Madam Montessori

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

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Back to Taiwo, whose letters now read, “May is back. I am happy the flowers smell good.”

“Wow!” exclaims Alcott. “What a wonderful story.”

Now a 5-year-old boy brings her his work. Using pieces from a wooden puzzle, he has traced the states around Texas on a piece of paper, colored them, copied labels and pasted them onto his new map. “Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico,” reads Alcott. “Very good!”

Montessori’s own life was fraught with conflict and controversy. Born in 1870, of genteel origins, she fought doggedly for the right to study medicine, becoming Italy’s first female physician. Yet she abandoned medicine to embrace education, a profession she had once scorned.

An outspoken advocate of women’s rights, for years she hid the fact that she was the mother of an illegitimate child. Little Mario was sent to a wet nurse in the country and later to boarding school. It wasn’t until he was 15, and Montessori’s own mother had died, that she publicly acknowledged her son and brought him to live with her.

Yet whatever her personal travails, Montessori’s educational vision has not only survived into a new century, it is thriving as never before. Many of her once-radical ideas— including the notions that children learn through hands-on activity, that the preschool years are a time of critical brain development and that parents should be partners in their children’s education—are now accepted wisdom. “She made a lasting contribution,” says David Elkind, professor of child development at TuftsUniversity and author of The Hurried Child. “She recognized that there was an education particularly appropriate to young children, that it wasn’t just a smaller-sized second grade.”

Indeed, a half century after her death, Montessori methods are used increasingly in public schools like Henson, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where 400 children are on a waiting list for Montessori classes. The county adopted Montessori in 1986 as part of a school desegregation program, and parents have fought hard to keep it.

Doris Woolridge, who has three daughters, including Shari, in Montessori classes at Henson, believes the system can hold its own, even in this era of increased emphasis on standardized exams. “To see a 5-year-old adding into the thousands—I’m just amazed,” says Woolridge, an attorney for the District of Columbia. “I saw them working with the beads, and they learned so quickly.” Among other things, Woolridge approves of the Montessori idea of multiage classrooms. “The younger kids mimic the older kids,” she says, “and the older ones help lead the class.”

Perhaps none of Maria Montessori’s ideas sound as revolutionary now as they once did, but in her time she was a breaker of barriers. Born in the Italian province of Ancona, she grew up in a time when teaching was one of the few professions open to educated women. Her father, an accountant, urged her to take that path, but her mother supported Maria’s insistence, at age 12, that she attend a technical school to study mathematics. In her teens, Maria further tested her father’s patience by considering becoming an engineer. She gave that up only because she decided to be a doctor.

University officials finally surrendered to her persistence, but Maria’s fellow medical students shunned her, and she was allowed to perform dissections only at night, alone, because it was unthinkable that men and women would view a naked body together. In 1896, at age 25, Maria completed her medical degree. “So here I am: famous!” she wrote to a friend. “It is not very difficult, as you see. I am not famous because of my skill or my intelligence, but for my courage and indifference towards everything.”


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