Montessori program aims at peace in a world of violence
By DOROTHY VIDULICH
A few miles from the White House and in the shadow of the Catholic University of America is the incorporated town of Mount Rainier, Md.
The population of 8,000 is for the most part middle class and multicultural. This is a friendly, close-knit town with a thrift shop, food co-ops and family stores. Like all closed-in suburbs of major U.S. cities, though, it is also threatened by violence, drug-dealing, muggings -- even murder.
How, then, to safeguard the children, to prepare them for living in a time when the Cold War has receded but their hometown streets have heated up with the domestic conflicts of the late 20th century? One approach that has evolved here is a school that educates children from the earliest years in religious principles and nonviolence.
"Many Mount Rainier parents were graduates of Catholic University or had resided at nearby religious houses of study -- for a significant number of them were married priests, former women religious and brothers," explained Kate Collins, public relations coordinator for the Center for Children and Theology and a Montessori school catechist.
"Sixteen years ago," said Collins, "meeting as a prayer community, they struggled with the problem of creating a school that would provide their children with a good education and a strong faith commitment that would emphasize values of justice and human rights."
Those meetings occurred in the home of Catherine Maresca, whose Montessori background led them to "dig deep" and raise $10,000 to hire a Montessori teacher. The Christian Family Montessori School for children from 3 to 9 became a reality in 1981 when classes began in the Maresca household. "Coincidentally, as Providence would have it," said Collins, "at the moment they decided to found a Montessori school, Rebekah Rojcewicz returned from two years' study in Rome with Sofia Cavalletti, a student of Gianna Gobbi, who had studied with Maria Montessori."
Cavalletti's method, the catechesis, or instruction, of the Good Shepherd for children 3 to 12, draws heavily on the "self-teaching principles" of Montessori, especially in the use of materials, the prepared environment and the structure of the student's time with the catechist. And Rojcewicz became the first Montessori teacher and catechist in the Mount Rainier school. The school is now located in St. James Catholic parish classrooms and offers religious education to 70 children as part of a regular Montessori school. After-school classes are held for students from other schools.
Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian physician and pioneer educator, said Collins, developed her teaching method with great respect for the "inner teacher" of the child, allowing herself to be guided by the children in their choice of how and when a child can learn something. In Cavalletti's adaptation, the catechist's role is to make presentations that "call forth" the child's response about relating to God rather than to "pour in" information, explained Collins, who recently returned from a study program with 80-year-old Cavalletti in Rome.
In Good Shepherd catechesis, after a theme has been presented, the child is free to go to the atrium, a private place for her or him to work at an activity that will make possible "the inner dialogue with Jesus."
Montessori catechesis is concrete. "You don't have a child sit at a desk and write down answers," said Collins. "Children learn through doing. Visuals, things that a child can hold and manipulate are essential. We use parables geared to young people, such as the Good Shepherd, and they can handle three-dimensional sheep, a shepherd, sheepfold. We are there to wonder with them as they talk about Jesus, about God."
Maresca, now director of the Center for Children and Theology, said, "Montessori education in its great respect for each child is inherently nonviolent. We try to bring together the themes of gospel nonviolence in our work with children to explore how it is communicated to them."
Maresca said that because Mount Rainier is so close to Washington and there is so much violence around them, by age 9 children have the pieces in place for a discussion. They begin to apply what they know of Jesus' teaching to daily news events.
What needs to be done at that age, however, said Maresca, is not "discussing" the TV and radio news but presenting in the religious education program some foundational principles they can work at, primarily the constant supportive love of God and the image of the Good Shepherd that applies to the events being considered.
Maresca recalled catechist Rojcewicz's experience with a 9-year old boy who, she said, broke into a strange sort of smile as he reflected on the maxim "Love your enemies." He said, "This isn't possible because if we love, then we don't have enemies." He submitted his own version of the maxim: Love your enemies until they become your friends.
For additional information, contact: Center for Children and Theology, 3628 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier, MD 20712, phone: (301) 927-1680.
National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997