The Glass Classroom
For the better part of 1915, the ingenuity of the heady new century was on spectacular display at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. An actual Ford assembly line turned out Model Ts in 10 minutes flat. The brand new transcontinental telephone system connected callers 3,000 miles apart. And, for 4 months of the fair’s run, 30 young children attended school in a glass-walled Montessori classroom, providing an intimate view of the new educational model that was quickly catching on among American educators and parents.
The classroom was tucked inside the Palace of Education and Social Economy, 1 of 11 massive exhibit palaces in the sprawling, 635-acre fair. Three of the room’s walls had extensive glass windows, inviting visitors to watch the goings-on inside.
The students had an equally good view of the spectators, but they diligently attended to their work, giving rise to admiring reports about their powers of concentration. They ranged in age from 2 ½ to 6, and had been chosen from a pool of several thousand applicants. At Maria Montessori’s insistence, only children without prior schooling were eligible for the class.
A Golden Opportunity
Dr. Montessori’s influence could be seen throughout the model classroom. She recognized the immense publicity value of the well-attended fair, and was anxious for everything to be perfect. Billowing fabric provided a ceiling for the space, giving the room a cozy feel. The blue, gray, and white furnishings were built by designer Louise Brigham, renowned for her “box furniture”—simple, recycled materials crafted into beautiful pieces for the home.
The distinctive Montessori learning materials were in good supply, and on the first day of class Dr. Montessori herself guided a boy working with cylinders. But the job of lead teacher fell to Helen Parkhurst, Dr. Montessori’s star pupil and a renowned American educator in her own right. Parkhurst later founded the progressive Dalton School in New York City and developed the acclaimed Dalton Laboratory Plan for secondary education, both inspired by Montessori philosophy and practice.
If being the embodiment of Montessori education to the world’s visitors was a daunting assignment, as Parkhurst later admitted, there’s no doubt that she aced it. The demonstration classroom was hugely popular with fairgoers, according to historical accounts, with many visitors returning day after day to watch the industrious “miracle children” in their beautiful classroom setting. The school day ran from 9 a.m. – noon, and as lunchtime approached, the crowds grew. Observers filled the rows of seats and beyond, transfixed by the elegant dining table set with linens, china, and candles; the display of impeccable table manners; and the sight of young children serving themselves and cleaning up afterward.
Spreading the Word
While Parkhurst and her students held sway at the fair, Dr. Montessori gave lectures throughout California and held training courses in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. She was also an invited speaker at many of the state, regional, and national conferences that met on the West Coast that year in order to coincide with the PPIE. The most important of these addresses, in terms of winning wider acceptance for the Montessori Method, were the keynotes she gave at the annual conference of the National Education Association (NEA), held in Oakland. At the time, the NEA enjoyed an even higher profile in professional education circles than it does today, and its 1915 conference drew more than 15,000 American educational leaders. Dr. Montessori addressed the general session as well as 3 divisional sessions, all well-attended.
The glass classroom and Dr. Montessori’s long California visit were a boon for Montessori education. American newspapers and educational leaders embraced its founder for both her pedagogy and personality. But as history would have it, 1915 was the pinnacle of what would become known as the first wave of Montessori in America. With Dr. Montessori’s return to Italy in December, and the coming of World War I, Montessori’s role in American education began its long, steep decline.