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Montessori: Authentic or Keepin’ it real?

“Nobody’s life is safe…we are in mortal danger…people have to take to shelters…humanity itself is vanquished and enslaved.”

–The Formation of Man, Maria Montessori

This quote, written by a great teacher over one hundred years ago, rings true today. To say that we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis might be an understatement to some. Many of us are waking up overwhelmed by the toxins in our world right now and are not sure what we are going to perish from first. Currently, we are not only besieged by viral biological toxins we are also besieged by oppressive societal toxins such as racism that compromises our humanity and our sense of human dignity.

While we are tasked as a society to reconstruct how we eat, work, gather and meet our fundamental needs collectively, we are also tasked with an opportunity to reconstruct how we live in service to these needs, the needs of humanity. How will we stand up for our own rights and those of others? How do educators work with children to ensure that our future is a humane one? So many of us Montessori educators are concerned about how to implement an authentic Montessori method that ties us tightly to just where our pink tower will land, however it is times like these that we must remember that authentic Montessori is about leaning into the age old Montessori philosophy that was created for the renewal and revitalization of our humanity.

Maria Montessori understood that education was the channel in which a new type of person could be formed- a channel in which moral character and humanity could be preserved. She birthed a way of learning, a pedagogy that was designed to meet our fundamental needs. She took on the task of reforming our service to humanity through the introduction of a way of learning that she hoped would not only salvage humanity but would help in the construction of a new type of person—moral enough in character to assist in that effort.

Maria said, “The new school, indeed, must not be created for the service of a science, but for the service of living Humanity; and teachers will be able to rejoice in the contemplation of the lives unfolding under their eyes.” (The Advanced Montessori Method 1 Chapter 4.)

Maria’s charge today is bigger than ever. We are the shapers of our future during a humanitarian crisis that is marked by the death and murder of black people, corporate greed and a global pandemic. The most relevant and authentic aspects of the Montessori pedagogy are those that can be used today as tools for our liberation. My mentor Asa Hilliard, Black psychologist and Montessorian writes, “Montessori is a metaphor for humanity because it is a pedagogy that helps humans receive what they naturally need,” in his work entitled Maintaining the Montessori Metaphor: What every child wants and needs (The NAMTA Journal Vol. 21. No 2 Spring 1996, Asa Hilliard).

The aspects of the Montessori philosophy that provide us with the tools for liberation we need are the defining features of an authentic Montessori practice. These features which include self reflection through anti-bias spiritual preparation, empowerment through the development of critical consciousness and a process of normalization that leads to self actualization are described in Authentic Montessori and Contemporary Considerations written by Koren Clark, Margaret J. Kelly, Angeline Lillard, and Virginia McHugh (pgs 30-38).

When Montessori educators lean into an authentic Montessori philosophy they are likely to design a practice that guides them towards human transformation. The inner work of self-reflection that the Montessori teacher is implored to do is also expected from the Montessori student whose identity is strengthened and dignified as they reflect daily on the choices they make with work and in community. The opportunity children have in the classroom to autonomously solve problems, and build the muscles of critical consciousness will ultimately be needed to solve problems outside of the classroom and in the world. Currently, we are living out one of the biggest practical problems that life has to offer and there is real work for children to do. As we adapt to our new “normal” and lament the ways in which Montessori children will not become normalized in our classrooms let us lean into the philosophical implications of normalization in Montessori. Montessori said, “All we have to do is set the child’s energy free. When we speak of freedom in education we mean freedom for the creative energy which is the urge of life towards the development of the individual…”(Maria Montessori, 1989). This development of the individual, their internal motivation and their unique self-expression can be called the process of self-actualization (Authentic Montessori and Contemporary Considerations, by Koren Clark, Margaret J. Kelly, Angeline Lillard and Virginia McHugh).

Self-actualization for all is the ultimate liberatory end we want to reach and it is the end that any pedagogy that honors education in its truest form will generate. Education from its root means, “to unleash that which is within.”

In this day and time, the most relevant authentic aspects of Montessori are those that we need to keep real. We can keep it real by making sure that we are allowing children to unleash the most essential aspects of who they are and ensure that we are not becoming nor forming the next Karen’s and Becky’s, that we are becoming anti-racist activist and that we are raising the next generation to do the same. So although we may be mourning the loss of the Montessori method as we know it, staring at lifeless materials, empty peace tables and etc, we have a new opportunity to reenergize the static and unwavering philosophy. The Montessori philosophy is dynamic and it should be used as the force of liberation.

Maria says, “Either education contributes to a movement of universal liberation by showing the way to defend and raise humanity or it becomes like one of those organs which have shriveled up by not being used during the evolution of the organism.” (The Formation of Man, Maria Montessori.)

We are ripe with a new opportunity to mobilize a movement towards liberation through a future generation fortified with the critical consciousness and empathetic drive to activate, honor and preserve the humanity in us all. We can do this through Montessori if we keep it real!


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