By Margaret Whitley
Our elementary children’s imagination is immense. So too is their adaptability and resilience when honored. Today’s unusual pandemic reality calls on adults to be and talk to our children directly, both parents and teacher, balancing any possible fear in our elementary age children with understanding.
One place we can turn which could spawn many more interests and ideas are our lessons from human geography. Our pandemic clearly illustrates our interdependence. Protective equipment is required and made by someone else? During this time of isolation when essential workers still need to go to health care centers, shops, or pick up our garbage, who looks after them or their children? This opportunity, as difficult as it is for so many, for so many reasons, also is an opportunity for greater understanding of interdependence.
News headlines report many impacts to our food supply and systems, whether it is because meat processing is impacted due to employees inability to work, or because our dependency on migrants for farming are prohibited from traveling or are at greater risks themselves because of living conditions or shipping of products to remote locations like the province of Newfoundland in Canada has been limited or shut down because the shippers can’t afford the cost. These are just a few ways today’s situation fractures our often-invisible dependencies. But when we make these webs more visible to each other and our children, there is a better chance of caring for and respecting them.
The essence of the beautiful lessons around where does our bread come from? What does the farmer do? How are we interdependent as people for everything? Reveals to children our critical connectedness to satisfy our fundamental needs. When one or a few of the threads are broken and food is no longer available or our homes are threatened, this impacts many people including ourselves.
Today’s pandemic magnifies this for more people than ever and gently bringing this realization to our elementary children could be powerful and an opportunity to not only reflect on the morality of it all, but also to increase gratitude.
Before dinner each night, my husband always pauses to express gratitude, but our list gets longer daily as our own awareness grows. Thanking health care workers has been part of our litany for many weeks now, but thanking and thinking about all of the people that provide us food, plant the crops, work in shops that still sell and deliver products are more important than ever.
As my father in law said the other day on our regular Facetime call, even though he lives only a few miles away from our home, “We must plan, think about what is important and what food we really need. We can’t just get in the car and buy something we forgot to pick up.” Both he and my mother in law are in the mid-eighties so they have not left their home to shop in over a month, but most weeks we pick up some items for them and drop them off.
In 1985-1986, I trained in Bergamo, Italy to become an elementary teacher. I remember similar feelings that year that swirl around now. The spread was not as extensive as today, but Northern Italy was impacted by the Chernobyl disaster on April 26, 1986, thirty-four years ago. For over a month, we were warned about the use of running, all fresh food-fruits and vegetable, meat, dairy and anything else that came from Europe was wiped out, the grocers had empty shelves for weeks, and our balcony garden was abandoned. We were dependent on powdered milk and canned goods. This experience left a profound impact on me and seared the importance of our human geography work with children.
Over the years I supported the geography curriculum for elementary training at the Toronto Montessori Institute, committed to raising the importance of these lessons. However, it has been a while since I led an elementary classroom. I defer to all of you who today, are supporting both lower and upper elementary children at home. So, I share these thoughts with the hope they might encourage you to review or introduce some of the lessons in human dependencies now, maybe online somehow. Then let your children do some meaningful work and thinking that helps them make their own connections and understanding of our dependencies, fragility, and the need to recognize and protect our systems.
Dr. Laura Flores Shaw, in her the Montessori White Paper article, “Montessori and the Systems Worldview” quotes John Sterman, director of the MIT System Dynamics Group where he states:
…the unsustainability of our society arises because we treat the world as unlimited and problems unconnected when we live on a finite “spaceship Earth” in which “there is no away” and “everything is connected to everything else”…Thus, what is needed is a systems worldview that allows one to perceive the world “in terms of connectedness, relationships, and context”[i]
Now more than ever, is an opportunity to offer our elementary and adolescent students real understanding of our global interdependence and systems. Not to make light of the difficulties that so many are experiencing, but I also subscribe to the adage, never waste a good crisis!
BA, AMI (Elementary), MFA
Margaret Whitley is a speaker, writer, consultant, and lifelong learner. After completing her teacher training in Italy, she spent more than 35 years in Montessori education, including teaching all levels of elementary and establishing the first Montessori middle school in Canada in 1988. She embraced many other roles in Montessori leadership including head of school, teacher trainer and the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators Director of School Accreditation. Guided by her belief that all humans have incredible potential, she continues highlighting education that supports and celebrates each community and individual’s uniqueness.
[i] Shaw, Dr Laura Flores, “Montessori and the Systems Worldview”, the Montessori White Papers, August 2015, Vol. 2. https://www.whitepaperpress.us/publications/the-montessori-white-papers-2/