Freeform learning at Yukon Montessori

Ben Puskas sits hunched next to Kade Bringsli, both of them staring intently at a pile of brightly coloured beads. Their little fingers dart around the table, arranging the beads into monochromatic squares.

Ben Puskas sits hunched next to Kade Bringsli, both of them staring intently at a pile of brightly coloured beads. Their little fingers dart around the table, arranging the beads into monochromatic squares resembling patches on a quilt.

“Thirty-six plus six plus six plus one equals 49,” Puskas states, proudly.

Then he takes paper cutouts of addition symbols and lines them up under the row of beads, each one representing part of the equation he and Bringsli are working on.

It looks almost like a scene from any elementary school classroom across the territory, unremarkable save for two important facts. Puskas is 10 years old and in Grade 5. Bringsli is eight and in Grade 2. In any other school they wouldn’t be working together. The likely wouldn’t even be in the same room.

Puskas and Bringsli are students at Whitehorse’s new Yukon Montessori elementary school, the only private school in the territory. The school’s first day of class was Sept. 4, and the two boys share their custom-designed space with 15 other students of varying age from Grades 1 to 6.

Even so, the two classmates work together unbidden. In the far corner of the large, open-concept classroom, another group of students are helping each other trace the etymology of the word “vaccine” from a worn Merriam-Webster dictionary.

While the students work, their teacher, Dominic Bradford, floats among them, occasionally offering advice or guidance, but largely leaving the students to their own devices.

“My role as a teacher is to set them up, teach them how to use the work. With a boy today, I was teaching him how to do multiplication. So I might do the first one with him, and maybe the second, but by the third problem he’s on his own,” Bradford said.

The Montessori curriculum is based on the work and research of Maria Montessori, an Italian teacher in the early 1900s who worked with the children of impoverished, illiterate parents in Rome. She discovered that when students of different ages and abilities were brought together, they would end up teaching each other with almost no need for direct guidance or instruction by the teacher. Her concepts became known as the “Montessori method” and have since spread around the world.

“Montessori said, ‘Lets keep them working, but give them a lot of freedom of movement. They’re working within those parameters of freedom. If they go in and out of concentration, that’s OK, but they’re still staying on task,’” Bradford said.

Instead of rows of desks facing a blackboard, Bradford’s classroom is laid out more organically. Students sit in groups at tables around the room working quietly on whatever project they choose. When a visitor arrives, three children spring up from their work to offer tea before going back to their studies.

The first three hours of a student’s day are called the Great Period, Bradford said. It’s an uninterrupted block where students are free to be self-directed, partnering up to work on whatever they please.

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“They’re working all day. I give them a list of what they need to do for the week, and whether it’s me standing back and watching them work or me standing over them, they have the right to choose what they want to work on,” Bradford said.

The elementary school grew out of the Montessori Borealis preschool, which has been operating in Whitehorse since 1998, said Martha Taylor, president of the Yukon Parents for Montessori Society, which runs the school.

As their kids out-grew the preschool, parents wanted a place where they could continue learning in the Montessori style, but it wasn’t an easy task to get the new school open. The board had to prove to the Yukon Department of Education that it could meet all the same curriculum requirements as every other school in the territory.

“They have the right to exist under the Education Act,” said Education spokesperson Chris Madden. “Essentially, they have to meet all the same learning objectives, but they can do it however they want.”

Funding was, and is, also a challenge. As a preschool, Montessori Borealis qualifies for government subsidies, but the elementary school doesn’t. Bradford’s classroom operates only with the money raised by tuition fees.

It can be a tough sell. Tuition at the Whitehorse Montessori School is around $9,200 a year.

“You make that choice. There can be the illusion when you’re suddenly paying for what could be free, that it’s elitist, it’s snooty, it’s whatever. We don’t think that’s the case. Every family makes choices. You could go out and buy a snowmachine for $9,200 and put your kid in public school,” Taylor said.

That’s less than the estimated $17,039 the Department of Education spends per year on an average student in the public school system, though that number is inflated by the inefficiencies of running schools in the Yukon’s remote communities. It’s also much less than the tuition at southern Montessori schools, which can be closer to $17,000 a year per student.

Even so, the price tag can put a Montessori education beyond the reach of many Yukon families. According to Statistics Canada, the median before-tax income of Yukoners was $46,591 in 2009. A two-parent household pulls in an average of $79,840 a year.

Compare that with the types of families that academically oriented private schools like Montessori attract. In 2007, the Fraser Institute examined Ontario’s private school families and found that more than half of all children who attended Montessori or similar schools came from families with household incomes higher than $120,000, and only two per cent had single parents.

But Bradford and Taylor are convinced the costs are worth it, and they said they have the results to back it up.

Take for example, the cubing box, a collection of coloured wooden blocks resembling a Rubix Cube that preschool-aged kids play with.

“It’s a trinomial cube. It’s basically the cube of a three-digit number, so each block represents a concrete version of that concept. They manipulate it so much at the preschool level that they can do three digits times three digits times three digits. They’re doing cubing right away,” Dominic explained.

Right now, the school is happy to be up and running, but it is looking to expand in the next couple of years.

“We also have to have kids who are ready. We’re not selecting kids to come here, by any means, but we have to have kids whose family is ready to follow through, really what is a three-year commitment. One year they get comfortable, the second year they really start to work and the third year they start to lead,” Bradford said.

“Right now we have 17 students, but we’d like to get it up to 24 or 25,” Taylor said. “We’re looking to have a Grades 1-2-3 class and a second Grades 4-5-6 class sometime in the next three years.”

Contact Jesse Winter at

jessew@yukon-news.com

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