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COVID-19

Montessori: Authentic or Keepin’ it real?

“Nobody’s life is safe…we are in mortal danger…people have to take to shelters…humanity itself is vanquished and enslaved.”

The Formation of Man, Maria Montessori 

This quote, written by a great teacher over one hundred years ago, rings true today. To say that we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis might be an understatement to some. Many of us are waking up overwhelmed by the toxins in our world right now and are not sure what we are going to perish from first. Currently, we are not only besieged by viral biological toxins we are also besieged by oppressive societal toxins such as racism that compromises our humanity and our sense of human dignity. 

While we are tasked as a society to reconstruct how we eat, work, gather and meet our fundamental needs collectively, we are also tasked with an opportunity to reconstruct how we live in service to these needs, the needs of humanity.  How will we stand up for our own rights and those of others? How do educators work with children to ensure that our future is a humane one? So many of us Montessori educators are concerned about how to implement an authentic Montessori method that ties us tightly to just where our pink tower will land, however it is times like these that we must remember that authentic Montessori is about leaning into the age old Montessori philosophy that was created for the renewal and revitalization of our humanity.

Maria Montessori understood that education was the channel in which a new type of person could be formed- a channel in which moral character and humanity could be preserved. She birthed a way of learning, a pedagogy that was designed to meet our fundamental needs. She took on the task of reforming our service to humanity through the introduction of a way of learning that she hoped would not only salvage humanity but would help in the construction of a new type of person—moral enough in character to assist in that effort. 

Maria said, “The new school, indeed, must not be created for the service of a science, but for the service of living Humanity; and teachers will be able to rejoice in the contemplation of the lives unfolding under their eyes.” (The Advanced Montessori Method 1 Chapter 4.)

Maria’s charge today is bigger than ever. We are the shapers of our future during a humanitarian crisis that is marked by the death and murder of black people, corporate greed and a global pandemic. The most relevant and authentic aspects of the Montessori pedagogy are those that can be used today as tools for our liberation.  My mentor Asa Hilliard, Black psychologist and Montessorian writes, “Montessori is a metaphor for humanity because it is a pedagogy that helps humans receive what they naturally need,” in his work entitled Maintaining the Montessori Metaphor: What every child wants and needs (The NAMTA Journal Vol. 21. No 2 Spring 1996, Asa Hilliard). 

The aspects of the Montessori philosophy that provide us with the tools for liberation we need are the defining features of an authentic Montessori practice. These features which include self reflection through anti-bias spiritual preparation, empowerment through the development of critical consciousness and a process of normalization that leads to self actualization are described in Authentic Montessori and Contemporary Considerations written by Koren Clark, Margaret J. Kelly, Angeline Lillard, and Virginia McHugh (pgs 30-38).

When Montessori educators lean into an authentic Montessori philosophy they are likely to design a practice that guides them towards human transformation. The inner work of self-reflection that the Montessori teacher is implored to do is also expected from the Montessori student whose identity is strengthened and dignified as they reflect daily on the choices they make with work and in community. The opportunity children have in the classroom to autonomously solve problems, and build the muscles of critical consciousness will ultimately be needed to solve problems outside of the classroom and in the world. Currently, we are living out one of the biggest practical problems that life has to offer and there is real work for children to do. As we adapt to our new “normal” and lament the ways in which Montessori children will not become normalized in our classrooms let us lean into the philosophical implications of normalization in Montessori. Montessori said,  “All we have to do is set the child’s energy free. When we speak of freedom in education we mean freedom for the creative energy which is the urge of life towards the development of the individual…”(Maria Montessori, 1989). This development of the individual,  their internal motivation and their unique self-expression can be called the process of self-actualization (Authentic Montessori and Contemporary Considerations, by Koren Clark, Margaret J. Kelly, Angeline Lillard and Virginia McHugh).

Self-actualization for all is the ultimate liberatory end we want to reach and it is the end that any pedagogy that honors education in its truest form will generate. Education from its root means, “to unleash that which is within.”  

In this day and time, the most relevant authentic aspects of Montessori are those that we need to keep real. We can keep it real by making sure that we are allowing children to unleash the most essential aspects of who they are and ensure that we are not becoming nor forming the next Karen’s and Becky’s, that we are becoming anti-racist activist and that we are raising the next generation to do the same. So although we may be mourning the loss of the Montessori method as we know it, staring at lifeless materials, empty peace tables and etc, we have a new opportunity to reenergize the static and unwavering philosophy. The Montessori philosophy is dynamic and it should be used as the force of liberation. 

Maria says, “Either education contributes to a movement of universal liberation by showing the way to defend and raise humanity or it becomes like one of those organs which have shriveled up by not being used during the evolution of the organism.” (The Formation of Man, Maria Montessori.)

We are ripe with a new opportunity to mobilize a movement towards liberation through a future generation fortified with the critical consciousness and empathetic drive to activate, honor and preserve the humanity in us all. We can do this through Montessori if we keep it real!

The Three-year-old’s Dilemma: The Search for Order Amidst Chaos

Plastered across the virtual pages of social media are parents’ laments of three-year-old behavior gone awry. Parents and caregivers across the globe are fighting to maintain normalcy at home. What was once a daunting task of balancing a routine of school, work and play has now doubled in complexity. Families are charged with the task of working full time and providing child care full time. Families are striving to create a structure and routine amidst the backdrop of a drastically changed society. For the many who shelter in place, one time of day morphs into the other. Among the meetings, the newly organized pantries, the laundry and the dishes, stands the three-year-old. The child that every parent and caretaker is trying to protect, teach and love. The child who is challenging us. The child who is faced with a dilemma.

 

Children all over the world have been thrown into a uniquely stupefying situation. Children had schedules they could depend on. They had dates and events that gave them a sense of time. They knew going outside and being with people was safe and joyful. What was familiar is now foreign. What was cyclical is now halted. What was benign is now injurious. The ordered events of our days have unraveled. We attempt to remain grounded as the landscape of our daily lives shifts beneath our feet. But the three-year-old has a uniquely grand task at hand.

 

The mind of the three-year-old child is inherently sensitive to order. Staircases need to be repeatedly climbed, socks need to fit just right, and the same story often needs to be read six times (in a row). Dr. Maria Montessori’s work documents the child’s need for consistency, repetition, order and routine. Predictability gives a sense of security.

 

With social distancing, children have lost a sense of predictability, and in turn, they have lost some sense of security. Right now, they cannot go back to their routines. Schools and parks are closed. Playdates are paused. So much of what they knew to be true has temporarily shifted. Adults can understand that this situation is transient, albeit challenging. Asking a three-year-old to understand the complexity of this situation is an arduous request. This lack of choice and predictability not only disrupts their sense of order and routine, but also directly contradicts their sense of independence. One of the favorite phrases of the developing toddler is, “I do it myself”. With the lack of independence and choice, myriad tantrums erupt. Simply put, it’s hard. And thus, we have the three-year-old’s dilemma: a search for order amidst a disordered time.

 

So what can we do? We hold space. We give freedom within limits. We set up home environments where the child can succeed and feel independent. Acknowledge big feelings in a factual way. Give choices when you can, while also holding limits. When your child screams because they don’t want the cereal you set out this morning (even though they eat that cereal every single day) remember it’s not about the cereal. In the classroom, children start suddenly reacting strongly to normal routines when something in their home life feels out of control. Now that home and school are melded together, it’s not surprising that children are testing limits- the world currently feels out of control. Children are trying to figure out what still has order and what does not. They might push back on a common routine like eating cereal for breakfast just to see where the limits are.

 

Involve your child so that they feel empowered. You can give back independence by offering two choices for your child to eat in the morning, or create a menu for the week with them. Let them choose between two outfits and when they get stuck, offer to help with one pant leg while they do the other. The child wants to know we are holding some boundaries and are there for support. Imagine driving on a highway. We want lanes on a highway – we want the freedom to change lanes, but need guidance as to where those lanes are. Children want the freedom of “choice” in their day, but the adults can help guide them by giving choices, routines and support. Create spaces in your home where children can access materials, toys and snacks independently. Pause to observe your child throughout the day. Observe again.

 

Remember, in this seemingly endless period of uncertainty, it’s not about the cereal. Rather, it is a call to recreate a sense of order for the child. The sense of order we all so deeply crave.

Join the Wildflower Medical Masks Project

Our rapidly changing new world is uncovering new challenges every day – as well as new opportunities to help and support one another in our neighborhoods and communities.

 

Over the last week, it has become clear that we’re experiencing a shortage of protective gear for medical professionals across the country. Most health care institutions and hospitals are rationing the use of N95 masks and in some cases, are prioritizing the use of an N95 mask only for the most ill patients and/or sterile procedures (i.e. surgeries). As hospitals run out of supplies, employees and residents at elder care facilities, group homes, shelters, and civic/nonprofit organizations that help vulnerable people are also left unprotected from the spread of COVID-19, as well as other illnesses. This reality hit home for me personally 4 days ago: one of my dearest friends is a nurse in a metro area Emergency Room and shared that she and her colleagues were using just one N95 mask per day and supplies are rapidly running out. Today, another nurse shared that she has been using the same mask for the last 3 days.

 

This reality is dire. Thankfully, we are not passive consumers – we are makers of our world! In the last week, the #MillionMaskMayday movement in which regular people, young and old, making homemade fabric masks* for health care and emergency workers at home has begun to sweep across the world.

 

My mom taught me how to sew. As long as I can remember, she has made things – when I was little, it was matching dresses for me and my sister; for the last 10 years, we’ve been making quilts together. I spend most of my time outside of Wildflower making soft beautiful things out of fabric for people I love to mark momentous moments in their lives – marriages, babies being born, new homes, birthdays. This moment we’re in now is also momentous, though for all of us at once. And when makers around the world heard the call to dedicate their sewing skills to support health care workers, I started to organize with other volunteer makers in my neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis to share supplies and make as many homemade masks as we could. This opportunity to help out resonated also with Wildflower parents, children, and teachers across the country who have sewing machines at the ready – and so now, I’m inviting you all – Wildflower children, family members and friends – to join us in this volunteer effort.

 

If you have a sewing machine at home and know how to use it, you can make masks for emergency workers in need in your community. Fill out this form to request a kit. Or, use materials you already have at home – Instructions are available here. The pattern is perfect for beginners, and this would be a great project for children and parents to work on together. If sewing isn’t your thing but you’d like to help, we’re also accepting material donations and funding donations for this effort.

Request a Kit!

Thank you for your help and support. Stay safe and well!

 

* Although a homemade fabric mask cannot provide the same level of particle filtration as an N95 medical mask and are untested against COVID-19, the CDC has approved their use as a last resort. Research demonstrates that wearing a homemade fabric mask provides significantly more protection than wearing no mask at all.

Burning Toast is Learning

burnt toast in a bed of leaves with flowers

In homes around the world, parents are being asked to think about their children’s education in a new way – at home.  Parents, with plenty of other things to be stressed about, are feeling overwhelmed. On the home education front, a helpful shift could be to let go of the idea of recreating school and to instead think about what it means to hold space for learning at home.

What would this look like?  It could look like giving your children lots of opportunities for problem-solving and within that, giving them both freedom and responsibility. Some goals for this learning space could be:

  • Doing your best to help your children feel as safe and as happy as possible given the situation.  Safe means feeling loved and that the adults in their life, although stressed, are competent and in charge. We often think of happy children running around being wild and loud but happy can also look like a child deeply immersed in a book, proudly serving the snack they made for the family or finally figuring out how to finger-knit.
  • We’d also feel good if we saw some learning happening.  What does learning look like? If your child is occupied, concentrating, working at something over and over again until they get it right, your child is learning.  This could be figuring out how to zip their coat, rearranging their room, digging a hole in the backyard or teaching you how to play a game. All of these things involve problem solving, coordination, focus, planning and patience; if a teacher wrote a lesson plan that included all of these skills, she’d be very satisfied.
  • Siblings arguing and working through a disagreement are learning.  Not interrupting while parents are working is learning, staying positive while really missing friends is learning and understanding what it means to work together as a family to get through this is learning.  It’s still learning when it’s accompanied by grumbling, slammed doors and high emotions.
  • Making toast 3 times because you burned the first two pieces is learning, talking politely and enthusiastically to your grandmother on the phone is learning, thinking about the needs of your community and figuring out how you can safely share resources is learning.
  • Worksheets and flashcards are ways to practice or demonstrate what you’ve learned.  Real learning comes from interacting with real things – people and problems that need solving or developing a new skill because you’re interested and it will improve your life. Real learning leaves you feeling capable and competent and gives us the confidence needed to tackle new problems or situations, especially the hard ones.

Throughout human history, this is how children have learned.  On family farms and in family businesses, children have learned that the adults have things that they need to do in order for the family to succeed and that they have things that they need to do – both to support the family and to develop the skills that they’ll need to do the things they want to do as adults.

Your children can do this.  They’ll need some space. Some children are transitioning from schools where they’re told what to do and how to do it every minute of the day. They’ll need some time to revel in their freedom, to get bored, to complain, to accept their current reality and gradually they’ll find themselves drawn to and choosing activities that feel important and where they have a lot of autonomy.  You can support this by trusting that your children are capable, not being critical or giving unasked for advice and by understanding that trying and messing up is a key component of learning.

Parents also need to hold on to the idea that within this freedom, they’re in charge – they get to kindly but firmly veto ideas that are unsafe or unworkable and can set boundaries around children’s great ideas.  A six year old might suggest that, while the parents are working, they would like to create an obstacle course to meet the family’s need for exercise and fun. Parents can say – great idea, can’t wait and outline any objects or spaces that can’t be a part of the course and come to an agreement that everyone will work together to put away the obstacle course after several run-throughs.  It’s much better to set up the boundaries during the planning stage than to have a fun project end in tears because the child hadn’t thought through the clean-up process. If it takes a long time to clean up the very elaborate obstacle course, you don’t need to point this out. Your very intelligent child is probably thinking that they’ll create a much less complicated course tomorrow. This is learning.

A Care Package for Wildflowers

Meditations you can listen to or read

Daily Practices

  • Working with Fear and Uncertainty – Tools and practices to better understand your response to fear and move through it with intention
  • Poetry Unbound – short episodes (<10min), each featuring a poem and thoughts about the poem from Padraig O Tuama. Listen or read (though Padraig’s accent is wonderful, so I recommend a listen). Also available through podcast apps.

Writing and/or videos to inspire you

Podcasts to settle the heart

  • What We Nurture 
    • Sylvia Boorstein says spirituality doesn’t have to look like sitting down and meditating. A Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, Boorstein says spirituality can be as simple as “folding the towels in a sweet way and talking kindly to the people in [your] family even though you’ve had a long day.” And she insists that nurturing our inner lives in this way is not a luxury but something we can do in the service of others — from our children to strangers in the checkout line at the grocery store. Also available podcast apps.
  • Tending Joy and Practicing Delight
    • There is a question floating around the world right now: “How can we be joyful in a moment like this?” To which writer Ross Gay responds: “How can we not be joyful, especially in a moment like this?” He says joy has nothing to do with ease and “everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die.” The ephemeral nature of our being allows him to find delight in all sorts of places (especially his community garden). To be with Ross Gay is to train your gaze to see the wonderful alongside the terrible, to attend to and meditate on what you love, even in the work of justice. Also available through podcast apps.

Notes from a Montessorian on Supporting Children & Families at Home

The following is a letter that was shared from Wildflower Schools Partner and long-time Montessorian, Castle O’Neill, to our school network.  The aim is to support parents and caregivers who may be home with children due to the spread of COVID-19. We are sharing this letter in full with hopes that it may be helpful to the broader community of parents and caregivers navigating these challenging times. For a curated library of home learning activities we’ve compiled for our network, click here and for our running list of resources that we’re finding helpful click here.

***

At Wildflower, we’ve been thinking about how to support families during the pandemic as they move into this new way of being together. Within the network, we’ve been sharing a lot of ideas and one landing spot is thinking about getting prepared for the first week. Montessori teachers see the first week as a pivotal time to create community culture, develop routines and help children develop the habits and ways of being together that will carry them through the year.  Children thrive on routine and easily absorb new habits and ways of being as long as the expectations are clear. They want to understand what the different parts of the day will look like and what boundaries and ground rules exist. 

 

A way to start setting the new culture at home is to have a family conversation. Explain that this is a new way of being together.  Even though we’re all home, this is not a weekend when parents often don’t have to work, are mostly available and the time is for fun family events and errands.  It’s also not a vacation where parents don’t have to work and children have lots of free time. This is the work week, it’s just a work week at home rather than at school and the parent’s workplace.  During the work week, parents need to do the types of things they normally do at work and children can do many of the things they would normally do at school. 


Children will be curious about what this week will look like so be prepared to share a plan for a daily schedule. A predictable routine helps children to feel safe and grounded, they want to understand what these days will feel like.  Children like to know what’s happening – a completely open-ended day can feel overwhelming, especially when they’re already picking up on the nervousness that we’re all feeling. Children want to know that the adults have a plan and that they can depend on them to keep them safe. 


One way this could work would be to wake up, get dressed, etc in the usual way. Children usually burn off some energy traveling to school so do something active – go outside, dance around the living room, whatever works for your family. 

 

The next part of the day would be “work time”. This phrase is familiar to all Montessori children, they know that this is the part of the day when everyone chooses work and does their work in a way that doesn’t disturb the work and concentration of others.  Parents need to have time to do their work, either paid work or work to support the family or community. Children also need time to do their work, uninterrupted and with an understanding that their work has value – just as adult work does.  

 

You are the curator of what options are available during work time – it could be playing with toys, doing activities sent home by a teacher or suggested by a teacher, looking at books, doing art.  You determine what the options are and then your child makes their choices within the options. You don’t get to make the choices for them and you don’t need to ask them to list what they’ll do – this gives them independence and autonomy as long as they stay within the options you listed. To ensure independence, you’ll need to make sure that everything that your child will need is within their reach – your child’s teachers will be sharing lots of ideas for how to set this up and sharing lots of activities to do at home.  


Your children are capable of doing this.  Every day at their Montessori school, they independently make choices and work on their own or with friends.  This may not be the way that things normally are at your house. If your parenting style is to be completely available to your children during the few hours you have together on work day evenings, there may be a period of adjustment as your child understands that you’re fully available in the evenings but not during the day because everyone has work to do. 

 

I’d set a clear amount of time for “work time”.  Depending on your child’s age, this could be an hour or an hour and a half.  Set a timer, or better, let your child set the timer. Explain that once work time is over, you can come together to read a story, have a snack, run around outside – whatever feels right. You could go on to a second work time and then come together for lunch.  Older children could make sandwiches for the family as part of their second work time. This means that parents used to working through their lunch break need to stop and honor the schedule in the same way as the children are asked to do. 


After lunch, young children can nap and older children can have some quiet time with books, audio books, etc or they can start the afternoon work time as they do everyday at school. Another option is some active time and then a second work time. If your children take a long nap (yay!), you can get some real, focused work done and then be available to them when they wake up. For older children, you can continue this pattern of individual work and coming together. 


I’d try to save any screen time for as late in the day as possible. Montessori families are generally encouraged to avoid screens but these are remarkable times and if you and your children truly need the separate time that a movie can provide, do it and don’t beat yourself up about it. 


In the Montessori world, we see children as active, capable members of the community, members who want to contribute to their community – whether it’s their school or home community.  We believe that everyone has something to offer. On social media, I  hearing parents worrying about how they will get their work done and what they will do with their kids in order to get time for themselves.  That’s a real and valid concern but the last thing that we want children to feel, is that through no fault of their own, they have become a nuisance and a problem to be solved.   


A mental reframing of this could be – we’re all home together, going through a scary and unknown challenge.  It will take all of us working together to help our family get through this.  Your children want to hear this from you. If you give them the opportunity to step up and support the family, they will.  During a difficult situation, we all feel powerful and capable when we have a clear role and way to contribute. Children can feel proud and how good it feels to be responsible and useful in contrast to feeling like the victim of a situation or a passive, bored bystander who isn’t capable of being helpful.

 

Even the youngest child can contribute.  A two year old can pull the clothes out of the dryer or scrub potatoes if you give them a bowl of water and a little scrub brush. If they spill some water as they triumphantly bring you the clean potatoes, who cares? Next time, put a towel under the bowl. The Wildflower teachers will be sharing lots of ideas about how to set your children up for success in a wide variety of activities that will help them to care for your home and the people, animals and plants who live there. 

 

You can also extend this beyond your immediate family.  Folks over 60 are being told to stay in their homes and are likely feeling isolated. Older children can write letters to older family members and younger children can draw pictures or make cards. These folks are likely to write back enthusiastically – checking the mail could become a highlight of your day! You could also stick notes and drawings in the mailboxes of isolated members of the community.  


I’ve been describing children at their best. The reality is that few of us are at our best when we feel stressed, or the folks we trust to take care of us are clearly nervous or when we have to adjust to a new routine. Children are going to test the ground rules of this new schedule and way of being together. They’ll wonder, are my parents really serious when they say that they’re going to work for an hour without being disturbed?  


Testing is what humans do when we’re figuring out the boundaries of a new situation. My advice is to hold firm to the boundaries you’ve set.  This may make the first days a little rough. If you can calmly hold tight to the boundaries without feeling sorry for your child or that you’re being mean, then everyone will be on the same page about where the boundaries are and the rest of your time together will be much smoother. 


You can also model holding boundaries for your child.  If, during the agreed upon work time, your child is wheedling to have the next chapter of a story read, you could use language along these lines:  “I can’t wait to see what comes next either but I promised the people I work with that I would have this piece of work finished by the end of the morning. I need 30 more minutes to finish my work and then we can read the next chapter. Can you set the timer for 30 minutes?


This is going to be a challenge but it’s also an opportunity to come together as a family, to come together within our communities and to come together globally as we truly understand how interconnected we all are.  We all have a role to play in this coming together, even the youngest child. Please know that your child’s teachers are here for you, Wildflower is here for you and we’re going to stay connected to you and help you out as much as possible during this challenging time.