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Dr. Maria Montessori | From Childhood to Adolescence
The Young People’s Community is based at the base of the Vitosha mountain in the beautiful district of Sofia. A community of young people between the ages of 12 and 16 study, work and live together during the school term. Through actual experience they learn what it means to collaborate with each other and to live in a sustainable relationship with the earth.
There are three pillars to the students’ experience:
The school offers a strong academic programme with the emphasis on helping students to be independent thinkers and take ownership of their own learning. The young people are given the time, space and resources to pursue study to a high level.
Students are well prepared for external examinations after Grade 7, often progressing early to post-16 curricular content. They go beyond what is typically expected of adolescents. Visitors often comment that the academic atmosphere is more recognisable as belonging to a University than to a school. We benefit from the proximity to Sofia University and access to teaching staff there.
The environments are equipped to a high standard particularly in the sciences where we have access to a “living laboratory” of a walled garden. We have an exceptionally skilled and committed staff team with life experience as well as teaching experience.
The young people run a business that sells a variety of products and services. They grow and sell produce from our garden as well as repair bicycles and sports equipment.
The young people participate in the day to day operations of the school as it is their school. We do not employ cleaners, housekeepers, chefs, or ground staff for serving Young People Community. Instead the young people work alongside trained adults to manage the building and the yard and associated habitats to promote biodiversity, maintain and renovate the buildings.
The young people are involved in decisions relating to most aspects of their daily life including budget management. Each week the community meets to discuss the events of the week gone by and the week ahead, and other matters related to community life.
Amidst the work and study, the adolescents also have time to just be. They have a deep need for silence and solitude as well as the company of others, and both these are possible on the land, where clocks run at a slower pace. The world seems to slow down, and the quiet voices within them get a chance to be heard.
As at any other age level in Montessori, the emphasis is on cultivating the student’s capacity and motivation to be independent and lifelong learners. Our experience is that passion is what fuels the pursuit of knowledge. Since each student is unique, and passionate about different things at different times, the emphasis in the Montessori approach is to create an environment in which students have freedom to pursue their interests, under the mentorship of a Guide who ensures they are growing in intelligence, skills and knowledge.
There is an atmosphere of delight in discovery; that knowledge isn’t a burden but a privilege, and that learning is fun. Faculty (called “Guides”) offer lessons to individuals or small groups, based on their interests, needs and capacities. These lessons are typically (though not always) related to work for which the adolescent is showing strong interest and engagement and allows them to go further and deeper.
The young people write fiction and non-fiction pieces. The focus is on quality rather than quantity. We take a Writers Workshop approach to developing their skill in writing. The Guide helps the young people choose topics and formats to write in and gives craft lessons to build their writing skills.
Fiction pieces include poetry and prompts from paintings (e.g. Edward Hopper). Non-fiction pieces include journaling, memoirs, book reviews, arguments and thought pieces. In grammar we work with sentence analysis through diagramming. There is much practice in analytical reading through text-based seminar discussions. Debates and drama feed spoken language expression.
In geometry, angle study, surface area and volume. In algebra, solving of linear equations, simplification of expressions, multiplying out of brackets, factoring, sight numbers. In statistics, a review of averages and graphing. In arithmetic, a review of basic number theory, moving into standard form, indices and so on.
There is much applied mathematics – maintaining accounts for the business, charting sales and profits, graphing temperatures inside and outside, managing the community budget etc.
The natural sciences are a significant focus through practical experience. The young people learn through actual experience the depth at which seeds need to be sown, temperature, warmth and humidity needs, mineral needs and so on. They learn not to overwater the cucumber plants so that the roots can reach for water. They learn that the soil on the surface may look dry but the key is to check beneath the surface. They learn how to spread the roots of a strawberry plant out when planting them. They observe the flowers emerging. They observe the bees pollinating the flowers. They observe the petals falling and the ovaries swelling up into fruit. Two students are making a flower calendar – drawing flowers that emerge by month.
In Chemistry they learn about elements such as nitrogen and potassium in the soil. They are introduced to the story of the formation of elements in the stars, and the structure of atoms, molecules and compounds. They make simple experiments in separation of mixtures and compounds. In Physics they study dynamics and magnetism.
Much work they do in the social sciences. The work includes in-depth research into North Korea, the transatlantic slave trade, animal rights, suffragettes, the abolition of the monarchy, the colonisation of North America, migration of Homo Sapiens out of Omo Kibush in Ethiopia, Victorian paintings as social history, and a workshop on criminal law. Some of this work is inspired by visits from specialists such as a historian or a barrister.
We have discussions on the Quran, on the concept of Separation of Power, and the origins and practice of democracy. Lunch table discussions tend to be topical and political – be it constitutional changes in Turkey, the right-wing threat in France, or the unrest in East Asia.
The young people are introduced to a wide range of artistic techniques. From soapstone carving and linocut, to batik, wax on silk, tie-dye, 3D drawing, and clay. Artists come to share with us their work in textile and electronics, and in natural dyeing. The young people sale some of their artwork, and bring much beauty and love to their decoration of their work, study and living spaces.
In music there is a strong interest in music technology where much progress has been made. Lessons are given in music technology, guitar and piano.
The young people put on a performance.
Aikido, football and tennis are some of the sports we practice. Self-expression through running games are popular. We will give attention to developing our sports programme next year.
Students are prepared to sit their GCSEs at age 14-15. Throughout their time in the Young People’s Community the course content of different GCSE subjects is made available. We draw upon the National Extension College (NEC) course materials, making adaptations where appropriate to draw on the benefit of the experience of other Montessori secondary school programmes, on the particular features of the woodland and walled garden itself, and on the local community more generally.
From age 12 students are practising with past examination questions, gaining experience in answering questions under examination conditions. Throughout this experience the emphasis is on challenging students to constantly stretch themselves and be the best they can be, going beyond the ‘limits’ of the curriculum. We hold as fundamental the vital importance of meeting each student first and foremost as a whole and unique human being with many different facets, including the spiritual.
Subject specialists continue to offer lessons: these are now more explicitly tied to progression through the course syllabus. Each student works with their Guide to prepare a personalised study plan that tracks their progress through the syllabus. The Guide discusses each student’s progress with the teaching faculty, and then meets with the student to help them plan their schedule including scheduling in lessons that they need to progress in their work.
The student’s experience up to this point has often taken them beyond the required standard. Most importantly their capacity to be self-motivated and self-directed in their studies allows them to master the course content with relative speed and ease.
Students regularly leave the Young People’s Community on day visits to meet with experts in different fields to extend and test out their ideas. Towards the latter part of their time here, these experiences may take the form of internships. Sometimes these are with the view to explore a particular career, but more often the purpose of the placements is to touch and experience the lives of ordinary people and so to come into contact with the adult society they are about to enter.
The young people prepare our garden for cultivation, clearing out vegetation, laying bio-degradable mulch sheets and high-grade compost over the quadrant. As the young people grow older they will manage the certification process as well.
Our vegetables are harvested and packed daily. Research has been done on each of these plants, and information slips prepared. А webpage is created by the young people.
The young people help the manciple manage the kitchen budget for the school. From time to time they also help the other children in the preparation of meals. Naturally they also lay the table for lunch, serve and clean up.
The young people are involved in the building of a wood workshop. This involve participating in preparing the foundations of the workshop, laying the floor joists, putting in the insulation and eventually painting the inside.
Various young people are involved in minor repairs around the building – repairing chairs for the Children’s House, fixing door latches, putting up shelves, or repairing windows.
The young people learn how to participate in a community, and how to work with others towards shared goals. It is an intensely social age, and through discussion and conversation they discover their own views, hear other perspectives, and learn through daily experience how to work with others to solve the problems of daily living within a community.
At their weekly meetings the young people discuss the events taking place in their own and the wider community, bring both opportunities and difficulties before the group, celebrate each other’s achievements and hold each other accountable. They learn through experience the benefits and limitations of the democratic process.
The kinds of things the young people are responsible for includes:
Naturally all of this is under the guidance of adults, but the key message is that the Young People’s Community is THEIRS. Visitors often remark how much of a sense of ownership the young people show – that they genuinely see this as being their community, and understand that it is they who are responsible for its success, and their happiness.
A description of the practical functioning of the community follows.