Friday, June 2, 2017

We do this work for the wonders our children reveal to us

Hello Dear Families and Community of Great River School,

A reminder that we are building an ideal
learning environment for our programs and for our children.
Please check it out and participate! Be a builder!

Graduates are upon us - those who are matriculating
to colleges across the nation, as well as those children
who have grown into new views of the world, of their self,
of their place among things and others.

It is with deep gratitude, and full reverence that this time of year comes
upon me - the growth and changing of our children into the mature beings
and our witness reminds me: the work we do is so deeply speechless – so
 Inextricably linked to our humanity; and also as simple and powerful as any natural cycle.

 Our job as Montessori adults is to hold the space peacefully
so that children may come to life within it.

Thank you  for taking part in this.

And below a poem in celebration
of the creative powers of children at work.

scurried around a classroom papered with poems.
Even the ceiling, pink and orange quilts of phrase…
they introduced one another, perched on a tiny stage
to read their work, blessed their teacher who
encouraged them to stretch, wouldn’t let their parents
attend the reading because parents might criticize,
believed in the third and fourth eyes, the eyes in
the undersides of leaves, the polar bears a thousand miles north,
and sprouts of grass under the snow. They knew their poems
were glorious, that second-graders could write better
than third or fourth, because of what happened
on down the road, the measuring sticks
that came out of nowhere, poking and channeling
the view, the way fences broke up winter,
or driveways separated the smooth white sheets
birds wrote on with their feet.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Spring Festival and celebrating the spring harvest!

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the
seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.
~ Muriel Rukeyser

Hello Dearest community,

Each spring festival I reflect on the torrent of exciting and promising events that mark the end of a school year. Concerts and performances, trips and expositions, work shares, picnics, and the weighty, vibrant anticipation of summer. In school life here is a certain mourning in the end of the year, and a certain blessed anticipation of the possibility of summer - with a different quality of growth and change than the school year offers. And graduation of our seniors reminds me each year how we are travelers together in community, and the spring is the time we take a short hiatus from our work together, say goodbye to those who are ready to leave, and rest the summer in anticipation for a glorious autumn reunion and welcoming of the youngest who join us.

We are celebrating long-awaited beginnings already this spring, anticipating our remodeling and reimagining of the learning environment. Construction on our project will begin in this summer 2017, and continue through the summer of 2018. With deep anticipation we look forward to this project, which is a culmination of three years of strategic planning and successful cooperation between faculty, board, and community partnerships.

Spring Festival is on the 2oth of May 2-5pm, rain or shine! We will announce our exciting capital campaign  at the Spring Festival and answer questions about the vision and the project. We will also enjoy music from our talented parent community - Jim Parker 2-3pm, Clayton Shanilec 3:15-4:30pm - plus all the popcorn, snocones and hot cocoa one desires. (With a forecast of rain and chill, the dunk tank may be particularly challenging this year :-)
And, as a reminder, we will be unveiling our architectural plans for the facility remodeling project at our School Board Annual Meeting May 31st 6pm. This event will feature a short review of the successes and accomplishments of the school, Student awards, and the architectural plan unveiling! Please join us to celebrate the closing of our year, and the planting of seeds for many future joys.

Full poem to enjoy below on beginnings ~ thank you for your partnership, and I look forward to seeing us all together at a seed planting this spring!
~Sam O'Brien

Elegy in Joy [excerpt]

We tell beginnings: for the flesh and the answer,
or the look, the lake in the eye that knows,
for the despair that flows down in widest rivers,
cloud of home; and also the green tree of grace,
all in the leaf, in the love that gives us ourselves.

The word of nourishment passes through the women,
soldiers and orchards rooted in constellations,
white towers, eyes of children:
saying in time of war What shall we feed?
I cannot say the end.

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the
seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.

This moment, this seed, this wave of the sea, this look, this instant of love.
Years over wars and an imagining of peace. Or the expiation journey
toward peace which is many wishes flaming together,
fierce pure life, the many-living home.
Love that gives us ourselves, in the world known to all
new techniques for the healing of the wound,
and the unknown world. One life, or the faring stars.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Spring! Welcoming new sprouting ideas and celebrating perennial traditions!

Hello dearest community, 

We are in the midst of warm days and sunny faces here during the school day, and the spirit and energy of spring has filled our environments indoors and out. Students are working in the garden and studying in the green spaces, goats are lounging in the sun, and our classes and seminar discussions are finding their way to happen outdoors more and more often.

This Spring, from a strategic perspective, we are engaged in carrying out our plans for thoughtful enrollment of new families to expand our community. We will be welcoming more first year families than ever before next year, and our Parent Engagement Group, faculty, and school board are working hard to prepare the most welcoming environment for new and current families in 2017-18.

We are a school and a program that is in high demand - as we see the number of families applying for our school rising each year. And we are a school with a wonderful program that aspires to serve the whole child. Our strategic work for the past three years has been to acquire the best learning environment possible for our children. On May 31st, we will unveil the plans for a remodeling of our current facilities into one master campus. Please join us from 6-8pm for our annual meeting where we celebrate the achievements of the year as well!

Also, on May 20th at our annual Spring Fest celebration from 2-5pm we will have live music, a carnival fundraiser for arts and occupations programs, as well as sno cones and snacks. We will also announce a capital campaign for our new facility, and all the ways you can participate. 

Below, I've shared a poem for the spring, and a few links to info from this past month that I thought the community would be interested in. 

Link here to the folder of past presentations on the facility design

Link here to the presentation for new 7th year families

This poem for the spring below was passed along to me by a GRS parent! 
May we all be famous to our highest values and our closest relationships. And I couldn't help but include a picture here of our local wild turkey (really) who visits our campus often - and approached a civics class - ostensibly looking for some good conversation. 

Be well all!

GRS Wild Turkey visits civics seminar
by Naomi Shihab Nye


The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Students leading the way! IRACE, PI Day, Robotics, Ultimate

Students leading the way! IRACE, PI Day, robotics, ultimate - the environment we have prepared and the leadership that students are bringing to the forefront of our school!

Hello community, and happy spring Break! 

This week marks the turning officially into spring, with our equinox on March 20. So many wonderful things are taking place here this month, preparing for the coming spring season and finding the fruits of the year of planning.

What is remarkable to me is that each of the following activities, clubs, highlights and events are organized by student leaders. Also, these events have carried on for more than 6 years at great river school, demonstrating that a culture of sustained student leadership is present at the school and successfully passes on organizational wisdom from one older class to the younger students. Irace and Pi Day are events, robotics and ultimate are sustained team activities, and each demonstrate the level of excellence that students push themselves and each other through intrinsic motivation and ambition to do well because students are passionate about the projects. 

A few of these student highlights, in case you missed them from the month!

- PI day celebrated the mystery and sometimes silliness of the irrational number PI! Students grades 4-10 took place in a celebration, if able to recite 15 digits (3.14159265358979) then a piece of edible pie would honor the reciter! 
- A new school record was set by Louisa Weston, who recited 1,234 digits of Pi! (see link here to video)

Robotics and Ultimate are overlapping for one short month  now, with the FIRST robotics team wrapping up it's competition season as well as pursuing our second trip to nationals in 3 years. See the team 2491 website here! This team is student-led, student-sustained, and students are the main presenters in the fundraising the team does each year of over $50,000 worth of sponsorship from local STEM companies to build each year's robot. Ultimate starts competition in April, and our Women's varsity team is seeking a repeat of their two consecutive state championships! See Stars Ultimate website here

And we also saw another amazing organizational effort for our annual IRACE day. For 6 years, this has been a day where students have invited scholars to come to Great River School and discuss Identity, Race, Awareness, and Cultural/Community Education. The day again emphasized that our students are on the cutting edge of discussions about justice and society, and many of the speakers, scholars, and community leaders who attended commented that this is the kind of workshop that usually is only seen at high-quality University or Graduate school programs. As our keynote speaker for the day - Dr. Arnoldo Curiel - said to the 300 7th-12th grade students "Use this day and the opportunity to reflect on what's comfortable, what's right, and what you'll do in your life to act on the difference between those two experiences." 

In honor of spring and the remarkably thoughtful and well planned experience at IRACE this year, I offer this poem, but Imtiaz Dharker - I believe our Montessori mission is to create a world that is more fair, just, and humane for all human beings, and the feeling of being a 'foreigner' is especially prescient for adolescent students: 


I was born a foreigner.
I carried on from there
to become a foreigner everywhere
I went, even in the place
planted with my relatives,
six-foot tubers sprouting roots,
their fingers and faces pushing up
new shoots of maize and sugar cane.
All kinds of places and groups
of people who have an admirable
history would, almost certainly,
distance themselves from me.
I don’t fit,
like a clumsily-translated poem;
like food cooked in milk of coconut
where you expected ghee or cream,
the unexpected aftertaste
of cardamom or neem.
There’s always that point where
the language flips
into an unfamiliar taste;
where words tumble over
a cunning tripwire on the tongue;
where the frame slips,
the reception of an image
not quite tuned, ghost-outlined,
that signals, in their midst,
an alien.
And so I scratch, scratch
through the night, at this
growing scab on black on white.
Everyone has the right
to infiltrate a piece of paper.
A page doesn’t fight back.
And, who knows, these lines
may scratch their way
into your head –
through all the chatter of community,
family, clattering spoons,
children being fed –
immigrate into your bed,
squat in your home,
and in a corner, eat your bread,
until, one day, you meet
the stranger sidling down your street,
realise you know the face
simplified to bone,
look into its outcast eyes
and recognise it as your own.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Head of School thoughts on MN comprehensive assessments

Dear Families of Great River School,

This month, we begin our mandated duty of administering the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. In Minnesota, all 3rd-11th year students are offered the exams. 

Great River School uses these results as one measure at one point in time for one individual. It's a snapshot, and fails to measure how a student will persist, grow, challenge themselves. The test does not predict how a student will succeed in the world. The test sometimes reflects what we know about a student's academic ability, and sometimes is wildly inaccurate. One thing I know from best practices in education: one-time high stakes assessment is not an indicator of the way a student will perform in a profession, on a team, or in an authentic situation of challenge where clear answers must be found through deep engagement in work and problem solving. However, the opportunity is seen as a challenge work or novelty by some students, and we make every effort to create accurate and informative measures to complement and better inform MCA results for families. 

I will post also my thoughts on the importance of conferences this month, as I recognize that the desire for accurate and concrete data about student progress is important and helpful. We are striving to find, choose, and develop those most accurate authentic measures of student growth. Our goal, as always, is to support and reinforce the positive self-image of students as capable learners who see challenges as opportunities to learn more about themselves, the world, and the most effective way to have an impact to meet their goals in life. 

My thoughts below from a previous post on tests and testing - for your perusal!

A group of school superintendents and principals recently joined together to author the following letter, which they sent home with their district test results:
'We are concerned that these tests do not assess all of what it is that makes each of you unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know 
that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best. The scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.'

I join these school leaders in telling you the scores will not tell you everything, and I'll echo the thoughts of of Parker Palmer - who points to the whole development of childhood as a human experience. It's hard enough to learn to be human through childhood - Mr. Palmer points us to the Billy Collins poem On Turning Ten  to remind us of the way innocence is already naturally lost as children develop an awareness of their full humanity. Collins ends his poem identifying the first moments of lost innocence:
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Think of the things you love about your own student. These are the same qualities we love about your student at Great River. The light that comes from your student is not measured by a standard test - it is measured and shines in the moments they grow as a whole person. The creativity, problem solving ability, persistence, and emotional intelligence we experience in our most tender and humane moments - these are the skills future generations need to cultivate as the world becomes, before our eyes a more interconnected and interpersonal space.

We each are more powerful than ever in impacting those around us by the practice of love and care for each other. However, when we *only* invest in measuring and printing out the results of finite academic performance of a developing brain, we encounter the danger of interrupting the whole development of that child.

The insidious danger: when test scores only imply competition with one another, we lose the opportunity to appreciate difference and work with one another.

This need to sort and compare individuals is dangerous when it becomes all-encompassing. Students learn prejudice, and create self-images that are externally reliant instead of internally constructed. In a traditional school that tracks students into different academic classes based solely on testing, students experience a world of injustice. They are told see themselves as numbers in a line - not as responsible contributors to a shared community. In this way, students both at the front and the back of the line lose their humanity.

The greater learning that happens as a result of accepting and caring for a diverse community - this is the skill of the next generation of leaders. And colleagues from Montessori programs across the nation have already articulated this so thoroughly, I must borrow their words. My colleague Marta Donahoe from Cincinnatti writes:

 By creating schools as safe containers in which dissent and respect stand side by side, and where the child with learning quirks sits equal to and in the same class with the child who is the National Merit Scholar, we do just that. Just as diversity in the seed bank is insurance that we can survive a blight on the wheat crop, valuing diversity in the human population is a requirement for survival. When we cultivate critical thinking and human heartedness in the souls of our students, we are helping them understand the inherent beauty of the world. By doing that, we nurture the only seeds we have in this world for lasting peace.
In her essay on the true mission of the Montessori High School experience, Ms Donahoe cites the acceptance speech of a Nobel prize winner,

"Sooner or later all the peoples of the world will have to find a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict, a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love." 
~ Martin Luther King 
Address delivered in acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo Norway, December 10, 1964

As a spokesperson for Great River School, I cannot stress enough that this is our true goal: to send students into society having prepared them to live in deep respect for themselves, each other,  and their world. 

Key experience is a phrase we use for the trips that bind our communities of students together. Love is the real key experience for all of humanity- it is the way our students are able to grasp accepting difference and persevering toward peaceful resolution of conflict. And it's no mistake we reference our trips as key experiences - it's the experience of caring for another through the trip that we are talking about. 

And thank you, your family, and your student for coming to Great River ready and willing to engage in a radical way of being in appreciation, in respect, and in love for a better way of appreciating each other as whole. 

References - as there are enough ideas in this post for a whole weekend of compelling reading:

Montessori, Maria, Education and Peace. Oxford, The Clio Montessori Series, 1992.

Donahoe, Marta "LASTING PEACE - THE WORK OF EDUCATIONPublic School Montessorian, volume 19 #2, Winter 2007

Palmer, Parker, "The Scores Will Not Tell You Everything" Accessed November 5th, 2015

The importance of conferences

"Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment." ~ Maria Montessori

Let's not do this... let's have the bigger picture in mind!
Recently a friend sent me a postcard that had an image of a businessman sitting in a tree, sawing the branch that held him up. I reflected on how conventionally competent and prepared this adult seems. And then, upon closer inspection, it's clear that while he looks ready for the world, he's not prepared for the impact of his actions. (Or, even worse - he doesn't care about the consequences!) 

This visual metaphor led me to reflect on our experience as educators - and at times we feel like we are adults who are dressed like grown ups, look competent and prepared, but we may be sawing off the most important limb of the tree that supports us. 

So, while conventional public education mandates testing and assessment as the measure of student progress, the field of education is still trying to articulate the real meaning and application of high stakes tests. It does feel at times like we are whittling away at the branches of our tree. 

At Great River School, we use student conferences as a time for guides and families to connect deeply about the holistic goals and current success and challenges of students. Older students present their work and host the conference. The time is to not only discuss how the child is doing currently in their work, but where they've come from, where they are going, and what we can expect as the child experiences human development. Elementary students will be interested in exploration, rules, routine and play. Adolescents will be most interested in socialization, risk taking, real impacts, and their place in their peer group and society. The planes of development are predictable, even if in the moment we are experiencing challenges that are acute. 

Test results are not accurate indicators of success in college, in professions, or even in academic success. Holistic reports from teachers who know students - assessments that reflect the ability to persist through challenges - are the best indicators of how a student will fare in higher education or in a profession. (I've cited studies in previous posts about this - feel free to click here if you'd like to peruse references)

The importance of conferences is rooted in respect for the development of the child. We invite adults 
to attend conferences with an attitude of respect, observation, and appreciation. If adults have concerns about current performance or an acute and immediate issue, we would bring that to conferences as a question - or even ideally that adult need for an issue to be addressed would warrant it's own separate meeting to focus on an acute challenge. Conferences are about the bigger picture, and putting our current experience in the context of human development and the student in respect to their work and their community. 

And, while some conferences are simply a measure of numbers - our program is a process of student formation. We expect students to engage in challenges, to experience struggle, and to come out 
Poetry out loud! 
stronger for the experience. We want to hear about the goals a student has for their identity in their life and community - have they tried something challenging? Have they engaged in improving a skill that is a struggle? Have they performed publicly when they were shy, or tried stepping back to let their peers step forward? 
These are the questions we want to explore at conferences - what is the growth edge of a student's experience, and how can we as adults demonstrate that we have belief and faith in the ability of a child to develop, persist, and grow into the person they want to be.

Thank you for joining us in this exploration - and for the privilege of participating as witnesses to the development and growth of your child. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Facility and the learning environment.

"The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult." Maria Montessori   The Secret of Childhood, 1966

Mark your calendars for our learning environment forum on Wednesday February 22nd @ 5:30pm!

Upper Adolescent environment
In our 13th year, our Montessori school has reached a point of maturity that parallels the human development we know well. In our 13 years, we have grown, explored, learned from our challenges, and identified key strengths and an identity that sets us apart from others. The work we do in the next two years will bring us closer to another plane of development as an organization, and solidify our place as a mature institution.

As we look toward our 15th year in 2018-19, our strategic plan identified the school's primary goal: optimize the Montessori learning environment.

As the plan states:
"We commit to determining an exquisite place for our students to learn, play, explore, experiment, perform, and find their unique contribution to the world."

"The learning environment will have direct access to the study and exploration of the natural world, and a facility that engages students in experimentation and discovery through sciences and the arts. In addition, the facility will maintain and grow our strong community of interconnected families and classroom networks that sustain strong personal relationships."

As we presented in our November 17th facility & learning environment update, our school board has been hard at work assuring that the class of 2028 and beyond have a strong and stable institution that continues to provide a world-class holistic education. This work included major research and analysis of the financial and operational costs and benefits to the multiple sites available to the school for a long-term home and permanent site for our optimized learning environment.

GRS63.jpgThe latest focus has been on negotiation with our landlords at our current two sites for control of the sites in order to allow us to realize a fully functional master plan for a campus that serves the academic, social-emotional, developmentally appropriate needs and sensitive periods of the children that mature at Great River School. We look forward to finalizing purchase agreements for the current site, and will discuss at the facility forum on 2/22/2017 exactly what the details of enrollment, timeline, and site design will be.

The guiding principles for our site design are the same principles that a Montessori guide takes into account when preparing a classroom environment: structure and sufficient order to provide the opportunities for freedom of movement, choice, socialization, and freedom from interruption for work. We seek to provide an environment for ages 6 through 18 that allows students to most fully explore their potential and experience the impact of their work and engagement in real-world settings.

We look forward to welcoming the whole community to our update on Wednesday February 22nd on the details and timeline of our project toward the autumn 2018 goal of inhabiting our optimized learning environment. We will explain the plans and analysis our Board has engaged in to assure that our finances, program, and community will be strengthened through this project. Also, the details of enrollment for 2018-19 and beyond will be shared, explained, and connected to the overall mission and vision of the school.

As always, you can send your questions about the facility project to
Thank you so much for your support!