Akumal’s Montessori School

Otoch Paal Montessori teacher with students in Akumal
February, 2008

Now in its third year of operation, the Otoch Paal (“Children’s House” in Maya) Montessori school offers a different model for early childhood education to Akumal’s families with young children. The school currently has two classrooms, the cuarto de bebes (babies’ room), ages 18 months to 3 years, and the casa de niños (children’s house), ages 3 to 5 years old. There are also plans to finish a third classroom this year, but further funding is needed to complete it.

The Montessori method is based on principles of independent thinking and fosters learning by building on young children’s natural curiosity about the world around them. Very unlike a traditional classroom where children are treated as passive recipients of knowledge imparted by teachers, Montessori children are “guided” by their teachers, in a process of individual learning based on the child’s own desires and level of mastery. Even the classroom materials appear different from what you find in a typical Mexican kindergarten classroom, as there is no chalk board (since the teaching is not didactic), and virtually all the materials are hands-on manipulatives. It is quite a wonder to enter the classroom and see these small children completely engaged in the work they are doing, without an adult telling them what they should be doing.

Otoch Paal Montessori school in Akumal
The school does not have any state funding, but it does not function as a private school. Instead, from its inception Otoch Paal has been based in a grass-roots model of community participation. Started by the director of the Cancun Montessori school, Gabriela Ortega Esquivel, the school was conceived of as a place to help fill an urgent need for the indigenous families of the area, many of whom are working parents with few alternatives for child care. In her own words, Gabriela Ortega expresses: “My intention is none other than to form capable, goal-oriented individuals with the initiative and competence to develop the skills that can improve their quality of life, through broad and diverse perspectives.” In an effort to cultivate pride in the families’ Mayan heritage, the classroom structures are modeled on palapas, a traditional Yucatecan style of house construction, and the teachers are locals as well.

Following a community based model, the school’s five guides (teachers) are all young women from Akumal or Chemuyil. These dedicated five women, all with families of their own, intensively studied Montessori teaching methods and philosophy, along with child development, sacrificing their weekends, holidays, and many afternoons and evenings to complete their certification. Last June, they finally completed over two years of coursework with a final exam administered by representatives of the International Montessori Organization from Mexico City.

Otoch Paal Montessori classroom in Akumal
Otoch Paal also encourages a model of participation for the families whose children attend the school. Low income parents, who make up the majority of the school’s families, are given the option to contribute their labor in lieu of paying tuition, with each parent doing 2 hours of work per week at the school. They engage in tasks such as helping make the classroom materials (virtually all Montessori materials are made out of simple materials such as wood, rather than using commercial or store-bought items) and helping with cleaning and maintenance of the school and its grounds. Thus, although it is a private school, Otoch Paal is not a school for rich children (in fact very few parents pay tuition), though it is certainly wealthy in terms of the opportunities for growth, learning and involvement that it offers!

Otoch Paal welcomes visitors who may be interested to see how a Montessori school operates. Classes are in session from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Visitors are requested to come between 9 and 10:30 a.m. The school is also seeking donations to help make improvements on the school, such as finishing the third classroom, the boundary wall, a kitchen, gate, and various other needs.


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