The Children Shall Teach Them - Good Things Happen When High School Students Observe a Montessori Pr

Originally Published in: Public School Montessorian - the Montessori community newspaper

Fall 2006 vol 19, number 1

By Gail Longo

"We must lay the foundation for peace ourselves by constructing a social environment, a new world for the child and adolescent, so that their individual consciences may develop. A vast education reform and above all a vast social reform are called for today" -Maria Montessori


As Montessori educators, we enjoy a system that remains devoted to meeting the needs of individuals who grow and develop from infancy to adulthood. From time to time we consider ways to extend that reach, to turn our work into a social reform movement.

Building that movement requires touching people we do not normally touch and embracing boldly some new ideas and models.

That is what we have done at Ballard High School in Seattle.

With the Casa Maria Montessori Lab School (CMMLS) and the Maria Montessori Language and Cultural Center (MMLCC), we have built an innovative approach to use a Montessori environment to reach a non-traditional Montessori group-- students in traditional high school programs.

Through our preschool program located in the high school and a human development class, we have brought high school students into a Montessori preschool environment and have begun simultaneously to explore how 3 to 5-year-olds, as well as 15 to 18-year-olds, can communicate and resolve problems peacefully.

The Vision

Communication plays an important role in the Montessori philosophy of education, and mastering peaceful and loving ways of communicating is a first step to Montessori's dream for a peaceful and environmentally sustainable world.

Global circumstances today broaden connections and cultural perspectives. Underlying differences, there are some basic needs and feelings humans have in common. While language and behavior lead us to connect or disengage with one another, we unconsciously extend our acquired cultural and social patterns of relating into daily interactions.

One key innovation we have embraced in this quest is the incorporation of teaching Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which we call "compassionate communication," into the secondary students' child development training.

Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and social reformer. He founded NVC out of his desire to strengthen the ability of people to compassionately connect with themselves and one another. He began by showing us a way of listening to our deeper needs and those of others by expressing our observations clearly rather than making critical judgments. The approach brings understanding to personal relationships, whether at work, at home or at school.

Montessori wanted to elevate the exploration of peace into a science. I believe that we are on the cusp of bringing forth this dream for social reform by connecting Montessori's 100-year-old philosophy of education with NVC. Montessori and Rosenberg complement one another. Montessori offers an established structure with a built-in non-violent pathway of freedom with responsibility. Rosenberg's work is a fertile match.

By connecting these two philosophies, we are empowered to begin our next steps toward world peace.

"Language," Montessori wrote, "is an instrument of collective thought." Circumstances in relationships, therefore, are very important because they form the environment for the child's psychic and physical growth.

Before a child can speak or understand spoken language, the child absorbs all the unsaid experiences, emotions and sensory impressions that are either pleasant or painful. Currently collective thought is being impacted by a global emotional crisis that is creating obstacles to living in peace and harmony.

We have added the non-violent communication approach to our curriculum in an effort to expand emotional literacy and practice making empathetic connections in relationships. Together with high school students we are discovering how emotions affect learning and health. NVC supports peace, health, harmony and beauty in our shared environment.

Children born today absorb the collective thoughts and emotions of their culture. With the philosophy of Maria Montessori and the tools of non-violent communication our cultures may become mindful, and change from a process that emphasizes violence in social life to a healing process that leads to peace.

Rosenberg's techniques to examine feelings and needs provide a pathway for rethinking the role that emotions play in communication. His ideas invite us to explore the emotions and the needs we have unconsciously embedded in the realm of human language and culture. His efforts provide a perspective for consideration that offers mutual benefits for high school students and the children and families who participate in the Montessori program. We are becoming aware of strategies for life that engage a deeper understanding of our own human potential. By replacing old patterns of relationship with transformative language, we may inspire and heal our respective cultures to meet vital needs for life and healthy human interaction.

In The Discovery of the Child Montessori quotes the Swiss educator Pestalozzi as saying: "Education is a contact of souls and a teacher must have not only intellectual training, but one that touches the heart. A teacher must feel respect and sympathy for those he teaches."

Based on my understanding of Rosenberg's work, I think he would replace "sympathy" with "empathy." He teaches that empathy empowers us to see beyond behavior by listening to authentic feelings and needs without evaluating, judging, or offering advice. Attention to needs and feelings leads to a healthier understanding of ourselves and connection with others.

The Experience

We have finished the second year of the program, mentoring children in two corresponding planes of human development-- 3 to 5-year-olds in the Montessori Lab environment and 15 to 18-year-olds studying child development.

We at CMMLS are inviting high school students to explore the ways societies and cultures communicate with children and one another. We have opened windows for these students to learn about emotional development, beginning with observations of the 3 to 5-year-olds in the Montessori Lab school.

The high school students' initial work with children in the Montessori Lab School involves student-written observations. High school students are naturally interested in relationships and are learning to write objectively what they see. They create individual portfolios that include the Montessori philosophy of education in studying the history of child development.

High school students will soon be going out in the world; by writing their own journals and keeping portfolios of references and resources, they may find this information valuable in their future. They begin to see the value of Practical Life activities that meet the young child's need for independence, coordination, concentration, self-care and order in the environment. They see first-hand how a young child's daily activities can offer real experiences in developing skills to participate in community life.

The high school counterpart for daily living skills rests in the Department of Family & Consumer Sciences. This program values the physical, mental, and emotional health of 15 to 18-year-olds. Nutrition, health, and community services offer a selection of choices that integrate language, art, philosophy, health sciences, behavioral sciences, history and math and expands their capabilities by applying their learning to concrete, meaningful experiences. For example, each semester, students prepare healthy menus and accumulate skills in food preparation and food safety. During these and similar activities, students make connections and have fun working together.

Through my partnership with Eileen Knobbs, Department head of Family and Consumer Sciences, approximately 60 high school students study child development and experience an introduction to the Montessori approach every year.

As Eileen and I work to bring Montessori and NVC together into public consciousness, we are encouraging students, parents, and teachers to become more aware of how we communicate.

Our program has taken a lot of work and has inspired professional enthusiasm through partnerships that connect us to educational resources in our community. Together we celebrate high school students who see hope in the way we respect preschool children, and a tool to apply that hope in Rosenberg's vision.

Our high school-collaboration model can be replicated. So can our vision of reaching out to others to build bridges to a more peaceful world.


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