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What I Learned at the Montessori Conference

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #47, 2002.

A visit to a Montessori conference that might change the future of your homeschool.
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Kathy von Duyke

I was recently excited to attend my first ever national convention of the American Montessori Society. Hosted by the beautiful Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, Maryland, the convention was something like an upscale homeschooling fair.

I was nervous about spending four days with 1,600 teachers, school administrators and vendors who might not have an entirely friendly view of homeschooling. I even wondered what they would look like. Overall, women far outnumbered the men, but of the men there, most were giving workshops or school administrators. They dressed like homeschoolers, somewhere between the 70's and today's relaxed professionalism. There was an air of playfulness, seriousness, and earnestness. The spirituality of the Montessori method is not hidden in her work, and so terms such as love, gratitude, respect, and humility were frequently in use during workshops and conversations. There was even a huge contingency of teachers from Korea. Not being either shy or quiet, I soon began introducing myself to everyone and anyone.

My first day began with a tour of the beautiful Barrie School, an exemplary Montessori school housing preschool through 12th grade students. Like a beautiful oasis hidden between city skyscrapers, the school is a touch of nature for city kids. As forty of us trooped through a 1st -3rd grade classroom, the children politely ignored us and continued with their work. There was no jumping about in spite of the fact that we distracted their teacher with questions, poked at their books, examined their shelves, and asked them questions. One little girl showed me her daily checklist and the jobs she had completed that her teacher had selected for her that day. Then blinking at me as if to ask, "Are you finished interrupting me?" she went back to her work.

In the 4th-6th grade, the other teachers in the tour might have been thinking, "What a beautiful classroom!" while I was thinking, "What a perfect homeschool!" The comfortable room was arranged into small seating areas, each with its own set of bookshelves and hands-on work. The entire classroom complex opened into a center library area that was always accessible to all the students in any classroom and an extension of their classroom work. At these grade levels, research and unit studies are a high priority, so it made wonderful sense that the children could float into the library as needed. As I explained my goals as a homeschooling parent using the Montessori method to the teacher, she answered my most critical question without my asking. She said to me, "The students make my materials and I use them from year to year." That's great, because, if anyone has tried to find materials they soon discover that not much is commercially available at this grade level. Kenna Armstrong then graciously followed me out, leaving her students all diligently working without her presence and filled me in on the details of her day and her work with her students. She granted me permission to drive back and visit her classroom when I could come for an entire day.

Middle school and high school levels have become part of the most innovative research and excitement in Montessori schools in recent years. Students are instructed in how to be self-motivated learners, take responsibility for their actions, go beyond state requirements, and work in collaborative groups of mixed ages. If this is beginning to sound a little like homeschooling, it won't surprise you to find these students behaving in ways I thought only possible among homeschooled teens. Dr. Betsy Coe, the foremost leader of this research and development, has her students write their own student handbook from year to year and finds she never needs to police the students, because they do it themselves. She notes that in the ages from 11 to 13, young teens are most like toddlers. They are teething, eat a lot, sleep a lot, are uncoordinated, and must be guided in the process of discovering who they are. One study she cited found that most criminal behavior stemmed from decisions an individual made between 12-14 years old. In her school, where students are not weeded out based on academic testing, 20 percent of her students become National Merit Scholars, whereas only 1/4 of 1 percent of public school students achieve that.

At the Barrie school (which you can visit online at www.barrie.org), high-school students create plays, do apprenticeships, visit foreign countries, and develop research projects. To me, this was a co-op to die for. In a very short time I began considering how these wonderful resources could benefit homeschoolers.

Over the next three days of the convention, I attended fabulous workshops ranging from Story Telling to create character in children, to unit studies that fizzle, to how to hold staff meetings (could you believe the main points were to model humility and honesty, refuse to gossip, and speak your truth without triangulating?). My friend and partner in crime, Shelley Todd, attended workshops on the writing process, how to really use sensorial materials, and the needs of toddlers. There was a general emphasis on teaching both children and adults that behavior has consequences and we have several choices in any given situation to deal respectfully and compassionately with one another.

In each class, presenters asked for a show of hands for school administrators, Montessori teachers, and parents. Having to make myself known at the odds of 1,600 to 2, I invariably piped up with a big smile and a count for Montessori homeschoolers. This confession did not initially find a warm reception. At one lunch, I announced my category to my table, only to find everyone at my table draw backwards and eye me with a frown. But not halfway through our salads, we were all excitedly talking like old friends.

Montessorians are concerned that untrained people not try to use their methods. I explained that their training requirements automatically exclude homeschooling parents, who are unable to conduct practicums in classrooms. When I explained that their classes prevented parents from being able to play too, they all opened up. In no time we were talking about how training institutes could offer homeschoolers conventions that offered credit for attendance towards future certification. Then in turn some affiliated programs can be rolled over to bachelor's degrees and master's degrees. We talked about how great it would be if Montessori teachers who were still having little babies at home could tutor and oversee parent co-op schools, helping train parents in how to teach "Montessori style" both at home and in co-ops. We talked about how if schools opened their resources to 1- or 2-day programs for homeschoolers, it could virtually reverse the current trend of Montessori schools being more attended at the preschool level than the high school level.

At the end of lunch, I asked the attendees why they were so receptive when initially I had obviously put them off, and they said, "It's your passion." Montessori teachers really understand a passion for learning and children.

Fueled by such a change of heart, I decided to go after the leaders in the convention and express my concerns. I literally carried bags so that I could speak with these incredibly busy and swamped people. Tim Seledin, who edits Montessori Leadership magazine and Tomorrow's Child, and who consults with schools nationwide, finally sat back long enough to ask me, "So, what is your agenda?" I stopped a moment and said, "I have no agenda, but I have a passion for homeschoolers and Montessori methods to connect, I need your help in figuring out an agenda that would work for both groups." At that point, he invited me to submit articles to his magazine and simply describe how Montessori works in my homeschool and group.

While I was speaking with him, a very professional looking woman seemed to be listening carefully. Later, I found she would be the newest headmaster at the Barrie school. She was very interested in the concept and invited me to an e-mail dialogue.

Of course, no convention is complete without my favorite part, the vendor hall. And this convention was no disappointment. Shelley and I literally raced from table to table touching, questioning, reading, and questioning some more. Several vendors mentioned to me that they had tried showing at homeschool conventions but were sadly disappointed in their sales. I explained that Montessori methods weren't well understood by much of the homeschool population at this point, and people simply wouldn't know what to do with their materials. I pointed out to some that the inclusion of New Age or other philosophies, not necessary to the Montessori method, but perhaps a personal belief of the vendor, would put most homeschoolers off. I explained that as an evangelical Christian I would not teach or emphasize the evolutionary concepts nor teach a spiritual worldview that was not consistent with my Christian beliefs. I found the vendors to be very respectful. Unlike secular schools, Montessorians have a deep appreciation and respect for spiritual issues. It almost felt weird to not be challenged as I have been used to with the "state v. religion" argument.

I asked a few of the more exceptional vendors to consider how they might adapt their materials for homeschoolers, including teacher-training notes and even videos of their work. I was overjoyed to find many smaller companies manufacturing materials at less cost than the major Montessori companies. One company centered in India, Edu Aids, will not ship small quantity orders, but would supply a co-op group. Other vendors told me that if I called and asked for seconds they would sell me products at 25 percent off that had minor flaws. And some of the teachers told me that a survey of half.com might bring up some Montessori materials at even cheaper prices.

I was also delighted to find a company called Papercuts which sold blackline masters of the classroom paper work, timelines, and three-part vocabulary cards so teachers could make their own sources to save money. Another company called Appleseeds had delightful products I hadn't seen anywhere else: little gluing job trays, toddler trays chunky and perfect for little hands, clever math jobs, all innovatively designed by a long time Montessori classroom teacher. And just to prove that homeschoolers do spend money on Montessori materials, Shelley and I carted off the biggest haul of any teacher there!

I was not surprised to find many teachers shopping on school budgets for their classrooms, but I was shocked at how many teachers bought materials out of their own pockets for their students' use. The dedication of these teachers reminded me of homeschool moms. They have a joy and mission in what they do because they know how good it truly is for their students.

We found wonderful books, Teaching Toddlers; a path down the Road less Toddled, Positive Discipline based on the work of Rudolph Dreikurs from the 40s (the same basis for the birth order books many homeschoolers are familiar with). I also met the owner of Montessori and Such, a vendor I have mentioned in an earlier article. She was so excited by the number of orders she received after that, she purchased a copy of that issue of Practical Homeschooling and posted the article on her store bulletin board! I talked to the owner of Lord and Company, who reminded me that the furniture was part of the curriculum in a Montessori classroom and gave me a whole new perspective on his work. He has just invented a new job to train children to saw correctly. Another vendor had invented a way for students to make their own Cuisenaire rods and other inventions. A correspondence school for teacher training showed me their beautiful manuals illustrating materials and teaching methods for ages 3-6 and grades 1-3. Their books can be purchased separately from their courses, meaning a parent can slowly replace more standard curriculum with more hands-on curriculum a course at a time.

I also mentioned to many vendors and teachers that because of the free-market nature of homeschooling, many wonderful products have been produced over the years, and we have some materials that they are totally unaware of that Montessori teachers would love. Some of our math and grammar methods, all of our unit studies, and our character materials would be of interest. They were very appreciative of the possibilities.

I finally approached the conference coordinator for the next year and asked how I might get on their agenda so I could speak to the AMS about how they might support homeschoolers. I think by then they knew who I was! Again, I was graciously received and guided through the protocol.

On returning home, I realized that more than anything, if I wanted to build a bridge between Montessori and homeschooling, I would have to be willing to be that bridge. I decided I wanted to train at the Barrie school. I called the director of the Institute, Doris Sommer, and explained my desire and how the current setup actually prevents homeschooling parents from receiving certification. "I won't put my children in a public school in order to do a practicum in a Montessori school," I explained, "My first priority is to nurture my own children well." She was very appreciative of that commitment, and asked me tons of questions about my homeschool, my methods, the children, the co-op and what I was currently teaching. She promised me that she would work out a way with the AMS for me to do my practicum within my own homeschool. A huge step! She was also very eager for me to carry products to her from our movement and share some of those things that I have come to love to use over the years.

One theme at the conference was how the temporary chaos of problems can lead to greater order and peace if one is willing to work through them. I thought about how much my desire to give my children a really great high-school experience has been frustrated by my own limitations. What a wonderful gift it could be to my children and yours if Montessori high schools would open themselves to adjunct programs for homeschoolers. It may be that the newest and most exciting item on the AMS agenda in future years will be us!

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