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Aline Wolf's Montessori Journey: An Interview (Part I)

Aline D. Wolf is the author of 27 books, including the classic, A Parents' Guide to the Montessori Classroom. Highly regarded as a modern interpreter of Maria Montessori's philosophy, her books also address parenting, teaching peace, spirituality and reading. She is the founder of Parent Child Press, which was recently acquired by Montessori Services. She and her husband, Gerald, founded Penn-Mont Academy, the third Montessori school in the nation. A sought-after lecturer, Aline has spoken about Montessori education across the United States and abroad.

Aline Wolf

Discovering Montessori

(Irene Baker) What led you to Montessori?

(Aline Wolf) We have a big family, nine children. Our oldest children were bright and eager to go to school, but after a few months they thought school was boring and asked, "Do we have to go?"

I kept thinking that there must be something better, but I had no idea what it was. Then in 1959 a friend of ours sent me a newspaper clipping about Whitby, a Montessori school in Connecticut, with a note, "Maybe this is what you're looking for?"

(IB) This was Nancy Rambusch's school?

(AW) Yes. It excited me. I tried to find out more, but there was very, very little information about Montessori at that time. No libraries, book stores, or educational journals had anything on Montessori. Then Nancy Rambusch started writing articles about Montessori in a family magazine called Jubilee. I read those and got more excited about it. She could express herself very well as a speaker and as a writer.

I decided to write to her but she never answered my letters. I tried calling her but I never got past her secretary. So in the summer of 1960, I said to Jerry, my husband, "Why don't we just drive up to Connecticut and knock on her door since we haven't been able to reach her?"

I asked my sister, "Can we drop off one car and seven children tomorrow while we make a trip to Connecticut?"

We didn't even know if Nancy was in Connecticut that day, but we went to her office, and she received us graciously. I think she was impressed by our pluck. Her interest grew when we said, "We want to start a Montessori school."

We asked her to come to Altoona, Pennsylvania, and give a talk to parents about Montessori education. She came in January when there was a big blizzard and got there just half an hour before the program was to start. Well, at the end of her talk we had 25 parents who were eager to send their children to a Montessori school.

Then the complication: I discovered that I was pregnant again, and we had to decide whether to go on with this plan. Everybody was discouraging me, telling me it was too much to try to do. But I didn't want to postpone it. I wanted to do it!

Starting the School

(IB) How did you find teachers?

(AW) Nancy Rambusch found a teacher for us - a Swedish woman, who had taught in both France and England. She was the one who opened our preschool class.

During a later visit to Whitby, I told Betty Stephenson, a Montessori teacher-trainer from England, about my disappointment that our older children couldn't participate. She said, "Why don't you get another teacher and have a small elementary class?" She knew a woman from England who was not a Montessori teacher but "had all the right Montessori attitudes." We decided to hire her for a small elementary class.

I had met Mother Isabel, a Montessori-trained Assumption nun from England who was teaching religion at Whitby, and she agreed to send our order for Montessori materials to Neinhuis because we didn't know what to order.

We had spent so much money bringing the two teachers over and getting the materials that we decided to hold the preschool in our living room, and the elementary class in the sunroom. Five of our own children were in the school: three in the elementary class and two in the preschool class.

(IB) How long was the school in your home?

(AW) One year. After that year the parents were so enthusiastic that we formed a non-profit corporation. We were able to buy an old church for $10,000, believe it or not. It needed a lot of repair. The parents spent the whole summer fixing it up so it was ready to open in September.

(IB) Those were some dedicated parents.

(AW) We had wonderful parents, they trusted us with the children and they worked hard.

(IB) Why did you take Montessori teacher-training?

(AW) One of the problems we had was retaining teachers. The two teachers that we had the first year were wonderful, but one wanted to go back to England, and the other wanted to move on and see other parts of the U.S. She was one of the very few trained Montessori teachers in the country, and she kept getting offers from cities much more exciting than Altoona.

Bringing Teacher Trainers to America

(AW) We decided the only way we could have a stable faculty was to train local people, but nobody we knew could leave their family for a whole year to get trained. Then we heard that St. Nicholas School in London had a correspondence course to learn the philosophy and method, which was followed by two or three weeks in London to work with the materials. Six of us in Altoona decided to take this course. I wrote to St. Nicholas asking if they could send a teacher to Altoona for the second part.

Margaret Homfray and Phoebe Child, the co-principals of St. Nicholas who had been trained by Maria Montessori herself, said, "Oh yes, we'd love to come. And, by the way, here are the names and addresses of the many others in North America who have taken the correspondence course. Please send them a postcard and tell them about the materials course in Pennsylvania."

So we did. And you know, 60 people registered from 28 different states, coming from as far away as Alaska and California! We were overwhelmed. We only had about five adult-size chairs and had to make quick preparations.

When Miss Homfray and Miss Child came, it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. They handled the materials very slowly and carefully, just like a child, while explaining the purpose of each one with their beautiful London accents. I think everybody there realized that this couple of weeks was a very special experience.

For four years they came back, and I took the course again every year. I had passed it the first year, but I just loved hearing them. The last year they asked me, "Would you like to give one of the lectures?" It was the lecture on the sensorial materials that I love. That's how I got started lecturing.

(IB) Did you teach in your own school?

(AW) You know, I never taught. Everybody thinks that I taught for years, but I didn't. I couldn't because then we had another baby, our ninth.

(IB) I was trying to figure out how you possibly did all of this with nine children!

(AW) I decided, "Maybe the best way that I can serve Montessori is to write about it and to interest other people in it."

When the children were older, I did a lot of lecturing. So that was my role.

Early Days: American Montessori Society and Association Montessori International

(IB) I'm curious about the split between AMS and AMI.

(AW) I remember when that happened. Nancy Rambusch wanted to accommodate American children, which she felt were much different from the ones that Maria Montessori had worked with back in 1910, and she wanted to accommodate some of the new traditions in American education. But Mario Montessori and Betty Stephenson didn't want to change anything, so they remained in AMI, and Nancy Rambusch started AMS. It's a shame that this split occurred, because it weakened the whole movement. I still hope that they'll unite again in the future. In fact they are now actually working together on committees discussing teaching standards, funding, and federal guidelines.

(IB) Did you stay in touch with Nancy Rambusch over the years?

(AW) Yes I did, although she became overwhelmingly busy. She came back to Altoona twice. She lectured for us and came back for one of our anniversaries. I always admired her; she was a dynamo.

Writing About Montessori

(IB) What was the first Montessori book that you wrote?

(AW) A Parents' Guide to the Montessori Classroom. Even though I wasn't teaching I was taking phone calls and doing publicity from home. Many people would call and ask, "What is this method?"

Well, you just can't explain it on the phone. So in 1968 I wrote A Parents' Guide, describing the 3-6 classroom with photos of children using each of the materials. I thought I'd get about 100 printed. The printer said, "It's not worth our while to set up the press unless you have 3000 printed."

I thought, "3000! What will I do with so many?!"

We printed the 3000, and you know they sold so quickly I couldn't believe it. By that time many Montessori schools had started, and they all had the same problem of trying to explain Montessori to parents. I took my new Parents' Guide to an AMS conference on Mackinac Island in Michigan and sold out. That year there were only two exhibitors with their products on two card tables. (laughter)

(IB) Those were the days!

To be continued... In Part II of our interview, Aline talks about her passion for writing, what inspired her to write Nurturing the Spirit and create the Child-Size Masterpieces, why she founded her publishing company, and more.

— by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.

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