Montessori Secondary Schools: Preparing Today's Adolescents for the Challenges of Tomorrow

Article excerpt

They suive for independence, yet they clamor to belong. They fight connections they have with their parents, but they need to form alliances with peers and bond with understanding and supportive teachers. They are finding themselves, and in the process, will challenge authority, experiment with sarcasm, and try on many different personalities.

They are adolescents-and those who work with them must understand them, connect with them, and make learning relevant to their lives. This article looks at recent theories and educational practices identified as appropriate for supporting the educational learning experiences of students ages 12 to 15.1 will also discuss, based on my own research, how Montessori secondary schools meet the developmental needs of their adolescent students by focusing as much on their social and emotional needs as they do on academic skills.

Many contextualist researchers, such as Lev Vygotsky, have argued that a student's development is powerfully shaped by his or her social and cultural context (Berndt, 1997, p. 31). Context, for these researchers, refers to the social relationships in which students are involved, the features of their culture that influence how they are reared/ and the social institutions that affect the beliefs and behaviors of parents and other caregivers.

According to Hopping (2000), leading adolescent psychologist Joan Lipsitz believes that

Young adolescents undergo more changes during the middle school years than at any other age except for the time between birth and age 3. If the social and emotional needs of children this age are ignored, little happens cognitively. Many middle schools today maintain a narrow emphasis on transmitting information and fail to recognize the broader needs of students, (p. 271)

In 1998, I had the pleasure of doing research in Cincinnati with teachers at the first secondary Montessori public school in the United States, Clark Montessori; most of their students came from Montessori public elementary schools. The enthusiasm and commitment I witnessed sparked my interest in their curriculum and program. My Montessori secondary school research continued in fall 1999, when I surveyed 49 teachers who had completed Dr. Betsy Coe's middle school training in Houston, TX, and were teaching throughout the United States and Canada. Continuing my middle school research, in the spring of 2000 I lived with 60 seventh and eighth graders at Blackwood Land Institute, a 23-acre farm with three ecosystems, located in Houston. In 2003,1 wrote an article entitled "Place-Based Education Review of Seniors at Clark Montessori secondary School." In researching this article, I interviewed and observed seniors at Clark-who had experienced many years of Montessori education, from preschool through high school-in order to understand the benefits of their Montessori education.

Developmentally Responsive Curriculum

Hallmarks of this developmental stage-Montessori's third plane of development-include biological growth (the body changes rapidly), cognitive growth (early adolescents shift from dependency on concrete experiences to understanding of abstract ideas), and psychosocial development (early adolescents develop friendships based on common goals and interests) (Loeffler, 1992). Teachers can help students cope with this transformation and keep their own sanity by striving to understand the nature of this age group. Early adolescents long to be popular. Healthy youth will become comfortable with who they are, but until they reach this comfort zone, teachers can plan curricular activities to support the social nature of adolescents by giving them ample opportunities to interact with one another.

Biological Development and Need for Physical Activities

Since middle school students need education for self-knowledge, the adolescent life science curriculum should focus on the human body, including the study of "Connections" (cells and living tilings), "Identity" (comparative anatomy and genetics), "Systems" (human systems, including circulatory, muscular, skeletal, endocrine, etc. …