Houston — This year at Robert M. Beren Academy, one class of first graders learned the Hebrew blessings recited over different types of food the typical way: with worksheets and a chart on the blackboard.
Meanwhile, the Modern Orthodox school’s Montessori class learned the same material in a radically different way: by sorting plastic fruits and vegetables and cookies into baskets marked with the appropriate blessings.
Four years ago Beren Academy here added a Montessori track option in its lower grades, emphasizing the sensory, tactile, hands-on, self-directed, learn-at-your-own-pace educational philosophy that was developed a century ago by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, to develop a “student’s true normal nature.”
The Montessori method, which is concentrated in a student’s early school years when his or her learning techniques develop, came to the United States in the 1950s and has seen ebbs and flows in popularity since then. Today, Montessori is in vogue, in both the wider community and in Jewish circles. There is no official count of Montessori schools under Jewish auspices in this country, but most estimates put the number at at least several dozen, a figure that is hard to verify for two reasons: no Jewish organization keeps track, and any Jewish school or class is free to use the Montessori name.
“Many schools call themselves ‘Montessori’ when they do not have classrooms utilizing Montessori materials, do not have multi-age grouping [of students] and do not actually employ a scientific approach to carrying out their curriculum,” says Rivkah Schack, co-founder of the four-year-old Torah Montessori School in Chicago.
“A handful” of Montessori schools under Jewish auspices in this country “actually carry out the true Montessori approach … 100 percent” with certification and teacher training by authorized Montessori organizations, Schack says, while the number that call themselves Montessori is “in the hundreds.”
Most of the Jewish Montessori programs, like the track at the Beren Academy, have started in the last five years, were organized by parents who favored a more interactive brand of education for their children, and have flourished largely outside of New York City.
Besides Brooklyn’s Luria Academy, the sole Jewish Montessori elementary school in New York City, “many” Jewish Montessori preschools operate in the city, says Bryna Leider, Luria’s executive director. One prominent day school here, the Modern Orthodox SAR Academy in Riverdale, has a Montessori-style atmosphere — a minimum of walls, which encourages students from different classes to learn together — but is not a full-fledged Montessori school.
“Montessori has taken off nationally,” says Hetty Perl, director of the three-decade-old, preschool Montessori program at Houston’s United Orthodox Synagogues, which serves as a major feeder for the Beren Academy’s Montessori program.
Saying that Montessori schools “are opening up all over the place,” Perl points to locations like Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, Ariz., Bethesda, Md., and Verona and Highland Park, both in New Jersey.
“A lot more of it is out-of-town [non-New York],” where the absence of denominational barriers fosters an openness to such pedagogic innovations, she says.
Jewish Montessori schools operate under a variety of sponsorships, from unaffiliated to chasidic; Jewish Montessori (JewishMontessoriOnline.com), under Lubavitch auspices, has developed its own catalogue of teaching aids for a Jewish classroom.
Montessori “is perfect” for a Jewish setting, consistent with the Jewish philosophy of guiding a student according to his or her inclinations, Perl says.
Studies have found that Montessori students usually develop stronger independent-thinking learning skills than those who have gone to traditional schools, because the Montessori method stresses “quality [of classroom time] over quantity,” says Leider, whose unaffiliated Luria Academy has grown to 60 students in four years.
Chicago’s Torah Montessori School took as its motto the words of King Solomon “Educate a child according to his way; even when he is old he will not turn from it.” According to Rivkah Schack, one of the Torah Montessori’s founders, the school has grown to 65 students in its preschool and early elementary school divisions, and is moving into a larger facility this year.
While some parents are wary of a Montessori school’s seeming lack of structure, and some Orthodox parents fear that “something about it isn’t kosher [i.e., inconsistent with Jewish values],” a growing number of Jewish families are turning to a Montessori education because “parents want their children to be treated uniquely,” Schack says. “There’s no stiera [contradiction]” between traditional Jewish pedagogic methods and the Montessori approach, she says.
Schack says she frequently gets calls from Jewish parents around the country asking, “I want to start a Montessori school — what do I do?”
Houston’s Beren Academy calls itself the only Jewish day school in the U.S. that offers parallel Montessori and “traditional” classes under the same roof.
“It’s hard,” says Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school, “to run two programs simultaneously,” to discourage competition between students in the two tracks and ensure that they eat, pray and socialize together.
The Beren Academy’s Montessori program is typical Montessori.
Administrators, like those at many Jewish Montessori schools, have designed many of their own curriculum tools. Teachers evaluate students’ progress with descriptive reports rather than with standard report cards. Students, who are grouped together by academic level rather than strictly by age, work in classrooms lined with Montessori-specific toys and graphs.
“There’s a misconception that there’s no structure” in a Montessori classroom, but “that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Helene Lubel, the Montessori-trained principal of lower school general studies at the Beren Academy. Montessori-trained teachers, she says, are adept at keeping children focused on their studies.
Lubel tells of self-initiated student projects spilling out into the hallway.
“You want to teach [the students] to teach themselves,” she says. “It’s a lot of work for a Montessori teacher.
“Children are free to move around the room, and this gives them the opportunity to explore what others have chosen to study. Many students will ask if they can take their work outside to recess because they don’t want to stop working,” Lubel says.
“Because students have the freedom of choice — with responsibility — to follow their own interests and initiate challenging work independently, as well as balancing the expectation that they must attend lessons and complete follow-up work for the curriculum standards of that grade level, ” says Lubel, “they excel academically.” Because children of different ages are in classes together, they compete less, she adds. The system “motivates students to take risks without fearing failure.” Thus they are “naturally inclined to aid and encourage one another.”
Debra Kupferman, an attorney who moved to Houston from Philadelphia six years ago, says she enrolled her daughter Gabrielle in the Beren Academy’s Montessori program after the child attended Montessori classes at United Orthodox Synagogues. Kupferman and her husband liked the way their daughter was encouraged to think independently. The parents of Gabrielle’s classmates “have been very pleased with the program.”
Last year, in third grade, Gabrielle became interested in American presidents. She and a few other students spent hours doing research and creating a large timeline, featuring each president, on graph paper. “In a traditional classroom, I don’t know if she would have had that freedom,” Kupferman says.
“She loves it” — both the secular and Judaic subjects, Kupferman says. “She’s excited about learning. She’s eager to go to school. She’s excited about learning Torah.” Last year, Gabrielle suggested that she and her mother study some part of the Torah at home. They chose The Book of Ruth. “She’s taught to think critically about the text,” Kupferman says. This summer, Gabrielle asked if she could do a report on the Taj Mahal: for her own interest, not for school.
“That not something unusual for Montessori parents to hear,” Kupferman says. “She’s done that before.”