“If she could be surrounded by them…”

Posted May 29, 2014 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, elementary education, Montessori, Montessori Method, Parenting, Uncategorized

“…while, in the traditional schools, the teacher sees the immediate behaviour of her pupils, knowing that she must look after them and what she has to teach, the Montessori teacher is constantly looking for a child who is not yet there.” –Maria MontessoriPW8

I finished a “contract talk” with one of my Primary assistants today and was struck by his words to me. During the conversation about his work, he talked about his goals as a father and what was really important in life. One major goal, he said, was for his two year old daughter to be an adult when she is 24, with all the confidence, responsibility and maturity that adulthood implies. We talked about what that meant for him, including  his experience as a child and adolescent. But then he said, presumably in light of this goal, that he wants his daughter surrounded by all the people he sees here at staff meetings every week.

And I completely agree with him. Spring can be a difficult time for me in my role in the school. I hear about people leaving, sometimes for reasons that are sad for me, misunderstandings seem more prevalent, end of school year philanthropic giving (or lack thereof) adds stress, and I can worry about enrollment and budget and all sorts of things. Especially this year, with the long hard winter we had, this has been a difficult spring.

But it doesn’t take much to remind me of what we are doing and why. This conversation with this teacher was one of many things that happened recently to do just that. It is all about the child. Our work here is about the future, but we never disregard the present. We know that the child is already affecting the universe in a very real way, and we nurture that and guide the child to his or her potential. We talk to the child in a way that shows deep respect and a recognition that every word matters. The child is learning every day; the academic pursuit is challenging, but the academic work is never presented in a vacuum. It is always presented in context. And that context includes the environment and the people who surround the child.

The challenges exist, and will always exist. But so long as I can have contract talks like I do with faculty as stunning as mine, I can handle the challenges. Gratefully.


A foundation

Posted May 4, 2014 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, elementary education, Montessori, Montessori Method

“Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning withing him the light which is called intelligence.” –Maria Montessori

103It’s been a busy time for my oldest two children. One is deciding on colleges, the other is preparing to study in France this summer. These two quests merged into a trip to Bloomington, Indiana for a day at Indiana University. My daughter’s French exchange program is through IU, and my son has decided to attend the university in the fall. I spent the day with my daughter at her orientation sessions while my son explored the campus.

Clare has been successful in high school. She has participated in three sports a year and has continued to participate in three different choirs. A member of the National Honor Society, she has maintained an outstanding grade point average in a challenging International Baccalaureate program of study. This foreign exchange program, the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Languages, was something she applied for, tested into, interviewed for, and then raised money for, once accepted. It was a challenging goal for her.

The day in Bloomington was a bit overwhelming for me. I honestly hadn’t had a complete understanding of exactly what this seven weeks in France would entail. But Clare was energized by it. During the four hour drive home, she told me all about the program, the classes in French literature and French language she’d be taking, the side trips to various points of interest in France, the commitment to speak and hear only French from the time the plane lands, the extracurricular activities with her classmates, and the “counseling sessions” they were going to have every day. “Dad,” she explained, excitedly, “That’s basically a community meeting. I get to do community meetings again!”

Three years after she left Good Shepherd Montessori School, through all her academic and extracurricular success, she still looks back to the Montessori experience and knows how important and formative it was. Throughout her time in a traditional high school, she has perked up whenever a teacher has slipped into something that felt “Montessori” to her, and now a highlight of a trip overseas is the community meeting format, something that guided her experience through eighth grade.

The community meeting is central to the work of the classroom, especially in the junior high. It brings true ownership to the child/adolescent. The structure of the day, the emphasis of various parts of the curriculum, and interpersonal conflict all find their way to the community meeting. From age six (“I never get a chance to use the stamp game because people aren’t sharing”) to age fourteen (“What time will the End of Year Conference Committee be meeting this morning?”) the community meeting empowers the members of the classroom to create an environment that is fair, safe, and challenging.

She misses her years at Good Shepherd, but Clare sees that they gave her the foundation to find a way to love learning, to meet new challenges, and to take ownership of her experience.

Where is everything beautiful?

Posted April 2, 2014 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, faith, Montessori, Parenting

003It has been a very long time since I updated this blog. I plan to begin again.

This morning for some reason I clicked on YouTube to hear a song from A Chorus Line. It is the song “At the Ballet;” I remember it even though it has been well over 35 years since I’ve heard it. Much of what I remember from A Chorus Line is from being a kid, watching TV when my “local” stations were from New York.  We always saw the commercials for the new Broadway plays. Much of what I know about any Broadway show from the mid-seventies, in fact, is from the commercials. From A Chorus Line I remember the lines, “Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball, YEAH!” and “Orchestra and balcony, what they want is what you see…” They must have played those clips in the commercial.

But “At the Ballet” I remember not from the commercials but from listening to the album at my cousin’s house. Even back then I thought that was a striking song about one’s life not being nearly as beautiful as what was experienced on stage through dance. The line I heard today that resonated was “Everything was beautiful at the ballet, raise your arms and someone’s always there.”

It made me remember a particular way of being that has long since left me. I remember when i could reach my hand out with full confidence that one of my four children would grab hold of it. I didn’t even have to look for them, I just had to put my hand out and they’d find it. When Liam (our fourth) was born, our oldest, Paddy, was still only three. We did not have any twins or even Irish twins, but our children were very close in age. And when they were young, they were all very young.

The diapers, the toddler’s clothes, the high chairs, the bassinets, and the gates protecting them from the stairs were all such a big part of our lives for what seemed forever. Now they are gone. I remember thinking long ago that the early years of parenting were physically exhausting, but I had guessed back then that the later years would be emotionally exhausting, and I think that has turned out to be somewhat the case.

And, I can’t be fully confident anymore that when i put my hand out someone will take it.

Parenting can be particularly challenging for someone like me, someone who tends toward the nostalgic. Loss is significant and it stays with me for what I am sure is much, much longer than it stays with anyone else. I guess I am realizing, bit by bit, that as wonderful as it is to see your children become almost-adult human beings, it can also be an experience of loss. When I told Liam yesterday, when he wanted to go to the gym but didn’t have his gym clothes, that he could use my locker because I had some clean clothes that he could wear, it struck me that this is the boy who told his grandmother at breakfast, “OOPS! I forgot to change out of my night times!” (“night times” would be his training underpants). That he can wear my clothes is both an experience of awe that we have made it this far and an experience of loss, for those days can never return. They won’t run to greet me at the door, they won’t laugh at my stupid jokes (I get plenty of groans), they won’t snuggle between me and Felicia in bed anymore.

Marriage has had its own ebbs and flows throughout our joint parenting experience. We each have our strengths and weaknesses, and the challenge is to keep reminding ourselves and each other of the strengths. The rest of the world, at times, seems intent on reminding us of our weaknesses. Our job should be to focus on the other.

Liam was two years old when Good Shepherd Montessori School was launched. Our involvement in this journey has been an experience of joy and loss in a way that seems very similar to parenting. And while he is getting ready to finish at GSMS, and Paddy is looking at colleges, and Clare is going to France, and Jack is taller than my father was (a man who seemed 8 feet tall to me), I am reminded that it’s harder for me to just put my hand out now and expect someone to hold it. Harder, but not yet impossible. Because Maeve, age 7, still expects to hold my hand.

I am eager to see who my children become, and I am excited to see how GSMS will continue to impact our community. The way the song resonated with me today was about putting my hand out for another hand, but it was also about looking at something on stage and believing it to be more beautiful than what I have. It is easy to do that, but my work is to see how beautiful this life really is. Whether the hand shows up in mine at a cross walk or is refused on a college campus.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Oh, and here’s the song I listened to this morning. And that cover is the cover of the album I remember putting on the stereo at my cousin’s house. Yes, everything is beautiful at the ballet, but it pales in comparison to what is happening right here in front of me.

Feast of St. James

Posted October 18, 2011 by dwdriscoll
Categories: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, community, elementary education, faith, Montessori

“One who desires to be a teacher must have an interest in humanity that connects the observer more closely than that which joins the biologist or zoologist to nature.”   –Maria Montessori

My son, Liam, fishes during our summer vacation at Block Island

[This post was written on July 25. I didn’t  finish it at the time, but I am determined to get back into writing my blog, so I decided the first step is to go back and finish what I started.]

Today is the feast day of St. James the Apostle. It has been a very long time since I have written in my blog. Perhaps that demonstrates the kind of year I had last year. Very little time available for reflection. I hope to change that this year, and I hope the Feast of St. James helps me in that quest.

James walked with someone who promised him the truth. He followed someone who taught with authority but who used all sorts of creative ways to teach. He spent time with a storyteller who enthralled his listeners. He lived with a person of compassion whose integrity inspired greatness. Because of his exposure to this unique person, James was inspired to continue the work even after the charismatic leader was gone.

James was inspired by the teacher and the teacher in return loved the student. The teacher most likely didn’t make James memorize facts and figures, but the teacher allowed him to grasp new concepts by walking alongside the student and providing an environment wherein James could thrive.

The path is ours, together. The idea that the teacher is the only one in the room with something to contribute is, of course, not the case; the teacher is a member of a learning community whose particular task it is to inspire and entice the student to greatness. Maria Montessori didn’t expect (and didn’t desire) teachers to be the one and only resourcce for knowledge, opening up brains and inserting facts and figures. She intended the teacher to be a lover of humanity who desires to create an environment that is life-giving and allows the child to thrive.

St. James was lucky to be able to spend time with such a compassionate teacher. It is my hope that our children may experience even a fraction of that compassion so they may be inspired to a greatness of their own.

Lucky to be here

Posted October 25, 2010 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, farm school, Montessori, Montessori Method

“This is the first duty of an educator; stir up life, but leave it free to develop.” –Maria Montessori

One of the ongoing junior high projects. This kind of work will be a part of their micro economy.

The quick conversation in the car on the way home today caused me to think a bit on what we are doing here. My daughter is in the eighth grade, and the junior high began their “immersion week” today, where they spend the entire week at the farm rather than in the classroom. They will do chores (my daughter told me she wanted to wear her rubber boots tomorrow because she’s on duck pond duty), they will construct a solar-powered water trough, work on their micro-economy (which is woodworking, and now there is a twist–painting quotes like you see above), and clean out the barn, among other things. They will do this Monday through Thursday, and on Friday they will participate in the St. Marcellus Day celebration together with South Bend’s Center for Peace and Nonviolence (St. Marcellus is a model for non-violence). Then they’ll be back in the classroom on Monday to begin another cycle of learning.

The comment I made to Clare in the car on the way home from the farm was, “You are lucky to be here. Lucky to have such a junior high.” Her response was, “I know.”

As I thought about that, I realized just how wonderful it is to have a thirteen-year-old recognize that she is LUCKY to be at school, without a second’s hesitation. She knows. She didn’t need to put on the stereotypical adolescent angst and roll her eyes about school. She doesn’t think school is something she has to tolerate. She loves it. And she is learning and growing in leaps and bounds.

Maria Montessori knew that the child needs to move in order to learn, and that the adolescent needs to relate in order to learn. The adolescent needs to engage in meaningful work with peers. The adolescent needs freedom with responsibility, independence, and our trust. Our junior high students jump on the city bus to go study at the public library, or they walk to the farmers’ market to buy the food they will cook for each other, or they arrange to meet downtown or at a local park or at the river to continue their ongoing research into local history. They review literature in a seminar format, learning how to think and discuss and argue their points. Their Math is advanced and practical at the same time, as they study Algebra and Geometry and also build their own lockers from bookshelves removed from another part of the building. They work as a team, they guide each other, they learn from each other, they work hard, and they love learning.

Clare is not the only one lucky to be here at this junior high. I am lucky to be able to take in even a fraction of what she does, simply by being present.

Tradition and the story we share

Posted October 6, 2010 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, elementary education, Montessori, Montessori Method

So here we are again. Apple pie baking time. In October 2002, about one month after we opened our doors for the first time, I baked pies with our founding 16 children. I did that because I enjoy baking pies, the children had done a large unit on apples, and they had visited a local orchard. That night we had our first Back to School Night for parents, and we served the pies.

Somehow that became unchangeable tradition. I bake pies with the children every year now, and we serve them at our Back to School Night. I spend two mornings doing it, one morning with one lower elementary class, the other morning with the second lower elementary class. I enjoy spending the time with them, and they enjoy the work.

This year,  more so than in the past, I noticed a regular comment/conversation. It wasn’t about the flour, or the rolling pin, or the cinnamon. The comment I heard from the majority of the students was about the contraption we used to peel, core, and slice the apples.

Over and over children wondered aloud who would have invented such a thing. They touched it, and moved whatever part would move so they could get a better sense of how it worked.

Inventions. New Ideas. Contributions. That is what the child wants to focus on. Who invented it? How did they figure it out? What caused them to want to invent it?

History is a story of new ideas, new thinking, creative inventions, of contributions to culture. The Montessori classroom is founded on the story of culture; the environment is designed to consider how we are in community with each other. We participate in the conversation begun with the creation of the universe, a conversation that has continued throughout all history, a conversation that was handed to us to continue. We are grateful for the person who invented the lightbulb, the one who invented the plow, the one who figured out how to weave , and even the anonymous person who first domesticated the dog. Each of these “inventions” contributed to culture, contributed to the story, to the conversation in which we are engaged.

A conversation that happens even in a food preparation area of a kitchen in a Montessori school in South Bend, Indiana. Who invented that machine? It sure makes our work easier, it is really cool to watch it work, and it is a lot of fun. Everyone wants a turn.

So we continue baking apple pies with the head of school, because it is now in the realm of Unchanging Tradition. We talk about lots of things when we bake; some children do this work for the very first time, others are seasoned professionals. We spend time in community to create something wonderful for parents, something we can all be happy about. The pies are in no way perfect, but we even talk about that. And this year, we talk about the awesome invention you see below. And we are grateful to that person, whoever he or she is, who invented it and contributed to our story.


Posted September 28, 2010 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, elementary education, Montessori, Montessori Method, Uncategorized

It has been a long time since I posted here, probably due to the somewhat overwhelming  and disorienting nature of moving.  We moved our family to a new house at the beginning of September, and we unloaded all sorts of boxes at school to recreate classroom environments that had been shut down due to summer construction work.

Now, just about one month after the faculty arrived, things are settling in a bit and I am coming up for some air. Today I write mostly to get myself to write, so I am borrowing the words of a wonderful Montessorian, Donna Bryant Goertz, to get me started again.

Donna is now a Facebook friend, and I am truly enjoying our interaction there. Additionally, she is coming to South Bend in February to speak to area Montessori schools, something that will be enlightening, I am sure.

Her book (I’ve mentioned it before in this blog) is Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful: Preventing Exclusion in the Early Elementary Classroom (Published in 2001 by Frog, Ltd., Berkley) and the quote that follows is found on page 11 of the Introduction.

I am all the more inspired to do the work I do when I think of the child in the manner described by Donna:

“Deep down, each child knows he is only as worthy as any other child. Casting some children in negative roles puts the very being of each and every child at risk. If even one child can be cast aside as unworthy, no child is truly safe. He feels keenly insecure at the ground of his being.

…Inclusion of more eccentric children in our classes affirms the human worth of all the children. It provides an opportunity to learn emotional skills as well as academic subjects. It is an unhealthy burden for a child to be ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ We must relieve every child of that burden and allow all of them to be works of art in progress.”

Awesome. Thanks, Donna. Now that I have begun to blog again, I will continue to do so. Pardon the long hiatus.