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.