I have taught the Montessori Adolescent Program now for six years, and can think of no better way to prepare today’s young adolescents for any upcoming high school experience, public or private. I have had administrators from high schools meet me and thank me for sending them such prepared, responsible and respectful students. It isn’t me doing that work in isolation, however. It is the Montessori Adolescent program.
As it is designed, the Montessori Adolescent program is beneficial because:
- It meets the adolescent where they are. (as one would expect from any Montessori level)
- It builds on the strengths of the developmental period.
- It readies the student for the next experience.
In truth, an adolescent program was never designed by Maria Montessori as she had done with the lower levels, but rather the programs that are in existence today, and proving very successful, are based on the observations and experience of Dr. Montessori as outlined in her book From Childhood to Adolescence; IncludingErdkinder. This collection of essays outlines the primary attributes of adolescents’ plane of development, and how to best work with these in an academic setting.
Dr. Montessori’s preferred method was a farm school, some of which are long established in the United States. However, given the educational system of our country in the 21st century, this format is not universally realistic nor responsive directly to the upcoming high school system as it stands. Therefore, accommodations have been made to meet the demands of higher education without compromising the goal of Montessori ideals. Primarily, setting up young adolescents for success in high school comes down to incorporating creativity and choice, collaboration and the social nature of adolescents, and strengthening growing independence through organization and time-management skill building.
Young adolescents have the potential for new thinking capabilities.
They are learning to reason hypothetically, plan ahead, understand analogies, and construct metaphors. Concentration is, however, often difficult; young adolescents are easily distracted. To this end it is important to engage students authentically and deeply. This is best accomplished by giving students choices of several options across the curriculum and granting them opportunities for creating unique responses or products. In a Montessori middle school program, students choose novels for literature, activities for science, areas of research and action in Humanities, and electives, among several other organic options in a classroom setting. Not having to be a part of a prescribed curriculum grants the young people a sense of authority over their education.
Choice is one of the eight pillars of a Montessori education, as stated by Angeline Lillard in Montessori: The Science behind the Genius. Choice is also one of the strongest factors influencing motivation to read among middle school students. Put that together and you cannot deny that granting choice wherever and whenever possible will strengthen engagement in a middle school classroom. Capitalizing on their newfound reasoning abilities allows teachers to provide challenges, projects and presentations that students can take on enthusiastically. Students who have experienced this level of engagement with their teachers and curriculum have earned themselves the badge of lifelong learner, and enter into further education endeavors eager and ready to meet the standards.
No one can deny that adolescents are social beings.
At this age, their friends are critical to every facet of a middle school student’s happiness. To capitalize on that facet of this plane of development, the Montessori program incorporates many options for socializing that are integral to their learning. Students participate in group presentations at the end of every cycle, group activities during any content Again, across the curriculum, students are encouraged to debate, defend, share, assert, converse, and challenge the presented content. Fully half of the curriculum is delivered in a small group setting, with the expectation of “collaborate; don’t separate”. Students learn to practice acceptance, equity, sharing responsibility, accountability. For many, initially there is struggle and frustration with these concepts, and perhaps working with certain individuals. After the course of the two-year program, however, most students find group work productive and painless, creating thoughtful presentations. Therefore, Montessori students enter high school more skilled and patient in the face of working with others; all others.
The adolescent is working with an only partially developed brain; the frontal lobe is still under construction.
Thus, an adolescent’s ability to think long term and to consider consequences is lacking. The adolescent program in Montessori, however, challenges this norm by presenting academics with prepared materials and a curriculum set up to promote students’ inherent abilities. Materials in the adolescent program model for students what may be for them different ways to organize. For instance, all the different curricular areas are printed on a different colored paper. Seems simple to you and me, but for students this can be groundbreaking, and can make all the difference with their own grasp of their materials and success with completing and turning in work. Also, the program is centered on five cycles of work, each being only five weeks long and consisting of what is essentially a three part lesson; ‘introduction’ including vocabulary, ‘association’ including handling materials, and finally ‘recall’ which consists of the presentation of learned concepts. The five-week cycle is a much more manageable time frame for young adolescents, and a stepping stone to high school and university semesters. Given these tools, and others such as a weekly seminar on study skills for academic success, Montessori Middle School graduates enter high school more than ready to handle the workload, test preparation, changing classes and teachers, and any extracurricular activities.
Montessori Middle Schools prepare young people to enter the world of higher education armed with these and many more critical characteristics of successful students. Capitalizing on their creative problem-solving skills, ability to collaborate effectively, and organize and manage the demands of school, means an incoming freshman class of students who are equipped and ready for the rigor of high school. Graduates of a Montessori middle school are often recognized by teachers and administrators as the most strongly capable students in any incoming class.
Many of our graduates who return to us to visit remark that they are finding high school to be ‘easier’ than middle school, and credit the program with preparing better than the high schools expected them to be! Now there’s a testimony you can’t argue.
Anne Parks holds her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education, a master’s degree in Reading, and a Montessori certification in upper elementary through NAMC. After spending a summer in Houston, TX training at the Houston Montessori Center, for her Secondary I and II certification, Anne gained great depth of her understanding of the scope of Montessori as a whole. Besides her professional and academic passion, Anne has been married for twenty years with three teenagers of her own. She continues to educate herself in Montessori educational practices, as well as following her own curiosity as a life-long learner to keep herself relevant and challenged in the field of education.
Erdkinder - The Montessori Answer To Adolescence
If you needed to, could you build a home to live in? Could you cook a whole, nutritious meal from scratch? Could you sew clothing for your family if department stores disappeared? If there was a local or national disaster, could your community feed itself and access clean water or are they dependent on other regions, as are most urban areas, for these very basics of life? If it was up to you to see to your own survival, how do think you'd make out?
The truth for most of us is that we graduated from public high schools that let us walk out their doors with so few skills for actual human living, we'd last about a month if we found ourselves set down on a rural farm. Even if we studied textbook geometry, we'd be scratching our heads trying to apply this to putting a roof on a barn. Even if we studied chemistry, we might poison ourselves by improper testing of a well. And how bizarre is it that graduates from basic math courses spend their lives unable to balance a checkbook?
But what if, when we were 12, we went to live with an uncle and aunt on a farm? Oh, there might be some nice books around if we wanted to read up on crop rotation, mixing milk paint or understanding weather patterns, but for the most part, we would spend our time working alongside the grownups as apprentices. We would care for the animals, sow and harvest the crops, and cook the meals. We would spend most of our time out in the sunshine, working on something real that taught us lessons about ourselves, human nature, and the planet on which we live.
Taking Kids Out of Limbo by Getting Real
In the words of Dr. Maria Montessori:
""My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that verification from that secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher [one], by means of their own activity, through their own effort or will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual."
It isn't what we're used to in today's world, but Einstein certainly agreed:
"Precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not - or at least not in the main - through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture."
In an Erdkinder program, the children live on a farm and their 'schooling' consists of running the farm as a business, including caring for the animals and tending the crops. Interspersed with these weighty tasks are academic studies based on real books and field trips. The goal of Erdkinder (German for Earth-Children) is to produce adults who are equipped with the confidence in themselves and actual skills to live in the real world.
The Humane Kindness of Erdkinder
In older societies, peoples mark the passage into adulthood by various ceremonies. Inuit boys go on a vision quest. In other cultures, taking part in one's first game hunt marked the entry into adulthood. After this, the boy was considered a man by the culture and expected to assume all of the responsibilities of manhood.
Most modern societies are now virtually without any meaningful markers of this kind. Instead, we have created something new called 'the teen years', where someone is not really a child but not yet an adult. Maria Montessori was astonished that during the time of physical, emotional, and intellectual turmoil called adolescence, most cultures immobilze children behind desks rather than let them put their energies into meaningful projects.
It is little wonder, then, that so many young people, lost in this vague, enforced limbo, turn to drugs to distract themselves from the purposelessness of life, or become suddenly violent as do wild animals who are kept in cages. Human family systems are destroyed every day because someone refuses to be faithful to the family unit, to care for a sick family member, to care for a home, to care for children, to handle family money responsibly. Irresponsible people make life miserable for everybody, and I believe our current system of education, and the unthinking approval it has from the majority of society, is largely to blame for this.
The Erdkinder method, by contrast, empowers adolescents with the knowledge that they must take responsibility for their own care and that their activities, pursuits and actions have a very real effect on their fellow students, instructors, home and community. Lessons about economics, environmental sciences, domestic arts are acquired through hands-on work and the intellect is developed by reading, by community discussion, by enriching interactions with art, music and nature.
Seeing Erdkinder In Action
Hershey Montessori Farm School located in Huntsburg, Ohio offers one of the best-known adolescent programs in the United States. It is both a day school and a boarding school, serving some fifty students between the ages of 12-15. The school is housed on a large working farm, and the main house is designed to allow the students to run it alongside the adults. The students clean, cook, and learn to process and preserve farm-grown foods. Students are actively involved in the 'family' finances, working with a budget when they shop for the school's needs. The house is also the center of their social activities, a place to pursue art and to live alongside both their peers and the adult instructors who run the farm school.
In addition to the main house, there are numerous barns and workshops on the property. Students care for the farm animals, learn handcrafts like woodworking, experiment with horticulture in an alternative energy laboratory and put on performing arts shows. Not only do the students make daily use of these facilities, they have also designed some of their own including a maple sugar house. The farm is surrounded by ninety acres of forest where the students hike, explore, swim and enjoy horseback riding. Beyond acting as stewards of the home, barns and land, the students run a bed & breakfast for the public.
In the midst of all of this vigorous and creative living, students are necessarily learning the following skills and arts from real-life experience:
- Basic Math
- Food Science
- Land Management
- Domestic Sciences
- Animal Husbandry
- Artisan Specialization
- Conflict Resolution
- Environmental Sciences
For any adolescent, this is an impressive skill set. What is most remarkable about the above list is that these subjects will not be vague, ultimately forgettable mental concepts. Children leaving the Hershey Montessori Farm School will have used these abilities to meet real challenges and better the quality of their own lives. These are accomplishments that will stick with them throughout adulthood.
I would assert that the most important lesson learned by graduates of this exemplary Erdkinder program is this:
They can depend on themselves to create a life which honors their unique needs while at the same time honoring the needs of others.
Starting an Erdkinder Program
The most successful Erdkinder programs will most likely be extensions of already-existing, well established Montessori schools. This ensures that the necessary infrastructure is already in place. An existing school will provide the needed influx of students, as children already in Montessori move up to higher grades. These children will be well-equipped for Erdkinder, since they have a firm foundation in the Montessori method; their parents will be familiar with Montessori as well.
In some cases, where schools are unable to provide an actual farm where children can live and work, modified Erdkinder programs are put in place. These include day and overnight field trips, student-directed studies, apprenticeships, long-term projects, student-run businesses, and an enriched program of academic studies focused on great literature and the humanities.
While the 0-3, 3-6, and 6-12 age groups have always had a clearly outlined curriculum, Dr. Montessori left only general guidelines for Erdkinder. This lack of specifics has probably been one of the main reasons that Erdkinder has not been implemented in more Montessori programs. However, a quick search for "erdkinder" in any major search engine will return many helpful websites about Erdkinder in general, and existing Erdkinder programs specifically, indicating that many teachers and parents have already forged ahead to make Erdkinder a reality even without universal guidelines.
I believe the time is ripe for the notion of Erdkinder. The implementation of the Montessori method, both in schools and homeschools, is on the rise. Parents who appreciate the results of Montessori for their children in the lower grades are desiring the same nurturing, respectful, child-centered environment for their children once they get older. My hope is that more and more Montessorians will see Erdkinder as a viable possibility for adolescents, and as Maria Montessori said, enable them to "pass from one stage of independence to a higher [one], by means of their own activity, through their own effort or will."
To see if there's an Erdkinder program near you, just Google "erdkinder _____" and the name of your city, state, province, or country. You can also Google "montessori school _______", filling in your location, and then call schools in your area to find out about their programs.
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