Dawn Whitley was seated at a child-sized pine table. Before her was a small gray rug underneath a long, narrow block filled with wooden posts arranged from largest to smallest. With steady, calm hands, she removed each post one by one and set them in line on the table. Her gaze was focused as she circled the edged of each cylinder and returned them to the block. Whitley was demonstrating how a child at Lodi Montessori would complete the knobbed cylinder job during class.
"There's a sense of purpose to each task," she said, gesturing at the more than 100 jobs around the classroom.
Lodi Montessori is a new preschool offering classes in a style that originated in Italy more than 100 years ago. Teachers call it a student-driven environment, and say it teaches children focus, concentration and personal choice. But larger reviews of the style are limited, and do not definitively conclude higher achievement among Montessori grads.
Montessori doesn't work in grades so much as in cycles. Children generally enter at 3 years old, and stay in the same classroom for three years. At 6 years old, they serve as leaders for younger students.
Lodi Montessori plans for children to stay through preschool and kindergarten age, then move on to another Montessori school or enter first grade at a traditional school.
The school is located at the former site of Montessori Villa on Stockton Street. The three teachers came into Montessori teaching while looking for alternatives to traditional education.
"I taught kindergarten for four years and there is such a strict pacing guide, no room for individuality," said Jenni Nino, school director. "Here, I'm able to do everything I began teaching to do."
There are no small chairs in rows. No teacher's desk at the focal point of the room. The child-sized shelves filled with wooden activity sets are all the same color of warm pine.
Of the three classrooms, one is currently set up and waiting for children.
Instead of lessons, worksheets or assignments at a desk, students work on "jobs." Each activity set around the room is a job, each in a different area to visually separate the subjects. In the practical life zone, students pour water, prepare snacks, and practice zippers and tying shoes. In the sensorial area, children work with blocks to learn size, shape and texture. They also study mathematics, culture, science and language arts in other parts of the room.
A tower of pink blocks teaches sequence and size. A set of flags and maps teaches geography and culture. It's not a room of toys, the teachers emphasize. It's a calm, structured environment.
"Each job serves a purpose, and leads to another job," said Whitley, a teacher at the school.
Teachers introduce one or two jobs during circle time at the beginning of each session. Next, each child takes his or her job rug to the floor or a table and spreads it out. The child works through the job on the rug, completing it how he saw his teacher complete it, and returns it to its place.
Children aren't allowed to interrupt one another while working on jobs. Teachers do guide them to certain areas, and observe their progress, but don't force them to move on before they're ready. They take their cues from the child's progress, said Nino.
"Children are able to be who they are, be individual. We meet them on whatever level they are on. We don't force students to all be on the same level," said Whitley.
The day is set up with gentle transitions and space for children to choose for themselves. Teachers dim the lights or use quiet bells to call students to the carpet. Instead of verbal discipline, students are led to a table with headphones hooked up to soothing music and told to come find the teacher when they are ready. Sometime during snack period, children are encouraged to take a break between jobs and serve themselves a helping of fruit or crackers.
While most Montessori schools get positive candid reviews from parents and teachers, professional studies of the programs are limited, and draw mixed conclusions.
A study in 2005 by Christopher Lopata at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y., looked at Montessori schools, magnet schools and non-magnet public schools to compare academic achievement. Overall, the results were mixed and did not support the idea that Montessori students do better in school.
But another study, conducted by Angeline Lillard and Nicole Else-Quest for the journal Science in 2006, found that 12-year-olds who had gone through Montessori schools wrote more sophisticated and creative stories and showed a more developed sense of community and social skills. Montessori students also achieved higher scores for both academic and behavioral tests in that study.
Lynn Beck, dean of the Gladys L. Bernard School of Education at University of the Pacific, is enthusiastic about the Montessori style, but contends that it is not workable for every child.
"I don't think it's 100 percent for everyone. Part of that is because some kids just need more structure than it offers," said Beck. "It's just about matching, getting the right children."
According to Beck, Montessori works because it taps into the fact that developmentally, young children are natural learners. Rarely do memorable learning moments happen in a formal teaching session, she said.
For example, a geography lesson will better stick with a child while traveling than by sitting and memorizing state capitals.
Another plus of Montessori style is working on a task until it is completed, which teaches focus and concentration.
"We're discovering that the whole skill of mindfulness, the ability to focus, is a good skill. It makes a lot of sense to give children the opportunity to practice that," said Beck.
Montessori schools do not offer rigid grades. Instead, teachers send written notices to parents about their child's development. Most schools do not give homework. Part of the idea is that in Montessori, the whole world is a textbook. It's hard to access those hands-on, tactile lessons while sitting at a desk indoors, said Beck.
Lodi Montessori teachers admit the Montessori style doesn't work for every child. They say the best chance for a child to succeed in Montessori is to start very young, at 2 or 3 years old.
"A majority do well because they are allowed to be themselves," said Whitley.