How to Start a One-Room Montessori School

Classroom Redesign Spotlight on Mission Montessori

by room2learn

This week, we had the honor of chatting with Zeda Suswal, the founding teacher of Mission Montessori, the first private Montessori school in San Francisco. The school opens its doors this year and currently offers both Spanish immersion and English elementary programs. If you are unfamiliar with the Montessori approach, it is defined by mixed age instruction, student choice, a “discovery” approach as opposed to direct instruction, and a thoughtfully-designed environment. Space, in the Montessori school, is always intentional and student-centered.

“To assist a child, we must provide [him/her/them] with an environment which will enable him to develop freely.” — Maria Montessori

With this in mind, the Mission Montessori team faced an interesting design challenge. Housed in a recreation room with no windows in the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco, how could they redesign their space to resemble the calming, earth-tones commonly seen in Montessori schools?

Let’s read on to learn about their stunning, creative redesign.

The Mission Montessori school before the redesign, housed in The Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco

r2l: Hello Zeda! Tell us about your classroom space! What does it look like? What is the layout like?

Zeda: Well, our space is pretty special. We are renting a room in a larger Boys and Girls Club in the Mission. This is my 3rd Montessori School and it is incredible to see how this all-purpose room has been transformed over the last couple of weeks. We had to do a lot of improvisation and it was fun to come up with solutions with the community. We’ve also gotten a lot of positive feedback from The Boys and Girls Club, which has been a really fun component of redesigning the space.

When we first arrived in the space, we saw dark blue floors and walls. We wanted to transform this into a light-capturing space. The only windows that face outside have tinted film on them and are too high up and not accessible to the children to open or look out. The other wall of windows looks into a gym. So, we covered the floor with faux wooden paneling and added natural, beige colored shades to the internal windows.

The Mission Montessori School after the redesign

The space is pretty typical of a Montessori environment. The shelves and flooring are very neutral on purpose. We use a lot of soft white and beige colors and a lot of lamps with low lighting. All of the shelving is at child height and is intentionally not cluttered. The low shelving continues to foster my students’ sense of independence, which is a big part of the Montessori philosophy.

Low shelving is used throughout the school to foster student agency and independence

Developmentally, this is when collaboration becomes such a big part of the academic learning experience. You will see a lot of larger tables where group work can really happen. There are many areas in the room for children to choose how they want to work — alone, in groups, on the floor, at the community table, at a one-person table, etc. We want to give them options for their learning experience.

The “closet” library and reflection space

We also redesigned one of our closets! My teaching assistant and the Spanish Educational Design lead, Paula, transformed our closet into a library and reflection space. We got really ambitious and painted it bright yellow in there, hung twinkling lights, and continued the theme of low lighting and accessible shelves. In an early elementary classroom, you want to make sure there is time for inner-centering and reflection.

r2l: You mentioned low lighting a lot in your redesign.! Could you tell us more about this design choice?

Zeda: I think it’s almost my personal preference. In all of my classrooms, I have always kept it dim. However, the children have complete autonomy to say, can I turn on the lights? Of course, I would never reject that. But even when I taught in public school, I kept the lights dim. People have always asked, does it keep the children calmer? To be honest, I think it keeps me calmer.

r2l: What other design choices do you think directly impact learning?

Zeda: My design choices are an extension of how my particular children learn. The good thing about Montessori shelving is that it can be easily manipulated. Over winter break, I sometimes do a whole overhaul. Working with younger ages, I think about safety and if the room is organized in a way that has Feng Shui and flow. Can my students access each other and the materials they need? I also make sure the room doesn’t look like an open space for them to run around in.

I like to create a culture of intention, so children are walking to certain parts of the room to get a specific material and not getting side-tracked.

Another component would be having choices. I always have big and small tables, so children can either work together or hyper-focus on their own.

r2l: How are you preparing and getting your space ready for the first day of Mission Montessori?

Zeda: Nothing in particular. No matter what day it is, I always just try to set up the space as a welcoming environment. Over the year, we start to shift the space around as the children grow. We do add our own styles, like my low lighting preference, but most Montessori schools look similar. If you walked into 10 different Montessori schools, you would find common design choices in all of the rooms.

r2l: Do you have any “hacks” or classroom design solutions that you want to share with the community?

Zeda: Honestly, it really depends on the year and the students. For example, there was one year when I was teaching in Chicago when I had a group of boys that loved constructing so we took architecture-related concepts (such as a trusses) and created a space in the classroom where they could build! We would make things such as this newspaper dome — it’s highly recommended! Every year brings a different set of kids and I come up with different solutions as their energy unfolds.

I also think it’s important to not just have a large open space. The classroom should resemble a home with nooks and crannies, and not like a big yard.

r2l: Thank you so much for chatting with us, Zeda! We wish you all the good wishes for the start to your school year!

To learn more about Mission Montessori, visit their website here!

Do you want your room to be spotlighted on our blog? Are you currently going through a redesign and want to share your knowledge with the community? Let us know at www.room2learn.org or Tweet us at @HackClassrooms!


Zeda’s love of teaching began in 2002 when she traveled to China to teach English. While there she realized that the energy and potential of children stirred a passion in her unlike any other. With this excitement, she went on to teach abroad in Venezuela and Italy. Zeda learned that a global perspective only enhances our empathy and understanding of the world, and she loves to bring this into the classroom to share with her students.

After her experiences teaching abroad, Zeda decided to make teaching her full-time career. She moved to Chicago and earned a master’s degree in education with a specialization in Special Education. She taught in public schools for five years until she had the opportunity to teach in a public Montessori program, where she first discovered the wonder of this beautiful method. The experience of seeing and feeling a Montessori classroom environment stuck with her, so Zeda went on to earn her AMI Elementary Certification. She has been teaching in Montessori elementary classrooms for the last four years, at Near North Montessori in Chicago and most recently at the Renaissance School in Oakland.

Zeda could not be more excited to be the founding teacher at Mission Montessori. She brings with her a passion for Montessori philosophy, travel, nature, and building community among parents, students, and school staff.

Paula has been teaching and designing curriculum in diverse educational environments around the world for over eight years. Her passion for education, language and cultural immersion began at home in Toronto, Canada. With a Peruvian mother and Uruguayan father she also spent a large part of her childhood in South America. In addition to being a native Spanish speaker, she attended a Canadian French immersion school.

Paula’s love of teaching began in high school, when she worked part-time as a youth dance instructor. Paula has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from York University, where she also completed a Masters of Education with a specialization in Literacy and Language, making her uniquely qualified to design the Spanish program for Mission Montessori.

She is very excited to be a founding member of an authentic Montessori school and looks forward to bringing her passion for culture, music (she plays the ukulele!), food and travel to the classroom.

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