Maria Montessori has some guidance for us in answering this question. In The Child, Society and the World she writes: “As we observe children, we see the vitality of their spirit, the maximum effort put forth in all they do, the intuition, attention and focus they bring to all life’s events, and the sheer joy they experience in living.”
How often do you get to see 4th year students performing a Shakespeare play? Or 1st year Elementary students presenting their research on marsupials, coral and phytoplankton? When did you last witness a group of Middle School students going out of their way to fully include all members of a group? Or see 20-month old children focus with care on choosing their own work?
If you spend time at Washington Montessori School, a truly great school, you see it all day, every day.
Last night, I joined Jane’s Upper Elementary class for their production of Macbeth. They wielded their swords, stirred their cauldron, and spoke their lines with clarity, calm and confidence. Before the show, these nine and ten year olds were full of nervous energy. After the show, they shared a congratulatory sheet cake and reveled in the scale of their accomplishments. Nobody won a trophy. No child needed praise for their efforts and hard work. Rather, their reaction was aligned with what Maria Montessori taught us to notice: vitality of spirit, maximum effort put forth, laser attention, and sheer joy. It was in their faces that I could see the greatness of our school.
A great school is structured to inspire children to be all they can become.
This morning, as I drove into the campus, the daffodils and magnolias were blooming outdoors, and our halls were filled with children and their families. The energy was palpable as our Lower Elementary children prepared to share their research into Oceania, the continent that includes Australia, New Zealand and many smaller islands. Children had written books to share. They had created banners with the flags of nations. They had created watercolor paintings, and deeply detailed maps. But more important than the products they had created (full of impressive feats of literacy, numeracy and intellectual activity) was the incredible focus they brought to the act of presenting their work.
As I moved from one child to another, each demonstrated great pride in their work. I saw clay replicas, detailed reports. I heard each child share their learning with pride.
And once again, I saw what Maria Montessori told us to look for: I saw it in the students. The most powerful evidence of their learning was in the way they carried themselves in the moment. Each young child was brimming with enthusiasm and confidence, eager to share and confident that I would want to hear what they had to say. I also noticed that every single child’s work was truly distinct. Their maps, their dioramas, their artwork, and their books were so detailed and so individual.
So what does a great school look like?
There are great schools with tall arches and wide open fields. Some great schools take place in a tiny single classroom in the woods, in a church basement or in an urban storefront. Some great schools are grand and imposing, and others very down to earth. For a great school is not characterized by the scale or size of its spaces, but rather by the activity in each of its students’ minds.
For a great school inspires the delight of learning that every child deserves. A great school inspires students to discover, to observe, to listen, to grow. A great school inspires connection and belonging. And a great school inspires children to think, to act, and to engage with their full being.
I am honored, every day, to work at this great school.