Film crew visits for instructional video

Third-grader Chester Dixon chose to return to Dakota Montessori School because of all the choices students have at the nontraditional Fargo school.

"You're more free to do anything (here)," says the 9-year-old, who briefly attended public school before returning to Dakota Montessori. "All you do is sit in the classroom (in traditional schools)."

After a math lesson this week, he and a classmate worked on different projects on trapezoids to better understand the lesson.

That independent, hands-on learning is the basis behind the Montessori method - the topic of a documentary filmed at the Fargo school this week.

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Detroit Lakes' South Shore Productions used the school to illustrate the method in a 20-minute film sold nationwide.

"It's a great example of the methods used internationally," Executive Producer Erika Johnson says. "To me, it was nice to use a local crew and a local school."

The instructional video explains the Montessori method - an individualized child-centered learning style that contrasts from some traditional schools' regimented routines.

The private school, with about 170 kids ages infant through sixth grade, promotes independence with routines such as toddlers cleaning up trays or elementary students choosing projects to work on.

"What we really try to do here is make it more personalized," teacher Darcy Leysring says. "The structure is more designed by the child."

That structure includes everything from the day's schedule to the classrooms. Instead of cribs, infants nap on tiny floor beds, and elementary students trade desks for medium-sized tables.

"Really, it's setting them up for the real world situations," Leysring says.

She and two teachers "stage and direct" about 30 first- through third-graders in one classroom.

"We're not typical teachers," says Leysring, who also oversees curriculum. "The teacher is the guide ... but isn't the forefront of what's going on."

In fact, textbooks are virtually nonexistent, with kids focused on hands-on activities instead.

"Not everyone is doing the same thing," she says. "They have a choice in the classroom - which doesn't mean free reign."

Peer teaching, too, is encouraged. In fact, one rule in Leysring's class: Go to three friends with questions before her.

"It's not a perfect world here, but how we try to approach it is, 'What can I do to help you with that?' " she says.

The school still has to follow state standards and, Leysring adds, their state test scores are comparable to those at other schools.

While students may have to make some adjustments when they go on to traditional schools, they also hope to leave more self-motivated, independent and well-rounded.

"One of the things is we look at the whole child," Leysring says. "I think it gives them a broader base."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515