Resident Moron

Bringing it.

A page from my journal / A beginning to meditation

I wake up late to a troubled dream. I’ve been hitting snooze for way too long, and my head is filled with fog. The last thing I said in my dream…well, it’s gone now, but I was offended and I’m trying not to let it seep into my waking state. My next thought is how much work I have to do.

I’m feeling overwhelmed. I just want to melt away. I’ve set to hand in two assignments today but all I’ve done so far is come up with the title of my thesis: Teacher’s Perceptions of the Applications of Brain-Based Learning in Middle Years Classrooms.

I haven’t felt attractive in a long time. Something in my eyes is gone – is it youth? Maybe just allergies. As much as I desire intimacy, I first need to find someone I can look in the eyes. Have I experienced the last of my innocence? I crave something pure. Maybe that love will come again.

I want what orchestral music makes me feel. That must be my soul stirring.


I posted both those assignments by 8, then did some more work, then sold a chair for $20. Now I’m going to relax (and watch the new Criminal Minds). An old friend got in touch to remind me to stay cool. I just made a CLT…with chicken nuggets. Awesome.

Also, I listened to classical music all afternoon. Game changer.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | Writing | , , , , | 1 Comment


These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Beautifully written and wise.

I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at this “live in the present and love thyself” philosophy over the past couple of years. Ah, the mid-twenties graduate student, jugglin’ life like a pro.

(Psst… Don’t forget Mother’s Day on the 13th.)

May 5, 2012 Posted by | Writing | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Montessori Education

Written for a Masters level Understanding Education course.


The educational community has long been familiar with the Montessori method for its international ability to remediate or engage children who are, for any number of reasons, not suited to traditional public schooling.  This paper examines the basis of the need for alternative schooling, outlines the development and evolution of the Montessori method and philosophy, and validates the methodology in research, providing a side-by-side comparison for examination of relative strengths and weaknesses of the program.  For 21st century school reformists seeking alternative methods of education or an individualized, child-centered curriculum, Montessori presents itself as an adaptive, hands-on, future-friendly option for the democratic community as it evolves toward offering a full preschool to secondary public program.

Keywords: Montessori, constructivism, independence, Dewey, progressive, alternative education

Montessori: Evolving Toward a Public Secondary School in the 21st Century

Since the time of early philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, to whom we can trace the traditional subjects of the common core curriculum, there have been heated political and social debates surrounding the field of education.  Rather than being discouraged by their recurrent nature, academic planners and developers must examine these questions anew to refresh our views and test our assumptions about the necessary directions of education in current society.  One of the most basic questions at the heart of this discussion is, what are the aims or purposes of education?  In order to create an effective program of education, we must work backwards from these desired goals to develop appropriate strategies for achievement, examining the implications and consequences of our decisions along the way.  As a matter of fact, John Dewey, a dynamic naturalist philosopher who advocated the method of science and recognized an ever-changing society, derived his recommendations for education based on the consequences of certain choices rather than on premises about the nature of society (Noddings, 2012; Simpson & Jackson, 1997).

Preparation for the future is often cited as one of the main purposes of education: schools are charged with preparing graduates with the right skill and knowledge sets to succeed in the future.  However, visions of the future are often clouded by knowledge of the past and present, or the assumption that what was useful in the past will dominate again tomorrow.  Dewey posited that education’s aim should be more education, or growth – growth that leads to discussion and deeper thinking, rather than succumbing to the notion of education as preparation for some unknowable future state (1938).  Education, then, is both the end and the means, and how we engage it as a vehicle depends upon further examination of and reflection on the philosophy of education.

The strong need for specific educational goals can be partially derived from the broader question, who should be educated?  Today’s overwhelming response of “everybody” – education and equal opportunity for all – signals an accountability that resonates throughout the education system in an alarmingly public manner.  An adequate response to this question necessitates thoughtful methodology, careful reflection and rational problem solving among the educational leaders of tomorrow…especially because we are now left with the greater debate over how individuals should be educated.

One size fits all?  A third question that has remained vitally relevant is, “should education differ according to natural interests and abilities?”  The common core curriculum insinuates that societal expectations can be met through the transmission of standard content through K-12 and assumes the importance of the traditional disciplines, but is traditional schooling enough to meet the needs of the present and ensure equality of opportunity and future success?  This paper argues that no, it is not, and in fact the Deweyan tradition defends that education should be tailored to the child – an idea also put forth by Plato, but according to hierarchical, functionalist categories that represented a person’s capacities rather than their individual needs and interests.

According to Johnston and Wetherhill (1998), multiple forms of school organization and structure or process are necessary in order to provide all students with appropriate opportunities to learn and contribute to society, as demonstrated by current drop-out rates and the sub-par performance and success of at-risk students.  While the standards movement has put a focus on accountability, it could be argued that control, order, and efficiency dominate the conventional system rather than care for the student:

If the pupil left it instead of taking it, if he engaged in physical truancy, or in the mental truancy of mind-wandering and finally built up an emotional revulsion against the subject, he was held to be at fault.  No question was raised as to whether the trouble might not lie in the subject-matter or in the way in which it was offered (Dewey, 1938, p. 46).

If students are expected to become actively engaged in their education, it is necessary to shift the emphasis from compliance and performance on standardized tests toward the construction of meaningful opportunities for students to learn.  We must find ways to cater the education process to each individual in the system while promoting equality.

Ideally, alternative schools would work alongside public schools to meet the ever-growing demands of current society.  Alternative education is often limited in the public’s mind to magnet schools, perceived merely as reform or correctional facilities for juvenile delinquents.  While this is indeed a part of meeting the needs of individuals outside of the conventional system (Johnston & Wetherhill, 1998), the issues of developing programs for at-risk students and equality in schooling are beyond the scope of this paper.  For the purposes of this discussion, one form of alternative schooling, the Montessori method, will be examined alongside traditional public schooling for its ability to meet the needs of individuals in a democratic community.

Better for the students.  Students who are permitted to become self-directed learners will likely have more favourable attitudes toward school and hold more adequate self-concepts (Rathunde & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005).  Part 3 will review the literature to determine in which areas Montessori students have demonstrated superiority to their non-Montessori schooled peers, examining relative strengths and weaknesses of the approach.

Better for the teachers.  Teacher satisfaction and sense of reward has been shown to be higher among Montessori educators (and private educators in general) than their public school contemporaries (Musella, Selinger, & Arikado, 1975).  Furthermore, greater satisfaction rates among teachers tend to result in lower turnover rates, meaning that Montessori schools can retain educators who are both happy and dedicated.

Freedom of schooling in a democratic society

The Montessori philosophy views the child as innately good, having natural tendencies toward and a desire for fulfillment (Montessori, 1988).  It nurtures children as they grow along planes of development (stages similar to those of Jean Piaget), in which they are observed to exhibit concentrated attraction to certain elements in the environment.  The focus of the Montessori method – constructivist in nature – is on developmental learning, a strong form of knowledge construction, rather than rote learning.  The teacher’s role is to guide the student toward developing the competency to complete his or her own work with confidence.

There are several strong alternatives to traditional education, and selecting one is a matter of comparison across key elements of organizational structure and curriculum models.  As pointed out by Edwards (2002), great variation can be expected to exist in application; the schools and classrooms do not necessarily look alike just because they derive from the same philosophy or theory, and the use of a name does not necessarily imply technical affiliation with that school of thought.  With that in mind, some of these alternatives will be addressed briefly in terms of their underlying goals and principles, or “best practice,” in order to situate Montessori among the options closest to Maria Montessori’s explicit idealism.  Specifically, these school communities are ones that focus on helping children realize their full potential as intelligent, creative, whole persons with means of assessment other than traditional tests and grades.  These students are active in their own development, as educators trust in the self-righting forces within them; however, as the child develops, the role of the teacher changes accordingly.

Waldorf education, founded by Rudolf Steiner and influenced by Emil Mott, was based on the vision of a school that would educate human beings on how to create a just and peaceful society (Thayer-Bacon, 2011).  His theory of child development posited three cycles of seven-year stages with distinctive needs for learning, modeled as an ascending spiral of knowledge.  Educational focus in the classroom is on bodily exploration, constructive and creative play, and oral language, story and song, with the aims of promoting engagement, concentration and motivation.  Waldorf curriculum has structure and sequence, but relies on sensory experiences and exploration rather than textbooks, with the teacher playing a performance role to lead or model whole-group activities.  Today, there are over 800 Waldorf schools in over 40 countries (Edwards, 2002).

Reggio Emilia, a city in northern Italy, took park in a coordinated effort by educators, parents and children followed World War II to build an exemplary system of preschools, evolving into a movement that spread throughout Europe (Edwards, 2002).  Though the program, based on an informal model, gives first priority to children with disabilities or social service needs, it represents strong and rich vision of the child who is full of intelligence, curiousity and wonder with a teacher who supports them in exploration and investigation.  Loris Malaguzzi derived his social constructivist theory from the thinking of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner, similarly to Montessori, viewing education as based on relationships whereby the resourceful child becomes a “producer of culture, values, and rights” (Rinaldi, 2001, as cited in Edwards, 2002).  The teachers, who work in pairs to promote collaboration and mentoring in the system, serve as resources and guides.  The curriculum, though purposeful in its progression, does not have scope or sequence because teaching and learning are negotiated through emergent processes between adults and children.

School reforms have blurred the lines between the various movements and traditions over the years that have resulted in alternative schooling and curriculum; Montessori itself has had a tendency to function as a magnet school (Edwards, 2002).  Revival of Montessori’s popularity may have been spawned by the 1960s-70s educational movement known as “open education” that recommended following the interests of children and providing hands-on experience, emphasizing the senses and de-emphasizing formal lessons (Noddings, 2012).  Around the same time, twentieth-century psychologist and educator A. S. Neill, reflecting some of Rousseau’s concepts (to be discussed in Part 2), helped to develop an alternative form of schooling known as Summerhill that saw the child as naturally good, promoting play and allowing students a say in how the school was to be run (Noddings, 2012, p. 15).

Dimensional organization of a Montessori school

Maria Montessori felt that schools should assume the role of sponsoring reform in the care of the child, while the community as a whole works together to achieve a holistic peace education (Montessori, 1988).  Careful thought was provided to the physical organization and structure of the environment, which is designed to provide an atmosphere of “productive calm”; for instance, art is used in décor for the belief that it promotes concentration of thought.

Classroom (physical environment).  Classrooms are large, open-concept and typical of a child-centered atmosphere, featuring low shelves for familiar materials and display as well as worktables, a rug, and other dedicated floor space for ease of movement and activity.  Desks are typically arranged in rafts to promote individual and small-group learning.  The classroom atmosphere is intended to encourage social interaction for cooperative learning, peer teaching, and emotional development.

Curriculum (instructional objectives).  The Montessori curriculum is integrated and interdisciplinary, based on developmental psychology and woven into the Five Great Lessons, which are stories to inspire students to learn.  These stories coincide with the major curriculum areas in the Montessori method, leading to the study of topics ranging from practical life, sensorial, mathematics, language, and cultural subjects (social studies and the sciences).  While the Montessori curriculum has scope, sequence, and clear-cut domains, it is also unified, highly individualized, and internationally developed.  Focus is placed on the student’s abilities to problem solve, create and produce new ideas, and see the interdisciplinary connections of knowledge.  The four aims of a Montessori lesson are control (of self), concentration, independence, and order, thus fulfilling a main goal of ethics (Afshari, 2010).

Consistent with the Montessori method, Dewey did not see knowledge as best described and transmitted through the disciplines, but instead described in terms of its effects or usefulness, a debate that reached its peak in the 1960s-1970s (Noddings, 2012).  Dewey recommended that traditional subject matter not be abandoned, but simply taught in a genuine manner that students can relate to, as guidance in the instruction and inquiries of students (1997).  He did not see a need for rigid divisions between the disciplines, studied for their natural interactions as they appear in the world (1915).  Dewey’s idea was for students to experience a “personally unified curriculum…that makes sense to them in terms of human experience and, particularly, in terms of their own experience” (Noddings, 2012, p. 40).

Instructional materials and activities.  Manipulative materials, activities and experiences are designed to be attractive to students at various stages of development, fostering physical, intellectual, creative, and social independence.  They are also chosen to favour refined quality and natural materials.  Children learn from their own experiences and mistakes with kinesthetic objects and materials rather than from instruction – in other works, their learning comes directly from the environment and peers as opposed to from the teacher.  Any means by which the child’s intelligence is replaced by that of another (using textbooks or direct instruction) is abandoned for the benefit of self-discovery and independence over obedience.  For instance, in math, materials are used to represent math concepts such as fractions and decimals, and in geography, students might work with puzzle maps.

Time scheduling.  Working days involve minimal or no distractions: students have uninterrupted work periods to concentrate on activities of their choosing, guided by the teacher.  Classes that spend more than an hour per day in whole group instruction are departing from the Montessori model.  Students alternate between long periods of intense concentration and brief moments of recovery and reorganization.

Composition of classes.  Multiage classes (with age differences spanning up to 3 years) allow a heterogeneous group of students to observe and learn from older students, while developing at their own pace and experiencing normalcy in the range of abilities surrounding them.  Students work individually or in small groups of their choice, and may remain with the same teacher and basic group of peers for up to three years, allowing the time to foster real relationships and receive the care and guidance of their teacher with trust and understanding.

Student assessment and evaluation.  Montessori classrooms are non-graded, steering away from extrinsic motivators or rewards, although standardized tests are becoming more acceptable due to parental pressures to measure up to standards.  A variety of instruments are used, including quantitative norm referencing, criterion-referenced evaluation, qualitative evaluation, and ethnographic inquiry.  Typical forms of assessment include process-focused assessment, skills checklists, and mastery benchmarks.

Role of the teacher.  Teachers, generally known as ‘director’ or ‘directress’, place trust in the developmental abilities of students, following and observing their progress in an unobtrusive way to guide them to success.  Dewey believed that teachers must have aims for their chosen activities.  Therefore, in order to be optimally effective, the Montessori teacher is educated in areas of human growth and development, observational skills (to match students’ needs with the appropriate materials), a large array of learning materials and activities (and the ability to design their own learning environment), teaching strategies that facilitate individual growth, and leadership skills that foster a nurturing, supportive environment.  Patience, observation skills, and knowledge of the physical needs of the child are critical.

Role of the student.  Students are encouraged in persistence, learning to balance impulses and inhibitions in order to come to make decisions for themselves.  Dewey believed that students must be actively involved in their own learning, from selecting stimuli to setting objectives, pointing out that the childhood phenomenon of imitation serves its own purpose of meeting the child’s current objectives (1938).

While Montessori’s school organization and methods have experienced over a century of popularity and relative success among independent or alternative schooling, the nature of the technological era and the current standards movement in education causes one to question whether the freedom-based curriculum of Montessori meets the high expectations of parents and educators today.  Is Montessori adaptable to the 21st century?  Can and should changes be made to the Montessori method in order to stand alongside traditional schooling in its evolution toward a Montessori secondary public school?  This paper will examine the history, evolution and research related to Montessori in order to address these questions.


1. Development of the Montessori Method

The mid-nineteenth century saw a movement away from the “one-room classroom” to graded schools, with students classified by age and achievement of standards.  By the late nineteenth century, most urban school systems in Canada had graded elementary and secondary schools (Rousmaniere, 2007), and educational reformers were divided into two main groups: “pedagogical progressives who promoted a child centered, humanistic approach to education, and administrative progressives who advocated for the development of school systems driven by values of fiscal economy and organizational accountability” (Tyack, as cited in Rousmaniere, 2007, p. 5).

Constructivist approach revitalizing the Progressive movement

Maria Montessori (1870-1952), Italy’s first female doctor of medicine, founded the first Montessori school (for low-income students aged 4-7) in Rome in 1907 following her observations of children’s work habits and involvement in activities.  Initially, she worked experimentally with “defectives,” children with disabilities who did not fit into the traditional schooling system; following a great improvement in these students, she began to also apply her method to “normal” children (Montessori, 1988).  For Maria, the goals of education were to develop independence, responsibility, and respect for others while experiencing a sense of normalcy and control.

The Montessori method has been considered a source of inspiration for progressive educational reform (Edwards, 2002).  It experienced a surge of interest between 1910-1920, but a falling out of popularity (mostly for political reasons related to the Fascist regime and fear of communism; Thayer-Bacon, 2011; Edwards, 2002) removed it from public scrutiny until the late 1950s, when developmental psychology revived its application and relevance to the modern classroom.  Montessori’s method is composed of three main parts: the first is motor education, which includes care and management of the educational environment; the second, strongly associated with the developmental stages of Montessori’s contemporary, Piaget, is sensory education, which is enhanced through the use of didactic materials and methods developed specifically to encourage recognition of variances in shapes, colours and sizes; lastly, language is addressed through precision of sensory description and teacher modeling (Montessori, 1988).

Hands-on, child-centered education

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), whose philosophies of freedom of education were naturalistic and progressive (though, reflecting a different time and place, were intended for males or Emile), believed that the child should learn according to his own interests and through hands-on experience, requiring sensitivity and anticipation on the part of the teacher.  Rather than imposing objectives for learning, the teacher is meant to facilitate inquiries, guiding the student based on his interests.  These ideas are echoed – for their equal application regardless of gender – in the work of Dewey; there is a common emphasis on student motivation and action, though Dewey differs on his concept of the child with potential for both good and evil, in which the education system plays a guiding role (Noddings, 2012).

Critical periods.  Rousseau and L. S. Vygotsky, like Piaget, believed that timing in education is crucial, a fundamental concept in developmental psychology.  Teachers must observe students carefully in order to make available the relevant and appropriate experiences or opportunities, triggering optimal development of the cognitive structure.  Piaget’s genetic epistemology (a form of constructivism that also combines features of rationalism and empiricism) stemmed from Kant’s rejection of the passive reception of sensory material, stating instead that the mind interacts with the world and both the world and mind limit the forms of human experience.  Piaget posited mechanisms of mind that allow organisms to test their knowledge in the world of sensory experience; all knowledge and perception is neither innate nor passively received, but rather constructed by the subject.  His reliance on unobservable mechanisms made his theory unfavourable to thinkers such as Dewey, but led to his rather useful theory for explanation of child behaviour through the developmental stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

Criticisms for Piaget’s theory include the fact that he concentrates too heavily on the individual child’s interactions with objects, ignoring the social aspects of learning so firmly emphasized by Dewey (1915).  The Montessori method does not encounter this flaw: children also learn from their interactions with their peers and the environment, and from guidance and relevant questioning from the teacher – this is more consistent with Vygotsky’s adaptation, social constructivism.  Though Dewey tended to be skeptical about “unobservable, underlying mechanisms of mind to explain what was accessible to observation” (Noddings, 2012, p. 25) and may have rejected Piaget’s cognitive structures, he likely would have agreed with his recommendations on education and the development of children.

Maria Montessori took this interest in timing further following her studies of animal physiology, describing the “critical periods in which certain capacities can and must be developed or lost” (Noddings, 2012, p. 16).  This led to her insistence “on the proper placement and use of all objects in the classroom” (Noddings, 2012, p. 17).  She viewed development as a series of six-year periods, each with particular sensitivities, modeled by repeating triangular waves.  In the infant-toddler phase (birth to age 3), with the “unconscious absorbent mind,” and the primary/preschool phase (with the “conscious absorbent mind” that emerges from age 3-6), the child seeks sensory input, regulation of movement order, and freedom to immerse themselves in chosen activities (Edwards, 2002).  These age groups typically have more than one teacher to engage in demonstration lessons to advance use of materials when an individual or group expresses readiness.  From ages 6-12 (lower and upper elementary), children engage in rational problem solving through their explorations of the wider words, learning to cooperate and amass cultural knowledge. Finally, from ages 12-18 (middle and high school), children construct themselves as social beings and humanistic explorers, seeking justice and real-world problems to solve.

Maria Montessori developed manipulative materials and activities according to her observations and the stage of the child (promoting the hands-on classroom approach).  Froebel, influenced by Rousseau, wanted the inherently good, nurtured child to handle objects and observe shapes as part of their education.  The objectives behind Montessori’s materials and activities are consistent with Dewey’s description of the fourfold interests of children: construction, inquiry, artistic expression, and communication (Dewey, 1915).

Individuality of instruction and student choice

In the Montessori classroom, learning occurs through the senses and inquiry (from both self- and teacher-initiated experiences) in a cooperative, nurturing atmosphere.  Students learn through their interactions and manipulation of materials, building a meaningful foundation for abstract understanding of ideas.  This approach to individual learning comes from a focus on the “whole child,” encompassing the physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, spiritual, and cognitive needs and interests which are seen as inseparable and equally important.  The child selects activities for learning based upon his or her own needs, since the teacher cannot possibly know the intimate needs of each unique child.  Maria Montessori believed that freedom in intellectual work is the basis for internal discipline, and that as the child masters skills, so does he master himself – if there are individual deviations or negative traits that stand in the way of the child’s development, such as selfishness, greed, or inferiority, the experiences of the democratic classroom are meant to help the child overcome these obstacles through social interaction and shared learning.  Trust, caring and independence are offered to the child who, according to the democratic nature of the classroom, has the right to feel him or herself to be of value.

The Montessori method’s focus on individual choice and rejection of the subordination of the individual to a system is consistent with existentialist ideas (though not the more lonely, fearful, pessimistic aspects of existentialism that were popular in the 1940s-50s).  Montessori makes use of stories (the Great Lessons) rather than argumentation or direct instruction as the mode of communication and inspiration, emphasizing the subjectivity and freedom of human beings to tell us what we might become as a consequence of our actions.  By “planning, reflecting, choosing, and acting, people make themselves” (Noddings, 2012, p. 62); concern lies not with how individuals define themselves, but how they exercise their freedom to define themselves.  Basic relevant themes of existentialism include individual and systems, the nature and significance of choice, the role of extreme experiences, and the nature of communication.

Existentialists, similarly to Dewey, “reject the idea of a preformed human nature that can be used to guide education, prescribe duties, and predict fate” (Noddings, 2012, p. 62).  It is what leads Nel Noddings to describe herself as “not just a white, female, American academic, although I am all of these.  I am what I do, what I make of myself” (2012, p. 67).  In other words, we must go beyond basic identification to reflective personal identification, holding ourselves responsible for our own choices and their consequences.  Ideally, in the Montessori system, students would use this freedom of experiences to come to identify with all living things.

While Dewey acknowledged that we participate in our own creation, he emphasized the role of the environment in our development – as most postmodern thinkers agree, people are shaped in multiple ways by their histories and cultures, personal experiences, and through interactions with others.  Knowledge does not exist in a vacuum, but is intertwined with social and political views and ideas, and so it is one’s relation with the knowledge that adds meaning.  Experiences lead to other experiences, and those before us can influence the nature of our experiences, as our experiences can change the nature of those tomorrow.  If all technology were to fail tomorrow, the human race may, for a time, be returned to a barbaric state from centuries ago, because the accumulation of experiences before us built the foundation for a world or specific situations that were not of our doing nor based on our particular constructed knowledge base.

Dewey claimed that an experience is only meaningful (and therefore educational) if it holds meaning for the person undergoing it (a view he shared with existential philosophers), necessitating that it is built on or connected to prior experience and engaging enough to encourage interaction between the student and the subject or object of study (1938).  Though these views led Dewey to be associated with child-centered education, he criticized the notion of the naturally good child who unfolds as he is nurtured and grows, as Froebel described (Noddings, 2012).  Teachers must consider where given experiences may lead – there must be continuity, so instruction must be prepared with due thought to students’ preparation and future needs.  Knowing students more intimately, though the multiage grouping in Montessori, caters to this preparation and the ability to know each individual student needs and interests.

Independence and a sense of global citizenship

The aim of Montessori education is to foster competent, responsible, adaptive citizens who are lifelong learners and problem solvers, demonstrating respect for themselves, others, and the environment – in other words, Montessori fosters a respect for life in order to help children develop a caring attitude.  The development of individual responsibility in emphasized by allowing students to maintain the classroom and materials (which are built to their proportions to permit them the liberty to pursue exercises at their own level), as well as participate in the development of class rules.

Much of today’s interest in and methodology of character education stems from Aristotle’s views on ethics, which concentrate on the real community and the virtue that is central to “the good life,” thus its practical appeal.  He believed that children should be trained to respond virtuously to the real demands of life – and because the social focus of heterogeneous Montessori classrooms lend themselves to a communal atmosphere, it is reasonable to deduce that students are exposed to the tools of developing virtuously without giving over to elitism or relativism, due to the practical and everyday nature of their interactions.

Dewey’s pragmatic form of ethics judges an act based on its consequences, seeing human events and needs as dynamic and changing.  There is an existentialist tone to his ethics, as he states that the individual must be willing to take full responsibility for the outcomes of their decision, first examining the problem from multiple perspectives and points of interest.  His method of reflection and the exploration of alternatives is procedurally powerful, and the outcome of moral decisions is individualistic in that, so long as the procedure is followed, the decision remains in the hands of the thinker without securing an independent, universal value.  While Montessori’s method certainly values the role of individual responsibility in the making of moral decisions, there might be criticism in the sense that a close classroom community has a need for more specific values to be taught in order to maintain proper social interaction and to aid the teacher to function as a consistent moral guide and role model.

Kant’s ethical approach (from a local rather than universal approach, assuming a richly complex, social being rather than a reasoning automaton) is more relevant, emphasizing the roles of autonomy, individualism and human rationality, and thus validating the Montessori approach of trust in the child.  According to Kant, a person is charged with making their own ethical decisions in order to have a sense of moral worth and duty, choosing to do right not out of obedience but because it is simply right.  Montessori did not see a need for teacher interference or moral instruction; it is the nature of the bonds and experiences formed over time (benefited by up to 3 years in a shared classroom with peers of varied stages of development or capability) that causes students to having a caring sense of duty toward the democratic classroom.

Communitarians, who have enjoyed a revival since the late 1970s, have criticized liberalism (the philosophical tradition with a focus on equality and liberty) for placing more emphasis on the rights of individuals than on their duties and loyalties to the community, as is problematic in the aforementioned theories of ethic.  Montessori manages to escape this criticism due to its active focus on civic education and respect for others and the environment – it is equally possible that ethical products in the classroom will arise from the moral life of the community.  In this way, Dewey, who has been labeled both a “pragmatic liberal” and a “democratic communitarian,” was correct when he stated there is no inherent conflict between the individual and the state: people can be both self-actualized and useful to the state because society treasures its individuals for creative thinking, while the individual can thrive in a democratic state, so the relationship is balanced and naturally reciprocal (Noddings, 2012).

According to Dewey, certain values and knowledge are products of inquiry and construction through social interaction; schools should not teach students these values but rather encourage children to communicate, inquire, and construct common values and knowledge.  Youth are prepared for democratic life (aka. receive cultural transmissions) by taking part in experiences that make the values real and significant for their own lives and becoming involved in appropriate forms of democratic living, rather than simply being taught information about democracy.  For Dewey, democracy was a mode of associated living with joint decision-making through shared processes of inquiry, ruled by rationality and fellow feeling; his two-part criterion for defining democracy involves the communication and sharing of interests and “the varied and free points of contact with other modes of association” (1997, p. 83).  Dewey, whose significant number of philosophical works mostly centered on the philosophy of education, viewed schools as the best forms of associated living, mini-societies organized democratically to promote the growth of individuals and society; this is justification for the Montessori method that avoids treating students as all alike, and ensures fair competition among them.

2. Evolution to Present Day: Montessori Moving Forward

While appropriate changes have been made to the original Montessori curriculum (such as the incorporation of computers and modifications to social studies to keep the information culturally relevant), the basic method has not been altered significantly since its design.  As in the past, independent schools can open and attribute the name “Montessori” to their program without being properly accredited, trained, or affiliated with/by any organizations, despite their wide availability and the growing number of teacher training programs in the Montessori tradition.

The power of the public

In the 1960s, American parents began to advocate for public Montessori education programs; increasingly, these programs have been developed not only for preschool and elementary levels, but also at the middle and high schools level (Edwards, 2002).  As Montessori increasingly interacts with the world of public school education, focus has been shifted to incorporating authentic and valid forms of assessment and evaluation (Edwards, 2002).  Formats recommended by the American Montessori Association include portfolios, presentations, and multimedia projects, assessments that authentically gauge children’s ability to interrelate ideas, demonstrate critical thinking, and apply information meaningfully.

Montessori schools are non-graded and extrinsic motivation (in terms of both rewards and punishment) is avoided; grades are rewards or punishments that, either way, can have a negative impact on the motivation to learn (Rathunde & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005).  The purpose of the non-graded system was to foster an attitude of cooperation rather than of competition, for school is where social awareness is developed, and competition can lead to an unconscious acceptance of injustice.  Montessori’s multiage classrooms ensure varying ability levels (as well as variance in a number of other demographic variables), helping each student feel normal no matter their placement or rank.

The reduced emphasis on conventional testing means that, in the past, answers to problems have typically been made available to Montessori students to maintain the focus of the academic journey on exploration and individual progression.  Standardized testing is, however, becoming more acceptable due to external pressure to meet curriculum standards – public Montessori schools especially comply with requirements for achievement tests, though they might be seen as irrelevant toward much of what students learn (Haines, 1995).  The majority of Montessori schools, public and private, now use standardized tests that offer minimal disruption of Montessori classroom activity.  This movement begs the question of whether the Montessori method is benefited by the use of standardized tests – will this not detract from its unique cooperative atmosphere and individualized opportunities?  As for their private school counterparts, who charge admission fees to the program, will administrators feel pressured for students to do well on these tests, considering the great deal of importance currently placed on the common core curriculum?  Part of this response depends on how these students already score in comparison, which will be examined in Part 3.

One problem related to public schools implementation is admission criteria.  Should children be admitted to elementary Montessori classes based on whether they have Montessori preschool experience?  Montessori classes function differently depending on the percentage of children with Montessori experience, who adapt easily to expectations in the Montessori elementary class.  If a number of students from the traditional system bring their expectations and experiences to Montessori with them, the practices involving free choice for major portions of the day are harder to implement.  However, restriction of enrollment to those whose families were able to afford private Montessori preschool poses a problem of equality.  District-sponsored opportunities or reduced tuition classes help to solve the problem, but this is not possible for all public Montessori programs.  In 1991, the admissions process was divided almost evenly between lottery, first-come first-served, and processes such as geographic location and screening, often giving enrollment priority to those who have a sibling already enrolled (Chattin-McNichols, 1992).

Another key problem raised in this debate is whether parents are becoming too invested in the common core curriculum.  Are standardized tests truly predictive of a successful future?  This depends, in part, on one’s definition of a successful future.  If success means having the independence and skills to navigate the exponential growth of the world around oneself with confidence and respect, then maybe faith should be in the hands-on, child-centered method of many alternative schools over the marketing of a common curriculum.

In 1981, approximately 50 school districts were known to have Montessori programs; a decade later, approximately 100 districts in the U.S. had some sort of Montessori program.  These are typically elementary programs, though some (Dallas Independent School District, Cincinnati, and Buffalo, N.Y.) continue beyond grade 6.  More recent estimates place the total number of Montessori schools at over 5000 in the United States alone, including 300 public schools and some high schools (Lillard and Else-Quest, 2007; Dohrmann, 2007).

More than a primary approach

By far the most common type of Montessori program is at the preschool and elementary level (3- to 6-year-olds), the traditional ages that Montessori first worked with, though many of these schools are unaffiliated with any national Montessori organization.  As more Montessori teacher education programs become available, the diversity of age groups welcomed in affiliated schools is also increasing.  With new schools opening to serve older children, and existing schools adding on elementary programs, the 6-9 and 9-12 levels of Montessori are growing quickly (McNichols, 1992).  Secondary programs remain few and far between as of yet, although this is an area that many schools are planning for.

How do the increasingly popular intermediate and secondary programs compare to the traditional public school?  In other words, how do the students fare on standardized tests; are they prepared for university or life in the community?  Part 3 aims to answer these questions through quantitative research to determine whether Montessori middle and high schools can expect to have a place alongside traditional schools in the future.

3. Toward a Research-Based Practice: How Does Montessori Score?

            The non-graded, non-traditional nature of Montessori schooling makes it difficult to evaluate quantitatively alongside traditional schooling.  Furthermore, its history as a predominantly private school means that the schools attract families of high socio-economic status, leading to the confounding element of parental selection.  Research studies in the past have reported equivalent or superior scores for Montessori students when compared to traditional programs, but as pointed as by Lopata, Wallace, and Finn (2005), these results are tarnished by a lack of comparison groups, statistical controls, and empirical testing for proper group comparisons, leading the findings to be inconclusive and limited.  In light of this fact, the present paper will review research articles from the past decade only, in order to examine the most current and relevant findings.  Priority is given to research beyond the preschool level in order to determine the success of Montessori approaches as applied to a higher level of education.

Lopata, Wallace, and Finn (2005) compared the academic achievement of students who attended public Montessori schools in urban New York to those who attended structured magnet, open magnet, and traditional non-magnet public schools in the area; comparison groups were matched on the demographic variables of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.  Overall, 67% of participants (N = 543) were identified as low income, and 47% were identified as “white,” with minority groups comprising the majority of the sample.

Students in the 4th and 8th grades were tested on standardized measures of math using the New York State Mathematics Exam and the TerraNova math portion, and language arts using the New York State English/Language Arts Exam and the TerraNova (Lopata, Wallace, and Finn, 2005).  Data records were collected by the schools and provided to the researchers anonymously, which were then analyzed using a multivariate analysis of covariance (MANOVA).  A significant main effect for school type and math achievement was found among the grade 4 students (but not in grade 8); Montessori students had significantly lower math achievement than traditional schooling students (SD = 0.37), though their scores were significantly higher than open magnet students (SD = 0.60).  No significant differences were found on language arts achievement at this level, though grade 8 students again differed significantly: Montessori students had the lowest scores in language arts achievement, significantly lower than those attending traditional schools and structured magnet schools (SD = 0.59 and 0.77 respectively).  Out of 12 contrasts that were tested, Montessori students only significantly outperformed alternative school systems on one, with no significant differences on seven.

Another finding of interest from this study was that minority and low-income students had significantly lower mathematics and language arts achievement than white, non low-income students (Lopata, Wallace, and Finn, 2005).  Though the results failed to support the hypothesis that Montessori schools are associated with higher academic achievement, there were a number of limitations that may bias the findings.  The greatest limitation was that data was only gathered from one school from each program type, and as aforementioned, individual schools can differ significantly from the underlying philosophy or theory in practice, especially when based on the instruction of a single teacher.  Furthermore, no subject data was available on duration of enrollment, which may impact the efficacy of the program; there is no guarantee that these Montessori students represented the true essence of the Montessori program (for instance, if they had recently transferred from another school system, they would bring biases from the former structure into the classroom).

Aiming to control for the confound of parental selection (a source of bias in a number of former studies), Lillard and Else-Question (2006) evaluated the social and academic impact of Montessori education with only participants who applied to a Montessori school is Milwaukee, Wisconsin that, importantly, did not anticipate the evaluation.  A randomized school lottery system was already in place, so those who were accepted comprised the experimental group (N = 59), while those who were not accepted (therefore entered other education systems) comprised the control group (N = 53).  Two groups of participants were tested: 5-year-olds from the primary (age 3-6) division and 12-year-olds from the elementary (age 6-12) division.  Demographic information was collected and it was found that parents from the experimental and control groups had similar incomes at each student age level; ethnicity, however, was not surveyed with the justification that parental income contributes more to child outcomes than does ethnicity, and gender was not controlled for, but was not found to contribute significantly to any of the reported differences.

Participants were tested for cognitive/academic and social/behavioural skills selected for importance in or relevance to “real life”; seven scales were administered from the Woodcock-Johnson (WJ III) Test Battery, while social skills were assessed according to problem solving regarding stories about social problems (Lillard and Else-Question, 2006).  The 5-year-old control group (N = 25) differed significantly from the experimental group (N = 30), supporting higher academic success for Montessori students in academic skill areas related to school readiness (including phonological decoding ability and applied math skills).  Montessori 5-year-olds also significantly outperformed the control group on a test of executive function, though no significant differences were found on the other academic measures.  In terms of the social and behavioural measures, Montessori students were significantly more likely to use reasoning skills when referring to justice or fairness and engaged in significantly more positive shared peer play (as well as significantly less rough play that was ambiguous in intent).  Finally, a False Belief task was administered to examine the children’s understanding of the mind (in terms of both subjective and objective representation of the world), advanced by social negotiation and discussion.  While 80% of Montessori 5-year-olds passed this task, only 50% of the control group was able to do so.

The testing of 12-year-olds demonstrated slightly different results; there were no significant differences between the experimental and control groups with regards to performance on the WJ-III tests, meaning that control groups either “catch up” over time or that this particular experimental group had not been more advanced in early reading skills (Lillard and Else-Question, 2006).  Perhaps part of the explanation was that this group started at the Montessori school when it was in its third year (at the time of the study, it was in its ninth year), when the applied methods may have been less reliable and consolidated.  Despite this finding, Montessori students’ essays were rated as significantly more creative with more sophisticated sentence structures.  In terms of the social skills test, Montessori 12-year-olds were more likely to select positive social strategies and express a great sense of community at school.

In conclusion, Lillard and Else-Question (2006) remarked that superior social effects following a Montessori education are especially significant considering that the home environment generally dominates the learning of these skills.  The researchers suggestion that replication of these findings in different Montessori schools (both affiliated, as was used in this study, and unaffiliated) would be useful in order to determine whether certain components of Montessori are associated with particular outcomes.

Dohrmann et al. (2007) also evaluated two groups of students from the Milwaukee public school system who graduated high school between 1997-2001.  The control group comprised individuals who had attended two different Montessori public programs from preschool through grade 5.  These participants were matched to a comparison group on the basis of gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and most importantly, high school attended, creating a valid control group.  Approximately 60% of each group was classified as non-white minority.

The academic achievement of participants (N = 53) was measured according to three scales (Dohrmann et al., 2007).  The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE), a nationally standardized achievement test, measured five scales: reading, language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.  The ACT, the standardized test taken by college-bound seniors in the state, measured English, mathematics, reading, and science reasoning, providing a composite score.  Finally, the Cumulative Unweighted Grade Point Average (GPA) was used as a measure of overall high school achievement, and grade point averages for specific subjects (social studies, mathematics, science, foreign language, and English) were manually computed.  Several significant results emerged from the data, with the Montessori group scoring significantly higher on tests associated with mathematics and science (SD = 0.30).  There were no significant group differences for English, social studies or GPA, demonstrating that Montessori students perform as well as their matched high school peers on most measurements.

Additional findings of interest included the fact that females had higher GPAs than males (SD = 0.46), and, as shown in Lopata, Wallace, and Finn (2005), non-minority students outperformed minority students across all measurements (Dohrmann et al., 2007).  The authors discuss the implications of these findings, crediting the sensorial mathematics materials developed by Montessori that have children as young as 3 years old learning abstract mathematical concepts in concrete form (through use of manipulatives).  However, these concrete materials following the same principles of learning are also available in English and social studies.  The researchers suggest that the focus of traditional schools on literacy (while less than 10% of time is spent on math) may explain the gap in terms of exposure, as Montessori students spend approximately equivalent time periods on these subjects.  As the authors point out, in an era where a great amount of focus is placed on STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Mathematics), this result is key: if early exposure to a different mathematics and science program makes a difference late in high school, imagine what could be achieved with Montessori math/science education beyond grade 5.

In an effort to establish the extent to which former Montessori students (in the prekindergarten program) differ from those in traditional programs both socially and academically, Cook (2009) considers research from prekindergarten programs in both Montessori and traditional schooling programs, engaging in a meta-analysis to explore the literature.  Inconclusive results indicated that the academic gains made by a child in traditional prekindergarten programs (whether traditional or Montessori) diminish as the child gets older, though there are observable short-term benefits, especially for at-risk children.  In terms of social gains, students who attended Montessori programs tend to have better relationships with peers and teachers, as well as enjoy school more.  The author’s final recommendation is that aspects of Montessori education be incorporated into traditional programs as a supplement to the regular school day, while future research should carefully select larger samples from more than one school at a time.

Using the CAT (Canadian Achievement Test) to evaluate student performance against the national norm of stanine 5, Afshari (2010) tested 101 students from grades 3-6 who attended a Montessori school between 2005 and 2009.  A pattern of improvement was found in test scores as students progressed through higher grades, as is to be expected; more importantly, there was a consistent pattern of high academic achievement compared to the national norm for each of the five years of the study.  Female students tended to perform better than males, with the highest scores appearing in language and reading.  Specifically, Montessori students averaged 1.6 stanines above the national norm in mathematics, 1.8 stanines above the norm in reading, and 2.1 stanines above the norm in language.  The results of the study were found to be 73% reliable, though some confounding variables limit the generalizability of results due to specific factors that may have played a role in the successful academic performance of the students tested.  Among the factors that are common across all or most Montessori schools were small class size, low ratio of students to teachers, and the ability, through the nature of the method, to provide additional help to students in need.  Other factors that were attributed to student success were high expectations from teachers and administration, the socio-economic status of enrolled families, and the degree of involvement of parents in school life.


Is Montessori suited for the new millennium?  While many of the findings are inconclusive at best, research results in the 21st century from studies that incorporated careful controls, most importantly Dohrmann et al. (2007), go beyond supporting the hypothesis that Montessori students are adequately prepared for the future: they suggest that the average Montessori student is just as prepared as the average student from traditional schooling, while exceeding their peers in social skills, positive attitudes toward learning, and even some academic skills.

For the 21st century school reformist or parent seeking alternative methods of education with an individualized, child-centered curriculum, Montessori presents itself as an adaptive, hands-on, future-friendly option for the democratic community as it evolves toward offering a full preschool to secondary public program.


Afshari, N.  (2010)  Student Achievement in a Montessori School (Master’s thesis).  Nipissing University, North Bay, ON.

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Cook, E.  (2009).  The extent that Montessori programs contribute to students’ academic and social gains and how Montessori programs differ from traditional programs (Master’s thesis).  Northern Michigan University, Marquette, Michigan.

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January 23, 2012 Posted by | Educational | Leave a comment

Residential Schools in Canada

Written for a Masters level History of Education class.

Canada’s First Nations, 1880-1960: Residential Schools as a Means of Cultural Extinction

Has Canada been implicated in genocide?  Indian residential schools were put into practice as early as 1879, as a newly independent Canada broke away from the British Empire and attempted to establish a nation-state of its own (Chrisjohn et al., 2002).  It is difficult to determine what percentage of Canada’s 4.4% indigenous population (Corntassel & Holder, 2008) suffered as a result of attending residential schools between 1880 and 1960, the period highlighted in this paper, though it is approximated that 10,000 Aboriginal children were attending residential schools in the 1960s (Brasfield, 2001).  In the end, over 150,000 Aboriginal children had passed through more than 130 residential schools all across Canada, with 70,000-80,000 of these students remaining alive today (Troniak, 2011).  Over 90,000 of those aged as young as three up to eighteen years old (Kirkness, 1999; Barton et al., 2005) were forcibly separated from their families (Corntassel & Holder, 2008) and placed in government-driven, church-funded residential schools created for the purpose of assimilating Indigenous peoples, as openly declared by such dominant figureheads as John A. Macdonald (as cited in Morse, 2008).

A revival of this subject has occurred in popular media in recent years due to the government and churches’ public quasi-apologies, survivor lawsuits, and legal and monetary settlements.  Indeed, residential schools have become a representation of the nation-state’s intervention into Aboriginal families and communities, as well as the ability to dictate assimilation and the abuse of the churches’ trust responsibility (Million, 2000).  Despite this fact, the true breadth and complexity of the impact of residential schools remains under-studied by academics, and recent perspectives brought to light have only emphasized the silence and ignorance surrounding this issue.  Is there truth to the hype, or evidence that the accusations are founded – was this in fact a form of genocide, hidden from the public eye?  Do assimilation or acculturation in any way justify the actions taken by the churches on behalf of the Canadian government?

Residential schools often prevailed under the façade of ‘child protection’ facilities, available for the relocation of children judged to be living in difficult family situations or extreme poverty (Barton et al., 2005).  Though supposed by many to promote self-sufficiency among indigenous populations, it seems that the dominion’s purpose for residential schools was assimilation in order to forward their own social and colonial agenda (Miller, 1996; Million, 2000).  This included the desire to ‘free up’ land and resources reserved for the Natives and rid the government of moral, economic and legal obligations (Trevithick, 1998; Brasfield, 2001), as the Crown Lands Protection Act of 1839 had declared Indian lands to be Crown lands (Prochner, 2004).  Education of the Aboriginals was also presented as a means to an end, a manner of converting the “animalistic” First Nations peoples (still in their civilizational infancy) into proper, civilized British citizens displaying desirable social behaviours and mainstream worldviews (Miller, 1996; Chrisjohn et al., 2002).  This aim shifted the purpose of residential schools toward a mechanism by which the government could legally manage or socially control the Native population.

Consistently occurring trends and themes in the literature regarding the residential school experience span cultural conflict, alienation, poor self-concept, family breakdown, substance abuse, violence, and lack of preparation for jobs and life.  The practice of separating children from their parents effectively extinguished the traditional influences and transmission of culture in their lives, resulting in the loss of family structure, cohesion, and quality of family life.  Children who attended these schools also suffered as individuals from the loss of culture, identity, and language, resulting in the loss of self-concept and self-esteem (Barton et al., 2005).  Additionally, the unhealthy environmental conditions that students were exposed to resulted in a startling number of illnesses and deaths, while evidence of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse continues to come forward to the present day:

Anyone who says the system didn’t have a negative effect on young Indian children held captive there has never seen or felt the anger and shame that can surface at the most awkward moments.  …  I entered residential school a loved and loving child, but changed under the care of black-robed strangers (Fontaine, 2010, p. 121).

Was the nation successful in the assimilation or acculturation of Natives into the Canadian community?  Were students given a fair and benevolent opportunity to become educated Canadian citizens, or were they simply traumatized by the experiences meant to remove Aboriginal influence from society and policy?  This paper examines the intents behind and consequences of residential schooling, positing that the aims and purposes of education were to assimilate Native children into the “civilized” European image rather than provide them with tools to engage in a successful, independent future and citizenship; this reflected a hidden agenda with the goals of building a nation, including the extension of land ownership and the creation of a distinctly Canadian identity.  As a result of time spent in church-state run residential schools, rather than “ridding themselves of the Indian problem” or contributing to society at large, the Canadian government and church orders charged with the responsibility of these students succeeded only in creating chaos and destruction.  These students and their families no longer fit into their own communities nor felt at ease with their own traditions, and the generally poor quality of education left them ill-prepared to become contributing members of society, resulting in long-standing trauma and generations of mistrust, legal conflict, and substance abuse.

The terms Aboriginal, Native and First Nations will be used interchangeably throughout the discussion to refer to all Indigenous peoples of Canada.

American Education to Treat a “Lesser Evolved” People

There was a general consensus among 19th and 20th century colonialists (and unfortunately also the general public) reflecting an inferior view of the culture and methods of the Aboriginal tribes.  Sources and influences of these racially driven attitudes included “new strains of scientific racism such as Social Darwinism, the influence of British imperialist attitudes, and the spillover from the institutionalized racism…in the neighbouring United States” (Miller, 1996).  Segregation of other minorities and immigrants also paved the way for condescending attitudes and policies toward the Aboriginals.  The “childlike morality” of Aboriginals neatly explained the defects in their society, as well as their refusal to recognize one of the bases of Christian theory, original sin; education by the missionaries was therefore part of a broader assault on Aboriginal identity in their construction as “sexually depraved peoples” rather than an attempt to improve the lives of their children (Miller, 1996; Million, 2000).

Was it necessary to assimilate Aboriginal culture into a European image in order for Canada to develop as a nation?  At another time, this and other questions were considerably easier to answer: of course a civilized culture of science, technology and industry knew better than an “tribe” who remained close to nature and still lived in interdependent communities.  Miller (1996) discusses the common perception of Aboriginals as less evolved, judged according to European and North American standards to produce a number of unpleasant stereotypes, including the ‘fact’ that the Aboriginal “constitutionally dislikes work and does not feel the need of laying up stores or amassing wealth” (p. 185).  These stereotypes, though relatively harmless in the private sphere, were particularly destructive in public practice:

First Nations people have had many dreams and expectations die because of the prevailing belief that Indian people are incapable of governing themselves.  Paternalism and condescension toward our people have been the standard attitudes of federal and provincial governments and their agencies and organizations responsible for health, education, child welfare, police and social services (Fontaine, 2010, p. 151).

Were Aboriginals capable of educating themselves prior to the development of residential schools?  It seems that North American aid was not only unwelcome, but also widely unnecessary.  Neegan (2005) describes the highly developed, traditional system of education of Aboriginals based on experiences and sharing, where learning was for living and survival, and students were taught to respect the environment through observation and practice while developing mental, spiritual, emotional and physical well-being.  Youth were provided with the specific skills, attitudes and knowledge necessary to function in everyday life, and even the contributions of the youngest member of the family to household work was encouraged.  These crucial factors in Aboriginal culture – mainly, the significance of home life to education – were to be dislocated by the separation of children from their families, friends and siblings, resulting in confusion and powerlessness of both parents and children regarding their roles in the system.

On a more optimistic note, Berger (2009), professor and head of the Living Education Institute, sees a future for the traditional education of the Natives in his novel on “eco leadership” that emphasizes the power of the circle, or connectedness with all that surrounds a person.  These eco- and community-friendly methods of learning are in fact not only more evolved than the carefully designed curriculum of today, but also, Berger argues, necessary to avoid destruction in our future.  The work of teachers in the strict, unsustainable curriculum seems to limit the student’s experience of reality; we must “reconnect the way of technology with the way of nature, the way of the sacred with the way of rational knowledge, product with process, information with inspiration, learning with life” (Berger, 2009, p. 3) in order to engage in true, productive learning.  So what is it that schools really teach children – and what is it that they should teach?

Today [education] is the result of conscious design by teachers, boards of education, government policy-makers, parents and others—but not usually by the children, youth, and teenagers who attend school…  Schools tend to obscure the simple fact that the only real source of knowledge is nature.  Curriculum is too often designed as an end in itself—the student becomes secondary…  Schools, teachers, textbooks educate with one over-arching problem: all things change (Berger, 2009, p. 9).

The North American education system is designed to be efficient, but the traditional way of the Natives was to learn from the land and their experiences upon it; if the common core curriculum does not work for a large proportion of Canadian students today, it certainly would not have worked for this characteristically-distinct sub-population in the past.  Assessments focus on student performance and sophisticated reflection, but our education system – and society at large – does not necessarily promote experiential learning or quiet time for reflection.  Instead, it encourages productivity, levels of achievement, speed and efficiency, but “without the art of reflection we are confined to doing either what others are doing around us, the first thing that comes to mind, or what is expected.  And the true source of innovation, inspiration and creativity is inaccessible…ourselves” (Berger, 2009, p. 11).

These discrepancies in educational priorities resulted in a form of schooling that did not hold meaning for members of the Aboriginal population:

I couldn’t comprehend the nature of [priests’ and nuns’] teachings, the way they instilled fear and apprehension in my parents and the rest of the congregation.  I still don’t understand the power those teachings had; I can only assume that the spirituality of our people invoked a strong and deep respect and fear for the messenger and his helpers (Fontaine, 2010, p. 29-30).

Despite this lack of understanding and agreement, there was the factor of authority, the imbalance of power, which led groups who were made to feel naïve and uncertain about their right and beliefs to give in to the notions of the all-knowing, all-powerful church heads:

I’m sad now to think that Dad eventually succumbed to the system and quietly surrendered to the notion that the government controlled Indian people and that the Department of Indian Affairs was the “boss”…  The Church’s word became God’s word, no matter how wrong or misdirected the word was that came from the priests and nuns.  Their agenda was to satisfy their contract with the government to establish power and control over our people…  Our spirituality became less of an influence on our people as our Creator was replaced by a punishing God. … Mom and Dad had never been subjected to Roman Catholic Church teachings before they went to residential school, so everything they heard was new and had to be true, in their eyes, because priests said they represented Jesus Christ and God, who to us was the same as the Creator (Fontaine, 2010, p. 94-97).

In order to achieve this assimilation, to replace Aboriginal beliefs with those of the nation’s founders, education through residential schooling was thought to be the best means.  This was primarily because schools have the unique ability to socialize (and indoctrinate) students based on a provincial or federal government’s agenda, but also because children are not yet set in their beliefs, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation to instill desirable behaviours and attitudes.  It was decided by government officials that Aboriginal youth would be quicker to embrace the new religious ideals and civilized habits ingrained in them at a young age through direct instruction, especially when separated from the ‘negative’ influence of their families, elders and communities (Morse, 2008).  Finally, it was hoped and expected that the children’s training would in turn influence their parents when they returned to the community, because foreign parents were considered poor examples for their children (Prochner, 2004) – if not, it was only a matter of waiting for the elders to pass on, leaving their traditions lost and forgotten.

Motivations Behind Residential Schooling: Assimilating the Aboriginals

Theodore Fontaine’s parents dropped him off at a residential school when he was seven years old, with high hopes for his future among the comfort and amenities of white people.  By this time, attendance at residential schools was not yet mandatory, though in the future it would carry fines and threat of imprisonment for dissenting Aboriginals; regardless of the means by which children arrived at these schools, their experiences were to mirror those of young Fontaine:

Little did [my parents] know that the experience I was about to undergo for the next 12 years would shape and control my life for the next 40 or 50…  I would no longer be a son with a family structure.  I would be parented by people who’d never known the joy of parenthood and in some cases hadn’t been parented themselves (2010, p. 20).

This separation from family and distancing from traditional culture left a number of children with a sense of loneliness and abandonment, which reverberated with confusion and wistfulness throughout their experience: “I wish Dad were not so busy with his work and everything else.  I think he’d like to take me out of school to teach me how to work, but he also wants me to learn and to finish school in order to get a better job” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 16-17).  However, in the pseudo-choice offered by the government – of bad education or no education at all – many parents had no option but to turn to residential schooling for the sake of their children’s future in a predominantly white man’s world (Chrisjohn et al., 2002).

Despite any intent to genuinely educate Aboriginals, an organized curriculum was only loosely applied in actual practice and more than 40 percent of the teaching staff had no professional diploma (Morse, 2008).  Half-days were spent in formal instruction of reading, writing, arithmetic, geometry, British history and geography – all in all, an attack on Aboriginal culture and knowledge (Neegan, 2005).  Native languages were banned for the most part and their use was often punished severely (Miller, 1996); without the ability to transmit culture or communicate traditions, the demise of individual Aboriginal languages and cultures was considered to be only a matter of time.  Outside of the rote instruction of this often-inadequate curriculum, churches used the children’s labour to support the institutions charged with supporting them: girls engaged in domestic help in white women’s homes, while the boys were trained in labour-heavy farm work (Miller, 1996; Kirkness, 1999; Million, 2000).  Even a strictly enforced dress code, which had members of the church sharing the glory of success in before-and-after pictures, communicated the message that children should be ashamed of their inferior culture (Miller, 1996; Neegan, 2005): “At school she was taught that all the things she had learned at home were ‘ugly’…  At school she learned to hate, not simply the people who oppressed her, but herself and her race as well” (Miller, 1996).

The question of how these events were permitted to happen in the face of their devastating consequences is beyond the scope of this paper.  Suffice it to present that government policy and aims opened the doors for the abuse of Aboriginals, charging the churches with their moral instruction, with the aims that public education would promote social and economic stability and social amelioration in a young, growing nation.  Fontaine (2010) shares his disappointing firsthand account of this treatment throughout the course of his education:

I find it very perplexing and sad to realize now that my life at the school during those years didn’t contribute anything that helped or prepared me for the outside world.  We lived with a routine based on fear, caution, shame, guilt, and an overwhelming need to appear to be good and to obey the rules and wishes of the nuns and priests (p. 49).

Scholars may never agree on what exactly the government was trying to accomplish with elements of the residential school system.  In the end, it is the consequences of racism in the implementation of these schools, and not necessarily the intent to convert Aboriginals into the image and beliefs of Europeans, that has left a dark legacy of mistrust and psychological damage:

The system was designed by the federal government to eliminate First Nations people from the face of our land and country, to rob the world of a people simply because our values and beliefs did not fit theirs.  The system was racist and based on the assumption that we were not human but rather part animal, to be desavaged and moulded into something we could never become—white (Fontaine, 2010, p. 20).

Implications of Residential Schools: The Genocide of a Culture

Members of Aboriginal families touched by the residential schooling system were silenced until midway through the twentieth century, hidden outside of dominant Canadian public discourse (Million, 2000).  Their recounts of trauma and loss are only now becoming known to members of the general public, ranging from loss of language and health to post-traumatic stress disorder and the implications of the attempted extinction of Aboriginal culture.

The worst of these stories are with regards to the mass deaths and illnesses caused within and by the schools, which must precede a discussion of the continuing health implications for residential school survivors.  Common was the so-called “murderous practice” of deliberately exposing healthy children to smallpox and tuberculosis, when persistent food shortages and “cutting corners” on healthcare already left them weak, leading to a death rate of approximately 50% of students at the turn of the century (Kirkness, 1999; Chrisjohn et al., 2002; Morse, 2008).  While this was brought to light as early as 1907, when the Ottawa Citizen ran a shocking exposition piece titled “Schools Aid White Plague” about the high death tolls in residential schools caused by inattention to bare necessities of health that allowed the spread of tuberculosis, little to nothing was done to remediate the poor conditions suffered daily by Aboriginal students.  If this neglect of health were not dire enough, the Vancouver Sun reported in 2000 that between 1940-50, students in residential schools in British Columbia and Ontario were used as unwilling participants in unethical experiments with diet and dental work, which often involved the withholding of necessary treatment.

In terms of continuing health problems in Aboriginal society, Barton et al. (2005) surveyed 687 residents from Bella Coola Valley in British Columbia to compare perceptions of health and quality of life of Aboriginal residential school survivors (n = 47) alongside two control groups: Aboriginal non-residential school attendees (n = 60) and non-Aboriginals (n = 94), matched for age and gender.  Analyses from 33 questions derived from the 2001 Determinants of Health and Quality of Life Survey focused on comparisons across health status, quality of life outcome measures, physician visits, and disease prevalence rates.  Though limitations of the study included a small sample by way of nonrandom, convenience sampling and the use of a survey designed for non-Aboriginals, results were consistent with previous contemporary findings.

The findings of this study (Barton et al., 2005) suggest that Aboriginals from both groups experience poorer health and quality of life compared to non-Aboriginals, as well as higher rates of diabetes – the only significant difference between the Aboriginal groups (p < 0.001) was the self-health rating, in which residential school survivors reported lower scores.  While this presents evidence contrary to received views of the devastation of residential school experiences, it is speculated that the perception of lower health among residential school survivors may suggest a high prevalence of a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) specific to this vulnerable population and named thusly: residential school syndrome.

Features of residential school syndrome as documented in the literature include: recurrent intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of experiences reminiscent of the past, relationship dysfunction, diminished interest and participation in cultural activities, sleep difficulties, anger problems, and a tendency toward substance abuse (Brasfield, 2001; Barton et al., 2005).  Brasfield, a psychiatrist who collected stories from First Nations patients treated for trauma and abuse, emphasizes the need for efforts and funding to eliminate residential school syndrome within current generations in Canada.

Fontaine (2010) endured the residential school experience for twelve years, and from his encounters developed the practice of retreating into his mind and memories that became a lifelong survival skill.  His boarding school was located just a mile from his own home on a reserve in Manitoba, but even this short distance of separation resulted in the confusion, trauma, blame and mistrust commonly associated with Residential School Syndrome:

I had felt an overwhelming anger toward my parents as they walked away…  I learned years later, in a session with a therapist, that this abandonment not only had a huge effect on my personality and how I’d lived to that point, but also gave rise to a reaction in me—guilt and guilt transfer—that had affected everyone I knew…  I think all residential school survivors suffer from this…  You feel guilt for the most insignificant things, even when it doesn’t make the slightest sense (p. 33).

While the physical abuses laid upon the students were of a serious and traumatizing nature, it is amply demonstrated that the most common result of time spent in residential schools was emotional abuse and neglect:

I used to think…that our “protectors and guardians” were insufficiently trained and incapable of helping.  …I detected cruel satisfaction in some of these supervisors and now realize that they were simply mean. …Their biases and unreasonable reactions to children must have been, in part, a result of their own upbringing.  They had learned well how to order, dictate to and use superior force to run the schools (Fontaine, 2010, p. 43).

Worse yet, leaders of the church, charged with acting as models for their “savage” charges – most importantly, as models of proper and productive sex – were torn between their responsibility and hiding their own desires.  However, most of the clandestine relations between Native children and their guardians were about coercion and not the sex act itself (Million, 2000).  Members of the schools became implicated in the protection of silence surrounding all facets of sexuality, which opened the doors further to the possibility for abuse.  Fontaine (2010) provides a disturbing firsthand account of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his “guardians and protectors”, the priests:

Is anyone watching me?  I can feel eyes on me…  It’s my time for ménage—that weekly ritual, the washing of the genitals by a man in a black robe…  If I go, the devil will not hang around me and give me bad thoughts, because clean crotches drive him away.  He likes dirty crotches.  I wonder if they wash the girls, too…  It feels like my crotch is more prominently exposed.  I feel nauseated, my muscles tighten, my jaw feels rigid, and I wonder if I can walk…  I wonder why older boys don’t have to go for ménage anymore… I think about the shop teacher, H., and wonder if he confesses to Father P.  I wonder if he sinned when he pulled out his penis in front of me and commanded me to sit on the chair in front of him…  This is one of the most belittling, embarrassing and hurtful memories I have had since then…  This ritual of “staying clean” happened every week or two over the years for many of the younger boys.  It stopped when we became older and bigger, and our determination to threaten, maim, hurt or even kill our tormentors gave us the power to refuse the treatment (p. 14-20).

The results of these abuses are widely documented in their effects on modern Aboriginal culture.  In his memoir, Fontaine (2010) refers to the insinuation that “all Indians [become] alcohols,” one that even he was prone to believing at one time.  Over the course of his healing journey, Fontaine realized that alcohol was “merely a means of coping with other, bigger problems” (p. 120).  Substance abuse has not seen adequate academic examination, especially in relation to the residential schooling experiences from previous generations.  Rothe et al. (2006) employed a Talking Circle, a method consistent with traditional cultural practice, in order to better understand this problem in light of the traumatizing events only recently brought to light in the media and political circles.  Their findings suggest that the “wall of silence” created between the young and the old (through the elimination of a shared language via residential schooling) is in part responsible for the widespread occurrence of alcohol abuse and impaired driving among certain First Nations communities.  The authors conclude that residential schools contributed to systemic socio-cultural problems influencing Aboriginal population, including the loss of parenting skills, presenting a need for community-based intervention strategies to promote cultural healing.

In the end, it was not simply the spirits of the students that were broken: ironically, morality also suffered as a result of observing hypocritical and punishing guardians involved in deception on a regular basis, limiting the future abilities of students to succeed in a society that demanded honesty and work ethic:

Father B…taught us to lie to accomplish what we wanted, and to be untruthful about what we accomplished in our work…  It was easy to lie because a priest could do it, too.  The biggest problem to overcome as an adult worker was my need to be free after having been confined during my childhood…  Even after just a few days on a job, I would feel choked and restricted (Fontaine, 2010, p. 158).


As evidenced in the research, the roles of Aboriginals in their own societies have been forever altered by the intrusion of government and church.  Seven generations of Aboriginals passed through the Canadian residential school system, and while many former students report positive experiences and benefits, these memories coexist with those of trauma and loss (Troniak, 2011).  The various instances of child transfer and neglect leading to illness and/or death, with the intent of replacing the Aboriginal standards of belief with those of Euro-Canadians, meet several of the qualifications of genocide as outlined by the United Nations Genocide Convention.  These include the deliberate infliction of conditions upon a group with the intent of bringing about its physical destruction in whole or in part, casting serious bodily and mental harm to members of the group and, of course, forcibly transferring children of the group to another group; it is impossible to deny that this legal definition applies to the actions carried out by Canadians against indigenous peoples (Chrisjohn et al., 2002).

Implications for the Canadian government aside, the lasting psychological effects of residential schooling in Canada have been emotionally stunting for many of the survivors of these institutions:

Those of us from residential schools were mentally crippled by the experience and clueless about what we were or were supposed to be.  …  They were trapped at age seven or slightly older in psychological, emotional and spiritual age.  For many, it has proved difficult or impossible to recover” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 120).

There is a silver lining for survivors of residential schools, however, especially where open discussion allows the investigation of patterns of behaviour to help sufferers understand the effects of their personal experiences on their lives.  Truth commissions and monetary retributions are only a part of the battle; more than a general acknowledgement of the harms suffered is required to help victims of residential schools move forward with purpose and potential.  It must also be acknowledged that Canada, through the government’s blind desire for assimilation, lost many great contributions from its First Nations citizens as a result of the policies that allowed the residential school system to persist.  It is important for future research to examine the gender roles at play in this complex issue, as well as carefully examine “behind the scenes” of church involvement in order to address other facets of the problem before the maltreatment of Aboriginals can be resolved and left in the past.

There is very little evidence that residential schooling was a result of misplaced enthusiasm for the missionary imperative or to provide aid to a population in need of education.  Instead, the aims and purposes of specialized institutions to assimilate Native children into the “more civilized” European image resulted in a distancing of family and culture that led to generations of trauma, poor self-concept, and non-adaptive behaviour in the forms of mistrust, cultural conflict, and substance abuse.


Barton, S. S., Thommasen, H. V., Tallio, B., Zhang, W., & Michalos, A. C.  (2005).  Health and quality of life of Aboriginal residential school survivors, Bella Coola Valley, 2001.  Social Indicators Research, 73(2), 295-312.

Berger, D. A.  (2009).  Eco leadership: The power of the circle.  Toronto, ON: Living University Press.

Brasfield, C. R.  (2001).  Residential school syndrome.  BC Medical Journal, 43(2), 78-81.

Chrisjohn, R. D., Wasacase, T., Nussey, L., Smith, A., Legault, M., Loiselle, P., & Bourgeois, M.  (2002).  Genocide and Indian residential schooling: The past is present.  Canada and International Humanitarian Law: Peacekeeping and War Crimes in the Modern Era.  Halifax, NS: Dalhousie University Press.

Corntassel, J. & Holder, C.  (2008).  Who’s sorry now? Government apologies, truth commissions, and indigenous self-determination in Australia, Canada, Guatamala, and Peru.  Human Rights Review, 9(4), 11-35.

Fontaine, T.  (2010).  Broken circle: The dark legacy of Indian residential schools: A memoir.  Calgary, AB: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd.

Kirkness, V. J.  (1999).  Aboriginal education in Canada: A retrospective and a prospective.  Journal of American Indian Education, 39(1), 97-121.

Miller, J. R.  (1996).  Shingwauk’s vision: A history of Native residential schools.  Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press Inc.

Million, D.  (2000).  Telling secrets: Sex, power and narratives in Indian residential school histories.  Canadian Woman Studies, 20(2), 92-104.

Morse, B. W.  (2008).  Government responses to the Indian residential schools settlement in Canada: Implications for Australia.  American Indian Law Review, 12(1), 41-59.

Native kids ‘used for experiments’.  (2000, April 26).  [Clipping from the Vancouver Sun, BC newspaper].  Retrieved from

Neegan, E.  (2005).  Excuse me: who are the first peoples of Canada?  A historical analysis of Aboriginal education in Canada then and now.  International Journal of Inclusive Education, 9(1), 3-15.

Prochner, L.  (2004).  Early childhood education programs for indigenous children in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand: An historical review.  Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 29(4), 7-16.

Rothe, J. P., Makokis, P., Steinhauer, L., Aguiar, W., Makokis, L., & Brertton, G.  (2006).  The role played by a former federal government residential school in a First Nation community’s alcohol abuse and impaired driving: Results of a talking circle.  International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 65(4), 347-356.

School aid white plague.  (1907, November 15).  [Clipping from the Ottawa Citizen, ON newspaper].  Retrieved from

Trevithick, S.  (1998).  Native residential schooling in Canada: A review of literature.  The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 18(1), 49-86.

Troniak, S.  (2011).  Addressing the legacy of residential schools (Report no. 2011-76-E).  Ottawa, ON: Library of Parliament.

January 23, 2012 Posted by | Educational | 2 Comments

A late-night philosophical examination of God by an atheist

I’m studying the token chapter on continental philosophy like in both degrees before, but this time it reads differently. This time, I think I can say that my new lifestyle and attitude have turned me [at least in part] existentialist.

If there’s a God, I hope it’s Martin Buber‘s “partner in dialogue…with whom individuals communicate in an I-Thou relation.” Deeear Diary.

Or Paul Tillich‘s God, close to the “ultimate concern” that guides your life and gives it integrity, vital because responsibility accompanies freedom.

After all, aren’t self-reflection and passionate duty two main tenets of many Western religions?

I don’t think religion should be awe of higher power; it needs to be the transfer of guiding principles to a life free from guilt and regret. Then it can take some of the burden off the public education system! (Har har.)

Of course, I’m not one to make a point of avoiding guilt and regret.

October 3, 2011 Posted by | Reading, Time to Kill, Writing | , , , , | 1 Comment

I think I’m in love.

See Animal Review now for one of the most awesome decisions of your current existence. As a candidate for teacher’s certification in the next year certified, qualified teacher and first-year Master of Education student (!), I know how I’m going to be educating children about our fellow Earth-dwellers.

See especially my current favourites, Africanized Honey Bees aka. Killer Bees and Jellyfish. You won’t regret it. (Please don’t forget me.)

Ahh, how often do I get to tag something as educational and funny?

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April 13, 2010 Posted by | Educational, Funny | , , , , , | 2 Comments

What? How do you sell things?


April 5, 2010 Posted by | Funny, Internet Content, South Park, Television | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Facebook: Pick One.

March 28, 2010 Posted by | Funny | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ex-Girlfriend

Usually, ex-whatevers aren’t a huge topic of interest for me, unless the person is just so ridiculous you can’t realistically feel sorry for the loss.

My friend dated this girl for about a year until her partying habits hit full swing. They still hang out in the same group of friends, attend the same parties, and are even Facebook friends. But doesn’t mean he has to play nice.

I present to you Exhibit A, a) evidence of Facebook’s only use to me as a social being, and b) proof of my friend’s ex-girlfriend being a dumbass:

January 20, 2010 Posted by | Funny | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leonard Cohen, Lovelies.

Leonard Cohen

Image via Wikipedia

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack, in everything…

That’s how the light gets in.

Sometimes it blows my mind how much I am in love with music, music with beautiful words.

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December 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 3 Comments


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