Securing the next generation of Black folks will have to mean raising children that can think outside of the boxes imposed upon the identities and trajectories of Black people. At a recent meeting of Black creative minds held in Akron (Ohio), the conversation turned toward education. The artists, writers, and poets in the room expressed frustration that teaching methods are often so detrimental to the creative spirit, and they expressed amazement that they had even made it out of traditional public school classrooms with their expressive souls still intact. Intensifying the fundamental racism of their schools, they recalled, was a model of education that viewed children (and specifically Black children) as cattle to be trained, threatened, punished, and scared into submission to authority. And then there would be a test.
The conversation mirrored the argument of learning theorist Roger Schank in his 2000 book Coloring Outside of the Lines. Schank, a fierce advocate of “unschooling,” blasts traditional education methods in the U.S. as sucking the very life out of childhood. According to Schank, schools often unwittingly (and sometimes quite wittingly) do their damnest to destroy the most creative, intelligent, interested, and inquisitive kids. I would add that this issue is compounded for children of African descent, who (due to systemic racism) are routinely targets for the most punitive and degrading treatment – especially if they’re smart. In the end schools are not effective for anyone, Schank argues, because they “drive the love of learning out of kids and replace it with the skills of following rules, working hard, and doing [only] what is expected.”
This is not a new argument. It’s so old, in fact, that alternative educational movements have been gaining ground in the United States for centuries. And it’s not a uniquely American complaint against mainstream teaching practices, either. One of the most popular alternative movements got its start in Italy, where physician Maria Montessori discovered that disadvantaged children in Rome’s slum district were enthusiastically drawn to manipulative perceptual puzzles that they could choose to work with at their own pace and developmental level. Dr. Montessori paid close attention to the children’s spontaneous behavior, eventually developing an entire curriculum based on their natural inclination toward orderly, practical, and concrete tasks. These so-called slumdogs, allowed to follow their natural interests, quickly developed insatiable interests in reading, math, natural science, and history. By not demanding that the children meet her standards, but instead humbly observing their rapidly growing fascinations, Montessori was able to create materials which led the children toward happily mastering math and reading concepts previously thought to be far beyond their level of understanding. As it turns out, such a setup works better for most children, since one hallmark of childhood is a natural curiosity about the world and a desire to actively master it. That is, if your natural motivation for learning hasn’t already been drowned out by a crappy diet, a relentless stream of TV and video games, or school experiences that feel more like prison prep than college prep.
So, what is the Montessori method about? According to The Montessori Foundation, Montessori is a method characterized by an emphasis on children’s innate passion for learning and their ability to teach themselves, given a properly prepared educational environment and developmentally-appropriate learning materials. And how do you ensure that children aren’t just spending their whole day screwing around? The Montessori folks believe that “education is a natural process carried out by the individual.” They set children up in mixed-aged classrooms, pay attention to their social-emotional development, and otherwise give them space to explore various “hands-on” experiences at their own pace. Montessori swore that children would thrive if only educators would, in essence, “follow the child.” Current data bears this out, showing that Montessori-schooled kids consistently test an average of 3 grade levels above traditionally-educated children of the same age.
Why might this European method be a good pick for Black families in the U.S.? One might argue that there’s really nothing exclusively European about it, that it actually borrows quite heavily from teaching styles practiced by cultures around the world for thousands of years. I know that as a product and die-hard fan of African-centered education, I was devastated when my local Afrocentric school shut its doors just a few months before my son would have started kindergarten there. I had been planning for him to attend that school since he was old enough to walk, and I could imagine no other way to protect my little Black boy from the cultural vacuum and militaristic racism embedded in the very bones of our local public school system. So I began researching and was surprised to find a recommendation for Montessori by none other than Dr. Amos Wilson, godfather of Black developmental psychology and staunch advocate of African-centered education:
“…the Montessori method can produce long lasting and relatively high levels of academic and cognitive achievements by children who have been exposed to the program. This is apparently in good part due to the fact that Montessori method achieves a good match between the children’s cognitive capacity and the educational materials utilized by the program, and the individually paced self-correcting choices made by the children in interaction with their teachers (who are more acurately described as resource persons and facilitators assisting the children to advance to the next phase of the program.)” ~Awakening the Natural Genius in Black Children, pg. 83
My son attended kindergarten at our local Montessori school and has stayed for elementary. It’s refreshing to see a little Black boy come home from school excited about a science experiment that he designed, a book he read, or a game he created with friends. It’s also amazing to hear a first-grader say things like, “I think tomorrow I’ll work on math before history research, so I have time to finish my fractions.” The Montessori culture fosters an independent spirit in children, providing the opportunity for them to learn self- and time-management. They learn for learning’s sake. In contrast, the traditional teacher-controlled classroom trains children to be good factory workers, obediently laboring when told and switching focus when the “boss” is ready for everyone to move on. While there’s nothing wrong with learning to respect authority and follow directions, the rote mechanization of the schoolday simply fosters depressed and angry students in the same way that boring, pointless jobs foster disgruntled workers. Another bonus to Montessori is that in many cities, Montessori schools are privately owned or heavily populated by families of color (primarily Indian or East Asian). While this may pose it’s own cross-cultural dilemmas, it is often this added exchange of worldviews that gives Montessori kids an advantage in today’s globalized reality.
There are drawbacks. Because most Montessori schools are private, the tuition can be steep. Many Black families may feel that they can’t afford to pay college-like rates for elementary school. However, a few cities are lucky enough to have Montessori schools as part of their public school systems, which means that they would be free to students and families. Many Montessori schools offer income-based financial aid. We lucked out with a headmistress who was willing to barter tuition discounts for classroom volunteer hours. And if neither of those options is available, Black American parents may need to simply take the perspective of our African/Caribbean immigrant brethren and start viewing our children’s education as a worthwhile financial investment. You get what you pay for, after all.
And Montessori does still require involvement on parents’ part. Most Montessori schools are small and thrive off of the volunteer hours and active engagement of students’ families. There’s usually no homework but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still sit with your child and review their work plan for the past week or next few days. There’s a need to track very closely which subjects your child tends to gravitate towards or avoid; this tells you not only their strong points but also those areas where they may need to put in more effort. And unless you luck out with an extremely culturally competent administration, you’ll certainly still need to do some at-home education regarding African history and culture, and volunteer to stock the classroom’s bookshelves with positive images of Black people so that your child (and the others) will have ready access to such self-affirming material.
I’m not saying that Montessori schools can’t be racist; the fact is that not enough of our children attend them for the topic of race to even garner much attention from the Montessori community. As a predominantly private school movement, though, most Montessori schools have been able to maintain a liberal focus on core values of peace, justice, and anti-consumerism, dodging the conservative educational reforms undergone by public schools in recent decades. Of course, it always depends on the culture of the individual school.
But one thing is for sure – Black children today are disproportionately harmed by failing schools and a public education system that has become more punitive, less child-centered, and more about maintaining the underclass than uplifting the race. We all notice and complain, bemoaning the disparities in graduation rates, suspensions, and test scores. But as Black parents, we must seek out educational settings and approaches that will honor the humanity, innocence, and natural genius in our precious little ones. This has to start early when their spirits are tender and full of potential; their minds are already configured to absorb and reshape the world. Black children don’t need prodding or drilling; they need respect and caring guidance. They need freedom to discover their world and themselves. They need to be allowed to love learning, not forced to withstand training. Montessori may be one method that could help make this difference for Black children, and it’s a method Black parents must be open enough to consider.