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How Education Really Happens
January 25, 2007 - 8:37am

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My mom was a teacher. What’s more—and it is more, since not all teachers are the same—she had an intense curiosity and so was a perpetual student herself. But in the way that a deeply spiritual person may not care for organized religion, she didn’t trust schools’ rules and rituals, or even some of my teachers, whom she’d observed as a colleague.

My own memories of public school are somewhat twisted. There was the boy in kindergarten who locked himself inside a cabinet and yelled he was going to cut off his pingle-dingle with a plastic toy knife. Or the kid who told me, as we began naps on adjoining mats, that he was Superman. When I doubted him, he presented his card. He was, it turned out, Superman, and I learned the importance of documentation.

Once I started telling these stories to my mom, I got to stay home “sick” a lot. So, while my peers were memorizing the state birds, or low-crawling in terror from the P.E. coach, a Korean-War veteran (“Get your butt down or somebody’ll shoot it off!”), I was sitting in a tent I’d made under the dining room table, pretending to be mountain man Jim Bridger and poring over books on the West. Then I went outside and used the hose nozzle to drill dozens of symmetrical holes in the yard for colonies of grateful black ants.

At the same age, Mrs. Churm was a Montessori student, and now she’s neither an adjunct nor a blogger. I never knew much about the Montessori method, other than images of precocious violinists, until she talked about it. Two years ago we placed our elder son, Starbuck, in one of their schools, based on her recommendation, a site visit, and the lack of a real alternative.

Most of what I’ve learned since has come from parent-teacher meetings and informational sessions. The simplicity and repetition of what we’re told feels more like myth-building than rationale. The pedagogical method, they say, was invented by Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman physician in Italy. She had no classroom materials for a building full of waifs and urchins she wanted to educate, so she took her own scarf, a discarded bookcase, 14 peanuts, and a can of machine oil (could that be right?), and started the teaching method that celebrated its hundredth anniversary this year. Princes William and Harry, Katherine Graham, and P. Diddy are all alums, we’re told.

I do, of course, like the basic ideas of children as competent beings; of self-esteem and mutual respect; of the mind having sensitive periods in which natural interests lead to skills and understanding. And their method relies on sensorial learning, the hand as the tool of the mind, which reminds me of Thoreau’s charming statement that if he wanted a boy to learn metallurgy, for instance, he would have him make “his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as necessary for this.”

But the Montessori school feels oddly rule-bound to me, too. It’s hard to say why. There is a ban on sugar. On a kid’s birthday, he or she only gets to light a candle and walk around a circle of other kids while they sing or chant or something. That’s a relief if you’ve ever been on a daycare’s weekly regimen of birthday cakes and high-fructose punch. But the days of Montessori’s three, four, and five-year olds are quite structured, and they’re held to an intense neatness—which doesn’t make it home, by the way. And did the Montessori have to give its brisk, efficient administrator the title of “Directress”?

Montessori provides only daycare in the afternoons for pre-K kids, but it’s still structured play and group activities. It would be a long day for anybody, and I used to love picking up Starbuck. I walked down the long hallway from the entrance, looking into classes on both sides through two-way mirrors, and entered his room. Another kid always said, “Starbuck, your daddy’s here!” and he’d look over and yell “Daddyyyyyy!” and run into my arms. I picked him up, twirled and kissed him, and other kids dropped what they were doing and gathered around my knees. I made faces and asked ridiculous questions and answered reasonable ones, and everybody went nuts and began running around the room, throwing off their painting smocks and wrestling over the last salt-free pretzels.

One night, shortly after one of these liberations, Mrs. Churm, Starbuck, Wolfie (our one-year old son) and I were having dinner and talking about our days. Mrs. Churm said a new policy had been announced at the Montessori. Parents must not go into classrooms to pick up their children. The proper procedure was to crack the door open just enough to get the teacher’s eye, then to close the door and wait quietly in the hall for the delivery of the child.

I felt guilty that I was probably the problem for which they’d had to find a mature solution, but I couldn’t help thinking that when I was Starbuck’s age, I spent my days at home, climbing as high as I dared in our maple and inventing tiger traps (cardboard box and American cheese) to catch our many cats.

It slipped out. “Yeah?” I said. “I’m gonna call Crazy Larry [an actor friend] and get him over here. We’ll dress up in fool costumes and lead a marching band through that place.”

Mrs. Churm looked at Starbuck, who was thinking about what he’d just learned. “Yeah,” he said. “We’re gonna dress up like fools and go marching through that place.” He grinned hugely.

“Nice job,” Mrs. Churm said to me.

I wait for the phone to ring, summoning me to the Directress’s office...

 

 

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