Ferndale Bilingual Montessori Preschool

Montessori kids in the swing of things

Montessori kids in the swing of things

by Don Mann
Record-Journal education editor

They were as quiet as church mice.

Seventeen children, all between the ages of 3 and 6, sat in an orderly circle Monday morning at the Ferndale Bilingual Montessori Preschool & Kindergarten and waited to be called upon.

Monday is class fact day at Debbie Barrows’ Montessori school, the day children look forward to learning interesting facts about the world in which they live.

One by one, with raised hands, they eagerly answered geography questions posed to them by Barrows’ assistant Grettel Boyle.

What is the longest river in the world?

“The Nile!” said a youngster.

What is the highest waterfall?

“Angel Falls!” answered another.

Moments later they flawlessly counted to 20 in Spanish.

At Ferndale Montessori, unlike most other Montessori schools, Spanish is part of the daily curriculum.

After almost an hour of circle time, the focus was switched to individual work time, in which the children busied themselves, alone or in pairs, on crafts and puzzles.

Two boys sat at a snack table for two, wearing the multi-colored beaded necklace that denoted it was their time — and no one else’s — to nosh. It’s a rotating privilege, and there are more than enough apple chunks and pretzels to go around.

“We place a large emphasis on manners at our school,” Barrows explained. “And everyone gets their turn at the snack table.”

Soon they were asked to put away their materials, locate their jackets and line up at the door for recess. After a brief reminder of the outdoor rules (no walking in front of someone on the swing, for example) the children swiftly and quietly fall in line with marching band precision.

A first-time visitor can tell they have been put through their paces before.

Don Mann  Record-Journal

Above: Faith Rusk, 5, and Malakai Miller, 4, enjoy a recess break at Ferndale Bilingual Montessori Preschool and Kindergarten on Monday.
Below: Students line up at the door in an orderly fashion to enjoy the sunshine in the playground.

Maria Montessori, the early 20th-century Italian educator whose methods have been adopted by upwards of 5,000 of the world’s schools, would have been proud.

For Barrows, known in Montessori-speak as the school’s “directress,” it’s just another typical hands-on learning day.

And it happens at home.

Certified by the Montessori Institute of America in 1993, Barrows opened her first school in 1995 at the site of what is now Colima Design on Main Street in Ferndale.

Two years later, deciding to combine her personal and professional lives, she had a home built above a school on four acres just east of Church Road.

For the past nine years, Monday through Friday from 8:45 a.m. to 11:10 a.m., she has directed Ferndale Montessori on the site at 5785 Church Road.

Boyle, originally from Costa Rica, has been aboard for three years.

“I love it,” Barrows said. “I love the foreign language and multi-cultural aspect of it.”

Barrows, originally from Vancouver, B.C. said she believes there’s not enough of that in the Ferndale area.

“Ferndale’s a wonderful, safe place to raise kids,” she said, “but you just don’t get the multi-culturalism you get in the city.”

Barrows, whose school schedule mirrors that of the Ferndale School District, said Ferndale Montessori combines basic Montessori philosophical (“hands-on”) principles with some of her own.

“All Montessori schools are different,” she said.

The daily routine at Ferndale Montessori begins with an all-ages circle time that includes about a half hour of learning through music, stories, discussions, games, Spanish songs and the introduction of Montessori materials.

A work period of the child’s own free choice immediately follows. During that time, according to Barrows, the children choose to work from materials that reflect lessons of practical life, with themes related to art, mathematics, language and the sensorial discovery of the world around them.

Weather permitting, they may play outside for roughly 15 minutes in the traditionally fenced play yard. Ferndale Montessori’s unique location, according to Barrows, also allows the children to explore the outdoors and study nature.

Different days of the week also mean special activities. Monday is class fact day. Tuesday includes a visit from Miss Lady, a ladybug puppet, who teaches etiquette through the use of books, tapes and discussions. Wednesday includes a video and popcorn. Thursday is sharing day, where the children develop social skills by sharing one interesting and educational object from home. Friday, the only day the school does not provide a snack, allows each child on a rotating basis the opportunity to use the special snack basket and host snack time.

Children participate in cooking and science projects throughout the year, including the use of a food dehydrator, with which the students learn, for example, how grapes turn into raisins.

But the signature Montessori experience, according to Barrows, is the daily Spanish lesson. The directress said that Ferndale Montessori was the first preschool in Whatcom County to offer Spanish as a second language. Barrows said the language lessons are not conversational, but rather cover basic vocabulary such as greetings, numbers, colors, animal names and various songs.

Also included in the curriculum is the annual Multi-Cultural Learning Fair, which takes place during the last seven weeks of the school year. One week at a time, each of the seven continents is the subject of study. The students learn about the traditions, language, food, music, people and culture related to each continent, and parents are invited to share stories about their heritage and travel experiences. Parents and children also have the opportunity to choose a country and present an authentic snack to the class.

Also, for those students who continue at Ferndale Montessori through kindergarten, a graduation ceremony is celebrated. According to Barrows, the ceremony consists of a full cap and gown ensemble, a diploma and refreshments and serves to commemorate the child’s entrance into the coming world of grade school.

Data from a recent study suggests that Montessori students, in fact, perform at a higher level in that new world.

In the September 26, 2006 issue of the academic journal “Science,” a study comparing outcomes of children from a Milwaukee, Wis. Montessori school with children who attended traditional public schools indicated that Montessori education leads to children with better social and academic skills.

The children who attended the Montessori school, and the children who did not, were tested for their cognitive and academic skills and for their social and behavioral skills.

Among the 5-year-olds, according to Dr. Angeline Stoll Lillard, Montessori students proved to be significantly better prepared for elementary schools in reading and math skills than the non-Montessori children. They also tested better on “executive function,” the ability to adapt to changing and more complex problems, an indicator of future school and life success.

Montessori students, according to Lillard, also displayed better abilities on the social and behavioral tests, demonstrating a greater sense of justice and fairness.

And on the playground they were much more likely to engage in emotionally positive play with peers and less likely to engage in rough play.

Montessori education is characterized by multi-age classrooms, a special set of educational materials, student-chosen work in long time blocks, a collaborative environment with student mentors, absence of grades and tests, and individual and small group instruction in academic and social skills.

More than 5,000 schools in the United States, including 300 public schools, use the Montessori method.
Story published October 11, 2006
Story uploaded 10.11.06 - 10:46 am
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