TMM Spotlight: Jake Cohen

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself? Your background, your interests, your dreams?

My background is in theatre. I studied drama in college and after graduating worked as an actor and teaching artist in Chicago. I loved the work (when I could get it…) but after a few years of freelance hustle, I found myself seeking more control over my time. When a friend connected me to my first Montessori assistant position, I was hooked. Beyond my immediate fascination with the pedagogy, modeling calm in the classroom gifted me a newfound inner-peace (normalization?) that came as a welcome reprieve from the actor’s frenzy. Over the years, I’ve been delighted to meet quite a few fellow Montessorians with performing arts backgrounds; I suspect there’s a research paper in there somewhere…

Eager to learn more about the philosophy, in 2013, I left Chicago to begin a graduate program in Montessori Early Childhood at St. Mary’s College of California. At St. Mary’s, I conducted my thesis research on a Head Start agency (the nation’s largest public preschool program) attempting to implement Montessori pedagogy. I focused my research on the tensions between Montessori philosophy and Head Start’s program assessments, which play a critical role in setting funding levels. The resulting case study highlighted just a few of the many obstacles to public Montessori in the US and helped me identify this cause as one I’d like to take up moving forward.

My partner and I recently relocated to Philadelphia to be closer to our families on the east coast. I currently teach in a primary classroom in downtown Philly and continue to find great satisfaction in the work. Although I don’t foresee leaving the classroom any time soon, I am listening to the many other facets of a life in Montessori that call to me. I greatly enjoyed my first foray into research and hope to return to it before too long. The emerging field of Montessori with elders intrigues and inspires me. I am eager to contribute to the efforts of so many across the US who have advocated effectively for the expansion of Montessori into the public sector. Each of these paths represents a “dream” of sorts. Although I’m not yet certain of my next steps, I’m deeply grateful to work in our field at this moment in history as so many Montessorians advocate for human flourishing in such promising ways.

Q: What was your first experience with Montessori?

I remember a conversation I had in my freshman year of high school in which a friend described her Montessori preschool experience. I forget how we got onto the subject, but I recall her obvious fondness for her years in a Montessori environment. Specifically, I remember that as she described the pleasing sound of beans clinking in a spooning activity, I felt a vicarious satisfaction as well. This suggests to me that, in articulating Montessorian ideas, it’s possible to appeal to the adult’s inner child; despite my knowing nothing of the philosophy or curriculum, her evocative description of simple practical life activities awoke some dormant aspect of my psyche. I remember saying something along the lines of “I’d like to learn more about that…” There are many moments in my life I’d like to revisit with the aid of a time machine but this one nears the top of the list.

Q: Can you share with us a Montessori moment that continues to inspire your practice?

Perhaps my most impactful Montessori moment occurred during my very first visit to a Montessori classroom. While interviewing for my first primary assistant position, I observed a three-year-old child holding a small spring that had likely fallen out of a pen. He placed the small coil on the floor and watched it roll away from him. He moved to a different spot in the room and repeated the experiment, only to find the spring rolled towards him. He beamed with the joy of discovery– the floor was not, in fact, flat! He giddily mapped the topography of the classroom floor for the duration of my observation. This was my first experience witnessing the child scientist at work. I wanted to know more about the pedagogy that allows the child to conduct such experiments uninterrupted. I suppose we both had epiphanies in that moment: he that the floor was not as level as it seemed, and I that it was time to learn all I could about Montessori.

Q: What’s your favourite Montessori quote? And why?

Dr. Montessori writes that following the successes of the first Casa dei Bambini, many asked her about the “method” used to achieve such results. As many readers will remember, her response was “There was no method to be seen; what was seen was a child” (Montessori, 1966, p. 136)

I love this reminder to look beyond any orthodoxy in our practice and always return to the child (which I read as a return to observation). Our very complex work is, in many ways, so very simple.

Q: Is there a Montessori material you love particularly and why?

The hardest question I’ve had to answer in a long while! I go through phases with each of the materials, so I guess I’ll only speak to today: this morning, I fell back in love with the knobless cylinders while introducing them to a new student. As so often happens in nonverbal presentations, when it was her turn to work with the material, she unquestioningly mimicked my two-finger scanning. As she mirrored my gestures as best she could, I found myself contemplating young animals in the wild and their instinctive mimicking of elders for the purposes of survival. Although our knobless cylinder lesson involved decidedly lower stakes, I’m always struck by the way the materials can elicit such deep, evolved impulses in young children.


Montessori, M. (1966) The Secret of Childhood New York: Ballantine Books