Mastering Montessori

Nontraditional teaching gains ground

By CJ Woodring

» It’s a beautiful morning in Indiana’s capital city, and Montessori Garden Academy’s elementary students are ready to face the day. Youngsters stash jackets and shoes and don slippers — which encourages mindful walking and purposeful movement — then join the circle for a group meeting with their teacher to discuss the day’s lesson plans.

Jamie Sellhorn is founder and executive director of the facility, one of several Montessori schools on Indianapolis’ south side. A native Hoosier, whose daughter’s experience at a Montessori school in Chesterton informed her career path, Sellhorn is credentialed in early childhood and infant and toddler, also serving as MGA’s music teacher.

Sellhorn paints a verbal picture of typical classroom activity that supports the concept of fostering a child’s natural desire to learn, to become lifelong learners and to be responsible citizens, tenets at the heart of Montessori philosophy.

“Students might talk about an idiom and illustrate and act it out,” she says. “From there, they work on independent work plans. They might choose reading, math or a cultural activity. It’s up to them how they structure their day and what they want to work on first.

“It might be looking at building forms from around the world, reading about the buildings and their architectural significance, and where they’re located. And they might write about that in their journal,” she adds. “They may work one-on-one or in a small group with the teacher, going over anything they need to fix or for which they need further explanation.”

When they’re hungry, youngsters prepare their own snacks, which Sellhorn says might entail making a waffle or peeling fruit or a hard-boiled egg. “They wash their dishes and clean up afterwards,” she notes, “even the toddlers.”

Montessori teachings, however, are not self-focused: “Community service around the school is required, if not daily, at least once or twice a week,” Sellhorn says. “They can go to another classroom and read to other students, or staple papers in the office, or help toddlers do a special project. They’re also involved with community projects outside the school.”

This integrated curriculum provides a holistic approach that ensures students at all levels perform their best and are supported in doing so.

Montessori history

Maria Montessori opened her first school in 1907 in Rome. As a child care center in a poor, city district, the school was based on her global travels and approach to education, which noted that little ones absorb knowledge and learn at their own pace, essentially teaching themselves.

Montessori’s background in psychiatry and as co-director of a new training facility for special education teachers, led to improved teaching methods for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, methods she later applied to typical classroom settings. Materials she designed, coupled with a unique classroom environment, engendered students’ natural desire to learn, and by 1910 Montessori schools were renowned worldwide.

The American Montessori Society was founded in 1960. Although there is no national database of schools, which can be for profit or not-for-profit, private, public/charter, secular or parochial, there are an estimated 5,000 schools in the United States and thousands more worldwide.

According to Marcy Krever, senior director of marketing and communications for New York City-based AMS (, schools may join the organization but are not required to do so.

“We have about 1,400 member schools,” Krever says. “While the vast number are privately owned and operated, we’ve seen the number of public and charter schools grow over the past five years.”

When the concept of Montessori schools first entered mainstream America in the 1970s, they were considered a hippie idea.

Schools were perceived by many as pure pandemonium, youngsters “doing their own thing” and running amok with little or no supervision. Others alleged the concept as too strict, harbingers of drudgery, allowing Jack and Jill no playtime.

In truth, Montessori classrooms are much like America’s earliest one-room schoolhouses, combining grades and age levels that subject students to various levels of learning. Older students serve as role models, while younger ones are supported and gain confidence.

Teachers, both generalists and specialists, work with students in preparing daily, individualized materials and activities based on their focus of learning. Even at elementary grade level, youngsters set goals, closely observed by teachers who help them master each challenge and disallow them from moving on before they’re ready — the real culprit that leads to a child falling behind.

Indu Agnihotri, founder of Center Grove Montessori and Indiana Montessori Community schools, emigrated from India in 1986 and was certified from the American Montessori Society in 1988. Montessori schools differ, she says, because students are allowed to follow their own instincts.

“If a student wants to do math all day long, he’s allowed to do that,” she says. “We make out study plans for a whole week or month, depending upon the grade level, and the teacher guides them through that. Students also do a lot of research because teachers are trained not to give them all the answers.

“When they research things by themselves, they gain a deeper understanding than by just learning something through rote memory.”

Agnihotri says her students help teachers with room setup prior to school and can choose their own after-school work, while enjoying snacks and activities that include cooking and sewing.

Whether studying a foreign language, science, history or geography, students explore aspects of the subject during uninterrupted work time, learning the interrelatedness of all things. Totally immersed in the subject, they’re able to act on natural Curious George tendencies through further study and research.

Through this process, children learn to become self-sufficient and self-confident, needing no accolades just for showing up and no outside reinforcement for validation.

To ISTEP or not

Twenty-first century public schools incorporate a lexicon nearly unheard of in generations past: ISTEP. CORE subjects. No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top. Most Montessori students in private schools don’t routinely participate in standardized testing. They don’t earn letter grades at lower levels, nor do they compete for high GPAs at the high school level.

Rather, schools incorporate personal and social development, responsibility and organization, among other skills not taught on a standardized test. Skills that, ultimately, contribute to a well-rounded, self-confident and self-assured adult.

To that end, teachers routinely assess students, while following and exceeding state standards for traditional testing.

“Teachers are familiar with Indiana state standards, and our curriculum goes far beyond that,” Sellhorn says. “When a child completes first grade, he or she is definitely ready for second grade in a public school, if they choose to transfer.”

Agnihotri agrees. “We don’t do any testing, but we want to know where students are, so we do our own assessment. We’re not just teaching them to a test, to pass the ISTEP,” she says.

AMS’s Krever says each Montessori school establishes its own educational practices, including its system of assessing and communicating student outcomes.

“A school’s approach to assessing student outcomes is designed to provide the student and parent with comprehensive feedback on personal, social and academic development, and often includes several different assessment tools: observations by staff of behaviors that indicate the student’s personal/social/academic development, demonstration through oral and written tools of mastery of knowledge and skills with specific instructional material, and in-class performance of work,” she says.

Typically, at the elementary level and above, a student’s work portfolio, homework performance, out-of-class assignments and/or standardized testing may also be used.

Montessori public school students must take the same standardized tests as their counterparts in traditional public schools. Some private Montessori schools also use periodic or annual standardized testing, Krever says, “because they consider standardized test taking a practical life skill and one that becomes more important as students transition to more traditional educational systems in college and beyond.”

Nearly 200 member schools are AMS accredited, she says. “This means they’ve undergone a voluntary, rigorous, multiyear process of review and evaluation, and have been deemed to meet a well-defined standard of excellence. Several, but not all, of Indiana’s members schools are accredited.”

Montessori schools continue to open doors throughout the Hoosier State. On the south side of Indianapolis, Greenwood Montessori Children’s House opened this August. Founded by Tim and Julia Hittinger, the school follows the Greenwood community schools’ schedule.

Tim Hittinger’s mother, Anita, founded another Montessori school in 2004, where he began his career. Julia Hittinger was a special education teacher who joined her husband and mother-in-law on the Montessori path in 2012.

Julia Hittinger says they were unable to open registration until July this year and are looking forward to January, when they can begin registering for the 2016-17 school year.

“We just want to continually work with the community and educate them on the goodness Montessori has to offer and hope parents can find what they’re looking for at our school,” she says.

In addition, established schools continue to grow. Montessori Garden Academy recently received a $100,000 Facility Improvement Grant from United Way of Central Indiana. “We’re adding two classrooms with that: an infant and an early childhood classroom,” Sellhorn says. “This means we’ll be able to receive a higher reimbursement and service many more low-income families. All children should be able to have this kind of education.”

Visit the American Montessori Society’s website at for a list of Indiana’s member schools.