I always thought of blogs as being narcissistic, business related, or as my sister's, a way of keeping in touch or memorializing.

But, by necessity, I am learning a lot about myself. I find I need to get my thoughts out, and it helps me to know that someone else will read them. So I have created this little space for myself, to express the things I have trouble saying (be it emotional or physical trouble), to share what I'm going through, and what I'm learning through it.

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Thursday, 7 April 2011


My therapist told me recently that I am highly adaptable.
It got me thinking.

Since high school, I've written and talked more than enough about how having been a Montessori child has been a benefit to my life, in terms of my academic skills, my love of learning, and the deep respect I hold for myself and others. But this gives it a whole new spin.

Dealing with sickness the way it has hit me these last couple of years - the ups and downs, the loss of faith and ability, the depth of grief and the slow climb to acceptance, and of course the daily struggle to not only function but live in a way that makes me feel my life worth living - has forced me to change the way I do things, and the way I think about things. There's the challenge, and I'll quote Dr. Montessori: "adapt, or die."

Granted, she was talking from an "evolution of the species" perspective, but it still applies. Boy does it apply. If I didn't adapt my lifestyle, I'd drive myself into the ground, and quite possibly push my body until it really did stop functioning - like that November day that I literally slid down the wall and couldn't get back up, only maybe even worse. If I didn't adapt my way of thinking, I'd be a very angry and depressed person right now, possibly even suicidal, which given a choice, is not how I want to be.

We don't get to choose what life hands us. But we do have to choose how to deal with it. A good friend went to 3 funerals last year, people she was close to. Another good friend's sister has recently committed suicide. Another lost her mother and suffered several miscarriages. My own sister had to deal with life as a mom of 3 children under 3 while adjusting to living back in Toronto. You know these stories, even if you don't know my friends...

I've said this before - everybody has a story that can break your heart. But that doesn't mean your story has to break your life. "It's not the load that breaks you, it's how you carry it" (Lena Horne).

The only way to carry it without breaking is to adapt to its weight.

So here's the thing about Montessori. The ultimate goal of Montessori education, to totally over-simplify it, is to create a lasting world peace. How? By helping each child become a healthy adult who is able to balance his or her own needs with those of the society in which she or he lives. How the heck do we do that, when most of the adults we know are broken in some way? Montessori called it a process of normalization - she believed that reaching the highest levels of personal development could and should be a normal thing - that it was what our species was meant to be, and that we have not been able to reach these in part because of how we treat and educate children. It is, after all, the children we were who became the adults we are today, and we carry our childhoods with us through our whole lives.

One of the attributes found in the majority of Montessori children is adaptability; the ability to function in a variety of situations. Another is resilience; the ability to handle stress, failure, loss and bounce back from it. I personally believe that adaptability is a necessary part of resilience.

But how does it work? It's very complicated, and it takes most adults the full training, practice teaching and a couple of years of actually working in the classroom to really understand it, because it really is like no other educational system. But I'll try to simplify it :)

Every well-run Montessori classroom is a microcosm of society, in which the children are in charge of their daily activities, but are responsible to the group, and subject to the guidance of an adult, much as an adult in a workplace environment. Every day the children given what we call an uninterrupted three hour work period in which to go about their day as freely as they can manage under the keen supervision of a well trained teacher. This time block is crucial to the development of adaptability and to the process of normalization.

Every day, from an age as young as 18 months, these children are negotiating for the use of the materials (activities and objects in the classroom - we don't call them toys, just like we don't call what the students do play - we call it work). They are having to learn how to wait. They are making decisions and living with the consequences. They are treated with respect by the adults, and are encouraged to do all of this as independently as they are capable. The experimentation that is natural to childhood - role playing, trying out emotions, pushing boundaries - all of it is encouraged, as it allows the children to see that much more clearly the impact of their actions, words and decisions. But also enforced are the limits which are in place that allow the microcosm to flourish - these are given in the positive terms of: respect the materials, respect the environment, and respect others.

To put it another way... you can talk with your friends, as long it does not disturb the work of the rest of the class. You can be creative with the paint, but make sure the table is clean when you're done. For the older students, you may use your laptop, but only if you're using it for work. (tangent: Aren't these the same basic rules that govern our own workspaces? Are we not horribly annoyed by the co-workers who chatter endlessly at the end of the hall? Do we not get in trouble for using work equipment for personal reasons?)

Children in Montessori classrooms learn to adapt, because they have to. Sometimes they have to sit next to somebody they don't like so much, because the table they wanted to sit at was full. Or they may have to wait until three children have taken their turn before they can sit at the snack table. They will certainly deal with a variety of peers of varied ages in a variety of situations, and will learn that different people have different skills and talents. Because they are in the same class for three years, they can see their progress, and they take on different roles in the classroom.

Resilience is developed by taking responsibility, and letting go of the stigma of mistakes and hardship. From day one, the teacher will model the graceful correction of a simple error. The children will follow her lead. They will make mistakes. They have to. That's the best way to learn. By fixing our own errors. Most of the activities have a built-in signal for the child to know when a mistake has been made. The teacher will not berate the child for the mistake, or call attention to it in a way that is embarrassing. Rather, in a matter of fact way, focusing on the solution, the teacher will simply help or be present as the child fixes it.

Having these experiences as a child, and re-visiting them as a teacher - I can see now how they have helped me deal with the harder times in life. I am adaptable, and I am resilient. My son, who has been in the Montessori system since he was one and a half, is adapting tremendously well to the huge changes that have taken place in our home - his teachers had no idea how sick I was until I asked for a meeting a month after the symptoms reappeared.

My aunt wrote me recently: "In life there are no for sures, every corner we turn will have surprises and to be able to live in peace with the unknown we must LOVE ourselves first."

Life will throw at us what it will. Tomorrow is mystery. Whatever we face, we can only face with what tools we have. I am grateful to my grandmother, and my uncle's first wife, for introducing our family to Montessori education. It fostered in me the strength to deal with uncertainty and adversity, by helping me become an adaptable, resilient person, and instilled in me commitment and passion for living as fully as I possibly can at any given moment.



  2. Andy, your courage is palpable and your personal insight is touching. Your teacher.