HUDSON VALLEY, N.Y. - Like their public school counterparts, teachers at Our Montessori School have been learning, along with their students and parents, what it’s like to be in a new kind of “homeroom.”

“Distance learning will be new for all of us -- students and teachers,” the school informed its families, “and we will be adjusting as we go along.”

Founded in 1972 by Betty Hengst and her late husband Werner Hengst, with locations in northern Westchester (Yorktown Heights) and Putnam (Carmel), the independent, non-denominational school specializes in the unique learning techniques of Maria Montessori for children 18 months to 12 years old,

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Students are grouped not by the traditional public school method of age-grade correlation, but according to ability. The underlying logic is that students are less likely to fall behind others in their work or to be held back by others.

For example, students in one of the Yorktown classes that is taught by Deniz Soyer are the equivalent of 4th, 5th and 6th graders.

MAINTAINING CONTINUITY
The day the school closed in early March, she wasted no time preparing her charges by sending home their textbooks and workbooks in all subjects, along with supplemental materials.

“This way,” says Soyer, “the Seniors [as they are designated] could get right down to work. The parents were pleasantly surprised how comfortable their children were with independent work. To maintain continuity, I suggested they all begin with a daily routine as close to the one in school as possible. Parents found ways of incorporating exercise, art, and language into the kids’ daily schedule.” 

For the 3- to 4-year-olds in the Carmel location’s Nursery/Kindergarten program, Marge Palumbo started slowly with a text message to the families of her 20 students. She then added visual communication to connect individually with each student through Facetime, Zoom, and Google Classroom, for a collective total of 3-4 hours a day.

Although, at first, the students embraced staying home as ”cool,” she says the newness has started to wear off.

Sylvia Stiehl, who teaches 18 students ages 3-6 in Yorktown, says students and parents alike appreciate her 10-20 minute YouTube videos, which are supplemented with one-on-one face calls.

VIRTUAL SCIENCE FAIR
Montessori is even using remote technology to hold its annual science fair for grades 1-6.

Under the supervision of Randa Dobrayel, who teaches 15 students in grades 1-3, parents have been asked to video the students’ projects and submit them via Google Classroom.

The recorded projects will be shared with all on a private YouTube channel, which allows students to ask each other questions and to share comments on other projects.

Dobrayel checks in with students three times a week, giving lessons to each. In concert with Our Montessori School educational director Sarah Marinelli, she records and posts music videos. Included are dance-along and sing-along videos created by teachers Krystyna Seweryn and Luisa DeVittor Siles.

TAPPING INTO ONLINE RESOURCES
Deniz Soyer employs a variety of online resources to enhance the student experience. On a website called Quizlet, she can create flashcards on any subject. She says Quizlet “then creates tests and games based on the information entered by the user. The children have created their own flashcard sets.”

Other websites she finds valuable are Khan Academy, Math Antics, and IXL, all of which have instructional videos she sends students to help her teach lessons that are not effectively transmitted via video calls.

Soyer says parents pitch in by adding extracurricular activities, including foreign languages and art.

The parents who make it a point to research additional resources at home have discovered apps such as Duolingo and have learned from teachers about websites like LeFrench, to help keep their children on pace and fully engaged in self-enrichment.

One enterprising student melted crayons on a hot plate to simulate oil colors and proceeded to paint in a style inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Marge Palumbo says her 3-4-year-olds enjoy interacting with each other remotely one-on-one, as well as in a group, for a scavenger hunt, or for art projects to show their art work. She says one child created his own board game.

MISSING THE CLASSROOM
In assessing their experiences so far with distance learning, the Montessori teachers we interviewed expressed some strong opinions.

Sylvia Stiehl sees zero advantages to teaching from afar: “There is nothing better than working with a student in a classroom,” she states unequivocally. “Montessori is hands-on teaching and online learning lacks that. Parents are not able to do even one-quarter of what we do in the classroom. Plus, they are exhausted, as some still work full-time from home.

“I just pray it will be over soon, and we will be able to start a new school year in September without any distractions.”

Deniz Soyer says “the most important thing the children are missing out on is socialization and play, as well as enrichment activities, such as languages, art, music, chess, and phys ed.”

MUTUAL ADMIRATION
Soyer expresses great gratitude for the support and response from parents.

One in particular sent her what is best described as an ode to teachers. It begins by assuring that “We’re on your team,” and goes on to state in stately fashion why “I don’t care if you teach my kid one more thing this semester.”

There follows a litany of reasons for that sentiment, each beginning with “You’ve taught them [such lessons as] people are flexible, communities work together for the greater good [and] the world is a good place, even when circumstances are scary.”

It ends with, “Our kids will be okay. You’ve got this.”

A reciprocal sentiment is conveyed by teacher Marge Palumbo, praising the attitude and solidarity of parents.

While she anticipates “some sort of back slide in the learning curve, similar to summer break,” she thinks it will be minimal, “due to parental diligence, the interaction of students with the staff, and the instilled motivation of a Montessori student.”

Palumbo says that “This most difficult time has produced an incredible group of parents, along with a strong academic support community. They  are taking care of each other emotionally and physically (dropping off groceries).

“Parents are forming bonds with each other they didn't have time for before, and are making the most of this precious time they get to spend (uninterrupted by outside interest) with their children.

They keep smiling, embrace each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and have come to realize that the hope of the future is in the hands of their children.”

Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at bruce@aparpr.co; 914.275.6887. One of his clients is Our Montessori School.