Today's question is answered by Ebony Marshman, a founding Breakthrough faculty member, and guide in the Magnolia Community.
As a guide at Breakthrough, I find my work as it relates to diversity to be multifaceted. There is overlap in the work of fostering empathy in children, and teaching them to embrace and celebrate difference. When it comes to embracing difference, the lines can be fine between acknowledging and isolating what makes people’s experiences differ. Part of recognizing that someone may differ from you is also the realization that to that same person, you are the one who differs. At Breakthrough, our classrooms are intentionally inclusive meaning they are diverse; racially, ethnically, economically, and developmentally across ability level. In the Montessori pedagogy, the Primary child’s work of adaptation- becoming a person of their time and place- is critical to their growth and development. For our children at Breakthrough, this means becoming someone whose home is Washington D.C. in the mid 2010’s - with all of the complexity that entails.
Our school serves, and is served by people from all over the world, with differing stories to tell. While at school, diversity is the standard for your children. When it comes to upholding the positive impacts of diversity in our children’s lives, our role as adults is to empower children to recognize and embrace difference, while celebrating one another. Because we are practicing Montessori in at a school that serves people of many different backgrounds, it is the work of the Breakthrough staff to frequently question and consider the ways in which we adhere to the dominant culture of the United States, while maintaining that it is not done at the expense of our students, staff and families. Each of the five areas of the classroom, offer means of doing just this.
With this in mind, let’s consider the role of Practical Life in supporting the formation of functional independence in children. In the instance of promoting grooming habits, it is common for schools to make available fine-tooth combs for combing hair. Though it is great for children to feel empowered to care for their own hair, the use of a fine-tooth comb is not an option for many hair textures. A child’s inability to participate in that activity may reinforce negative messages society sends about what kind of hair grooming is acceptable, and can cause a child to question their sense of belonging.
The question diversity poses for those who consider it is: who is different (than me)? This natural centering of self emphasizes the visual component of recognizing diversity but also illuminates that diversity can look different to everyone. Still, ‘diverse’ as a designation is most often reserved for describing identities and practices that are considered counter to dominant culture. This implies that what is normal is sameness and portrays diversity as a novel concept. Your children are already observing differences in people’s appearance (even if not yet articulating it). As this is a crucial point as it relates to considering diversity in this society, young children are not too young for conversations that directly address race or skin color. In fact, research suggests that having these conversations are critical for children as they form their worldview. My practice is to be true and brief when discussing topics that could be regarded as too complex for children. Your children are more than capable of digesting various realities of our society than given credit for. What I am constantly reminded of when seeking to explain things to children, is that it is us, the adults, who overly complicate these things.
Montessori is an international curriculum and although high fidelity Montessori classrooms all over the world may feel familiar, they should differ to reflect the cultures of the children within them. In our classrooms our children see diversity all around them. Whether it be in the characters of the books displayed in our classroom libraries, or in the faces of their peers and teachers. At Breakthrough, diversity is upheld in the richness of the stories we tell, and the realization that we all protagonists in our own stories.