If you’re in the Montessori world, you may have heard of Building the Pink Tower, a feature-length documentary film project spearheaded by Jan Selby and Vina Kay out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Launched in 2013 with a $65,000 Indiegogo campaign and another $110,000 in ongoing fundraising, the project is well underway, with filming three-fourths complete and post-production on the calendar. This week, Jan and Vina are launching a second Indiegogo campaign for $100,000, which you can contribute to here. Here’s the pitch:
So what is this film, how did it happen, and what’s the public connection?
Vina and Jan were a couple of ordinary Montessori parents —well, maybe not so ordinary: Vina is an activist and organizer for racial justice, currently the Executive Director at Voices for Racial Justice in Minneapolis, and Jan worked in corporate marketing for 25 years before switching careers to become a documentary filmmaker and found Quiet Island Films.
Jan and Vina met as parents and board members at Lake Country School, a prominent Minneapolis independent Montessori school. They saw what happened in their children’s Montessori schools (including Lake Country, Highland Park, and two public programs: Great River and J. J. Hill in St. Paul) and ask the questions many Montessori parents ask: Why doesn’t everyone know about this? Why can’t we have this for every child?
Vina carried those questions through her work for racial and social justice, and one day she looked up her old friend Jan and said, let’s tell this story. Jan, meanwhile, had made her mark with A Circle and Three Lines, a short film about the history of the peace sign, and the award-winning Beyond the Divide about “war, peace, and the courage to find common ground”. (Quiet Island also does corporate and non-profit marketing work to pay the bills, and produced film shown at the International Montessori Congress in Portland, Oregon, in 2013.)
One thing I learned from Vina and Jan is that part of the excitement of making a documentary is letting the story emerge and unfold. Jan likened it to observing a young child in a Montessori classroom. They didn’t know at first if the film would be about just one school, or several in the Twin Cities, or that it would take on a national scope—which, in the end, it did. But they did know how they felt the first time they saw a Montessori classroom, and how they felt about their children’s experiences and the Montessori approach. They both speak eloquently and passionately about the beauty, the inspiration, the complex yet simple thinking, the respect for children, and the transformative power. They wanted to share the experience with many more people, and to bring Montessori into the public conversation, and they thought, just maybe, that a documentary film might be the way.
As they dug into the Montessori world, Jan and Vina came to realize that the film needed to show a wide range of schools and programs to capture the richness and diversity of the Montessori experience. In the end, they chose to highlight five programs, including a teacher training center, representing public, district, charter, and independent schools, serving a wide range of communities and income levels. Here are the stories:
City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis, Missouri, ran for fifteen years as a community-oriented, independent children’s house school. Ten years ago, the school community saw the need for better schooling options in St. Louis and decided to add an elementary program as a public charter “accessible to children of all incomes, races, family backgrounds and abilities”.
Lumin Education in Dallas, Texas, is a 28 year old program in high-poverty East Dallas now serving 550 children and their families with Montessori programs that start young and involve parents as much as possible.
Lake Country School in Minneapolis, Minnesota is 40 year old independent school, the first in MN to offer upper elementary (ages nine to twelve) and the first to extend to junior high and high school. Lake Country operates Lake Country Land School in Dunn County, Wisconsin, as a farm campus to implement the “Erdkinder” vision for Montessori adolescents.
Montessori Center of Minnesota is an AMI teacher training center offering primary (3-6) and elementary (6-12) training and a lab school. The center is also the home of Montessori Partners Serving All Children, a collaborative promoting high quality early childhood education for low income and culturally rooted communities
Milwaukee Public Montessori Schools is the country’s largest collection of public Montessori schools. The program is 40 years old and serves nearly 3,000 of Milwaukee’s 78,000 public school students from ages three to eighteen.
What Happens Next?
This round of funding should allow the filmmakers to go back to several of the schools for a few more days of work, and travel to Milwaukee to get the story there. After shooting is complete, the detailed work of post-production — collating, editing, storytelling, sound, graphics, and much more — will start, and this will entail perhaps another $300,000. A total budget of $600,000 might sound like a lot until you understand that a film like this would typically cost a million and a half, without the contributions of so many people working for cheap or for free, because they believe in it. Vina and Jan are confident that, with the project well under way and hours of video to share, the funding will continue to be forthcoming. They expect to have rushes, at least, for the AMI and AMS national conferences in spring of 2017, and a solid rough cut, if not a finished film, to debut at the International Montessori Congress in Prague in July, 2017.
From there, the plan is to promote and distribute the film, possibly at film festivals or on public broadcasting, but using the Montessori community as the leading edge. This could happen at school events, at public screenings, in district offices, at charter school presentations — anywhere there are people who need to see it. The film is a tool to bring Montessori education into the national conversation about education reform, to inspire viewers to consider what’s possible in their own communities, and to help bring more Montessori to more children.
One last thing: The final title for the film may not even mention the pink tower! That’s because, as Vina and Jan both told me, this film isn’t really for the Montessorians. The people who most need to see the film, they said, are people who know nothing about Montessori (or “know” things that aren’t true) — and need to know more, so they can see Montessori as something they themselves could make happen.