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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.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

How Terry and Tracy learn to write in a Montessori classroom

I offer the following classroom scenario to illustrate one of the frequently mentioned differences between traditional and Montessori approaches to language, writing before reading. Almost always Montessori education offers the active component of any subject before its passive component. This is a key to reaching very young children. Here is one of the earliest Montessori language lessons, tracing a letter and associating its sound.


It is the middle of February. Terry and Tracy are three-and-a-half-year-old students who seem fascinated with the sandpaper letters that Maria Montessori devised a century ago. These sandpaper letters are individual letters, cut out and mounted on blue and red boards; vowels on blue, consonants on red. We sit on the floor around a low table. I pick up the red board with the t on it. Using three fingers I trace the sandpaper letter t slowly as I would if I were writing it, carefully watching my hand. When I'm through tracing, I look up at the children and say “t,” the soft quick sound made by placing the tongue at the top of the back of the front teeth, and quickly blowing a burst of air across it. Here we do not use the letter's name. We refer to these letters always by their sound. The two children take turns tracing the letter.
“Can we use the sand tray?” asks Terry after each of us has had our turn to trace.
“You certainly may,” I am happy to respond. And we repeat the round of letter-tracing with the additional step of using a shallow box of sand to trace the letter freehand.
A few weeks later Terry and Tracy, who seem to have become good friends, have learned five or six sounds. I invite them to play a game of “I Spy.” The game goes something like this: still at the same table, I trace the letter t saying its sound “t”, and I pass it to each of them to do the same. Then I rather pointedly look around the room. I say, “I spy something big that starts with 't'. Can you guess what I'm looking at?” In this case I am staring as obviously as I can at a table. They would usually take turns trying to guess, but this time my selected object becomes irrelevant to our game because Tracy spots a towel and says “Towel.” In looking for mine, she has found one of her own.
I reply, “Towel! That's even better than mine, Tracy. Can you show us the towel?” Tracy walks to the hand washing exercise and touches the towel hanging beside it.
On another day as Terry and Tracy are becoming more proficient, we are expanding the game by naming objects that have our sound at the end of the word. Terry is quick to point under the table, “foot! foot!” Then on a different day, we tackle the most difficult: finding a word with the “t” in the middle. “Do you think we can find “t” in the middle of a word?” I ask, thinking this could be a hard one, but Terry surprised me again by pointing at the t and laughing, saying, “letter, letter!”
Some other classmates are roaming by, so I decide to change our quest to “I see a girl whose name begins with 't'.” This is fun and often captures the interest of those who may have temporarily lost their sense of self direction.
“Oh,” say Tracy and Terry in unison, “Tisha! Tisha!” So Tisha joins us.
Of course the purpose of this game is to teach. But not to do so by correcting children and telling them they are “wrong.” If you do this at this early age, they will either quit or begin acting silly. Then the lesson they will remember will not be about sounds, but about failure. So what do I do if someone is wrong? When I can, I use everything that happens as a positive teaching moment. First, I try to look puzzled. Then I say the word with the sound in the wrong place. For example, if we are looking around the classroom for an object that begins with “t,” but the child points out a chair. First I would ask, “Can you tell me what you are pointing at? What is it called? He would say, “Chair.”I might look puzzled and then say, “'t,' 't', 't'air?” a couple of times, shake my head and say, “That doesn't sound right to me. Does it sound right to you?” The child usually laughs at the funny word so I repeat my invitation, “It starts with 't.' Guess again.” If all else fails, here in class we never dwell in failure. After any series of earnest but incorrect answers, like the American quiz show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” there is always an “ask a friend“ option.

NOTE: I have used the letter t as an example here for simplicity. We use all the letters in the alphabet in approximately the same way, one or two at first but more as the child becomes at ease with these lessons.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


When I was a child, at Christmas my somewhat rotund father would dress up like Santa with a cloth bag of candies and tiny plastic toys over his shoulder and go knocking on doors, house to house, in our neighborhood, saying “Ho, ho ho! Are there any good little boys or girls here?” And passing out rather unspectacular goodies by today's standards. My father loved doing this. Those children of yesteryear seemed to like it too. It worked. It was Christmas. But it was something else too. It was heart throbbing, eye widening, levitating, infectious joy!

There are events in our lives that can jolt us with joy, like a wedding, or the birth of a child. There is a quieter joy when something we have worked on, and maybe struggled with, suddenly comes together. Then there is the joy of working with others who are in an alpha state of creation, becoming the people that they will be. Like children in a Montessori classroom.

This is why I happily awoke every morning at 5:20 A.M., before my alarm, and walked down the hall to the bathroom to shower and wash my hair. Why I wore freshly laundered clothes daily. And I insisted that my son and I have breakfast and I packed us hearty lunches. Why? I had to be prepared. Teaching in a Montessori classroom, I was in the company of more quiet joy than I have ever known. And I had the good fortune to do this for years and years. This joy has had a profound effect on me, and I cannot help thinking it must also profoundly change the way children grow.

Friday, April 2, 2010

So You Are Thinking "Montessori School?" for Your Child

Children normally enter a Montessori class for their first year at the age of three. The youngest tend to favor working alone, preferring the practical life exercises of cleaning and food preparation because they find personal power in the role of caretaker.

The second year children are discovering effective social interaction and gravitate toward materials that allow them to work with others, often the mathematics exercises or the moveable alphabet letters. Due to the gangly social growth in second year children, they develop best amongst friends.

The oldest children spend much of their time perfecting their language skills as well as their social skills, which are often much more sophisticated than those of the four-year-old children. The third-year children are socially focused as a group on higher academic achievement. This is the time for them to break through into reading and writing. These are children who are academically busy trying their wings and preparing to fly away.

Not withstanding there are a myriad of activities and interactions that take place on any given day. The older ones often help the younger children. But they know enough to wait until they are asked. Here I have merely set the scene. This Montessori class is like a large extended family, but one where the personal constellations change annually. These children know each other well.

If you are thinking about entering your child in a Montessori school, first check to see if the school is accredited. Here in Illinois it should be accredited by AMI or AMS. You should keep in mind that the standard entry age is three for Montessori's primary level. Sometimes there are openings for a four or five-year old; but there are not many. And often these will be given first to a Montessori transfer student. At age three your child will be entering a mixed-age class of approximately thirty students: about ten three-year olds, ten four-year olds and ten five-year olds. There may be even be some competition at the three-year old level. Many schools have a small number of students in entry level programs for two-year olds. These children too likely will be given priority in primary level admissions.

And then there is the Infant Community program. This is an amazing program serving the youngest children, from infants to three-year olds. It is available now in just a few Montessori schools. If you must work, this is the answer. It is unfortunate that Infant Communities are so rare.

Both AMS and AMI have lists of member schools. For a more local list of accredited Montessori schools, call the Illinois Montessori Society. This telephone number is usually served by one of the member schools. If encountering difficulty, call during school hours: 708-498-1105.

Illinois Montessori Society (IMS)
1985 Pfingster Rd.
Northbrook, IL 60062