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.