When I first visited the Counterpane Montessori School on a late summer’s day in 1994, two bright-eyed teenage girls walked over to me, greeted me, shook my hand, and asked who I was. These were no surly, angsty adolescents who hated school. As I looked around I saw students moving freely through their classroom, directing themselves into work. I didn’t even see any teachers until I looked a little closer. I had walked into an entirely different school experience than any I had previously known.
Now, after 15 years of experience working in Montessori adolescent environments, I know why the students I met that day walked through the world with such easy confidence and could choose challenging, meaningful work for themselves. In a beautifully prepared Montessori environment like Counterpane School, adolescents don’t merely survive their teenage years – they thrive.
I’d like you to try a little experiment: Remember a time when you felt genuinely respected by your colleagues or co-workers—the kind of respect that fills you up and recognizes your worth and dignity. That kind of respect gives us confidence to try new things and helps us not to fear failure. Now think back to your teenage years and try to imagine that day in, day out, your teachers treated you with that kind of respect.
Imagine that you had the freedom to choose when you did different kinds of work and could work at your own pace if you managed that freedom responsibly. Imagine you could work on a project for two hours without getting up and going to another classroom. Imagine learning geography by making a globe. You applied science activities to the garden right outside your classroom door. You practiced improvisational drama once a week with light-hearted joy.
Regardless of your age or natural “abilities,” your math teacher worked with you one-on-one when you needed that level of attention. In history, you built a shelter out in the woods with a team of classmates. You researched topics of your own choosing. You wrote and wrote and wrote — poems, stories, essays, research papers. If you wanted to learn computer coding, you did. You chose your own literature books, and when you had group reading assignments, you sat in small group discussion seminars where your ideas were respected. It was OK to make mistakes. But if it was your turn to feed the animals, you couldn’t just make an excuse or say you didn’t feel like it because then the animals wouldn’t eat. Once a week, you sat down with your classmates for a student-facilitated meeting.
This is education not only for college – it is education for LIFE, and it is a taste of the Counterpane experience for its Upper School students. But it is only a taste. Each student has his or her own experience — it is, after all, the student’s learning. Montessori teachers know this. The student is building more than a model of a bridge and creating more than a webpage — the student is constructing herself.
For the adolescent, self-construction means discovering who they are individually and also learning how to live in society and be responsible to the group. More and more, Montessori schools are starting adolescent programs in a growing movement to reach more young people. The land of Counterpane, sitting amid the tall pine trees of Fayette County, has been ahead of the curve, serving children age 3-18 for 44 years. If you want to see what the Counterpane experience looks like up close, you can schedule a visit by calling 770-461-2304. I can’t guarantee, however, that a student will stop working and walk up to talk with you — they might be too engaged by their work to notice a visitor has walked through the door.