Search This Blog

Friday, December 31, 2010

To CPS, We Need More Montessori Schools

1. More than one hundred years ago a young doctor, Maria Montessori, created the model for cooperative education. It begins by showing three-year-old children how to care for themselves, allowing them to explore their surroundings, and providing fascinating manipulative materials for mathematics, language, geography and the sciences. Children do receive brief lessons both individually and in small groups, but the majority of their time is spent exploring materials of their own choosing and learning from them what they can. These children who spend three years, until they are six, in these mixed age classrooms are engaged in their own education for life.

2. We have had enough competitive learning. Enough grades, class ranking and achievement test score comparisons. We get it! Children are competitive and it's easier to control their learning behavior this way. Enough already! We want our children to learn to cooperate, to share knowledge and discoveries.

3.We are tired of hearing you blame the principals or the teachers or the limited facilities or the lack of finances or even the parents for the traditional system that fails too many children in one way or another. We are tired of the blame game. Our traditional system is fundamentally flawed. The solution lies in understanding why it does not work.

4. Yes, the present system does work for some children: the ones who find a personal connection to what is being taught. For those who are disconnected, your only solution seems to be a teacher with the ability to fire up the students' minds. Teachers with this ability are wonderful like rock stars. But training super teachers is not the answer. The continued success of each student must lie within the student himself. What is being learned must have some personal meaning .

5. Children who spend three years, from age three to six, in a Montessori classroom find that personal connection and meaning in what they are learning even as they grow older.

6. We need more Montessori public schools. We need more well trained Montessori teachers. We need our state and local colleges to offer masters degrees in Montessori education. We need this now.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Empowerment and Chicago's Top Schools

Here in the United States and probably in most of the Western world, we consider basic teaching adequate when a child can read well enough to read a book, can write well enough to express himself in a letter or an essay, and can calculate well enough to balance a checkbook. Is teaching these things educational empowerment? Empowerment can mean literacy. But there is some confusion here because Webster's dictionary defines literacy as “being literate” and the first meaning of literate as an adjective is “an educated person” but the second is “being able to read and write.” To empower is also broadly vague, meaning both “to enable” and “to promote the self-actualization of..." So when we speak of empowering students, are we speaking of the minimum or the maximum? Or something entirely different?

Traditionally we judge the empowerment of children through grades awarded and successful testing. I am looking at the Chicago Tribune (Friday, October 29, 2010, Section 1, p.5) at an article beginning on the front page, “Region's Top 50 Schools.” In this article Chicago regional public schools have been rated by the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards on Illinois state tests. Of these there were two Chicago elementary schools having all classes from third grade (the youngest tested) through eighth grade receiving scores of 100 percent: Lenart Elementary Regional Gifted Center and Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School. The top three high schools were also in Chicago: Northside College Preparatory High School (98.7%), Payton College Preparatory High School (97.3%), and Whitney Young Magnet High School (93.8%). Quite impressive!

Both my parents were public school teachers and I have always been proud of them. But now they are gone, and I am sixty-seven with two grown children, a daughter who is forty-one and a son who is twenty-five. They each received a Montessori education. But I came through traditional public schools, sitting at desks for hours at a time where I was expected to assimilate lessons and absorb textbooks, just as most children still do today fifty years later.

And teachers today still delude themselves with the idea that grades help children learn, rather than understanding that the real purpose of grades is to control children through competition so that they will study even if they have no interest in the subject. And this may work even with the children who do see through the ruse but have the patience to study anyway, and it also works for children who will compete without any other reason but merely for the sake of the competition. The children who are dropping out of school are the ones who have no investment in academics and have seen through the system. In leaving they have empowered themselves in a different way and they know it. But they leave for an uneven existence that, at least in my Humboldt Park Chicago neighborhood, leaves them surviving too often on the wrong side of the law and rotating in and out of jail.

Real empowerment comes from being interested and invested in what you are studying. Incredibly effective teachers, some with quite a flair for the dramatic, can do this. But really, even in their classrooms the focus is on the teacher and not the subject of study. Montessori requested her teachers to remain in the background; to come forward occasionally when necessary for classroom business or certain lessons, but otherwise to work unobtrusively with small groups or individuals. This allows children to work by themselves or with others to further their own projects. This is real empowerment! Seeing is believing. And this works. If you have never watched a Montessori classroom in action, you should make an appointment to view one. In Chicago there are some well established schools that likely would let you observe a class. Try making an appointment with either Near North Montessori School or Rogers Park Montessori school. Or find one that has been in existence at least five years in your own neighborhood.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Don't Good Teachers Empower Children?

It certainly seems true that a good teacher would empower children. That is the reason there is so much fussing and fuming about teachers who lack this power, and arguments over whether they should leave the profession to make way for those who have it. But no one teacher will have the magic to enthuse all children. That is the pipe dream that the Chicago Board of Education clings to. The reality of the situation is what keeps teachers' unions on their feet and fighting. Most teachers have chosen the profession because they like children and believe that they can help them learn. Of those who choose to be teachers because they thought teaching would be easy, very few last more than a year or two. So although perhaps there are a few who should go seek other professions, this pogrom to remove teachers who are less than charismatic is unfair to the profession and the children it is trying to serve.

Maybe we should look at the nature of empowerment. Certainly the ability to read should empower a child. And the ability to write. The ability to manipulate numbers can open the door to our monetary system. Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, the three R's from long ago, are still what we lean on for a child's firm foundation. And yet, there is something we have been missing: the secret of empowerment lies not in the teacher, but in the child. It begins with his curiosity and continues with his freedom to investigate, to probe, to wonder and to learn. A teacher who is expert in instruction may be valued highly by her profession, but the child who initiates his own queries is the only child really empowered by his learning--because he has grasped the secret: the only real learning comes from within. Self initiated learning opens doors into rainbows of possibilities. Yes, teachers can train children to do things, but children who know how to initiate their own education will find lives that follow paths their teachers have never dreamed of.

Montessori education empowers children by freeing them to choose and to investigate. Traditional education informs a child, then tells him what to do with that information. Is it any wonder that half the male students who begin as freshman at Roberto Clemente, in my Chicago neighborhood, never stay to graduate? They say, "School? Jail? What's the difference?"

Sunday, October 10, 2010



On this October 2nd Saturday Night Live segment after the commercial (sorry about that) you will hear some serious comments on what is needed in today's public schools. These suggestions come from Morgan Freeman. That they were surprisingly accurate was remarkable enough, but it was the host's reaction that grabbed my attention. His dumbfounded stare before he glossed over Freeman's answers was typical of public educators today--like the words were uttered in some unintelligible language, the ideas they embody completely foreign. Just watch the discouraged expressions on Morgan Freeman's face as he tries to suggest two real improvements for our public education system.

Montessori education empowers children like no other, even beyond the empowerment Morgan Freeman is referring to. Besides love, there is no greater gift we can give our children.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Notice for Celebration!

Oh, I am so very happy! I have recently heard that several children who were in my class at the tender ages of three, four, and five, have now, as adults, chosen the teaching profession: Matthew Barber, Amy Cade, and Dan Rudnick! And maybe even the Montessori method. Congratulations to you three! May you have the great good fortune to have children in your classes as wonderful as you were.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Oldest Story Never Told

A "Great Lesson" for today:

A couple of days ago my friend and I, each with an occupied dog carrier, climbed into a taxi with an imposing disgruntled driver. “Dogs in the back! Dogs in the back!” he ordered, referring to a third seat, and then aimed a couple additional commands at us which I did not understand.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Africa,” was his reply.

“What country are you from? Africa is a big continent and I'm not smart enough to place your accent.”

“Nigeria. Where are you from?” Still a little hostile.

“Oh, I'm from the United States, the mid-west actually. Ohio.”

Then my friend pipes up from the third seat with the dogs, “I'm from Chicago. I'm Japanese but I was born here. Where were you born?”

“I am from Africa, Nigeria.”

To this I replied, “I guess we could all say we were from Africa.”

“Why do you say that?” He was caught off guard.

“Have you heard of the Human Genome Project? It is a group of people who are trying to find all the human genes. They have gone all around the world to collect representative samples from as many different people as they can locate. When they brought all the findings together, they saw that there were many different human genes in all the continents, but the only continent that had all of them, all the different genes, was Africa. That's when they knew...”

“Knew what?” His tone had changed.

“Well, maybe I should have said 'suspected.' That's when they realized that if all the genes were in Africa, then all of our ancestors must have brought them with them when they left Africa. In other words, we are all from Africa, only some of our families left sooner than others.”

“So why did they leave?”

“Well, according to a Nova program on PBS, they were hunters who depended on animals for food. When the animals ran out of food, they left for greener pastures, and for generations these hunters followed their prey.“

“I'm from Africa so why haven't I heard this?”

“I don't think very many people have heard this story. More people should tell it.”

Studies indicate that all modern humans share a common female ancestor who lived in Africa about 140,000 years ago, and all men share a common male ancestor who lived in Africa about 60,000 years ago. These were not the only humans who lived in those eras, and the human genome still contains many genetic traits of their even more ancient contemporaries. But these are only Humanity's most recent common ancestors. They are identifiable because their lineages have survived by chance in the special pieces of DNA that are passed down the gender lines nearly unaltered from one generation to the next. These ancestors are part of a growing body of fossil and DNA evidence indicating that modern humans arose in sub-Saharan Africa and began migrating, starting about 65,000 years ago, to populate first southern Asia, China, Java, and later Europe. Each of us living today has DNA that contains the story of our ancient ancestors' journeys.

From: genomics.energy.gov


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Making Friends with Non-phonetic Words

Even if the following exercises seem somewhat pedantic, their aim is to demonstrate how a competitive traditional group exercise can become a cooperative one. Refusing to fall back on competitive models can change he entire demeanor of a classroom.

Although we Montessorians focus on the phonetics of English, there is a subtle disclaimer thumbing its nose at the children as they pass by their cubbies: their own names. I have already written a little about the phonetic materials, sandpaper letters {“How Terry and Tracy learn to write in a Montessori classroom,” April 10, 2010) and the moveable alphabet (“The Moveable Alphabet,” July 30, 2010). These are the main parts of Montessori's language program, linked to each other and both phonetic. Of course, there is that non-phonetic aspect to English and for this most Montessori classrooms have a great variety of three-part matching cards, made up of one card having a picture with a label, a second having just the picture, and the third having only the label. Lessons are given using these cards, then children may take them out to match them by themselves. Many of these cards are connected to nomenclature relating to materials the children work with in the classroom. And there are yet more ways we can introduce the children to non-phonetic words. When we are sitting as a group, we can play games of word recognition.

Phase one: On a day in September I am sitting with the children in a circle on our rug area, not expressly for the purpose of lessons but because we are waiting. Three children are assembling the room for lunch, and the rest remaining in the circle are taking turns to wash their hands. Sometimes we play games or sing. But today is a time for a practical game of word recognition, in this case their own names. I hold up a name card. I read, “Joseph Katz.” Joseph stands up.
I say, “Joseph, please come here and look at this name card. I want you to be sure this is your name.”
Joseph walks to me and looking directly at the name card, he says, “Yes that's my name.”
I ask, “Can you read it for us, please?” as I hand it to him.
He looks down at it and reads, “Joseph Katz,” hands it back and walks to the hand washing stand.

This reading exercise, like the Montessori hand washing exercise, is a practical one. It enables every child to find his own cubby because each name card is as it appears on the cubby. Each is written on a strip of lined writing paper which any child can copy during class time to practice name writing, his own or even a friend's. I am using the names from this exercise, holding them up one at a time to call each child to wash. In the beginning of the year, I read each name aloud as I show it, then the child named rises to wash his hands. Since two-thirds of the class has been exposed to this game the previous year, before very long we are advancing to the next phase of my showing each name in silence. This can happen when I am certain that at least half the class recognizes their own names. Then I show the names without reading them myself but ask each child who stands to read his own name.

Phase two: It is early November now and we are again sitting in a circle, preparing to wash our hands. I show a name card, Anda Somer, that no one responds to. I say, “If you can read this name, very quietly raise your hand. We do need someone who can read this name. But please don't speak it out loud. We need someone quiet to help its owner read it.”
Several children volunteer by raising their hands. I choose Rollie. “Rollie, can you please take this name card and walk around the outside of the circle and hand this to its owner? Then whisper her name in her ear.” Rollie does and returns to his place.
I look at the whisper's recipient and ask, “Did he say your name?” The recipient nods. “And what did he say?”
“Anda Somer.”
“Was he right? Does this look like your name?”
“Now can you tell me what this says?”
“Anda Somer.”
“Anda, you may go to wash your hands.” She hands me the card as she leaves.”
This exercise works because the name cards are the same as those they see every day on their cubbies.

Fast forward to January and here we are sitting in that hand washing circle waiting again for lunch. Yesterday we sang and played musical games but today we are playing a different kind of word recognition game, this time with high frequency non-phonetic Dolch words.

I begin by holding up a Dolch word and saying, “This word is 'the,' a very useful word. Who would like to hold 'the'?” A hand goes up. “Sandy, can you hold 'the' for us and remember that it says 'the'?”
I continue the same way passing out “to,” “you,” “of,” and “was," our first five Dolch words.

“Now Sandy, look at your word, and if you can remember what it says, very quietly hold it up.“ Sandy is holding up his Dolch word. I say to the group, “If you know what it says, raise your hand, and Sandy will pick someone to say his word.”

Sandy picks Rafael who says, “The.”

I say, “Sandy, Is he right? If he's right, please hand Rafael the “the.” Sandy nods and hands him the card. I say, “Good, Rafael!. And Sandy, you can go to wash your hands.” And we proceed in a similar fashion with the next word “to,” and continue through the remaining three words, giving everyone possible a turn.

In my class we have thirty-three Dolch words that are available on the language shelf as an exercise or for reference. As a group we gradually work through them until we are saturated.
The other Dolch words are:

he, she, they, be, we
said, for, all, there, some
have, little, do, could, one
when, what, where, were, would
my, are, come, very, over
want, two, by

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Education: Conversations about the Future

Last night I went to a meeting held in the Thorne Auditorium at the beautiful Northwestern Law School on Lake Michigan. The meeting was the brain child of its commentator, Bruce Dold, the editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune. It was a meeting whose time had come, with all the important people who determine the future of Chicago's children but cannot agree on much. And Chicago's children suffer because of this conflict. Those present for the Mr. Dold's discussion included:
Ron Huberman, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools,
Karen Lewis, elected president of the 30,000 strong Chicago Teachers' Union in June 2010,
State Senator James Meeks, founder of Salem Christian Academy and now serving his third term (15th district) as the first independent ever elected to the Illinois Senate,
Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago,
Harriet Meyer, president of the Ounce for Prevention Fund, fought for and secured funding for early childhood education, including Preschool for All, making Illinois the first state to offer preschool to all three and four year olds.

The following are comments I have included below because I felt they were significant. I apologize but my voice recorder did not work so I have had to reconstruct the conversation from my brief notes.

Ron Huberman began by saying he sees ineffective teachers as central to CPS's problems, and to correct this he has now replaced many principals with stronger ones who are not afraid of dismissing those ineffective teachers. (There are 120 principals in the Chicago Public Schools.) He has deduced this as a solution because the great majority of ineffective teachers are to be found in the same schools, many at schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

Karen Lewis defended teachers and said removing an ineffective teacher is a process that takes no more than three months BUT the process may not be circumvented. She said Chicago schools are still stuck in a 19th century model. But the major problem that she sees with schools is underfunding, that those schools in the poorest neighborhoods receive the least money and have the greatest problems to overcome because there are no jobs, they are crime ridden, and they offer no promising vision for the students' future.

James Meeks observed that the radical changes CPS needs will not occur until we reclaim our schools, taking them away from the politicians; i.e., Mayor Daley and his appointed board. He supports the use of school vouchers so that children can have an opportunity to go to the school of their own choosing. That way they can select schools having programs that match their aptitudes and their interests, and avoid schools in neighborhoods that put them in harm's way.

Sister McCaughey was introduced as being successful in maintaining schools (Chicago's Catholic Schools) having records of little violence. She said that there are occasional problems between students but there is basically a peaceful atmosphere in her schools. She credits this to the schools' close ties to the children's families and that this cooperative effort is understood by the parents as a prerequisite for admission. She said although it is true that some very difficult children must be dismissed, this is also true for any Chicago Public School. She also pointedly credited early childhood education as being essential to having fewer problems in her schools.

Harriet Meyer, probably the person we have to thank for Chicago's new childhood programs, was confronted with the idea that Chicago elementary teachers feel that local funding of these recently added preschool programs has taken money away from them. Meyer said that we are one of the few western nations that have not funded early childhood programs. She added that research shows that children having an early childhood education, even missing an effective elementary education can become effective adults. Without the early childhood education, any defective educational effort is apt to impair that adult's ability to function positively in society.

At the end of the meeting Ron Huberman stated “The school's culture has to be established by the teachers—not the kids.”

So true, sir. But build a school like the one in my neighborhood, one large enough to house 942 students, 84.5% living below the poverty line, one like Roberto Clemente. Look at the surrounding neighborhoods where they live, and the only obvious wealth seems to come from dealing drugs. By the time most of our boys reach Clemente, they are committed to a neighborhood gang for its power if not its drugs. The gangs have already taught them to be loyal and tough. So even though only half these students are boys, the neighborhood girls defer to them. A company of marines might be able to change their culture, but adults wanting them to read books and write papers... Get real! You are too late. Listen to Harriet Meyer: we have to get there first!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Looking at Chicago's Public Montessori Programs

There are five Montessori schools in the Chicago Public School District. Four of the five, all but Stagg, require an application be submitted to a lottery run by the CPS Office of Academic Enhancement. When your child reaches two by September 1st, that fall is the time to apply because he must begin Montessori school at the age of three, and the application process takes the better part of a year. The applications should be available in the office of the school of your choice (and possibly on its website) from about the first of October until December 15th. Applications are also available at http://cpsoae.org. Submit your application in a timely fashion.


Clissold School
2350 W. 110th Place
Chicago, IL 60643

In 1979 Clissold School offered to its neighborhood the first ongoing Montessori program in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). For over two decades it was the only one. Unfortunately for parents in its Beverly-Morgan Park neighborhood looking to place their child in a Montessori school, Clissold has other program tracks as well. So a bit like a magnet school, Clissold's Montessori students are selected by lottery conducted by the CPS Office of Academic Enhancement. The difference between Clissold and the magnet schools is that competition here is confined to the neighborhood. Applications for next year, 2011, will be available at Clissold soon in November 2010, call 773-535-2560, and return them promptly. If your child is two now (by September 1st) she is eligible for possible admission in September 2011 at the age of three. Montessori education begins with three year olds.

Stagg Elementary School
7424 S. Morgan Av
Chicago, IL 60621

In 2007 Stagg Elementary School in Englewood became the second CPS school to offer a neighborhood Montessori program. It is offered on a first-come first-served basis, so if you live in Englewood, be sure to apply during the autumn of the September that your child is two. Then he will be eligible to start when he is three. Call 773-535-3565 for application information. The rest of the neighborhood children attend Stagg's traditional kindergarten program. This 2010 September Stagg is expanding its Montessori program to include two Montessori elementary classes. If you would like to see their existing Montessori classroom in action, please go to the Stagg website by way of the url below. Then turn up your volume. This is a video of their primary class, children at work with running commentary by the teacher. Fascinating!


The First CPS Montessori Magnet School:
Drummond Montessori School
1845 West Cortland Street
Chicago, IL 60622

In 2004 primarily thanks to Mark Neidlinger's vision and perseverance Drummond School began its Montessori conversion with three early childhood (or primary) Montessori classes, adding a fourth in 2005, as well as opening its first Montessori elementary classroom for the six year olds. Now in 2010 Drummond has expanded its Montessori offering to four primary classes for children from ages 3 to 6 years, four Elementary I classes for children ages 6 to 9 years, three Elementary II classes for children ages 9 to 12 years, and one Jr. High class for children ages 12 to 14 years. Most of these classes have twenty-seven students.

Suder Montessori Magnet School
2022 W. Washington Blvd.
Chicago, IL60612

In 2005 Suder became a Montessori School. In spite of many trials, it is healthy today with four primary classes for children from ages three to six years and four early elementary classes for children from six to nine years. These classes in general have twenty-seven students.

Oscar Mayer Magnet Elementary School
2250 N. Clifton
Chicago, IL 60614

In 2007 Oscar Meyer began its Montessori preschool program. Today it has eight primary classes for children ages three to six as well as six secondary classes for children ages six to nine. These classes generally have twenty-seven students.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thurs, 09/02 here in Chicago: TREVOR EISSLER "Montessori Madness"

I am excited to have this opportunity to invite you to an evening with Trevor Eissler, the author of Montessori Madness, a book I was delighted to review in my May 20 blog. If you are interested in hearing him speak of his parental awakening, he will be here in Chicago, speaking at the Asociacion Social del Azuay at 3751 W. Montrose Ave. on Thursday, September 2nd from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. Admission is $10.00

He is being sponsored by Gateway Montessori School who, following his talk, is giving a wine and cheese reception across the street in their beautiful classrooms.

Gateway Montessori is located at 3748 W. Montrose Ave. in Chicago. Questions? Call 773-539-3025 or email: info@GatewayMontessoriSchool.org.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Free Montessori Public Schools in the City of Chicago

Are you considering a free Montessori education for your child? Please keep in mind that children begin their Montessori education at the age of three. And Chicago Public Schools applications should be submitted the previous year when your child will be only two years old.

In 2010 Chicago there are five public schools offering Montessori education for children from the age of three to the age of six, which is the first level of Montessori education. As a parent you need to know this because you will probably have to apply to these schools during the autumn that your child is two; that is, the autumn a year before your child would be starting school. At present these public Montessori schools are of two kinds, two are neighborhood schools, and three are magnet schools.

In order for your child to attend a neighborhood school, by definition, you should live in that neighborhood. The two Chicago Public Schools offering Montessori primary programs are Clissold Elementary School in the Morgan Park/Beverly neighborhood and Stagg Elementary School in the Englewood neighborhood. If you are free to live where you please, you might consider moving to either of these neighborhoods.

The three magnet Montessori schools that CPS also offers are Drummond Montessori School in the Bucktown neighborhood, Oscar Mayer Magnet School in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and Suder Montessori Magnet School in the West Haven community. These schools enroll children from the entire city of Chicago with an extra percentage of children enrolled from their immediate surrounding neighborhoods. Be forewarned: competition is fierce.

Here is contact information for the five schools above:

Ms. Arsenault, Montessori teacher
Mrs. O'Conner, Montessori teacher
Mrs. Pietrus, Montessori teacher
Ms. Grimm-Grason principal
Clissold Elementary
Clissold Montessori Program
2350 W. 110th Place
Chicago, IL 60643

Mrs. Ruth Miller, Principal
Mrs. Aisha K. McCarthy, Ass't Principal
Stagg Elementary School
7424 S. Morgan Av
Chicago, IL 60621

Mark Neidlinger, Montessori Director
Drummond Elementary School
1845 West Cortland Street
Chicago, IL 60622

Katie B. Konieczny, Principal
Africa D. Thomas, Assistant Principal
Barbara Baldini, Montessori Coordinator
Oscar Mayer Magnet Elementary
2250 N. Clifton
Chicago, IL 60614

Stephanie Bloom-Washofsky, Principal
Maria Luisa Gonzalez, Montessori Director
Suder Montessori Elementary Magnet School
2022 W. Washington Blvd.
Chicago, IL60612

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Magic of the Montessori Classroom: Normalization

A normalized child is someone that observes, comprehends and acts.

Normalized, meaning restored, derives from the word normal. I am sure parents want their children to be normal. I am equally sure that once their baby has been lucky enough to be born strong and healthy, most parents refocus and start wondering about the attributes their child might have:
“Could her little feet be trying to dance already?”
“Look at those strong arms; he looks like he could heft a football someday.”
“She just stared and stared at my magazine. I think she is trying to understand what reading is.”
“What if he has a talent neither of us notices, or one that neither of us can help him with?”
“How can we know what's best for our child?”

These are the questions. The answer is normalization. This term comes from Dr. Montessori herself. Normalization is as complex as it is simple. So I'm going to take you on a visit to a Montessori classroom in order to explain the unique effect it has on children, unique and profound. I don't mean to say that other schools with open classrooms couldn't achieve this, but I'm simply stating that it has not been done yet.

We pause at the classroom door to shake the hand of the directress, who is shaking the hands of all who enter, saying, “Good morning.” She shows us to chairs that have been placed in a corner for us visitors. The room is quite pleasant, half carpeted, half tiled, with small tables and chairs on the carpet but mostly small stands on the tile. There are a few large plants and many shelves along the walls cordoning off areas. But what catches our eye is on the shelves! A set of blue and red metal inset plates, all different shapes displayed on a rack. On a shelf not far from it, is a wooden tray with beautiful golden glass beads made into cubes and squares and bars. There is also a large wooden floor rack with very large wooden puzzles; the visible top one is a colorful map of the world's continents. Over in the corner is a book rack between two chairs. Not far from this are the most eye catching shelves of all, the ones with the meter-long red rod and its nine smaller rods forming a stair. And next to it the famous pink tower and the brown stair. There are so many things to marvel at! As the children begin to work, two are at stands in the tiled area We can see that Jose is slicing a banana to eat at the snack table. He invites Hannah to join him for snack so she becomes busy washing up at the hand-washing stand.

So the morning has begun. The children have arrived, and as they enter many have immediately found their own work to do. For about ten minutes the remaining third of the class has walked about, greeting friends, looking at shelves and deciding what they will do. The directress gives these children a few more minutes, then speaks to them individually often suggesting work, something they may need to complete or might like to attempt again. Then she gathers the remaining children for her presentation. We see four children still walking around the room, undecided. One of them, Jeremy, asks Aisha seated at a single table if he may watch as she solves addition problems with the bead frame. She nods, so he stands respectfully behind her watching her every move.

With her gathering of five the directress sits by a rug on the floor presenting a set of cards, the parts of a bird, each card having its particular bird part (beak, wing etc.) highlighted in red. It is a three-part matching set with the directress holding the bird control card with its denoted colored part, and the five children each taking turns finding, matching and naming the parts. While she does this, some of the earliest children to arrive that morning have finished and are taking out other work. Jerry and Saul have decided to do the banker's game together and are placing golden bead bars on their work rugs next to wooden numerals. Aisha and Jeremy have finished snack and decided to wash their dishes so both are wearing aprons at the dish washing stand. Zander and Elias have brought some geometric solids (the sphere, the cylinder, the cone, the rectangular prism, and the cube) each one at a time to a rug, matching each to its name card. And now they are experimenting, trying to match each solid shape to a two-dimensional one from the geometric cabinet. Aisha has finished her bead frame problem and written her problem and its solution on special math paper with colored pencils, green for units, blue for tens, red for hundreds and green again for thousands. Jeremy has gone to the book corner and is lost in One-Eye Two-Eye Pink-Eye Blue-Eye. Nearby Mercedes and Callie are sitting at a table writing their own stories using movable alphabet letters.

A child can walk around the classroom and see other children working on so many different things, from the thousand bead chain to the puzzle map of Africa to the parts-of-a-tree cards to flower arranging. Some children will be writing letters or stories, some may be mixing dough for biscuits, many will be working with Montessori's sensorial materials. Every day is different. Some materials are always available, others are there for a time and as time passes are replaced by something different or more advanced.

Here is the opportunity for a child to see, work with, and challenge herself using the myriad of manipulative exercises within the classroom. Here a child becomes a scientist discovering himself. Normalization: what an innocuous word to be the door to a baby's future. It is perhaps the most important difference of all the differences. It is why in a Montessori classroom you will find some children working at tables, some children working on rugs on the floor, and an occasional child will be standing, watching someone else work. Some children seem to be collaborating on the work they are doing. A few children may be looking at the materials on the shelves, trying to find a particular exercise, or just browsing to see what might pique their interest. No one is fighting. No one is yelling. All this concentrated work is due to normalization. All this peace is due to normalization.

Why is the directress not a teacher? She certainly does teach. But she is not in constant charge of all the minds. She is not supposed to be. Montessori saw that children needed to move more than they needed to sit. So she devised educational activities that allowed them to move. They needed to walk and carry things, things that meant something to them. They needed to learn how to do the caretaking work like that usually done for them, work like preparing fruit or vegetables they could share with others, or scrubbing a table when a mess has occurred, maybe even scrubbing a table for the fun of scrubbing it. These are all things that empower children. And normalize them. In a Montessori class children become in tune with their own learning processes. They learn to trust their own instincts and in doing so become sensitive to their own development, both the physical and the mental. They learn to learn from each other as well as the directress. This doesn't happen sitting at a desk while listening to a teacher talk all day. That is stultifying---no matter how good or kind the teacher.

Children who grow up in Montessori classrooms have a whole different grip on life. Life serves them because they have met it all along the way and made it theirs. I wouldn't know this necessarily because I have taught in a Montessori classroom because all the children in my classes were small. But I have two adult children who spent most of their childhood in Montessori classrooms and they are amazing. Yes, they are successful, both in their own ways, but that is not the amazing part. The amazing part is how they dance with life, the give and the take, the buck and the jive. They seem to grow from every experience, good and bad. And this is all brought to life through the sanity of normalization. Love helps too.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Movable Alphabet

The basic movable alphabet used in a Montessori classroom are flat plastic “cut-out” letters roughly corresponding to the sandpaper letters in size, shape and color (pink consonants, blue vowels). Children who know enough sounds can begin to use these to build words. A small word or two could be pieced together on a table and then copied if that is what the child wishes. Or if not, she can have a friend read it aloud, or even turn it into a read-and-do game; for example, “hop.” Longer words and sentences can be formed on a rug. As a child's skills grow, he begins to write creative stories or even messages to friends or family. Soon after he reaches this stage of competency, he ceases to need the movable alphabet.

“Alis! Come see what we made! A really long word! Can you read it to us?”
I go to see this very pink word so very long that they have placed it on a rug on the floor. This is what I see:


I dive in, pronouncing each sound in as rapid succession as I can.
“Is that what you were trying to write?” I ask. They are laughing.

“No? Do you know why this sounds so funny?” They shake their heads.

“I need some blue letters. Those blue letters let me open my mouth so I can let the sound out. The blue letters all have open-mouth sounds. Come with me.” And we walk over to the shelf where the movable alphabet tray resides.

“See these blue letters? They are very special. They are the first important sounds you made as a baby.” Now I am pointing to the letters in their trays as I say. “Back then you knew how important these sounds were when you said 'a-a-a-a-a!' or 'o-o-o-o-o!' or 'i-i-i-i-i!' or 'e-e-e-e-e!' or even 'u-u-u-u-u!' You were very smart as babies." Pointing at the letter a, I tell them. "When you said that loud 'a-a-a-a-a,' your loved ones heard you and came to see what was wrong. You knew these sounds were important when you were a baby. Don't forget to use these important sounds now."

"Pick your favorite open-mouth sound and take its letter back to your rug, See if you can make a word you can actually pronounce now that you have your favorite important blue letter.”


The terms consonant and vowel will be introduced at a later stage.


Children in a Montessori classroom begin to use the classroom's analytical tools for language, both auditory and verbal, at the age of three. Of course, these first-year children are at the very beginning of their school experience, and in any given classroom they will vary in both age (by a few months) and in interests. So the role of the directress involves piquing their curiosity and often waiting. Once the directress determines that a child is normalized, a child's own agenda has priority.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Miss Tate vs the Montessori Classroom

Before babies speak even barely recognizable words, they communicate with sounds of their own, a language that mothers quickly learn. We, all of us, are born teachers. And voracious students. We learn best when we are teaching. We teach best when we are learning.

The teacher in a Montessori classroom is usually called a directress. Teachers are to be found in front of a class. But directresses are much more difficult to find because a directress might be sitting on the floor with a small group of children, sitting at a table next to a single child, or standing to one side watching quietly. Since there are almost always more than one adult in a classroom, determining which is the directress can be difficult. Although this may seem strange, it is part of the magic that gives the child's education back to the child.

A normalized child is one who senses her awakening intellect and acts on it. She may include a social connection as I confessed to in my previous blog. For my teacher to be as angry as she was, she must have thought I had planned what I did. No. This social silliness was totally impromptu. And had she simply taken me aside and explained that she thought my actions inappropriate, or if she had completely ignored it as I would have as a teacher-directress of young children, I would never have remembered that I ever did such a thing. So, should I thank her?

Writing is powerful. When young children come to realize this, some of the first-those most needing to find their personal power-will practice sounding out simple words and writing them. A few go to extremes. Girls do tend toward the more romantic words like hug, luv or love, and kis or kiss. Spelling varies. Boys who have heard curse words, sometimes try to write the simpler ones for the shock effect. I encourage all of them to write stories instead because you can make pictures in people's minds with stories. The movable alphabet makes this possible.
Next: the movable alphabet.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why I Wish I Had Gone to a Montessori School - 1st Grade

I began “real” school in first grade. My teacher, Miss Tate, was a short round no-nonsense woman with a white bun at the nape of her neck. She wore long dresses with opaque white stockings and heavy black shoes with thick high heels.

One day my father gave me a tablet of lined paper so I brought it to school and showed it to my friends. Of course each of them wanted a sheet. This was 1949 and the previous years of World War II rationing still made perishables dear. I thought quickly and decided on a qualification. I whispered, "If I give you a paper, you have to write 'I love Dennis' on it.”

“OK.” “OK.” “OK.” “OK.” Four girls quickly agreed. This was not a hard sell because he was the most popular boy in class. I myself favored Robert Ludeman but he was shy, so I was writing of love for Dennis too. Before our work time Miss Tate gave a reading lesson where we all took turns reading aloud. After that we could read further by ourselves or draw pictures. This was the time I had waited for. We five sat at our designated tables and began to write. I was just beginning the “L” when Marianne quietly slipped out of her chair and came to lean over and whisper in my ear, “How do you spell 'love?'”

I obviously hadn't planned ahead. The spelling part hadn't occurred to me. “I don't know,” I admitted after pondering the question. “But I can find out.” So I approached Miss Tate's desk knowing no fear. After all, she was our source of all knowledge. “Miss Tate,”I said as quietly as I could without whispering, “How do you spell 'love'?”

“What? What did you say?” She looked up. “Oh, 'L-O-V-E',” she replied and returned to marking grades in her book.

On my way back to my table, I passed Marianne's table. “It's 'L-O-V-E',” I hissed, then quickly found my seat to continue completing my part in this love hexangle.

Too soon Miss Tate's voice penetrated my concentration as I decorated my love statement. “Please move your arm, Dianne. I want to see what you are working on!”

“Miss Tate! Oh, no. please! Just look at Marianne's paper! She's doing the same thing I'm doing.”

“Yes, I do see what Marianne has written. Just what is this all about, girls?”

“Miss Tate, it's not just Dianne and me, it's Betty and Carolyn too! Alice made us do it.”

Miss Tate turned red and walked to the front of the class. “Alice! Come up here and bring your paper.”

I knew this could be the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It hadn't occurred to me that this would make Miss Tate mad. We were just supposed to become a group of friends sealed by a secret. It shouldn't have had anything to do with Miss Tate. But I had to ask her how to spell 'love'. I brought my paper up to her at the front of the class. I tried to hand her my paper.

She glanced down at it. “No,” She said. “I want you to read it to the class.”

I stood in silent panic. No, no. no! Dennis will think I love him and I don't. Robert will think I love Dennis too when I really love Robert. And my friends will hate me forever.

“Alice! We are waiting!”

I can't. I can't. I can't...

Miss Tate picked up the yardstick from the chalk tray and held it behind me. “Alice!”
She hit me on my rear end with it, but the real pain of humiliation was yet to come.

I couldn't stop my tears.

“I love Dennis.”

Saturday, July 10, 2010

From the Hand to the Brain

Hand washing is the Montessori exercise that awakens the hands that awaken the mind. Watch the meditative expression on a three year old child's face as he stands in front of the water bowl soaping his hands, or when he places them back in the water bowl watching the soap as it wafts from his hands to the water's surface, and you will understand how powerfully the hands inform the brain. You will understand why the hand washing exercise is so important.

Then give a child a variety of appealing manipulatives. Include many conventional household items. These materials must offer increasing challenges for growing minds. And you have the physical basis of the Montessori classroom. No, don't look for them in your local toy store because, despite the fact that they call to children, few of them seem toy-like. They call to children in a more serious respectful way. Looking at them, working with them, a child realizes that he too can learn important things, that he too can be an effective person in his own way.

Without competent use of his hands, a child's intelligence cannot develop properly. Not being able to use his hands effectively preys not only on intelligence but on behavior as well. Some think that a young child who is incapable of obedience has no initiative. Or if a child seems lazy or sullen or sad, the cause is psychological. But there is a surprising cure. A child who has been able to work with his hands, using his hands to serve his own purposes, develops his confidence, his awareness, and becomes outgoing. As the hands develop, so does the mind. Intelligence grows with character when the hand grows the brain.

Maria Montessori discusses this in The Absorbent Mind, chapter 14, “Intelligence and the Hand.” She also discusses in this same chapter the child's developmental need to walk; and as soon as he is able, his need to walk while carrying objects of his own choosing. She cites examples from anthropological history that inspired her thinking. So she wisely set up her classrooms to serve these biological needs of young developing children. Here a child walks about the classroom to select an activity he wants to work with. Then he carries it to a table, or if the selected work is large, he stops first to place a work rug on the floor.

So today right here in the USA, there are wonderful Montessori schools with remarkable, effective, children busy learning to be interested in everything around them, learning what their relationship is to their environment, and learning how to effectively interact with it and with each other. Shouldn't all children have this opportunity?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

the Horseshoe Nail of the Montessori Classroom

The Hand Washing Exercise

For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For the want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For the want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For the want of the battle, the kingdom was lost.
All for the want of a horseshoe nail.

In an early book outlining Montessori education for Americans, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the suffragette and Montessori enthusiast, wrote of petitioning Dr. Montessori to include water work in her classroom*. It is difficult to believe that the Doctoressa had not already required hand washing of her institutionalized original students. But perhaps in the midst of her perceptual sense training, she had neglected to consider formal training in water exercises. The practical life water exercises Dr. Montessori has left for us far exceed anything that Mrs. Fisher had suggested. And the hand washing exercise—far from being trivial —is the horseshoe nail of the Montessori classroom.

Why do Montessori classrooms work where others for young children seem at best to hobble along? Small children often have been considered incapable of learning because they couldn't learn the way six year olds do. Montessori saw that these three, four and five year old children actually had an incredible learning capacity. They learned from everything they saw, touched, tasted, smelled, and heard. We parents in the fear for their safety, or less forgivably because of our poor understanding of our children's needs, find their forays into sensorial experience inconvenient. We are a busy bunch and rarely does it occur to us to replace this missed opportunity for our child with a richer or safer one. Montessori classrooms do this. And while many children are sent parental messages to stifle sensory inquiry, Montessori children are given a classroom rich in sensory materials to expand theirs.

The Hand Washing Exercise
a small table or stand about thirty inches high with three hooks on the right side
a quart-size flat-bottom bowl or basin
a pint pitcher
a small terry towel (fingertip size)
a washcloth
a soap dish with a bar of soap
a small nail brush
a half gallon bucket
a sponge

Take the apron from its hook on the stand and put it on.
Pick up the pitcher and take it to a water source (like a sink or a large water container) to fill it.
Return and pour the water into the bowl. (This may take two trips.)
Place your hands in the bowl to wet them.
Pick up the soap and rub it on the palms of both hands, one at a time.
Put the soap back in its soap dish and rub your soapy palms together.
One at a time, use the opposite palm to rub the back of each hand.
Rinse your hands in the water bowl.
Pick up the soap and rub it on the palm of the right hand.
Put the soap back in its dish.
With your soapy right hand encircle your left thumb and rotate your hand to distribute soap.
Continue with each left finger until all are soapy.
Rinse your hands in the water bowl.
Pick up the soap again, this time rubbing it on the palm of the left hand.
Repeat the previous steps, washing the right fingers, then rinsing your hands.
Take towel from hook on stand and one at a time carefully dry both hands; rehang towel.
Place bucket on floor beneath bowl.
Pick up bowl, place its rim so that its edge touches just within the edge of the bucket.
Pour water into bucket.
Using sponge wipe out bowl and wipe off stand. Replace sponge
Carry bucket to sink (or waste water container) and pour out water.
Return bucket to exercise and remove and hang up apron.

*This is likely true since Dr. Momtessori herself penned the forward to Canfield Fisher's book.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Montessori Home Schooling?

Montessori classrooms open doors of the mind
That even voice and books together cannot find.

Montessori primary education begins when the child is three. If your child is an old four year old (more than four and a half), it is likely too late to begin to home school an individual child with Montessori materials. Most people who have not worked in a fully functioning Montessori class do not realize that an important component to its success are its thirty or so children. A four year old without other children as models may not be drawn to use those expensive materials you have just purchased. Another common idea is that home schooling is inexpensive. Not initially. Maybe over time.

The first thing you must do if you are a patient reader is to purchase and read The Montessori Method, Centennial Edition, by Maria Montessori. It is available now at Amazon for $12.95. To understand Montessori, it is all worth reading even though she is not easy to read. If you are bogged down by a section which does not seem pertinent, then skip over it to one that does. On the advice of my mentors, I avoided reading the Doctoressa herself for years. When finally I did read this book, many many puzzle pieces fell into place. So try it and good luck. This may be a test of your dedication.

Do you have enough space for the classroom materials? A corner of the living room probably will not work. The sensorial and math materials require space. And these materials even from the least expensive supply houses are expensive. Often established schools buy the most expensive materials because so many children will be using them and the materials need to be super durable. Look at what is offered online and ask around for best suppliers if you can. And for your newly invented classroom look at what the suppliers suggest for all the major areas of the classroom. An inexpensive substitution may occur to you. Many of the materials especially those of practical living can be bought or made inexpensively.

Here are the materials that I would buy if I were going to teach children ages three to six years. These are the much loved materials that would be difficult to make yourself.:

Sensorial materials:
pink tower, red rods, brown (broad) stair, 4 cylinder blocks, 4 knobless cylinders, and geometric solids

Math materials:
red and blue rods, spindle box with spindles, hundred board, colored bead bars in a box, golden bead bar box, hundred square & chain, thousand cube & chain, binomial and trinomial cubes, and the subtraction snake game (which doubles as an addition snake game.)

Language materials:
sandpaper letters, moveable alphabet, metal insets

Geography materials:
world puzzle map, North America map, if possible all continent maps and the U.S. Map,
Montessori Material Suppliers:
Although there are many others as well as the established Gonzargarredi and Nienhuis, here also are two less expensive Montessori material suppliers that I just now have found online:

Adena: brown stair $82.50

Alison's Montessori: Thailand: brown stair $68.00

Nienhuis: brown stair $162.20

Juliana Group (Gonzargarredi): broad stair $163.12

___________________________________________________________________________________ Montessori Home School Support (?) Sites
Here are some good Montessori people of various sorts: maybe some will inspire you, some will have a good idea or two, some are stuck in traditional education, and some would like to sell you something.




http://www.montessoriforlearning.com/ l




Some words of caution: Montessori children do not work from pre-made work sheets. They make their own problem, solve it, and then if they desire, they write the whole problem and the solution down. And then they may do it again-or not. It comes from them. Not just math but language too. Worksheets are a symptom of what is wrong with traditional education. Children need to own their work from beginning to end. Montessori education is about intellectually empowering children.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Saving Suzy and the Lesson in Centrifugal Force

As cute as Suzy was as a five year old who had the height and chubby physique of a three year old, there was a titan within. And a comedienne. Our classroom's bathroom door was but a few feet from the hall door, an architectural snafu which made this (gratefully) unique performance possible, especially since we never saw it coming!
Not unusually that day there were two women visitors walking down the hall, peering curiously into the classrooms they passed. As usual the children seemed to pay no attention to them and continued with whatever they had been doing. Not Suzy. As soon as she saw them, she hurried to the bathroom, and unbeknown to us, removed all her clothes, then streaked out both the bathroom door and the class door, and down the hall after the women. Much too fast for us ignorant of her intentions to stop her. As I reached the doorway, the women were bringing her back.
“Oh, we found this little one down the hall,” they told me. “Looks like she needs some help.” Suzy was grinning ear to ear. But other than looking up as Suzy entered nude, the children went right on working. Even I was surprised at their complacent acceptance of her behavior. After all, it was outrageous and funny. No one laughed.

I think Suzy liked our table scrubbing exercise second only to painting at the easel. On this particular morning, she was working on a large blue landscape to which she had decided to carefully add some people. Painting the people was not going too well, and when one of them wound up with three legs, she decided to pack it in. She went to the sink for clean up water, but forgot first to dump the paint water. So now walking carefully, struggling a bit, she returned to the easel with a much heavier bucket. First she tried wiping down her easel with water from the bucket. Not having much luck with that, she cleaned the paintbrush by stirring it in the bucket. and became fascinated by the blue swirls the brush was making in the water. She decided to enhance the effect by adding the blue paint remaining in the paint jar. Now there was quite a contrast within the swirls. Suddenly she realized that some of the children were putting their work away. The end of the work period had arrived. Too much blue and no clean water. She picked up the bucket, frustrated, and did a quick turn. Too heavy! Whoops. Water spill. Blue paint! Don't look! Just keep whirling!
“Oh! No!” “Suzy! No!” “Stop!” the cries came from all over the classroom as blue splatters hit other children and whatever they were doing. When she stopped, there was very little left in her bucket and blue was everywhere. Nothing more was said. I came to help Suzy clean up her easel work. Quietly, all available children grabbed sponges, buckets and anything appropriate they could find to clean the blue paint from the classroom. Karin was wiping down the walls using a clean up bucket and a sponge. Tommy was washing the windows with the spray bottle and a rubber scraper. Tracy with the mop and mop bucket was working on the largest puddle nearest the easel. Nearby. on hands and knees Stacy was helping to sop up paint water using a large floor sponge and a bucket. Tommy was passing amongst those peeling wet work papers off their tables, carrying the wastebasket for paper work lost to centrifuged paint. Kit, Sol and Mel were scrubbing the bluest tables. And Mercedes in her wisdom was helping the youngest children, struck immobile by the enormity of the situation, with their coats.

Children in Montessori classrooms become the kind of people you would want nearby if there was a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. And more than a few understand centrifugal force.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Child is Father to the Man

Parents, our children are forming the adults they will become. That is not our task. Our task as parents is to find a way to give them opportunity to safely try their wings when sparks of interest fly about them. This requires discipline on our part because although we may have an exciting prospect for our child, if the child isn't interested, we must drop it and follow his lead. But do not lose heart, because at some different stage in his development, he may love what you are hoping he will love. Or not. Your critical input to your child's being is hardwired into her or him at conception. After that your job is mainly custodial: to watch, safeguard, marvel and encourage. And sometimes to teach.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, both went to Montessori schools. And although they met at Stanford, they credit Montessori education for giving them the opportunity to be innovators. Here is a link where they explain:


This next story has no similar Montessori connection. It is a true story so amazing that no script like this has yet been written for a motion picture. It is a true story that puts “Slumdog Millionaire” to shame. Here is Montessori's example of the child being the creator of the man. I borrow these excerpts from the Internet Website Medscape. The author of the original article is based in France, Dr. Marc Goslan who interviewed Mario Capecci in 2007. It was published online October 17, 2007.

Dr. Marc Gozlan: Can you describe your early childhood?
Mario Capecci: I was born in Verona, Italy, on October 6, 1937. My mother grew up in Florence. Her mother was actually American, from Oregon. She was a painter and went to Florence to paint. She married a German archaeologist. My mother was both a poet and a linguist, and she worked at the Sorbonne, in Paris, as a lecturer. Then she joined a group of poets known as the Bohemians, who did a lot of writing against Fascism as well as Nazism. My father, Luciano Capecchi, was an Italian air force pilot. He and my mother had a love affair, but my mother did not want to marry him. And so she had me. She moved with another poet friend up to Bolzano, which is up in the north in the Italian Tyrol, not too far from Verona. She moved there just before I was born, and they lived in a small chalet. I was born actually in Verona and I lived in Bolzano, I think, for about 3 and one-half years. But, meanwhile, because of her writing, she anticipated that she would be picked up [by the Gestapo]. Meanwhile both her parents died. She sold part of her possessions and gave the money to a farming family in the Tyrol to take care of me, in case she would be picked up by the Gestapo. That happened in the spring of 1941. I was then about 3 and one-half years old. She was taken to Dachau. Then I went to live with this Tyrolean farming family.

What was your first direct experience with war?
M.C.: This was in 1942. I think it was because there was a railroad line not too far from the farm, which served for the transportation of munitions. And so the American planes strafed them. They also strafed the population of farmers that were in the fields, and then everybody ran. I did get hit in the right leg by a bullet. It was fortunate that I did not have very much bone damage, but I have a scar.

How long did you stay with the Tyrolean peasant family? M.C.: After a year, the money that my mother had given the family disappeared for some reason, I am not sure why, and they could not afford to take care of me. They had also their own kids. Then I was put out on the street at the age of 4 and one-half years old. I travelled to the south. I was picked up and put into an orphanage; there, things were even worse and so I ran away to live in the streets again.

Were you picked up by the Balilla, Mussolini's youth army?
M.C.: Well, I belonged with the Balilla for I think at most about a month, and that didn't go very well. So for a very short period of time. Enough to get a uniform and learn a little bit about shooting guns. It was just training with them. Then I ran away and continued living on my own. So I lived pretty much on my own until around the age of 8. Then I was put into a hospital, mainly because of malnutrition and typhoid.

How did you manage to survive?
M.C.: The food was mostly by stealing from open markets. All the shops always had things in the front. Either alone or in combination with other kids, somebody distracted somebody, and then another one picked up some fruits and ran off. I also used to go into the countryside and see what I could find there. Then, once the Americans came, a good source of food was their garbage cans, because they threw out a lot of food!

You have probably seen terrible things as a kid on your own in the streets during war, maybe even atrocities: M.C.: Well, yes. I found shelter either in houses that were bombed out or in houses that were given up by other people. One of the places that we stayed was actually a house that the Germans were using for torturing people. When you went in there, all the body parts were just left there on the floor. So I saw all sorts of body parts that were just cut off: fingers, noses, ears, and so on. This would be between the ages of 5 and 8.

What happened to your mother?
M.C.: On my ninth birthday a woman that I did not know was my mother went to the hospital where I was confined because I suffered from malnutrition. In this hospital, they had very little food. The same thing was actually true at the orphanages -- they also had no food. A normal meal was a little bowl of chicory coffee and a small piece of bread that must have been several weeks old. It was hard as a rock. You could hardly chew it. I used to be naked on my bed because they did not want you to run away.

So your mother took you on a boat to America and you arrived at Ellis Island:
M.C.: Yes, we lived with her brother in Pennsylvania. He sent the money to Italy for the trip. He actually had to send it twice because the first time the money never arrived. So he sent money again for the boat tickets, and then I think in a period of a week and a half, I was on the boat.

Where did you live?
M.C.: Not far from Philadelphia, in a Quaker area full of Chinese, Blacks, and Jewish people. What they set up was a commune, a series of families that bought a large farm together. My uncle belonged to that commune and we went to live there with him.

Like any other kid, you went to school, but without knowing a word of English:
M.C.: I did go to school the very next day after I arrived in America. I could not calculate or read. I had had no schooling up to that. The pupils were actually studying about Holland. The teacher gave me enormous rolls of paper and asked me to make a mural. So I painted large murals about Holland. That is what I spent the first month doing, as well as learning the language.

Did you lose all of your Italian?
M.C.: Pretty much, yes. I can go to a movie and follow it, but I cannot speak it, really, and I have not spent any long periods of time in Italy. I think if I did I might be able to recapture some of the language, at least.

Did you manage at school and were you social? M.C.: I was a bit physically aggressive. I was streetwise at that point, so I became essentially the champion to beat up other kids that were in other classes. In high school, I was actually very good in wrestling

The time finally arrived to go to college, and you chose Antioch College, in Ohio. Why did you choose that college, and how does your interest in biology begin?
M.C.: It is a fairly old college, a small liberal arts college. What they did was unique. There was a period of study of about 10 weeks and then after that you worked for a quarter. It continued that way for the whole year. The jobs were all over the country; I worked in California, Chicago, New York, Boston, and so on. Initially you started working in different areas just to get a feeling, and once you settled into what you thought you wanted to work in, then the job was related to that. I worked at the Sloan-Kettering Foundation and the Kettering Foundation and then Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- all essentially in laboratory jobs. I really learned how to do science as an undergraduate. At Antioch, I was a physics and chemistry student, but through the jobs I got exposed to molecular biology.

One day, you had an interview with Jim Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA. During this interview at Harvard University, you decided to stay in his laboratory:
M.C.: That's right. One of the questions that I asked him was, "Where should I go?" I had the choice between Caltech, Berkeley, MIT, and Harvard, and Jim said: "You would be f---ing crazy to go anywhere else!" That seemed fairly persuasive, and so I ended up in his lab. It was 1961. We worked out one of the first systems that synthesized proteins in a cell-free system.

How long did you stay at Harvard before going to the University of Utah, and why did you choose to move there?
M.C.:From 1961 to 1967, I was in Jim Watson's lab. After that I got a job at Harvard Medical School in the department of biochemistry. So that was until 1973, and then I decided to go to Utah.
Mario Capecchi, this Italian-born scientist who began life as street kid during World War II, who is now professor of human genetics and biology at the University of Utah's Eccles Institute of Human Genetics and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was awarded

the 2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Capecchi, 70, shares the prize with Oliver Smithies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and with Sir Martin Evans of Cardiff University in Wales. The three scientists have shared information but worked independently to develop a "gene targeting" technique that makes it possible to "knock out" specific genes in mice, which reveals the gene's function and its role in disease.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Peace

On this Memorial Day I am thinking of my pregnant cousin and her young son as they wait for the return of her husband from Afghanistan. Yet another tour after surviving an attack on the helicopter he was piloting in 2008 when it was shot down in Iraq. Memorial Day is for remembering the fallen, the injured, and those who suffered. It is a time to thank those who serve and have served. But it is not a time to glorify war. It is a time to ask the questions: Why are we so often at war? What are we doing wrong?

From Maria Montessori's 1932 address in Geneva
to the International Bureau for Education:
“ A Remedy for War: Thoughts on Peace and Education”
from www.markshep.com/nonviolence

Let us look at a phenomenon parallel to war—war’s reflection, as it were, but on the physiological level. I am speaking of the plague, that scourge capable of decimating or even wiping out a whole population, which remained for centuries dreadful and invincible—the plague, propagated by ignorance and conquered only when scientifically studied in its most hidden causes.

The plague, as we know, appeared at long intervals, just like war. It disappeared each time spontaneously, and society—which did not know its causes—could not hasten its disappearance. Seen in those days as a horrendous chastisement, it caused ravages of historic proportions, like war.

Indeed, the plague had a greater number of victims than war, and caused many more economic disasters. In the fourteenth century, a plague in China claimed ten million victims. That same devastating wave swept over Russia, Asia Minor, Egypt, and reached Europe, threatening with destruction almost all humankind. The total of those deaths has been estimated at over 25 million—hence the ravages of the plague were worse than those of any war, even the World War.

Each appearance of this scourge caused a general stoppage of labor, ushering in periods of deep misery. Famine followed plague, and so did insanity, as a notable proportion of survivors were unbalanced. These conditions made a return to normalcy much more difficult and for long halted the constructive work of civilization.

It is interesting to examine the explanations given for this scourge, and to look at the attempts to protect against it. From Homer and Livy to the Latin chronicles of the Middle Ages, we find always the same explanation: The plague is caused by wicked people who spread poison.

Describing the plague of 189 A.D., Dion Cassius relates that throughout the Roman Empire evil men were enlisted and paid to throw about poisoned needles. In the days of Pope Clement VI, the spread of disease was blamed on the Jews, who were massacred. When during the siege of Naples the plague destroyed 400,000—nearly the whole city population and almost three-quarters of the besieging troops—the Neapolitans believed themselves poisoned by the French, and the French by the Neapolitans.

Still more interesting is the trial of two presumed poisoners accused of starting the famous plague of Milan—proceedings that resulted in their executions. It is hard to imagine that a disaster so patently pathological could be attributed to an illegal act and should lead to the trial of men utterly powerless to cause it. With our knowledge today of the plague, this seems absurd. But do we not, in the case of the World War, seek to foist the responsibility upon an individual—the Kaiser, the Czarina, the priest Rasputin, or the assassin at Sarajevo?

Another phenomenon, arising from the instinct of self-preservation, was observed during the most celebrated outbreaks of the plague: the flocking together of those not yet struck down. Crowds assembled in public squares, filled the churches, and formed processions in the streets to chant prayers and carry banners, sacred images, and relics. These gatherings helped spread the disease rapidly among those who might have escaped it.

Does not this remind us of alliances among nations? Those alliances made before the World War were meant to avoid just such a war by establishing a balance of power. It is plain now that it was precisely this system that caused the stupendous disaster, because many nations were drawn into the conflict merely from being bound to others.

Finally, each time after the scourge of plague ceased abruptly, the hearts of the survivors swelled with that hope that never dies. They were convinced that humankind had just undergone a necessary trial—perhaps the last one.

At the end of the World War, did not people continue to hope, imagining that this war—surely the last—had been necessary for the final establishment of peace?

It was scientific research in the realm of the invisible that alone succeeded in discovering the direct causes of the plague: specific microorganisms and their unsuspected disseminators, the rats. Once these factors were known, the plague became recognized as one of countless infectious diseases that continually threaten the health of humankind and that find in a vitiated environment a permanent ground of infection.

Now, in the Middle Ages, people lived indifferent and ignorant amidst unsanitary conditions—coming and going through filth in the streets, lacking water in their houses, choosing to sleep in dark, stuffy rooms, fearing the sunshine. This created a favorable breeding ground not only for the dreaded plague but for countless sicknesses less conspicuous from not disrupting the general workings of society.

Hence, when people fought successfully against the plague, their campaign necessarily aimed at all diseases caused by germs. This was an energetic campaign of public and private cleansing, undertaken both throughout a city and inside every home. And that was the first chapter of the glorious history of humankind’s defense against the last and smallest creatures still threatening its existence.

But personal hygiene—the ultimate attainment of that long fight—has another aspect. It bestowed on health itself a new importance—because a perfectly healthy person, well-grown and strong, can risk exposure to disease without becoming infected. Perfect health, then, became a new ideal, a new goal to strive for.

Now, when humankind started this new quest, the perfectly healthy individual was simply not to be found. Underfed or overfed, people were always filled with poisons—we may even say they deliberately poisoned themselves. But the ideal of personal hygiene reversed those old values, replacing the pleasures of the race to death with the pleasures of the race to life.

By contrast, in the inner realm, we have not yet taken one step forward—we are as backward as the people of the Middle Ages. We live in a state of psychic degeneracy, within a dark and stuffy moral environment. A healthy person from the psychical point of view is as rare today as a physically healthy one before.

If a person were to grow up with a healthy soul, enjoying the full development of a strong character and a clear intellect, they could not endure to uphold two kinds of justice—the one protecting life and the other destroying it. Nor would they consent to cultivate in their heart both love and hate. Neither could they tolerate two disciplines—the one aimed at building, and the other at tearing down what has been built.

Better humans than we are would use their intellects and the attainments of civilization to end the fury of war. War would not be a problem for them at all. They would see it simply as a barbarous state, opposed to civilization—an absurd and incomprehensible phenomenon, as expendable and defeatable as the plague.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The First Dream of the New Year

The first dream I had this year woke me abruptly that January Friday morning. It wasn't a nightmare, nor a pleasant dream either, just different. It was a dream about teaching, one that had a different kind of wake-up call for me. This won't likely shock you the same way since it was my dream--but maybe...

This is the dream:

There I was, suddenly in a classroom I had never seen before, flanked by two assistant teachers I had never seen before, looking at a class of children, about ages three to six, I had never seen before. Some of the children were standing but most were sitting on the floor directly in front of me. I was standing, surveying the room. I couldn't quite understand what to make of the whole situation. I could tell something was about to happen, but what? Dismissal? Lunch? Playground? Where was the clock in this place? So I turned to look at the assistants who were both staring at me. I guess that's how I had sensed that I was the one who was supposed to be in charge. They were politely mute, but I could read the messages in their eyes, "What's the matter with you?" "Get on with it." "We don't have all day!" Well, that's what their eyes told me. So now I knew what I was, a substitute teacher. I didn't even know whether it was morning or afternoon although I suspect for substitutes that isn't an uncommon feeling.

Suddenly I was saved. Through the hubbub a little girl looked directly at me and spoke in a high whiney voice, "Teacher-r-r, Brenda is being mean to me!" Now I knew what I had to do. I had been called!

Trying not to be impolite, I quickly craned my neck around and asked my assistants, "How much time do we have?" I did it just as though I actually knew what was happening next.

"About four minutes," was the reply. (It seemed awfully specific, but that's what they said in my dream.)

"All right." I took charge. "Children, let's sit down together. I think someone needs our help." (...with four minutes to zero. It was a dream, remember?)

As a classroom teacher in the real world I often sat with my class to discuss the more deeply wounding issues like being harassed by cruel name calling or the fear of being chased or attacked on the playground. Occasionally I would offer advice, but first I would do my best to elicit solutions from other children. Their answers always made a greater impression than mine on the besieged child.. This was what worked for me, sort of, and I stuck with it. Now, in eighteen years of classroom teaching, it had never been my habit to leap to satisfy the attention-getting strategies of small children. But my dream had teleported me to this class, and this was the only handle given to me that allowed me to function in this reality, so I grabbed it. Learning to deal with that handle became the whole purpose of the dream.

Precious moments passed while the class settled into group mode. I looked at the child who had addressed me. "Now I think we're ready. I'm sorry I don't know your name. Mine is Alis."


"Mercedes, did I hear you say that someone was being mean to you? Are you trying to say you'd like some help?"

"Yeah, it was Brenda. She's always mean."

"Mercedes, I'm guessing that you already know a lot about problems like this...because you asked for help. I can tell you already know that being mean back doesn't work. Did you know that most people don't stop to think what else to do? When someone is mean to them, they just act mean right back--even though it doesn't work. Well, anyway it never worked for me. And it certainly doesn't look like it works for other people either. What happens to you when someone is mean and you're mean back?"

Several answers came flying at me, not all showing complete comprehension of the question:
"They hit me."

"I'll punch him."

"He kicked me."

"I can wrinkle up her paper."

"I can scatch. I have long nails."

I had to interrupt. "Mercedes, isn't this what you're trying to avoid? This doesn't sound like fun!"

"No, it's just more being mean."

"So what can you do when someone's mean to you? What can you do that doesn't make the meanness worse?"

This time Jack (I think that was his name) answered, "You can walk away." I thought that his mom probably had told him that.

"Yes, I think that would stop the meanness."

Mercedes said, "But that's not fun either."

Suddenly the enormity of the misunderstanding hit me, the lie I had been serving to children for all these years. This discussion wasn't fair to children. It carries untruths at its roots.

I replied, "We're really going to have to work at this. Knowing what to do about meanness is a very hard problem. Maybe it's the hardest problem ever. I'll tell you why. When people ask you if you can read before you know how, you answer that you can't read, and it seems so impossible to believe that you will learn. But your parents and teachers know that you're going to be able to do it because they can do it. They probably felt the same way when they were small, and it didn't matter because one day, one wonderful day, they picked up a book and saw words in it! That was the beginning, and either slowly or quickly after that they were reading almost any book. It happens like that. All of us adults know it will happen for you the same way. You will learn to read too.

"So when we talk to you about how to handle meanness, like you should do this and you shouldn't do that, like why can't you stop fighting with your brother or your sister, we act like this is something you should know long before you're going to read, something everyone knows. But it's a lie. Adults don't really know what to do about meanness either, and they make much worse mistakes than you do.

"How can we help Mercedes make the meanness better? Has any of you thought of a way we could? I know Jack thought of one. Maybe we could all try his for a day to see if it works for us. Or perhaps you have something else you'd like to try when someone is mean, and you could try your way while we're trying Jack's way. We'll meet again tomorrow to talk about how these worked. Maybe we can find a way to make the meanness better for everybody. If we find it, we can tell all the other classes and the other teachers. Then we can write a letter to the President because he'd like to know too. Let's keep asking, what can make the meanness better? Let's be scientists and keep experimenting. We have to remember that paying back meanness with more meanness doesn't work. It makes the whole world unhappy. This is the hardest problem ever, but we can do it if everyone stops pretending they already know the answer and tries to find one that really makes meanness go away."

And all this happened in four minutes. Only in a dream.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Teacher's Lament

When scoring becomes more important than assessing,
When assessing becomes more important than teaching,
When teaching becomes more important than learning,
Maybe it's time for us to take down our diplomas
And become students again.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Montessori Madness

A Montessori friend has given me a wonderful book, Montessori Madness by Trevor Eissler. If you have questions about Montessori education, this Montessori father has the answers. To see a brief video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LMRerVtt9g. His book is both wise and funny and quite worth reading, every single page. Here from within its introduction I quote a comparison of Montessori education to traditional education:
From pp. 3 and 4:
“Children in Montessori schools assume full responsibility for their lowest bodily functions as well as their highest intellectual functions. They learn to solve problems by solving them, not hiding them. Montessori children learn discipline by practicing discipline, not by having the teacher tell them to be disciplined. They are naturally self-motivated because they are free to choose their own lessons at the moment they are ready to learn those lessons, and to follow wherever the intellectual thread leads. These students are not trained to wait for a teacher to motivate them before acting. They have long attention spans because every day they practice concentrating on some type of work for extended periods of time, not just until the bell rings for the next class. These students are decisive because they make decisions for themselves – the teacher does not decide for them. These children learn to respect others because they in turn are respected, not dominated. They are active learners because instead of being lectured to as passive observers, they are active participants.”
From pp. 5 and 6:
“I want to pull the Montessori philosophy of education down into the dirt where it belongs. Montessori is about a kid with a stick, digging a hole in the mud – hands dirty, engaged, fascinated, uninterrupted. Montessori should not be the bastion of rich kids and snooty elites able to spend thousands of dollars per year, while the not-so-fortunate kids are herded toward mediocrity like standardized lemmings. It's madness that we don't offer free public Montessori schools everywhere. It's madness that we stay stuck in the traditional way of schooling when it obviously has serious flaws. Yet, at fist glance, the Montessori method is so different from what we are used to, we think this method is madness!
“The old saying, 'The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,' comes to mind. We think someone else's job is better, car is faster, house is bigger, vacation is sunnier. When it comes to Montessori education, the grass is greener. It is better. The grass on the Montessori side of the fence is so verdant lush and full, I can barely make out my three kids in the overgrowth! It's just not fair! It's not fair that the vast majority of children will never get the chance to experience a Montessori school. It's not fair that because of luck and enough money, my kids get the chance to go there, but others don't.
“The goal of this book is simple. I want to convince you, the parent of a young child, to closely observe a Montessori classroom in action and compare it with a more discerning look at your child's current schooling or any traditional classroom. The difference is so startling and compelling that I hope it will prompt you to pull your child out of traditional school and enroll him or her in a Montessori school. I hope parents of preschool-age children will decide to choose Montessori from day one. If this choice is just not affordable, I hope you will demand a public Montessori school in your area.”

To join the discussion or find out where to purchase this book, go to http://www.montessorimadness.com/

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Chicago Disconnection

More than a century ago between 1898 and 1900, Italy's first woman doctor, Maria Montessori, began her work as physician with institutionalized children who had serious learning difficulties. As she tended to them, she thought she saw ways to help them learn. It was evident these children could not learn normally with the traditional whole-class approach so she began to teach them individually. She developed beautiful “sensorial materials” made of wood, many in graded sets of ten, for teaching dimensions like length. After that she created mathematical materials, then even language materials. She would show them to a child slowly, always in an exercise of many short steps, demonstrating how to use them in an organized way. Some time later Dr. Montessori's efforts were rewarded when in spite of all their learning difficulties, these children were able to pass the same exams given to normal children. A phenomenon she became determined to investigate. And so she began to wonder what effect her educational methods might have on normal children.

In 1901 Dr. Montessori returned to the University of Rome to teach anthropology and to study all the famous educators she could find, to the extent of translating Seguin word by word from the French to her own Italian. All this while she continued to set up classes for small children, as well as personally training the teachers to use her method. Finally in 1907, she seized the opportunity to work with disadvantaged children in the poverty stricken, crime ridden San Lorenzo quarter of Rome. And her fame as an extraordinary educator began to leap oceans.

In the United States a surprising number of prominent people had heard of Montessori's success. Dorothy Canfield Fisher and the Alexander Graham Bells were amongst the educational reformers trying to establish Montessori schools here. Some of Montessori's admirers were so enthusiastic that they traveled to Europe to learn firsthand in one of her established schools. Dr. Montessori was unwilling to give her blessing to those who had not proven to her that they understood her method well. This slowed the establishment of schools almost to a stand still. Yet interest seemed to be growing.

Stateside John Dewey was at the University of Chicago, and in 1896 established its Laboratory School. He was working with children older than most of those in Montessori's classrooms. And her schools also included three and four-year olds. In 1906 he resigned from his position at the University of Chicago and returned entirely to academia, leaving his Laboratory School in the hands of his successors. Other than believing that young children should be educated in classrooms, there was little similarity in their approaches. Dewey had enjoyed so much prestige from his experiment that it is likely that he dismissed Montessori outright and without much thought. But Montessori was diligent in everything she put her mind to, and she no doubt wondered how she and Dewey both could be so popular with Americans. Perhaps this is why she was so hesitant to give her blessing to those trying to establish schools in her name. Finally in 1913 Maria Montessori came to the United States to speak to audiences about her work. She was well received for some months until she came to the attention of Dewey's supporters who realized that the two approaches were incompatible. Using the media, even though many initially had welcomed her, journalists now denigrated her work. Her popularity waned. Montessori, made distrustful by the confusion, returned to Italy. She spent her entire life studying and looking for the most effective methods to educate children for life. She worked all over Europe and in Asia. But elsewhere, not here.

In the twentieth century between these early years of the remarkable warring educational reformers and the present, lay catastrophic events: World War I, the flu pandemic, the Depression and World War II, not to mention Korea, Viet Nam and the ominous Cold War Communist threat. So twentieth-century cultures remained stuck in an educational ditch. Pretty much worldwide, no culture was seriously trying to teach children until they reached the age of six years. Here in the United States we sometimes tried to prepare children with kindergarten classes for five-year-olds. In 1948 my parents had to pay for mine. Our public school invited a kindergarten teacher to use a sunny room in the school basement where about eight of us children (only eight of the sixty that would comprise the two first grade classes the following year) met with her for an hour and a half, three mornings a week. I seem to remember being handed money to give her each time my parents dropped me off at school. We children sat around a table to draw with pencils and crayons while she read to us. She helped us learn to print our names. But six was considered the age that a teacher could require a child's attention for a full day. So real education was supposed to start at six. And certainly, given the prevailing classroom structure, there were good reasons for this mindset. But now Montessori education has changed all that.

Now by 2010 Americans have rediscovered Montessori schools and with them early childhood education. This began locally in the 1960's with the establishment of two of the earliest Chicago Montessori schools still in existence: Near North Montessori School founded in 1963 and Rogers Park Montessori School founded in 1966. How did this happen and why? The most common way was that a group of parents who had read about Montessori education would come together to found a school. The problem earlier in the century had been the lack of Montessori trained teachers here. World War II provided Near North Montessori's founding group in Chicago with Katherine Kenneth, an ex-patriot Austrian Jew, who brought with her the experience of working with the Doctoressa herself. Mrs. Kenneth had a tale to tell about those war years. She said that one of the most important things she did with her small charges was to walk daily as a group, longer and longer distances. And then the feared day came during the war when they had to walk a long distance to be out of harm's way. And they did safely. Every one of them. And she smiled a smile like a rainbow.