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What Makes a Great School?

Are We a Traditional Montessori School or Simply a School of Excellence?

When we acquired the previously owned Montessori School of Conifer in 2018, we were unsure what to name our school. We had absolutely no affiliation with the former owner and wanted to create our own identity. As we connected with the Montessori training center in Boulder, we decided to keep the Montessori name and renamed our school Aspen Park Montessori. We opened our doors in 2019 and evolved into a much different school from traditional Montessori over the last 3 years.

We started with a traditional Montessori classroom and a few Montessori trained teachers, but started branching out. We started hiring teachers that were not necessarily “Montessori” trained, but carried early childhood credentials. We also starting developing a classroom very different from a traditional Montessori one. We realized that traditional Montessori fit many of our principles and needs, yet there were many other curriculums that offered things that Montessori did not. So, we decided to create our own curriculum and classroom based on our observations in and out of our school. We started recording what strategies and approaches worked. We also made note of what did not.

There are many things we love about Montessori. We have maintained certain Montessori fundamentals within our classrooms. They are as follows:

  • Mixed age groups

Classes are made up of 3-year spans. At this time, we have 3–6-year-olds in one class. This 3-year span would carry through to elementary and middle school classes. There are many advantages to combining the ages. The most important benefit is the role modeling that is occurring. Our older children become leaders, mentors to our younger children who want to emulate their older counter-parts. There are opportunities for peer teaching that support learning on all levels. Children, regardless of their age, learn to get along and work side by side one another. Despite different characteristics, individual learning styles and paces, a social environment is created that encourages cohesion and mutual respect toward one another.

  • Child centered and individualized instruction

One of the things we love about our school is the child-centered approach to learning. All instruction and facilitation are based on the needs and requirements of each child. It is not a “one-size fits all” classroom. It is quite the contrary. Children are free to pick activities that interest them. At this age children learn through play. Children are given many choices and options that encourage this. Our curriculum allows for our teachers to work with each child individually and in group settings at their own pace. Thus, facilitation is different for every child as no two children are alike. This type of instruction develops self-motivated and independent thinkers who are able to make responsible choices, self-direct, and self-regulate.

  • Integrated Curriculum

We pick weekly themes that we integrate into all subject areas. A teacher is not just presenting a subject. Instead, the subject is incorporated into free play, art, circle time, etc. This reinforces learning by offering many ways to comprehend and appreciate the subject matter being taught.

  • We are hands-on

We use many different types of materials to aid in learning. We offer many options in toys, manipulatives, play-stations, art supplies, and STEAM/STEM kits. The list goes on. As our children are encouraged to play and participate in activities that are hands-on, they are provided a concrete experience that leads to better understanding. Although our hands-on concept is shared with traditional Montessori, we incorporate other pedagogies and materials that are not Montessori. One concept we love to use is backward design. This is a very hands-on technique that encourages the child to work from the end result to the beginning. It allows the child to figure out how things are put together when basically taking it apart.

Where do we differ from traditional Montessori?

  • Designed Environment and Materials

Our classroom is very stimulating and full of so many options. Montessori classrooms are not. We have all kinds of toys, manipulatives, play stations that encourage learning on so many different levels. We also provide many of the same toy/manipulative if very popular. Although we encourage sharing, we also feel that certain play materials be offered according to their demand and popularity. We love color, lots of choices, and all kinds of things on our walls. We want to stimulate the mind and engage each child every way possible. We use every inch of space in our classroom to ultimately teach. We have been told over and over that we offer so many choices. We also offer a variety of teaching aids that are not necessarily “Montessori”. We use whatever works. Our goal is to engage and facilitate learning through materials and play. When we see something we like, we use it. We are not confined to just one curriculum. There are so many modalities that are not Montessori, and they yield incredible results. We are open to all of it.

  • Staff

Our teachers are certified early childhood teachers. Whether they have a degree in teaching, early childhood education, or CDA (childhood development associate), we look at the experience and background of the teacher. We welcome knowledge from all modalities of education. We want candidates that love children and want to teach/facilitate. We want “out of the box thinkers” that will bring fresh and innovative ideas into the classroom. We want instructors that are committed, responsible, and dedicated to the individual needs of each child. We want an individual that is passionate about early learning and thus motivated to bring that energy into our school.

Traditional Montessori schools use Montessori teachers specifically trained through Montessori programs. Although we have enjoyed a number of “Montessori trained” teachers in the past, we have found that our school flourishes with “open minded” thinkers that are not necessarily committed to one specific type of curriculum, but rather open to the many teaching options and certifications available.

  • Extrinsic Rewards

There is a lot of thought when looking at the subject of rewarding a child extrinsically. Montessori does not believe in this. We do. Should a child do something for the mere joy and satisfaction they receive internally? Yes, but do we live in that type of a world? And is a small child capable of understanding that? Let’s face it. Do we receive a paycheck for our services at the end of the day? Yes, it is a reward for our hard work. And what about bonuses and incentives? Isn’t that a reward? In an adult world, we are constantly rewarding ourselves or others with things and possessions. At Aspen Park Montessori we teach the fundamentals of living life as a respectable human-being. Having said that, we want to show our children that making good choices not only feels great, but brings its own benefits. On the flip-side, each poor decision is followed with a consequence. People, in general, are more motivated when they can work toward something they want. Each child has the opportunity to “earn” a reward for proper behavior, good decision-making abilities, and satisfactory social etiquettes. What better way to let a child know they are doing a great job than to let them earn something they want.

At the end of the day, it really does not matter what kind of curriculum is used. Curriculum and all the different words used to name a particular curriculum are just that, words. What matters is the commitment to excellence and the willingness to see each child as a special human-being worthy of the very best.

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