Archive for June 2010

Farm School

June 25, 2010

“The land is where our roots are. The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the Earth.” –Maria Montessori

My son, Jack, had a busy week. He worked at Ms. Theri’s farm. Jack has been at Ms. Theri’s farm (Bertrand Farm in Niles, Michigan) one afternoon a week, every week, for five years at school. Before that he spent every opportunity possible among the chickens and the tomatoes. In the summer, he has often joined Ms. Theri’s farm camp, and now, entering sixth grade, he is a junior counselor of sorts.

When Jack was very little, one of his favorite things to do was reach under a chicken and triumphantly pull out an egg.  He knew the ins and outs of a farm in ways I had not imagined.

One fall many years ago, we were visiting my sister and we decided to make pumpkin pie. My sister opened up her pantry, pulled out a can of pumpkin, and put the can on the counter. Jack stared at it, and finally asked, “What are you going to do with that?” He had never seen pumpkin in a can before, and wondered where the pumpkin was that we were going to cut in half and bake in order to make the pie (he knows the difference between a pie pumpkin and a regular pumpkin).

When we opened Good Shepherd in 2002, we wanted a farm school component, and Theri was a longtime friend (our son Liam’s godmother) and a teacher who had bought a farm and wanted to turn it into a place for transformative learning and community gardening. Eight years later, the farm school is a staple at Good Shepherd, and her farm cooperative/CSA is feeding many, many families.

The children go to the farm to be with the land, to be with their roots. The children go to the farm to experience the botany and zoology they tap into in the classroom. The children go to the farm to see where food comes from, to help plant and harvest, to research animals and purchase chicks and piglets, even to experience, as some did this year on the other farm we visit (Prairie Winds Farm in Lakeville, IN), the birth of a calf. The children go to the farm to be connected to each other, to the land, and to the universe itself.

At the farm the children can stand in awe of God and show gratitude for all the people and animals who work today so hard to share food with us. They are also grateful for all the people who did this for generations upon generations to create and hand down culture.

Jack in a beekeeper's suit at Prairie Winds Farm

They get dirty and they shovel manure and they fix fences and they learn like crazy.

We were interested to see recently that there is even a phenomenon being discussed called “nature deficit disorder.” It seems we wanted to address this disorder before we knew it was defined as such. Additionally, we are learning that children spending even one half hour in nature, truly in nature, can have an orienting effect that helps with ADHD-like behaviors.

Early on, someone pointed out to me that one afternoon each week at the farm amounts to ten percent of the entire school week, and didn’t I think that was an excessive amount of time for a non-academic activity? I asked if that person had ever been to the farm, because if so they would certainly encounter the quality of learning, the depth of understanding, and the very joy connected to this messy, chicken-laden, sheep-filled, asparagus-lined, manure-scattered window to the universe. No, it is not an excessive amount of time. Just ask Jack.

Practicing peace

June 24, 2010

Outdoor learning

I recently read an article in Montessori Life magazine (published by the American Montessori Society) that described a three-year study conducted with children in Montessori schools and children in conventional schools. The study was designed to identify environments that are conducive to self regulation in the child.

One question and answer caught my attention. The question was asked, “What would you do if someone at school teased you?” Seventy-five percent of the Montessori children answered with various strategies: talk it out, go to the peace rug, walk away, etc. Just about one hundred percent of the children in conventional schools answered with one strategy: tell the teacher.

The Montessori environment is designed to have children interact with each other constantly, in all sorts of ways, all day long. The peace-building nature of the environment isn’t found only in the conflict resolution skills we offer the children, the peace corner in every classroom, or even the broad ranging curriculum. It is found in the daily working out, or practicing, relationships inside the classroom. It is the regular negotiation going on, the attempts at understanding the needs of another, the requirement to share or be patient when a material is being used, and the underlying understanding of the number one ground rule: “Treat each other as you would want to be treated.” The “cosmic education” curriculum in the Montessori elementary school ties all children to each other and to the universe itself, so the ongoing figuring out of relationships inside the classroom is actually an arm of the foundational educational philosophy itself: we are all intimately and irreversibly connected.

I attended a taekwondo class one Saturday morning, and seven of the eight children were Montessori kids. At the end of the lesson, the instructor said, “Now, children, what we did today, you do not do outside. You do not kick or punch…” and went on to describe the need to use these skills for self defense only. At the end of her explanation, she said, “Now if someone is bothering you at school, what do you do?” and then she answered her own question: “You go to the teacher.”

One of the Montessori children in the group, looking a bit perplexed, raised his hand and said, “Or you can invite that person to the peace corner.” He wasn’t being disrespectful, he just didn’t understand why you would talk to a different person than the one with whom you have the conflict.

Matching grant

June 7, 2010

Today  the First Christian Church of South Bend did an amazing thing. They offered a $50,000 matching grant to Good Shepherd. This is the church that sold us the building we had been renting for seven years, and they are the ones who have watched us grow and given us the encouraging thumbs up every step of the way.

Now, we have a lot of renovation work to do this summer, and they have once again stepped up and offered us a way to make that happen. A challenge grant.

We do not have a wealthy parent base. In fact, that’s the thing that makes us who we are, we are deliberately and pro-actively socioeconomically diverse. We are that way because we believe that that is how our children will learn in the most real way, to be with those who live in neighborhoods that might never have been explored if it weren’t for the school. That is who we want to be. An independent school focused on diversity.

So here we have a challenge grant to get renovation work done, and within 2 hours we had raised $10,000. Amazing.

And it is amazing that the church has such confidence in our vision, a vision that is completely crazy in every respect of the term, but is so totally focused on the child, that it can’t be denied.

So I remain grateful and humbled by the great gift of the good people of First Christian Church of South Bend. I promise to do them honor by living up to their high expectations.

(And let me know if you want to make that $50K gift happen quicker!)

Sofia Cavalletti

June 5, 2010

“The child will be our teacher if we know how to observe.”
— Sofia Cavalletti

We have learned that Sofia Cavalletti is dying in Rome. A Hebrew and scripture scholar, Sofia collaborated with Montessorian Gianna Gobbi to develop the Montessori-based “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.” Since its very humble beginnings in 1954, the Catechesis has spread to at least thirty-five countries. What an impact one life has had.

The words that have been on Sofia’s lips as she prepares for death are the words of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is One!”

Countless children (including our students) have encountered the blessing of this woman’s life work, and countless adults have experienced the profound, peace-filled impact of observing in respectful awe the child’s encounter with this blessing.

Thank you, Sofia.

Remembering the moments

June 3, 2010

“What matters is not physics, or botany, or the works of the hand, but the will and the components of the human spirit which construct themselves through work.” –Maria Montessori

all smiles

We had our annual potluck staff lunch today in the midst of calendar meetings and the clearing out of classrooms. As we always do, we talked about moments, reflecting together on the year just ended. We all reminded each other of events, laughs, and times when things just seemed to work, when the child had that “aha!” moment.

I remember this phenomenon from last year, but this year it seemed even more pronounced; the teachers speak respectfully and compassionately about the children, whether or not the children are present, and so when the conversation turned to children, there were many heads nodding and smiles forming. The stories were not warnings to the next teacher about the “problem child” on his way up, the difficult ADHD child, or the one who is slower than the rest. Nor do they focus on the award-winning child who made them look good as teachers. The stories were all about delight, and the children mentioned were not the ones you’d necessarily expect.

The stories they tell at this lunch are almost never about the superstar, the child who excels in all areas and never presents a bit of trouble. The stories they tell are almost always about the child who struggles and triumphs in his or her own way. The children they nod about and smile about are the ones who are usually not so well understood in the culture at large, are a bit eccentric, perhaps a little quirky, off kilter. They are the delight of the Montessorian, because so often these children bring out the very best in us all, they help us create community,  they show us what is truly important in life, and their struggles–to focus or to remember not to bother another child or to work until the job is done or to talk with a quieter voice or to invite another to the peace corner or to ask someone for help rather than get frustrated–all these struggles reflect who we all are, together: a community of persons who desire to live peacefully together, to learn from each other, to grow,  and to make a difference.

The children these teachers remember at this lunch are often the ones who might be considered “different” in another school environment, but who are well loved here. They are the ones who remind us of the transformational power of the classroom environment, not only for the children, but for us.

Playing tag

June 2, 2010

junior high at rest

Looking out my window on this last day of the school year, feeling relieved, grateful, and a bit spent from last night’s Blessing and Sending ceremony, I see our junior high students on the playground, playing tag.

Such delight and such freedom. Adolescents on the verge of adulthood, yet they are able to revel in childhood games without self-consciousness.

They are secure with themselves and each other, so they can simply be with each other, playing like brothers and sisters, enjoying their last moments together before their summer break begins.

It is an uplifting scene for me on this day.