The students in Kent Holden's classes at Maria Montessori at Marsh have growth scores that are among the highest in the Rockford Public Schools. But Mr. Holden isn't only concerned with student growth on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests or other standardized tests.
The seventh and eighth grade math teacher wants his students to become better people. To hold themselves to high standards. To monitor their own behavior. To act responsibly.
The school has concrete reminders of Mr. Holden's priority on students improving themselves. A student with low self-esteem but high artistic talent helped him paint a map of the United States on the blacktop behind the school. Students who are loud in the hallways get help re-engineering the way they walk in the morning. Mr. Holden invites them into the classroom to be mentors.
"He's constantly looking at ways to develop leadership in the school," Montessori Principal Candice Collins said. "It's all relationship-based."
Central to the Montessori curriculum is compassion and understanding. Sometimes, students need to forgive themselves for not catching on to material as quickly as they want.
That's why Mr. Holden teaches math in a way that involves challenge and repetition. "A lot of math teaching tries to teach concepts to large groups," he said. "Unavoidably, that's too slow for some and too hurried for others."
Instead, he believes in throwing students in the deep end right away, introducing all the concepts they are going to learn throughout the year. He doesn't drop the "easy" stuff from tests. Each test gives students the chance to build upon concepts they may have already mastered.
"If they can do that two or three times in a row, they think, 'Hey, I'm not so bad at this.' They can learn to gain confidence."
Mr. Holden remembers a time he handed back a test to a student who didn't do so well. "When's the next test?" the student immediately asked.
This is Mr. Holden's fifth year in the Montessori program after stepping away from education for a time. After teaching fifth graders in a self-contained classroom in another school district, he left to develop a successful company, selling educational software to most of the elementary schools in the country.
Still, the pull of teaching remained.
"I decided I would come back to something I thoroughly enjoyed before I left it," he said.
Mr. Holden has an answer for the students who ask, "What is math for?"
He tells them it is not about equations and formulas, geometric progression or the Pythagorean Theorem, but about developing their brains.
"In doing problem-solving, they are making themselves smarter," Mr. Holden said. "I'm not just trying to create little mathematicians. I am trying to create people who can solve problems — to take something that is challenging and overcome it."
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