Spotlight Samantha Cedarleaf

We couldn't be more excited to introduce you to Samantha Cedarleaf. Here's her biography: "I'm an AMI-certified primary directress. I run a little Montessori school in a big city."

Yes, we know, her biography hooked us too! Now, for hook, line and sinker. Location? Where else, but Brooklyn, NY. We have a feeling that Samantha is just getting started!

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Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your background, your interests, your dreams?

A: My Montessori journey began in 2004 when my family helped start a Montessori school in Kampala, Uganda. We were in the process of adopting my little brother and we met a woman who had been trained in the Montessori method in London. I had a vague idea of what Montessori was but didn't really learn more until 2008 when I got more involved with the school in Kampala.

I realized that I needed to be trained so I took a correspondence course with the North American Montessori Center and received a primary diploma from them. When I did more research about Montessori I heard about the AMI and a woman named Lynne Lawrence. I heard about her work with Montessori schools in Kenya and Tanzania and decided that I wanted to be trained by her.

I moved to London and was part of the 96th course at the Maria Montessori Institute. My dream is to help spread AMI Montessori to Uganda, but in the meantime I'm living and working in Brooklyn. I started a little school with just a few children in my neighborhood and I love it!

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Q: Now that the hardest question is out of the way: What's your favorite color?

A: I can't pick just one! Can a sunset be my favorite color?

Q: Do you have a favorite book? How about a film?

A: My favorite children's book is Miss Rumphius. I get choked up every time I read it. And I have too many favorite movies. "What About Bob" and "Waiting for Guffman" are in my top 10 for sure.

Q: When you close your eyes late at night, and imagine waking up and starting a new adventure: what is that adventure?

A: I would love to be working in East Africa helping people start Montessori schools and training programs. It would be amazing to be a part of something that could transform the lives of so many children!

Q: Can you tell us about your hobbies?

A: Since I started my own school I spend most of my spare time working! I make a lot of materials for my class, and I love to write and illustrate reading booklets for my students. I also love to explore the City but I don't cross the bridge to Manhattan as often as I'd like. When I do, I often take a sketchbook to the MET and draw for a few hours.

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Q:  Switching to Montessori, what advice do you have for new Montessori schools?

A: I'd say that the most important thing is to find parents who are excited about the Montessori method. The first year is really challenging for all sorts of reasons and if you can eliminate the challenge of convincing skeptical parents, then do it!

Q:  With that in mind, we suppose the same question can be applied to established Montessori schools.

A: Since I'm only in my second year I'm not sure I'm the best person to give advice on this. But the biggest lesson I learned from last year is to communicate with parents, but not to overdo it. I've found that parents don't necessarily want a minute-by-minute log of what their children did at school. They just want to know their children are happy and learning.

Q: How have things changed since you first got started in the field of education?

A: I'm still a rookie so I'm not sure! ;)

Q: Did you have a "Montessori Moment"?

A: I think the moment I was truly convinced that Montessori is the BEST and ONLY way to educate young children was the first time I observed in the Children's House at the Maria Montessori Institute. I really couldn't believe my eyes.

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Q: What's your favorite Montessori quote?

A: The first quote that ever struck a chord with me is from the Discovery of the Child: "She cannot understand her apparently passive role, which is like that of an astronomer who sits fixed at his telescope while the planets go spinning around. It is very difficult to assimilate and to put into practice the idea that life and all that is connected with it go on by themselves, and that it must be observed and understood without intervention if we wish to divine its secrets or direct its activities." 

And another favorite is from the Absorbent Mind: "The teacher of children up to six years of age knows that she has helped mankind in an essential part of its formation. She is happy in the knowledge that in this formative period, they were able to do what they had to do. She will also be able to say, ‘I have served the spirits of those children, and they have fulfilled their development, and I kept them company in their experiences.'"

Q: What do you think is the best introduction to Montessori?

A: I think there are two important ways to get to know Montessori: The first and most profound is to see Montessori children in action. Nothing can compare to it! The second is to read about it. E.M. Standing's Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work is an excellent introduction. 

Q: What continues to inspire you about Montessori?

A: During my training I was really into the theory of the Method. I wasn't concerned so much with the practical details. But when I opened my school I was forced to really dive head first into the practice. I was amazed to see everything that I had read about happening before my eyes. The method was materialized right in my own classroom and it is every single day. 

Q: How do you feel your school has impacted your community?

A: I feel like I've found a great group of families who are excited and passionate about their children's education. We're becoming Montessori evangelists to our little neighborhood in Brooklyn!

Q: What kind of legacy would you hope your school will impart to students?

A: My greatest hope for my students is that they would grow up to be compassionate, independent, and thoughtful contributors to their families, then to their neighborhood, then to our city, then the world.

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Q: In what ways do you envision the future of education?

A: Just from my interactions with parents in my neighborhood I've sensed that people are no longer satisfied with the status quo. I know several people who have pulled their children out of public schools and are beginning to educate them at home. I hope that this dissatisfaction will lead to a revolution in how we educate our children. I think we need to return to the most important factor in education, the one that seems to have been ignored the most -- the child.

You should follow Samantha on Twitter: @verymontessori

A New Generation

We're really blessed at Baan Dek. We have an amazingly diverse and eclectic community, comprised of so many beautiful and considerate students and families. With over seven different foreign languages represented in our school, (which is relatively small, especially considering that we're located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota) we're increasingly overwhelmed by the humanity and compassion that we see exhibited on a daily basis.

Sometimes it's difficult to read the newspaper, or turn on the television, and understand exactly what's going on in the rest of the world, when you can glimpse into one of these classrooms and see the germination of a new generation of global citizens. One of our lovely parents, Sarah Sibert, took the opportunity, not only to educate her child on the value of others (or was it the other way around), but also took the time, to share her story with us.

We have so much to learn from children..

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"When my daughter Piper brought me the scarf – an outdated black and red silk square that avoided the donation box and found new life in the dress up box – she asked me to help her tie it. “Like a belt?” I asked. “No, around my head like Manar,” she replied, referring to the hijab-wearing mother of her schoolmate and friend, Hamza.

Her tone was put off, as to say “how else would you tie a scarf?”

“Oh yeah, like that!” I said in my best that-was-my-next-guess voice, feeling very lame I hadn’t thought of it myself. I jumped right to work wrapping and tying, making sure that it was secure for whatever came next in Piper’s re-enactment of reality called “pretend play”.

My concentration floated between thoughts like how does Manar tie hers so pristinely? I should ask her to teach me… and more awakening thoughts like how cool is this that Piper’s circle of friends includes children and adults who can literally bring her the world – in their clothes, their languages, their travels and their customs.

Considering that during my own childhood, the only woman I ever saw wear a headscarf was my grandma on rainy days to protect her hair, I felt really optimistic and hopeful that Piper – and all the world’s preschoolers – will grow up genuinely intrigued by the things that make us different and even “try on” a few of them.

Once it was tied, I was expecting questions about why she wears a scarf and why I don’t, and oddly enough, nothing. She fluttered about in her butterfly dress and scarf reading books and singing songs to pretend friends.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. To Piper, Manar is no different than any other mom – she kisses her son when he is hurt, reminds him constantly to stay away from the street and brings a purse chock full of fruit snacks to play dates. She just does it wearing a really cool scarf."

Frued on Montessori

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Anna Freud was a strong supporter of Maria Montessori, and the Montessori approach to education. Her father also corresponded with Montessori, and professed his respect.

Anna Freud writes, in the preface to Maria Montessori: A Biography, that as a contemporary, she is impressed that "the most important elements of the Montessori method" entered into modern discourse "in one form or another" and became indispensable components in the education of small children...". She lists both sense perception studies and metaphysics as the primary elements that contributed to the success of Maria Montessori.

In a letter of correspondence, Freud himself states, "I am in deep sympathy with your humanitarian and understanding endeavors, and my daughter, who is an analytic pedagogue, considers herself one of your disciples."

Architecture and Montessori

Before we opened Baan Dek, we had a vision for what it could become. We mapped out the coordinates, so to speak, and determined, from the start, that architecture, including design and aesthetics, could play an instrumental role in the formation of the school. In our estimations, it was necessary.

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Here we were, preparing to follow the interests of our students, and we were surrounded by structures and artifices that were not built to accommodate the specific needs of the children. The toilets were too large and cumbersome, the sinks were difficult to navigate, let alone reach, and it seemed to us that the children would just feel out of place. And, that's not taking into consideration the edifice itself! Imagine living in a world that wasn't built with you in mind.

As a result, we decided to seek out some of the best architectural minds in the universe, to tackle this specific set of constraints: how to build a Montessori school for children, one that could intensify their abilities and capacities to learn. After considerable research, and numerous conversations, we decided that the pioneering work being conducted by Arakawa and Gins, was an amplification, or exemplification, of the work of Maria Montessori, and that they would be the perfect collaborators in this project. So, we contacted them.

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Arakawa and Gins were so very receptive to our concerns and ambitions, and we just hit it off, exploring the multifaceted intersections, convergences and divergences, of their work, and the practices and methods of Maria Montessori. There's actually a full scale set of architectural plans for Baan Dek, at the center of a proposed community named Yuma, which would be dedicated to discovering and researching the ways in which we learn and live.

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Yesterday, we discovered a number of the original documents that we exchanged with Arakawa and Gins. Perhaps like Kierkegaard's Victor Eremita, in Either/Or, who unearths a manuscript in a secret compartment of a used writing desk, we uncovered the following questions in a document, in an old paper shredder - defying shredding! Upon our initial exchange with Arakawa and Gins, we composed a number of questions to help us knead out our respective paths.

Here's one that we thought would be relevant, and that you might be interested to read: "Maria Montessori proposes, in The Secret of Childhood, that the 'creative urge of life' is essentially, love. She has a peculiar phrase for this particular articulation: she names it an "intelligence of love".

Later, in The Absorbent Mind, Montessori posits that, "The child is a well-spring of love. Whenever we touch the child, we touch love. It is a difficult love to define; we all feel it, but no one can describe its roots or evaluate the immense consequences which flow from it, or gather up its potency..." For us, it must be said, there is a logic of life that exists beyond the logic of yes and no and that is the logic of love. We see, in your work, this logic continually being put to work. For instance: in your adamant love for life, at all costs. How would you make our classrooms, classrooms of love blossoming? If nothing else, this work must be precise and rigorously determined, but how do you construct a rigorous love? How intelligent, or sentient must it be? Can the architectural surround touch the love of the children?" 

How would you respond? Please feel free to leave a comment below!

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To learn more about the work of Arakawa and Gins, we recommend that you visit their website: www.reversibledestiny.org

Our Montessori Story

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We wanted to take this opportunity to share our story. Of course, everyone has one, and we'd love to hear yours too.

We discovered Montessori the way most people discover Montessori: entirely by accident. It was out of sheer coincidence that we happened upon the Maria Montessori Institute in London. Bobby was actually visiting the University of London, where he later enrolled to pursue a PhD in philosophy. June, on the other hand, had always heard about this seemingly mysterious pedagogy and wanted to find out more.

Located near Belize Park, the training center is so very close to where Marx is buried, and Freud lived during World War II. There's a great sense of history there. You feel like you are a part of something, just by strolling down the streets. You're surrounded by greatness, as it were. And, hope.

That's basically how we felt about Montessori. Without knowing exactly what it was, something about it just clicked. You see, we were intrigued by this concept, "Montessori". We had heard it before, but we didn't know exactly what it was. Was it a person? Was it a school of thought? Was it a city? We were eager to find out more.


For those that are unfamiliar, here's a little bit about Montessori.

Maria Montessori, often considered the first female physician in Italy, innovated the Montessori approach to education. In short, the Montessori method concentrates on the specific developmental needs of the child. Montessori believed that everyone learns differently, and at their own pace. As a result, she created a new type of classroom, a prepared environment, to accommodate and stimulate the individual interests of her students. The Montessori method has successfully been in existence for over a century. In many respects, Montessori was an outsider, a rebel. Steve Jobs might have even called her a troublemaker, or confidante.


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Montessori inspires us to take education into our own hands. To never cease to approach old problems by inventing new questions.

For us, personally, Montessori is intuitive to the way we think & feel and experience the world. It's an approach to education that makes learning fun and joyful and playful again. Truly playful, in fact. Actually, for many, Montessori is more than a pedagogy. It's a way of life. It takes the passive verb "to be" out of education, and electrifies it with the active verb, "to become". It's about seeing the world through the eyes of children and never forgetting the lessons of our ancestors: relishing the taste and touch and smell of wonder and curiosity and the beautiful. We're just starting to fully understand how many senses we really have!

When we first opened Baan Dek, the first and only accredited Association Montessori Internationale in the state, we quickly discovered that our greatest challenge was not educating the children. After all, that's something that happens spontaneously, and that comes naturally. Rather, the obstacle that confronted us was trying to "educate" the community. Which is to say, to merely introduce a new idea.

Our greatest ambition, then, was to "educate the community", not only on the importance of Montessori, but also, on the importance of early childhood education. As Montessori said, "The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period birth to age six."

If you think about it, this is a pretty radical concept, as our society is geared entirely towards the age of university studies. Yet, developmentally, we learn more in this short window, from pre-birth to six years old, than any other time in our life. What a powerful, almost disorienting thought.

With that in mind, we set out to introduce new families to this innovative and tried method of education. One of the ways in which we felt we could jumpstart the conversation was, not by saying Montessori is better than other forms of education, but instead, trying to create the conditions in which parents could discover Montessori for themselves. That's exactly how we discovered it, entirely by accident.

We wanted to celebrate Montessori. To showcase what makes her so relevant, for so many. We wanted to give back. Even if it's just a small insight that you can glean from Montessori, it's enough to store it in your back pocket, to use the concept or idea for another project, on another day.

To this end, we authored Letter Work and Number Work. If we impart anything to our parents, students and readers, we hope it's that they are inspired to develop the courage that thought demands. We hope that they learn to think for themselves, and to care for others. Imagine a world committed to education. What would that look like?

We love what we do; we do what we love. It's a phrase we take seriously at Baan Dek. It's also a something we learned along the way. We would absolutely love to hear your story. It doesn't have to be about Montessori. What's something that you discovered by accident? Something that started you down a new path. Education is an adventure.It's active and involved. True education, we would say, participates in the world and takes joy from collaborations. We love to collaborate. We hope you do too.