The UE Book Club – Learning and Social Difficulties


For January, Upper Elementary students are reading books with first person narratives from the perspectives of children with learning and social difficulties for the UE Book Club. The books address issues of disability, accessibility, alienation and inclusion. Colleen Deibel, UE Special Assistant describes common themes in this month’s selections as “embracing our differences, recognizing our strengths and having compassion for each other.” The students chose from the list of novels below, each of them a great option for exploring empathy and redefining “normal.” For more books the address these issues, check out the list at the end of this post.

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass is a coming-of-age novel about 13-year-old Mia, a girl with synesthesia, an intermingling of the senses. Mia sees numbers, letters and sounds as colors and she’s been keeping it a secret since she was teased about it in third grade. When her condition causes her to struggle in middle school, she tells her parents and they take her to a specialist. With a  proper diagnosis, Mia is able to research synesthesia and connect with other people who have it. As she learns more about her condition, her life also begins to unfold in other ways. She loses her grandfather, is betrayed by her best friend, finds a new, unexpected friend in a classmate and her beloved cat, Mango, dies. In the end, Mia learns to turn to the people who support her and to accept herself.

In Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, we meet Rose, an 11-year-old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome who finds comfort in homonyms and prime numbers. Rose lives with her father, who has little patience for her, and her dog, Rain (Reign). With the exception of Rain and sometimes her uncle, no one at school or home seems to understand Rose, or even to want to understand her. She finds comfort in Rain, who provides much-needed routine, as well as unconditional love. When Rain is lost in a hurricane and ultimately rescued by an animal shelter, Rose’s life takes a turn. Her choices and the choices of her uncle and father change her life forever and, ultimately, lead to a fresh start for Rose.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt tells the story of sixth-grader Ally, who is artistically and mathematically talented and who struggles with reading and writing. She has trouble in school, struggles socially and avoids reading and writing at all costs. While Ally’s family loves her, they often have to relocate and are not equipped to support her learning difficulties. When Ally lands in a school with a teacher who senses she might have dyslexia, Ally’s life changes. She thrives with her teacher’s confidence in her, finds friends who face their own social challenges, learns to believe in herself and even inspires her older brother to face his own struggles with reading.

Mason Buttle is a kind, sincere and optimistic 12-year-old boy who is also bullied for being unusually large with a sweat-gland disorder, who has dyslexia and who has lost many of the most important people in his life, including his best friend, Benny, whose body was found in Mason’s family’s orchard. Mason grieves for his friend while also being suspected of having something to do with his death. Mason and his new friend Calvin are relentlessly, cruelly bullied but they stick together. Then, Calvin goes missing. Mason is again a suspect but, armed with honesty, he works to solve the mystery of Calvin’s disappearance and Benny’s death. The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle is, in the end, a story about the triumph of loyalty, sincerity and kindness.

More book recommendations:

A Boy Named Bat by Elana K. Arnold

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Rules by Cynthia Lord

13 Books Featuring Characters with Learning Disabilities

Books with Characters Who Have Learning and Attention Issues




We are VdM: The Sennes

Family vacation in Colorado

The very best part of Villa di Maria is our people. Our community of families, faculty and staff is something to be proud of. In this series, We are VdM, we’ll highlight the energies, talents, humor and wisdom of some of our amazing people. Today we’ll feature the Sennes: Jessica, Aaron, Arlo and Lydia, who joined the VdM community in 2018. 

First day of school!

Villa di Maria: Tell us a bit about you and your family.

Jessica Senne: Aaron is originally from Kansas City and I am originally from Springfield, Missouri, though we’ve been in St. Louis for over 15 years and both of our children have lived here their entire lives. Aaron and I met in interior design school at Mizzou and then moved to St. Louis to pursue graduate degrees in architecture at Washington University. We’ve lived here ever since and now reside in a mid-century modern neighborhood in Kirkwood. We really love our neighborhood and the Kirkwood area, and I suppose we’ve lived here long enough to now say we are from St. Louis! However, as everybody knows, if you didn’t go to high school in St. Louis, it’s hard to say you’re from St. Louis :).

Camping at Echo Bluff State Park
Both of our kids went through preschool (age 5) at another Montessori school, which is how we were originally introduced to Montessori. As practicing designers, we feel Montessori really aligns with our experiences in studio-based education, which we feel from first-hand experience is the most effective way to learn.  After our son, Arlo, completed kindergarten and first grade at one of the public elementary schools in Kirkwood, we had a strong feeling that Montessori was the better fit for him. We felt he really thrived at his Montessori preschool and we felt he’d lost his fire for learning, so to speak, with his two years in a “traditional” classroom setting. Halfway through his first grade year we started looking for other options, and were delighted to find the area’s best Montessori elementary school practically in our back yard! It didn’t hurt that Aaron was part of the design team that designed the initial campus expansion schemes for Villa, so he was already a little familiar with the campus.  
This is now Arlo’s second year with Villa (he is a third-year student in Checkerboard), and his younger sister, Lydia, is in her culminating year in P3. We have all absolutely loved our experiences with Villa. Arlo is able to pursue his deep interest in history and geography with his self-guided projects in Checkerboard, and Lydia enjoys dabbling in a little bit of everything in P3.
VdM: What do you and your spouse do, career-wise?

Jessica: We are both licensed architects and own our own firm in Kirkwood, Studio Lark.  I am also an interior designer and spent many years teaching design to students of all ages, ranging from elementary school to university level. We welcome visitors to our studio in Kirkwood! We build lots of models, make lots of drawings, and have a library of interesting materials. We would love for Villa families to stop by if they have kids who are interested in architecture and design, or simply want to see our space!

VdM: What is your favorite activity to do as a family?

Jessica: We love to do all sorts of things as a family! During the weeks we like to take morning walks with our dog, Pearl. In the evenings we enjoy cooking and eating dinners together and watching movies or playing video games as a family after dinner. We also love to read and do puzzles together in the evenings. On the weekends you’ll find us taking long hikes and making pancakes (Aaron’s specialty!). And Santa brought us all new creative supplies for Christmas, so we’ve been drawing and painting a lot together lately. Oh, and Aaron, Arlo, Lydia and Pearl all love to go camping, and they drag me along semi-willingly. We also love going to the beach and try to get down to the 30A area in Florida once a year! 


Cardinal’s game on Easter Sunday
Family vacation in Florida

VdM – A question specifically for Arlo & Lydia: If you wrote a book, what would it be about?

Arlo: The Big Book of Ancient Civilizations

Lydia: The Big Book of Alligators

Thank you, Jessica, Aaron, Arlo and Lydia. We are so glad to have you in the VdM community (and we can’t wait to read those books!)

Family photos provided by the Sennes.


Parent Talks at VdM

Several times during each school year, our Guides meet with parents for in-depth discussions of Montessori curriculum. These Parent Talks are great opportunities for our parents to come together and learn more about the work their children are doing at VdM every day. The events are often enriched with group work or hands-on experience with materials, and parents are free to ask questions and discuss their experiences. Each talk is focused on one aspect of the Montessori curriculum as it applies to a specific age or plane of development, and designed to demystify Montessori principles and give parents ideas for supporting and/or implementing those principles at home.

The last round of Parent Talks happened just last Thursday evening. Read on for a peek into the evening and be sure to check out the resources and suggested reading at the bottom of this post for more information about the topics discussed at the Parent Talks.

Parents of our youngest children (ages 2.5 and three) met with Guide Jessie Braud in the P2 Children’s House for “Writing into Reading,” a discussion of why writing comes before reading in the Montessori classroom, including an exploration of the early sensorial and language lessons that prepare children to learn to write and then read. The group also discussed language acquisition in children and how parents can best support the natural ways children learn.

Parents of children in their second year in the Children’s House (ages 4 to 5) were invited to Guide Reghan McAuley’s Parent Talk, “All Things Math!” Reghan discussed the progression of work with the math materials in the Children’s House as children begin with a foundation of base numbers and grow into work with decimals and linear counting. Reghan presented a variety of math lessons, including every child’s favorite, the Bank Game.

Children’s House Guide Heather Steinman and Elementary Guide Megan Eilers joined forces for their talk, “Bridging into Elementary,” for parents of children in their culminating year of the Children’s House. They talked about what to expect as the child moves from primary into elementary and how Montessori curriculum is uniquely designed to support this transition. Heather and Megan presented several materials, such as the binomial cube, that cross over between the primary and elementary environments and how the lessons around these materials change to introduce new and expanded concepts.

The purpose of this talk is to help parents understand the similarities and differences between the primary and elementary years (or the first and second planes of development). We talk a lot about the different characteristics of the children during these stages and how the two environments are designed to support their needs. An overall theme that tends to emerge is that [Montessori offers] just the most amazing continuum for the children!Heather Steinman

Parents of elementary students were invited to discuss art, history and language in the Montessori elementary curriculum. Guides Sarah Moscicke and Rebecca Callander discussed how the elementary environment is designed to encourage exploration in these subjects and how they are interwoven for a broad and rounded education—a cosmic education. Parents also worked hands-on with clay, crafting pinch pots, while discussing specific topics such as spelling and how history is taught in the classroom.

We are so appreciative of our guides and our parents, who make these events and our community so strong. The next round of Parent Talks will be held on Thursday, March 26.

Resources and suggested reading:

Writing into Reading:

All Things Math!

Bridging Into Elementary

Elementary Curriculum

We Are VdM: The Thralls

The very best part of Villa di Maria is our people. Our community of families, faculty and staff is something to be proud of. In this series, We are VdM, we’ll highlight the energies, talents, humor and wisdom of some of our amazing people. Today we’ll feature the Thralls: Danielle, Bryan, Maggie and Elizabeth who joined the VdM community in 2015. You have likely seen or talked to Danielle and Bryan as they have attended (and/or volunteered at) nearly all of our community events over the years. Maggie is now a third-year student in Ms. Megan’s Checkerboard classroom and Elizabeth is a first-year in Ms. Sarah’s Racks & Tubes classroom.

Villa di Maria: Tell us a bit about you and your family.  

Danielle Thrall: My name is Danielle. I am from St. Louis originally. I went to Lutheran South for high school (typical STL question) and Fontbonne University and received my degree in Early childhood education. Bryan and I met on a dating website 13 years ago. We went on our first date that lasted 5 hours and knew from that point on we would be together! Our family lives in Affton with our cat Sophie and fish Snowball.

Both Maggie and Elizabeth have taken swim classes since they were babies and are currently enrolled in gymnastics. Both girls love the family traditions we create such as doing what we are thankful for every night at dinner, putting up our holiday decorations together, having a cookie baking night, and this year we added a new tradition of placing wreaths at Jefferson Barracks Cemetery. Family is extremely important to us and we love to spending time together no matter what we are doing. 

VdM: What do you and your spouse do, career-wise?

Danielle: My first job was working at Truman Elementary in the Lindbergh district; it was there that my passion for Special Education began. I decided to become a paraprofessional and went back to school to get my Masters in Special Education. Currently I work at Crestwood Elementary as a K-5 Cross Categorical teacher. I work with students on the Autism spectrum, students with intellectual disabilities, students who have Cerebral Palsy, students with emotional disturbance, and those that utilize communication devices. Though my job is trying, I ABSOLUTELY LOVE my students and what they have taught me through the last 10 years. 

My husband Bryan is from Roseburg, Oregon, where his family still resides. He came to St. Louis to attend Washington University where he received his bachelors and masters degree in Computer Science. He currently works at World Wide Technology developing software.  

VdM: How did you find Montessori and what brought you to VdM?

Danielle: My college courses at Fontbonne introduced me to Montessori, and we wanted our children to have the hands-on learning and important life skills that Montessori teaches. We came to VdM because I happened to be driving by the school and researched it online, took a tour and felt right at home.

VdM: What has been your favorite family vacation?

Danielle: We can’t decide on just one. We had an amazing vacation at Disney World and Vero Beach, Florida with my extended family and Bryan’s mom a couple years ago (19 people in total, to be exact). It was Maggie and Elizabeth’s first time to Disney and the ocean. We also spent a great week in Tucson, Arizona with Bryan’s mom, sister and her family when Maggie was about 2.5 and Elizabeth was 3 months old. We were able to go to the desert museum and swim in the pool.

VdM: A question specifically for Maggie & Elizabeth: If you joined the circus, what would your circus act be and why?

Maggie: I would walk the tightrope because it would be fun.

Elizabeth: I would be an elephant rider because it would be fun.

Thank you, Danielle, Bryan, Maggie and Elizabeth. We are grateful to have you in the VdM community!

Family photos provided by the Thralls.