Faculty Focus is an ongoing series, featuring articles written by Heartwood’s own panel of experts. This installment comes from Upper School Director Missy McClure.
There’s a flow in Montessori schools that begins in the Toddler House and continues through the all of the levels, in all of the classrooms — Dr. Montessori’s steadfast belief that “The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind.” (Education and Peace).
In the Upper School, we continue that flow and maintain the focus on the child as a whole. While our grade groupings (6-8 and 9-12) do not follow the typical Montessori 3-year cycle, they work well for our community and allow us to best meet each child’s needs — academic and beyond. These groupings also tend to follow more traditional programs, making it easier for students to enter our program without previous Montessori experience.
Peace in the Midst of Tumult
When students enter the Upper School, they are at a rather tumultuous time in their development. Dr. Montessori advised that: “The adolescent must never be treated as a child, for that is a stage of life they have surpassed. It is better to treat an adolescent as if he had greater value than he actually shows than as if he had less and let him feel that his merits and self-respect are disregarded.” (From Childhood to Adolescence).
Their bodies are changing at a rapid rate, but so are their emotions, cognitive abilities, social identity, and world view. Dr. Montessori called this period “the second toddlerhood,” because it is the only other time in a human’s life where so many changes take place simultaneously, and our programs take it into account.
We are very intentional about creating community between the Middle and High School groups – it’s one of the ways that we “do” peace education. A hallmark of Montessori education is that older students serve as mentors to younger ones; while they’re on two different developmental sub-planes, they have a lot of knowledge and support to offer each other; by fostering a strong connection between the two groups, and supporting them as they interact and engage with each other, we create a model for living and operating in peaceful communities.
A Collaborative Curriculum
The Heartwood Upper School bases its curriculum on North Carolina’s State Standards, which currently adheres to Common Core. However, as a private school, we are not required to administer the standards in the same way as public schools; instead, we can look to our students, covering the material in a way that’s engaging and accessible to them.
Montessori’s culture of layered lessons and “student as teacher” leadership is integral. For example, in each Science unit, the students learn concepts first through teacher-created material (facilitating further in-depth study and reflection, based on the standards). They then choose some aspect of that unit to explore in more depth and prepare a lesson to teach their classmates.
As part of that layered assignment, we include guidance on how to present an effective lesson to a group, as well as class discussions on how it feels to present, how it feels to be prepared, how it feels when you are not prepared, and how to process all of those feelings.
Teaching the Whole Child
Helping students establish effective executive functioning skills, such as time management, multi-tasking and prioritization, is rolled into many Upper School lessons. However, teaching these skills without any follow-through from the teachers will not benefit the students. Each day, the teachers check in about progress in managing assignments, as well as how the students feel about the way they are approaching their work.
We also make time to have group discussions about current events and issues the students are facing. When they bring something to the discussion, we take it seriously, inviting respectful, reflective questions and answers that allow us to model processes for handling big emotions or problem solving, and to normalize those thoughts and feelings.
We do not assign homework (unless a student is not working during their work time), for we believe that students need time and opportunity to pursue their passions as well as to be an active participant in family life.
We base our High School offerings and credits on the UNC system admission requirements, but though we provide all of the courses required by the UNC system, we don’t offer them all each year. This allows the Montessori mixed-age classroom experience to continue with multiple grade levels within each course. There may be Freshman and Sophomores taking English Survey (English I), or Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors taking British Lit (English IV). These class groupings are based on graduation needs and interests, knowing that all students will take all of the classes eventually.
Math is done individually or in small groups, so each student gets the math lesson and support that they need in order to make meaningful progress.
In High School, we don’t focus on grades, although we do give them. We prefer to emphasize content mastery, and intend that graduates will have a thorough understanding of the processes of learning as well as the content.
Preparing for a Bright Future
Heartwood graduates work closely with teachers to foster their development and to further explore their interests. Rather than aiming for a certain G.P.A. or class standing, they work toward self-actualization and realizing their potential. We want them to develop critical thinking skills and the ability to analyze effectively, rather than memorize facts for a test.
At the end of this journey, the student should be prepared for whatever feels right to them as they progress on their personal road map. Our focus on real-world skills encourages students to grow academically, emotionally, and socially, building skills that will open doors to the future of their choice.
Missy says, “I answered an ad in a newspaper when I was in my early 20s and thus began my Montessori career. I’ve taught at the 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, middle and high school levels, and also work with two different training programs for Montessori teacher training. Montessori has become part of my very essence, and I’m so excited to get to share it in so many ways with people of all ages.”
Missy McClure, M.Ed. has been a Montessori teacher for 21 years. She holds undergraduate degrees in English Literature, and Early Childhood Education. She has earned her Master’s Degree in Education from Xavier University. Missy holds Montessori credentials at the Early Childhood, Lower Elementary, and Upper Elementary levels, and she is a member of the faculty of the Center for Montessori Teacher Education/North Carolina. Additionally she sits on the board for the Montessori Association of North Carolina. She currently teaches English Language Arts and Science in Middle School as well as English and Sociology in High School here at Heartwood.