Education on Race and History in the Butler Montessori Elementary Program

2nd plane of development community history lower elementary upper elementary Jun 22, 2020

Upon entering the Elementary classroom you will be struck by the noise level, the work scattered across all surfaces (watch your step!), and the enthusiasm with which the children discuss the happenings of the day, week, month, and year. We are a busy bunch. We have much important work to do. We are growing so fast and have many, many questions to answer. So to give some perspective and direction, as a point of emphasis in the Montessori Elementary lesson plan, we start off the year with great, big, long, detailed, factual stories. These are called the Great Stories. And invariably, these stories lead to discussions of one of our favorite topics - Humans. We teach six- to twelve-year-old children about the history of humans! What a notion. Early humans at first. And all the gifts they have to bring including a heart that loves, a mind that thinks deeply, and hands that create.

We tell several consecutive stories on the origins of humans. They come in acts, like that of a long drawn out drama. First, there is a story titled the Coming of Human Beings. Here we describe how the history of people starts with hominids, early humans, nomads who grew out of the African continent and walked to all corners of the 6 habitable continents.  Then a few days or weeks later we share the Timeline of Human Beings, highlighting relative dates and eras of early human history. And then there is a Second Timeline of Human Beings bringing with it more dates and history. And these timelines can be unrolled for weeks upon weeks! We also present a story of the great evolutionary invention of the hand to go with these lessons. We call it the Hand Timeline, funny enough. This lesson is about all that is possible and has been done by the human hand throughout prehistory and includes a preview of the invention of writing and the beginning of recorded history. There’s so much we can only imagine, as humans haven’t always had iPads, or books, or even pencil and paper to record our doings. As Montessori teachers, we describe the characteristics, needs, and gifts that all humans have in common. And then we follow with stories of course with visual aids and object-based learning. The visual aids in particular help us to notice an important aspect of humans. It’s here that we notice our skin tones, a variety of skin tones. This is the foundation for later discussions on differences of humans across our planet; differences in culture, language, and race.

In addition to our visual depictions of humans, we go out into the world on trips as Elementary aged students. Yearly, the Upper Elementary students go to Echo Hill Outdoor School, for example, where the staff there offer specialized courses on Early Americans, building early shelters, scavenging for tools, trying on furs, and talking through daily life problems in the Mesolithic Era (Meso meaning middle, lithic meaning stone.) The Mesolithic area is perfect for children at Butler Montessori to study, given the wooded and rocky nature of our home campus. We also prepare the children to take small group trips to the Museums and geological formations surrounding us in the greater D.C. metro area. This gives us more and more perspective on human history. And in particular at Butler Montessori, throughout the Elementary program, we study, cook, and eat a lot of food in class together. This is something all humans have in common! We specifically study the importance of food during our Thanksgiving exploration, putting our critical thinking caps on as the Lower Elementary plans a menu and family-style stew using crops from the colonial era of our country's history. What food did the colonists grow? How is it that colonists learned to grow these foods? What did the Indigenous people grow? What do the Indigenous people to Maryland and the United States look like? What was their skin tone? Where are Native Americans in our history stories today? This prompts several difficult conversations, but with time and with grace, our children learn the stories of the Wampanoag and Pilgrims, and even more so our local Indigenous peoples' names and foods. It was the Nacotchatank of the Anacostia and Potomac watersheds, and the Piscataway of the Chesapeake Bay area who lived here before us. Both peoples spoke Algonquian and our country named the bodies of water after them. Anacostia comes from the language of a subgroup of Piscataway people meaning “trading village”. Potomac has a similar origin as it’s the name of an Algonquian trading village, and may also mean “something brought”. Finally, the Chesapeake Bay, where Echo Hill resides, is a most powerful and inspiring place for our region. Some say the name is Algonquian for “mother of waters” while others translate it to mean “great shellfish bay.” Although most texts describing the Indigenous people’s meanings of the names have been destroyed, it’s very special to share this local history with our students given their love of both geography and language at this age

As we continue with our school year, some students are able to fast forward through history according to their interests. What they discover through lessons, books, and Going Outs into Maryland and D.C. is that we live in a society now made up of all tones of skin and of all races of people. As of the 2016 Census, 50% of all Americans are People of Color by race and Hispanic origin. From a teaching perspective, this is an inspiring lesson that is fun to share with our children as they take in the cultural and social world around them. In fact, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) make up the global majority of the world’s population today in 2020. This is one of many important lessons our curriculum can help Montessori children grow to learn about race. To fill in the gaps left behind by our big and imaginative Great Stories and Timelines to start the year, we tell little stories and read books aloud, especially those featuring authors, main characters, and pictures of a variety of races of humans in culturally relevant settings and inspiring storylines. These stories include Asian history, African history, European history, Indigenous peoples histories, African-American history, Asian Pacific American history, Black history, White history, Native American history, and general Maryland and United States history. We have books to follow humans from all places and times. With this love of learning and with our Montessori approach, we empower children to have cultural competency and take on the discussion of race in their independent studies and conversations. 

Cultural competency is the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures and to be respectful and responsive to the beliefs, practices, and linguistic needs (we have students of several different mother/father/parent tongues) of diverse population groups. We teach children about multiple religions. We model cultural and religious practices. We invite students and parents to teach us about their culture, customs, and ceremonies. We teach and read books with many languages. We celebrate historical, cultural figures who did things to ameliorate history. We follow the stories of these heroines to serve as teachable lessons, morals, and grace & courtesy. We encourage children to examine the lives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Benjamin Banneker to name a few Maryland history icons. On Biography Day especially, the children prepare reports and read speeches in costume and character.  We listen fondly and share compliments as often as possible about the research and public speeches of our young and old Elementary students. Fun enough, we often have one or two that research the life of Maria Montessori, a social justice advocate, doctor, educator, and humanitarian in her own right.

Not only is intentionally teaching cultural competency in our history lessons fun, but it’s also important to keep in mind when growing a diverse community of families at our small, suburban, private school. In fact, a worldly Montessori perspective is vital to the success of our community. For this reason, I feel it is important today to re-acknowledge a couple of statistics: the global majority and about half of the United States population is not White. But this diversity does not yet result in equal and fair outcomes for all of our children and students. Teachers today are noticing that institutional racism, racial discrimination that has become established as normal behavior within a society, and white privilege, the societal privilege that benefits people whom society identifies as white, are impacting our schools. Articles about schools being more segregated today than forty years ago and books, like “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, are bringing further attention and research to this visible trend. As a result, teachers and students alike are demanding a redoubled effort to practice Anti-Racist education. Anti-racist and anti-biased practices (ABAR) are things we in the Elementary program can be mindful of with every story we tell, book we read, picture we show, and affirmation we give to our students. Intentional school practices, pedagogy, and the curriculum is at the heart of making a difference in the future of community and national outcomes.

Now more than ever, it is evident that this work is not only important to teachers but more so to families who come from all over our Maryland region to join this community because we explicitly offer an international model of education known for excellence and authenticity.  I see first hand the commitment it takes for families to drive to Butler Montessori twice daily, to show up for BPC Events, Coffee & Conversations, the Thanksgiving gathering, the Winter Festival, and all the events that we should have held this Spring. The driving radius of this community is awe-inspiring. Think of all the corners of Maryland, DC, and Virginia our small school’s footprint touches on a daily basis. With a community like this, I see the future of social action as Dr. Maria Montessori describes in her book Education and Peace possible, by providing our children an Anti-Racist and Anti-Biased Montessori daily life. 

Thank you for taking the time today to read more about our community and all that is happening and possible at Butler Montessori.


Written by Elementary Guide, Kelly Brown

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