Noble Children

By Caughlin Butler

Being asked to reflect on my Montessori education, I find it helpful to take one step back to the questions, how is the Montessori curriculum different and what difference has it made for me? I am thirteen now and have attended Montessori school exclusively from the time I was 20 months old.  In considering how best to describe my Montessori education, the experience of my peers who have not been in Montessori has served as a point of reference and source of information.

A common topic of conversation among my friends is school.  In these conversations the differences in our educational experiences are brought into sharp focus, and for me, those differences become shockingly apparent.  Allow me to share a portion of a recent conversation I had with a friend with whom I have a great deal in common. We are close in age, family structure, live in similar homes and neighborhoods, worship in the same faith, have parents in the same profession, play violin in the same orchestra, just to mention a few important commonalities. However, the difference in our school experience represents a true dichotomy. Listen in:

Me: So what’s it like to have lockers? We have open cubbies instead of lockers.

Her: Open cubbies!? Don’t people steal things?

M: Of course not. Why would anybody steal something? We have all the same materials.

H: People at my school will steal anything. I don’t know why. Like sometimes, if you leave your locker open when rushing to your next class, they’ll just, like, steal your books or pencils or whatever.

M: I can’t imagine that. You say you rush from class to class.  Why are you rushing?

H:  Well our school is very big and some of my classes are on opposite ends of the school.  And if you’re late, your teacher gets really mad and marks you late on the roll.  Our classes are only 45 minutes, so they are really annoyed when you make the class get started late.

M: Only 45 minutes of class time? Most of our classes are an hour to three hours long. We used to have the longest time period for class be 1 _ hours, but it wasn’t enough time to really get involved in our work, so we increased the time to 3 hours. This way, we have enough time and can pace ourselves. What are the teachers in your classes like?

H: Well, some of my teachers are, like, ok, but some are really mean. They give you all this extra homework, and you can be punished for, like, coming in late or talking in class.

M: Really? That doesn’t sound at all like any of my teachers. All the teachers I’ve had are companionable, interesting, and friendly. The only extra homework we get is assignments that weren’t finished the night before.  You can’t talk in class?

H: Lucky! You have nice teachers. All of mine make me read books.

M: I love books! I love to read! Are you saying that you don’t like to read?

H: I can’t stand reading! It’s so boring and umm…yah. How can you possibly like reading? That’s like…just…totally not possible.

M: I read all the time. In the morning, at night, during meals…all the time. Speaking of meals, we made a really delicious crock pot lunch last week and had fresh baked bread.  It was a new recipe our teacher tried.

H: Wait…you, like, read while you eat?  Like, no way, you have time to read during lunch? We have only a short time to eat during lunch. By the time we finally get through the lunch line we have to stand by the trash cans and eat really quickly or we’ll be late getting to class.   You cook in your class with your teachers?

M: Well, we don’t cook our lunches together everyday, just once a week.  Don’t you get time to socialize? We don’t have long lunches, but at least long enough to talk.

H: We don’t have like, any time to eat. It’s like, so unfair.

From this conversation, you can hear a marked difference between my friend and me and our educational experience. Our school lives contrast in ways that surprise us. I find that I perceive the world in a very different way from most of my friends and I attribute that difference to my Montessori education and two specific elements of it, the Great Lessons and freedoms and responsibilities.

The Great Lessons given in the elementary classes show students the grand scheme of life, tying together all the components of the Montessori curriculum. The key lessons focus on teaching these components. Without the Great Lessons, all the key lessons are diminished in value because they are not connected. Imagine you are trying to get somewhere and your map (The Great Lesson) is stolen. You cannot find your way, and landmarks (key lessons) are useless because you do not know where they are on the map.
My views are also influenced by the way I comprehend freedoms and responsibilities. I have learned that first I must be responsible for myself. In doing this I do not become another person’s responsibility. Second, I must be responsible for the communities that I am a part of. I must do what needs to be done in order to keep peace and harmony. I also have been shown that more freedom comes with more responsibility. The less reliable we are, the less freedoms that we have. This simple truth, though often overlooked, is present everywhere in our society. For example, if you are not reliable enough to drive your car at the right speed, you will earn yourself a ticket, decreasing your driving freedoms. From my experience and perceptions, one way a Montessori classroom is differentiated from a traditional classroom is the focus put on strengthening our community and our respect for others by holding the belief that every person is important. We need them and they need us.
I find this important difference evident in the many communities of which I am member. Outside my Montessori school friends, many adolescents with whom I interact tend to see the world in a limited fashion. I attribute this to the absence of the Great Lessons to their education. It becomes a greater challenge for them to see the importance, connections, and interrelatedness of the subjects they learn. However intrigued they may be by different issues, it has frequently been my experience they see those topics in isolation and rarely make a connection of those interesting issues to a broader context or to their immediate situation. 

The absence of clear lessons on and direct experience with responsibility and freedom are most prominently displayed in group and individual behavior. Spending time in groups that lack this training, I can best describe as unpleasant, frustrating, difficult, and on occasion, an ordeal; while, participating in groups who have been taught and learned early the value and importance of personal responsibility and teamwork, are best described as rewarding, pleasant and enjoyable. It is my opinion, that trying to work with others who do not appreciate the relationship between freedom and responsibility, is made difficult because they have become too caught up in their own needs and interests at the expense of those around them. Several times when I have been introduced to new groups, I gravitate and quickly make friends with people who tend to approach tasks in a similar focused manner and with similar expectations. Upon further investigation, we find we are the only ones in the group with a Montessori background. Our interests, conversations, and behavior share a common Montessori thread. 
After sifting through my thoughts and observations on the differences between Montessori and traditional schools, I return to my opening questions, how is the Montessori curriculum different and what difference has it made for me? My conclusion is that Maria Montessori herself was different. Montessori had a goal that was higher than that of other educators. She strived, not to create highly talented students, but to instead fashion noble people. She wished to teach peace to children, so that they can teach peace to the world. This being her mission, she devised a teaching program that gave a child the tools they would need to someday fulfill what she called their Cosmic Task. Students in Montessori schools are taught to ask the question, “How can I make the world a better place?” This is the fundamental difference in the Montessori curriculum; it teaches a higher purpose. However, Montessori is not a miracle approach. It is only as good as it is used. Noble students are the product of nurturing environments at school and home, emphasis on the proper values, and a consistency in the things a child is taught. How has the Montessori curriculum made a difference for me? It has taught me to strive to do noble works.

Caughlin Butler is a Middle School student at the First Montessori School of Atlanta.  This speech was presented at the International Montessori Council’s Congress and Peace Academy in the summer of 2003 as one of “The Voices of the Children,” and first printed in Post Oak News 9/05/03.