Tag: Stephanie DeSpain

Early Childhood majors visit Riverwoods Montessori School

Stephanie DeSpain

Stephanie DeSpain

Thirty-nine Early Childhood Education students from NIU recently enjoyed inside looks at a Montessori school.

Donations to the NIU College of Education from alumni Anthony L. Kambich (B.S. ’59, Physical Education) and Carolyn A. Kambich (B.S. ’60, Elementary Education), founders of North Shore Montessori Schools in 1966, financed the Feb. 13 and Feb. 27 trips.

“Students in my class last year were asking more about Montessori,” says Stephanie DeSpain, an assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education.

“When I talked to our chair, Greg Conderman, he said, ‘Well, we happen to have this funding to start to infuse some of the Montessori style and approach to teaching and learning in our classes to just expose our students to this other world of teaching young children,’ ” she adds. “This semester was kind of our first step in doing that.”

NIU students watched demonstrations by the school’s teachers and were able to ask questions of the faculty.

Montessori education, according to the North Shore website, “is based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s scientific observations of the young child … young children learn with great ease by simply ‘absorbing,’ like a sponge, everything to which they are exposed, rather than learning through logical analysis.”

Riverwoods Montessori School – one of three under the North Shore umbrella – provides a toddler program for 2-year-olds, a preschool classroom for ages 3 to 5 and a school-age classroom for children kindergarten through sixth-grade.

Arranged “in a homelike fashion for students to feel like they’re home,” DeSpain says, it features a living room of sorts in the middle of the school. Other familiar spaces include a regular kitchen, a dining room and a laundry room.

“It really does feel kind of like a home,” she says.

On the bus to Montessori

On the bus to Montessori

Called a “prepared environment,” the classroom is, according to the website, “designed to support these (developmental) periods of the children and allow them to easily learn at their own individual rhythm.”

A few Huskies were able to watch children in action as they stacked blocks and counted colored rods – these are called “manipulative materials” – to learn concepts such as quantifying and fractions.

Manipulatives, according to the website, are located “low on small shelves which are easily accessible to every child. This gives the children freedom, within the limits of safety and respect, to choose activities for themselves that they will succeed in doing. Many little successes build self-confidence and develop knowledge.”

“They have a three-stage lesson: I demonstrate, I have you show me and then I have you do it. That’s kind of how all their teaching is,” DeSpain says.

“When it’s introduced in our textbooks, it’s as a very child-directed approach to teaching, a natural environment where the teacher just serves as a guide and the children watch that guidance,” she adds “We’ve not necessarily had that as a component of our program before. It’s a little bit outside of what our students are familiar with. That prompts a really good discussion, like, ‘Wow, how do I do these things when they’re child-directed?’ ”

Lauren Van Havermaet, a junior Early Childhood Education major from Inverness, enjoyed the trip.

“I thought it was very insightful because I hadn’t known a lot about Montessori,” Van Havermaet says. “They did a good job of showing us what the teachers do and what the kids do, and they showed us a different way of teaching.”

binomial-cubeVan Havermaet was fascinated to see the Montessori teachers “never telling the kids that they were wrong” but focusing on “more of what they’re doing right.”

Children were interested in learning, she says, partly because they were able to choose their activities. One 4-year-old girl even was learning to sew using a shoelace.

She also noticed parallels between the Montessori method and the education of her boyfriend, who was homeschooled by his mother.

“The children were so well-behaved,” adds Van Havermaet, who appreciated that the children were generous in their sharing of toys and manipulative materials. “The whole classroom is very calm.”

NIU students also were curious about how Montessori schools serve children from diverse backgrounds, DeSpain says.

“When we talk about working with young children with special needs, we talk about supports and modifications,” she says. “In a Montessori school, children all work very independently. They grab the materials they want. They do the work they want. For a child with a disability, that might be more difficult.”

Those students who visited were grateful and excited by the opportunity to do so.

Early Childhood is a unique field, DeSpain says, that offers careers in public preschools, private preschools, church-based preschools, Head Start programs and, of course, Montessori.

“Our candidates get a chance to go into a lot of Early Childhood settings, but Montessori is not one they typically get. With the donor funding, it really allowed us to go in and get that exposure to this other type of programming,” she says.

montessori-logoSome already have expressed a desire to undertake their student-teaching in a Montessori school, she adds.

“If a few students in your cohort walk away feeling inspired, empowered and passionate about the job they want to do, then these trips are worth it,” DeSpain says.

“At the end of the day, we want our students to go and get jobs. Everyone needs to feel like they’re going to work somewhere that fits them, and this gives them that exposure and helps them to understand what they need to do to become a credentialed Montessori teacher, which requires some more training,” she adds. “Or, if they found ideas to implement in their future teaching, but realized that Montessori was not the right fit for them, then that’s empowering as well.”

DeSpain hopes to make the field trips to Riverwoods a regular event, and also is planning to use some of the donor dollars to purchase some Montessori materials to place in a designated NIU College of Education classroom or the Learning Center.

That is likely to please Van Havermaet, who is open to borrowing Montessori concepts for her classroom.

And no matter where she finds work, she is eager to start.

“You get to teach kids the first things they learn, and that’s something they’re always going to take with them. They’re always going to need their social skills. They’re going to need their numbers, colors and words,” she says. “That just kind of draws me there, just to see the kids grow.”



Early Childhood majors practice screening at Campus Child Care

assessment-3Stephanie DeSpain understands well the process of screening preschool-age children to ensure that their pre-academic, motor, speech-language and social skills are developing as they should.

“Professional practitioners just go in and look quickly, maybe 15 to 20 minutes, to see how the children are doing,” says DeSpain, an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education. “Any kids who we come across who might have difficulty, we say, ‘Let’s try preschool.’ If they fail, and we have significant concerns, that might force us to give a recommendation for services.”

Children are asked their names and ages. They are shown pictures on cards and asked to identify them. They are asked to correctly identify items, such as scissors, and explain their functions. They discern between concepts such as big and small and same and different.

They count. They quantify. They recognize and name colors. They stack blocks, draw shapes, writer their names and sketch pictures of people. They walk a straight line, hop on one foot and stand one foot. Older children are asked to recite their home addresses and phone numbers.

It was something DeSpain engaged in constantly when she worked for a decentralized special education co-op of LaSalle County school districts and private preschool programs, but teaching the procedure to NIU College of Education students has proven a bit “nebulous.”

Stephanie DeSpain

Stephanie DeSpain

“Unless you’ve worked with real students – real kids – through this process, it’s kind of hard to conceptualize in your mind what this looks like,” DeSpain says. “I tried case studies, talking through what you do if you were making decisions, but they still had lots of questions: ‘How does this actually work?’ ‘How do I coordinate this with school districts?’ ”

DeSpain found a solution in the Campus Child Care, located just steps west of Gabel Hall and the Department of Special and Early Education.

One call to Kristin Schulz, director of the NIU-owned center that provides care and education for children from three months old to age 5, set her plan in motion.

“I told Kristin, ‘This is what I would love to do. This is my idea,’ ” DeSpain says. “She was so amazing. She jumped right on board and said, ‘Let’s try it. Let’s see how it works.’ ”

Thirty-five of DeSpain’s juniors in SESE 423: Observation and Assessment in Early Childhood Special Education course made the short walk this fall to conduct actual screenings of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds enrolled at the center.

NIU’s students prepared and practiced in and out of class with the BRIGANCE Early Childhood screening scripts to build their proficiency, DeSpain says.

When the first day of the two-day activity arrived, they divided into groups of two – one to conduct the screening; the other to observe. On the second day, they switched roles. DeSpain circulated through the three rooms, looking for comprehension and providing guidance if needed.

Her initial anxiety – “I was anticipating that they would be nervous, because I felt like I could have used more time to get them ready” – proved unnecessary.

assessment-2“My students did great,” she says. “The preschool students were so wonderful and engaging, and we went in and got the data we needed. I shared that with Kristin; now she has information on students she might have concerns about, and we talked about strategies.”

During a time of debriefing back in their Gabel Hall classroom, she says, students brought thoughtful questions and insightful reflections, including the need to reword questions that children might not understand at first.

“I was impressed by their professionalism. I was impressed by their ability to think on their feet, which you have to be able to do when you’re teaching,” DeSpain says.

“They were really well prepared to be respectful, to work with other teachers and follow directions, and the Campus Child Care teachers were so much more supportive than I would have anticipated,” she adds. “I was always nervous of people coming in to my classroom, but they were so open and willing to let my students come in and work with their kiddos, which I appreciate.”

Students were grateful for the experience, she adds.

“They said, ‘We really liked it. We liked having this better than having a case study in class. We loved working with the kids; we don’t get enough direct contact,’ ” she says. “They said, ‘We appreciated being able to come in and work the students and go through a screening, with you here, with a partner, in a place where the process was set up for us.’ ”

assessment-1It also will put them a step ahead of their peers in the job market.

“When they go into the school districts, and they’re charged with helping those districts perform those screening services, they’ve already been through it. They understand. They can help, and provide guidance,” she says. “If you’re working in that birth-to-3, or 3-to-5 world, you have to facilitate or help in some way with those screening experiences. Most have to learn that process on the job or on the fly.”

DeSpain hopes to expand the program in coming years.

Beyond providing the practical skills to NIU students, she says, it offers valuable information to the Campus Child Care.

“If we can say that they were able to give the assessment, and score and interpret the results with fidelity, Kristin could say, ‘Hey, we do have concerns with this child, and it’s reflected in this screening that this group of students did,’ ” she says.

“We did have a couple students that the teachers had some concerns with, and yes, this matched; this is what we’re seeing, and you see it too,” she adds. “It’s validation for those teachers that it’s not just them. We are seeing those concerns also.”