montessori for social justice conference 2018 recap

Last weekend I was fortunate to attend the 2018 Montessori for Social Justice Conference: "Reclaiming Montessori for Universal Liberation," held at St. Catherine University. It always feels lucky to have a conference in your own town, but I also looked forward to this conference as a way to deepen my understanding of the ways that social justice intersects the project of education, and how Montessori specifically connects to these intersections. I am still new to Montessori and just as I've considered the implications of charter schools, I've also wondered about the ways Montessori exists in separate spaces from mainstream school systems and the pros and cons that come with it. {I heard several people mention ending up in education because they stumbled into a Montessori space somehow and felt that it was different from other educational spaces they'd been in--empowering in being more participatory and more trusting of the student's ability to learn.} I was curious what a larger community of "Montessorians" would feel like and in particular who in that community is committed to ideas of social justice.

The first day I saw immediately that this crowd of educators was much more diverse than any crowd of educators I've experienced. This was awesome and powerful. They warned us as the conference began: “We do not guarantee safe spaces here, because this work WILL make you uncomfortable.”

The conference opened with a 3.5 hour presentation by Samuel Simmons, a local therapist, activist, and educational consultant who works to help people understand systemic racism and historical trauma. This is the type of presentation any anti-bias, anti-racist work should begin with! In the professional development I've done in recent years on race, bias, equity, etc., I noticed that problems are often talked around. A feeling of what it's like to be excluded is implied, how status determines roles in the classroom is referenced, but it's felt rare that anyone states the obvious: our educational systems come from historical legacies of oppression in trauma, and we feel the effects today. Mr. Simmons included many of our country's historical traumas enacted on POC/People of the Global Majority and connected it to epigenetics and the ways these hard legacies might show up in our classrooms as anxiety, inattention, disconnection, loneliness--for very good reason.

He talked about ACES (adverse childhood experiences studies) and how initially these studies were conducted mainly with middle class, educated, white people. (cue memories of every ed psyche study we read in school...) He went on to connect ACES to the bigger picture of historical trauma and how they interrelate and create toxic stress that impact brain development. He told us about the idea of multigenerational adaptive behaviors that demonstrate resilience but that can also be harmful over time. . . I can't encapsulate all that he said here in this space, but it was powerful. Some historical touchpoints included: reservation schools and relocation of native americans, forced adoption of native american children to non-native famlies, the transition from imported slaves to chattel slavery to share cropping and Jim Crow that continued terroristic treatment of black people in the United States, the destruction of black cities (Tulsa, Oklahoma-1921), and the ways humans have coped with these historical traumas for self preservation…

He outlined some paths for healing:

  • understand our history

  • restore culture and protective factors in communities

  • family: not just nuclear—whole community

  • restorative practices

  • releasing pain in healthy ways

  • trauma-informed strategies…EVERYWHERE!

  • acknowledge ACES and trauma. teach about them—it may feel counterintuitive to some, but it can validate people’s lived experiences and help them begin to heal them

  • address your own fears and biases first

  • people with power need to be willing to be uncomfortable

  • learn about developmentally sensitive periods and how that relates to your students

  • compassion with accountability: help us seek truth, understanding, forgiveness, justice, humility and leave others empowered without blame or excuses

After his talk, the conference leaders made announcements about the day’s schedule, including the expectation that during meals, etc. older folks, people with disabilities, people caring for infants, and people of color/people of the global majority would always be welcomed to the front of the line. This was a powerful announcement. It was noted that if this felt difficult for you, if you worried about getting what you wanted, or getting enough to eat, you should step aside and take some time to unpack that for yourself...

What if we do this in more spaces? Would people allow it? What healing would it make way for?


Here is Saturday's awesome key note presentation by Lorena and Roberto Germán, which included an imagined conversation between Tupac and Maria Montessori:

(via Multicultural Classroom Consulting)

A few notes I took from their talk:

  • Do your classroom/school practices ask students to leave their identities at the door?

  • All of who students are is worthy of academic study—their languages, their cultures, their identities…

  • The project of schooling is for positive social transformation

  • Are you more dedicated to whatever method you've adopted than you are to knowing and responding to the students in the room?

  • Often when people focus on marginalized groups, they tell only stories of their oppression. This can be damaging. Perpetuates a reality in which marginalized people exist one way in the minds of the oppressors. See the groups as broken, damaged, in pain, leads to an incomplete understanding of the groups' HUMANITY. Must also include stories of resiliency and joy!

  • Offer space in the classroom for young people to experience and share joy!

  • Understanding the history and consequences of colonialism is crucial so students can identify and dismantle them (ALL students!)

  • There is not time to not do this work

There was a powerful activity in one of the sessions in which all the white people shackled themselves to another white person and had to figure out how to disconnect themselves. Mostly we became more and more stuck and tangled. It was a great metaphor for being disadvantaged from the start, working as hard as you can, being exhausted, trying everything you can think of, even working together, and still not being able to get out our to pull yourself up by your proverbial bootstraps.

This conference put anti-bias and anti-racist work at the forefront, not as something we do later, when we can get around to it, on the side, after we do all this other stuff. Look around at the current events of our world and you can't deny this is life-and-death stuff. Look around and you know that to not acknowledge these stories and histories is leaving most of the people out. Listening to all the stories I heard at the conference, I also cannot deny that this work is deep, full of heart, useful to the growth of all students and their ability to see, make sense of, and interact with the world in honest and intelligent ways that will enrich their lives and their communities.

I won't play-by-play the rest of the conference sessions--I am still digesting much of it--but I will share some highlights and resources below.


* Montessori for Social Justice the organization that put on the conference!

We are a community of educators, parents, and global citizens committed to anti-bias/ anti-racist Montessori education. In this group, we address the resource gap as the "opportunity" and "achievement" gap discussion cannot be had until all schools, neighborhoods, families have an equitable distribution of resources. In this group we strive to de-center whiteness and amplify the voices of People of Color/ of the Global Majority. This is a learning space. It is not safe. It will be uncomfortable. We ask that you stay engaged and grow. (We've all got growing to do.) We believe the Montessori method can be a tool to support the dismantling of racism and oppression. It leads us to the path of liberation.

* TOOLBOX by Dovetail Learning - amazing social emotional learning tool to help kids navigate everyday life

* - excellent round-up of resources you can use in your classroom from Mario Benabe (including MATH social justice resources!)

* Check Your Tude - Social-emotional learning tool connection emotions and

* - a social change agency dedicated to centering racial justice in education through racial and ethnic identity development, critical consciousness, and critical action

* Urban Montessori - Oakland, CA charter

* "Montessori By Any Means Necessary" (article) by Koren Clark (

* Flourish Agenda - Effective strategies to support young people of color based on 25 years of experience, research and sweat!

* South Bronx Community Charter High and some inspiring math and social justice work

* "Moving Beyond Peace Education to Social Justice Education" by Daisy Han and Trisha Moquino

* "What Well-meaning White People Need to Know about Race" - interview with Bryan Stevenson

* - Tiffany Jewell

* ABAR- Anti-bias Anti-Racist Education - Britt Hawthorne

* "Speaking in My Mother Tongue: What it Means to be a Montessori Teacher of Color" by Daisy Han

* Disruptive Equity Education Project (DEEP)

* amplifier art - call for educators! The Education Amplifier program provides an opportunity for community-rooted engagement by bringing Amplifier’s art as well as lesson plans and resources about social justice issues into classrooms across the country. Over 1,850 registered teachers are registered for the program, and teachers are located in every state in the U.S.The pilot year of this program has brought topics such as school gun violence, privilege, racism and combating anti-Muslim bigotry to this network. Through a monthly webinar, resource newsletter, free art downloads, and lesson plans to bring the artwork into their classrooms, Amplifier is providing support to help teachers inspire the future leaders of our country.In Fall of 2017, Amplifier distributed over 1,000 free Educator Art Packs to our network of teachers, providing 10 physical prints to help them engage students in dialogue and inspire them to take action and reshape the national narrative.

* It’s not about serving institutions, it’s about serving children

(In Koren Clark's workshop we wrote down our "teaching whys"--this is what I came up with)

recent notes