More than seven years ago Montessori parents Vina Kay and Jan Selby began working on the concept behind Building the Pink Tower, an independent documentary film about Montessori education. (Vina is the Executive Director at Voices for Racial Justice , a Minnesota nonprofit, and Jan is an award-winning director at Quiet Island Films.) MontessoriPublic has been following their story since 2016, as the project has moved slowly but surely to completion, taking twists and turns along the way. In fact, back in 2016, Jan likened the development of the film to observing a young child in a Montessori classroom: you don’t always know which way the story will go, but you can be certain it will hold your interest.
Now the finished film—retitled “Inside Montessori ”—is ready for its debut, premiering at the International Montessori Conference in Sarasota, Florida on November 8 and the first ever AMI affiliate conference (AMI/USA, EAA, MAA and NAMTA) in Dallas on November 9. I’ve had a chance to preview a rough cut of parts of the film.
The main body of the film (and the part I previewed) comprises five stories from Montessori schools around the country: four public programs including three charters and one district school, and one independent school. The schools are presented in order of ages served and span the developmental continuum from birth through eighteen years.
Lumin Education with the motto “Start Young—Involve Parents”, is a flagship program bringing Montessori early childhood education continuing through third grade since 1978 to a largely immigrant population in east Dallas, Texas. The “Inside Montessori” story focuses on Montessori’s view of the needs and characteristics of children from birth to three, and the work Lumin does in home visits with new parents to support their children’s development.
Montessori Partners Serving All Children
The second segment focuses on Montessori Partners Serving All Children, an initiative of the Montessori Center of Minnesota (an AMI training center in St. Paul, Minnesota) which works with civic partners to support programs serving indigenous, immigrant, and disadvantaged communities in the Twin Cities area. The film highlights Cornerstone Montessori Elementary School, a public charter which has notable success raising achievement levels of low-income students above those reached in the surrounding district.
City Garden Montessori School
Montessori elementary is represented by City Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, an intentionally diverse, “Anti-Bias Anti-Racism” focused school which recently had its charter extended for an unprecedented ten years by the state school board. Interviews with teachers and classroom footage demonstrate City Garden’s integration of Montessori elementary pedagogy with their deep commitment to social justice.
Lake Country School
At Lake Country in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the only independent school in the film, middle schoolis represented with an implementation of Montessori’s Erdkinder model adapted to an urban setting. The experiential aspects are embodied in an annual“Odyssey” trip at the beginning of each year and an (optional) 18-day stay on their rural “Land School” campus in Dunn County, Wisconsin offered to middle school students every year.
MacDowell Montessori School
Finally, the film wraps up with a visit to the high school program at MacDowell, part of Milwaukee Public Schools’ public Montessori network—the largest in the U.S. Moving interviews with parents and high school students demonstrate the impact of extended exposure to the child-centered Montessori approach, setting adolescents students up for success beyond high school.
The content and focus of the film have developed over the last seven years, a period in which a lot has happened in the Montessori world as well. Public Montessori has grown in importance and cultural currency, with more than two dozen new programs opening over the period. The film was always intended to expand access to the model, but I think it’s fair to say that the public focus has sharpened as the project developed. Much of the high production video of Montessori out in the world has been promotional material from private schools, inevitably representing their demographics and physical environments. This film offers a broad representation of Montessori in multiple settings at all age levels, something that hasn’t been widely available before.
Social justice has seen a concurrent rise in cultural awareness, both within and beyond the Montessori world. (The first Montessori for Social Justice (Un)Conference took place in 2013, the birth of what is now a national organization.) The film has always had a socially aware underpinning, and in the current version, the emphasis on the power of Montessori to transform lives it has not yet reached is undeniable. “Montessori can be an equalizer,” co-producer Jan Selby told me. “At the foundation, we believe all children should have access to quality education.”
The Montessori Premieres
After years of work and several rounds of fundraising, the film is (almost) ready to launch. It will premiere over the weekend of November 8th and 9th, first at the International Montessori Council’s Annual Conference in Sarasota, and then at the AMI Affiliates public Montessori oriented conference in Dallas. The film will be released on DVD and with streaming links in January 2019, distributed as a premium to early sponsors and available as an to “early-bird” screening kit for $500, for a three-month exclusive window until April, 2019. Often, this kind of arrangement comes with the option to show the film just once. But since the goal is for the widest possible exposure, recipients are encouraged to organize events and screenings of their own during this period. After the exclusive window, the film will be available for $250.
The five individual stories will also be available as stand-alone stories, and a library of shorter videos is in development with plans to be released in 2019. In addition, “mini-shorts” for promotion via social media will be available at no cost in 2019. “We want to get this in front of as many people as possible,” Selby said. “We’re committed to having this be a very powerful tool for the Montessori world, because we want more people to understand what is so amazing about it.”