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Who in the world is Maria Montessori?

“Education should no longer be mostly imparting knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentials.” (Maria Montessori)

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At the park the other day, I ran into a 9-year old Montessori student who told me a fantastic story about how Maria Montessori’s ghost haunted the girls’ bathroom at their school. Of course, I had a good laugh but was also reminded that so many people do not know about this fascinating woman.

Born in Italy in 1870, Maria Montessori became one of the world’s most influential educators through her diligent observation and study of child development. Montessori’s training began in the medical field, and she became one of Italy’s first female physicians. Her initial work with handicapped children inspired her belief that all children could learn and develop given the right opportunity.

In 1907, Montessori tested many of her educational theories by opening her first Casa dei Bambini within a poor tenement area of Italy. The first students in this Children’s House were the young children of working-class families, who were previously left without guardians while their parents had to work and older siblings were in school.

Rather than confining students to a desk, Montessori gave her children the choice of what materials they would like to work with, and she had small tables and chairs specially designed so that the children could move them around and sit where they would like. Because Montessori had seen such a response to hands-on materials with her handicapped students, Montessori continued to make and test quality materials that would teach children as they used the materials, rather than through the direct instruction of a teacher.

When I was first reading Montessori’s books, I would interrupt Brad constantly to read a passage outloud to him. She was way ahead of her time. She was a strong believer in women’s rights before that was a popular notion- a doctor and starting a school before women in America could even vote! She had an incredible respect for children and believed that within every child lay the potential for education. At a time when there was no early education and children in school were sitting at desks for long hours of the day (sound familiar?), Montessori gathered up the 3- and 4-year olds who were out wandering the streets and brought them into a beautiful environment with chairs, tables, and materials specially built for them. She watched the children discover how to write and read mostly on their own as they worked with the materials.

“Supposing I said there was a planet without schools or teachers, study was unknown, and yet the inhabitants – doing nothing but living and walking about came to know all things, to carry in their minds the whole of learning: Would you not think I was romancing? Well just this, which seems so fanciful as to be nothing but the invention of a fertile imagination, is a reality. It is the child’s way of learning. This is the path he follows. He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so passes little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love.”

When I read about and see Montessori classrooms, I am driven to see my neighbors, the children in Humboldt Park, have the same opportunity: to be in an environment where they are inspired to learn, where learning feels more like play. I trust that all children have within them the desire to learn, and that is why I work long hours, while my own children nap and after they go to bed. Montessori has inspired me to believe that one woman who strongly believes in the potential within each child can indeed make a difference.

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An Ordered Environment

“Beautifully crafted and begging to be touched, Montessori’s distinctive learning materials are displayed on open, easily accessible shelves. They are arranged (left to right, as we read in Western languages) in order of their sequence in the curriculum, from the simplest to the most complex.” (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

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The parents of Humboldt Park Montessori School had a lovely evening Thursday night packed into my tiny living room, where our teacher, Krista Keintz, described more of what happens in our classroom. One of the questions asked about our classroom was “Why all the wood?”

I loved Krista’s answer. She gave three reasons:
1. The Montessori materials are designed to be beautiful.
2. There is a weight to wood not found with plastic. This helps solidify in her mind the work the child is doing with her hands.
3. Wood and glass objects have natural consequences. These items dent or break if you drop them so the child learns to carry things carefully. (Self-control is a key characteristic that studies show help people succeed – even financially – later in life.)

If you’ve been in a Montessori classroom you will notice that it looks quite different from a typical classroom. Instead of rows of desks and chairs, classrooms have small tables and chairs and a large amount of floor space where students can work. Each student can choose to work at a table or place a rug on the floor to use as his or her space. Low shelves throughout the classroom hold materials that children can carry to their own space and work with as long as they choose. Each material has a specific purpose so there is a limit to how a material can be used, but it is up to the child to select what they would like to work on and for how long.

In Montessori, the surroundings the child is moving around in are seen as another teacher. When things are ordered and beautiful, Maria Montessori saw that her students were inspired to work and focus.

In a Montessori classroom, students are constantly moving around to get new materials. This keeps energetic little bodies engaged. Studies have shown that students (children and adults) learn much better if they use hands-on objects. Montessori knew this 100 years ago.

Most Montessori materials are also self-correcting, meaning that the child does the work and then doesn’t have to ask a teacher to find out if he did it correctly. This helps him stay focused on the work in front of him and builds his inner confidence as he sees that he can do a work all by himself.

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