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From Montessori to Life Learning

Our Path to Life Learning: A Personal Evolution From Montessori
By Jennifer Head

“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.” ~Rosalia de Castro

For some people, a life path is something that evolves slowly over time. I had always known where my path was heading and found it oddly comforting. Over the years, I watched as people strayed from their paths or meandered seemingly aimlessly trying to figure it out. Me? I had a plan. I had direction. I listened to the voice in my head as I plowed forward at any personal cost. Then, I had a baby and everything changed.

At various points during the early pursuit of my degrees, I had fleeting notions about what it would be like to have a baby and still maintain my course. I didn’t usually ponder long. The choice was easy. I would put said hypothetical baby in daycare; besides, I had been told many years before that I would likely never be able to conceive a child.

As my career in science evolved, what were once fleeting notions about having a baby gave way to inescapable urges to become a mother. With two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and a PhD under my belt and with a job lined up, just four days after my PhD defense, I took a hiatus from my academic pursuits to spend time on another well-worn path, the Pacific Crest Trail. Along the way, I relished the simplicity, the rhythm, and the routine of life on the trail and, as hundreds of miles gave way to thousands, I began to question my unwavering commitment to my career. Where had my twenties gone? Was I really prepared to commit my life to science? I was married during a beautiful gathering in the woods along the way. Would I be able to someday start a family and continue to be competitive? I reminded myself that such a scenario was years down the road if it would ever come to pass at all. My determination was faltering but, alas, my dream job was the invisible carrot dangling from the stick before me. So forward I went.

"Motherhood shook me down to the core of my being. Every cell in my body called out in protest when I had to drop my crying baby off at daycare so I could go do what I thought I had always wanted to do."

After our hike, we prepared to move for my new job. I felt run down but blamed it on the hike. My new position was intense and I hit the ground running with what little steam I had. After weeks of having little to no energy and, for the first time in my life, having regular urges to nap, it was suggested to me that I might be pregnant. I laughed it off. Not possible. We had just uprooted our lives for my new job. It was my dream, wasn’t it? Roughly a week and two pregnancy tests later, I knew that my career in science was over before it had really begun. I was pregnant and I was already inexorably connected to the life growing inside me. I looked around me for support because, surely, other women had been in my predicament. However, I was shocked to find that, as a mother in science, I was completely alone. I was surrounded by mostly men whose wives, for the most part, stayed home with and raised their children. What few women there were in the department spoke passionately about their nieces and nephews and how they wished they could see them more often, but they were not mothers.

Motherhood shook me down to the core of my being. Every cell in my body called out in protest when I had to drop my crying baby off at daycare so I could go do what I thought I had always wanted to do. No one seemed to empathize and I struggled to continue to focus on science despite the fact that I had a baby crying somewhere too far away for me to comfort him. I eked out a few more highly demanding years before my head gave way to my heart and I finally succumbed to the fact that academia and motherhood were not compatible for me. I was petrified of disappointing my parents and family members who were in awe of the girl that was always in trouble, the girl who never did well in school but whose teachers always said she had so much potential. I had defined myself by my path, this one path, for so long. Who would I be if I wasn’t being or aspiring to be a scientist? Despite these fears, I knew it was over. Time for a new path.

"My affinity for child-led forms of alternative education led me to Montessori. Best of all, literature about the Montessori philosophy was peppered with the word “science,” as the Montessori Method is based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s experiences and scientific observations of how children learn."

As I had never really considered motherhood, I had consequently never considered education. I knew I was done with mine. I knew that I still bore the scars from my own public school experience. As a mother, I knew that traditional public school was not an option for my bright, energetic, free-spirited, funny, intense little person. I began to research alternatives. I poured over the various alternative education philosophies, strongly attracted to those that were child-centered and interest-driven. My affinity for child-led forms of alternative education led me to Montessori. Best of all, literature about the Montessori philosophy was peppered with the word “science,” as the Montessori Method is based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s experiences and scientific observations of how children learn. I connected deeply with the fundamental tenets of Montessori, which was receiving revived attention and was even the subject of an article published in the prestigious journal Science. It had to be the right fit.

We moved back to our home state of Oregon and I left my career in our wake. I struggled with the notion of bringing a normally expensive Montessori program to our small, rural community and remembered a friend speaking about a Montessori charter school initiative elsewhere. I did some more research and found that Oregon charter school law stated that the legislative intent of charter schools in Oregon was to “better meet individual student academic needs and interests,” to “encourage the use of different and innovative learning methods,” and to “provide opportunities in small learning environments for flexibility and innovation,” among other enticing phrases. It sounded like a great fit to me. Visions of my son, the joyful learner, happily doing his Montessori work danced in my head. I would play a vital role in the school and we would be together…or at least in close proximity. I went to a grant writing workshop at the state capitol, was approached by a grant writer who wanted to work with me, and in less than two months we submitted a grant to the state that was funded for $406,000 a month after submission.

Thus began my steep, uphill, three-and-a-half year crusade with local school districts to bring free, child-centered education to our community. After more than two years of battling, a school board approved our proposal to open a charter school in their district, but not before we lost $350,000 of our grant money to an irreconcilable disagreement between the state and the feds. During this time, it became apparent that charter schools really did not have the latitude to innovate, as was the legislative intent, due to the fact that they are still bound by the rigors of standardized testing. One could argue that Montessori students, who were ideally progressing through all curriculum areas, would be so far advanced that testing would be a breeze. Right? Wrong.

I recently read an article by a Montessori teacher, entitled “How Do You Judge Success?” that recounted her experience with a bright, young student who didn’t read until the age of ten. Had she been under pressure to get all of her students of the same age on the same page at the same time, would she truly have been able to trust in her student and “follow the child” in the words of Dr. Montessori? Absolutely not. He would have been singled out, grouped, tracked, and likely embarrassed by being labeled as a non-reader. When he did read, when the “the letters became words, and they stayed words” for him, he was one of the strongest readers in his class.

Difficult and unscrupulous district administrators, Common Core and testing mania, a nagging voice in my head reminding me that “excessive silliness” was highly discouraged in the Montessori classroom, and the fact that Montessori, especially public Montessori, is still very focused on academic goals and mainly employs materials with a very specific didactic purpose all left me wondering if I was again plodding down the wrong path. How would my silly little boy do in a real Montessori classroom when he never did things the way I expected him to when I prepared activities with a learning agenda or that weren’t open-ended? Could he be himself or would he be pressured to be someone that somebody else thought he should be? What if he didn’t want to work all the time or work only with the materials in the prepared environment? Most of all, could I really send him away full-time when my heart was telling me that we should be on this journey together?

Although I was getting better at listening to my heart, and although I was becoming more and more aware that children did not need to be taught, that learning was natural, authentic, and joyful when children were truly pursuing their own interests, I had not quite let go of the notion that we still needed to be “doing things.” I purchased a used Montessori classroom set and put it in our living room. As it turned out, my son didn’t like to work alone and didn’t want to choose materials to work with on anyone’s schedule but his. Go figure. During this last year, the third and final year of the uphill battle to start a charter school, I tried something I hadn’t tried before. I tried not trying things. I tried not having a learning agenda. We connected as we never had before. We laughed, we read, we played with friends, we tromped around in the woods, we turned over rocks, we watched documentaries and TED talks, we traveled, we took in everything there was to take in.

I was shocked to see how genuine learning is when it is truly interest-driven and spontaneous. Without pressure or coaxing, my five-year-old son became interested in dinosaurs and paleontology, the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin, King Arthur, Native American history and culture, global conflict, our impact on the environment, electrical circuits, aviation, space, volcanoes, sharks, a wide breadth of math-related topics, and so much more. Without coercion or extrinsic pressures, he sets goals for himself and understands as well as I have come to that any moment is a learning moment. Now, the notion of putting him in a room with materials and telling him to choose something to learn seems so extremely limiting. He still does work with the Montessori materials we have but it’s always his choice. The entire world became our classroom and we are free to learn whatever we want.

We are currently living in a small cottage made of earth with a fraction of the possessions that once cluttered our lives and I am training, alongside my six-year-old son, to be a natural building instructor. We live in a community of dynamic individuals, meet interesting people from all walks of life, and are learning more than we ever thought possible. I’m on a new path; however, this time, it doesn’t really have a destination. All that matters to me is that I am on this path with my child, and that I am following my heart instead of my head.

Jenn Head is a recovering academic who has since embarked on a magnificent life learning adventure with her six-year-old son. She loves motherhood, backpacking, felting, quilting, cooking, reading, gardening, traveling, natural building, living off the grid, and so much more. She hopes to inspire and empower families to live more simply and freely by requiring less, thereby having more. She is currently a natural building apprentice at Cob Cottage Company in Oregon, and is learning to build beautiful and sustainable houses from earth alongside her son.

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