postheadericon An Interview with Sanford and Judy Jones

Recently, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend some time with Sanford and Judy Jones during their stay in Sarasota, Florida. The Joneses were in Sarasota for the eighth time, working with the New Gate School Elementary students and faculty on the performance of the children’s opera, Harlequin, written by Sanford and choreographed by Judy. Sanford and Judy are masters at working with young children and miraculously preparing them in five days to present outstanding musical performances!



As we began to talk, my first question was: Tell me about your background?

Judy: I started dancing in grade school in Kansas and Dallas. When I was ready to go to college I chose the University of Utah because of its excellent ballet program. After college I was off to Broadway in New York. After performing there for ten years, I opened three dance studios and directed them for twenty years.

When I met Sanford and saw one of his operas, I thought they needed some movement. So I sold the dance studios and began to choreograph the operas. Along the way, I went to Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia and got a degree in theatre.

I also took a Montessori training course that Sanford taught. I wanted to use the same philosophy and approach with children while working with them on the operas as their teachers used in the Montessori classrooms.

We started performing twenty-two operas a year all over the United States. In recent years we cut down to thirteen operas a year.  Probably this next year we’ll do only six with the opening of the Charter School in Savannah.

Sanford: I have loved music since I was a child. I was the kind of child that you never needed to ask to practice the piano. I just loved it! I went on to accompany the high school chorus. I went to Westminster Choir College and became very interested in teaching through my mentor Francis Clark. I actually studied as much pedagogy as I did piano.

When I finished college I needed a job and so took a position teaching sixth grade in a Virginia public school. That was where my interest in teaching was really born. I noticed right away that the children were not prepared for what the syllabus required and I knew that we had to go back.

We decided to open a kindergarten on our own. Back then there was no mandatory kindergarten and you didn’t need a license for preschools. A friend, Elizabeth Hall, asked if she could use the extra room at the church where we were to open a Montessori classroom.  When I saw what she was doing I realized, “Wow, there is a map! Why am I staying up nights creating a map?”  This is how I became interested in Montessori education.

I went for Early Childhood training at an AMI center in Washington, DC knowing that my main interest was with elementary. Everyone said get your early childhood first. That’s where the basic philosophy is. Later I went to Bergamo, Italy, for elementary training.

I returned to Washington, DC in the late 1960s and taught at a charter school where there were children from all kinds of backgrounds – different races, cultures, economic levels, and it was there that I really learned to teach!

I was asked to take on the Executive Directorship of AMI in New York City, which I did. I soon realized that I was not really well suited for administration. I missed teaching, children, parents and teachers. So I left that position and took over a little Montessori school in the west side of the city. The owner told me that the parents were extremely loyal to the school but it turned out that they really were loyal to her. So we opened the school with 1 student and within a year we had a class of 27 children. I was in my element again! The operas started to be known. I did two operas on my own and then they took over our time.

When our children were grown we decided to move south. We were offered jobs in Charleston, South Carolina where we stayed three years. A public magnet school opened in Savannah, Georgia and I was asked to do the teacher training and Judy to do the movement program with the children, which we did.

Lorna: After all this, what is your main focus now?

Sanford: Now we are working with a group of people including six teachers, a wonderful principal from Florida and a Board of Directors to set up a new charter school in Savannah. We have all our materials ready, we’ve had good media coverage and lots of interest. We currently have 160 children enrolled for this fall. We think that we have a good chance of setting an example of how to create a more authentic Montessori program for people who are trying to put together Montessori charter schools. As we have been preparing to open we have certainly had challenges with paperwork and state regulations. We do have some flexibility because of being a charter school and have been able to work around some of the obstacles that we have encountered.

Lorna: What made you decide to get involved in opening a charter school?

Sanford: It was the brainchild of a former Savannah Board of Education member, Dr. David Lerch, who had worked with other charter schools. David approached me to be on the Board. For several years people from the community had mentioned to me, “I wish there was more Montessori in Savannah.” So I accepted the role, thinking that this would be a way to expand Savannah’s Montessori choices. The former principal from the Savannah magnet school where Judy and I worked (we are the pedagogical element) plus a lawyer and others who can help us work with the Savannah School Board all are board members as well.

Lorna: What things will you do to make it an authentic Montessori program?

Sanford: For one, preserving the 3-hour work cycle. There are just so many specialists employed by Montessori schools. One school I visited had the geography, the Spanish and the music specialists—all were quite good teachers but you needed a traffic cop in the halls. In my training we were taught that the teacher needed to equip her or himself with all areas of the curriculum: a Renaissance person. That would allow all areas of the curriculum to be incorporated into the child’s day. Teachers were meant to plant the seeds of all subjects not to be an expert in everything. In other words, music is meant to be a part of the child’s day everyday rather than just music on Tuesdays at 11:30 am. We will be free of those interruptions and segmented subject areas because I make it very clear to the teachers in training that they are responsible for the art and music, and cultural areas not just the main curriculum areas.

The more I read of Montessori’s early work and see pictures of Anna Maccheroni using the rhythm instruments and dancing I know that Montessori herself was an artist not just a scientist. Somehow, I think most of the people in training are left-brained and have picked up on the excellent academic part. I think balance is important.

Lorna: What else besides the 3-hour work cycle?

Sanford: We are going to make a real effort to work nutrition and diet into our program. We will model our middle school program after The Edible School Yard started by Alice Walker. The middle school students will plant, grow, harvest, cook and serve school lunches which will be largely vegetarian, although not exclusively. We have a state of the art kitchen for this program.

Also, the design and function of the buildings and outdoor environment are important to us. With the help of The Savannah School of Art and Design’s students and a professional architect we will incorporate ecological aspects of indirect lighting, availability of nature to every classroom (a little patio and garden), and no child will look out a window and see a car. The plan is to reconnect inner city kids with nature. There will be a pond, stream, grassland, and a deciduous forest.

Lorna: Why do you believe Montessori education is relevant in the 21st century?

Judy: It is more relevant than ever because movement is a basic element of Montessori education. Montessori believed that movement was a most important aspect of learning, even from the time in the mother’s womb. Children are not moving as much as they used to. If children can’t cross over the midline or can’t skip they often have difficulty learning to read. Just as Silvana Montanaro, M.D. cited in Understanding the Human Being, movement and language development are inter-related. We can tell in the first day of the opera which children probably are having learning issues because of their lack of the ability to perform certain basic movements. Movement is related to brain development and in a Montessori environment there are many opportunities for children to move about.

Lorna: To sum up your thoughts about the charter school:

It will provide an opportunity for children of different socio-economic backgrounds to interact together.
It will begin to re-connect inner city children with nature through gardening and exploring the natural environment.
It will provide an uninterrupted work cycle by integrating the arts, cultural studies and academics.
By incorporating the arts into the children’s day, every day, they will have ample opportunities for movement and brain development.

Last Updated (Thursday, 22 July 2010 09:13)