A perfect hush reigns in Rose Avent's classroom as 24 children quietly attend to individual projects on the floor.
One 5-year-old, at Avent's almost whispered behest, arranges and rearranges letters that become progressively harder words.
A few minutes later, she pauses near another child laboring over his picture of the Earth. Effortlessly he identifies each of the continentsbefore taking his paintbrush and stroking in a Pacific Ocean of iridiscent blue.
Avent, 39, a Montessori teacher for preschoolers at Key Elementary School in Arlington County and winner of The Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, is adored by her students and admired by her colleagues.
"She's gentle, she's joyful, she's patient and very capable," said Ana Koski-Karell, who has had three of her four children under Avent's tutelage.
"She has infinite patience with the children, and she gets them to work hard to please her," said Zita Drillings, whose 4-year-old son, Max, is a student in Avent's class. "Each one of the kids thinks that she's their personal teacher."
As much as they marvel at her teaching skills, it is the tranquility of Avent's classroom, a feat that she has reproduced over 13 years of teaching, that has parents agog.
"There are all those kids doing different things, and still she's always speaking in this hushed voice," said parent Martha Moore. "Then when she wants their attention, all she does is tinkle a little bell and there's complete quiet. That classroom is like an oasis for the kids."
Avent's style is the art of teaching in practice: a carefully calibrated balance of creativity, conviction, time-management and love, say those who admire her work.
"She's continually, subtlely directing them and motivating her students," said Paul Wireman, principal at the Key Elementary School, who has worked with Avent for 11 years. "But she makes it look like the children are thinking it all up themselves."
"She's a wonderful teacher," Wireman said. "It's a public school Montessori, but because of her it's got a private school quality." The goal of the Montessori teaching method is to instill a sense of independence and self-discipline in the child.
One secret to the stillness of Avent's classroom comes, she said, from allowing the children to exercise autonomy in their activities.
"They decide what they want to do," she said. "But I'm always looking for what I can do to draw them in, something that will attract their interest."
For the preschoolers, who range in age from 3 to 5, the daily sessions consist of four hours without comic book characters, electronic gizmos or computerized intrusions. Avent's is what she calls a "classical classroom," with building blocks, Styrofoam letters, paintbrushes and easels, activities that she said improves communication and cooperation skills better than electronic learning tools.
"It's so important that children learn social interaction, rather than being thrust in front of a screen," Avent said. "There is a place for that, but not at this age."
In "family grouping," the Montessori technique used in her classroom in which children of different ages are grouped together, the children also lend each other assistance, further allowing them to develop self-sufficiency, Avent said.
"The older children serve as a model for the younger ones," she said. "And the younger ones are exposed to more than they would be just among their age group."
"What's nice about it for me is I have many of the children for three years at an optimal developmental period of a child's life," Avent added. "I even have some families I've known for nine years, because I've worked with three of their children. You really develop a sense of community that way."