With the opening of Atarah Montessori Academy, in Coconut Grove, I am sparking a much needed revolution in Jewish education. Judaism has always faced challenges and threats to its very existence. There is nothing new about it. Sixty years ago, Jews fought for their physical existence. Today, we are fighting for our spiritual existence. Adults are becoming more in touch with their roots, seeking to enhance their life with the meaning of their heritage. They are looking to fill a void, even after years of a Hebrew school or Jewish day school education.
Jewish education should not begin and end with bar and bat mitzvah lessons. Often times, we lose sight of the importance of a Jewish foundation while our children are still young.
My quest to make a change in the traditional education system began long before I opened Atarah Montessori Academy. I have always been fascinated by education. As a school age child, I would find myself very frustrated with the flaws in the traditional education system. Shortly after entering the first grade, school became about performance, rather than about learning. It turned into endless homework assignments, meaningless tasks and boring subjects. Nobody ever stopped to see how we learned
I found those flaws carried through into high school, where the goal of learning continued to be focused on getting an A. This major flaw was not only in my secular studies, but in my Judaic studies as well. My teachers talked about learning G-d’s Torah because it was holy, yet all they cared about was whether or not we passed the midterm or final. Everything and everyone was so cookie-cutter, it did not leave much room to embrace our differences. There were the A students, and the B and C students. Our mode of operation and social networking all revolved around our grades.
Atarah Montessori Academy was born three years ago when I took a Developmental Psychology class and did a class presentation on Montessori education. I had heard of Montessori from my cousins, who opened Luria Academy in Brooklyn eight years ago.
The Montessori Method addresses the many flaws of traditional education. Maria Montessori founded the Montessori Method in the late 1800’s. She worked with children with special needs, altering the traditional way of teaching. She addressed each child’s individual learning styles and abilities. Her evident success sparked her inspiration for the method. It led her to ask, “Why do we assume that all children learn the same way?” Surely this same approach would be effective when dealing with any child, as no two children are exactly alike.
The Montessori Method not only recognizes differences; its goal is to cultivate them. Prior to ever stepping foot into a classroom, children learn quite a bit without any help. They learn to sit, crawl, stand, walk and talk on their own. Their development is a process that requires minimal interference. Yet, as soon as they enter school, children are told how to learn, and when they need to learn it. Why?
Traditional schools operate on the notion that children do not want to listen or learn and they need to be taught how to do it. How come no one had to tell that same child when and how to talk? Montessori recognized this major flaw. Her entire method is based on the concept that children want to learn. Children do not lose their natural desire to learn, they are educated out of it.
Montessori classrooms follow the child. Teachers, known as directresses, do not teach the children; they facilitate their learning. They guide the children along the continuum of their development following the child’s inner fascination and desire to acquire new information. Children are encouraged to make choices within the structure of the classroom. This autonomy helps them learn that they are responsible for themselves and their education.
There are no rewards in the Montessori environment. You will not see any star charts or reward systems of any kind. The reason for this is simple: Learning is a reward in and of itself. It is the acquisition of new information that propels the children to complete their lessons.
In Montessori classrooms, directresses are constantly asking the children questions. By asking a child questions, we assume they know the answer. This assumption alone gives the child the confidence to take a chance and answer. Many times, they are right and in the event they are not, they are never stigmatized for making a mistake.
All Montessori materials are auto didactic, which allows the children to correct themselves. There is little need for involvement from the teacher. Traditional education stigmatizes mistakes so much (correcting work and tests with a red pens), that by the time children finish the first grade, they are too scared to be creative because they might turn out to be wrong. This is a devastating tragedy.
The Montessori Method seamlessly falls in line with the Jewish approach to education. Montessori’s child-centered philosophy is based on a passage from the Jewish King Solomon who said, “Educate a child according to his way and when he is older he will not stray from it.” Judaism embraces and encourages questioning and it does not believe in berating people’s mistakes either.
Of all of the similarities, Montessori’s idea of learning being the reward is the most profound. The point of learning Torah is for the sake of the learning itself. It is not for reward or performance. Torah is an integral part of the Jewish person, and when you make it about grades, Torah learning becomes a chore, and it loses the Holy Spirit.
If we want to address the challenges facing the Jewish people today, we must begin with the education of our children. They must be taught that Torah is not a fragmented part of their life. It is not for shul or high holidays, it guides us in daily living.
For information, contact Atarah Montessori Academy at 305-445-5444, ext. 206 or go online at www.atarahacademy.org. They are located at 3291 Franklin Ave, Coconut Grove.
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