AMAZING MARIA MONTESSORI
Vero Beach Magazine, February 2004, Volume VII, Number 2, pp. 35 –
By John Parkyn
with the permission of Vero Beach Magazine
Today, there are
Montessori schools on every continent of the planet except Antarctica,
and they all use the teaching methods devised by Maria Montessori. Yet
Maria was a strong-willed young woman who had absolutely no desire to
be a teacher.
Her own experiences
at school had been far from happy. Living in 1880’s Rome with
her well-to-do accountant father, Alessandro, and mother, Renile, she
attended a typical upper-class school of the time. It was, she would
recall later, an agonizing experience in which the students sat on hard
benches in dreary classrooms, memorizing facts and repeating them, parrot-fashion,
to their bored teachers.
ambition was to be an engineer - an unheard of profession for a young
woman in 19th century Italy. Over her father’s objections, she
enrolled at a technical school in Rome but found the atmosphere repressive.
One of only two women, she was forbidden to speak to the male students
and had to sit at the back of the classroom so she wouldn’t be
a “distraction.” At recess, she and the other girl were
isolated in a room with a guard on the door.
with honors from the institute, but by now had decided that she would
rather become a doctor. There were no female doctors in Italy at the
time, and when her father refused to discuss the matter, she applied
without his knowledge to the University of Rome medical school.
When she was rejected
because of her gender, she enrolled in pre-med classes. At age 21, she
graduated with an eight out of 10 average, but was still refused enrollment
at the medical school. Defiantly, she wrote letters to educators all
over Italy, even sending one to the pope. Her persistence paid off,
and in 1892, at age 22, she became the University of Rome’s first
female medical student.
Her early days at
the college were worse than her experiences at the technical school.
Male students openly insulted her, and she was not allowed to attend
classes that would involve her viewing or dissecting bodies with the
men - even though the bodies were dead. Instead, she had to work alone
with the cadavers in the evenings.
Gradually, her sheer persistence, and the recognition of her abilities,
won over her male classmates. It also didn’t hurt that she had
developed into a striking beauty. Further help came when the medical
school’s directors assigned her to work at a children’s
hospital. Though their motive was to avoid her having to deal with the
bodies of adult men and women, it pointed Maria in the direction that
would make her world-famous.
At 25, she graduated
as Italy’s first female doctor of medicine. She began practicing
on her own and, because of her experience at the children’s hospital,
many child patients were referred to her. As her practice grew, so did
her interest in children’s emotional problems. Soon, her ability
to help sick and disturbed youngsters had become well known in Rome,
and she decided to specialize in child welfare. She enrolled as an assistant
in a clinic so she could observe mentally disabled youngsters. She was
appalled that they were given nothing to stimulate their minds - no
toys, no puzzles, no pencils or paper - instead being left to wallow
in the filthy conditions surrounding them.
Maria began studying
the writings of two French doctors, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Edouard
Seguin, who had published several books expounding their theory that
backward children needed special education rather than medical treatment.
She became a devotee of their work and wrote a series of articles for
Italian newspapers and magazines. In 1898 the chance to test her theories
arrived when the Rome authorities began planning a school to train teachers
in educating mentally disabled youngsters. The school was to be largely
based on the theories of Itard and Seguin, and tuition would include
a practice school housing 22 backward children. As a leading exponent
of the French doctors’ writings, Maria was invited to become a
co-director of the school and joyfully accepted.
job brought unexpected, and very personal, complications to her life.
Her co-director was a charming physician named Guiseppe Montesano. Within
a year of the school’s opening, the two had fallen in love, and
in 1899 Maria secretly gave birth to Montesano’s child, a son
she named Mario. In 19th century Italy an out-of-wedlock birth, especially
among professionals, would create a huge scandal. So, in the manner
of the time, Mario was sent to be raised by a discreet family in the
country, and Maria would visit him as often as she could. She and Montesano
never married, apparently because of disapproval by their families.
with Montesano convinced her that her belief in the works of Itard and
Seguin had been justified. Putting their theories into practice, she
worked with the 22 children on a one-to-one basis. To give vent to their
senses, she would walk with them in the school gardens to see and smell
the flowers and listen to the sounds of nature, and handed them small
objects to develop their sense of touch. Soon she was providing them
with objects in the shapes of the alphabet, so they could experience
the feel of a word rather than learn it parrot-fashion from a book.
To everyone’s amazement, many of the children began to show an
interest in reading and writing. Some of her students progressed so
rapidly that, after a couple of years, they were able to take the public
school exams with normal children.
In 1901, Maria_s
personal life again intruded on her work. That year, Dr. Montesano married
another woman, and Maria, heartbroken, decided it was time to move on.
She became a professor at the University of Rome _ and again, an opportunity
occurred unexpectedly. In a notorious Roman slum called San Lorenzo,
the authorities were trying to clean up the area by building new housing
for the poorest citizens. But the experiment was being threatened with
disaster because children who were too young for school regularly went
on rampages, smashing fountains and windows and throwing debris on the
newly paved streets.
the housing officials asked Maria if she would be interested in supervising
a classroom for pre-schoolers _ one of the first known examples of day
care. She agreed, figuring it was an ideal opportunity to prove her
theories with underprivileged but otherwise normal children. Her friends
were appalled. Why give up a prestigious position with the university
to work in a slum? Support came from an unexpected source, her father,
now retired, who had become extremely proud of his brilliant daughter.
With his encouragement, she decided to go ahead with her plan. The Casa
dei Bambini (Children’s House) opened in 1907. Maria equipped
the classroom with small chairs and tables that were light enough for
the children to move around, so they would not feel constricted. Shelves,
closets and wash basins were all placed at a height suitable for two-
Following the methods
she had used with the mentally disabled, Maria devised games that would
allow preschoolers to learn by using their senses, rather than listening
to a teacher. One game was a form of poker, with one child “dealing”
small tablets of varying colors and hues. Players would ask for a particular
color and would then collect all eight of that color. A race would then
ensue to see who could first place their tablets in shades going from
light to dark.
Maria and her assistants
also began making letters out of sandpaper, enabling the children to
trace the rough letters with their fingertips. Gradually, they learned
that each shape represented a different sound. After learning to write,
they began to read.
As the months passed,
the scruffy waifs became well behaved and eager to learn. At the start
of each day, they would wash themselves at the low-placed basins and
clean their teeth, with the older ones helping the two- and three-year-olds.
Later, they would take turns serving lunch.
In 1908, a second
school opened in Rome, and schools using Maria’s techniques began
sprouting up all over Italy. Though some of them were designed to help
the mentally disabled, the vast majority appealed to parents who were
seeking a new, less-repressive style of education for their children.
Inevitably, they became known as Montessori schools.
With so many people
asking questions, Maria began writing down her teaching methods, which
evolved into a primer called The Montessori Method. Soon, Montessori
societies were being formed across Europe and Maria decided that she
would devote the rest of her life to teaching other teachers. When her
mother died in 1912, she brought her 13-year-old son, Mario, to live
with her, though, for propriety_s sake, he was introduced as her nephew.
The following year, Maria visited the United States for the first time.
In 1911, great interest had been aroused in her work, when an American
magazine, McClure_s, published an article about the Montessori method.
Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell read the story and offered
Maria his support if she would come to New York.
In 1913, Maria arrived
in Manhattan to a hero’s welcome organized by Bell and the magazine.
After drawing sellout crowds to her lectures in New York and Chicago,
she was invited to establish and teach at a newly formed Montessori
Institute, which would include classes for the deaf and mentally disabled
as well as for other children. Maria was tempted but refused, partly
because she knew that immigrating with her “nephew” to the
U.S. might uncover the secret she had kept for so long.
With the outbreak
of World War I in 1914, Maria moved to Spain, which was not involved
in the hostilities. Mario, who had married an American expatriate, Helen
Christie, joined her in Barcelona, where he and his wife began raising
a family of four children. While exiled in Barcelona, Maria continued
to supervise the expansion of her empire. After the war, she returned
to Italy at the request of the country’s new strong man, Benito
Mussolini, but was horrified to see preschoolers in fascist uniforms
playing war games. When Mussolini ordered all teachers to take an oath
of loyalty to fascism, Maria instructed her staff to refuse. Mussolini
then closed down the Montessori schools and Maria returned to Barcelona.
In 1936, violence
again caught up with her when the Spanish Civil War began. She and Mario,
by now her manager, moved to Amsterdam. After four years, they had to
flee yet again when Hitler_s armies invaded Holland. This time, Maria
headed for India, where she had received many invitations to teach her
methods, and stayed there for the remainder of World War II. In 1946,
mother and son finally returned to Holland.
Now in her mid-70s,
Maria’s boundless energy was beginning to ebb. But she kept traveling
around the world until her death in Holland at 81. Quite overweight,
she collapsed and died while visiting a school in the village of Noordwijk.
She was buried in the Catholic cemetery there, following her instructions
that she should be buried wherever she died.
Though she had never
publicly acknowledged that Mario was her child, her will revealed everything
when she left her entire estate to Mario, mio figlio – “Mario,
my son.” But her greatest legacy is the thousands of schools around
the world that bear her name.