On June 5, 2014, the 13 members of the Wilmington Montessori School class of 2014 became WMS alumni. Before they received their diplomas, they were treated to an inspiring speech by Sophia Schmidt of WMS's class of 2007.
Sophia was a WMS student for seven years. Her favorite memory is of playing Shulie in "School House Rock Jr." in fifth grade. After graduating from WMS, she attended The Tatnall School, where she received the Stephen Watchorn Scholar Award for "high moral character and leadership, showing a spirit of friendliness, cooperation and special talent," as well as the Wooden Spoon Award, which is peer-selected for "integrity, sincerity, consideration, cooperation, courtesy and school spirit." She is now a sophomore at Williams College where she is working to combine her interests in environmental science and art. She has continued to sing and act, and also enjoys playing African percussion instruments, running and spending time outdoors.
First of all, congratulations. You might be finding it hard to believe, but today’s your day. You’re actually graduating! I don’t really know any of you, but I already know you’re extraordinary young people—because you’re Montessori kids! I know that you’re independent, self-motivated and mature. I know you can communicate with, learn from and teach people of all ages. I know you can design your own projects, ask your own questions and find creative ways of answering them. I know that you each have a unique passion, or maybe 10 unique passions. You’ve found things that you’re naturally good at, and you’ve tried things you’re not naturally good at. You’ve curiously explored and celebrated many cultures and religions, and you have a global awareness that many people your age don’t have. You can resolve conflict and brainstorm creative solutions to problems. You know how to work and play and learn, and you know how to do all three at once. Whether you believe it or not, you are ready to leave WMS—you’re completely prepared to take on any middle school out there—even if you might have to sit in desks and take tests and call your teachers “Mr.” and “Mrs.”
You’ve sat through graduation before. You’ve probably watched some of your friends and siblings graduate, and maybe you’re still in shock that it’s finally your turn. You might feel like your time at WMS flew by too quickly—that just yesterday you were building the pink tower or teaching yourself to multiply using golden beads, and now you’re basically grown up, about to be flung out into the real world. Or maybe you can’t wait to get out of here! Or maybe you feel a little of both, or you’re not really sure how you feel about all this.
I remember some of the things I was feeling when I was in your situation. As Lisa said, I graduated in 2007. I remember getting all dressed up, going to the breakfast, walking down the aisle in the gym, sitting where you are now, listening to the head of school speak, seeing everyone’s cute baby pictures and funny little kid pictures, hearing that sad graduation song, reading my “Where I’m From…” poem, shaking the head of school’s hand and getting my diploma, walking across the stage and watching all my friends do the same, having my little sister and our music teacher bring up my basket… I knew it was supposed to be a happy day, and of course I was happy, and so proud of myself and my friends for making it all the way through elementary school—we’d learned facts and skills, become more independent, we’d found things we were passionate about and really begun to develop a unique identities, and now we were about to go out into the "real world"—you know, middle school and all. So there was a lot of excitement and pride. We all felt so individually honored…So I had all of these really positive feelings, but I also felt really sad. Anyone here who was at my graduation can tell you, I was crying nearly the entire time! Like bawling, and I just couldn’t stop! I felt a real sense of loss, because I was afraid that I was leaving behind everything that WMS meant to me, that the Montessori Method would no longer be a part of my life.
The teachers at WMS are really wonderful—and they give really great hugs. At WMS, the relationships between teachers and students are special, because they’re essentially relationships of equality. That’s why we call them by their first names, why they sit on the ground right next to us, and why we feel comfortable disagreeing with them or offering them suggestions. We show them respect, but it’s the same level of respect we show our peers. The teachers aren’t here to tell you how or what to learn. They’re here to be your partners in learning. The teachers are here to encourage us to keep trying, to challenge us to dig deeper and to make sure we never give up.
While I was at WMS, I developed close relationships with my teachers. When I graduated, I was worried my teachers in middle or high school wouldn’t be as approachable as WMS teachers, or that there would be a weird divide between teachers and students. I expected teachers at my new school to be interested only in teaching me their specific subjects and nothing else. However, I found that my relationships with my teachers during middle and high school far surpassed my expectations. I found that my teachers were not only intellectual but also emotional resources and that they taught me about far more than just the individual subjects they were designated. I found that my science teacher liked to talk to me about music and spirituality, that my English teacher was a fountain of advice about friends and boys and big life decisions. My Montessori background allowed me to see teachers as equals, and therefore, possible friends. This allowed me to open myself to all the support that teachers love to give students who are willing to receive it.
A big part of the Montessori way is experiential learning. Through hands-on work materials that make mathematical concepts physical, gardens we plan and plant ourselves, or field trips to the United Nations, Montessori students learn by doing. This was something I feared I would have to give up when I entered the world of textbooks and lectures typical of middle school, high school and college. But in high school I built my own waterwheel to explore the effects of drag on angular momentum. For my environmental science class this spring, I spent hours each week outside, digging up soil samples, catching aquatic invertebrates, sketching landscapes, measuring water quality data and writing subjectively about nature (an experience reminiscent of Shelley’s writing workshops by the stream).
I have even found that specific things I was exposed to at WMS have resurfaced in my life. When I was in fifth grade, an artist in residence named Janet Peck visited and taught the 9-12 class West African dance. This year at college, I drummed in an African dance and percussion group, and also took an academic class on the subject. I was first introduced to yoga at WMS; for a while, a woman named Rachel taught weekly morning yoga to the 9-12s and the 6-9s. This year in college, I took a class on the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of yoga. I was also first exposed to meditation through the yearly labyrinth walks at WMS. It turns out that my college has a lovely meditation room and a meditation society, both of which I utilized this year while trying to manage the stress of research papers and exams.
Through my relationships with teachers and mentors, my continued experiential learning, and specific interests I’ve pursued which began in elementary school, I’ve found that WMS is still very much present in my life.
As I was preparing to talk to you guys, I decided to look into current innovations in education. I ran across a TED Talk by Sugata Mitra about the future of education. Advances in technology and the development of the Internet have changed the concept of knowledge. The instant accessibility of information has decreased the value of accumulated knowledge. These changes prompted Mitra to investigate the essence of learning and to envision schools in the future. He did this through experiments in which he gave computers, operating in English, to groups of Indian children with no prior knowledge of computers or English. These children were able to work together to teach themselves to use the computers and to speak English, and used the browsers to learn about complex processes and to answer big questions. Their success in learning only increased with application of the “grannie method,” in which a person (it doesn’t have to be an actual grandma, but someone who is at least older than the children) simply stands behind them as they learn and says, “Wow! Oh wow! How did you do that? I never could have done that when I was your age!” The “Grannie” is only there to offer encouragement and awe. Through these experiments, Mitra found that only three things are required for learning: Access to information, collaboration and encouragement. These requirements for learning fit with the Montessori model perfectly.
Montessori children are expert collaborators, because they know the importance of sharing and listening. They value diversity and recognize the enriching effects of different viewpoints. They learn from children older and younger than themselves because they’re put into mixed-age classrooms. Montessori heavily emphasizes respect and community, both keys to successful collaboration.
Montessori teachers are essentially just grannies. They remain relatively hands-off and allow students to choose their own methods of learning. Montessori teachers give support and guidance when the student seeks them out, but volunteer only cheerful encouragement and facilitation.
So maybe the future of education will combine technology with the three essentials for learning, and a classroom will consist of merely a computer, a group of kids and a grannie. If this is the case—and I really hope it isn’t…I mean, we’re all Montessori kids—we like to touch stuff and build things out of it, not just look at it on a screen—but if this is the future of education, as Montessori kids we’ll still be in really good shape, because Montessori has taught us to share and collaborate and to improve upon one another’s ideas. Montessori has trained us to accept encouragement without needing rigid structure and external direction. And best of all, Montessori has helped us to be curious and has enabled us to ask our own big questions. We love to learn because learning has never been a chore forced upon us, but rather a type of play motivated from within. We’ve been given freedom and responsibility, so we know that our learning is in our own hands. We’re curious, so it’s natural for us to prompt our own exploration.
More likely than this sort of futuristic computer-school, the next steps of your education will probably consist of conventional middle and high schools. This is the kind of school I went to after WMS, and it was a sincerely wonderful experience. In some ways, it was similar to Montessori, but in other ways it was different. The strong relationships I built with my middle- and high-school teachers mimicked those I had at WMS, and I continued to find opportunities for experiential learning. My school was different from WMS because there were tests and desks and teachers with last names. There were also a lot of required classes and not a lot of freedom to choose what I wanted to do within those classes. It was tempting to just cruise through, doing what was required and not much more, learning for the test, just trying to get the grade, and basically giving up my ownership of my own education. However, I found many ways to personalize and to take control of my education. I joined a few arts, media and social action clubs. I got involved in a few drama productions. I started a club to raise awareness and funds for under-privileged women at home and abroad. I gave up my study hall a couple of semesters to fit more art, music and environmental studies into my schedule. And there are tons of other things you can do to actively craft your education. You can volunteer, enter physics competitions, do mock trial, join the math team, write for the school newspaper, design the yearbook, enter projects in chemistry fairs—some teachers will even let you do a semester-long independent study in a subject you love .So, although it might be simplest to coast through middle and high school without engaging much in the path of your education, I guarantee you will have a much more fulfilling and energizing experience if you maintain your self-motivated and self–directed approach to learning. You have the power to push your education in the directions you want it to go.
Montessori is something that you can and will carry with you as you move forward in your life. There is no reason to, like I did, feel as if you’re losing something today as you graduate. I hope you see instead the wonderful things you’ve gained from this school—strong relationships with people younger and older than you, ownership of your learning process, confidence, curiosity, independence, passion and individuality. You may be surprised by how much Montessori you’ll find already waiting for you in your middle schools, high schools and colleges. But if you still find yourself missing WMS, I challenge you to create the Montessori experience for yourself wherever you are. May your curiosity and love of learning fuel you throughout your formal education and allow you to grow and improve yourself and the world around you throughout your life.