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Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Peace

On this Memorial Day I am thinking of my pregnant cousin and her young son as they wait for the return of her husband from Afghanistan. Yet another tour after surviving an attack on the helicopter he was piloting in 2008 when it was shot down in Iraq. Memorial Day is for remembering the fallen, the injured, and those who suffered. It is a time to thank those who serve and have served. But it is not a time to glorify war. It is a time to ask the questions: Why are we so often at war? What are we doing wrong?

From Maria Montessori's 1932 address in Geneva
to the International Bureau for Education:
“ A Remedy for War: Thoughts on Peace and Education”
from www.markshep.com/nonviolence

Let us look at a phenomenon parallel to war—war’s reflection, as it were, but on the physiological level. I am speaking of the plague, that scourge capable of decimating or even wiping out a whole population, which remained for centuries dreadful and invincible—the plague, propagated by ignorance and conquered only when scientifically studied in its most hidden causes.

The plague, as we know, appeared at long intervals, just like war. It disappeared each time spontaneously, and society—which did not know its causes—could not hasten its disappearance. Seen in those days as a horrendous chastisement, it caused ravages of historic proportions, like war.

Indeed, the plague had a greater number of victims than war, and caused many more economic disasters. In the fourteenth century, a plague in China claimed ten million victims. That same devastating wave swept over Russia, Asia Minor, Egypt, and reached Europe, threatening with destruction almost all humankind. The total of those deaths has been estimated at over 25 million—hence the ravages of the plague were worse than those of any war, even the World War.

Each appearance of this scourge caused a general stoppage of labor, ushering in periods of deep misery. Famine followed plague, and so did insanity, as a notable proportion of survivors were unbalanced. These conditions made a return to normalcy much more difficult and for long halted the constructive work of civilization.

It is interesting to examine the explanations given for this scourge, and to look at the attempts to protect against it. From Homer and Livy to the Latin chronicles of the Middle Ages, we find always the same explanation: The plague is caused by wicked people who spread poison.

Describing the plague of 189 A.D., Dion Cassius relates that throughout the Roman Empire evil men were enlisted and paid to throw about poisoned needles. In the days of Pope Clement VI, the spread of disease was blamed on the Jews, who were massacred. When during the siege of Naples the plague destroyed 400,000—nearly the whole city population and almost three-quarters of the besieging troops—the Neapolitans believed themselves poisoned by the French, and the French by the Neapolitans.

Still more interesting is the trial of two presumed poisoners accused of starting the famous plague of Milan—proceedings that resulted in their executions. It is hard to imagine that a disaster so patently pathological could be attributed to an illegal act and should lead to the trial of men utterly powerless to cause it. With our knowledge today of the plague, this seems absurd. But do we not, in the case of the World War, seek to foist the responsibility upon an individual—the Kaiser, the Czarina, the priest Rasputin, or the assassin at Sarajevo?

Another phenomenon, arising from the instinct of self-preservation, was observed during the most celebrated outbreaks of the plague: the flocking together of those not yet struck down. Crowds assembled in public squares, filled the churches, and formed processions in the streets to chant prayers and carry banners, sacred images, and relics. These gatherings helped spread the disease rapidly among those who might have escaped it.

Does not this remind us of alliances among nations? Those alliances made before the World War were meant to avoid just such a war by establishing a balance of power. It is plain now that it was precisely this system that caused the stupendous disaster, because many nations were drawn into the conflict merely from being bound to others.

Finally, each time after the scourge of plague ceased abruptly, the hearts of the survivors swelled with that hope that never dies. They were convinced that humankind had just undergone a necessary trial—perhaps the last one.

At the end of the World War, did not people continue to hope, imagining that this war—surely the last—had been necessary for the final establishment of peace?

It was scientific research in the realm of the invisible that alone succeeded in discovering the direct causes of the plague: specific microorganisms and their unsuspected disseminators, the rats. Once these factors were known, the plague became recognized as one of countless infectious diseases that continually threaten the health of humankind and that find in a vitiated environment a permanent ground of infection.

Now, in the Middle Ages, people lived indifferent and ignorant amidst unsanitary conditions—coming and going through filth in the streets, lacking water in their houses, choosing to sleep in dark, stuffy rooms, fearing the sunshine. This created a favorable breeding ground not only for the dreaded plague but for countless sicknesses less conspicuous from not disrupting the general workings of society.

Hence, when people fought successfully against the plague, their campaign necessarily aimed at all diseases caused by germs. This was an energetic campaign of public and private cleansing, undertaken both throughout a city and inside every home. And that was the first chapter of the glorious history of humankind’s defense against the last and smallest creatures still threatening its existence.

But personal hygiene—the ultimate attainment of that long fight—has another aspect. It bestowed on health itself a new importance—because a perfectly healthy person, well-grown and strong, can risk exposure to disease without becoming infected. Perfect health, then, became a new ideal, a new goal to strive for.

Now, when humankind started this new quest, the perfectly healthy individual was simply not to be found. Underfed or overfed, people were always filled with poisons—we may even say they deliberately poisoned themselves. But the ideal of personal hygiene reversed those old values, replacing the pleasures of the race to death with the pleasures of the race to life.

By contrast, in the inner realm, we have not yet taken one step forward—we are as backward as the people of the Middle Ages. We live in a state of psychic degeneracy, within a dark and stuffy moral environment. A healthy person from the psychical point of view is as rare today as a physically healthy one before.

If a person were to grow up with a healthy soul, enjoying the full development of a strong character and a clear intellect, they could not endure to uphold two kinds of justice—the one protecting life and the other destroying it. Nor would they consent to cultivate in their heart both love and hate. Neither could they tolerate two disciplines—the one aimed at building, and the other at tearing down what has been built.

Better humans than we are would use their intellects and the attainments of civilization to end the fury of war. War would not be a problem for them at all. They would see it simply as a barbarous state, opposed to civilization—an absurd and incomprehensible phenomenon, as expendable and defeatable as the plague.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The First Dream of the New Year

The first dream I had this year woke me abruptly that January Friday morning. It wasn't a nightmare, nor a pleasant dream either, just different. It was a dream about teaching, one that had a different kind of wake-up call for me. This won't likely shock you the same way since it was my dream--but maybe...

This is the dream:

There I was, suddenly in a classroom I had never seen before, flanked by two assistant teachers I had never seen before, looking at a class of children, about ages three to six, I had never seen before. Some of the children were standing but most were sitting on the floor directly in front of me. I was standing, surveying the room. I couldn't quite understand what to make of the whole situation. I could tell something was about to happen, but what? Dismissal? Lunch? Playground? Where was the clock in this place? So I turned to look at the assistants who were both staring at me. I guess that's how I had sensed that I was the one who was supposed to be in charge. They were politely mute, but I could read the messages in their eyes, "What's the matter with you?" "Get on with it." "We don't have all day!" Well, that's what their eyes told me. So now I knew what I was, a substitute teacher. I didn't even know whether it was morning or afternoon although I suspect for substitutes that isn't an uncommon feeling.

Suddenly I was saved. Through the hubbub a little girl looked directly at me and spoke in a high whiney voice, "Teacher-r-r, Brenda is being mean to me!" Now I knew what I had to do. I had been called!

Trying not to be impolite, I quickly craned my neck around and asked my assistants, "How much time do we have?" I did it just as though I actually knew what was happening next.

"About four minutes," was the reply. (It seemed awfully specific, but that's what they said in my dream.)

"All right." I took charge. "Children, let's sit down together. I think someone needs our help." (...with four minutes to zero. It was a dream, remember?)

As a classroom teacher in the real world I often sat with my class to discuss the more deeply wounding issues like being harassed by cruel name calling or the fear of being chased or attacked on the playground. Occasionally I would offer advice, but first I would do my best to elicit solutions from other children. Their answers always made a greater impression than mine on the besieged child.. This was what worked for me, sort of, and I stuck with it. Now, in eighteen years of classroom teaching, it had never been my habit to leap to satisfy the attention-getting strategies of small children. But my dream had teleported me to this class, and this was the only handle given to me that allowed me to function in this reality, so I grabbed it. Learning to deal with that handle became the whole purpose of the dream.

Precious moments passed while the class settled into group mode. I looked at the child who had addressed me. "Now I think we're ready. I'm sorry I don't know your name. Mine is Alis."


"Mercedes, did I hear you say that someone was being mean to you? Are you trying to say you'd like some help?"

"Yeah, it was Brenda. She's always mean."

"Mercedes, I'm guessing that you already know a lot about problems like this...because you asked for help. I can tell you already know that being mean back doesn't work. Did you know that most people don't stop to think what else to do? When someone is mean to them, they just act mean right back--even though it doesn't work. Well, anyway it never worked for me. And it certainly doesn't look like it works for other people either. What happens to you when someone is mean and you're mean back?"

Several answers came flying at me, not all showing complete comprehension of the question:
"They hit me."

"I'll punch him."

"He kicked me."

"I can wrinkle up her paper."

"I can scatch. I have long nails."

I had to interrupt. "Mercedes, isn't this what you're trying to avoid? This doesn't sound like fun!"

"No, it's just more being mean."

"So what can you do when someone's mean to you? What can you do that doesn't make the meanness worse?"

This time Jack (I think that was his name) answered, "You can walk away." I thought that his mom probably had told him that.

"Yes, I think that would stop the meanness."

Mercedes said, "But that's not fun either."

Suddenly the enormity of the misunderstanding hit me, the lie I had been serving to children for all these years. This discussion wasn't fair to children. It carries untruths at its roots.

I replied, "We're really going to have to work at this. Knowing what to do about meanness is a very hard problem. Maybe it's the hardest problem ever. I'll tell you why. When people ask you if you can read before you know how, you answer that you can't read, and it seems so impossible to believe that you will learn. But your parents and teachers know that you're going to be able to do it because they can do it. They probably felt the same way when they were small, and it didn't matter because one day, one wonderful day, they picked up a book and saw words in it! That was the beginning, and either slowly or quickly after that they were reading almost any book. It happens like that. All of us adults know it will happen for you the same way. You will learn to read too.

"So when we talk to you about how to handle meanness, like you should do this and you shouldn't do that, like why can't you stop fighting with your brother or your sister, we act like this is something you should know long before you're going to read, something everyone knows. But it's a lie. Adults don't really know what to do about meanness either, and they make much worse mistakes than you do.

"How can we help Mercedes make the meanness better? Has any of you thought of a way we could? I know Jack thought of one. Maybe we could all try his for a day to see if it works for us. Or perhaps you have something else you'd like to try when someone is mean, and you could try your way while we're trying Jack's way. We'll meet again tomorrow to talk about how these worked. Maybe we can find a way to make the meanness better for everybody. If we find it, we can tell all the other classes and the other teachers. Then we can write a letter to the President because he'd like to know too. Let's keep asking, what can make the meanness better? Let's be scientists and keep experimenting. We have to remember that paying back meanness with more meanness doesn't work. It makes the whole world unhappy. This is the hardest problem ever, but we can do it if everyone stops pretending they already know the answer and tries to find one that really makes meanness go away."

And all this happened in four minutes. Only in a dream.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Teacher's Lament

When scoring becomes more important than assessing,
When assessing becomes more important than teaching,
When teaching becomes more important than learning,
Maybe it's time for us to take down our diplomas
And become students again.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Montessori Madness

A Montessori friend has given me a wonderful book, Montessori Madness by Trevor Eissler. If you have questions about Montessori education, this Montessori father has the answers. To see a brief video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LMRerVtt9g. His book is both wise and funny and quite worth reading, every single page. Here from within its introduction I quote a comparison of Montessori education to traditional education:
From pp. 3 and 4:
“Children in Montessori schools assume full responsibility for their lowest bodily functions as well as their highest intellectual functions. They learn to solve problems by solving them, not hiding them. Montessori children learn discipline by practicing discipline, not by having the teacher tell them to be disciplined. They are naturally self-motivated because they are free to choose their own lessons at the moment they are ready to learn those lessons, and to follow wherever the intellectual thread leads. These students are not trained to wait for a teacher to motivate them before acting. They have long attention spans because every day they practice concentrating on some type of work for extended periods of time, not just until the bell rings for the next class. These students are decisive because they make decisions for themselves – the teacher does not decide for them. These children learn to respect others because they in turn are respected, not dominated. They are active learners because instead of being lectured to as passive observers, they are active participants.”
From pp. 5 and 6:
“I want to pull the Montessori philosophy of education down into the dirt where it belongs. Montessori is about a kid with a stick, digging a hole in the mud – hands dirty, engaged, fascinated, uninterrupted. Montessori should not be the bastion of rich kids and snooty elites able to spend thousands of dollars per year, while the not-so-fortunate kids are herded toward mediocrity like standardized lemmings. It's madness that we don't offer free public Montessori schools everywhere. It's madness that we stay stuck in the traditional way of schooling when it obviously has serious flaws. Yet, at fist glance, the Montessori method is so different from what we are used to, we think this method is madness!
“The old saying, 'The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,' comes to mind. We think someone else's job is better, car is faster, house is bigger, vacation is sunnier. When it comes to Montessori education, the grass is greener. It is better. The grass on the Montessori side of the fence is so verdant lush and full, I can barely make out my three kids in the overgrowth! It's just not fair! It's not fair that the vast majority of children will never get the chance to experience a Montessori school. It's not fair that because of luck and enough money, my kids get the chance to go there, but others don't.
“The goal of this book is simple. I want to convince you, the parent of a young child, to closely observe a Montessori classroom in action and compare it with a more discerning look at your child's current schooling or any traditional classroom. The difference is so startling and compelling that I hope it will prompt you to pull your child out of traditional school and enroll him or her in a Montessori school. I hope parents of preschool-age children will decide to choose Montessori from day one. If this choice is just not affordable, I hope you will demand a public Montessori school in your area.”

To join the discussion or find out where to purchase this book, go to http://www.montessorimadness.com/