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Undoubtly, Maria Montessori is the best-known Italian pedagogist in the world.
Schools based on her method opened in a number of countries and her fame has been growning in Italy itself, in the last few years more than ever.
Maria Montessori portrait on the old Italian note worth 1000 lire
She was born on the 31st August 1870 in Chiaravalle (Italy) but her first steps in the world of teaching science are bound to the city of Rome.
Her family moved to the capital in 1875, where she enrolled in the local state school and proceeded further in the studies with the intention of becoming an engineer, which was quite unusual for a woman.
Most support for her unconventional decisions came from the mother, and she managed to enter medical school and become a doctor in spite of the father's negative opinion; indeed, in 1890 Montessori enrolled at the University of Rome to study physics, maths and natural sciences; she received her diploma after two years, then finally entered (not without the help of the Pope, that tells us how hard it was for a girl to pursue such a choice) the Faculty of Medicine, being the first woman to enter medical school in Italy where she also won a series of scholarships.
She had to fight against prejudice from her male colleagues and had to work alone on dissections since these were not allowed to be done in mixed classes.
In 1986 she was a doctor and immediately got employed; she had to work a lot with the poor people, and especially with poor children.
But it is in 1897 that she took a first step in the direction of her bright future, volunteering for a research programme at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome, with Giuseppe Montesano, who was a collegue and much more for her.
She would visited Rome's asylums for the insane, seeking patients for treatment at the clinic and soon realized that not only hygienic conditions and education were terribly poor if not absent for the children in the asylums, but also that they were in desperate need for sensorial stimulations and activities that could unlock their potential.
She was attracted by the problems of the mentally retarded children, and in particular she studied the masterpieces of Jean-Marc Itard, who became famous working with the "wild boy of Aveyron". Another author who deeply influenced her is and Edouard Séguin, Itard's student. The former developed a way of teaching through the senses, and Séguin tried to adapt it to mainstream education, stressing the fact that respect and individual intervention for each child are required.
The ideas of Pestalozzi and Froebel and Rousseau were also fundamental for completing her knowledge about the state-of-the-art in education.
In the meanwhile, the relationship with Giuseppe Montesano developed into a love affair, and they had a child in 1898, who was given into the care of a family who lived in the countryside near Rome: Mario Montessori knew much later about the fact that Maria was his mother, and he travelled and helped her with the job.
During this period Rome was growing too fast and it was not uncommon for construction companies to go bankrupt, leaving unfinished building filled with squatters. It is in Rome then, in the "San Lorenzo" district, that she arranged for the restoring of such a building, where she founded the first Casa dei Bambini ("Children's House").
The institution was revolutionary in the sense that children from poor families were not just educated, but had to participate in the cleaning and the management of the House. They were made responsible and provided with a quantity of sensorial stimulations exploiting some of the educational materials she had developed at the Orthophrenic School. The idea was to apply some of the techniques tested on ortophrenic children to those who were normal but who never had the chance to receive a proper eduction. Most of those girls and boys, indeed, spent most of their time doing nothing useful on the streets, being their parents forced to work for many hours a day.
By 1908, there were five Children's Houses, one in Milan. Especially if compared to other "normal" children, even those coming from wealthier families, her pupils made extraordinary progress; soon 5-year-olds were writing and reading. News of the novel approach spread, and visitors arrived in Rome to personally check for how she was achieving such encouraging results; the Italian part of Swiss widely adopted her method.since then, the Montessori approach expanded and was going to be studied all over the world, thanks to traning insittutions, societies and schools.
The First World War and later the Second World War changed the conditions in the whole planet and its consequences not only influenced those institutions, but also the mind of Maria Montessori who developed the idea of the school as the place where the new men were to be grown up for becoming part of a peaceful world, being protagonists of this change.
In the beginning, the importance of Maria Montessori the Mussolini's interest toward her, but it was soon clear that the opinions of Dr. Montessori and those at the foundation of a regime could not come together, we cannot forget that she received three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
She died in company of her son Mario in 1952, in the Netherlands.
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