To Know Him Is to Know How to Teach Him (or Her): Relationship as the Key to Differentiation
The dynamic flexibility of the Montessori classroom allows endless modifications to be made to meet the needs of students with all types of complex learning profiles, but all of these opportunities translate into learning successes only when entrusted to teachers who are fully engaged with their students. The freedom of movement and choice of activities throughout the day allow teachers ample time to circulate in the classroom and interact with each child, to share quiet moments, to learn about their sense of humor, to understand how their mind works. This constant and consistent interaction leads to deep, personal relationships that alert teachers to students’ likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, and perhaps most importantly, driving interests. It is only from the vantage point which the teacher gains based on this relational model that the true work of differentiation in the classroom can begin.
Among the findings of contemporary educational psychology is the impact of interest on learning outcomes. Experience has taught us that more than the varied modalities available in a Montessori classroom, the intentionality of the teachers in developing honest and meaningful relationships with students allows them to devise and implement new learning strategies that benefit a broad spectrum of learners simply by tailoring the learning experience to their interests and passions. In this type of relationship, the child feels successful not only as a student but as a person.
In the case of Keren, a student with dyslexia, the solution to her struggles developed over time, with careful attention to her personality. Socially and emotionally precocious, highly verbal and bursting with artistic creativity, she entered first grade clearly reading far below grade level. Within weeks of beginning school, this normally bubbly and gregarious child became sullen and weepy. She no longer wanted to go to school. But over the course of that year and since, a cadre of devoted, empathic educators have learned to understand, support, encourage and even celebrate Keren’s learning style. Through third grade, school remained quite challenging for Keren academically. She worked privately with a reading specialist as well as a vision therapist outside of school. But the relationships her teachers invested in with her allowed her to blossom and develop confidence, self-esteem, and most importantly, the willingness to take risks.
Modifications have included minimizing visual clutter in her works and planner, incorporating artistic elements to both her Judaic and general studies work whenever possible, and finding age-appropriate literature hand-picked for her. This past year in particular, when Keren was struggling with multiplication facts, multiples and factoring, a teacher noted her avid interest in fashion and clothing design and thought she might have a solution. As Keren is an accomplished seamstress, the teacher created a quilting activity to help her internalize the material. Keren immediately took to the work, began to understand the concepts, and felt proud to be working successfully on something that had seemed so difficult. At other times this past year, you might find Keren reading the Ivy and Bean series that her teacher brought in from home, acting out a pasuk from Navi, or teaching another student the fundamentals of sewing. Each one of these activities was born out of the deep and meaningful relationships the teachers have developed with Keren over the year. This is the reason she will say that her teachers know “how to teach [her] exactly right” and the reason she couldn’t wait to go back to school in September.
Yitzchak came to Netivot in second grade. Diagnosed with a myriad of learning disabilities as well as Tourette’s Syndrome, he was in need of support both academically and emotionally. When he first arrived, Yitzchak was completely shut down; he was unavailable to learn and untrusting of those who were trying to teach him. Behaviorally, his profile was also complicated, as he vacillated between sullen withdrawal and brazen misbehavior. It would take a sincerely dedicated teacher to offer unwavering support and wait patiently for Yitzchak to open up and show something of his inner self. Over time, Yitzchak’s teacher learned that he was extremely talented with his hands and loved woodworking. The teacher began to create woodworking projects just for Yitzchak, and his sense of confidence began to grow. His teacher learned that Yitzchak was kind and caring and sensitive, and that he enjoyed the app Musically. And slowly Yitzchak began to trust his teacher.
Yitzchak’s teacher understood that when he maintained a narrow band of academic expectation and bolstered Yitzchak’s strengths to heal his weaknesses, Yitzchak became more invested in his work. His teacher made it clear that he didn’t blame him for his faults, but he also held him accountable for his assignments. He encouraged Yitzchak to try a hard math problem or read a pasuk and reassured him, “If you don’t get it on your own, I will help you.” This made Yitzchak feel safe enough to try. As the relationship between Yitzchak and his teacher deepened, his academic progress followed suit. Although there have been intermittent obstacles along the way, this past spring Yitzchak successfully competed sixth grade, and he started middle school this fall. He left the safety of his old teacher behind, but he is open and ready to meet new ones.
Yitzchak and Keren’s success can be attributed to relationship-driven differentiation. And this phenomenon is reported by schools throughout the Jewish Montessori movement. A new student, Chezkie, a hard worker and very devoted to his studies, exhibited great difficulties in many of his Judaic subjects. His teacher realized that his lack of basic Hebrew reading skills was the cause of his struggles. Without the core skills of Hebrew reading, he had a hard time deciphering text, participating in class and completing assignments, and this affected his academic success and confidence. Over time, the teacher came to observe that the student’s Hebrew reading challenge also caused him tremendous embarrassment, and he was therefore avoiding conversation on the subject. The teacher spent the next few months building a strong relationship with Chezkie, sitting next to him “just to shmooze” and cultivating a sense of genuine camaraderie. After a deep trust was built, the teacher broached the subject of Hebrew reading with Chezkie. Not only did he admit the need for help, he agreed to work with the teacher one-on-one twice a week. Given time and lots of hard work, Chezkie’s Hebrew reading skills improved along with his self-confidence.
The ability of Montessori classrooms to sustain differentiated instruction is often credited to the outward trappings of the method: manipulative materials, hands-on experiences, choice-driven learning. Indeed, all of these cannot be overlooked. But peel back the layers of the classroom experience, and what truly paves the way for successful differentiation is the carefully cultivated relationships between teachers and children, the day-to-day attention to and investment in each child’s essential self. It doesn’t take the iconic counting beads or moveable alphabet or three-dimensional grammar symbols of Montessori to provide differentiation. Rather, it takes the investment of time in personal interactions with students and the willingness to listen closely as the child tells us, directly or indirectly, how they are meant to be taught.