I wanted to put out a reminder that this evening marks your final opportunity to head over to The Tivoli for the final showing of The Lottery at the Starz Film Center in Denver. You can learn more about the film, and purchase tickets or copies of the documentary here:
Josh and I went to see the film last weekend; I thought it was a really powerful expose of the failures of the public school system, particularly in reaching out to African American children (58% of African American children in this country are functionally illiterate; of the African American children who graduate high school, the majority are performing at a level 4 years behind that of their white peers). I made it five minutes into the film without needing to open the box of tissues that my husband had the foresight to bring; Josh made it about ten.
As a Montessorian, it is impossible to watch this film without thinking of the very first Children's House which Montessori opened a little more than a hundred years ago in a tenement in the San Lorenzo Quarter. The conditions in which she found her pupils was remarkably the same, and perhaps a little worse, than the children featured in this film. Montessori writes:
"It may be that the life lived by the poor is a thing which some of you here today have never actually looked upon in all its degradation. You may have only felt the misery of deep human poverty through the medium of some great book, or some gifted actor may have made your soul vibrate with its horror...this is the home of the underpaid, often unemployed workingman, a common type in this city which has no factory industries. It is the home of him who undergoes the period of surveillance to which he is condemned after his prison sentence has ended. They are all here, mingled, huddled together...to this we must add the evils of crowded living, promiscuousness, immorality, crime...Here there can be no privacy, no modesty, no gentleness. It seems a cruel mockery to introduce here our idea of the home as essential to the education of the masses, and as furnishing, along with the family, the only solid basis for the social structure. Conditions such as I have described make it more decorous, more hygienic, for these people to take to the street and let their children live there. But how often the streets are the scene of bloodshed, of quarrel, of sights so vile as to be almost inconceivable. The papers tell of women pursued and killed by drunken husbands! Of young girls with the fear of worse than death, stoned by low men. Again, we see untellable things- a wretched woman thrown, by the drunken men who have preyed upon her, forth into the gutter. There, when the day has come, the children of the neighborhood crowd about her like scavengers about their dead prey, shouting and laughing at the sight of this wreck of womanhood, kicking her bruised and filthy body as it lies in the mud of the gutter.
Such spectacles of extreme brutality are possible here at the very gate of a cosmopolitan city, because of a new fact which was unknown to past centuries, namely the isolation of the masses of the poor."
The Lottery juxtaposes images of abject poverty (children playing in empty apartments, eating their dinner on step stools for lack of furniture, drinking bottled water because the drinking supply is so contaminated), horrifying statistics about the probable plight of these children (corporations can calculate the need for prison construction based upon educational outcomes of six year old children), and personal anecdotes about a system which is failing (principles and former teachers crying as they describe the circumstances of the schools and what has happened to their former students), with intimate and familiar scenes of parents caring for their children, doing their very best to educate them, and trying to help them better their lives and break the cycle of poverty (single mothers who have gone back to school and gotten advanced degrees to improve their financial systems, parents actively seeking out the best schools for their children and tutoring them at home). Despite all of the parents best intentions and efforts, the grim statistics bear out the probable truth that few (if any) of these children will overcome their facticity. The problem is nicely summed up by one of the fathers in the film who has been sentenced to 25 years to life prison and says "I know my wife is a good mother and she is doing her best for our child, but my mother was a good mother too and she couldn't keep me from making the mistakes I made that have landed me here."
The heroine of The Lottery is a woman named Eva Moskowitz, who lives a life with many parallels to Montessori. Like Montessori, who lived (and had her directresses live) in the tenements amongst the families they served, Moskowitz was raised and continues to reside in Harlem (where she is often regarded with great suspicion by other locals). Moskowitz is the CEO of The Success Charter Network, several charter schools which have proven that they can educate children in Harlem cheaper (less per pupil), with larger class sizes, and significantly better educational outcomes than the local public schools (in fact, it would not be hyperbolic to say that winning a spot in a charter school lottery might be the only chance these children have to get an education). Additionally, it is very interesting to note that many of the characteristics which appear to make her school successful, closely parallel Montessori's Method- involving the families even before admitting the children, performing house calls when children do not attend regularly and arrive on time, providing hands on activities, and abandoning an antiquated agrarian school calendar in favor of longer school days and terms which have the added benefit of keeping the children off the streets.
Montessori's description of a Montessori directress would be an apt description of Moskowitz:
"The directress is always at the disposition of the mothers, and her life, as a cultured and educated person, is a constant example to the inhabitants of the house, for she is obliged to live in the tenement and to be therefore a coinhabitant with the families and all of her pupils. This is a fact of immense importance. Amongst these people, into a house where no one dared go unarmed, there has come not only to teach, but to live the life of a very gentlewoman of culture, an educator by profession, who dedicated her time and her life to helping those about her."
The film contrasts Moskowitz with the public school teacher's unions and educational bureaucracy and their more pedestrian concerns. For me, the most enlightening part of the film was its explanation of the forces inherent in the status quo which were preventing meaningful reform. The biggest impediment to change came from a rather unexpected place, the New York teacher's unions and the government officials (largely Democrats) who accept money from them. In many ways, the film is about a battle between people committed to reforming this broken system and an entrenched teacher's union which is unwilling to alter the status quo; or, a school district which has forgotten that it is in the business of educating children, not catering to union officials. One of the main complications in the film is a battle between a very successful charter school that wants to take over a school building where the school has already been closed by the district because less than 10% of the students were performing at grade level (surprisingly, the charter school was not successful as a result of opposition from the teacher's union, local residents, and paid Acorn protesters). The film completely changed my perspective on teacher's unions and collective bargaining and provides a very effective critique of the traditional public school system; additionally, it is a good reminder of the importance of Dr. Montessori's views on social reform and the ideals to which Montessori educators should aspire. I highly recommend it!