Editor’s note: North Park Montessori has been in the news recently, due to the discovery of a possible asbestos breach during renovations, which required temporarily relocating the school to Grand Rapids University. An investigation of the problem is under way. Prior to the move, School News Network visited North Park for its weekly self-expressions classes featuring student-chosen creative activities. Here’s a bit of what we saw.
An enticing aroma filled the hallways of North Park Montessori School as students cooked up Vietnamese chicken pho in the kitchen. In a nearby classroom, parent Sarah Jacques taught Anja Kholsinger-Robinson how to cross-stitch, and grandmother Rebecca Leacock helped Harrison Stidolph cut out sewing fabric. In another room, North Park teacher Nijagara Davidson taught the Bosnian language to a table of students with a song, “Eci Peci Pec.”
Meanwhile, down in the gym, former NFL player Dave Brandt had boys running pass patterns, while in the basement lunch room a student rock band called OLIVEPIT happily blasted original tunes.
This is self-expressions, a weekly session where North Park’s 60 seventh- and eighth-graders can try their hand at a smorgasbord of creative activities, all taught by volunteer “advisers.” It’s a key component of the Montessori way, designed to help students discover new interests and gain confidence.
“I like it because it gets on my creative side,” said seventh-grader Kasiel Robinson, as she spelled out “living lovely” with plastic beads in a perler-beading class.
Many classes are conceived and designed by students themselves, another way the program aims to empower them while stretching their young minds.
“It’s really fun,” said eighth-grader Anna Kalumbula, who sang in the rock band. “You think, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ Once you’re doing it, you’re like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome!’”
The Virtues of Valorization
The self-expressions program is an important part of what Montessori philosophy calls “valorization.” That is, students experiencing success through their own efforts, said teacher Jennifer Hall, who has helped oversee the program since the North Park middle school opened five years ago.
“It’s not an adult telling them they’ve done a good job,” said Hall, who is trained in the Montessori Method. “It’s their peers. They gain standing in the community for who they are.”
Whether painting a picture, building a robot or recording a podcast, students are “building pride in what they do,” she added. That includes students who may struggle academically but shine in a special skill: “They have value, and they are seen for their value in that way.”
The program goes hand-in-hand with other activities designed to connect students to one another, their school and their community, said Principal Maureen Capillo. These “stewardship and engagement” activities include twice-weekly service projects, such as visits to Clark Retirement Community, and in-school efforts, like better organizing the lost and found.
“This work is extremely important for our adolescents, their brain development and their sense of social service and community involvement,” Capillo said.
Students Help Create Courses
At North Park, that involvement extends to student government, whose leaders were elected first semester. Student-planned and organized, the group meets weekly to address school issues. A big one for this spring is electing a new school mascot to replace its current one, a peace tree. (Animals are being considered.) Students also elected a supreme court, which they hope can resolve minor student conflicts in a quasi-judicial process.
Eighth-grader Walker Idziak, a senator and secretary of state, was a driving force behind student government. He also took a self-expressions class in podcasting, where students were producing a piece about pawn shops. They hoped to submit it to an NPR student podcast challenge.
Eighth-grader Lena Chase initiated a French class. Students Noah Krull and Marek Remtema helped form the self-expressions rock band, after previously creating a BMX class complete with obstacle course.
“It’s really nice,” Noah said of the classes. ”We get a solid uninterrupted hour of doing what we want.”
That’s the great thing about self-expressions, said Sarah Jacques, who taught the cross-stitching class and is mother to seventh-grader Lucia.
“Whatever motivates them, what they want to learn about, what inspires them, I want them to be able to do,” she said. “Sometimes students do something they’ve never done before.”
For Anna Kalumbula, who sang with the basement band and is vice president of student government, the chance to express herself and be involved is a welcome part of her Montessori schooling.
“It’s a nice way for us to have something educational,” she said, “yet you’re still having a lot of fun doing things with friends.”