Grand and lofty ideas

Posted August 29, 2010 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, elementary education, Montessori, Montessori Method

“We seek to sow life in the child rather than theories,to help him in his growth, mental and emotional, as well as physical. And for that we must offer grand and lofty ideas to the human mind.” –Maria Montessori

“Grand and lofty ideas.” That keeps my attention with Montessori. Nothing is small. When the goal is a world at peace, it is hard to think small.

The Montessori elementary years connect all learning by way of the Great Lessons–impressionistic and exciting stories about the coming of the universe, the coming of life to earth, the coming of humans, the creation of language, and the creation of numbers. The stories give context for learning, so that when a child is working on the parts of a flower, she is doing so in light of the creation of the stars. Everything in the universe is intimately and irreversibly connected.

Fundamental human needs offer the foundation for culture, as children continually wonder about what it means to be human, what is necessary in human existence, and what is not. Cultural studies guide the curriculum and bring context to learning, connecting humans across time and space. Math and language become all the more alive when investigated in context of culture. When the child chooses among a variety of curricular areas and focuses on what intrigues her most, a spark of imagination is ignited that propels the child deeper into the fire of grand and lofty ideas.  All done in context of cultural studies, forged initially through the great lessons.

In this manner, by way of the great lessons and cultural studies, grand and lofty ideas launch the learning process, which in effect then leads to grand and lofty ideas. New ways of thinking are celebrated, both historically and in the present time; we immerse the child in grand and lofty ideas and observe the exciting formation of new thinking, the birth of creativity.

Grand and lofty ideas inspire greatness.


Abundance thinking

Posted August 21, 2010 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, elementary education, faith, Montessori, Montessori Method, Uncategorized

“It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.”  –Maria Montessori

a walk in the park

It can seem that scarcity is found at every turn. There’s just not enough. Not enough money, not enough time, not enough help, not enough inspiration.

However, we have too much work to do, too much to accomplish, so we need all the resources we can find; we cannot afford to focus on scarcity. A focus on scarcity limits possibilities. It divides rather than unites great people who think great things and do great work. Scarcity ignites fear; fear limits creativity.

Our focus instead is abundance, creativity, energy, and delight. Our message is invitation, not rejection; relationship, not isolation. Love over fear. Love for the universe, love for the community, love for the child. Love’s nature is abundance.

We can exist in a state of crisis or we can seek new and creative solutions together. We can lament the lack of (name your lack: money, resources, time, ideas, people, help, etc.) or we can extend ourselves and build together.

Abundance is everywhere, from the peony bush in my front yard that produces more flowers and aroma than it could possibly need for mere survival, to the wrens who nest in the box in my backyard and bring sweet-songed offspring to our neighborhood year after year after year, to the child whose curiosity and capacity for learning is limitless.

Am I challenged by running a school in these difficult economic times? Yes. Do I worry that the next grant proposal I write will amount to nothing, or the next visit with a benefactor will lead to rejection? Yes. Do I believe that this worry will get me anywhere? No. A focus on scarcity will not lead to abundance. A focus on abundance will generate abundance.

I have been accused of being too optimistic, too idealistic, but I cannot imagine that the alternative will lead to greatness. I d0 not see culture as an account of pessimistic, fear-based thinking. Culture is the story of new ideas, new inventions, new insights, new challenges, new risks.

Our children deserve to be surrounded by people who first love and (at least somewhat!) understand the universe, so full attention can be brought to loving and understanding the child. This, I believe, happens with abundance.

The Montessori environment

Posted August 16, 2010 by dwdriscoll
Categories: elementary education, Montessori, Montessori Method

“The teacher’s first duty is to watch over the environment, and this takes precedence over all the rest. Its influence is indirect, but unless it is well done there will be no effective and permanent results of any kind, physical, intellectual or spiritual.” –Maria Montessori

we are doing a little construction this summer

It is hard to believe that the empty, beat up classroom you see above will soon be a rich, beautiful, thriving environment for children. This summer we have done some work on our building, first removing asbestos from the 1970 construction, then replacing ceilings and lighting. We wanted to do a lot more but time and money didn’t allow it, so much of the renovation will wait until next summer.

The environment is critical to the work of the Montessori classroom. I remember early in my Montessori experience, a beloved trainer pointed out something so simple but something we often forget to consider; the environment affects the child’s behavior. If a child is misbehaving, we look to the environment first to address the behavior. The example she gave was that if a child is running in the classroom, the adult has some choices; you can tell him over and over and over again to stop running, you can raise the level of punishment involved with running, you can call his parents about the running, you can send him out of the room because of the running…or, you can put a shelf in the middle of the room that would make the running stop. The environment shapes the experience.

So much of a teacher’s training is about preparing the environment. So much of his or her work in the classroom is attending to the environment. The environment calls the child to a deeper level of concentration and love for learning, the environment presents choices to the child that elicit curiosity and intrigue.

This summer I have known first hand the loss of an ordered environment, having been moving among borrowed offices off campus while the construction work went on in our building. I am eager to return to the environment I left in June, to work with the people I trust and respect, as we prepare for a new year with the children who will shape our world.

The Silence of the Teacher

Posted July 23, 2010 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, elementary education, faith, Montessori, Montessori Method

“When the teacher shall have touched, in this way, soul for soul, each one of her pupils, a sign, a single word from her shall suffice; for each one will feel her in a living and vital way, will recognize her and will listen to her.” –Maria Montessori

Some quiet time alone

Some time to think.

So much can be accomplished without words, and yet so often I fall into the habit of talking too much, of thinking that if I just said it again, (perhaps more loudly!) I would be more effective. But one thing I admire about Montessori is the quiet, the things NOT said by the adult, the small signs and quiet directions, the attention to the essential rather than the superfluous. Seasoned Montessorians speak very little in the classroom, and I so enjoy being in their presence. They model for me the ability to focus on the essential message. It is a sacred connection the teacher has with the child, as Dr. Montessori’s quote above reveals, it is a connection among souls. We have an awesome responsibility to the child and to the future.

What a lofty but beautiful goal for the teacher to be connected in such a way with the child. Imagine the world we will create when each child has such a deeply connected adult guiding him or her in the essentials. Imagine what we can create with such a respectful, loving address of the human potential.

The Long Loneliness

Posted July 14, 2010 by dwdriscoll
Categories: community, faith, Montessori

Eight years ago we opened the doors to Good Shepherd Montessori School.  Today I have been reflecting on those years, and  I have been thinking about the epilogue to Dorothy Day’s Autobiography, The Long Loneliness. It is one of my favorite passages, and I have read it aloud to faculty and parents at different times over the course of the past eight years. I take heart in its message. It resonates with my experience of Good Shepherd. I thought this is a good time to share it here as well.

Thanks for indulging me.

We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin came in.

We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, “We need bread.” We could not say, “Go, be thou filled.” If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread.

We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded.

We were just sitting there talking and someone said, “Let’s all go live on a farm.”

It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened.

I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children. It is not always easy to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of delight.

The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty, some say.

The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone anymore.

But the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.


The Long Loneliness originally published by Harper & Row, 1952

Montessori training

Posted July 13, 2010 by dwdriscoll
Categories: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, elementary education, Montessori, Montessori Method

“What is the greatest sign of success for a teacher transformed? It is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.'” -Maria Montessori

I just heard from one of our guides, who is training in Montessori adolescence in Cleveland, OH. She is working with David Kahn, one of the Montessori movement’s major thinkers on Montessori and adolescence. She wrote to me about how much she is enjoying her training, and how inspired she is to return and work with our children.

Training for Montessori is an opportunity for a person to learn not only the nuts and bolts of the method and the materials, but it is to touch the very heart of this approach to lifelong learning, and to be enlivened and inspired to create a new kind of world. It is transformational.

Each summer at Good Shepherd, someone is training somewhere, whether in New York or in Houston or in Cleveland or Columbus. Some of our faculty are training in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, either here in South Bend or in other parts of the country. The ongoing training makes our school a vibrant place for lifelong learning. New ideas are generated and shared, and the lively conversation remains at the highest possible level, challenging and encouraging.

There are many Montessori training centers, and each has its own unique character and emphasis, but at the core, the very heart of each of the training centers is a love  for the child and a clear understanding that the child represents the human potential itself. It is our gift, our privilege, and our responsibility to engage that human potential and set it free with the confidence that great things will come.

So what is important?

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

“It is the spirit of the child that can determine the course of human progress and lead it perhaps even to a higher form of civilization.”  –Maria Montessori

cubing materials

"Montessori Works Night" where children demonstrate the materials to parents and guests

I’ve been thinking a great deal about perspective lately. How will the present moment matter in the future? What is important for the future?

Perspective requires that we take a long view, and I have been talking to many people lately about Good Shepherd Montessori School, and I find that the theme of the conversations often comes down to the long view. What do you really want for your child? What do you really want for your community? For the world?

When answering those questions, we take the long view. My son just took his first high school class and I found myself talking about grades to a child who has never needed to consider a grade before. Yes, I want my child to get good grades, but that is only a means to an end, isn’t it? The grade is not the goal, that is not the vision. The potential of the human person is the vision. Perhaps, in this system, the grade will allow my child to advance to another academic level that will eventually allow him to tap his true potential, so I don’t want him to get bad grades–I don’t want him to miss opportunities. But the grade is only the short term view; the child’s potential–the very potential of the human person, the potential of the community, of the nation, of the world–that is the long term view. That is what matters.

Perspective requires that I ask: “How will what I am experiencing today carry over into the future? What do I need to hold onto, of what do I need to let go? How am I making a positive influence through my work and relationships today? What am I doing today that will lead to a better civilization?” It sounds, perhaps, too lofty and idealistic, but it seems to me that when it gets right down to it, that is what we are working toward, together, isn’t it? A better civilization, one that is inclusive, inspiring, and productive, one that is grounded in right relationship.

I am biased, I know, but when I think of our collective future, when I think of the culture that we are creating and developing, of the community we seek to build, of the world we desire, I think of preparing a rich environment for children who then construct their personalities through the work that takes place inside that environment over the course of a series of three-year curricula. I think of the Montessori method and philosophy. That “preparation of the environment,” I am confident, will create for us a better civilization.

The hope for humankind is found in our elementary schools today. We absolutely have to take a long view and do everything possible to be sure our focus is not only the immediate needs and desires of the child (and certainly not the immediate needs and desires of the adult!) but we need to ensure that our focus is the human potential itself. What is happening in our elementary schools now that will create a better civilization? Where is our perspective?