Interview with Ms. Liotta
‘One of the Things I’m Proud of Is My Own Development…’
As part of Evergreen's fiftieth anniversary celebration, Michael Tomasky, a journalist for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, interviewed Lynn at Mr. DeMarchi’s request about her life and her experiences at our school. They spoke at the school on February 13, 2013. Ms. Liotta passed away on September 24, 2018.
Michael Tomasky: So I want to start with just some personal questions about you, not too personal. Where are you from?
Lynn Liotta: New Jersey. Somerville, New Jersey.
MT: And were either of your parents educators?
LL: My mother was a teacher and then a reading specialist and then an educator of teachers in New Jersey, my father was not.
MT: So you got some of your interest and desire maybe from your mother?
LL: Actually not. [ Laughs ] I was determined to go in the opposite direction -- didn’t work.
MT: But you ended up going in the same direction.
MT: So how did that happen?
LL: Oh…I think eventually after doing a great many things, I discovered that teaching was…actually exciting, enlivening, and I was interested in keeping enlivened. And I didn’t really get into it till I was after 30 years old, and I saw the path that most people were going, it was either the path of poverty or the path of boredom. So this was something of interest.
MT: And what else did you do in college and just out of college?
LL: In college, I majored in political science and philosophy. And out of college, I went to art school. Manhattanville College and Cooper Union.
MT: You were on a really different path.
LL: Oh, very, very, yes. But I needed money, and so substitute teaching was possible through all of the New York City requirements for teaching art. They put you on a long list. And by the time they get to the bottom of the list or your name, they found some school in the upper Bronx, burned-out area, where you can be the only teacher in the classroom who doesn’t carry a whip in their back pocket. By that time, I was already in Washington getting my Montessori credentials.
MT: And this was 19-what?
MT: So what drew you to Montessori? Do you remember when you first started discovering it?
LL: Yeah. I was subbing in New York, and then I had a job teaching high school art in New Jersey. And in the process of doing it, I discovered that it was really too late for a lot of these kids. We need to get them earlier in their careers. So then I subbed in Head Start programs for a little bit, and after a child offered to knife me, I decided I needed to do something else.
MT: A Head Start child?
LL: Yes! Ha! I thought, “Well, this is a tough life these kids lead.” And so I – my brother knew a woman who was an instructor at the Washington Montessori Institute, and put me in touch with her. I talked to her and decided I might as well do it. And for this credential, my parents would actually give me financial backing, so I did move to Washington and got that credential, and then immediately left for California.
MT: And what about the Montessori Method resonated with you?
LL: I thought it would work. I mean, I had such spotty sorts of experiences with teaching, and none of what I saw was really working. And I thought it would work. And I still think it works.
MT: Okay, so you went to California in…
LL: ’75. Laguna Beach. I lived there for three years, and at which point, I bought a Montessori school. And I ran it for a couple of years, but it was really, really badly paying for living in Laguna Beach. It was hard.
MT: Do you remember what your salary was?
LL: Yes, it was $10,000, and I was the head. [ Laughs ] I still liked it, but there were other things that were pulling, and so I moved from there to Switzerland. And I stayed in Switzerland for a year, and then came to Washington. I worked in a Montessori school which was really bad. Then I had a job at the Institute for Policy Studies on DuPont Circle. And I worked there for a number of years and then got the job at Evergreen.
MT: So you started at Evergreen in 19…
LL: ’83 I think.
MT: So where was it then?
LL: It was on Grubb Road.
MT: Down by the co-op?
LL: It was -- they rented from the – there’s a big temple on Grubb Road, and they rented from the temple. They had the downstairs, but it was a shared facility, so one day a week, they had after-school classes for the temple, and everything had to be put away. So we had a lot of rolling shelves. I think the science room in the elementary wing still has those rolling shelves, so we can roll everything together.
MT: So did it move from Grubb to here, or were there other intermediate steps?
LL: From Grubb to Connecticut Avenue, the temple on Connecticut Avenue in Kensington.
MT: So it moved here in what year, do you recall?
LL: Oh, gosh, it was a terrible move. I think it must have been 10 years ago, about.
MT: Right, so you said earlier that you had some difficult Montessori experiences, but this has obviously been a good one – you’ve stuck with it for 30 years. So what’s been good about it?
LL: Ha ha! It hasn’t always been good in terms of the whole school things, but it has always been good for classroom. It’s fun teaching kids, and it does keep me alive. And it, you know, it keeps me thinking, because the kids change every day, and you have to constantly know how to reach them without taking over.
And that is the biggest lesson, how not to control, because I don’t know if it’s strong in most people, but it’s certainly strong in me—it’s the desire to control things, keep it orderly, have it controlled, know what people are going to do, with children especially, and with all people, in general. But people are not readable completely. You can read them by the moment, but you never know what they’re going to do afterwards.
MT: You said earlier that you were drawn to Montessori because you think it works. Can you talk about why? What in a child does it reach, does it identify and pluck out, and strengthen?
LL: Well, it’s based on sensorial learning at this age level. And children are so drawn to sensorial things of any sort. So it’s really the come-on that Montessori invented, and everything’s attached to that. And so children learn fine motor from a sensorial kind of doing.
And it’s also based very individually, which is helpful for both the teacher and for the child because then you come in on where they should be. And if you know where their interests are but they’re not ready for something, you know how to prepare them for it. So there’s a lot of individual work. And even when I work in a small group, I’m working individually within the group.
It’s kind of a weird thing, but you give a lesson, and each child has their chance; and it’s a very small group, so each child doesn’t have to wait for a chance.
MT: Right, I know that one of the tenets is each child at her or his own pace. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on that and how you think that helps children.
LL: Well, because they’re different -- especially at this point, they’re different. As we grow older, we learn to even out our skills, even if there are some skills that are really not very well developed, you learn how to kind of bring them to, at least, a workable level.
Children don’t have that need. They work very intently on something they want to learn, and then they move on. And what Montessori does is that in that third year that we keep talking about, keep your child through the three years of primary, that third year is when you take all those little strands that they’ve worked on here, a little there, a little there -- it puts them all together in one basket so they can carry it away with them.
If a child is intent on working on just letters and that’s all they want to work on, all this other stuff is there and you keep on showing it, but they may not take it on for themselves. But the letters, as soon as they see a letter lesson anywhere in the room, they’re there. And they may not even be aware that they’re doing letter lessons there, but they are sitting there and absorbing it, and they’re really intent.
So that’s their own pace, because they’re taking it in, and then when they are ready for that, they already have a lot of information. And it’s available to them. Everything is available even if it’s not available for them to touch at that time. Everything’s there to be seen, to be held, and to admire. There are other students who have learned how to do it. So that’s the other thing is you have the levels are all mixed together, both age and ability-wise, so they learn from each other, even if it’s just watching.
MT: That’s the next question I was going to ask, that I know you have as old as six and as young as three in your classroom, is that correct?
LL: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah! [ Laughs ] So that makes for some interesting interactions and collisions. It is an interesting thing, and I’ve discovered that three-year-olds come in – everybody thinks they’re really cute, and three-year-olds are adamant, “I can do it!”
So after a while, the children stop trying to help them that way, but if they can’t reach something and – you right away teach them, “Ask so and so,” and they learn the children they can ask freely who will help them without giving them any difficulties.
And so they will ask those other children, which is a growth in their independence, because not to ask an adult is a big move. And so they ask other children, and it allows them to think, “Oh, I can do that someday.”
MT: Do you think that there are fewer disciplinary difficulties in a Montessori school than in traditional education environments?
LL: Well, it depends. Yes, there are fewer difficulties of the most apparent kind. You have to figure the teachers are not literally sitting on the kids, you know, we’re not maintaining a room, “Everybody do this, everybody be quiet.”
Once in a while, it’s good to have a quiet game because it’s driving everybody crazy, but it’s not an “everybody do this” kind of situation, which always brings the children who don’t want to be cooperative to the surface. So you tend to try to get there before the situation comes up because you see that child and you see him in a situation, or her, in a situation which is going to irritate them or create a problem.
MT: So no one’s offered to knife you…
LL: No one has done that, no, not at all. I think the best I’ve gotten to that is someone’s offered to bite me. [ Laughs ]
MT: Let’s talk a little bit more about the changes in the school in your 30 years. One of the things that I think we, and all the parents, like is the tremendous diversity at the school. Was that always the case?
LL: That was always. The school was established on the basis that it would be diverse, and its original position right on the edge of DC really brought in a lot of children all the way across Northwest into -- the school had a very large DC component at that time, and so we had children who were from fairly wealthy families, we also had children from the area of Northwest that’s right near North Capitol Street. We had Silver Spring children, and we had Bethesda children. So we had quite a mix economically and racially.
MT: So that was bit pioneering at that point. How do you think that’s added to the school’s character?
LL: Oh, immensely. I think it really helps for children. Children don’t’ really discriminate at this age especially. You don’t get that sense of, like, “Oh, he’s no good because…” We’ve had some situations of that, and you know that it comes from home. Or it might come from some older child who they adore who has the wrong end of the stick.
And the difficulties that come from it usually come from their parents because they don’t realize the kids are just talking about surface. And so I’ll talk to them, and I say, “Well, look,” you know, “put your hand out there. Is your hand really white?” [ Laughs and points to white formica table] “This is white, is your hand white?” You know, and so I think these things are just names. So they…It works out.
MT: Have there been any other innovations here at this location–
LL: Oh, the library is way nicer than it used to be. It used to be hard to find things in it. The playground. The rain garden is definitely new, and just the playground. And, actually, the rain garden is nice because just last year, I noticed there was a return of things like butterflies and birds actually on the playground. It takes a little bit for nature to reassert itself, but they’re coming now because there’s water and there are plants and just not beaten down dirt and wood chips.
MT: So how many more years do you have left, do you think?
LL: This is a bombshell of a question. I’m not answering. [ Laughs ]
MT: I wasn’t putting you on the spot. But you still have lots of energy for this, is what I’m getting at.
LL: Yeah, pretty much, pretty much.
MT: And what do you look back on with the most pride?
LL: Goodness gracious! I don’t know. I really don’t know. Each year is a separate year, and at the same time, it’s all one big, long thing – because the children are with me for one year and then to the next year and then to the next year. And then I see them off, hopefully, to the elementary because then I can still say hi to them and see how they are and I can talk to their teachers, “How are they doing on this?”
I don’t really know. I don’t think of it as a situation really of pride. I’m glad I’ve had a hand in shaping the primary program. It was a long time ago that the head of the school then decided that she wanted to have actual departments within, and so there were people named as heads of departments. I’ve been head of the department long before I probably deserved to be because I wasn’t there that long when it happened, but I’m glad that I’ve been able to do that.
I’m also glad that I still enjoy teaching, and I guess one of the things that I’m proud of is my own development. And I think without that kind of reward, I wouldn’t still be enjoying the teaching because I’ve changed a lot over the years, and I’m glad. [ Laughs ]
MT: Any last words that you’d like to share with parents reading this?
LL: Evergreen’s a great place. It always has been. It’s had incredible administrative ups and downs. And I mean, there was a point when staff – the heads of these different departments would get together once every two weeks to reshape how things were going in the school, because we had such a dearth of leadership.
So, essentially, although the school was teacherly run, it was really this group that ran it. And this went on for years. [ Laughs ] It was kind of strange. You’re like, “Board, don’t you notice?!”
MT: But all’s ok now?
LL: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it is. It’s fine now.