I always loved school (and still do, working in one!) although my enthusiasm dipped in late middle school. It wasn’t just the tricky social navigation that everyone goes through during adolescence: I was usually either bored because the work felt meaningless, or stressed about studying for finals and standardized tests. I cared excessively about my grades and was trained to study to the test and complete assignments the way my teachers wanted them. In my free time, I wrote song lyrics, poems, stories—it was after school, after homework, when I was finally able to work on what I wanted.
Needless to say, I did not attend a Montessori school. I know I would have thrived in the kind of environment that Greenspring offers. All of the extra time I devoted to keep my learning interesting and purposeful could have been my day-to-day at school! I didn’t receive the freedom and responsibility of choice—something that Montessori children are introduced to as toddlers—until I was in graduate school.
So I was thrilled to participate in Adolescent for a Morning this fall, led by Greenspring’s Adolescent guides Ms. Christina and Mr. Elliot. When the morning began, the participating parents and staff were invited to sit in a circle and become adolescents again. Our guides told us that occasionally we would “time-out” from the experience so they could explain the purpose of a certain exercise, but for the most part we’d remain adolescents.
Mr. Elliot asked us to free-write in our journals about our goals for the day, and I thought about what my life was like when I was twelve. All that stress and sadness associated with the competitive race in school. I wanted to give myself a gift, what I never allowed myself when I was actually an adolescent: to be present in the moment, focused on learning for me and not for any external validation. I put everything else aside and dove into this Adolescent Community.
All of us did. There is no hiding in the Adolescent Community. The morning’s community—just like Greenspring’s actual Adolescent program—was small and inclusive. Everyone’s contribution mattered.
We sat in a semi-circle for Math Seminar, and everyone took out the word problems we’d had for homework. Ms. Christina and Mr. Elliot sat in the back, listening. After one parent chose a problem and wrote their process out on the board, the rest of us had some questions for him. Another parent wanted to share and drew a diagram of her method. A third procedure was put up on the board. More questions were asked. I began to visualize different possibilities.
Later that night I asked my boyfriend, who was a math major in college, whether he had ever experienced something like our Adolescent Community’s math seminar. “A little bit, in a couple of my advanced classes,” he told me. “Except the professor would give us the answer at the end of our discussions.”
Ms. Christina didn’t. When a couple of our solutions differed by a few decimal values, one parent asked if we could “time-out,” be parents again, and get the answer. Ms. Christina said, “I wouldn’t impede your learning in that way.”
That sentiment describes how our guides worked with us throughout the morning. They presented us with materials, then got out of the way. We experienced everything for ourselves. We went outside and set our chairs out together, passed around a bowl of tangerines, and used all of our senses to slowly peel them open and taste them, exposing us to mindfulness. We discussed a short story during a literary seminar, building analyses together in the open and focused way I studied literature in college and grad school. Everything we did was connected to something else, part of a larger context. After breaking into two groups and collaborating on an engineering activity, we not only reflected on the scientific significance of our projects but on the interpersonal one, even delving into the link between competitiveness and what it means to be human.
During our math lesson, when we gathered around Ms. Christina on the rug while she presented the Binomial and Trinomial cubes, someone posed that inevitable question asked in middle school math classes everywhere: “When am I ever going to use this?” So, we talked about it: why should we care?
Many ideas went around: learning to work collaboratively, solve difficult problems, and build confidence are all outcomes of math lessons. Ms. Christina said she wasn’t just teaching math; she was teaching life. By overcoming challenges in math class, students learn to transfer those same steps to challenges in their everyday lives.
All of this is true, of course, but I thought there had to be more. It couldn’t be that we learned math only because it taught us we could do hard things. Mathematics, in its purest form, is a way of understanding and expressing what’s around us, like music and art. What is the point of reading and discussing literature? It shows us one way humans articulate and connect with the world through language. When I held the pieces of the binomial and trinomial cubes, I thought of math like I think of poetry. Its purpose is making order out of chaos, making sense of the intangible. If we can begin to understand how the world works in a quantitative sense, we can come closer to those unanswerable questions about our place in the world.
During that math lesson, we began by seeing and feeling the representations of the Binomial Cube. This exploration led us to develop the binomial equation—the mathematical abstraction of the Montessori material. I recognized the equation: (a + b)2 = a2 + 2ab + b2. I remember memorizing it for a state exam in eighth grade. I had never understood what it meant, where it came from, what it was trying to explain. In this math lesson, we built the equation ourselves using the materials, as if we were the mathematicians discovering it for the first time.
These are important concepts in Montessori education: learning hand to brain, concrete to abstract. In a meta-moment sense, Adolescent for a Morning applies these concepts to our education about Greenspring’s Adolescent Community. Participating in the curriculum is more meaningful than hearing about pedagogy. As we know from Dr. Montessori, we learn hands-on. Simply talking about Montessori education seems inadequate. You have to experience it for yourself to truly understand what it can offer.
I left Adolescent for a Morning invigorated, wishing I could be a student again. And I felt grateful to get some of my adolescence back—at least a tiny slice of it—and see how it could have been different. The adolescents at Greenspring are lucky to have theirs still ahead, full and complete, waiting to be tasted piece by piece like the tangerine sections we held on our tongues.