grace & courtesy
One of the many underlying lessons of a Montessori education is termed “Grace & Courtesy”. It is underlying in the sense that while a subject such as geometry has a specific scope and sequence with manipulative materials as accompaniment, “lessons” in grace and courtesy are the foundation upon which the daily activities of the classroom, both within and without of presentations, are built. It is the breath behind the words.
It’s instructive to make a distinction between grace and courtesy. Montessori defined grace as the ability to control one’s own will, an inner power that leads to a comfort with, and respect for, self. Courtesy is grace manifested in our behavior towards others. The kindness and respect developed as part of our grace is then gifted to the world.
It is almost cliche to mention that children from Montessori environments are often notable for their politeness to others, especially adults in the “outside world”. Most every Montessori teacher can relay a story or a dozen stories of being on a field trip and having the docent or group leader mention “how well-behaved your students are”. More often than not, it comes as a bit of surprise to the teacher, not because they don’t expect to hear the comment, but rather because he or she didn’t notice anything particularly remarkable about the children’s politeness in the first place. Perhaps the students behavior is elevated relative to other school group? For any given value of “polite”. Similarly, Cornerstone teachers will occasionally ask me if an observer noticed how “out of control” his or her classroom was, when in fact the visitor praised its demeanor! Like the old saying goes, “One man’s chaos is another man’s calm” (disclaimer: not a real saying; this quote was made up only for this article, all rights reserved). In Dr. Montessori’s view, grace and courtesy, the development of inner peace and its propagation in the world, serves as no less than the seeds of world peace.
grace and courtesy in the toddler environment
In my family lore, comes a story from some 35 years ago. My then 2-year old nephew, Kaya, was attempting to move my mother from her standing position in the living room, where she was unintentionally blocking the route of his Brio train tracks. “Gramma Moof!,” he commanded. When she looked down at him with a bit of a glower, he quickly amended his voice and face to a more beseeching, perhaps cloying tone, “Pleeeez?”.
The first half of the First Plane of Development (from birth to 3 years old) is represented in Toddler programs. If we were to look at any learning activity that happens in that environment, from arithmetic to botany, from geometry to geography, we would start and finish with acquisition of language. The toddler-aged child possesses an absorbent mind, taking in and responding to all the culture and concomitant nomenclature it provides. He or she imitates and experiments with this new skill in order to get their needs met. But rather than encouraging an imperious attitude, a Montessori toddler program also provides both the model and the language necessary to practice empathy and compassion, the nascent themes that grow into grace and courtesy, politeness and kindness. It goes without saying (but here I go), that the child’s teacher must be impeccable in her language, tone, and manner, imbuing her interactions with kindness and love; tempering limit-setting (when necessary) with tenderness. The reservoirs of patience this requires are, at times, enormous, but that doesn’t diminish their importance. A child will develop grace (within themselves) and courtesy (towards others) only to the extent to which it was demonstrated to them by the adults in his or her life.
The work for a Toddler is no less than the early stages of personality development, the realization of inner value, the construction of a personal humanity. Heady stuff for someone not yet well-versed in the use and intricacies of indoor plumbing. Their journey continues as the next three years unfold in the Primary environment.
grace & courtesy in the primary environment
The child’s work in any Montessori Primary environment continues have language as its focus. The History of Language, and the story of “The Little Paper That Could Talk” emphasize our reverence for the spoken and the written word. It is the vehicle we use maintain to both our self, with assistance from others, as well as the mechanism to respond to the needs of friends. “Use your words,” is a refrain often repeated in these 3-6 year old classrooms, both by the adults and the children who emulate them. The phrase is an encouragement to use the spoken word to express emotions instead of denying them or resorting to physical means. The written word enables the brain to connect to the hand and lends some permanence to the communication.
Day-to-day living in Primary is rife with opportunities to display grace and practice courtesy. Storytelling and reading present to the child examples of situations where manners and kindness, provide both challenges and solutions for characters and readers. At the same time that the child is developing independence and socialization, he or she is listening and speaking. The child is evolving a sense of self and a sense of others at the same time they are learning to write and read. Simultaneous with the exploration of his or her own feelings, comes the realization that classmates and siblings, teachers and parents, also have feelings.
The power of language, in service to grace and courtesy, cannot be overstated. One child is working with the Constructive Triangles. A second child wants to work with this manipulative as well. There are not multiples sets of materials in a Montessori classroom, and this is absolutely intentional. This encourages negotiation, compromise, time management, and sharing (if that’s okay). What a gift to be able get what you need in a way that protects both yourself and your friend! To help someone and to be helped in return! The young child, supported in their growth, strives to reach his or her potential, a potential of respect, of goodness, the very cornerstones, if you will, of humanity.
grace & courtesy in the elementary environment
Montessori believed that the Second Plane of Development was especially suited to the study of humans, their arrival and their development. “Sow the seeds of culture, “ she averred, “so that they might germinate under the heated flame of imagination.” This is the plane of development where elementary students are in the sensitive period for the acquisition of culture, the sum total of human experience, as well as trying to find their place in it. This study, and the prepared environment in which it unfolds, provide a multitude of opportunities to practice grace and courtesy.
First and foremost is the story of human development. Stressing the two gifts of humanity, imagination and the use of the hand, the history of humans is traced from a timeline of slow development. We were Robinson Crusoes wresting materials from the earth, forming small then larger communities, cooperating, moving forward. The development of language, concomitant to this process, is shown to be an impactful tool. Which words we choose are important. What we say has power. How we say things makes a profound difference.
The elementary classroom community is a culture in microcosm. Montessori defined this plane as being the Age of Social, where the relationships between students, and between students and teachers, holds more importance to the child than the content of a lesson or the answer to a question. Group meetings, facilitated discussions, mediation, and negotiation, all help the group, and the individual, learn how respect, mutual support, and humor can keep the social fabric of a classroom strong.
Further, in contrast to the Primary years, elementary students are presenting more to the group as a whole, a brave act tempered when the audience focusses as much on positive feedback as the speaker does on his or her oration. They are put in roles of leadership, where how you delegate is crucial, and they are put in roles where they need to follow, when how you comply is just as important.
grace & courtesy in the junior class
As children in this Third Plane of Development, they are keenly aware of the minutiae of social interactions between peers, between teachers, and between themselves and all of the above. Dr. Montessori referred to these early adolescents as being “social newborns” and as such are comparable to our somewhat sticky neighbors in the adjacent classroom. Just as a 3 year old is moving out into the physical world, the 13 year old is moving into the world as a nascent adult.
As such, they seek trail markers to guide their journey, often showing strong curiosity in the opinions of their teachers (and maybe, possibly, in some cases, their parents). They want to know political opinions, musical tastes, television preferences as they form their own tastes. A Junior student can see themselves upon a path towards adulthood, even as they can acknowledge the walk is just a few steps in.
Against this backdrop, it’s clear that Grace & Courtesy in the Junior Class relies heavily on the personalities and role-modeling amongst the adults and the culture they create and maintain with their students. The message is, “This is the way adults treat each other with politeness, with professionalism (as school IS a professional environment at this level), with humor. The best way to engage with an adolescent is to treat them as an adult, while never forgetting they are not.
With the advent of social media, the need for strong guidance in appropriate behavior on-line and in e-communication is also stressed. The Junior Class Technology Policy includes guidance in good “netizenship”. It includes, among a half-dozen other encouragements, this passage:
Respect Yourself – I will show respect for myself through my actions. I will select online names that are appropriate. I will consider the information and images that I post online. I will consider what personal information about my life, experiences, and/or relationships I post. I will not be obscene or inappropriate in any way.
Respect Others – I will show respect to others. I will not use electronic mediums to antagonize, bully, harass or stalk other people. I will show respect for other people in my choice of websites, I will not visit or share sites that are degrading, pornographic, racist or inappropriate. I will not abuse my rights of access and I will not enter other people’s private spaces or areas.
In the end, those two principles, respect yourself and respect others, allows to return to where we started – defining grace as a personal commitment within your heart, and courtesy as that promise expressed to the world.