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Meet this Montessori Family in Texas USA

It's a Practical Life #1

I have been following Sveta and her family on Instagram for a while. I find her approach to parenting and Montessori very refreshing. I can't tell you how much I love sharing the journey of other Montessori families. I aways find it so uplifting and inspiring. Today I am thrilled that I can share with you Sveta and her Montessori family. 

Thank you for sharing your family and story with us. Can you tell us a little about yourself, your family and where you live?

My name is Sveta and my husband is Johann. We have two daughters; Maya, who is almost eight, and Nina, who is two. We live in Austin, the capital of Texas in the United States. Johann is an Engineer at a semi-conductor company, and I am a full time mom. In addition to my family responsibilities I lead a troop of Girl Scouts and teach a program called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) at our church. CGS is an approach to religious education that uses Montessori methodology. I post pictures of our Montessori life on Instagram with the username "itsapracticallife". I have been following your blog for many years, Kylie, and I am thrilled by this opportunity to share my perspective of my family's Montessori journey!

When and how did you first become interested in the work of Montessori? I am particularly interested in what it was about Montessori that really connected with you and how did you learn more about it?

I first heard the word "Montessori" several years before I had children. My cousin was considering a move to Austin and visited us with his family. They spent a day visiting different Montessori schools because their four-year-old, Robert, attended one in Portland, Oregon, and I tagged along. After visiting several Montessori schools, I was intrigued by how different they looked from any school I had encountered. However, what enchanted me the most was my nephew. Robert was unlike any four-year-old I had known. I was having very enlightening conversations with him on subjects like geography, and each time I asked his parents, "How on earth does he know all this stuff?" they would answer, "Montessori school!” I guess what really connected me to Montessori was getting to know a Montessori child. I sincerely regret that I did not pursue learning more about Montessori at that time.

It's a Practical Life #2

Both of your daughters attend a Montessori school. How did you find the school and is Montessori schooling something you will continue with?

After having spent time visiting Montessori schools with Robert, I had understood Montessori to be an alternative method of education. I did not realize that it was a philosophy and a way of life. It was several years later when I had my own child, who was by then six months old, that I started to do some research on Montessori schools. I realized that the term "Montessori" was not patented, which is why the schools I'd visited seemed so different from each other. I also learned that there are several ways to spot a quality Montessori school. For example, schools accredited by the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), are held to the most authentic Montessori standard possible. As luck would have it, there was an AMI school about 10 minutes away from our home. I literally got Maya on the wait list at this school within minutes of my discovery. She started in the Youngest Children's Community when she was 20 months old, and is now in her second year of Lower Elementary. Nina started at this same school at the age of three months in the Parent-Infant Community, and also joined the Youngest Children's Community at 20 months. The school goes all the way through the 9th grade (age 15), and yes, we absolutely plan on staying at our Montessori school all the way.

Since our first encounter with the girls' school we have made a concerted effort to learn something through the Montessori lens each day. This mostly happens by observing our children. The more Johann and I learn about Montessori, the greater our longing to have been Montessori children ourselves. Last year this wish was fulfilled when we spent a weekend at "The Silent Journey and Discovery". This is an event where adults get to experience Montessori through the eyes of children, by being students in Montessori classrooms. It was an unforgettable experience.

It's a Practical Life #3

I love following you on Instagram because it’s so clear and easy to follow. Parents can easily look around their home for similar materials and feel inspired by your activities. Can you describe your approach to Montessori and how does it impact your everyday living?

I believe that to be a Montessori family you don't need to send your child to Montessori school, neither do you require a single Montessori activity in your home. For me, following the Montessori philosophy boils down to two things. The first is how you communicate with your children. The second is how you prepare your home environment.

Let me share my thoughts on communication first. When I was brand new to motherhood I would very keenly observe parents' interactions with their young children. I was acutely aware that my baby, who mostly needed to be loved and nourished, would very soon be a toddler whose cooperation I would have to enlist. However, when I heard the way children were spoken to, it just did not resonate with me. I would hear parents say, "Don't do that! It's not nice!" for example, and I would notice how ineffectual that approach was. But I had no idea of the alternative. That was until the day I first observed the Youngest Children's Community at the school my children would go on to attend. I heard the alternative and I saw how differently the children behaved. They cooperated with the adults in the environment without a single reward, punishment, threat, or raised voice, but after being spoken to at eye level with the deepest of reverence and respect. I remember leaving that observation with a much greater desire than wanting to know about the activities in the classroom. I recall thinking, "I desperately want to learn to talk like that."

As it turned out, my children's Montessori school takes Parent Education very seriously because of its importance in forming a partnership between school and home. Very soon after Maya joined the Youngest Children's Community, Johann and I both took a class based on the books by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It is called "How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk.” The class was taught by the founder and the Executive Director of the school. They were both in their early seventies. Between them they had raised seven children and had approximately 90 years of experience working in the field of education. At the end of the 6 weeks we drove away from the class realizing that we had been transformed from two people who had a baby, and were well on our way to becoming Montessori parents.

With regards to preparing the home environment, I still often refer to an article I picked up at my very first Prospective Parent class at my children's school titled "Owner's Manual For A Child" by Donna Bryant Goertz. The article is now available on www.mariamontessori.com. It truly is such an enlightening and personal guide to preparing the home environment because it is written from the perspective of a first-plane child.

I appreciate how much information is now available on setting up a Montessori environment, information that I would have been grateful for when Maya was a baby. At the crux of my approach is what not to have in a Montessori home. Firstly, our children do not have access to screens in our home, and Johann and I use them, as much as possible, out of their sight. By screens I refer to smartphones, tablets, computers, television, movies and video games. We passionately believe that screens are not compatible with a Montessori way of life, especially for children, because Montessori is sensorial; it is hands-on. Screens take away from the richness of the real-life experiences we want for our children. The other half of this two-part approach is that "less is more". We surround our children with as little as possible, but make the things they have available to them really count. Every item our children have access to in our home is of a high quality, and has a purpose. 

It's a Practical Life #4

Your daughter Maya is 7.5 years old. What advice do you have for parents of children entering the second plane of development?

An article I recommend to parents of children entering the second plane of development (ages 6-12) is "Who is the Elementary Child?" by John Snyder, which you can find on www.mariamontessori.com.

In the second plane, children become more independent, and peers and adults outside of their immediate family start to become as important as the family which has nurtured them through the first plane. Whereas in the first plane of development children really want to stay close to home and emulate their parents, children in the second plane start to have role models outside home. Maya, for instance, says of her Lower Elementary guide (teacher) with the most absolute of certainty: "Jamie is the awesome-est person in the world". I feel strongly that these are the years, as parents, where we strive to keep our home units as stable and unconditional as in the first plane. We need to set aside time to connect with our second plane children and listen, listen, listen to them so that in the third plane of development (adolescence) they will talk to us about everything out of connection and habit. This is the loveliest age to introduce children to our favorite poet, make a trip to visit the fire-station, volunteer with them at a nursing home; in general, be by their side as they are introduced to those whose lives we would like to impress upon them.

Second plane children are interested in BIG things and BIG work, so my advice would be to give them lots of opportunities to explore, create, play, and run like the wind. We follow our Montessori school's recommendations for preparing the environment for the Elementary child at home. Maya has a part of our living room that is her designated area. In this she has:

  • Her own desk to work at, above which hangs a cork board with a calendar and important reminders.
  • A special shelf for displaying materials and equipment, giving them a place of honor in our home.
  • An analog clock at Maya's eye level.
  • A large, political world map which is switched out every few months with a topographical map.
  • A library of books, which includes a set of World Book Encyclopedias, a world atlas, and a beautiful anthology of poetry for children. We are slowly building our library of books recommended for Elementary age children by our school. In this library we want Maya to have books so beautiful that she will want to pass them on to her own children.
  • Paper of different kinds, and a few quality art materials, sewing supplies and yarn are always available. 

It's a Practical Life #5

What are Nina's favourite activities right now?

Nina is in the first plane of development so her favorite activities are doing whatever I'm doing around the house. She is a lover of laundry, dinner prep, watering plants and cleaning. She also loves a good book. The most interesting thing for me over these past few months, as her vocabulary has exploded, is watching her develop a relationship with her sister because they can now converse. My favorite conversations are when the girls share with each other what work they've done at school.

Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from? Are there any books, websites, blogs that you could recommend?

I get my inspiration mainly from my children's amazing school and the dedicated parents who form part of our Montessori community. There is a vibrant Parents Association at our school, and guides and staff members who provide a wealth of information. Johann and I recently became members of the Montessori Family Alliance, which is a non-profit organization whose mission is to support Montessori families. I also find myself often referring to Maren Schmidt's blog and appreciating how she makes the Montessori philosophy understandable and accessible to all parents, not just those who send their children to Montessori school.

I think www.mariamontessori.com is a great resource for learning about authentic Montessori practice. For insight into what AMI Montessori classrooms look like, I love Montessori Guide. Several of the videos on that website were filmed at my children's school. The video titled "Snakes" was filmed entirely in Maya's Lower Elementary classroom, so although I am biased, I recommend it highly for those seeking understanding of a Montessori Elementary environment.

For parents who are genuinely interested in Montessori Elementary and the second plane of development I recommend two books. One is "Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful: Preventing Exclusion in the Early Elementary Classroom" by Donna Bryant Goertz, and the other is "Tending the Light: Essays on Montessori Education" by John R. Snyder.

It's a Practical Life #6

Finally, do you have any tips or suggestions for parents beginning Montessori in the home? What are the key elements you have found useful that you can recommend to others?

In general what Montessori has brought into our lives is respect and understanding of how to meet the emotional and developmental needs of our children; how to "follow the child", as Dr. Montessori said.

My first piece of advice for those wanting to bring Montessori into their home is to remove the screens. Just try it and you may just find after a few days that you don't miss them at all. I have found our screen-free existence to be the means to a calm and connected way of being in which our children truly develop the skills of concentration and the ability to be engaged in independent work for extended periods of time.

The second is to move away from a family culture of rewards and punishment, if this is your current model. A system of rewards and punishment is just not congruent with Dr. Montessori's philosophy that children are intrinsically motivated, and that we can provide them with purposeful work in a carefully prepared environment to support this.

Lastly, I have found that it does not suffice to have a delegated "Montessori area" in our home for our children. In order to truly follow the Montessori philosophy, we need to apply it to all areas of our home. This involves a carefully thought-out environment in which our children's work and play spaces are incorporated to where the entire family spends most of their time. When our children are off working in their bedrooms or playrooms we miss out on valuable opportunities to observe them and connect with them. Connection and peace is what every family seeks and my family has achieved this, in large part, through Montessori. 

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If you haven't already you can follow Sveta and her family on Instagram at itsapracticallife. A heartfelt thank you to Sveta for being so generous with her time. It warms my heart to know and connect with like minded parents around the world. There are so many practical suggestions, further reading and words of wisdom in this post, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. 

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