Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Montessori Mayhem and Mrs. Janaro

It's that time of year again.

The beginning of a new school year at the John XXIII Montessori Children's Center. That means more than the usual chaos at the Janaro household. Mrs. Janaro is the teacher of the elementary program at the center, and three of the Janaro children are among her students. And, of course, a fourth Janaro child is in the primary program, for ages 3-6.

This means that, in the past few days, routines have been changing and a heroic work of preparation has been carried out.

First, perhaps I should say something about the nature of a Montessori educational program, or the "Montessori method"--this very particular way of creating and fostering the conditions and providing the guidance for a child's encounter with reality and Truth.

I am hardly the most competent person to explain this. My wife should really be writing this part. Let me try, however, to give some broad idea based on my own observations which are "from the outside," so to speak.

Developed by the Italian educator Maria Montessori in the early part of the twentieth century, the Montessori method involves designing the classroom as an environment with many different activities organized into different areas. The teacher gives lessons to individuals or groups of students on different "work" and then the kids do the work and even make progress in it at their own pace. The emphasis is on the child's particular way of learning, and his being engaged and interested by different activities in a way that gives him a real sense of freedom while at the same time having a lot of structure built into the environment and the guidance of the teacher (who moves from child to child or group to group in the classroom).

There is a lot of "hands on" stuff for math and science, geography, history, writing, and plenty of reading in conjunction with experimental stuff. Always the kids are experimenting and getting into things with their eyes, ears, hands and then drawing out the concepts. And it's very quiet and very organized in the classroom of 30+ kids.

Montessori kids tend to develop into creative, self-motivated learners who are open to reality. I see it in my own kids. Josefina has a really constructive way of playing. The other kids are always educating themselves, and interested in knowing and seeing and touching things, and taking on responsibilities. And they have all the elementary level subject matter so that when they finish the program at age 12-13, they are ready to go into High School (which is what John Paul is doing now--so far so good).

Since the stability of the environment is so important, a very important part of a teacher's work takes place before the first class begins. The environment must be organized, attractive and in good condition. There must be a plan to help accustom new students to the method. The established and "authoritative" nature of the classroom environment must be set firmly and adequately manifest, so that it will draw the interest of the student from the very first day.

This means that immediate preparation for that first day can be heck!

Poor Eileen. She was up until 5:00 in the morning, grabbed less than two hours of sleep, and then was off with the kids in tow for the first day. Since John XXIII is such a small enterprise, my wife does everything she can personally to make sure that the classroom and the students have what they need. This year she sewed new and larger pouches for 30+ kids, assembled their binders, made laminated name cards for each one, night after night while the lights stayed on even later than they usually do at the Janaro home.

After all this sleep deprivation, she also must act on the first morning as the Mommy of several students who, during the summer, have forgotten the routine of school life. The exhausted Mommy takes the children to school with her. Many hours later she returns from the battle to lie down for an hour or so and then get up and provide mother-love to her own little ones who were among her students earlier that day. No matter what Daddy may do, there is no substitute--in the end--for a mother to bring into the environment of the home the attentiveness necessary to make it a place where truth and love have space to flourish and boundaries to lead them in the right direction.

It is a day that leaves me with a sense of awe and gratitude. I cannot express the depth of my appreciation for  my marvelous wife Eileen Janaro, for all she gives at the Montessori center, and then for coming home and continuing to give herself. She is a great woman!