Wonder, Intrigue, and Sense of Place: Field Studies in RMS Middle School
By Parham Neal-Pishko
There are many unique aspects to secondary education in Montessori, but the one that seems most impactful to the students is the multi-day field studies. Field studies are designed not only to build community among the Middle School students and teachers, but also to foster independence and practical life skills. “This connection between humans and the land is essential in terms of their personal development and their intellectual growth. Place holds a mysterious force under cover. For the adolescent it creates a sense of wonder and intrigue, all the while holding within its boundaries a springboard from which to engage in multiple studies centered around the cosmic task” (Ludick 155). Secondary Montessori programs use field studies as a critical place and time for social development of budding young adults.
Maria Montessori referred to adolescents as Erdkinder, or “land-children”, and believed that having the children of this age work and live together to create their own community is the best way to cultivate their independence. “Life in the open air, in the sunshine, and a diet high in nutritional content coming from the produce of neighboring fields improve the physical health, with the calm surroundings, the silence, the wonders of nature satisfy the need of the adolescent mind for reflection and meditation” (Montessori 67). Of course, living on a farm away from the families for all of the secondary years is not quite feasible, so our version of Erdkinder means taking the students away for five overnight trips over the course of their two-year cycle in Middle School.
The RMS Middle School students have the opportunity to work on and manage a sustainable, organic farm in Asheville, North Carolina for five days, and they spend five days in Washington, D.C. and three days attending Montessori Model UN in New York City. They spend three days on the Chesapeake Bay working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and three days in the Outer Banks of North Carolina learning about their fragile ecosystems and how humanity impacts these environments. “Therefore work on the land is an introduction both to nature and to civilization and gives a limitless field for scientific and historic studies…this means that there is an opportunity to learn both academically and through actual experience what are the elements of social life” (Montessori 68). Each field study is designed to tie closely to some aspect of the curriculum. There is service to each community we visit whether it be volunteering to clear trails in the Buxton Woods Reserve, preparing meals with D.C. Central Kitchen, packaging eggs on the farm for sale at the local Whole Foods, or helping the Chesapeake Bay Foundation collect data to analyze the health of the Bay. The students start to see serving less as an obligation and more as an important contribution to society.
Nothing is more telling of how and why we take the children on field studies than the words of the children themselves. Below are quotes from the students’ trip journals. These reflections are written affirmation of Montessori’s philosophy and vision for Erdkinder.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘There is nothing happier than being the source of someone’s happiness.’ I really like this quote because as someone who doesn’t talk a lot, it makes me happy when I am the source of someone else’s happiness. I think that over the trip, I’ve connected more with this quote.”
“My favorite moment during this field study was when everybody sprinted toward the ocean. At that moment I felt as if all my troubles were sprinting away, just like I was.”
“This trip was perfect for our community because we had to work together as a team a lot. A community, to me, means that everyone is kind to each other and knows each other and so far we have a great community…I feel like I have known every one of the other students forever.”
“At the [Hickory Nut Gap] farm, I am feeling more connected to my food because I see how it is made. I think that if more people knew about where food comes from, they would switch to organic or local food.”
“Looking back at the trip, I feel that the experience has changed my outlook. Learning that the Chesapeake Bay has actually gotten a lot healthier in the past few years made me really hopeful for the future. I imagined it as a dark and scary place with no trees or life because of us, but now I’ve learned that our future can be a bright and happy place if we do the work! I do feel responsible for keeping the Bay healthy.”
“As a leader I’ve learned that the most important thing is to know when to lead and when to step down, to pick your battles. Being a leader is not about telling others what to do, but about making compromises for the good of the group…”
“ I realized that I can do a lot of things if I believe in myself. I also realized that I should really value my opinion, and even though many people’s opinions will affect my life, mine is most important to make sure I live my life with no regrets.”
The field study experience shows up in other parts of the curriculum. There is a reason that these trips are the memories the eighth grade class choose to write about in their graduation speeches. Below is an excerpt from a memoir called Field Studies by an 8th grade student.
“Now, even though a person not on the trips might think that there is no work to do on them, there is. We have to journal at least once every day, and do other work. We have to make the most of our free time for fun and work, but it is not stressful. I have gained from the experiences many things, but there is one thing that I think that people in the world do not get enough of: relaxation. As much as a person may try, he or she knows that when a client calls on the phone while trying to relax, he is of course going to pick it up. Not to make fun of parents or say that working is bad… sometimes people just need to relax… one thing that will stay with me for a long time is this: you need to set aside time for yourself, and just yourself. Do not let that get interrupted either. Just think and relax.”
Ludick, Pat. “The Pedagogy of Place.” NAMTA Journal 26.3 (2001): 155-73. Print.
Montessori, Maria. From Childhood to Adolescence: The Montessori Series. Vol. 12.
Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson, 2007. 59-70. Print.
Trip Journals and writing portfolio work from RMS classes of 2016 and 2017