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Montessori magic down on the farm

| March 8, 2012 | 1 Comment

By Sharona Scholtz

Kat River Valley Montessori School is a unique little school situated on the outskirts of Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape.

The school is named after the valley in which the town is situated – the Kat River Valley – and the river that runs through Fort Beaufort and past the school, which is located on a beautiful citrus farm. Kat River Montessori was established in 2000 by five founder families. Driving it all was Madali Painter who, frustrated with what she considered the ‘closed’ nature of traditional schooling, sought an alternative way to educate her two daughters, having already mapped out appropriate space on the farm where she lived. She stumbled across one of Dr Maria Montessori’s books one day in a local bookstore and immediately took to the method, which famously advocates directing pupils towards their own learning – so much so that she went on to study the Montessori course via the Mercy Montessori Centre, then situated in Cape Town.

A diverse community Our school has grown from five to a grand total of 90 students in a short span of time, including children from our own town and neighbouring Alice, as well as from Zimbabwe, Australia, Canada and London. These little foreign scholars are the children of academics based temporarily at the famous University of Fort Hare nearby.

Our mini ‘United Nations’ reflects a diverse profile in other areas as well. Some of our local students are from economically disadvantaged families, while others are the offspring of successful farmers who import and export citrus, and raise livestock as well. Fort Beaufort itself is currently enjoying an upswing in economic activity, thanks to construction giant Stutt, which is busy with large-scale road work and housing development in the area.

Our staff is less diverse in some respects: our Principal and his assistant are the only two men on ‘campus’! Eighty per cent of our teachers are also parents to Kat River Valley pupils, but this is to our advantage, as they can easily explain our mission at our regular parent meetings. While other parents may have initially chosen us because we are a private, small school, able to give specialised attention to each child, when they learn about the Montessori method, they become keen to be more involved in their child’s daily learning.

Remembering Maria, her passion and love of independence

All our teachers are passionate about the Montessori methodology. Two completed the Mercy Montessori course via correspondence, whilst others have trained through institutes in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria. We take care to honour the memory of Dr Maria Montessori – who started the first Montessori school in Italy in 1907, Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House/Home) – to put into action her passion for developing all aspects of the child: the social, emotional, spiritual and physical.

In 2007, for example, we celebrated the Montessori centennial year by painting a large wall mural in the town of Fort Beaufort – a portrait of Dr Montessori, the school and South African flags. As well as celebrating a hundred years of Montessori, we were celebrating the continued existence of our school.

Not only was Dr Montessori passionate about the development of the young child, she understood only too well the importance of independence in an education context, and we feel she would be proud of us, as our independence has always been crucial to our survival. It allows us to ‘call the shots’ and to operate as a true Montessori school, without interference from other sources seeking to impose strictures on the way we teach. However, independence comes at a price. We sometimes face financial challenges, as we survive in large part because of money made through various fundraisers such as concerts, an annual Aviation Day and the annual Fun Bike Ride. But we remind ourselves that independence actually means working in harmony with those around us, and we take care to awaken a sense of social responsibility in our learners when we visit our partner schools and economically disadvantaged outlying communities.

This is how we teach and learn

Our pupils are immersed daily in Algebra and Geometry, Language, History, Botany, Zoology, Geography and Science, taught the Montessori way. Our setting on a working farm allows us to create some unique learning and teaching moments. Pupils become acquainted with the skills needed to plant, tend, and pick the citrus fruit.

But being far away from the hustle and bustle of city life has meant we have had to be extra-innovative when it comes to acquiring and develop the beautiful didactic materials we need to enhance our students’ development. According to the Montessori methodology, children between the ages of three and nine learn in concrete ways, and therefore we offer a wide range of equipment choices to help them grasp concepts visually and concretely.

A primary example of a valuable teaching and learning tool is our sets of nomenclature cards, also known as three-part cards. The first card in the set consists of a picture, such as a tree, and the name of the specific part of the tree – ‘trunk’, for example – below the picture. The next card depicts only the picture of the tree. On the third card, only the written descriptor appears. We’ll lay out these sets on the learning or working mat on which the pupil is working. The working mat is the learner’s own space – others are not allowed to interrupt or intervene without his or her permission!

We’ve also collected and developed resources to cover all the Montessori learning ‘areas’. The first, Practical Life, comprises four sub-areas: Preliminary Exercises (body movement and hand dexterity such as handling a chair, carrying a tray, using a pair of scissors, etc.); Care of Self (folding socks, pouring solids and liquids, using pegs, etc.); Care of One’s Environment (glass polishing, table scrubbing, washing dishes, sweeping, etc.); and Control of Movement (activities like walking on a straight line, practising silence game and greeting a guest).

Drama aids development

The Sensorial Learning area involves the five senses, and our setting provides abundant learning opportunities. Allied to this are Drama and Music, enjoyed from the six-to-nineyear environment onwards. (We try to make the students feel ‘at home’ and therefore refer to their ‘environment’ rather than a ‘class’.) Wednesdays are dedicated to the arts and gardening. It is almost like a little Saturday – a break from work. While one group does Art or Drama, another group does gardening, an initiative implemented by a previous Principal to get the students involved in growing produce for the disadvantaged communities around our school and town.

The tennis court serves as our (very large) stage. The learners take out an imaginary ‘suit’ from the imaginary cupboard, allowing them to enter an imaginary world of acting and to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Many students enjoy acting as it allows them to escape the real world that faces them, as many of the students come from broken homes and drama sometimes enables them to find solutions to problems they encounter. Drama helps the learners grow on all planes – physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually – and this ties in well with our philosophy for developing the whole child.

‘Aha’ moments make it worthwhile

I love my job in a little farm school in a small town. The most rewarding part is the ‘aha’ moment when a student truly grasps a concept or idea. What a joy it is to make a difference in a child’s life, even if only for a moment. I think back to the day when a Grade 2 learner told me the following (it was on the day before the start of the December holidays some four or five years ago): “Directress, I really am not looking forward to the holidays.” “Why not?” I asked. “Because I would miss being at school. I like school very much. When I am at school it feels like I am at home.” This is what we aim for at the Kat River Valley Montessori School: for students to be comfortable with learning. It should be like second nature.

Category: Autumn 2012

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  1. Nwabisa says:

    Inspiring foundation of the school indeed! My daughter is at Merrifield Prep however her siblings are in mainstream schooling so I am exploring alternatives for them as I am witness to the high standards of education offered at ISASA Schools.

    Please send me your brochure.


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