Also featured in Natural Awakenings of The Lowcountry
Empowering Adolescents Through Soul-Centered Education
By Jennifer Iamele Savage
Awkwardness, mood swings, selfies & hash tags—today’s adolescent culture is one that many do not understand. In fact, adolescence has long been a misunderstood stage of development. Bridging the period from childhood to adulthood, adolescents undergo so much physical growth that many assume that they have experienced mental and emotional growth as well; however, their brains have not caught up with their big bodies. Children have not seen this much growth since their first year of life and in many ways their actions and reactions can be equated with toddlers. Ask any parent of a teen, what seems like a meltdown or a tantrum very much exists at this stage. They are testing boundaries and while they crave their independence, they also desire others in their lives to help them form their identity.
Secondary Montessori Philosophy
Dr. Maria Montessori compared the onset of adolescence to a sort of rebirth. Even though they are experiencing large growth like toddlers, they should never be infantilized. She said, "The adolescent must never be treated as a child, for that is a stage of life that he has surpassed. It is better to treat an adolescent as if he had greater value than he actually shows than as if he had less and let him feel that his merits and self-respect are disregarded." Montessori’s words from the early 20th century could not be truer today. In this technology crazed, selfie- obsessed society, adolescents need a place where they can develop their soul while not crushing their spirit.
Soul Centered Education
Soul, spirit, peace, and love are not words that are typically associated with secondary schools and yet arguably now more than ever, these words should not be absent from any organization, especially education. Montessori schools seem to attract what author Chick Moormon refers to as “spirit whisperers” and help develop what the late founder of the Passage Works Institute Rachael Kessler called “the soul of education”. Montessorians believe in developing the whole child and respecting their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. This type of environment empowers children and fosters autonomy.
Montessori Middle School Model
Many Americans believe that Montessori schools are just for early childhood. Nowadays it is more common to see Montessori schools run through 6th grade, but the middle school model is still a fairly new concept. Although she had created the theory behind secondary schools, Maria Montessori never lived to see their existence. Dr. Betsy Coe, director of the Houston Montessori Center and Principal of School of the Woods in Houston, has devoted a major part of her life to studying this period and creating a program that is developmentally appropriate for today’s adolescents while maintaining the integrity of Dr. Montessori’s philosophy. The middle school Montessori model builds off of the previous Montessori years but allows for the significance of their developmental transition. Students are organized into multi-aged cohorts (7th and 8th) that function as a community, and Montessori schools promote peace through mindfulness training, personal reflection opportunities, and service learning. Dr. Montessori envisioned schools as places where students learn practical life skills, and at the secondary level, truly become “children of the earth” (“Erd Kinder”). Consequently, Montessori middle schools include an environmental component where students learn sustainability, stewardship, and the transcendental power of nature. All curricular work is organized thematically and in an interdisciplinary way to mirror the interconnectedness of real life. Students are given long blocks of time to complete work in an order of their choosing, and they are given leadership opportunities in the form of school-wide or community-based internships and chances to lead meetings for their peers. Some of the main aims of the Montessori middle school are to simulate real life, to celebrate a student’s growth, to help them realize their place in the world, and to empower their individualism.
Supporting Adolescent Development: Understanding is Key
Whether or not a child has access or a desire to attend a Montessori school, there are still many ways to support adolescent development. Adolescents cannot be truly supported until they are understood. Dr. Maurice Elias a professor of Psychology and the Director of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University has many suggestions in this area. Adapting Rachael Kessler’s work, he believes that anyone who interacts with adolescents should understand their basic needs for a positive sense of belonging; silence, solitude & time for reflection; joyful play & creative expression; a sense of how they fit into the larger world and society; and a chance to process and celebrate their rites of passage. Specific ways to honor these needs are to provide teens with a space to be themselves and to open up a dialogue with them. Helping them understand the significance of their rites of passage and creating opportunities for them to reflect as well as respecting their desire for “alone time” are other ways you can support this impressionable period of development. Ultimately, they need strong mentors and allies who believe in them and encourage them to believe in themselves.
Due to the undeniable need for soul-centered education in our society, Montessori middle schools are becoming increasingly popular. For more information on the Montessori Middle School model in Charleston County School District, please contact Ladene Conroy. Ladene_conroy@charleston.k12.sc.us.
Receiving her training from the Houston Montessori Center, Jennifer Iamele Savage is a secondary Montessori teacher in Charleston County. She is also a trained life coach who specializes in transitions.