Bay Farm Montessori turns 40

Written by David Mittell
 | Wednesday, 24 October 2012 17:23


For those who are new to it, Montessori education is best stirred, not shaken; absorbed, not memorized -- sort of like the Montessori teaching method itself.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was Italy’s first female medical doctor. In 1896, she went to work with what were then called phrenasthenic children. The word was an early attempt to create a neutral scientific term for what we currently call developmentally-disabled children. She later wrote: “I studied my children and they taught me how to teach them.” She found that when given a feeling of mastery in a comfortable environment, very young children could absorb huge amounts of information. This differed from the structured classroom in which the teacher lectured to students, who were obliged against their natures to pay strict attention. Maria Montessori taught that it is teachers who need to pay attention to students.

In 1906 Montessori founded her first Casa dei Bambini (“house of children”) to test her methods. She found that what worked with phrenasthenic children worked with all children. A modern writer has called her methods astonishingly successful. They led to a worldwide movement reaching Europe, India, Japan, North America and South Africa in her lifetime. The first Montessori school in the United States opened in Sleepy Hollow, New York, in 1911.

In 1972, Pam and Leo Malboeuf opened the Munch-Kin Montessori School for eight preschool children in an old farmhouse at 145 Loring St. The tiny school, which reflected the counter-cultural and anti-war spirit of the time, thrived and grew, and this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. It is now an accredited independent school with 300 students in groups of 26 from preschool through the eighth grade. (Like earlier one-room school houses, more than one grade shares space in Montessori schools’ groups.)

In 1985, a group of parents formed Bay Farm Academy, a non-profit elementary school with a board of trustees, for 12 students. In 1998, this school merged with Munch-Kin Montessori, which had been a proprietary school. In 2001, the Malboeufs retired. They now live in Texas, where Pam is a consultant for the American Montessori Society.

A date no one who was there will forget was Nov. 28, 2007, when at 11:30 a.m., with school in session, a fire broke out in an improperly serviced bathroom ventilator. Twenty-five three-to-six-year-olds in the building were safely evacuated, and all 200 families notified of the fire. Most chose to leave their children in school for the rest of the day. The fire was put out, but the old dairy barn could not be saved.

A door to Duxbury’s and the school’s past had thus closed, but a door had opened, in that a safe, “green,” child-friendly, handicapped-accessible and beautiful new schoolhouse could be designed from scratch. On Jan. 5, 2009, the new Children’s House opened its doors, with two charred beams reinstalled to serve overhead as lintels of remembrance in the bright new school building.

On a deeper level, Bay Farm Montessori Academy’s “architecture” can only be appreciated when school is is session. A stranger entering classrooms is warmly welcomed by each teacher. Students notice, but they quickly go back to the projects they are working on. They do not take the intrusion as a chance for release from the weight of authority -- as we well recall from the spitballs and antics of other classrooms we have known.

The school has a written anti-bullying policy running to 35 paragraphs, with a detailed protocol of prevention, reporting and response. But the atmosphere in the classroom bespeaks a richer understanding: that a school cannot successfully suppress bullying by means which themselves amount to administrative bullying.

As the aphorism goes, children will do as adults do, not as they tell them to do. Bay Farm Montessori Academy seems to retain some of the counter-cultural flavor of Munch-Kin Montessori School, while perhaps outgrowing parts of it. But the practice of living in peace with other human beings, who are valued as equals, carries on, and underlies the school’s official policies.

I was powerfully stirred -- though not shaken -- by visits to the school, and would defend the antiquated practice of a teacher standing at the head of a class, reading from a book. The human voice reading a good story to children is never out of date.

One feels inadequate in trying to describe the work of these teachers, staff and of Kevin Clark, the head of school since 2007. Well, only take this only as an introduction -- the school welcomes all, and Maria Montessori’s methods are on the Internet.

Throughout 2012, the school has been celebrating its 40th anniversary. One of the final events is the annual Royce Whitaker 5-K run on Sunday, Nov. 4. The USATF-certified race is dedicated to the memory a seven-year-old Bay Farm student who lost his life in 2009. The race begins at the school’s main entrance: Registration, 8:30 - 9 a.m.; Kids’ Fun Run, 9:30 - 10 a.m.; 5-K Run/Walk, 10:15 - 11 a.m.