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What Happens When Montessori Meets Teenagers?

As Maria Montessori’s methods gain popularity in public pre-K and elementary classrooms, educators are beginning to understand how (and why) the philosophy translates to high school, too.

By Leah Fabel

June 11, 2018

A woman smiling

Camelback Montessori College Prep in Phoenix is one of only about 25 public Montessori high schools in the nation, compared to about 500 elementary and middle schools. It opened in 2012 as a small “school within a school” at Camelback High, then amid a turnaround under the leadership of Chad Gestson, a Phoenix ’01 alumnus who is now the superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District.

The school serves 110 students within Camelback High’s 2,300-student body—“a small school feel with big school opportunities,” says Phoenix '08 alumna Danchi Nguyen (above), a founding teacher and now its leader. Students study core subjects, but in a setting that encourages creativity, collaboration, and self-pacing, Nguyen says. One Day spoke with her about what it looks like when a teaching philosophy often associated with preschoolers is adapted to teens.

In a Montessori high school, what sets the academics apart from a traditional high school?

We really focus on cross-curricular connections through our “cycle of study” themes. The current theme for freshmen and sophomores is “dystopia/utopia.” In biology, they’re studying evolution and different environmental pressures. In English, they’re reading dystopian novels and comparing that to the utopia they’re trying to create. In math, they’re looking at how statistics can be manipulated to create a sense of dystopia or utopia.

On a day-to-day level, the classroom is prepared for the student to come in and engage right away. The teacher sets the objective and supplies materials throughout the room, but each student has a unique work plan that requires them to plan and prioritize how they’ll meet the objective. Students work in uninterrupted, independent blocks, allowing them to engage with their work, collaborate with others, or participate in small group lessons and one-on-one instruction.

© Photo NICK OZA At Camelback Montessori, the classroom setup encourages flexible grouping so that these sophomores can engage deeply with their work and with each other.

What does a typical classroom look like?

A “prepared environment” is a core component of Montessori. Teachers strive to have attractive lighting—something to soften the feel of the classroom. Kids sit down at group tables, which encourages collaboration. Every room has a rug in the middle, and maybe bean bag chairs or mats to allow for flexible seating and different forms of grouping. Another component of Montessori is the “exemplar” or “control of error.” In high school, that looks like folders throughout the room with answer keys, or an exemplar piece of writing, so kids can guide their own instruction.

The vast majority of Montessori schools serve younger kids. What did Maria Montessori have to say about teens?

One of her only writings on adolescence is an essay called “Erdkinder,” or Earth Child. She believed adolescents need to go out and have experiences where they learn to be self-sufficient. How we interpret that is to get our kids off campus and connecting with nature. Our sophomores recently returned from a camping trip to the Grand Canyon where they were each part of a different crew caring for themselves and each other--like cooking, or cleaning, or setting up the tents. She also believed that physically challenging experiences are really important to the development of the whole child. So on the last day of the trip, the kids picked their own challenging course to hike through the canyon.

© Photo NICK OZA Camelback Montessori students created masks while analyzing Shakespeare’s Othello. The project was a part of their crosscurricular study of perception versus reality.

Is there a social justice component to your school?

Montessori is known for peacemaking, and I’d say I’m on the more radical end of that. I believe it takes equity to achieve peace, and to achieve equity takes action.

As one example, we work really hard to recruit kids from Camelback’s traditional feeder schools, who are less likely to have been exposed to Montessori in elementary school. Between 65 and 80 percent of our students are of color, depending on the class. But at Camelback as a whole, 85 to 90 percent of students are of color. Compared to the community we’re in, we do look different. That’s one reason why it’s ever more important for our students to have conversations about power, privilege, and allyship.

Do you have a favorite Montessori moment?

There are some kooky Montessori things that I just love. I love that one of our tenets is about “cosmic education”—pondering yourself as a tiny being in this vast universe. When we take kids to Lowell Observatory [in Flagstaff, Arizona], we’re able to have conversations about our place in the universe, and that can connect to conversations about peace and sustainability. Kids are able to ask themselves, “Rather than waiting for a better world, how do we create the world we want to see?”