Montessori Monday: Why I Hate February and March
Monday, February 12, 2007

A random rant and some useful links.

It's Black History Month, and coming up next, Women's History Month!

The Montessori curriculum does not just teach reading, math, and practical life. There is a great emphasis on culture as well, including correct nomenclature, which means teaching children the real vocabulary instead of baby talk. "Culture" includes science and social studies; the culture of the people around us.

And so you would find a Montessori directress dressing a wound with a bandage, not putting an owie sticker on a boo-boo. She would encourage the children to water the petunias and snapdragons, not "Give the pitty flowers a drink". Dr. Montessori never presumed that a child was too stupid to understand the real word for something (and haven't you ever met a 3 year old who could name all the dinosaurs, or give you the back story and last names of Star Wars characters, or tell you, in detail, the weird names of Thomas the Tank's friends?) In a Montessori classroom, emphasis is placed on using extensive vocabulary and clear pronunciation.

Regarding history, children are taught in two ways: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal is the timeline of life, starting at the beginning. Vertical is following the development of an invention (such as writing) or concept and following it up through history. A child might study cuneiform, move on the the phonetic alphabet, progress through clay tablets, the Rosetta stone, to papyrus, parchment, up through typewriters and computers.

The timeline of life, the backbone of horizontal history, really does start at the very beginning - the creation of the universe. Some Montessori schools, now secularized, leave out the "created" part; here is a link to the story that Dr. Montessori's own son remembers her telling however:

God Who Has No Hands

The story, with its attendant explanations and demonstrations, is presented yearly starting at age 6. Then, the students are encouraged to explore different aspects. They are taught the three states of matter, learn about volcanoes, earthquakes, the natural ways our land is formed, and then move forward through the timeline to eventually come to the coming of Man, moving slowly from the biggest picture to more detailed pictures.

Many people think that perhaps the concepts are too advanced for small children, but I don't agree. I've had similar, impromptu discussions with my children about the very same ideas at even earlier ages. They will see me filling an ice tray, and ask, why does the water get hard? They want to know why they can see their breaths in the winter. They wonder why magnets stick to the refrigerator but clothespins don't. And they all love volcanoes.

The focus is to lay the foundation for more abstract learning later on. Montessori always progresses from concrete to abstract; from sandpaper letters that children will rub and feel, to a moveable alphabet, to reading phrases and finally paragraphs.

And, history goes from an overview of the whole history of the whole world, to living things, to mankind, and finally to the child's place in the world. Later, more detailed lessons are introduced - both horizontal, studying the great civilizations (and thus, how they influenced our civilization) and vertical - where did cars come from, where did numbers come from, where did writing come from?

Always, always there is a context. You will not find a Montessori classroom speaking of the first agricultural civilizations, and suddenly throwing in a story about Johnny Appleseed, who also was a sower of seed. There will not be an exhaustive lesson on Egyptian culture and accomplishments, and then a break away discussion of archeaological methods in the 19th century.

Which brings us to Black History Month, and its wicked stepsister, Women's History Month.
My main complaint is that there is no context. George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oprah appear on the same bulletin board. Malcolm X is featured, but there is no perspective, no discussion of the political spectrum which formed him, and which he helped form. Characters are jumbled together, regardless of actual accomplishment; famous dancers given equal weight as scientists; fiction writers given equal billing with peacemakers. What has Oprah accomplished? She's rich and famous. She made Deepak Chopra mainstream. She gives away cars? Why not do a lesson on Condoleeza Rice, who is actually changing the world every day?

The Romans regularly received dark skinned statesmen, great leaders, and kings. The apostles and their delegates traveled through Africa, converting the natives. The book of Acts speaks of Ethiopians; Egypt was a center of culture. There were many black saints. Yet, we hear of none of these people, just as we hear nothing of black mercenaries in the 18th and 19th centuries who profited from the slave trade. Black history month is really all about "American Blacks who overcame The Man".
St. Martin de Porres, son of a slave, patron saint of African Americans and renowned for his dedication to the poor.

Maybe we could combine Black History and Women's history, and have a lesson on Queen Candace of Ethiopa, a formidable leader that it's rumored even Alexander the Great declined to take on; the Queen of Sheba, mentioned in the Bible, or Queen Nefertiti? But, we will probably never hear of them in the mainstream society, as there is no archival footage to run on CNN.

Women's history month is not much better. We learn of Amelia Earhart, but what did she accomplish, really? She flew across the Atlantic on her own, and received the Flying Cross, but if she weren't a woman, she would really just be a footnote in history and not a household name. Ever hear of Bernoulli? He's the guy that came up with the equation for lift; Bernoulli's principle is why we can make wings on airplanes fly today.

What about St. Helen? She was an innkeepers daughter, who was divorced so her husband could marry a younger trophy wife. She also was the mother of Constantine the Great, a member of his court, and went on an expedition to unearth the True Cross. As an adventurer, she is much more inspiring than Amelia Earhart.

Again, the focus seems to be on "American White Women", rather than great women in history. This would be why we learn about Sally K. Ride, the first American woman in space, while ignoring Valentina Tereshkova, the actual first woman in space. And lets not even get into the cultural bias - the lessons are heavy on feminists with an agenda and light on women of true and noble character.

Want to emphasize female leadership qualities - so can we do a little unit on the great Queens of Europe - Isabella, maybe? Cleopatra held her own in a patriarchal society, and took on the Roman Empire. Perhaps Joan of Arc would make a good lesson in righteousness and courage? A peasant girl, who despite her humble origins and youth fearlessly took on the English army, after meeting the Dauphin; she held fast to her faith and the truth even as she was burned to death. Can you imagine a teenager showing up to the White House in flip flops, and declaring to the President that she is the only one who can restore the rightful government to Iraq or solve the immigration problem? Bold, indeed. Mother Cabrini, or Mother Teresa would also be shining examples of womanhood to inspire girls of today to change the world for the better. Surely these women have contributed more to western society than Betsy Ross or Betty Friedan.

We are not even treated to histories of Native American women. How about Sacagawea, who helped open up the West with Lewis and Clark? And, although not politically correct, how about the original Queen Mother - the Virgin Mary - also a woman of humble origins who changed everything about the world through her obedience and was directly involved with Man's eternal destiny?

I suppose I just have a problem with elevating people based on what they are instead of what they did. God has made each of us unique. We can claim no credit for our appearance, gender, or personality traits. It is ridiculous to laud the minor accomplishments of a person simply because they are not white or male. It cheapens the the things that people do accomplish, in spite of great odds. Why not teach about Martin Luther King, Jr. in the same lesson as other peacemakers fighting for justice? Why not discuss Harriet Tubman in the same lesson as Moses, fighting to free his people from slavery, or the valiant women and men who helped the Jews escape from Germany, or hid the clergy in France? Perhaps a lesson on Harriet Tubman would be better placed during a review of the Civil War? Just a thought?

My next complaint is that it is racist and biased. The accomplishments of these artists, statesmen, inventors, and scientists are lumped together based on skin color and gender, even though we teach our children that such things don't matter in these fields. We tell them color doesn't matter; then we dump together all of the black people who made life better and teach them during one single month of the year. In a way, we do a disservice to these Americans; insinuating that their accomplishments are only good because of their social status (or rather, lack thereof). After all, you'd probably not find Phil Donahue on a mural in an elementary school cafeteria or a lengthy story of Mendel, who contributed much more to botany than George Washington Carver.
Surely we can appreciate their contributions as being intrinsically worthwile, while not mentioning the color of their skin or inflating their value.

Often, as I noted with Amelia Earhart, people are lauded specifically because of their physical characteristics, rather than real accomplishment. Browse Biography's 200 Notables for Black History Month. You'll find 27 athletes, including Arthur Ashe and Sugar Ray Leonard; 40 musicians, including Tupak Shakur and Luther VanDross, and 33 entertainers, including Halle Berry. I'm not sure any of these 100 people deserve to be taught as a specific lesson in greatness.

The list of people chosen to be glorified this month, and next, seems quite arbitrary. Jean Michel Basquiat, artist, made the list; Henry Ossawa Tanner did not. Is Basquiat (who got his start in graffiti and died in 1988 from a heroine overdose) really more worthy than Tanner, son of a preacher who, according to Wikipedia, was the first African American to be internationally acclaimed, and also had a teaching position at a Massachusetts university in the 1890's?

The Seine, by Tanner

President's Day also gets under my skin, by the way. I think it is just wrong to combine George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, especially as they were very much opposites. George Washington was a product of privileged British American society; he was the veteran of two wars, and then became President of a new country, leading in a time of peace. He signed the Fugitive Slave Act.
Abraham Lincoln was a poor Midwestern American, and lead the country in a time of war. He was never a soldier. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He actually has more in common with our current president, I think, as he had his own "Patriot Act" that suspended the body of evidence laws, was a Republican, and was often criticized for overstepping his authority and misusing his executive power.

I much prefer teaching historical personages as a product of the time they lived in as opposed to artificial adulation based on political correctness.

Back to Montessori:

There are many sites that list presentations of physics to young children. Here's a few:

An Overview of Lesson Progression, from Miss Barbara
The Great Lessons, from Miss Barbara
Physical Science for age 3-6, Adobe Acrobat file
Earth History for kids - any link you could ever want
Why Cosmic Education for 3-6
Cosmic Education, from MontessoriMom, with great links and lots of them, including a specifically Catholic Great Lesson.

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