Back in August, GCP posted a piece called “Waiting For Superman? Superwoman Was Already Here” in which Daniel Petter-Lipstein extolled the virtues of a Montessori education. As a follow-up to that post, we asked Anne Williams-Isom, mother of three Montessori trained children ages 18, 15 and 9, for her perspective on Daniel’s piece and the Montessori experience. She began her response by noting: “I thought Daniel’s points were exactly right and well made. I also found it fascinating that Daniel’s Jewish heritage was an important part of the equation he used to select a school, because as African-American parents my husband and I carefully considered issues related to race, class and culture when we made our decisions about our childrens’ early education”. The rest of her insightful comments are below.

As my husband and I began the dreaded search for the right Manhattan school for our eldest daughter, we had no idea what was ahead for us. We knew we wanted a school that was academically rigorous but we also wanted one that was diverse from both a socio-economic and racial perspective. It was important for us to ensure that our children would have a strong early childhood educational experience because we knew that they would probably attend another school for middle and high school (most Montessori school are only for preschool and elementary school aged children). We also wanted a school that would support some of the values that we were teaching our children at home; integrity, a sense of empathy for others and a drive to discover and fulfill their purpose (a lot to ask for a three year old, I know, but I am a Manhattan mom).

The more I learned about the Montessori Method, the more I knew that this would be the right fit. I was immediately attracted to the idea that children would be looked at as individuals who learned and developed at their own pace – the teachers’ role being to gently guide them through a series of different activities with carefully assigned materials. From what I understand, much of the lesson plans come from what is developmentally appropriate for the child. But they also are developed from classroom observations and carefully assessed cues taken from the children themselves which signal what each child is ready for next.

The importance of the triangular alliance among child, parent and teacher was also a draw for me and apparent from the beginning. The mixed aged group model cannot really be appreciated until you see a six year old helping a three year old put on his coat or teaching him his numbers. Your heart will skip a beat when you see this mini, yet enthusiastic six year old teacher and his eager three year old student interact on the playground. The sense of pride on the face of the three year old when he confidently waves at the six-year-old in the play ground and knowing that he will get a wave back is priceless. Academics have written pages and pages about the importance of a child’s social/emotional development and Maria Montessori has seemed to have gotten it right with the simple recognition that when children learn from other children there are countless ways for both to shine. The feelings that come along with teaching and learning from other children almost immediately build the deposits in their self-esteem bank.

When you walk into a Montessori classroom you sometimes feel like you have walked into the Twilight Zone – but in a good way. There are usually a lot of kids but not a lot of chaos. You will ask yourself “where is all of the noise?” As you look closer you will probably see one teacher in one corner giving a lesson to a child, another teacher giving a math lesson to a group of children and then a couple of children happily and independently doing their “work” around the classroom. Somehow Maria Montessori understood differential learning long before it became a fancy term. Daniel is right. Maria Montessori was indeed a Superwoman.

I agree that the Montessori Method could have many positive implications for the education of children who grow up in economically disadvantaged families and underserved communities. This is true for all of the reasons listed above. Additionally, as Daniel has described, there are also countless benefits to having a calm and peaceful environment – especially for children who live in stressful situations. For those children who may to be growing up in chaotic circumstances, calm and order can actually have a profound and healing effect. Being able to freely explore without someone telling you to sit down or sit still, and being allowed to be curious while having your good choices supported are all things that all kids need but that children that come from challenging backgrounds need even more.

We all know that too many black boys are receiving “Special Ed” services and are labeled as having “behavior problems”. I have often wondered what Maria Montessori would say about the labels and how she would handle one of these so-called “at risk” boys. My gut says she would hand the young man some materials and calmly ask him to complete a task that she knew he would have success with, to build his confidence at first, and then continue to increase his challenges until the boy was accomplishing things he never imagined was possible. I imagine that soon his desire to achieve would distract him enough from any mischief that he might want to get into and the result would be a child who learns.

I have been really happy with my children’s education thus far and know that my husband and I made the right decision for them. While I am still collecting the data I do have some preliminary results. My kids are bright, compassionate, citizens of the world, and most importantly, I am convinced that they will be lifelong learners with that balance of curiosity and confidence that one needs to solve problems. That is the curiosity that Daniel talked about. Just the other day I was talking to my nine year old daughter about a set of tasks she had to get done in our house before she could go on to the activity she wanted to do. I was amazed at how confidently she organized her thoughts and approached her tasks. I realized that she really does not think there is a problem or an issue that she cannot solve, whether it is a math problem (her favorite), or an issue on the playground. Somehow, she, at nine, intrinsically understands that she has the power to solve any problem she puts her mind to solving. And I see that quality to different degrees in each of my two other children; one that just started her first year at the University of Pennsylvania and is balancing her academics with membership on the track team and adjusting to a whole new social environment, and the other, who just started the 10th grade where he is both a leader on the basketball court and as the 10th grade class president.

As far as I am concerned what we really need in the world are more people who are confident about their abilities yet still curious enough to learn about new people or new things; people who want to solve problems together and know how to do so. That is why this mom thinks Maria Montessori with all of her brilliance and simplicity has a winning formula. Thanks Daniel! I strongly concur!

In addition to being a proud Montessori mom, Anne Williams-Isom is the Chief Operating Officer of The Harlem Children’s Zone. She and her husband are raising their three children in Harlem.