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In a contentious time, students extend ‘grace and courtesy’

Montessori philosophy helps address pandemic stress, anxiety

Grand Rapids – It’s a simple enough question, posed by teacher Michelle Holliday: What does grace and courtesy mean to you? But for the 27 fourth- through sixth-graders seated in a circle, it’s an important one, delving into ideals that run through everything they learn and do at their school, Grand Rapids Montessori Academy.

“Grace and courtesy means you are respectful, and you know what’s right and you do what’s right,” says Quinn Diehl in the morning meeting all Montessori classes hold.  

Adds Ruby Shoemaker, “Grace and courtesy means that you are putting kindness first, and that you think about others.”

Simply put, says Vincent Smith, “Having grace and courtesy means you’re a decent person.” 

‘If it was tough for us adults to go through this pandemic, I can’t imagine what it’s like for a student. It upends their whole world.’

– Daniel Morse, assistant principal

It may sound like an obvious value to instill in students. But in a contentious time, the Montessori ethos of grace and courtesy stands out as a refreshing example of how students can get along when many adults seemingly cannot.

In this morning meeting held daily, Holliday’s students model respectful behaviors that have been instilled in them since preschool, “taking ownership of how to start their day,” says Holliday, in her 14th year of Montessori teaching. 

“It really is something that is constantly practiced. The point is that the children are given direction, and then leadership opportunities to do it themselves.”

Related: New curriculum helps students understand how emotions impact learning

Apt Approach for the Moment  

The pre-K-6 school on College Avenue NE is part of a downtown Montessori campus that includes a section of Innovation Central High School, serving about 590 students from grades pre-K through 12. North Park and Ridgemoor Park schools also provide Montessori education in a fast-growing GRPS program that enrolls 1,260 students.

Developed in 1907 by Italian educator Maria Montessori, the Montessori method encompasses tangible objects, multi-age classrooms and student-directed work. Now employed in about 5,000 U.S. schools serving over 1 million children, the Montessori way promotes values of community, peace and justice, and active attention to grace and courtesy — guideposts for everything from conflict resolution to how students should walk around others working in class. 

It’s a philosophy, advocates say, well-suited to helping students navigate the anxiety of the pandemic and a highly polarized culture, where issues like mask-wearing and teaching about racism have sometimes become pitched battles.  

‘Grace and courtesy means that you are putting kindness first, and that you think about others.’

– Sixth-grader Ruby Shoemaker

For students who were working largely from home last year, the return to in-person classes this fall has created a kind of “hyper-vigilance,” says Daniel Morse, Grand Rapids Montessori assistant principal. 

“Coming back to this environment with so many people after being away for so long is overwhelming for a lot of people,” Morse says. “That’s why we’re underlining such a need both for students and adults to focus on the grace and courtesy ideals.” 

That means giving grace to others who make mistakes, doing favors and using kind language, he adds: “Because let’s be honest, if it was tough for us adults to go through this pandemic, I can’t imagine what it’s like for a student. It upends their whole world.” 

Intentionally incorporating grace and courtesy into daily lessons and personal interactions helps students deal with an intensely stressful time, adds Principal Kerri Reed. 

“The goal is that we focus on having that communication, listening to each other, being able to speak respectfully to each other, and then having them be able to take that out into life and use that skill,” says Reed, in her sixth year as principal. “You don’t always have to agree. You can still be friends with this person.”

Teacher Michelle Holliday makes a point to the class during their morning meeting, while (from her left) students Raymond Setles, Julian Deubner, Makinna Henriques and Hiliana Lopez follow along

Feeling Safe and Trusting Others 

Some students from Holliday’s class say the school helps them feel safe, trust others and resolve conflicts. Says fifth-grader Makinna Henriques, “It keeps me thinking people have loyalty in my trusting, and that I can tell them anything.” 

Sixth-grader Raymond Setles says grace and courtesy “puts peace of mind in the school.” Without it, he adds, “I could have turned out (to be) somebody picking on a lot of people, or somebody could have turned out picking on me a lot.” 

For sixth-grader Ruby Shoemaker, attending Grand Rapids Montessori for a few years has changed how she thinks. “Now whenever I say something, I’ll just think about, Is it nice? Is it something I should say? Is it going to be offensive?”

Each room has a “peace table” where students can either go to calm down or work through an issue with another student. “If you get mad at someone, you can always go to the peace table and try to resolve your problems,” says sixth-grader Mira Reidsma-Withrow. 

Returning to in-person learning full-time is a plus, the students agree, even with mandatory masks. While Raymond finds them annoying, others like Ellery Evans say they don’t mind. 

Working from home last year, fourth-grader Ellery says, “It was kind of stressful for me to do all this stuff. I had to do a lot of assignments. Now that I’m just in person, I feel much better.

“Yes, we’re still wearing masks, but I’m getting really used to them,” she adds. “Now it just feels like I don’t have a mask on anymore.”

Ella Mutch takes a moment at the peace table, saying it ‘calms me down’

Discussing Happiness and Compostable Plates

Earlier, these students had taken part in the morning meeting, where they and their classmates acknowledged one another’s good qualities and discussed the nature of happiness. Sixth-grader Ava Najdowski also updated them on a petition drive to bring back compostable cafeteria plates as part of the school’s partnership with Groundswell

Quinn Diehl read a passage from “Today I Will,” a book of daily insights and advice, about how happy experiences like sports championships are transitory. Students weighed in, including Quinn himself. 

“I think it means that even that happiness fades, even when you think it will never fade,” he says. 

Ella Mutch ventures that it’s more about not being a sore loser. “If you’re a sore loser, you don’t enjoy the good moments.” 

Ruby Shoemaker offers a reflection that seems apropos not just to her class, but to the uncertain state of the world. 

“I think it’s really just about valuing your time, but also being in the moment instead of thinking about the past or the future,” she says. “Just be in the moment.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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