Today we’re talking about Montessori in the public sector and Visual Thinking Strategies. Our guest is Katie Brown, the Director of Research and Professional Development at The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.
by Letty Rising
Follow the Trillium Montessori Talks podcast
About the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector
What are the mission and goals of NCMPS?
Katie: We aim to be the national hub for the public Montessori movement in the US in support of the approximately 520 public Montessori programs in the country. We are a nonprofit and we’ve been around for about 10 years. Our mission is to promote equitable, accessible, sustainable, and humanizing public education through Montessori, so really looking at Montessori as the lever for social change for children, families, and for teachers. Our vision is a world where every community has equitable access to this kind of education that empowers families and children and promotes human flourishing for all stakeholders.
Letty: That sounds like a worthy dream to accomplish! I hope we see Montessori for any family and child in the country that wants it.
What do you find that people who come to your organization need the most support with? What are they asking of you when they come to see you? What kind of resources and opportunities, for example?
Katie: Many people who find us aren’t aware that there are Montessori schools in the public sector. Part of what we do is awareness and advocacy. One of our early projects was the Montessori census, to help people convene and connect is a big part of our work. We bring state organizations together for advocacy, and to share the work that is being done. There are state-level advocacy organizations, we bring them together and help them learn from each other.
We also connect researchers who are studying public Montessori or questions relevant to the Montessori community, connecting them with teachers and schools to help make that research happen, and work with advocates and funders connecting them with those opportunities. Connecting practitioners facing similar challenges Even though there are over 500 public Montessori schools, they are often the only ones in their county/district/region. Challenges aren’t always unique but need help connecting with others who have faced similar problems and have solutions to share.
We also get a lot of folks coming to us with needs around teacher training. As I’m sure you know, the teacher pipeline is one of the biggest challenges facing the public Montessori movement. Finding and holding onto those trained teachers who are prepared to be effective in public Montessori settings. Lots of folks are looking for training for their teachers. Or for guidance on where to find teachers.
We also have Teach Montessori, which is a website where schools can post listings, teachers can post resumes, and also learn the pathways for becoming a Montessori teacher. We also provide Montessori coaching. Training up folks to provide the support and mirror that teachers need to continue to grow in their practice and continue to grow as professionals and as people. People come to us for preparation as instructional coaches in Montessori settings.
We’ve also been hearing a lot from the field right now about ramping up the academic rigor in Montessori programs. We are coming out with a Montessori to standards alignment this fall. This is a question we get all the time: “How does the Montessori method and curriculum meet the requirements of the state standards?” There has been a lot of work previously cross-walking those standards to Montessori but we are taking a different approach, starting with the Montessori curriculum and showing how it meets the requirements of the Common Core State Standards, and showing where there are opportunities for teacher-created lessons, and where there are things to be thinking about in preparation for assessment. For example, in this lesson, we might use a certain word but it might show up a similar yet different word on the end-of-year math test so if you are using this lesson you are also introducing this vocabulary. This helps practitioners assess both inputs and outputs in their classroom in varied and wide-scope ways so that they are capturing a full picture of what they are able to do.
We also have a lot of folks interested in continuous improvement and program quality. We have a couple of tools to support quality at the classroom level and at the school level. We have a tool called the DERS, an iPad-based app, which is a classroom observation tool that is research-based. It is not Montessori specific, but is appropriate for any developmentally appropriate environment. It maps backward from what the research tells us about how we can support the development of executive functions, deep literacy, and social and emotional growth for children. What does the physical environment of the class need to look like, what do the adults need to be doing, and what do children need to be doing to nurture the development of those outcomes? That is a tool a lot of folks use in the classroom to identify what is going well and identify low-hanging fruit in terms of taking practice and environment to the next level.
At the school level, we have a tool called Essential Elements Rubric for public Montessori schools which outlines at the organization level what needs to happen in order to offer sustained, equitable, accessible high-quality public Montessori programs. It looks at not only what is going on in the classroom, but also looks at the training of your lead teachers, what professional development are you offering your assistant teachers, and if you have a full complement of materials.
Also, how are you engaging families, and your community? How are you practicing wide scope assessment, or documenting the good work you are doing and the benefits the children get out of your program? How are you supporting your leadership? What are you doing to ensure the success in the long-term sustainability of your leadership? This tool is available for any school to download for free on our website, but some schools ask us to come in and walk them through the rubric and identify areas they can grow, and sometimes they use it as a basis for their school improvement plan.
Have you seen any new trends in public Montessori education, and what do you see as you look towards the future?
Katie: We do continue to see growth. We see about 20 new programs per year. In the last 15-20 years most of the growth we have seen is in charter schools, but we also see new district programs as well. As we look to the future I’m thinking and hoping that we see the growth of even more district programs. There are a lot of ways that districts can increase accessibility. We are excited about the possibility of growth there. Across the sector, public Montessori schools are struggling with staffing challenges. It’s really tough right now trying to hire, especially with some of those elementary positions. And that’s true in and out of Montessori schools as schools are finding it tough to staff up right now.
A trend that predates the challenges of the past year or two is seeing creative approaches to teacher preparation. Thinking outside of the box on how we can meet the needs of Montessori in the 21st century and meet the needs of the public sector in particular. One of the models that have arisen is the Montessori teacher residency. Having that teacher preparation being rooted in the school, a prepared environment to support the professional formation of novice teachers. We run several Montessori teacher residencies throughout the country, and it’s not just us doing it. I think that’s a trend we will continue to see looking towards the future. The teacher pipeline issue is one of the most challenging things we face.
Another thing we are seeing is increased interest in adolescent programs. Public Montessori has reached the point where there are a lot of primary and elementary programs that are mature, and for those schools that have a level of stability, families ask what happens after 6th grade. How can we extend this experience and meet the developmental needs of adolescents? There are a lot of interesting thoughts about what a Montessori adolescent program can look like. What does it look like if you’re not on a farm? If you are in DC? If you are in downtown Denver? How can you stay true to the principles of Montessori and do this within our local context? So those conversations are interesting.
Another trend and challenge that we are seeing in the last 5 years is more interest and participation in ongoing conversations on racism and bias and equity in American public education and Montessori specifically, and it’s been great to see these conversations moving to the forefront of people’s attention and practice. We are also seeing challenges with these conversations in places like Florida, which limits the way in which these conversations can take place. Looking forward, the question is how we can continue this important work.
Visual Thinking Strategies
I wanted to ask you more specifically about a course you offer through NCMPS. Can you tell me a bit about the Visual Thinking Strategies course and who could benefit?
Katie: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about it, because I think it’s really exciting and I love to talk about it. It also merits some explanation, because when people hear the phrase “visual thinking strategies” they think they know what it means, but this particular tool comes from the world of museum education. The founders of VTS were studying traditional museum education programs and trying to figure out what they were getting out of a traditional museum tour where a guide would take them around and talk about the art and the artist and the history and the technique. They were looking for a way to make those engagements and interactions meaningful for people. They developed this protocol called visual thinking strategies that walks a group of people through a shared viewing experience using a work of art using just 3 questions:
- What is going on in this picture?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What more can we find?
They found that utilizing this protocol is very powerful in helping people build a relationship and become a more practiced and knowledgeable consumer of art, but more importantly for our application as educators, a really powerful tool for supporting language development and critical thinking. This facilitated discussion gives you the facilitator the opportunity to develop new vocabulary and offer syntax through your facilitation of discussion and nurture key critical thinking skills. Through observation, studying the image and paying attention to detail, you are able to make an inference and conjecture about what is going on in this image.
This first question, what’s going on in this picture, was chosen very intentionally. It’s not what you see, it’s not what you notice, it’s what’s going on. It prompts the viewer to speculate about a narrative, analyze the dramatic situation, and make inferences about what is going on, prompting the participants to provide evidence for the argument. It provides cognitive flexibility by holding space for multiple perspectives, and interpretations of the same image. It’s fascinating to pull back the curtain on this protocol and see all of the incredible cognitive work that is happening behind the scenes through these simple 3 questions.
The training trains folks to use this protocol, with particular attention to Montessori environments in all 3 planes of development. We serve practitioners working in PreK-12 schools. The course is a great option for lead teachers, assistants, coaches, and anyone working with children in Montessori contexts on how to bring this tool to the Montessori environment.
We also talk about the intersection of the philosophy and pedagogy of Visual Thinking Systems and Montessori and do a deep dive into how they support each other in the critical work of developing language and critical thinking across 3 planes. We also talk about the assessment of growth and development happening with and through VTS.
The 4-week discourse is happening now but will be offered again in the spring. If you are curious and want to learn now, the Visual Thinking Strategies book is available on Amazon. It’s a really good primer but comes to life when having the experience of joining a live VTS session.
Learn more about the Visual Thinking Strategies course on Public-Montessori.org
Will there be strategies on how to implement them in the classroom in a concrete way?
A big part of the course is practicing, which helps them feel comfortable and confident to bring into the environment. It’s only 3 questions but it does require a certain level of skill to support discussion and hold space for inquiry in a way that really creates possibility. In the course, participants learn how to pick a good image that will be a good conversation starter, how to use those 3 questions to guide the discussion, and how to paraphrase. For every observation made, the facilitator paraphrases the observation, and that’s the opportunity to offer that slightly more sophisticated language, that zone of proximal development, here is your idea restated back to you in a slightly different way. You know your idea was heard and received and validated since it is reflected back to you. Participants learn to bring this into their environment in a way that is going to be optimal for kids.
Letty: Thank you, Katie, for sharing about the organization where you work, and also your work on Visual Thinking Strategies!
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several pubic and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. She currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.