Her encounter with Maria Montessori’s works (Secret of Childhood, Discovery of the Child, and The Absorbent Mind) fit well into this background. “Maria Montessori’s theory of education begins with an understanding of the child as a learner, not trying to fit the child into a preconceived educational schema.” She observed that at a young age, they naturally absorb certain kinds of knowledge. Montessori identified the stages of a child’s aptitude for absorbing different sorts of knowledge as “sensitive periods”. Early on, for example, children have an aptitude for language, absorbing the complex grammatical structures of any language simply by hearing it. Their senses of touch, sound, sight and smell are open avenues through which things implant themselves.
“Of course, at the younger ages, what they receive are impressions rather than complete understanding. But giving them ordered and beautiful things to absorb provides the material for greater abstract thought and expression later.” Too often policy makers try to correct problems at the high school level by introducing theoretical and abstract ideas at earlier ages. Jessie advocates offering children experiences of living creatures, for example, rather than the rudiments of biological theory.
Children are very open to religious experiences. They intuit meaning from Bible stories like the parable of the Good Shepherd. “I don’t have to tell them what it means. I read the story to them, we talk about what shepherds do and they draw their own, often remarkable, conclusions about God’s love for us.” Jessie introduces them to the Mass, not with theology, but just by explaining the actions that go on in each part. “I tell them the names of all the objects being used and what they are for.” Jessie also talks to them about prayer, explaining that it is a conversation with God. “If you love someone, you need to talk to them. And God speaks to us, often in our hearts. And that means listening interiorly.”
Jessie believes children need to begin mathematics concretely. Too often, children are immersed in a world of symbols without knowing what the symbols mean. That can make higher levels of math much more difficult. “I was talking with our sixth grade math teacher the other day, who didn’t understand why some of the children were having such a hard time with 3-digit addition and subtraction. I told him that many of them never really understood counting, because they didn’t have enough basic experience with ordinal numbers. They don’t understand grouping and re-grouping because they don’t understand their base 10 system. As soon as they can recognize a plus sign, math is all symbols from then on.” To get a better grasp of numbers and the base ten system, she uses beads grouped into units, tens, hundreds and thousands to build numbers. “Let’s make 2,451. How many units do we need, how many tens, etc.” The symbols are then introduced, but only after the child can “build” the number.
Jessie uses metal insets, geometric shapes that the children trace onto paper - circle, square, pentagon, triangle, oval, etc. - to introduce them to the basic geometric forms. She will put up a square and ask, “What do you notice about a square?” “They’re the same.” “What are?” “The sides.” “Ok. Let’s try to replicate this on the geoboard.” The geoboard is a wooden board with evenly spaced pegs. By making their own shapes with the pegs and rubber bands, children learn that it is easy to make straight line figures but not curves. Exploring creatively brings math down to the level of the senses, which allows them to understand what is going on with the symbols at higher levels.
Jessie suggests reading to children books that are above their grade level, which will naturally build their vocabulary and reading comprehension. “Give them lots of words. They won’t understand them all, but they will pick up a feel for them from even a complex context. Rich stories will hold their attention, and they will begin to intuit what is going on.” She likes to read the Little House books to the younger children, which offer a solid development in vocabulary along with interesting and formative descriptions of family life. The works of E.B. White and historical selections from The Book of Virtues are other favorites of hers. (She particularly likes the Michael Hague illustrations in The Children’s Book of Virtues.) Children at this level will even enjoy a well-performed Shakespeare play!
Jessie warns educators against thinking that the right program will fix problems that arise from the various emotional and psychological difficulties that children face. “Teachers must be adaptable. They must focus on the particular children they are serving. They need to be aware of what each child brings and what they need.” A good, sound theory of education based on the natural development of children is an important starting point, but young children easily sense the lack of interest or attention to them as individuals and respond accordingly. In some sense we need to have an even greater interest in the “who” we are trying to reach, not just the “what” of the subject matter.
Editor's note: After completing her education at Thomas Aquinas College in 1986, Jessie Van Hecke received her certification in primary education from the Montessori Institute of Los Angeles a year later and has taught across the country. Currently, she teaches Kindergarten and First Grade for St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, California. Jessie joined her husband, Michael Van Hecke, president of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, in leading an Institute workshop for St. Jerome’s School in Hyattsville, Maryland, this August.