Standing on the Shoulders of Maria Montessori
So we may have accidentally developed a Montessori school. As I developed my educational philosophy over the years, I mostly went with my gut and my understanding of adolescent development to make my pedagogical choices; Lesson by lesson, day by day. I came to some major philosophical conclusions, like young people should be treated like real people and thus they should probably participate in their own lives as much as possible. In the end, I (thought I) invented a school model that made sense for my style of teaching and my belief that students should think for themselves, engage the world critically, and have help along their life path.
It seems I inadvertently borrowed a lot of Maria Montessori’s practices at Peace Valley. In education, much like many other professions, we wrestle with the concept of best practices. There are so many things that work for different individuals in different classrooms, and students differ from community to community and person to person. So there is really no such thing as an over all “best” practice in education; just the right practice for the right set of circumstances.
“Hey!” I thought, “We’ll put the school on a working farm and practice real-life skills with real-world application of academics! We’ll have highly individualized instruction and focus on mastery and emotional understanding! How refreshingly original!” Yeah…it’s really not. Aside from being a completely obvious way to be with other humans, it turns out it is the logical extension of Maria Montessori’s vision for little humans. She died before the adolescent or secondary level of her educational philosophy was developed, so there isn’t a standardized approach or training like the other levels of Montessori education, but all of the basic elements are there.
When some Montessori parents asked me which aspects of the Montessori method would be included in our One Room, One Farm model, I buckled in and did some research. There are plenty of connections between our model and Montessori’s, so I’ll break them down for you.
Here is a definition of Montessori education from Montessori Northwest: “Montessori is a method of education that is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. In Montessori classrooms children make creative choices in their learning, while the classroom and the teacher offer age-appropriate activities to guide the process. Children work in groups and individually to discover and explore knowledge of the world and to develop their maximum potential.” Sounds awfully familiar, to me (because it is the foundation of the One Room, One Farm model.)
It is not, however, common. Most mainstream schools don’t do this. In fact, the very idea of a 5-year-old doing whatever they want (even in a safe and supportive environment) with their time might be slightly terrifying to some folks. What about academics? When will they learn to read? The answer is: whenever they want to learn how to read…and that is a very difficult concept in our goal oriented, time crunched society. Peace Valley School is not a school for five-year-olds, however, it is a school for young adults. For some, the idea of a 13-year-old doing whatever they want (even in a safe and supportive environment) might be even more terrifying, but the truth is different from common fears. The thing is, most people don’t do whatever they want; they act responsibly. And people learn responsibility by practicing responsibility. This entry isn’t meant to defend Montessori method, however, it is meant to explain ways in which we use it at Peace Valley School:
Great Lessons vs. Cultural Universals
In Montessori, there are “Great Lessons.” These were largely Christian in origin and meant to inspire students to find out more. Examples are “The Coming of Life” and “The Coming of Humans.” The lesson of where life came from is meant to inspire kiddos to grasp biology, geology, ecology and the rest. For more information check out this website. Peace Valley is similar in that it focuses the curriculum structure around Cultural Universals. These are from a Sociological perspective and meant similarly to inspire questions and investigations. I got the idea from teaching Psychology and Sociology for years and noticing where students connect with true knowledge instead of memorizing and purging information.
The North American Montessori Teachers’ Association does a great job of explaining “Open Time” at the middle school level, and this is how it works at Peace Valley School for all students. To paraphrase, open time (where the littles would choose from a variety of guided and unguided activities provided and facilitated by trained Montessori educators) is a time for tweens and teens to study art, music, and other topics of their choice. It is where the student becomes responsible in the context of an integrated whole. It allows for mastery instead of completion, gives opportunity to practice emotional understanding and leaves room for individualized instruction and “unlimited depth of pursuit.” I love that last part.
The focus in Montessori education on moral and emotional development is very close to the heart of the One Room, One Farm model as well. At Peace Valley School, we practice communicating across differences, and developing emotional intelligence. We do this with a specific appreciation for the pubescent and adolescent mind and body. Expectations and abilities are different at different levels of development. We will eschew the concept of “losing innocence” and replace it with “gaining a global moral perspective.”
The social justice and community focus of Peace Valley School also dovetails with Montessori. Here is a quote from The North American Montessori Teachers’ Association: “Service programs such as working in a soup kitchen, farming as a community venture, and apprenticeships or mentorships in the workplace are part of an advancing “going out” that gives the adolescent a combined vocational and liberal arts curriculum with a particular emphasis on economic enterprise.” See? We do everything except the “particular emphasis on economic enterprise.” My understanding from the little bit of research I’ve done, and from reading Montessori’s biography, is that the “practical approach” to education is couched within the context of a capitalist industrial society. Our practical approach, as stated in our mission, is to learn by working together to make the world better. Social Justice and Community are our “particular emphases” and while sometimes that may include economic enterprise, it certainly isn’t the emphasis of our curriculum.
Farm School vs. School on a Farm:
Montessori schools for adolescents are called Erdkinder or Farm Schools. And while we are a school on a farm, there is a bit of a difference. The goals are the same. According to the NAMTA website a Montessori Erdkinder would: “
- ideally [take place on] a working farm in which adolescents engage in all aspects of farm administration and economic interdependence, but also include non-farm environments in urban settings
- assist the young adult in the understanding of oneself in wider and wider frames of reference
- provide a context for practical application of academics
- emphasize the development of self-expression, true self-reliance, and agility in interpersonal relationships.”
Peace Valley School endeavors to accomplish these goals on the farm as well. However, the Montessori approach seems to be a little more isolated than Peace Valley School. We will be based on the farm, but will focus on being out in the community as much as possible, including our global community. At Peace Valley School we will travel a lot. We want to meet and be around all sorts of different kinds of people and organizations so that we can practice engaging in, and caring for, the world.
So did we accidentally create a Montessori school? There are quite a few philosophical similarities. Peace Valley School represents years of reflection about how humans learn and what our purpose is here in our global society. As the program developed, there have been lots of connections drawn to many existing models including Montessori, Waldorf, and International Baccalaureate. I chose the approach that made the most circumstantial sense, and I’m pleased to find that I’m not alone in the pedagogical universe. That I develop this curriculum while standing on the shoulders of educational giants is just fine with me.