ONE YEAR, you’re in a classroom full of students, all working independently or in pairs. Books and materials line the shelves, and next week’s schedule is a known quantity. The next, you’re in your backyard building a fire to make charcoal for your pupils, whom you now see in person only once every week. Most days, you peer at them through a screen and hope they stay inspired on their own, off-line.   

That’s the difference between 2019 and 2020 for Sonya Maslenikov, a Montessori teacher for the past two decades, now at the Pacific Crest School in Fremont. Her elementary-level classroom went fully remote in the spring, though since September, every child attends one session per week at the school. The challenges of remote learning are well-documented by now, but the specific tenets of a Montessori education, including mixed-age groups, hands-on education, and student-led curricula, are particularly difficult to uphold in a socially distanced format.

The Montessori method, practiced at over 5,000 schools across the U.S., lets children determine and pace their own education with a selection of materials and guidance from teachers. School days consist largely of open work periods in which learners decide what projects to work on while teachers pull small groups aside to introduce new topics. If a student wants to pursue a subject further, they’re encouraged to follow their curiosity and pair up with peers on research projects.  

In these groups, Maslenikov used to watch her pupils inspire each other on the spot. She described how one student’s enthusiasm for math might excite others: “‘I bet we can make a math problem that takes up four rugs!’” 

With mixed-age classrooms—three to six at the primary level, six to 11 at the elementary level, and 11 to 14 for the middle school—younger students might see an enticing lesson happening with their older classmates, like an experiment with test tubes. They can then voice this interest to their teacher and, depending on their competency level, the teacher might work it into that student’s lesson plan. “It helps to create that feeling of responsibility and independence for their own learning,” Maslenikov points out. Older kids, meanwhile, develop a sense of leadership in the classroom. If they’re struggling in a particular subject, Maslenikov might have them work with a younger learner, so they develop a better sense of how much they already know.

Now, however, teachers have to prep materials and documents in advance for parents to collect over the weekend. To streamline the logistics, group lessons take place in fixed cohorts, divided by age. Maslenikov still sees some sparks of intellectual curiosity travel through the class, like one child's penchant for carnivorous plants. But overall, students derive less inspiration from their peers. “That’s been one of, for me, the hardest things to watch as a teacher is just those fixed groups,” Maslenikov reflects, “because it goes so much against what would naturally happen in a classroom.”

The Pacific Crest School has plenty of resources to adapt to distanced learning. As a private school, with annual tuition starting at nearly $10,000 per year, the school can afford to boost its internet for video calls, install updated ventilation systems, and purchase new materials for a lending library. But even at a school with significant funding, both teachers and students have experienced a loss of agency and connection. 

“It’s true that almost every powerful tool that we as teachers usually rely upon has been stripped away during Covid,” Dorrie Knapp Guy, head of the Pacific Crest School, wrote in an email, “because our tools are rooted in what it means to grow within real community—a real rubbing elbows community.”

In the classroom, Maslenikov would host one-on-one meetings with students to understand their interests and introduce ways to pursue them—say, with a book or a partner. But she doesn’t have enough hours in the day now, so most conferences simply assess their understanding of new concepts.

The instability has also weighed heavily on Maslenikov. Back in the spring, teachers at the elementary level tried to minimize screen time. They compiled comprehensive packets of independent study ideas, such as illustrating poems or calculating the volume of furniture around the house. While some kids embraced the at-home projects, others struggled to focus. With feedback from parents, the Pacific Crest School redesigned their model over the summer, prioritizing more virtual face time with students. Still, everything might change again as social distancing restrictions evolve next year.

The school’s emphasis on experiential learning, another core tenet of the Montessori Method, is about the only thing that hasn’t changed during the pandemic. Occasional outings have been the highlight of Maslenikov’s year, including a dried fruit walk in Magnuson Park, where students learned the different ways plants prepare their seeds to be spread. At Piper’s Creek, one cohort saw the river overflow on a rainy day, while another watched salmon leap upstream under clear skies. For her one in-person class per week, Maslenikov made sure to teach the Big Bang Theory, stretching a thin red strip of cloth against 30 meters of black fabric to visualize the brevity of human life against our Earth's four and a half billion years.

 For Thanksgiving, in lieu of the usual all-school gathering, the teachers asked their pupils what they could do to celebrate altogether. Primary students made a photo recipe for soup, elementary learners wrote and shared original poems, and middle schoolers gathered food and clothing for donations, with up to seven times the volume of the previous year.

 “I have been really just blown away by the way that the students themselves are so flexible, and they're so able to adapt to different settings,” Maslenikov says. “Kids are amazing.”

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