January 24, 2018

Cosmic Education at Princeton Montessori School With the “Magical” Eliza Hammer and Mary Robinson

“LET THEM EXPERIMENT:” Eliza Hammer (left) and Mary Robinson, teachers at the Princeton Montessori School and leaders of the after-school program, make sure that, as the students are engaged in experiences in problem-solving, “the teachers are having fun and the children are having fun.”

By Donald Gilpin

Imagine a school where children don’t want to go home at the day’s end.

Eliza Hammer and Mary Robinson teach in the classrooms of Princeton Montessori School during the day, then carry their enthusiasms and the Montessori philosophy into the after-school program they run from 2:30 to 6 p.m.

“We bring our passions into the classroom,” said Robinson. 

“The after-school program has become dynamic because of what the children love to do and also what the teachers love to do,” added Hammer.

“Our after-school programs, led by Eliza and Mary, are exceptional,” said School Head Michelle Morrison. “They are staffed by trained and experienced teachers, who take the Montessori philosophy and infuse the after-school experience with it. Eliza and Mary are described as “magical,” and create environments where children don’t want to go home at day’s end.”

Robinson oversees the primary children, about 30 3- to 6-year-olds in the after-school group with two other teachers, and Hammer is in charge of the elementary contingent of about 32 first through fifth grade children with one other teacher.

“Mary loves music and the Beatles and bugs and the outdoors and science,” Hammer said. “I love to build things and I have an architecture background. The elementary children can have more distinct ideas of things they want to create, so they’re learning more about materials and tools and taking things in their minds and bringing them out in ways that primary kids aren’t quite capable of.”

Robinson added, “The primary kids have fantastic ideas, but they haven’t always figured out how to bring them out in practical ways.” She described the structured but flexible “open-ended” after-school program with music on Tuesdays; storytelling on Wednesdays; science, video-making, art projects, and movie day on Thursdays; and Farsi Friday with Persian music and culture and basic Farsi language learning taught by a staff member of Iranian descent.

Mondays are the days for assigning and carrying out classroom jobs: the peace circle, deciding who’s going to pass the peace stone and light the peace candle; pet care for the class pets, a bearded dragon and a hermit crab; and open-ended time to work on individual projects according to the children’s interests.

“We help them,” Robinson said. “Last year we created a lot of board games. After school’s a lot of fun — and creative.” She described the collaborative approach that pervades the Montessori environment. “Whatever teachers and students are interested in, that’s what we bring in,” she said. “What the teachers are excited about, the students really absorb and get into it.”

Founded in 1968, the Princeton Montessori School on Cherry Valley Road follows the Montessori ethos and designs its programs “to help students develop a passion for learning, a strong self-image, high levels of academic and social competence, and the confidence needed to face challenges with optimism and ability,” the School website states. “We strive to not only teach students the answers, but to teach them which questions to ask.”

Hammer, a professional horticulturalist and a certified yoga, tai chi, and karate teacher, with degrees in anthropology and architecture, joined Princeton Montessori School in 2012 and is currently the environmental education teacher.

“A belief in a multi-disciplinary approach has defined my interests in ecology, architecture, landscaping, and horticulture,” she said. “Above all, I love being with children.” Noting a lifelong “love affair with the outdoors,” her biography on the School website states, “she firmly believes that children grow into devoted environmentalists when their connection to the natural world is realized through exploration, play, and a sense of wonder.”

When not at school Hammer enjoys building projects with her husband, adding onto their house, maintaining their aquaponic system, and converting their yard into a sustainable permaculture.

Robinson, a trained artist who thought she was going to be a printmaker, came to Princeton Montessori School in 2009 “and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. It was everything I loved about working with children.”

At her earlier job at a traditional preschool, she described a disconnect between teachers and children, “they didn’t understand the children. They didn’t remember what it was like to be children.” Princeton Montessori, however, provided an environment in which she has thrived. “When I started working here, the philosophy seemed right,” she said. “Everything made sense. I could see the benefits of the Montessori method by the way the children responded.”

Outside of the classroom Robinson enjoys taking birding trips, playing guitar, and kayaking. She also spends time printmaking in her art studio and doing freelance graphic design. She lives in Newtown, Pa., with her husband and cat.

Robinson talked about the importance of the School’s emphasis on the environment and the idea of “cosmic education.” “The idea is that you’re a citizen of the world. You look at the big picture. You start big and get smaller so it includes everybody. The children are trained to think of the entire world. They’re trained to do jobs in the classroom. It’s their environment. It’s our job to take care of the Earth. We’re stewards of the Earth.”

She went on to describe how her students are acquiring the skills to be creative problem-solvers. “We give them the chance to take whatever ideas they have and think about a practical way to make whatever they’re dreaming of a reality. We let them experiment. There’s so much experimenting that goes on. They come with all the ideas, then test it out and if it doesn’t work, they’ll come up with another solution.”

She continued, “I think a lot of adults don’t realize how capable children are when you give them the tools and sit back and watch them. They just amaze us over and over again. Sometimes they come up with something so outside the box that you never even considered it before.”

Hammer went on to describe the community atmosphere and the family feeling that the School fosters, and the particular attributes of the after-school program.

“Our after-school program provides a service that is lacking in many of these children’s lives,” she said. “The children are here with their friends. They’re making things that are of their own design, following their own interests. It’s a lovely home feeling of being in a community. This is their second home. They love being here.”

“It’s like a big family,” Robinson added. “There’s no drudgery, and there are so many possibilities for us and them to explore. They’re excited the whole time.”

“The children are stimulated academically, intellectually,” Hammer said. “The world is there to be explored. Is this academic or is it fun? You really don’t know where the fun ends and the academics begin.”