Institutional Commitment to Civic Education: Public Montessori Secondary Schools

Note: this article was originally published by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy on May 8, 2015. 

Even as we hold schools increasingly accountable for student achievement, we rarely seem to judge schools for their performance in citizenship preparation, an inauspicious “accountability gap” for a democracy.  
--Michael Johanek and John Puckett, “The State of Civic Education”, 134

From Michelle Rhee to Diane Ravitch, much has been written about the academic successes and failures of our schools in recent years, especially in regard to the increased measures of accountability being placed on schools by way of high-stakes testing. However, as Michael Johanek argues in the opening quotation, the amount of national attention focused on students’ academic achievement far outweighs the recent concern expressed for the level of student civic engagement.

Political socialization theorists have found that students are most likely to form sincere ties to their polity between the age of fourteen and their mid-twenties. As such, the health of our democracy relies on secondary schools that prepare students for effective political participation. This not only involves incorporating civics and American history into the curriculum, but in “cultivating the skills and virtues of deliberative citizenship,” as Amy Gutmann argues in her book Democratic Education. Gutmann goes on to say that “schools ought to teach the skills and virtues of democratic deliberation within a social context.” Based on Gutmann’s observations, two realities must exist in America’s school systems to ensure that adolescents grow into contributing members of a democracy: the development of an individual democratic disposition and real participation in a functioning community.

In this paper, I seek to demonstrate that the Montessori philosophy of education inherently provides the individual and communal elements required by this high standard of civic education. 

Maria Montessori’s Philosophy
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an Italian physician who brought her scientific training to the field of education. As a young student of pedagogy, Montessori questioned the hierarchical educational practices of her day. She went on to develop her own student-centric philosophy of education and opened a childcare center in 1900, mainly welcoming low-income, inner-city students who struggled in traditional classrooms. Montessori was an avid observer of her pupils and noted that when students had a well-prepared environment and clear structures, they displayed a natural desire to teach themselves and one another. Throughout her lifetime, Montessori spoke and wrote broadly, championing her progressive approach to education.

A central tenet of Montessori’s philosophy was her belief in four planes of development: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and maturity. During her lifetime, Montessori worked directly with students in the plane of childhood and thus, her legacy has largely been attached to children aged six through twelve. Her thinking, however, did extend to adolescence and the recent increase of secondary Montessori programs demonstrates that the Montessori philosophy has a great deal to offer this all-important plane of development. Adolescence, which spans from ages twelve to eighteen, resembles infancy in that both are times of great creation. Whereas infancy involves itself with the creation of a person, adolescence is concerned with the creation of an adult. As such, it involves a marked desire for social independence. The adolescent’s gradual maturation into a socially independent person was referred to by Montessori as “valorization.” Simply put, valorization is the process in which adolescents realize both their use and ability to affect change.

In order to nurture the process of adolescence and to allow students the increased independence they crave, choice is a key component of Montessori education. Students choose where in the classroom they’d like to work and within limits, are able to move around freely throughout the day.  Assignments in the Montessori classroom are differentiated and thus, accommodate choice, because students of multiple ages learn side by side. Montessori saw great merit in interage grouping because it allows students to learn at their own pace in a way that isolated, grade-level grouping cannot.

There is a great understanding in the Montessori tradition that honoring the development of each individual member of a given community naturally benefits the larger society. Marta Donahoe, the director of Cincinnati Montessori Teacher Education Program, expresses this thought by stating, “When we all do better, we all do better.” As a result of their philosophy, secondary Montessori programs arguably display an “institutional commitment” to developing democratic dispositions in a way that traditional, comprehensive schools fail to do. As such, the very structure of schooling provided by Montessori secondary programs may have a great deal to offer civic education.

Case Study: Lakewood Montessori Middle School
In order to demonstrate how Montessori programs can lead the way in civic education, I offer the school I currently teach at, Lakewood Montessori, as a case study. Lakewood is a public, magnet school serving grades 6-8 in Durham, North Carolina, and operates on a lottery system. Lakewood has a maximum of three hundred students each year, with room for one hundred in each grade level. While students of Durham’s two magnet elementary Montessori schools have priority admission, an average of twenty to fifty non-Montessori students enroll each year. As a magnet school, Lakewood offers busing all over the city, resulting in a very diverse student composition. About a third of our students are white, a third are black, and a third are Latino. During the 2013-2014 school year, 48% of our students qualified for free and reduced lunch. All of Lakewood’s twelve core teachers have been (or are in the process of being) licensed by the American Montessori Society. By extension, the educational experience I describe at Lakewood is representative of any licensed public or private Montessori secondary program in the country.

Lakewood’s interpretation of Montessori philosophy is expressed by the school’s three pillars of academics, community, and self. The academic development of all students is certainly prized, but not at the exclusion of teaching students the interdependent nature of individuals and the community. As such, Lakewood was built on a community-centric model. Whereas many traditional middle schools are split up into “teams,” the connotation of which fosters competition, Lakewood’s students are sorted into “communities,” a term intentionally chosen to signify a spirit of collaboration. Each community is assigned two teachers and each teacher is a lead instructor for two core subjects. A maximum of fifty students are assigned to each community and aside from elective courses, communities spend the entire day together, ensuring that there is plenty of time for collective learning and open-ended projects.

(Lakewood) Montessori and the Adolescent
In accordance with its pillars, Lakewood strives to help adolescents grow academically, personally, and socially. As students approach valorization, the hope is that they will see these three pillars converge; that is, the mature graduate of Lakewood will realize that community cannot stand independent of “self,” and “self” is inherently dependent on one’s ability to reason critically. Thus, when students work toward the end of goal of realizing and developing their individual abilities, they are also working toward developing Gutmann’s democratic disposition.

One way students realize the value of their individual thoughts is by regularly participating in Socratic Seminars. In Lakewood’s communities, seminars happen in all core classes and range in topic from the low numbers of girls pursuing STEM careers to literature that details the Jim Crow South. In seminars, students practice building on one another’s thoughts, are careful to agree or disagree with statements rather than people, and are encouraged to pose their own questions in a collegial spirit. Aside from facilitating the conversation and introducing new questions, teachers more or less stay out of seminar. In my classes, seminars oftentimes end with more questions than answers, perhaps because students become more comfortable using one another as a sounding board for their thoughts over the course of the year. Two weeks ago, my students ran out of time in class debating whether or not there was a hero in To Kill a Mockingbird. We didn’t reach any firm conclusions, but I heard several students still discussing the topic three later.

Reflection is as natural to Lakewood’s school culture as community discussion and is practiced at Lakewood in several ways. First, students are asked to use a daily leadership rubric to reflect on how they have individually contributed to the community. Students might reflect on their academic growth, behavior, teamwork, etc. Leadership rubrics, which are daily turned into teachers, encourage a fluid and consistent dialogue between teachers and students, keeping both parties mindful of the individual nature of valorization. Lakewood’s communities also host student-led conferences twice a year. These conferences allow students to share artifacts of learning with their parent(s) or guardian(s) as a way of explaining what they have been learning and working on throughout the year. Fully run by the students themselves, these conferences allow students to share their own assessment of their strengths, weaknesses, and possible areas of growth. Lastly, students participate in a daily practice of reflection called “solo time.” The school schedule allots fifteen to twenty minutes each day for students to silently unwind, calm themselves, and practice mindfulness as they prepare for a time of work. True to its name, solo time is always an individual activity and its value lies in reminding students that they cannot be contributing members of the community until they first take care of themselves as individuals.

Students also note their significance to the larger group by sharing responsibility for the restoration of the classroom at the end of each school day. This involves making sure the floors are clean, desks are returned to their proper place, classroom plants are watered, computers are restarted, windows are closed, lights are turned off, classroom supplies are returned and accounted for, and the recycling is taken out. When everyone works together to daily restore the environment, each individual member of the community sees that they are a necessary part of the group and students come to regard the classroom as their space. I regularly have students facilitate this end of the day routine; it has been my observation that when my students perform tasks that hold them accountable to one another, they are more likely to take pride in their effort.

(Lakewood) Montessori and the Community
Valorization of the personality is a lofty enough goal that when met, adolescents will also have developed a democratic disposition. However, to meet the high standard of civic education mapped out in the opening section, secondary students must also foster collective deliberation. Montessori’s focus on community responds to this demand fully. By fostering the valorization of each individual student, Montessori schools do two things: first, they promote a sense of community between students who are actively growing as individuals; and second, they remind students that our growth as individuals is important in part because it’s what allows us to contribute to the community in which we find ourselves.

One of the key ways Lakewood’s students cultivate a sense of community is by participating in regular, student-led meetings, aptly named “community meetings.” Community meetings provide a space for peers (and teachers) to share relevant announcements; acknowledge one another for the good they’ve seen from each other throughout the week; discuss happenings in the community that need attention; and reflect on a selected quotation, story, or idea. Each community meeting opens with the students answering a “greeting,” a question that gets students talking about their preferences, histories, and/or lives outside of school. Because there are so many pieces to community meeting, students take turns facilitating different roles throughout the year. In my own classroom, I have seen confident students model effective leadership to their peers by facilitating community meeting; similarly, I have seen shy students learn to effectively use their voice by assuming leadership positions. I have also witnessed my students proces difficult topics with one another during these prioritized gatherings. At Lakewood, discussion topics at this year’s meetings have included the fatal shooting of three young Muslims in the neighboring town of Chapel Hill; why we have to run lock-down drills as a school; how to practice understanding in dealing with one another’s learning and social differences; the occurrence of a particularly off-task day; and the changing face of our community as eighth graders prepare to move on to high school. Although not every meeting involves the discussion of topics as weighty as these, having an intentional and regular space to air these questions, thoughts, and concerns as they arise is unique to the Montessori philosophy.

Interage grouping also highlights a focus on social growth within the context of community. At Lakewood, it is typical for 7th and 8th graders to spend two years in the same community, giving students and teachers time to form meaningful relationships upon which to build. 8th graders oftentimes demonstrate leadership in helping 7th graders acclimate to their new communities at the beginning of the year. In addition, students work at their own pace and regularly find themselves in mixed-grade learning groups. I have frequently heard students discuss their ages at the middle of the year only to wrongly assume that one of their friends was a 7th grader when in fact she was an 8th grader, or vice versa. While realizations like these are always humorous and surprising to the students, it is wonderful to me that students in Montessori classrooms are not defined by their age. At the beginning of every year, students truly begin to grow from whatever their starting place might be -- not from where the curriculum suggests they ought to be at a given age.  Furthermore, the diverse nature of the classrooms allow students with special needs to find a natural place among the other students. In an inter-age classroom, everyone is different in his or her own way and variety becomes the norm. My students who have parents as professors sit next to my students whose parents are not citizens; my student who reads at an 11th grade level daily laughs in community meeting with my student who has autism. In these ways, students at Lakewood learn to be a part of an all-inclusive community, where the skills, talents, and gifts of individuals are both noticed and acknowledged. This can only serve to prepare students for the type of community they’ll find beyond the walls of Lakewood -- a society where individuals are not in fact separated by their ages or abilities.

Within these all-inclusive communities, Lakewood’s teachers place great emphasis on team building and social growth, primarily through the completion of group initiatives and field studies. Group initiatives, or activities and games that are created for the purpose of reflecting on group dynamics, are a regular part of Lakewood’s curriculum and occur in most communities once a week. While teachers typically facilitate and set up group initiatives, the challenges and games are completed by the students themselves. This forces students to manage and rely on one another. Group initiatives are always followed by a period of group processing, where students engage in a seminar-style discussion about what worked well; what difficulties were encountered; what, if anything, was learned; and how the community might apply what they’ve learned in the group initiative in the classroom. When students see parallels between what happens in these activities and what happens in the classroom, a common language is created that, when used in the classroom, can remind students of these shared experiences and agreed upon lessons.

Field studies extend the conception of community by allowing students to leave Lakewood’s school grounds to engage in hands-on learning experiences in the city. Our biggest and most consistent field study each year is a three-day wilderness trip referred to as Erdkinder, an experience Maria Montessori specifically imagined for the adolescent. For Lakewood, the location of Erdkinder alternates annually between a south-facing NC beach and a local river. Students take classes in the ecology of the area, have downtime that allows them to spend time in nature, live in community for the entire three days, and develop practical life skills. For many students, this is their first overnight trip away from home. Because Erdkinder takes place at the beginning of each school year, it serves as a wonderful bonding experience for Lakewood’s communities and is a trip that students return to in discussion throughout the year.   

While graduates of Montessori programs might not engage in typical civic activities (voting, volunteering, organizing food drives, etc.) any more than alumni of more traditional, comprehensive secondary schools, there is strong evidence to suggest that Montessori schools provide a climate that encourages a practice of democratic deliberation in individuals and a spirit of collective deliberation in the context of community. Lakewood’s graduates have done well academically, finding a natural fit in classes at every area high school in Durham. We regularly hear feedback that our Montessori students have developed firm habits of self that they can continue to enact no matter their high school environment -- they know how to pace themselves, set their own boundaries, give voice to their thoughts, and uphold their responsibilities. Where our graduates have at times felt limited is in seeking a larger spirit of collaboration; they have struggled to parlay the growth that comes from valorization to higher communal aims. One alumna of Lakewood visited our school earlier this year, as the majority of recent graduates do from time to time, and directly shared with her teacher, Beth, “I miss the community.” She noted that her high school was large, that she had classes with different students all day, and that the emphasis on social growth was lacking. Beth’s assignment to this student was one that virtually every graduate of Lakewood has been tasked with: create the community you seek. “You know how,” she told her. “You learned how to foster community here.” The truth of this statement is evidence of Montessori’s ability to contribute to the democratic growth of our country. When adolescents develop habits of individual and communal deliberation to the extent that it changes the very way they interact with the world, Gutmann’s charge has been met.


 Works Cited:

 Donahoe, Marta. "Hope for the Adolescent: Valorization of the Personality." Cincinnati

Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program, 2010. Web.

Gutmann, Amy. "Preface to the Revised Edition." Preface. Democratic Education. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. Xi-Xiv.

Johanek, Michael C., and John Puckett. "The State of Civic Education: Preparing Citizens in an Era of Accountability." Institutions of American Democracy: The Public Schools. Ed. Susan Fuhrman and Marvin Lazerson. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 130-59.