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.