MAP St. Louis: A Peek inside the Classroom

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The Montessori community in St. Louis is going through a major growth spurt thanks to so many who believe in the method and are willing to put in the hard work to make Montessori available to children of all ages. One such place is MAP (Montessori Adolescent Program), located in Grand Center. MAP is only in its second year of operation, yet you wouldn’t know it from visiting; the school is running like a well-oiled machine. Sara Krenski, Head of School, welcomed me into the school on a rainy Monday morning in late October. 

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The space itself is bright, clean, and orderly. Upon arriving, one enters an empty gallery, which is a shared space with the artists who have studios upstairs, and the frame shop, located in the front of the building. MAP has plans to expand once the lease is up on the offices; but for now, there is plenty of space for the 18 current students.

“Our ideal is a maximum of 45 students, with 15 per grade level,” Krensky shares. “Anything more than that would be a detriment to the community of the school.” As it is, the students in MAP see the community surrounding them as an extension of the classroom, and are often out and about in the surrounding neighborhood businesses. The students recently walked over to Craft Alliance, where they learned about metal work and made jewelry.

Part of the beauty of MAP is its location; just as the third-plane child enters into an intense period of preparation for adulthood, here she is surrounded by opportunities to do exactly that. Grand Center Arts District is not only a member of the Global Cultural Districts Network, but also packed with learning opportunities: from the Contemporary Art Museum and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation to the Fox Theatre, Sheldon Concert Hall, and Powell Symphony Hall, to the St. Louis University campus and home to radio stations KWMU, St. Louis Public Radio, and KDHX.

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Last school year, during its opening year, the MAP students poured themselves into producing a rain garden, a planted depression that allows rainwater to run off from impervious urban areas, so that the water may be absorbed rather than flooding streets and walkways. The result was perhaps the proudest accomplishment of the students’ year, especially when they were successful in removing the stumps and roots of two large invasive trees that had been front of the building (see two photos below).

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The rain garden is thriving, and the children have even received inquiries into building such rain gardens elsewhere in the city!

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When I arrived, the students were hard at work on an atypical project: advisories to prepare for student-led conferences. Here, instead of the typical parent-teacher conferences that are held without the child present, MAP students are in charge of the process. The conferences are designed for the parents and conducted by the students, who prepare 25-minute presentations on what they have been working on – and include visuals of each topic.

On this morning, students worked on outlines for their presentations. Many used computers to type up their outlines, while others chose photographs from a shared classroom Dropbox to provide the visuals. Each conference is to include information from each section of the child’s schedule; for example, seminar, community, physical expression, and creative expression. Throughout this work, students met individually with one of the Founding Guides, Melissa Anderson and Melissa Urspruch.

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The community aspect is extremely important at MAP. Every morning begins with students signing in and immediately joining Circle, where they conduct their daily Community Meeting at 8:45am. The children’s sense of community is so strong, they have come up with social norms surrounding much of the day.

“Every lunch period begins with a reflection, given by one of the students,” Sara Krenski shares. “No one eats – not even one bite – until everyone is seated and the reflection is complete. No Guides have told them to do this; they have come up with this on their own.” While MAP does not currently have a lunch program, students have a Friday lunch program much like Villa di Maria’s; the students plan, budget, shop for, and cook the meal starting two days ahead when there is interest in doing so.

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At MAP, perhaps one of the main challenges the Guides give to the students surrounds freedom and responsibility. Students are expected to manage deadlines and stick to schedules. There are no grades in this mastery-based program. If a student does not master a subject area, he is expected to return over the summer to work on it until it is mastered.

Founding Guide Melissa Urspruch explains, “With everything we do, the question we ask ourselves is ‘Is this how it would happen in the real world?’ and if it’s not, we adjust it.” For instance, children must apply for positions when they want to work on a project much like they would apply for a job. Urspruch and Anderson put the children through a realistic hiring process to manage projects and funds. Once they have been hired, they are to present their idea or project to the wider community. After big projects, student managers take surveys in order to receive feedback on how to improve the experience next time. During last year’s float trip, the project manager took critical feedback and produced an outline for the next manager on what worked and didn’t work, and how to improve the trip for the following year.

It’s this acceptance of critical feedback (which also includes complaints and negative feedback from peers) and turning it into a learning opportunity and an opportunity for growth that is such a hallmark of Montessori education, and an area that MAP does so well. Students are, above all else and in every sense of the word, empowered. They take ownership of everything they do here, and it shows in the ability to see a project through from start to finish, with attention to every small detail.

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In addition to personalized schedules that are more structured than a Montessori Elementary classroom, the students are encouraged to give feedback during advisory meetings and community meetings. They have a knack for speaking up, and just as important, for listening to one another.

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There is also a strong culture of reading here; many books line the shelves of the common area, including book recommendations just like you would find from the knowledgeable staff in your favorite local book stores!

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Upon entering (or leaving) MAP, a guest will see the school’s Code of Civility, which the students have come up with and signed:

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Thank you, MAP, for welcoming us into your space! We will have to visit again to follow you on a community work day, or a physical/creative expression day. There is such impressive work being done here; you should be very proud!

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