The students call it “home”. The teachers are extremely loyal to it. Modern Montessori School caters to the individual educational needs of kids from the KG levels. It created a model of learning that fosters a freedom in teaching based on the Montessori and IB systems. That school model is now beginning to spread regionally.
My best memories of school, outside sports and falling instantly in love with attractive members of the opposite sex, were of the times I concocted a successful plan to escape the school grounds. The stiff regulations and traditional chalk and talk ways of learning never suited me and many of my co-conspirators felt the same. While many educational institutions are still embracing traditional methods, some are seeking to change students’ attitudes towards their establishment. One in particular has made a complete crossover into uncharted territory. “We are a family,” said Amr Hasri, a student in an Arabic Literature class at Modern Montessori School (MMS) in Amman, Jordan. Hasri was merely echoing feelings he shared with many of his peers like Ali Sharaf who is graduating in 2007 after having been at MMS since Kindergarten. “This is my home,” Sharaf said, “but when I leave I’m going to major in Business Information Systems.” Similarly, Sandy Deen said school “feels like home” explaining that teachers are warm, friendly and informed.
In fact, teachers had a lot to do with the way these kids felt. Omar Kurdi said teachers at MMS are emphasizing concepts like teamwork and sowing in them an interest in learning and discovery, preparing them for the future, every step of the way. Shafik Nassar said teachers are preparing them for “the new world” and Nassouf Kayali said teachers are involved and share in the students’ successes in and out of the classroom, “which is great”.
Of course there are still borders between students and teachers, but this doesn’t necessitate a lack of friendship between the two camps. Educators at MMS are themselves authorized to adopt modern teaching methods that generate interest through camaraderie and learning through acquired expertise and genuine fascination in the students’ lives. “We have a very nice atmosphere in school, making it a second home for students and teachers. We empower our instructors by investing in them, trusting them, and giving them a lot of freedom, and as a result they’re satisfied, relaxed and highly efficient,” said Randa Hasan, Principal and owner of MMS.
I caught up with a few teachers later during my visit and took the opportunity to validate the owner’s claims. Jihan Abu Awad has been teaching English to Grades 11 and 12 since joining MMS three years ago. “The school offers teaching flexibility and many opportunities for widening one’s horizons through professional development (PD) which serve to benefit students at different stages of learning,” Awad said. Integrating e-learning with mixed recipes of teaching, Awad said students are better able to communicate with their peers and the teachers, electronically or otherwise, directly or through forums and debates. “I taught for 8 years before coming here. There was a period of adjustment to the new methods we learned through PD, but it’s been the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had,” Awad said.
Dr. Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. She developed over the years an interest in the treatment of children. At age twenty-eight, she became the director of a school for mentally disabled children. After two years under her guidance, these children, who had been considered “un-educable”, took a school examination along with normal children and passed successfully. Educators called Dr. Montessori a miracle worker. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The name Montessori is not legally protected. Montessori is not a system for training children in academic studies. It is a revolutionary method of observing and supporting the natural development of children.
Multi-aged Grouping, based on Periods of Development: Children are grouped in three or six-year spans and have the same teacher.
The 3-Hour Work Period: A minimum of one uninterrupted 3-hour work period per day.
The Human Tendencies: The Montessori method is based on human tendencies— to explore, move, share with a group, be independent, develop self-control, abstract ideas from experience, use the creative imagination, work hard, repeat, and perfect.
The Process of Learning:
Stage 1- introduction to a concept by means of a lecture, lesson, etc. Stage 2- developing an understanding of the concept through work, experimentation, and creation. Stage 3- “knowing”, demonstrated by the ability to confidently pass a test, or to express with ease.
Indirect Preparation: The steps of learning any concept are analyzed by the adult and are systematically offered to the child.
The Prepared Environment: Since the child learns to glean information from many sources, it is the role of the teacher to prepare and continue to adapt the kid’s environment.
Observation: Scientific observations of the child’s development are constantly carried out and recorded by the teacher. These observations are made on the level of concentration of each child, the introduction to and mastery of each piece of material, social development, physical health, etc.
Work Centers: The environment is arranged according to subject area, and children are always free to move around the room, and work on a piece of material with no time limit.
Teaching Method: There are no textbooks, and seldom will two or more children be studying the same thing at the same time. Children learn directly from the environment, and from other children—rather than from the teacher. Large groups are phased out as the children gain independence.
Class Size: The most successful 3-6 or 6-12 classes are of 30-35 children to one teacher, with one non-teaching assistant, this number reached gradually over 1-3 years.
Basic Lessons: A well-trained Montessori teacher spends a lot of time during training practicing the many basic lessons with materials in all areas. She/he must pass difficult written and oral exams in order to be certified. Trained to recognize a child’s readiness, the teacher plans lessons for each child, each day, but will bow to the interests and passions of a child.
Areas of Study Linked: All subjects are interwoven; history, art, music, math, astronomy, biology, geology, physics, and chemistry. A child studies them in any order he chooses.
Assessment: There are no grades, or other forms of reward or punishment, subtle or overt. Assessment is by portfolio and the teacher’s observation and record keeping of the children, their happiness, maturity, kindness, and love of learning.
Learning Styles: Musical, bodily kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, intuitive, natural, and the traditional linguistic and logical-mathematical— are nurtured.
Character Education: Children are given the opportunity to take care of themselves, each other, and the environment through activities such as gardening, cooking, building, moving gracefully, speaking politely and doing social work in the community.
After heading the math department for the International School of the Hague in the Netherlands and the Kingdom School in Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Youssef headed the math department at the MMS. “I have proven myself over the past five years here. This school will trust you, but in other establishments, a teacher is questioned over and over again and has to follow procedures and policies and face restrictions and interferences in the syllabus,” Youssef said.
The Montessori system (See box A) has a lot to do with the way things are run here, but it’s a mixture of pioneering, leadership and drive that helped build a school with this culture. e MMS was only the second school to introduce the IB system after the prestigious Amman Baccalaureate School and the first, according to Hasan, to adopt the Montessori philosophy of education in Jordan and essentially in the region. “When I established a Kindergarten in 1985 in the Shmaysani area, every time people heard of the name Montessori, they thought I was part of a religious sect. That was my first real struggle,” Hasan said.
The second obstacle that faced Hasan was the perception her friends and acquaintances had of her as a shipping expert and a leather shop owner, prior to deciding to become an educator. “My father, who later financed my endeavor, initially almost had a heart attack, but I was determined to make a difference in education especially when my kids were of school age,” Hasan said.
Next came the challenge of finding trained teachers in the Montessori method, so Hasan found a reputable Montessori center and established a teacher training college in Jordan in 1988, which she bought in 2000. “We have now Arabized the Montessori method in terms of training procedure, material, and curriculum; something no one else has done even as far as the US,” Hasan said. Using workbooks to apply knowledge and translate thoughts on paper is an innovation to the Montessori system. Kids go through 25 books during the three years that they are in KG, tackling subjects that include math, culture and language, with each student receiving his own level of work depending on his ability. “We found a way to enrich the kids’ learning experience and the Montessori system that we have designed can be franchised,” Hasan added.
MMS uses a mutated version of the Montessori system to adapt to the grade system applied in Jordan. Unable to use vertical grouping all the way up to high school level – students aged 2 1/2 to 6, 6 to 9, 9 to 12 and 12 to 18 are grouped together – MMS applies the same philosophy into the grade level where each student can work at their own pace. “The nice thing about using your own abilities and not rote learning is that students apply logic and deduction in line with the International Baccalaureate (IB) philosophy, where you do your work, structure, analyze and get results,” Hasan said. The similarity of the system with the IB enables MMS to use a unique philosophy, which allows the students to meet the IB program all the way to the Diploma level.
In 1993, MMS bought the land and moved into its current location and began building up its K-12 program according to the IB requirements with a focus on having a pure bilingual program. Every subject was taught in both English and Arabic using a teacher/student ratio of 10 to 1, thus catering to the individual abilities of the students.
The teachers at MMS are mostly Jordanian who have either studied abroad, are experienced educators or new local graduates who were trained at the school’s center. “Losing teachers is a major concern, especially after you make such an investment in them in terms of them attending conferences, workshops and training. But we manage to keep them because they feel it is their school, where they are the decision makers and we give them an incentive to move forward and grow to their full potential,” Hasan said. Dina Lahlou is a theory of Knowledge teacher, a branch of learning that cuts across all subjects like science, history, and math and which turns out versatile students able to manipulate perception, emotion and language using logic and reasoning. e Boston University graduate with a master’s degree in International Relations has been teaching at MMS since 2001. “This school has a very unique and interesting culture. It encourages creativity a lot. We have the freedom to bring our own personal touch and that’s what makes a difference for a teacher. I am always encouraged to experiment with new things,” Lahlou said. She said the school’s extracurricular activities are feeding the students’ creative processes “while other institutions are more rigid, restricting students in time and space, not allowing them to either make mistakes or tap into their full potential. Somehow this school’s culture has contributed to the amazing loyalty the staff has for it.”
MMS is constructing a 24,000m2 senior school area complete with theatres, auditorium, gym, art galleries and laboratories, which in size are even bigger than the existing 17,000m2 built-up area. “The new facility will give students creative space and is not intended to attract more students, since I am working at capacity with 1,400 kids who hop on the schools’ 30-plus buses from all over Amman,” Hasan said. MMS already has a strong sports program that includes soccer, basketball, swimming, gymnastics, and dancing, in addition to performing arts, graphic design and technology. This year, MMS introduced the Amin Hasan Award, in the name of the owner’s late father, for children aged 7-12, where students compete for Bronze, Silver and Gold based on creativity, action and community service. “The technology and science labs have opened the door for student inventions. Last year, one of my students came in 3rd in the world through a competition organized by Intel, becoming the only Arab to do so,” Hasan prided. The student had invented a device that can be installed on buses to absorb pollutants in the air. This year, three MMS students won local competitions for devising a method to extract petroleum from rocks using sunlight and qualified for the international award. “We entered a competition and together with my colleagues Luna and Layal, we qualified to go to the US competition with Intel,” student inventor Nader Hamas told me.
Most schools try to limit the number of special needs students they would accept because of the taxing effort it takes in terms of time, cost and required expertise in the field. Not MMS. A philanthropist by nature, Hasan began testing students with learning disorders and recruited teachers who have a master’s degree in those fields. “We started small and now we have 42 teachers just for the learning support. We do our own assessment and that of other schools when asked and now we are focusing on designing programs for gifted students also,” Hasan said. Interestingly, all types of students remain in class, with support teachers working on their individualized programs, assessments and follow up. Abu Awad, for example, has mixed ability classes and is assisted by a teacher who works with seven special needs students with varying levels of disability as well as elite students. “I have many special needs students who passed the IB program and joined other universities,” Hasan said. MMS employs a number of university advisors, psychological counselors and pastoral observers who follow the students’ personal and academic careers. “Starting at fees of 10,400 JDs, tuition is competitive but not cheap, however we rear well-rounded kids who are sure of themselves and trained to live up to their responsibilities as well as balance their independence,” Hasan said.
Building on the success MMS has in Jordan, Hasan is aiming to spread her own network of Montessori schools in the region. “I feel I have the time to start something new. So I visited Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain. There is a tremendous need for culturally-oriented bilingual education in an international format,” Hasan said. Having found a location in Dubai’s Green Community, Hasan began building a 7500 m2 Kindergarten there. “My plan is to find locations for different KGs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, then Cairo, Qatar, and Bahrain and later develop them into full-fledged K-12 schools.” To finance the projects, Hasan is working on establishing a holding company and formulating an education fund to invest in the Montessori growth in the region. “I don’t see others in the field as competitors. This could be dangerous, but if I had thought that way, I wouldn’t have dared open this school to begin with,” Hasan offered.
MMS has another yearly tradition, a sort of graduating farewell to students leaving their second home. The administration braces itself for a stunt that graduating students do before they move to college. One time, the students jumped in the pool with their clothes on. Cute! “Yesterday, they brought an ugly bunch of chickens and let them loose on campus. It wasn’t funny when they did it, but today I laugh about it.”
NOT QUITE VIRTUAL, BUT E-REAL
Modern Montessori’s School (MMS) principal and owner Randa Hasan believes it is important to link students to their homes and parents to their kids’ school. MMS’s portal allows parents and students to remain in touch with the school and teachers, through e-mail and chat rooms. “The e-learning system is in the trial phase, but the curriculum is supposed to be carried online too,” Hasan said. Although not using interactive whiteboards, MMS is studying that option and planning to introduce the technology in the new 24,000m2 facilities they’re currently building. “The teachers want to explore how more interactive the students can be with that technology. My vice principal, also the head of senior school, was telling me that even lab work and experiments can be done on the computer. This type of technology I will definitely go for,” Hasan said. Students that I’ve spoken to at MMS believe having PCs in the classroom is in order. “With the lesson displayed at each desk, it makes it easier to see and interact with the teacher,” they said. Others had their own ideas about what they would like to implement. “Perhaps we should have programs to learn through songs, since rhythmically we learn much quicker. Isn’t that how kids in KGs learn?”