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!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

All are welcome. Reflect, respect, repeat.

"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 Mission Statement

“An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking; it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live.”
~Maria Montessori (Education and Peace)

What is the work of education?
Olivia Reinhardt, 10th yr, painted this mural
depicting teen women of color leaving a
legacy of beauty by being their full selves
When Montessori wrote "Peace is the true work of education - all politics can do is keep us out of war." (also from Education and Peace) she was referring to the potential of our children to build a better society. A society which is more just, fair, and equitable for all. 

It's that last bit - "for all" - that became political these last months. After the election in November, I sent a letter home about school being a place for accepting all viewpoints. Students of all political affiliations reported anxiety - immigrant students not knowing what may happen, liberal students feeling frustrated, conservative students feeling nervous about being a minority in their demographic. I didn't send the letter because of the party that won the election. I joined dozens of superintendent colleagues to send a letter because national and regional reports of bullying and hate speech at schools were at record heights. Educational settings across the country are struggling with how to be safe for all students. 

And current events can challenge that safety for students. This was especially poignant for our A1 students performing their play at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. After spending the fall writing about ancestry, student essays became the main input for the JTerm play entitled "Migra". The play told the story of our students ancestors and family experiences. The stories were honest, reflective, and expressive about the questions and ideas of our 7th &8th year students. 

The theater is across the street from the Brian Coyle rec center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. This is a primarily Somali-American neighborhood. During the final week of play rehearsals, immigration orders from the executive branch became a current event. In response, one student wrote about her experience as a marginalized voice in society. She spoke at the end of the play "I hear adults telling kids just to focus on school and not get involved in politics. I want to ask them - if I'm going to have to fix this world I see, then *when* am I supposed to get involved in politics?"  

We do ask our students to plan to be agents of change in society - because we believe students are the leaders who will implement more just, fair, and equitable systems for society. 

Preparing students for society - conflict & respect  

There is a concept I want all Great River families to understand, and it's difficult: having a community doesn't mean we always agree. Community means we include and acknowledge the needs of others as important. In community, we aren't satisfied unless everyone in the group experiences fairness, justice, and safety. Community defines our circle of care - everyone in the circle deserves respect. The boundary of our community includes everyone at Great River School. We aren't perfect, but we strive to respect the humanity and value of everyone in the community.

Based on a number of phone calls and emails I've fielded this past month, a few clarifying points: 

We are not a "Democratic" or "Republican" school
We are a public school. 
All students are welcome. (Of every creed, culture, background, and affiliation) 
We do our best to build community. We get better each time we resolve a conflict. 
Often our community has conflict. 
Often the hardest work for our students is to respect viewpoints that are in conflict with theirs. 
Free speech exists at schools. (see legal references here)

What's the best work we can do right now?

The work of our school is not political. 
However, it is radical.

And when we engage in broadening our circle of community not just to those who agree with us, but to those who may disagree, to those who may think or act differently, we engage in a radically generous act. We have to know we are safe, and we have to know what agreements define our community. For your students, this is the reason we take trips together to build trust and interdependence. For our adult society, we need to determine how and why to trust each other if we are going to find a way to build a better society together. 

Montessori Education is a philosophy that aims to deconstruct the separation and competition between people. We achieve peace through interdependence and respect. (Note: not all harmony and agreement.) As learners at Great River, we aren't striving to compete with a peer group for individual gain - we are seeking to be contributors and learn from others.  We are building modern skills for collaboration and psychological safety that will solve the biggest problems of the 21st century. (For a research view on how collaboration in the workplace is so important, click here).

And the hard work I see us adults needing to do now is demonstrate for children how to disagree and *still* respect each other's humanity. How can we, as adults, hold our own boundaries and still understand when it's safe to be generous? How can we disagree, and still protect the rights and humanity of those we disagree with? 

It's work. It's internal work. It's personal responsibility. 
We, as adults, have to know what's ok and what's not ok for us. With integrity, we can hold our beliefs and still respect others. 

Brene Brown discusses here the importance of knowing your own boundaries in order to be able to have true generosity for others. I ask us, adults of Great River School, to do this work together in the support of our children and the world they are inheriting: 

(note: overly dramatic music and filmography not withstanding, the content is what we're paying attention to here) :-)