Refocusing the mission

Jen Heeter, a teacher at Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland, CA reports from the 2015 Public Montessori Unconference

Unconference participants cross the covered bridge between our meeting site and Westminster dorms.
Unconference participants cross the covered bridge between our meeting site and Westminster dorms.

Red sandstone and scrub-covered mountains grew larger and more clear as we approached Salt Lake City. We circled, revealing downtown and the larger cityscape. We were flying in for the second Montessori (un)Conference, to be hosted by Westminster College’s Institute for Montessori Innovation and Montessori for Social Justice.

As is usually the case with conferences, (un) or not, there is an anxiousness and excitement in regard to meeting new people on what I assume to be similar journeys as the one we began when we opened Urban Montessori Charter School three years ago. I was flying with my colleague and while we weren’t sitting together on the plane, sensed that he shared my feelings of anticipation as well.

We arrived in time for happy hour at a local brew pub and even though we were late, settled in immediately. It didn’t take long for the conversations to deepen. What began with light introductions soon morphed into a discussion around shared histories, previous pitfalls, and common struggles. We connected and began forming the tribe that would guide us through the next couple of days.

Friday we spent the day discussing assessment and its place in the Montessori environment. Jackie Cossentino and Elizabeth Slade from the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) helped us shape a vision for relevant assessment in our sites and most importantly, reframe the way we view assessment. Rather than look at it as something we have to do for compliance, gathering data is something we get to do that will help inform our schools and community about our students and their progress. It was a great balance between lecture, discussion, big picture, and applicable tools and information necessary for moving forward.

We learned that we can measure things like creativity, compassion, and other traits valued in the Montessori world. Recent research on school environments show that providing children with large & open space, the ability to work in varied groupings, allowing a variety of social interactions, and movement within the space are some of the aspects that nurture executive functioning. Authentic Montessori classrooms offer that as a minimum. I left with the understanding that there is a strong need for data to build usable knowledge, to better inform our teaching, and to grow awareness about the Montessori methodology.

Saturday we moved through four open sessions curtailed to our interests. There were sessions on anti-bias and anti-racism within the school setting, special education, second-generation math materials, starting schools, inclusion of diverse learners and their families, classroom management, and more. They were handled in open forums and offered no ceiling except those placed by the participants.

While I remain inspired by the entire event, some pieces from the conference, particularly from the anti-bias and anti-racism session, have created deep imprints. I learned that it is crucial to encourage families and schools to not opt out of assessments. This data is necessary to illuminate the gaps in achievement and draw awareness to the situation. I heard pleas to open and continue dialogue on race. Things can’t shift unless we acknowledge them. The more people discuss what is going on in our nation, the more movement is stirred, the more growth occurs. There won’t be change if people continue to be uncomfortable with the dialogue.

Gilbert Parada, a fellow founding teacher at Urban Montessori, shared that like many Montessorians, he addresses race, ethnicity, and skin tone in a scientific and anthropological way. He shared at the conference that a student in his class commented on the color of a child’s skin in a derogatory way. Activity was halted and discussion commenced. He shared that the human race originated from Africa and that the color of people’s skin is directly related to the origin of their ancestors on the planet. He shared that the more color one has in their skin, the more protection they have from the sun and that as people began to migrate to other places, they lost some of this protection known as melanin.

My son is in Gilbert’s class. I treasure that he is part of this experience, at a school willing to open up the discussion. He remembers this lesson and will continually say, “Awh mom, those boys are so lucky. They have so much more melanin than we do.”

He has also asked if there can be a new word for white. He said, “I just don’t get it. A piece of paper is white. We look very different than that. Aren’t we really all just different kinds of brown?” I recognize that the situation requires more than a shift in terms, but it does makes me wonder if the kind of paradigm shift required as we move forward can be accelerated or affected by our language. Language is powerful, and aren’t we really just different shades of brown?

Topics of race relations in our country are so often handled with a quieting or dampening rather than opening up to face the discomfort. For a white, middle-class woman living in a diverse, working-class neighborhood, desperately wanting to serve and protect the needs of all of her learners, it can be difficult to discern the next step. Certainly moving forward with the mission of our school, but how do we reach the broader population? Definitely through more meetings like these.

Occasionally, a mission of mine may get diluted over time. The projects that I’ve taken on typically have shelf lives, at least from my point of interest. It is in public Montessori though, that I find my interest growing, at exponential rates. I closed the school year craving more theory and big picture thinking and the conference not only refreshed me, but allowed me to connect with teachers from across the nation around the same vision. The exponential growth continues. Where sometimes I falter through such exhausting work, it was invigorating knowing that there are so many educators, administrators, and advocates working towards the same goals. Conferences like these connect the people involved on such missions, allow them to share their stories, commiserate, and then create action steps. Public Montessori needs these action steps now more than ever.

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