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Jean Henri Fabre is a famous French entomologist. Although he came from a poor and impoverished background, he became a teacher and later he was well-known for his studies and research on insects and arachnids. Fabre was not a dry, clinical scientist. His writings on his observations are poetic masterpieces of literature. ( Perhaps Fabre’s most famous experiments is known as the Pine Processionary. The Pine caterpillars formed a continuous loop around the edge of a pot that held their food. As each caterpillar instinctively followed the silken trail of the caterpillars in front of it, the group moved around in a circle for seven days without deviation, in spite of  starvation. This showed the power of instinct in the creatures; there was no power of reason.) Fabre was precise in his observations, a true scientist who observed, recorded and observed again. Many people thought he was a little crazy in his dedication. I’m sure he looked a little silly as he lay on the ground and watched his insects and spiders for hours and days at a time. But he believed that if he was to see how an insect lived, he must  observe the insect in its own habitat.

Observation is the corner-stone of the Montessori Method. It is not an exercise confined to a training year, but the beginning of a fundamental and intrinsic skill that the teacher must continue to develop. It really means that we learn to see the child, not just look at him. Maria Montessori was a doctor and a scientist and when she observed, she looked with an objective eye at phenomena before her. We must learn to do the same sort of  ‘looking’. What good is our science if we don’t know our subject? The subject is the growth and development of the person. Like Jean Henri Fabre, we must learn how ‘sit still ‘ record what we see without bias or preconceived judgments.

On Friday, I completed the second observation week. Last November I went to France and met Laurant Baurdin and his little one-room school in Grasse. This time I was able to stay in Bergamo and spend each day in the British Bilingual School.  It isn’t a Montessori School, strictly speaking, but the Elementary teacher is Montessori trained and was kind enough to host me for the week.

The teacher was working under a few restrictions: she had to follow the strict and intense Italian curriculum and she did not have the benefit of a mixed-age classroom. The administration had provided some Montessori materials, although a limited selection. Nonetheless, she worked with a marvelous group of children and did the best she could with what she had.

The teacher wasn’t under observation, however. It was the children I had come to see! I quickly settled on a young lady for no particular or distinctive reason. She just happened to be close to me at 8:30 on Monday morning. Each day I sat on a small stool by the door; I watched and waited and recorded. As the days went by the children showed me, in a marvelous way, how much they could do and carry out under their own initiative. Given a structure, they were set free. These children showed a profound love of learning, of self-discipline and self-motivation. They respected the teacher and helped one another; they were fun and creative and asked for more challenge in math and science. There was no such thing as procrastination.  I could say they were ‘on fire’.

The teacher gave lessons to individual students and small groups. She allowed them to make choices and sometimes she channeled their over-whelming enthusiasm to a realizable goal. She was a guide in the true sense of the word. The Montessori maxim of  ‘follow the child’ was understandable in this classroom because the children’s fire and love of learning brought on more discoveries of the children’s own making.

This natural out-pouring of enthusiasm on the part of the children could only arise from ‘freedom within limits’. Montessori observed this same phenomena and realized that she was looking at the nature of the child, ‘hitherto undiscovered.’ It is not a blind humanism that everything good is accomplished with the least intervention. I could see that the children were given structure: freedom and responsibility in balance according to their maturity. Human nature is still weak and fallen and in need of God. Who knows this more than child who has reached the age of reason?

I could see that these children were capable of doing more with their knowledge and freedom. What a joyful sight! Can you imagine having this experience as a child? I think that as an adult you would understand that the world is an interesting place, full of wonders and adventures. More than that, there would be a deep sense of confidence that those adventures could be lived because, once upon a time not very long ago, someone gave you the freedom to live your dreams and to succeed.

On January 6th, 1906 a young Italian woman opened the doors of a little school in the slums of San Lorenzo, Rome. It was Maria Montessori, well-known at the time for being the first Italian woman doctor. She had worked among the poor, the abandoned, the children considered ‘idiots’ and hopeless for any education. But Maria saw something different; she saw little minds and souls starving for truth, for goodness, for beauty. How was she going to reach them?

Rather than coming to these children with pre-conceived notions of their abilities, Maria gave them her time, patience, and careful observation, looking to unlock the secret of their potential. Under her care, the children who had previously been considered ‘hopeless’ in mind, began to reveal themselves. They each had a wonderful spark of enthusiasm for learning, for order. From these initial discoveries came the seed of Maria’s philosophy of education and what was to come to be known as “The Montessori method.” Maria later wrote: “I had a strange feeling which made me announce emphatically here was the opening of an undertaking of which the whole world would one day speak.”

It was in this way that the Montessori Method, now famous throughout the world, had its humble beginnings among the poor and abandoned. The little children of that first “Casa dei Bambini” or “Children’s House” were the ones who showed Maria how to begin to guide them—and all little children to fulfill their God-given potential.

In the years since then, Maria Montessori’s profound educational insight—an insight founded on a Catholic understanding of the order of Creation and the development of the human person—has been recognized and praised by many popes, from Pope St. Pius X, who called it “a work for the regeneration of the child,” to Bl. Pope John XXIII, who wrote that, “It is possible to see a clear analogy between the mission of the Shepherd of the Church and that of the prudent and generous Montessori directress – who with tenderness and love knows how to discover and bring to light the most hidden virtues and capacities of the child.”