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We’re so grateful for the chance to learn more about you! Can you share where you live and work now?
SB: I am on the unceded land of Timucuan, Creek and Seminole People in NE Florida, in St. Augustine. I have a micro in-home school for children ages 3-7. I also teach Adult Learners in three different programs, one is in NE Florida, another is a virtual program and the other is WSMS-TEP! How lucky am I that I get to come home to WSMS and support Adult Learners and grow my practice?
The children in my program come to school for 3 hours a day. Their space has both inside and outside components. The inside space has Montessori materials and the outside space has a mud kitchen, a woodworking table, a sand box, two water tables and an abundance of heavy bricks along with a variety of wooden planks, wooden blocks and other things we find in nature. The past few years I have been reflecting a lot about my role as a Montessori guide; I’m even more aware of how much influence my words and my body language have over the children in my care. I am consciously trying to take a back seat and allow the children the freedom in their space to work with the materials in their own way. I rarely present materials, I only step in when their emotional or physical safety is at risk, and I try not to guide the children into specific work. At times this feels so counterintuitive, but I understand that their time at school is about their relationship with the materials and not about what I want them to experience or master. Took me long enough to learn this and it’s very hard not to step in, but I’m trying my best.
At the beginning of this academic year, (because of COVID) we were outside for the entire work cycle. There was this beautiful organic exchange between the children and their environment, they were truly following their own passions. They worked with the Montessori materials and then ran into the garden where they noticed the color and shape of a flower or the feel of the breeze on their skin, talked about it with their friends and then went back to work with the materials. Sadly, many of my materials started to grow mold so I had to move the materials onto the screened in porch and separate the work time from their outdoor garden time. Now, we start outside and after about 30 minutes we come inside. It’s still a gorgeous way to experience Montessori materials. The children are unfazed by the weather, they sing and dance and build shelters in the middle of a downpour, they stomp around and do yoga when it’s 40 degrees and when it’s way too hot for me they find ways to work. I’m earning so much from them about being present, in each moment.
It’s a very different setting than I think you’ve been in before, certainly different than a large group classroom in NYC where you had to be really specific about ways to get outdoors.
SB: Margot Waltuch’s article, The Casa of Sevres, France (A Montessori Album, 1986) resonated with me when I first read it, I have always had the desire to offer children the opportunity to be able to commune with nature in ways that feel significant to them. This article has been the inspiration that I keep coming back to; that children should be able to experience work inside and outside on their own schedule, according to their needs, so finally I am able to give them this gift and it’s been incredible to observe their growth. Sadly the mold had to put a stop to the materials being outdoors, but I still try to follow their desires, as much as we can without disturbing their flow.
Let’s go back even further. What is your Montessori origin story or “aha” moment?
SB: I was teaching in an afterschool program at the Children’s Aid society on Sullivan Street in the West Village in NYC and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in education. I just wasn’t sure which methodology I wanted to commit to. I went to visit my friend Melanie, who lived in Provincetown and who had just given birth to her son Grant. She’d recently finished The Absorbent Mind and she asked me for my opinion about Montessori. I had absolutely no clue about Montessori so I borrowed her book and read the entire book on the bus ride back from Provincetown. I came home to Brooklyn and decided Montessori was for me. I did some research and discovered West Side Montessori. It was November and I remember meeting Marlene Barron in her office; I was immediately blown away by her passion and her vast knowledge of Montessori as well her ability to think outside of the box combined with her desire to always grow her practice just won me over. I knew as soon as I met her that she would be in my life for a very long time. (She’s still my mentor, we video chat often — for hours at a time, she’s still stretching my practice both with the children and adults that I guide.) I sat in 2E and 2W and I observed and was astounded at the learning; the independence, the reflective thinking, the problem solving and the space that the educators gave their learners. So, I signed up at NYU and began classes that January. The following summer I took Practical Life with Joanne Oh and Mimi Basso, and my life changed forever. On the first day, Mimi read “The Other Way To Listen” by Byrd Baylor and she presented a 1:1 wet transfer work and I was in tears. I felt my life finally made sense and that I had purpose that I had experienced before. The beauty, the drama and the simplicity won me over so did Mimi’s generosity and calmness. That year I worked at Brooklyn Heights Montessori and the following year I secured an internship at WSMS, and worked with Donna and Faith. I have to tell you, I’m still close friends with most people from my training. They are like my family, my soul-siblings. The beautiful thing is that we have known each other so long, and seen each other evolve in Montessori-land, it’s such a gift. It’s grounding and gives me a sense of community and a reminder about WHY the work is so important
The next question was an extension of that story, can you share a favorite memory from training?
SB: Definitely the first day and that story with Mimi and Joanne, just watching them and being blown away by it all. But there are so many memories, I mean, I have to say that WSMS taught me more about myself and diversity in ways that I’m seeing other people just now starting to reflect. We were constantly being asked to rethink everything that we did. I’m always questioning, not with doubt, but how can I make this better for children. For all the children, not just those who look like me or come from homes like mine. We were asked to dig deeper, to take risks, emotional, social and intellectual risks for the children in our care. The seeds were planted back then, and I have to say this training program is still astounding. There were some of us that said our training was like the Marine’s of Montessori, in a good way. It gave us a 360 view of ourselves, children, and families.
The next two questions I’m going to ask, you’ve somewhat addressed a bit, but who is/are your mentors?
SB: I have to say Marlene, for her tenacity and her care. She still stretches my brain in ways that no one else can. In some ways, I would say that she is my Montessori “mother.” Also, many others in direct and indirect ways, Maria Gravel, Mimi Basso, Kathy Roemer, Lisanne Pinciotti, Dorothy Paul, Windy Wellington, Ann Johnson and indirectly Britt Hawthorne and Tiffany Jewell, really the list is endless. I am also inspired by the children I guide as well as the Adult Learners I guide too. There’s this constant cycle of inspiration, of mentorship and generosity, because we do this for the children, for all the children and I have found that most of my elders in Montessori are so generous and want to share, it’s not like “this is all mine.”
At what point in training or after, did you were inspired or called to be an advocate for social justice?
SB: I remember sitting in the teacher’s room at WSMS arguing with my peers about the rights of women and how we have to be more than wives and mothers and how we had a responsibility to teach that to the children in our care. I remember yelling (we yelled a lot back then) at anyone who would listen to think beyond the boxes that we create. So that we could support and create spaces for everyone to be their best selves. Looking back I think I have always been an angry feminist/queer.
Isn’t that interesting, if Kimberlee Crenshaw had brought that term to us sooner, how that might have changed some of those early conversations. How do we tease out different parts of ourselves?
SB: YES! You know that saying “If I only knew then what I know now?” But really, back then, being a young queer Jewish South African activist, I never stopped being angry, I was always on my soap box yelling.
So it sounds like you were already an activist during your adult years, but when was the birth of your activism?
SB: Oh, you know I think being a 4 year old white South African who knew in their soul that they were different from everyone else. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew deep down that I would never live up to everyone else’s expectation that I would be an arm piece to a man. On some level I felt like I wasn’t good enough, that I was going to disappoint so many people, I felt so alone, so lonely but I also knew that I didn’t have a choice. That piece as well as the fact that I was a white African who was aware that Black and brown and Indigenous Africans were not treated the same as white Africans. At a young age I couldn’t understand the reasons for apartheid, but I knew that apartheid was wrong. I always think I was lucky to be born into a family who actively fought against apartheid, who actively worked against the system to insure that eventually everyone in South Africa, regardless of the color of their skin could vote. My family taught me to question everything and to fight for the rights of others.
For as long as I can remember I have always wanted to advocate for queer children, and really anyone who questions their gender identity or sexuality. For anyone who has felt, or feels alone, abandoned, misunderstood and who is marginalized because of their gender identity or sexuality. Montessori has given me this gift, to be able to support those queer children, educators and families who NEED to be SEEN, who need to be HEARD and need spaces where they can be who they truly are. I remember Sarah Gilman, (she was a therapist who worked at WSMS back in the day. Sarah was incredibly wise, she supported the children, families and educators, gosh, what a luxury and incredible thing to have, thank you WSMS for that!!) Sarah told me once that we all choose to support, nurture and guide the age group at which we ourselves needed the most support. I know how meaningful it would have been for me, if at the ages of 3-6 I had one teacher who would have made space for me to be who I was, one educator who would have read a book with a queer protagonist, (I dont think there were any then) or one educator who would have told me that I was perfect just the way I was. I understand now that I have two cosmic tasks; the first is to be a Montessori educator and the second is to guide others towards creating communities that support, celebrate and nurture LGBTQIA+ humans. I can;t do one without the other and it’s this beautiful melding of the two. I am deeply connected to the children I teach and the adults I teach. I learn as much from them as they learn from me. There’s this constant spiritual work, the reflective piece that we serve the children better if we are humble enough to receive the lessons they give us.
Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you’d want to be included in this? What’s most important to you when someone is telling your story?
SB: I’m learning from my work with Embracing Equity and from other incredible ABAR educators that as humans we evolve. Katie Kitchens once said “we are not our mistakes” and that has stuck with me in so many ways. We are so forgiving and compassionate with the children in our care yet we are so harsh and unforgiving with ourselves. It’s quite mysterious and something we have to work so hard at unlearning. I want to invite adults to be as forgiving of themselves as they are with children. We are all a “work in progress” we are always stretching and growing who we are and that is such a gift.
Thank you for giving me this incredible opportunity to speak with you, to share what’s deeply significant to me in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, someone reading this will find the space in their hearts to grow compassion and love for someone who is different than they are.
Melissa Freeman is the Early Childhood and Administrator Practicum Coordinator for WSMS-TEP. Melissa’s history at WSMS began when she was a student in our TEP. She continued on at WSMS as a head teacher, and eventually took on roles as an instructor and field consultant for TEP. In 2009, Melissa moved into school administration before taking a break to be at home with her 3 young daughters.
Melissa returned to WSMS-TEP and now teaches multiple classes in the Early Childhood, Administrator, and Montessori Inclusion Endorsement programs. She says, “The weekend classes and the ability to work remotely means that I can negotiate the complexities of childcare while staying connected to the school where my academic career began. Having young children of my own makes me even more aware of how important a child’s first start in education is. The relationship between adults and children fostered in a Montessori classroom creates a foundation for the trust, caring, openness and respect that carries through their lifetimes. Working with adults to become Montessori teachers & administrators has made me realize the impact my work has on the children and families in their classrooms. In my 10 years in early childhood classrooms, I influenced over 200 children. And in my ongoing career teaching teachers, that number will grow exponentially!”⠀