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.

Head of School Thoughts on Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments

(this blog post was originally published March 2017.)

Dear Families of Great River School,

This month, we begin our mandated duty of administering the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. In Minnesota, all 3rd-11th year students are offered the exams. 

Great River School uses these results as one measure at one point in time for one individual. It's a snapshot, and fails to measure how a student will persist, grow, challenge themselves. The test does not predict how a student will succeed in the world. The test sometimes reflects what we know about a student's academic ability, and sometimes is wildly inaccurate. One thing I know from best practices in education: one-time high stakes assessment is not an indicator of the way a student will perform in a profession, on a team, or in an authentic situation of challenge where clear answers must be found through deep engagement in work and problem solving. However, the opportunity is seen as a challenge work or novelty by some students, and we make every effort to create accurate and informative measures to complement and better inform MCA results for families. 

I will post also my thoughts on the importance of conferences this month, as I recognize that the desire for accurate and concrete data about student progress is important and helpful. We are striving to find, choose, and develop those most accurate authentic measures of student growth. Our goal, as always, is to support and reinforce the positive self-image of students as capable learners who see challenges as opportunities to learn more about themselves, the world, and the most effective way to have an impact to meet their goals in life. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Martin Luther King 

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

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

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

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

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

Montessori, Maria, Education and Peace. Oxford, The Clio Montessori Series, 1992.
Donahoe, Marta "LASTING PEACE - THE WORK OF EDUCATIONPublic School Montessorian, volume 19 #2, Winter 2007
Palmer, Parker, "The Scores Will Not Tell You Everything" Accessed November 5th, 2015

Great Gatherings, and supporting the school while building community

Dearest Families, 

Our public school is a small and independent** district in the state of Minnesota. We are comprised of the students who attend each day, and the people (us!) who love those students. Our community is not solely geographic, and we rely on each other to support the society we are building each day at school with our students. That society seeks to be full of justice, fairness, and humanity in the promise that our students will bring a more just, fair, and humane world to reality. 

 One way we can support that reality for our students is getting to know each other in humane ways. Be together, know eachother. Perhaps gift the school with resources. I invite you to consider hosting a Great Gathering. These are social events - like a sledding party, or a hike, or a cookout, or sharing a talent or skill - that give us a reason to gather. These gatherings are an opportunity to be yourself, invite others to join you, and in our gathering we also raise financial support for the school. We can have a 'pay what you will' approach, and we can have a variety of experiences - some focused on fancy materials or experiences for 4-6 people, some that are capture the flag and soccer in the park for as many as show up. 

Every family in our community has a unique genius to share, and we welcome that sharing here! Hosting a Great Gathering is a free way to share, connect, and support the school. These gatherings do not have to be fancy, and we can host with friends or neighbors. Host at a public park! Share your hobby or skill with others! Click here to sign up to host! 

I'm writing this morning on behalf of a small group of parents who dedicate time to organize donations and gift-giving to Great River - the Soiree (click for ticket details)! If you're interested in helping with the Soiree, email or signup as a volunteer (click here).  

Thank you and be well,

Sam O'Brien

**A note on our independence: Our school is separate from Saint Paul Public Schools, and is *not* a part of an imending labor strike at SPPS. Great River School is governed by a locally elected school board that is a majority teachers, and we seek fair and supportive labor compensation for all of our employees. Fundraising (like Great Gatherings and the Soiree) is one necessary part of that independence, and our persistent work to support our independent public school. 

Updates and Conflict Resolving as adults...

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

Snow day Jan 2018

Snow day Jan 2018

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

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

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




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

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

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

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


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

The 2018-19 application for enrollment is linked here!

Also visit to find the application and details regarding enrollment.

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

Reflection on Conflict and Montessori Public Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How often do I seek out differences?

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

Building on Strong Foundations

Building on strong foundations

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

January 5th, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing and Learning: Hard to do both at the same time.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Does that sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change requires learning.

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


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

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

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

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



Community Soup: Individual desires and the consequences of living in community

Great River School families,

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

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

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

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

Why do we do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty, commercialized art, our brain & experience

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?

Habits of the Heart that create real Democracy

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.