Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Beauty, commercialized art, our brain & experience

A beautiful, fun video: thoughts on our experience, sponsored artists, and things that are just fun...

A few thoughts on this:  It helped me consider perspectives, time, and the importance of fun. (This post was not sponsored by Morton Salt or by the band OkGo)
As an educator, this reminds me of how differently some brains experience

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Habits of the Heart that create real Democracy

Example of working together to solve a problem -
building a civil society through dialogue.
Democracy is seeing a test for civility in our society. Our children are watching, waiting, listening, and absorbing what it looks like to be an adult in our democracy.

Let us be our best selves. Let us understand what values support a humane society. Let us dig deep to stand against fear, hate, or blame - and let us find strength and trust in each other to build the society we want our children to inherit.

There are two quotes I'd like to offer:

“Establishing a lasting peace is the work of education,
all politics can do is keep us out of war.”

  ~Maria Montessori
"Saying you don't care about politics is like
a drowning man saying he doesn't care about water."
~Mahatma Gandhi

So, what are we to do?
We are compelled to both realize the limits of politics, and work tirelessly to make sure we keep society civil for our children.

The work of Parker J. Palmer serves as a reminder of the foundational requirements for a functional democracy and civil society. In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, five habits are identified that I see build stronger neighbors, classrooms, and communities in general:

1. An understanding that we are all in this together
2. An appreciation of the value of "otherness"
3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
4. A sense of personal voice and agency
5. A capacity to create community

At Great River School we use these five habits as a training tool for faculty and staff to give a framework for our community meetings. Our work building community is primary to our success as a school, and our view of how we work together in the midst of challenge relies on these concepts.

These are deep concepts, and I wanted to bring them to your attention. These are explained well below, and I invite you to join in our work of practicing these habits and contributing to a civil society for us and our children.

For more information, see these described by Parker J. Palmer at the Courage & Renewal website:

The habits are described below also, compliments of the Center for Courage & Renewal:
“Habits of the heart” (a phrase coined by Alexis de Tocqueville) are deeply ingrained ways of seeing, being, and responding to life that involve our minds, our emotions, our self-images, our concepts of meaning and purpose. I believe that these five interlocked habits are critical to sustaining a democracy. Download as PDF.
1. An understanding that we are all in this together. Biologists, ecologists, economists, ethicists and leaders of the great wisdom traditions have all given voice to this theme. Despite our illusions of individualism and national superiority, we humans are a profoundly interconnected species—entwined with one another and with all forms of life, as the global economic and ecological crises reveal in vivid and frightening detail. We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent upon and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the “alien other.” At the same time, we must save the notion of interdependence from the idealistic excesses that make it an impossible dream. Exhorting people to hold a continual awareness of global, national, or even local interconnectedness is a counsel of perfection that is achievable (if at all) only by the rare saint, one that can only result in self-delusion or defeat. Which leads to a second key habit of the heart…
2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.” It is true that we are all in this together. It is equally true that we spend most of our lives in “tribes” or lifestyle enclaves—and that thinking of the world in terms of “us” and “them” is one of the many limitations of the human mind. The good news is that “us and them” does not have to mean “us versus them.” Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger and give us a chance to translate it into twenty-first century terms. Hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites “otherness” into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to us. Of course, we will not practice deep hospitality if we do not embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences. Which leads to a third key habit of the heart…
3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Our lives are filled with contradictions—from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior, to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold them creatively, these contradictions will shut us down and take us out of the action. But when we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others. We are imperfect and broken beings who inhabit an imperfect and broken world. The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life. Making the most of those gifts requires a fourth key habit of the heart…
4. A sense of personal voice and agency. Insight and energy give rise to new life as we speak out and act out our own version of truth, while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. But many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference. We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, and as a result we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport. And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to speak them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change—if we have the support of a community. Which leads to a fifth and final habit of the heart…
5. A capacity to create community. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to exercise the “power of one” in a way that allows power to multiply: it took a village to translate Parks’s act of personal integrity into social change. In a mass society like ours, community rarely comes ready-made. But creating community in the places where we live and work does not mean abandoning other parts of our lives to become full-time organizers. The steady companionship of two or three kindred spirits can help us find the courage we need to speak and act as citizens. There are many ways to plant and cultivate the seeds of community in our personal and local lives. We must all become gardeners of community if we want democracy to flourish.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Giving to Great River...

Farm Trip - made possible by Annual Fund gifts
Planting & Harvest - made possible
by Annual Fund Gifts

Great River Families and Community,

I write this month as we begin our 2016-17 Annual Fund Campaign. This is the way to put resources into our school to create a learning environment where our children thrive. 

This week (on November 10th & 11th) we will hand each family a letter at conferences asking for participation. Participate in supporting the school the way you would participate in supporting any public service that strengthens the fabric of our society. Give what you can. Please give something. We'll be awarding each donor a button to wear in show of support for Great River.

We are a public school, and giving is not obligated. However, when you give, you indicate a caring for the mission and vision of the school and you join in sustaining the future of our program. 
So, if it's $1 for the year, $1 per day, or $10 per month, please participate. We reach our goals as a community not because of extreme wealth but as a result of everyone pitching in what they can. Please, pitch in what you can. 
go to:
Hands-on Learning and
Microeconomies- made possible
by Annual Fund Gifts

Every participant counts. Give now and help us reach our Nov-Dec kickoff goal of $15,000. We reach our milestones because every community member pitches in!

And, in the face of a year in which civility and integrity seem to be in sore need in our politics, I'm asking you to recognize the grace and courtesy our students are learning and putting into practice each day at Great River.

Experiential Faculty Inservice:
made possible
by Annual Fund Gifts
If you value any part of the unique experience we build together at Great River School, please participate in supporting the mission and vision of our school.

I'll close with our traditional request - read the mission and vision of Great River; count the words that ring true for you and your student; count the ways your values and experience have been impacted by this institution. Is it 2 ways? Is it 6? Give something for each way Great River has touched your lives.

Read through the text below, and for each bold word, see if you can connect to an experience that you value with a gift...

Great River School Mission and Vision:
Great River School, an urban Montessori learning environment, prepares students for their unique roles as responsible and engaged citizens of the world.

Great River School integrates academic and social experiences in an environment of civility and trust. The Montessori philosophy and International Baccalaureate diploma program inform the curriculum and pedagogy, inspiring deep questioning and peaceful action.
Great River School fosters self-expression in a supportive environment that values critical thinking and the richness and strength of a diverse community.

Great River School encourages students to seek new challenges and explore their abilities. Instruction through travel, practical learning, the arts, and micro-economic ventures provide relevant skills to meet the world with compassion and a sense of responsibility.

How many did you count?
Give for each!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Happiness and achievement: correlated! Happiness and test percentiles: NOT correlated!

  • This month: Research on standardized test percentiles and the power of relationships: aka "a reminder for us as parents: really, the goal is not to push our children any faster through growth and learning, but love and support them now through the process of development, and see who who they are as whole people. As far as what usefulness standardized tests have for predicting long-term success for young students, even Harvard researchers are trying to determine what correlates to percentile scores on standardized tests. Achievement correlates to happiness."
  • In December, I'll be tying together whole person education, the importance of our relationships, and why our school culture is the most important factor in learning. aka, how and why we will preserve our culture first in any decision we make for the school. 

A study from Harvard school of education has established a correlation between student happiness and achievement (as measured by GPA).  See the synopsis here.

I discussed this past month a concern with several families across the levels regarding whether or not their student was moving 'fast enough' through the curriculum, and if the child would be able to get ahead in their study if possible. I am surrounded by Montessori trained colleagues who remind us all that the planes of development define the curriculum we offer students. While students may be offered ways to go deeper into curriculum, our goal is not to get ahead faster. This is a radical idea that is in contrast with wider society and the conventional education culture.

 These phrases of "fast enough" and "get ahead" are conventional school terms for a problem that I see engaging parents and plaguing our schools. (And note here that I am a parent! I find tension between my own educator wisdom and my sometimes parent paranoia.) Really the phrases about "racing to the top" and "getting ahead" imply that a student is not only on a race, but the faster they develop the better. If we follow that logic, we'd be pushing college, careers, and adulthood as early as possible - and something I am so relieved by is the Montessori reminder to follow the developmental needs of the child. The implied race to "complete development ASAP" robs children of the time and space they need to savor their process and appropriately integrate their unique gifts.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Whole human development is not a race (aka: when's the last time you asked your friends if they were "good readers"?)

 education: a cooperative goal

 "My vision of the future is no longer people taking exams and proceeding then on that certification . . . but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher stage - by means of their own activity through their own effort of will - which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual."
                           ~Maria Montessori From Childhood to Adolescence

Over labor day weekend, I attended a wedding. Many toasts and speeches were given to the fact that these newlyweds (dating for 11 years) answered to their own timeline for their relationship. Pressure to follow tradition was not their motivation. Stories the newlyweds shared were about development. They traveled, explored, adopted pets, fixed problems, and started hobbies together - grown together. These two allowed themselves to mature together.

We don't live in a culture that generally values maturity. We send the message that quick results and a straight timeline to success are the goal. The culture of education has been overridden for 20 years by demands for 'accountability' - immediate measurement for results, percentiles, rankings, and the impression that racing to the finish line is the only valid goal.

I appreciate the moments when humanity shines through our experience and reminds us of how sane, humane, and joyful we can be. I included here a picture of my daughter raking the school zen garden. I like this picture for many reasons, but specifically it reminds me that we're all happiest when we're engaged, challenged, and allowed to be ourselves. No one intervened here in this picture to correct my daughter raking. There isn't a percentile score for her, and I didn't have parent anxiety about whether or not she would be a 'good raker'

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Believe in what we do together... and recognize each other! Summer challenge: share meals!

Two preface announcements - the blog is after: 
1) A special email from me the morning of 6/8 inviting all families to observe the last day of school ceremony at 10:30am on Friday 6/10 at school. The annual ice cream social for students at approximately 11:15. Elementary families are especially encouraged to join students as early as 11:15 for the social or just to pickup and start summer break! And we need volunteers to scoop ice cream!(click to volunteer

2)Annual School Board meeting is 6/15! Cookout 530-630pm, and a presentation successes and bright future from 6:30-715. Come meet the board! RSVP here! (rsvp not necessary, just helps us plan a bit!)

And now, some thoughts on building a community... share a meal with each other! 

Last month I was discussing the school culture with a new employee who asked "Why do so many people stay so loyal working at Great River School?" 

Community is the answer, but there's two versions of the same answer to this question. The first is simple, and the second is the deep root of why it's revolutionary to approach school as a tool for building a peaceful society. 

The simple version: people have friendships here. Students, families, colleagues. We try to see each other as people first, and basing our relationships in what we share, we recognize each other. It's refreshing, and builds loyalty. 
If you want to stop reading here because summer is approaching and we all have laundry to do and calendars to organize, go ahead and stop. I just ask that you invite a friend to dinner and thank you for being a part of the Great River community fabric. Thanks! 
oh - and remember to connect with the Parent Engagement Group to stay connected!

Now, for anyone who wants to delve into a long answer to the work of the school...
The deeper version: building relationships is hard work - and we have work to do!  

I continue to work at the school for the hope that we can go deeper each year in creating an improved model for human relationships, recognize each other as important because of our humanity, and from that experience build a more peaceful society. I think many of the families and colleagues here

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Spring promise and our harvest for the year

Hello dearest community! 

A couple quick announcements on community events: 
Family picnic 5-8pm May 26th at Como Park picnic area! 
School Board Annual Meeting June 15th! 5:30-6:30pm cookout, 6:30-7:30pm public meeting! Celebrate the year! Hear about next steps for the School!

Blog post for May 6th, 2016: 

Spring is a wonderful time to wrap up a school year. As life returns to the soil and leaves again appear, we have a reminder of the natural cycles that nourish us. We have worked hard this past year, and together have grown. The time for us to harvest the bounty of our relationships, our care for each other, and the love for our community is now. So please, dear community of families and alumnus, thank a teacher. Thank a friend. Thank a person who came into your life through the school and made you all the better for it. 

For, in a natural cycle of seasons we give thanks at the time of the harvest. We give thanks traditionally when the season of growth comes to an end and the fruit is ripe to harvest. For our work, that time of harvest is now - in the spring - before we break for respite and the sprout of another school year in September. 

I'm thankful for the promise that spring brings - reconnecting us to a promise for hope and new growth, in the face of the fierce or prickly truth or experience. The message of the poem below reminds me how central this kind of hope is to education, to our work together in building a better humanity, and trusting ourselves to be strong enough to find new growth in each season. May you find the same hope as we close this season of work together, and may you join us in our community events this month! Be well all of us ~Sam

In Perpetual Spring

Related Poem Content Details

Bikes from May 4th: Bike to school day!
Gardens are also good places 
to sulk. You pass beds of 
spiky voodoo lilies   
and trip over the roots   
of a sweet gum tree,   
in search of medieval   
plants whose leaves,   
when they drop off   
turn into birds 
if they fall on land, 
and colored carp if they   
plop into water. 

Suddenly the archetypal   
human desire for peace   
with every other species   
wells up in you. The lion   
and the lamb cuddling up. 
The snake and the snail, kissing. 
Even the prick of the thistle,   
queen of the weeds, revives   
your secret belief 
in perpetual spring, 
your faith that for every hurt   
there is a leaf to cure it.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Language of peace

Often in our school I see the miraculous presence of restraint and respect - even in situations of conflict. This habit of respect for difference, for competing opinions and competing needs to be held in tension, but not divide us as people. A quality of cooperation in spite of conflict, and restraint instead of aggression, is a skill Montessori students learn at all ages. We should acknowledge as parents, this skill to create peace is generally in conflict with what we see in newspapers, video media, and current events. One google of "language of conflict" and you'll find countless explanations of conflict resolution and processes that reflect the kind of approach we take here at Great River School. (For instance, Restitution - the topic of a parent ed night we hosted on March 31st) Practices like restitution are effective, and they are in opposition to traditional discipline and reward models. (See an article on the effectiveness of restitution here)

One google search for "language of conflict presidential race" and instead of finding references to solutions, we have ample documentation of our society demonstrating a traditional approach to conflict and a 'win at all costs' behavior that ignores a common respect for humanity, difference, and respect between people. Indeed, politics is generally not a place where we can look for an ethical compass. The Maria Montessori quote on peace education is particularly relevant this year: "Building lasting peace is the true work of education, all politics can do is keep us out of war." (Link here if you're interested in a conflict scholar identifying Montessori's contribution to peace education.) And, to be clear, this history of foul political language is not limited to one party or group.

Which is why, in the face of a society where adults are not often in the news cycle for their acts of tolerance and peace building, I'm so proud of our school for supporting *students* as leaders in voicing conflict and finding personal solutions to approach social injustice and seemingly insurmountable social challenges such as racism, poverty, and oppression. Our IRACE event is a student-owned event that is a shining example of discussion, passion, and pain around conflict - but all in a context of respect. This is one of the most difficult challenges any school faces: how to have difficult and relevant conversations. It's one small school we have here, but it's an exemplar model for student leadership and civil language of peace in a world that focuses so often on conflict.

So please ask your student how or if they experience our school as different from other places or other schools they know. By no means are we exempt from bullying, disrespect, or other common challenges among developing humans. However, I am thankful everyday for the culture of respect our students learn and teach each other - they teach me every day.

(A link to our IRACE keynote speaker Kao Kalia Yang:  & one example of the artistic performances and message our students were able to hear, analyze, and use a starter to civil conversation:

Friday, March 4, 2016

Joy and mourning: coming from the same source

Dearest community,

This week in the adolescent levels, we took a moment of silence to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the unexpected passing of one of our teachers last year. Jay Peterson was our chemistry teacher, and in his short time at great River school he formed many close friendships with colleagues - and a wonderful rapport with students as a guide and mentor. His humor, calm demeanor, and care for the school were exemplars of the work we aim to carry out as adults at the school.

Seeing our community grieve together after that loss was one of the strongest examples of community strength I have seen in my time at great River school. Teachers and students alike made space for each other to be honest, to be whole - to feel both the grief and sorrow of a loss, and share in gratitude and remembrance of joy. 

To identify an emotional tool to cultivate for the situation, I spoke last year to the adolescent levels about gratitude. Often the grace that we all seek - to address deep and challenging feelings - is most easily accessed through thankfulness and expressing the care that we feel for the things we love. And so together in community meetings last year we practiced thinking of things we are thankful for, thinking of the deep care we have for them, and cultivating to literal feeling inside of warmth and care and gratitude for the people and experiences we love.

Implied in this practice is the idea that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. In fact neither extreme can exist without the other. We must deeply care and deeply enjoy the aspects of our relationship and our experiences before we would ever feel deep loss at their passing. And, in a complementary way, we must know how to feel and express sorrow, and how to express vulnerability. One vulnerable skill we cultivate is how to be able to talk about loss and feel sadness. For, if we are not able to go deeply into the expression of sorrow and loss, our capacity to experience joy and love will be limited.

The two feelings are from the same emotional well, and the deepening of that well depends not only on the vulnerability to care about something - but also the readiness and safety to grieve for that thing as it grows, as it changes, and as we experience an unexpected loss. And so we practice together experiencing success, and sometimes failure, in ways small and large at Great River School. Both extremes of experience, the joy and sorrow we venture to feel are brave parts of our humanity – and all feelings are welcome and have space in our classrooms.

We practice ways to express our feelings of sorrow, of conflict, and of sadness and disappointment of all kinds, and it makes space for deep gratitude because the practice allows us to accept our whole selves.

This practice is a key aspect of the social and emotional learning we aim to do together in the building community, and practicing the interpersonal peace that we hope our students can bring to the world in the future. I am deeply grateful to be a part of this community, and a witness to the healthy and strong emotional learning we have done together as a school over this past year.

Thank you for taking part in that, and for helping provide the strength as a family and for your student to help create a healthy and peaceful world for the future.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

We get 87 cents from the state of Minnesota, and we count on two pennies from our community - pitch in!

What role does financial support play at our public school? How should
we think about funding education in our lives, in the lives of our children, and in public schools? How do we value an education?

It's more important to our school district that our families work together than it is to a conventional district. Our community of support is the people who have walked through the doors of Great River School. (We are our own independent school district - good old #4105-07!) A conventional school district can ask for a formal tax levy their neighbors to support the students who make the local neighborhood stronger - and every neighbor in that district pitches in together.

I think in these moments of Lynne Twyst, an activist who focuses on aligning values and resources of philanthropists with communities. Instead of "giving to" communities with passive charity, a giver thinks about the values they want to support in the world, and joins in partnership with the cause. It's an approach that makes giving an exchange of value- the giver values the cause, and the cause has a depth and richness of experience to offer the giver. This is what I am asking of our community - to align a gift to the school with our values of holistic human development, engaged learning, and a more peaceful world. 

Our school district is a pubic, independent, civil institution. One difference - district 4105 geographically ends at the veggie garden to the South, the cedar fence to the North, our chicken coop to the East, robotics & bike shop on the West. Our families and alumni pitch in with time, talents, *and* financial support for the mission and vision of our school. 

I'll tell you a story below of how our school budget works,

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A thankful new year

counting the gratitude of the ye
Families and Friends, 

We have so many things to be proud of in this new year. As 2016 begins, I made notes on 2015. An overwhelming sense of gratitude arose as I witnessed - in my list - the remarkable spirit, generosity, interconnection, and resilience of our school community. This was a year of grand accomplishment and commendation. We had our largest graduating class, and our elementary program completed its third year. We had two state champion teams (Robotics and Women's Ultimate). We are rated as the best high school in Minnesota. 

And, what I remember from the year is the way our community gathered together in support, in mourning, in shared respect and care