Monday, April 21, 2008

Terabithia and Montessori

My husband and I just watched Bridge to Terabithia this week. I'm not sure how, in my otherwise rich literary childhood and adolescence, I managed to miss this book. I definitely want to go back and read it now. Neither of us were too excited to watch the film, but it was in our Netflix queue. We were both pleasantly surprised. I won't say much, in case you haven't seen it, but if you were a child who loved stories, it is definitely worth your time. My husband summed it up well when he said that it shows the power of the imagination to help us deal with life, not escape from it.

Interestingly enough, I watched this movie in the midst of reading The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori. I have decided to start researching different educational theories to pull some ideas that might work for homeschooling my boys. Because so many of my friends send their children to Montessori schools, I decided to start there. I should frame this by saying that I have no direct experience with a Montessori school, only through the children I know who attend them and the things that their parents say.

This was a hard book to read! There is definitely a generation (or three) gap here, and reading a book written in such modernist, scientific language was difficult for this postmodern girl. But I don't think the language was my only stumbling block. While I agree with some of Dr. Montessori's methods on the practical level (such as allowing children to accomplish tasks with little intervention, spending a lot of time observing and interacting with nature, engaging in purposeful play, and making a home user-friendly for a child), I do not agree with all of the philosophy that undergirds her methods.

In other words, I think Maria Montessori made some excellent observations about how children learn and develop, but I don't think she always drew the correct conclusions, or at least not the only ones. The method she developed must be successful in raising well-educated and adjusted children. Otherwise, why would there be a half-dozen Montessori schools in my town alone? At the same time, I do not agree that children must follow her method exactly in order to reach their full potential as members of the human race. And, as a Christian, I don't think that a world full of Montessori educated people is the answer to humanity's problems. Perhaps this is just an extension of that modern/postmodern conflict, or perhaps there just wasn't enough social "science" around then and things had to be couched in scientific terms. Either way, her scientific certainty in her method bothered me. Maybe someone who knows more about the theories can help to translate them into contemporary language for me.

What, you may be asking, does Terabithia have to do with all of this? Like I said, I appreciate many of the practical applications of the Montessori method and how they foster independent, content, observant children. That said, one of my biggest oppositions to the theory comes in the realm of the imagination. According to another book I am reading, Dr. Montessori believed that imaginative stories were a waste of time and that the powers of imagination should be used in learning history and geography, subjects for which children have no direct experience and in which they must imagine things beyond their everyday interactions.

While I definitely agree that the imagination should be used in those subjects, I am wholeheartedly in favor of encouraging imaginative play and of reading imaginative stories to my children that have nothing to do with the "real world." Who of us, Christian or not, who have read the Chronicles of Narnia, have not understood our world better for having entered that one? My husband would say that his childhood would not be the same without the imaginary worlds and characters he and his siblings and friends created. And I still read The Lord of the Rings and come away saying, "This is true. Those these creatures and places are imagined, but this story is one of truth."

While it is true that some children can use imagination to escape their world and to avoid dealing with problems, many use it as a way of addressing those problems. In Bridge to Terabithia, the two main characters create a special place in the woods, complete with a treehouse fortress, where they spend their afternoons imagining a fantastical world that helps them to work out solutions to their real-life difficulties. The imagined world provides a safe place to gain confidence in fighting the class bully, a peaceful place where they can be restored to return to their less-than-peaceful lives. Far from isolating them from real life and inhibiting their development, their imaginings allow them to succeed in a world where they had previously failed.

So while I may pull some Montessori methods for instructing my children, I will always make sure that their minds are steeped good stories of imaginary places to build on and that they have plenty of space to create their own worlds.

I'm still forming my ideas on this one, so I would love to hear what you have to say, especially those of you who have experience with the Montessori model. I'm pretty sure this is a debate, even in Montessori circles. I would also love suggestions for what educational theory to explore next.


Catherine said...

What a great post. I too missed Bridge to Ter as a child, but did read it a few years back while pregnant with Asher (not a good time to read it, actually - I was devastated by it and dreaded seeing the movie - which of course I loved, not being pregnant at the time.)

Anyway. When I was studying Psychology, I would read a theorist state really good things - and then he would say "and this is the one best way." And then I would read a second theorist who would state different good things, but then say "and this is the one best way." Until I had a list of about 50, all of who were very deeply impacted by their environment, all of whom had done tons of helpful things and had many helpful theories, all of whom felt they had The One Best Way. Not possible.

When I studied Theology - more of the same.

When I studied Educational philosophy - more of the same.

When I studied Counseling theories - more of the same.

When I studied Parenting philosophies - more of the same.

When I studied Church structures, World Religion, Politics, Epistemology - more of the same.

I could go on and on.

I have absolutely lost my ability to give myself over to an infrastructure. Happily, I am very capable still of seeing value to take with me from within the infrastructures. (Postmodern girl that I clearly am).

Catherine said...

As if my first comment wasn't already as long as your post, may I make myself totally annoying by mentioning that the Author of Bridge to Terrabithia also recently wrote what I consider THE BEST book for kids (little kids - picture book) of Christ and Christianity?

Kate said...

Great post, as always! Very thought-provoking. Have you read anything about Rudolf Steiner? He was around about the same time Montessori was, and their principles overlap quite a bit. However - from what little I know about him - he embraced the power of the the story in the way you are talking about, as a means for children (or adults, even) to work through fear, grief, sadness or experience peace and contentment imaginatively and then apply some of that understanding and insight to real-life situations.

He's a bit out there in cloud-cuckoo land on some things (he was writing at the time when spiritualism was big), and some of his followers are more dogmatic than I think he would have felt comfortable with (he insisted that he was just exploring ideas and philosophies, throwing them out there for discussion, not creating a new kind of religion), but interesting nonetheless. The only problem is that he's better known in Europe, and a quick search on Amazon didn't turn up much. There are loads of links on Wikipedia which might be of interest to you.

Despite some of his crazy ideas, I have a lot of admiration for him, and for some of his fellow Anthroposophists, having seen their work with adults with learning disabilities. Their hearts are in the right place.

I did a masters in Scottish folklore, and one of my friends went on to do a PhD on the way storytelling shaped the communal identity of a village near her home in Italy. She would have some good books on the use of storytelling in education and its various applications if you were interested in the psychology of storytelling. Just let me know, and I can get some titles from her.

Sorry - long comment, but it's such an interesting topic!

TwoSquareMeals said...

Cath- I totally agree with you about not taking what is good from a theory or system and not buying into one wholeheartedly over another. Postmodernity can be so great! I think what I have learned is that, in theology or educational theory or whatever subject I am looking at, I can find overarching themes in all of the systems that offer the bigger truths. So I find those and then pick which practical applications work for my situation. I would not make a good Catholic.

I would love some titles on storytelling, seeing as I grew up on the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough. And I will look into Steiner. Thanks for the suggestion.

Kelly said...

You should talk with RS at our church about this. She's trained in Montessori, but has both positive and negative opinions of it. She cracks me up because she has tried a lot of Montessori parenting, but when things don't work out, she gets pretty peeved at Maria Montessori, who, it turns out, never actually raised a child. Apparently she had a son who was raised by her sister and didn't even know he was her son for quite a while. So, just like all those "how to get your child to sleep" books that I read, I think you take away some good principles and chuck the crap as best you can discern the difference between the two. I'd like to read along with you, so let me know what's next!

Farrah said...

I don't have any advice or direction for you but would love to know what you come up with. Montessori seems to be the "in" way to educate your child but I agree with you about the whole imagination thing.

It seems that, like others have said, you have to take what you can from lots of different sources to create the best plan for your kids. Which is what it sounds like you are doing. Maybe that is an argument in itself for homeschooling instead of having to pick a place that focuses mainly on philosophy or another....

Thanks for your sweet comment today. It really helped my perspective.

Kate said...

I've emailed my friend for some titles. I know one is Bruno Bettelheim's 'The Uses of Enchantment'. I've not read it so don't know what angle he takes, but it might be worth checking out some reviews of it - it's probably going to be like most things discussed here - take what you want from it, but it's not worth buying into completely. If you search for it on Amazon, a few others of that type come up too. I'll pass along other titles when my friend gets back to me. Enjoy!

Kelly said...

I forgot to mention to you today that a big name among many of the homeschool families I've worked with is Charlotte Mason. I've never read any of her work, though, but I'm planning to.

Katie W. said...

I went to Montessori school when I was a kid and I'm not (too) screwed up. I like to think I'm fairly well-rounded and think for myself alright. However, THAT could also be attributed to genes, travel, self-delusion ;-), or countless other factors.

Also, I'm reading Lord of the Rings right now (for the first time *gasp*) and loving it. Imagination is a wonderful thing.