Tiger Lily Montessori: Bringing Southern Roots to New England

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.


Learn more about Tiger Lily Montessori School at www.tigerlilymontessorischool.org. The second Wildflower school in the network to welcome infants, Sweet Pea, opened in spring 2018 in Minneapolis.


Wildflower seeds spread to a Massachusetts school district’s classrooms

With a long history of Montessori in her own life, as a student, a teacher, and a parent, Lisa Kuh, director of early education for Somerville Public Schools, was always looking for ways to incorporate Montessori approaches to curriculum into professional development for the teachers she supports.

Two years ago, on her way to give a presentation in Philadelphia on the concept of beauty in Montessori, Lisa ended up on the same airplane flight as a group of teacher-leaders from Wildflower, and a budding partnership began. After hitting it off with the Wildflower team, Lisa observed in several Wildflower schools.

“Because of my background, I had been offering professional development at the district that had a Montessori influence, and early grades teachers were starting to show up in greater numbers,” she said. “I felt like the time was right to be intentional about incorporating Montessori into our practice.”

Lisa and Dandelion teacher-leaders Micki Sausen and Lindy McGrail forged a partnership and set about to create a professional development opportunity for early grades teachers in Somerville Public Schools. This past spring, they jointly created a curriculum about Montessori practice — including talking through any preconceived ideas the teachers may have had about the teaching model — followed by hands-on experience and learning at Dandelion, then reflection, and follow up.

“The teachers were so enthusiastic that they wanted to know how they could continue the work after their time at Dandelion was over; they had these profound experiences in their observations,” Lisa said. “One teacher told me afterward, ‘I was a skeptic, but now, I don’t even have words for what I observed. I never knew teaching could be like that.’ ”

Micki, who herself worked in public Montessori schools for 17 years prior to joining Wildflower’s network, said she finds the partnership with Somerville equally inspiring.

“The idea of working with public educators in public school systems means we are continuing to broaden that conversation about how important Montessori is,” she said. “This partnership is taking Montessori out of just the private sector and making it available to people beyond those who can afford it in its current context.”

Although the participating teachers are not planning to transition to a full Montessori curriculum, Lisa said incorporating some key principles has been helpful already. For instance, Micki and Lindy gave them tips on how to structure lessons and teach practical life skills such as cleaning up the classroom or filling up a pitcher with water and pouring it into a glass, to foster independence in their students. They talked about a progression of phonemic awareness, a central tenet of Montessori education, that can help young children learn to read. They even talked about changes to the teachers’ physical classrooms to make them more peaceful and aesthetically pleasing, such as choosing solid color rugs, incorporating open shelving, and taking down some of the busier wall décor.

“I really believe that Montessori can work for all children, and the idea of sharing the pedagogy and philosophy with teachers who are new to it is huge for me,” Micki said. “Wildflower’s roots are in the context of the lab setting at MIT, and two of our principles are innovation and this ever-expanding community and network. I think the experimental aspect of Wildflower also really lends itself to collaborating across what might seem very different educational disciplines.”

While the future Wildflower-Somerville Public Schools partnership is evolving, everyone involved is certain they want to see it continue. Micki and Lindy have already agreed to keep serving as mentors for the public school teachers, allowing them to come and ask questions and observe at Dandelion. And starting this school year, Lisa plans to launch a professional learning community focused on incorporating Montessori materials into non-Montessori classrooms.

Somerville is committed to partnerships between public schools and early learning providers like Wildflower, Lisa said, part of which may include subsidized slots for income eligible families in partner programs.

“We feel lucky in Somerville to have a Wildflower school where teachers can observe and learn new ways of working. But we also know that Wildflower is working to provide equitable access to high-quality programming – and that is an important part of the early education landscape in Somerville.”  

A Journey of Educational Equity: Lirio Montessori opens doors in South Minneapolis

In the heart of the Lake Street corridor in Minneapolis, a micro Montessori school called Lirio has made a temporary home inside the educational wing of Christ Church International. Next door sits the historic Sears building, an economic hub for the city before it closed in 1994. What once was a predominantly affluent neighborhood struggled through the years, but the community is working to turn itself around. Along with a new Midtown Global Market that serves up international food and incubates startup businesses, local leaders, particularly those of color, are working to revitalize the neighborhood. Lirio teacher-leaders Maya Soriano and Susana Rodriguez are thrilled to play a part in that effort, and say the neighborhood is the perfect setting for their two-way Spanish immersion school, one of the first three Wildflower schools in Minneapolis. And with a waiting list only months after their opening, it seems the community agrees.   

Maya recently sat down to talk about Lirio, which opened in August with 27 students, and what make the school special.  

What is your experience with Montessori?

I was an elementary school teacher for seven years; I started in Los Angeles, and I moved back to my hometown of Minneapolis to teach at a dual-language public charter school. As my career evolved, I started having a lot of concerns about the opportunity gap I was seeing, especially for students of color. It was really challenging and disheartening to get those students to be on grade level with a traditional curriculum.

When my son got to be preschool age, I was investigating different educational methods and stumbled across Montessori. I fell in love with the way students were honored with integrity and dignity, and I believed it was so important for their development. At the same time, I knew the kids I was teaching at the time wouldn’t have the same opportunities to attend a Montessori school like my own son. That’s when I left the classroom and earned a master’s in Montessori education from the Montessori Training Center of Minnesota. During that time, I came across Wildflower, which was in its infancy. I ended up working at the Foundation for a while and helped them in the early stages of their startup in Minnesota.

During my time teaching at the public charter school, I met Susana, who is also certified to teach primary grades Montessori. She grew up a few blocks from our school site and is a phenomenal instructor. Our partnership and vision has been critical in taking the leap to open a school.

What does it mean that Lirio is a Spanish two way dual-language immersion school?

At Lirio, this means that staff speak in Spanish with the children 100 percent of the time.  We are a two-way program, which means we serve two populations of speakers – native Spanish and non-native Spanish speakers. About 60 percent of our students are native Spanish speakers, and the remainder speak English, Somali, or another language. We have a handful of students who are trilingual. In my case, I am Korean-born but was adopted and raised in the Twin Cities. In college, I traveled abroad in Guatemala and fell in love with the community and the Spanish language. My host family and my teacher, we all became really close. From then on, all my professional career has been focused on the Latinx community.

In most two-way dual immersion models, the earlier you are in your elementary program, the more immersed you are in the target language — in our case, Spanish. And then, the closer you get to middle school, the breakdown is closer to 50/50. Since we teach 3- to 6-year-olds, we have all our instruction in Spanish. The idea is that from here, students will move on to Spanish-speaking programs. But even for families who are not following a Spanish-speaking track, research shows that if you can fully immerse students in a language and get them proficient in that language, it can then translate to other languages.

When the students are encouraged to use Spanish all the time, they quickly become familiar with the common phrases, such as, “Can I have milk?”, “Please pass the napkin,” and so on. It’s amazing, without the inhibitions adults have, kids can follow context clues and instructions without any prior knowledge of the language. Montessori really works really well in this setting, too, because you don’t need a ton of language skills to be able to engage with the sensorial materials, like the pink tower (an iconic Montessori item made up of painted wooden blocks meant for stacking), for example. Students can enter an activity at different points and they can still feel successful and engage in the work.

What is the driving force behind your work at Lirio?

When I worked in a public dual-immersion elementary school, even though we were speaking Spanish a greater percentage the time, I still found that the native English speakers, most of whom came from more affluent backgrounds, were progressing faster in both English and Spanish. The achievement gap was growing because those native Spanish speakers hadn’t been getting the support they needed during their early childhood education.

In order to dismantle that inequity and make Montessori accessible to the community, 64 percent of our families are fully subsidized and do not pay tuition. We do this through a combination of tuition and public funding. Our preschool students are part of a tuition-based program, subsidized by public and private scholarships for families who request the support, and our kindergarten class is part of public charter school in MInnesota, which means we receive funding through the state public education system.

Both Susana and I feel very strongly that this combination of dual-immersion and Montessori is a game-changer for educational inequity. There is inherently a social justice and anti-racism component to what we do. Authentic Montessori supports children, and it works. Having access to something like that is critical, particularly for historically underserved students.

How did you decide on the name “Lirio”?

In Spanish, “lirio” means “lily.” We took our inspiration from Mexican-born artist, Diego Rivera, whose paintings frequently feature calla lilies. When it came time to create a logo for our school, it was important to us to work with someone from our local community, and so we found a recent college graduate who identifies as Latinx, and you can see Rivera’s influence in the logo she created for us.

Learn more about Lirio Montessori School at https://www.facebook.com/LirioMontessori/.

Building a Coalition for Racial Justice

From 2017-2018, three Wildflower teacher-leaders were given the opportunity to delve further into equity and racial justice work by taking a class taught by our Wildflower partner, Daisy Han, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The course, entitled “Leading for Equity,” has been a unique space for me, along with graduate students and other local school leaders, to reflect upon teaching practices, understand dominant white culture, and recognize the implicit biases that we all hold. I’m writing to share some of my reflections from taking this course as well to share two pieces that Daisy recently wrote about her own experiences with racial identity as a child and as a Montessori teacher. Continue Reading

A Look Inside Mixed Age Groups at Wild Rose Montessori

Wildflower partner Ali Scholes is helping to grow and support more schools in the Greater Boston area. Her children attended Wildflower schools Aster and Snowdrop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and have recently aged into Wild Rose.

The primary school teachers at Wild Rose Montessori know the 6-year-olds are ready to transition to elementary school when they start curiously peeking over the half-wall to see what the big kids are doing. The elementary school teacher on the other side will sometimes invite them over to observe a lesson or two, and see where that leads.

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Teacher-Leader Q&A with Janet Begin: ‘Montessori education should be welcoming and accessible’

At Wildflower, teachers lead every aspect of their schools, from instruction to administration. Teacher-leaders collaborate with each other across the Wildflower network, contributing a wide variety of experiences and perspectives to the group’s work. Here, meet Janet Begin, founder and co-teacher-leader at Marigold Montessori in Haverhill, Massachusetts, who is among several Wildflower teacher-leaders who came to Montessori education after a career in another field.

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Resident Artists Enrich Aster’s Classroom

A Montessori classroom welcomes the child to a symphony of sensorial experiences. One child’s small fingers trace the rough edges of a sandpaper letter, while another child uses a quiet hand to grade 10 pink cubes into a tower. The child not only sees and hears what “h” is, but feels the curves of the letter. The child not only sees the shift of the size in cubes from largest to smallest, but feels the weight of 10 pink cubes progressively changing in volume. The classroom, a living organism, moves in harmony when the children can see, hear and feel along their pathway of learning. Maria Montessori designed all of the materials to encompass aspects of experiential learning: they are beautiful, sensorial and didactic in nature.

Dr. Montessori said, “It is exactly in the repetition of the exercises that the education of the senses exists; not that the child shall know colors, forms or qualities, but that he refine his senses through an exercise of attention, comparison and judgment.” The sandpaper letters and pink tower are classic examples of the myriad pedagogic materials that exist within the classroom to sharpen and hone this exact development of the senses to which Dr. Montessori refers. At Aster Montessori, we seek to further the refinement of the senses by cultivating a deep sense of artistic expression in our culture, design, daily works, partnerships and more.

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Navigating the Complex Early Childhood Funding Ecosystem

Public K-12 funding is far from simple, with its reliance on federal title programs and special education funds, state appropriations, local tax levies and more. Despite the complexity, district innovation programs and charter school laws have opened up standardized ways for new schools to access public funds, and we’ve seen an explosion over the last 20 years of new public schools.

The context is very different in preschool — in some ways more open, due to the prevalence of a mixed public/private delivery system, and in some ways more closed. In particular, the challenges of accessing public funding and the administrative obstacles that come along with many funding sources pose barriers to creating more accessible high-quality early childhood education options, even amid growing demand.

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Profiling (the original) Wildflower: ‘A great place to be a teacher-leader’

(1/30/18: This article has been updated.)

A Montessori teacher for 25 years, Mary Rockett, like many educators before her, had resigned herself to the fact that becoming an administrator was the only way to progress in her career. But five years into the “soul-crushing” administrator life, a chance meeting with a prospective parent changed everything.

Sep Kamvar, a former Google computer scientist who was running the Social Computing Lab at the MIT Media Lab at the time, met Mary during an admissions open house. Several months later, she received an email from Sep saying he wanted to open a Montessori school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and wondered if Mary would like to have coffee with him. Eager to help a fellow Montessori believer, she agreed.

Over coffee, Sep started telling Mary about his dreams for a network of Montessori Schools he called Wildflower. He told her about the kind of education that he wanted not only for his son, but for every child.

“He’s a very gentle, disarming, kind, thoughtful person, but in listening to him, I thought, ‘This guy is really grandiose; I hope he’s not out of his mind!’” Mary remembered. “He was talking about changing the world, changing the face of education. I was intrigued. Totally blown away.” Continue Reading

Finding the Sun, Preparing the Soil: A Look Back at The Wildflower Foundation’s Year

As a new year approaches, we wanted to share the achievements and learnings over the last year of our growing network of teacher-led, micro Montessori schools. The report we’ve prepared for you reflects on the Wildflower Foundation’s first year as an independent organization.

With 13 schools across two states and Puerto Rico, plus schools developing in several more places, we’ve observed that Wildflowers grow and thrive very much like wildflowers. They spread organically, but only under the right conditions. You and our many supporters have helped create those conditions, along with Wildflower’s teacher-leaders, parents and students, and for that we are so grateful.

Montessori entered my life, thankfully, when I was seven years old, after two bumpy years in a traditional school where my struggles to sit at my desk led to a lot of missed recess. Today, both of my own children attend public Montessori schools, and I get to work with a brilliant group of Montessorians and other passionate visionaries every day.

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