On August 31st 1870, Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle in the province of Alcona, Italy to father Alessandro Montessori and mother Renilde Stoppani Montessori. Her father, being a soldier, had old-fashioned ideas, conservative manners and apparent military habits. Her mother, Renilde Stoppani, was a bright well-educated woman. Being a well-read person, she also encouraged Maria to do the same. For Renilde it was important for girls to have a good education. With Renilde’s influence, Maria started to enjoy her studies and showed interest in mathematics.
Renilde was always a friend and confidante who understood her daughter’s passion for education. She always supported her decisions and ambition. Between them was a special relationship, until her death in 1912. By the time Maria was twelve, her family moved to Rome for better education than what was offered in Ancona. Soon, she would be graduating from primary school and she was thinking more and more about her future. For most girls in Italy in the 1800’s primary school was as far as their education went, but Maria wanted to continue her studies.
She entered a technical school for boys with the intention of becoming an engineer. This was unusual at the time as most girls who pursued secondary education studied the classics rather than going to technical school. Maria’s plans were always rejected by her father, being a conservative man who followed the norms of the society at that time. After a while, Maria had some change of heart regarding her studies and finally decided to become a doctor instead. She believed that her calling was medicine.
Alessandro was appalled and confused by his daughter’s decision. He wanted Maria to be a teacher just like the other young women. At that time, a woman doctor was shocking and unheard of in society. Strong-willed as she was, she opposed the decision of her parents and joined the University of Rome. Once again, Renilde sided with Maria. Although Alessandro did not forbid Maria to study medicine, he never approved of it. Maria defied her father and the conservative Italian society and studied science. She knew she would be facing the biggest challenge of her life.
Being the only woman in school, earning the respect of the other students was difficult but she was not about to let these men get in her way. One winter, she braved the snowstorm to attend a lecture only to find out that she was the only student there. The professor, impressed by her determination, gave the lecture anyway. Once, another student behind her kept on kicking the back of her chair, Maria gave him an angry look and said, “I must be immortal or a look like that would have killed me. ” Maria was motivated most of the time but there were times when she felt discouraged by the taunting and teasing, among other things.
She faced many obstacles that sometimes she wondered if it was worth it. Maria’s ordeal of dissecting human bodies made it worse for her when she had to do it alone at night. It was improper back then for a woman to study a body and it’s organs in the company of men. In 1896, after six years at the university, Maria was nearing the end of her studies. Like all medical students, Maria delivered her lecture and at the end was applauded by the entire senior class. This was the day Maria would not forget as she saw her father who stood in the audience, clapping with them.
At the age of 25, Maria earned her medical degree and the title of ‘dottoressa ‘ at the University of Rome. She was the first female doctor in Italy. Dr. Maria Montessori’s first appointment was as an assistant doctor in the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome, where she worked with mentally challenged children. Dr. Montessori, with her kind heart and pity for these children, became very much involved with them. During one visit to the asylums, Maria saw that children would crawl around the floor looking for crumbs of food that had fallen there.
She observed the bare walls and carefully watched the children. She came up with the thought that the children are not really looking food because they were still hungry but because they wanted something to touch or look at. Her observation and regular contact with the unfortunate children convinced her that the problem of handling these so-called defectives was as much one of instructional method as of medical treatment. She was convinced that the children in the asylum could be helped. They were educable despite of their condition.
Dr. Montessori ended up educating herself to the works of two Frenchmen, Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin who believed that even the mentally challenged people could be educated. In 1898, she was appointed director of the State Orthophrenic School in Rome. Throughout this year, she continued to give lectures and wrote articles on idiocy. She continued her research and studies to help deficient children and her work paid off. The children made tremendous progress, and even passed state examinations to the surprise of all. While hese children enjoyed great success, Maria was concerned at the lack of progress of many normal children. She thought that if children with these problems had attained such a level, she felt that many normal children should be reaching higher levels. This drove her to a deeper research into the matter and she went back the University of Rome pursuing her study on psychology and philosophy. In 1904, she was appointed as professor of anthropology at the university. She was eager to try out her teaching methods on children of normal intelligence, and in 1906 she got the chance. The Italian government put Dr.
Montessori in charge of a slum school in the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome which had children aged three to six from poverty-stricken families. The children were scribbling on walls in corridors and causing mischief while their parents were at work and their older siblings were at school. They needed someone to keep the children occupied and out of mischief. Maria readily gave up her job at the university and established a school on the 6th of January, 1907 and named it ‘Casa dei Bambini’ meaning Children’s house. She put many different activities and other materials into the children’s environment.
To be able to do her other duties, Dr. Montessori hired someone to take charge of the classroom. She had carpenters build child sized school chairs and desks to make them comfortable for learning. In the room, everything was adapted to the children’s size and perspectives. She had low sinks put in so they could wash themselves. She replaced the locked cupboards with open shelves low enough for the children to reach. Dr. Montessori observed that if children have an orderly place to work and learn they take great pride in it and care well for the learning tools.
They are able to sit quietly and learn for long periods of time- far longer than in normal everyday settings. Children in a Casa dei Bambini made extraordinary progress and soon five year olds were writing and reading. Dr. Montessori’s new approach drew the whole world’s attention to Casa Dei Bambini and visitors arrived to see for themselves how she was achieving such results. The result of her work was being heard of and written in papers, first in Italy then in other countries. One of them was in the McClures Magazine in the Unites States.
The millionaire, McClure even offered to put up an institution solely for Dr. Montessori’s use, but was only declined by the latter. She did not want to compromise what she had started in Italy and be tied down to other international undertakings. A conflict between Dr. Montessori and Eduardo Talamo (the director/engineer of the housing project) resulted to the former leaving the tenement which Talamo managed. Dr. Montessori got her own apartment and built two rooms for the children. She established Montessori classrooms in her own residence. By 1909, there were five Casa dei Bambini operating.
In the same year, Dr. Montessori gave her first training courses. Her notes from this period developed into The Montessori Method. In 1912, after the death Renilde, Dr. Montessori was reunited with her fifteen year-old son, Mario, who was born out of wedlock and had to be sent away at a young age. Being an unmarried mother at that time was an scandalous thing and would have ruined Dr. Montessori’s public image and career forever. From that day on, Mario went with her on most of her travels. There was a period where Dr. Montessori was occupied with travelling, public speaking and giving lectures.
At this point in time, she was rubbing elbows with quite influential people in the society. In the United States she delivered twelve speeches, one of which was at Carnegie Hall. In 1915, the year of the San Francisco World Exhibition was an opportunity for Dr. Montessori to present her method and be well-known. A Montessori class was conducted in a room called ‘glass room’ which was specially constructed for people who wanted to view how Dr. Montessori worked with the children. Her training course for teachers in California was well attended. She was not alone.
A small group of women of uncommon devotion lived with Dr. Montessori. Among them, Anna Maccheroni and Adelia Pyle were instrumental in spreading and implementing Dr. Montessori’s ideas. On the same year, the first Montessori school in Spain was established. Following the success of her first international training course, she travelled the world lecturing and training more teachers. Mario was always there to accompany her even after he married and had children. In 1929, the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) was founded to oversee the training of teachers. Dr.
Montessori and Mario embarked for India in 1939 to give a training course. They were not to return for seven years. India became their home until after the war ended in 1946. With the outbreak of war, as Italian citizens, Mario was detained as a prisoner and Maria was held on house arrest. Dr. Montessori’s stay in India gave birth to the idea of ‘cosmic education’ – an approach to children in the second plane of development. On her 70th birthday she requested to the Indian government that her son Mario be released and to rejoin her. This wish was granted and they were given permission to travel around India.
Together they trained more teachers in India before they returned to Holland and to the grandchildren (Mario, Jr. , Renilde and Marlena) who had spent the years in the care of Ada Pierson. Ada was a special person in Mario’s life whom he had met in London in 1936. Even in her later years, Dr. Montessori continued travelling around the world writing and teaching her method with the same enthusiasm and energy, with Mario as her constant companion. What followed was a succession of international accomplishments: 1946 – gave courses in London and Scotland -“Education for a New World” was published 947 – Operation Montessori was established in Italy – 40th Anniversary of Casa dei Bambini was celebrated – Montessori Center was established in London – She returns to India 1948 – Publication of “Discovery of the Child”, “To Educate Human Potential” and “What You Should Know About Your Child” 1949- Dr. Montessori receives Cross of Legion of Honor in France -International Congress was held in San Remo -“Absorbent Mind” was published 1950- Dr. Montessori was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize -“Formation of Man” was published 1951- International Montessori Congress held in London
She died in Noordwijk-on-Sea in Holland on May 6th 1952 at the age of eighty-one. Even after her death, Mario continued what Dr. Montessori had begun. He continued conducting the training courses. And today, schools everywhere have been influenced in some way by Dr. Maria Montessori’s work. Her legacy lives on. Bibliography: •AMI Training Handouts •AMI Training Lecture 2010, MTTC of NC •“Education: Return of Montessori,” Time Magazine, 3 February 1930, 2 October 2010 http://www. time. com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,738569-2,00. html. •Standing, E. M.. Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work. New York: Penguin Group, 1998.