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My Summer of Social Justice, or How I Got Slapped Upside the Head

by Jennifer Dorrell

Like many of you, I believe that education is the key to solving so many of the world’s big issues. Poverty, climate change, income inequality, gender disparity, racism. The list goes on and on. AND I believe that our current method of public education is not addressing these issues. It may, in fact, be moving in the opposite direction. AND, I believe that there is a better way. A serious, research-based, time-tested, gentle, courteous way. A method if you will.

The Montessori Method.

Prepared environments, dedicated teachers, glorious materials, independent students, collaborative staffs, narrative evaluations, free time, dirt, mud, gardens, peace tables, conflict resolution. Through three-period lessons and cosmic education, micro-economies and field work we allow students to understand the world nearby and at-large. Who wouldn’t want that? Why can’t every child have a Montessori education?

Like many of you, I have been looking for a way to make this lovely dream a reality. So many of our colleagues across the country and across the world are doing the same. And some places are making it happen. Places like Cleveland, OH, and Minneapolis, MN, and all over South Carolina. Here in Atlanta we have two public Montessori schools, Briar Vista and Huntley Hills, both in the DeKalb County Public Schools. We also have many private Montessori schools and teachers who are ready and willing to do the big work of “Montessori for Everyone.”

So, with all of this in my mind and heart, I traveled to Boston for the Montessori for Social Justice Conference. It was held at Tobin Montessori School in Cambridge, a part of the Cambridge Public Schools. Several hundred teachers, administrators, parents, and allies came together to do this work. Here’s what I thought would happen:

  1. Talk to other Montessorians about how to get the word out about Montessori.
  2. Gather info on starting schools, including the nitty gritty stuff – funding, training, facilities, charters.
  3. Make contacts! See who’s doing it right, and what people are learning from their mistakes.
  4. Come back to the ATL ready to pass on my vast knowledge!

Here’s what actually happened:

  1. I learned that as a white teacher, I may be part of the problem, and;
  2. In order to do the big work, I had to do the little work first, and;
  3. The little work is about me.

Another attendee, Krystal Perkins, put it this way:

I felt… Racism was prevalence of individual attitudes and actions.

I found… Racism is systemic misuse of power, whether intentional or otherwise.

I feel… We, as educators, are part of the system. We can, and must, change the school institution from within, one step at a time, starting today.

I left the conference quieter than I had arrived. My need to ride in on a white horse and save the “underserved communities” now felt a bit embarrassing. The desire was still there, but the attitude was shifting.

And then that week happened. That terrible week in July of 2016.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

St. Paul, Minnesota.

Dallas, Texas.

So I cried, and didn’t sleep much, and tried to figure out what to do next. Then I made a plan. It’s not complete, it will be interrupted and changed over time, I will need help and guidance, but here it is: (Did I mention at the beginning that I like lists?)

  1. Acknowledge that racism is real and I have a part in it. I’m reading “Witnessing Whiteness” by Shelly Tochluk, and hope to work with others in a group format to discuss these issues openly and honestly.
  2. Choose my words carefully, while still speaking honestly, in an effort to be more aware of those around me and their experiences as different from mine.
  3. Begin to develop a classroom version of anti-bias/anti racist curriculum, based on the work of Tiffany Jewell (Montessori of Northampton) and John Carroll (City Garden Montessori)
  4. Learn all I can about writing and starting Charter Schools in Georgia. I’ll be attending seminars in September and October to continue on this path.
  5. Continue to work with MPG and other like-minded groups.

I want to do this. I want to do the big work and the little work, the mundane work and the fulfilling work, the calming work and the heart-wrenching work.

That’s how I spent my summer.