The Dante Alighieri Montessori School in East Boston serves fewer than 100 students in grades K-6. It opened three years ago as the outgrowth of a program at the East Boston Early Learning Center, offering a child-centered approach in mixed-age classes, based on the work of renowned Italian educator Maria Montessori. Teachers at the Alighieri are trained and supported with regular coaching by the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.

In each classroom, students work quietly by themselves or in small groups. In the K0-K2 “Children’s House” classes, a few students sprawl on a rug working with number tiles, another builds a tower of pink blocks with help from paraprofessional Mary Ramirez, while still others look at books or work with map puzzles. Gabrielle Macubbin is helping a couple of girls with a place value activity, while another child stands nearby with a hand on her shoulder to let the teacher know she wants her attention.

In addition to traditional subjects, students at the Alighieri work on “life skills” activities such as sewing. In one of the Lower Elementary classes (grades 1-3) a group of girls tells me all about their class gecko, who is shedding its skin. As I enter her classroom, Upper Elementary teacher Maureen Quinn is using the doorway to demonstrate a math concept to one of her 4th-6th graders. The music teacher, Clara Kimani, helps a sixth grader master a song on the recorder. A bit later she is teaching a literacy intervention group with “singing books” – students reading and singing the words together.

Many of the Montessori materials are unfamiliar to me – e.g. a math manipulative called “Racks and Tubes” and map puzzles with small, removable globes attached. Lower Elementary teacher Lisa Schad, who invited me to the Alighieri, describes her experience as follows:

In our school, children have freedom to choose where to work and on what to work. You may find children working side by side on very different tasks – selected by the children themselves – that are matched to each person’s challenge and readiness level. Our hands-on materials allow children to understand complex concepts, check the accuracy of their own work, and provide accessibility to many different kinds of learners. The element of choice for students has resulted in a greater investment in the work and has developed a stronger intrinsic motivation for my students than I have found when teaching in a more conventional style.

Although the Alighieri Montessori School provides a unique environment, we can all create opportunities for student choice in our classrooms!

Amika Kemmler-Ernst, Ed.D.