Recently I had the unique opportunity to travel to Poland to present at a small Montessori conference. I also visited several Montessori schools in Krakow and Nowy Sacz. My Montessori journey to eastern Europe was incredible and I want to share it with you.

How it all started…

On a recent Friday afternoon I got a curious email in my inbox. It was from a colleague I rarely see. The subject line was “Poland?” I was intrigued.

There was an event in Krakow and she recently discovered that the presenters she thought were coming to do workshops would not be coming. She had been frantically trying to find someone to come to Poland on short notice and help facilitate this small but important conference.

Somebody suggested me and she reached out. Was I available to go to Poland the next week? If I shifted two appointments on my calendar, it was totally possible. I said “yes.” The flights were booked and I had five days to prepare.

*Shout out to my husband who acted like it was no big deal if I left the country for a week with only five days’ notice. He’s kinda the best that way.

The main square in Krakow. This building is called the “Cloth Hall” as it is where textiles used to be traded and sold.


Montessori in Poland

I had the pleasure of visiting four different Montessori schools in Poland. I visited two schools in Krakow and two in Nowy Sacz. They served children from toddler through high school and some had a mixture of Montessori and traditional classrooms. They each had a unique energy and spirit.

Me and Marta, one of my delightful hosts, in front of one of her Montessori schools that has toddler and Primary classrooms.

 

This was the first time in my life that I have visited a Montessori school outside of the United States. It was so exciting to peek into the lives and culture of a different country via their Montessori schools!

One thing was clear to me, Montessori is universal. The classrooms were beautiful and felt familiar. The children were joyful, curious, self-motivated, and very engaged. I found this to be thrilling because Montessori education is still fairly new in Poland but it is thriving and growing!

Montessori in Poland is just like Montessori everywhere else…beautiful!

A botany shelf in a lower elementary classroom. Look at the amazing natural light!

 

The classrooms were as full of light as they were joy and curiosity. The teachers demonstrated immense love and patience. It was inspiring to see so much purposeful work and loving interactions, even in a language I didn’t understand.

One of the schools we visited had the children put on traditional cultural dress and perform several folk songs for us. They were absolutely delightful! It felt like such an honor.

Elementary students did a study of the Dutch painter, Jan van Eyk.

 

During our visits to the different schools, nearly every person we met mentioned recent changes the Polish government has made to their education system. There was a lot of frustration and disappointment shared with us because the whole structure of their system was overhauled and many educators do not feel that it is for the best. It was a reminder that educators everywhere deal with the challenges of being regulated by a government who doesn’t always understand our profession.



The Conference

I traveled to Poland with my American colleague, Mercedes. She is a 30+ year veteran Montessori teacher who is now retired and serving on the boards of two different Montessori schools.

We collaborated on several presentations for a mixed audience of teachers, administrators, and parents. It was a fun challenge to find a way to meet the needs of the various attendees while also ensuring cross-cultural understanding. We were fortunate enough to have very strong translators to help us communicate with the audience.

The day started with a workshop about using observation as a tool for assessment and understanding in the classroom. This was led by Mercedes as she is a true expert on the topic. We followed that up with a discussion of Cosmic and Peace Education, one of my signature workshops. We ended the day with Marta and Mercedes sharing images and stories from their travels to see Montessori schools in Bavaria and Tanzania, respectively.

Our guests at the conference from Baku, Georgia and Gence, Azerbaijan. Each mother-daughter team has a Montessori school.


Poland and the People

I do a fair amount of international travel, but Poland was never really on my list. Going there with only a few days to prepare means I also didn’t do much research before I left. Everything was new to me and I learned so much! Here is a smattering of observations that were meaningful to me:

Fancy horse-drawn carriages line the main square in Krakow.


It is spectacularly beautiful

Truly, I cannot say enough about what a gorgeous place Poland is. Put it on your European tourism list! Plus, their currency (zloty), is about ¼ the US dollar, so it is a bargain for a lot of people to travel there.

The architecture was stunning everywhere we went. The fact that Krakow fell quickly to the Germans at the start of WWII means that it didn’t suffer the same damage in the war that many historic European cities experienced. The historic center is fully intact and spectacular.

Every single meal I had in Poland was delicious. There were no exceptions. The hot wine and peirogi were scrumptious, as was the rabbit stew! I was also really impressed with the fine quality Italian food available everywhere. Poland was a gustatory delight!

We paid a visit to Wawel Castle, which just so happens to have a fire-breathing dragon living underneath it!

 

The imprint of war and occupation is still tangible today

The city of Krakow, one of the largest and oldest cities in Poland, is also very homogenous. Several locals told me that Krakow, like most of Poland is predominantly white Catholic. Prior to the war, Krakow had a Jewish population of approximately 60,000 people. After the war, that population was savagely dropped to only a few hundred. The neighborhood called the Jewish quarter is still a tourist destination but there are only a couple hundred practicing Jews living there.

One of the most popular tourist destinations in Krakow is Schindler’s Factory, where many lives were quietly saved as the holocaust raged outside. Solemn tourists journey outside the city to visit Auschwitz and pay their respects to the numerative souls lost on that hallowed ground. Poland lost a full ⅕ of their population in the war, half of those were Jews.

I did not have the to visit these areas, I intend to journey back to pay my respects. The haunting residue of Nazi brutality was palpable. I wish more Americans could experience it so that we could better internalize the very real threat of racism and fascism.

We could also see the influence of Russia in the food and architecture. There were many churches with Russian style architecture and just about every restaurant served some kind of Russian food. Each occupation and war has left an imprint.

There were also remnants of Austrian occupation throughout the country as well. The image of Wawel Castle above shows the story of occupation over centuries with the mish-mash of architectural styles all on one campus. Each distinctly represents a time in Poland’s history and reflects who was in power.

Poland is a resilient nation.

A tiny Russian influenced church in a village outside of Nowy Sacz dedicated to St. Ambrosia, patron saint of beekeeping.

 

American politics are a big topic of conversation

I think that sometimes Americans are blissfully unaware of how much our politics impact the daily lives of regular people around the globe. Generally people were perplexed and alarmed by the state of American politics.

The electoral college makes absolutely no sense to people from other countries. I was asked to explain it several times. At the end of my explanation, every single time, the person would say, “but then America is not really a democracy.” Soooo…..yeah.

We also heard people express concern about Putin. Remember, Poland was occupied by Russia until 1989. They are also neighbors. Poland’s economy is still struggling to recover from that occupation. They do not want America to ally with Russia and leave them defenseless. It is a genuine cause for concern for many of their people.

I did meet one man who told me that he hoped that the president would do something about drug prices. He had heard that drug prices in America were too high. That was his hope for our country.

It was very interesting to hear their perspectives on American politics and to learn about their country’s issues at the same time. To me, now is a perfect time for Montessori in Poland to be growing and thriving. 

The view from my room to the main square in Krakow.

 

My journey exploring Montessori in Poland was a joyful surprise. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn so much and make many new friends. The biggest lesson from all of this was that everyone wants to do right by the children. Many people have found Montessori education to be a path to doing right by the children of their community. I can see how the work we do in our schools is making a big impact around the world!


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