Half a mile from Brown University, in the center of Providence, Rhode Island, sits the first Wildflower school in Rhode Island. Founded by two Montessorians who migrated north from Alabama’s Gulf Coast, Tiger Lily currently enrolls students as young as 6 weeks, and up to 3 years. With its peaceful interior color palette, wide-paneled walls, and natural wooden accents, teacher-leaders Alexandra Theris and Brittney Powell say visitors often tell them the space looks like an “after” from the HGTV series “Fixer Upper.” The pair, who just completed their first year leading Tiger Lily, recently sat down to talk about how they got started on their Wildflower journey.
Talk a little about your background and how you came to start a Wildflower school.
Alexandra: [My co-Head-of-School] Brittney gave me my first teaching job at a Montessori school, in Alabama. It was when I was working there as a toddler teacher that my husband and I moved to Rhode Island to be closer to family. While I was working at another Montessori school in Massachusetts, I was commuting in by train to Cambridge every day, and walking from the train station to my school, I would pass Wildflower schools. I was working very close to Aster Montessori at the time, so I would peek in the windows. I was drawn at once to its beauty and the precision with which the teachers had used the small space to create this environment. It really called to me. I contacted [teacher-leader of the original Wildflower School] Mary Rockett, and she encouraged me to apply for the Wildflower fellowship, which would put me on a timeline to open a school in September of 2017. I came back to visit Alabama in the spring of 2017 and told Brittney, ‘Remember when we had this dream of opening an infant/toddler school? Well, it’s happening.’
Brittney: Alexandra called me one morning because she knew right away that I would be interested in the Wildflower network. We had talked about starting a school together for a long time, and as I learned more about Wildflower, I became just as obsessed as she was with what they were helping teachers to do. We started to get more serious about my moving to Providence, and eventually, I moved there while construction was taking place on our building.
What does a Montessori program look like for infants and toddlers?
Brittney: Think about what infants are doing. What is their job? Their work is to grow and develop. My role is to make sure their environment is conducive to their growth. Are they encouraged to roll their body over? Are they reaching across the midline? As adults, we’re often so eager to help them do things, but it’s about preparing an environment that encourages independence and autonomy. An important facet of an authentic Montessori environment is mealtime routines. Mealtime encourages fine motor development and over time leads to independent use of utensils, a successful transition from a bottle to an open cup, and eventually to self-care and independence during daily routines. They develop this freedom and a sense of confidence which encourages independent exploration while maintaining a relationship of trust and security with the adult guide in their environment.
Alexandra: If you were to walk into our space, you’d observe our children using sensorial materials such as the pink cubes and the red rods, maintaining their environment by cleaning or watering the plants, and applying lessons like wood polishing to the care and use of our environment by polishing the mahogany that trims our doors and windows. About 80 percent of our direction guides our students towards independence and practical life skills. The children receive lessons during the week and apply those lessons to their lives. Our students are immersed in an environment that encourages them to succeed beyond standard expectations for a toddler’s potential. We enjoy taking practical lessons and applying them to life. For example, on Fridays we cook together. Our students love applying math and science lessons to the art of baking. The current Tiger Lily community has so embraced the school that there is talk of a preschool program emerging soon.
What is something unique about Tiger Lily?
Alexandra: Our school has a touch of Southern flair. Brittney and I brought our cultural tradition into our space. For example, we purchased a dining room table from an antiques dealer and sawed off the legs to make it shorter, so all of our infant students can sit together during meal times. Our toddlers learn to set a formal table and do so every day before lunchtime begins. There’s a certain formality to our mealtime routine that is nostalgic for us from our home. I feel like part of it comes from being raised in South. It’s warm and homey here. Every aspect of our school, from our intentional design to the custom-built dimensions of the space and of the furniture, were created with love by a team whose traditions and roots started in the South and grew to embrace our New England community. We continue to be amazed by what our students can accomplish in an environment specifically designed and built for them.