Monday, August 24, 2015

Sicily Part 2: Il Sogno Villa, Caltagirone, and Modica

Check out Part 1 here!

After visiting the Roman Villa of Casale, we headed straight to our villa rental in Giarratana, Ragusa. It's called Il Sogno Villa, and it was great to have this home base for 4 days and 5 nights. (We stayed in Villa #1.) Our first day, we just hung around the villa and relaxed, but I started getting antsy, so we finally went for a drive. We headed into Ragusa Ibla, the historic part of the city. It was already dark, but we walked around the square near the main cathedral, then wandered around until we found some arancini for a quick, street-food dinner, and stopped for gelato afterward. I also found a great little gourmet shop and picked up some sweet pistachio spread and a couple wedges of local cheese (tuma persa and caciocavallo -- Ginevra's recommendations). We headed home on the windy roads, and crashed into our beds (well, after I lost my cookies 'er gelato. 12 weeks preggo + windy roads = no bueno).

The next day we decided to take a day trip to Caltagirone after breakfast. This town is known for its ceramics, including a very long set of stairs lined with tiles. Sadly, the staircase has seen better days. We were a bit underwhelmed by this town. We had a nice lunch and purchased a lovely ceramic wall decoration (a hand-painted trinacria -- the symbol of Sicily -- with the head of Medusa surrounded by three running legs and three stalks of wheat), but otherwise, there wasn't much to see there as far as we could tell.

The day after, however, was my favorite outing of our entire trip. We visited Modica, which is known for its chocolate production. Not only is the Baroque town lovely to visit, photograph, and just wander around, we ate the best meal here along with scrumptious gelato and artisanal chocolate. Addresses are listed at the end of the post, but let me just explain all this deliciousness. First, we ate lunch at Osteria dei Sapori Perduti. The food was traditional comfort food. I shared a bean dish with Hunter that he devoured. Isaiah enjoyed a pasta dish with lots of local ingredients, and my MIL had a yummy pasta-soup dish. The food wasn't fancy, just tasty, filling, and comforting. The place was packed with lots of people speaking in Sicilian dialect -- good sign -- and celebrating Easter Saturday. 

For chocolate, we tried Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. A word of caution: this place uses the traditional Aztec method of making chocolate, so the sugar crystals are not completely melted down and incorporated. You don't get that melt in your mouth feeling of chocolate we're used to, but I still thought it was delicious. So many flavors, and there are little dishes of samples so you can try before you buy. I really liked the vanilla flavor. We also bought and shared a cannolo from the chocolate shop -- so good. Above the chocolate shop lives this older woman who INSISTED that Isaiah and Hunter take a photo outside her garden, in this one particular spot, and there was no way we could not oblige her (it's the last photo before the next paragraph). For gelato, we stopped at Gelateria degli Angeli, and I had the "Modica Chocolate" flavor, of course! Give me all the chocolate! We also found the loveliest toy shop here: Il Giocattolaio di Pisana Giovanni. I wanted to buy all the wooden toys!

On Easter Sunday, we grilled for lunch and we hid Easter eggs that I had dyed that morning for Hunter. He loved it, and it was fun to watch him squeal over each egg (and stop to eat each chocolate one). Later, I made a yummy Sicilian dinner (appetizer: caponata di melanzane -- eggplant stew -- and main: Sciusceddu -- meatball and egg drop soup) with lots of local ingredients . After dinner we relaxed and enjoyed our last night at the villa. Did I mention that we stayed up late every night watching CSI because it was in English???

We headed out around 10 the next morning to make our way to Fiumefreddo di Sicila, which is not too far from Taormina and Catania. We stayed three nights at Il Giardino degli Ovali, which is owned and run by the nicest man called "Salvo" who tends orange groves. He greeted us with freshly squeezed orange juice and explained that the oranges are called "ovali" because they have an unusual egg shape. That evening was when our nightmare began. I won't delve into all the details, but the next few days involved Hunter and I staying behind at the orange groves while Isaiah visited his mom in the hospital. We walked around those orange trees A LOT and ate lots of oranges. We eventually moved to a hotel closer to the hospital. A couple of days before our flight back to the U.S., Isaiah dropped off Hunter and me in Catania so we could get out of the hotel and do something touristy. We rode the tourist train and picked up döner kebap for lunch. The next day, Isaiah drove us to Palermo where we stayed the night at Arianna's (that's one of her donkeys below) so we could catch our flight early the next morning. Our family trip had come to an end.

At the time, we kept cursing Sicily and vowing never to return, or at least saying things like, "If I never see Sicily again, I will be perfectly happy." But, now, four months on, we are over our initial frustration. We still see the beauty in Sicily. It's a wonderful island, and Taormina and Palermo are still on my travel bucket list...

Modica Addresses for Your Rolodex:

Osteria dei Sapori Perduti
Corso Umberto I, 228
Phone: +39 0932/944247

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto
Corso Umberto I, 159
Phone: +39 0932/941225

Il Giocattolaio di Pisana Giovanni
Corso Umberto I, 140
Phone: +39 0932/752276

Gelateria Degli Angeli
Corso Umberto I, 119
Phone: +39 0932/1961208

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Montessori Spotlight: Preliminary Exercises Part 1

(All images in this post are copyright Julie Rings Photography. Thanks, Julie!)

During my AMI Primary Training course, we spent most of our time creating albums for each area of The Children's House environment: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language. and Mathematics. Each album is basically a teacher's manual filled with background information about a particular area and step-by-step instructions for giving each lesson. Instead of the trainers just handing us ready-made manuals, students make their own lesson "plans." I found this method to be really helpful because I wrote the lessons in such a way that they make sense to me and are useful to me. If I forget how to execute a particular lesson, I just refer to the album in which it appears.

The first lessons we wrote were the Preliminary Exercises of the Practical Life album. These exercises are wonderful for so many reasons. They are the first lessons a child receives when she or he first enters the environment. They welcome the child to the classroom -- activities that invite the child to touch and explore their new environment. Through these exercises they learn how to move about the environment and how to interact with the materials. In addition, these lessons create a bridge between home life and school life. One of the first lessons a child receives is how to roll and unroll a mat for floor work. Each lesson has a designated "work space" either at a table or a floor mat. Some of the lessons that were presented to me at a table I took the liberty of allowing on a floor mat. My only rule is pouring activities and materials with glass must be completed at a table. The children learn that the mat is for the material and that we should not sit on them or walk on them. We're still working on that ;)

In addition to welcoming the child to the environment, the Preliminary Exercises are activities that set the groundwork for later lessons in the area of Practical Life and beyond. The lessons of Opening and Closing Boxes and Opening and Closing Bottles/Jars (seen in the photos below) were the easiest to implement from day one of the summer co-op. They are not only fun for the child but these exercises prepare the hands for other work with small, fragile or delicate materials, and if available, opening bottles will prepare the child for opening the bottles in later exercises such as the polishing work. 

Most of the work I have shown the children this summer falls under the category of Preliminary Exercises, so stay tuned for more of these lessons.

Here are ten easy steps for creating your own "Opening and Closing" Lessons...

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

New Month's Resolutions: August

Goodness, July flew by -- didn't it?! Probably because I was super busy with the co-op and getting out of the house with Hunter. A few days into August, I don't have a ton of direction with regard to where I want this month to go, but let's see if I can put something together by the end of this post.

My goals last month revolved around being a better parent, but the problem with that kind of goal is that it's not something that I can ever really cross off the list. Nothing to master. Nothing to put a check mark next to. I don't even know if I made any improvements last month, but I was definitely aware of all my shortcomings and triggers and the times I could have done things better. One good thing that happened in July, though, is I started keeping a parenting journal. It's really helped me to reflect on a particularly bad day and come up with a plan to avoid the same problems.

For example, parenting Hunter last Thursday (a preschool co-op day) was really TOUGH. That day, he very much did NOT like that I was giving other children lessons and would go out of his way to interrupt the lessons. He was bouncing off the walls and not choosing any work of his own. My patience wore very thin. I wrote in my journal what were the causes of those problems and brainstormed some solutions. Today, I implemented those solutions, and it was actually a great parenting day. Of course, it wasn't perfect, but everything went much more smoothly. He still was not too happy about mommy giving other children lessons, but we both dealt with it much better.

Despite not being able to cross "be a better parent" off my resolutions list, I think I will still keep one parenting-related goal each month so that I can stay focused on that area of my life. So here goes...

1. Connect with Hunter. I think this is the key to all my parenting woes. But last month, I didn't really have any concrete ideas of how to do this. The way you connect with a toddler is different from a teenager, so it's best to give examples. I will connect with Hunter throughout the day in these ways:

  • Get down on the floor and play with him. (Cars, blocks, whatever. Let him choose or I can initiate a game.)
  • Have a dance party.
  • Play hide and seek.
  • Roughhouse with him. (Play "getchu" which is just chasing him around the house saying, "I'm gonna get you!" He loves it. Click here for some other awesome ideas.)
  • Read books together.
  • Work on a household chore together. (He can help with meal prep, load/unload the washer/dryer, etc.)
  • Cuddle on the couch.

2. Read one non-parenting book and one "getting ready for baby" book. Basically, I want to finish the two books I have sitting on my desk. One I borrowed from the library called Primates of Park Avenue. It's one of those guilty pleasure books that I can't wait to dig into. The other is a Montessori book called Understanding the Human Being: The Importance of the First Three Years of Life.

3. Keep the house tidy. I am bringing this one back and making it nice and general. Fold laundry, hang up clothes, wash dishes -- all the normal stuff. But things don't need to be spotless, just tidy. I want it to look like people live here (ha! like that's ever a problem), but pretend that neat and tidy people live here.

It's going to be a great month! xoxo

Thursday, July 30, 2015

How I Started A Montessori-Inspired Preschool Co-op

Please note: All images courtesy of and copyright Julie Rings Photography. Also, this post contains some affiliate links. Thanks for your support!

Something keeping me quite busy this summer is the preschool co-op I started with a few other moms. One of the moms so graciously offered to host the school at her home, and it has worked out wonderfully. She has a nice, spacious living room with hardwood floors and a lovely garden with a big trampoline for outdoor playtime after lunch. We have child-sized tables and chairs from IKEA where the children work as well as these rugs for floor work. 

Purpose: I wanted to start the co-op for a few reasons. First, I finished my AMI Primary training in May, but with a new baby coming in October, it didn't make sense for our family to look for a full-time teaching job to start in September... I will save that for next fall. I did, however, want to start putting my training into practice ASAP, so this co-op has been a way to accomplish that goal. Next, Hunter's regular school is on summer vacation, and although they offer summer camp, I wanted to spend some time with him before the new baby arrives but not necessarily at home -- know what I mean? I give school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we do "field-trip" outings just the two of us or with family and friends (or relax at home) the other days of the week. (We've gone to the zoo, a trolley ride to the splash park downtown, a butterfly pavilion, the beach, resort and hotel pools, open gym at a gymnastics studio, a nature trail and center, and next week we will visit a sculpture garden.) Finally, Hunter has grown leaps and bounds and has learned so much this past year at his regular school that I didn't want to lose that momentum. Although our current school schedule is not as firm as it is when he goes to regular school, it's still something he looks forward to and enjoys very much.

Participants: Next, I had to find some friends who were looking for a preschool experience but who would also let me put my new training into practice, using their children as guinea pigs! Luckily, this was very easy to find. I met a couple of great women during a breastfeeding support group I joined when Hunter was 3 weeks old, and we've stayed in touch ever since. With the high cost of living in San Diego, and the sacrifice to stay home with their children (or work part-time out of the home), private Montessori preschool just doesn't fit into everyone's budget. (Yes, there are free or low-cost preschools in the area, but the advantage of our co-op is the alternative Montessori curriculum plus some hands-on experience in the classroom.) These women then in turn introduced me to a couple more, and our group was complete. We are five mothers with five 2-to-2.5-year-olds (and a 4-year-old on Tuesdays).

Program: As I said before, we run the school two days per week. The hours are from 9 am until noon. From 9-10, the children are engaged in individual lessons and independent work. We have a group snack around 10**, usually followed by music and more indoor or outdoor work. At 11, we set up for lunch by bringing the work tables together. The children set out cloth placemats (homemade by one of the mothers), cloth napkins, ceramic plates, and small drinking glasses. Parents send silverware if the meal requires it. The children serve themselves water from a small pitcher, and share their meal together. Lunch gets wrapped up around 11:30, after which the children take their dish to the kitchen to wash it. On the counter top we have a basin with soapy water and a dish brush plus a second basin with rinse water. The children reach the counter by climbing up on a "Kitchen Helper", wash and rinse their dish, and hand it over to an adult to place on the drying rack.  (They also follow the same procedure for washing their snack dish after snack.) 

Our ratio is 1 adult to 2.5 or 3 children. I am the Montessori guide (teacher), so I am present each school day, and I work with one assistant. Each mother (though dads are welcome, too) takes a turn being the assistant for a week and that week she also provides the snack foods (one veggie and one fruit). It works out great for them because they get (if all goes well) 3 toddler-free hours two days a week for 3 weeks each cycle. Since this is only a summer co-op, we have only two cycles: one in July and one in August. Although I purchased or created most of the materials we use in the classroom, the other mothers have pitched in with supplies, more materials, and snack. At the end, you keep what you have contributed to the group. Except for the additional materials and 6 volunteer hours each cycle, there is no cost to participate the co-op.

Not all co-ops need to be free of cost, though. If I were to lead a preschool co-op during the regular school year, I would run it Monday through Friday and I would charge a reasonable fee, in addition to the volunteer hours and contribution to the supplies. I am doing no-cost this summer for my own needs (i.e. getting Hunter out of the house), professional experience, and because it's so short term.

The First Days and Materials: Hunter was the only child in the co-op with previous experience in a Montessori classroom, so there was definitely a major adjustment period in the beginning. Also, since a Montessori "Children's House" teacher does not give traditional large group lessons or set up "stations" (or "centers" or "rotations") like traditional preschools but instead offers a variety of materials that the children choose freely to work with independently, I had to be very deliberate about the first materials I offered in the classroom. Lessons are given individually, and the children are not permitted to work with a material until they have received a lesson. I, therefore, started out with materials (i.e. toys) that the children were already familiar with and gradually swapped out those materials for the more traditional Montessori materials. To give you an idea, we just completed our fifth week and finally now have more Montessori materials out than toys.

I had asked the mothers to bring puzzles and toys from home to offer the children mixed in with a few Montessori lessons. Here's what it looked like the first week:

Outdoors we had...
-Painting at an easel*
-Finger painting (at a table)*
-Sidewalk chalk

Indoors we had...
-Basket of wooden beads for threading*
-Animal "texture" cards (seen in the first photo)
-Switchback car track (seen in the second photo)
-5 wooden knob puzzles of various shapes and sizes (*now we only have two -- the ones with small knobs)
-12-piece medium jigsaw puzzle in pouch*
-Melissa & Doug Stack and Sort Board
-Hape Color and Shape Sorter
-Melissa & Doug Animals Mini Puzzle-Pack*
-Basket with newsprint and crayons*
-Plan Toys Nuts and Bolts
-Basket of board books inside the reading tepee*
-Melissa & Doug Water Wow cards

Montessori lessons*
-Opening and Closing Boxes
-Opening and Closing Bottles and Jars
-Tearing Paper
-Snack Prep

*These are the materials we still have available to the children, now in our 5th week.
**A note about group snack: In my training and during my observations and student teaching practice, snack was offered to the children two at a time. Working children should never be interrupted to take a snack as a large group. Ideally, when a child finishes a work cycle and feels like taking a break to have a snack, he or she serves himself or herself a snack, and takes a seat at the designated snack table often with one other child. I like the way that works, but for the 2-year-olds I am currently working with, it just does not work. They all want snack at the same time, and it's just not a battle worth fighting. 

In future posts, I will show you what other Montessori materials I have been introducing to the children. Stay tuned!

P.S. If you are interested in starting a Montessori co-op, click here for a great resource. Also, a word about doing things legally: here in California, when you provide childcare in a co-op setting such as ours, we are exempt from licensing. Check out this link for details.