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Madam Montessori

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

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Fame, however earned, had its privileges. Later that year, Montessori was asked to represent Italy at an international women’s congress in Berlin. The press swooned over the charming, bright-eyed young doctor who called for equal pay for women. “The little speech of Signorina Montessori,” wrote one Italian journalist, “with its musical cadence and the graceful gestures of her elegantly gloved hands, would have been a triumph even without her medical degree or her timely spirit of emancipation—the triumph of Italian feminine grace.”

Back home in Rome, Montessori began caring for private patients and doing research at the University of Rome’s psychiatric clinic. At the asylum, she came in contact with children labeled “deficient and insane,” though most were more likely autistic or retarded. Locked all day in barren rooms, they would scuffle over crumbs of bread on the floor. Observing them, Montessori realized that the children were starved not for food but for stimulation. That set her to reading widely, in philosophy, anthropology and educational theory. Mental deficiency, she decided, was often a pedagogical problem. Experimenting with various materials, she developed a sensory-rich environment, designing letters, beads and puzzles that children could manipulate, and simple tasks such as mat weaving that prepared them for more challenging ones. After working with Montessori for two years, some of the “deficient” children were able to read, write and pass standard public-school tests.

If retarded children could conquer such exams, Montessori wondered, what results would her methods have on normal youngsters in traditional classroom settings? She visited schools and found students “like butterflies mounted on pins,” she wrote, “fastened each to his place, the desk, spreading the useless wings of barren and meaningless knowledge which they have acquired.” Montessori’s own barely formed vision combined Jean- Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy of the nobility of the child with a more pragmatic view that work—and through it the mastery of the child’s immediate environment—was the key to individual development.

To do that, she maintained, each child must be free to pursue what interests him most at his own pace but in a specially prepared environment. Montessori’s chance to act on her philosophy came in 1906 when a group of real estate investors asked her to organize a program for the children in Rome’s downtrodden San Lorenzo district so that the children, whose parents were off working all day, would not deface building walls. The investors gave Montessori a room in one of the buildings and 50 preschoolers, ages 2 to 6. Her medical colleagues were amazed that she would involve herself in something as mundane as day care, but Montessori was undeterred. She asked society women to contribute money for toys and materials and hired the daughter of the building’s porter to assist her.

The Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, opened January 6, 1907. At first, Montessori just observed. She noticed that the children came to prefer her teaching materials to toys and would spend hours putting wooden cylinders into holes or arranging cubes to build a tower. As they worked, they became calmer and happier. As the months passed, Montessori modified materials and added new activities, including gardening, gymnastics, making and serving lunch, and caring for pets and plants. Children who misbehaved were given nothing to do.

The children soon started asking Montessori to teach them to read and write. So she devised sandpaper letters that they could touch and trace, pronouncing the sounds as they did so. One day during recess, a 5-year-old boy cried excitedly, “I can write!” and wrote the word mano—hand— with chalk on the pavement. Other children began writing, too, and news of the miraculous 4- and 5-year-olds who taught themselves to write traveled quickly.

Acolytes from around the world flocked to Rome to sit at Montessori’s knee, and soon Montessori schools were popping up in Switzerland, England, the United States, India, China, Mexico, Syria and New Zealand. Alexander Graham Bell, who had started his career as a teacher of the deaf, was fascinated by Montessori and in 1912 established a Montessori class in his Washington, D.C. home for his two grandchildren and a half-dozen neighborhood kids. A Montessori class, taught in a glass-walled classroom, would be one of the most popular exhibitions at the 1915 Panama– Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. But success proved more than even Montessori could handle. Though she had resigned her university chair to concentrate on the schools, she found herself overwhelmed by the demands for lectures, training and interviews. She complained bitterly about books describing her program and insisted that only she was qualified to train teachers. The fact that she had patented her teaching materials irked more than a few critics, one of whom decried the act as “sordid commercialism.”

Other educators also raised questions. Most prominent among them was William Heard Kilpatrick, a disciple of John Dewey, who dismissed Montessori’s methods as too formal and restrictive, failing to spark children’s imaginations sufficiently. By the 1920s, interest in Montessori had waned in the United States.

A Montessori revival began in the late 1950s, led by Nancy Rambusch, a mother frustrated by the lack of choices for her children’s education. After going to Europe for Montessori training, she started a school in Greenwich, Connecticut. Others followed. Today, there are some 5,000 Montessori schools in the United States, some affiliated with AMI, others with the American Montessori Society, founded by Rambusch. Some schools using Montessori methods are not certified at all, and some that claim to use them do anything but. The little research that exists on the benefits of the method indicates that Montessori students do well in the long term, but more research is needed. “We have to verify that we’re in tune with brain development, and that our kids are prepared at all levels,” says Jonathan Wolff, a Montessori teacher and consultant in Encinitas, California.

Lilian Katz, professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois, says the criticisms of Montessori’s methods—obsession with the “correct” use of blocks and beads, the lack of emphasis on fantasy and creativity— are valid but don’t compromise the value of the program. “It’s pretty solid,” says Katz. “The strategies the teachers use are very clear. Children seem to respond well.”

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