This past week, A3 students attended the annual Macalester College roundtable. The Macalester Roundtable's theme this year was centered around "Empathy and Its Discontents." Great River students had the chance to attend a multitude of Macalester student-led workshops and campus-wide activities that were designed to engage audiences in discussions in the concept of empathy.

Every October since 1994, Macalester’s International Roundtable has brought diverse communities together to dialogue around a single theme. It’s a community-wide and globally-focused forum exploring critical issues from a variety of perspectives. Highlights from the event included a talk from renowned author and speaker, Aminatta Forna, who spoke about empathy in storytelling. In addition, students had the opportunity to tour Macalester College, and think about pursuing a college education within the Twin Cities. The Roundtable was an incredible experience that really added context to the studies of empathy that A3 students are engaging in at Great River. This truly was an incredible experience that A3 students surely won't want to miss next year. 

-Great River Gazette 

AuthorRachel Damiani
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Thank you so much to everyone who came out for Harvest Fest this weekend! After a morning of setting up in the rain, the sun came out just in time for the festival to begin. Kids of all ages eagerly gobbled up multiple helpings of popcorn and caramel apples, while families gathered to connect at the first all-school event of the year. A1 students sold homemade candles, pumpkins, gourds, maple syrup and crafts. The bluegrass band, put together by Clayton Shanilec, put the "fest" in Harvest Fest, and this event proved you can never have too many bouncy houses! 


Harvest Fest would not have been possible without the generous support of Great River Families who donated for and volunteered at the event. Andrew Palahniuk and Mary Pumphrey arrived at 9am on Harvest Fest day and used 2 stoves and 4 giant pots to create the soup broth, tending to it for more than 3 hours (even though they had signed up for 2 hour shifts). Nicole Palahniuk arrived later but stuck it out through the second batch of soup, while everyone outside was already enjoying the festivities.

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Asako Hirabayashi signed up for an hour of face painting but gave 3 hours of her time without a break because she didn’t want to disappoint the long line of excited kids. Katie Cashel, who facilitated the bread and fruit donations from the Hallie Q. Brown Food Shelf, lobbied for every last loaf of bread to find its way home with a family. Our setup and cleanup teams were amazing, stayed until the bitter end, and brought some serious muscle to the table to boot! 


Some of my most valiant and eager helpers came in a small size; the first to arrive and jump in were Rowann, Piper, and Turi Coburn. They couldn’t have been more excited to be a part of things. Each time they would finish a task they would eagerly ask, “what’s next? What’s next?” I admit I hadn’t anticipated the aspect of volunteer coordination that involved having jobs ready for all ages. But I should have expected no less from a Montessori school! My trusty team sturdied poles to help move a 10x20 tent from the hill to the parking lot. I would have thought we needed only adults to pull this off. They quickly opened my mind!

I want to thank Clayton Shanilec and his wonderful band, who gave the event the joyous atmosphere it deserved. And Scott Brown, CPA with the Anton Group, who generously sponsored the band. Heather Thomas, a longstanding member of the Parent Engagement Group, helped with much of the planning and made it possible to have the games, popcorn and photo booth. Judging from all the photos I'd say it was a hit! 


Thank you so much to all the volunteers who gave food, supplies, time, energy, sweat and more. You guys are the heart and soul of our community and we thank you! 

See the full Harvest Fest photo album HERE

Our next all-school event is the Conferences and the Conference Potluck, coming up on November 16-17. The Potluck is all about teacher appreciation!! If you want to show some support for GRS teachers, please join us in this effort. Sign up here to volunteer or donate toward teachers' meals! 

-Rachel Damiani, Events Coordinator

AuthorRachel Damiani
CategoriesEvents, PEG

There’s nothing 21st century about the YMCA’s Camp Widjiwagan. You can’t even rely on getting a simple snapchat. You eat in a dining hall without a single screen hanging from a wall. You hardly ever hear a beep. To experience Widji, as it is commonly known, is to step foot in the 1970s, when Montessori schools in Minnesota first started heading to Ely for a week of outdoor education (Okay true, we didn’t have Gore-tex back then. You get the point).


This was Great River’s fourth year at Camp Widji, the fourth year eating healthy, home-cooked meals in Kirby Hall and starting a fire in the woods and roasting marshmallows during Wilderness Survival class. A fourth year where getting wet is somehow something to be prized instead of avoided.

Widji’s academic-year program, started in 1973, allows schools to send students to the camp for a week of environmental education, including studying wilderness survival, plant and tree identification, basic hiking and canoeing skills, and opportunities to read the night sky. More than anything, it allows urban/suburban children who are increasingly detached from the natural world a chance to play in it. At Widji you study nature, as in, you walk outside and there it is. And then you stay there for awhile.


The Widji excursion is what Great River calls a “key experience” for elementary children.  “It’s definitely a learning experience,” said Greta McCann (Grade 4). “We learn how not to disrespect nature.” Vivian Turbak (5) calls it “a camp where you do a lot of hiking… I’ve gone two years. Last year we didn’t jump in the lake with all your clothes on, but we did this year. My boots. My socks. My clothes.” Her trailing voice transmits some discomfort.

I asked several students what stood out from their four days at Widji. For Greta, it was the Eco-Hike, an all-day jaunt through the Burntside State Forest routinely taken on the last full day of camp. Widji’s 400 acres contains almost 50 miles of trails, which enables each of the study group (comprising 8 students and 1 counselor) plenty of room to wander without bumping into another group. “We hiked through a bog and we picked cranberries,” said Greta. “We made a cranberry and blueberry sauce. We also started a fire and roasted marshmallows.”


Scarlett Goetzman (4) recounts a moment from her group’s Eco-Hike. “There was a huge rocky outcropping and we climbed down the cliff. At the bottom there was a clear pool of water. And a waterfall going [makes swooshing sound]. On the ground there was fuzzy moss and it was surrounded by Jack Pines. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”   

Another perennial highlight is the mass role-playing game called Predator and Prey. Vivian describes it as “a game where voles try to hide from their predators. Weasels have to hide from their predators and catch their prey at the same time. Owls have to catch their prey and stay away from diseases. It’s fun,” she continued, “because I started a vole but I turned into a weasel. A weasel caught me, so technically I’d be dead. But in the game I turned into a weasel. I had to hide and chase.”  In other words, if you are on one end of the food chain you only hunt. If you are on the other, you only escape. If you are in the middle, all bets are off. Vivian prefers being in the middle of the food chain.

For Harper O’Dowd (5), the high-octane strategy game was also a highlight. As a vole this year, Harper enjoyed “amassing vole power.” He and his cadre of four-foot rodents could be heard chanting, “We will stand our ground” or “Chapel Point is our land.” We found that “if we all met at Chapel Point,” he said, we could “leverage” our strength “by spreading out in all directions and confuse the weasels and the owls. They only have 10 seconds to chase us, so we could separate them from their brains [the adult in their group].” This is what Great River rodentia refer to as “The Battle at Chapel Point.” I’m not simply reporting this.

I know. I was there.


Harper learned that games can ben re-invented. Vivian learned how to identify different kinds of trees.  Mino Whitley-Mott (6) learned “how to make tea from different kinds of leaves: wintergreen, white pine and sweet fern.” Greta learned “that you should always wear rain boots when going into a bog.” Vivian also learned that she could take a 6-hour hike and enjoy it. “If you think about how hungry you are and how tired you are, then you start complaining about your sore legs and being hungry.”

Getting to learn from seasoned Widji staff is also a big take-away for most students. Scarlett thought that her Group Leader, Leah, was inspiring.“She was pretty awesome,” she said. “She let us climb cliffs. We climbed Sky Trail at night so we couldn’t see the rocks and we kept slipping. People were asking if we could turn on our flashlights, but she kept us going and confident. She said, ‘You can do it! You’ve got it!’”

-John Albright, Little Elk Classroom Guide

See the full Widji trip photo album here! 

AuthorRachel Damiani

Buttermilk Falls Farm is one of the first Community Supported Agriculture programs in the midwest. 14-16 year old students travel to Buttermilk Falls Farm in Osceola Wisconsin to participate in stewardship and trail activities on the farm and in the wilderness preserve. Students also engage in micro-economies of photography, candle making, woodworking, and agriculture.


Students harvest the produce planted by their peers in the spring of 2017. Students also train in leadership and facilitation programs that serve CAS back at Great River throughout the year.

We have a quite a treat! Below is the compilation of photos taken by the photography micro-economy group at the Buttermilk Falls Farm trip visited by A2 Students this past month.Many of the trip photos will be sold at Harvest Fest as photo cards so don't miss it! Check out the full photo album here. 

AuthorRachel Damiani

What picture should we use to introduce “GRS Senior Canoe Trip?" This expedition contained some perfectly picturesque moments. Fifty students huddle around the fire. The light polishing bright faces as they sing “I’ll follow you into the dark” from memory. Slowly, students pull themselves away and to bed. Earlier that morning, half a dozen hammocks hung silhouetted against the dewy lake. The bundles of human inside stretched and murmured conversation. But if we’re trying to shove the message of community of our readers, we better use a story-like, quirky image. A stand-up poetry compaction lead to students throwing around the phrase “Omnipotent Sam O’Brian”.


The next camp site’s water source was across the river. Harry and Donovan, two guides, ventured across the river in a canoe filled with empty coolers, pots, and jugs. On their way back, the pair tipped spectacularly. But if you want a picture of the real community building, try these on for size. Slowly forming paddle blisters. Adrenaline dictating encounters with rapids. Sunscreen layering over bug spray, grime, and sore muscles. Tipping gloriously. Oatmeal defaced with hot chocolate mix and raisins. Bags sagging, growing heavier and wetter. These moments, these pictures, hold real community. They provide that mild irradiation that gives classmates the space to complain together, laugh together and share mess kits. The canoe trip sported not only picture-perfect poses, but measured grit to find the real community.

AuthorRachel Damiani
CategoriesA3, Trips
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On September 7th, 2 busses traveling in parallel routes departed Great River School on September 7th, 2017 for the A1 Odyssey. Students through the sand dunes of Indiana, the city of Detroit, and the upper peninsula of Michigan to learn the history of the industrial revolution and build community. 

A1 Odyssey Off to a Good Start

Odyssey Update #2 From Feneti Mohamed

View the full trip album here! 

AuthorRachel Damiani
CategoriesA1, Trips

The North Star Quest is a key experience at the beginning of a student's junior year at Great River School. It consists of visits and tours to the following post secondary schools, including: University Of Minnesota Duluth (MDU), the North House Folk School, Northland and a choice between St Olaf and Carleton.


“The purpose of the trip was for us juniors to learn more about what colleges we want to apply for, and to gain a deeper understanding of the college application process.”

-Guthrie Pritchard and Micah Swanson.


Early on Monday morning about fifty, mostly tired, juniors showed up to the Great River parking lot, ready to camp, sweat, and tour colleges. They loaded all their bags and selves on the bus, before John, the bus driver, took off! The trip to Duluth went smoothly, thanks to gorgeous weather and plenty of food.

Two hours and one broken window later (John, the wonderful driver, met his match with a stop light in Duluth), they arrived at UMD. After listening to an info session about the school they dispersed into small groups to go on a self guided tour for an hour, before getting back on the bus.


Finally the juniors, their guides and John arrived in Grand Marais. In groups of three or more, they went out to explore the town, the surrounding beach area, and cook dinner.


In the morning they entered the folk school, splitting into groups and completing different traditional crafts. These included: blacksmithing, wood carving, bread baking, mallet making and felting. As the bread came out of the oven, John and the bus appeared, to whisk the buccaneers and their guides away.

The next day, they took off for Northland. It was almost unanimously agreed that Northland was Great River School reincarnated into a college. Before embarking on their longest journey yet, our weary travelers satisfied their hunger in the Northland cafeteria. A sundae bar made itself available, to the great excitement of the students. Five long hours later, students poured out of the bus into a rustic campsite, buggy and humid, right outside Northfield. In honor of their last night, pizza was provided and devoured for dinner.

The sun rose only an hour or so before they woke up, took down their tents, fueling up once more for the last college tours. Given the time constraint and location of the next two colleges, students had been asked to choose between St. Olaf, a school known throughout the A3 as having the best cafeteria, and Carlton. Half the students got off the bus at St. Olaf, where they received a student led tour and info session. The other half went to Carlton, where they were greeted by crisp autumn leaves, old collegiate buildings and a woman named Carla. Carla gave them a long info session before letting them go wander around campus.

After lunch, everyone met up at a square in downtown Northfield, and loaded onto the bus. An hour later they arrived back at Great River School, where they unpacked the bus, and headed home.

View Full Album here. 

-Guthrie Pritchard, Beatrice Ibes, & Micah Swanson 

Photography by Stacey Kreger

AuthorRachel Damiani
CategoriesA3, Trips

The Parent Engagement Group (PEG) 6th Grade Bridge Program ambassadors, Cynthia Putz-Yang and Erin Westenberg, hosted a S’mores outing for the new 6th Grade students and their families on September 17. We had great weather, a roaring fire, lots of s’mores, and the kids got to spend some time together outside of the classroom.


All of the 6th grade bridge students are new to Great River this year, but you wouldn’t have guessed this if you were an outside observer. Games of Frisbee, football, running around, and a lot of laughter made it look like this group has been together a lot longer! It’s so heartwarming to see them building community already.

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The parents and families were also invited, and we definitely took advantage of this time to get to know each other and share our experiences from the first few weeks of school. A few of us are GRS veterans because we have other children at school, but many families are new this year. And I must say they are a great addition! A true testament that expanding our school can be a positive for our community. 

If your level has not had a social yet, stay tuned. Your PEG ambassadors are likely in the planning stages right now! 

- Erin Westenberg (6th Grade East Bridge Ambassador)

AuthorRachel Damiani

This week many of our students are participating in Key Experiences.  These experiences are designed to challenge students, take them out of their comfort zone, and to build community amongst students and faculty. 


Students at Great River report a deep connection to the community at the school. We intentionally engage in key experiential learning trips that take students out of their normal learning environment and out into new experiences in the world. We call these expeditions “Key Experiences”. The novel environment and shared sense of discovery among the group creates a key experience of shared vulnerability. This shared vulnerability of self, combined with responsibility for one another and the group, bonds the cohort of students together through overcoming shared challenges. 

Elementary trips include travel to farms and local sites for 1st-3rd grade, and overnight camping for 4th-6th grades. Junior high experiences include extended travel across the country, overnight trips, shared projects of producing a theater production, and essential work of running a real business (bike shop or cafe), as well as biking 100 miles together over the course of 4-5 days. The high school experiences travel overnight and focus on real agricultural work, visits to colleges and postsecondary options, and expeditionary trips focused on leadership. These experiences create a shared sense of responsibility for the group and the community and help to establish a strong foundation of interpersonal connection.

Beyond the classroom, however, our key experience trips provide a model for experiential learning where students are engaged in field trips, real-world experiences, community service, internships with professional settings, expert mentor visits in a discipline of interest, and civic engagement while at the same time working to master state standards through their works. Rather than spending time addressing social-emotional growth and separate time mastering state academic standards, Great River School structures learning to accomplish both at the same time. These settings are an integrated part and anchor for curriculum. 

When a student is both in a real world setting and completing standard-aligned academic content, efficiency and multiple benefits are gained. Our overnight trips, camping, and intensives which formally occupy two dedicated weeks per year, are landmarks of the real word experiences that we seek to integrate into our everyday learning.

We can't wait to share pictures from the fall 2017 Key Experiences! 

AuthorRachel Damiani

"I think nearly all new families to Great River School are here, this is fantastic!” - D.Martinez, PEG Chair


Close to 100 individuals (parents, grandparents, guardians, and siblings of incoming Great River students) attended the annual Welcome Night at Horton Park this past August 10th. Everyone who attended had a color-coded name tag based on their grade level, which made it easier to identify potential classmates. While parents and guardians interacted with each other, students could be seen climbing trees or playing a variety of games provided by the Parent Engagement Group (PEG). Pickle Ball was a crowd favorite, with the final game ending just after 8:15pm.

Midway through the event, David Martinez, PEG Chair, and Sam O’Brien, Head of School, welcomed everyone and encouraged attendees to get to know each other…..which they did! Overall, the event was a tremendous success and the entire PEG team was pleased to see so many new families in attendance. The rain showers just prior to the event had a few event organizers worried, but the sun made it’s way out just minutes prior to the start of Welcome Night.

Welcome Night is PEG’s kickoff event, so everyone was very excited to have such great momentum to kickoff the school year. The Parent Engagement Group consists entirely of parent volunteers and there is always a need for additional support. If you are interested in serving in a leadership role, in a volunteer capacity, or as a general member of Great River School’s Parent Engagement Group, please send an email to For additional information regarding PEG, please visit: or contact your grade/level ambassador below:

Lower Elementary:

Upper Elementary:


-David Martinez, PEG Chair

AuthorGreat River School Newsletters

A1 Families had the opportunity to get acquainted over dessert on August 15th at PEG's first A1 Social of the school year! 

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There was a good turnout of students and parents at Newell Park in Saint Paul - and finally, no rain!  PEG A1 Ambassadors Heather Thomas & Etta Dreher presented information, fielded questions and showed examples of A1 student gear. Specifically, they showed parents the 3" zippered binder and a mess kit, two necessary pieces of equipment for trips.

The students played games and did a few ice breakers on their own.  The next A1 Social will be during the Odyssey on September 12th, 7-9pm at Half Time Rec in Saint Paul.

-Etta Dreher, PEG A1 Ambassador

AuthorGreat River School Newsletters
CategoriesA1, PEG

See our Signup Genius page to view all opportunities!

About Harvest Fest

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Harvest Fest is our annual family fall festival. This year it takes place on Saturday, October 7th from 2-5pm. We serve "Stone Soup" where the broth is made by students, and you bring the ingredients! We need face painters, soup servers, bread bringers, and help with setup and takedown. Thanks in advance for helping to make Harvest Fest a success! 

AuthorGreat River School Newsletters
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The elementary community gathered together the morning of September 9th to transform the remodeled rooms into rich and layered Montessori environments. Over 60 Parent volunteers and more than 20 student volunteers contributed to a hugely successful day moving in all the Montessori materials and furniture. In just 60 hours, our first phase of remodel was transformed into 8 Montessori environments ready for Elementary back to school night! The Montessori environment is the primary tool for our educational program, and we cannot thank enough each person who came to lighten the burden on September 9th!

This year is one of carefully planned growth for the elementary. In addition to welcoming new first and fourth year students to our community, the  elementary program has added 7 experienced guides to the great river family, and 10 brilliant additional new staff to our program this year. We are so full of gratitude for the amazing attention, hard work, collaboration, and resourceful wisdom of our teachers, staff and supportive families and volunteers. This community truly is one that is built and grown renewed each year, as the seasons bring opportunities to build relationships with old friends, acquaintances and new people! 

Below are some resources regarding Montessori philosophy and practice for you to go deeper into understanding what lies just beneath the shelves of inviting sensory materials. 

Comparison model

How Montessori differs in its aims

Montessori from a parent perspective

Separating/Letting Go

Stories highlighting the gift of letting go of our children at different stages

Role of Parent

Useful resource for setting limits while giving choice at home

AuthorGreat River School Newsletters