Montessori philosophy, Peace education

Root and compass

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After all these years, these words anchor us to where we are and keep us moving forward. Both root and compass in this work we do as parents, Maria Montessori’s wisdom is as necessary today as ever. May you, and your children, and your neighbours, and all creatures on this green earth, give and receive love in all its power.

Quote from The Absorbent Mind.

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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, frustration — it’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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3 years old, Family life, Montessori philosophy

Life begins again

jasper handsThus it happens that at the age of three, life seems to begin again; for now consciousness shines forth in all its fullness and glory…  It is as if the child, having absorbed the world by an unconscious kind of intelligence, now “lays his hand” to it.

— Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Tomorrow, my little guy will turn three. All of a sudden, it seems, everything that we’ve come through so far together is behind us, and we are moving on, he is levelling up. Everyday is new. He is three.

The quote above is from the chapter “From Unconscious Creator to Conscious Worker,” a whole essay dedicated to this wonderful transition. And the photo is by my wonderful friend Jodi, captured during the tie-dye workshop at a folk festival earlier this summer.

 

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Family life, Montessori philosophy

Montessori at Home: A Simple Guide for Working Moms

The Working Mom's Guide to Montessori in the Home

There are all sorts of reasons for bringing Montessori home. And there are all sorts of ways of doing it. There doesn’t have to be a divide between working moms and stay-at-home moms (who are, of course, also working). There really are just moms, and we’re all just doing our best.

Let’s have a bit of grace with each other (and ourselves), shall we?

With that said, there are some practical differences. Those of us who go out of the home to work have to focus our efforts into some shorter timeslots and more specific times of day. There may not be as much time for themed-trays and seasonal art work, but there can be simplicity, respect, and a prepared environment.

Here are a few ways we try to bring Montessori into our home:

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1. Focus on the environment. Maybe you can’t give your child all of the time you’d like to, but you can prepare a space in the home that is his own. It doesn’t have to be a lot of space. By focusing on creating a welcoming environment for the under three-feet set, you are giving your child the gift of independence — and giving yourself a mini-break in the midst of a working mom’s jam-filled day of attention and tasks. When it’s time to brush teeth, I know Jasper can open the cupboard and get out his own toothbrush and toothpaste.

2. Keep it simple. I once read online advice recommending doing Montessori-shelf/work preparation for 40 minutes per child every evening. That would be wonderful, I’m sure, except that I have two other loves in my life: my husband, and good fiction. Both of those loves would suffer without a bit of attention every evening. And realistically, a 40 minute per evening commitment is not something that would be sustainable for me — if it is for you, by all means, do it.  Instead, we incorporate the Montessori way into the little things. It’s waiting while he puts on his own boots or shoes. When bath time is done, he pulls the plug in the bath tub. Like I said, little things.

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3. Get your child involved in your daily routine around the home. Life is full of little tasks and frequent joys. As a working mom, in addition to loving and bringing your best self to your partner and child after hours, you likely also play a big part in the domestic duties around the house, and you need to get supper made and the rec room vacuumed on evenings and weekends. Practical life is most practical when it actually contributes to life at home, and no one feels this more keenly than your child. Get her involved washing potatoes for dinner. Give him his own broom to sweep when you do. What better polishing work than wooden spoons needing to be oiled? Provide your child with the right tools (I know I’ve mentioned it before, but a Learning Tower is a dinnertime god-send), arm yourself with patience, and ignore the clock.

4. Find a caregiver whose values reflect your own. It doesn’t have to be a formal Montessori program — sometimes that’s unavailable, or out of reach. What is important is that your child is respected and given opportunities for exploration and independence. If you can’t be with your child full time, there’s no better feeling than knowing that they are in the care of the best substitute possible.

5. Intentionally set aside time for observation. With everything on my plate, I find it easy to get stuck in a do-do-do mindset. When I’m at work, I’m making a mental chorelist for when I’m at home, when I’m at home, I’m making a mental grocery list for when we go out and when I’m with Jasper I catch myself wondering about the next work I could add to the shelves or worrying that he hasn’t had enough time outside that day. I’ve written before about the importance of observation, but now that I’m back at work, I find I need to make a priority of it and even schedule time for it.

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6. Stay connected. One thing stay-at-home moms have is each other; you can often find them at the park on a fine Monday morning or commenting with words of support on a Facebook comment. Find your own tribe of folks, either in real life or online, who understand what your days are like and what your hopes are and want to know more and share their own. (Psst — check out the bottom of this post for a new social network focused on Montessori parenting.) I’m still building my own tribe, but every confessed worry and every “I get it, I feel ___ too,” goes a long way to encouraging me to continue on this journey.

Maria Montessori shared a lot of wonderful wisdom about the child as teacher, and the child as the shaper of his own education.  One of my favourite MM quotes says: “This is the first duty of the educator: to stir up life but leave it free to develop.” I feel like one of the most important things I can do as a mama-guide to my child is to take a deep breath and remember it’s not about me.

The best we can do — whether working outside the home or in — is to prepare the environment to offer our child opportunities for independence and responsibility. How do you stir up life? How do you fit the Montessori way into your family’s everyday life?

Do you like to connect with other Montessori parents? I’m digging into niche networking with MontessoriHome, a fun, focused social network for parents and teachers interested in bringing Montessori ideas into the family home. It’s free, fun and is available as a unique app on your phone. Check it out!

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18 months, 18-21 months, Family life, Montessori philosophy

Why we love the Learning Tower

Do you have a Learning Tower in your home? For the uninitiated, the Learning Tower is a safer version of a step stool that allows kids from the toddler stage on up to climb up a little ladder to stand at the height of the kitchen counter. Here’s what it looks like:

ImageI’d seen the learning tower around the web and even pinned a few DIY versions. I’d read the reviews, and I knew folks liked them, but I I’d never actually seen one in real life.

That is, until I got the email. It was 7PM, freezing cold and dark outside, and time for Jasper’s bath, when an email popped up from my friend Leisse.

I read the words: “I don’t know if you know what Learning Tower is, but there’s one out on the curb…” and immediately started running! Completely ignoring all the bedtime-ritual rules, I grabbed Jasper, hopped in the car, and prayed all the way across town that it would still be there. And it was, dirty, cobwebby and sticking out of a snow bank, but I swear a little beam of light came down from heaven and angels sang.

Funnily enough, now that we have our free (save for a bit of elbow-grease cleaning it up) Learning Tower, and use it all day, everyday, I see that paying full price would have been a great investment. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. Independence, freedom of movement; if Maria Montessori were here, she would love it too.

Here are four things we love to do with our Learning Tower:

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We bake. Together. I usually prepare and pre-measure ahead of time (often during his nap), and from there, Jasper is a full participant, pouring, spooning, stirring. I find it’s a great late afternoon activity, helping to keep our momentum up in those difficult hours between nap time and dinner time.

No more “witching hour” for us — Jasper and I make dinner together. On each side of the island, we work together to wash and peel vegetables. I cut the sweet potatoes into pieces on my cutting board, and then move them to his cutting board where he then drops them into the pot.

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We gather with friends. The kitchen is the centre of our home, and the island is at the centre of the centre. It’s where we chat before a meal together, it’s where we make tea, it’s where we put out snacks or drinks. Jasper can now be a part of the action, on level (literally) with the adults.

We make art together. Jasper had done some painting before, sitting at his little table, but it was a bit awkward. His apron was stiff, he didn’t have a lot range of movement, and I had to be fully engaged with the whole process. Now, he stands up at the counter to paint, where he has far more freedom of movement. While he paints, I stand at the counter and do my own artwork. The moments of quiet as we both work creatively and independently are golden. This set up may not be as comfortable as using an easel, but until we find one that will fit his height, the Learning Tower is making it happen.

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I promise I’m not getting anything at all in return for this post from the makers of the Learning Tower or anybody else. But if I was, I would request a free Learning Tower for everybody, like an Oprah-style giveaway, because it is just that good.

What parenting tool can you just not live without?

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18 months, Family life, Montessori philosophy

Henry helps.

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This afternoon Jasper and I made a trip to our local library and picked up a few books for each of us.

Back home, we read Henry Helps with Dinner for the first time. It’s a sweet and simple story about a little guy helping to make dinner on taco night. He shreds the lettuce into little pieces, smooshes avocado for guacamole and puts a serviette at each place at the table. There’s no fanfare, just a kid participating in the family, and Henry’s only reward is getting to sit down to share a meal with his family.

Later I noticed this printed on the back of the book: “Research conducted at the University of Minnesota found that the best predictor of future academic, career, personal and relationship success was children’s involvement in household tasks by three or four.”

Amazing, right? Forget Zumba baby classes, religiously reading 15 minutes a day, and Baby Einstein and all the rest of the stuff that society tries to convince us are necessary (to purchase) for parenting. Washing, sweeping, setting the table. That’s the secret to raising a smart, happy, engaged human.

Or, as Maria Montessori put it nearly a hundred years ago: “If I were to establish a primary principle, it would be to constantly allow the child’s participation in our lives … To extend to the child this hospitality, to allow him to participate in our work can be difficult, but it costs nothing. Our time is a far more precious gift than material objects.”

As it happens, Jasper helped me to empty the dishwasher for the first time today, picking out the cutlery and handing each piece to me to put away in the drawer, one by one.

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