In Part I of our interview, Aline Wolf, author of 27 books including the classic A Parents’ Guide to the Montessori Classroom, discussed opening the third Montessori school in the United States, the early days of the movement, bringing Montessori teacher-trainers from England to train Americans, and more.
A Passion for Writing
(Irene Baker) How did your interest in writing develop?
(Aline Wolf) I’ve always loved writing. As a child I wrote little poems and songs, and in college I majored in English and did creative writing. Some years later, Sheed and Ward announced that they were planning to publish a book containing the work of new Catholic writers. I submitted a story about an altar boy who had stolen some wine from the church, and they published it.
(IB) So that was your start! What inspired you to write Nurturing the Spirit in Nonsectarian Classrooms?
(AW) The more I read and re-read Montessori’s books, the more I noticed her great emphasis on caring for the spirit of the child. Although the words spirit and spiritual occurred frequently in her writings, they were not equally evident in Montessori schools or training courses.
Everybody was very interested in the materials – which I can understand, they’re ingenious – but I realized that the spiritual was really more important to Montessori than the materials. So I wanted to call attention to this vitally important aspect of her work and to explore its meaning.
I didn’t think I had the last word on nurturing the spirit, but I was hoping the book would encourage discussions of it at staff meetings, workshops, etc. Then teachers could explore the concepts and think of new ways to integrate the spiritual into their classrooms.
(IB) Do you believe this has happened?
(AW) I think so. Of all the topics I have been asked to speak on, the spiritual is the one most people want. I’ve received many letters saying, in essence, “This book changed my whole attitude toward teaching.”
The Silence Game
(IB) I’ve noticed that the Silence Game isn’t played in many schools.
(AW) It isn’t and that’s a shame. I think the Silence Game is wonderful!
(IB) Do you consider it meditation for young children?
(AW) Not exactly. I think its purpose is to give children an experience of silence in our very noisy world. It lets them see that silence does not occur automatically; one has to make an effort to create silence. The Silence Game gives children the rare opportunity to hear the tiny voice inside them.
I’ve written a few meditations for children. The one on kindness will be in my new book. I suggest that the children sit very still and close their eyes while the teacher reads the meditation about kindness towards others.
(IB) How did you to develop Child-Size Masterpieces?
(AW) My husband loves art. He traveled to different museums before we were married and acquired a large collection of art postcards. When our youngest children were three-, four-, and five-years old, we let them play with the postcards on our bed. We put all the Picassos on a pillow and all the mothers with children in another spot. We weren’t really teaching them, just letting them enjoy the cards. If they asked who made the painting, we’d tell them. At first I didn’t realize how much they were learning.
Then one day our five-year-old asked if she could help open the mail. She pulled out a beautiful painting on a notecard and her eyes became very wide. “Mommy,” she said, “it’s from Renoir!” Well, it wasn’t from Renoir, but it was a Renoir painting! I realized all that children could learn from activities using art postcards. Montessori used to hang a print of Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair in her classrooms, but as far as I know she didn’t design any exercises for art appreciation.
I used the procedures she had formulated for other subjects: matching, pairing, grouping, three-part cards, and timelines. I put the ideas that worked well into a handbook and gradually published books of art postcards to be used for the exercises.
(IB) Do you have a favorite story of a child working with them?
(AW) Yes. I was showing children the timeline I’d made of Picasso’s work. He changed styles so many times that his paintings make a very interesting timeline. When he was 14 he did beautiful portraits. Then he worked in many other styles and in his final years he painted images with very distorted faces.
This little fellow put up his hand and said, “I think this is backwards. Picasso was just learning at this end (pointing to the distorted faces), but by the time he got to these pictures (painted at age 14) he could do it right.”
Parent Child Press
(IB) When was Parent Child Press founded?
(AW) That was in 1975. A publisher was interested in buying the rights to the Parents’ Guide, but not my book for tutoring reading nor Look at the Child which I very much wanted published. So I decided I would try to sell them myself under the name of Parent Child Press.
(IB) Do you have a favorite of the books you’ve written?
(AW) I have several favorites for different reasons. The one I love to reread is Look at the Child. In this book I paired beautiful pictures of young children with some of Montessori’s most significant quotations. It is now out of print, but people still ask for it.
Nurturing the Spirit is probably my most important book because of its pivotal impact on many Montessori teachers and teacher trainers.
My most popular book by far is A Parents’ Guide to the Montessori Classroom. It explains the purpose and procedure for each of the materials in the 3-6 classroom, and it has helped hundreds of parents decide to send their child to a Montessori school.
(IB) I understand that you’re working on a book of your unpublished articles and lectures?
(AW) Yes, I’ve decided to call it Montessori for a Better World because I believe that creating a better world was the long range objective of all Montessori’s educational work.
(IB) What was it like to lecture all over the world?
(AW) I enjoyed every day of it. I remember one time I went to Bolivia and my posters, which they had translated into Spanish, were hanging on the wall. I met many wonderful Montessori teachers in different countries. Even though I was thousands of miles from my home, I felt completely comfortable with them in their classrooms. It showed me the universality of Montessori’s work with children.
(IB) Are you an editor, too?
(AW) Yes, I did the editing for most of the books I published by other authors.
(IB) Why did you decide to sell Parent Child Press?
(AW) You know, I’m 85 years old and I have serious eye problems. I just couldn’t do the editing anymore. So I decided to sell the company to someone who appreciated my work and knew the Montessori market. I was very happy when Jane Campbell, who founded Montessori Services, was interested.
(IB) She’s thrilled as well. We all feel honored to continue what you’ve created.
Gems of Wisdom
(IB) Do you have a message that you’d like to convey to the Montessori community?
(AW) I hope that the whole community will continue reading and re-reading Montessori’s books. I know that some of them are repetitive and poorly translated. Nevertheless, each time I read them, I find pure wisdom I want to share with every adult who has responsibility for young children. Montessori’s ingenious insights are still relevant, and even teachers who have been teaching for a long time can find new gems of wisdom in her books.
(IB) Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you, Aline.