Opinion Extra

Ervin, Love: Montessori-inspired Pennies for Peace comes to S.C.

At the 2009 annual conference of the American Montessori Society in New Orleans, the keynote speaker was Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time (co-written with David Oliver Relin, Penguin Books, 2006). The attendees listened appreciatively while Mortenson recounted his 1993 attempt to scale one of the most challenging peaks of the Himalayans. Although he did not reach the summit of K2, Mortenson achieved perhaps an even greater and unexpected zenith: becoming a humanitarian dedicated to building schools in the remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is not surprising that the Montessori teachers in the audience embraced Mortenson's message. The subtitle of Mortenson's book suggests the connections between peace and education, a concept rooted in the work of Maria Montessori, an Italian educator of the early 20th century. Mortenson's daughters attend a Montessori school in Washington, and the first donation that Mortenson received for the building of a school in Pakistan came from children who were students at a Montessori school, a project that has become known as "Pennies for Peace." The children collected pennies, and then donated that money to help Mortenson build his first school in Pakistan.

A number of striking parallels exist between the lives and work of Greg Mortenson and Maria Montessori. Both Mortenson and Montessori began their work in medicine - Mortenson a nurse and Montessori a doctor. Both Mortenson and Montessori also demonstrate the idea that problems may actually be the seeds for life's greatest opportunities. Through their encounters with dispossessed persons, Montessori with special needs children housed in intolerable asylums and Mortenson with isolated rural Pakistanis lacking access to health care and education, both discovered that education has transformative power.

Some of the ideas central to Montessori's methods include a belief in the importance of intrinsic motivations for learning, an interest in learning from peers and in learning from contexts, an emphasis on self-control and personal responsibility and a desire to allow children to develop their own unique talents. For Montessori, the goal of the educator is to help the child discover his or her potential, a potential that has the power to transform the child and the world. Montessori wrote that if educators "free the child's potential," we will also "transform the world."

This fall at the S.C. Montessori Alliance conference at Crayton Middle School in Columbia, area Montessori schools will launch their own "Pennies for Peace" campaign to support Mortenson's work. Children attending public and private Montessori schools across the state will participate throughout this school year to raise money to build schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

South Carolina, through the efforts of the S.C. Montessori Alliance and the S.C. Department of Education's Office of School Choice, has gained recognition as a leader in the field of Montessori education, drawing attention from around the country. Through Montessori education, hundreds of children in 14 school districts across the state are able to experience the transformative powers of education. Lander University, home to the state's only university-based Montessori teacher preparation program, is exploring ways to help more of South Carolina's children reach new summits in their academic journeys through Montessori Education.