3-6 Years, Casa, Montessori philosophy, Preschool

At the end of the day

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Do you ever take a peek at what’s been happening when you pick your child up from school or childcare?

I sure do. Every time. Of course, it’s partly about my own interest in seeing how the Montessori method plays out in real life, with real kids.

And I like to see a lovely prepared environment that has become imperfect in that perfectly child-led way — useful to keep in mind when our home space feels askew, too.

But it’s also about seeing the environment where my son spends some of his days, and soaking that in. Getting a sense of what the buzz has been about and how we’ll transition from school to supper.

What do you see at the end of the day?

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Casa, Montessori philosophy, Peace education, Social justice

The Montessori teacher at the homeless shelter

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The Montessori Academy at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, Indiana, is exactly as inspiring and unique as it sounds. As a Montessori classroom built to serve children living with homelessness, it’s the first and only of its kind —and yet, it’s also a return to the true roots of Maria Montessori, who began her work with children living in poverty in Rome.

I’ve written before about my love of podcasts, and that’s how I first heard about this amazing school. Scott Carrier, the host of Home of the Brave, met a woman outside a Bernie Sanders rally, and asked what had brought her there. As soon as I heard Porzia Micou say she was the director the Montessori Academy at the Center for the Homeless, I put aside the meal I was preparing, turned up the volume, and payed attention.

Porzia’s story was so compelling, her communication so clear and graceful — I needed to know more about her and her work. And I’d love to introduce you to her, as well. Here’s our conversation:

M: How did you first connect with the Montessori philosophy?

Porzia: About 10 years ago my nephew attended the Montessori Academy located in Mishawaka IN. It is the number one private school in our area and the only dually accredited Montessori school in Indiana. The Academy was the second school in the nation to receive AMS accreditation. These facts, along with witnessing firsthand the quality of education my nephew received, brought me into the world of Montessori.

How long have you been at the Montessori Academy at the Center for the Homeless?

Five years ago, I was given the opportunity to work at the Academy’s classroom located at the South Bend Center for the Homeless. I began as an assistant and later received my credentials through AMS as a 3-6 year old guide.

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How many students attend the school?

Due to the nature of the population we serve, we experience a constant shift in numbers. When our parents leave the Center, the children are still able to attend our program. We have a few children who stay to complete the three year cycle. Some are only with us for days, weeks or months at a time. Issues with transportation, family structure and relocation usually determine retention rates. We strive to create a stable, nurturing environment for all who enter the program. Presently, we have 9 children enrolled — five who live at the center, four who live elsewhere.

How does the Montessori method support the children who attend at your school?

Throughout my time at the Center, I have seen certain commonalities among the adults living here, and central to these are a lack of independence and a sense of inner peace. Everything that we do in our environment focuses on instilling those traits early on.

During the orientation process, I ask every child “whose classroom is this?” I usually get the response: “yours!” With that I say, “This is your classroom, this is your space, it belongs to you.” Many seem shocked by this as they have never had anything to call their own. There is a different sort of value in caring for something that is your own.

During the day, the upkeep of the environment is the responsibility of the child. They do their own dishes, prepare light meals, clean and fold laundry. These are basic but necessary skills needed to become self-sufficient as an adult.

Everything that we do and say to each other is based on peace and respect. I recognize that many of our children come from places that are not ideal. For some, the classroom is an outlet, a safe place where they get some reprieve from the chaos that is home. The order and structure of the materials and environment is instills a deep security within the child.

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How is your classroom like any Montessori class?

The principals are the same as any other classroom. We achieve normalcy by having a core group of children that have been here for some time. They usually set the standard and model appropriate classroom behaviors.

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How is it different?

Because we are a part of an organization that relies heavily on donations, there is a constant stream of traffic from the community. In order to make this less distracting, we encourage our children to say “Welcome to our classroom” then continue to work. Many of the side effects of homelessness, as it relates to children, manifest in our environment.

We have to be sensitive to those matters and meet the children where they are. Science has shown us that, in order for people to thrive, their basic physiological needs must first be met. We see children who have experienced varying degrees of abuse aimed at them or towards a parent, housing crisis and insecurities about having enough to eat. Many are suffering from trauma related disorders based on their past. We see these extremes along with intact, otherwise stable family units who are experiencing temporary hardships.

In 2012, at age 29, Porzia found a lump in her left breast. Uninsured and misdiagnosed, over the next three years, that lump eventually grew to the size of a golf ball.

Can you tell me about your breast cancer diagnosis, recovery and the aftermath of that journey?

In the winter of 2014, my fiancé came home with a piece of mail and stated that he added me to his health insurance. The definition of a spouse has changed recently and I was able to be insured under his plan. Coverage started the next spring (2015). I scheduled an appointment with who I thought was a reputable physician. By this time the mass on my chest was the size of a golf ball. She performed another cursory exam, asked me what the other physician had said, and agreed that it was a cyst. She told me to monitor it and call her if anything changed. My option in the future would be to have it drained… Because my pap smear came back normal, new guidelines state that I come back in two years, not yearly as it was before. By June of 2015, I was becoming increasingly worried. I had sharp pains and woke up every night with a voice telling me to go back. Much to her dismay, the doctor agreed to see me again. When she walked in, I opened my gown and she gasped. “Have you ever had an ultrasound, have you ever been biopsied?” I replied: “No, you told me everything was fine and to come back in two years…” Nothing was the same after that. I was sent for a mammogram soon after. The attendant confided in me that if something appeared off, I would have an ultrasound immediately after. Sure enough, the mammogram spotted a problem and I was sent to have an ultrasound. The attendant in that department told me that if they spotted anything wrong, the Radiologist would come in to speak with me. After a couple of minutes he entered, looked at the screen and then at me. He demanded to know who my previous doctors were and informed me that I had a tumor –not a cyst. I scheduled a trip to Savannah to be with family and opted not to hear any results until I returned.

In early August of 2015, I was in the classroom getting ready for the start of the year when I received the call from my surgeon. The only memory I have of that moment was walking backwards to find a chair so that I wouldn’t hit the ground. My niece and nephew were with me that day so I felt the need to stay calm. I cried as I told them that it we needed to leave and felt heavy as I lifted myself into the car.

I called my sisters and together we told my mother who collapsed on my kitchen floor. That remains the hardest part of my journey.

We asked my surgeon to come into his office right away. I came in not knowing what to expect. He looked concerned and informed me that I had Stage III triple negative breast cancer. I heard nothing more after that. It was a surreal feeling that day, I felt disconnected. Droves of family and friends came in and out but I wasn’t present. I could not stop crying.

My niece took my hand and reminded me that I promised to take her to the park that day. I remember smiling at her and telling her to grab a sweater, it would be chilly. That one moment defined the way that I would handle the struggles to come. I decided to not be a victim and to fight this with everything that I had in me, and I did! My children who were 11 and 12 at the time handled everything with grace and dignity. They were/ are truly amazing. I started an aggressive chemo treatment schedule which I finished in November 2015. It was everything they said it would be, lost hair, gained weight but it saved me. I opted for a lumpectomy after careful consideration and started radiation shortly after. I had 33 treatments, which were administered to me daily after work. My doctors continue to be amazed at my recovery. I didn’t learn until after the fact that the odds were stacked against me.

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In the midst of your own challenges, how do you find the peace and balance you need in order to go into the classroom each day?

I credit the children in my life for saving me. From my girls to my nieces, nephews and all of my wonderful school kids, I never stayed down for long. I think that attitude plays a role in the recovery process. I understand that children are receptive to emotions. If I am feeling sad or emotionally unwell it vibrates through the environment. I had to change the way that I felt about my circumstances in order to stay in a positive frame of mind.

I informed my parents on what was transpiring and told the children only what was necessary. (“I feel tired today, can you work independently?” I take medicine that makes my hair fall out but look at all the pretty scarves I can wear!”) I brought in an old rocking chair and sat there reading stories or giving lessons on my hard days. I didn’t want to miss a day. I was unsure of how my absence would affect the group. Our children, in particular, have issues with abandonment and change. I was obligated to persevere because I had children to support at home and children who depended on my presence at school. I think that all children have an internal peace; I drew a lot of my calm from them.

Porzia’s story — and her passion, her poise, her courage, her grace — is such an inspiration to me. Through incredible hardship, she has continued to show up for the children in her life — both her own, and those she teaches. Though Porzia’s focus now is to look forward to the rest of her life, the aftermath of this battle has been an incredible financial burden on her family. They’ve lost a car, they’ve had to move, and incredibly, Porzia is now saving up to file for bankruptcy. 

Porzia’s family have set up a GoFundMe page where you can join me in donating to support Porzia and her family. Many of us raising young children, or working in early education, don’t have a lot to give. But we all have something to share: Please click here and give what you can. 

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3 years old, Family life

Have your best Montessori parent-teacher meeting

 

Earlier today I found myself reminding my husband about our hot date for tomorrow afternoon: a parent-teacher meeting with Jasper’s Montessori casa (age 3-6) teacher. Okay, so not exactly the date of my dreams, but it does give me a thrill.

I found myself saying: “It’s like we’re levelling up. We’re having parent-teacher interviews together!”

As a first-time mom of a first year, three year-old casa student, I wanted to get some advice on what to expect tomorrow when the three of us sit down together on miniature wooden chairs to talk about our little guy, so I called in a couple of experts, who I’m also glad to call friends.

Leisse Wilcox (Eat Play Love) is mom to three (including twins!) and a former Montessori teacher. She’s also the firecracker down the street, a fantastically fun friend, and a creative entrepreneur. 

“Parent conferences are the time to really touch base about the overall development of your child. You’re going to hear about how they’ve settled in socially and emotionally to the classroom, as well as how their fine and gross motor skills are developing, and of course the activities that really capture and stimulate their attention. Most likely this will be the extent of your visit; children who are having a harder time with any of these areas will have had the teacher’s concerns addressed with you earlier than the conference, i.e. with respect to how they listen, interact, play independently, engage with others, move through the space.

So much — most, actually — of the 3-6 year old’s work takes place as a process in their brain. It’s all stuff you can’t see. If you aren’t seeing a lot of “product,” or tangible “things” that your child has done, don’t sweat it! That’s completely normal. The early years are all about introducing concepts of wonder to these little people, planting incredible seeds that grow over time. So sit back and enjoy your child’s teacher telling you that she knows, loves, and has a plan for your beloved.”

What to expect at a Montessori parent-teach

 

Beth Wood, of Our Montessori Life, is a casa teacher and mother on Vancouver Island, and I highly recommend that everybody follow Beth’s Instagram account, @ourmontessorilife for lovely and peaceful images from a real life Montessori home.

“I have had the incredible privilege to sit on both sides of the table for this. First as an over eager slightly paranoid Mother and then as a patient and slightly paranoid Casa teacher. First, before going to the meeting, think about and then write down your 3 most burning questions. Just 3. Each school sets the times for their meetings differently but one thing is certain. They have not reserved your time spot and the following 3 spots for you to empty out your questions list. Usually meetings last under 20 mins. Be prepared to leave when your time is up and make your time count.

That being said, a good Montessori school will have also properly prepared some very key points that are important to your child’s day. If your child is 3-4 you may hear lots about Practical Life. If your child is 4-5 you may hear lots about the Language or Culture areas and if your child is 5-6 you may hear lots about Math. Or not. The Montessori classroom is a vast one with many options.

What you are listening for is: “Your child loves (this)”. Or “Your child has recently really been interested in (this).” This shows that your teachers are really observing your child. If you don’t hear these statements, make sure they are one of your 3 important questions to ask. You are looking for signs that your child is loving the environment. That they are connecting with the materials. This should be evident regardless of age.

This is a first meeting and you may not get a lot of progression statements unless your child is a returning child. If they are a returning child one of your teachers points should be a progression statement. A statement about how your child has made progress with a particular area of the classroom. This may be as general as “Your child has gained independence in our transition times” (gets ready for home by themselves). It may be specific such as “Your child has made huge strides with the Language area.” Each of these statements are equally important in the eyes of a teacher.

The Parent Teacher meetings can be nerve racking, but they are incredibly insightful. You enter the world of the child. Listen with truly open ears and an open minded heart. Ask your 3 questions that are important to you gaining a better understanding of how your child’s day looks or what is in the future for your child.

More often than not, you will find yourself feeling just like the teacher. Absolutely amazed.

I think this book is a must have for all parents of children in the Casa program.”

Thanks Leisse & Beth! I’m so grateful for this wonderfully supportive online (and local!) Montessori community. I’m more excited than ever to open my heart to hear what’s happening in the casa classroom these days — and I think a lot of this advice would be really useful in other educational models too.

 

 

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Montessori philosophy

Helma Trass and happy children

ImageIt’s been an exciting week here in my little corner of the world.

Last week, Helma Trass — founder of Canada’s first Montessori school, who studied under Maria Montessori in the Netherlands — visited one of our local schools for a presentation to parents. She is now 87 years-old, and despite being one of Canada’s most influential Montessorians, she continues to be passionate about spreading the word about the Montessori method “before her time is finished.” Her excitement about the wonderful experiences children from all backgrounds can have in a Montessori environment was catching.

Helma shared quite a bit about her early experiences in her Canadian classroom. Many educators were fascinated by this first Montessori school, and she welcomed journalists, researchers and public school principals into her classroom. They were amazed at the results the children were showing — even those who had scored relatively low on IQ tests (an aside: IQ testing is out of vogue now, but it had me wondering what have we replaced these measures of expectation with? Early grading? Diagnosis of ADHD and autism?). Helma still feels today that if she could achieve this in her little classroom as a young woman, with a heavy Dutch accent, that it is the perfect example of the child as teacher.

I expect I’ll remember for a long time to come her deep, accented voice firmly saying “First, the child must be happy.”

Another experience I had this week, which perfectly book-ended Helma’s talk, was the opportunity to sit and observe a work period in a Casa class room. I was quite moved by what I took in there. The hush, the focus, the work, the care, the peace. That particular classroom is simple and filled with natural light, the guide is soft-spoken and smiling, and the children are happy.

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