How can we be sure?

Dissecting the flower to make sure it blooms. Or, unwrapping just a few early green sprouts on the maple tree to make sure the leaf is really coming from that verdant little nubbin. Or opening the tomato seed under a magnifying lens to check in on the tomatoes. None of these are good ideas, if we are respecting the process. 

Ok you say, but what about a recipe? How about checking the oven while the cake is baking? Just a few times, perhaps - just to get some assurance we are on track. Annually? Just each spring? Maybe just at the important points when we want to make sure the cake is in line with all the other cakes we read about in that beautiful cookbook of successful cakes? Especially if we want to be conscientious caretakers of the cake we are entrusted with... it would be so nice to get just a measure... to know. 


It is hard to appreciate the cake and check on it. Specifically, appreciating would be allowing the process of maturity to take place. Any interfering in the process starts to look much more like tinkering or monitoring.


Looking on with gratitude and wonder - or at least observation and understanding-  is much more verily the act of appreciating.


Child development is something to trust, not to assess. And yet, here we find ourselves living in a time and place where monitoring, assessing, appreciating, caring and responsible parenting have all been blended up into a recipe I’ve mostly anxiety – if not disillusionment – for parents.  Where does that leave us as adults in supporting children into their maturity?

 Montessori education is grounded in the understanding that human development is an inevitable consequence of being alive. Simply by existing as a child - or appreciating a child - and making our way through time do we earn the right to expect that stages of development will follow. Unfolding and unveiling will reveal a process over time where every gift that an individual has to offer will  bloom into plain view for all to appreciate. And this comes into full, head-on, oppositional tension with the world of academics and MCA tests that we operate within in the public school system.

Now, it’s difficult - in the  moments of utter adult frustration and impatience - when we find ourselves demanding some answers, landmarks and assurances on the path to being “OK“.   Specifically, this often happens for me at bedtime. Or when we have to get out of the house to be somewhere on time. Or when I’m concerned that perhaps my child will not be prepared when it’s time for them to meet a real world test of readiness.  And I note that each of these situations has to do with the realm of time and the test of my own belief in the process of whether or not I can trust that all will be well for my child in due time.

I’ve written several times about MCA tests, and talked throughout my career with parents regarding whether or not standard assessments are appropriate for elementary or junior-high aged students. I see in the coming year that Great River School can serve our community more thoroughly by hosting some parent education evenings to discuss (and present some learning on) what is it that we can do at home as families and parents to create an environment in which the assessing and testing orientation of our culture does not interrupt the developmental process of our kids. We know that a home in which children think of themselves as learners, as problem-solving‘s, and as capable people are homes that are doing everything necessary to prepare their students to be successful adults. Benchmarks on knowledge and skills are not useful indicators at age 7 or 9 or even 12  for what the child will be capable of as an adult at age 25 or 35 or 40.

Whether or not that child has a mindset and understanding of them self as a learner and capable problem solver is a much more reliable indicator.

So, Families and parents, be well in these winter days of March - And do let me know if you have specific questions that we as a school compared to answer with resources and experience that we have the privilege of sharing with your children at Great River. Will be sending out a simple request for questions in the coming week, and I look forward to seeing where we can join in conversation as a community together.

Friendships aren't for trading or comparing - healthy behaviors are habits we carry for life

Hello dear community of families ~

In the midst of these cold days, we are warm with the work of wrapping up the midpoint of our school year. Our first semester comes to a close this week, slightly delayed by the historic 4-day weather closure of local schools. We keep all our families in mind when we make a decision to cancel school, and we have you in our thoughts wishing for safety and security on days as cold as we witnessed.

We are entering a time of year too when we often revisit our social contracts in classrooms and in our community meetings. These agreements are the norms we expect from ourselves and each other. Often these agreements determine how we expect to be treated, and how we commit to treat each other. The foundations of our academic success derive from creating a set of agreements that allow every student at school to know they are necessary in the community, and that they have a duty to uphold the dignity of others.

We know that there are strong correlations between these social contracts and our student outcomes. Students at Great River report higher than average measures of security, support and belonging at Great River as compared to the typical school. (We compare ourselves to other schools using research-based standard measures such as the Olweus survey.) Students answer questions such as “How many adults do you trust?” “How many classmates can you go to with a problem and know that they will help?” “Do you know peers who will intervene if they see bullying?”

We talk often at Great River across the age groups about being an upstander. (The opposite approach of “bystander”.) This “upstander” term is widely used in violence and bully-prevention work internationally. Being an upstander means speaking and acting to stop situations where the social contract is being violated. Respecting self, work, community, and the environment means acting with purpose when someone or some thing is being degraded or treated poorly.

When we look at our school and the data, it’s clear to us that being above average in the categories of belonging, trust, and responsibility are good, but they are just a start. It is our understanding that mean-spirited language will be heard at our school, and it is how we prepare ourselves to act that counts. We prepare to react, to de-escalate, and to speak up. We prepare to speak with respect when we hear disregard. We prepare to speak with love and assertiveness to demand respect.

This is work that is hard, and is not about holding hands with everyone or simply being “friends” with everyone. This is work that must be echoed in the home to resonate - and it requires a simple but diligent attention to how we as adults role model healthy behaviors for our children. Below are links to several documents that we use with our students and families to explain how we begin a practice of healthy behaviors that are signatures of disrupting disrespect.

Expected Healthy Behaviors poster primarily used in elementary programs.

(and a similar poster for 7th&8th year students and families)

These behaviors are indicators of an internal emotional life that tolerates others, that celebrates differences, and that demands that we are not treating our relationships like something to be traded, hoarded, or pressured. It’s important for adults to keep an eye on phrases like “best friend” or any identifying of someone who is “worst” or being excluded. There are ways that we (as adults) can reinforce a vibrant emotional life for our students by encouraging the behaviors of inclusion, of patience, and of good boundaries with our children. These healthy behaviors will pay dividends for them in the long run of life.

Next month: a few stories on how these behaviors are a practice in self-interest, and how these healthy behaviors result in biological longevity, hormone balance, more dynamic adult temperament, and flexibility that will serve our children in their profession and personal lives as adults.

Be well all!

Great River School - now and into the future!

All families of Great River and to all that care for the young inside these school walls - welcome to 2019!

The gymnasium is finished, and the floor is beautiful. The students enjoying the space, the activity, and the thought of open gym and playing at full heart-rate inside are even more beautiful. We will see the first seasons of Lower Adolescent plays and Adolescent musicals perform in our black box theater upstairs. The first games of basketball, volleyball, and classes in Kali will be experienced in the gym, and the first tasty hot meal is coming out of our kitchen in mid-February. What a sight to behold! And some changes - to names, to approaches, and some reinvestments in our values as a public Montessori learning community.

First, the former early spring “soiree” has changed its name to the “Blue Heron Bash”! Mark your calendars for March 23rd, where the gymnasium will be turned into a festive and fun community building atmosphere that raises funds to support the programs and school that so well serves our children. Parents organizing the event through the Great River Foundation take the lead on the Blue Heron Bash, and are key to the success of our school. Whether you’re a family that has funds to contribute, time to contribute, or struggles with financial resources, please know that all are welcome at the event on March 23rd. Look for opportunities to volunteer and request access tickets in the announcements and emails coming later this month from the Great River Foundation.

I want to thank all the parents who have such dedication, find the time, and volunteer to make these events happen so that teachers and folks like me can focus on supporting kids. This year, Heather Thomas and Kelly Martinson are heading up the Blue Heron Bash. One essential part of the FUNdraising effort is Great Gatherings. Michelle Walseth and Sarah Goldammer are facilitating the signup for Great Gatherings ahead of the Blue Heron Bash - and they (we!) need your support to make the event a success! See signups here:

Sign up to Host a Great Gathering

Here is a list of last years GG if you think it would help others get ideas.

Previous Great Gatherings from 2018

Second, Our kitchen is finally complete, certified, and ready to make the best food our innovative school possibly can. I made a commitment to make sure our food program would reflect our curriculum, our values, and be affordable for families - and we are following through on that commitment. In December we hired new talented staff on our Nutrition team. Leah Korger (they/them) is joining us as our new School Chef, coming from a long list of organizations centered around sustainability and supporting local agriculture. Jenny Breen (she/her), author and co-owner of Good Life Catering, has come aboard as our School Nutritionist. We are delighted to welcome them both to GRS and look forward to the delicious food our kitchen will prepare.

Third, our afternoon elementary physical expressions class (also known as PE… and sometimes confused with “gym” class) is engaged this month with the privilege of studying and experiencing a southeast asian martial art called Kali. The tapping of rattan sticks has been heard across the building today, and is a wonderful example of a skill that trains the mind, the body, and emphasizes interdependence of the pair and group working together.

Next HoS blog post will be on healthy relationships. A deeply influential Montessori quote in my career is: "Peace is the true work of education, all politics can do is keep us out of war...." Never has this been more truly demonstrated - and as adults I’ll reflect on some ways we might look, this winter, to role model what it looks like to emphasize and understand our responsibility to bring healthy behaviors to our own relations with the world.

How much? Can’t buy enough

I’m so thankful to write this message to the community. We are in the closing days of 2018. Our time together this autumn has rooted the new building spaces in care and love - it is a wonder to behold. As adults, we should not take for granted the highly unlikely prospect of so many students ages 6 through 18 find meaningful agreements and respect across that 12 year span. The wonder of our school sprouts from the manner in which students regard each other generally with respect, with care, and with understanding across the community.  These meaningful relationships - spreading out as families, and as school faculty - tie us together as roots that feed the life of the building we inhabit. In many ways, I look at this fall 2018 as a time that is much less about moving into a building, and much more as a time of settling into and discovering so many newly formed and forming relationships.

In January, February, and March I’ll be sharing several posts of data and student outcomes actress ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Our school does better than most in the state and nation at supporting academic growth among all types of students. High performing or not, struggling before the year or not, coming from affluence or not; Great River provides a space where we see that students make academic growth at a higher rate than the state average. I believe this is the result of an emotional world where we are less concerned with counting points and more concerned with commending humanity. 

And so we are in a season of winter. Shorter and shorter days of sunlight, and longer stretches of the moon in the frosty sky, until the tilt returns sunward for us northern dwellers. Also a time of tension between celebrating humanity, spirit, gratitude for our loved ones, and the material mania of gifts. With ripe invitations and consumer encouragement abounding, I was shocked to learn of so many more ‘special’ days to purchase something for someone I love. Especially on ‘Green Monday’ or ‘Local tuesday’ or ‘if you care at all Thursday’.

And, frankly, my virtuous desire to abstain from materialism broke down last night, as it often does this season. Honestly, the virtue of abstinence in this scenario is completely self-serving, as my kids are as gaga for shiny new things as anyone around. I found myself contemplating which snowglobe would elicit exuberance from my kids while I stared at a Target shopping display, when I realized the advertising copy of the tinsel sign was above, asking me “How much can you show your love this holiday season?”

And I thought of the words “How much” in purely actuarial terms of estimating quantity. And what befell me was such a depth of grief for the difference between the boundless quality of my love for my kids, and me participating in a “How much” game of actuarial science represented by a snow globe choice. This led me to consider the differences between quantity and quality, and membership vs. collection. For we have membership in a family, and in a community, and in friendships.  We have collections of objects, resume points, and things. I would venture to say that this very tension of material vs spiritual in December is along the same train track of difference that lies between accounting for academic points, and commending learning as a lifelong practice of relationship.  

Remember & Recollect

I was out too late one night this past October. It was early in the month, and I was visiting a conference, and had made new friends. I was just walking the line between late enough to not be worth sleeping before my red-eye flight, and an elder told me “This is what you’ll remember from this time with these people - not the days, not the notes, not the words, but this feeling of being a member of this time. This is to remember. This is what will be with you when you are on a deathbed or in a time of deep care - this time we are spending with each other. It is different from recollecting. Remembering is the feeling of knowing the people who are members of your personal network. You don’t recollect memories of people. You remember people. Stay up, and make this a time you will remember each of these faces before you leave.” 

Well, a typical end-of-professional development it was not. “Re-member” is what we are miraculously able to do with each other. Re-member is to go through your experience and re-connect the relations of your life through stories. If we were to get picky, we would note that recollect is something we do with facts, figures, and things. We don’t “collect” people, we create respect for people as members of our life and the place we live. They have membership in our lives.

You could look at the language of gift giving and recognize that we have deeply entwined our connection between things and people. Collecting items for ourselves and holding regard for a member in a community are different in the heart, and different on the tongue. I’ll invite you to consider how that “recollect” and “remember” difference plays out in your own life. And gifts are wondrous ways of showing that love and care… it’s just likely that the most loving gifts can’t be purchased. They likely display some part of the heart that isn’t often seen.

May it be so that we are able to show how in manner we love our families and students and teachers this winter, and be a little less concerned with how “much” we show that quality of love. 

 Be well all!  

Parenting in a crazed age… undoing the spells that work on our minds as parents

Great River Families,

Student conferences are upon us at the end of the month - a time when we plan for students in years 5 through 12 to present their work to their families. Guides and adults support students in that presentation. In years 1 through 4, parents and classroom Guides meet without students present to discuss work and role in the community. Want a summary? See a reference document on student conferences for families here.

I received an email last week from a parent who was taking the 3B bus downtown for a meeting. Specifically, the parent rode along with a large number of Great River students heading from the west toward school. After the students got off the bus, and had departed - leaving a much emptied vehicle behind them - I can only imagine the bus was quieter, less crowded, and carrying only the few commuters who ride down Front avenue toward the capitol. The parent writes

“[I was] meeting downtown this morning and took the 3 with a large group of GRS students. After they got off at school, I heard the driver and a passenger talking about the students. The driver said the students are so nice and respectful and that this is the best school run he’s ever had. I had heard at least ten of the students say thank you as they got off the bus.”

I am extremely proud of our students, and most often it is this kind of feedback that offers the biggest demonstrations of our work as a school. Our students have formed skills they take into the world as civil and thoughtful people. We are fortunate to share this school and this time with each other. These are the life skills that are part of what I know our students bring into the world as gifts. This is an example of what I know will grant our children the resilience,

And, as you hear me - from my Head of School role - conveying the glorious impact of our social and emotional learning at Great River... I want you to know that I am a parent, I do live in the world, and I am deeply concerned about the state of things between adults in our modern-North-American-globalized-economy-culture. I believe the ‘state of things’ casts a spell upon my thinking. This spell shows itself in some ways subtle, and in many ways a deafening blare. In a world where less and less appears assured each day, the invitation to come to terms with the mysteries of parenting and loving children with abundance is upon my doorstep. The insidious temptation for me is to want my child to somehow demonstrate through their success and stability that things are working out in a way that may allay my concerns about the ‘state of things’.

“Assure the very best for my child” could be one chant of the spell. “Fulfill their potential to the absolute fullest” could be another. “The world is an unassured place, and my job as a parent is to give my child every possible resource to succeed” is another.  These phrases are so user-friendly, so tenuously perched upon the concept of winning, and so absolutely crazen What I mean by spell is that my ability to perceive is so shaped by repeated drone of “this is what’s necessary and important” that I am caught unaware that the spell shapes how empathetic I can be with my own child if they are struggling, challenged, or overwhelmed. And, my desire to love my children by wanting assuredness often causes in them anxiety that rightly belongs to me, as the adult and parent who is the sole proprietor of the fence that may yet hold out adult concerns for the state of the world and allow a childhood that produces ripe ground for wonder, a love of learning, and a zeal for living that can buoy a heart through trouble.

The ‘way things are’ is a topic that arises as the ostensible proof & foundation for many answers that I hear parents (myself included) offer children about work, money, economy, and why things are so busy, or expensive, or inequitable. I’d like to challenge that spell, and I often find the first step is noticing when I’ve jumped onboard with a full-paid ticket of my assenting to the enchantment that “it’s this way, always has been, and always will be”.... And that’s the reason houses are so big in some neighborhoods and so small in others - or that’s the reason that we work for pay - or that explains immigration globally- or that’s the reason why you have to do things that are inconvenient or harsh…

And so, I found myself asking a seemingly innocent question at conferences two years ago, about my own children, “Do you have any concerns we should know about or work on at home?” It was fully a year afterward that I noticed that the root of that question about my 8 year old was founded in my own personal need to know that I was doing ok as a parent - which is a lot of pressure for me to bring into the conference belonging to my daughter, and asking a lot of the teacher who received my question.

I’m reflecting more on how that spell enchantingly casts itself upon my parenting mind. “Ensure I’m loving my children into their fullest potential so that they can go into the world prepared and protected.” It’s a sometimes spooky spell, that awaits in my fears and cravings for assuredness. Here’s a little snippet from the internal dialogue I catch in my own mental meandering:

I want to know that my kid will not only be “ok” in the future, but also that they will have what they need to thrive. This concern that I have as a parent is reinforced on the daily cycle of the news or frankly in comparing the challenges and pitfalls of our society with how I’d like to assure safety, security, and a verdant future for our children.

And here’s where the wheels hit the pavement on the road to parent-teacher conferences: I’d really like some assurance from their classroom teachers that my kid is demonstrably living out indication that they are not only “ok” now, but thriving!

And frankly, if the teacher or someone could have some glossy photos of that happening, and perhaps some exemplars of the potential already achieved by my child, and perhaps just a short video (it’s ok if the sound quality is low) assuring me that my hopes and need for proof of “ok-ness” is really just a craving on the path to a full feast of assenting rewards that I can expect to reap as a successful parent of a successful grown child…

can I see a score and an indicator that it’s all going to be ok?

And also… this is foolish. I can dull the overt and craven nature of this foolhardy approach by joking about my own parental anxiety, and then fully igniting it in a blaze of questions for you, the teaching adult who spends more waking hours than I do with my kid 5 days a week?

I know, perhaps a bit overstated once it’s written or read aloud. And, perhaps a bit over the top to share on this forum. And then, however, this is exactly the dialogue that leads me to make a joking approach to the very request for self-assuredness from the teacher at my own child’s conference just two years ago.

I say, ostensibly lightening the mood,

“Ok ok ok… all this report on the role of community is wonderful - but is my kid going to be ready to apply Ivy League in 10 years?”

{Laughter at seemingly excessive question of parental control and influence follows…}

And then it comes out of my mouth - “Do you have any concerns we should know about or work on at home?”

My child’s guide, ever graceful, answers “Oh, I think we’ve spoken about everything - your child is centered, and really working on knowing what is their job to fix and what is other’s, and that’s a good work for life.”

And in deepening the conversation back into a human-centered life skill, my child’s guide deftly and expertly reminded me that my joke about Ivy League, and likely my concern, is an ego-centered, not human-centered achievement. And that regardless of the place my kids continues their education, the skills of relationships and boundaries are essential to their humanity in the rest of their life on this blue sphere. It’ll take me a year to realize that my question about ‘concerns’ also betrays that apparently I didn’t know the etiquette for trust also includes that my child’s teacher will absolutely tell me if there are ways I can work with my kid at home to reinforce what’s happening at school. And, if I can develop the capacity to listen, I likely would hear that.

It’s a courageous thing to be parenting in the state of affairs that is our contemporary culture. And I’ve been challenged to consider that my professional experience and my life tells me much more about how children grow through adolescence to be successful as adults than my parenting lens offers. My experience demonstrates that people aged 17 to 25 are much more sane, self-assured, and capable of enjoying their life when they have an internal measure of wonder and appreciation for the world around them. Rather than working for a better tomorrow, these self-assured young people are working for a better day today - in their relationships, in their want to understand justice and fairness, and in their desire to contemplate a way they can contribute to meaning, rather than just their own sufficiency or personal stability at the expense of others.

There’s a deeply unsettling implication in this story for me to realize: I do best as a parent when i am concerned about supporting my child’s health today, rather than seeking indicators of their thriving in the future. And I do believe the sheer volume of pressure on me, as a parent, to cultivate an assured future for my child - at the expense of hearing what’s going on with them today - is a common pressure shared by many of us parenting. That pressure is at the very heart of why it’s a challenge to role model community values in a time that is increasingly pressuring self-everything. It’s a challenge that I’m thankful to have graceful educators to support me in thinking through, and tolerating when I have fallen prey to a spell that is much more about me than the child I’m asking after.

Thoughts on Standardized Test Results

Dear Families of Great River School,

We are sending out MCA results from last spring. Check your mailboxes in the coming weeks for your student’s scores!

My thoughts below from a previous post on tests and testing - for your perusal!

A group of school superintendents and principals recently joined together to author the following letter, which they sent home with their district test results:

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

I join these school leaders in telling you the scores will not tell you everything, and I'll echo the thoughts of of Parker Palmer - who points to the whole development of childhood as a human experience. It's hard enough to learn to be human through childhood - Mr. Palmer points us to the Billy Collins poem On Turning Ten  to remind us of the way innocence is already naturally lost as children develop an awareness of their full humanity. Collins ends his poem identifying the first moments of lost innocence:

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In her essay on the true mission of the Montessori High School experience, Ms Donahoe cites the acceptance speech of a Nobel prize winner,

"Sooner or later all the peoples of the world will have to find a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict, a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love." 

~ Martin Luther King 

Address delivered in acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo Norway, December 10, 1964

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

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

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

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

Montessori, Maria, Education and Peace. Oxford, The Clio Montessori Series, 1992.
Donahoe, Marta "LASTING PEACE - THE WORK OF EDUCATIONPublic School Montessorian, volume 19 #2, Winter 2007

Palmer, Parker, "The Scores Will Not Tell You Everything" Accessed November 5th, 2015

Haerfest & Carnivale: Festival & Gathering, Carnival & Folly

Or: Why *you* are so important: festivals vs. carnivals, and how school should count gathering as our most important function

“There is no secret,

but this is certain,

only by sharing

may we make a feast.”

Dearest Great River Community,


It’s been so long since a regular Head of School blog post! Indeed, moving and construction imbued the summer with the work of moving, packing, and improvised offices. Unpacking the boxes is still happening in the future Head of School office, and dust being brushed off the seat where a head of school (*me*) can muse, reflect, and think toward a blog post! In the spirit of ironic academic commentary, I’ve bolded some words below, and put a vocabulary list* for asterisked words at the bottom of this post!

Our Harvest Festival is Saturday afternoon (October 13th, 2-5pm). Here’s the deal with festivals: they require you are there in order to cause a gathering.

I’ve written before about the importance of this gathering in the story of our year (link for soup article from 2017).  This is not a customer service experience. The school invites us to our feast, and we aren’t selling a meal. We are awaiting, together, for our shared contributions to make a feast of which we are all in glorious and unassured anticipation! That is the recipe for creating relations that are memorable. Visiting the harvest fest is the practice of building the syntax and vocabulary for our friendships. It may seem self-evident, but the gathering together requires *you*. 


I’ll say it here: we don’t guarantee there will be too much soup, or enough. Some years we have so much we can’t find enough families to eat it or bring it home! We don’t know if the bread will be too much, or enough. There isn’t a guarantee, because this isn’t a product being marketed. This is a time when we gather in trembling possibility of what may be as a consequence of our gathering. We tell each other stories of the seasons past, and how we are faring in the autumn. (Word alert: haerfest*) 

The goal is a feast of stories with each other. We share our stories and thereby build the founding spirit of sharing a common unity around our school. Stories of our time, and how we share experience, create the bonds by which we have relation. Our desire for competence can create some anxiety about the soup situation (and the weather, and the whole darn logistical plan!) I agree, 30 gallons of communal soup can appear to be a questionable undertaking.

Our role as older students or as parents to younger students is to model what a community gathering is: time to meet and share a location and experience so that strangers are no longer strangers. If things go well, we all cheer in shared benefit. If circumstances turn challenging and not to our comfort, we bind together in shared sorrow. Same place, same time, and this requires *your* specific characteristics. This isn’t solely a fair or marketplace. The main event is you - and you are of consequence to those others of us at school. No one else is you - and no one else can do the work of meeting, regaling stories, and contribute verbally and vegetable-y. (Ha! I know vegetal is the authorized word here. :-)

The language of Harvest festival might seem synonymous with “fall party!” or “back to school carnival!” - and in general I hadn’t considered any importance of the difference until a couple years ago when someone suggested “Let’s cancel the soup”and I had a knee-jerk reaction of “Soup is why we have the event!”. (Though, ask any kid aged 6 to 18, and they’ll all vote heavy for the bouncy houses as the reason we have the event - which is just as well and their appropriate contribution.) My conversations with families at school so often indicate that we are used to “festival” and “fair” or “carnival” meaning the same thing. These words have started to converge in the modern age when gathering, buying, and folly have often been interchangeable. Without the earnest questions of folks new to the tradition, I wouldn’t have done the thinking or research to come out the other side of contemplation defending this small but important endeavor. We are planting a seed of possibility for our community each year. If it may, we look to see it rooting to life in the winter of our school year and flowering in a stronger community come spring.

Festival* literally means feast - an event worthy of doing the hard work of traveling and making time to assure we  gather together. However, carnival* is a reference to the preparation of meat for meals before catholic lent. (The english language is deeply interwoven with latin roots from conquest and roman conquest. ‘Carnival = carne’(meat) + ‘levale’(to raise up). And, true - the fun and happenstance novelty of the caramel and the bouncy house and the silliness sets a tone that relieves us of the troubled times of our days. Also, and fundamentally, the manner of our gathering for harvest is in sharing what we have been able to gather, to take part in a primal need of a village: to be together, in proximity, with shared dependence on what our gathering has wrought. 

School, as a place of learning, works only if we are comfortable being vulnerable. “I don’t know” is the starting point to knowing. “I know already” is the starting point to never changing, maturing, or stumbling into wisdom. (which, in my experience, is the way wisdom is obtained.) Gathering creates relationships, and relationships are remembered. Relationships literally fertilize the soil of feeling at home among the people of school, which facilitates the ease of understanding the academic content in our time together at school. Without relationship, the mind cannot recall well, and spends time seeking an anchor.  

So, if a party draws you - yes, it will be a partaking in fun. However, it is in true collaborative need that I invite you to make time to be at the festival in the true spirit of ‘feast’. A gathering worthy of a feast among shared relations. Our shared lot here this year is only shared if we show up to take a part and lift together. Gathering in relations so that we can see each other, be in the same place, and tell the stories of our spring and summer days before the winter arrives.  

Be well all, and I look forward to the tales we might share among our gathering Saturday!

 In the spirit of academia and trivia-party winning for all - I’ve linked for all word-nerds to an etymological dictionary below! 

Haerfest (Harvest)







Summer arrives!

Have a wonderful summer families - we will be busy at work preparing for your return. 

Our stories and the pace of the school changes in the summer, as we inhabit a space that is between the end of one year and a new beginning. Next year, however, will truly be a seismic shift in a new beginning as our building will be new to everyone who enters. Construction workers inhabit our building now with a hive of activity and industrious progress.   If you drive by the summer you will see lots of changes – just make sure not to set Foot on campus – it is a construction zone! If you need to reach the front office during the summer, please email 


Our final building will double the square footage available for our students, including elementary classrooms with full working kitchenettes, a gymnasium, a commercial kitchen, a performance space, and junior high and high school classrooms that allow guides and students a fully prepared environment. 

Great River Ranked #5 High School in the State! Top 1% Statewide & Top 0.1% Nationally!

This past month, Great River School was named the #5 High School in the state of Minnesota. This accomplishment of our students indicates successes in the academic study and high standards of our High School program. Our students are being recognized for their high engagement with college-level curriculum through our IB program. Students are also being recognized for their growth-mindset approach to persisting in challenging coursework, supporting each other, and demonstrating preparedness for life after High School. 

This ranking places Great Below, we are re-posting my essay from May 2015, when we were named the #1 High School in Minnesota. These ratings at the very top of MN High School programs speak volumes about the way our students are preparing for their unique roles as responsible and engaged citizens of the world. 

May all be well and may summer shine upon your child and family! 

~Sam O'Brien, Head of School

First published Friday, May 15, 2015 - Aiming for more than our #1 rating on from US News and World Report

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!

The worth of a childhood

Dearest community of families, 

May spring have found a way into your life and hearts in some way, even in the midst of snowfall and April weather that feels a bit like February...

Our students are shining, though, in the midst of the snow and construction and winter/spring doldrums that tend to strike at this time of year. Our annual IRACE day on March 28th was a deeply moving day of story, envisioned by student leaders in the high school, and hosting multiple rooms of expert presenters on topics of identity, intersectionality, restorative justice, racial equity, religious inclusion, and personal narrative. There were multiple sessions each hour presented by performers and activists and professors who would be keynote speakers at any conference on a college campus. I am continually inspired by this work facilitated by our amazing faculty and carried each year to a different incarnation by students.

Also - as you'll see in the other parts of this month's newsletter - our students have performed, entrepreneur-ed, and built many things this past winter - including plays and a farm store and strong relationships. The learning occurring at our school is most important when it results in students having a deeper sense of themselves in relationship to someone they care about. A characteristic of successful student leadership: when students see themselves and each other as more human after working together. That has happened again many times through IRACE, robotics, theater, athletics, and academics at school this year. 

The latent spring has offered some time for me to spend on consideration. I am thinking deeply in the wells of why we do this work - this work of caring, of parenting, of school. What comes up for me is the importance of demonstrating loving care for our children that is not a consequence of their work, of their accomplishment, of their accolades, or of their progress. As parents and adults who support children, it can be increasingly difficult to ignore the cultural message that our job is to *curate* a childhood - to create the 'perfect' conditions for achieving potential. This idea that curation is the role of an adult - and that childhood wouldn't naturally sprout in the midst of a human growing in a loving environment - is something for a Montessori school and our families to consider. I'm asking myself the question: how can I protect a childhood, in the midst of a culture that is further seeking to monetize, organize, and rate each experience our children engage? 

What wise people know

What wise people know

The multitude of dominant voices that fill our parenting head with anxiety for the future are often focused on the need to keep our kids safe, to plan ahead, and to set them up to evade danger in the future. This implied message is that success is the result of threading a needle with daring precision, and that a gratifying adulthood is the result of consistent indicators of achievement. 

Really, the truth of my most resilient friendships, relationships, and endeavors is that a gratifying adulthood is a result of vulnerability, honesty, and knowing how to discern what is important from what is noise. (And that discernment often relies on admitting what I don't know, what I'm not sure of, and what I need help with from others.) I offer a diagram of wisdom shared by my colleagues at Great River School at left - I often refer to this as 'what wise people know'. 

We at school are under vast pressures to be many things - an institution, a service organization, and a community center. In the midst of a culture that sends missives every day to us regarding the pressure to increase indicators that everything will be alright. There's a deep current of economic pressure often present in school - the implied message that if you do well in school, then that indicates doing well in college, and that implies an indication that you'll do well in __<fill in the blank>___. 

As we know in the depths of our most humane moments as parents, there is not a linear progress from success to success until we are rid of challenge. There is often challenge. And any indicator of challenge is best met with support, not the need for correction. 

 So I share a lecture, a poem, and a sung version of that poem below that go further into thinking I'm doing regarding being an adult that demonstrates love for childhood. This includes loving childhood that is showing challenge, that is befallen by heartbreak, and that is discovering the places we are struggling. Julie Lythcott-Haims speaks below about her own learning about parenting - not as a bonsai tree curation, but as the loving of wildflowers. And I've also shared a vocal version of the poem "On Children" by Khalil Gibran. This poem is sung by hundreds of choirs - from Sweet Honey in the Rock to innumerable youtube available searches. In honor of finding places where male voices can demonstrate softness, I've shared from a group below. 

I appreciate what Ms Lythcott-Haims says below. "Professional success in life comes from having done chores as a kid... and a mindset that says "I will contribute my effort to the betterment of the whole". This is what gets you ahead in the workplace... A second finding: adult happiness in life comes from loving relationships - partners, spouses, friends, and family." This is in line with what I believe to be the ultimate goals of our Montessori learning environment - a place where we will learn how to better contribute to the betterment of the whole, and learn how to demonstrate loving relationships. 


On Children
 Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, 
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, 
so He loves also the bow that is stable.