On my first day as a brand new teacher in an urban public school, I walked into my classroom with nervous anticipation and a freshly completed degree in education. I took a deep breath and contemplated the view - a bare room with a chalkboard at the front and a grid of dirty desks. That was all.
I attended the teacher inservice days, and I waited for the real curriculum to arrive. It didn't. What did arrive was 25 non-English speaking children deemed "at risk" by the school district, an overhead projector, and a stack of math worksheets. I looked for help from the teachers on my grade level team, and not only was I ignored, three weeks into the school year those teachers took my highest performing students away and replaced them with their lowest performing students with behavioral problems. The entire year was a complete disaster.
And yet - if we look closely, there is always a light shining on you from somewhere. As my mother and I were walking down the hall, she stopped to peek in each classroom, and then she stopped, eyes bright with excitement. "A Montessori teacher is down the hall from you!" I rolled my eyes. I mean, what were the chances, really? I took a peek of my own. Inside this teacher's own bare classroom were two low shelves against the back wall and some evenly spaced boxes - not much, right? Not what you'd expect from a true Montessorian?
But she was, in fact, a trained, experienced Montessori teacher. Her name was Kim. And she became my lifeline. From her, I learned that the Montessori philosophy can persevere even in the most negative environment, devoid of the classic Montessori materials you would find in a more affluent setting. I learned that when life (or your school) cannot afford to provide to you the most beautiful materials from which to grow your classroom community, there is nothing to do but observe those children, love them dearly, and create what they need at that moment.
The experience of working (may I go ahead and say it?) in a slum of a big city sparked a fire. Before I knew it, I was obsessively studying Maria's books, visiting other schools, and chatting up the Montessori teachers I had contact with. I began with thrift stores and dollar stores. I begged family members for cookie tins and boxes. I made my first set of DIY golden beads from some wire from Radio Shack and the small bead selection at a craft store.
Having taught in both environments - a well established Montessori school that could afford to purchase lovely materials - and a school in a poverty-stricken neighborhood where I had to create my own - I can tell you that the difference in teaching method is negligible. If you think you need to spend an arm and a leg to have an "authentic" Montessori environment, I urge you to think again. The beautiful materials provided for me were greatly admired, but the less beautiful materials I created from scratch made me burn with love for them and what they were designed to teach.
This is the legacy Maria leaves us as Montessorians. Imagine Maria herself in her own slum in Rome where she started the first Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) - without being provided beautiful materials. Imagine her studying her children, bathing them every morning, feeling her rosary beads as she thought about how to introduce the decimal system. Maria used what was available - what was affordable. She did the best she could. And she started a movement.
If you've ever thought about owning a set of precious, truly Montessori golden beads, nothing can compare to the pearl-like beauty and heavy durability of the expensive and traditional glass beads. But if your children are ready for this experience right now, this DIY tutorial will get you a starter set for approximately $3.00 and they take 5 minutes to make!