Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile –Albert Einstein
Last year, Yasmin climbed to the top of a thirty-foot tower and rang the bell. Her partner Violet got halfway up and stopped. It was hard, and she didn’t want to push on. But Yasmin, her challenge met, didn’t climb back down. Instead she talked to Violet encouraging her to keep going. And Violet did. She started climbing again, climbed up to where Yasmin was waiting for her and rang the bell. The two 10-year-olds came down together.
Yasmin had helped Violet push herself farther than she thought she could go, and Violet didn’t give up and felt proud that she had accomplished something she didn’t think could.
The adults were impressed that the girl who had made it to the top had helped the other girl to the top. But talking about the event afterward Violet said, “We encouraged each other and brought out the best in each other.” Yasmin agreed. “It’s all about friendship.”
Last year, I stepped away from my job of shaking hands and greeting incoming students at the front door of the school to talk to a student in the hallway. When I returned to my post one minute later I found Isabel and Isabella, two fifth-graders, standing where I had been standing, shaking hands, smiling and saying good morning to the students as they came into school. Now 8th graders regularly choose to take time away from their primary occupation of hanging out with each other and take responsibility for opening car doors and welcoming the students into school.
Last year, Jasmine and Aymani were sitting together editing each other’s papers. Shelby who was sitting nearby overheard them wrestling with the problem of how to indicate to each other the things that needed fixing. She said, “There are signs you can use.” By the end of the day a team of half-a-dozen students had collaboratively created two new sets of editing tools: a stack of laminated 3 x 5 cards that would facilitate the communication between students as the they helped each other improve their writing, and a game for memorizing the symbols of editing.
“Could we find a time for you to come back and read to my students?” asked one Lower Elementary teacher.
“I don’t want to do that, again,” replied the Upper Elementary student.
“Really? Why? I thought you enjoyed it,” said the teacher.
“Yes, I did,” said the girl, “but that was an assignment. Right now I am doing research on my grandfather. Can I do it another time?”
I sat in on an Upper Elementary discussion.
“When you help others, you are helping yourself. You get a reward. People will respect your kindness.”
“Yes. Your reward could be something you learn along the way. As you help someone else, you can learn things. That’s a reward.”
“Well, I disagree a little. I don’t think you help others for a reward. I think you should help others for the sake of kindness, not rewards.”
“Helping others for a reward is not genuine.”
“I agree. If everyone thinks of others, you won’t need to care about yourself as much. I care about others, but I have to work at showing it. It makes me feel better.”
Last year, two ten-year-olds confronted two eight-year-olds about their behavior in the boy’s bathroom. The teacher of the accused simply stood there in support.
Half-a-year ago Golden Oak Montessori School moved into its new environment at 2652 Vergil Court in Castro Valley, California. It would be normal for the adults—teachers, administrators, parents—to feel that we had created this space for the children, and of course, there are ways in which we did.
However, if you understand Maria Montessori, you understand that the creation of a learning community is tricky business. The main metric for whether you have done it right is that the children, themselves, are creating the environment you are trying so hard to create.
If we want a better world, we would be wise to see the world through the eyes of children and support them in the direction their genius is naturally leading them. Something tells me it is going to be a very happy new year.