By Sue Duris
Walking onto the campus of Casa di Mir Montessori School near San Jose, California, reminded me of entering a Buddhist temple. The sense of peace and serenity was surprising — and something quite different from what I remember about grade school.
I mentioned this to the school’s executive director, Wanda Whitehead, and it led to a brief discussion about religion. “Religions can be walls,” she says. “If we can study them, we can teach [students] to not fear but embrace them all.”
Teaching students to understand and respect diverse cultures and beliefs, helping them develop critical thinking skills to wipe out ignorance and fear, working with them to break down walls and build a community of life-long learners — these are cornerstones of Casa di Mir’s educational approach.
Fortifying Casa di Mir With the Six Pillars
All of this dovetails nicely with CHARACTER COUNTS!, which is based on universally shared values called the Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and good citizenship.
“CHARACTER COUNTS! is terrific!” says Whitehead, referring to the “TRRFCC” acronym that helps students remember all six values. At Casa di Mir, it would be hard to forget them: A huge handmade wall display in a common area makes sure the Pillars stay top of mind. (See photo below.)
Since attending a CHARACTER COUNTS! Character Development Seminar in nearby Saratoga last year, Whitehead and her teachers who also received CC! training have been leading the charge to integrate the Six Pillars into school activities and the curriculum. They happily report that the CC! program was a natural fit.
“The clear definition of the Six Pillars was intriguing,” Whitehead says about the training, “and the collection of support materials was wonderful.”
Whitehead lists some examples of how they’ve woven CC! into the curriculum. As part of language arts activities, students learn to spell the names of the Pillars, and they come up with other terms to define and describe all six values. They also incorporate the Pillars into creative writing and essay activities.
Teachers use video and art forms to teach and reinforce character-building lessons. For instance, students watch this video of a softball game in which opposing team players carry an injured player around the bases after she hit a home run. The students discuss how this act of selflessness and sportsmanship made them feel and how it demonstrates qualities associated with the Six Pillars.
The Road to Casa di Mir
Whitehead was a veteran teacher long before Casa di Mir came along. She taught in the Palo Alto USD system from 1973-1989. “I received some great experience at the PAUSD,” she says. “It was very progressive during those years and provided a great deal of professional freedom and creativity for me.”
That was before the standardized test became king. Whitehead recalls how public school teachers gradually lost autonomy as they were forced to teach to the test. The concomitant limitation on learning was a real disappointment, she says.
Montessori was the ray of light that shone through that dark cloud. “The Montessori method is based on the careful study of child development and the focus on the development of the whole of the child’s character,” explains Whitehead. “The integrated, rich curriculum inspired me! This was the cutting edge of visionary education and our growing knowledge of brain development, and I wanted to be part of it.”
And so Casa di Mir was born.
It was a home birth, with Whitehead opening the doors of her house and accepting students in 1989. To accommodate growth, the school moved to a larger space and has been at its current location in Campbell, California, since 1999. That campus houses the preschool and elementary classrooms. Last year, the school opened a campus for middle school students down the street.
The Montessori Method
Casa di Mir serves students from age 3 to the 8th grade. Beginning at the elementary school level, students work with their teachers to set learning goals and create work plans. The idea here is to give kids a sense of responsibility and to inspire curiosity and the desire to learn.
Consistent with the Montessori method, Casa di Mir’s classrooms are filled with students of different ages. Students work at their own pace, with the teacher providing materials and activities to help maintain and advance their learning. In a mixed-age class, children work on different projects and at different levels. Younger children are excited about what they see older children learning. Older children, in turn, have the opportunity to lead and help the younger ones.
Casa di Mir teaches the same basic skills as traditional schools. In fact, it exceeds standards and offers a rigorous academic program in math, science, history, geography, language, art, music and physical education. Casa di Mir uses students’ test scores as part of a larger progress picture, and Whitehead reports that their students, on average, are working above grade level and the national average in all subjects.
Character and Community
According to the American Montessori Society, “the benefits of Montessori — the emphasis on independent learning, for example, and the warm, supportive community — continue to be important at each stage of development as children grow into lifelong learners and responsible citizens of the world.”
This emphasis on community is another area of overlap with CHARACTER COUNTS!. One of the reasons that CC! came up with the Six Pillars was to provide a consistent language about ethics and character that could resonate across the community, from the home to the classroom to the playground to the workplace.
Because there is broad consensus on these values, schools report that it’s not hard to get support from parents and community groups. Like many schools, Casa di Mir helps bring parents into the character-building fold with holiday celebrations and other events that parents attend.
By all accounts, Casa di Mir is achieving the lofty goal set forth by Martin Luther King, Jr. (and proclaimed on the school’s website): “The function of education is to teach one to think intensely and to think critically … intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
Sue Duris is a freelance writer who works with education nonprofits to create and implement their marketing strategies.
If you know of a teacher, student, school or community exemplifying great character, let us know so we can feature their story in this blog.