Jennifer Wheelhouse

Jennifer Wheelhouse

In her Wheelhouse: Head of Redmond-area school speaks at Montessori conference in China

As the head of school for Montessori Children's House (MCH) near Redmond, education is a big part of Jennifer Wheelhouse's life.

As the head of school for Montessori Children’s House (MCH) near Redmond, education is a big part of Jennifer Wheelhouse’s life.

But for her, it’s more than just a career. It’s been a family affair since her mother founded the school in 1987. In addition, both of her children have attended or are attending the school: Wheelhouse’s daughter, now 21, was part of MCH’s first infant program and her fifth-grade son is a current student.

Wheelhouse’s passion for the Montessori education system caught the attention of a Chinese Montessori teacher who came to the United States and did some of her training at the school during the 2014-15 school year. The teacher recommended Wheelhouse to the Chinese Montessori Society (CMS) to speak at the organization’s 12th annual Montessori conference in July.

The CMS is the organization in China that accredits Montessori schools and certifies teachers. Wheelhouse said it was modeled after the American Montessori Society (AMS), which also helped the CMS as it was forming.

When Wheelhouse was contacted on New Year’s Day about the speaking opportunity, she was “shocked.” She accepted the offer and said it was an incredible honor to speak at the conference.

Wheelhouse said the Montessori style of education first emerged in China in the last decade and a half or so and is one of the last large countries to have Montessori schools. While she was there, she visited a number of local Montessori schools and was impressed by what she saw.

“They’re doing really good work,” she said.

While the educators she met in China were new to the Montessori style, they were passionate and engaged with their students, she said.

Wheelhouse said a Montessori education is based on the premise that children learn by doing. She said they absorb information organically through their environment as direct instructions can fall on deaf ears. In a traditional classroom, the teacher imparts knowledge onto their students, whereas in a Montessori classroom, the teacher prepares the environment and demonstrates skill sets the children are supposed to learn. In addition, a Montessori classroom is multi-age, typically divided into three-year sets, Wheelhouse said, as children develop in three-year cycles. MCH programs include classes for students ages 6 weeks-3 years old, 2 and a half-6 years old, 6-9 years old and 9-12 years old.

By having students of different ages in a class, Wheelhouse said the younger students can look to the older students as role models. And when the younger students see older students doing more advanced versions of the lesson, it will catch their interest and motivate them to reach that level. In addition, Wheelhouse said all students move through the curriculum at their own pace, meaning no one is singled out if they are stronger or struggling in any given subject.

“You’ll have all ranges of reading at all ages (in one classroom),” she said as an example.

As a parent, Wheelhouse said she has also seen the Montessori method support her children’s different educational needs. Her daughter was more advanced as a student and the traditional classroom was not challenging her so they enrolled her back into the Montessori system from grades 5-7. On the other end, Wheelhouse said her son has had some learning challenges and the Montessori system worked better for him.

“It has supported them both in who they are,” she said, adding that the Montessori method celebrates students as human beings, recognizing that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, but that those “don’t define us.”

Wheelhouse said current educational methods of regurgitating facts, eliminating arts programs and increasing standardized testing crushes creativity, while a Montessori education encourages this.

This was the focus of Wheelhouse’s speech in China as she discussed how the Montessori method supports innovative thinking.

Her speech was about an hour long, but as she needed a translator, she said she was on stage closer to two hours. Wheelhouse said her speech was well received and it was actually overwhelming afterwards as so many people wanted to talk to her and take photos with her.

“I know what it’s like to be a rock star,” she said with a laugh, adding that she’s decided she doesn’t want to be a rock star.

Wheelhouse was in China for a week and the conference was three days. She described the experience as a trip of a lifetime — in more ways than one. Not only did she have the opportunity to meet with other educators, in a country she’d never been to, she also got engaged as her now-fiance proposed to her when they visited the Great Wall.

“That was unexpected,” Wheelhouse said.

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