As we pull into the Montessori School of the Mahoning Valley, my son says, "I thought it was bigger."
Robert spent his preschool years at this school.
Walking into the building, he is smiling as warm memories begin flooding his mind.
The school is in a renovated house at 2008 Lynn Ave., on the city's South Side in its Brownlee Woods section, and the atmosphere inside is like a home. "Carli used to help me take my shoes off and put my slippers on," Robert continues to remember.
Carli was a kind and gentle little girl, a few years older than Robert, who cared for him like a big sister. That is the nature of Montessori.
A Montessori classroom has an age span of three years. "The older children teach the younger children," says Wilfriede Geletka, director of one of the three primary classrooms. "The younger children look up to the older children. They learn from each other."
A matter of perspective: Miss Wilfriede was Robert's teacher. As they see each other, smiles cross their faces. "You have grown!" she exclaims, in her German accent. At the same time, Robert is thinking how much taller she used to be.
Amazing, the difference in perspective a few years can make.
The classroom looks very much the same. "The shelves were bigger," Robert comments, in a recurring theme.
A Montessori classroom has no toys, yet is filled with materials for children to use.
Learning is like play at Montessori. The classroom is not a typical sit-and- listen atmosphere. Children move freely throughout the room working with materials they choose.
"Montessori is about the joy of learning," says Diane Gonda, school director. She quickly adds, "It's not about having fun. We focus on respect, responsibility and resourcefulness."
Looking around the room, these three R's are exemplified as children study reading, writing and arithmetic.
Activities: Several children are seated at desks, practicing cursive writing on chalk boards. Two students are doing dishes -- real dishes, real water.
One little girl is lying on a rug on the floor with various shapes sprawled out before her. She is following shape patterns and creating her own. When she is through, she places each piece back in the container, puts the container back on the shelf, rolls up the rug she was lying on and moves on to a new area.
Such is the nature of Montessori. The key component is "respect for each other and for the environment," Diane says.
Learning is directed by the teacher. A child may not work with materials until he or she has a lesson on it. Yet, the learning is guided by the child's own interests.
Makayla Sims has just finished cutting a hard-boiled egg. She approaches Robert and me. "Would you like a piece of egg?" she asks in her sweet, 4-year-old voice.
Robert laughs. "These kids are so smart," he says in awe. "Someone over there just poured apple juice into a little cup. I don't think I could have poured into that cup without spilling it."
I remind him that he used to pour into the same cup. He doesn't remember that activity but the classroom is bringing back other memories.
Challenging: "I liked the cube block -- taking it apart, putting it back together. That was hard," he says.
The cube block is a binomial cube, an advanced puzzle with mathematical integration.
He was learning and he didn't know it.
Pulling out of the school driveway, my own memory begins churning. I remember a little boy, tired from a day of learning, hopping into the car with a big smile and a pile of papers from his day's work.
"Want to get some ice cream?" I ask the young man sitting next to me now.
That same smile appears on his face.
The perspective on some things never change, no matter how big you get.
XFor information about The Montessori School, call (330) 788-4622