Marla and the children of Tree of Life
I met Marla Beggs Nargundkar, the good wife of Dr. Satish Nargundkar, older brother of my good wife Shobha Nargundkar, and thus related by marriage, after ten years. The last time we met she had not trained in Montessori education and I had only vague visions of what I wanted to do, so I guess we spoke of inane stuff which I specialized in. But when we met last month in December 2009 at Jui's wedding in Pune, I knew that she had started a Montessori school in Atlanta and I wanted to know more. I am always intrigued and impressed by anyone who starts a school - to me it's one of the best ways to contribute to society. And when someone does it at the scale and conviction that Marla does, it is even more interesting.
After her MS in Mathematics from Clemson University, South Carolina, Marla taught at Community colleges for a few years. She soon discovered that the older students came to community colleges with the disadvantage of a lack of knowledge, emotional baggage and beliefs that made learning difficult. Marla decided then to start at the other end of the spectrum when children start their education so she could teach them in a way that is fun and educative, and make a difference. The seed was sown and it was only a matter of time before she was drawn to a talk at an Open House and learnt about Montessori training and decided to sign up for it. She earned her AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) certificate to teach Primary Montessori from the Montessori Institute of Atlanta and packed enough experience in the domain - as a Montessori parent since 2001, a lead teacher for four years and substitute assistant at Montessori schools in the Atlanta area.
What impressed Marla about the Montessori system was the thought and belief that Maria Montessori (www.montessori.edu/maria.html), the first woman medical doctor from Italy and the creator of the Montessori system of education, put behind her work. The Montessori system addressed people as whole people who are full of potential - mature, responsible and balanced. It allows the child the freedom to think individually, to make choices, to express herself, to respect one's space and that of others, to do one's job well, to handle conflict, all in a manner that is fun and child-centric. The teacher facilitates it until a point when intervention may be necessary.
'Maria Montessori believed that the most important part of life is the period from birth to the age of six when a man's intelligence is being formed,' says Marla. 'She devised material to help the child learn 'hands-on' in a way that it meets the physical, mental and emotional needs of the child - she created a holistic program.'
After her training, Marla decided to start the 'Tree of Life Montessori School' at Atlanta (www.treeoflifemontessori.com) and this is what makes me feel happy deep inside. She has chosen to work, trained to work, in the 3-6 age group. The other age groups you could work with range from 6-12 and go right up to 24 years! Since she operates from home, her intake is restricted to 6 students, a regulatory issue. As a Guide or Directress, she handles her wards with a prescribed curriculum and learning material approved by the Montessori education system.
'Montessori education is a sensorial approach to learning that starts with 3 year olds. Montessori schools are self-paced, child-friendly environments, unlike regular schools that predominantly use group lecture to transmit knowledge. Everything in the classroom is aesthetically designed and laid out in a logical, sequential order. Specially designed materials are set up in an attractive organized way on low shelves that are easily accessible. The teacher demonstrates the use of a materials to children, who are then free to choose and work with that material whenever they like. Repetition develops and hones the child’s concentration and deepens skill and understanding of a given concept.'
'Children complete their chosen activity and clean up afterwards so that another may use it, in a self-directed, responsible manner,' says Marla. 'As teachers, we keep detailed records of their activities and development.'
The curriculum for 3-6 comprises of five broad areas. 'Practical Life', where tasks of everyday life such as buttoning up, tying shoes laces, washing tables, plant care, preparing and serving food, greeting a visitor etc are learnt. In the 'Sensorial' area, specific material is used to improve the child’s understanding of size, colour, matching etc that corresponds to the five senses. In the 'Language' classes, spoken language and vocabulary are developed through names of materials in classroom, storytelling, discussions, poetry and singing. Montessori education's hallmark is the use of a phonetic approach to begin reading and emphasises developing cursive handwriting skills. Numerical, algebraic and geometric concepts are learnt within the Sensorial Material. Through manipulation of three-dimensional materials and in small group lessons, young 4 ½ year olds learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide before progressing to abstract understanding of the processes. Other subjects such as Geography, Biology, Botany, Zoology, Art, Music & Movement are integrated into the everyday curriculum. Wooden puzzle maps of the continents, cultures presented by parents and outside visitors, nature based art studies, exposure to musicians, storytelling, acting and self-expression, outdoor play, gardening and nature observation provide the children a holistic learning experience.
'At snack time children go and snack with a random member so they interact with different people every day,' says Marla. 'Also they get to choose what they want to eat which makes them clearer about choices.'
'The students work in 3 hour work cycles and it starts first thing in the morning. They are allowed to choose what they wish to study that day. There is no fixed space to sit either. Apart from being allowed the space to handle their sensitive periods, children are also encouraged to express themselves with others - 'I don't like it,' or 'I don't understand it' - clearly to others to seek a response from them.'
Marla's dream is to take Montessori education out to everybody because she believes it helps children to grow as whole people. However she is aware that the costs of Montessori education are prohibitive at the moment and not everyone can afford it. 'One of the main reasons why costs are high is because of the Montessori materials. If I could reduce the cost of the materials, we could provide education cheaper. It could be done by getting external funders who fund the materials and space so I can focus on teaching.'
Education is now her calling and she enjoys it immensely. The joy is evident in her face when she starts talking about her favourite subject. 'It is incredible to see the difference in the children at the individual level. That itself is satisfying, seeing their growth, progress from the beginning.'
Her vision - to set up a Montessori school in Georgia that covers the entire spectrum of 0-24 years. I am sure you will set it up and in good time Marla. Meanwhile, good luck with the children at the Tree Of Life Montessori, Atlanta. It is good to know that you are making that small difference in your own corner of the world through what you believe in, what you are passionate about. So until the time you grow the Tree of Life Montessori into a huge oak from the acorn it is today, here is wishing you and the wards under your care good luck and many satisfying years of growth and learning!
For more information log on to www.treeoflifemontessori.com and all those in Atlanta and the US can call Marla at 770-458-9955.