Distance learning: Light of the World Academy stays true to its spirit by replicating the Montessori experience

By their very nature, Montessori schools are not set up for distance learning. Montessori is a very hands-on curriculum that relies strongly on personal interaction and building relationships between students and teachers.

So when word came down that for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, Light of the World Academy in Pinckney had to do distance learning with its students, the challenge for school leaders and staff was clear.

“We wanted to recreate the Montessori experience and keep true to the spirit of our school as much as possible,” said school founder and Montessori director Kathy Moorehouse. “We aren’t the kind of school where we would just send home handouts and have students complete assignments online. We needed to have personal interaction and an individualized learning plan for every student.”

Kindergartner Ian Nummy was almost to 1,000 on his “number roll” (writing the numbers all the way to 1,000) when the closure happened, and he wanted to continue at home. His smile says it all here as he hits the 1,000 milestone.

Light of the World Academy is a K-8 charter school that’s authorized by Grand Valley State University, and the school worked with GVSU as it developed its plan for distance learning.

As soon as word came down on March 12 that schools would be closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, the staff at Light of the World Academy sprung into action.

They surveyed all the parents to find out who had access to Internet and devices and who didn’t, and took steps to make sure every student would have the technology and other learning supplies they needed. They got devices into the hands of students who needed them and arranged for Internet access. They also made individual plans with each family to arrange schedules and get them other Montessori supplies as needed.

The staff then worked together to develop a plan that would continue to give students a true Montessori education.

“We believe that a student’s social and emotional needs are just as important as their academic needs, because one leads to another,” Moorehouse said. “A child can’t learn if they don’t feel safe and loved – and connected to their teachers and classmates. If you meet their social and emotional needs, then the academic success will follow.”

In terms of the distance-learning plan, that meant coming up with ways that students could continue to feel connected to their school leaders, teachers and classmates.

“The first thing we did, that very first weekend of the closure, was to do a Facebook Live video that featured me on the Potawatomi Trail doing an activity called Pooh Sticks,” Moorehouse said. “We knew that the children might be feeling a little apprehensive and nervous about the school being closed, so I wanted to make sure they could still see me and hear me and be able to interact with me by writing comments as we went along. And it worked beautifully.”

School founder and Montessori director Kathy Moorehouse does a Facebook Live video from the Potawatomi Trail.

It worked so well, in fact, that they decided to make the Facebook Live videos a daily supplement to the distance-learning plan. They’ve already done several dozen videos, drawing thousands of total views. Moorehouse has done many of the videos herself, and many of the other teachers (including the art and STEAM teachers) also take a turn.

Every day at 4 p.m., the Facebook Live videos air, each one tackling a different topic and giving students not only a fun and educational activity to do, but also giving them a chance to interact in real time with their school leader and teachers.

They’ve covered a wide array of topics – everything from nature to geography to math to science.

They formed partnerships with a couple local businesses to provide lessons, as well. Miss Cindy’s Art Learning Center in Pinckney does weekly art lessons for the students, while Zach Kaufman at Way of Life Martial Arts has done at-home physical education lessons.

“In a Montessori school, field trips are very important because the outside world is a natural teacher,” Moorehouse said. “We formed these partnerships to allow our students to take virtual field trips. It’s also been an excellent way to stay connected with businesses in the community.”

At left, art teacher Cindy Wilhelmsen teaches an Earth Day art project. At right, fourth-grader Julia Miller completes the project.

In terms of the individual classroom lessons, Light of the World Academy developed a plan in which each class’ distance-learning school day would replicate a regular Montessori school day.

Above and below, kindergarten teacher Gayle Italia leads her class in a Zoom Montessori circle.

“From preschool through middle school, a Montessori class always starts the day with a circle,” Moorehouse said. “The students and teachers sit in a circle, and the teacher presents new work and then they talk about what they’ll be doing the rest of the day. This is also the time when we do restorative practices – a practice that promotes community building and conflict resolution to teach social and emotional life skills.

“We decided to do the same thing virtually, so every morning, each of our classes has a Zoom circle,” she said. “We run it just like a regular circle. It took a while for everyone to catch on to the technology, but now they’re loving it. The students love getting to see and talk to their friends and teachers every morning – just like they would do in regular school.”

Middle school teacher Lexi Salisbury’s class takes part in a Zoom circle.

And just like they would in the classroom, students follow individualized planners that they use to guide their learning each day. The planner – which the student and teacher go over every day – lets the student plan his or her own day.

To make her learning fun and engaging, second-grader Alice Jahnke did her math on the sidewalk with chalk.

“We’re all about individualized learning, and we didn’t want to lose that,” Moorehouse said. “Each student is at a different place academically, and each student learns at their own pace. By doing the planners as part of our distance-learning plan, that’s allowed us to continue to provide an individualized learning plan for each student.”

For students who aren’t able to log on for the Zoom meetings, the teachers keep in regular contact via phone or email to go over individual lesson plans.

Montessori schools also believe children can learn through everyday living and tasks, so every Montessori classroom has a “practical life” area. During the distance-learning phase, Light of the World Academy gave the students a number of practical-life activities they could do at home – everything from cooking to sewing to setting up an at-home store.

Light of the World Academy values community service, and even that has continued through the closure period. The school has its own chicken coop, with the chickens providing a dozen eggs every few days. During the closure, all of those eggs have been donated to the Pinckney Food Bank and school families in need.

Fourth-grader Olivia Cannaert’s class did a building activity in which they made marshmallow catapults at home.

“We know there are some families that are struggling right now – including some families in our school community – and we’ve been able to donate several dozen fresh eggs,” Moorehouse said. “Local and global outreach is part of our mission, and we wanted to continue that.”

Through it all, Moorehouse feels they’ve done their best to replicate the Montessori experience in these unprecedented times.

“We are who we are,” she said. “We’re a Montessori school, so we couldn’t try to be something that we’re not. I’m so proud of our staff and how creative and flexible they’ve been. They’ve all worked so hard to help develop and implement this plan. And I’m very proud of the fact that even though we might not all be in the same building right now, we’re still a Montessori school.”

The Livingston Post is looking to highlight the many innovative ways that Livingston County schools are doing distance learning and educating students during these unprecedented times. If you’d like to highlight what your school is doing, send the information and photos to info@thelivingstonpost-staging.tepontv7-liquidwebsites.com.

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