{The blog post below addresses several upcoming items as well as thoughts on what is unique in the aspiration of our public Montessori community….}

Snow day Jan 2018

Snow day Jan 2018

Midwinter has quickly come, and our days at school are filled with the hum of students engaged and finding their ways through the midpoint of our work this year with grace and growth. Our midwinter has seen a flurry of planning activity inside and out - even a snow day! (See a picture of how I spent my snow day at right - my 4 year old daughter is buried in there!)

We are watching the new addition steadily raise from the ground to connect our two buildings into one campus. Our community has grown by over 90 new families this year, and we look forward to welcoming new families for our next two school years.  

Below are a few housekeeping items, and a reflection on how conflict resolution can be one of the hardest though longest lasting skills we work at at our public Montessori school. I thank you for your support, for the work of weaving together our community one conversation and one dedicated relationship at a time. I am indebted and inspired each day by the empathy I see demonstrated by our students to each other.




We have fielded many questions this month regarding the timeline and construction process in anticipation of next year. (I guess that there are a few office betting pools and/or kitchen fridge guesses as to when the construction will end :-)

There’s a simple message to know: construction is on schedule for our estimated completion date of August 15th, 2018. I do expect that there will be items wrapping up and equipment being installed through September of 2018, but the complete campus will be ready for the 2018-19 school year.

See the latest official construction update here.  And, as a reminder you can bookmark the board documents to see the latest work of the board and official updates from our construction firm. (Board documents linked here) In order to make sure we have enough time to settle into learning environments and prepare for the year, the school board will review a calendar in February that likely has the school year beginning on September 10th, 2018. This is a preview, and not official until the board approves. Stay tuned for official announcements!

I also recognize the need to send out regular updates regarding the construction process and progress - and we’ll be making sure that there is a construction update linked in each newsletter as well as each Great River Foundation email that goes out this spring!


As a public charter school, our enrollment depends on new families applying for the lottery. Current families do not have to reapply. The most likely grades to accept new enrollees next year include 1st, 4th, 6th, and 9th-12th grades. I’m writing here about enrollment to remind the community that we are a public school, and the gateway to having an opportunity for attending Great River is signing up for the lottery. Link below to pass along to families

The 2018-19 application for enrollment is linked here!

Also visit www.greatriverschool.org/enroll to find the application and details regarding enrollment.

I do know that the weeks of February 19th & 26th there will be community events to draw current and prospective families into the school - keep your eyes peeled for official announcements. My next blog post will also delve into the demographics of our school and our history as a public charter. We have a mission of peace formation as a Montessori School, and opening a dialogue regarding peace in our own lives and neighborhoods is a focus we can all take action on.

Reflection on Conflict and Montessori Public Education

I recently read feedback from one of our graduates who is now in their second year out of college. They wrote to say

“I found out that my dorm neighbor was taking my soap freshman year. I asked them what’s going on, and they said their soap was being taken by an unknown person. None of us had cars or ways of getting to the store to buy soap. I talked to our resident advisor and asked to start a community meeting with the 60 other freshman on the floor in order to talk about things affecting our floor. I wanted a ‘what’s going well, what could we work on’ time to address the way none of us knew each other.

Now, I live in a new city and I have neighbors in an apartment building between a bunch of houses. I went to introduce myself to my neighbors and found that they have strong opinions about the apartment building and people who live here. One of my neighbors told me that they have been wanting to host a ‘national night out’ but hadn’t gotten around to it… I found myself volunteering to put up flyers and get folks to come outside, and I felt like I was doing CAS again when I found myself searching for ‘national night out’ websites online.

I’m a shy person, and I didn’t ever say that I liked community meetings at GRS or that I thought that it would pay off later. Looking back, I really care about the people I knew at Great River, and I know that I wouldn’t be able to approach people in the world the same way without my GRS experience - even if I was indifferent to it as a high schooler. ”

This is a heartwarming and inspiring message to receive. Our alumni share a common report that the most lasting skills they take from their experience at Great River is independence, community building, and a sense of personal responsibility. These common ways of connecting people to each other are examples of the skills that we are engaging with in resolving conflict.

And, to be clear, this is a challenging skill to develop. It requires investment of time into addressing conflict. Conflict is expensive - it costs us time and vulnerability.

There are examples of community building that demonstrate just how it requires us to bend and change. I received a call from a Great River family late last year who wanted to address a conflict at school. The conflict was due to an acknowledged personality conflict, and the family asked if the student could be moved to classes that would completely avoid the conflict. A common phrase I hear from families in this situation is “We like the idea of resolving conflict, and we want to make sure that we aren’t distracting from our academic learning by focusing so much on community. We would prefer to have this issue resolved, and not to talk any further directly to the source of our conflict.” I heard a very similar phrase from this family, and I acknowledge that interpersonal conflict is an expensive time and energy investment.

Often, we see at school that resolving conflict and working together builds the very emotional safety that allows so many students to succeed. Feeling safe at school, and knowing that you can address a conflict, is the way we build the foundation of finding our place in any community we move into.

Now, these are two real examples - one examples that shines a light on a positive effect of our program, and one example that demonstrates how difficult it can be to invest the energy it takes to find common ground to work from.

From our experience at Great River, the long-term return in strong and well-proven relationships is worth the expensive investment of resolving conflict. Community is not a result of feeling nice - it’s the result of paring down what we share with others. As a public school, we should hope to engage with people of different backgrounds and differing worldviews. However, as adults I see us often envisioning a culture at school that is not reflected in our home lives.

How often do I invite over the folks in my own neighborhood who I may have conflict with?

How often to I engage in listening to someone who has an opinion that challenges my own?

How often do I seek out differences?

These questions (and their answers) can often lead us adults to see the places in our lives where we might construct some ways to experience the kind of peace-building that our students are practicing at school. And, we should acknowledge that we are building the skills as adults. We at Great River are not claiming a monopoly or even a 100% competency in every relationship. I am claiming that this method of persevering in finding common ground builds peaceful dorm floors, builds peaceful neighborhoods, and demonstrates for our students how to build peaceful relationships as adults. Thanks for joining me on a mission to find shared ground in uncommon places.   

AuthorSam O'Brien

Building on strong foundations

Great River Community - a message below from Sam O'Brien, Head of School: 

January 5th, 2018


First, the obvious accomplishments: our new walls are up! The concrete foundation is literally poured for the facility expansion that will connect our two campus buildings into a unified 3.5 acre site. Exterior walls of the new facility are erected, the full west campus building remodel is underway to hold our fully realized elementary program.  

January 2018 marks the start of a culminating year for Great River School. Currently in our 14th school year, we will be celebrating our 15th anniversary starting in September. Also, as we are sure you've noticed, the construction of our unified 3.5 acre campus is fully underway. 2018 is also the closing year of a strategic planning cycle for the school.

We made an ambitious 3 year plan in 2014, and we are seeing the fruition of our work. What was clear in 2014 was that our innovative upstart school had become a promising institution serving families and children for 12 years of education. Our 2015-2018 strategic plan emphasized addressing immediate challenges to the school - facility, finances, and defining the overarching and long-term outcomes for our program. Our first elementary classroom opened in 2012, and we are now one of three Montessori programs nationally serving students age 6-18. As we look at the successes of our work these past three years, it is clear that we can achieve our goals and execute well on plans. The opportunity that lies before us now is to endeavor upon plans that serve the deepening roots and clarity of purpose that our students and family community seek.

Our current state as a school is one of success - we are a model for stable and transparent operation within the Charter School community. We operate an innovative educational program with a stable financial outlook. Our current firm foundation is the result of immense work and action over the past three years at every level of the school - from classrooms to the school board.

And yet, I will be the first to invite us to look critically at the ways we are responsible to address the challenges of the culture and society we live within. Adults in society (especially in the news these past two years) repeatedly demonstrate an inability to act with grace and courtesy. Social inequities - economic and political - are a pervasive challenge for schools to address, as we work to build fair and just relationships among students.

Great River faces these pervasive challenges with an opportunity to make actionable progress, but only if we are able to develop tools within our own school and community that are uncommon. An uncommon approach to resolving conflict with respect. An uncommon approach to addressing inequity with generosity, letting go, and offering of partnership. An uncommon understanding of how we will raise children with the tools to have integrity in their relationships, and that their success will not be at the cost of their peers or neighbors. I say these are uncommon because they are not simple, but they are possible. Inequity, social aggresssion, and status-caused problems among adults are pervasive challenges. I believe our next strategic plan as a school will need to articulate the concrete tools our school will use to address those challenges. 

Now that we have succeeded in addressing our immediate challenges, we aim to look toward the next 5 school years with a critical question: 'How do we take responsibility to model grace, courtesy, and high standards of responsibility and freedom for students

The class of 2029 is in first grade at Great River School. As we look at our foundations built over the first 14 years of the school, I'll be encouraging families and staff - new and old - to see the deeply successful program that has developed, found a niche, and thrived at Great River. The exceptional program we are all a part of is a result of persistence, humane relationships, and a dedication to our mission. We aim to prepare each student for their unique role and contributions in the world. In future newsletters this spring, you'll see school founders and contributors through the last 14 years deliver their thoughts and reflections on the school's purpose and role in the world now.

Thank you for being a part of this foundational time in the history and future of the school. Thank your child for the work they are doing to build a more peaceful society within the walls of the school, and thank yourself and your peer parents for proceeding in this endeavor to support whole children and a humane world. I look forward to seeing the fruits of our investment arise and show up between now and 2029 in the walls and on the ground of the campus we are seeing built today! 

AuthorSam O'Brien


One clear challenge this year working within the school is change.

Habits, routines, spaces… ‘what to expect’ is hard to predict. Change requires learning. Learning is an expensive proposition. If knowing is sure, set, predictable, strong, and an edifice to our past… learning is a strong current that has just run into and around our knowing - uninvited and slow in it’s flooding of our knowing with evidence that there’s cracks in the foundation. It’s ok! This is a school, after all, we are learners, and the learning is inviting us to see the current of our times.

The current of this change is literally the means by which the life of the school is for the life of those we care for and will care for,

When we enter the year with a wallet full of “knowing how to”, learning is going to ask that we empty our wallet of what we know in exchange for learning something new. We are asked - in a time of change - to sort through what we know, and make sure it’s necessary. And, as we are in a current of changes we have to be careful to avoid trading in the currency of knowing. Yes, we will make agreements, we will find ways to work together, we will come to understand how to make our work smoother. This is a process of standing under, of being on the receiving end of experience - not an experience of control or power because we know the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ facts.

Learning how to be human is an expensive proposition because it often concludes with you having less in the category of “I️ know” at the end. A wise person isn’t full of themselves with knowledge. A wise person is wisened by experience. Under-standing is our proposition. We are less “sure” of something when we have learned - because we have gained the wisdom of seeing multiple perspectives. “Sure-ness” is not our proposition - understanding is our proposition.

The paradox is that information is cheap and understanding is expensive. Learning - which requires understanding - is not about holding information as a powerful purveyor of knowledge. Learning is the willingness to “stand under” that which we study. We would ease our confusion in a time of change to recognize how adaptation and humble “standing under” is necessary to seeing a way in which our current experience is teaching us. Think of learning as “the unbidden encounter with information or experience that requires a change”.

Does that sound familiar?

Learning how to do this work well, and how to do this work together, will require a great deal from us. It will require learning how to do something we have never done before. This is the exciting, life-affirming prospect of our work together. In fact, knowing can be the adversary of learning. If “I know how to do this work”, if “I️ know” the best way to approach something, how am I️ going to see what you have to offer?

If we have an experience - and I am willing to pause and wonder with you about what lies before us, then the way we move forward is as equals, wrestling the challenges before us as allies. Our differing perspectives are not in opposition. Our differing perspectives are the resources which fuel the solution.

That which is before us is a formidable prospect: ‘school’ and 'teaching' is an activity woefully underfunded and generally misunderstood. A school and the adults at the school are the primary guidance for most of the waking working hours of a child’s life. And we each care deeply about these children. These young people  are the seeds and sprouts of our cultural legacy and our cultural liberation from injustice.  The peace that we seek to support in the world is in the hands of these children inasmuch as we - the adult guides - are able to learn how to work together. “Learn” here is an expensive and active verb, costing us much of what we “know” in order to come to an understanding of how to be in peaceful relationships with ourselves and each other.

This requires a transformation of the humanity and spirit in which we approach each other. Much less of it is about “knowing the right way” than it is about willingness to find the way together. That process of finding will require us to empty our pockets of the tricks and tools, resources and experience we brought to the table. We will lay tools there - our knowing of how to be a professional educator - to be seen by colleagues and our students. We are asked to be willing to pick over what understandings and approaches are still earning their keep.

The way we “used” our tools and tricks in the past may in fact be causing conflict in how to attend to the vocation that we have together. As we grow this school, we must attend to our learning. Our lessening emphasis on individually knowing what is right will require an orientation to learning as a process of letting go of the tools that are no longer earning their keep, no longer matching up with what is around us. An adult process of learning is being willing to let go of what we are holding on to, and availability to consider a novel perspective.

Feeling the tension of learning is often uncomfortable, challenging, and deeply rooted in an unbidden encounter with a disruptive external event.

Change requires learning.

Mature willingness for learning is not a celebratory event built around getting to the mountaintop - learning the tools of being human takes a posture of humble pause, quiet, and reflection.


An orientation to learning that will serve us in these times of change:  

  • We work to create an environment that is cooperative and synergistic, and we are wiling to throw out what is detritus, storage, clutter, and creating obstacle.

  • We understand that working together we can accomplish more than working alone.

  • Identify that in order for us to work together, we will each repeatedly and individually be asked to step out of a realm of individual "knowing we are right" in order to create a wider circle of cooperation and ultimately a more comfortable place for everyone involved - including our children.



AuthorSam O'Brien

Great River School families,

The autumn Harvest Festival at Great River school calls us to gather again on October 7th! From 2-5pm there will be music, bluegrass & folk dancing, Family folk dance instruction bouncy houses, and a 40 gallon cauldron of stone soup made over an open fire. This is a time to share the harvest of the growing season, where adolescent students will have a market for the produce (pumpkins, squash, assorted veggies) and crafts (candles, cards with original photos, maple syrup) from the key experiences this fall. 

Stone soup is a feature of this festival - and the making of the soup is as much a part of the community experience as any of the carnival or music features of the event. All families are invited to bring their own bowls, spoons, and mugs to the event, as well as contributions to the soup. All ingredients will be taken until 2:45pm, prepped and added to the soup. We raise the broth to safe temperatures for an extended time, and the resulting meal is a product of the gifts the community has brought. (Yes, we do begin with a broth that has been cooking all week, and we do have vegetables from the 6thBridge trip to Buttermilk Falls Farm) 

This concept of having what the community has brought, however, is the real theme of the harvest. We have all the gifts brought by those who are present. We have only the the gifts brought by those present.

The soup is not a product, it is cooperation. This is not a sales venture. There is no fee for soup, and there is no economic exchange around this community venture. We all gather, we all contribute, we all wait until the soup is ready. (*Usually* 4pm, but it depends on the weather, the temperature, the ingredients, the fire....) We are subject to the process, and we are together in the process. When several hundred people line up for a serving of hot soup on an autumn day, and those people connect in gratitude for a meal that has been gathered from the good earth and is a testament to our patience, to our fellowship, and to our investment in being together. Waiting. Patient and understanding, we will graciously eat together what we have brought together. Some years the soup is bountiful, and some years we each get a small taste. The breadth of the event, however, is supported at it's foundation with the ritual of serving the soup *only* after it has cooked during the festival, and under the watchful eye of the community. 

Why do we do this?

Teams are defined by the accomplishment of goals that are impossible for individuals to achieve. In our training and thinking as educators this year, the faculty are learning to identify and use the term "group worthy task". This term is the essence of what it means to bring a community together. Stone soup is a group worthy task. Traditionally in humane cultures, house or barn raising, boat launching, fence building, growing and harvesting from the field, and child rearing are all group-worthy tasks that no individual would set out to attempt alone. Why? The lightness of work through many hands is a result of being bound together in owing your hands to your neighbor because you *need* their hands in return. We are playing with fellowship at the harvest festival when we make stone soup, but there is a humane need for each other and our help that can be easily forgotten in an urban setting with the promise of Amazon NOW in your pocket. (And a note to the weary: do not mistake the economic exchange of a global economy for fellowship - friendship through a shared burden requires that we see each other, know each other, and understand that our plight is truly shared.) 

The fellowship we crave with each other comes from the experience of truly depending on what our neighbors bring. And so, the invitation is to bring something to this soup we set out to share on October 7th. It could be potatoes, squash or some other hard and long-cooking starch - just show up early to make sure your contribution is cooked for the community.  Or your contribution could be greens, tomatoes, zucchini or some other fragile fruit of summer - in which case arriving at the last minute could still add to the group meal. 

A team has a higher capacity than the sum of individual members. Teams carry out group-worthy tasks. To put it another way, a team takes the talents of individuals and raises the value of each person simply by membership in the team. A team is worth more than the sum contributions of the membership, because in the context of the team, each person is worth more.  The team catalyzes and adds energy to individual talents, giving contributions of individuals a context that is more impactful and valuable than what they could bring alone.

By surrendering individual goals to the needs of a common group, an individual will experience a deep sense of belonging and a deeper connection to the needs of others. Each team member is *necessary* in a group worthy task. We are all needed. Individuals on teams respect each other and operate within their capacities - we rely on the relationships within the group for success. Often, in a team setting, the individual will have to change the way they would solve a problem alone. Relying on inter-dependence creates a situation in which team members must prioritize the needs of others in order for the team to function.

The result? Increased security, capacity for performance, flexibility and dynamic capabilities that could not have been predicted as a sum of individual abilities. In a classroom setting, this means that the rights and value of each person in the group are recognized and necessary for the group to succeed. The experience of equity is a product of experiencing tasks that require empathy and humanity. In a true team model, individuals do not shine without the team shining first. And, as we gather to celebrate our common harvest, we practice the metaphor of stone soup together, knowing we will eat together as a result of recognizing and sharing each other's gifts.

Be well, and thank you for carrying your share of the community. 

AuthorSam O'Brien

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
the world. The pace of the video's first 4.6 seconds might really be how things seem to some of our students through the day. The beauty of those seconds slowed down is the environment I see so many of our students experience when we all work together to meet their needs. Thank you for that.

As an artist, I reflect on the band OkGo and their performance here. The music genre isn’t my first preference, but the stunning visuals and sheer curiosity for “how did they do that?” really pulls me in. And, the colors and bursting balloons are just fun.
As an art teacher, the willingness to partner with a commercial interest (Morton Salt) is interesting to me. These performers are finding a way to make a living doing their work, and a relationship with Morton Salt is one path. I wouldn’t have respected that choice as an idealistic art student, but I totally respect that choice now as a father of 3 kids. What does sponsorship look like in a society where media is so personalized and focused socially?

And finally one “Art Teacher”  thought on social media. I couldn’t find a promoted link to this production outside of facebook. So, it seems the media of facebook is tied into the way the band is getting credit with their sponsor. The control that company implicitly gains from being the hub we use to pass along news to connecting us to arts and music and culture means that we have to digest facebook media the same way we digest any curated content. Who makes the decisions here about what is seen and what isn’t? What is edited out and what is included? Who gets a voice at the table and in the conversation?
AuthorSam O'Brien
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.
AuthorSam O'Brien
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: www.greatriverschool.org/give
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!

AuthorSam O'Brien

  • 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.

It's not a race to develop as fast as possible, but instead we all (educators, adults, parents) have a responsibility to provide children in our society with a rich  and nourishing environment.  We trust that when they are developmentally ready to engage in a standardized measurement  (usually 10th, 11th, 12th grade) is when we can best come up with strategies to support them. In our school philosophy, relationships are the starting point - and a standardized test is at best an indicator of where a student might be in terms of "performance". I really encourage us as a society to think about this word "performance" - and consider when it's appropriate in an academic career to ask a child to perform, versus giving a child a chance to rehearse, reflect, express, and truly learn in accordance with their development.

How would you apply the concept of "developmentally appropriate education"to the following:
A) A student is an empty vessel to fill as quickly and thoroughly as possible with content
B) A student is a living organism - a seedling to nurture, observe and allow to develop?

Montessori education is about going deeper into a subject if there is time and interest. (As opposed to going faster through rote process.) It's engaging with the classroom community. It's personalized learning that inspires deep care for our work. Montessori requires us to see a child as a living organism that develops in it's own time, not as a performer who meets our idea of a timeline. And, we can look Montessori in the early 20th century as a pioneer of this view! (An academic reference to the four planes of development (click) - and a more academic article published by AMI here)

And, I want to make clear, as a child's development moves into the middle and later adolescence, we at Great River see our young adults succeed in achievement and standard measures. Our students have excellent college and IB program outcomes. Our oldest adolescent students qualify for merit scholarships to Ivy league colleges, and score very well on measures. Great River has National Merit Scholar commendations, semi-finalists, and finalists.

But, the relationships students build throughout their schooling are key to enriching a foundation of success. We want to be parents, guides, and students who see learning as a process, not a race!

As the lead researcher concludes:
“In this study, we found that a network of supportive relationships is at the heart of happiness... If schools want to support student well being and achievement, they should take seriously nurturing positive relationships among teachers and students.” 
                                                                                                               ~ Christina Hinton
A synopsis of the study goes on to describe: 
"Using both quantitative and qualitative measures, she found that from elementary school to high school, happiness is positively correlated with motivation and academic achievement. [Hinton] also found that the culture of the school and the relationships that students form with their teachers and their peers play an influential role in their happiness."

Of course! Having a psychologically safe space is the foundation of learning. And what we see at Great River is often a reliable correlation between quality of a student's relationships and achievement because they are engaged in work that is meaningful to them. This is our high aspiration as a school.

Life, and the skills of persistence (aka followthrough/determination/grit) are practices of habit. These are the qualities we measure as guides in observing a student's development. Great River School seeks to meet psychological needs, build safe spaces, and engage students in a conversation about their view of a quality world. This leads students to generally experience nurturing positive relationships.

So, this month, I'll invite us to consider the elements that support our students in having positive and nurturing relationships. Generally, I'm going to suggest that there are a few key qualities to 'nurturing' in this case:
we accept students for who they are now
we ask students what makes a quality world for them
we ask students when they feel safest in their relationships
we listen to and respect their answers
we hold them to a high expectation within a context of developmentally appropriate activity

Supporting development is often a game of watching and waiting. It is rarely a game of intervention and control. And when we have a relationship that is supportive, it allows students to share when they are having a challenge, and we can best offer a rich environment for the students to engage in development.

A closing quote from Maria Montessori:
"We must take man himself, take him with patience and confidence, across all the planes of education. We must put everything before him, the school, culture, [religions of the world], the world itself. We must help him to develop within himself that which will make him capable of understanding. It is not merely words, it is a labour of education. This will be a preparation for peace, for peace cannot exist without justice and without men endowed with a strong conscience and personality.
~ Montessori “Four Planes of Development”

A few links related to this post:


Inequitable Opportunities: How Current Education Systems and Policies Undermine the Chances for Student Persistence and Success in College


AuthorSam O'Brien
 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'
or how she compared to her classmates. She's enjoying learning, and she's feeling good about independence with her new skill. She's respected and challenged. She's rising to the occasion in an environment that's engaging her. 
It's a Total. Montessori. Moment. {insert tears and sniffles for nostalgia here}....

I was asked over dinner at the wedding reception "What's Montessori?"
Typical Montessori conversations like this usually start with "So, it's just letting kids do what they want, right? How do they learn to read or do math?"

I find the need to be simple and direct in my explanation of Montessori. Even when I say "It's about treating kids as human beings, and trusting in their developmental stages." A colleague recently reminded me that it's simple to say "what kind of skills do we want this child to have available to help live a fulfilling life at age 30?" I also remind people immediately that Montessori children learn to read, we learn to understand math, and we learn these things very well by respecting stages of development. We also learn to organize our time, to respect each other, and to care about justice.

Some examples I shared at the dinner table of the wedding reception:

  • Respect humans, and support stages of development. 
  • Trust that a student wants to do their best, trust that they are trying their best with the tools they have available. 
  • Understand that percentile scores on exams and how quickly a student reads or computes on a standardized test is not a skill that makes them happier at age 30.
  • Specifically, Montessori believes that all humans develop, and we should trust in the goodness and desire of children to develop as moral, social, whole beings. 

I realized that in explaining respect for the natural developmental stages of human development - that children absorb, process, and mature naturally - I was mirroring the story of the newlyweds. That we should have faith that things develop in their own time, and that the stages of development don't need to be manipulated to go faster or farther right now.

For instance, no one is going to remember if a student was a "good speller" in 2nd year, but that student will internalize the patterns and feelings of being encouraged to love language in their Montessori environment.

Our children are doing the good work of growing, and our job is to maintain a rich environment for them. At Great River, this is through the elementary classroom, through exposure to the world at large, and through an aspiration to always trust that people - regardless of their age - are going to do their best to rise to the occasion and expectations of their environment. And so, we do our best to prepare a rich and engaging environment for growth. The growing happens thanks to nature.

P.S. I couldn't resist adding in a little video addition here (below).
There's a young person (named Adora Svitak) who travels speaking to adults about learning from chilren. The points she makes here include trust, innovation, and how children must be trusted to build a future that will be better than what adults can currently manage. In case you're interested in being provoked to thought.... enjoy!

AuthorSam O'Brien
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
work together to share the value that we can do better for our children and their future. Better in terms of hope, and better in terms of a society of cooperation and solutions winning over a society of competition and a zero-sum game setup* that fails us all. Our school model builds experiences that are not zero-sum, but in fact demonstrate that when we cooperate we also generate new opportunities and resources that result in new solutions to shared challenges.

There is scientific, social, and poetic research that all supports this concept: compassion is the human trait that works in our favor as a society. And seeing others as sharing common traits with us leads us to be safer in the world by association. When we're safer in the world, we live longer, love more, make more money, and have less illness. If you have time, I invite you to compare the cross-disciplinary discussions below of poets, philosophers, and business consultants who all point to shared experience as a bedrock for success in business, in evolutionary survival, and as humans. 

(If you have a craving for a 20 minute deep-dive on human connection and it's interdisciplinary importance to our past/present/future**: it's Maya Angelou speaking of our connections, or author Simon Sinek discussing why sharing belief and connection is the essential moment in leadership and business, and philosopher Robert Wright identifying compassion as an evolutionary tool.)

And in the work of a school I see that we are just 6 hours of the experience our students have - society at large has 18 hours a day to engage each of us in a grind that is often not about connection. (Finances, calendars, the 24 hour news cycle... few of these remind us of our humanity.) 

The daily grind is a challenge. And folks - let me tell you - no place is the grind felt more sharply than in a classroom of young people, at a school, waiting for summer break. (And also make no mistake, I understand that summer is no break for parents!) So - the question is, how do we answer this overwhelm?  

Connection. Gratitude and recognition lift us up out of the muck and slog of the mundane. A graceful reprieve arises when we thank each other and see what we share together. The best part of my work-week is when I share lunch with a colleague or student at school, just to share what's new, what's challenging, what's appreciated. 

So when I invited that new employee who asked "Why. Great River?" to join us in our work, I told them the community was not a feature to take for granted. The community is forged and won through conflict, through finding a resolution to misunderstanding, and to having a faith that we share more than we differ.  It takes work. It takes dedication and persistence. And, it takes accepting differences while emphasizing what we have in common. 

And now, the radical invitation from a school leader. I want to invite everyone to get together and talk  to each other without me there to moderate or answer. And please, share a hot beverage or a warm meal. (Ha!) This challenge aims to build on the trust I have that we are all in this work together, and we want to share connection. The way we seek a stronger community is by seeking interconnection - shared interests, shared challenges, and a shared experience. It's good for our brains, and good for our children**.

I need you to join in a radical wave of gratitude for someone in this community. Remind yourself of why this community is a positive place for you or your student. And I'd like you to share a meal with someone.  

Beautiful Parent Engagement Signage - handmade!
Let's compliment the PEG by engaging in building
the fabric of our community - together!

And now, even a second challenge: share a meal with someone you don't know very well. Welcome a conversation about what we share. Attend a potluck or invite your kid's friends over and just share a meal with them. Learn who they are. ( I acknowledge this is easier for adults with elementary students. However, I've talked to the adolescents at school about this challenge - and they tell me it's a radical idea. It's reportedly radical because adolescents don't think their parents are *interested* in the lives of their friends. So prove them wrong parents! The embarrassment of having lunch with your teen and their friends is just a superficial hurdle to get past) 

What's the aim here? Radical acceptance. Shared responsibility. A cultural revolution of shared solutions for our children, their children, and the way forward in a society that collaborates and generates solutions. We are a strong community, but only as strong as the effort we put in to sustaining connection between ourselves, our children, and the partners at school who give every day to build and rebuild this community through triumph and through resilience. 

p.s. the Parent Engagement Group will be hosting some official meet & share events this summer! Connect with PEG to learn ways to get officially involved!

*Defnition for zero sum game - a competition in which one person's gain is equal to someone else's loss. This short video is so hillariously formal and "british economist" I couldn't help but share it. 

**These are really three tremendously complimentary sources for thinking about how our society could improve based just on the lens we use to look at our interactions, and our possibilities. And the way these thinkers speak about society and leadership really frames the job of a parent to think about the lens our children use to see the world. A poet (Angelou), a journalist-turned-philosopher (Wright), and a Business professor (Sinek) all telling us how important it is to recognize our connection as human beings. If only Montessori had recorded a TED talk... 
AuthorSam O'Brien