Before I went to Prague it was described to me as, "Something out of a Disney movie!" It certainly lived up to that reputation - it is such a beautiful place that it feels like you're visiting a fairytale from a bygone era.
There's such a sense of whimsy within the town that you could almost float away if not for being anchored by the weight of so many years worth of history around you.
Our personal favourite features were the awe-inspiring architecture and the food: delicious, cheap (by Australian standards), and served in huge portions (even by Andrew's standards!).
There were almost 2000 attendees at the Congress from 70 different countries around the world. That is a truly remarkable turnout!
There is certainly something indescribable about congregating with your ‘tribe’ – connecting with individuals who reflect an incredible array of diversity and yet share core values and a common mission inspired by Montessori.
For me, however, the three most important people in Prague were the ones who are in my life every day: my husband, Andrew, my ‘Montessori mum’, Barbara and my niece, Emily.
These are three of the people I love most in all the world and it was a privilege to have them beside me for this experience. To learn with them and laugh with them in equal measure!
There were so many keynotes and breakouts, with such a rich array of information and inspiration, that it would be impossible for me to try to condense it all into a blog post. What I will do is pick out the few that had the most impact for me as an individual. If you'd like a broader glimpse of the Congress as a whole I highly recommend viewing the Gallery on the official Montessori Congress 2017 website and perusing the Programme so that you can research individual speakers.
Dr Steven Hughes
The first time I saw Dr Steven Hughes was nearly a decade ago, on his first Australian tour. I remember scribbling furiously in my notebook to try to keep up with him as he eloquently articulated interconnections between what Dr Montessori observed and what modern neuroscience has confirmed. I have seen Dr Hughes many times, in many locations, since that day and it is clear that he remains as fascinated and passionate as ever by the way that the Montessori method links with what we now know about brain development.
Dr Hughes hosted the Congress alongside Elina Rautasalo. Elina is a well-known figure in the Montessori world, having served as the chair of the Montessori Society AMI in the UK, and
Dr Hughes is committed to disseminating the 'Montessori message' to a broader audience and with that in mind he has generously made many of his lectures publicly available in video form. So microwave the popcorn, grab yourself a fresh notebook and visit his Vimeo site!
My favourite break out session was held by Alyssa as she took us Exploring Parker Palmer’s ‘five habits of the heart’ to enliven our role as Montessorians.
Alyssa's reputation clearly preceded her, with so many attendees turning out for her presentation that people began sitting on the floor, sharing chairs, crouching directly in front of Alyssa's lectern and standing in the doorway (and spilling down the hallway!)
Alyssa's presentation explored how Parker Palmer's 'Five Habits of the Heart' relates to what Montessorians sometimes call, 'the spiritual preparation of the adult'. To be a Montessori adult - to observe with genuine interest, to analyse with openness and curiosity, to engage with mindful presence, to nurture with care and empower with trust - requires enormous emotional output. It takes courage, wisdom and energy to become, and to remain, the kind of person who can flourish within the high expectations of a Montessori environment. The Five Habits of the Heart provided striking food for thought about practices that are not only sustainable but refuelling for adults (and children) who wish to give to the world without sacrificing their own well-being and balance. I highly recommend visiting the 'Centre for Courage Renewal' site to learn more about these Five Habits.
Following the presentation we were able to chat to Alyssa directly to thank her for having a special impact on our own Montessori journey. Several years ago we attended a workshop that Alyssa conducted regarding Montessori education for infants and toddlers. At that point we were providing only 'preschool' programs for 3 to 6 year old children but we were just starting to explore the idea of extending our environments to younger explorers. At that point we had read books, consulted with mentors and investigated sites from around the country but we still couldn't quite picture exactly what the Montessori toddler environment would look and feel like on a day-to-day basis. We weren't willing to move forward until we were sure that we could truly offer toddlers an authentic, nurturing Montessori experience. Alyssa was the person who finally made that seem possible for us. We found her to be incredibly knowledgeable and experienced, with such a genuine emotional investment in her work and a deep intellectual appreciation for the psychological and developmental complexity of very young children. Perhaps most importantly for us, her 'head in the sky, feet on the ground' approach seamlessly blended the lofty visions and values of Montessori with a realistic and accessible answers about putting that into practice. It was wonderful to finally have the opportunity to thank Alyssa for giving us the final push we needed to develop 'Montessori From the Start' - our unique toddler environment at Rosemont House Montessori.
Scilla Elworthy took my breath away during her keynote speech, and it seems she also took my words away because I feel like I don't even know where to start when trying to explain why she had such an impact on me.
Perhaps it was her mesmerising blend of quiet conviction and unapologetic strength. Her stage presence was unlike anyone I've ever seen before. She did not demand attention, but she commanded the room. I felt absolutely riveted by her. She seemed so perfectly centred, projecting such a sense of unity between her spiritual, intellectual and physical presence.
I feel I would have been captivated by Dr Elworthy even if she had just been describing what she'd had for dinner last night, but in addition to her compelling aura she was also delivering an immensely powerful message. Dr Elworthy has seen the very worst of humanity, from war and famine to mutilation and manipulation, and yet she has not only hope but vision. She is a "peace builder" - a person committed to taking action on the quest for cultivating a better world.
On a personal level, perhaps the reason I was so deeply struck by Dr Scilla Elworthy was because she had chosen to present the topic Empowering the adolescent as an agent of social reform and I happened to be accompanied by the adolescent who has been such a change-agent in my life. Emily might be half my age but she is one of my greatest role models. She is wise, insightful, empathic, strong, forgiving, and fun. She makes me laugh more than anyone else in the world but she also inspires me to think deeply about small details and big issues. I have never known anyone else quite like her and every day I am grateful that she is part of my world. She makes me want to be the best version of myself and it is such a privilege that I am able to watch as she becomes her own 'best self' as well.
Dr Scilla Elworthy delivered a powerful message to adolescents in general, but it meant so much to be to sit beside Emily as she internalised that inspiration.
Dr Elworthy's advice to adolescents was simply put yet deeply powerful. She encouraged Emily and her peers to ask themselves three questions...
- What are you passionate about?
- What are you good at?
- How can you marry the two?
The seemingly simple act of marrying emotions to skills empowers adolescents to feel psychologically capable of achieving change. It also provokes them to create their own roadmap of how they will achieve it.
Please do yourself (and the world) a favour and set aside 15 minutes to watch one of Dr Elworthy's TED Talks. Those 15 minutes may very well change your life - and then you may very well change our world.
The play time...
No Congress or conference would be complete without the presence of vendors showcasing their tantalising treasures! Montessori has been part of my life for as long as I can remember and I see the materials every day, yet I am still just as awe-struck as ever by the beauty and appeal of these pedagogical jewels. Perusing the displays is a feast for the eyes - and the hands! Even as an adult I could not help but reach out to touch, feel, handle, explore. No wonder children find these materials so irresistible and deeply engaging!
The Congress organisers were generous and wise enough to ensure that they weren't just 'preaching to the converted' by showcasing Montessori to those who are already part of the movement. Instead the Congress provided ample opportunities for the general public to learn more about the philosophy through a series of workshops and to explore Montessori materials at the 'Family Market'. I was proud to see so many families and educators exploring the rich world of Montessori.
I have no doubt that the Congress will act as a catalyst for positive change for all of those who visited - whether by refuelling the energy of committed Montessorians or by introducing a new element into the lives of those who explored Montessori for the first time at the public events.
The Congress was only the beginning of our Montessori Adventure - there is so much more to share.
Still to come...