Learning Through Discovery

Almost any traditional student can recall at least one dreaded, mind-numbing class —a monotone teacher standing in front of dozing children behind rows of single file desks. But, the students at Millhopper Montessori are not traditional—and their idea of a classroom is very different. Desks bunched together for group activities, teachers walking around colorful, organized rooms and students creatively learning in individualized styles are the everyday ordinary for this extraordinary school.

Millhopper Montessori is dedicated to students learning by discovery. The teachers are viewed more as facilitators and the classrooms as prepared environments. Accredited through the Florida Council of Independent Schools and affiliated with the American Montessori Society, the teaching style revolves around creative thinking and problem solving through a diversified curriculum.

Though the benefits of a small school are apparent (low student-teacher ratios, individualized programs, hands-on education), Christina Miller, the founder and director of the school, said what really sets Millhopper Montessori apart is the balance of a small school with the offerings of a larger facility.

“I think of this school as the Goldilocks effect of education,” she said. “Not too big, not too small, but just right for education in the 21st century. Our facility is just the right size; we don’t want or need a campus with a size that takes precedence over the day-to-day educational needs of the children. We have a program that is state-of-the-art, with many of our eighth-grade graduates qualifying for advanced placement programs in high school.”

The school itself is small, with 225 students ranging from age 2 through middle school, but the offerings are endless. In addition to conventional subject areas, students master courses in practical life, music, movement, Spanish, media and theatre. The 2- and 3-year-olds start developing their independence by scrubbing and sweeping, and the preschoolers begin reading and creating their early mathematical minds with engaging hands-on manipulatives. Along with a rigorous authentic curriculum, the first-graders learn to sew, the fourth-graders construct spreadsheets in Excel and the eighth-graders complete business internships out in the community.

An impressive list of academic courses, like botany, zoology, astronomy and geology give the students an edge over customary elementary and middle school students. Some of the curriculum is considered advanced placement for high-school level, but none of the students are tested or placed into varying levels of classes.

“We’re not screening the children to be high IQ or gifted caliber, this is just what children can do if given the right learning environment in a small school,” Miller said. “If you’re learning something new and different, your delivery system is where you have difficulty, so we try to deliver the information in ways that best benefit the student.”

The types of delivery honor the individual needs and abilities of each child, allowing the students to work at their own paces. The lesson plans are considered learning activities, as opposed to teaching activities, where the teacher can observe the readiness of each student.

As the children progress from the early development program to elementary school, they have more work required through study plans— some daily, some weekly.  The students are usually able to choose the order in which they prefer to complete the activities, with a work plan that accommodates their personal needs.  This type of work ethic instills strong decision-making skills in students at a young age, Miller said, which helps with difficult choices young adults face in everyday life.

“They’re not as prone to peer pressure because they have a lot of practice saying ‘no’ in a group setting and having that be OK,” she said. “They’re more self-disciplined, sophisticated and mature.”

Combining grade levels into the same classroom also helps develop maturity, with both the younger and older students, Miller said. The young children have mentors they can look up to, while the older students take on responsibility and retain lessons on a deeper level—one that enables them to mentor and teach their younger peers.

Subject area teachers in art, music and science migrate from classroom to classroom with carts filled with supplies and tools for the project-based lessons. Instructors of all subject matters collaborate with one another to integrate lesson plans across all courses. For example, the students work on the technological side of science projects in technology, creating graphs and tables in Excel and utilizing search engine optimization for project research.

“For a small school, we have all of the things a large school would have, but we’re far more efficient,” Miller explained.

Sylvia Aslanian, the technology instructor, said the program uses national standards when developing the curriculum. Students are provided with laptop computers and updated software, while teachers use smart boards, video projection and state-of-the-art teaching tools to keep the students up-to-date with the technological world, while balancing the importance of traditional human interaction.

Aslanian, who also directs the drama department, said one of the benefits of a small theatre program is the constant opportunity for the children to actively participate and take on roles. The drama program largely focuses on learning about theatre through performance. It also incorporates public speaking, which begins in first grade with reciting journal responses. By the time the students are in middle school, they are writing impromptu speeches and debates using an extemporaneous style of delivery.

“I let them guide me so I’m not pushing them,” she said. “It’s important to start so young so I can work with their strengths and promote them—that’s what gives them confidence and helps them grow.”

Millhopper Montessori also places a strong emphasis on physical fitness. Beginning in first grade, students participate in physical education four times each week for 30-45 minutes, and kindergarten students attend twice weekly for half an hour. Due to the PE field area that is designed for a smaller school, Coach Cam Parker said he creates an environment where fitness is fun and students improve through exposure to a wide variety of sports and aerobic activities in hope that each student will find something that he or she wants to pursue outside of school. Drills and games are formatted in a way that allows students numerous touches with equipment, not on their individual prowess. MMS students , through the President’s Physical Fitness Standards, test in the 85th percentile or higher.

Students at Millhopper Montessori are also challenged creatively in PE and are asked to create jump rope and dance routines. While personal growth is a focus over conventional athletics, teams of MMS Knights participate in a variety of sports leagues around Gainesville, usually with great success, Parker added.

“There’s a culture here where students understand accountability and integrity,” he said. “It’s not about winning, but about having fun while playing, being a good teammate and improving personality along the way.”

The culture ascends from the 2-year-olds all the way to the teachers who “co-direct” by constantly helping one another and integrating lesson plans. Miller hopes to expand the culture even further by adding a high school, which would make it one of only four Montessori institutions in Florida that serve preschool-aged children to adulthood. Thirty-five years after its conception, Miller said the organic school evolves to stay modern, while remaining grounded in its Montessori roots.

“Montessori will change over time—it has to because children in society will change,” she said. “But what doesn’t change is how a child naturally unfolds through the hands-on curriculum, through discovery.”

About the author