Montessori in Middle School I Montessori at Home
When Junior High or Middle School was introduced in 1909, the children sat at desks, were lectured and encouraged to study, in preparation for a career as the main focus. The curriculum has been refreshed and new textbooks have been issued but not much has changed from the original structure in the traditional school. Although very thorough research has been done since the beginning and doctors see the same rapid growth in the 0-3 age as they do in the middle school ages, the eight hour day and sea of confining desks remain. While the infant is in a totally vulnerable state and needs careful attention and devotion from the parents, so does the middle schooler. The infant is in a state of great weakness, exerting all his energy on becoming a new being- a child. The middle schooler is also weakened, giving all of their attention and devotion to becoming an adult, focusing on figuring out society and where they fit in. The infant and the middle schooler can be self-absorbed, needing adequate food and sleep to sustain rapid growth and require time to 'just be'.
In past decades of history THIS was the age the child made the rite of passage into adulthood and most cultures historically marked this transition by some specific ceremonial event, act or celebration. Our culture seems to lack this transition from one stage of life to another at this specific age so kids are being allowed to stay kids too long and we are left in our current day with children 'who have been put to sleep by a false sense of security, who are incapable of confronting the unseen difficulty in real life and who are totally ignorant of conditions in the world in which they are destined to live."1 They have difficulty studying at this age because it's not a true need at this plane of development. The middle schooler is dealing with crazy emotions, hesitations, and self-doubt, they are sensitive, embarrass easily and lack confidence. Having difficulty concentrating and being easily distracted is actually a normal psychological feature of the age group. So why does the school system continue to shove it down their throats? It may be time to reconsider and restructure.
Our family did not have time to wait on the current structure to revitalize itself. My children spent most of their elementary years at the Montessori school with me. So when it came time to switch they each took in a few years at a public elementary school in the 4th and 5th grades and did just fine. Middle school was never meant to be and it really caught me off guard. It had not occurred to me at the time how sensitive this age of transition is in a child's life is and I sent 'said' child off to the wolves in 6th grade. After nine months I politely dis-enrolled my 6th grader and was completely lost on what to do next and on a new journey to re-invent the wheel, or so I thought.
Maria Montessori did publish specific and detailed pedagogy related to the 'middle school' or adolescent child. She called them Erdkinder or Earth Children. Maria's Erdkinder program focuses on opportunities and training for children to develop skills for necessary financial independence and self-reliance by granting the opportunity to work. Acquiring job skills is the practical life activities of the Erdkinder method. Maria believed that adolescents need calm and solitude if they are to make sense of themselves and the world, this is not what I saw the public system doing for my Montessori child. I was thrilled to learn the entire idea of her Erdkinder program was based on farm work, gardening, making things for yourself and doing things from scratch. Maria proved that working the land contributes to cosmic education, connects the adolescent to the natural world and helps develop a sense of responsibility toward natural resources. In her outline of an earth school, the adolescent lives close to nature, eats farm fresh products, and participates in practical work related to the economics and supply of food, shelter, and transportation. Intellectual work is still done, following the child's interests, without pressure.
Erdkinder looks different in a variety of settings. Not everyone who practices this method has full access to a farm and the tasks involved in running one successfully. It's also not easy to hand over some of the more important 'adult' work to an adolescent child but this style of teaching is in essence much like an old-school apprenticeship. It helps to teach responsibility and accountability. We aren't handing out cell phones and tablets or sitting in front of any electronics in this method of teaching. It becomes time to grow up and unplug, far earlier than our soft culture is requiring of our young people nowadays. It's not realistic to expect everyone to keep their child home and educate them in such a way. I don't keep all of my children home. The knowledge and insight Maria Montessori gave in her writings about the adolescent ages has helped me to be more aware of the specific needs and changes in all pre-teen children and therefore, has also helped us as parents to effectively support our children who choose to use the services of the public middle school as well. With lots and lots of attention to detail and adaptability to public education standards, Maria Montessori's work helps us as parents to help our children to be successful in the public school setting as well as at home. We try to listen to the child, it's not always verbal, but one way or another they will let you know if something is working or not working. It's ultimately the parent's intricate job to pay attention to the whirlwind of changing hormones and emotions, listen to their spirits and create an environment that considers the adolescent individual as a whole. A parent is a child's best advocate.
My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.
—Dr. Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence