The managing editor of The Catholic Thing reports on the only parochial school in the country based entirely on the principles of Catholic educator Maria Montessori.
Siena Academy, the school of St. Catherine of Siena Church in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., is reputed to be the only parochial school in the United States operated according to the principles of education and child development laid down by the Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori early in the last century.
Father Alexander Drummond, the parish priest at St. Catherine’s, summed up the distinctive features of Montessori education.
“Maria Montessori used to point to a Raphael painting of the Madonna and Child, and say it should be in every Montessori school, because it expressed what Montessori education is about – the tenderness of a mother and child.”
Father Drummond praised the practical qualities of Montessori education.”The Montessori method takes more of a hands-on approach, dealing with concepts in a tactile way,” he said.
Father Drummond, himself a former Montessori teacher, and the son of Montessori teachers, emphasizes the Catholic character of Montessori education:
“Montessori herself was a very strong Catholic. A shortcoming in many Montessori schools is that they are not Catholic, but they were founded to be Catholic.”
According to Siena Academy Principal Maggie Radzik, past popes, such as St. Pius X and his successor, were also Montessori fans.
“Benedict XV said that all Catholic schools should be Montessori. He asked Maria Montessori to draw up a universal syllabus for Catholic schools. But he fell ill and died before he could implement it.”
Radzik said a more recent pope was also a fan of Montessori education.
Pope John Paul II visited a Montessori school in Rome early in his pontificate. He stopped at the door of one classroom while the young children were at work.
“He watched the children for 30 minutes,” Radzik said. “The Holy Father’s comment was, ‘That is the most beautiful homily I have ever witnessed.'”
Siena Academy, located in Great Falls, Virginia, had its origins with an atrium, a program offering the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd – the Montessori approach to teaching religion – that began with 20 children in 2002, meeting once a week. The next year the number had risen to 100.
In the fall of 2004, a full-fledged Montessori school for children aged 3 to 6 opened. In 2006 the school began to admit children through the age of 12. It now offers the equivalent of pre-K through sixth-grade.
Siena Academy has four full-time teachers who have completed formal Montessori training. It also has three trained catechists of the Good Shepherd.
Montessori education has a broader focus than the usual concentration on the three Rs found in conventional schools. And it begins at an earlier age.
The “children’s house,” the first stage of Montessori education, is for children aged three to six.
The students at the children’s house level learn not only the usual school subjects, like geography and natural history, but they also spend time on lessons in “practical life” – washing tables and dishes, preparing snacks, caring for plants, polishing silver, arranging flowers.
Another component of the children’s house is “grace and courtesy” – learning how to perform an introduction, greet others, wash your hands, how to put your work away, to pull out and push in a chair.
According to Radzik, this hands-on, tactile approach has a sound philosophical basis.
“Montessori education is very Aristotelian and Thomistic,” she said. “Nothing exists in the mind that isn’t first in the senses.”
Radzik related this to another Montessori term: the “absorbent mind.”
“Nobody teaches a young child language. They absorb it. That should cause us to be in awe at the power of a young child. An eight-year-old couldn’t do it. Prior to the age of reason, the human being possesses what Maria Montessori called ‘the absorbent mind’.
There’s no limit to what the young child can take in through the senses.”
Which Radzik said has certain corollaries: “Young children don’t have the power of abstraction or logic. The absorbent mind is a non-judgmental mind. Whatever’s in their environment is right and good. That’s why it’s important for parents to allow in their children’s environment only what’s right and good.”
Radzik has definite opinions about what is right and good.
“The [young child’s] absorbent mind is a reality-based mind. If adults introduce fantasy before the age of reason, it can be very damaging. They do not need to be sitting watching videos about the saints or anything else on television. They should be feeling the grass, watching an earthworm, digging in the dirt. TV may be captivating, but as a medium, it’s not good for young children.”
Montessori schools make use of “prepared environments” – yet another peculiarly Montessori term – in their classrooms. The children wash dishes at miniature sinks. They prepare snacks and serve them at child-sized tables.
Radzik thinks the Montessori approach is on the verge of becoming much more widespread.
“Maria Montessori was 100 years ahead of her time,” said Radzik. “I think it’s going to happen now. People who really get the Theology of the Body see its connection to Montessori education.”
Radzik is unapologetic in preferring Montessori education to conventional methods.
“The way of teaching in a Montessori school is Catholic – centered on the person,” she said. “The conventional method is centered on the curriculum, not the person.”
Kathy O’Brien, a part-time teacher at Siena Academy, gave an example.
“Montessori education encourages inner control by the child, rather than external controls over the child. For example, one curriculum used in conventional education says to set a timer for children working a math lesson. That is an external control that doesn’t help inner development of the child’s will. One child may do four problems in an hour, which may be fabulous for that child. Another child may be able to do four problems in 10 minutes.”
Another member of Radzik’s staff, Trish Hogan, uses Scripture to make the point.
“The Bible says the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Schools are made for children, not the other way around. With standard education, it’s as if we’re trying to fit the child to the method. Maria Montessori didn’t even like the term ‘method.’ Her way is an approach to the child, that looks at the child’s development.”
Geneva Walker, a graduate student in the Montessori teacher’s training program at the Columbia, Md., campus of Loyola College, recently spent several days observing classes at Siena Academy. She thinks Montessori education adds a spiritual component to education.
“The methodology of Montessori education allows the teacher more leeway to focus on moral education and the needs of the particular child,” she said. “It enables children to have a passion for education, not just succeed at passing exams.”
Father Drummond, the parish priest at St. Catherine, says that parents of the children at Siena Academy are enthusiastic about the Montessori approach.
“We have a Montessori school because of the parents themselves. A committee was set up to decide if the parish should have a school. Montessori was what they wanted. People are actually moving into the area in order to send their children to a Catholic Montessori school.”
Radzik says one part of Maria Montessori’s vision remains an unrealized dream.
“Dr. Montessori wanted a community of nuns, to be called the Order of the Servants of the Children of Light, who would be Montessori teachers. We Catholics [in the Montessori movement] think that’s the missing piece.”
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was the first female medical doctor in Italy. Her biographer and longtime colleague E.M Standing contributed a forward to a 1965 edition of Maria Montessori’s book The Child in the Church, in which he wrote, “[According to Montessori], her method could only find its fullest expression when applied to the teaching of the Catholic Faith. [She considered that this method] was placed in her hands for the advancement of the Kingdom of God through its application to teaching the truths of the Catholic Faith.”
“A Natural Way of Handing on the Faith”
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
The Montessori approach to religious instruction is called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS).
Father Drummond at St Catherine’s is a big fan of the catechetical method for teaching young children.
“If there’s a natural way of handing on the Faith, that’s it,” he said.
CGS is named for the parable about the Good Shepherd, and an intrinsic part of the catechesis is a model of a sheepfold containing small statues of a shepherd and sheep. The catechist uses the model to teach the children about the Good Shepherd Who seeks out the lost sheep.
“The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd teaches children up to the age of six the love of the Good Shepherd, not rules and doctrine,” said Maggie Radzik. “Maria Montessori said children are born in love with God. We give them a language to express that starting at the age of 2 1/2. At the age of six, you introduce the Eucharistic presence, by replacing the figures of the sheep with statues of persons and the one of the shepherd with a priest.”
The children are then catechized about the Mass.
The most important element of Montessori catechesis for children from seven to twelve, according to Radzik, is the parable of the vine. “It introduces confession,” she said. “‘Remain in me’ – if we get separated from the vine, how do we get re-attached? You have a real grape vine so that children can see that vine and branches are one.”
According to Radzik, the late John Cardinal O’Connor of New York was a big CGS supporter: “He said it is the preferred method of catechesis before the age of seven.”
The pioneer of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia – where Siena Academy is located – was Marilyn Krause, now religious education director at Good Shepherd Parish in Alexandria. She started a CGS program in 1986.
Her discovery of CGS came about for personal reasons.
She said that attending Mass with her then-pre-school age children was an “occasion of sin.” Every week at Mass they became unruly, and wanted to leave before it was over.
She found out about CGS and began training as a Good Shepherd catechist at a Montessori school in Maryland where CGS was used.
“I observed the three-, four- and five-year-olds there, and what they knew was extraordinary,” Krause said.
She then taught her own children about the Mass using the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and was delighted by the results.
“The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd allowed my children to be connected to what was going on at the liturgy, at a very early age – especially when we sat up front where they could see.”
Susan Doyle, a long-time special education teacher in the Alexandria, Virginia, public schools, is now director of religious education at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Alexandria, where CGS is offered for three- to six-year-old children. She has quickly become an admirer of the approach.
“The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd promotes a real contemplative experience for children,” said Doyle.
“Every time Scripture is read, the catechist lights a candle, which develops a sense in the young children that the Word of God is different from other other readings. They also use beautiful materials that cultivate a sense of beauty in the children. It appeals to all their senses in keeping with the development of the child.
“The Infant of Prague room in our building houses the atrium – which is the perfect place.”
“Atrium” is one of the many terms and phrases used in Montessori education that has a specialized, technical sense. Radzik explained the meaning and function of the atrium.
“In the early Church, the atrium was the name for the room in a church building where catechumens received instruction before joining the Church,” Radzik said.
“Maria Montessori made use of the name. The atrium is the heart of a Montessori school. It is a prepared environment that initiates the child into the life of the Church and personal prayer, based on the child development principles developed by Maria Montessori. One member of the school community said that a Montessori school without an atrium is like a church without a tabernacle.”
The atrium holds religion materials used in teaching the children – a miniature altar, chasuble, chalice, liturgical calendar. It contains three-dimensional models of the land of Israel and of Jerusalem at the time of Christ, used in teaching quite young children about His life. The word atrium is used not only to refer to a room, but is also used as a synonym for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which takes place in that room.
Blessed John XXIII spoke of good shepherds, in the Church and in the Montessori school: “It is possible to see a clear analogy between the mission of the shepherd in the Church and that of the prudent and generous educator in the Montessori method, who with tenderness, with love and with a wise evaluation of gifts, knows how to bring to light the most hidden virtues and capacities in the child.”
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