Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Montessori-Márquez Connection—With Links!

Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Márquez died last week, and a wave of tributes has spread through the Montessori world as we recognize Márquez as one of the Celebrity Montessori Alumni, including “the Google Guys” Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham, and many more.

But I have to admit, I’m always curious about the people on this list—what was their Montessori experience actually, and how much did it influence their lives? And it’s always hard to dig down and find the source of the claim. When you google “Jeff Bezos Montessori”, you get lots of school websites claiming him, but a direct quote is harder to find.

So I wanted to see if I could piece together the Márquez-Montessori story.

Rosa Elena FergussonA lot of people quoted Márquez saying that Montessori was like “playing at being alive.” Márquez biographer Martin provides the quote, saying “García Marquez later said “it was like playing at being alive” in Gabriel García Márquez: A Life: A life. Martin reports that Márquez attended a school in Aracatca, Colombia, “named after Maria Montessori, and loosely based on her methods”, and names his teacher, Rosa Elena Fergusson, “graceful, gentle, and pretty”, and Garcia’s “first infant love.” Astonishingly, a picture of Fergusson at the time exists.

Montessori AracatacaBut Márquez himself speaks of his Montessori school in more detail in his autobiography Vivir para contarla, in English Living to Tell the Tale, calling it “the little school where I learned to read”. He continues, mentioning practical life and music, and clearly describing Montessori’s “education of the senses”:

The consolation was that during this time the Montessori school had opened in Aracataca, and its teachers stimulated the five senses by means of practical exercises, and taught singing. With the talent and beauty of the director, Rosa Elena Fergusson, studying was something as marvelous as the joy of being alive. I learned to appreciate my sense of smell, whose power of nostalgic evocation is overwhelming. And taste, which I refined to the point where I have drinks that taste of window, old bread that tastes of trunk, infusions that taste of Mass. In theory it is difficult to comprehend subjective pleasures, but those who have experienced them will understand right away.

There again is the charismatic attraction of the beautiful and talented Rosa. “Joy at being alive” is the line Martin has as “playing at being alive”. In the original, it is “jugar a estos vivos”.

Márquez talks about learning to read thanks to Montessori’s phonetic approach:

It was very hard for me to learn how to read. It did not seem logical for the letter m to be called em, and yet with some vowel following it you did not say ema but ma. It was impossible for me to read that way. At last, when I went to the Montessori school, the teacher did not teach me the names of the consonants but the sounds. In this way I could read the first book I found in a dirty chest in the storeroom of the house.

Finally, in another passage widely quoted:

I do not believe there is a method better than the Montessorian for making sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakenig their curiosity regarding the secrets of life. It has been rebuked for encouraging a sense of independence and individualism, and perhaps in my case this was true.

Rosa Elena Fergusson 2And Rosa Fergusson? The woman who taught nobel prize winner GGM to read and write passed away in 2005, well remembered in several obituaries for her role in Márquez’ life




The photo of the school comes from Montessori Communica, a Colombian blog associated with the Colegio Montessori La Calera.

A spanish-language video of Márquez speaking about Montessori, Montessori un sistema de enseñanza que marca vidas, can be found on the MontessoriAcalli YouTube channel, associated with Acalli Montessori in Mexico.


Montessori Talking Points

When they ask you, “so what is Montessori?” what do you say? If you’re like me, you’ve been trying to boil this down for years with little success. It seems like every piece is connected to every other piece, and you don’t know how to begin.

Last year the Montessori Madmen challenged us all to work on our Montessori Elevator Speeches—quick summaries of Montessori you could give in the space of an elevator ride. You’re in a hotel at a conference, and someone sees “Montessori” on your name tag and says, “Montessori? What’s that?” And you have the perfect spiel ready to roll out.

And some great pieces came out of that, still up on YouTube, including the top five winners.

But it doesn’t always work quite like that, does it? It all depends on who is on that (metaphorical) elevator with you—what floor they got on, where they’re getting off, and how long they have for the ride. Then there’s the tendency of Montessorians to go on and on. Joke:

Q: How do you get a Montessorian to talk about Montessori?

A: How do you get them to stop?

What’s really needed are Montessori Talking Points, to be tailored to the speaker, the audience, and the particular situation. So here’s my first run at them, to be adapted and improved as readers see fit. (Just try not to talk too much.)

Montessori is a method of education.

It’s a method of education, based on a model of human development, created over one hundred years ago by Maria Montessori.

In Montessori, the children choose their own work.

What the choices are, how they are presented, and with what freedoms and limits—that’s where it gets really interesting. But children choosing their own work is the central premise of Montessori education.

Montessori isn’t religious, it isn’t just for gifted children, and it isn’t just for the wealthy.

Montessori herself was Catholic, but Montessori education is secular. Montessori is about meeting children where they are, so it’s for all children. Montessori started out with “special needs” children and poor children, and serves children of all backgrounds and conditions.

Montessori happens in public and private schools, all over the world.

Montessori is the leading alternative pedagogy and operates in the U.S. in more than 500 public schools and thousands of private schools, and in tens of thousands of schools worldwide.

Montessori has mixed-age classrooms, hands-on materials, and students learning at their own pace.

Montessori pioneered many educational innovations which later became widely known, such as mixed-age classrooms, manipulatives, and student-guided learning, as well as child-sized furniture, phonics, scaffolding, student agency, learning progression, and many more.

Montessori is observation and evidence based.

Maria Montessori was a scientist and a medical doctor. She experimented, and she refined and developed her method throughout her lifetime. Modern brain and education research validate her work.

The best way to understand Montessori is to visit a school and see it in action.

If you want to know more about Montessori, many schools will let you visit a classroom for a short observation. There’s some good video available on the internet as well, but seeing it in person is best.

Montessori is education for peace.

Montessori famously said: “Preventing war is the work of politicians. Establishing peace is the work of education.” Montessori educators believe that human beings allowed to develop to their full potential are the key to a peaceful future.

There they are. That should get us started.

Here they are again, without the paragraphs of explanation—you could print them out and stick them in your wallet, even.

Montessori Talking Points

  • Montessori is a method of education.
  • In Montessori, the children choose their own work.
  • Montessori isn’t religious, it isn’t just for gifted children, and it isn’t just for the wealthy.
  • Montessori happens in public and private schools, all over the world.
  • Montessori has mixed-age classrooms, hands-on materials, and students learning at their own pace.
  • Montessori is observation and evidenced based.
  • The best way to understand Montessori is to visit a school and see it in action.
  • Montessori is education for peace.


Montessori Makes the “Meh List”

Meh ListSo, the New York Times Magazine has this thing called The One-Page Magazine which runs a feature called “The Meh List: Not Hot, Not Not, Just Meh.”  (“Meh”, Wikipedia tells us for those of us without teenagers in our lives, is “an interjection used as an expression of indifference or boredom.”)  Today’s list:

  1. Unsalted trail mix
  2. “ . . . is in talks with Yahoo”
  3. CNN ratings jokes
  4. Closure
  5. Dandelion greens
  6. Montessori schools (emphasis added)

Oh boy, are they going to get some letters! (

You can see the kind of thing it is: started in 2011, it’s meant to be a weekly hit list of the bland—snarky, cheeky, and pitched to the in-crowd. Previous “Meh-listers” include Brita filters, the Seattle Mariners, and recently—and controversially!—pizza.  Here’s a “visual encyclopedia” of 126 entries if you want to get the sense.  Of course the list itself has made the list: did you think you were the first person to think of that?

But what does it mean to make the list? For its creator, Adam Sternbergh, the list was meant

to celebrate all those things in life that exist at the top of the fat middle of the bell curve of taste: neither adored nor reviled, but, simply, meh.

Elsewhere in the magazine, it’s been described as: boring, mediocre, just not interesting – overgood, but rarely great; fine, but seldom badall that is beneath our regard, a corrective to hype, excitement or outrage over things that are ultimately unimportant, unworthy of being discussed. Really, the list’s tagline says it best: neither hot nor not.

Now I know there’s nothing to be gained by getting all worked up about how we are so not meh!, but still: How could they get us so wrong?  Montessori is rarely boring, occasionally mediocre, always interesting.  It’s good, often great, and sometimes quite bad. “Beneath our regard,” “ultimately unimportant,” and “unworthy of being discusses are unbelievably condescending to childhood, but whatever.  And Montessori is definitely hot.

But that’s not really the point—the point is that they got us at all.  If only Montessori were as widespread and uncontroversial as Sierra Mist, elliptical machines, and pizza!  To be mocked as irrelevant by the style-setters of the New York Times Magazine is to have arrived in the cultural consciousness in a way no amount of advertising can ever acheive.  It might not be too much to say we’ve started to go viral.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley Gets A Taste of Montessori

The headline says it all: Governor Haley visited Coastal Montessori Charter School in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, as reported in the Coastal Observer.  It sounds like she got a pretty good picture of Montessori—the article mentions children working in mixed-age groups, at desks or on the floor, with large class sizes (“we like big classes”), using manipulatives that might have looked like games, and enjoying their work.  “The adult is not the center of attention; the work is.”

Coastal Montessori, like many public programs, is elementary-only, limited by state funding which doesn’t cover kindergarten or younger.  So it’s remarkable that they can have the quality of Montessori described in the article, and it show that it can be done.  Still, funding for Montessori Children’s House is an issue in many states.  Haley said she “”wouldn’t object” to it, but she didn’t make any promises.

The Governor’s visit  came about as part of Montessori Education Week, a project of South Carolina’s thriving South Carolina Montessori Alliance.  The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector’s Montessori Census lists 50 public programs in the Palmetto State, more than any other state listed.

New Research Backs True Stories

Not the most paradigm-shifting research, but one more for the “21st century researchers prove Montessori right” file.

Montessori Children’s House teachers have a bit of a bias against books for young children with talking animals, or as a friend of mine says, “a pig in an apron getting into trouble he never would have got in if he hadn’t had that apron on in the first place.” Now comes Frontiers in Psychology with a paper (Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children’s knowledge about animals) showing that, in 3-5 year old children,

anthropomorphized animals in books may … lead to less learning [and] influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals.

The Montessori idea is that children in the first plane of development, characterized by the absorbent mind, are fashioning their reality out of their direct sensorial experiences, and stories about talking animals will just confuse them. And what do you know, validated by science!

The study itself is long and dense, but there’s a very readable summary in Pacific Standard, coming my way via Andrew Sullivan of all people.

About the study: Frontiers in Psychology is an open access web based peer reviewed journal, which means authors pay a publishing fee (sometimes paid by their institution), and if an article passes peer review, it is freely available under an open license. I don’t know enough about the academic publishing world to evaluate the journal’s or the article’s credibility, but there are some good indications. The authors come from recognized universities, and the article is 57 pages long and packed with citations and statistical analysis. It’s really worth the read if this is your kind of thing. It’s a thorough, thoughtful, and scientific treatment of cognition, learning, and epistemology in young children.