Erica Moretti (Expert about the Montessori Method in the US)

Il metodo Montessori, insegnare agli Stati Uniti partendo dall'Italia

Jun 06, 2016 2037 ITA ENG

We will never state that Italy has to teach something to the United States, or vice versa: on the contrary, we think that, by combining their cultures, societies, and economic inheritances, the two can achieve winning goals, together. Nevertheless, this interview shows how an Italian woman has taught something to the United States, applying a method she patented years ago, and which still runs and will continue to do so in the future.

The woman we are talking about is Maria Montessori, a woman who has made of teaching her life, becoming the educator par excellence. The Montessori method trained some of the most illuminating characters, making some of them not only notorious, but also rich and famous. Being raised as a Montessori pupil – though having less fame and money than many others – I am going to interview one of the main experts of the Montessori method, Erica Moretti, teacher and educator working in New England.

Erica, who was Maria Montessori, and why, is her story such a nice Italian experience to talk about?

Maria Montessori was an Italian teacher and educator born in 1870 in Chiaravalle, Marche, who moved to Rome at the age of five. She began working very soon, raised in the international, cosmopolitan scene of Rome, where she studied medicine, and where she became one of the first women-doctors in the country.

Her career changed right after graduating. Coordinating a project in San Lorenzo, a very disadvantaged area of Rome, she began working with very unfortunate children. It is in this circumstance that Montessori began applying her method, which gave her incredible success and immediate results.

From San Lorenzo and Rome, the Montessori method gradually spread throughout Italy, and then, more slowly, throughout the world.

A few years ago, someone talked about the "Montessori Mafia". Apart from the common link "Italy-mafia" - we would gladly get rid of – we read that the Wall Street Journal wrote about successful Montessori people, who founded Google and Wikipedia, Amazon and "The Sims". What does this method consist of?

Montessori method's main points are:

First of all, the Montessori method is characterized by mixed-age classes: 0-3, 3-6, 6-12, 12-18. In this way, the pupils are encouraged to socialize and cooperate among peers. The pupil is at the center of the educational path, which is strictly individual and tightly linked to his/her own subjectivity. Therefore, a Montessori pupil fairly plays his/her own activities, employing the time s/he personally needs, according to his/her personal rhythms.

The activities we are talking about include several options, which are assigned by the teacher who draws from a precise Montessori material. This is protected by copyright and it is strictly referential to what Maria Montessori studied and developed throughout her life, respecting her interests and passions.

Moreover, the Montessori method is characterized by specific time-blocks: they are long and without breaks, usually lasting three hours. In these sessions, the pupil is free to pick the material s/he wants, taking the ideal time s/he needs. Among these activities, some are designed to discover the personal inner attitudes.

Regarding the "Montessori-Mafia" article, I think it is an interesting point, as the method is widely spreading throughout the United States. At the moment, there are many associations sponsoring it, as it proposes a valid substitution to some American educational methods. After the 1990s, and the American educational crisis, the American families have begun to look for more 'student-centered' programs, and over the new charter and the accelerated schools, the Montessori method has become, since the early 2000, one of the most accredited educational systems.

You are currently working on a paper about the spreading of the Montessori method, can you give us a preview?

The several associations sponsoring the Montessori method are being successful, as long as it achieved incredible acclaim and reverberation throughout the United States.

I worked a lot with the NCMPS – National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector – a very interesting association that seeks to gather and unify the American Montessori Society and the AMI (Association Montessori International) in order to create an international lobby which may increasingly sponsor the method in the United States. In this way, more people would have access to Montessori schools and to the scholarships issued by many foundations, such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, or the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, which sponsor student-oriented educational programs.

Not so long ago, it was founded the Montessori Leaders Collaborative, an association gathering together all the people interested in the Montessori method in the United States, and which is winning great grants to make it public and available on a wider scale. The fact that the Montessori method is a trend for those well-off families living in New York – or anywhere - is nowadays given for granted; however, what we are trying to do is to make the method available and accessible to everybody, reaching the public schools and the interest of the researchers, who should study the system and validate it. But this is gradually happening. In fact, the "Montessori Mafia" mentioned a series of articles demonstrating the effectiveness of the method in public contexts, although it did it with the common idea that what comes from Italy is usually linked to mafia.

Anyways, the principles of the Montessori method are always the same, and there is a great attention – especially by the AMI – to keep them authentic and valid. However, there are other associations that are trying to develop the method in order to conform it to the new society and its needs, such as the North American Montessori Teachers' Association and the American Montessori Society.

Among the studies I am carrying out, I got fascinated by the fact that a method invented in the outskirts of Rome in the 1900s could be applied upon many other cases in the world, in the United States for example, and this is one of the points I raised to the leaders of the Montessori Leaders Collaborative. They are working hard with an association run by Maria Montessori's niece Remilde, who invented "Educateurs sans Frontieres", a project recalling the one of the Doctors Without Borders, aimed at spreading the method in those unfortunate areas suffering from natural or war disasters. Starting from this idea, we can easily see the Montessori method applied to the suburban areas of the States, which recall the ones where the educator worked in the 1900s.

Actually, Montessori began working with unfortunate children from Rome; however, the first experimentations in the United States (1911) involved some students from well-off Hudson River New York families. She personally got to New York City in 1913, and it was her first time. As one of the first women graduating in medicine, she received warm welcomes and honors, having great acclaims on newspapers and even from the presidential family, which sent President Wilson's daughter to greet her. We even know that the President himself confirmed his presence to one of her lectures, even though, in the end, it was the Minister of Education who eventually attended it. Montessori achieved so much acclaim to be invited to hold a lecture at the Carnegie Hall, where John Dewey, Director of the Teachers College of Columbia University and one of the main American educators, introduced her and her soon sold-out event.

There are many articles in which she describes her trip on board of the transatlantic "Cincinnati". In one of these, she states: "I am in first class, whereas the Italians in seek of fortune going to the United States, they are in third class." Some American newspapers even mentioned about her dark complexion, which was one of the main characteristics usually describing the Italian immigrants. Interestingly, it was exactly in 1913 that the highest number of Italians arrived in the United States.

One of the things we found particularly interesting is the role of the mother in this method, which reminds us of the general role this figure has in the Italian upbringing system...

Montessori was initially called to create an institute where keeping some children "busy", while the parents, mostly poor, were mainly at work. However, the main point was to keep them quite, avoiding to damage the new building, which had been just renovated. It was her, Montessori, who took advantage of this circumstance to start a pedagogical educational method, though San Lorenzo was poor and lacking of any resource.

In the first pages of the book "Il metodo Montessori" (The Montessori Method), 1909, we are told about the way the children acquired what she called the "grace of the movements" ("la grazia dei movimenti"). This signified the capacity to freely move into a didactic context, conveying a sense of grace, and totally respecting the classmates; a principle which began in class and that was then transported back home.

For instance, after learning about cleaning and washing the hands before and after a meal, the child returned home transferring the teaching, thus changing his/her attitude and yet the one of his/her family, having a wide, general positive improvement.

Therefore, Montessori insisted upon the necessity of a collaboration with the family – given for granted now, in 2016, but which was much more difficult back then, in the 1900s-. Thus, the mother was a focal point of the method, as she still is in the more contemporary experiments – i.e. the ones by the NCMPS – as she seems the one mediating between the class and the disadvantaged neighborhoods in which the method is being applied.

Were there particular relationships between Maria Montessori and the community of Italian immigrants living in the States?

At first, Montessori did not work a lot with the community of Italian-Americans. However, when she met Angelo Patri, one of the main Italian-American educators working in New York and particularly in the Bronx, her method permeated into these circles and began instructing some children belonging to the Italian-American community.

You are an Italian who studied in Italy and who has been teaching for 12 years Italian Language and Culture in the States. What are the main differences between the Italian and American primary educational systems?

America is huge, and inside the United States there are some very interesting methods I would use to raise my sons, even. For instance, in Brooklyn there are two schools which adopt the Reggio Emilia method; the Montessori method schools are a lot in New York, and hence it depends on the context. Even here, where I live, in the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, there are many and many Montessori schools.

In the American public schools the main focus is on scores and scorings. Some families, which are more oriented towards a more alternative education, more focused on their sons' creativity, they try to avoid this.
Therefore, it is difficult to talk about United States, as the educational programs and methods are many: the systems change depending on the district, whereas in Italy there is a uniform national program unifying the country. Therefore, a high-school program in Rome is exactly the same of one in Milan. This structure somehow unifies the education system.

Is there any element you would transfer from a system (Italian-American) into another, and vice versa?

In the United States there is a common sense of openness while experimenting new pedagogical methods: there is lots of interest and enthusiasm. There are many "think thank" which have observed and developed the Reggio Emilia method, for example, and this is interesting. Unfortunately, in Italy there is not the same openness towards new methods coming from abroad. Certainly, this comes from the fact that the U.S is a country made up of immigrants; therefore it should supposedly be more open to these changes...

Therefore, I wonder whether Italy may find or not advantageous an opening to new foreign educational innovations.

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