Choose life

After yesterday’s doldrums I went out of my way to get to work early, intent on having a cheerful and productive day. But despite my best efforts to complete the main (now urgent) task on my to do list I was thwarted at every turn; pulled into meetings I hadn’t known were happening or that I was meant to attend, asked for input on far less urgent things and generally wound up by events that were beyond my control.

By 5.30pm I was thoroughly disenchanted with life, having achieved none of what I’d planned. I was also, thanks to the weekend’s excesses, still feeling under the weather, which I knew full well would mean abandoning running club and sitting on the sofa enveloped in a grumpy mist of Eau de Woe for the remainder of the evening.

It was then that I remembered the film screening that two of my colleagues were attending with some of our young people this evening. It was for a documentary called One Mile Away, about two ex-gang members from warring factions in Birmingham coming together to try and bring about peace and end gang violence. I’d originally said I couldn’t go but now what was stopping me? My grumpy voice turned up its nose, folded its arms and demanded I go home and mope. But a louder voice said no, I will go to this screening, because instead of making it all about me I should do something to support my colleagues, our young people and the film makers who risked their lives to bring this issue to light.

And so I went. And I’m delighted that I did, because it interesting, illuminating and inspiring (and also because there were free drinks and popcorn, though I appreciate that doesn’t paint quite such a philanthropic picture). The young men in the film were intelligent and frank about their reasons for wanting to change their ways and fight for peace. They explained how hard it was to make the film, how frustrating it was to come up against so much opposition, time and time again. But at no point did they give up, because what they’re fighting for is too important to give up on.

I was particularly struck to learn that two young women in the audience had done 12 years in jail between them, one for armed robbery and the other possession of firearms. These were attractive, confident, articulate girls who had been dragged into gang culture and whose lives had nearly been ruined. And yet here they were, backing the cause for peace to ensure that other girls in their situation didn’t make the same bad choices they had.

Because that’s what it’s all about, this life: Choices. You can make good ones, you can make bad ones. At 5.30pm today I made the choice to turn my back on a frustrating day and the opportunity to wallow and instead spend the evening at an inspiring event with inspiring people, learning about a cause that needs to be shared. And just as I made my choice, so did the boys in the film, and the girls in the audience. They’ve chosen to shun the negative choices they made in the past and make new, positive choices for themselves and their families.

I’ve learned today that whilst you can’t always change your circumstance, you can choose the way you react to it. It’s never too late to turn things around, no matter how bad they seem. We only get one shot at life – no pun intended – so we should everything in our power to fight for it.

Choices

Yesterday I learned a valuable lesson: When you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders you’re not helping anyone, least of all yourself.

Bad things happen in the world – terrible, unforgivable things. It would be inhuman to never feel affected by them. But if you let your defences down too much they will burrow into your skin like maggots and take root in your soul.

Hate breeds hate like a cancer, and it’s precisely this type of disease that the terrorists and white supremacists have. Their disease is terminal; they’re too far gone to see the errors of their ways and the flaws in their thinking.

But the rest of us have a choice. We can let the hate seep into our consciousness and destroy us, or we can fight against it and tell ourselves life isn’t hopeless and that there’s much more goodness in the world than bad.

Internalising the world’s problems is, ultimately, pointless. If you want to make positive change then go ahead and make it, there’s nothing stopping you. But accept the boundaries within which that change is attainable. In this life we get back what we put in, so there’s little point in being negative. It’s bad for our hearts and bad for our health – and without our health how can we expect to achieve anything positive?

In the wake of this realisation I’ve decided not to read the papers or watch the news today, to step away from the perpetual misery and propaganda and just enjoy my own life; my work, my family, my book, my writing. Sometimes it gets too much to bear, the constant onslaught of negative reporting on the world’s plethora of problems (though this, of course, is a first world problem. I have the luxury of turning my back on them, whereas millions don’t; they live those problems every single day with no respite. Those problems are their lives, there is nothing else. This, too, is worth remembering).

My new mantra is this:

Focus on the things you can change, rather than worrying about the things you can’t.

Despite the bad things that happen in it and the ignorant people we share it with, the world is still a beautiful place. And for the short time we’re on this planet, we should at least try to enjoy it.

Past Post: Montessori nursery article

I recently stumbled across some articles I wrote as part of my Freelance and Feature Writing course with the London School of Journalism a few years back, and thought I’d share this one about Montessori teaching today:

The truth about Montessori teaching

Maria Montessori’s work with special needs children in the last century led to the development of a new and unique approach to teaching, with the learning environment being carefully planned from a practical standpoint to better equip children for adult life. In recent years it has come under criticism for impressing discipline at too young an age, but few people have a true understanding of what Montessori teaching actually involves.

Nicola Greer is the co-owner of the One World Montessori Nursery in Brook Green, West London. She explains: “Two fundamental aspects of Montessori teaching are cleanliness and order, with order being particularly important. Montessori is all about teaching the child to be self-sufficient – an important part of which is learning to take care of their environment. But it is also a child-centred philosophy that allows the child to progress at his or her own rate. They are given choices and are not pushed beyond their readiness. If you push a child it is counter-productive, but it is equally important not to hold a child back.  They should progress at the rate they need.”

Montessori nurseries differ from mainstream nurseries in that children are able to choose what they want to do.  Practical life tasks involve such activities as learning to dress and clean using scaled down versions of adult materials.  Sensorial tasks involve the use of geometric blocks, fabrics and smelling bottles to name but a few.  Cultural tasks utilise globes and science materials, and mathematical tasks incorporate number rods and counting beads.

But surely, if given a choice of activity, most children will persistently gravitate towards their favourite activities, ignoring all of the others? “Without guidance they might,” admits Nicola, “but children don’t have a long attention span and are therefore unlikely to spend too long on any one activity.  If they do, the teacher will introduce something else.  Practical life activities are generally very popular.”

So what would Nicola say to the critics of Montessori, who feel that children are encouraged to learn discipline unnecessarily early?  “It does work,” she says, after a moment’s hesitation, “that’s what I’d say.  Generally speaking, children at Montessori nurseries tend to do well.” But why is it so important for children to learn practical tasks like cleaning at such a young age?  “It teaches them the accomplishment of performing a task with a beginning, middle and end,” she says, “and children love to imitate adults, for example by pretending to cook with a toy kitchen.”  Wasn’t Maria Montessori very grounded in reality though? “Toy kitchens aren’t entirely in keeping with the Montessori philosophy, in the sense that Maria Montessori was opposed to anything fantasy based,” Nicola concedes. “But I feel that as the nursery is open from 8am to 4pm it is too long a day for a child not to have any fantasy at all.”

Nicola agrees that not all Montessori schools follow the original teachings exactly.  “The majority do,” she says, “although you can’t be too rigid because Maria Montessori lived a hundred years ago and we must move with the times and adapt accordingly, as well as complying with Ofsted regulations.  We are not a ‘pure’ Montessori nursery as such, because we have had to adapt to the requirements of the Foundation Stage where there is a greater emphasis on creative play. Montessori would say that children learn through doing.  The generally accepted modern philosophy is that children learn through play, and I think it is essential to encourage role-play to some extent.”

So to what extent does the One World Montessori Nursery follow traditional Montessori teachings?  “Well,” smiles Nicola, “essentially we are a pure Montessori nursery, but we also have a role-play corner which is definitely based in fantasy.”  The wizard costume just visible through the door of the tiny wardrobe beside us bears testament to this.  But as I leave the nursery, I can’t help feeling that Nicola has interpreted the original philosophy very well, and despite my own initial misgivings about Montessori methods I find myself wishing her all the best.

Remember these? I used to love mine more than anything (and yes, I did try to put the plastic tray in the REAL oven like the girl in the advert)