2 p.m. 06 January 2017
“You teach to the active mind—
which is universal.”
~Ann E. Berthoff
My first conversation with Dr. Berthoff set me at ease. Not sure where to begin, I told her the truth; I’ve loved reading her writing. It’s engaging, honest, and sometimes kind of relentless. I admire her work so much. She thanked me but wouldn’t hear much more of that. She wanted to get to business. Tell me, she said, what you’re thinking.
I have this idea that much of Dr. Maria Montessori’s work can be put to use so constructively in the teaching of writing in online spaces. I have to warn you, she said, I’m going to be skeptical. She laughed a bit and described to me an example of what she imagined when thinking of teachers using computers in a classroom: a teacher displays a quiz, projected from a computer onto a screen covering a white board, and students point their clickers to record their answers. In other words, the use of computers materialized a return to current-traditional, mind-numbing teaching practices. She said that in her experience, the digital “encourages either/or thinking.”
But I have such an imagination for more creative uses, I said. Describe to me an example. I paused. It would be easier if I could show you. No, she said, interrupting, my eyesight hasn’t worked for a while, you’ll need to describe an example to me and give me the details using your words, which of course you need to be able to do anyway. (Me, chuckling at myself. Fierce, demanding, and yet kind. I had expected the former, happy for the latter.) I detail for Dr. Berthoff the website “Gender Remixer” by Johnathan McIntosh and collaborators. The simple interface asks students to click and drag an advertisement clearly designed to sell a “boy’s” toy from the “Boy” column into one of two empty center boxes; then they are to click and drag an advertisement from the “Girl” column into the other center box. Students then press the green button reading “Mashup” to play the soundtrack of one of the advertisements over the muted video of the other advertisement. Students can swap video and audio for a reverse mashup. The result, I explain, is an experience that brings gender issues in advertising and children’s toys into focus; experience as opposed to lecture or text becomes the key pedagogical tool here.
But it can’t end there, she said. Oh no the most important part, I agree, is bringing students together for discussion about what they experienced. The discussion is where teachers guide students toward outcomes they articulate themselves as they explore the implications of their experiences. Ah ha! Yes, she said. I think that could work very nicely.
Okay so it wasn’t the best example, and it had nothing necessarily to do with writing, but the GUI of the “Gender Remixer” site achieves the kind of look and feel I imagine when thinking about a Montessori “didactic material” brought into the 21st century and crafted digitally. It’s the site’s multimodal nature, too, that makes it much more Montessorian, I argued. Which brought me to my question. I wondered how Ann came to learn about and take an interest in Montessori’s work.
She reached back in her memory. Well, she said, it wasn’t anything particularly interesting. Let’s see…I had a roommate back at Radcliffe, a French woman, lovely woman, Mathematician, I believe. She told me about Montessori. And over the years I kept coming across people familiar with Montessori. The thing that got me, she said, was the Casa Di Bambini and her work with the cretini*… Ann detailed an experience she had living in Italy with her young son. She recalled visiting a Montessori classroom and watching the small children lined up, marching to a sink in a very orderly way to wash their hands. Because each child performed the same movements when operating the sink, turning the faucet in a very deliberate way, the affair took on the feel of ritual, as though a strict discipline had shaped the space and the children within it. Later, she said, she visited a Montessori classroom in America and was surprised to find the children lining up to wash their hands did not perform the same ritual as the children in Rome. Ann asked about this, and the teacher told her that it was likely the faucets in Italy merely had to be turned that way to function, and of course American faucets require a different kind of operation. Of course!
Ann pointed out something that resonated so strongly with me and my studies; people misperceive order in the Montessori experience as outward “discipline” imposed on students in the classroom. I believe Kilpatrick, author of The Montessori System Examined (1913)—credited with killing Montessori in America for fifty years—made this mistake as well. To visit a Montessori classroom, particularly during the great work period, and to witness the quiet milling about, the concentrated working, of very young children so contradicts our understanding of liberty and childhood that we can’t help but misinterpret genuine, contented engagement with strict obedience.
Before we ended, well beyond the 20-minute limit she claimed she had in her (at this age…, she said), Ann marveled for a moment, steeped in a memory of being in that Montessori classroom and watching children making huge letters in the sand box. Seems to me that Ann Berthoff has long understood what resonates so strongly in me; Montessori’s understanding of the relationship between the body and learning, the essential notion that physical experience feeds imagination like nothing else (particularly for children, but for goodness sakes not limited to children), and that imagination yields genuine learning (as opposed to limited either/or thinking) makes it special. No one knew how to craft for multimodal experience intended to be employed pedagogically like Dr. Montessori.
*Dr. Montessori initially worked with “special needs” children in the asylums of Rome in the late 1800’s. Her success working with these children led her to believe her methods would work well with “normal” children and so she expanded the work of her method into the Casa dei Bambini, where she oversaw the education of children of working poor families. Montessori’s language (in The Montessori Method (1912) and other works) regarding special needs students is notably outdated.
- Vielles Annonces (2009). The Photographer’s Honey On The Telephone – February 1, 1958. Flickr: creative commons.
- amrufm (2008). A day at a Kindergarten. Flickr: creative commons.