Lessons learned at Tobin in Cambridge
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
The pandemic prompted deep literacy lesson study
Tobin Montessori School in Cambridge, MA, is an AMS-accredited district Montessori school serving 311 children from three years old through fifth grade. MontessoriPublic visited Tobin in 2016 when it hosted the third annual Montessori for Social Justice Conference—(Tobin Montessori School: A Case Study in Cambridge). In April, 2021, we spoke with Principal Jaime Frost and Montessori Specialist Erin Gutierrez about their pandemic adaptations and plans for the fall.
Tobin, like schools across the country, closed in mid-March last year, initially for a two-week period which quickly extended through the end of the year. Schools scrambled to plan and implement distance learning programs, acquire and distribute technology such as laptops and headphones, and worked to meet children’s and families’ needs for academics, social-emotional health, and basic supports such as meals.
Tobin re-opened with fully remote learning in September, but by the second week in October, the school was able to operate in-person for four days each week, offering regular school days four days a week, Monday–Tuesday and Thursday-Friday, with Wednesday reserved for remote learning and deep cleaning. About half of school families opted for this model, so the in-person classrooms were able to function somewhat normally, making use of masks and social distancing. The district had promoted a split model, dividing children among separate fully-remote and fully-in-person sections, but Tobin didn’t want to disrupt children’s lives further by “re-rostering” their classrooms. So teachers gave remote and in-person instruction simultaneously, at times streaming in-person lessons directly to children’s homes. In addition to keeping classrooms together as social and academic units, this gave the school flexibility if a child needed to move in or out of remote learning, to quarantine for example.
Teachers used different models at different times. One teacher might bring the laptop to a lesson table or a circle on the floor. Another might present material to the in-person class using a SmartBoard, while physically present students worked with individual materials at their tables and remote students used digital platforms such as SeeSaw or items sent home. The school implemented an ambitious program to get materials in students’ hands. Many materials were dropped off and picked up in rotation, some were assembled as paper versions, and families were given beads, pipe cleaners, and instructions to create a home set of bead bars for each child.
By April, many families had opted in to in-person learning, partly because they became more comfortable with the protocols, partly because school doubled as child care, and partly because children wanted to be back together. Tobin features unusually large classrooms for a public Montessori school, so they have been able to make social distancing work even if the classrooms might look different these days. Some children have access to a shelf of their own materials (some the school already had, some purchased, and some constructed from paper and cardstock for the circumstances), and some materials were shared but cycled through a washing station in between uses.
Every child has a touchscreen Chromebook and headset with a microphone, so they can log into specials such as art and music either from home or from the classroom. They’ve also had in-person outdoor physical education twice a week straight through the winter.
Some schools have reported higher levels of family engagement under remote learning conditions, as caregivers saw what went into creating and adapting Montessori curriculum, and classrooms were beamed into people’s living rooms. “I think what I’ve got from parents is a newfound appreciation for the level of independence and trust that our teachers have for our students”, Frost said. “Informally, I’ve heard, ‘We love that kids will get a lesson online, but then have independent work—but with an open meeting link where they can log in if they need help. As against a non-Montessori school where they’re on Zoom six hours a day.’ We’ve tried to structure it, especially in lower elementary, the way the classroom works, where they’ll get a lesson and go work, with a teacher available as a guide.”
I also asked what didn’t work so well. There were the technical issues you might expect, and some you might not—for example, the school had HEPA filters running, which created too much noise for the streaming students, so teachers needed voice amplifiers. Getting up to speed on doing remote and in-person teaching at the same time was also “a huge learning curve,” Frost said. “Each teacher needed to have autonomy to figure out what worked for them. You can see teachers teaching in different ways—taking the Chromebook to the hallway, sitting in a circle with the laptop in the lesson, using the SmartBoard—there are so many different ways to do this.” Gutierrez added, “the rub now is that in some classes there may be only two or three children still at home—we don’t want to ignore them, but how do we support them and give them a level of instruction that is basically private tutoring. You’re not creating independence by sitting two or three times a day with one child.”
At the same time, teachers and children are adapting in new and creative ways, Frost said. “I might see two kids with headphones side by side, it looks like they’re talking to each other, and then you realize that they’re online with a third child at home, and they’re including that child! What we’ve learned is that, if there’s a need in the future for a child to be at home, they can still engage in school.”
So what might Tobin carry forward from this experience? Both Frost and Gutierrez called out teacher planning and curriculum knowledge. Without being able to directly observe remote students, teachers needed to really analyze and organize their lessons and the areas they were covering, and uncover any gaps. During the pandemic, the school continued a self-study process around curriculum and planning—a form of Lesson Study, in effect—which entailed a much more detailed grid of lessons, purposes, follow-up work, and scheduling than they might otherwise have done. “This has brought the level of buy-in and content knowledge through the roof,” Gutierrez said. “It’s been one of the biggest professional development tools we’ve had.” It also allows for collaboration among teachers, and for leaders in different content areas to emerge and to share with their colleagues. Frost was quick to point out the support the school has had from a team of literacy, math, and Montessori coaches. “I don’t think we could have done this without them.”
This took us to the discussion of so-called “learning loss.” “We were able—another testament to the coaches—to screen all of our students in the fall, for how the spring had impacted them.” Frost said. “By December we had everyone screened and intervention groups set up. The school was able to track engagement with online learning and a summer program, and to make adjustments to increase access or to raise engagement. “Next year, it’s less about access and more about our level of planning.” The intensive lesson planning process Tobin developed has helped identify potentially missed lessons and directed interventions to support phonics and literacy, for example.
“The fall is really going to be about the social-emotional aspect,” Frost added. “What does it mean to be back in school as a community, and work together.” Gutierrez chimed in: “Some kids will not have been in a school building for 12-15 months—what does that feel like? It’s a lot like adding a new level to a classroom. The kids who have been back may be fine, but the others add a level of complexity. And then there’s the teacher stress around that—how do we support them? We need to tell them, ‘it’s OK that you can’t do all the things. What can you do, and how can we support each other?’”
One last take-away from Frost: “We are thinking about learning gaps, definitely. But in my opinion, what it’s really about for next fall is, how are we supporting kids just being joyful?—coming back to school and saying, I love being here.”