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.

porzia

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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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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18 months, Under 1 year

Looking back at Jasper’s room

Montessori floor bed

Now that Jasper is 18 months old, I’ve been doing some thinking about some changes that need to happen to make spaces around our house useful and welcoming for him. We recently made another trip to Ikea, something that seems to be required every six months or so to update for the next phase (using Ikea for Montessori in the home is its own post). When you focus on following your child, it’s not only the kid that changes, it’s everything else too.

It seems like there are simple modifications to be made all around the house: a step stool placed in front of the “big potty” (we currently use a Baby Bjorn potty & lift Jasper up to the toilet when he asks); swapping out the books from the top of Jasper’s book case — he can now reach the top shelf — with other materials, and instead keeping just few books in the open vintage suitcase next to his bed; placing a step stool below the light switch (or investing in a Kidswitch).

And one of the very best additions to our daily life has been a Learning Tower. After living with one for a week, I don’t know how we’d live without it. (It’s so amazing, in so many ways, that we have to give the Learning Tower it’s own special blog post too.)

As I think about what’s to come, I find myself looking back. Last summer, while our friend Selena was here for a visit with her family, she asked us about Jasper’s bedroom, and shared about it on the Disney Baby blog. The thing I love about Selena is that I didn’t even bother to go upstairs with her — I knew she’d make us look good. A true friend is one who’ll move the diaper pail before she takes a photo.

It was a fun process, and we discovered a few things along the way: one, that we had included more Disney than we’d  ever imagined or intended, and two, just how much love and history was involved int he making of our babe’s space.

He’s grown so much since then, I’ve learned so much since then, and his space is changing too. His room is already very, very different than it was when Selena captured it. Have a look to see Jasper’s bedroom as it was when he was just 9 months old.

How has your home grown with your child? What are your must-haves for doing Montessori at home?

 

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Montessori philosophy

Perfectly imperfect

It’s easy in this online universe of perfect, polished photos & instagram feeds & blog posts & pins to get hung up on the outcome.

I find myself coming across environments and activities that look appealing, imagining Jasper in the throes of concentration and executing the perfect pour/sweep/discernment/whatever, rushing to set it up and present it to him, and then finding myself disappointed and sweeping mung beans off the kitchen floor (don’t worry about it, it’s fine).

So this, early post, is a disclaimer. Some experiences are quite messy. Some are unsuccessful. Some take a lot of repetition.

I’ll try to capture those experiences, but to be honest, I reach for the camera, or turn to write, when I’m excited about something. And often, what I’m excited about, are the little successes. But that’s not how we usually live, and you probably don’t either.

So bear with me on this perfectly imperfect journey.

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