My Turn: To see beyond dire headlines, look into the face of children

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2009

As the New Year rings in, fresh news of the nation's financial troubles and of the senseless violence and suffering endured by the people of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, it can be difficult to find reasons to be optimistic about the coming year. Each day, however, I am privileged to witness the future's promise as embodied by the young children of Juneau.

Running a preschool brings regular doses of happy firsts. This time of year, our youngest children are learning to put on their own snow pants, and others are baking bread for the first time. I hear our kindergarteners expanding their vocabularies and I see them working through the challenges of addition, subtraction and even multiplication. From the practical milestones of mastering the zippers of coats, through the more abstract thought required to arrange letters to form words, our children quickly develop the educational tools through which they interpret the world.

Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy's first female physician, identified the life-shaping role that early education plays in the lives of children more than a century ago.

"Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity, which is derived from a sense of independence," Montessori said.

In 1929, as the world's economic systems faltered, Montessori founded the Association Montessori Internationale to bring her teaching principles to children everywhere. Through her research, Montessori developed a method that allows children to learn at their own pace and devised creative learning environments that promoted cooperation, freedom and responsibility, and most of all, an overriding sense of respect.

Dr. Montessori's approach has expanded well beyond its 20th century origins in Italy and operates worldwide.

Here in Juneau, Montessori education has grown from humble beginnings to a thriving learning community. In 1985, it was a pre-school with 15 children in a teacher's house. Today, it serves children from 18 months through middle-school with the coordinated efforts of the Juneau Montessori School.

In the capital city, about 165 children are learning based on the teachings of Dr. Montessori and we are proud to see the students of our early years graduating from Juneau Douglas High School and who go on to attend universities en route to becoming successful and productive members of our community.

I cherish the opportunity to replicate Montessori's model of peaceful and joyful learning environments for the children in this community. Her methods continue to promote faith in the positive capabilities of human beings and prepares new generations to live in harmony. More than anything else, her teachings embody a strong commitment to educating young children that will help our state to survive ongoing global financial and political crises.

It is clear that our future economy will require an educated, productive workforce, and I believe many of its leaders will be found among our current Montessori students. As our elected officials struggle to determine how best to provide a strong foundation of education for all young children statewide, the Juneau Montessori School continues working hard to serve the diverse needs of families in Juneau.

At the beginning of each year, all members of the community are invited to come together and dance to celebrate our young children. This tradition started almost a decade ago, when we realized that in the dark of winter people would welcome a chance to move their feet to live salsa and ballroom music and to see old friends and to invite new ones to dance in support of early childhood education.

This year, we will celebrate our eighth annual Hot Salsa - Cool Ballroom extravaganza at 7 p.m. on Jan. 31 at Centennial Hall. I hope to see you there. If you want to take a look at the future in the faces of Juneau's children, or are interested in exploring our method of education for your own child, please accept my invitation to observe one of our classrooms. I am certain that you will then agree with me that, amid the turmoil of daily life, there is good reason for optimism.

• Lupita Alvarez is director of the Juneau Montessori School in Douglas

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