Teaching, the Montessori way

Thursday, February 22
The term had not been coined yet, but Maria Montessori was thinking "outside of the box" a century ago when she founded the school that bears her name.

In January 1907, Montessori — Italy's first female doctor — opened an experimental school for preschoolers in a Roman slum. Today, according to www.islandmontessori.com, a Web site about Montessori education, "there is not a day care center or a kindergarten classroom in America that does not incorporate at least some of her techniques and ideas into its curriculum."

"She was far ahead of her time," said Meaghan Ledendecker, co-founder and administrator at The Montessori School of the Berkshires on Route 7 in Lenox. "The whole point (of a Montessori School) is for children to develop an internal desire to learn."

The "Montessori Method" calls for teachers to approach early education as a cooperative venture, based on the theory that children develop at different speeds. Children are treated with respect and encouraged to explore their interests at an early age.

"There is a strong emphasis on teaching the children how to find a sense of accomplishment from their own achievements," explained Robin Seeley of Richmond, whose 4-year-old son, Harrison, attends the Lenox school. "My son is almost always eager to go to school; and when we are away on vacation, he speaks often about missing the school."

Many of Montessori's most innovative ideas, such as having child-sized tables and chairs, using lively colors in teaching and utilizing developmental learning games, are commonplace in 21st-century elementary classrooms.

"I think part of the reason Dr. Montessori's system has been so successful is that she spent so long developing and refining it," said Ledendecker. "She spent a long time learning what would work for children."

Montessori's local impact

The Berkshires have a number of connections to Montessori and her teaching methods. In addition to the Lenox school, there has been a Montessori school at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge for the past 35 years. This year, administrator Paula Meade has 10 pre-kindergarten and two kindergarten students.

Meade has been running the Riggs program since its inception in 1971. The unique part of the Riggs school, said Meade, is that some of the patients act as teachers aides or helpers. She also has four other certified teachers that help at the school.

In addition, one of Montessori's most famous students, Helen Parkhurst, developed and implemented a Montessori-style educational plan at the former Dalton High School in 1916.

Parkhurst, an educator from Wisconsin, eventually relocated to New York City and in 1919, with funding from the Crane family, founded the Dalton School of New York, which is now one of the most prominent private schools in the country.

A pioneer in education

Had she not launched one of the most famous educational systems in the world, Montessori would still be regarded as a pioneer. Born in a small Italian village in 1875, she indicated an initial interest in studying engineering but eventually opted for medicine. She was accepted into the University of Rome's medical school, graduating with high honors in 1896.

Montessori began working at a children's hospital in 1897. It was here, according to the Web site, where she began developing her theories of education. Montessori's educational theories, according to her biographer, Rita Kramer, were not spun out of whole cloth. She incorporated ideas from many great thinkers of the era, such as German scholar Friedrich Froebel, the founder of kindergarten, and French physician Jean Itard, who pioneered studies in child therapy.

Montessori's early day-care centers opened in Rome in 1907. Almost immediately, her students, many of whom were considered too unruly to learn, began to make impressive strides in reading and writing. Her "Montessori Method" of teaching spread rapidly throughout Europe. She was fond of saying, "I studied my children, and they taught me how to teach them."

Montessori herself traveled throughout Europe, North America and later the Middle East, developing Montessori schools.

A majority of the Montessori Schools in the United States are private schools, but about 250 school districts across the country use the "Montessori Method" in their public schools.

The Lenox school, which opened its doors last September, almost ended up in Tennessee. Ledendecker's parents, Carl and Aleta Ledendecker, run a Montessori School there, where Meaghan Ledendecker was educated. Meaghan Ledendecker, who worked in the Pittsfield public school system for several years, explained that initially the plan was for her and her husband, Todd Covert, to relocate to that state and begin a school.

"But we loved the Berkshires, and eventually decided to try to make it work here," she said.

"Meaghan is probably the best candidate to run a Montessori school (in the Berkshires)," said Susan Strong, director of special education at the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. "She comes from a Montessori background but has a lot of experience in a public school system (in Pittsfield). I think the school will do very well."

Ledendecker's husband, a teacher in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, was instrumental in working out the financial and logistical details, said Ledendecker.

The Lenox school presently educates 30 students aged 3- to 6-years-old. Ledendecker said that next year, that number will increase to 35 students up to third grade, and, the year after that, 35 students up to the fifth grade.

That is the extent of the school's plans, said Ledendecker, although she admits that "I would love to have a middle school eventually."


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