Teaching What Matters

There is not just a need for happier schools, schools where the children are free to do as they like or schools where they use certain materials: education today needs reform. If education is to prepare man for the present, and the immediate future, he will need a new orientation towards the environment.

Did you ever hear the one about the little girl and the starfish? As the story goes, the beach was covered one day with what seemed to be millions of starfish. It appeared that they’d been washed up in a sudden wave, deposited and left with no means to get back to the deep water. One lone little girl was grabbing one starfish at a time and tossing it back to the sea…over and over as fast as she could. An adult walking by saw her efforts and asked her why she would pursue such futile work. She didn’t stop her “futile work” as she replied, “It matters to that one.”

Sometimes, when my days were spent in the classroom, I wondered if the things I chose to do were making any difference at all. Even though I could see that most of the time the students were happy and much of the time most of them were engaged in whatever they were working on, even when just learning how to be social, I ruminated for hours or weeks…maybe even years, about the meaning of the “learning tasks” I was offering my students. (SIDEBAR: If you happen to know me well enough, you’re probably laughing right now! This is SO me!) I suppose my wondering was more about what difference this Montessori education would make in the lives of these children…in their immediate futures. 

A few years ago, I had become facebook friends with a former student. As a little boy, he’d been smiley but quiet, tending to sit in one, regular spot; often choosing to keep himself wrapped in his coat throughout the entire day. At least that was the picture I’d carried in my memory for nearly 30 years when we became friends again. Here he was, taking artful photographs of “suicidegirls.” I wasn’t surprised at the artistry, his parents were well-known, even nationally, for their art, but the subject matter just didn’t seem to fit. I reached out to him with a single question: “Did your Montessori education influence you and your life choices?” He responded within hours and not only said, “Yes!” but also agreed to talk with me about it. I learned he had graduated with a degree in graphic design just as the bottom fell out of the market, so he needed to put that passion on hold for a bit. He attributed his Montessori education with his “can do” attitude that allowed him to pursue his interests, no matter how far out. These days he’s switched coasts and traded his photography for a different type of model: the kind of replicas people build for fun and hobby. He’s still pursuing his passions, even into unlikely places.

Then, just a few months ago, I got a text from the parent of a couple of former students: “(My daughter) and I were just sitting here talking and she said how she misses the Big Bang lesson that you and Doug used to give.  She gave me a whole recap of it, I thought you would like to hear that.  Also, ….she wants to major in Chemistry with a geology focus.  I would say you and Doug rubbed off on her!” We had to know more.

“I have always known that I would pursue a science degree, but it was not until junior year of high school, when I took a chemistry class, that I knew I would have to do something with chemistry. I love chemistry because it is the language of our universe. ….As for geology, I am an avid crystal and mineral collector and I attribute this to yours and Claudia’s fossil and mineral case in the Montessori school. I love collecting all types of minerals and crystals and learning about their chemical makeup. My personal favorite type of crystal to collect is quartz, specifically inclusion quartz. I love that because of the abundance of quartz, it often forms with other minerals or chemical impurities that change its appearance. I love to use chemistry to try to figure out the potential pressure, heat, or other conditions that would have to be present to allow for the formation of a certain stone.”

I remember this young girl’s passion for science, but if anyone had asked me, I’d have guessed she be headed to medical or veterinary school; her enthusiasm for the animal kingdom wasn’t even thwarted by gooey, smelly  dissections. She cherished them!

Her jewelry creations with native minerals have crossed my social media platforms over the last few years, but I had no idea the extent of her passion.  I’ll bet you can guess the line in her reply that grabbed hold of my heart: I love chemistry because it is the language of our universe. That she would be using chemistry to discover the origins of minerals makes me beam. I’ll have to let her know that her email inspired my new Rainbow Rocks materials…all quartz but one…and with a curriculum designed to give any youngster an opportunity to begin investigations and experiences that could lead to a life time love.

So while these have been trying times for teachers, I encourage you all to take heart…along with a few moments every day to remind yourself that even though you may not see it today, what you are doing matters to that one…and to that one, and that one, and all the little ones whose lives you touch.

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