I am pleased to have been included in Dr. Barbara Rousseau's book, "Your Conscious Classroom: The Power of Self-Reflection". Pages 200-202 speak to some of my thoughts on the spiritual basis of Maria Montessori's cosmic vision.
gaze into the candles and fires that form the centerpieces of many of our
winter traditions, we can explore the relationships humans have to the physical
- Could it be that it is not only cultural nostalgia that draws us to
these iconic practices?
- Could it be a tickling of our ancestral past - memories
of family celebrations, taken deeper, blending into feelings of protection from
the unknown wild?
- Is it a distant perception of our ancestors sitting around a
fire for warmth and security?
- Could it be that at some profound level we have an awareness of
our intimate relationship with the universe?
- Can we can draw connections
between our celebrations of light and the fact that we all come from light – light of the great
improbable flaring forth, that tremendous burst of energy that erupted from nothing into all that we now know, and more?
How incredible to help children make
the leap between the bundles of energy dancing in our eyes at the holidays, and
the photons present at the very beginning of everything. We are all children of
(This piece was originally posted here on December 9, 2011).
Montessori classrooms we go to great lengths to make connections between
cultures and countries across the globe and throughout time. Rather than
isolating people through their differences, we celebrate the commonalities we
that this is accomplished is by using the Fundamental Needs of People to
compare how such diverse cultures meet their basic needs: nutrition, shelter, clothing, belonging, defense, transportation, communication,
self-expression, the healing arts, and spirituality.
last need, our class discussions become especially rich. We ask questions that
provide opportunities for deep reflection: Why is it that so many cultures from
so vastly different regions of our planet have celebrations this time of year
that involve light? Our conversations reflect an understanding of the need for
sunlight for warmth, as well as energy for growing crops for sustaining a
community. We discuss the literary image of light as being one of hope and
possibility, and of darkness one of wasting and despair.
children take away from these conversations is that humans develop practices
that are grounded in their most basic needs. If we look first to these needs as
we approach understanding our various ceremonies, we may find that we’re not
that different after all.
(A similar piece to this one was originally posted on December 9, 2011).
In a Montessori
classroom, the opportunities for curricular cross-pollination are many: a
teacher’s presentation may lead to deeper questions that enrich and extend; a
student-led study may pull from all areas of the curriculum before it feels
complete. Each content area is able to influence the others, depending upon the
medium required of the educational journey. Working together, the teacher and
child use the resources before them to create meaning from their academic
There is, of course,
another plane to this interweaving of curricula - one that lies in the space
between the pages of our albums. At times, the studies we embark upon create
far more questions than provide answers. While we may be able to label, define,
describe, and share some parts of the universe and its rhythms there is still
great mystery that leaves us all in awe.
In The Winter
Solstice, written by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis, the
search to make sense of one such mystery is beautifully illuminated.
people from Europe and North and South America, Jackson and Davey create a
feeling for how some of our forebears approached the coming darkness and
prepared for it’s hopeful return.
This time of year,
as the days get shorter and the air temperatures fall, we all can feel
something of a kinship for our ancestors. Can you imagine how the ancients must
have approached the changing of the seasons? What practices and beliefs were
created to explain the change, and provide for a return to what was hoped for?
reads like a whispered story over a fire, while Ellis’ painting places us
beside people from many cultures as they share with us their way of knowing.
Older students can both grasp the scientific basis for the changing of the
seasons, and can marvel at how the ancients grappled with what must have been a
very tenuous and scary time each year.
Share this set of
vignettes with your students and staff. Allow them to explore that sense of
wonder that comes from trying to understand people from the past. Like we do
when discussing the Fundamental Needs, each new perspective on the human
condition brings the possibility of new depths to our learning.
Enjoy the reading,
and Happy Solstice!
Story by Ellen
Jackson, illustrations by Jan Davey Ellis
Winter Solstice related activities bellow:
does one nurture the spirit of an institution?
does one care for the employees and physical spaces that make the dream real,
but also the dream itself?
does one nourish the abundant creative energy needed so that the separation
between actors and stage is seamless, and that each person spiritually inhabits
the very mission and vision of the institution?
local leaders in education we must be able to articulate and stand by the
people, pedagogy, practices and policies of the schools we create. We need to
be able to speak to each like they are parts of our family, parts of our bodies
- each piece necessarily influencing and informing the whole. These are the
interwoven fundamentals that, when realized authentically and kept healthy,
speak to the very essence of our schools’ existence.
often do we stumble in the shadow of great intention, put our heads down, and
simply move through our days. To work in such spaces without dynamic interplay
between these fundamentals is to inhabit a spiritually empty husk: a mission
without truth, a vision without possibility.
doesn’t have to be that way. We can deliver on our promise to foster unique
environments that speak to the needs of all those involved: children, their
families; school staff, faculty, board members; and members of the wider school
with what you know.
People – Who We Are
Our employees are tireless, creative, dynamic,
radical, unabashed, open, curious, eager – seekers every one. Through an
ever-expanding understanding of human development, social relations and
scientific inquiry we create our core ethos. We believe in the power of
positive relationships and vibrant learning opportunities to transform
Pedagogy – What We Do
Maria Montessori’s view of children, and her
holistic approach to learning, provides an exceptional framework for reforming
and reinvigorating our schools. In approaching education as a process to be
explored, as an ever-unfolding journey of experimentation – rather than the
static binary relationship of prescription and recitation – Montessori shows us
the way forward.
Practice – How We Do
We start with the child. A curriculum does not
drive our work with children; rather, it serves as a map for the journey. The
children, then, help to create what is studied; they are partners in the
creation of the universe that unfolds before them. What they desire, what they
need, how they present from moment to moment constantly reshapes the forward
progression of learning, and the attainment of new knowledge.
Policies – Why We Do
The policies that we create and
then enact reflect the philosophical underpinnings of who we are and what we
do. They are manifestations of these broader fundamentals; they codify the
spiritual ground of our community, our pedagogy, and our practice.
articulated, our conception of the people, pedagogy, practices and polices of
our schools informs every aspect of our work – from the classroom to the
boardroom. If any of these four fundamentals becomes fragmented or diluted we
must stop, reassess and reconsider the way ahead. We cannot continue to move
forward until we can do so with authenticity and truth. Belief is a powerful
thing, but only as powerful as the quality of its manifestation.
we imagine our schools can be, is how we imagine our families can be; our
communities, our neighborhoods; our towns, cities, states and nation. Our
schools are the crucibles in which a more fully awakened collective
consciousness can be catalyzed.
The beginning of
the school year provides great opportunities for reflection and renewal. Within
the first weeks of being together, staff communities settle back into familiar
routines in preparation for the students’ return.
These are critical
times to set the spiritual and emotional climate for the months to come. A
staff needs to know the reason and rationale for their work, the great and
powerful “why” they serve the children and their families in the capacities
that they do.
Throughout her writings,
Maria Montessori infused a sense of the greater aim of our endeavors; namely,
to cultivate in children a new consciousness, from which peace can flourish. It
is essential that now, and throughout the school year, we return to this
The words that
follow are excerpts from “Peaceful Children, Peaceful World: The Challenge of
Maria Montessori” by Aline D. Wolf, with illustrations by Joe Servello (1989).
For this book, Wolf selected significant sections from Maria Montessori’s 1932
speech at the International Office of Education in Geneva, Switzerland –
published first in Italian as “Educazione e Pace”, then later in English as
“Education and Peace”(1943) by the Theosophical Society in India. Wolf edited
sections from the Indian edition for this book.
“Only a sane
spiritual rebuilding of the human race can bring about peace. To set about this
task, we must go back to the child.
In the child we
can find the natural human characteristics before they are spoiled by the
harmful influences of society.
The life of the
embryo in the mother’s womb has the sole purpose of maturing into the newborn
child. But the gestation of the whole human being is not confined to that short
of gestation follows, whose sole purpose is to incarnate and make conscious the
child’s spirit. Delicate nurture is needed to protect this often unrecognized
process which can only be carried out by the child, obeying a natural rhythm of
activity which has little in common with that of the commanding adult.
Truly, upon the
spiritual growth of the child depend the health or sickness of the soul, the
strength or weakness of the character, the clearness or obscurity of the
The nurturing of
the spiritual life finds its expression both within the family and at school in
what is still called education.
recognizes the intrinsic value of the child’s personality and provides an
environment suited to spiritual growth, we have the revelation of an entirely
new child, whose astonishing characteristics can eventually contribute to the
betterment of the world.
I believe that
the new adults who emerge from a more tranquil childhood will use their
intellects and achievements to find a means to end the fury of war.
changes are needed to establish peace in the world: first, the maturing of
adults to a higher level of development and, then, the providing of an
environment that will no longer deprive any human being of the basic needs of
education, we must enable children to grow up with a healthy spirit, a strong
character and clear intellect, so that as adults they will not tolerate
contradictory moral principles but will gather human energies for constructive
- In what ways can
we explore Montessori’s profound vision with the broader school community?
- How might
students, teachers, administrators, and parents reach a new understanding of
what we are here to do?
- What are the collaborative structures
and systems needed such that Montessori’s vision can be realized?
- In what ways can the whole school
community share in the keeping of this flame?
It is easy to
become distracted. Like any meditation, however, we have to purposely bring our
minds and hearts back to ground, back to the breath. It is this practice of
mindfulness that will not only assist us in clarifying our mission, but will be
palpable to the children and families with whom we share this adventure:
priorities clear, distractions at bay, hearts open, ears attuned – minds and
bodies ready to be present for the great unfolding.
Peaceful World: The Challenge of Maria Montessori” by Aline D. Wolf, with
illustrations by Joe Servello (1989)
"Education and Peace" by Maria Montessori (1992 edition)
In November of 2011, shortly after starting this blog, I
created a “wordle” of all of the text of the posts to date in an effort to
explore how I was saying what I was saying. It was certainly an interesting
reflection of my priorities and sensibilities; at least, in how I expressed
them at the time:
schools steeped in rich practice, elementary-aged children learn to see the
world’s cultures and their histories through the filter of the Fundamental
Needs of People: Food, Shelter, Clothing, Defense, Transportation,
Communication, The Healing Arts, Self-Expression, Spirituality, and Belonging.
Examining how humans across time and the global landscape meet the same needs
allows for new understandings based upon the similarities of our experiences,
not the differences.
Of these needs it is
often the last, Belonging that stands out for children: at its most basic, the
need for being cherished and cared for by others.
As children mature,
they learn that Belonging is not only the desire to be loved and supported. We
see it palpably as children move from a naturally selfish stage (as toddlers),
to one where deep caring resides (in the elementary years), to where justice is
paramount (as adolescents).
Indeed, in each of
us there exists a tremendous yearning to be a part of something that matters.
At some critical point in our lives the predominant function of personal
survival transforms so to allow extending ourselves to work for the greater
good. One’s definition of Belonging swells as one grows to include the pull to
contribute to something greater than ourselves, to help create something that
will, in turn, benefit the whole.
* * *
I have been
thinking a lot lately about bravery and courage: when, faced with seemingly
insurmountable odds, one embraces the uncertainty and fear of the unknown and
move steadily forward towards Truth.
What does one do in the face of
What does one say when conventional
wisdom encourages silence?
What does one feel when one’s actions
fall short of being true to one’s soul?
Oftentimes it can
be the simplest explanation that carries the greatest weight.
First published in
1968, Leo Lionni’s classic The Alphabet Tree creates a story that is
both a children’s tale and timeless parable.
In it, letters of
the alphabet that once enjoyed a sunny existence - each on its favorite leaf –
are blown asunder by a sudden and fierce wind. As the gale ceases, the letters
lay huddled and frightened unsure of what to do. Aided by a wise friend, the
letters slowly join together – making words; combined, perhaps they will be
able to withstand the next storm that blows in. When the wind does return, the
letters - now united in unique ways - are no longer fearful and resist being
But that is not the
end. Lionni seems to ask us: Is it enough to just survive?
In the story,
another friendly presence next greets the words and exclaims, “Why don’t you
get together and make sentences – and mean something?”
And that’s just it,
isn’t it? It would be easy to look back on one’s successes and relax, letting
others now take up the fight. After all, the wind can be cold and strong; it
has great volume and its reach is vast. And yet, can we not find the strength
within ourselves to boldly step into its path?
Will we have the resolve to do the right
As our story comes
to its ambiguous conclusion the sentences are coached to further action, to not
rest in the comfort of their most recent achievement. Indeed, it is not enough
just to be good, the friend states; better to “say something important”.
* * *
Stories such as
these serve as powerful as allegories to our lives and our work with and for
children. Through them we gain a profound way of understanding that comes from
the use of metaphor. Educators and school leaders can consciously use these
fables to elicit the deep thinking so necessary for new and dynamic growth.
In the book,
letters become words, which form sentences, which create statements –
paralleling the arc of living and working in community. We, too, develop along
a similar path: moving from existing solely as individuals, to collaborating
with others, to expressing the community’s voice, and lastly shining out a
unified vision in action.
When is the time to take the next step?
When you feel your conscience unsettled.
As one’s sense of
Belonging is strong enough to loose the attachment to what is comfortable, real
and profound learning can take place. Transformative change comes from taking
risks and extending oneself beyond the ease of the familiar. To venture over
that edge, into unknown territory where security is not guaranteed - that is
the mark of one’s commitment to living fully.
Many years ago my
mother had an aged friend that for years took a photograph of the sunset from
her balcony apartment. She had a terrific view and, while the pictures
collected in multiple albums were indeed beautiful, as a teenager I found her
practice to be a bit odd – if not peculiar. After all, there were so many other
things that one could be “doing”!
Perhaps it’s not
until you reach a certain age, or have had some set of threshold experiences,
that you begin to reflect on your past and the whys of your present. If only
such meta-cognition could come earlier! But then, I guess, it’s the reflection
upon one’s own history that creates the deepest of meanings and the most
What is it about
youth that drives one so inexorably forward? Is it the sense that you are just
at the dawn of life’s arc? I recognize and remember that person in me, but he
and I are different somehow. I hate to think that it’s because at my ripe old
age of forty-two I am sensing the interminable decline towards death! With sore
muscles and joints that creak, has this mortal coil just about given up the
ghost? Is it all just a matter of waiting out the game?
Well, of course
not. Nor has it ever been, though it might feel like that from time to time.
One’s life is punctuated with ripples and crenulations – some crests, some
troughs. At any moment we can experience an event with the pull of gravity, or
the exhilaration of weightlessness. We are who we are from the experiences that
The old and grey
are not the only ones who can impart wisdom. When wisdom comes, it comes in the
form of a unique kind of knowledge that has been forged by reflecting upon past
events, and the feelings that orbit around them. Upon reflection,
what is old becomes new again.
What if we spent
more time examining the journey rather than focusing on our destination? As
busy adults - with full-time jobs, mortgages, school-age children, etc. - if
most of us spend our lives repeating similar habits and patterns day after day,
mightn’t we find greater richness in the seemingly mundane if we took a closer
look at the what and how of what we do along the way?
Perhaps what is
truly essential and definitive is not just the thing we do, but the doing of
the thing itself.
* * * * *
In The Path: A
One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, author Chet Raymo invites us on a tour
of his daily walk to work. A professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at
Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts Raymo shares with us the
interwoven stories that lay at his feet. The book is broken into sections that
define his walk. Each new chapter opens much as the landscape does before Raymo
as he walks from his home: through woods and verges, across a brook and open
fields, into the water meadow, an old orchard, and community garden.
Raymo speaks to us
as a naturalist might, elucidating the particular geological and biological
facets of his walk. One can imagine him lingering over the smallest blossom, or
the flash of a crystal face reflecting the Sun’s light. And then, beyond the
firm, to the cycles that draw the multitude together. The players he describes
are connected by the very atoms that they share.
And yet, The
Path reads more like a novel than a work of natural history alone. Raymo
centers his love of wilderness within the frame of the human history that has
shaped and reshaped the land through which his path meanders. Like the trail
that he travels, readers are quickly mesmerized by the rich and complex lives
of the people he describes. Each new story is another step along his path,
another moment of unfolding and greater understanding.
Everything has a
story. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is related to something else,
some how. In intimate detail, Raymo shares with us the preciousness of his
slice of the cosmos, revealing connections where the reader may not have
guessed them, and bringing to full consciousness the beautiful enormity of the
world and our lives.
* * * * *
The Path: A
One-Mile Walk Through the Universe (2003), by Chet Raymo.
on discipline frequently focus on the rules and regulations, and the policies
and procedures necessary to keep children safe. These conversations, however,
have to be more than just about what forms to fill out and who to speak with
about a student’s challenges.
our world, the question is not whether you handle the issue in your class or
refer it to the office; it really has to be much more fundamental to our
practice than just a question of paperwork.
way in which words are used is important. They carry particular weight,
depending upon the time period and culture in which they are adopted. And,
these subtle, commonly agreed upon meanings change as cultures develop.
discipline 1. from the early 13c. meaning
"penitential chastisement, punishment"; 2. from Old French descepline (11c.) meaning
"discipline, physical punishment; teaching; suffering; martyrdom"; 3.
from the Latin disciplina meaning "instruction given, teaching, learning,
we look at the etymological origins of the word discipline, we see that most
recently it has been used to refer to something that is done to someone, a correction,
indicating a necessarily lopsided power-over relationship.
can also see, however, that this was not always the case. Look at discipline’s
earliest record of usage: "instruction given, teaching, learning,
knowledge". Perhaps, when taken this way we can come to view discipline as
less of a reactive behavior, and more of a proactive one – one where power is
let’s reframe our definition of discipline and refocus our energies in a
positive, future-oriented way so that we are building relationships with
The Art of Discipline
art of discipline is to mold others in your image: who you are and (most
importantly) what you do. Who and how you are helps to define what kind of
people your students will become.
I would argue that this is
our most important work.
all, who has the greatest opportunity for consistent messaging about what it
means to be fully human?
is best viewed as an act of peace education, distilled. As learning to be
peaceful is an active process we need, therefore, to examine our own practices to
ensure that the actions that we model to our students are aligned with this
we are presented with behavior that flies in the face of our desires and
expectations we need to look inward first. Most of the time it is about how we have prepared ourselves
and the environment to meet the child’s needs that is the root of the child's
can be a challenging proposition for us: it means that we have to be as open to
change and risk as we ask the children to be throughout the school day. To
accommodate this demand, we need to be flexible, spontaneous, dynamic, humble,
specific, direct, and purposeful in our work with children.
How Do We Get There?
is important that we recognize our personal limits of behavior:
·What is it
about certain behavior that really pushes your buttons?
·What is your
“shark music” (those cues that alert you to a change in a child’s behavior that
will be challenging for you)?
·How will you
convey that “music” to your assistant(s) and colleagues so to get the support
children are not malfeasant beings created to undermine your every move; they
are waiting for your loving guidance and support.
there is a behavior issue, you need to examine what are you not providing the
What is it about your
choices and decisions that have led to this point?
Are you fueling and fanning
faced with behavior that does not align with your expectations for the moment,
what do you do?
·Do you give a
little more, loosen the reigns a bit and wait?
·Do you pull in
allows for sustained and transformative changes in behavior?
Preparation of the
must be present to the struggles within us as we make these decisions around
our interactions with children.
It is this mindfulness that will allow for partnerships to triumph over
about the children you have worked with. Which students come to the forefront
of your memory? What kinds of memories are these? Do you feel:
do we feel such conflicted emotions?
propose that if we feel a mixture of emotions it is because we ourselves know
that our most important work is to “be there” for the children in our care.
And, that because of our own baggage around schooling, or our fears and
pressures of the work we do, or the demands placed upon us by the multiple
stakeholders in public education – we lose our way.
lose our focus and prime directive: to be stewards of the Spirit in the
children who gather around us.
Take a few breaths. Think quietly and explore the light and the dark, the fear
and the joy, the clouds and the sunshine of our work with children. As you
think about the year before you:
·In what ways
are you coming from a grounded and present place?
·In what ways
can you see yourself growing?
Breaking Old Habits
& Developing New Ones
is through the Montessori curriculum that we meet the children in their heart
spaces. As servants and stewards, we worship the child not the curriculum -
children first then content, hearts first then minds.
we frame the energy of our classrooms and the work that goes on in there is
truly as important a component to "preparation of the environment" as
is where the shelving is placed.
Discipline is problem
Discipline is more often
about letting go and giving in.
goal is to become meaningfully attached to the children with whom we work, a
·What do you
wish for in that relationship?
·How would it
·In five, ten,
fifteen years, what memories would you like to have made of the experience?
often with issues of discipline we can get caught up in what the child is doing
or not doing relative to our desires and expectations.
But here’s the thing:
It’s not about us.
It’s about being ready for
Seeing the Child Anew
We can be
champions of our students' thirst to learn and experience the universe around
them. We can stand beside them as they call out to their muse in search of
beauty, liberty, trust, and joy!
Say Yes More
Anticipate the Struggle
“Sit on Your Hands”
Choose Carefully When,
Where and Why You Intervene
Let It Go
Broaden Your Definition of
Start Seeing “False
Give it time
Rethink Your Use of
re-framed as peace education allows for the chance to teach and experience new
ways of being in the world – both for the child and the adults that serve them.
When we do this, we walk together towards a brighter horizon.
Additional Resources on
“On Discipline – Reflections and Advice” by Maria Montessori