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Peace in a Montessori Classroom

Introduction

While traditional classrooms often confuse peace with quiet, Montessori classrooms teach peace education actively. Montessori-trained teachers instill personal responsibility, embrace diversity, and honor the interconnectivity of all life on Earth. Their students get those lessons through explicit lessons and the implicit understanding of watching someone live and model their values. As a result, Montessori children are empowered to make peace in the world with praiseworthy enthusiasm. 


During the 20th century, the educational system was modeled on the belle of the industrial revolution, the factory, filling children with prefab ideas as they pass by on an assembly line. It was thought that children are no more interesting, individual, or essential than some mass-produced consumer product. Dr. Montessori, and others like Steiner and Dewey, proposed that education should be not like a factory, filling children with identical information as though they were boxes on a conveyor belt, but a discovery that unfolds within the child, with the child participating in their education. Dr. Montessori's theories seem prescient in many ways; for now, we have scientific studies backing the idea of a gentle, child-centered educational philosophy. 


Maria Montessori wrote passionately about the connection between education and peace, "Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education." Much like Nelson Mandela would say, Maria Montessori understood that "Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish regardless of race, color, creed, religion, gender, class, caste or any other social markers of difference." And we can indeed surmise Dr. Montessori's motivations for peace education in the classroom. She lived through two World Wars. She witnessed the effects of war, nationalism, and poverty on families in her community and noticed how the most forgotten children flourished when guides modeled peace in their classrooms. 


In early childhood classrooms, explicit peace education occurs in three main areas: the peace table, peace rug, corner, window seat, spaces in the classroom dedicated to self-calming or taking responsibility for poor choices or creating sustainable conflict resolutions, grace, and courtesy lessons, and geography shelves. 


Here are a few examples of what peace education looks like in my classroom: 


"Establishing lasting peace is the work of  education.”

-Maria Montessori



1. Peace Area

Every August, there is one classroom activity that is consistently in use. It is among the first "lessons" I introduce to the children. But, of course, our most used, most precious space in our class is the peace table.


Back-to-school week in particular, has its highs and lows. Friends are reunited, children meet their new teachers, and we all say goodbye to the lackadaisical pace of summer. It can be challenging!


But even after the nerves of back to school settle and our days become predictable, the peace table is a daily practice. While the need for it wanes as children become accustomed to the comfort of our classroom routine, its condition never truly disappears. Children get in fights over materials, feelings get hurt (sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose), and some days we just wake up sad or angry. A Montessori classroom is prepared with intention, meant to educate the whole child- ups, downs, and in between: "the joy of life, the optimism of hope… are spontaneous and natural consequences of an education based on life." 


Our peace table can be a space to self-soothe. It has a sand garden with a rake to trace lines in sand and a framed paper maze with a stylus. There are exciting sand timers for watching the sand fall as you breathe. Some years, when there is space and interest, there is even a yoga mat for mindful movement.


The peace table can also be a space for peer conflict resolution. Like many Montessori classrooms, we have a copy of The Peace Rose that we read throughout the year and a small wooden rose in a vase next to that. Like any other material in my classroom, I give a lesson first and model how to use it. For example, "It hurt my feelings when you yelled at me." Next, we practice taking turns holding the rose to speak while the other listens. We practice listening as diligently as we practice speaking calmly with "I" statements. Imagine the emotional intelligence an early childhood Montessori environment can foster!

2. Grace and Courtesy Lessons

How do you accept an apology? How do you apologize? Humans are gifted with many innate skills, but social skills must be learned and honed. So we role-play how to interact.


"Let's imagine I need to get to the sink to wash my hands, but someone is standing in front of it. They aren't using the sink, and they aren't waiting for their turn for the sink. I want to get past them so that I can wash my hands. Watch." I model making eye contact with the person standing in front of the sink, and I say, "Excuse me. Please, I'm trying to get to the sink. Thank you." Then I'll invite children who want to "practice" making eye contact and saying, excuse me.  


We practice greeting a visitor, walking around someone's work, interrupting a conversation politely, situations that might happen on an average day. We also practice more unusual situations due to the children's needs. Recently, my classroom hosted a guest speaker, so we had a grace and courtesy lesson on being a polite and attentive audience. 


Grace and courtesy lessons are explicit, but they are also continually modeled by the Montessori guides. For Mother's Day, children in my class did a week-long art project to bring home in time for the holiday. They worked hard and were proud of their final product. During nap one day, I went out to seal the paint, and to my utter horror, I watched the resin slowly and surely smear every single bit of their work. At group the next day, I witnessed the sadness break across the children's faces as I admitted what I had done and showed them my mistake. I apologized and told them what I had done to solve the problem: I ordered more materials and made plans to redo them the following week. 


To my humble delight, the children accepted my apology graciously. Finally, an older child announced, "it's okay… mistakes happen." 


The beauty of the Montessori classroom is that the guide's model is reflected back to us. Instead of "do as I say," it is "do as I do." When we see children exhibit kindness, understanding, and grace, we know that we have cultivated peace in the classroom. 


3. Geography

It might seem unexpected, but it is a disservice to peace education to think that our job as peace educators begins and ends at social interactions. If the primary tenet of peace education is teaching the inner connectivity of all life, we must first start by giving children a view of that life. Geography, part of our cultural curriculum, gives children a timeline of the long history of humans and a physical impression of the vastness of our physical world, thus relaying the distinct similarities of all humans. A child begins to understand the kinship of humanity, all endeavoring to create full lives on the third planet from the sun. Much later in life, the child may accept and celebrate the differences of life experiences around the world. Recognizing our similarities within our differences is the essential starting point President John F. Kennedy outlined in his 1963 commencement address at American University: "If we cannot settle now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity."

 

Many early childhood classrooms teach geography from a starting point President Kennedy would certainly appreciate: outer space. 

 

Children usually enter the classroom with lots of prior knowledge and interest in our solar system because outer space is as captivating to young minds as ours. Many students know the name of our home planet, facts about the sun and moon, and even the biographies of some astronauts. Space is an area of study that can include everything from rocket ships to extraterrestrial beings to the desirable and unifying goal of the human race peacefully exploring the cosmos to see what is out there.

 

We begin with concrete materials to place ourselves in space and create order from the children's prior knowledge. We arrange the sun, planets, and various other celestial bodies according to their placement in our solar system. As students advance in their understanding of the cosmos, they have a variety of outer space-related works from which to choose, from homemade felt mats to represent space with balls to represent the sun to mass-produced models of the solar system. To books, even to songs! In my very first classroom, before we gave lessons on the solar system, my mentor teacher played a well-loved and well-worn cassette tape from who-knows-when. She kept the video for "We All Live Together," a song that describes a trip from our house to our neighborhood, from city to state, to country, planet, solar system, and finally the universe. Children place model planets in our solar system in order around the sun (and lament the uncertain status of Pluto). They indirectly understand that the Earth's inhabitants share the same space in the universe AND that our relation to the sun is vital to our shared survival.

 

Next, we introduce our globes: sandpaper globes to teach natural divisions like land and water, and colored globes to teach political divisions like continent (and later country) boundaries. As we introduce the idea of continents, we look at pictures of landmarks and animals, and life on each continent. We have picture cards portraying animals, landmarks, people, and places for each continent. Children explore the world with puzzle maps divided by continent, where each puzzle piece is a different country. Children trace maps, paint maps, label maps. Children read simple sentences about different countries, learning native names from around the world. 

 

Later in their Montessori journey, students will learn more explicitly about different cultures through Great Lessons, research projects, and social justice studies. Even though it may seem simplistic, puzzle maps and colored globes are foundational for a childhood journey of peace education.  


Conclusion

Learning about peace is neither unique to Montessori philosophy nor is it new. Even in Dr. Montessori's time, her contemporaries proposed their recipes for peace education, perhaps due to the grim realization that humanity had invented world wars before they had figured out how to teach peace. Still today, social justice advocates understand the need to create citizens of the world to change the world. Last year I completed National Geographic's Educator Certification. My cohort was thousands of other educators, and all committed to educating the next generation of advocates, conservationists, policy-makers, and storytellers dedicated to peace. Peace education helps children build a healthy self-image and trusting relationships. A child who feels confident with social mores can begin to interact in more nuanced ways, like advocacy to effect change. Peace in the world starts in our microcosm of the world, a Montessori classroom, because a child who feels confident with social mores can begin to interact with their world in more nuanced ways, including advocacy to effect change for oneself and others.


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