Pigeon Key: A Glimpse Into the Heart and Soul of Education

-by Krista Taylor

“Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.”(Maria Montessori)

Imagine, if you will, forty-five 8th graders waiting for a plane to depart. A woman  asked if we were all “taking a vacation.”

airplane

It’s not a vacation,” exclaimed Sabelle, “it’s an EXPERIENCE!”

She couldn’t have said it better. The trip we take with our 8th graders each May to Pigeon Key, Florida is an experience. This year I had the opportunity to go on the trip for the first time, and I can only describe it as life-changing . . . for my students . . . and for me.

I have been on powerful multi-day field experiences with my students many times before, but nothing compares to this one.

It is so much more than a field trip. What is it exactly? It seems impossible to properly capture the magnitude of this trip – the awe and wonder, the beauty, the precious time.  So what is it?  Here’s my best answer.

It is an immersive marine biology study.

It is a hands-on exploration of human impact and the critical importance of conservation of our natural world.

It is a time for students to face personal challenges and to reflect on their growth.

It is an opportunity for students to develop and demonstrate leadership skills.

It is a rite of passage marking the conclusion of junior high and the readiness to move on to high school.

Perhaps Qualey’s words, taken from her journal, best capture what it is that students are seeking from this experience.

Hopefully I change on this trip to be a better person. I’m really trying to think positive, so I can come home with a new attitude and learn how to love myself.”

Over and over again, the most powerful moments for me were the opportunities to view the experiences on this trip through my students’ eyes and to witness their transformative power. The only way I can properly capture that is by sharing students’ written journal reflections and their spoken comments.

(Note: Although, there were 45 students on this trip, the majority of the student comments in this post were written by those in my “grading group.”  I believe that they are an accurate reflection of the thoughts and feelings of all the students.   While we generally use pseudonyms to protect students’ privacy, in order to be able to give them credit for their written work, names in this post have not been changed.)

Getting There

 For many of our students, this was their first experience on a plane. During the days leading up to the trip, they shared their fears about what could happen on the flight. As we settled into the aircraft on the morning of the trip, I could see the anxiety on their faces, even though most of them were trying to conceal it. Our group was split up, so many students were sitting with strangers. How I wished that I could be seated next to each of them – to provide reassurance and to watch their eyes grow wide as they went above the clouds for the first time.

The poem that Hadiyah wrote in her journal that evening best captures the worry, wonder, and exhilaration that so many of them experienced.

“Her hand was steady and safe

Replacing my mom and dad at the same time for small moments.

Rising turned the clouds into grass and the people into ants.

Laughter crowded the aisle way;

Familiar voices taunted my ears.

 

I awed as the sky never seemed to end.

Imagination flooding my mind —

It was impossible to pull my eyes away,

Ground like a hot wheel track beneath me,

Clouds casting giant shadows that I never noticed before.

 

The higher we went the more of a map I saw,

While voids of clouds all over

Making me feel like a drawing on a piece of paper.

The sky never seeming to end,

Glancing at my peers seeing their excitement and glee.

 

Time seemed to go slow

Stretching out every moment

The pain in my ears traveling to my head

What a lovely flight of mine

What a lovely time of mine”

 

hands

It is easy to minimize the level of challenge of a first flight, and the sense of pride that comes with conquering this fear. This is what Michael wrote about that experience, “When I got off the plane I felt a sense of accomplishment because it was my first time being on an airplane, and I conducted myself in a professional manner.”

Every time I looked at them on this first day, I felt as if my heart would simply burst with love. They were so open and vulnerable and tender. Such joy written on each of their faces. And finally, after 2 flights, a long bus ride, and a ferry trip, we arrived on Pigeon Key

On Pigeon Key    http://pigeonkey.net/contact/

PK_aerial_enews

Pigeon Key is a five-acre island accessible only by boat, which is dedicated to marine research, education, and the preservation of the history of the island.

The island truly feels remote — like getting away from it all. It is, figuratively and literally, “off the grid,” getting its water from a pipe that runs along 7-mile Bridge (Henry Flagler’s extension of the old Florida East Coast Railway) — and 95% of its electricity from a solar array, with the remaining 5% coming from on-island generators.

Without the distractions of traffic, commercialism, and electronic devices, students were able to experience the natural world in a way that they had never done before.

morning meetingSam wrote, “The United Leaders group went out to the dock and did morning meeting. It was so peaceful on the dock. When I felt peaceful I finally got the feeling of where I was. I saw the sun rise over the water and the palm trees making gentle waveing motions, I felt so excited to be in the place I am.”

Solo Time

Practicing “solo time” is a regular component of our Montessori philosophy. It requires students to spend a period of time in silence. While they are generally in proximity to one another during this time, they are not permitted to interact. They may draw, read, journal, reflect, etc., but they may not do work or sleep. While we typically conduct solo time in the classroom, being on Pigeon Key allowed the experience to be so much richer. Students who often grumble about disliking solo time were begging to be able to do it longer. Many of them recorded their experience in their journals.

solo HWNasiha: “I loved solo time because I got to look at the bright sky going down by the horizon. It was so beautiful. It made me feel so peaceful and calm. Usually I don’t like solo time because I never see the point, but now I like it because of the outside feel and the view.”

solo distance

 

Cornell: “The solo time was literally the best solo time I’ve ever had. Like at first I was worried but then something helped me out, and I could really focus. It’s like you never notice how beautiful everything is with all the negativity around America and humanity. During the solo time I got to see nautical beauty and worry about nothing. It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything. It was pretty cool too, like I wanted there to be more time.”

It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything.”

Learning Together

Hands-on work and real-world experiences are fundamental to Montessori education. The impact of learning this way was demonstrated profoundly on Pigeon Key.classroom

This was our classroom.

 

 

 

 

planktonWe learned about plankton, and then collected samples and examined them under microscopes.

 

 

 

 

jellyfishWe studied jellyfish, and then in the Cassiopeia Stress Lab activity, we explored how various types of water-changes impact these animals.

 

 

 

squid

 

We had presentations on squid and shark – followed by dissections of each.

shark Takko

My favorite lesson, however, was on species commonly found in tide pool areas of the Florida Keys. We then went tide-pooling and had close encounters at the touch tanks with the creatures we found. The students utterly transformed during this. They were so full of joy and delight. I loved seeing them this way.

tidepooling

Within minutes of wading in the water, all the students were eagerly engaged in turning over rocks, investigating, identifying, and handling what they found . . . and just having fun together. The air was full of cries of:  “Oooh look what I found.”

 “Wait, what’s this?!”

 “Look, that’s a big one!”

 “Oh my God what’s that?”

The kids were far more successful at finding things than I was, but Arianna helped me out.

“Hey Ms. Taylor, these are those anemones that grab onto you when you touch them!”

“What?!”

“Look, touch them. They grab onto your finger!”

“Whoa! How did you know they would do that?”

“We learned about it in our lesson yesterday!”

touch tanks 1

 

At the touch tank: Michael didn’t want to handle anything. Wtouch tanks 4hen I insisted, and held his hands while placing first a sea urchin and then a brittle sea star into them, he exclaimed, “I’m not even scared. . . Oh, yes, I am!”

 

 

 

While nocturnal tide-pooling, I overheard this priceless exchange between Destiny and Jermiah:

touch tanks 5

“I found a sea star!”

“No, WE found a sea star!”

“Well, I found it!”

“Well, I picked it up!”

 

Hadiyah described the impact of this lesson in her journal, “One thing that was a surprise for me was how fun the touch tank was. All the organisms were so cool. I wish I could have stayed with them forever.”

The Coral Reef

But snorkeling at Looe Key and Sombrero Reef were perhaps the most intense experiences of the entire trip. We had been preparing for this for months, but our work began in earnest with snorkeling practice on our first day on Pigeon Key. Although a few students were ready and willing to jump right in and use their snorkel gear, many others were not. We had a few non-swimmers, and some who had never been to the ocean before.

snorkeling lesson 2

Cornell was initially fearful just walking in the shallows – he held my hand, and we had to countdown from 10 and go underwater together in order to get him to get his head wet. The PK staff worked intensely with him and within 30 minutes we heard, “I’m doing it! I’m swimming!

snorkeling lesson 3Next, it was time to jump off the dock with snorkel, mask, and fins – demonstrate being horizontal with face in the water, and dive and clear a snorkel pipe. Cornell didn’t wait until the end of the group this time, and only needed a countdown from three. Off the dock he went. Thirty minutes earlier, he couldn’t swim and was nervous to wade!

PK snorkeling 3But snorkeling at the reefs brought another level of challenge. We took a boat out to the site, which is in the middle of the ocean – no land anywhere to be seen. The water was deeper, and even in the shallow areas, in order to protect the coral, we were not allowed to stand. However, once we put out faces in, we were immediately immersed in an underwater world of colorful life.

PK snorkeling 1

 

All but one of our 45 students made it into the water. While snorkeling at Looe Key, we saw several fairly large reef sharks. As a result, a number of students didn’t stay in the water for very long on that first day.

PK snorkeling shark

 

shark video

 

 

 

They were disappointed in themselves, and most of them set a goal to spend more time in the water the next day at Sombrero Reef. Almost all of them did this, and experienced the pride that comes with meeting a challenge you’ve set for yourself.

Michael: “Another very powerful part of this trip was when we went snorkeling because I was very scared to even get into the water. This really changed my view on deep waters and swimming near dangerous animals because I didn’t want to stay in the water for one second on the first day, but on the second day, I was aggravated I even had to get out!”

Alvin: “At Pigeon Key I overcame my fear of snorkeling with sharks. I am most proud of myselPK snorkeling 4f for being gritty in everything I did down in Pigeon Key. It made me realize that I have to be gritty in everything I do in my life.” 

 

 

 PK snorkeling 6

Cornell: “The trip also helped me understand the beauty of the world. Like seeing all those fish and coral. I got so much salt water in my mouth from laughing/smiling when I saw how amazing everything was. It was amazing to just look at it for minutes and sort of just see natural beauty. It’s so beautiful, you know? The world where it’s natural and protected.”

Hadiyah’s Snorkeling Poem once again manages to express the many thoughts and feelings that snorkeling at the reef elicited.

 “Fear crept up my spine

The water like a Gatorade blue

Acting like it had secrets to hide

The deepness threatening me

But under me, something filled with wonder

 

Jumping so quick I almost missed it

Switching snorkles as fast as people end relationships.

Drawing in excitement

Wanting to see everything I ever learned

Curiosity like a small child and a TV

 

Pain in my eyes and throat couldn’t stop me.

Not then, not ever

The type of beauty that could make a grown man cry

It gave a sense of courage.

A sense of passion.

 

Together one minute

Alone the next.

The pointing,

The tapping

The thank yous

 

It felt like days under there.

Permanently burned in my brain

Fragments never to be forgotten

Having new friends

And cherishing them, all in three hours.”

 Maria Montessori was right. True education “is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.” These lessons can’t be learned in the classroom.

Building Relationships

 On this trip, the students learned as much about themBeach 2selves, and each other, as they did about the world around them. They had opportunities to view themselves, and each other, in a new light. They had fun together, and as they did so, they saw themselves changing and growing, and they saw strengths in one another.

Zakeerah’s journal noted a typical adolescent concern, and the tender way her peers took care of her.

“I was worried that no one would want to sit next to me on the bus, and then Dorey took my face in her hands and said, ‘You are a smart and beautiful person.’ If I could have blushed I would have. Then Takko sat next to me on the bus.”

 Hadiyah: “I got to know Sam a lot more today. He is really chill and smart. I like that we are closer now. I already knew he was funny, just not THAT funny.”

Michael: “I was really skeptical about how I would fit in with the other 8th graders I didn’t really know. I think this experience really changed my outloBeach 3ok on a lot of things . . . This trip also helped me bond with a lot of my classmates, who I usually don’t talk to or haven’t really got a chance to know. I didn’t really take to heart not judging a book by its cover, but once I got to meet and bond with a lot of the other 8th graders in Pigeon Key, I felt like I had been lost because I could have found these people and talked to them earlier.”

 

And Qualey, who noted at the beginning of the trip that she hoped to learn to love herself, later wrote: “I don’t know, but today, I see myself changing in a good way, and I’m so proud of myself for growing up and trying to be a positive young lady.”

On this trip, I had the privilege of watching them grow up right before our eyes.

 Transitions

 We hold a rite of passage ceremony on our final night on the island. (This ceremony is a well-kept secret at Gamble. Older students, even older siblings, don’t share the details of this ritual with younger students.) As a part of this closing celebration, students receive packets of letter from teachers and family members – each letter acknowledging the student for the gifts the writer sees in them. They read these letters during their final solo time. It is incredibly powerful for them.

Michael: “It was very impactful for me when I read my letters from the teachers and my family because it showed how much others appreciate me, and I never really knew that so many people actually cared about me. That really lit up my day because I was already a bit mad because I didn’t want to go home.”

Closing Ceremony Poem Excerpts

 “I cried harder at each letter that filled my mind.

Before we were all blinded teenagers.

Thinking nobody cared,

Nobody could come close to understanding.

When everybody tried to.

                                                      (Hadiyah)

 

Teachers crying, students crying

Everyone crying because

They really care for

Each other. Some tears

Of joy, other tears of

Disappointment or sorrow.

 

We’re being set free

Like baby birds finally

Learning to fly. Uncomfortable

At first, but later confident

Because we have the tools

We need to succeed in life.”

                                               (Michael)

And There is Magic

 The Pigeon Key trip is an intense week full of many, many powerful experiences. Each of these moments swirled together spark sheer and absolute magic.

One evening as we were preparing for bed, Qualey looked up at me and asked, seemingly out of nowhere “Ms. Taylor, Do you think I’m going to be ready for high school next year?”

And my response: “Oh, Qualey, I know you’re going to be ready for high school next year,”

There were so many vulnerable and tender moments like this. It was an absolute honor to get to participate in and witness students’ transformation. It is experiences like these that make teaching worth all the challenges. It is why teachers do what we do. We get to stand beside children, and to serve as their guides.

The school year ended mere days after returning to Cincinnati, and our two-year time together came to an end. These students will move on to our high school program next year. I will miss them.

This is Hadiyah’s response to what she would tell future students.

“I will tell them that Pigeon Key is a miracle place, andsunset finally, that it was like a never-ending dream.”

I feel the same way.

 

 

**This trip is a monumental opportunity for our students, but as you can imagine, it is quite expensive.  The cost per student is $1,700.  With 70% of our students eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program, this amount is a significant hardship for many of our families.  This year, we were able to provide upwards of $12,000 in scholarships through contributions made to the Gamble Montessori Foundation; however, even with that support, only about half of our 8th graders were able to go on the trip.  My dream is that someday they will all get to go.  If you are interested in helping with this, I am more than happy to provide further information about how to donate, and about how financial aid decisions are made.  Feel free to contact me at taylorkrista70@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“CUES Cast” Center for Urban Educational Studies

The Hamilton County Center for Urban Educational Studies explores best practices for teachers working in urban environments, especially in the greater Cincinnati / Hamilton County area.  Their mission is to provide support and resources to teachers searching to improve outcomes for their students.

Krista and I were honored to be interviewed for the UrbanESC podcast this April, where we had a chance to talk about the great work being done at Gamble Montessori every day, and to advocate for socio-emotional learning for all students as a way to equip them with the tools necessary to exhibit grit while also demonstrating grace and courtesy.

We are thankful to Paul Smith and Jason Haap for inviting us on their program, and asking thoughtful questions about the work we – and so many others – find profoundly fulfilling. We encourage you to follow this link to the podcast, then respond here: react, comment, question – we would love to hear from you.

What important questions did not get asked? What details did we leave out?

Here is the direct address of the podcast:  http://www.urbanesc.org/2016/04/04/angels-and-superheroes/

 

Lead by Helping Others Lead

-by Jack M. Jose

Getting suggestions has never been a problem for a school administrator. When I transitioned from being a teacher to being a principal, I noticed a significant change in how people started sentences when they spoke to me. Instead of offering me congratulations or encouragement, parents and friends were offering me … advice. Suddenly “You should …” became a common conversational opening. When I was a teacher I did not field many suggestions about what to do in my classroom. But now that I had completed 15 years of teaching, and my second post-Bachelor’s degree, and had been selected by a group of teachers, community members, and others to lead a school, I was clearly always in need of one more unsolicited idea. Principals, apparently, exude the impression that they are grasping for suggestions, and need input on every step, from the most mundane idea to ideas that would completely transform the nature of the school. Among suggestions I received: “You should paint that curb yellow,” “You should secretly rank your students and report that to colleges,” “You should do away with the bell schedule,” and “You should require everyone to get two credits of home economics.” Often suggestions are helpfully couched with evidence of dubious merit, usually stated “Like they did in my high school.”

Lead by Helping Others Lead

Of course, I am exaggerating the nature of the suggestions and (somewhat less so) their frequency. In fact, deftly handling suggestions is an important part of the work of any leader. The best leaders involve a wide array of individuals in the act of molding all aspects of the school, and find ways to let others lead.

More than a decade ago, prior to moving to Gamble, I was involved in discussions surrounding the reorganization of a public school in Cincinnati with an eye toward creating a teacher-led school. The goal was to create a system whereby teachers would collectively make the key decisions about the school – program structure, schedule, disciplinary decisions – and the administrator would serve largely to assist in making those decisions happen using his (my newly-acquired) administrative status. (Only now does it occur to me to have been something of a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, perhaps I was seen to be collaborative; on the other hand, perhaps I was perceived as potentially a weak administrator. I choose to go with the first understanding.) I know that when I was a teacher working daily with other trusted, hard-working teachers, constantly acting with the best interests of the students in mind, this seemed a logical conclusion in the evolution of schools. Who better to make the decisions than those of us closest to the “front lines”?

Well, the pie-in-the-sky hope did not come to fruition. And since then, time and again, the structure in CPS schools – and almost everywhere else – has remained largely static and hierarchical. There is a principal, one individual making the final call on the entire range of decisions; size and budget permitting, there may be one or more assistant principals; finally, there are teacher leaders, both in name and stipend, and in energy and spirit.

Though that particular effort to create a teacher-led school was unsuccessful, the concept itself is not misguided or even ill-fated. In fact, any school can be a teacher-led school, provided the administrator is willing to let it happen. Below are suggestions for a controlled, thoughtful way that an administrator can share authority with teachers. These are all strategies that have been applied regularly, albeit imperfectly, at Gamble Montessori. The first hurdle in utilizing these suggestions is having an administrator who wishes to involve teachers directly in the process of decision-making and responsibility-taking.

Sharing responsibility and decision-making with teachers, parents, and students is not a novel concept in education. Nor is it a new thought in any business model to involve front-line employees in making the most important decisions. Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discusses this sharing of the work and decision-making as the difference between mere management and true leadership. Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, in The Art of Possibility, call it “Leading from any Chair,” and describe this as the most important aspect of leadership. In the end, it creates not just a better product, but a shared sense of accomplishment and ownership.

Listening to suggestions:

First, a leader must find an intentional way to elicit input from others involved in the task. Listening to suggestions is best exemplified by Zander’s own example, wherein he encourages the musicians in his orchestra to provide suggestions on how the music should be played. Those who are closest to the situation are in the best position to understand the problems and the changes that need to be made to affect the best outcome.

This does not mean taking every suggestion and implementing it, or even promising to implement it. It does mean that you have to develop facility for handling suggestions in a way that ensures they get fair treatment. Sometimes this means allowing a teacher to take leadership on an initiative that they have championed, and sometimes this means referring the idea to a relevant committee that is in position to make the suggested change.

Sharing responsibility:

To be most effective, a manager must not only listen to suggestions, but must create structures to implement important ideas and changes in a regular manner. At Gamble Montessori, there are few aspects of the structure and daily running of the school that have happened without the tacit approval, and sometimes the explicit approval, of a majority of the staff. This can be accomplished anywhere with a couple simple steps.

First, create committees to achieve certain goals or accomplish work that needs to be done during the school year. Though not an exhaustive list, three examples of this at Gamble, and at many schools, are:

  • Graduation committee, created to plan and implement the annual commencement ceremony;
  • Positive school culture committee, responsible for overseeing instruction around fair implementation of the school’s rules and policies for students, and the effectiveness of a particular approach;
  • Communications committee, responsible for maintaining the school’s website and social media presence.

Second, create a governing structure where the principal is a critical component, but not the only one. An example of this is an instructional leadership team (ILT). In Cincinnati Public Schools an ILT has a defined composition and roles that require a certain percentage of teachers, parent membership, and the presence of the principal to create a quorum. Such a structure similar to an ILT at any school could be used to make a wide variety of decisions. The wider the changes they are empowered to make within boundaries, the better. These should not be minor decisions; this committee is not best used to decide when the school play should happen (that is a job for a sub-committee). The ILT should be used to make substantial decisions such as setting the focus of annual improvement efforts, and monitoring the success of teams and individuals in achieving the goals that were decided upon.

However, the simple creation of a governing structure is not the goal. A leader must commit to giving those structures the space they need to do their work effectively. That means allowing the committee to structure the work that comes out of it – including the Principal’s work. I occasionally lament that our ILT exists to create my to-do list, but it is an empty complaint. I understand that to lead by example, I have to be willing to allow the decisions of the group to become my work. I must also enforce decisions when they become the work of the group.

Establishing priorities:

One replicable way that we have become transparently teacher-led is in collectively establishing priorities for key decisions. There are many “hidden decisions” that get made in the daily process of running a school, or any business. Every phone call handled by a secretary or returned by a teacher helps set a tone for the school (ask Zappos or Wondermade Marshmallows about the importance of good customer service.) Grading decisions made daily by individual teachers have large impacts on student success and outward signs of student success like grade point averages, which in turn affect college acceptances. Even though these decisions are powerful for individuals and their sense of connection to the school, they are made away from the public eye, in the privacy of our classrooms or dining rooms. These are the kinds of actions for which there must be a framework that establishes priorities. Not everything on a teacher’s to-do list can be the most important thing.

Another example of hidden decision-making comes when we schedule students. With only 7 classes in a school day, over two semesters, a course choice in high school has ripple effects for everything that happens afterward. I became aware of this early on, when the school was small enough that I did the scheduling by hand each July. Where a class fell in the school day impacted the ability of the student to take (or not take) other elective classes, or determined whether a team could have common planning time during the day. Several years ago I listed the factors that drove course selection and decision-making during scheduling, and I challenged our ILT to prioritize these factors. Earlier this year we revisited the process.

We used our leadership structure to involve everyone in determining our scheduling priorities by defining key terms, and taking an initial list back to our constituencies. We came back together with questions and suggestions for all of the scheduling factors. An example of the items that might run up against each other during scheduling, are “expanded elective choices,” “reduce class sizes,” and “access to remediation.” We then decided on a voting structure, created ballots, and voted as a staff, creating a final prioritized list. This list will guide those of us who schedule students as we make decisions, allowing us to do it independently and in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the school.

This process is time-consuming. It took us a couple of weeks. However, the result is well worth it. Ultimately everyone got to weigh in on our school’s scheduling priorities, and collectively we made a decision that will guide many behind-the-scenes decisions made by administrative staff while scheduling individual students and classes.

When you become a leader, you are going to get suggestions. Creating a shared responsibility system for handling suggestions is going to help everyone feel empowered and supported in making everyday decisions, and it will determine whether you are successful.