Maria Montessori, Advocate for Peace
Maria Montessori, medical doctor, educator and visionary, opened her first school, the Casa dei Bambini (House of the Children) in Rome in 1907. In the next two decades, Dr. Montessori’s methods achieved worldwide currency, in part through the publication of The Montessori Method (1912) and Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook (1914). In the early 1930s, the changed political climate in her native Italy, namely the rise of fascism, made her work difficult, and in 1934, Dr. Montessori’s refusal to politicize her work and schools resulted in the shutdown of all Montessori schools and her departure from the country.
World unrest and her own exile led Maria Montessori to advocate publicly for peace, and thus make clear the connection between her teaching methods and a social and world order generated by respect, cooperation and the intelligent activities of citizens. In a series of speeches, conferences and other activities, conducted in India and Western Europe, Dr. Montessori spoke about educational reform and the benefits to a world society. A number of her lectures were published as Educazione e Pace (1949), translated as Education and Peace (1972). Her work, embraced by a worldwide community of educators, politicians and academics, earned her nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950 and 1951, and in recent years as well.
Committed to a nonpolitical platform, and a focus on the innate and positive forces of the human mind and spirit, she rejected the view of peace as the condition achieved by avoiding war and with nonviolent resolution of political conflict. “Inherent in the very meaning of the word peace is the positive notion of constructive social reform,” she wrote, adding that “society at present does not adequately prepare man for civic life,” and that “establishing a lasting peace is the work of education.” Far in advance of today’s catchphrase “globalization,” Dr. Montessori noted that scientific advances had so linked world cultures that our universal social connections were made clear, and she set forth strategies for a “universal, collective effort to build the foundation for peace.”
Dr. Montessori’s assessment of her contemporary world and the means to achieve a state of peace, like her educational philosophy, are holistic and rooted in her belief in the spiritual and intellectual powers of the child. Dr. Montessori’s method respected the intelligence and gifts of the small child, serving her with a prepared environment and materials that engaged the senses in the learning process. Self-confidence, control of environment, joy of learning, and an understanding of connectedness with society resulted, leading, Dr. Montessori believed, to a new social order capable of directing man’s technological advances to constructive uses. This would replace accepted educational practices that rewarded competition, discouraged cooperation and independent thinking, and ignored the creativity and deeply moral qualities of the child, a status quo that she believed led to a warring society, one incapable of utilizing its own scientific and technological advances.
Dr. Montessori’s peace initiatives have been continued by organizations such as the Montessori Peace Task Force, the Montessori Peace Institute and the American Montessori Society Peace Committee. These national and international groups promote peace education within the Montessori curriculum, connections between schools, and global peace initiatives.
Global Vision, Peaceful Classroom
How does the Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori school educate for peace? Dr. Montessori herself noted that education in reaction to violence would not in itself yield a peaceful society. The peace curriculum at the Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School, developed and coordinated by Educational Director Scott Daigler, is enacted through a range of academic studies as well as the development of peacemaking skills, beginning with the youngest preschool group and culminating in the two-year adolescent program. It permits the student to study the history and science of the natural world, the beliefs and traditions of diverse world cultures, and to learn about and finally place herself within society as an active, contributing individual. All of these endeavors are guided by the school’s all-encompassing guidelines: respect of self, respect of others; respect of the environment; and responsibility for one’s actions and words.
At the Primary and Extended Day level, the young child places herself in the natural and human world through the presentation of geographic materials, cultural and scientific study. Globes and maps are studied, as are peoples, animals and plants of the world. These studies engender understanding and respect of different places, needs and beliefs, and are approached through art, music, history and science, and through practices of recycling and bird feeding. Young children contribute to the peaceful classroom by keeping materials orderly, respecting others’ work spaces, controlling movement and sound, and participating in the group circle, both as listener and speaker. The tools for expressing emotions respectfully and resolving conflict peacefully are introduced at the primary level, and one may see two three-year-olds, with the help of a teacher, talking through a dispute.
At the Junior Level, students look beyond the globe to speculate on the beginnings of life and the universe. Time is studied and students construct timelines of life on earth and of their own lives. Biological and physical studies are pursued with greater specificity, as are studies of civilizations through time, and the fundamental needs and beliefs of diverse peoples. Great peacemakers are studied, and the contemporary world is acknowledged as a place of diversity, conflict and possible peace in which the student may play an active role. Again, the integrated curriculum brings music and science, history and art, geography and physical education to bear on questions of creation, physical and biological processes, the needs and beliefs of human societies, and the place of the student herself in this cosmos.
Dr. Montessori identified the 6 -9 year old period as one of sensitivity to social morals, and junior level students continue to learn social graces and effective means of communicating information and emotions. Students begin the year by creating a classroom charter, the ground rules for the peaceful classroom. The classroom community is served by daily tasks (cleaning, caring for plants and animals) and the mentoring of younger students, and service projects extend the concept of community to the school and beyond.
Conflicts are resolved verbally, using the peace pole outside the school, or the peace table in the classroom, where peace treaties are crafted by the children in conflict and kept in a binder as a record of disputes resolved and compromises reached. A ringing bell signals the agreement, bringing classroom work to a momentary standstill as students pause to applaud an act of peace. Community circle utilizes a “talking stick” to structure group discussion of conflicts or concerns involving the entire class.
For the Upper Level student, history, literature and geography study add greater depth to the story of human civilizations introduced in earlier years. This respect for the past is enhanced by integration of music and art projects into cultural study. Class governance and decision-making, special projects such as the all-school Friday pizza lunch program (a fundraiser for the spring class trip), the UNICEF Halloween Carnival and the spring canned food drive incorporate community building, service and leadership skills. An increased emphasis on personal responsibility informs both the academic program and the student’s participation in peace making and community building.
These academic endeavors and years of developing peacemaking skills give to the middle school student (Dr. Montessori used the German word Erdkinder to refer to the adolescent student) an ability to engage in academics and the world around them as responsible and confident citizens. A challenging academic curriculum is substantially shaped by students’ ability to set and meet goals, work as a group, engage in service to the school and larger community, and make connections between academic subject matter, their own project of self-identification, and the contemporary world. Daily class meetings, community lunch – a weekly luncheon prepared by a small group for the entire middle school class, group projects and a seminar format for many academic discussions emphasize self-knowledge and independence coupled with a commitment to cooperation. Service initiatives, study of current events and class trips challenge the student to bring their academic acquisitions and their knowledge of group processes and the foundational four Rs to problem-solving, action and contribution in the social spheres of school, community and world.
From the perspective of the peaceful classroom, students from primary through middle school view a global vision of peace. Most importantly, they learn through academics and social interaction, that they are a part of that vision, and that their contributions are essential.
Celebrations and Reflections
In the course of the academic year, a series of gatherings, celebrations and projects bring the entire school together to sing for peace, to celebrate extraordinary efforts for peace and human rights, and to affirm a collective commitment to respect for our natural and human environment.
In mid-September, students and staff join together to chant for peace. The acappella round of Dona Nobis Pacem (“Give us Peace”) fills the gym with young voices. While functioning as a memorial for the September 11th tragedies, this gathering also reminds students to look to the present and future, recalling that the work for peace in the world has its roots in commitment to peace and respect, in the self, classroom and community.
October brings United Nations Day, a celebration of the school’s rich cultural diversity and of the global efforts at communication and peace the U.N. and our school community represent. Children create family trees and engage in a week-long study of their cultural heritage. This year, the Middle School participated in a U.N. program called the International Schools for Peace program, which included work with a novel published by the U.N. and a tour of the U.N. and discussion with the staff of the Secretary for Children at War. The assembly is bright with the clothing of many cultures, and many classrooms follow this assembly with a festive international luncheon.
Late December’s Festival of Lights acknowledges the confluence of spiritual celebrations that focus on light in this darkest point of the year. Hanukkah, Divali, Christmas, Advent, St. Lucia’s Festival, Winter Solstice, pagan hunting rituals are enacted, with artistic and musical innovation. The uniqueness of these belief systems is noted, yet all are drawn together in a singular chant “We have come to shine our light, In the darkness of the night. Each of us is one small flame, but together we’re a blaze.” The celebration is luminous and joyous, the chant rhythmic and powerful.
January brings Martin Luther King Day. A week of classroom focus on Dr. King’s life and mission culminates in an all-school assembly with presentations by each class. Songs (“We Shall Overcome” and “Amen” are especially popular), readings and a reenactment of Rosa Parks’ courageous acts on a public bus are among the presentations. Balloons bearing children’s unique wishes for peace, freedom and health among peoples and nations rise to the ceiling; other students read wishes for peace and understanding they have made into flags to be displayed in their classroom. Acknowledged as a model for his commitment to peace and justice, Dr. King is also recognized as a person, and the assembly ends with a singing of “Happy Birthday to You, Dr. King.”
Elizabeth Ann Clune Day is a May event that is surrounded by school-wide consideration of difference and challenge. Students participate in activities that are designed to assess their personal strengths and challenges. They discuss disabilities and challenges — physical, mental and social — that must be understood, respected and supported as part of the way to respect others and create a peaceful society. A day of classroom visits by Elizabeth Ann Clune, a school alumna and the school’s namesake, culminates in an assembly in which Elizabeth describes the challenges she has faced as an individual with Down Syndrome. Group singing affirms that all are unique, but united in a common effort to further understanding and appreciation of difference.