• Grace McKinney

Making Intimate Spaces for Reading: An Interview with Dr. Catherine McTamaney

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

To some, Dr. Catherine McTamaney is a renowned author and lecturer at Montessori events and conferences who pushes Montessorians to embrace the inherent goodness of the child. To others, she's an incredibly engaging Associate Professor in the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University who challenges future teachers to think deeply about their own philosophies of education and the state of educational policies that challenge or promote them. To still others, she's one of the founding forces behind Wildflower Schools and a partner to the MIT Innovation lab, encouraging teachers and families to reconfigure their ideas about what schools can or should look like. To two (well, if we're only limiting to biology), she's Mom.

While I could go on, stacking hat upon hat upon hat, I'll limit myself to say that Dr. McTamaney is overall an abundantly compassionate, experienced, and dynamic resource for teachers and parents alike, and we were thrilled when she agreed to join us for an interview. I had the pleasure of chatting with her about Montessori, parenting, and, of course, books for young people.

We've got to start with the basics, naturally: How did you find yourself in Montessori?

I'm a Montessori kid. My mother was one of those trailblazer Montessorians who directed her own school in the early 1970s. I went to school with her there until second grade. At that time, that was as high as you could go in Montessori in our area. Her school, the Christopher Academy, is the oldest Montessori school in the state of New Jersey and is still a thriving, beautiful community.  But you also teach college students about education in the more, well, standard, sense. What threads remain constant in your teaching as you work with future educators?

I'm sort of subversive there, I guess. At the end of the day, Montessori is more than a curriculum: it's a way of understanding development, preparing for it and responding to it. From that lens, it's easy to talk about "standard" education practices without giving up my Montessori-ness. Best practice is totally consistent with Montessori, and Montessori is an exemplary best practice. In teacher education, I think you'd still see the same emphasis on creating environments within which people can learn rather than thinking of teaching and learning as a transmission of information. I hope to do that with my adult learners in the same way I tried to in the Montessori classroom.  You have several articles about creativity and the arts on your blog, MontessoriDaoshi, and you're a major advocate for the arts in general. Where do books and read-alouds for young people slot into your conceptualization of the arts in the classroom?

Children have a natural aesthetic awareness, one which I think is taught out of them in environments that don't offer the highest quality images and ideas. Great children's books engage that aesthetic. I appreciate, too, that a great book can be experienced in a number of different ways: as a read-aloud, read independently, observed independently, paced differently, paused differently and expounded upon, as a fodder for great conversation or as a moment for silence and reflection. That's what the arts do—they provide an intimate space for meaning-making. And by intimate, I don't mean quiet. I mean that space that touches the most personal parts of our experience, shared and distinct. The literary arts are no different.

If a parent asks you about choosing books, what framework or suggestions might you offer them? How might you talk to them about books for young people?

Ask for advice, but take the time to look with your own eyes before you share something with your child. There are too many great ones out there to go by chance, so I'd first ask other readers and people who love children what books they love, too. Then, like anything you do with your children, experience it for yourself first to be able to predict how you might help your child to experience it. And remember that flash isn't substance in children's literature. Look for the ones that hold your attention.

We're sure you've gotten this one before, but what do you say to the parent of a four- or five-year-old who just loves superheroes and princesses? Do they have a place for the very young child?

Oy! Too big! But here's a little bit of something I wrote on this: Fantastic characters are more reflective of adults' misunderstanding of children's needs than of children's inherent interest. In much the same way that adults think children enjoy loud, raucous environments, they also believe children prefer pretend characters to real ones. Look to your child's drawings, though: very young children tend not to draw imaginary characters. They draw Mom or Dad, or their siblings, or their homes. How many of your children cried the first time they saw, "Santa?" How may hid behind your legs when the 8-foot-mouse tried to greet them? Children develop a sense of confidence in the world by their repeated experiences with reliable situations. Fantasy characters undermine their expectations by attributing skills or powers that are inconsistent with children's perceptions to individuals with whom they can never truly interact. (full post here)

There's often a lot of stress and guilt for parents around reading and teaching their children to read, and so much pressure around making sure they have a love of books. How do you direct parents who are concerned about their child's literacy?

Love books and love reading with your child and your child will love books and love reading too. If the time they spend with you reading is stressful, they'll avoid it. If it's the place where you discover things together, where you look through the pages of a book into the wide world, safe in each other's arms, you'll be giving them more than a leg-up on their literacy scores. You'll be giving them the foundation of relationships, security and curiosity that reading together inspires.

What books did you read as a child that have stuck with you?

Mr. Pine's Purple House—loved it and I still read it with my kids. I loved loved loved Maurice Sendak. When I was reading independently, I was a huge Madeleine L'Engle fan and could spend endless mornings in bed reading before I got up for the day. In truth, I think they have something in common. I was always attracted to stories about outsiders—I think many of us feel like we're trying to fit in to a world we don't understand very well, and books were the place where I could find a community of other characters who were also just doing their best to "get it." The ones I still love are in the same themes: Allen Say's illustrations, Douglas Wood's beautiful stories, and Peter Reynolds are common favorites now. But I also do love some Mo Willems, Jon Klassen and Daniel Handler [Lemony Snicket]... and if any or all of them wanted to invite me out for a cup of coffee or a beer, I'd gladly say yes. 

Is there a book you wish existed when you were a kid?

I keep about fifteen copies of The Paper Bag Princess on my desk at all times, ready to give away to people who might need it, and I've recently started carrying the small, pocket-sized edition with me just in case. I'm glad my daughter has grown up in a world that already had that book. 

Where can we find more from you? 

MontessoriDaoshi is a good start, or any of my three books (The Tao of Montessori, A Delicate Task, and Picasso in the Preschool: Children's Development in and through the Arts). There are two more in my head that need to get out soon, so maybe be patient for those. And ask?

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