Michael Dorer, Montessori Storyteller
From attending a one-room schoolhouse and growing up on a wildlife preserve in northern Minnesota to his Montessori teacher training in Bergamo, Italy and consulting for schools around the world, Michael Dorer has had a fascinating life. In this interview, Michael shares his history, insights, and humor, and discusses his new book, The Deep Well of Time: The Transformative Power of Storytelling in the Classroom.
(Irene Baker) Michael, congratulations on your recent award from MACTE [Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education].
(Michael Dorer) Thank you so much. My colleagues jokingly refer to it as my award for being elderly, since they call it “Wisdom of the Elders Award.”
(IB) (laughing) I think it’s a little more than that! So, let’s start at the beginning. What was your childhood like?
(MD) Well, I was born in 1947 in Minneapolis. When I was young, we moved to a wildlife preserve in northern Minnesota where I spent most of my growing up time. It was a very large area, mostly marshes, devoted to migratory water fowl, and me! My canoe and me. So it was an opportunity for me to be solitary in nature, which I valued a lot. I ended up going to a little one-room country school from ages eight to twelve.
(IB) I was very touched to read in your book about the deep connection you had with your grandfather.
(MD) I grew up in my granddad’s house. He was an outdoorsman and a conservationist, so we spent a lot of time together fishing, hunting, tramping in the woods. He was also a veteran of World War I.
Maria Montessori talked about how real experiences are the “launching pad,” the kicking-off point for imagination. So those experiences gave my grandfather a lot of stories and launched an imagination that was fabulous.
My granddad was a founder of an environmental movement called “Save Minnesota’s Wetlands.” The Dorer State Forest in Minnesota was named after him. He was a Renaissance-type guy, a published poet, multilingual, and a gourmet. He would offer me unusual cheeses and other unique foods and say, “Try this, it’s wonderful.” He was an incredible influence on me.
(IB) Especially his stories?
(MD) Yes. Every night I’d go to bed and he’d come in and lie down next to me and start telling a story. It was always about the “little people,” and their leader’s name was always a variation of Michael, like Mike or Michel. I didn’t realize that these stories had such a powerful, long-lasting effect on me – in ways that I probably still can’t point to, but I’m really grateful.
(IB) Part of an ancient tradition.
(MD) It is indeed.
(IB) How did you first discover Montessori?
(MD) That’s an interesting story. In 1969, I had left college and was kind of at loose ends. The war in Viet Nam was going on and I was involved in the peace movement. One day I was wandering around and there was a sign on a church that said “Montessori Day Care.” I had no idea what this could mean, but being a curious type, I decided to go in and ask.
There was a busy group of children, ages three to six, working. I was just fascinated. Their teacher, a Dutch woman, answered my questions and gave me a book called The Montessori Method. I read it that night and came back the next day. I was really excited. I told her, “I’m a peacenik and this talks about peace. Give me more.”
My life plan was to go to law school and enter politics. But a volunteer job came up at this school, one of the earliest free public Montessori programs in Minnesota. I thought, “I’m excited by these books. I’m idealistic. I’ll do it for a month or two.”
I worked as the nap room supervisor and I cooked breakfast. But then I got promoted to assistant. That was a whole new world. I thought, “Oh my gosh! How do you know how to use these materials?” There was no training anywhere near us in those days. Most teachers trained in Asia or Europe.
Montessori Captured Me
Later, a teacher-trainer came to the school and offered me a scholarship to the first Montessori training in Minnesota. I said, “I’m not your guy. I’m going to go to law school and plan to become a politician. A scholarship’s a waste of money on me. I wouldn’t give you more than a year or two.”
He replied, “That’s okay.”
So reluctantly I agreed. I said, “I’ll take this training, but I’m warning you, five years is the absolute max I’ll ever work with children. My mom was a teacher; I don’t want to do that.” Somehow Montessori found me, captured me, and kept me for 50 years. My life has become a Montessori life. But how I got into it – was it kismet or serendipity or the universe? It simply called to me.
(IB) Especially Montessori’s emphasis on peace education?
(MD) The Montessori Method talks about the classroom being a model of a peaceful society. If you live peace and you offer peace, you can carry peace away and you are a peaceful person. That really appealed to me. Montessori said that all the legislature can do is outlaw war, but education can create peace. This was entirely new to me.
(IB) Did you meet your wife, Rose, through Montessori?
(MD) I did. After I graduated, I got a job at Rochester Montessori School in Minnesota. This young woman was assigned to my classroom to be an intern. She was a country girl – we had that in common. We were both in love with Montessori, and then with each other. The rest, as they say, is history. She’s still in the classroom, her 48th year. Neither of us had thought of Montessori as a long term thing at first, but obviously, it became more than a profession. It became a life.
Bigger Furniture & Bigger Children
(IB) How long did you teach three-to six-year-olds?
(MD) I was only with the three-to-sixes about five years. Then I was hired to teach at a new elementary Montessori program in St. Paul. I asked, “Is there anything that’s different about elementary?”
The director replied, “The furniture’s bigger and so are the children. Otherwise it’s exactly the same.”
After teaching for a year, I took the elementary training and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a lot more to this than I’d ever known.” I felt guilty, even though the children had had a good year with a lot of sensorial extensions. Well, you can’t go back. I’d discovered that there was more to the elementary than larger furniture. That transition into elementary was serendipitous because it ultimately led to my deep fascination with storytelling and with cosmic education.
Discovering the Power of Storytelling
(IB) Was the storytelling curriculum what intrigued you most about teaching elementary Montessori?
(MD) No, I didn’t like storytelling at first. What I liked about the primary was its emphasis on hard-edged reality. We learned that a pink cube was actually a pink cube (not a choo-choo train). Practical life was real stuff. If you’re going to cut bananas, you actually had a banana and a knife. But when I got to the Bergamo elementary training course in Italy, they started talking about tales, myths, and storytelling, and I had no time for that. I was really attracted to the didactic approach to math, to grammar.
Also, they didn’t do a lot with storytelling in Bergamo. There were times when my trainer would say “This would be a place where you should have a story. You could tell a story about an ox and a house.”
There is one geometry lesson about divergent, parallel, and convergent lines. The accompanying story compares how children, represented by paper dolls, travel along those different lines. The ones traveling the convergent lines meet and fall in love. I wasn’t interested in that story at all. I thought it was campy and corny. But there it was in my album. I guess I had to do it. And I did do it – really badly, because I didn’t like it. The thing was, it worked! It was amazing. The children liked it, even though I had done a really bad job. I thought, “Wait a minute. Maybe there actually is something to this. Maybe the next time I’ll try to put a little effort into it.” And I did.
I wondered if it would work for lessons where there wasn’t a story, for example, the mathematical concept of area. The presentation I’d been given for area was dry in the extreme and very didactic. I had a terrible time making children enthusiastic about it. So I made up a story called “Measuring the Farm” and it worked! It was the very first original story that I wrote. And that’s in the book.
From then on, it was, “Why not capitalize on what works?” You know what they say about converts? The convert is the most enthusiastic. I was a convert – I wanted to tell everyone about storytelling!
Children as Storytellers & Heroes
(IB) One of my favorite stories that you tell at workshops is “How Division was Invented.” Students in your lower elementary class wrote it. How did that come about?
(MD) I think it’s important to try to get children to become storytellers and story writers – story creators. Listening is important forever. But from that comes being able to tell and share stories. Or dramatize them and act them out. Or begin to be like a jazz player and spin off with ideas that go this way and that, off that original story. Then create your own stories. If that emerges in children, I am delighted. I want to celebrate that. That is exactly what happened with the story about division.
(IB) I love how you often say, “Maybe it was a child who was the hero, who invented something crucial for civilization.”
(MD) That’s important to me. In stories like “Measuring the Farm,” the focus is on a little girl, Marigold, who emerges to become the heroine of the story, the discoverer of area. I want children to know that great discoveries don’t have to be made by adults. That’s a theme I have, not just with storytelling. I would tell my students, “Let’s work to define words, and later let’s check a dictionary. Not to see whether we’re right or wrong, but to see if we defined it better than they did.”
(IB) I love that.
(MD) I want to get that across to children – that you, too, could be the discoverer. You could be the dictionary writer. We don’t know who made the greatest discoveries of humankind, like the first use of fire, so why not give that discovery to a child?
The Spiritual Bond of Storytelling
(IB) Do you have any stories that have a spiritual theme?
(MD) Yes – every single one of them. The human spirit can’t be divorced from the notion of story. Stories are spiritual in their very nature. The telling of stories and the receiving of stories creates a spiritual bond between the teller and the audience, between the teacher and the children. That’s a big reason why the storyteller should be the teacher in the classroom, not an outside entertainer who is brought in. Because that spiritual bond is potent and powerful – it’s a bond of trust. When I take you to a magical land, I’m going to take you there safely. And I trust you to come with me. That bond is spiritual.
(IB) How do children react to your stories?
(MD) With wonderment, happiness. “Tell it again.” “Tell another one.” I tell stories in classrooms with the goal of helping the teacher become a storyteller. I’ve gone to a number of schools, like my wife’s school, that serve children in extreme poverty and under-served racial minorities. There are a lot of children with challenges who come to these schools. When they’re in the storytelling experience, they’re transformed. They’re no longer in a situation where drugs or violence are in their lives, where there are threats to their very being, or where they’re hungry. A bond of trust is established, and they can suspend disbelief and go willingly to that land where Marigold lives.
A few weeks ago I was in the principal’s office at a school and there was a knock on the door. This little boy, who had a lot of difficulties, had been sent to the principal’s office. He came over and gave me a big hug, very excited. “Oh, how are you Mr. Dorer? So good to see you. Are you here to tell stories?” And he kept hugging me the whole time. That was because we had established something through stories – a bond.
I’m talking about that very bond, that transformative bond. It’s not because of me; it’s because of the power of the story that gave that boy something he wanted to revisit again. That was moving to me; it was tremendous.
Giving Credit to Mario Montessori
(IB) Do you know why Montessori developed the story-based curriculum for the elementary child?
(MD) Well, she was Italian, and maybe that’s it. Renilde Montessori spoke of her grandmother [Maria] telling stories in their home. However, I think that Maria Montessori did not develop this curriculum of story to the extent that her son, Mario, did. We need to give credit to Mario Montessori along with Maria.
Maria Montessori was highly educated, focused on scientific pedagogy, and wrote in a very formal way. Mario was a man of the people. He didn’t have much of a formal education, and what he wrote reads as if he is in conversation with you. He communicated with story and gave a lot to the storytelling movement. Stories like “The Piece of Paper that Sees and Speaks” are credited to him.
(IB) Did you ever meet him?
(MD) No, unfortunately he passed away two years before I went to Bergamo, but his legacy was very alive at that time. I also had the great benefit of working closely with one of my AMI mentors who trained directly with Maria Montessori, and so I felt a connection with her as well.
Feeling Grateful & Humbled
(IB) What was your reaction when your book, The Deep Well of Time, was published?
(MD) I had made the round of publishers and been rejected. But when Montessori Services purchased Parent Child Press, Jane Campbell, the owner of Montessori Services, became very interested in the book. They published it and their support was absolutely invaluable. It was what made it happen.
I was delighted to actually hold the printed copy of the book in my hand. It was just a wonderful moment for me. One of the most rewarding things is when I hear teachers tell me, “I use that story from your book all the time in my classroom.” I feel very grateful and humbled.
Storytelling in the Early Childhood Classroom
(IB) Your book is such a contribution to all of us elementary teachers. Do you feel that early childhood teachers can learn quite a bit from this book?
(MD) Well, yes. The book gives a philosophy and rationale for storytelling for all ages, as well as tips on how to memorize and tell stories. There are also some stories for early childhood teachers in the book. However, I do realize that more stories are needed for the younger children.
In the new book I’m working on, I’m putting in more for primary teachers specifically. What I want them to carry away is that storytelling is just as important for preschoolers as it is for elementary children or, for that matter, for teenagers or adults. Stories are part of us. It’s hardwired into who we are as human beings. It’s there from the tiny child all the way up. So I want to get that message to the early childhood teacher: “You, too, can tell stories.”
Teachers are going to be the ones who continue this creative work. They need to see storytelling as a central part of their work. You are actually using a time-honored vehicle – the story – to work with children in your classroom. And you’re reaching them in a way that the Cylinder Blocks never will.
(IB) What about your future plans?
(MD) Well, I continue to speak at conferences and do a lot of consulting and in-service training. Over the last few years I have spoken in Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Hungary, Taiwan, South Africa, Prague, and, of course, all over the U.S. I’m planning soon to speak in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Hong Kong. I’m presently consulting for a school in Florida about classroom performance, and I’m going to demonstrate how to tell stories. That’s going to be part of the solution. That’s the way I see it now. That’s probably part of the solution to everything.
I’m writing a new book and I’ve gotten a lot of requests for (get this!) grammar. More stories regarding the functions of words. Also stories about language mechanics, like the role of the apostrophe. So, I’ve written a story about the apostrophe which I’m trying out with children, as I do with all of my stories, before I publish them.
(IB) What are your hopes for the future?
(MD) Well, you know it’s kind of funny. The first thing we covered, this notion of peace, hasn’t left me. It was something I was passionate about many years ago, and I don’t think storytelling is a diversion from that. I think that the whole idea of the peaceful community, which centers on ways of finding peace and being peaceful, integrates perfectly with storytelling. I still think that the outcome we’re looking for in an integrated human being is peace. Being peaceful and bringing peace. Stories can be a vital part of that.
My hope for the future, among other hopes, is that people see the value of this kind of work and that teachers begin to use more stories, knowing what we do in the classroom has the power to be an influence for life. We can consciously, purposely create those memorable moments, giving children the gift of the memorable to go forward with.
(IB) Thank you, Michael. It’s been a real joy and an honor to speak with you.
—by Irene Baker, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels.
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