Tahlequah Daily Press


August 23, 2011

Smith recalls days at Montessori School

TAHLEQUAH — In its heyday, Children’s Meeting House Montessori School was a place for youngsters to learn, thrive and blossom. It was also a place for parents to discover the joys of parenting with encouragement of the founder Anne Smith.

While there were other teachers, Smith was the “mom” at the center of the work as Montessori directress.

Anne and Harry Smith moved to Tahlequah from Cincinnati, Ohio. They open the school at 225 W. Shawnee in September 1987.

“Joanie Paine and I started the school, and shortly, Sophia ‘Soso’ Sweeney joined as our aide,” Smith said. “Jennifer Jones was a Montessori 3-6 teacher. Harry Smith made the original shelves, and was support for me as administrator and the 6-12 Montessori teacher.”

Dawna Dushane and Christie Cox were teachers. Terra Coons Fredericks taught art, and Lisa Handel was a teacher’s aide, Smith recalled.

Smith earned a master’s degree in Montessori Education, specializing in 3- to 6-year-olds, in Cincinnati.

“My Montessori mentor, Hilda Rothchild, was trained by Dr. Maria Montessori herself,” she said. “Hilda was the one who taught us observing the child is the core of the Montessori education. Her demonstrations of the materials were exquisite. Both Harry and I got our 6-9 year Montessori training outside New York City.”

The Montessori method and philosophy of education was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. “Follow the child” is the foundation, and  is three-pronged to include the child, the teacher and the environment.

“The teacher creates an environment that meets the needs of his or her children from materials of the sequenced curriculum that were developed by Dr. Montessori,” she said. “The children are free to chose activities from open shelves, under the guidance of his or her teacher who has observed him or  her. The areas of learning are everyday living skills, sensorial learning, language, math, science, art and music. These areas become quite intense as the children become elementary age.”

Smith loved developing a Montessori community of children, their families and guiding adults and staff.

“The deep love and respect for the children, their families and guiding adults really made the school unique, along with the learning environment and freedom within structure,” she said. “I loved that school. I loved the community we formed together, a community that’s special, as evidenced by the reunion. The children, now in graduate school, are still in communication, and that’s really special. In public school, they usually may have a friend or two to keep in contact with.”

Each place she’s opened a school, including Cincinnati and Phoenix, has been deeply meaningful to her, and she has contact with students from all of them.

Smith believes Children’s Meeting House was a magical place, where even problem children found a place to be cared for and encouraged.

“The basis of Montessori is to love and respect the individual child, and that went deeply spiritual for me, not just as a teaching method,” Smith said. “Each day, I grew, too, learning how to make this a sacred community with love and respect for each other. That we have respect is so crucial, and to love children each in their own way and nurture them. We had fun doing it.”

The school started out with four children, then grew to include 16 children. Once they built an addition, the student body burgeoned at 50. The children usually stayed three years and then moved into the elementary Montessori program. At approximately fourth grade, students moved to public school.

“We probably had close to 200 children in all,” she said. “I kept in touch with Sophia over the years. We had a reunion about 10 years ago. I remember one of the now-young men said, ‘Wow, Anne, I did not realize you were so short!’”

A small reunion was held last year, and another is planned for Sept. 16. “Now I keep in touch with more of the families on Facebook,” Smith said. “I miss the Montessori community. We had developed deep friendships.”

Her best parenting advice is to be open to the children and what is inside of them.

“I treasure our parent program,” she said. “We had four parent evenings, two individual parent conferences, plus other events and celebrations each year. My best parenting advice would be to say ‘Why not?’ when a child asks a question. ‘Can I stay up and see the stars?’ ‘Why not?’ even though it is a school night and way past her bedtime. Take a few minutes to encourage exploration and imagination. Take a few minutes to teach the child their dreams are important.”

Living in Tahlequah was one of the favorite places the Smiths have called home. Harry is now deceased, but Anne lives in their home in Maine and also has a home in California, so she can be near all her grandchildren.

“Harry and I loved to canoe the Illinois river. I remember having the elementary class for an overnight of star-gazing,” she said. “We took a lot of field trips, too. Tahlequah is a small town. Everyone knows everyone.”

When the Smiths had the opportunity to start a school in Phoenix, they had a difficult decision, but eventually chose to move after 10 years with Children’s Meeting House Montessori School.

“When our granddaughter was 6, I said that we needed to move to Maine or we would miss her childhood. We built our dream retirement home on a lake to attract our children and now five grandchildren. We spent three idyllic years before Harry passed in 2007. I am now living bi-coastal, eight months in Maine and four months a little south of San Francisco.”

Traveling and teaching take up time not spent with family.

“I spent three amazing weeks in England, Switzerland, and Assisi, Italy, this summer, and I’m part of a deep counseling mentorship program in California,” she said. “I am deeply involved with my spiritual life, and have developed a workshop on the divine feminine called, ‘Three Faces of the Goddess.’”

A workshop will be presented Sept. 17-18 in the Tahlequah area at the Sancta Sophia Seminary.

“I am still in contact with Harry across the veils,” she said. “We have written a book, ‘Soulmating Our Journey of Love Through Cancer and Beyond’ and workbook, ‘Living in the Now.’”

Smith will return to Tahlequah for about 10 days, and a Montessori reunion will be Friday, Sept. 16. She will be a speaking at Northeastern State University the following week.

To contact Smith, or for information about the reunion, call Dr. Sophia Sweeney at (918) 931-0828, or Kathy Tibbits at (918) 797-5016.

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