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Madam Montessori

Fifty years after her death, innovative Italian educator Maria Montessori still gets high marks

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Six-year-old shari and her 5-year-old classmate Ugochi are adding 1,756 and 1,268. They’ve penciled the numbers neatly into their notebooks, but the method they’re using to come up with the answer—3,024—isn’t something you’d see in most American schools, let alone kindergartens. Each little girl loads a wooden tray with gold beads. Sprawled on a mat on the floor, they combine six of Shari’s beads and eight of Ugochi’s. “Nine units, ten units!” Ugochi counts triumphantly. With that, she scoops up ten beads and skips across the room to a cabinet, where she trades them in for a “10 bar”—ten beads wired together. Now the girls count in unison: “five 10s, six 10s, seven, eight, nine, ten 10s!” Then, pigtails flying, they run to trade in the 10s for a 100.

The 21 other children in the class at the public Matthew Henson Elementary School in Landover, Maryland, seem equally energetic as they follow their own independent agendas. Fiveyear- old Taiwo lays out wooden letters that spell “May is back. I am happy.” Nearby, two 4-year-old boys stack pink blocks, watch them topple, then stack them again, this time with the larger ones on the bottom. A 3-year-old uses a cotton swab to polish a tiny silver pitcher— a task that refines motor skills—while a 5- year-old gets herself a bowl of cereal, eats it at the snack table, then cleans up everything.

Nearly a century ago, a young Italian physician imagined that children would learn better in a classroom like this one—a place where they could choose among lessons carefully designed to encourage their development. Since then, the views of Maria Montessori, who died 50 years ago this year, have met with both worldwide acclaim and yawning indifference. Her method, which she developed with the children of Rome’s worst slum, is now more commonly applied to the oftpampered offspring of the well-heeled. Montessorians embrace Maria and her ideology with a fervor that often borders on the cultlike, while critics say Montessori classes are either too lax and individualized or, paradoxically, too rigidly structured. “

Her ideas were so radical,” says Mary Hayes, general secretary of the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI). “We’re still trying to convince the world that this is the best way for children to grow.”

Teacher rosemary beam alcott sits on the floor with Ugochi and Shari, who show her their notebooks. “Did you exchange your 10 ones for a 10 bar? Did you carry? Did you write it down? How many 100s do you have?”

“None,” Ugochi replies.

“That’s great!” says Alcott.

She turns to Taiwo. “May is back. I am happy. Me is flowers,” the child and teacher read together.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Alcott says. Taiwo giggles.

Back to the mathematicians. “Ugochi, please show me a 3 going in the right direction.” Ugochi erases, and writes again. “Good job! OK, put the beads away. I’m going to give you another problem.”

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