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A peaceful place to learn, grow

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Step into a classroom at Siena Academy, a Catholic Montessori school in Great Falls, and rows of desks and a large chalkboard are nowhere in sight. No hefty textbooks line the shelves and no bell rings to signal a change in subjects.

Instead, a young boy reads cross-legged in a corner as another arranges a map puzzle. A small girl concentrates as she cuts strips of bright green paper while another squeezes a wet sponge into a small sink. Some children are taller, some a bit shorter; a few are chatty, others are quiet.

There's a buzz of activity, but it's primarily calm, harmonious activity.

A renaissance
The Catholic Montessori classroom "is an environment of children working together in harmony, in peace," said Siena parent Emily Costello. It's also an environment that's attracting a growing number of Catholic families - nationally and locally - for the kind of educational and spiritual formation it provides.

"It's experiencing a renaissance right now," both in secular and Catholic circles, according to David Kahn, executive director of the North American Montessori Teachers' Association (NAMTA). While it has existed since the early 20th century, Montessori is going through a wave of popularity, much as it did in the late '50s and early '60s, Khan said.

There are more than 4,000 private Montessori schools nationwide and more than 200 public schools with Montessori-styled programs, according to NAMTA. Many schools are members of Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), founded by Maria Montessori in 1929, which maintains her educational principles, disseminates Montessori resources and oversees training throughout the world.

In the late 1950s, Montessori's friend Gianna Gobbi collaborated with Sofia Cavaletti, a Hebrew and Scripture scholar, to develop the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a religious education program that draws upon Montessori's view of child development.

Not every Catholic Montessori school uses the catechesis for religious formation, but it is the most popular and authentic Montessori catechesis, according to Maggie Radzik, former head of school at Siena.

While no official Catholic Montessori association exists, many schools are members of the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, based near Chicago, which provides training and materials.

Association membership grew by 25 percent last year, according to Rachel Faulman, director of business operations.

Parish religious education programs, home-schoolers and traditional Catholic schools also use the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and St. Rita School in Alexandria recently started using it with preschoolers.

There are three Catholic Montessori schools within the Arlington Diocese's boundaries - Siena, a diocesan school; and two schools unaffiliated with the diocese: John XXIII Montessori Children's Center, based at Human Life International in Front Royal, and Renaissance School in Manassas.

Siena has had a waiting list since it opened seven years ago, according to Radzik. John XXIII, which opened 10 years ago, receives more applications every year, said Laura Accettullo, director and co-founder. And at 10-year-old Renaissance, Sean Garvey, head of school, has observed similar growth.

"There's been a big, big increase in interest and enrollment," said Garvey.

Garvey, part of an unofficial network of U.S. Catholic Montessori schools that share ideas and support, said he's noticed the national trend.

Throughout the country, more established Catholic Montessori schools report increased enrollment, including a17-year-old Montessori School at Holy Rosary in Cleveland; 30-year-old St. Helena Montessori in St. Helena, Calif.; and St. Catherine's Montessori in Houston, founded in 1966.

Montessori also has caught the attention of religious orders. The Nashville Dominicans and the Missionaries of Charity are trained in the catechesis, according to Mary Mirrione, national director of the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. She's noticed a growing interest from dioceses and seminaries.

Environments of discovery
Maria Montessori, the woman behind the educational approach, was a lifelong, devout Catholic. Born in Italy in 1870, she was the first female physician in her country.

Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, and her work in education and child development led Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel, to invite her to the United States in 1913. The Bells went on to found the Montessori Educational Association in Washington D.C. Among her other American supporters were Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.

Montessori conducted clinical observations on how children learn and concluded that they build their understanding of the world from what they find in their environment.

Her educational method uses "prepared environments" where learning materials are arranged for children to use for as long as it holds their interest.

Classes are made up of multiage groups, typically broken up into infant to age 3, 3-6, 6-9, 9-12 and 12-14.

Montessori believed there are four planes of human development from birth to age 24. The first, from birth to age 6, is characterized by intense change and growth when children learn primarily through the senses. Within the second, ages 6 to 12, they learn to work with abstractions and become more social. In the third, ages 12 to 19, they seek to understand their place in society. And in the fourth, ages 18 to 24, they become more specialized learners and pursue their niche in the world.

She believed children are naturally curious and that in the proper setting they can make discoveries and teach themselves.

The goal is for children to uncover skills and concepts on their own, so younger children work with child-size tables, sinks and brooms to learn practical life-skills, for example. Older children are not presented theorems, but work to discover them, and spelling rules are derived through recognition of patterns, not memorized.

Independent activity makes up the majority of the school day, said Radzik. Teachers give direction as briefly as possible, "then they fade and observe," she said.

To someone unfamiliar with the philosophy, it might appear a Montessori classroom is unsupervised and the school day lacks focus.

But each material is present to help cultivate a new skill or insight, said Radzik. And if a child is using materials in an aimless way, a teacher gently will redirect him or her to different materials or to a more appropriate use of the material.

There is a lot of activity in a classroom as children move from one task to the next, but because they are self-directed and engaged in what they are doing, classrooms tend to be calm.

What most attracted Costello and her husband, Greg, to Montessori, was its respect for the child. "It doesn't create a method and try to squish a child into it. Montessori is trying to uncover and understand how God made the child," she said.

And Montessori's observation-based conclusion that children learn best through their senses has now been confirmed by neuroscience, noted Costello.

Dr. Steven Hughes, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology and chair of the AMI Global Research Committee, was interviewed in March by NPR. During the interview he discussed how Montessori's sensory learning has been shown to be the most effective way children learn.

"When you use your body to learn something, you will learn in better," he said.

"That's how we are built to learn. … Part of the genius of Montessori … (was not just) her developmental instinct or philosophy," but that she fleshed out an educational method and created materials - "the tools to help foster an interest in discovery."

A quiet place to 'be in love with God'
Along with academic discovery, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd fosters spiritual exploration and growth.

A central component of the catechesis is the "atrium," usually adjacent to the main classroom, with materials intended to help children absorb the essential proclamations of the Faith. Elements of an atrium include a statuette of the Good Shepherd, a small altar and the furnishings used for celebration of the Eucharist.

Montessori believed the atrium was the most special element of a child's learning environment, "for when you come into it, you come into contact with Our Lord and with the seasons of the Church," said Radzik.

Children who participate in this catechesis come into "a deep knowledge that they are called by name," Radzik said. "The depth of their relationship with God - you can't put words to it."

"I've seen beautiful things with my children - they want to spend time with God," said Costello. She said they each have an intimate, creative and lively relationship with God. When her daughter was 5, she made up own meditations on the Stations of the Cross.

Academically, Siena parent Linda Esquivel has witnessed some of the long-term fruits of Montessori in her oldest son, who graduated from Siena and now attends The Heights School, an all-boys Opus Dei Catholic high school in Potomac, Md.

It took a while for him to adjust to a traditional school setting, like sitting at a desk, but he's received all A's and is thriving, she said, adding that he has a lot of self-knowledge and strong sense of responsibility for his education.

According to many Catholic families who have found it a good fit, they are drawn to Catholic Montessori because it nurtures the whole child, spiritually and academically, and creates self-motivated, self-aware, confident children who love to learn and have a deeply personal relationship with God.

Mirrione believes that Catholic Montessori is especially appealing - and important - because in a culture that is loud and fast, it provides a calm and peaceful environment and an opportunity where children can "be quiet and be in love with God."

"That's something that's always needed, but especially today."

Find out more
Angeline S. Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, explores the science behind Montessori's system in Montessori: The Science behind the Genius, available at montessori-science.org.

To learn more about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, go to cgsusa.org

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012