When the COVID-19 pandemic hit North American shores in the spring, promptly closing schools without warning, Cassi Mackey wasn’t sure what to do. Mackey, a Principal and Guide at the Montessori Education Centre Charter School in Mesa, Arizona, had to quickly pivot her well-established brick and mortar charter school to one that delivered high-quality virtual Montessori learning to students in their homes. Although her staff did an admirable job of providing online resources for students (who range in age from infants to 12-year-olds), they were disappointed by the lack of genuine Montessori resources available online.
When it became clear that remote learning was going to continue through the fall of 2020, Mackey knew she needed a better solution. Although not all of the 295 students at her school would be learning remotely, she and her fellow educators wanted to provide an authentic Montessori at-home experience which mirrored a typical school day in the event they were forced to learn remotely. They also wanted to ensure that the teaching platform was easy to use for teachers, parents and students. “It was essential that we find an online learning management system that could do that,” Mackey said.
Mackey wasn’t alone in her situation. Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person learning, pushing many schools into uncharted territory. According to the New York Times, more than 30,000 K-12 schools were forced to make the switch to remote learning in the United States alone. Although the online learning market has been on the rise for years, it wasn’t until 2020 that the vast majority of school-aged children had no choice but to use it.
Teachers were initially concerned, and rightfully so. Was it really possible to engage young children through a screen? What were the best practices for teaching at a distance? How could they ensure what was being offered was authentic and stayed true to the principles that define Montessori education?
Enter the Guidepost Montessori Partnership program. Initially created in response to the abrupt school closures, Guidepost’s Partnership program—which offers bespoke distance learning solutions to Montessori schools—had been in development for some time.
“We'd been thinking about creating a platform to make Montessori training and professional development more accessible, but COVID accelerated those plans, and we launched much sooner than we thought we would,” says Kelli Harran, Guidepost’s School Partnership Liaison.
Since the partnership program first rolled out in the summer of 2020, Guidepost Montessori has partnered with 30 public, private and charter schools who are using the online platform and curriculum to facilitate virtual Montessori learning for more than 1,500 students in the United States. Among these are a number of schools in the Detroit Public School System, Madison Community Montessori School in Wisconsin, and Moonflower Montessori in Virginia.
In November 2020, the Richland County School District One in Columbia, South Carolina expressed interest in enrolling an entire Upper Elementary classroom in Guidepost’s virtual school program. Plans were solidified in December, and students began virtual classes on January 4th, 2021. According to Harran, it’s the first time a public Montessori program has partnered with Guidepost.
"The platform is easy to use. Even my three-year-old student knows how to navigate it." - Tabitha Maxwell, Montessori guide and parent at the Montessori Education Centre Charter School
How Technology Powers Distance Learning
Guidepost Montessori distance learning programs are built in Altitude, a learning management system that enables guides to deliver authentic Montessori lessons remotely. School partners can choose which elements of the pre-built Guidepost program to use (content, videos, activities) and which ones to leave out, should they wish to replace some of the content with their own.
Tabitha Maxwell, a Montessori guide at Mackey’s school and parent to two children in enrolled there, has found the Guidepost resources a blessing. Maxwell is currently teaching a group of 10 students aged three to six virtually, and is using the Guidepost Album—a self-directed option that makes Montessori programming accessible to students in non-traditional settings—to do so. The Guidepost Album comes with built-in lessons, activities and resources that teachers can then customize to suit the needs of their students.
When the pandemic hit, Maxwell pivoted to Zoom and would do video calls every morning for her class with songs, stories, and games. She would then meet individually with her students for reading time and assessments. But it wasn't that simple to deliver a Montessori education virtually.
"Before Guidepost, I'd be taking pictures of things, trying to figure out how to give [my students] the Montessori experience through a computer. Guidepost has helped tremendously. What’s great is I can use the lessons already [in the learning management system] as a foundation and then tweak them for each student. And the platform is easy to use. Even my three-year-old student knows how to navigate it.”
In creating distance learning options, the staff at Guidepost knew they wanted to stay true to the core Montessori learning principles.
“We were getting calls from schools, administrators, educational directors and guides saying ‘Hey, [what I’m currently using] doesn’t work,’” says Lindsay Journo, Executive Program Developer at Higher Ground Education. “The desire for this type of solution was there. And in developing it, we wanted to make sure that we remained faithful to the Montessori philosophy. The fact we are all now operating at a distance shouldn’t change the fundamentals about how children learn and what they need to thrive.”
When Mackey learned of Guidepost’s distance learning offerings, she was thrilled. “They were in alignment with our goals and needs for an online platform and provided resources that helped create a stimulating schedule of activities that parents could facilitate with our teachers' support. Guidepost provided a technology pathway for what we normally do in a Montessori classroom: planning, engaging students, evaluating and understanding. Teachers were able to provide real-time feedback on submitted work and communication with parents was as simple as a touch of a button.”
Guidepost’s distance learning offerings have even proved useful on an international scale.
“We partnered with the Newberry House Montessori School in South Africa,” says Harran. “They don’t always have a fully accredited teaching staff available. There will be a few weeks in a term when there are assistant guides available, but not fully-trained Montessori educators. In the past, they’ve flown in accredited Montessori guides from the United States each time they’ve been lacking this support.”
The pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions meant that Newberry House could no longer do this. So, they partnered with Guidepost, electing to use their Guidepost Album solution to help facilitate education while their lead guides were absent.
Getting Started as a Guidepost Partner
Getting set up on Guidepost as a partner is simple. “What usually happens is we’ll do a call with a teacher or school administrator to see what their needs are,” says Harran. “Then we can offer the solution that we think best fits their needs.” From there, it usually only takes one to two weeks to get their staff set up and trained in using Altitude's learning management system.
Mackey speaks very highly of the onboarding and implementation process, citing virtual learning as being an area they had no experience in. Guidepost dove in to help them navigate things seamlessly.
“[They’re] passionate about providing a well-developed Montessori experience online. Every phone call, meeting and training session we had has been with experienced, patient, knowledgeable, dedicated people.”
As for what the future holds, Harran sees Guidepost’s distance learning partnership program growing, even after the pandemic subsides. “Our mission has always been to modernize and bring Montessori to the mainstream. Our partnership program and distance learning offerings allow us to reach families that may not have previously had access to a Montessori education.”
Mackey is all for it, calling Guidepost an innovator in the Montessori space. “At a time when everyone’s learning virtually, they’ve been this light for the Montessori community, she says. “We’re proud of our partnership.”
How Guidepost Montessori Supports Distance Learning
- Engagement: The Guidepost distance learning offerings are designed to meet children where they are. Lessons are presented in small chunks, and children are grouped according to their development. Students are also offered many choices, so that they have the freedom to make decisions about their education and explore areas that interest them.
- Community: Young children are intensely social and thrive on interaction and collaboration opportunities. The Guidepost distance learning offerings for this age group include community gatherings online, opportunities to share work, breakout rooms for collaboration, and spaces where parents can connect.
- Routine and Structure: With work and school routines disrupted, it’s all too easy to slip into an unstructured day. Guidepost supports parents and children in creating routines for learning and play, providing them with sample schedules and activities that children can complete ion their own time.
- Accountability and Independence: For many students who attend traditional schools, finding out that the work they do at home is not being graded can make them wonder why they’re doing it in the first place. Guidepost’s distance learning program establishes authentic accountability with students. Rather than relying on a grade, children old enough are encouraged to keep work journals that guides review with them on a weekly basis. This approach encourages children to take ownership of their own learning.
Learn more about Guidepost Montessori’s Partnership Program.