Maria Montessori believed that “establishing lasting peace is the work of education...”
While many of us are focused on the end of a school year, on how the pandemic will affect our family and our jobs, and on working to support the emotional needs of our children, as we should be, I felt it appropriate to also take a moment to remind ourselves of what Maria Montessori writes about peace education. For our attention should also be focused on what is happening all around the country and world this week in response to the events in Minnesota.
Greensboro Montessori School welcomes and embraces diversity by providing a safe and supportive environment that is open and inclusive. Our community is enhanced by people from many different cultures, races, nationalities, faiths, learning and physical abilities, political backgrounds, sexual orientations and identities, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and family constellations.
We work together to empower all of our families to share and grow in their confidence and ability to raise responsible young citizens. And, the recent tragic events in Minnesota with the death of George Floyd must serve as a reminder that we still have much work to do. Being non-racist is not the same thing as being anti-racist. As peace educators, we have a responsibility to make sure we are doing our part to foster empathy and kindness in all of our students.
Our school has always proudly had the following policies for admissions and hiring, respectively,
- Greensboro Montessori School admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.
- Greensboro Montessori School does not unlawfully discriminate on the basis of race, gender, disability, age, national origin, marital status, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status with respect to recruitment, hiring, compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment.
We are proud that we do not discriminate. We are proud that we actively teach our students to be just and inclusive. These are at the heart of the foundations of Maria Montessori’s peace education. And sometimes this is not enough. Sometimes we must move beyond awareness of discrimination, acts of aggression, and bigotry wherever they are and at whomever they are aimed. We must also engage. How we each choose to engage these challenging times and challenging events will vary from home to home, and we all stand together with our shared value and commitment to peace education.
We hope that everyone can engage injustice when we see it, actively see our privilege where it lies, and promote equity and peace with not only our mind, but also our resources and actions. And especially to all our African American students, staff, and community members: you matter. Black Lives Matter. We see you, and we support you.
The president of the board of our accrediting body, the American Montessori Society, recently shared part of this reflection to our 16,000 members:
AMS recognizes that institutional change is required to make an impact in the larger Montessori community. Ensuring environments where everyone feels welcomed, valued, and respected is our most important charge as a membership organization. Serving as the largest Montessori membership organization does not exclude us from the institutional racism that is pervasive in associations, schools, and training programs throughout the United States. We hope that you continue to engage with us as our organization strives to be anti-racist. – Amira Mogaji, President, AMS Board of Directors
We hope that everyone can join us as we work to intentionally move from awareness to engagement.
In peace, and on behalf of the Greensboro Montessori School Team,
Dr. Kevin Navarro
Head of School
Our adolescent program in Upper Elementary (fourth, fifth, and sixth grades) and Junior High (seventh, eighth, and ninth grades) authentically engages each aspect of our students’ development: physical, cognitive, and psychosocial. We provide students with real-life, hands-on, and meaningful opportunities to learn important skills and lessons. And all their work and lessons are seeped in a commitment to excellence.
As Montessorians, we have clear academic and social objectives for each of our students, and we also believe in following the child as they achieve their objectives. Sometimes following the child means adapting our schedule or plans … and sometimes this means going out in the middle of a snow storm.
This winter, a predicted snow storm prompted Greensboro Montessori School (and all area schools) to dismiss at 12 p.m., ahead of an inclement weather event. Our Junior High students were supposed to have spent the day at The Land, our 37-acre satellite campus in Oak Ridge, N.C. where we use the natural world and our 4,000-square-foot retreat center as a base for community building, personal development, and project-based lessons.
Among other projects, the students are currently working on designing and building an outdoor kitchen and community space at The Land. This sort of project-based learning involves many steps, including complex executive functioning and integrated academic skills. Projects are put together in a real and meaningful way that engages the students’ passion and commitment. Our middle school-aged students actually love to learn, which if you have friends in other middle school programs, you know this is not the norm. A few examples of the learning that have been and may be involved in this particular outdoor kitchen project include:
- Running design charrettes to discuss and prioritize the myriad objectives for the space.
- Learning how to survey and measure the physical land, including distances, areas, and slopes.
- Learning and putting into practice permaculture gardening and design principles.
- Conducting online and primary research about various components that could be part of an outdoor kitchen area.
- Talking to vendors and contractors about ideal types of materials, costs of equipment, and potential obstacles.
- Creating a budget and timeline for the entire scope of the project.
- Petitioning administration with their plans and proposed budget for approval.
- Building and working side-by-side with professional contractors to construct the outdoor kitchen and community space.
- Helping to plan a meal and experience at The Land and new outdoor kitchen space for the entire school.
Our students are committed to learning and are personally invested in their work (just like us adults). So, when the idea of not being able to go to The Land for the day and instead having to go home at 12 p.m. ahead of the storm, a different plan was hatched ...
Rather than dismiss early with the rest of the school, our Junior High students chose to hunker down and spend the night in the retreat center at The Land. Families were consulted, extra fire wood was cut, meals were planned by the students, bags were quickly packed, safety plans were already in place, and all the students headed to The Land in advance of the coming snow.
Over the next 24 hours - when the rest of the school was dismissed home and most every other adolescent child in the Greensboro area was plugged into a device or game system - our Junior High students chose more school. And that’s what they got: more school, working on their outdoor kitchen and other lessons. And along the way, they had a lot of fun, built community, and created memories. They baked bread and prepared delicious meals; they hiked in the snowy woods at night; they squealed with delight as they tried to build snow-people; they frolicked with our resident caretaker’s two dogs and read books with his three daughters; they left their cell phones and devices at home; and they felt safe, secure, and at home with their peers and teachers.
This is what adolescent education should look like.
And we know our approach to adolescent education works:
- Our graduates’ average ACT score of 29 is eight points higher than the national average score of 21.
- 9 out of 10 graduates say they are better prepared for the demands of high school than other students in their high school classes.
- Our graduates' average, unweighted high school GPA is 3.8, compared to the state average of 3.4.
- 97% of our graduates say they are successful adults because of their Montessori education.
- Our graduates enter college with an average of 24 credits earned from AP and IB classes in high school.
Who says learning can’t happen in the middle of a snow storm?
We thought our families might appreciate an inside look at how our team manages decisions about when to adjust our schedule due to inclement weather.
Managing inclement weather and the safety of our community is not a simple task. Safety of our students, of our families, and of our staff is always our top priority. We go through as thorough of a process as we can to make the best possible decision about whether or not to alter our schedule due to inclement weather. And, while I know it is a very serious thing to make the best decision for the School, I don’t mind sharing that it is probably my least favorite duty as your head of school.
Over the years, I have tried unsuccessfully to pass this part of the job on to someone else … I’ve tried to tell our past two board presidents it’s their job - they didn’t buy it. I tried to make Ben, our director of upper school, think it was his job when he was a new employee - he wasn’t that naive. Once in a while I try to make my wife, Jess, decide - she knows to steer herself and the kids clear of me during storm-watch decisions. Our previous director of facilities, Mackie, was the only one who was willing to help make the decision - and his answer was always the same (even without looking at a weather report), “Shut it down.”
First comes the possibility of coming inclement weather. As soon as there is even a hint of anything, everyone makes sure to let me know. Faculty, staff, friends from other schools, and even the students share the news: “Kevin! Kevin! Did you see it might snow in seven days?!? It’s going to be epic.” Sometimes even my mom calls me from St. Louis to let me know weather might be coming our way. Thanks, mom!
Second comes studying the predictions and weather reports. We use websites like NOAA and The Weather Channel, and we tie into reports and weather analyses that the National Weather Service makes specifically for the Piedmont Triad Airport. We continually monitor updates and forecasts. At this point, everyone offers support as a semi-professional weather expert. “Kevin! Kevin! I heard it is going to be four inches this time!” or “Kevin, my knee is swelling up, so it’s definitely going to be a doozy of a storm.” And, again from my mom, “Kevin, don’t forget to get bread and milk for your family on your way home.”
Third has us seeing what other schools do. We pay close attention to the public school systems, even though they have buses and high school students driving that factor into their decisions. All the Triad area heads of school are on an email thread to communicate what we are thinking. For example, this last storm, all the area independent schools closed Friday, except for three of us: GMS, GDS, and Canterbury. I was on a text-message thread with GDS and Canterbury schools’ heads of school throughout the night on Thursday and then starting at 5 a.m, on Friday. It helps us all to see what the other schools are doing.
Another piece involves us getting firsthand information by driving the roads ourselves. For this last storm, we drove the roads at both 10 p.m. Thursday and about 5 a.m. Friday to experience on how the roads and campus were after the snow had stopped.
Additionally, our facilities team salts campus before a weather event, and they are on standby to be ready to plow and shovel campus if needed.
The Last Storm
Here’s our timeline for the most recent storm:
- 5 p.m. | Our administration team met to get organized about the coming storm.
- 8:30 a.m. | Your administration met to discuss the situation and look at it from all angles.
- 9 a.m. | We made the decision to dismiss at 12 p.m. as all the weather reports called for snow around 2 p.m., and we never want to dismiss students in the middle of a weather event. We issue communications on all our channels to notify families and walk through campus talk to support with faculty with the adjusted schedule and dismissal.
- 12 p.m. | We all try to be out and present at dismissal to make sure it goes smoothly and to thank families for coming to pick up early, which we know is in the middle of your many of your work days.
- 6 p.m., 8 p.m., and 10 p.m. | Nancy, our associate of school, and I talk every two hours to assess the situation. Whenever the decision is obvious enough, we like to tell our families the night before. For the last storm, it was not obvious enough to make a decision, so we continue to monitor weather and talk to other area heads of schools into the night and early the next morning.
- Sometime between these calls | As anyone knows, family life still continues while we work. So my three kids someone how cajoled Jess and me to go out for some nighttime sledding and hiking in our woods with the dog – who all need a bath or a book before bed!
- 5:30 a.m. | Nancy and I check in, looking at all our weather predictions and road reports. For this storm, we see all roads are flowing clearly, the Greensboro Police Department have note reported any weather-related incidents, and some of our team is out on the roads to confirm they are dry and do not appear to be slick.
- 5:35 a.m. | I do one final check with GDS and Canterbury.
- 5:45 a.m. | We make the decision for a late start. We push out an email to families, post to Facebook, and update our weather hotline. Internally, we notify all employees, so they are aware of the late start, and Heather, our director of facilities, gets her plan together to have campus ready by 9:30 a. m.
- 9 a.m. | We arrive to open campus and get ready for the day.
- 10 a.m. | Our first students arrive, some fussy with me that I didn’t call a snow day and some still with snow in their hair and boots from their early morning sledding session.
In the End
I know that with one “push of a button,” the decision about adjusting our schedule directly affects over 600 people. Hopefully, this sneak peak of the steps we take to make our decision helps illustrate how seriously we take the process and the decision. I really appreciate everyone’s support, and hopefully you enjoyed a bit of snow play or a beautiful walk in the woods.
P.S. Our Green & White Bash auction is Friday, May 1. I hope you will join us at Summerfield Farms for a fun time and to help raise money for faculty professional development and student financial assistance. Invitations will come out early next month. Among the dozens of amazing experiences and items, we’ll also auction off things like “head of school” for the day. I wonder if my team will let me auction off an item called: “You’re in charge of making the decision for a snow day.” Would you bid on that?
As a Montessori school, we believe deeply in educating the whole child: their academic, psychological, critical-thinking, moral, and social-emotional selves. In addition to the academic lessons and works your children are engaged in daily, our teachers and staff are also guiding your child through other very important lessons to help them with their moral and social-emotional development. For example, teachers give explicit lessons related to grace and courtesy, facilitate discussions at the peace table, and encourage collaborative work and play daily.
And, it turns out, research from our School confirms that we are doing this pretty well …
The Gratitude Project
We recently worked with Professor Jonathan Tudge and his team from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro ("UNCG") to study the development of gratitude as a virtue. As a virtue, gratitude goes beyond a positive feeling when something good happens. Virtuous gratitude is a disposition to act gratefully when someone else does something nice for you. Dr. Tudge explained it to me this way: “Saying 'thank you' is polite, but hardly a virtue. What makes gratitude a virtue is when beneficiaries of good deeds or significant help want to do something back for their benefactor if they have the chance to do so. That first act of generosity, followed by grateful reciprocity, leads to building or strengthening connections among people.”
In previous cross-cultural research, Dr. Tudge and his team found that most children develop this type of gratitude between the ages of 9 and 13, although the age differed depending on the cultural context. In their study, children in the United States developed virtuous gratitude at later ages than other cultures. Keeping this in mind, Dr. Tudge decided to target a new intervention designed to encourage the development of gratitude within adolescents.
Dr. Tudge and his team came to our School to explore this intervention. After working with our Upper School students, they stumbled upon a ‘good’ problem with their research: far more Greensboro Montessori School students exhibited virtuous gratitude than they expected. Our Upper Elementary and Junior High students expressed gratitude at much higher rates (67%) than did children in non-Montessori settings in the United States (46%). In addition, our students were almost twice as likely to express autonomous moral obligation (79%) than were children in non-Montessori schools (44%). Defined originally by Jean Piaget, autonomous moral obligation is a decision-making framework whereby moral decisions are made based on intrinsic motivations to do the right thing.
Dr. Tudge and his team were puzzled by these anomalous findings. Why did our students score higher than other American children, even when compared to other well-regarded private schools in the Greensboro area? And how are these findings related to Montessori pedagogy and culture?
Gratitude in the Montessori Classroom
In our discussions with Dr. Tudge, we discussed the way Montessori teachers prepare the environment to communicate honor, respect, and gratitude to the child. We also described the ways in which our teachers model gratitude and respect when they speak and interact with their students. In time, this becomes our students' definition of "how it's supposed to be.” In addition, we delineated how our grace and courtesy curriculum creates both a framework for community interactions and a schoolwide culture of character.
In collaboration with Dr. Tudge and his team, I presented the results from our Upper School students’ involvement with Dr. Tudge's gratitude study at the Association for Moral Education’s annual conference in Seattle, Washington.
In the presentation, we hypothesized that our students' high rates of gratitude could be due to several specific tenets of Montessori philosophy:
- Specific lessons about grace and courtesy provide explicit guidance on character development from a young age.
- Daily practice of grace and courtesy increase opportunities for proximal processes related to virtue development.
- Mixed age groupings of children may expose younger children to older children are further along in virtue development.
- Peer interactions encouraged from toddlerhood may increase opportunities for the development of mutual respect.
Dr. Tudge and his team also did some work with our Lower Elementary students. Tudge’s team again noted that so many of even these younger children (aged 6 to 9) expressed virtuous gratitude. Dr. Tudge reflected: “We think that this must say something about the character-based focus of the general Montessori curriculum, because a far greater proportion of Greensboro Montessori School children expressed gratitude than elsewhere.”
Character Education at Greensboro Montessori School
Overall, the results suggest that a Montessori environment is conducive to developing virtuous gratitude and autonomous moral obligation. These results – while surprising and interesting to the UNCG team and other researchers and educators at the Association for Moral Education conference – are not really that surprising to us. Focusing on strong character education is a key tenet of Greensboro Montessori School. A deep respect towards classmates and other people is so integral to our culture that it's not that surprising our Elementary and Junior High students authentically take their sense of gratitude to a level beyond just saying “thank you.”
Why is professional development so important at Greensboro Montessori School?
We talk about our students being lifelong learners.
We always want them to discover, to ask questions, to think new things, and to have new thoughts. Especially at a Montessori school, we believe the adults who help guide our students’ education also need to be lifelong learners. We, too, should ask questions and think and try new things, just as we ask our students.
As professional educators, we are always watching for chances to learn: observing students or other teachers, having that unexpected conversation with a colleague, or connecting with professionals and researchers and new theories through more organized professional development — conferences, workshops, speakers, or graduate classes. We spend a lot of resources on professional development because we believe our School is only as good as our professional educators are.
The Montessori Event
Our crew was quite fortunate to have an amazing professional experience recently. A trip up to Washington, D.C. was the setting …
For four days 26 faculty and staff from Greensboro Montessori School joined 4,400 other Montessori educators from around the world. We were all there for the American Montessori Society annual international conference. To have 26 of us together at the same place and same time at such a high-quality professional conference is truly spectacular. We thought together, asked questions, learned new things, built community amongst ourselves, and talked about how we further build community amongst our students and families. Being together with the 26 of us allowed for unprecedented synergy; for deep conversations about specific Greensboro Montessori School curricula or programs; for conversations about new ideas for which there's never time in the midst of our normal school days; and for space in our minds and hearts to dream about what we want our School to be. (Oh, yeah, we did laugh a little bit, too.)
A unique opportunity like this allows us, individually, to be better educators, and for us, collectively, to make our School stronger ... ultimately providing a better educational experience for our students. Every professional development workshop or seminar our faculty and staff attend is for the benefit of our students. Our professional development is for our students.
What did we Learn?
Since our time in Washington, D.C., we have already begun to put to use much of what we learned and thought. The turn-around practical value is very high at a conference which is so focused on our exact curriculum and pedagogy. The 26 of us expressed our reflections in a shared space. Here are a few things we wrote:
- "Just when you think you’ve seen it all, someone shows you a new way to use a [Montessori] material. This made me think of other ways I could use the materials..."
- "Something new to start doing is taking more time to create a comfortable, prepared environment; I would like to involve the students more consistently on these decisions..."
- "I’d like to think more project-based learning and how it does fit (perfectly) with Montessori philosophies, especially in the Upper School; I talked with the director of the Riley Institute that does all the Montessori research at Furman University about a new workshop they created about project-based learning, and she said she might be able to come up to Greensboro to give a workshop for us..."
- "Creating an empowering environment for my advisee group [in Junior High]; finding and providing activities that help each [student] to know [their] own strengths and weaknesses..."
- "Our Land program and microeconomy are incredible, everyone else seems to really struggle with [adolescent] programs..."
- "Observation; I had forgotten just how fundamental and essential it is to sit and observe; in order to appreciate this process, it might be helpful for the rest of the team in the classroom to have their own time to observe as well; I remember now that we must make this a priority..."
- "In the storm of adolescence, we must be the calm… Don’t get on the rollercoaster with the students.”
- Some of the titles of our favorite workshops include: “What makes a Secondary Montessori Program Unique?,” “Enhancing Student Engagement in Secondary [Adolescent] Classrooms,” “Critical Partnerships for Children with Exceptionalities,” “Parent Education That Will Keep Them Coming Back For More!,” and “Visual Arts in Socratic Seminar.”
Thank you for supporting our faculty and staff in our own professional development. It only makes us better educators, and our School a better one for our students.
Everything we do, professional development included, is for our students.
If you were lucky enough to be at Greensboro Montessori School last Thursday night, or with us via the livestream, you were treated to quite a show! Simply put: our fourth, fifth, and sixth graders' 17th annual Fare Faire production, “Back to Families Feudal,” was fantastic: high-quality, well-researched, technically sound, aesthetically powerful, and laugh-out-loud funny.
Fare Faire is a rite of passage for Upper Elementary students at Greensboro Montessori School. This annual theatrical production integrates students’ language arts, history, and performing arts curriculum. As students learn about the medieval historical period, they also read related literature and work together to bring a story to life on stage. The name, “Fare Faire,” is a creative play on words which highlights the communal meal Upper Elementary students and their families enjoy before the student-led performance - this year the potluck dinner of years' past gave way for a sweeter dessert feast.
And with all this work, all this project-based learning, all this technical and logistical demand of putting on a 31-person theatrical production, I have to ask: where were the teachers? I barely saw them all night.
I heard Cathy Moses and Tessa Kirkpatrick may have been backstage to reassure a few worried students or help with a tricky transition; and I saw Jonathan McLean and John Archambault lingering over at the light and sound board, and even once saw them each use the spotlight, but I think it was only because the sixth grader running the sound board told them what to do. The rest of the time, I saw the teachers pretty much relaxing and enjoying the show, sometimes just leaning against the bleachers or even sitting in the audience. When I complimented them on the show, they said, “Yes, the students did a great job.” While I cannot underscore the intense, long, and passionate hard work the faculty have put in over the past three weeks, one thing was crystal clear Thursday night: the teachers were not in charge of this show. The students were.
In my 20 years of independent school education, I’ve seen plenty of wonderful “student-led” productions. But not until our very own Fare Faire, have I seen a show so incredibly run by the students. When we walked into the Gym, it was a student decorations manager who had transformed the space into a medieval stage; where there was a line forgotten, it was a student director who whispered a line; when there was a costume glitch, it was the student costume manager who responded; whenever someone missed a cue to come on stage, there was a student stage manager giving them a gentle shove onto the stage; or when one of the mics crackled, it was the student sound manager who adjusted the board settings.
Sixth graders have the opportunity to step into leadership roles for the production. Stella and Mahinda were the directors. Leila the stage and decorations manager. Whitley was in charge of costumes, while she and Stella also worked with Jillian Crone to spearhead marketing for the show. Andrew was in charge of sound and lights, while Mohamed was in charge of microphones. Dalia was in charge of props, and Kylee in charge of photography. Leading their fourth and fifth grade peers in producing Fare Faire is a capstone experience for these students. They had been preparing for that responsibility and honor all throughout the first two years of their three-year cycle.
Our three-year Upper Elementary program has always delivered a strong and unique learning experience for our students. Building on the Montessori skills and foundations that have been developed throughout the Primary and Lower Elementary divisions, our fourth through sixth graders are empowered to come into their own as they transition to the Upper School. They take responsibility for their learning in real-life applications; they develop all the academic and social-emotional skills they need to thrive in life; and they learn who they are and how they will step into the world. It is a critical time in the students’ development. And it is big work.
And that big work is guided by a group of inspired and hard-working “teacher-guide-people,” as the faculty sometimes call themselves. Each subject matter experts themselves, they know that so much of the Montessori approach is correctly and carefully setting up the prepared learning environment to guide the students to their own success. With most traditional schools, and even some great schools that try to be more innovative, the model is teachers as the "sage on the stage," filling students with facts and information; not at our school. It is teachers as guides, teachers as inspirers, teachers as coaches, and teachers as expert listeners, researchers, and observers to see what each and every student uniquely needs.
So, where are the teachers?
They are there, every single step of the way, knowing how to both nurture and challenge, knowing how to inspire and empower students to do the work themselves, and knowing when to step back and let the students take ownership and responsibility for their own work, for their own success, and for their own theatrical production, as was the case during the simply fantastic Fare Faire production on a recent and chilly Thursday night in January.
On Friday, October 26, 2018, Greensboro Montessori's head of school, Dr. Kevin Navarro, received a formal notice of retirement from the School's bus. Seeing as the bus is a valued member of the team with over 19 years of service to the School, we felt it appropriate to share its retirement letter with the entire community. The letter is reprinted below (with the bus' permission, of course).
Dear Dr. Navarro,
I love everything about Greensboro Montessori School. The way every child is empowered to have a real voice and real agency. The way students learn how to apply their academic skills in intentional and authentic ways. And the way students learn to work and wrestle with, understand, and clearly articulate complex ideas.
However, I think we both know, it’s time for a change. I humbly request you accept this letter as my formal notice of retirement effective December 31, 2018.
Words will never fully express the gratitude I feel for the purpose-filled career Greensboro Montessori School has given me. During my 19 years at the School, I've been on many adventures throughout the state, including the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, and Roanoke Island Festival Park. Many years ago I took the faculty to Florida for an American Montessori Society (AMS) Conference. I know the way to the School’s Land campus in Oak Ridge by heart, and I've been to hundreds of Panther sporting events.
What I treasure most is the miles I've logged with over 500 different students. I know them each by name. I've laughed at their jokes, been in on their secrets, and love their playlists! My greatest honor has been watching them grow from toddlers (when they didn't even know I existed) to teens (when they sometimes treated me as if I didn't exist). No matter what, it has been a journey of love.
I hope you know I am proud of what I've achieved. I wish I could work forever, but truth be told, I'm getting a bit tired:
- My pickup and acceleration just aren’t what they used to be;
- I’ve worn through two complete sets of tires;
- Five years ago, I had to have both my ball joints and tie rods replaced;
- My air conditioning was overhauled 10 years ago;
- It really hurt when my alternator was cross-threaded six years ago;
- And it was just down right embarrassing when I broke down in Durham last summer with antifreeze issues, and a tow truck had to carry me home.
It’s time. We both know it is, and I’m sure you will find a great replacement to honor the incredible work you do with our students. I look forward to fulfilling my duties through the end of the year and will gladly help you and the team find my replacement. Depending on the expediency of your search, I may also be available for some consulting in the spring. In the meantime, if there's anything else you need, please let me know. When not working, I'm usually resting in the grassy lot on campus.
All my best and all my love,
The GMS School Bus
Valid and reliable scientific research and brain development theory should be the driving force behind any school system.
Sadly, in our country, that is too often not the reality. Too many of our nation’s schools are based on an industrial-era, conveyor-belt, “information-in, information-out” style. Missing in this antiquated approach is the child as an agent and the child as an engaged, responsible, and confident citizen and leader.
We are incredibly fortunate that this is not missing at Greensboro Montessori School. We are fortunate that our pedagogy, our methodology, and our very way of learning, thinking, and being are based in sound scientific theory and research. Dr. Maria Montessori saw to that.
Maria Montessori was a scientist. She was a physician, educator, feminist, barrier-breaker, and innovator who utilized scientific observation and experience working with young children to design learning materials and a classroom environment which foster a child’s natural desire to learn. Dr. Montessori opened her first school (Casa dei Bambini) in 1907, and today there are close to 4,000 certified Montessori schools in the United States and about 7,000 worldwide. She developed a school movement that is perfectly in-line with what modern science and today’s neuroscience research confirm our children need.
Even though the field of modern neuroscience and brain research did not exist during her time, her theories and methodologies have withstood the test of time, and today neuroscience and brain research fully support the Montessori methodology. Our recent professional development visit with Dr. Steven Hughes brought together the worlds of Montessori schooling, brain development, and research. Dr. Hughes is a board-certified pediatric neuropsychologist and past president of The American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology. His research interests are on what promotes the growth of executive functions, social-emotional skills, and moral reasoning. Additionally, he and his wife have had a longstanding relationship with Montessori: she is an Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) trainer throughout Europe, and Steve is the founding chair of the Association Montessori International Global Research Committee. Adding Steve’s voice to our ongoing dialogue about how we can provide the best Montessori experience possible was exceptionally valuable to us. Over two full days, we had affirmations of what we do, challenging conversations, new inspirations, and reinvigorated aspirations.
Steve framed many of his remarks around what research has shown students really need for success in life. Yes, good grades on tests are helpful as they create access to future opportunities, but good grades on tests alone are not the most important thing. Research shows they are not correlated with success in life, and they are not what companies like Google, IBM, and Ernst & Young look for in new hires. These companies want individuals who can analytically solve difficult problems, who can work collaboratively within a group, and who can leverage complexity. They want people who can look around, figure out what needs to be done, and do it. They want original thinking ... conventional schooling is not aimed at helping students develop original thoughts. Montessori schools, on the other hand, are absolutely set up to elicit and generate original thinking.
What students do need to succeed are the underlying neuro-structures of their brain to be fully developed and finely tuned. Dr. Hughes talked to us about how this all happens in the neocortex, the skin of the brain: the neocortex has the area of a linen napkin unfolded and is just a few millimeters thick. In there are at least 6 layers of interconnecting neurons that are extraordinarily complex. And while you may think our neocortex is for “thinking,” really it’s to build a sensory-motor map of the world and to manage sensory inputs, sequences, and patterns. For example, when we sit on a chair or drive a car, we don’t actively “think” about it, as we have a sensory-motor map of those processes and have built within our neocortex perceived expectations of how something like a chair or car works. When we learn how to respond to existing patterns and how to manage anomalies - that’s how we get good at things. It takes practice. As Jeff Hawkins writes: “Patterns are the fundamental currency of intelligence.”
The way we build those sensory motor sequences which are stored in the neocortex and are the foundations of all that we do when we’re reflexively thinking (or non-thinking) is by doing things. This is the neuroscientific explanation and defense of experiential education. Dr. Montessori knew this, and it makes sense that she is known by many to be the “mother of experiential education.” As Dr. Hughes puts it, “We are human doings, not human beings.” This picture is of a cortical homunculus in The Natural History Museum of London. In layman's terms, it is a model of how our brain perceives our own bodies -- the hands are the mechanisms for receiving sensory input so they are the single most valuable body part to the neocortex. We survive in the world by manipulating the environments around us - it is our skillful interaction with the world that defines us and allows us to be successful. To find this success, we have to build the neocortex. And to build the neocortex, we have to practice doing things; and we have to develop the mechanics and apparatus so the brain knows how to do new things. Practice is how our brains build themselves. That is what Montessori does. All our lessons in motor skills, self regulation, language, math, and sensorial input are presented in individual, sequential ways which build upon previous knowledge and previous sensory motor patterns. This is how we develop the brain, and how our students find success in both school, and more importantly, throughout their lives.
Dr. Hughes reminded us that Montessori education is based on children having “effortful, motivated, repeated, trial-and-error, experimental interactions with the environment.” That’s what happens in our school every day. It’s what empowers our students to find tremendous success in their school settings at Greensboro Montessori School, in high school, and college. While the focus of Dr. Hughes’ talk was not how the Montessori methodology promotes traditional academic success success, it is part of the story because helping children optimally develop their brains helps succeed in life, which includes school.
Dr. Hughes told us, “when we are talking about a well-constructed constructor, we’re also really talking about IQ.” One pretty good definition of intelligence quotient (IQ) is the ability to construct new sensory-motor couplings. Children who are able to fully develop their neocortex have well-developed sensory-motor maps and are able to best make sense of anomalies and new patterns, and thus solve difficult problems.
We see these benefits throughout Montessori, and they are documented in Angeline Lillard’s classic Montessori study which was published in 2006 in the journal Science. Through measuring IQ with the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities and studying randomized groups of students in and out of a Montessori program (with an experimental control group), Lillard found Montessori students performed better than non-Montessori peers by nearly a half standard deviation. The best standard deviation improvement from an educational intervention is about a quarter standard deviation; the change of nearly half a standard deviation is monumental.
It’s also important to remember that scoring well on tests and doing well in school is not necessarily what predicts success in life. We’re not saying school isn’t important, but we are saying success in school shouldn’t be seen as the end result. School success is important because it gives access to future experiences and opportunities. More important is that when your child goes to a school like Greensboro Montessori School, they learn the ability to look around, figure out what needs to be done, and do it -- this skill allows them to not only be successful at school, but most significantly, it allows them to be successful in life.
In addition to his fundamental point that experiential education and the Montessori methodology allow students to effectively develop their neocortex and to find success, there were several other key takeaways from our two days with Dr. Hughes. In the various discussions we had, many of the ideas applied to what we can do at home as parents and in the classrooms as educators.
Let the constructor construct.
By taking a neuroscience look at learning, we know that when our youngest children are engaged by doing physical things in their learning, their neocortex in their brains are actively being constructed -- this construction is hard work and requires uninterrupted, child-driven, large blocks of time. Let the constructor construct.
Do not overpraise the child.
Too many parents in our culture praise and overpraise children - sometimes for the simplest of accomplishments. Dr. Hughes reminded us that overpraising children can have negative effects. Research has shown that evaluative feedback (like grades and praise) can stop growth. Dr. Montessori reminds us, “Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity. It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched.” Dr. Steven Hughes jokes with us, “Parents need to really take a good, hard look at your bizzare, irrational, and unnatural desire to praise your children for breathing. Not only does this praise disrupt the child’s concentration, but this evaluative feedback does no good for the developing brain.” While coaching with specific feedback on how to do a task can be valuable, blind praise is not. Again, let the constructor construct.
Never do for the child what they can do for themselves.
Children can often be more capable than we let them be. In Montessori, we are careful to allow the child to do their own work, rather than us do it for them, be it complex math problems or putting on a jacket. We challenge parents to do the same. We do so, because we know from Dr. Hughes that doing and practicing their work allows them to appropriately develop their brains. Yes, it may take more time and patience from us as parents, but let the children do their work -- it’s one of the ways they build their brains.
Montessori does executive functioning very well.
Executive functioning is what we do with our IQ below the level of consciousness – how we organize, make sense of, and make discernments in order to execute and make decisions. From the neuroscience perspective, this is called cognitive flexibility and is an important part of executive functioning: when Plan A doesn’t happen, we have to have the flexibility and adaptability to create Plan B. Executive functioning is developed when the neocortex is allowed to develop those sensorial-motor maps through repeated practice and doing.
Concentration is fundamental to Montessori.
Classrooms at Greensboro Montessori School are based on giving children time to concentrate. Too many other school systems shuffle children from one idea or class to another every 34 minutes. From the neuroscience perspective, Dr. Hughes told us that concentrating is engaging the frontoparietal network in effortful cognitive tasks, where rules or information learn to be utilized and to guide behavior. Dr. Montessori knew that “Concentration is the key that opens up the child to the latent treasures within him.” Once again, her methods developed over one hundred years ago are today confirmed by modern neuroscience research. This concentration is how we develop capacity and capabilities to link together all our future skills and ultimately succeed in a complex world. It’s the foundation for us to learn how to look around, figure out what needs to be done, and do it.
Never interrupt the concentrated child.
Children innately want to explore, to touch, and to engage in certain types of work or projects. At various parts of their developmental journey, they are drawn to different things. And it is nature’s design that they want to do some work, or age-appropriate activities, again and again. Somehow, they know they need to practice them. And through modern neuroscience, we now know very well that this practice of building sensory-motor maps in the brain is one of the ways the neocortex develops within the brain. We know this is the foundational building block for future thinking. And through research and brain scans, we know that when the child is actively working and concentrating, they are literally building their brains.
When this is happening, this brain building, there is nothing we can or should do. We need to step back, let the child direct, and let the child be inspired. Never interrupt the concentrated child; it is then when they are constructing. In a Montessori classroom, we build time and systems to allow children to find real concentration and to focus on big work. While they aren’t able to work on one project or subject the entire day as there are other lessons and other parameters for the day, we do pride ourselves in having blocked times (sometimes as long as three hours), where the children can focus on their work and consequently develop their brains. As parents, we should work to not interrupt a focused and concentrated child; while a quick picture, a redirection, or new idea from us may be so tempting… try to resist that urge, knowing that concentrated work is very important, that our children are literally developing their brains.
For two full days, Dr. Steven Hughes toured out school, and engaged with our faculty, our students, our parents, and our administration. When he stepped away he wrote to us: “I can tell you are heading into one of those wonderful chapters in an organization with the right people are on the bus, and the bus is headed in the right direction. One can’t always force those conditions but when they are present amazing things can happen. I’ll look forward to hearing about the amazing things happening at Greensboro Montessori School in the future!’
There is something incredible happening at Greensboro Montessori School!
That “incredible” lives within the people and the work our students do every day; that “incredible” permeates our culture and the program. When any of us answer the question, “Why Greensboro Montessori School?”, this “incredible” is most likely part of our answer. We intuitively and deeply know there is extreme value in a Greensboro Montessori education. We know that the School both nurtures and pushes our children; loves and empowers them. We know that our children are learning to think critically and originally, to look beyond polarizing black and white perspectives, to lean into complex and difficult ideas, and to work effectively, eagerly, and ethically within a team. We know that there are some of the best teachers in the entire state of North Carolina caring for our children every single day. We feel this.
While we all know these things to be true, our team has been working on providing families with data points that answer this question (Why Greensboro Montessori School?) in a more analytical fashion. In our reenrollment packets, you will see some of the quantitative data we have been gathering. You’ll see data that tells you the average ACT score in North Carolina is 19 and our college-aged alumni’s average is 30. Or that our students’ English composite scores on our standardized tests is in the 92nd percentile nationally. Or that 88% of our students feel like they were very well prepared high school.
In addition to quantitative data like this, there is also important qualitative data that answers this same question. Some of the best qualitative data comes from our alumni students and families. At our recent Grow With Us event for each of our students and families who will transition into a new division in the fall, we invited two of our alumni parents, Nancy King Quaintance and Dennis Quaintance, to reflect on why they kept their two college-aged children at Greensboro Montessori from toddler through to graduation. Below are a few excerpts from their remarks:
[dt_sc_pullquote type="pullquote1" align="center" icon="yes" textcolor="#81d742"]The thing that kept bringing us back and causing us to know that Greensboro Montessori School was the place we wanted to be can be summed up in one phrase - a loving community. We felt like our children were understood and appreciated for who they were.[/dt_sc_pullquote]
[dt_sc_pullquote type="pullquote1" align="center" icon="yes" textcolor="#81d742"]Another thing that brought us back is that we believe that for any organization, to really function to its potential, it has to have a compass and a sense of north. And every time we were in a [parent] conference whether it was with Doug or Jonathan in middle school or with the Primary teachers, without it being scripted, [the teachers] would say 'this is happening because its part of the idea of children being eager learners and discovering their potential to become responsible global citizens.' It makes me want to cry because imagine if we could do that as a whole global society.[/dt_sc_pullquote]
Those qualitative data points spoken by alumni parents who were at our School for 12 years can help inspire those of us who have had children at the School for only one or two years. Perhaps even more inspiring, though, is listening to their college sophomores reflect on their journey at Greensboro Montessori School. Please click on the link below to hear why they loved their time with us:
Finally, one more type of answer to the question, "Why Greensboro Montessori School?", comes from scholarly research. Dr. Maria Montessori herself was a scientist. Her methods and practices were all based on known science about human development and student learning. Educational scholars and practitioners are also always reflecting on and researching the Montessori methodology.
A 2012- 2016 Longitudinal study involving 43 Montessori Programs was recently published by the Riley Institute at Furman University. One of their conclusions was “a higher percentage of students in Montessori programs met or exceeded state performance benchmarks in language arts, math, science, and social studies, and showed faster growth in language arts over the course of the study.”
And if you need one more answer, it’s because it’s what we ultimately want for our children. We want them to be successful, well-adjusted, confident, competent, and creative people. And we know that Greensboro Montessori School can help them become just that.
Really, what more could we ask for?
"The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time." - Brené Brown
I think Brené Brown and Maria Montessori would be fast friends, had they lived during the same time. They both believe deeply in showing up as who we are … and in following that authentic self. Montessori calls it following the child; Brown calls it being authentic and vulnerable in order to find wholehearted living. It’s important to say that the concept of “vulnerability” has evolved into a positive and beneficial behavior and characteristic in both Brown’s and my research.
Montessori wrote that “the child is capable of developing and giving us tangible proof of the possibility of a better humanity. We have seen children totally change as they acquire a love for things and ideas and as their sense of order, discipline, and self-control develops within them.... The child is both a hope and a promise for all humankind.” A hope and promise for humankind starts at the center of the child’s ability and gift to show up as who they are. If this concept interests you, I thought I’d walk you down a path of Brown’s research, and why I think it ultimately connects to our work at GMS.
Brown began her research journey in the field of social work with her basic belief about the necessity of human connection. “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives” (Brown, 2012a, p. 253). Her dissertation explored assessing relevance in professional helping (e.g., pastoral care, psychologists, educators, or organizational leaders). Over six years, she interviewed 1,280 professionals to develop her theory of accompaniment.
Through asking her participants about human connection, she ended up developing the related ideas of shame and shame resilience. Asked about human connection, participants invariably ended up talking about instances of heartbreak, betrayal, and shame, which Brown defined and coded as the fear of not being worthy of real connection. That emerging pattern led her to return to her data to investigate why and how some were resilient to this shame, heartbreak, and betrayal. She eventually developed a model of shame and shame resiliency, which revolved around empathy, courage, compassion, and connection. The patterns in her data pointed to wholeheartedness, which Brown developed into what she called wholehearted living. And from her study of wholehearted living, Brown then focused her research attention on the power of vulnerability. Vulnerability and having the courage to show up authentically and humbly as who we are connects to how we ask our students at GMS to show up. Brown (2012a) wrote, “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences” (p. 12). Vulnerability (being open, authentic, and humble) directly connects to a person’s ability to honestly know their self and their limitations.
Here is where we begin to connect more to the work we do at Greensboro Montessori School. We believe, just as Maria Montessori, that we are always striving for meaningful human experiences and lessons. To achieve this, we need to empower our students to think independently, critically, and openly. And that takes courage.
To be comfortable with their personal vulnerability, Brown writes that people must first have a strong sense of love and belonging. We work to instill that belonging everyday in all our classes. That sense of worthiness is a foundational path for students to find greatness. Conversely, when people cannot be real and honest, i.e. vulnerable, they block great ideas and innovation. Brown (2012a) identifies a lack of vulnerability as the “most significant barrier to creativity and innovation” (p. 187). This lack of vulnerability fosters a fear of change and close-mindedness. If we cannot empower our students to take safe risks and to see the value of struggle and failure, then we may be stinting their ultimate growth.
It takes courage and bravery for students to have new ideas and try new things. Entrepreneurship, growth, and new ideas cannot thrive in an environment that does not welcome openness and authenticity. One participant in an interview with Brown (2012a) said, “When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity. By definition, entrepreneurship is vulnerable. It’s all about the ability to handle and manage uncertainty” (p. 208). Entrepreneurship thinking and habits of mind is something we pride ourselves on at GMS.
And as for how we create a culture that welcomes these ideas of vulnerability, true courage, and entrepreneurial thinking, school research is crystal clear that we need adults in schools (leaders and teachers) who are willing to display and model this open sense of courage in a quest for better understanding and learning. The adults must first have the courage and wisdom to intentionally be vulnerable. As an adult learning community of about 60 employees, we work everyday to be open to ideas, as we mindfully and intentionally follow the child. I also invite each of our parents to intentionally join us on that journey as we partner to help empower our young people to be confident and inspired to display the sort of courage that Brené Brown writes about.
I’ll leave you with a final thought from Brown. While the quote is specifically about leaders, I think applies all the same to us as parents, as teachers, and as human beings:
“Across the private and public sector, in schools and in our communities, we are hungry for authentic leadership – we want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire and be inspired… When leaders choose self-protection over transparency, and when self-worth is attached to what we produce, learning and work becomes dehumanized… Re-humanizing work and education requires courageous leadership. It requires leaders who are willing to take risks, embrace vulnerabilities, and show up as imperfect, real people. (Brown, 2012a, p. 5)
Have a great and courageous weekend.
Brown, B. (2002). Accompanar: A grounded theory of developing, maintaining, and assessing relevance in professional helping (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Texas, Austin.
Brown, B. (2010a). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Brown, B. (2012a). Daring greatly. New York: Gotham Books.
Brown, B. (2012b). Vulnerability and inspired leadership. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Leadership Series.
Montessori, M. (Published 1992). Education and Peace. The Clio Montessori Series.
Click here to check out a whole host of books and audio published by Brené Brown