Mary Orlando is a Montessori educator at the Villa Montessori School in Phoenix, AR. She has worked there for the past 31 years as a lead teacher at the Preprimary, Elementary 1 and 2, and Middle School levels. For the past six years she has served as Assistant Head of the school. Montessori is an educational system that weaves the story of the Universe into their basic educational values and curriculum, creating a strong bond within each child with Earth and Nature.
In her 1948 book, To Educate the Human Potential, Maria Montessori stated:
“Since it has been seen to be necessary to give so much to the child, let us give him/her a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality, and an answer to all questions, for all things are part of the universe and are connected to each other to form one whole unity. If the idea of the universe be presented to the child in the right way, it will do more for him than just arouse his interest, for it will create in him admiration and wonder, a feeling loftier than any interest and more satisfying. The child’s mind then will no longer wander, but becomes fixed and can work.”
We will journey through Mary’s life to partake in the unfolding of her career in the Montessori method and her personal integration into the new cosmology. Mary is the mother of three grown children, all who attended Montessori schools. She graduated from the Sophia weekend program in May 2006 and feels that it was a perfect fit with Montessori.
Mary, tell us a little about early years.
I was born and raised in Detroit Michigan. My parents, while very staunch practicing Catholics, always exuded a depth of true spirituality. What I mean is they were always looking for the ‘heart response’ to life, loving one another and open to fun. It helped to be Irish. I am the youngest of three children. On the weekends I remember packing a lunch and going to the pretty section nearby. In retrospect I realized this “wild space” –complete with some trees and flowers — was nothing more than a large median dividing a street with one-way traffic on each side. I always loved being outdoors. Television didn’t enter my life until the fifth grade, so most all of our free time was spent outside. Vacant lots in my neighborhood, often replete with overgrown trees, modest ponds and even tadpoles, were the coveted place to play and explore.
How did you find yourself on the path of Montessori education?
Right after high school I joined the convent and for 13 years became part of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) Order in Monroe, Michigan. There I was trained as a teacher and taught 2nd grade at a Detroit suburban school for 5 years. This was the time when Martin Luther King Jr. was bringing such critical awareness to the racial discrimination and injustice that existed throughout our country. When MLK Jr. was murdered April 4, 1968, this led to the race riots that broke out in Detroit. My friend and I then approached a black leader in the inner city of Detroit to find out how we could be of help. It was this amazing man that pointed me in the direction of Montessori. He explained that children from poverty-ridden areas are often three or four years behind their “more fortunate” peers when they enter kindergarten. He suggested that we look into an educational program called Montessori because it had such a good reputation for working with children between the ages of three and five. Within a week’s time we went to observe at a Montessori school — at the time the only Montessori school in Detroit. We were both amazed at what we saw! That observation set me on a path that changed my life forever. It has remained (to use one of Brian Swimme’s phrases ) as a “primal allurement” for the last forty-three years!
The Universe leads us on the path in the most intriguing ways. What happened next?
The following summer, my friend and I were given permission to leave the convent where we were living to move to the inner city to begin training in Montessori. For a year we interned at a Montessori school in the morning, taught regular school in Detroit in the afternoon to make a small income to support ourselves and then returned to the inner city in the evening to work at a black community center with young adults to gain experience working in this community. As soon as we received our Montessori certification we set about creating Montessori Day Care centers in the inner city Detroit.
How does one start a day care center from scratch?
We began by transforming the basement of an old abandoned Detroit high school into a workable Montessori classroom. Poverty particularly hits single women who are trying to raise their children alone. So, we accepted only the children of women who were on governmental aid to dependent children. In addition to teaching the children, we provided grassroots training to those mothers who became interested in the Montessori method. We taught classes to all of them, picking out those women with natural abilities and potential (usually a couple) who we then asked to become assistants in the classroom.
Please share your vision for establishing Montessori day care schools in Detroit?
Our long-range plan was to start another day care center as soon as the first one was well established. When that happened, my friend stayed with the first school while I went on to open the next one. After some time she joined me, again with the same intention that I would move on to start yet another one when this second one was running smoothly. It was, however, during this time that I met my husband-to-be. What a painful, discerning process that time was…to be involved in such meaningful work and to be seized by another “allurement.” I finally made the difficult decision to leave the order in 1972.
After I was married, fortunately we were able to continue with our initial plan to open another Montessori Day Care Center in the inner city of Detroit. The third one was an existing day care center that I turned into a Montessori school. I’ve heard that at least one of these three centers is still in existence. Hopefully the other two are open as well.
This was no small feat and I stand in wonder at your wisdom and tenacity to better the lives of these young families. Many of us have heard the name of Maria Montessori but know little about her. Just who was this woman who began an educational evolution that changed the way children are taught?
Marie Montessori (1870-1952) was the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree in 1896. She was a bold brash doctor and a little ahead of her time, working in the fields of psychiatry, education and anthropology. She believed that each child is born with a unique potential to be revealed, rather than a “blank slate” waiting to be written upon. In 1907 Dr. Montessori was given the opportunity to study “normal” children, taking charge of fifty poor children off the streets of the San Lorenzo slum in Rome. She was appalled to find their environment with no stimulus or energizing activities. From her scientific background she developed a challenging curriculum and within one year these students passed the normal school exams. Dr. Montessori was as astonished as anyone at the realized potential of these children. She asked herself, what if and how do children learn, if given stimulating material. First an observer, Montessori observed children to see what each child is naturally interested in. Then she developed her method in which the child’s choice, practical work, care of others and the environment as well as concentrated, uninterrupted and respected work reveals a human being who is superior — not only in academics but also emotionally and spiritually. A human being who cares deeply about other people and Earth; one who works to discover a unique and individual way to contribute. She went on to become a lecturer around the world on how children learn.
How would you explain what is so compelling about the Montessori method?
The essence of Marie Montessori’s thinking is that education is an aid to life — not just mastering some academic area of a specific curriculum. The role of the adult/teacher is to support the natural growth and development of the child. The current educational system views the child as an empty vessel into whom the teacher pours her knowledge versus viewing the child as a magnificent being with her/his own blueprint of development within. If this child is put into a beautiful environment that meets the developmental needs at each stage of her/his development, the result will be the full flowering of the child’s personality and potential. This unfolds spontaneously with joy, concern for others, a life long love of learning and a quest to participate in their unique cosmic task for the good of the whole.
Please give us an overview of how the Montessori method works.
Maria Montessori observed that a child’s growth years break into four developmental periods (ages 0-6, 6-12, 12-18, 18-24) that require specific learning and nurturing. For example in the first stage the child needs to be given independence to explore her/his immediate environment while in the second, due to the rapid growth of the brain, the child needs to have sown as many seeds as possible to enthuse her/his soul with the wonders of the Universe. This second stage is also the period to experience extreme interdependence and community. The third stage is learning to live on Earth as an independent yet fully social and emotional being of the Earth community while stepping into their unique gifts. The overall child’s question is “What is my cosmic task?” out of which the child will end up choosing a career from a place of allurement. Underlining the core of the curriculum is the story of the Big Bang, the growth of the Universe and the birth of Earth.
Maria Montessori certainly was ahead of her times. Thomas Berry spoke highly about her insights and educational approach in his book, The Great Work (p. 16), stating “A primary concern for the peoples of this continent must be to recover an integral relation with the Universe, the planet Earth and the North American continent…a beginning can be made through our educational programs…Especially in the early grades of elementary school.” Maria Montessori knew “that only when the child is able to identify its own center with the center of the universe does education really begin.” She goes on to say, “We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.”
Thomas Berry appreciated Maria Montessori cosmic education approach and her early insights into the Universe and the child’s need to identify her/his own center to the Universe so as to enable true learning. Berry often expressed concern for how mainstream education, all the way through the university years, narrows the child’s relationship to the natural world. He repeatedly warned that the implied message taught by our educational systems is that Earth consists of a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects…and that this thinking is inherently destructive.
What drew you to the Sophia program?
While studying creation spirituality, I met Jim Conlon. I saw Sophia as a fabulous personal extension to the Montessori method.
Do you have any special memories of your time at Sophia?
Brian Swimme had a huge influence on me through his Powers of the Universe. Each of us holds these powers within ourselves. In fact as an aesthetic project I took the ten powers and created a Tai Chi flow that I still do daily. It provides a central sustaining force within me. I remember so much of the practical stuff like Interplay and the weekend artistic expression of my own and everyone’s projects. Patricia Cane’s weekend teaching on how to use the Capacitar tools for healing is still used by me. Mary Ann Finch’s Care Through Touch and personal stories spoke volumes about compassion. And then there was Garth Gilchrist’s wonderful storytelling and Masako Bando’s drumming. Each weekend added little tools to integrate into life’s practices.
Has anything changed in your teaching because of the Sophia program?
The Sophia experience deepened and integrated within me the path of the Universe on which I was already walking. Each weekend the Story only developed more depth and breadth. The one Thomas Berry teaching that has particularly stayed with me is that of honoring diversity, fostering autopoiesis and celebrating community. The most flourishing communities have diversity. Fostering uniqueness, giftedness and the amazing potential within each individual is the contribution into the whole. And it is incumbent on each of us to keep alive the celebration of life. All of it I brought back to my students together with my own joy and enthusiasm of learning and life.
Thomas Berry talks about the Great Work within each human being. What role do you see yourself playing as you enter your twilight years?
I see my role as continuing to work with teachers, to constantly keep alive that vision of putting the child in touch with Nature by creating that solid relationship with Earth. Nature is not an object but a community of subjects to be communed with. As Dr. Montessori said, “This is the first duty of an educator: stir up life but leave it free to develop.” My contribution now is to inspire teachers to provide ways to do so.
Mary, many thanks for your story, inspiration and time. I enjoyed our conversations and learning more about you, dear friend, and the Montessori method.
Interview by Kitty Nagler