“Montessori-ish”: Marfa ISD’s Montessori program grapples with distance learning, pandemic

“I’m going to have some students here and some students at home," one Montessori teacher said. "I have to make that look as much like each other as they possibly can."

MARFA — Eliza Barton teaches at Marfa ISD’s Montessori program, where she also has two children — one entering third grade, the other entering sixth. And with both Barton and her husband working, their kids, like others at Marfa schools, will be returning to in-person classes after the school year starts next week.

But as the school year draws closer, Barton has found herself grappling with “this sickly purgatory feeling,” she said. She worries not only about keeping students and her own children safe, but also what school will look like as a teacher.

For one thing, “If you look at places where schools have opened, cases go up and deaths go up,” Barton said. And while Marfa ISD has developed a tiered response plan for if any students become infected, “I’m super scared for the kids.”

For another, Barton teaches Montessori, a unique teaching method that emphasizes life skills and hands-on, individualized learning in addition to the basics. But with just six of her 15 students slated to return to in-person classes, she doesn’t know what exactly instruction this year will look like.

She’s been brainstorming ways to adapt those methods to virtual learning, but “I almost don’t want to call it Montessori,” she said. “I can follow the teachings as well as I can, but it’s missing so many of those components.”

For Montessori advocates across the globe, Monday marked an important milestone: Maria Montessori, the Italian educator who invented the learning method, would have turned 150. She died at 81 in 1952, years before her teaching methods gained widespread acceptance in the United States.

When students return to classes next week, it’ll also mark the eighth year Marfa ISD has offered Montessori — a popular curriculum that now has three teachers and has proved a draw for some parents in the region. But with coronavirus still threatening Texas, Barton isn’t the only teacher or parent wondering how to adapt Montessori methods to a pandemic.

“I’m going to have some students here and some students at home,” said Cheri Aguero, who teaches fourth- through sixth-grade in the program. “I have to make that look as much like each other as they possibly can. I think it’s going to be exponentially harder — but that could just be my opinion.”

In Aguero’s class, students typically mark important birthdays (including their own) with a timeline that spells out important events in the person’s life. As Montessori’s 150th birthday approached, Aguero hoped to do the same to honor the educator who started it all.

Normally, Marfa students would have likely been back at school by now — but as coronavirus lingers in the region, school administrators ultimately settled on September 8 as a start day. Aguero realized that any classroom would likely be virtual and not on Montessori’s actual birthdate.

“We’ll probably do something for her in the next couple of weeks,” said a disappointed Aguero. Like Barton, she anticipates many of her students will opt for virtual learning this year, with just eight out 13 currently slated to return.

Three teachers serve in Marfa’s Montessori program: Aguero, who covers grades 4 through 6; Barton, who covers grades 1 through 3; and Emily Steriti, who teaches pre-K and kindergarten students.

All of them said they were making plans to adapt the Montessori method for virtual learning — though they worry that many aspects of the method, from hands-on learning to student collaboration, just won’t be possible. “The likelihood that [classes] will look like my Montessori classroom did two years ago,” Steriti said, “is zero.”

All three said they had been thinking about ways to make at-home Montessori work. Barton said she plans to have at-home students do hands-on activities — going outside to count clouds and trees, for example, or dancing and doing art. Aguero said she’d found an online version of a “peg board,” which some Montessori students used for math problems. And Steriti, who has the youngest students, said she plans to communicate even more regularly with parents, to help them stay on top of their kids’ education.

Still, all three said Montessori wouldn’t be the same if students couldn’t be around hands-on learning activities — or other kids for that matter. “The beauty of the environment is that the older friends teach the younger friends, and the older ones get to experience being the oldest,” Steriti said. “That’s not something you can really experience from a computer at home.”

Marfa’s Montessori program started in 2013, a couple years after Steriti moved to Marfa and started her own school, Marfa Montessori.

Marfa Montessori just covered pre-K and kindergarten, and Steriti always saw her school as symbiotic with Marfa ISD, she said in an interview this week.

“My goal was always to feed this pre-K into the public school,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was competing for anything.” Instead, she saw part of her educational goals as “contributing to a community” and “fostering connectedness.”

In April 2013, the school boards at both Marfa ISD and Marfa Montessori voted unanimously to merge, with Marfa ISD hiring Steriti. “I think this is an unbelievable opportunity for the young people of Marfa,” then-Superintendent Andrew Peters told The Big Bend Sentinel. “They’ve done a great job as a private school, but this is an opportunity for us to open it up to everybody.”

Robert Halpern was the Marfa ISD school board president that year. He saw the merger as a “win-win situation”: a way to increase the student body while also offering free Montessori education to residents who wanted it.

“Implementing things is kind of slow with a bureaucracy,” Halpern said of his time on the school board. “But looking back on my tenure, this was one of the board’s successes.”

In the years since, Marfa ISD’s Montessori program has indeed offered a draw for potential families. Years ago, when Joe Grajeda and his wife Elena were looking for a place to raise their kids, it was the free Montessori program that caught their eye and persuaded them to settle in Marfa.

Montessori public education is a relative rarity in Texas. Just around 40 public schools offer Montessori curriculums out of more than 8,700 public schools in the state. Besides, the Grajedas had relatives who went through Marfa’s Montessori program and the Grajedas had heard good things. “College is Montessori,” Joe said. “You do the work yourself, you manage your time, you manage your space.”

When coronavirus hit this year, prompting school closures across the state, the Grajedas  decided they wouldn’t send their three kids back to school unless there was a vaccine. One of their children has asthma, Joe told The Big Bend Sentinel in July, and his wife Elena — who was already taking online education classes — was interested in education and ready to homeschool them if necessary.

With Elena trained as a teacher, Joe felt more comfortable that his kids could attend classes virtually and still get a Montessori education. He knew the school teachers were trying — but like them, he worried about how well the methods could be adapted to a pandemic.

The Texas Education Agency “put something together that kids from a distance are going to be using,” Grajeda explained. “Which is ok — it’s just not Montessori.” He wasn’t sure how quality public education was possible in a pandemic. The family’s goal is to take what work the school gives them and “modify it to be Montessori-ish.”

Chris Mackie, another Montessori parent, said the public Montessori program was a big draw to Marfa. “I wanted [my son] to go into Montessori,” he said, “but we couldn’t ever really afford it.”

But then the pandemic hit the United States this year, shuttering schools and disrupting pretty much everything else — and it’s dragged on into the 2020 school year.

Mackie’s soon-to-be first-grade son just made it off the waitlist on Tuesday, and Mackie thought the program would be perfect for him. “He could just have that freedom and not be scolded every time he wants to get up and investigate things,” Mackie said.

Ideally, Mackie said he would have kept his kids out of in-person classes “for a little bit longer.” But like many parents, he was forced with a stark reality: workplaces and schools are reopening, and there are bills to pay.

He figured virtual students would have a hard time getting the full Montessori experience. “Unless those teachers are guiding the homeschool distance learning, I think it’s going to be really challenging,” he said. But given the circumstances, he wasn’t sure in-person students would get a full Montessori experience, either. Instead of freedom to explore, he imagined a web of new rules and restrictions: “You need to stay here. You need to sit six feet away. We need to get up and clean everything.”

Barton has heard these concerns from parents, and, as a parent herself, she knows where they’re coming from. She doesn’t have the answers. “Nothing seems clear,” she said. “I don’t know who to blame for that. I don’t think anyone is blameworthy. I think it’s a symptom of what’s happening.”

“If something happens to any of these kids — much less my own — I don’t know how we’re going to forgive ourselves,” she said. But with TEA mandating school reopenings and many parents back to work, “it’s really not up to us.”