Every moment of this impeccably organised event contained cause for admiration. A line-up of incredibly talented, accomplished and intelligent speakers presented key notes and workshops. This group was diverse in terms of their experiences and areas of speciality, but they were connected by a shared sense of integrity, honesty and passion. From a variety of perspectives the key note speakers campaigned for the preservation of our world through the protection of the environment and of the human creatures who inhabit it. These key note addresses were punctuated with endless rounds of spontaneous applause. The crowd of more than 2000 "Montessorians" were moved to tears and moved to their feet for standing ovations. A palpable sense of emotion and excitement filled the room and, I'm sure, was carried back to the sixty different home countries of the participants.
There was a stunning array of events occurring under the umbrella of the Congress; both informative and entertaining.
School tours took us all (in classic 'yellow school buses'!) to a series of stunningly designed and impeccably resources Montessori classrooms. Cameras clicked as eager observers tried to capture examples of the clever, creative and colourful activities displayed on the shelf.
The Congress was publicly celebrated with the 'Montessori in the Square' classroom display. With an amazing degree of efficiency and organisation three fully-functioning classrooms were erected in the main square of Portland. A 0-3 environment, a 3-6 room and a 6-12 area were all furnished, equipped and then filled with happily busy Montessori children. It was impressive to watch the amazed crowds gathering to observe but the truly remarkable aspect was the way that the children continued to work as though nothing was out of the ordinary! None of the children performed, became shy...they didn't seem to notice the crowds at all! Their explorations, creations, discoveries and expressions were so absorbing that nothing could cause distraction. Now that's the magic of Montessori!
Within the depths of the Oregon Convention Center, the home of the 2013 Congress, I discovered something of a Disneyland for Montessorians. A cavernous room filled to the brim with treasures, delights and displays! A smorgasbord of displays showcased Montessori materials, parent communication programs, educational DVDs and so much more. I was glad that I had travelled to Portland with a half-empty suitcase, because by the end of the Congress I knew it would be filled to the very brim! In the midst of the very modern and man-made surroundings of the Convention centre and its many professional displays we found an even more inspiring hidden treasure; a natural playscape designed and constructed by Rusty Keeler. Rusty had transported potted plants, mounds of soil and sand, rocks and wood into the middle of the enormous exhibit hall and had created something inviting, peaceful, joyful and natural. Adult explorers engaged with the materials, building makeshift cubby houses, laying stone paths, modelling with clay and simply sitting and resting within the calming presence of the trees. Simply breathtaking. It was a poignant reminder of what can be done with enough imagination and passion. There is no excuse for a lack of natural playscapes in schools or centres - space restrictions, budget issues or a lack of time might be cause for a bit of extra ingenuity or creativity, but they are not a reason to abandon nature!
The official Congress workshops were phenomenal - an amazing amount of choice was offered to ensure that every participant would be able to find new ideas, review familiar concepts, refine their understanding, broaden their minds and fan the flames of their passion! My personal highlights were the presentations by Dr Adele Diamond and Dr Sharon Maxwell. Dr Diamond outlined, among other things, the links between Montessori and neuroscience. It was yet another presentation that made me wonder whether Maria Montessori had a time machine! She seemed to have a remarkable knack for intuiting, and deducing, poignant concepts that modern scientists can only uncover with advanced technological tools. Of all of Maria's gifts it is perhaps her foresight and powers of reasoning that are most impressive. It is always fascinating and heartening to listen to modern research that substantiates and consolidates Dr Montessori's theories with objective, reliable data. This concept of Maria relying on her intelligence, training and insight to make giant leaps of thought without the use of technology was a perfect fit for Dr Maxwell's discussions about 'Aligning Technology with the Values the Nurture'. Dr Maxwell explored some of the darker sides of the technological tools that the children of today have in the palm of their hands, but she also warned us not to try to ignore or eliminate these entirely from their lives. She explained that she imagines her own children as existing on a safe little island; her home and their Montessori environment. Around that island is a raging sea of technology. She knows that to isolate them entirely from these waters would leave them vulnerable and exposed; as soon as they try to step off the island they will surely drown in those fierce waters. Instead Dr Maxwell empowered us to empower our children! To involve them in the process of becoming critical consumers of mass-media and technology. It is not an easy or straightforward task but Dr Maxwell made it seem not just possible but accessible. During her lecture the room was filled almost beyond capacity - we sat on the floor by the wall just for the chance to hear her speak - and I know that every person walked out of there feeling ready to take action in a protective yet constructive manner!
Now, a month later, I have many wonderful memories of the Congress. There is one particularly special recollection, however, that sits deepest in my heart. This is the memory of Judith Snow. A charming, entertaining and witty speaker. An intelligent woman with a great deal of insight. A passionate advocate with a powerful but subtle manner of conveying her message. Oh, and an individual who lives her life without the use of the majority of her body. Judith delivered her key note address from her wheelchair but she didn't need the convenient tools of gesticulation or body language to communicate her point; her voice, her face and her message of tolerance and genuine inclusion were expressed loudly and proudly. She is, quite simply, one of the best presenters I have ever had the fortune to encounter.
Australia to America is a very long way to travel. I am immensely grateful to the Association Montessori Internationale, the Staff and Board of Montessori Northwest and to the Portland community for absolutely making it worth the trip!
*As time goes on I will add more detailed thoughts about specific elements of my trip to the Montessori Congress. Stay tuned!