The individual in the community

Breakfast in an adolescent community

The schedule for the morning in one Montessori adolescent community is for two of the students to wake up at 7am to put the bread in the oven (left to rise from the previous night), and lay the table in time for a communal breakfast at 8am. I am an early riser and was usually at work each morning before the adolescents woke up, so got to see the unfolding of this morning ritual each day.

Each pair of students had a different approach, but they all had one thing in common – they were all half asleep while they were doing it. It was clear that they would much rather be in bed – but they were there, preparing breakfast for the community. I spoke to two of them about this commitment to showing up for the others, one morning when they were washing up after breakfast.

“Surely”, I asked, “you would rather be doing something else?”

“Of course we would”, they laughed. “But it’s our turn. And tomorrow it will be somebody else’s.”

“Wouldn’t you rather Sophie (the cook) made breakfast for you instead? Then you could sleep a little longer.” I asked.

“You mean, like a restaurant?”

“Well, yes.”

“I guess… that would be a bit weird… this is our community.”

Each morning the dining room would be empty until just before 8am, and then within the space of 5 minutes, it was full. The girls were draped over each other on the sofas, and the boys sat in silent groups on the edges, waiting for their meal. When observing in a Montessori adolescent community one can’t help but feel a little bit like an anthropologist. There is a sense of seeing the adolescent in their ‘natural habitat’, and discovering what adolescence is really about. And sometimes we discover things that surprise us – for example that adolescents have a deep commitment to service. But there is a specific dimension to this commitment to service.

For instance one morning the students were down just before 8 as usual, but breakfast wasn’t quite ready. One of the girls responsible for setting up breakfast had woken up late. She was an exchange student who, it seemed to me, hadn’t yet adapted to the work ethic of this community. She was in fact sitting on the sofa with some of the others, waiting for the bread to be ready. An older student came up to her and said “Lena, you need to be in the kitchen”.

“Why??????” she moaned.

“Because the bread is in the oven and we need to have breakfast so we can go to work” he responded in a perfectly matter-of-fact sort of way.

Nothing more was said: she held her hand out and he took hold of it and yanked her up to her feet, and she stumbled off to the kitchen. Nobody exchanged looks with each other, no eyes were rolled and there was no sense of “She’s always like that”. It was heart-warming to see how that moment was handled so smoothly. My observation was that problems that arose in the community were routinely solved in this way.

The impact my actions have on other people

One of the most striking qualities of a well-functioning Montessori community at any age is how you can step into it and recognize familiar principles. For instance, at every age we help the child relate their actions to the impact these actions have on other people. We draw their attention to the fact that their lives aren’t being lived in isolation but as part of a community of others, who also wish to be happy. As the children grow older, we expect more and more that they will be able to take other people into account when they think, speak and act.

We wish to empower children. These are human beings who will shape the world. Montessori once said, “The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind”. I think about these words more and more. Every child comes into the world with the promise of a gift that they will bring to it as adults. We want to nurture in them this sense of power, that they can do things that change the world.

When do we begin to nurture this idea that they can change their world? From the beginning of life! With the 8-week old baby, we hold a bell above them and they accidentally hit it with their flailing arms. There comes a moment when they become aware that it was they who struck the bell. They look at it with new eyes. They command their arm – and it is a tremendous work that takes all their strength – to strike the bell. And they hear it ring. First there was silence, and then there was a sound: “I can transform my world”. That is the thought we want them to have.

It is this combination of offering children experiences that allow them to feel a growing sense of power within themselves, and facilitating their growing awareness of the impact their actions have on their world and their fellow man, that makes for a functioning Montessori community. And this is true from infancy to adolescence.

Our use of language is such a big part of this. In addition to reflecting our reality, language also shapes our reality. When we use words like “community” and “considerateness” and “respect” with a 4 year old, do they not understand and appreciate what we mean? When we use words like “kind” and “gentle” and “thoughtful” with a 1 year old, does the sentiment not touch them, even when the words are just sounds?

All of us who work in this way with children, parent and guides included, seek to create environments for them – at home and in school – that say, “Yes!” Yes you may touch this. Yes you may do that. This is how. We want them to feel their world is calling out to them, that it is saying come and act on me, come and change me, come and transform me. And we are constantly drawing their attention to the benevolence of nature and the benevolence of human society, so that their actions will be similarly driven by a sense of benevolence and gratitude.

The inter-dependence of human beings

This theme of the impact our actions have on each other is more explicitly discussed in the Montessori Elementary. The education offered in the Elementary is called “Cosmic Education”. It is more than a body of knowledge, because Montessori is not about a curriculum but about human development. The particular psychology of the child between 6-12 is that they are shaping their minds – Mrs. Patel describes it as being a stage of “pure mind”. Information isn’t just received as content to be stored in the memory (which they are extremely good at doing at this age), but it actually shapes their mind.

For instance, my colleague Rob was presenting the Interdependencies Chart to some of the Elementary children a few weeks ago. This is one of the many Elementary materials that seek to cultivate gratitude in the children by offering them a particular perspective of their reality. The material shows the children how we rely on the contributions that other human beings make (such as the baker, the barber, the bus driver), asking the question “Aren’t we lucky to have all these people working so very hard each day, just so they can look after everyone else?” – and so cultivating a sense of gratitude towards other people.

The children then began discussing the work their parents do, and how it might fit into the chart of interdependencies. Rob said it was curious to observe among the children the different levels of understanding of what their parents did – that it said so much about the complexity of modern society and the degree of abstraction that is routine in todays economy. One child went home and asked her father (perhaps not in these precise words) what his contribution to humanity was! Her father had never thought of it that way, but as he described what he did in those terms (he looks after computer servers that large Insurers run on), he later commented to Rob that there was no untruth in it – it was just a particular though unfamiliar perspective.

(Another child had it easier – her father was, she said, “a JD and he makes people happy”. See if you can figure out what she meant – it has something to do with music).

This idea, that every human being exists to make a contribution to the harmonious functioning of our society, that in fact everything that exists, exists in relation to its contribution to the harmony of the whole, is the warp on which the fabric of the children’s education is woven during the Elementary years. My colleague Tricia told me a beautiful story that illustrates how between the ages of 6 and 12, the children’s minds are shaped by these ideas.

Tricia was having dinner with her husband Jeremy and their two boys Owen and Walter, both of whom were in the Elementary. Jeremy was talking about some event in the news, and offered by way of explanation the phrase “bad person” to describe why someone might have done something harmful. Tricia said, “Wait a minute, I don’t think I agree that there are bad people. I think everyone is basically good but people sometimes make bad decisions.” Their younger son Walter, who was just over 6, piped up. “No mom,” he said (they’re American), “everyone is born with a garden of love in their hearts. But if their garden wasn’t watered and looked after when they were babies, then it can get all thorny inside.”

Tricia said she nearly burst into tears when she heard this beautiful description of what can sometimes happen to babies, all of who enter our world filled with love.

The motivation of the adolescent

Being amongst adolescents who have grown up this way is a privilege one can’t help but feel very deeply. Of course to feel deeply is a particularly adolescent quality. The young child has a deep love for their physical environment, which they touch with their hands. The older child has a deep love for the Universe, which they reach out to with their minds. The adolescent has a deep love for humanity, and they reach out with their hearts. This love for humanity is born in the heart, and it is born during adolescence. The adolescent, we might say, is a creature of the heart.

Their strongest motivations are always about people. But crucially, it is stepping beyond the family. Adolescence is a period of transition from being a child in a family to being an adult in society. Their specific need is to move out of family. This is why they are drawn to adults who are not their parents. They love to help out but not at home. The adolescent, Montessori said, is a “social newborn”. They belong to another family now: the family of humanity, and to the family that they are one day going to create for themselves. They have left the womb of childhood, which is what the family represents. It is a transformative change, and one that we too often resist.

When we start to see that shift in their commitment, from the family of their childhood to that new family they are called to join, we can either support it or we can resist it. It is exactly the same kind of shift that happens at 4 months, when the baby starts to turn away from the mother’s breast because they are so interested in the world around them. We can fight it, or we can understand it – that it is the natural process of life moving forward, it really isn’t personal; it does not constitute a rejection.

What might it mean to understand and even embrace this shift? It could be to offer the adolescent opportunities to cultivate relationships with other adults. It could be to put the adolescent in contact with real people who are doing real work – particularly work whose impact on others is visible. It could be to give the adolescent opportunities to do real work, work that is meaningful and has an impact.

Certainly it means continuing to be mindful of our language. It means appealing to the best in the adolescent. We know that they are creatures of the heart. We know that it is an age of idealism. When we see that, and we ourselves try to steer by those ideals, it is remarkable how they are able to realign themselves. They seem to have the capacity to let go of positions easily, like a child would. I have been struck by the contrast between the passion with which they take a stand, and their willingness to relinquish that stand when they see it is inconsistent with some higher ideal, like justice or equality, or kindness. But like little children, they are able to see through to the essence of our intention. If our own intention is to act in service of others, and we are able to frame the need of the moment in the context of that intention, it can be powerfully persuasive for the adolescent. But they can see right through us if we aren’t walking the talk – the adolescent is, as one colleague put it, the most sophisticated “bullshit detector” known to man.

Eventually it is only love that truly motivates. It is the young child’s love of their physical environment that drives them to insist “I want to do it by myself!”. It is the older child’s love of the Universe that drives them to ask “Why?”. The adolescent’s love for people is what motivates them. Adolescents love their peers, which is why they are on the phone with them at the end of the day even after spending the entire day together. They love children, which is why adolescents make for popular babysitters. They absolutely love adults – being around them, talking with them, helping in their work. And when we give them opportunities to do meaningful, adult-like work that genuinely impacts on the lives of other people; that is when they feel most fulfilled.

Photo of Montessori adolescents Kristopher and Tor courtesy of Ole Myrhaug.