This is a story I told my Upper Elementary (9-12 year old) students. It’s adapted from an analogy that my Montessori trainer, Greg MacDonald, gave me, but I tweaked it a bit. I’m sharing it here because it both informs my work as a Montessori guide every day, and also rings true for my own experience as a Montessori child.
There is a great library of knowledge, and one of the reasons we go to school is to get access to that library. Now, for a long time, the way that worked was a teacher would go take a book out of the library, hand it to you, and say, “here, learn what’s in this and then repeat it back to me.”
Maria Montessori (and a lot of other very wise people), realized that the great library isn’t something you can just go visit; every person has to build their own library in their own mind. In fact, the libraries don’t look exactly the same. My library has an express elevator up to the math floor, and secret passages from the math floor to the art floor and to the language floor. It also has a big room with books about how to help other people build their libraries, because that is my work. That’s my favorite place to hang out. Yours might have a big, comfy writing room where you like to spend time, or it might be exquisitely decorated. Or you might walk right into the justice room, and all the other rooms branch off from there. Your secret passages will be in totally different places than mine, because everyone has their own way of connecting the things they know.
In a Montessori school, you spend your years in the Children’s House building the foundation of your library and learning enough architecture, engineering, and construction skills that you can get going on the rest of the building. You have to know something about what’s in the world before you can really start organizing your library, and you need to be able to speak, and listen, and imagine, and maybe know something about reading and writing and numbers in order to build a good library.
When you come into the Elementary, your work is to build a strong library. We start off by telling you the Great Stories: The Story of the Universe, The Story of the Coming of Life, The Story of the Coming of Human Beings [or The Fable of the Savannah Ape, which is what I tell] and so on. These are like the instructions for framing your library. They tell you what floors should be in your library, so that you’ll have places to put the rooms you’re building and you’ll be able to put them in a logical order.
After that, my job is simply to help you design and build your library. Sometimes, I give you lessons to show you where you could put a new room or a new shelf or a new secret passage in your library. Other times, I help you when you get stuck and need to redesign a room or a secret passage. I also make sure you put in the things our society expects you to have in your library and that you visit every floor of your library at least occasionally. But in the end, you are the architect, engineer, and builder of your own library.
When you leave here, your library won’t be finished. In fact, it will never be finished. That’s okay. What I care about is that you know how to do a good job as the architect, engineer, and builder of your library. I care that you know how to ask for help when you need it. I care that you know how to help others build their libraries when they need it. And I care that you know your own library well enough that you can use it to help make life better for more people. I want you to be able to look at problems in the world, then look inward at your own library, and be able to say, “Ah, this is my task right now. This is what I can give.”
After sharing this story, I spent most of a day looking at maps and listening to descriptions of my students’ libraries. The descriptions were stunning, creative, hilarious, and beautiful (and included not a small number of roller coasters). Now, I’m asking you: what does your library look like? What part of your library do you like to spend time in?