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Reflections of a Montessori Child

The following article was written by Mary Gutting Matthews in 1993 while undertaking the AMI primary training course from the Montessori Training Center of St. Louis.

This article was published in Communications, 1993/4 and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Mary Gutting Matthews.


As a student of French literature, one of the works I am most familiar with is Marcel Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu", a long novel that is actually a series of seven books. The protagonist's flow of recollection begins in the first book when he takes a bite of cake whose taste transports him back to his childhood. My experience of the Montessori training was much the same.

I am the daughter of a Montessori directress and was a Montessori child myself. I have always remembered that time with great affection; indeed, it was the only time that I really enjoyed school. Beyond a few instances, however, I cannot recollect much of the three years I spent in the Children's House.

When I began the training in August, 1992 1 found it immediately stimulating. Montessori has been part of my life in the intervening years. My mother, who trained in Dublin and came to St. Louis to open a Montessori school, has always lived out Montessori's approach to the child. "Control of error" was a familiar concept, since she applied it by drawing a map and also telling me two landmarks when I went out. In elementary school, I had had to explain many times why I hadn't gone to kindergarten, and what I had done instead. Therefore, unlike most of my classmates, I did not experience that joy of discovery about the "rightness" of Montessori at the beginning of the training. Instead, it was a confirmation of what I had always felt; none the less joyful, but different.

I had felt fairly confident about my knowledge of Montessori when I entered the training. After all, it was in my blood. Not only that, I had just come from eight months of work at my mother's school. Asked to take over a floundering school the year before, she had invited me to be her secretary. I wrote newsletters, investigated state regulations, and grew fairly expert at fielding phone calls and talking to visitors. When I left in August, we had increased the enrollment by one-third and had applied for AMI recognition. I was aware that I did not know it all, but I could put across the general principles quite glibly.

Within a week of beginning the training, I was ashamed of myself. I felt that with only the knowledge garnered in that week, I could have done a thousand fold better job of answering the phone during the previous year. Annette Haines, our Trainer, told us that a directress must put away pride and clothe herself in humility. I realised that that was the first thing I had to do.

We began with the exercises in practical life. I immediately noticed their calming effect on me. However, it was not a new feeling - I recognized it! Like Proust, I knew that I had tasted this before. I enjoyed our daily practice sessions. Like everyone else, I worried about writing the logical sequence of steps and creating a perfect drawing, but I loved to practice. The dry, swishing sound of pouring grain soothed my spirit and slowed my normally quick movements. I washed my hands every day, and re-experienced the challenge of remembering a long sequence of steps to produce a pleasing result. I could recollect my pleasure with rock-washing and was secretly disappointed when we were advised not to have it in the classroom. Yet the past was part of the present and moved into the future. For the first time, I thought about how my movements and posture appeared to other people. I delved into the full, rich theoretical basis of the exercises and integrated it with my knowledge of biology. I began to respect Montessori as a scientist.

In no time, we began our sensorial work. Every piece of the apparatus was dear to me, although all I remembered doing with it was building an ambitious combination of the Pink Tower and Broad Stair. I loved mixing up all the cylinders and replacing them. To my surprise, I was quite good at it. I also found that I could rebuild the trinomial cube in seconds, and had to concentrate on slowing down. Upon further reflection, I realised that my 'prowess' was not surprising at all. It was merely an awesome proof of what I had absorbed during the first plane of development.

The presentations were given interspersed with lectures. In these I found much food for thought. As we learned about the child's social development, I compared Montessori's observations with my own memories of the Casa dei Bambini. Indeed, as she said, I had been interested only in myself. I could not remember any particular friend, other than the children in our carpool. My feeling about that time is that I was absorbed in my work. I had no idea what, or how, the other children were doing; I was content with what I was doing. It was a surprise to me when I was labelled 'smart' in first grade and encountered the competitive atmosphere of the local school. Now that I have rational knowledge of the difference in outlook, I am astounded that I was able to cope. However, my self-construction had been sound enough that I could deal competently with my now environment.

I kept in mind Montessori's stress on the directress' spiritual preparation, on casting a ray of light and passing on. By the time Mrs. Haines discussed the role of the directress, we were observing children. I watched them carefully, and I saw how much time they spent engaged in independent work. I soon realised that I could not recall any of the directresses from my childhood, and with good reason - I had paid no attention to them. I knew their names but could not conjure up their presences, although l could remember being shown the bank game, for example. What a selfless act it is to guide someone who will probably forget you! Could I forego pride and accept that? The days flew by and we began the language materials. Here I felt more comfortable than ever. Language has always been my love. Eventually I studied French at the University of Chicago, and after graduation I learned Spanish and a smattering of German. As we worked through the presentations, I saw how that love had been engendered during my three years in Montessori.

There was a bitter pill to swallow, however. We spent the final week on reading analysis, and I knew once we did it that I had never been shown that before. Moreover, I felt that I would have loved it. I was lucky enough to have grammar presented fairly early for a traditional school, at age eight, and as a language student good knowledge of grammar was imperative. I had no difficulty understanding the presentations, but I felt cheated. I do not think that I was ever given any of the functional reading games, and certainly not sentence analysis. Instead, in my school I spent that time doing workbooks and going through the corresponding readers. It was not all bad: I never lost my love of reading, I wrote a great many stories, and I had the superior advantage of informing my first grade teacher that I had already finished her series of readers. (It took several days to convince her.) But I wondered how much more I could have learned at a time when I was so sensitive to language.

We began our student teaching on the day that we began mathematics. I knew the children already, since I had observed them at the beginning of the year, and I was eager to be active in the room. To the smallest children I was a stranger again, but the older ones welcomed me. Although I expected a change in the children, the difference of just three months amazed me. It was easy to see the older children passing into the second plane of development; several quiet ones had become very talkative, and spontaneous collaborative projects sprang up frequently. The younger children chose pouring and spooning activities less often and did much more sensorial work. I was lucky enough to have several new children enter the class at about the time I started teaching, and so had the opportunity to give many initial practical life presentations.

During the observation period, a small boy had introduced me to his mother by saying, "This is Mary. She watches us work." I had not told him what I was doing, but he had absorbed and understood it. Now, the children understood that I was taking on a new role, which they accepted without questions. I worked under a wonderful directress who gave me a great deal of latitude in making decisions about presentations. My personal objective, of course, was to give as many lessons as possible in our limited teaching time. However, I realised that it was not entirely up to me; I could only present what the children needed! As the weeks went by, I saw that their needs varied so widely that I would have the opportunity to do almost everything.

Just as the children accepted me, so they accepted the presentations: without questions and with enjoyment. I was almost frightened at the startling ease of giving a classic lesson. It was so quickly absorbed - words were obviously superfluous. Adults in a child's life have immense power since they establish the environment which the child will incarnate by age six. I did not need reminding to humble myself. I was humbled daily by the powers of the absorbent mind and by the unquestioning love and trust of the children. In such an environment had I myself worked, accepting the guidance of a trained adult. I have always felt fortunate to have been a Montessori child; now I began to think that 'fortunate' was not a strong enough word.

Mrs. Haines had promised us that the Montessori materials would demystify mathematics forever. I had never disliked math, but neither was it a favourite subject. As we followed the sequence of the materials, I delighted in their ingenuity and careful sequence. I chortled over the work charts and their deceptive, yet straightforward, way of teaching math facts. The very logic of all the materials appealed to my own mathematical mind. At the university, I had known and loved the work of French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. Montessori drew the concept of the mathematical mind from Pascal. In his essay "De l'esprit géométrique" Pascal states, "Thus there are properties common to everything, the knowledge of which opens the mind to the greatest wonders of nature ". I felt that this phrase summed up the philosophy of the mathematics materials.

As I learned the materials, I was able to give many presentations to the children. I admired the simple effectiveness of the number rods. I saw that the exercises with them, which seemed so easy to me, required a great deal of work and repetition for the 31/2 year-old. It was impossible to present one, two, and three the first day and move quickly to ten. As I thought about it, I realised the depth of the concept of number. 'Oneness' and 'twoness' are not ideas to be understood in a day. On the other hand, work which seemed tricky to me, such as the division stamp game, was easily received and understood by the older children.

Because I had a good understanding of math, demystification did not occur until the very end: long division with the racks and tubes. I loved that lesson because it made blindingly clear why one subtracts underneath the dividend in long division. I was so pleased and grateful - grateful to the material. At that moment, I recalled the words of a six-year-old in my class. I had done a decimal system long division game, which the children had loved. When I finished student-teaching, the class made a booklet for me with pictures and messages. One boy had written, "Thank you for giving me the long division bank game". Those few words had pierced me by iterating the essence of my job, to put the child in touch with the materials he needs to construct himself. My flash of insight with the racks and tubes helped me understand even better Tony's words of thanks. That surge of joy and gratitude which comes from comprehension I recognized as familiar from my childhood in Montessori. I felt a deep connection between the children I had taught and the child I used to be.

Now the year is winding down and my class is preparing for exams. This time has been very rewarding to me. However, I feet that the real excitement is yet to come - only in the classroom next year, guiding the children, will I know what it means to be a directress. My goal is to experience the transformation which Montessori discussed in The Absorbent Mind: to be able to say, "I have served the spirits of those children, and they have fulfilled their development, and I kept them company in their experiences".

© Mary Gutting Matthews