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As a Montessori educator with plenty of experience under her belt, there were few things 4th & 5th grade teacher Allison Klemm believed more strongly than the notion that Chromebooks (or other computer/tablet devices) in the hands of young children spell trouble. That kind of technology dependency went completely against the mold of what she knew - it felt near impossible to see the value in a computer experience when compared with experiential, in-person instruction. After all, technology might be able to deliver the same content, but how could it build meaningful relationships with students? As the COVID-19 pandemic flipped the world on its head, Allison came not only to rethink Chromebooks - but also to reimagine how technology might just be a necessary stepping stone to building human connection in these unusual times.
Back in college, Allison actually opted to pursue a career as an attorney - but after quickly realizing it wasn't her calling, she began teaching preschool, and naturally transitioned from there to get her teaching certificate. Sixteen years ago, she took a job with Mt. Clemens Montessori Academy (MCMA), a Montessori-focused charter school in Mt. Clemens that boasted low student-teacher ratios, an emphasis on relationship building, and a true family atmosphere. Over the years, her role at MCMA evolved - after teaching for a while, she stepped into a curriculum director position, but she always felt drawn back to the classroom. Allison even made the difficult decision to leave the school and teach in a traditional school system - but after just one year away, she found herself missing the family and home she'd built at MCMA, and she returned the following year.
For Allison and the MCMA team, the pandemic has presented a lot of challenges - even beyond the logistics of conducting instruction at a distance.
We really focus on meeting the needs of individual learners - it's about people and relationships. That means ensuring we have low educator-student ratios; in a typical year, we achieve that by using assistants and paraprofessionals in addition to our instructors, who help us facilitate a lot of small group work. Ultimately that's a great way to ensure we're building relationships with students and learning how to support their unique needs. This year, our biggest consideration has been addressing the human connection - a lot of us worried that going back to school virtually would hinder the relationships we could build with students and families.
Practically, the MCMA team felt it was critical to prioritize taking time at the beginning of the school year to assess and evaluate students as people, before throwing curriculum and school work at them - that way, even in the virtual space they could provide the individual support that's so important to their school. In the words of Maria Montessori, "Our work is not to teach, but to help the absorbent mind in its work of development. How marvelous it would be if, by understanding the needs of his physical life and by feeding his intellect, we could prolong the period of functioning of the absorbent mind!"
Now, MCMA offers both a 100% virtual instruction model, as well as a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction. To do that effectively, Allison and her fellow educators have worked very hard to merge the technology and experience pieces.
One of the most important things we did in setting up our virtual instruction platform was to look at things from the student's point of view. Our Principal set up a Google Classroom demo, where we could experience the technology as a learner - and what we found was fascinating. What I saw was not engaging for kids; there were few pictures, few colors, lots of blocks of text and instructions, blank white space - a stark difference from the colorful, hands-on, stimulating classroom and school environment we work to curate in the physical space. But that exercise was so necessary; now when I'm creating materials, I think harder about making things fun and attractive for students, so that they WANT to do the work. And I've learned that is CAN be done in the virtual space.
For Allison, it was worth the hard work when students returned to school this year (whether that meant from their homes or in the school building). She admitted the hardest thing to overcome on day one was not being able to share her smile with kids, and to see their smiles in return. But nevertheless, it was clear that kids were just grateful to be back to school. Not only is it clear that despite the limitations, real relationship building is happening, but also that the newfound integration of technology has benefits for this year and beyond - whether that's around research projects, STEM projects, group work outside of school, and work during sick days and/or snow days. Simply put, access to great resources is better than ever.
For this passionate bunch of Montessorians, this school year was no small task - but Allison is grateful for the passion and dedication of the entire school team as they worked to bring it all together.
I'm most proud of the way our school came together this year - especially our entire 4th & 5th grade team. We spent every day for four weeks leading up to the new school year at our building (albeit with masks on and socially distanced), working to build our schedule, our process and figure out the new procedures. We all had the opportunity to work remotely, but every single person felt the need to collaborate together and get things done right. That kind of teamwork is special, and I'm really proud of it.
We asked Allison if there was a story that set her on a path to becoming an educator, or exemplified her as a teacher. Below is her answer.
What I love about teaching is knowing that one small gesture can impact a child. When I was in third grade, I had a hole in my pants, and I was so embarrassed - my teacher hand stitched that hole and handed the pants back to me, and it was just a small gesture that I've never been able to forget. My passion for my students comes from that moment in my life when somebody did something small. So when I think about what my students are going through, and the feelings they are having because of COVID-19, I hope whatever small gesture I can give to them, whether it be a text or a Zoom call or whatever, I hope it makes a difference in their moment that day. And hopefully they experience something they remember here on out. The challenges I experience are nothing, when I consider what an impact and difference I can make - not just with my students’ education, but also in their lives and their futures.