Saturday, May 30, 2009

Interview with Pat Montgomery, founder of Clonlara

Clonlara School is an alternative private school located in Ann Arbor, Michigan founded by Jim and Pat Montgomery in 1967. The philosophy of the school is that learners participate willingly in their own education out of a sense of curiosity that is nurtured by the school or by parents. Students are self-directed and have educational goals to achieve throughout the year. I recently caught Pat Montgomery during the busy end of the school year and she graciously agreed to be interviewed.

My husband and his brother attended Clonlara, in their middle school years in the early 80s. My husband did so well there and still thinks that was the most impactful learning experience in his life. His brother didn’t do as well and seemed to need more structure. What kind of kid does well at an alternative school like Clonlara, and what kind of kid does not do so well?

Over the years I have found that there are many reasons for a youngster’s positive and negative reactions to attending Clonlara. For one thing, when it is the youngster’s choice to be there and not just the parents’ choice, it makes a big difference. We have kids of many age levels mixed together in the so-called class groupings, and they share many, many activities during each day. Being there with his older brother, sharing the same friends as his brother did, I believe, made a difference in Jason’s ability to be his own person without any need to compare himself to John and without having to compete with John. Perhaps these matters had an impact.

How did Clonlara get started? And what is the goal of education at the school?

Jim Montgomery, my husband, and I started a school for our two children in 1967 to assure that they would have a place to develop as respected, cherished human beings who could grow according to their own interests and sharpen their own abilities in the process of growing up relatively free from what our society heaps upon its youngsters in the name of “what’s good for them.” The overall goal was to allow kids and adults to learn, grow, and develop on their own timetable without being pressured and made to fit someone else’s.

What is the role of the teacher at Clonlara?

Teachers are role models for the kids. Now that may sound like an obvious, customary role for an adult, but when closely examined, it packs an enormous wallop. Kids (and adults, too, to a lesser extent) learn by imitating, so a major requirement for a person who presents him/herself as a teacher is to be a person worth imitating.

How does Clonlara ensure academic/emotional/social/physical balance in its students?

To ensure means to guarantee. Clonlara cannot do that. There are many, many variables present in any child’s life that all feed into ensuring a holistic effect in kids’ lives. School plays a minor role in this, even a school like Clonlara that takes pride in how it pays attention to these very elements of a child’s growth.

How do you encourage students to be active, interested learners? How do you help students find what their element?

Kids learn naturally from birth onward. At Clonlara, adults honor this and let it happen without inserting lessons and classes on what a child “ought to be doing” at any given time. Play is the work of the child (as Maria Montessori proclaimed at the start of the 19th century). Children whose work has not been interrupted unnecessarily and regularly become accustomed to learning all the time. Once that child reaches an age when hands-on manipulation is less needed for understanding abstract things (somewhere around the age of 12), what s/he is learning presents a discipline of its own that makes consummate sense to the learner. External force and motivation is not called for in this scenario. Kids find out what they are passionate about at an earlier age than do those whose growth has been sidetracked by what they “ought to learn”. Letting teachers present what they themselves are passionate about provides, again, the best model for the student. Perhaps the simple answer to this question is to get out of their way.

Is there time for movement every day and access to the outdoors/nature?

Use of the community as the classroom assures that kids go, for example, to Saginaw Forest and the County Park (locales near Clonlara), and to National Parks and numerous other venues of interest all over the country and abroad. Clonlara groups have traveled to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Ireland, and to at least 46 of the 50 States. Travel is an integral part of the program.

How is the subject of ADD/ADHD handled in your community? Or do you find these attention problems are not such an issue in your schools because of the independence and autonomy?

We do not categorize students by what they cannot do; we use given names, not initials, to describe our youngsters. Many students exhibit behaviors that are different from that of the rest of their peers, of course. Learning to adapt to this and to embrace the strengths in each individual is mandatory for every kid and adult in that group. That’s the most basic way that I can describe the situation where all kids have a chance to blossom and grow. It’s a treasure to behold, truth be told.

How do you use technology? How do you balance that with non-technology (nature, art, books)?

There are almost as many computers in the middle and older kids’ areas as there are kids. The middles and olders range in age from 11 to 18 years of age, incidentally. They make good use of these, and they carry their own cell phones and that array of ‘berries and gadgets. Balancing the use of these things would be a problem if the program were not centered on kids and their natural activities, that’s certain.

Do you use textbooks, homework, standardized testing, grades?

These items are the trappings of institutional, conventional schools. These would only ever be used at Clonlara if specifically requested/needed by a student, teacher, or parent. Clonlara uses verbal and written evaluations to mark progress, rather than paper report cards. Students submit portfolios to demonstrate their work.

Do you many of your students go on to college?

The number of Clonlara students who go on to college is high. Many of the olders, for example, opt to attend community college as part of their Clonlara schedule, so they get a head start.

For more information on the school, go to:

1 comment:

  1. My children have attended and graduated from Clonlara. It is true that learning follows the student. My children were quite happy during their Clonara years, and have continued to be self-directed learners in their college studies.