Family life, Montessori philosophy, Peace education

On a bad day

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Recently, I had a bad day.

A late-for-everything, take-out for supper, yelled at my kids, fat lip of the heart kind of day.

The kind of day where it feels like no matter what I got right, forget how many books I read or the art-making or cooking, it still doesn’t feel like I’m really connecting with my kids. The kind where it feels like every time I sat down to eat, or text a friend, or take a shower, it got interrupted.

The frustration and the guilt turned into a vicious cycle.

At some point on this terrible, no-good day, I realized: respectful parenting and Montessori ideas are a useful guide for our home not because I’ve got it all together as parent, but because I don’t. The philosophy offers tools and support when my own go-tos fail.

I’ve written before about creating space for children to experience error in order to learn, and it occurred to me that I rarely hold that kind of space for my self. It seems silly really — after all, it’s not as though I have nothing left to learn.

This week I’m trying to be more gracious with myself, as I aim to be with my children, in order to foster learning and growth.

That same frustrating, messy, human day, I read these words in the beloved book The Tao of Montessori by Catherine McTamaney, and felt both seen and buoyed:

“Abandon fault. Leave behind the blame placing. Even the best teaching is messy.”

May your messy days be days of learning too.

 

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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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18-21 months, 22-24 months, 6-12 months, Montessori philosophy, Motor development, Practical Life, Under 1 year

You’re doing it wrong, keep it up!

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If, in your travels on Pinterest and Instagram, you see a beautiful photo of a tiny toddler carefully/peacefully/confidently lifting a little jug of water to pour himself a glass, here’s what you may have missed:

  • a baby experimenting with different grips on a weaning glass
  • a baby pouring water down his shirt
  • an older baby throwing a full glass of water in the general direction of his face
  • an older yet baby taking a few sips before dropping a half-full glass into his lap
  • a one year old pushing a glass off the edge of the table — repeatedly
  • a one year old who reaches for a cloth after taking a drink
  • a one year old says “uh oh” when a glass breaks and his mother sweeps it up
  • a thirteen month old grabbing the pitcher to pour for himself
  • a fourteen month old pouring a puddle of water immediately beside his glass
  • a fourteen month and one day old getting a little more water into his glass
  • a fifteen month old who uses a cloth on the little puddle of water on his placemat
  • a sixteen month old who pours a glass a water
  • a sixteen month old who an hour later completely misses the glass again
  • a seventeen month old who pours all of the water from the pitcher into and over and around the glass, long after it’s full

Maybe all of this seems a bit much, but the point is this: each of these opportunities builds on the last, as the child learns through his own real life experience how to hold a glass of water.

Through repetition, that is, through repeatedly doing something “wrong”, he learned how to meet his own goal (to get water from one vessel into another).

In the early days of incorporating Montessori into our own home though, I’d be disappointed when I introduced a new activity or material and it seemed like my little guy just couldn’t get the hang of it. My expectations were based on things I’d seen other kids do online, or read about in a book, or seen in a film (and one really simple error I occasionally made as a first time mom was not understanding the very real difference between, say, a 17 month old and a 20 month old).

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At this point in the journey, I’ve come to realize this: if you offer a child an empty glass and an appropriately sized pitcher of water for the first time ever, and they have no problem pouring a glass without spilling a drop, you’ve waited too long.

Spills, messes, challenges, frustrationit’s all part of the process, of learning, of doing hard things. Fear of failure? It’s got no place here.

A parent doesn’t need to say a thing — that wee genius knows what he’s attempting and whether it’s been successful. “The teacher should never intervene in an action when the impulse prompting it is good, neither with her approval nor with her help nor with a lesson or correction,” Maria Montessori wrote in Some Words of Advice to Teachers.

Today’s challenge: let’s offer opportunities to our kids (and to ourselves), to try something and not quite get it. To pour the water on the floor, to climb up the wrong side of the slide, to put their shoes on the wrong feet. And then let’s smile and watch them try again.

Do we follow each other on Instagram? Let’s! Click here for an Instagram video of a very wee Jasper pouring himself a drink a long while back, and hit follow while you’re there.

 

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4-6 months, Family life, Travel

Wee road warriors

Summer road trip tips

This morning I received an email alert about a spammy comment left on this site that began by saying “I see you need some fresh posts.” Touché, spam. If you’re ever left feeling a similar need for some fresh Milkweed, please join me on Instagram, where I update far more frequently (and where there is a whole community of Montessori-minded parents).

Speaking of fresh, about 24 hours ago we rolled in from our old-fashioned family road trip, during which we camped our way to the East Coast of Canada and back. The trip was full of natural beauty, family giggles, noisy singalongs and highway-side potty stops. Some sweet memories were made, and some great lessons were learned along the way. If you’re heading out on a summer road trip before the season ends, here’s a bit of what we gleaned on the open road.

Going off road. At four months and nearly three years old, our kids were amazing passengers (so perhaps tip #1 is “get lucky”?). We tried to drive as comfortably as possible — with snacks on hand, with full bellies, with frequent washroom stops, and for some of us, with a stuffed baby otter in hand. Whatever works. We had a policy of stopping any time the kids needed to, and it turned out they didn’t actually need to stop as often as we’d expected. We only stopped at a fast food restaurant once over 3000 kms and nearly two weeks. The rest of the time, we kept an eye out for farm markets, playgrounds, beaches and riverside parks (or, pictured above, a riverside farm market with playground and tractor to climb on. Thank you, rural New Brunswick). Getting a bit of space, and giving Jasper opportunities to really move his body kept everyone happy.

Staying on the road. The only way to cover a lot of miles is to just keep going. Although we stopped without a second thought when we needed to, we also tried to keep on moving when we could. We tried to keep an eye on the gas tank and the gas prices (the GasBuddy app was handy) during stops, so that we wouldn’t have to stop again unneccesarily. Keeping snacks on hand, within reach, could help to hold off lunch a little longer if we were making good time or wanted to make it to a particular destination.

Be here now. I’d packed an assortment of activities for Jasper — some were left overs from flights we’ve taken, like an etch-a-sketch book, a button snake, and some felt work; a homemade colouring binder; his sticker collection and book. Unfortunately, it seemed obvious pretty early on that Jasper gets some motion sickness, feeling nauseous when he spent time looking at his work instead of out the window. So, most of the trip, he looked out the window. Rather than the sort of educational entertainment I’d planned on, he was engaging with the real world — which was also the real reason we were on the trip. It meant he often needed more of my attention, but playing “I Spy” is as good a way to get through the hill and highways of New Brunswick as any. Looking out the window lead to conversations about naming construction and farm machinery, coming to recognize provincial flags, and speculating about the weather.

Listen up. The car stereo is everybody’s friend. It distracts from the squeak of the windshield wipers, it closes out conversation for a few minutes, it passes the time. We stocked up on audio books from the library and David grabbed a few favourite cds on the way out the door, and we were ready to roll. We took turns choosing what to listen to, and Jasper was usually willing to wait out a grown-up choice before getting back to “Macaroni and Cheese!” (aka Andrew Queen‘s great food-themed children’s album, Grow). Quick audio book review: Olivia and Frog and Toad were both pleasant listens, The Moffats is a family favourite, while Paddington Bear didn’t make it past the first few minutes.

As we settle in, do the laundry and return to life at home, I’m thrilled to know that our time on the road was successful not only in getting us to our destination, but in bringing our family together to meet a challenge, and creating truly lasting memories all along the way.

What are you up to this summer? What will your memories of summer ’15 be? If you have any road trip tips in your back pocket, let me know! 

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0-2 months, Family life

A life together

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“Our commitment must start
where life begins.”
— Silvana Quattrocchi Montanaro

After what’s felt like a long break — a whole lifetime in our new daughter’s case — I’m so very happy to return to this space, and to introduce our new baby, Sage.

Sage and I, along with big brother and her dad, have been both enjoying these first few weeks of her life, and also working through the inherent challenges together.

Montessori philosophy refers to this time as “symbiotic life,” or “life together.” The mother and the newborn are partners in a way of living that is mutually beneficial as they move together beyond the intense change that takes place at birth. We are able to do this through gentleness, respect and intention while holding and physically being with the baby, handling — dressing, bathing and caring for the baby with our hands, and feeding (in our case, breastfeeding).

For a modern mom with a busy schedule, a social life, and other commitments, the symbiotic life means a serious step back from the life before baby was born, and a certain degree of acceptance that life in the home, with the baby, is the centre — at least for now. For me, that acceptance is often easily surpassed by a blissful embracing of this life’s pace, and also sometimes comes begrudgingly (cut to the scene where my husband meets our friends at the well-appointed tequila bar down the street for a well-deserved break).

The pay off is huge, though: what’s happening during this relatively short time is that Sage is learning deep truths about the world, truths that she’ll carry with her for the rest of her life. As we observe her and respond to her needs, she learns that she is loved, that she can trust her environment, that when needed, help will come. Important stuff.

We did so much reading and talking together to prepare Jasper for life as a big brother, and he’s done wonderfully. At two and a half, he very loving toward his sister, he’s able to patiently wait (most of the time) for her needs to be met before the next game of hide and seek can begin, he’s become even more connected with his dad, and he’s made huge leaps in independence in lots of areas (and at times of high need, taken a few steps back, too).

He’s also been very patient with a mom who’s sometimes short on it. The adjustment to being mama to two children has been harder than I expected, and coupled with the usual hormonal highs and lows of the post-partum period, it’s been a roller coaster. We’re starting to find our new rhythms and ways together though, and as we begin to venture out into the world, I’m so grateful to find myself among this party of four.

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24-28 months, Books, Family life

Becoming a big brother

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Now that we’re down to the last few weeks before our new babe is due, my husband and I are constantly trying to find an answer to the well-meaning question: “Is Jasper excited?”

I have three siblings myself, and I count them among my best friends. Siblings are a wonderful gift.

We’ve been doing our best to make this transition a peaceful one, and I’ll share some of the things we’ve included in our routines and rhythms around the home in preparation, but let’s be honest: a two (and a half) year old has no idea what is about to happen to his lovely little only-child universe in the coming months.

Here are our best efforts thus far:

  • We started talking about the baby early on, and continue to consciously mention the baby in a positive way everyday. Conversations range in topic from being a big brother, to what the baby and Jasper like to eat in common (the baby’s tastes at this point being judged through my cravings!), what it was like when Jasper was a baby, and even simple, routine things, like where the baby will go when we’re in the car, and where the baby will sit in the stroller. We’ve played the New Baby Lotto game he received as a Christmas gift, and we’ve played walkie-talkie with the baby monitor, and we’ve generally tried to make “baby’s coming” a normal theme in our home without putting too much emphasis on the future or on an as-yet unborn sibling.
  • Again from early on, we’ve invited Jasper to talk to the baby through the belly. He’s watched his dad do the same, and it really makes it a reality for all of us that we’re becoming a family of four. Talking (or occasionally, blowing raspberries and collapsing into giggling fits) to baby is now a regular part of Jasper’s morning routine.
  • Reading books aimed at new older siblings has helped to both shape and fuel our conversations. We’ve found these books to be enjoyable for Jasper and rich with age-appropriate information:
    • Welcome with Love – a really beautifully illustrated story about a big brother present at the peaceful homebirth of a new baby. I cry every time I read this one, and I would absolutely nominate it for “Best Depiction of a Placenta in a Children’s Book”.
    • Henry Helps with the Baby – I’ve written about this series before, but the fact remains even a year later: Jasper just loves the Henry books. In this case, Henry acknowledges that his baby sister is small and cries a lot, and so she needs a lot of help — and he’s just the man for the job.
    • Hello Baby –  a calming book that talks about the process of becoming a big sibling from pregnancy — feeling the baby move in mama’s belly —  until the baby joins the home, when big brother is the one to get the baby to sleep.
  • Making our own personalized book. This was inspired by my friend Christy, who made a beautiful “When Our Baby Comes” book for her three year-old son, illustrated with photos of their family and describing what would happen when she felt the baby was ready to come, who would look after him, and what it would be like when he visited the new baby and his parents in the hospital. I have no doubt that this book helped assuage any anxiety over those unusual days when baby was being born last month.
  • As the time of the birth draws closer, we aim to be even more empathetic and respectful in our interactions with Jasper (not always easy, as I type this the day after we’ve changed the clocks for Daylight Savings Time!). Of course this is always the goal, but this is an especially crucial time to allow him to experience big emotions, help him to feel heard, and to provide an environment of security and love.

Have you been down this road? Do you have any tips on smoothing the transition to big sibling?

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Uncategorized

Liebster Award!

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I was pleasantly surprised last weekend to find that I’d been nominated for the Liebester Award by my blogging pal Beth at Our Montessori Life. The Liebster is basically a chain letter that lets bloggers celebrate other bloggers, and it comes with a list of questions and the best part is, Kanye isn’t mad about it at all.

How did you discover Montessori?

I can’t actually remember the exact moment. At some point, I stumbled up and became immediately fascinated with the possibilities offered on How We Montessori, a lovely family and home-oriented blog by Kylie, the queen mother of all Montessori bloggers.

What has been your greatest challenge with using Montessori?

My greatest challenge has always been struggling with my own bad habits and shortcomings — I’m pretty disorganized and I tend to start projects and not finish them. For me, establishing a welcoming and orderly Montessori environment has been eye-opening in terms  of realizing what my needs really are for a healthy, happy environment — as well as what’s best for my kid. It’s also been an on-going effort!

Materials. Make or Buy?

It depends. I think some of our best-loved materials are things that we’ve created ourselves, and I’ve enjoyed making things for the coming babe, like a topponcino and this Gobbi mobile I’m working on this week. Especially during the younger years, there are many things that can be made or modified to work as Montessori materials. On the other hand, there are some materials that are just better purchased and that can’t really be made at home, especially as a child moves beyond the toddler years (I’m thinking here of something like the pink tower, which needs to be mathematically accurate).

That said, I’m a big believer that Montessori is for everyone, and a peaceful environment, respectful speech and opportunities for independence are priceless and free.

What’s your favourite Montessori book?

My favourite Montessori book is The Tao of Montessori, which is a really beautiful compilation of Montessori quotes and thoughts connected with Lao-tzu’s verses from the Tao Te Ching. Because the chapters are so short and not meant to be read linearly, it’s a great resource to pick up any time, read for a few minutes, and return to the rest of life restored and inspired.

Do you see any similarity in your children and yourself?

Jasper and I both: love mornings, enjoy being social, like to play with paint, and tend to be somewhat easily distracted.

What’s your favourite thing about blogging?

My favourite thing about blogging is actually two-fold: one is having an outlet for the bits of inspiration that get me excited about the Montessori method and what’s happening for us and the other is being a part of a community of caring, intelligent, peaceful parents and teachers.

What made you first decide to blog?

I’m a writer in my non-mom life and so blogging isn’t new for me, but I wanted to work on a Montessori-specific blog in order to participate more fully in the online conversation that was taking place.

How do you take time for yourself?

I generally don’t find it too difficult to take time for myself, and here is my secret: I live two blocks away from my parents.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished a book and am about to start The Sculptor. The last book I read was The Royal Game by Stefan Zwieg, inspired by watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. And the very best book I’ve read this year has been Michael Crummey’s Sweetland.

What is your favourite book your child owns?

My favourite books are Blueberries for Sal and Over and Under the Snow. Jasper has shown occasional interest in both of these books, but neither has been a favourite.

And sure. Why not. What would you do with a million dollars?

I would pay my doula and buy new tires for the car and get a lot of massages and be thrilled to have both kids’ educations paid for (and my own!). It’s the little things.

I’m so grateful to Beth for the shout-out and I’m also glad to have been made to slow down and think about these questions. I’d love to nominate my pal Leisse next, but she’s on a sweet vacation in Mexico and I don’t want anything adding to her to-do list, so please, go visit her blog anyway. Leisse is a trained Montessori educator and a great writer and so, so funny and had three kids under two for a while, so believe me when I say this lady knows what’s up.

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