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What is Education For? Looking for Answers in the Montessori Movement

Vina Kay

Vina Kay

Sometimes worlds collide, and mine did this past week at the International Montessori Congress in Portland, Oregon. The Congress brings together people from around the world every four years to learn, share, and celebrate the power of Montessori education. I am not a teacher or school administrator, like most of the people at the Congress. I am a parent who learned from my own children what education can be.

Thirteen years ago I walked into a Montessori classroom for the first time, knowing nothing about what Montessori was or how it was different from any other classroom. But I saw and felt right away that it was a place and a way of thinking and being in the world that felt right. Peaceful, beautiful, purposeful. It was what I wanted for my children.

Fast forward and I find myself two years into my own Montessori journey, wanting this very thing for all children. Together with my friend and fellow parent Jan Selby, we are making a documentary film about what education can be for children everywhere.

Montessori was a vehicle for seeing what is possible. It showed me that children can learn what they most need by following their own passions. It taught me that the role of adults should be a supportive one that allows children to develop what is already beginning within themselves. Montessori revealed to me peaceful education, one guided by principles of respect and kindness.

The Congress gave us a chance to share our project and build the support we need to see the film through to completion. It also gave us a sense of urgency. Our story is one that can help open up our conversation about what education can be, rather than what it lacks.

We had a chance to share our trailer to give a sense of what our full film will be to a room of supporters.

The eagerness to see this film completed was clear. Jan and I returned home full of stories and messages about a vision for education that we want to amplify through our film.

A core message we want to convey in our film is the answer to the question: What is education for? We were listening for that message, in speeches and workshops, in conversations and in the interviews we did for the film.

Adele Diamond, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist, told us in an interview that the skills we all need are creative problem-solving (the ability to come at something in a different way), flexibility ( being able to change course and take advantage of serendipity, as well as admit we are wrong), self-control (resisting temptations and the urge to say or do something we might regret), and perseverance or discipline (the ability to see something through).

These executive function skills are best developed in environments where we feel loved and respected, where we have little stress, where our voices are heard and matter. They also develop best when we are learning by doing and practicing. Aristotle had it right in the 4th Century B.C. Diamond said: “Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” And “We are what we repeatedly do.”

André Roberfroid is the president of the Association Montessori Internationale, but ten years ago knew little about Montessori. Working at UNICEF, his focus around the world was bringing education and health to children in the poorest countries. Education, he said, must prepare children for an unpredictable world. We must view the purpose of education as broader than taking in knowledge.

Education, he said, must lead to freedom and respect, and must be achieved in solidarity. We are not offering true education unless all children benefit from the capacity to be free. “A right that is not practiced by all is a privilege, not a right.” He called on all of us to share what is possible. “The Montessori community may not have all the answers,” he said, “but we have some.”

We had breakfast with Terry Ford who started the East Dallas Community School 35 years ago as a grassroots effort to bring a poor community together around what mattered to them. As a community organizer, the first issues she tackled were tenants’ rights and homeowner issues. But when community members turned to education, especially for the youngest children who were not yet in school and during the summer months for all children in the community, she went to work. Equipping a school room with second-hand furniture, bringing parents together to paint walls and make materials, she helped lead what became a life-changing movement in her community.

In a community where high school graduation rates are as low as 50 percent, children who have attended East Dallas Community School have a 95 percent graduation rate. After that, 89 percent go on to college.

“We are here to break the cycle of poverty,” she told us. “If I found something that worked better than Montessori, I’d do it.”

So the Montessori movement has become a social justice one. Community organizing and Montessori can go hand in hand. Thailand, my parents’ homeland, has become a leader in adopting Montessori education nationwide in its public schools. Jan and I stood in front of a room of supporters, among them the very teachers who have guided our children and us in how we think about the world. Sometimes, worlds collide, coming together to make a movement.

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About Vina Kay

Vina Kay is Director of Research and Policy at Organizing Apprenticeship Project (www.oaproject.org). She is a graduate of Carleton College and the University of Minnesota Law School. She is a writer of poetry and creative nonfiction (www.vinakay.com), and a filmmaker working on a documentary called Building the Pink Tower (www.buildingthepinktower.org), which reimagines schools and learning through the lens of Montessori education. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, two sons, and two dogs.

10 comments on “What is Education For? Looking for Answers in the Montessori Movement

  1. Pingback: What Is Education For? | Montessori at Vickery

  2. Pingback: What Is Education For? | Montessori Academy at Sharon Springs

  3. Sandy Bracy
    August 9, 2013

    Vina, I look forward to your film! Terry Ford is my idol. She has done tremendous work in our community. My three children attended one of her schools. I found Montessori through my children and, like you, I was inspired. I just took the AMI elementary training and I’m opening an upper elementary one-room schoolhouse this fall in Dallas. It’s a stressful, hectic time and I could not be more excited to extend access to Montessori in my community. Through your film, you will extend the interest in and the demand for this transformative philosophy worldwide.

    • Vina Kay
      August 10, 2013

      Terry Ford is now one of my idols, too! Good luck to you this fall, and thank you for your work.

  4. ricknelsonmn
    August 9, 2013

    Amy, If possible share links that foment the idea of Montessori, as you understand it. I don’t know if it’s tuition based, open to the learning challenged of communities, requires acute parent involvement, uses state funds like public schools, requires paid bus service, or a host of logistic/involvement questions?

    What I see as the challenge to my children has been funds to support the public school they’ve attended/attend. Our community here in Mn takes the approach of approving levy’s, and we pay heavy property taxes. Do all children truly have the choice to attend a school you’ve described? The poorest, whose parents work so much, or have one parent, and there’s no ability to work with the school, just survive? Or like in my case, working 50 hours a week, and wishing for time with my children?

    Time and paying for a home, eating, commuting, and a host of concerns absorb we who find our lives tolerable, because we survive. What could Montessori do? Really, truly do?

    • Vina Kay
      August 9, 2013

      Rick, I really appreciate your comment, and I am sure Amy or others will have more resources to add. Some that I have learned about include:
      National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (see their ongoing census of where public Montessori schools are located): http://public-montessori.org/
      Montessori Madmen, a group of parent activists, mostly dads. Check out their Fast Draw videos: http://montessorimadmen.com/
      Milwaukee Public Schools, which has the largest public Montessori system in the country: http://www.milwaukee.k12.wi.us/portal/server.pt/comm/schools/315/montessori/43474
      Also a post I wrote after visiting Milwaukee: http://buildingthepinktower.org/blog/community-and-montessori-come-together-milwaukee
      The Montessori Observer for news on the Montessori movement: http://montessoriobserver.com/
      This video Changing Education Paradigms really helped me think about the problem with the industrial based education approach: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

      Some of the other stories I heard at the Montessori Congress included the work of Corner of Hope, a program to bring Montessori education to children in a refugee camp in Kenya. Lynne Lawrence of the Association Montessori Internationale has been advocating the Montessori approach in these human rights contexts to support dignity and community for people in the most vulnerable situations. Learn more here: http://amiesf.org/action/cornerofhope.htm

      André Roberfroid spoke about the Montessori approach growing, especially in poor developing countries. Unlike the United States and Europe, these countries are not attached to the Western approach to education. They were able to adopt a different way of thinking about what education should offer, and one that is more in line with human development. So the challenge for our most “advanced” systems is to think about education differently.

      • ricknelsonmn
        August 10, 2013

        I don’t know why I wrote “Amy”, I don’t know where that name applies here. I meant you Vina. It was too early in the morning, and it’s been another very long, tiring week.

        I’m sure the private Montessori schools and those “public” labeled are doing a great job. The structured programs I explored via those links and further are informative. I went further, because my questions about parent involvement and tuition cost are very important. I read there are programs working within communities where poverty is not considered a hindrance. I wonder.

        I read this: http://sitemaker.umich.edu/pan.356/closing_thoughts

        Then I read another version of participation:

        http://www.amshq.org/School-Resources/Public.aspx

        That first link and another I found listing rates made me wonder how many grants there could possibly be, considering the context of funding. How could a whole community of poor be served, as I read from some links? The funding isn’t clearly described. What about the publicly funded Montessori? The enrollment is actually very limited, as it’s lottery based, and rejects those outside of Montessori involvement. That is to state, the child is expected to have experience with Montessori, or pass an evaluation interview.

        These are challenges, and don’t detract from the quality, but they are what poor, or over-worked parents will be thinking: “can I participate”, except those few precious moments in the evenings? How can we afford that kind of tuition (though the over-worked may already be paying for (Kids Place). There’s a lot of context, left to the open-mind.

        My current elementary age child wouldn’t qualify, not having attended Montessori at any stage, though definitely has benefited from “Kids Place”. That program is not involved with Head Start and has cost about what I found Montessori before and after care to be. The summer whole day program being close to Montessori rates too. I don’t know who, or what goes on for our grants to attend “Kids Place”.

        I don’t like too many field trips for swimming at far off pools though. That has been the theme this summer. Perhaps it’s been all along for the older kids? But, we’re at that point, and it’s a challenge to stay calm about our child’s safety. Two children died very recently as a result of a field trip. Well, there I go. I often write-in that kind of side note. Anyway, the focus of my post is the context of paying for Montessori and parent involvement.

        The use of state funding is where I would have another concern. How is that affecting wholly public school funding? I do think these are separate programs. To me, Montessori is exclusive, does not meet the enrollment levels of traditional public schools, and therefore would be taking funds at some unknown level, that could be detracting from the funding of the much larger population at the public level?

        That’s a reality for the outsider, outside Montessori. There are other challenges too. Montessori doesn’t, in my experience, reach out to the broad population. That is, to advertise its existence. But, it automatically accepts siblings. Consider that for a while and, truly ponder what that means.

      • Vina Kay
        August 10, 2013

        I think you raise the very challenges those who have been inspired by Montessori education must face. How can Montessori educators reach out to a broad public and explain what “Montessori” offers? How can it be more accessible? How can it work within the public education model (it must, to be truly accessible)? Jan and I aim to open up that conversation through our documentary film.

        Real work is happening now to build Montessori education opportunities in all kinds of communities. Those are the kinds of stories we want to capture, and hopefully ones that can inspire a movement to make education work for all children.

  5. amy eshelby
    August 8, 2013

    Vina,
    I applaud your articulate and well rounded article. I also applaud your work – both as a parent, a Montessori advocate, and a film maker – I am eagerly awaiting Building the Pink Tower! I am a Montessori educator and parent and attended the Congress as well, living locally here in Portland. I took away so many things from the Congress, but mainly that so many non Montessorians came together in agreement and encouragement for the “Montessori movement” – for I believe it is just that – not a system of education but rather a way of life, a movement that is growing and is touching many other aspects of our communities – more as a movement of social justice than a ‘school of thought.’ Thank you for your words!

    • Vina Kay
      August 8, 2013

      Thank you, Amy, for reading, sharing our project, but most of all for your part in the movement.

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