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Why We Celebrate International Festival

Written by:  Ms. Alice Pilkey, Assistant Teacher (Redondo Beach)

A 36-year-old tradition at Peninsula Montessori, preparations for this year's International Festival are already underway. As our largest school-wide event, this festival of ethnological discovery deserves some word of explanation: a why behind the art projects, dancing, food tasting, and story sharing children and families are about to experience.

In preprimary environments, as well as in their homes, children absorb culture in much the same way that they absorb language: naturally, without conscious effort, and with little awareness of their own ongoing process of absorption (Montessori 1995, 7). Parents and teachers model appropriate conversation, and other conventional exchanges, for them, and ideally allow them as much opportunity as possible to practice on their own. One name for this process is socialization: the means by which children gradually come to understand, and align themselves with, society's expectations.

Children, however, are not entirely passive in this interchange. On the contrary, according to Lila S. Jokanovic, head directress of Council Oak Montessori School's Children's House in Chicago, “in almost every interaction with their world, children are asking the questions, 'Where do I fit in? What is my role?'” (Jokanovic 22). And as they mature, the sphere of this line of questioning broadens. Educational psychologist Janet Bagby, Ph.D., and former Montessori teacher Tracey Sulak, Ph.D., characterize this expanding outlook as part of a second plane of development following initial socialization. First, they explain, “children learn the natural order and work associated with Practical Life exercises” such as the exercises of grace and courtesy (Bagby and Sulak 6). Once such basics have been mastered, however, they move on to involvement with, and service to, community; and it is this movement, and the associated questions about human community in its broadest sense, which International Festival is designed to address.

Early exposure to cultures different from their own leads children naturally into divergent, and creative, ways of thinking, as they consider alternative perspectives and—sometimes quite literally, through costumed dance performances—step into someone else's shoes. The academic benefit is immeasurable, since the complex cognitive tasks called for in higher education tend to involve understanding and synthesizing multiple, and often seemingly contradictory, concepts and ideas. Richard A. Ungerer, executive director of the American Montessori Society, draws attention to the paramount importance of diversity of thought in professional contexts as well, highlighting “a direct correlation between diversity of the composition of a group or team and the ability to be innovative and creative” (Ungerer 3). By participating in International Festival—as explorers, world travelers, performers, and audience members—children prepare themselves for participation throughout their lives in non-homogenous, and consequently dynamic, collaborative teams.

Potential for leadership can increase, as well, in direct proportion to the breadth of a child's socialization experience. Our most successful leaders, from the immediate community to the global levels, are individuals with the ability to understand others: to communicate, and negotiate, with people on the other side of cultural barriers. In the workplace, leaders establish connections with all members of their teams, no matter how different these individuals may be from one another. The greater the diversity children are exposed to, during their early years, the easier it will be for them to establish and maintain these connections in the future.

Leaders in the workplace pull people with different strengths and backgrounds together to work toward common goals; political leaders negotiate solutions by identifying shared purposes and needs; and in higher education, a continuing trend toward multidisciplinary approaches supports the mental flexibility required for this kind of 'real-world'  leadership. “Big History” is an example of this: a new concept of history, expanded to include biological, geological, and cosmological components, aiming at a larger synthetic, or unified, outlook quite different from the fragmented one characteristic of the way this information has traditionally been presented to students in universities (Duffy and Duffy 40-41). Started by David Christian of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and spreading to places as close to home as UC Berkeley and Cal Poly, big history strongly resembles the cosmic education which has always served as the core of the Montessori elementary curriculum (ibid.). According to Mary Schneider, executive director of the Montessori Educational Institute of the Pacific Northwest, the purpose of cosmic education is to help students “develop an understanding and appreciation for the relationships and interconnectedness of everything in the universe” (Schneider 6). Started in the preprimary years, before the “Great Lessons” of cosmic education proper can begin, International Festival at Peninsula Montessori is a first step, for very young children, in this integrative direction.

After experiencing, in one lifetime, the trauma of two world wars, Maria Montessori clearly articulated the establishment of lasting peace as the single most important goal of her system of education (Montessori 1995, 16-17). Defining true peace, before her death, not as “the forced adaptation of the vanquished to a state of submission” but rather as “the triumph of justice and love among men,” she set the stage, in no uncertain terms, for the celebration of diversity, and for the spirit of understanding and cooperation which it engenders (Montessori 1965, in Carey 2). At Peninsula Montessori, International Festival is our way of honoring her vision.

Sources:

Bagby, Janet, and Tracey N. Sulak. “Connecting Leadership Development to Montessori Practice.” Montessori Life, Vol. 25, No. 1: Spring 2013.

Duffy, D'Neal, and Michael Duffy. “The International Big History Association.” Montessori Life, Vol. 25, No. 1: Spring 2013.

Jokanovic, Lila S. “Where Do I Fit In? Cosmic Education and the Children's House.” Montessori Life, Vol. 25, No. 1: Spring 2013.

Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995.

---------. Peace and Education. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1965. Cited in Carey, Kathy. “War and Peace and Montessori.” Montessori Life, Vol. 24, No. 4: Winter 2012-13.

Schneider, Mary. “The Cultural Subjects: A Point of Confusion?” Montessori Life, Vol. 24, No. 4: Winter 2012-13.

Ungerer, Richard A. “The Role of Diversity and Inclusion in Montessori Education.” Montessori Life, Vol. 25, No. 1: Spring 2013.