The six to twelve year-olds are characterized by their:
Rational, logical, and powerful intellects that hunger for information and exploration;
Passionate emotions that thirst for justice and belonging;
Questing, unbounded spirits that yearn for meaning and wholeness;
And their sturdy and energetic bodies that urge them to go out on their own and find out for themselves.
In the elementary communities, we recognize and support our children’s characteristics by providing them with the motives and the means for feeding their own hungry intellects through their own active exploration of language, math, science, and social studies.
Our six to nine year-olds are given the skills and responsibility for managing their own emotional development in the community and for mediating their own relationships among their peers according to the high Montessori and school ethical standards.
We offer the children’s spirits the vision of the Cosmic Curriculum for integrating a cohesive whole of their intellectual, emotional, and social education.
Our elementary students go out beyond the school walls and gates to explore, research, and consult for themselves in order to extend their studies and anchor them in concrete experience.
This leads to a lot of Big Work concerning many Big Questions.
Big Questions/Big Work
What is Life on Earth all about? How did it Begin? How has it developed? How will it continue? The Earth, Life on Earth: Plants, Animals, and Humans? The Past, the Present, and the Future? Forming a Family, Conception, Life before Birth, Birth, Human Development, Maturity, Old Age, Death? Early Humans, Great Civilizations, the Present, the Future? Religions, Spiritual Paths, Philosophies? How much do we need/How much is too much: Poverty and Riches? The Health of the Earth, Plants, Animals, and Humans today? Poverty, Disaster, and Disease? War and Peace? Relationships, Work, and Play: Collaboration over Competition? Communities, Common Ground, and Consensus?
Transforming Philosophy into Practice
Everything we do at school, all the preparations of Lessons and Presentations, all the Rituals and Procedures, and the Prepared Environment indoors and out, is planned to make every detail a part of a whole that is compatible with our values.
The Full Cycle of Life: Death and the Decomposition of the Body:One of the Big Questions
One of the ways we relate to death with our children is to give it honor and respect and value in real, practical, and immediate ways. This is expressed in two distinct ways.
I. An Animal Giving its Body Back to the Earth (The Scientific Aspects)
Sometime during the year a dead animal is discovered. Perhaps it is a mouse or a rat. It could be a bird, a lizard, or a snake. The guide says, “Oh, look, a dead lizard. The spirit of life has left the lizard. He is dead. See how his legs are curved up. If I touch him with a stick it is not to poke around at his lifeless body with idle curiosity; it is to understand better his body now that it is lifeless.”
The guide continues in a hushed tone of wonder and awe, “Dear lizard, how still you are without the spirit of life in you. How different you are from your living self. We see that you have are giving your body back to the Earth through the great mystery of death and decomposition. We come with respect and reverence to see your dead body. We will observe how you give your body back to the earth through decomposition. We will move your body to a private place where no one will bother it, but we can still watch it decomposing. We will move your body with great respect and without touching it. We will explain to everyone and we will make signs to set apart a special place of reverence for your decomposing body. The signs will say “Have respect: Lizard Giving Body Back to Earth.” Another sign will say “Decomposing Bacteria at Work: Obey the Stench and Stay Back.” We will make sure nobody pokes your dead body with a stick or makes silly faces or says, “Disgusting!”
Depending on the specifics, the guide continues with one of the following that applies:
“Look, his body is still pliant; his death must have been recent. If he were alive, would his body be warm like a bird’s or a mouse’s? When they die, their bodies become cold.”
“His body is not dry but it is stiff. Rigor mortis has set in. How many hours after death does that happen? How long does it last?”
“He is dry and hard. The moisture seems to have left his body. The air has carried it up.”
“Ants are feasting on the lifeless matter. They will turn it back into the earth for us, while they enjoy a wonderful meal.”
“Worms are wiggling in his abdominal cavity. Are they the larva of maggots, the special recyclers of earth? See how God/Nature has provided for us in life and in death? Animal bodies feed other animals in many different ways.”
“If there were vultures here, would they feast on this tiny carcass the way they feed on the bodies of rabbits and deer? See how the Life is organized so that the vulture gets the food it needs and enjoys while at the same time the stench of the decaying body is taken away.”
“Smell the special odor. Sometimes it is called the stench of death. It is a gift from Nature that tells us special bacteria are at work. These are the bacteria that serve us by turning the dead body back into rich soil. They are decomposing bacteria and they do a very beneficial work for us. We are grateful that they produce a stench to tell us to stay away from their work site. It’s the same as construction workers putting up a barricade with a sign that says, “DANGER: MEN AT WORK” in order to insure our safety. These are beneficial bacteria.”
The children that would like to make a project of it design a special form for observation and make notes twice each day on the progress of the decomposition. The guide supports them to maintain a respectful and scientific attitude throughout the process.
One day many years ago, the children found the body of a dog in the state of advanced decomposition in a dry creek bed in a park beside the satellite campus. They told the school shuttle driver how exciting it was to find an entire skeleton with so little fur and skin left on it and no organs remaining. They told the driver that this would make a fine opportunity for studying the skeleton and that the guide would be delighted to receive it. The driver endured the stench and helped the children take a plastic garbage bag to wrap the remains in. He carried the package carefully and made sure that no one touched it while it rode in the bus to the main campus.
At school, the guide helped the children put the remains into a bathtub of bleach water. Eventually, after many changes of bleach water, the skeleton was ready and the children labeled a real skeleton, one that they had found themselves.
II. An Animal Giving its Body Back to the Earth (The Spiritual Aspects)
Another time during the year, the children find a dead animal—a bird, squirrel, lizard, or snake, perhaps. They are led to approach the body with the same mystery and respect. The approach of the Spiritual Aspects of death and decomposition varies from the science of death and decomposition in that the guide leads the children to consider the various ways the dead human body is cared for. The children share what they know about it. They do research on cremation and burial. They may ask about embalming. The guide may suggest they research the Navajo way of death with their customs concerning placing the body high in an isolated place for the scavengers to enjoy, avoiding dying in the Hogan, and death that does occur in the Hogan. They research mummification and other treatments of the body over time and across geography.
The guide leads the children to consider the death by old age of animals in nature, animals as food for others, the role of fungi, desiccation in hot desert sands, and other issues. The guide waits for the children’s information and questions. They often bring up the deaths of their pets and relatives.
The children who are interested do the research and plan a service for the dead body. All the same comments are made by the guide concerning the differences in a dead and a living body and the changes over time. The same approach is taken of awe and reverence. The same care is taken to avoid contact with the bacteria of decomposition.
This time the emphasis is on customs rather than on the scientific observation of decomposition. Many questions arise about the Life/Soul/Spirit that has departed. The children discuss their own ideas and all the ideas they have heard about concerning God/Great Spirit/ Life Force. They discuss the destination of the life that has departed. Becoming one with All, becoming a part of the Earth, going to Heaven, being Reincarnated—this makes a fine subject for research and discussion.
The gerbil had died. The children arrived in the morning to find it dead in its cage. They saw that it still had food and water. They put on rubber gloves and masks and removed the gerbil from its cage and placed it on a pad of paper towels in a small cardboard box. They listened for a heartbeat with the stethoscope, but found none. The gerbil was still warm so they couldn’t believe it was dead. Really, they didn’t want to accept what they couldn’t explain.
The children called a vet. They explained the situation. He said they should observe for rigor mortis. The guide said they should keep themselves free from any bacteria that might be at work in the gerbil’s body.
The children observed the gerbil and claimed repeatedly that they had seen him move or blink or breathe. Then rigor mortis set in and the children accepted the gerbil’s death. A small group of them made a funeral. They wrote cards and drew pictures. They dug a little grave and sealed the box. They gathered flowers, sang songs, and said words over the grave.
I have spent the past two days speaking to groups of children, four to six at a time, in various classrooms about their friend’s mother. A couple of parents have requested that I write about the conversations to share them with you. When I spoke with the children, we usually began with how very sick or hurt a person can be and how complete the recovery can be. Treatments and medications can help a person get well again. The children told stories about people they have known who were very sick or injured and how they have recovered.
We spoke of the people who get worse for a long time and finally get better after years of medication and treatment. The children shared stories. We spoke of the people who get worse and worse and no medication or treatment helps them. They continue getting worse and they don’t get better. The children told of people they’ve known who died.
We spoke of the mystery of life and death and how the two are one. There is no life without death. Just as we open our arms to life, we open our arms to death. The children speak of all the animals and people they know who have died. They speak of the little babies, children, teenagers, parents, and grandparents. We talk about the usual order of things, the model we expect—that animals and people die when they are very old and ready to die. We grieve and we miss them, but it is an expected and accepted grieving and missing.
We spoke of the babies, children, teenagers, and parents who die — how few of them die and how unexpected and unacceptable we feel it is. We emphasized how unusual it is for a mom or dad to die before the children are grown up. I tell the children that a child’s worst fear is often that their parents will die, but that actually their parents will probably live to be eighty years old. Very old people who are sick and feeble may come to long for death. Those who love them may welcome their death as a kind relief. It is unusual for parents to die before the children are grown up.
The children talk about sickness, accidents, and diseases. I follow their lead and straighten out their misinformation. I repeat how wondrous, strange and beautiful, how sorrowful and lovely, and how heartbreaking and joyous life is. The children spoke of their ideas of what comes after death. We spoke of Heaven and the angels, of the Good Earth and giving our bodies back to it. We spoke of returning to Live Again and of Life Everlasting and of Becoming All with Nature, both body and spirit.
The children all had their own ideas and ways of thinking and feeling about sickness and death. We brought up many different religions and spiritual paths. We spoke of God, the Life Force, and Nature. One little boy waited until the other four children in the group had left. Then, he told me had no religion. I smiled a big, broad smile at him and said a big ahaa! He looked at me harder, with large and earnest eyes, and said, really, his family had no religion. I told him; in that case, it meant that “all of life” was his religion. He smiled and smiled. He said yes! I told him he would love all of life and be kind and loving to all of life—that he would be the best person he could be because he loved life. That would be his religion.
Children spoke of seeing a grandparent in bed at night and then finding his bed empty in the morning, because he had died and his body had been taken away. Such a mystery! They spoke of burials and cremations. We spoke of joy and sorrow, sickness and health, and accidents and recoveries. We spoke of how long and hard grief can be and how we take joy right in the middle of it. Sometimes we have to open our hearts wider even when we hurt to let a bit of joy come in to the sorrow. We spoke of how sorrow goes away, but not altogether, and how it comes back suddenly. We spoke of how we call joy back, take it in and fill ourselves up with it.
We spoke of how hard it is to see a person becoming weak and thin. Watching a healthy body change can be upsetting to us. A couple of years ago, some of our families and children experienced a father dying over a three-month period. They said it was hard to watch him change so that they could no longer see in his body the person they had known. And it was hard when he could no longer recognize them and began calling them by other names. A child described how it haunted her for a long time.
The girls in the Brownie troop remember how recently they met at Amy’s house and her mother Teresa made delicious treats for them to eat and prepared interesting activities for them to do. In their practical and life-affirming way, the children were immediately concerned about who will be their Brownie leader.
One girl spoke of how strange it will be to go to Amy’s house and not see her mother. How can that be possible? Life and death are mysteries. The children asked if they could see Teresa again. They were sad to think they would never see her again. We said that within themselves, they carry a part of her spirit and some believe that they will see her in Heaven and she will be a part of all of Life and her body will be part of the Earth. We will all remember her and speak of her. The children can tell of good times they had with her. The children can make cards. Maybe the children can attend her memorial.
One girl said it is the mother who cares for you and feeds you and listens when you are upset. How can a child grow up without her mother, she wondered? The children said over and over with fear and anger, this is not fair, not fair, not fair. They said it is okay for a sick and suffering person to die but not fair for a child not to have her mother. We search our souls for that fierce and passionate strength that we wish we never needed to find. We grow wiser than we ever wished we would.
But Amy has had such a loving and joyful mother for so long that she is strong and full of joy herself. She will be able to suffer the loss of her mother’s presence on earth yet keep her mother’s loving presence within her. It will be very hard but Amy will be fine.
Each person has a different way of grieving and we have to respect each person’s way. Your children will probably want to talk about this with you, their friends and their teachers; and they should feel free to do so. At the same time, it is important that each child respect Amy’s way of dealing with her grief and to follow her lead when discussing it with or near her. Handmade cards are a good way for children to express their sorrow and share their love for Amy while respecting Amy’s right to privacy with her grief.
Amy has many close friends whose mothers and fathers have helped out with rides to school and outings. These mothers and fathers are ready to do whatever is needed to help Amy and her father. Amy has spent her days at school and in the company of friends doing fun things.
Teresa’s dream was to move to a house close to school before she died. Her husband and family are working to make that dream come true. Perhaps they will be moving by the end of this month. Amy’s father, Tim, will keep Amy in school next year so she can be close to her friends and their parents.
We knew you would want to know what’s going on and how we are speaking to the children about it so you can support them.
With sorrow and affection, and looking toward joy,
And so, as in all things, the School Culture is pervasive, cohesive, and integrated in philosophy and practice.
Donna Bryant Goertz, founder of Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas, acts as a resource to schools around the world. Donna’s book,Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful: Preventing Exclusion in the Early Elementary Classroom draws on her thirty years of experience guiding a community of thirty-five six-to-nine year-olds. She received her Montessori elementary diploma from the Fondazione Centro Internazionale Studi Montessoriani in Bergamo, Italy, and her assistants to infancy diploma from The Montessori Institute of Denver, Colorado.