DVMS Learning Resource Specialist Marissa Achong and Casa Assistant Serena Camacho attended the 2013 International Montessori Congress in Portland, Oregon, from July 31 – August 3. We can’t wait to pick their brains for all the details, but in the meantime they graciously answered a few questions about the experience.
Can you give us some overall, general impressions of your time at Congress?
Marissa: Attending the Congress was an engaging and beautiful experience. It was truly inspiring to be surrounded by Montessorians from around the world, working with all ages, in the classroom and out. Each day brought the opportunity to share our knowledge and ideas with the broader community and connect with a variety of guides, trainers, material designers…The balance of the programming was exceptional, including music performances, film screening, hiking, in addition to the dozens of workshops on topics including neuroscience research, sustainability, technology, and the success of Montessori programs integrated with public school systems.
Serena: My time at the Congress was inspirational, humbling, and gave me so much hope about the future of peace, our future leaders (the children, of course), and the health of our planet. I was awed at the number of countries, let alone people, who are involved in the Montessori community. I knew that Montessori is, thankfully, a philosophy and way of living all over the world, but to be in the physical presence of so many like-minded people was truly uplifting.
What were your expectations going in and how did Congress meet or differ from them?
M: Each day of the Congress included a pair of keynote addresses, the first by a Montessorian, and the second by a prominent academic or activist. My expectations for the variety and quality of that many addresses were far surpassed. I was anticipating the Congress for the past two years, and the Montessori Northwest training centre and city of Portland certainly delivered.
S: I had pretty high expectations since this is an international event that only happens every four years, and I was not disappointed. The keynote speakers were knowledgeable, passionate, thought provoking, and so full of heart. Although there was a variety of topics spoken about by leaders from a wide range of professional and educational backgrounds, there was a clear message that ran through the whole Congress: that children must be guided by love, compassion, empathy, and reflection – not from technique; that life brings knowlege through the laws of nature, and that guiding from the heart is one of those laws.
Were there any speakers or workshops that especially stood out for you?
M: The keynotes given by AMI trainers Lynne Lawrence and Molly O’Shaughnessy brought the audience back to the core of Montessori, emphasizing that while the path of each child is unique their process of development is universal; the Guide’s work of preparing the environment and providing loving support can be successful regardless of limited means and within a myriad of cultures. I subsequently attended two workshops that examined two Montessori projects outside the traditional classroom: the first on a multi-generational Montessori environment for single parent families in Maryland called the Crossway Community, and another on a project called Corner of Hope, which has developed Montessori classrooms within a Kenyan IDP (internally displaced persons) camp.
However, voices from outside the Montessori community that share the vision so many Guides bring to their classrooms and their schools were also inspiring. The final keynote address by Dr. Vandana Shiva was very powerful as she discussed environmental degradation, the culture of excess commodification, and the resulting threats to human culture and security. I felt she truly imparted the importance of an education that connects children with the outdoors, that illuminates the interdependencies of nature, and ultimately will change their participation in society.
S: Dr. Adele Diamond, who is the Research Chair Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, also reiterated the importance of spirit over technique when it comes to guiding children — that the relationship between student and teacher is paramount. Dr. Diamond also talked about the skills that children will need in the twenty-first century, three core executive brain functions that would be needed, and how we as guides can help children to nurture their development through understanding. Dr. Diamond stressed the superior quality and experience of learning when one is happy, relaxed, and loved as opposed to stressed, sad, or lonely and backed this up with recent brain development research.
Did you pick up anything at Congress that you will be bringing back to put into practice this year?
M: As the guide within my school community that specifically assists exceptional students, a workshop with Pam Shanks of Raintree Montessori in Kansas, USA, on how to best serve children with significant language needs in an inclusive classroom definitely provided me with practical techniques for adapting my presentations to children with varying abilities or specific disorders. Importantly, she clearly delineated her standard practice as well as her modifications, stressing that her departures from classic presentations are purposefully designed to follow the child through additional scaffolding or prompts.
S: There were so many great speakers that left me with wonderful insights, new information, as well as old information brought to light in a new way. The ideas shared by Dr. Sharon Maxwell really hit home for me. Dr. Maxwell is a clinical psychologist specializing in work with adolescents. Dr. Maxwell spoke about aligning technology with the values that nurture a healthy, responsible child. Dr. Maxwell is not Montessori trained, yet her message is in alignment with the Montessori philosophy in every way. She teaches us that children must become scientists of their own internal well-being and we need to help them to self-assess. Because technology is increasingly a part of our lives, we need to guide children to learn how to use it “responsibly”. Her message is to give the children the tools to notice how their use of technology affects them, to evaluate their own response to the desires that various forms of technology draw on, and to give them ways to balance themselves when needed.
I found Dr. Maxwell’s message to be invaluable not just in reference to technology, but in how we live our lives everyday. Helping children to reflect on their feelings will help them to guide their actions and decisions in a way that feels right.
I hear you had opportunities to explore a bit of Portland; how was that?
M: Portland is a great city – from the little I saw! It was very difficult to pull away from the Congress to sight-see, but I was very impressed by the friendly community and green strategies – as well as the ease of the public transit system. I loved the energy of the Saturday Market, and ended up buying a gift from a young artist named Aaron Trotter, who proudly related that he had been a Montessori student himself. I also enjoyed the Pearl District, going to the First Thursday art crawl and browsing in Powell’s Books.
S: I wish I had more time for exploring outside of the Congress, but what I did see of the city was great. The “Saturday Market” was my favourite excursion – so full of life and variety (and it actually happens on Sundays as well). The market had a plethora of vendors of every kind – from food to artwork to clothing, pottery, and gnomes with the your own face sculpted onto it! I also enjoyed the art crawl along the galleries, the restaurants and shops in the Pearl District, and visiting Powell’s City Books, the world’s largest bookstore covering a whole city block.
The next International Montessori Congress is in Prague in 2017, any plans to attend and any advice for people considering attending a Congress event?
M: After my Portland experience, I don’t see how I could possibly not attend the 2017 Congress in Prague. My best advice is arrive early, and leave late! My only regret about the 2013 Congress was not having the time to tour the local schools, the Montessori training centre, or to see more of the city. The 2013 Congress was attended by 2,300 delegates from 55 countries; I can’t wait to meet even more of you in Prague.
S: I am definitely planning to attend the Congress in Prague. I hope to make it a family event – explore the culture and history and stay after it is over. I would definitely advise others to plan a longer trip as the time during the Congress is so full of events that there is not much time for sightseeing.