New Orleans offers an abundance of educational options: public and private, religious or secular, traditional or, increasingly, alternative. For that, families are looking more closely at Waldorf and Montessori schools.
Located in a renovated bread factory in the Irish Channel, The Waldorf School of New Orleans caters to children from age two through eighth grade. The school is a member of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, and the only Waldorf-affiliated school in New Orleans.
Cissy Rowley, the school’s administrator, champions Waldorf education as an option for families that are searching for a more relaxed atmosphere where children can grow and learn at their own pace through activities that range from gardening and yes, knitting, to more traditional subjects like math and biology.
Each item in the classroom is carefully selected; Waldorf education equates appealing aesthetics with more enriched learning. Sitting in on a class, you’ll find students from more than one age group due to the school’s small size. Cissy stresses that classes are structured to meet children where they are, socially and academically.
For younger children, the school day might start outside and then be followed by circle time. Structured play, using puppets to introduce literacy, might follow.
Once students reach fifth grade, they begin to study specific subjects for three to four weeks at a time. There are no textbooks or computers used in the classrooms; instead, teachers bring in outside resources and information, and students create their own books, featuring drawings, essays, diagrams and poetry.
A middle school teacher with a Master’s of Anthropology and a Master’s of Waldorf Education, Rebecca Nelson has taught at the Waldorf School for the past six years. Waldorf teachers traditionally remain with the same class, so she has transitioned with the same group of students from sixth to eighth grade. “There is nothing more exciting than watching students wake up to their world around them,” she says of her class.
Dr. Maria Montessori developed her approach to education over 100 years ago after being hired by Italian government officials to work with underprivileged children in Rome. Pat Lacoste Lytle, director of Kinder Haus Montessori, trained in London with Phoebe Child and Margaret Homfray, both of whom had studied with Dr. Montessori at the end of World War II.
“Dr. Montessori wanted to see what would happen if she introduced these poor Italian children to sandpaper letters and sandpaper numbers,” says Pat. What happened? They “taught themselves to read and write.” The children learning under the guidance of the founder a century ago were very different than those you’ll find in a Montessori classroom now. “Today’s children have a lot of stuff,” says Pat. “They walk in our door with sensory overload.” But the Montessori approach remains the same, and is just as important now, according to Pat. “You look to the child. What do the children need?
“Some programs get bogged down in ‘children must do this, and must do that,’” the Kinder Haus director continues. “My understanding is that Dr. Montessori had a lot of respect for children. We should treat them as a guest in our home. That’s our approach.”
Talking with educators with Montessori schools, you’ll find that they’re focused on providing children with the materials and support necessary to grow socially, developmentally and academically—at their own pace and direction.
“The main difference between traditional education and Montessori is the ‘prepared environment,’” says Jan Weiner, director of Cathedral Montessori. This is where children are free to respond to their own impulses to work. If a student is enjoying playing with a set of block, he can remain with them—for days at a time.
“It’s called spontaneous deep concentration,” says Pat. “A child can play with metal insets all day, all the time here. And it’s great, because it helps with math.”
You’ll find solid science behind Montessori’s curriculum approach. Pat and Jan both emphasize that Dr. Montessori’s discoveries about how children learn have stood the test of time and been proven effective through newer research.
In addition to practical life, the classroom is divided into areas for the discovery of the sensorial as well as science, math, art, language and culture. Discussing Cathedral Montessori’s emphasis on cultural activities, Jan explains that her older students know all of the continents. “We start by learning about the universe, then the earth and then the continents, and continue to work down.” Seeing how they fit into the world helps children to respect everyone, she says.
The emphasis on respect also allows students to learn from each other. Teddi Locke, the director of the University Montessori School in New Orleans and a board member of Audubon Charter School (which offers Montessori education), describes how children thrive in the multi-age classrooms. The older children show the younger children how to behave and complete tasks.
Teachers in the Montessori system tend to stand back to allow the children to learn from themselves. When children want answers, teachers guide the students to the resources in the classroom to solve their problems and answer their questions.
Explaining this approach to learning, Teddi says that children, if exposed to a challenging situation each day, will eventually learn how to tackle those challenges. They also learn how to work out their problems themselves.
When problems with other students arise, a “peace” table in many Montessori classrooms encourages conflict resolution through peaceful and respectful communication between students. “As students work through the three-year program, you’ll see them say, ‘We need to go to the peace table and work this out,” says Jan.
Pat talks of the peace rose at her school. “When two children have a disagreement, we’ll use [it]. The one holding the peace rose gets to speak,” she says. Kinder Haus also has a peace corner, with a sand tray that children can play with while they sit and become peaceful. “It gives them a chance to calm down and regroup without punishment,” says Pat.
The Montessori Method emphasizes an accessible environment with many varying learning resources. One celebrated environment Jan discusses is the outdoors, where her students spend a lot of time. Last year they planted a butterfly garden.
Sophie Ryan is a New Orleans native and a freelance writer. Additional reporting by Leslie Penkunas.
Montessori & Waldorf Schools in the New Orleans Area
Public (Charter) School