Educator Ashley Causey-Golden was drawn to Montessori principles but felt something missing that she longed to provide: cultural relevancy. She wondered, “What would it look like to create a Montessori space that uplifted, affirmed, celebrated Black children?” Fulfilling this desire has been a journey of discovery and grace (with a lot of mistakes along the way). Ashley’s ultimate success gave her the courage to pursue another passion: nature education. As the co-founder of Gather Forest School and creator of Afrocentric Montessori, Ashley has a wealth of experience to share with all families and educators interested in nurturing our children’s spirit, sense of community, and connection to the natural world.
Transcript of “Nurturing a Deeper Connection to Nature and Heritage (with Ashley Causey-Golden)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have an awesome guest: educator, Ashley Causey-Golden. She founded Afrocentric Montessori, which blends Afrikan principles into Montessori education. And she’s the co-creator of Gather Forest School, which offers a totally outdoor learning experience with the mission to guide children in their lifelong relationships with the natural world. She’s also the mother of a toddler and she’s actually hiding out in the closet to be able to record with me today.
Ashley has a lot of wisdom and experience to share and I’m really excited to have her here.
Hello Ashley, welcome to Unruffled. Thank you so much for being here.
Ashley Causey-Golden: I’m excited.
Janet Lansbury: Thank you. It’s so great to reconnect with you. I really wanted to share your work. It’s so inspiring and uplifting and really life-changing and I wanted to share it with my listeners here on Unruffled. Could you talk a little about how you got into this, the work that you’re doing now, how you got on this path?
Ashley Causey-Golden: Yes, because it definitely wasn’t a straight path.
So my background is in elementary and special ed and when I was doing my teaching internship it just didn’t connect with me teaching within the public schools. I was always asking questions about race and equity and my professors were just like: “You know what? You should go to graduate school. You can get those answers met there.” And so when I went to Columbia’s Teacher’s College, I worked at Hollingworth and that actually was the first time I was in a classroom that was focused on aesthetics, discovery, that was child led.
Janet Lansbury: Can you talk about what that is?
Ashley Causey-Golden: It was Montessori inspired, a little bit of Reggio Emilia, a little bit of Waldorf. It was a mixed ideology practice, definitely child led. We did have themes that we explored with the children. But let’s say the theme we’re exploring are trees for three weeks… If the children get really into it and start getting more to the nuances, those three weeks might turn into a month or two. So we really looked at children stretch our own imagination and we just made sure the environment was prepared for the children each day.
And I came from scripted lesson plans. That’s the world I came from. Then I came here, I was like Wow, this is exciting! And then I instantly thought about how would this look like for black children? So that question was in the back of my mind throughout everything.
After leaving Hollingworth, I was like, I need a job <laugh>. So then I went into the charter network and that also was very eye-opening to me. I’m not here to say there’s anything bad about charter schools, but for me I just felt like there wasn’t enough grace for parents, especially for the Black parents who were trusting that charter network. We came in with our own preconceived notions, right? Children falling behind, some children coming to school, not having a full meal… All of these things were like preconceived notions
Janet Lansbury: That the school had about families, you mean?
Ashley Causey-Golden: Also what we as educators, as workers in the space also had about families. Because it was a very savior-like mentality. Like, if we’re not doing this for the kids, who’s going to do it for the kids? That kind of mindset.
Janet Lansbury: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.
Ashley Causey-Golden: And so I just really wanted to understand, because I didn’t have kids at that time. I worked with children but I didn’t know what it felt like to be a parent.
So I actually got into birth work, and being in the room with families with birthing women, it’s like a light bulb went off. I was like, oh, they care about their children, like the light, the love that oozes from the body when the child is born. I was like, oh okay. That’s when for me, grace became part of the equation when it came to education, and it was less about theory, less about doing it right all the time. I thought, oh we just need to be practical. It just needs to make sense. And then after working with families and being a doula, I was like, oh okay, let’s make it practical and realistic and not that the sky is falling
Janet Lansbury: And really connected with people’s experience, right? It sounds like you identified with those birthing mothers and you realized this is about connecting and being supportive to individuals.
Ashley Causey-Golden: Yes. Working with them to get them what they need. And sometimes that school was what they needed and sometimes there are actually other ways that were better suited for the child and their family. Just being honest and real with families and students.
And that experience led me to fall into Montessori in a way, because the practices and the theory of Montessori aligned. But I didn’t know why it aligned. You can read about something or hear something and it just clicks and that’s how Montessori was for me. It was a very respectful ideology that I was like Ah, I wanna learn more about it.
But as I got into the world of Montessori, again I was wondering about Black children because it was Uber-white. My instructors was white, the schools that I worked at predominantly white, the children that I was serving, predominantly white. And I just wanted more.
How can I learn more about Montessori but also be true to my own identity and culture?
So after my stint at the charter school, I actually went to Brooklyn to work at to Seneca Montessori School and Seneca is a truly a hundred percent Black space. Everything that’s brought into the classroom needs to be represented of Black culture. So when I first started working there, it was a huge mind shift, because I actually never worked in this space that was, one, a hundred percent Black, and two, pro-black and very firm in that value.
Janet Lansbury: What was different about that? Like what are some of the details? Because one thing I would love to help parents get from this podcast is how to bring their culture into their children’s education, whether that’s at home or in a center. What are some of the things that you do to make it richer culturally and help them feel more of their identity in the classroom?
Ashley Causey-Golden: So for us, we had to do a deep dive with in the continent of Africa. So we had to look at each country and study each country in terms not just the flag, but in terms of food, clothes, music, language. On a higher education level, yes I could pull books, articles, but I’m working with three, four and five-year-olds. So I couldn’t find easy principles or even information that was broken down to a level that a child could understand. So a lot of things I was typing out, writing out, freehand drawing for the classroom.
We celebrated the major holidays that are relevant within Black culture, which was really fun because we were able to bring in elders from the community to help us with those celebrations. So, I talked to families. It can start very simple. Like you can bring in books but also touch into your community and see what’s available for you to visit, to see. Intergenerational education is key. So are there any elders in the community that you can bring in. Food is another wonderful touchpoint. Music. So I was able to bring those touchpoints into the classroom that actually made parents interested. They’re like, “Hey, my child came home talking about this and I never thought about it but I used to make this with my grandma.” It started larger conversations.
Janet Lansbury: Wonderful. That’s so encouraging, right? For the parents to embrace more of their history and their culture and bring that alive for children. Everybody benefits from that, right?
Ashley Causey-Golden: They do. And I will say I do find that sometimes there is so much hesitancy to wanting to do it quote, unquote, “right,” that the ball never gets started. We never get started on it because we’re always reading, we’re always buying another book, always researching so we can get it “right” so our children can be politically correct and make sure they don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. And that’s draining. It’s draining and it’s daunting when you’re a parent and you have so much on your plate already. I’m just like, “y’all, let’s just make it make sense, to be honest.”
And it is messy. There are so many times I have said the wrong thing, put my foot in my mouth, offended, and then that’s where grace comes in, and apologies, just letting go of the ego of I’m going to be right all the time, because I’m not.
I feel like when you take your dive and you just start, it gets easier along the way, it becomes more freeing where it is actually second nature. Now you’re like: hmm, I’m curious about this. I don’t have to have it all together <laugh> before I say something.
Janet Lansbury: Can you give a specific example of that?
Ashley Causey-Golden: Of having it all together before I say something?
Janet Lansbury: <laugh> Well what you had to look up or what you thought you had to look up.
Ashley Causey-Golden: Yeah, so we just moved out of Native American Heritage Month and for me that was a huge area that I actually did not know much about. My trajectory within schooling was very traditional. I still remember my kindergarten, we were doing pilgrims and Indian play.
Janet Lansbury: Oh my kids too. I have the pictures and they’re mortified now, you know?
Ashley Causey-Golden: Yeah, I know this might be embarrassing to say, but I was in my mid-twenties, I’m cringing, I was in grad school before I realized: oh a lot of the lesson plans I did during my teacher program were wrong. And this time around I checked out books, I listened to pronunciations of tribes. Children asked questions where I’m like, “I don’t know, let’s look it up.” We still have students who believe that Native American and indigenous people still lived in teepees. And so it was like, wait, let’s just jump into it and talk about it. And it became more frank.
When I tell you that was very like cringeworthy to me — things that you learned about yourself and things that you did were like wrong <laugh>, you’re always like, I don’t want anybody to know or I don’t want to step back in that trap. And now I feel like yeah, I did all of that. I got really messy. But it’s freeing in a way saying yeah, I learned that way but now I want to do something different. I want to do something better.
There are so many other voices talking about their history and culture that I don’t have to spend hours researching on my own. There are so many voices out there today that I can listen from and share.
Janet Lansbury: And find that you do relate to, you know, every kind of person.
And also you’re modeling for these children. I’m thinking as you’re talking, you’re modeling how to be an open-minded, self forgiving a lifelong learner, which is the only way you can be a lifelong learner is to be self forgiving, staying open. Because just as you said about all the things that people are afraid to step into because they might not do it perfectly or get it right, get it politically correct, you know, that’s how we close off to learning and that’s the opposite of what we want to teach children, right from when they’re little.
Ashley Causey-Golden: Oh yes. To be open and accepting. And I do have in the back of my mind and I’m totally aware of, it’s a real thing about being called out. It’s a real thing about being blacklisted. Those are real things but if we think about how we’re teaching the next generation, how we’re teaching our children… I try not to let those concerns and those fears limit my work. That’s just a part of the reality that we live in. People live off soundbites, <laugh>, yeah people live off soundbites, snapshots Instagram captions
Janet Lansbury: And they can read into it a really extreme thing too, you know, because it’s just… If all you’re giving is a sound bite, you know the meaning is is lost and kind of corrupted.
So yeah, I mean, what you’re doing is so, so freeing and you’re giving people permission to do that too. And you know, definitely white people, well I can’t speak for everyone but I definitely feel that: oh gosh I am going to say it wrong, I’m going to do it wrong. And and I have. I have done it wrong plenty of times but we keep trying, you know, we just keep learning and trying and doing better and that’s really all any of us can do.
Ashley Causey-Golden: That’s it. Keep showing up.
Janet Lansbury: The other area that I really wanted to dive into with you is the nature education, because for me it’s like the ultimate, the idea of like going to a nature school sounds so incredible and I wanted to hear a little about that. And also how parents in urban environments or home environments where there’s no outside yard can bring nature into their children’s lives, if you have any ideas about that,
Ashley Causey-Golden: To have nature and to be in nature doesn’t mean that you’re hiking in the forest every day. It can be just walking in your community. It could be bringing plants inside your home, having plants accessible. If you have animals, that’s a part of nature too. But it is really teaching children: how can I coexist with Mother Earth? Because yes, it’s freeing for children to run around, it’s freeing to also just exist, but we also were teaching children: “How do you care for the trees? How do you care for plants, animals?” I’m talking also about earthworms and insects and spiders. Things that you kind of step on and crush because you’re scared of them or you run for them. Things that people are like ugh, it’s just a bug. We’re really teaching children that every, every essence is important to the grand scheme of things. Even the mosquito. Everything is important to the greater picture. And so that’s what working and being in nature has taught me.
Janet Lansbury: And so what do you do when a child stomps on a bug?
Ashley Causey-Golden: We actually had to sit a child down today about harming earthworms. We remind children that even the ant, mosquito, fly earthworm, we’re in their home. We are visiting their home for these four hours. Just like you wouldn’t want someone to come into your home and squash you, hit you, pull you apart. We have to keep that same mindset when we are in these animals home.
Some children, even myself, I’m not even going to exclude myself, I am afraid of bees, spiders. You won’t see me walk deep into the woods cause I don’t do well with spiders. I said, “If you’re scared of these things, make space, let’s not tear down a spiders web, because it takes spiders many, many days to make these homes. If you are afraid, let’s not go down that path, or we’ll walk around.”
So some of our children take it very much to heart when another classmate sometimes intentionally or unintentionally harms the animal. Now, my co-founder Shelby and myself, we actually don’t have to say much because the children actually step in and like ask questions like, “Hey why did you do that?” And then they problem-solve like, “You could have did this, this, this, this or this” <laugh> “before you actually stepped on this animal.”
So it is expanding children’s ability to empathize and think about how are we co-living? How are we sharing this space?
Janet Lansbury: That’s so cool.
And what do you do then when it’s really, really cold or boiling hot? Don’t the children complain? .
Ashley Causey-Golden: Yes. So your listeners have probably heard “clothing is everything.” Clothing helps keep your body warm. Certain clothing helps keep your body cool. But sometimes you’re just hot and many times I’m just cold as well. So we will sing, try to do hand work, we try to do something to activate the mind.
I will say our children move their body a lot more than Shelby and I. So a lot of the time when I’m super cold, it’s because I’m not moving my body enough to generate heat. But the children will find ways to get their bodies warm again.
If the plans that Shelby and I have don’t work out like: “oh let’s do this, let’s do that,” they’re like: “Nah, we actually want to play tag.” We’re like, “cool,” because they’re moving their bodies.
On days that it is pouring down rainy we will find shelter.
Janet Lansbury: So you don’t actually have an indoor space?
Ashley Causey-Golden: We don’t.
Janet Lansbury: Cool. That’s so brave of you <laugh>. You don’t close the school if it’s pouring rain? Wait, does it snow there? No. You’re in the… Where are you?
Ashley Causey-Golden: In Atlanta. No snow, thank goodness.
Janet Lansbury: But do you have rain days or days when you close the school because the weather’s just too much?
Ashley Causey-Golden: We will close if it is lightning. Let’s say we’re outside and it’s rainy and we hear on the forecast (since we’re constantly checking our phones on days that it’s rainy), we will let parents know ahead of time that we need to close early because lightning’s coming around 11 o’clock. And so parents who picked their children up early.
Where we’re co-located, we do have an indoor space but we only used that indoor space when it’s heavy rains. If it’s drizzling, we’re all fine. Two weeks ago it was about 30-ish degrees and it was pouring rain. So we did spend an hour inside reading doing community circle for us to warm up our bodies but also to just take a break from the pouring rain. And so by the time we went back outside it was drizzling, the kids were playing, no one was thinking about going back inside. But in that brief moment of that heavy rain we’re like, we just need some relief <laugh>. And to speak for myself, I needed some relief.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, I do think we feel it worse than the children. Sometimes their bodies just work better too. Besides the fact that they’re moving a lot, their engines are newer, they’re a little fresher than mine for sure.
So what’s an example of a curriculum that you would have for your day? Is it totally child led or do you do the, the Reggio Emilia thing of gathering from them what they want to explore further and then you go with that? How do you do it?
Ashley Causey-Golden: We have a mixture, a Montessori-Waldorf flow but it is sprinkled with Reggio Emilia. So we do have a rhythm for the day where we have our community circle, we have lesson time, nature exploration time, snack. We might have a daily activity which is based in nature. Then we have lunch and then it’s time to say farewell.
And so when we have our work cycle we do align it to the Georgia State standards. We use the standards just as a guide because many of our families are homeschooling families or wish to homeschool. So we try to align ourself with what parents need. A lot of them are new to homeschooling. We have a few that been doing it for a while so they use us more as a a place for their child to be social. But for those who are new to homeschooling, we always remind families about the state standards, to use it as an alignment. But we’re not regulated like a traditional school who will go strictly by standards.
Janet Lansbury: And what grade do you go up to or what year?
Ashley Causey-Golden: Yeah, three and our oldest is nine.
Janet Lansbury: And are you sort of increasing it as you go or you decided to stop there at that age?
Ashley Causey-Golden: We’re such a tight-knit community so I don’t see much turnover. where we will just keep having that same aged people. I think we’re going to increase it as we go.
What is so refreshing about Gather is that we get to know the strengths of our students and we get to know what they’re interested in and that helps us prepare what’s going to be at community circle. It helps us prepare what’s going to be given during the work cycle. And that’s why I’m able to bring in some Montessori elements to help teach those ideas. It’s nice that we have that flexibility that we’re not solely using one curriculum. We’re able to just flow with the different needs of our students.
Janet Lansbury: That’s great. But going back to your curriculum, what’s an example of nature exploration? Is that children doing what they want or is that guided?
Ashley Causey-Golden: It’s two-pronged. Yes, children do what they want and it’s also guided. So before we go into morning circle, we let the children do nature exploration and that’s free play. So we have some children who will like to dig, children like to find rocks or fossils. Some children like to run and move their bodies. We allow children to climb on trees. They each get to do what they choose.
After we do community circle and set the expectation for the day… We’re learning about animal habitats. So everything after community circle is more guided or what we could call structure. So if we’re doing our watercolor station, children are finding items in nature that the animals will use as habitat and then they’re recreating that using watercolor. Or we’re finding native trees in Georgia, so they’re finding leaves that they can write about in their journal. So it’s still in nature but it’s much more guided in structure than what it looks like in the beginning of the day.
Janet Lansbury: Ah, that sounds so idyllic to me.
What are some big mistakes that you’ve made where you learned, oh gosh this doesn’t work. Or have there been things like that that come to mind?
Ashley Causey-Golden: It does. Because idyllic is a beautiful word to use for this environment, I also want to be realistic when parents are listening to this because some parents would be extremely skeptical. How are they learning math? How are they reading? Those are really big questions too. And I will say that the biggest learning curve I learned about our community co-running Gather is how we serve children. I strongly believe that children should be in the environment where they have some elements of the natural world. I’m not saying that you have to be outside all day or even six hours a day, but I do believe children need to be tied to some aspect of the natural world.
But there also needs to be a balance cause a lot of our families are layering what we’re doing at Gather within their home. So they are doing the math, the reading, the science on top of what we’re doing.
Families who have this idea of the school should do everything: the school should teach my child, the school should do the social and emotional work and when the child comes home, we’re just doing routines. You get snack, rest a little bit, dinner’s prepared, bedtime routine and then we start again. I will say Gather is not a best fit for a family who operates that way. This is really a place where we are partnering with parents who are also doing some of the work at home. So that was the biggest learning curve. I think as parents, as loved ones, we do want the best, we want the best for our children. I think there are very few people who’ll be like, nah, I wanna give my child just 30%.
Janet Lansbury: Right? Mediocre, mediocre education for my child.
Ashley Causey-Golden: Doing the best for our child just looks different based on what we have and what our needs are.
Janet Lansbury: Of course. You shared this quote from Queen Taese, is that how you pronounce her name?
Ashley Causey-Golden: Yeah, Taese.
Janet Lansbury: Queen Taese, on your Instagram page. And it stuck out to me:
“Your life is a curriculum and you need to take ownership of that, whether your child attends public private charter school or is homeschooled.”
Yes. And that feels very true. You know, even to when you have adult children like I do. The gatherings, the way that you connect with them and continue to engage with them and be with them and your relationship is… you’re teaching, you’re teaching relationships, you’re teaching what it’s like to be adults, together with what it’s like to be an older adult. Yes. You’re teaching how your career or your life goals keep maybe changing and you know, it is so rich, the whole experience, and to have that understanding that all of a child’s life is learning, it’s not just what they go to Gather school for.
Ashley Causey-Golden: That is key. It changes. We all go through seasons. We all go through changes, and I wish that I could sprinkle fairy dust on all parents to realize that things change. Children change styles of learning, styles of parenting sometime change and that’s all okay.
Some of our families I know for a fact Gather is perfect. Can I say that Gather will be a perfect fit for that same family 2, 3, 4 years from now? I can’t, because the child might need something new, something else that another environment can provide for. And that’s okay.
I think sometimes we get so rooted in a certain philosophy or ideal that we totally miss the child who is in front of us. And we also silence our needs too. As parents, as adults, we put our needs on the back burner when it’s just seeing shift and change and that’s okay.
Janet Lansbury: Exactly. This is also answering my other question which is: what positive things have you learned or what kind of secrets have you learned about education?
Ashley Causey-Golden: Being able to walk with parents but not being too invested in the decisions that they make. I don’t know if that’s clear, but what I mean is-
Janet Lansbury: Totally clear.
Ashley Causey-Golden: Okay.
Janet Lansbury: As somebody that works with parents, totally clear. And as a parent myself, yeah. I mean that’s the thing about parenting, everybody gets to make those choices and they’re not going to make the choices that you would make for them maybe, you know? And that’s how it has to be. That’s the beautiful part of it: they’re developing their own relationship with their child.
Ashley Causey-Golden: That’s it. And I think that has been the greatest lesson: that parents are going to make their own decision and that’s okay. And I can still be the individual I am, the teacher, all of the things that I am. And still also being in community with those families and be of like mind and finding those spaces. I think at year one, when we first started, we wanted do everything right. We wanted to be everything to every parent. I remember making those calls, trying to get people to like come to Gather <laugh>. That was, I want to say stressful. But they were like: “What are y’all doing outside? How is my child learning anything?”
“They will,” we promised. We wanted to meet every parent’s need or desire and it was just too much. It was too much. And so that’s the secret I learned, just letting go. Saying, “this is what we offer, this is what we can provide your child.” And just leaving that on the table. “And if you want to join us, we’d love to have you. If you’re like ah, this isn’t for me. That’s great. You can still communicate with us online. We have community events. If you would like to stop in, we would love to have you.”
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. I think being very confident like that “this is what we offer and it may not be right for you.”
When my children were in preschool, there were big problems going on with a couple of the local preschools in that parents really wanted them to teach more academics very early on. And the schools were feeling pressured by that. And some of them succumbed to that because they had to please the parents. And you know, I was trying to support the early childhood educators. “It’s okay if people don’t want what you have, but believe in what you have.”
Ashley Causey-Golden: Yes. Believe in what you have. And parents can like mirror that back and believe in how you are parenting your child. Because it is incredibly hard when we live in such a society that everything is outward facing. It seems like you are looking into everyone’s home seeing what they’re doing and, of course, everyone’s only showing the glamorized version
Janet Lansbury: <laugh> Right, where they got it “right,”
Ashley Causey-Golden: But it is so hard to be like, I am doing this right? It’s always like a question mark. I need the validation from someone outside of my own mind. Yeah,
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. When in fact there’s actually no right way <laugh>. I mean that’s the secret too. As somebody with older children, I can say there’s no right way. It’s a journey. You’re learning all the time. Your child is changing, you’re getting surprised and seeing that what fit before doesn’t fit. It’s just life. It’s a journey. There’s no end.
Ashley Causey-Golden: Yes.
Janet Lansbury: You have found something that inspires you. And I love how you said, I don’t know if this was on your Instagram or on your your website, which is by the way, Afrocentric Montessori, you said, “I keep asking myself the question, what would it look like to create a Montessori space that uplifted, affirmed, celebrated Black children?” And that’s what inspires you. That’s what you wanted to offer. That and the nature education, which is also incredible. And you know, I’m sure there may even be Black families that don’t necessarily want that.
Ashley Causey-Golden: We were pressed against the wall for many Black families who were just like, “my kid’s not going to be running around outside when they can be reading, writing above grade level. I want my child to excel beyond their age.”
Oh, you hear my little one.
Janet Lansbury: I do <laugh>.
Ashley Causey-Golden: <laugh>.
Janet Lansbury: Anthony, hey, your mom was hiding in the closet. How crazy is that?
Ashley Causey-Golden: He’s on my lap now so he’s fine.
Janet Lansbury: She’s in the closet. What’s your mom doing in the closet? Talking to some lady in the computer. How could she do that?
Ashley Causey-Golden: So now he’s happy. He’s like, ah, reunited.
Janet Lansbury: Well we should probably end, but you know, I could talk to you all day. I just love hearing about your work. It’s really inspiring. It’s just bringing back a lot of memories for me about the early years with my children as well and the choices that we’ve had to make and how imperfect it all was. And thank you for all you do.
Ashley Causey-Golden: Thank you for inviting me. And also <laugh> allowing my little one to join.
Janet Lansbury: That’s my favorite thing. Bye, Anthony.
Ashley Causey-Golden: Oh, he’s waving to you.
Janet Lansbury: Oh, nice. Okay, take care. And we’ll talk soon.
I know you’ll want to check out Ashley’s website Afrocentric Montessori where she shares the handcrafted materials she’s been making for her classrooms for years. Many of them are available to buy and there are even some free downloads. And these are learning materials. Some are wooden objects, some are printables. Storytelling cards, affirmation cards. So many beautiful things. So please check them out. And you can also follow her pages, Afrocentric Montessori on Instagram and Gather Forest School.
And I want to remind everyone that both of my books are available on audio @audible.com. That’s No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting . They’re also in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Apple.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.