What’s Good at Lakewood Montessori Middle?

“You don’t teach history, you teach a child.”

I can’t tell you much about most of my classes at the School of Education where I got my certification, but some teacher I had somewhere shared this little truism, and it’s stuck with me ever since.  Sometimes, it seems, the catchy little slogans work.  Unfortunately, this one doesn’t seem to be holding up too well in the era of the over-testing, STEM, and discipline-specific-instruction that has dramatically reshaped our schools.  At its core, however, the advice my teacher gave me lives at the heart of every teacher I’ve ever known.  Yes, we love the subjects that we teach (most of the time), but we really got into this business because we love watching young people grow and figure out just how smart and talented they are.  We want to hear more about their lives.  We want to give them solid and specific advice.  We want to know that they can read, write, and think for themselves.  We want to teach the child.

At Lakewood Montessori Middle School, they teach the child, and they’re proud about it.  And they should be.

My day at Lakewood began with several staff members insisting I wait for teachers inside of the building.  I rather enjoy greeting people as they walk up to the building, but I relented because of how unprepared I was for the cold Fall air.  The warmth was nice, but the best part of coming inside was getting to catch one of the coolest parts of the Lakewood culture.  Every morning, groups of teachers gather in the glass meeting room in the middle of the school to have breakfast, grade papers, plan lessons, and start the day enjoying one another’s company.  It was incredibly sweet, and said a lot about the supportive and joyful space that the Lakewood Montessori staff is cultivating to teach students in every day.

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I caught 6th grade Humanities Teacher Sara Riek amongst the Breakfast Club crew, and she let me know that the atmosphere at Lakewood Montessori would be different than any other school I had seen.  The kids, she shared with me, are given more flexible space and more opportunities for independence.  “It takes a lot of training to get them ready for it,” she conceded, but it pays off when they are, “self-actualized when they go off to high school.  They are ready to advocate for themselves.”  She also added, with a swagger I wish all teachers brought to their craft, that the staff at Lakewood Montessori is “really smart and good at what we do.”

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For Courtney Millis, those really smart co-workers are “inspirational.”  She’s in her 4th year teaching Math and Science at the school and loves how firmly her colleagues believe in public education.

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Lindsay McKee said precisely, “we’re not just teaching subjects, we’re teaching humans.”  Maybe we took the same class?  For her, the Montessori philosophy keeps her coming back to the school.  She noted that it’s nice to have all of the school’s teachers on the same page with respect to how they approach education and how they approach their students.

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Joshua Rudisill’s version of the quote was, “we are given space to grow humans rather than produce test takers.”  He joked that he “created” the school since he was there since it opened, and he’s clearly invested in the staff that he called “family.”  He also mentioned the small size of the school as an advantage, as it allows more personalized instruction and connection to every student.

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Caitlin Donovan gave me a primer for what I would see on my visit, running down the way that the Montessori approach is operationalized in the building.  The school’s culture is based on 3 pillars–Academics, Self, and Community–and each shows up in a different way throughout the day.  Each day starts off with a morning meeting, in which students give one another a strong greeting and discuss a topic that the students themselves have chosen.  Each “community” (which is the name for a grade level team) also watches CNN morning news every day to create common experiences and foster more global perspectives.  During “solo time,” students have 15-20 minutes to decompress.  They can read, they can journal, they can sit quietly by themselves.  They can’t talk or work, and the space is held sacred as a necessary part of the healthy lifestyle the Lakewood Montessori staff tries to encourage among their students.  At the end of each day, the students “restore the environment” by taking responsibility for getting the classrooms back in working order.  Donovan loves the way that this routine helps students develop an “ownership over the space and their education.”

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Kevin McDonough called it “giving kids more responsibility and prepping them to be citizens.”  He grew up playing soccer at the Lakewood YMCA and feels very rooted in this community.  He’s in his 3rd year as an EC Teacher at the school, and the holistic approach to student development keeps him coming back.

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Adding to the refrain, Elizabeth Hunter said the school offered a “social curriculum.”  When I asked her to elaborate, she shared that it is “training kids to be amazing human beings later on.  It’s not about testing, it’s about humans.”  She added that she loves her teaching partner and the small size of the school.

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Across the building, Latin Teacher Artemis Clark said that the “Montessori elements are spectacular” and don’t exist anywhere else.  She added that the school is “highly academic and still focused on community.”  In case I had forgotten, she named the 3 pillars of the school, reiterating the level at which these folks are on the same page.

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7th and 8th grade Humanities Teacher Katie Dulaney also named the Montessori philosophy, pointing out that “kids lead and take initiative.”  For Dulaney, another highlight is the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum and the opportunity to work with a partner to craft lessons and support kids.

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Her teaching partner, Holly Hardin, couldn’t say enough.  For her, getting to teach students in both their 7th and 8th grade years allows for much deeper relationships and opportunities to observe the kinds of growth in her kids that she called “amazing.”  She also talked about the “Montessori pieces” (the news, morning meeting, solo time, restore the space), and the ways that she and Dulaney can use them to collaborate and best meet their students’ individual needs.  According to Hardin, the team model makes everything, from parent communication to planning, better.  “We share the work and the joy, which makes me feel so much more human,” she offered, adding that it’s “way better than the isolating idea of 1 teacher and 25+ kids in one room any day. Katie, my teaching partner, has gotten me through the hardest of days for sure.”

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I got a chance to watch Hardin’s students in their morning meeting, and was struck by a few things.  The “strong greeting,” where each student shakes the hand of the person next to her/him and says “good morning,” is not only precious, but the practice starts the day off with an affirmation of the humanity of every student in the room.  The whole discussion during morning meeting is student led, and included students from other classes coming into the room to share announcements. When they came in to share, however, they checked with the student leader for a signal of when to speak, not the teacher.  At the end of the meeting, the student leaders asked, “are there any teacher announcements?”   While other schools proclaim to develop student leadership, autonomy, and initiative, Lakewood Montessori actually builds the practice into its day.  The results are impressive.

Chrissy Nesbitt pointed out that this approach “teaches kids how to interact with each other,” another principle that other schools purport to emphasize, but don’t build into their days in concrete ways.  Nesbitt, in her 3rd year at the school, argues that this allows Lakewood teachers to “capitalize on the diversity of their students,” adding that “it adds richness.  We don’t ignore it.”  IMG_1091[1]

For her teammate Anca Stefan (who was proudly rocking her DAE shirt), it is the non-instructional parts of the day that separate Lakewood Montessori from other schools she’s worked in.  The morning meeting and solo time allow for a “focus on pausing and self-reflection.”  In another example of the relationship between form and function at the school, she added that sitting on the floor during morning meeting, “humbles you, brings you closer to the Earth, and emphasizes that we are all the same.”  Here, according to Stefan, they teach “empathy rather than sympathy,” pushing the students to build real relationships and real connections that they can take out into the world with them.  Stefan also made a point of noting how dedicated and hard working her co-workers and Principal are.

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Jerrica Melvin, the school’s Administrative Assistant/Data Manager/Record Specialist, certainly works hard.  For her, the kids are the highlight of her day.  She noted that their energy picks her up, and that the staff and students “piggy back off of each other” to make the school special.

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Custodian Veronica Martinez is only in her 6th month at the school, but can clearly see that it is “different from the other schools.”  She named her co-workers as the highlight, and shared how welcome she feels at the school.

IMG_1095[1]Tracy Rhone said, “gosh, I love sooo much about this place,” when I asked her what was good.  The focus on community and peace and developing the whole child, according to Rhone, allows the students to work together more and help one another become leaders.

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For AIG facilitator Bronwyn Hooper, the development of student leadership is a priority.  She argued that the school’s approach “puts the child on a trajectory towards becoming an educated citizen,” and offers “a broader view of what schools should be.”  As a result of the Montessori methods, according to Hooper, the students’ interactions with one another are much kinder and more respectful.

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For Principal Pat Geter, this year is a homecoming of sorts.  She interned here years ago and came back to take the helm over the summer.  She’s excited to be here and deepen her understanding of the Montessori model, which she believes can work for any student in any school setting.  Her students, she believes, are all capable of AIG levels of work, and she’s excited to push the envelope and see what is possible.  So much of that sense of possibility, for Geter, lies in the school’s talented teaching staff.  She says that she’s “never worked with a group of teachers that will fight” in the ways that her teachers will fight to help their students be successful, and she added that their influence is “making our students into activists.”

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That activism, according to Christy Brooks, is rooted in the ways that the staff  is “teaching the students how to think and learn.”  More than making sure that students master concepts and facts, the approach at Lakewood Montessori is aimed at making sure that students have the resources “to go back and figure stuff out on their own.”  The teachers spend a lot of time thinking about the work that the students do so that they will have the skills to succeed later.  In the Montessori model, this approach is called “valorization,” and involves putting supports in place and then gradually removing them as students are more capable of thriving on their own.  It also means that they leave the school with a better understanding of their own learning and work styles.  If it works, says Brooks, the students leave on the way towards “becoming the person that they want to be.”

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Capricia Burrell offered that “everything we do, we do through community.”  This allows both students and staff to have the opportunity to shape the school environment and learn about themselves in ways that they don’t at other schools.  She noted that students who come back to visit after leaving Lakewood Montessori feel more rooted and “okay with themselves.”

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Delvecchio Faison agreed that Lakewood Montessori is different from other schools, offering that he appreciates the ways that conflict is resolved here.  We didn’t get to talk long, since his Art class was starting, but it’s clear that Faison has found a niche in the school’s “unique environment.”

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For my last profile, I’ll end where I started my day, with Tami Cates’ assertion that Lakewood Montessori would be the “best school” that I visited.  She’s been at the school since it opened and said, “I love it, it’s home, it’s family.  We all take care of each other.”

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That much, Ms. Cates, is clear.  And while my love for all of Durham’s schools prevents me from publicly agreeing with your assertion, I will say this:  Lakewood Montessori is a truly special place that I would be both excited and honored to work in or send a child to.  It’s not just that the school has a cool philosophy, but the level of the staff’s commitment to the approach and each other truly maximizes all that the Montessori method offers.  The Lakewood Montessori Middle teachers don’t teach subjects, they teach children, and that’s the most sacred task on the planet.

Thanks for letting me watch you practice what most just preach Lakewood Montessori.  I’ll be back for sure, and I’ll be more prepared to let you know, in person, if you were right Ms. Cates.

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Post-Script Disclaimer:

Please note that the intent of these “What’s Good?” posts is to highlight the positive elements of each of Durham’s public schools.  They are intended to focus on the best efforts that our well-meaning and supremely dedicated educators make every day to love and nurture the young people in our schools.  These posts are snapshots, not comprehensive reports on each school.  The important contributions of so many will, unfortunately, be left out.

We fully acknowledge that each of our public schools is imperfect when it comes to meeting the needs of students of color, poor students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities and mental or physical health problems, and lots of other students for a variety of individual reasons.  However, this blog is not intended to shed light on those problems, which are much more complicated than can be explored in a disclaimer.  

So, we ask that if you choose to write a comment, you keep with the celebratory intent of this blog.  We’re happy to post comments that focus on the good.  Meanwhile, DAE  is also out in DPS every day, fighting to win the schools we ALL deserve.  We hope you’ll  join us.  Thanks for reading. 

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