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

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.

AuthorSam O'Brien
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: http://www.kaokaliayang.com/  & one example of the artistic performances and message our students were able to hear, analyze, and use a starter to civil conversation: http://www.guante.info/2016/03/guante-katrah-quey-post-post-race.html)

AuthorSam O'Brien
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.

AuthorSam O'Brien

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,
and why your gift is essential to the unique opportunities our school offers. Our families are the bedrock of our school. While we cannot ask for our neighbors to pitch in with a levy or a tax, we do rely on our families to pitch in for the life of our school.

I will make clear -we are a public school. We are free for every enrolled student, without fees for education. 
I will make clear - we are a diverse school with families who give in time and energy, and only some families have the resources to give financially. We rely on both kinds of gifts to keep our school alive and thriving for all of our students. 
Last, I will make clear - we rely on the essential financial support from our community that makes up approximately 2% of our operating budget each year. This stream of revenue is the single biggest source outside of state funding. 

How does it work? 

 Our revenue comes from the state, approximately eighty-seven cents for every average dollar that a conventional district receives per pupil in Minnesota. And we make the most of those eighty seven cents! We focus on operating programs that best serve the developmental needs of our students. If you think of 87 pennies as our whole school budget, I can tell you how every one of them counts.  44 of those pennies go to the amazing teaching faculty at our school. 30 cents go to the costs for leasing, heating, lighting, transporting, insuring and basic operating of the school building and required overhead. That leaves us 13 cents for the learning materials, for the field trips, for the key experiences, and for the support that students need on their way to development and full realization of their potential. We use our 87 cents wisely, and it allows us to focus spending on students, on developmental opportunities, and on the essential characteristics of a Montessori education. While most districts struggle to offer creative, engaged environments for students, we thrive on shrewd budgeting so that our students can expect innovative learning environments. 

This is where our pact with families enters the equation. I'm asking families and our community to pitch in two cents. In this case, the two cents is an additional bump that allows us to operate with key experiences, rich field trips and community experts as an essential part of building community and engaging in the world. 

The two cents from families is a 2% budget goal that allows us to guarantee that we will have rich, community building experiences every year.  It's a modest goal, and it allows us to plan innovative experience a part of the basic programming at Great River. It's a situation where many hands contributing makes reaching our goal very easy. And, it requires your participation.  Every family giving *something* in exchange with the school is my goal for this year - that we get participation in supporting this rich environment for student development. 

What do families give?

In real dollars, the two cents is a $90,000 fundraising goal, and we can get there easily this year with full participation. If we broke this goal down to a per-student average, it's quite affordable - $1.30 per school day per kid would meet our minimum goals. Our generous community has found that an average of $300-$600 per student per year is a landmark for giving that allows the school to plan confidently for experiences each year.  We benefit from the generosity of our families who can afford to give more than average, and we also benefit from the families who give $5 per month, or participate in any way possible.

Alumni and alumnus families give. We rely on the gifts of you - our partner in community - to assure that we meet this year's goal *and* that we can go deeper into planning for furthering our experiences in the future. Please, consider what you give, and how you can align your value for the student experience with a commitment to support the mission and vision of your Great River School.

AuthorSam O'Brien
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
for each other. I remember our school where every graduate walks across the stage
leaving a community that is akin to a family. I'll remember how many families reported "My child loves coming to school." I'll remember the fun for hundreds of kids and $8000 of scholarships that our Great River Summer program provided to our neighborhood community. 

We are a school where our state champion teams are best defined by the time they take to laugh and spend time together outside of their practices and competition season. A school where students take on the work of planning a memorial to serve the community when a loved one is lost. This school that is remarkable, for the value that is placed on the work of the heart, and the hand, as much as we meet and exceed standards in the work of academics and intellect.   

So in our year ahead I look forward to seeing the care and interdependence of our community shine as the foundation upon which we continue to build a vision for the future of our school. Keep an eye out for invitations for the community to participate in conversations and input for the long-term in-depth school vision that we are working on. This is the result of a process that began with community-based strategic vision work in 2014, and has included student representative visits to Montessori schools around the country by our students. The goal is to have a solid understanding and articulation of the principles and values that will carry us through the next 15 years of life at our beloved school. You make it possible with the time, energy, money, and love that you share with our school each day. 

A few other things I look forward to this coming year:
solstice party in elementary
 planned by students!
  • Seeing the Parent Engagement Group grow and build on HUGE successes in 2015. Please join them at events, volunteering, and having fun in the name of a more connected school community! 
  • The production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Wellstone theater January 28th-30th! (JTerm!)
  • Seeing us all at the annual soiree gala on February 20th 7-10pm at Como Dockside. 
  • Seeing our current visioning work cultivate a deeper shared purpose among our community
  • Our annual IRACE day of social justice and identity workshops, and the community potluck on March 30th!
  • Being in the dunk tank again at the spring festival on May 14th 2016!

AuthorSam O'Brien

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

Dear Families of Great River School,

Last month, results from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment were sent home to families of all 4th-12th grade students. Great River School uses these results as one measure at one point in time for one individual. It's a snapshot, and fails to measure how a student will persist, grow, challenge themselves. The test does not predict how a student will succeed in the world.

A group of school superintendents and principals recently joined together to author the following letter, which they sent home with their district test results:
'We are concerned that these tests do not assess all of what it is that makes each of you unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best. The scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.'

I join these school leaders in telling you the scores will not tell you everything, and I'll echo the thoughts of of Parker Palmer - who points to the whole development of childhood as a human experience. It's hard enough to learn to be human through childhood - Mr. Palmer points us to the Billy Collins poem On Turning Ten  to remind us of the way innocence is already naturally lost as children develop an awareness of their full humanity. Collins ends his poem identifying the first moments of lost innocence:
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Think of the things you love about your own student. These are the same qualities we love about your student at Great River. The light that comes from your student is not measured by a standard test - it is measured and shines in the moments they grow as a whole person. The creativity, problem solving ability, persistence, and emotional intelligence we experience in our most tender and humane moments - these are the skills future generations need to cultivate as the world becomes, before our eyes a more interconnected and interpersonal space.

We each are more powerful than ever in impacting those around us by the practice of love and care for each other. However, when we *only* invest in measuring and printing out the results of finite academic performance of a developing brain, we encounter the danger of interrupting the whole development of that child.

The insidious danger: when test scores only imply competition with one another, we lose the opportunity to appreciate difference and work with one another.

This need to sort and compare individuals is dangerous when it becomes all-encompassing. Students learn prejudice, and create self-images that are externally reliant instead of internally constructed. In a traditional school that tracks students into different academic classes based solely on testing, students experience a world of injustice. They are told see themselves as numbers in a line - not as responsible contributors to a shared community. In this way, students both at the front and the back of the line lose their humanity.

The greater learning that happens as a result of accepting and caring for a diverse community - this is the skill of the next generation of leaders. And colleagues from Montessori programs across the nation have already articulated this so thoroughly, I must borrow their words. My colleague Marta Donahoe from Cincinnatti writes:

 By creating schools as safe containers in which dissent and respect stand side by side, and where the child with learning quirks sits equal to and in the same class with the child who is the National Merit Scholar, we do just that. Just as diversity in the seed bank is insurance that we can survive a blight on the wheat crop, valuing diversity in the human population is a requirement for survival. When we cultivate critical thinking and human heartedness in the souls of our students, we are helping them understand the inherent beauty of the world. By doing that, we nurture the only seeds we have in this world for lasting peace.
In her essay on the true mission of the Montessori High School experience, Ms Donahoe cites the acceptance speech of a Nobel prize winner,

"Sooner or later all the peoples of the world will have to find a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict, a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love." 
~ Martin Luther King 
Address delivered in acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo Norway, December 10, 1964

As a spokesperson for Great River School, I cannot stress enough that this is our true goal: to send students into society having prepared them to live in deep respect for themselves, each other,  and their world. 

Key experience is a phrase we use for the trips that bind our communities of students together. Love is the real key experience for all of humanity- it is the way our students are able to grasp accepting difference and persevering toward peaceful resolution of conflict. And it's no mistake we reference our trips as key experiences - it's the experience of caring for another through the trip that we are talking about. 

And thank you, your family, and your student for coming to Great River ready and willing to engage in a radical way of being in appreciation, in respect, and in love for a better way of appreciating each other as whole. 

References - as there are enough ideas in this post for a whole weekend of compelling reading:

Montessori, Maria, Education and Peace. Oxford, The Clio Montessori Series, 1992.

Donahoe, Marta "LASTING PEACE - THE WORK OF EDUCATIONPublic School Montessorian, volume 19 #2, Winter 2007

Palmer, Parker, "The Scores Will Not Tell You Everything" http://www.onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-the-scores-will-not-tell-you-everything/8089 Accessed November 5th, 2015

AuthorSam O'Brien

Great River Strategic Work

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

The four main components to this work:

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

AuthorGreat River School Newsletters

Dearest community,

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to seeing the whole community at our Harvest Festival on October 10th! 2pm-5pm we will have crafts and produce from the Land School for sale, caramel apples and treats from the farm, free hot soup made over an open fire for all attendees, a bouncy house, a bluegrass and square dance band, and fun! (volunteer for the harvest fest here: http://goo.gl/RvQ2Ca)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooperating to install memorial design

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

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

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

AuthorSam O'Brien

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

AuthorSam O'Brien

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

I am proud of this rating, but it doesn't speak to all our school does or to our true mission in education.  It does indicate the hard work of our students in preparing for academic success. Strictly based on college preparedness and standardized test scores among IB High Schools in the state of Minnesota, our results are the best in the state. 81st in the country for charter schools, and in the top 1% of all schools in the country.
That is a serious accomplishment, and we should share it with everyone. In the same breath, we should all also be able to speak to the responsibility for self, others, and the community that our students learn through real life experience!

Celebrating team work - unmeasured by test scores!

 Our students leave Great River ready for the world, and the data supports what we've seen for many years - students who experience independence and personal responsibility have great outcomes. Let's celebrate our students for their work succeeding in their coursework and preparing for college and careers. In fact, let's celebrate them for having a top rank among all IB high schools in the state of Minnesota. However, I have to acknowledge that the #1 US News rank does not satisfy our mission as a school. Top academic outcomes on a narrow measurement like standardized tests

I want to celebrate our school for aiming for more than academic success. Our #1 in MN rating is based solely on test scores and raw data on academic student capacity for standardized and summative tests. I want every one in the community to recognize that our students, in addition to academic outcomes,  demonstrate much more important learning.

Installing a Zen Garden - project unmeasured by ratings!
Responsibility for social relationships, for justice, and for I would love a US News & World report award for schools that change our cultural approach to education. I'm preparing a longer blog post for early next week on what our mission really is, and the mistake to look only at academic outcomes for a school. The mission of Great River is to prepare students for their unique role as citizens of the world. Our mission is global citizenship, not solely first-rate test scores. In fact, I believe our first rate test scores are a result of the way we support students emotional, ethical, and interpersonal abilities. Our students engage in caring for each other and responding to adversity with creativity.

 Sir Ken Robinson has the most watched ted talk of all time.  He talks about changing educational paradigms.  The need is for schools that approach education with a bigger world view than test scores. I invite you to watch the illustrated version of one talk given by Ken Robinson below. I think the reason his TED talks are so popular result from our shared hunger for hope and inspiration in education. Something more than test results - a human, connected, and holistic desire to support each person in dignity and development. The way we create a more peaceful society for the future is by creating a more peaceful society for our children to live and learn in today. Our school has that vision, and though we rank #1 in the state for tested outcomes in High School and college preparedness, I hope we can use every opportunity to open the conversation about the role of education to create a more peaceful and humane global society. Thanks for being our ambassadors!

AuthorSam O'Brien
Bike Shop at work! 
7 things I loved about this week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week was typical at Great River  - I saw students ages 8 to 16 playing together each morning, teaching each other,
elementary students working on projects with junior high mentors, seniors planning a year-end intensive that focuses on celebrating their friendships, and a group of 14-16 year olds planning an end of the year memorial.

Our biology teacher Tami Limberg hosted a gathering of local community gardeners to work with our student urban farmers to build planting boxes for a mini- greenhouse in our garden, and our 7th and 8th year entrepreneurs planned carnival activities for Spring Fest. I saw dozens of students celebrating the return of spring by taking their independent work outside to the garden, to the courtyard, and to the sunshine, studying for IB exams, debating models of society, and enjoying each other...

I think the mainstream expectations at schools are generally about performance and 'preparedness for the real world'. The real world is not a high stakes test. The real world is full of problems that require collaboration, persistence, and real empathy. I see students working together in real understanding of each other, finding solutions to problems, and applying their knowledge and learning. I see students working with each other to engage in a world that demands their courage. I see students who are learning to persist through challenge, which will lead them to success in any profession, as well as success in building the relationships that will sustain their life. 

We work hard each day at Great River to create a space that is safe for vulnerable, creative human beings. In the safety of trying and persisting, of bringing ideas and We are so lucky to have a counterculture of valuing relationships, respect, and responsibility as the foundations of our learning. We live in a world that demands creativity, innovation, and change in reaction to a challenging future. Whetherour students will be veterinarians, doctors, engineers, or entrepreneurs, they will have to apply their ability to persist and work in teams to engage in solutions to our local and global challenges. The real world requires the vulnerable, empathy filled society that we strive for each day in our school. I am so proud of our students for the courage it takes to switch mindset and embrace a vulnerable culture at Great River.

Thanks to all 423 of our students ~

AuthorSam O'Brien

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

" There are incredible things happening at great river, I'm impressed daily by the creativity, expansiveness of vision, and health and vibrancy of the students you're serving. Please accept this as a virtual high five.👋

One of the many compelling moments observed this week at Great River - this encouragement on an announcement board - 
"write an uncensored letter to FEAR, from EMPATHY"

AuthorSam O'Brien