FARGO — At St. Monica’s Montessori in north Fargo , where children ages 3 to 6 gather each week with their adult “guides,” an unusual serenity pervades, but there’s nothing alarming about it.
“The peacefulness of the classroom is what first attracted me to Montessori,” says Marissa Duppong, mom of students Declan, 5, and Patrick, 4. “In the world, we’re conditioned that children have to be noisy and screaming, but here, they’ve learned that they can do work better when their friends aren’t yelling or distracting them.”
An observer in the lower-level residential classroom will likely experience a few shy smiles, but minimal disruption; the children are too intently immersed in the work at hand.
Like their parents’ endeavors, students view their work, though carried out with child-sized tools, as important — a mentality that often follows them home. “Patrick will sometimes, at home, say, ‘Declan, you’re disturbing my work,’” Duppong shares. “In their brains, everything a child is expected to do is work.”
And at Montessori, that work is meant to bring joy. But it was in a moment riding home from Fargo’s Holy Spirit Church, where her oldest two sons had just taken part in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd religious-education program employing the Montessori method, that Duppong realized she was sold.
Patrick, then barely 3, said, “Mom, did you know Jesus is the Light of the World?’” she recalls.
“I realized he was catechizing me!”
Inspired by an Italian physician
The Montessori model is an educational philosophy named for Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who, through careful observation of children, identified ways in which they thrive in an educational setting. She also realized children could reach new levels of autonomy and understanding by working independently, and believed that by acknowledging children as individuals, they could more easily reach their fulfilled potential.
“If we try to teach every child the same way, then every child will fail in some way,” Duppong says.
Nicky Holzworth attended a Montessori preschool in Bismarck, recalling it as “a place of peace and light.” She was reintroduced to Montessori through her former parish in Rochester, Minn., which used the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for religious education.
Holzworth eventually trained as a Level 1 and 2 catechist, and was glad to find it being implemented at Holy Spirit after the family’s move to Fargo. Students are grouped by critical periods of learning, so ages 3 to 6, 6 to 9 and 9 to 12 are together.
“It starts off with what’s essential, and each year it builds on itself and unfolds,” Holzworth says. “I’m amazed at the depth and capacity that children have. If we don’t watch closely, we give them less than what their capacity is.”
While “on the periphery” of St. Monica’s — her children are too old now to attend the school — Holzworth still helps with religious education, and hopes her grandchildren can benefit someday.
The hands-on, experiential learning, geared to the child’s innate interests, leads to an internal confidence, Holzworth says. “They don’t know about something, they know it.”
Her work as an occupational therapist at a brain clinic at Mayo Clinic for 11 years taught Holzworth not only how people learn, but what happens when things go wrong. She was impressed with how “all of the neuropsychological principles were in place” in the Montessori method, discovered simply by observing, asking, “Who are you?” and seeing each child’s unique worth.
It also encourages the development of concentration, focusing on practical life works, with everything done in sequence. “They might begin pouring beans from a container to a cup, then it’s sand, then water,” which, eventually, in the religious setting, translates into the pouring of Eucharistic wine.
And rather than being separated, faith connects with the rest of life. “It’s planting the seeds that show the interconnectedness of this world we’re living in, and the people we’re given,” along with being community-focused and cooperative.
“There is a beautiful seriousness to it,” Holzworth says, “and a dignity in what they’re doing.”
Educating their souls
Mariko Dahl was drawn to St. Monica’s after observing the fruits of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, where she discovered children are more independent and inquisitive about the world than she’d realized.
“To watch them fall in love with learning and their own individualism was both shocking and inspiring,” she says.
Mariko and her husband, Dan, were just beginning to discern kindergarten options for their oldest child, Vivian, when St. Monica’s, which started in the 2021-22 school year, came to their attention. In the more traditional settings they’d observed, she says, they’d noticed students sitting behind desks, mostly being talked at.
“I fell in love with the Montessori method, the culture of curiosity and the exploration that was fostered,” she says, noting the holistic and sensitive approach. “I thought, ‘Wow, to be that young and in love with learning would be such a gift,’” adding, “You have all of these works in front of you and an opportunity to explore what God made you for, not just for educating their bodies and brains, but their souls.”
Perhaps most convincing was how her daughter, Vivian, responded — without the anxiety she recalls from her own school experiences. “She is on Cloud 9 every day, and excited about the things she gets to explore.”
While Vivian tends to be attracted toward art projects, Dan says, he’s noticed how numbers and reading are integrated into the art.
“The student doesn’t even realize they’re learning these other concepts,” he says, calling it a “multidisciplinary approach,” rather than every subject being in its own box.
Mariko says they’ve not only been pleased with the attention Vivian gets, but also, “how much the kids love each other.”
Just the beginning
As parent and board chair, Duppong says the school aims to incorporate older ages into the program. Currently, they’re training guides for the next “developmental plane” of learning, to hopefully welcome 6- to 9-year-olds this fall.
Though not currently affiliated with the Fargo Diocese, she says, the curriculum is based on training received through The Way of the Shepherd in Blaine, Minn., a Catholic Montessori school in operation for over 20 years. At present, 13 children are enrolled, with tuition based on what families can offer; they don’t want to set financial limits on attending, Duppong says.
“We will be training our teachers to fundraise to supplement what we can offer them, so they’re able to have a more livable wage.”
Currently housing the school, Kalene Jaeger, director, and her husband, Kyle, have articulated to her the ultimate goal: To raise the next generation of saints, in the most holistic way possible, through teaching the children to think logically with the inspiration of God as a guide.
Duppong says the Montessori concept, when first developed over 100 years ago, ebbed and flowed, waning for a time as the Industrial Revolution emerged.
“We had to standardize the school and pump out children who knew X, Y and Z,” she says. “Montessori is all about slowing down, following the child, letting the child be interested and learning how to learn.”
Of the five Montessori schools in Fargo, she says, only St. Monica’s has a religious affiliation.
“Montessori is such an Incarnational way of learning,” Duppong adds, noting that students don’t have to memorize numbers because they feel, touch and see them. “You’re using the God-given developmental planes to help children understand their abstract world.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on March 25, 2022.]