Sunday, January 26, 2014

Montessori and Social Justice

Over the past few weeks I have been reflecting on the role of social justice in our Montessori classrooms.  As I understand it, social justice concerns the ability of individuals to realize their potential within their own society, to lead fulfilling lives and be active contributors to their communities. Simply put, people are responsible for one another and should ensure that all have equal chances to succeed in life. So, with that in mind, does the Montessori curriculum afford enough opportunities for students to develop a sense of social justice?    Do we, as teachers and parents, do too much?  Do our students and children do enough?  How do we offer enough lessons around social justice without ramming it down their throats?

It begins with the training of Montessori teachers.   In proper training courses, emotional and spiritual preparation of the adult is essential to the education of future teachers. To be a Montessori teacher, one must discard thoughts of “teaching” in the traditional sense (filling children with information) and replace those thoughts with a commitment to and trust in a child’s developmental impulses. Montessori teachers are trained to recognize their own limitations and prejudices, to give up their need to control children and to guide the child as each sensitive period appears.  “The preparation of the Montessori teacher involves personal change, learning to be an astute observer, and learning to identify in oneself qualities that might be an impediment to fair observation and understanding of children” (2005, Lillard, p.286).

In the classrooms, teachers spend an inordinate amount of time preparing the environment to meet the needs of each child – to level the learning field, so to speak. The activities all have a built in control of error which allows the child to learn a concept by themselves rather than relying on (or worrying about) an adult stepping in to correct a mistake. Teachers are also expected to observe the children often and regularly so as to recognize and honour the rights of each child

Through all of these preparations, Montessori students are guided to help one another, to prompt their classmates who don’t know an answer, to cheer for one another, and not to compete for prizes or rewards.  They are introduced to, presented with and surrounded by social justice.

However, there are more overt ways for schools to continue fostering social justice in their communities.  Here are a few of the events and actions in which our elementary students take part.

Jump Rope for Heart
A fundraiser for the Heart and Stroke foundation that promotes healthy living to the students and raises money to help the greater community.

The School Store
Every other year, the elementary children set up a craft store to sell all the cards, ornaments, jewelry, and handcrafts that they’ve made.  Not only do the students learn valuable lessons around working as part of a team and handling money but a third of the profit made is allocated to charity. The students have a discussion about where they’d like the money to go and then a vote is taken.  The teacher is present and facilitates the discussion but the final decision is made by students and they all learn more about benevolent giving.

Kris Kringle
Every December, the elementary classrooms come together and take part in a game called Kris Kringle.  Although some parents find it a bit controversial, the game has withstood the test of time and continues to be a very effective way for the students to express gratitude, forgiveness, and how to deal with hurt feelings.  Every student draws, from a hat, the name of a “child” (another student) for whom they (the “parent”) will make 7 presents.  Each day the presents are brought to school and placed in a decorated box where they remain until just before lunch when they are handed out by the teacher. 

Now, here is where the controversy begins to germinate.  Some students forget to bring their present or simply don’t make anything and that can be very hurtful to the “child” who gets nothing.  Instead of an adult swooping in to fix the situation, the students are allowed to take care of it themselves.  This was evidenced last year when three girls sprang to give their gifts to one “child” who received nothing.  When a pattern of forgetfulness was noted by a few of the older children, they made extra gifts to make sure that everyone would get something.  Another older student wondered out loud if the forgetful person’s gift should be forfeit and given to his “child”.  Social justice at a very grass roots level.

Every year, a group of the oldest students take the food bank items collected by the school families to the local distribution centre.  There they spend the afternoon helping to sort the food and health items into boxes.  The conversations that take place after this event centre on how the students wish they could do more and how much more they’re going to collect next year.   Sure, there may be one or two who brag that they got to sort candy while the others had to sort diapers but the teachers quickly smooth ruffled feathers and make a mental note about who will be sorting diapers next year.

Spring Presentation
Unlike traditional school presentations, our spring presentation is completely created by the students.  That means they write the plays or skits, choose the songs they want to sing, and play solos if they want.  All the teachers do is help them to get organized, practise, make copies of lines and music to learn at home, and basically just assist.  Every single student contributes something and their part can be as big or as small as the group decides.  If a student really doesn’t want to appear on stage, they are given their choice of back stage roles.  If they want to play or sing a solo, they are welcome whether they’ve been taking lessons for years or just a few weeks. All the students are given an equal chance to take part and to feel that they’ve made a real contribution.  

The Montessori Model United Nations
“Students formulate, present, debate, and revise positions on current issues that are affecting people of the world.  By assuming the perspectives of a citizen of their selected countries, MMUN students not only develop an understanding of the needs and rights of others, but also learn the respect the cultures, the political views, and the belief system of others.” (See here for more information.)
This is the first year in a long while that we’ve had enough older students to consider going to the model United Nations.  If the trip is realized, our students will be getting a look at social justice on a much grander scale.

Finally, there is parenting for social justice.   Many of us believe we are committed to social justice in the greater community and want to pass that commitment on to our children.  However, if we stop and look at ourselves, we may find that our parenting model relies on control and domination - behaviours which ultimately reinforce many of the social systems that dis-empower children.   We believe we have the right to use power and coercion over children in order to control how they behave but that is really the foundation for all other forms of bias and discrimination.  The belief that we must use control in order for children to become productive and successful adults is deeply flawed.  If social justice is important to us as parents, we may need to rethink some of our parenting strategies.  It is just as important for parents as it is for Montessori teachers to scrutinize their own limitations and prejudices when it comes to the children.

Virtually every aspect of properly delivered Montessori philosophy gives lessons in social justice. The Montessori environment, which includes the properly prepared adults, fosters a keen sense of social justice and encourages the development of consideration for others through working together.  

So, do we do enough?  I certainly think so and I think we can do more.  If you disagree, please leave a comment.  I’d love to discuss this subject further.

Lillard, A.S. (2005) Montessori the science behind the genius. New York: Oxford University Press.

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