessori education, but it is working, and it is keeping students connected to their classroom community and engaged in thoughtful learning opportunities. That is something worth celebrating.