This year Liam and Reid are attending the Quaker school in Monteverde. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a group of North American Quaker pacifists moved to Monteverde in the 1950s after some of them were imprisoned in Alabama for refusing to register with the Selective Service. The Quaker presence in Monteverde is still apparent today with a sizable Quaker Meeting, numerous community and environmental projects lead by Quakers and the Monteverde Friends School.

Though the school was originally established to educate North American Quaker immigrants living in Monteverde, the vast majority of today’s students at the Friends School are Tico kids, very few of whom are Quaker. Monteverde Friends practice unprogrammed worship—worship through silent, collective meditation—and thus are far from evangelists, though Quaker values of simplicity, non-violence, and a deep respect for each individual and for the environment are readily apparent in the school’s approach to education.

In my mind, the school’s Quaker ethos is most apparent in its emphasis on community building. The whole school participates in regular, community-wide service days with activities ranging from visiting elderly neighbors to teaching English to local firefighters.  At school, students are taught active listening and the complex art of decision-making through consensus. Each school day starts with an assembly that may involve singing silly songs or gathering for silent meditation, during which teachers and students occasionally stand to share progressive, thoughtful or hopeful messages. And, at the end of each day, all the kids clean the school, with the youngest students being directed by older students. Our boys’ “elders” have impressed me, on a number of occasions, with their ability to mentor and inspire younger children.

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Parents, too,  are encouraged to take an active role in their kids’ community and school, both through work days—Tim and I have done everything from washing windows to organizing the administrative assistant’s office—and by attending regular parent-teacher meetings.

Our experiences at the Friends School and in Costa Rica, in general, allow us to share relationships in which socio-economic and class differences are not allowed to take center stage. Financial aid is available to all local families needing help attending Monteverde Friends School; on work days I find myself cleaning or building next to parents who are hotel owners and others who are domestic workers, though I’d never know unless conversation moves to comments about jobs.

Last week we attended a parent-teacher meeting. At the previous meeting, parents had been invited to raise concerns and questions about the school. One emerging theme was that parents wanted to have a better sense of exactly how their children were learning in the classroom. As a result, at this meeting we parents were invited to become students. Over the course of the hour, we visited three classrooms: Melody’s preschool class, where we were told to explore and behave like four-year-olds; Marisela’s fourth-grade social studies class; and Carlos’ high school class. Monteverde is a model of diversity and bilingualism—kids switch between English and Spanish repeatedly throughout their day—but because the vast majority of parents are Spanish speakers, this afternoon of classes was run in Spanish, with translators at-the-ready for those needing them.

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Fellow Monteverde Friends School parents paint in Marisela’s social studies class.

I started in Carlos’ classroom, in what used to be the Quaker’s old Meetinghouse: unfinished wooden walls, a mural with a map of the Americas rotated 90 degrees from its conventional orientation, and stacks of books covering every surface. The musty-library-feeling of the room is befitting of Carlos, a man whose love of literature and ideas is readily apparent. He and Francis, a bilingual high school student, discussed their reading of Don Quixote and the Escher-like, magic cube Francis had made, which can be turned inside out, revealing a series of pen-and-ink drawings depicting Cervantes’ story. We also briefly looked at Marcos Ramirez, a Costa Rican novel written by Carlos Luis Fallas, whom another student described as “our Mark Twain.”

The bell rang and we moved on to Melody’s gorgeous preschool classroom. Melody strikes me as a master educator whose classroom reflects her ability to pick and choose from the best preschool philosophies; in my twenty-minute visit I saw hints of Montessori, Reggio, and Waldorf inspiration. We started by sitting in a circle on the floor. Melody pointed to signs depicting classroom norms, with both English and Spanish subtitles: put things away after using them; speak in a soft voice; approach others by saying, “excuse me” or “con permiso.”

Melody then invited us to individually explore the classroom. I worked through a series of keys to finally unlock a padlock; I peeked at a glass-wing butterfly through a magnifying glass; and I eyed trays set up with sewing tools, a hand mixer and soap bubbles, sand and stamps for literacy work, and beads and sticks for math exploration. Melody’s calm, confident demeanor and her extremely organized, stimulating classroom gave me the impression that her students have been gifted an exceptional setting for exploring, learning, having fun, and coming into their own.

Our last stop was Marisela’s fourth-grade social studies class. Since our arrival in Monteverde, I’ve admired Marisela’s spirited, creative energy. Her lesson was about geological evolution and the formation and motion of earth’s continents over billions of years. She started with a brief explanation of scientific theory, but soon we were doing math (calculating the age of the theory of continental drift), listening to music while painting (Pangaea and other continental formations) and even following along as Marisela lead us in dance.

After our three-classroom tour, we reconvened in the Meetinghouse. I couldn’t help but notice several differences from parent-teacher meetings in the States: a neighbor’s little dogs wandered among the benches; the father in front of me had a couple of carrots sticking out from a mesh pocket of his backpack; and shouts of kids running around unattended, but safe, out on the field and in the nearby woods drifted through the open doors.

As the meeting closed, I was struck by the concentration of thoughtful, committed people who surround us and our children here in Monteverde: the dedicated teachers; the high school kids who waited for us non-native-Spanish speakers in each classroom, eager to translate; the administrators who high-five our kids every morning as they walk up the path to school; and the many parents who have become our friends over the course of this academic year. It is a privilege for all of us to live and grow with the Monteverde Friends School community.