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The Early History of the Montessori Movement in North America
and the Earliest Montessori Schools in Canada and the U.S.A.


The material on this page was prepared for the Montessori Society of Canada's National Conference
"The Unfolding of the Human Being : Journey Through the Years",
the Centenary Conference of Montessori in Canada 1912 - 2012,
held in Toronto, Ontario, November 9 - 11, 2012.
The Montessori Society of Canada reserves all rights to the content presented herein.


The First Montessori School in Canada - 1912
Beinn Bhreagh : The Nova Scotia Home of Alexander Graham Bell






Beinn Bhreagh (gaelic: beautiful mountain) in Baddeck was a collection of buildings dominated by an elegant mansion that was a family home and nerve centre for all of Bellís experiments. It was managed by Mabel Bell and frequently accommodated world famous people and the collaborators for many of Bellís experiments.

Photo credit : Bell Collection/National Geographic stock

 

 

 

 

Quoting from "Reluctant Genius - The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell" by Charlotte Gray, Phyllis Bruce Books, 2006

"A new educational philosophy was taking root in North America in the early twentienth century. In retrospect, it is not surprising that, in a world where scientific inquiry was proving as valuable as classical studies, rote learning and strict discipline were losing ground. Reformers who took a more child-centered approach to education challenged the traditional view of a child's mind as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge by an authoritarian teacher. Among the most impassioned critics of old-fashioned pedagogy were the followers of the Italian physician Dr. Maria Montessori. "Children teach themsevles" was the Montessori slogan. Montessori teachers would place carefully prepared materials in front of their young sutdents, then let them explore and discusss those materials at their own pace. A young Chicago teacher called Anne George studied with Dr. Montessori in Rome and then returned to America to establish a primary school. In Tarrytown, New York, George and her friend Roberta Fletcher pioneered Montessori methods. In 1911, McClure's Magazine carred an article about their Tarrytown school."

"Alexander Graham Bell never had any patience with traditional teaching methods. He had given his opinion of them to a Chicago newspaper reporter in the 1890ís. ĎThe system of giving out a certain amount of work which must be carried through in a given space of time, and putting the children into orderly rows of desks and compelling them to absorb just as much intellectual nourishment, whether they are ready for it or not, reminds me of the way they prepare pate de foie gras in the living geese.í ...."

"Alec (Alexander Graham Bell) probably heard about the Montessori Method in 1912 at one of Wednesday evenings, at which S. S. McClure, founder of the McClure Magazine, was a regular guest. The new educational philosophy had instant appeal for him. Within weeks, his wife (Mabel) and his daughter Daisy had visited the Tarrytown school. They persuaded Roberta Fletcher to open a Montessori school in Washington. That summer, Miss Fletcher joined the Bells in Baddeck (Nova Scotia) to establish the first Montessori school in Canada."

"The Montessori school in Baddeck had a serious educational purpose, but for the Bell grandchildren it was just another wonderful activity sponsored by `Gammie and Grampie`. The loft of a Beinn Bhreagh warehouse was given a new coat of whitewash and decorated with potted trees and prints of Norway and Egypt acquired by Mabel on her travels. When the school opened on July 18, 1912, there were twelve pupils: five Grosvenors, two Fairchilds, and five small Nova Scotians. 'Little ones from threeyears of age upwards,' Mabel noted with delight, 'can experiment with all sorts of things to their hearts' content, and at their own sweet will.' Alec (Alexander Graham Bell) was fascinated by the school and had regular afternoon conferences with Miss Fletcher to review progress."

Photo credit : Bell Collection/National Geographic stock

Photo credit : Bell Collection/National Geographic stock

The Bell Family 1885
Elsie, Mabel, Daisy, Alexander
Mabel and Alexander Bell
A National Geographic Love Story

 


Montessori Comes to North America 1911 - 1913

The story behind the first Montessori schools in both Canada and the USA as well as the first public awareness of Montessori education is inextricably tied to four individuals who played pivotal roles in raising public awareness both of Maria Montessori herself and of the Montessori Method of Education. They were Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel, S. S. McClure, owner and editor of McClures's magazine and a close colleague of the Bells, and Anne George, the first American directress, who had trained with Maria Montessori in Rome in 1910-1911 and who first translated into English Montessori's book "The Montessori Method".


McClure's Magazine and the Montessori Articles

Although Montessori was widely known abroad in educational circles through journal articles about her pedagogy, Montessori and the Montessori Method were essentially unknown to the public in North America. All that changed dramatically with the publication in May, 1911, of an article by Josephine Tozier in the widely read McClure's magazine written at the behest of S. S. McClure.
McClure had first heard of Montessori's work while in England in 1910 and immediately commissioned the writer Josephine Tozier to write a series of articles about Montessori and her educational methodology. Tozier had spent several months in Rome interviewing Maria Montessori and visiting her schools in that city.
The article in McClure's magazine proved to be enormously popular and generated widespread interest in the "Montessori Method". In the words of McClure:

"Miss Tozier's article appeared in the May, 1911, number of McClure's, and immediately letters of inquiry began to come into the office in such numbers that it was impossible to answer them all. Mme. Montessori, in Rome, found herself, engulfed in such a correspondence as threatened to take all her time. It seemed as if people everywhere had been waiting for her message."
taken from "My Autobiography" by S. S. McClure, McClure's Magazine, Vol. 43, May 1914.

Samples of these letters received by McClure's magazine were published in the Oct. 1911 magazine as the article "Information about the Montessori Method" which contained the following testament of McClure's admiration and support of Montessori:

"Maria Montessori is an example of genius in education - a field where genius is not often found. Her work is creative and can not be defined in any number of formulae. She is always experimenting, revising, modifying. She has stepped out of the shadow of all the traditions about children. This magazine believes that her experiments are of the highest importance, and that her system of teaching is based upon observations and experiments that have never been made before, or, having been made, were never so correlated."

Josephine Tozier would write two more articles for the McClure's magazine, one appearing in Dec. 1911 describing in great detail the schools in Rome which Maria Montessori had established and a second article, in Jan. 1912, which described much of the primary Montessori materials in use in the Rome schools. Both articles were richly illustrated with many photographs taken in the schools in Rome.
In this pre-television, pre-radio, pre-cinema era, the descriptions used in magazines and newspapers were often written with very strong, graphic language and imagery. Witness the description of that part of Rome in which the St. Angelo Montessori School was located:

"This school is situated in the picturesque and foul quarter of the mediaeval Ghetto. The dark, reeking streets and lanes, which wind about and lose themselves near the Ara Coeli, skirting the Old Palace of the turbulent Orsini, swarm with a population diseased, filthy, and degenerate. In this appalling setting, the Signora Galli-Saccenti, principal of girls' public school, actually persuaded the Roman board of education to organize a Casa dei Bambini. Her first endeavours met everywhere with stolid indifference and intense opposition. The poor parents of that squalid region have no political influence; nor, indeed, have they vigor enough in their miserable frames to do anything more that turn the children they bear (their "creatures", to use the pathetic Italian term) into the narrow, noisy, dirty streets."

McClure's magazine began a regular 'department' about Montessori education and schools which began with the 1912 Vol. 40 issue and which continued for a few years. They contained a great deal of information about new schools which were opening both in the US and abroad, new training courses, the availability of Montessori materials, and so on. Several other articles appeared in the magazine during these years which dealt with the the pedagogy of the Montessori Method and with the growth of Montessori in America, including one article written by Maria Montessori herself. They can be found here:

Vol. 40 - 1912 - The Montessori Department
Vol. 41 - 1913 - The Montessori Department
Vol. 39 - 1912 - The Montessori American Committee
Vol. 39 - 1912 - The First Montessori School in America - Anne George
Vol. 39 - 1912 - Disciplining Children - Maria Montessori
Vol. 40 - 1912 - The Montessori Method and the American Kindergarten
Vol. 42 - 1913 - Ad in McClure's Magazine for the 1913 Teacher Training Course in Rome with Maria Montessori
 


Alexander and Mabel Bell - Montessori Comes to Canada


Alexander Graham Bell
1847 - 1922

Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel(born Mabel Gardiner Hubbard) resided most of the year in Washington D.C. but spent their summers at their 'summer home' in Baddeck, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Typically, the "summer" for the Bells ran from approximately May to early November. The Bell estate was a sprawling collection of out buildings and homes with the crown piece being the large and elegant mansion known as Beinn Bhreagh (beautiful mountain). Many of the Bell's grandchildren also spent the summer months at Beinn Bhreagh with 'Gammie and Grampie'.
Dr. Bell conducted an amazingly varied array of experiments on the property and held regular meetings at the home to discuss his work and many other ideas which were brought to the meetings by his guests. Fortunately, Dr. Bell was positively fastidious about keeping detailed written records of his work, the experiments undertaken, and minutes of these frequent meetings at Beinn Bhreagh. The most detailed of these are contained in the "Beinn Bhreagh Recorder" which consists of carefully prepared, typed accounts of experiment reports and even verbatim records of the many meetings held at the home. Several photographs are also found in this collection.


Mabel Gardiner Bell (Hubbard)
1857 - 1923

The description of the
Beinn Bhreagh Montessori
classroom by Mabel Bell
"Thursday, July 18, saw the opening of the first children's laboratory conducted after Dr. Maria Montessori's method, in Canada.
Baddeck - and more particularly Beinn Bhreagh - had the honor of seeing the first starting of new forms of human effort."

One of the regular guests at the Wednesday night meetings at Beinn Bhreagh was S. S. McClure and it is most likely that it was he who first introduced Montessori's work to the Bells. Both Alexander and Mabel were keenly interested in her methods and, at the suggestion of McClure, Mabel and her daughter Daisy travelled to Tarrytown, N.Y. in Feb. of 1912 to visit the Montessori school there, the first Montessori school in the U.S. The Tarrytown school was under the direction of Anne George, the first American to take the training under Maria Montessori in 1910 - 1911. Mabel was so impressed with what she observed at this school that she immediately set about to establish a very basic classroom at her Washington D.C. home at 1331 Connecticut Ave. She also managed to bring Roberta Fletcher, who had trained in Rome in 1911, to Beinn Bhreagh in the summer of 1912 to direct a new classroom created in the loft of an unused warehouse close to the Beinn Bhreagh home. The classroom officially opened on Thursday, July 18, 1912, as recorded in vol. 10 of the Beinn Bhreagh Recorder. There was a total of 12 students consisting of 7 of the Bell grandchildren and 5 local children. Interestingly, the "school" was referred to as "The Children's Laboratory" by the Bells.


The Tarrytown School 1911
Anne George (rightmost)
Click to view full size
The Montessori Classroom in the warehouse loft at Beinn Bhreagh - 1912
The upper floor of the old warehouse has been converted into a pleasant workshop, where little ones from three years of age upward can experiment with all sorts of things to their heartsí content, and at their own sweet will, with only such guidance from their director as is needed by beginners in all laboraties.

A large dormer window has been built along the north side of the roof of the warehouse. Through this a lot of air and sunshine enters, making bright the once dark and close garret. The walls have had a coat of whitewash and are further brightened by pictures, some of which are water color reproductions of a famous series of scenes from Norwegian fisher (?) folk life, now in the Royal Summer Palace at Christiana. Others are strange and brilliant reproductions in colored cloth of Egyptian figures purchased by Dr. and Mrs. Bell at Port Said.

The old lumber littering the sides of the garret has been removed and low shelves piled with things for the experimental work have taken its place. There are also stands of cedar trees and vases filled with pink fox-gloves, red water lilies and purple fleurs-de-lye. The floor still looks rather dull in spite of the Ivanhoe rugs, but it is to receive a coat of light blue and green paint, and it will be the finishing touch of what we think is the most attractive experimental laboratory for children yet started.

There are, around the room, low tables and chairs and a piano, and on the floor a large circle has been drawn in white chalk. Along one side are low hooks for hats and coats and wash basins at a suitable height, where little fingers can be washed clean before beginning the experimental work.

The children present at the first day were: - Gertrude, Mabel, Lillian, Alec and Elianedroline Grosvenor; Graham and Barbara Fairchild; Georgina Frost; Robert and Sadie Rose; Ruth and Marion Davidson.

They answered to their names to the Director, Miss R. Fletcher, and started work at once by walking around the circle to music, stretching their arms to ease(?) up joints, and then sitting down and trying their voices to music. Next, business actually began. Each little experimenter carried his or her chair to a table, picked out some object which struck his fancy as worthy of investigation, and then began. Alex and Barbara and Georgie chose cylinders and studied different mixes (?) and their relations to different sized holes. Robert and Sadie investigated the properties of various solids. Others tried experiments in tower building.


Mabel Bell, The Beinn Bhreagh Recorder, Vol. 10, pp. 341-343.

 


The Montessori Classroom
Connecticut Ave. School
Click to view full size
The Montessori Classroom
Connecticut Ave. School
Click to view full size
Maria Montessori - 1913
Click to view full size

Even though the tenancy of the school at Beinn Bhreagh was relatively brief, the classroom and the Montessori principles were the subjects of much discussion between the Bells and Roberta Fletcher. After the classroom had been operating for a while, at Dr. Bell's request, a conference was held each Friday "to discuss and critise the happenings of the week, and plan a course for the future as directed by necessity and experience". These conferences were normally attended by Dr. Bell, Mabel Bell, and Miss Fletcher.
The first one (BBR, Vol. 11, pp. 244-251) was held on August 30, 1912, and offers a rich exchange between Miss Fletcher and Dr. Bell. In this conversation, Dr. Bell gives his well-known foie gras analolgy of the fundamental problem with conventional educational methodology.
The conferences of Sep. 13, Sep. 20, Sep. 27, and Oct. 4, 1912, make for fascinating reading (BBR, Vol. 11, pp. 289-312). There is much discussion about disciplining Graham Fairchild, one of the Bells' grandchildren, and about Dr. Bell's suggestion of using "badges" as a reward system to modify a child's behaviour.


One particularly lengthy transcription (BBR, Vol. 13, pp. 207-263) written by Mabel Bell gives a detailed account of the evolution of the Bell Montessori school from its origin in Washington DC in early 1912, its relocation and operation at Beinn Bhreagh in Nova Scotia, its move back to the Bell 1331 Connecticut Ave. home in Washington DC, and then its final relocation to a new, permanent home at 1840 Kalorama Road in Washington DC. At both the Connecticut Ave. school, which operated from Oct. 31, 1912 to May 15, 1913 with approximately 23 children, and at the Kalorama Road school, which opened on Oct. 15, 1913, with approximately 60 children, the directress was Anne George with Roberta Fletcher serving as her assistant. This document also details the creation of the Montessori Educational Association in April of 1913. The officers, trustees, and executive of this Association read like a "Who's Who" of Washington D.C. at that time. Mabel Bell served as its first president and, through this Association, was very involved with Montessori schools over the next several years.
Maria Montessori made her first visit to the USA in December, 1913, accompanied by S. S. McClure and Anne George. She stayed with the Bells in Washington D.C. at their Connecticut Ave. home and visited the Kalorama Montessori School. A very large reception (approximately 700 people) given by Mabel Bell in her honour was held at the Bell home on Dec. 6, 1913 (BBR, Vol. 14, pp. 428-429 and New York Times, Dec. 7, 1913).


The Montessori Classroom
Connecticut Ave. School
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The Montessori Classroom
Kalorama Rd. School
Click to view full size
Mabel Bell and Granddaughter
April 1914
Click to view full size

 


Additional Reading


Beinn Bhreagh Recorder
Other excerpts from the Beinn Bhreagh Recorder which bear directly on Montessori education are found here:

A transcript of a New York Times Aug. 10, 1913 article (BBR, Vol. 13, pp. 452-454) which is a statement given by Maria Montessori about the growth of her movement. She also speaks about the students attending her 1913 training course in Rome and their origins with "...another comes from Panama, where she hopes to spread the word among the Latin Americans, still another from Canada, and so on."

This brief 1914 record  ( BBR, Vol. 15, pp. 305-306) describes Dr. Bell as a "true Montessorian". Mabel Bell was fond of saying that her husband was "a true Montessorian before ever Maria Montessori was born".

The "Freedom of the Child" was the official 'organ' of the Montessori Educational Association. This document  (BBR, Vol. 15, pp. 144-145t) includes articles by Mabel Bell and her daughter Marion Fairchild in the January 1914 issue.

Alexander Graham Bell's article on "The Montessori Principle of Auto-Development"  ( BBR, Vol. 14, pp. 428-429) still makes for interesting reading these many years after it was written in 1915.


The Washington Post
The Bells were a very prominant family in the Washington D.C. social scene and, not surprisingly, the principal newspaper of that time, the Washington Post, published many articles about Montessori and the involvement of the Bells with Montessori education. Some of these can be found here:

Washington Post, November 8, 1912 : "Explains Montessori Kindergarten Method"
Washington Post, March 22, 1913 : "Montessori School in DC"
Washington Post, November 30, 1913 : "Educator to Lecture"
Washington Post, December 5, 1913 : "Famous Woman Educator of Italy Who Comes Here To Promote Ideals"
Washington Post, December 5, 1913 : "Her School Reforms"
Washington Post, December 17, 1913 : "Explains Montessori Plan"
Washington Post, January 1, 1914 : "Advocates Child Freedom"
Washington Post, March 31, 1915 : "To Help Montessori Work"

And on the completely whimsical side:
Washington Post, April 26, 1914 : "The Montessori Method" (Poem)
Washington Post, April 27, 1914 : "The Montessori System" (Joke)

For the reader's convenience, all ten Washington Post articles can be downloaded here as a single PDF document

 

The New York Times
During these early years when Montessori first gained public attention, the New York Times newspaper published several dozen articles and letters about Maria Montessori, the Montessori Method, Montessori schools in America, and other events directly connected with Montessori. Some of the more noteworthy are found here:

New York Times, December 24, 1911 : "A School without Desks, or Classes, or Recitations"
New York Times, July 21, 1912 : "Queen Interested in Montessori Plan"
New York Times, September 1, 1912 : "Great Interest in Montessori Method"
New York Times, November 24, 1912 : "How to Teach Mothers the Montessori of Child Control"
New York Times, March 16, 1913 : "Learn Montessori Method"
New York Times, March 30, 1913 : "Child Kissed Queen's Palm"
New York Times, August 10, 1913 : "Montessori Schools"
New York Times, December 4, 1913 : "MME. Montessori Plans 'Laboratory'"
New York Times, December 7, 1913 : "Entertain Dr. Montessori"
New York Times, December 16, 1913 : "Give Child Liberty, Says Dr. Montessori"

For the reader's convenience, all of the above New York Times articles plus 23 additional articles can be downloaded here as a single PDF document
 


Letters from Mabel Bell to Alexander Graham Bell - 1913


A trio of letters written by Mabel Bell
to 'Alec' in 1913 illustrate Mabel's continuing commitment to the Montessori school she began in Washington DC and Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia, and her continuing role in the Montessori Educational Association. The 'tone' of these letters gives the reader an interesting insight into the closeness of their relationship.


 


Margaret Potts and the Calgary Montessori School - 1919


Margaret Potts
Circa 1920
Click to view full size

Margaret Potts opened the second Montessori school in Canada in 1919. This school, however, unlike the Beinn Bhreagh classroom, proved to be a permanent presence and is, in fact, the longest continuously operating Montessori School in North America.

In 1911, Margaret Potts was attending Durham University in Durham, England in the Education faculty. One of her professors returned to class after a trip to a symposium in Rome to tell the class about a remarkable new method of education for children and the founder of this method, Maria Montessori. Margaret Potts was so incredibly moved that she knew this was to become her passion. While she was completing her education in England, Alexander Graham Bell was returning to North America after the same symposium to introduce the Montessori Method to his family and neighbours.

Margaret Potts did her initial Montessori training in England under a Durham university professor who had gone to Rome in 1911.

In 1914 Margaret and her husband William also an educator, immigrated to Stettler, Alberta where they both taught at a normal school. In 1919, they moved to Calgary and founded The Montessori School in their three story home. The classes operated on the main floor, many of the students boarded on the second floor and the Potts family lived on the third floor.

Margaret Potts had the opportunity to attend the San Francisco Worlds Fair in 1915, where she met Alexander Graham Bell and Maria Montessori. Maria gave Margaret her formal permission to operate a Montessori school. She returned to Calgary even more devoted.

Margaret had the opportunity to return to England and attend the trainer's course offered by Maria Montessori in London (circa 1921). She returned to Canada with Maria Montessori's blessing to continue her work and a certificate recognizing her as a Pioneer of the Montessori Method in Canada. Margaret established the Canadian Montessori Association and began to train teachers.

During her lifetime, Margaret Potts continued to teach at the school, train Montessori teachers and travel throughout North America helping many to establish Montessori schools in places as far reaching as Minneapolis and California.

The Potts' had five children, four of whom became Montessori teachers; one established a Montessori school in Menlo Park, California that operated from 1964 to 2001. The youngest child Vivienne Douglas took over the operation of the school in Calgary and was the administrator until her retirement in 1994. Her daughter Alison O'Dwyer continues to operate the Calgary Montessori School at three campuses in the city.

Adapted from the Calgary Montessori School Ltd. website with additional material.


Montessori Dancing Class
Calgary Montessori School
Circa 1929
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Montessori Class Outdoors
Calgary Montessori School
1923
Click to view full size


Two Children in the
Calgary Montessori School
1922
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Montessori Ballet Class
Calgary Montessori School
1943
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Acknowledgements 

  • The excerpts and photos from the Beinn Bhreagh Recorder are from the "Bell Collection" of Cape Breton University. Sincere thanks are given to Sharon Morrow (Promotion and Non-Personal Media Officer, Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada, Government of Canada) for her extraordinary assistance in locating material for this page.
     
  • The photograph of the Beinn Bhreagh classroom was taken from "Alexander Graham Bell : The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone" by E. S. Grosvenor and M. Wesson, Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1997 (with photo credit to Dr. Mabel Grosvenor).
     
  • The articles and covers from McClure's Magazine are from the Hathi Trust Digital Library (with support from the Google Digitization Project and the University of Michigan).
     
  • The 1913 letters from Mabel to Alexander Bell are from the Library of Congress, The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers collection.
     
  • The photographs of Margaret Potts and the Montessori children are from the Glenbow Museum Archives. Sincere thanks to Douglas E. Cass, Director, Library and Archives, Glenbow Museum, for his expert assistance in locating material on Margaret Potts and the Montessori school. Additional information about Margaret Potts kindly supplied by Alison O'Dwyer.

  • Warm thanks are given to John Gardiner Myers for clarifying the origins of the unusual name "Eliandreline" found in the Beinn Bhreagh Recorder, Vol. 10, pp. 341-343 (and quoted in the caption below the Beinn Bhreagn warehouse loft classroom photo). The girl's full name was Elsie Alexandra Caroline Grosvenor and "Eliandreline" was a concatenation of abbreviations. She went by the name Carol Grosvenor Myers throughout her married life.

The information above is necessarily greatly abridged. The reader who wishes to read a much more detailed account
is referred to pp. 158-176 of "Maria Montessori - A Biography" by Rita Kramer, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1976.
 

 
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