Just now, I started writing a post explaining the whole Practical Life thing within Montessori. A few paragraphs in, I realized that most of what I wrote wouldn’t mean much of anything to those unfamiliar with the basics of the Montessori philosophy. I was starting to describe Practical Life in terms of the Sensitive Periods, Human Tendencies, and the Absorbent Mind, and thought, “Hmmm…most people aren’t going to have a clue what I actually mean by those things.”
So, allow me to take one giant leap back. Mother may I?
Before I even explain basic Montessori philosophy, how about I start with letting you know who this Montessori person is. Yes, Montessori is the name of a person. Dr. Maria Montessori. (That’s pronounced mawn-teh-SOR-ee, not monastery, btw. You wouldn’t believe how many people…)
I’d say the three-word summary of her biography would be: She was amazing!! I just read her actual biography this week for the first time. I had read (and even written) summaries, but those leave out all the great details and stories. I was completely enraptured reading the full thing! So, let’s see if I can summarize her 81 years of life, AND include a sprinkling of really interesting stuff.
Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in Ancona, Italy – the year in which Italy first became a united nation, in fact. She was an only child, the daughter of a distinguished military man named Alessandro, and “a lady of singular piety and charm” named Renilde.* Even as a young girl, Maria (I’m going to go “non-professional” and use her first name. It just sounds nicer and less formal!) had a compassionate, caring heart. She spent time everyday knitting for the poor. She befriended a hunchback girl in the neighborhood and would take her out for walks. One time when her parents were arguing, she pulled a chair between them, stood on the chair and joined their hands together as tightly as she could. She was a peacemaker from the beginning. (Later in life, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.)
She went to the typical school of her day as a young child, and doesn’t seem to have been very concerned with getting the best grades or meeting high achievements. When a classmate was crying due to being held back a year, Maria consoled her by saying, “One room seems to me just as good as another!”
When Maria was twelve, her family moved to Rome for the purpose of providing a better education for her. Around this time, she started having strong ideas about what she wanted to learn and what she wanted to do with her life. At fourteen, she developed a passion for mathematics, which remained with her throughout her life. Her parents strongly encouraged her to prepare for being a teacher, practically the only career available to women at the time, but she had no desire to pursue such a career. She decided instead to be an engineer, which was unthought of for women. Since it was a male-dominated field, she had to attend a technical school for boys. She then was drawn to biology, and finally settled on medicine.
I love this line in the book*: “All the Italian Mrs. Grundys raised their hands in pious horror.” Maria ignored them and, against her father’s wishes, persistently pursued enrollment in the University and eventually became the first woman medical student in Italy. She faced a lot of challenges there because of her gender. Her male classmates gave her a very hard time, and since it was not considered proper for a female to dissect dead bodies in the presence of men, she had to spend many evenings alone, after dark, with the corpses.
She was finally nearly pushed over the edge and left the dissecting room one evening, ready to choose a different career. However, encountering a beggar woman on the her way home, and observing the woman’s serene child, focused on playing with bits of colored paper, she got her determination back. She turned around and returned to the dissection room.
After graduation, it was tradition that each person deliver a public lecture to the faculty. People arrived in a forceful spirit of criticism against this female graduate. However, “her treatment of her theme was so brilliant, her delivery so faultless, her personality so fascinating, that all opposition was swept away and she received a great ovation.” Her father had accidentally ended up at the lecture, not knowing that it was even happening, and found himself surrounded by eager congratulations for having such a daughter. His daughter was now the first woman in Italy to earn the degree of Doctor of Medicine. During that same year, she began to successfully champion the cause of working women and attack the exploitation of child labor.
(One piece of information that is frequently glossed over within the Montessori world is that Maria gave birth to a son during this time. I’ve read that the boy was the result of a secret relationship with another student, and they promised each other to never reveal the relationship or the identity of the boy’s father. I’m also confused as to his early childhood. My understanding is that he did NOT live with his mom, which seems completely counter to her focus on proper childhood development within her career. They were apparently very close later in life, however, and he shared her passion for educating children in this revolutionary way. He filled many of her roles after her death.)
In her new role as assistant doctor at the Psychiatric Clinic in the University of Rome, part of her duty was to visit the insane asylums in order to select suitable subjects for the clinic. She found herself drawn to the children in an asylum. Observing them, she realized that due to the lack of any toys or any objects available for them to hold in their hands, they were meeting that need by handling crumbs on the floor after meals. “There existed for these poor creatures, she realized, one path and one only towards intelligence, and that was through their hands.” As she spent more time with them, always studying and observing, “it became increasingly apparent to her that mental deficiency was a pedagogical problem rather than a medical one.”
Maria began studying the works of Jean Itard, a French doctor who focused on deaf mutes, and Edouard Seguin, a French doctor who focused on mentally handicapped children. After giving a series of lectures on the topic of mentally handicapped children being entitled to the benefits of education, a new school was started specifically for those children. As director of the school, Maria spent two years spending all day with the children, then analyzing, reflecting, and making materials late into the night. Under her skillful direction, a number of these children “learned to read and write so well that they were able to present themselves with success at a public examination taken together with normal children.”
Maria, however, wasn’t satisfied. She reflected, “Whilst everyone else was admiring my [mentally handicapped children], I was searching for the reasons which could keep back the healthy and happy children of the ordinary schools on so low a plane that could be equaled in tests of intelligence by my unfortunate pupils… I became convinced that similar methods applied to normal children would develop and set free their personality in a marvelous and surprising way.”
Come back on Friday and I’ll tell you about the opportunity she had to test out those convictions, what she did in the 7 years prior to that, and how that led to the Montessori schools that are so popular today.
*I got pretty much all of this information from the book Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work by E.M. Standing. Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from that book.