Friday, December 4, 2015

On tests, testing and test results

The last month of the calendar year is upon us - and we take a pause for winter break in just a few short weeks. There is current news you should be up to speed on, especially our current visioning work. Also, I want to thank each family who has already supported Great River through a monetary gift this year - your support keeps our vision and mission alive and strong.
(Give here if you're inspired to join in supporting now!
 Below are thoughts I put to paper a few weeks ago that are still relevant - and result from a conversation with a parent on how we use test scores. (I'm quoting eloquent words from other educators and school leaders below, and excited to share their words with you!)

Dear Families of Great River School,

Last month, results from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment were sent home to families of all 4th-12th grade students. 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.

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Great River Strategic Work

Great River Strategic Work

Last spring Great River’s Board and Student Experience Committee developed a strategic plan and identified key Montessori principles to review and discuss.  This fall and winter our community will be building on this valuable work to identify 3-5 core principles that will serve to both focus and deepen our work at Great River. To prepare us for crafting these guiding Montessori principles the Great River community will engage in some intensive work this December.

The four main components to this work:

  1. Faculty conversations: Conversations with Great River faculty guided by the question “What does Montessori mean at Great River?”
  2. Think Tank conversations: Faculty, Students and Board members will: Study Montessori pedagogy and other Best Practices in education to frame key questions, Engage in conversations with a panel of regional Montessori experts, Distill this into 3-5 key principles that integrate best practices in Montessori education with the unique talents and opportunities of the Great River community.
  3. Observations: A faculty member and student will join Katie to observe at three established Montessori high school programs to study other successful interpretations of Montessori’s vision for the adolescent plane of development.  Opportunities for local observations by elementary and adolescent faculty will be made available for guides at those levels.  
  4. Community Conversations: The final phase begins in late February and March as we bring forward proposed principles and invite feedback and discussion from Great River Board, faculty, students and families.
~Katie Ibes, Pedagogy Director

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Dearest community,

The fall at Great River is a time of adventure, experience, trips and new relationships. It's also the essential time when we refocus ourselves on the foundations of why we work so earnestly for establishing community.

Pollinator and flower at the Land School 
Respect for each other, for our selves, for our work, and for our environment - these are the cornerstones of our work together across all ages. We want to make sure we are living and working and learning among a group of people we know and we care for.  I was lucky enough to join the 9th and 10th year students this year on their 4 day trip to the Land School farm in Wisconsin. Students engaged in the work of  agriculture, forestry, woodworking, and artisanal crafts. Apples and squash, maple syrup, felted wool, woodworking projects, and fine photography were all products of our days at the farm. Also, a sense of interdependence, as two student kitchen crews cooked for all 100 students, and all students supported each other through the work of the week.

And the work of community extends to our volunteerism. Thank you all families for your time and energy this autumn, as our community has shown up to lend a hand in so many ways. Over 35 families pitched in to help recover from trips and care for our school equipment. Our Parent Engagement Group (PEG) has organized and taken root! We have level representatives and a structure for volunteer organization.  The next PEG meeting is Monday 10/26 - check the school calendar for all PEG meetings!

We, altogether at Great River, are in a place where relationship with each other is the container within which we learn. Our work in the real world - in learning how to connect our hands, head, and care - establishes real experiences that help us throughout the whole school year.
A2 students processing onions at the farm

I encourage you to look at the material on restitution presented by my dear colleague Katie Ibes at the parent education event in September. Also, make sure you're subscribed by email to the school announcements blog!

I look forward to seeing the whole community at our Harvest Festival on October 10th! 2pm-5pm we will have crafts and produce from the Land School for sale, caramel apples and treats from the farm, free hot soup made over an open fire for all attendees, a bouncy house, a bluegrass and square dance band, and fun! (volunteer for the harvest fest here:

Thanks for joining in, pitching in, and welcoming the community altogether this autumn - it's been a wonderful beginning to the year.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

State Championships, Collaboration, and a more peaceful global society.

Last week I answered the phone midday, and spoke with Steve from Metro Transit. Steve drives the morning 3b route, and brings a crew of 20-30 students to Great River 5 days a week. He wanted to let me know that the students he drops off at Great River are "calm, kind, and considerate. They always take care of others on the bus, give seats to those who need them, and treat everyone well." Steve reports that this behavior is exceptional, and "gives teenagers a good name - something must be going well at school to have students behave that way."

2015 State Champions! Congrats Women's Varsity Stars! 
Ah, Steve, it's true. There are a lot of things going well at Great River School. Just a couple highlights from the week:

First off, our Ultimate teams were amazing this whole season. Both JV teams (women's and men's) finished as state semifinalists. Varisty men finished 3rd in the state. And our Women's Varsity team won the state championship! We compete against some of the largest schools in the state - public and private - and our student athletes carry themselves with classy determination in fiercely competitive games. They are ambassadors, athletes, and champions. You must come cheer on our ultimate teams next season. 

Second, a note about how collaboration and teamwork benefits your students and our global society!

We won a grant for honeybee education at Great River! (Thanks to Marie Rickmeyer and Tami Limberg for leadership and brilliance!) I mentioned in my last blog the challenges our students are inheriting in the world these coming decades. I wrote that
"real issues that will require cooperation, collaboration, and humanity to address solutions - issues of biodiversity, of water and land resources, and issues of fairness and justice in an increasingly interconnected world. Preparing students to out-compete their peers on tests and college admissions is not the solution to our local, regional, or global challenges." 
To be specific, the cooperation and collaboration we encourage and facilitate is the kind of skill that builds a more resillient society. To see one example of ecological challenge: honeybee protection has elicited a federal policy for action - one that requires international public-private partnerships to protect the $15billion that pollinators contribute annually to GDP.

Cooperating to install memorial design

I see our students using the skills of collaboration, problem solving, and ingenuity to solve real issues right here at school. Our 9th and 10th year students have collaboratively designed and installed a memorial space at the school in the north courtyard (and will host a dedication ceremony at 10am on June 6th.)

Student-Designed Memorial
Our Robotics team used gracious professional collaboration to join themselves to a state championship caliber robotics alliance and win a competition in order to attend the world championships this year. The Montessori value of collaboration which led them to the world championships is born out of knowing the talents of self, while also respecting and valuing the talents of an other.

presenting winning Robot to the board
This appreciation of differences, and valuing the success of others as well as self is the skill that solves issues of resource depletion, pollinator loss, and challenges that require global cooperative action. Our future engineers, ambassadors, architects, and leaders are working right now at Great River to build a better society at school. And that more peaceful society is spilling over into the bus, and demonstrating results in state and national competitions. What a wonderful sight to see.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Montessori education - cultivating a renewed social contract

As I explain the successes of Montessori education to many potential families, I am usually explaining the benefit to the individual student. Executive functioning is one of the highlights I touch on every time. Montessori practice allows students to make choices about their time, their location in space, and their work. The child has the freedom and independence to exercise responsibility and experience natural consequences of choice.

Better executive functioning skills lead to better overall academic results for students. A recent Atlantic monthly article articulated the benefit we hear so often from research on brain development - that time spent developing freely results in increased capacity for student performance.

However, individual results on exams and measures are not the core of our mission. The worldview of our school mission is about the contract we have with each other - personally, locally, and globally. How we treat people on the bus, how we make our society more peaceful, how we do in connection to others is the extension of our contract with classmates in a Montessori environment.

Our social contract to care for, respect, and support each person with dignity builds a more peaceful society. Preparing individual students with excellent job-ready brain function is great, but it's not the glue that holds high performing teams together. We have a specific task to facilitate cooperation among young people, and trust in their ability to carry dignity out into the public sphere so that they - as inheritors of our society - may construct a better world.

It's in the respect for each person, and the acceptance of their humanity, that we find ourselves able to solve problems together. And, in the face of challenges that will increasingly require cooperation, the social and emotional skills we practice become essential skills to create solutions. Kindness, inclusion, collaboration, respect for difference, and recognition of the value of human dignity become increasingly essential to addressing issues of inequity, resource competition, and imbalances of ecology, economy, and social order.

In growing together, and encouraging acceptance and respect of differences - we demonstrate a different value than most schools. We encourage students to shine, and we encourage students to raise each other up.  Preparing students to out-compete their peers on tests and admissions is not the solution to our local, regional, or global challenges.

Preparing students to work together in holistic thinking will find solutions to these challenges that face their world.

So, while we work with students to wrap up the year, and you guide your students toward a summer, I invite us to remind our young people how proud we are to witness their work establishing and carrying a more peaceful world within them. It's the mission we begin with each day at school, and the soul of our work.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Aiming for more than our #1 rating on from US News and World Report

What a week for Great River School. In case you didn't see the many social media shares this past week, Great River has been rated as the #1 high school in the state of Minnesota.

I am proud of this rating, but it doesn't speak to all our school does or to our true mission in education.  It does indicate the hard work of our students in preparing for academic success. Strictly based on college preparedness and standardized test scores among IB High Schools in the state of Minnesota, our results are the best in the state. 81st in the country for charter schools, and in the top 1% of all schools in the country.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

And the winner is....

Bike Shop at work! 
7 things I loved about this week:

1) 3 families at the Spring Fest carnival on May 2nd telling me they missed the dinner and concert
because of how much fun they were having outside

2) The concert at Spring Fest - the best cover of purple rain. Ever. I hear the choices for next year's concert is narrowed down to Beyonce vs. Rolling Stones :-)

4) Students organizing for community - 
from high schoolers rallying for civil rights, to A1 students experiencing mock trial, to elementary students planning a milkweed campaign for monarch habitat, and A2 students planning a memorial community meeting space,
A1 bike shop running a professional business....
Inspiring to see our future leaders leading

Dunked 19 times at first annual dunk tank :-)
5) Students organizing for fun! Student planned events of the week: set list of Spring Fest concert, all the carnival games, the A1 spring dance on 5/8, A3 students willing to play frogger at community meeting, Elementary students delivering May Day baskets of handwoven paper

6) Volunteers coming out to make Spring Fest Happen! Bake sale, food prep, setup, cleanup, and snocones... thanks volunteers :-)

7) Reflection in person with parents who watched the video from last week on vulnerability, and connected to their own experience of the school.

We have a long way to go as a school to reach our potential. And, what rewarding work it is when we come together, in the name of passion and fun, work on behalf of this community, and dunk our head of school in 50 degree water.
Pure gratitude.
Happy May to all!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Vulnerability, Creativity, Innovation - let's get ready for the real world!

I think the mainstream expectations at schools are generally about performance and 'preparedness for the real world'. 

The real world is not a high stakes test. The real world is full of problems that require collaboration, persistence, and real empathy. 

I forget how unique it is to see students freely pursuing creative and rewarding work, and how different that can be from a 'typical' public school. We live in a school culture that is counter to the mainstream. We ride up against mainstream expectations each day. 

Take a moment and view this video from social researcher Brene Brown:

This week was typical at Great River  - I saw students ages 8 to 16 playing together each morning, teaching each other,

"Write an uncensored letter to fear, from empathy"

At the end of a school day this past week, I received a text message from one of our in-house substitute teachers. He is new to Great River this spring, and has subbed in every classroom at least once this past month. I thought everyone in our community should get to feel the reward of his assessment. Below is the message: 

" There are incredible things happening at great river, I'm impressed daily by the creativity, expansiveness of vision, and health and vibrancy of the students you're serving.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Spring returns, and reminds us that resilience is a persistent and gentle force

As the spring returns, and I see so much growth and success for students at Great River, I am reminded that resilience is truly a persistent and gentle force. Coming out of the winter snowcover is never a single day of warmth - it is a persistent turning of the earth, relentless pushing of a sprout, a slow change that can feel at once endless and fleeting.

Spring and the return of life happens not when we demand, but without us - our job is to witness life and find our place within the cycle.

My use of metaphor here is intentional - poetry, metaphor, and natural cycles sustain me in putting our work as a school in context. We are coming out of a winter that has challenged us in sorrow, mourning, and resilience. I have seen our students and families bind together in support and care for each other, and demonstrate the kind of loving support that helps us heal from wounds.

As I've mentioned before, the school is a living organism. We are coursing with life and growth and sprouts of brilliance each day. It has been several months since my last post in this blog format. I will return to the blog again this spring with a clear goal of sharing the moments of gratitude I experience each day at Great River.

Some amazing successes for our school this spring:
  • our student-planned Identity, Race Awareness, cultural education day (IRACE) was a huge success -featuring a panel of workshops and speakers that was truly worthy of national recognition for the level of respectful dialogue and engagement through the day. Our mission as a school of peace and peaceful relationships was echoed throughout the day. 
  • our robotics team won the state competition! (they are currently competing in the international competition in St. Louis!)
  • two of our students made it to the top 12 of the statewide poetry out loud competition
  • 5 students of our graduating class of 2015 (over 10%) have been offered full academic scholarships to selective colleges, and over 90% of our seniors have been accepted to colleges.
  • a parent organization is formed, meeting, and sustaining independent momentum!