Deborah Pintonelli on Maria Montessori and Becoming a Writer

Noodle Expert Deborah Pintonelli discusses Maria Montessori and the path to a writing career.

Noodle Expert Deborah Pintonelli discusses Maria Montessori and the path to a writing career.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

From a very young age, I was fascinated by the ideas of Maria Montessori. I played a large role in raising my older cousin's children, starting when I was eleven years old. As I spent more and more time with them, I also began to read Montessori's work and to put into practice some of the basic tenets of her teachings, which I believe have had an important effect on how we educate children today.

Most important to me was the idea that learning can take place on a child's terms and that everything done for her has to begin with considering things from her viewpoint. This includes filling classes with furniture that is sized to show respect for the challenges inherent in being smaller and more vulnerable, and allowing children to make choices about the topics and pacing of their learning. This philosophy contrasts with the more authoritarian approach still practiced in many public schools, one that prizes obedience over exploration. I would hope to learn how she came to formulate her views and to explore what she would have to say about education today.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

As young writers at Columbia College, we were told to find our voice and to follow it. This echoed, in many ways, advice given to me as a very young student. To engage intellectually as a person and truth-seeker, learning from others while staying true to an essential vision of things, is not an easy path to follow — nor one for the timid. But I truly believe there is no other way to live creatively without constantly questioning and refining this vision. It is a give-and-take that continues for a lifetime, but one that is well worth it.

Many of our greatest innovators and thinkers are those who stepped outside the box and created something of value for society — Steve Jobs, President Obama, radicals like Larry Kramer (who advocated for AIDS victims in the 80s). They include those who now fight for persons on the margins of society or who take unpopular stands at the risk of alienating their families and communities. Somewhere along the way these great people were given permission to follow their vision, to find their voice.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

Traditionally, students travel to European countries for the art and culture, and of course, these are not to be missed. I would say, though, that to have a truly transformative experience within a culture not based on Christianity, a trip to Southeast Asia — in particular, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the surrounding areas — can provide a student with life-changing experiences.

I also believe that every high school student should be required to participate in a summer of community service, either in the U.S. or in other lands where help is needed. Americans in general have a kind of tunnel vision that hurts our standing in the world. For such a rich nation, we have little in common with other wealthy nations when it comes to medical care, gun control, birth control, anti-poverty measures, or a broad sense of the world at large. I believe that travel to parts of the country or the world that are outside our comfort zone would serve to educate a student, giving her a sense of how she might contribute and offering a purpose other than simply fulfilling her own basic needs.

In my experience as a parent of teens, I see much that is wrong with the way some of their friends are sealed into little bubbles of their own privilege. Many are depressed and do not know why. They are focused on insignificant achievements and do not have a sense of the larger world or how they might be needed in it. Their parents are working long hours, not at home, alienated from them in many ways, and looking only at a bottom line of grades or entry to elite schools as markers of success.

Many of these teens do not feel they measure up and fall to the wayside. Some run away from home, or refuse to get jobs or apply to college, fearing they will fail. This is such a waste of a time in a young person's life when she is still learning, still idealistic, perhaps even altruistic. Later, the responsibilities of adult life will take over, and a marvelous time of life will have been wasted.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I have always struggled with mathematics. Every step of the way during my academic career, it has been an issue. The valuable lessons I have taken away have to do with the kindness of other students, friends who helped me in the past — as early as the second grade, with peers whispering encouragement from their seats as I tried to solve problems in front of the whole class. I later learned the value of tutoring when algebra was a source of misery and poor grades.

Asking for help, utilizing the tools and assistance available to students — these can be lifesavers. So many students do not take advantage of them. Hiding problems, stashing things out of sight due to embarrassment, hiding grades from parents, or not admitting problems to begin with are what cause true failure. Ask any successful person, and most will tell you that they struggled with a particular subject, sought help, remedied the situation as best they could, and moved on. Grades in general are markers not of our aptitude, but of our willingness to show up, do the work, and be responsible for the outcome.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I am one of those who began reading and writing at an early age. Weekends spent at the local library, plus culling from a relative's extensive paperback collection, began a lifelong love affair with the written word. I come from a family of immigrants, Italian and Mexican. None were avid readers; many did not even complete their high school education. It was amazing to me then — and still is now — that I chose this path with little encouragement from family members, other than allowing me solitude and free access to books.

My early attempts to write were nurtured by great elementary school teachers, with later efforts supported by many teachers and professors along the way. I am not sure what I expected, other than to be able to write things that in some way resembled the books I most loved as a young person (such as "The Stranger" by Albert Camus). I know that I have always had a healthy respect for their achievements, but I never anticipated the difficulties involved in trying to duplicate their accomplishments and to get my work out into the world. In some ways, I have succeeded; in others, I am still evolving. The nature of this evolution, the sacrifices required, the loneliness of the art, the joy when one is able to create a world of words for another to enter — these are all still so surprising to me.

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