Classrooms: Montessori’s anti-racism effort takes shape in classroom

  • Elena Frogameni

  • Mark Dansereau

  • Sujata Rege Konowits

Published: 11/15/2017 12:28:54 AM

Editor’s Note: The following piece was submitted by staff at the Montessori School of Northampton.

NORTHAMPTON — Peace and social justice have long been core values at The Montessori School of Northampton, but our school is taking the concepts to new levels this school year after an anti-racism and anti-bias training session that began more than a year ago.

The new effort began in June of 2016, when eight school members, including staff, trustees and parents, attended a systemic racism workshop offered by Crossroads Anti-Racism Training and Organizing of Matteson, Illinois, at a Montessori for Social Justice Conference in Cambridge.

Our group was so inspired by this experience that we went to work to try to bring this training to our school. The school allocated 25 percent of its staff development funding for last year toward the training, as well as an Ursula Thrush Peace Seed Grant through the American Montessori Society.

In February, the school brought Jo Ann Mundy and Mary Pat Martin of Crossroads to Northampton to a room of around 60 attendees including staff from other area public and private schools and organizations.

This anti-bias/anti-racist training — detailed below with first-person accounts from three of those who attended — has allowed our school to more keenly support students. Lessons will look different across the grade levels yet are all rooted in the same anti-bias work in which we are engaging.

An example of an anti-bias lesson is from Lower Elementary’s Writer’s Workshop, where students work to create books about themselves that include accurate self-portraits. They examine who they are, how they fit into their various communities, reflect on how they learn, and share their many-faceted selves.

Once students know themselves, teachers guide conversations about labels and stereotypes and the classroom community. After students understand and embrace their identities, they begin to understand and honor the differences within the local and global community, they then move into examining their world with critical loving eyes.

Once our students go out into the world, they are empowered to problem-solve, advocate, and take positive action for social change.

The following are takeways from the training:

Sujata Rege Konowits, music teacher

Maria Montessori stated that the work of teachers should be “not in the service of any political or social creed ... but in the service of the complete human being, able to exercise in freedom a self-disciplined will and judgment, unperverted by prejudice and undistorted by fear.”

Therefore it is the imperative work of educators, parents, and adults in our community to tackle issues of race and bias in our own lives, homes, schools and communities. The first step is in educating ourselves.

I was honored to be part of a group that organized the Crossroads training for our community. As a woman of color and person of the global majority, it was gratifying to see the parents and guardians, staff members, administration, and community members who came willingly and enthusiastically together to do this difficult work.

We sat together in one room with brilliant leaders, each with our own background and experiences. We learned the language of anti-bias/anti-racism work. We looked deeper at ourselves and each other and the systematic ways that privilege and oppression operate in our society to divide us.

It is with this understanding and the power of a common language to describe it, we will continue the arduous and ultimately liberating conversations needed to transform ourselves first and then the next generation.

Elena Frogameni, alumni student

As a student who is interested in studying government and currently involved in many student government groups, I felt that it was incredibly important for me to be trained in anti-racism work.

I have found that questions of equity and access often come up in these capacities. I want to make sure that I have an understanding of what it means for an institution to be truly anti-biased and that I have the tools to begin working toward that goal.

As an alum of the Montessori School of Northampton, I was so proud to see my school making a strong commitment to anti-racism work. Parents, teachers, administrators, and board members the school, other Montessori schools, the Parents Center, and the superintendent of the Northampton Public Schools all showed up to take this first step in creating anti-racist institutions.

At times the room was weighed down with the enormity of the task, but then buoyed by a genuine feeling that we — as a community — could truly make a difference.

As I left the training, I listened to dozens of people excitedly brainstorming ways to continue learning about and conducting anti-racism work. I am proud to say that I live in a community that values and supports this work and that I attend schools that are committed to ensuring equity, equal access and a positive school experience for all their students.

Mark Dansereau, new head of school

Joined by about 70 other workshop attendees, I was one of two white males and the only male over 40 years of age present. A career spent in childhood and young adolescent education prepares me for such ratios, but still the absence of white males at such a workshop signals our work to be a more just and more whole society is as challenging as ever.

The co-facilitators of the Crossroads training program, Jo Ann Mundy and Mary Pat Martin, presented the powerful premise that everything we do and know about our lives together in the United States is affected by the ideology of white supremacy.

And we examined, in our short time together, the history of this ideology, including, perversely enough, the fact that the idea of race and who belonged to what race has proven malleable throughout our history depending upon the societal context and needs of those who would interpret “whiteness” for the courts or in the name of dubious science.

Many workshop attendees, newly pricked by the huge discomfort of this way of looking at our history and how we are together (and apart) now, called out for immediate action and an instant fix to this bruising and shameful narrative.

But our facilitators requested we all sit with the discomfort, a discomfort that those not given a full share of our white-oriented society sit with every day.

Yes, there is work to do. Work that will lift, not just the disenfranchised but each person to their highest human potential. We take up the work to witness and remove all that undergirds racism in order to help ourselves, no matter our race.

I take heart in the Montessori School of Northampton’s commitment to social justice and advancing our community discussion and awareness about racism.

It is impossible not to notice the political winds that shrink from diversity and our common humanity and reassert the notion that the United States of America is a country for white people and those who would most readily align with the values and goals of a “white” culture.

As a school leader new to the community, I hope to model my curiosity and humility in taking up this big work. I am grateful for my introduction to the Crossroads organization and expect, in the coming years, that the Montessori School of Northampton will continue to serve as a community resource for social justice.

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