We are born to learn, in whatever capacity we are able. We study the world with our senses, and try to understand it. Our special children have more of a challenge, but they are just as interested in knowing what is going on around them. We know that because we observe their keen interest in everything we do and say. We need to nurture this interest, to encourage it. The best way to help all children learn is to let them explore in any way they can. It needs to be said that although a Montessori classroom may look unstructured, the opposite is true. There is a strong curriculum in place, with the teacher monitoring each student’s progress closely. This is the fascinating story of how the Montessori method was developed, how it fits into our Jewish world, and how it can help our children with Special Needs.
The Founder’s Background
Maria Montessori was a scientist, observer and thinker. She was also somewhat rebellious, and challenged many notions of her time. She was the first woman of her time to complete a medical degree, and she went on to specialize in research and education. She believed that all children are born with potential, and it is our job to help them find it. She believed in adapting the child’s environment to enable them to reach their full potential and that for children with Special Needs, it is even more important to be aware of and encourage this potential.
Dr. Montessori was particularly interested in helping children with Special Needs, and she became a voice for them while she studied psychiatry. She studied poor but “normal” children from the slums of Rome. She took the curriculum of the time and worked on changing it from teacher-based to student-driven, with the teacher serving as a guide. She found that when taught in this way, the students achieved more than adults thought they were capable of, and at earlier ages.
The key to Montessori learning is allowing children to go at their own pace. The work is done through hands-on learning—tangible materials they can manipulate in order to learn about their world. Another key is allowing younger children to mix with older children. The advantage to this is that there is no emphasis on being at a certain educational level due to one’s age. Also, the older students sometimes teach the younger, which enhances the learning for both.
The Jewish Connection
More Jewish schools are starting to use the Montessori method in their instruction, although not all of them are considered strictly Montessori. The Luria Academy, a Brooklyn elementary school, is becoming a Montessori school, and its staff is currently being trained in the methods. The school is noted for accepting students of all backgrounds, including non-Jews. However, all the students learn Jewish topics such as Hebrew along with the history and geography of Israel, and they daven each day.
The Torah Montessori School was started in Chicago 6 years ago by Rivkah and Moshe Schack, who dramatically changed direction in their lives when they felt the need for a different type of education for their child. They sold their accounting firm, completed two years of training, and opened up their own yeshiva based on Montessori ideals. Rivkah says that although there are some areas where Montessori is not a perfect fit, “there is a way to use it to make the most of ‘chinuch l’noar al pi darco (teaching a child according to his needs).” She says this Torah ideal and Montessori fit together perfectly, because that is exactly what the Montessori method does—it allows each child to learn the way he or she needs to.
More locally, Yocheved Sidof, a Brooklyn mother, had the same idea and went to Chicago to ask Rivkah how to start up a Torah Montessori school in Crown Heights, which would combine a deep connection with Torah while encouraging children to learn in their own way. This initiative got off the ground in 2010. Yocheved is now directing the Lamplighters Yeshiva. It began with a class of 12 boys ages 3-5, and now also has a 1st and 2nd grade class; next year, they plan to add a girls’ 1st and 2nd grade. The preschool now has girls, ages 3-5, also.