Embracing the Montessori Roots of Social Justice – and Branching Out

“By creating respectful, inclusive classrooms, celebrating diversity in all its forms, crossing cultural boundaries, and modeling engaged citizenry, Montessori educators nurture students who will transform the world and make it a better place for their generation and the generations that follow.”

The American Montessori Society

True to its Montessori roots, Inly has always integrated peace and social justice education into its PreK–8 curriculum and daily teachings. This commitment to respect, dignity, safety and equitable treatment is a core tenet that runs throughout the school. It’s evident in interdisciplinary academic work, in daily morning-circle discussions, and at Montessori “peace tables” designated for guided conflict resolution and diplomacy in every classroom on campus. 

The “peace table,” found in all Children’s House through Upper Elementary classrooms, is used to teach children to identify and express their feelings, show empathy toward others, and resolve conflicts.

Stepping up our commitment to equity, inclusion, and antiracism

As a Montessori school community, Inly seeks to celebrate diversity in all its forms. Like most predominantly White schools, however, Inly is also increasingly reckoning with the ways it has fallen short in living out inclusive, equity-based principles. In recent years, Inly’s board, administration and faculty have begun to work proactively to deepen its commitment to equity, inclusion, and antiracism.

In 2014 Inly School spearheaded and hosted the first-ever Montessori Conference on Diversity and Equity (MCODE). Two years later it created a new position: Director of Inclusion, and began strategic initiatives to strengthen its diversity goals and objectives. Fast-forward to 2020, and Inly is stepping up this commitment even further to ensure key principles are reinforced across the entire school community, from the classroom and playground to the board room to the family dinner table. 

In July, Francie Latour came aboard as Inly’s new Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, just in time for the new school year. A member of Inly’s senior leadership team, she has begun to outline a bold vision for this role — engaging faculty, staff, and trustees in professional development, working with teachers to reimagine curriculum, and engaging students of all ages in conversations about race, justice, culture, and identity.

As co-founder of Wee the People, a Boston-based social justice project, Francie has designed and led workshops for kids focused on themes like Black Lives Matter, gender identity, immigration, and traditions of protest. She works with kids from kindergarten on up to “unpack and name” some of these complex issues and is excited about developing creative programming for Inly as well. 

How much can kids really understand? And what’s age-appropriate? 

When adults are able to explain these issues, says Francie, the kids really get it. 

“I believe really strongly that kids are hard wired to understand fairness,” she says. “They know what it feels like when things are unfair.”

“I give kids a lot of credit,” she says. “I think kids notice and see a lot, and I think it’s important that as adults we acknowledge this and give them words and frameworks to understand what it is that they’re noticing. And when we fail to do that and when we don’t affirm our values of racial and social justice, then we create a vacuum for kids to make their own meaning out of the skin-color differences they notice. Those ideas are bound to be shaped by distorted and damaging messages about race that are all around us.” 

Talking about racism and other “difficult conversations” 

With three children of her own, age 15, 13 and 11, Francie is a valuable resource for parents as well. One of the frequently asked questions? Parents want to take their kids to a Black Lives Matter march, but they’ve never talked with them about racism. “How do I do this?” they ask. “At what age should we start? “

“The answer is: When they’re very, very young,” says Francie.  

“Research shows that kids start to notice skin color by the age of 2. And by age 3 they’re already assigning meaning and hierarchy of value to skin color.” 

You can start by populating your bookshelves with characters of different races and ethnicities, she says. “Find books with Black and Brown kids where there isn’t any oppression going on. Not all should be about Harriet Tubman or MLK; you need books that are just about being a kid.“

She also recommends a book called What Riley Wore about a child who is not gendered. Books like this that disrupt dominant narratives are really important for kids to see, she says. 

Unlearning and finding the right words 

Just like parents, teachers often have a hard time finding the words in real-time discussions with students. New professional development sessions this year allow teachers to practice just that through role playing and conversations. This type of learning automatically involves some “unlearning” too.

“The ways that we talk about racism often reinforce racist ideas, and that’s a problem that’s really difficult to see,” she says. “Language is how we make sense of our world; if it reflects and reinforces a racist world, then we need to find new ways of speaking.”

During training sessions, Francie challenges teachers to think and talk about Whiteness as well. “It’s important for White educators to see that their racial identity comes with certain limitations and deficits that it’s their responsibility to address. There are some very important things that they can’t see.” 

Promoting racial and cultural literacy

“My goal is to develop racial and cultural literacy the same as we do math literacy or reading literacy — not as something that’s supplemental,” she explains. “It’s core to raising kids who are going to go out into the world to lead in a different way than we have done before.” 

The following core values guide our teaching, our relationships, and our leadership at Inly School:

• We respect the singular gifts of every member of our community and embrace our similarities and differences.

• We explore ideas with an open mind and engage globally.

• We nurture and encourage others in their personal quest in a physically and emotionally safe environment.

View the full list of Inly School Core Values here. 

Read more about diversity discussions and initiatives here.

Read The Scituate Mariner article here.