A Living, Learning Community

11/20/2009  |  MEGHAN LUNDY-JONES
montessori education

Some teachers say they live with their work. I actually live with my students, teenage students, no less. We’re talking 12 to15 year olds. Adolescents. These are kids with mood swings and stinky feet. These are kids who want to be independent, but need you to tuck them into bed when they don’t feel well. I live with five of them.

I work at the Arthur Morgan School, a boarding and day school for 7th, 8th and 9th graders. The school is located on 100 acres of forests and fields in the mountains of Western North Carolina. There were only 26 students this past year. Sometimes we have up to 29, but 30 is pushing it. We like it small because without that intimacy, we wouldn’t be a family. Staff and students living and learning together define the Arthur Morgan School. We live with our students during some of the most crucial developmental years of their life, helping them to become responsible, independent, conscious, caring adults.

This concept of living with our students came from Maria Montessori’s vision for adolescent education, whose philosophies heavily influenced our founder, Elizabeth Morgan. Montessori saw adolescence as the “sensitive period” for social relationships, the age at which the child must make a place for himself with his peers and at which he begins to consider the social realities of the wider community. She thought the children of this age group should be at a boarding school in a rural setting, where the children and their teachers would live in a self-contained community, self-governing and to a considerable extent selfsupporting. Raising their own food and perhaps running a store, they would learn about work first-hand. She called these children “erdkinder,” or land children. Elizabeth

Morgan combined Montessori’s philosophies with her own Quaker values of simplicity, honesty, service, consensus decision-making and non-violence. The result is a school that emphasizes the development of the whole person through a combination of study, practical experience, community living and personal responsibility.

The school program encompasses not only academics, but other opportunities such as cooking, gardening, hiking, chopping wood, blacksmithing, pottery, music, jewelry making and raising turkeys for Thanksgiving. Slaughtering turkeys for our celebratory dinner is a choice students have, but a surprising number of them opt for that experience, as well. They will tell you, the way they think about how food gets to the table is changed forever.

Boarding students live in houses like mine, four or five students with a set of house parents who work at the school. My husband and I like to joke that we have two full-time jobs — one as staff at the school and another as the pseudoparents of our students. Really it’s one and the same — we’re just teachers doing our job a little differently than most. If I want to teach about energy consumption, I don’t have to be confined to an hour in the classroom. I can do a lesson that extends out of the classroom and into our homes. Boarding homes have spent time putting weather stripping on the windows and buying timers for their hot water heaters. We even went so far one year as to install a hot water solar panel on the top of our house.

We can also extend that learning into field trips off campus. Two years ago my husband and I traveled with a group of nine students to the mountain top removal sites in West Virginia to show first-hand what it looks like at the other end of the light switch. Following that experience, kids in my boarding house regularly got on one another’s case for leaving the lights on, because this learning extended into their home life, not just their school life. When one of my students comes to class without having completed his or her homework, I know why. I know what they were up to the night before, what their procrastination habits are, whether their relationship with parents and friends are functional, whether they had homework for another class that took up all of their free time. I don’t have to wonder who my students are when they are away from school. I know what makes each of them tick because I live with them.

Arthur Morgan School offers the opportunity for staff and students to integrate love with learning. They learn to create and live in community, and when leaving AMS, they carry those skills with them into the greater world community.

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