By Cooper Allen
“Do all of these kids look like they’re from the same culture?” Lourdes Barden asks her class of 6-to-9-year-old students at Evergreen School in Wheaton, Md.
“Noooo,” the children collectively respond. Today’s lesson is about universal human needs, which Barden is illustrating by showing her class a series of photos of people from a variety of nationalities and cultural backgrounds. The students,sitting on the floor, identify the potential origins of the people in the photos, then paste them inside a circle on a large sheet of paper.
“No, they look like they’re from different cultures,” Barden says. “And they are.”
This lesson carries particular resonance to this group of students who mirror the differences evident in the photos.
Many private schools are characterized by their demographic disconnect from the communities they serve. But at Evergreen, a Montessori school in Wheaton, a city marked by its diversity, it’s not uncommon for classrooms to be majority-minority. Indeed, administrators say it’s that diversity – and how cultural issues are routinely woven into the curriculum – that attracts parents to the school.
“I don’t think you would have a student here that would even use the word diversity,” says Marcia Jacques, the head of school at Evergreen. “I don’t think they think about it like that. We just learn about each other, and we celebrate each other’s differences.”
The Montessori approach to education – developed by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, in the early 20th century – is both a method and a philosophy. It emphasizes movement and the notion that children should choose their own lessons.
Montessori schools differ from traditional schools in a number of immediately noticeable ways, namely the variety of ages in each classroom. Montessori schools are divided into three age levels – primary, lower and upper elementary.
At Evergreen, administrators see bringing cultural issues into the classroom lessons as essential to fulfilling the Montessori vision, so much so that teachers often do not have to focus on diversity, per se, because it informs nearly everything they do. It’s all part of their goal of making their students “citizens of the world.”
“We don’t have to work at it,” Jacques says. “It’s very natural to Montessori education, I think, because it’s very much a worldview.”
Educational researchers have emphasized the importance of bringing cultural and diversity issues into the classroom.
Dina Castro, a child development research at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says bringing diversity issues into the classroom at a young age and instilling in students a sense of connection to their community is essential to giving students “a sense of identity.”
She adds, however, “this is not going to happen by itself – spontaneously.” Teachers, she says, have to focus on cultural awareness and diversity issues in their classrooms. One way to do this, she says, is to build “good, strong partnerships” with parents.
What’s more, Castro adds, “teachers should also be interested in learning” about their students’ backgrounds.
As the day’s lesson progresses, Barden points out the cultural backgrounds within the – two students’ families are from Africa , another’s is from Brazil and one is from Jamaica, which prompts an excited classmate to say, “Me, too!”
Barden says she thinks Evergreen’s student body is representative of the Wheaton community, an area with a majority non-white population, according to recent census data.
Evergreen’s student body – approximately 78 – is 27 percent African American, 12 percent Asian American, 4 percent Latino and 15 percent multi-racial, which, combined, constitutes a majority-minority population.
However, Jacques says children here look beyond the school’s and the area’s demographic data.
“I don’t think kids really see that – they see each other,” she says. “It’s so rich and beautiful, until society gets a hold of us, you know.”
She explains the rationale for the day’s lesson, one she says is taught at Montessori schools around the world. She says she wanted to engage her students in the idea that “no matter who you are, where you are, what you look like, we all basically have common needs.”
Barden added that although her classroom is diverse, with students from a variety of racial and national backgrounds, the lesson could have worked in a classroom without Evergreen’s diversity.
“You have many opportunities,” Castro says of teaching the importance of appreciating diversity to students at a young age. “They’re still forming ideas.”
The discussion about culture and human needs in Barden’s class proves to be wide-ranging. The class frequently asks and answers questions about cultures around the globe. There is even a lengthy discussion of the culture of cavemen, which seemed to be a particularly engaging topic for the students.
Finally, as the activity nears its end, 8-year-old Tobi Onaolapo brings the discussion back to more contemporary times – sort of.
Getting reading to ask a question, he says, “This isn’t about the cavemen, but it was, like, a long time ago – like the 1980s.”