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The Montessori Difference: Children Love to Learn

As featured in Gainesville Today Magazine, June,  2009

By Donna Weber

The preparation for academic achievement and skills for practical life are woven into each day at Millhopper Montessori School in Gainesville. Children enter a world of beauty and order; a safe place to learn and grow at their own pace. Specially trained teachers make learning fun and help mold young minds into thinkers and doers. The school addresses each child’s whole development – intellectual, social and artistic.

With a low student-to-teacher ratio, one-to-one and small group instruction, Millhopper Montessori School (MMS) offers a carefully developed curriculum and a well-trained, experienced, loving faculty. The family-friendly, spacious, state-of-the art campus serves children ages two through eight grade. Parents are encouraged to observe and take an active role in their child’s educational development.

Christina Miller, the owner, founder and guiding force behind MMS has devoted her career to education. She holds a BA in elementary education, MA in curriculum design and is trained and certified by the Montessori Association of Florida for pre-primary and the American Montessori Society for elementary.

While authentic learning is the latest ‘buzz’ word among top educators, it has been the focus of the school since it was founded in 1977. “The Montessori curriculum has always been authentic. In other words, project based and experimental, allowing for varied student group sizes and multiple simultaneous student activities,” Christina said.

Imagine – young elementary-aged children, as if around the campfire, learning about the universe through one of the “Great Lessons”; pre-school children planting vegetables and flowers in a lovely garden; eighth graders taking part in a week-long internship at a local business of their choice. In essence, a “classroom without walls” would be the ideal approach to educating today’s children to prepare them to lead the world through the rapidly-changing 21st century. In fact, classrooms at MMS were designed with no limitations on learning and remain interchangeable to meet a variety of settings.

“Today’s children are life-long learners in a rapidly changing society. As educators, we do not have the luxury to conduct long-term studies on technology that changes by the day. It is important to prepare children for time and time foreseen,” Christina said.

The MMS curriculum is grounded and based on human growth and development. At the same time, it is flexible and responds to each child’s creativity. Multi-age groupings, a key factor in the Montessori philosophy, foster team teaching, cooperative learning, less grade retention and flexible placing. Children work together in two-year or three-year age groupings. Older children learn leadership and deeply internalize their knowledge by teaching and helping younger children, who gain valuable insight from their peer-mentors.

The Montessori methodology is a developmental approach to learning that includes four planes of development from birth to maturity. MMS guides each child through the first three planes: early childhood, elementary and adolescence. By the time students leave MMS to begin the fourth plane (ninth grade through adult maturity), they are self-confident, independent, self-disciplined and possess a sound background to pursue further academic and creative skills and interests.

In the preschool program, the environment is beautiful, bright, ordered, purposeful and simple. Children encounter manipulatives (hands-on-discovery learning) in the curriculum areas of practical life, sensorial, math, language, geography, art and music. “The early preparation of a young child’s mind follows a natural and definite pattern. We all know children learn from experience and repetition. Young children are like sponges, able to absorb information effortlessly,” Christina said.

Learning materials are within easy reach and invite exploration as children have freedom to move about and select items of interest. They are allowed to “work” without interruption for as long as they like with carefully designed hands-on manipulatives. During the past 40 years there has been much research on the importance of manipulative learning tools. Manipulatives include objects that can be touched and moved by students to introduce or reinforce a concept. Children learn best through active, hands-on activities with concrete materials.

The elementary program is an integration of current research in human development, the trends and issues in education and the Montessori philosophy. It includes a strong curriculum in math, science, the humanities, and language skills and encourages the use of independent, critical thinking skills, time management and problem solving.

While the middle school curriculum is highly academic and exceeds standards set by the state, it is also designed to meet the needs of students. The adolescent plane (middle school) refers to seventh and eight grade students. “Early adolescence is a time of dramatic change and growth when young people are open to the influences of peers, family, school and community,” Christina said. “Sixth grade students are in a transitional phase of preadolescence but are developmentally more akin to the elementary plane.”

Sixth grade students join the seventh and eighth grade students in art, music, physical education and speech/drama/debate and collaborate with elementary students for core subjects. In order to effectively meet the intellectual and physical needs of adolescence, it is vital to create a physically, socially and emotionally safe learning environment. A safe learning environment is not only necessary for adolescents to learn but also to make a smooth transition from childhood into adult society. This is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of a developmentally-based middle school program.

MMS’s mission is to provide opportunities for adolescents to be self-confident and gain self-knowledge, to belong to a community, to learn to be adaptable, academically competent and challenged and to create a vision for their future. The school offers an environment that enables students to make a smooth transition into a traditional, public high school setting.

The Performing Arts Program at MMS creates an environment in which students grow, learn and express their creativity in a variety of methods. The annual Shakespeare Festival takes place in March, followed by a delightful end-of -year performance at P.K. Yonge’s Performing Arts Center and a drama camp during the Summer Camp program.

Historically, Montessori students progress at a faster rate than in traditional settings. Their achievements are possible because the approach to learning utilizes the Montessori philosophy and methodology. MMS integrates this highly-respected philosophy with enhancements in modern technology and current trends in research. The result is an authentic classroom – one without walls, boundaries or ceilings on what and when children learn. More importantly, Millhopper Montessori students love to learn, and they leave with the tools needed to become lifelong learners.

Millhopper Montessori School is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, the Florida Kindergarten Council and is affiliated with the American Montessori Society (AMS). In addition to holding university degrees in a variety of subjects, teachers receive a full year of extensive training to obtain the AMS (American Montessori Society) certification, including a year of supervised student teaching. MMS is located at 8505 NW 39th Ave. For information, call 352-375-6773 or visit www.millhopper.com.

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