Exeter Math Institute: Math or Social Justice?

-by Krista Taylor

“Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I’m sorry, what?

It was the first day of math training, and this was the initial task.   I had signed up for this professional development opportunity because Jack said it would be good, and because I have spent a significant amount of time over the past several years trying to improve my math instruction. Because, you see, I was “bad at math,” and that is not something that I ever want to pass on to my students. As a result, I have worked hard at becoming a better math teacher.

Math has never come as easily to me as other subject areas. In the 7th grade, I was “honors-tracked” in all subjects. I only stayed in honors through the end of the 8th grade, but by then the damage was done because my course of study in math had already been accelerated. I skated through Algebra II in the 9th grade, and very nearly failed Geometry in the 10th. At that point, I stopped taking math altogether. My advisor told me that I shouldn’t even consider taking Chemistry “because of all that math,” so science went as well. While that opened a lot of time in my schedule for terrific courses like Art History, and the History of the Theater, ultimately quitting math early did me no favors.

What irony then that teaching math has been a part of my job description throughout my career.

It wasn’t until I spent three years co-teaching math at Gamble with Katie Doyle that I began to feel a sense of competency. This was reinforced by the occasional proclamations of my own children when, upon returning home from work in the evening, I would hear, “I’m glad you’re finally home; I’ve been waiting for you to help me with my math homework!” Every time, I was tempted to turn around and look for whoever most certainly was coming in the door behind me. “I’m sorry, you’re waiting for who to help you with your math homework?”

Which brings me back to the math training. I want to be a better math teacher. I want teaching math to feel as fluid for me as teaching English does. I want to be certain that I am serving my students in the best way possible. To that end, I know I need to keep working at math. So, I committed to four summer days of math PD.

Which brings us back to, “Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, but you see, I think I’m in the wrong training. I want to get better at teaching math, not doing math!”

I wasn’t nearly that brave, so instead I did this. (Okay, with the group I was working with, and assistance from the teacher, I did this. It’s still pretty cool.)

Exeter math paper

I’ll admit it, as an adult learner, the math was interesting. We were working on problems from the 9th and 10th grade math curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Yes, THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Arguably the most prestigious 9th-12th grade prep school in the country. Tuition for boarding students at Exeter is $47,000 annually; for day students, it is a mere $36,500, and there are rigorous admission criteria. The average class size is twelve; the student-teacher ratio is five to one. THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Full stop.

The Exeter math program is unlike any math instruction I have ever experienced.FullSizeRender (9)

  • There is no textbook, only a binder full of problems.
  • There is no direct instruction.
  • There is no modeling.
  • There are no examples.
  • Nearly every problem is a multi-step, word problem.

 

The structure of the class is such that when students enter the classroom, they immediately begin putting answers on the board from the homework the night before. Then the group discusses each problem, assessing accuracy, determining alternate methods, revising the work, questioning the results. The teacher’s role is to provide a few prompts and probing questions to deepen the understanding of the group, and to correct inaccuracies. Once all of the problems have been explored, new homework is assigned to be analyzed the next day in class. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the instructional process each day.

But, at the end of Day 1, I found myself feeling aggravated. I wanted to get better at teaching math to MY students. My 7th and 8th grade students at Gamble Montessori High School in the Cincinnati Public School System. How in the world was spending 8 hours a day for 4 days completing Exeter math problems going to help me to do that?!

Exeter students are not my students.

Exeter students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year. Seventy percent of my students are eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program. Exeter students must demonstrate academic excellence in order to be admitted to the program. Thirty percent of my students are identified as having a disability; many more struggle with significant skill gaps. Exeter students either live at school full-time or remain on campus until 8:00pm each evening. My students go home at the end of a 7-hour school day, and some of them experience significant stress in those home environments. Exeter students are instructed in class sizes of 12. My students are in classes with 25-35 of their peers.

Exeter students are not my students.

The second afternoon, during a break, I had a casual off-hand conversation with Sami Atif, one of our instructors who is a math teacher at Exeter. We were discussing the make-up of the student body at Exeter.

He said, “It’s a cultural thing.”

Taken aback, I defensively asked, “What do you mean, exactly?”

His response surprised me. “It’s about culture.  These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem.  I don’t think I ever questioned a teacher when I was growing up.  I wouldn’t have dared.  These kids don’t have that issue.  It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

The conversation lagged, the break ended, and we went on with class. But his words hung with me. I revisited them on the drive home, and at some point before I went to bed that evening, it hit me like a kick in the gut.

“These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem . . . It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them.

Days three and four of the training were different for me. I was all in. Not just for me, for my students, too.   It helped, of course, that I was witnessing my own math development in action. I was thrilled on Wednesday evening to discover that not only was I able to approach nearly every problem assigned for homework, I was able to get to an answer that I was near certain was correct.

Here is an example: “Let A = (-2,4) and B = (7,6). Find the point P on the line y=2 that makes the total distance AQ+BQ as small as possible.”

IMG_0448 (1)

That was the change in me after three days of practice.

And I started to observe the instructors. This was far more than a curriculum; it was a methodology. The first thing I realized was that they never (never!) provided or confirmed an answer. This prompted more than one person to question whether the instructors actually even knew the correct answers! Instead they met questions with questions and provided guidance in the form of suggestions or references back to previously constructed knowledge.

By this point, I was writing down everything they said because I know from past experience that when looking to make a shift in practice, sometimes you have to “fake it ‘til you make it.” I was seeking a script, so I allowed the instructors to unknowingly provide it for me themselves. Here are some of their prompts:

“It looks like maybe you were thinking . . . “

“Are there any other ways to get there?”

“That’s a step I want to process more.”

“That’s really interesting.”

“Are there any other ways to look at this?”

“Are you convinced that you’ve found the correct answers?”

This strategy is known as “Harkness teaching” as it was first conceived of by Edward Harkness, an oil magnate who gave a significant donation to Exeter Academy for implementation of a teaching style that he described thusly:

“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

Oh, yes, Mr. Harkness, I, too, see your vision as revolutionary.

And yet I remain haunted by the question of “how.” How can I possibly implement this in my classroom – keeping in mind that many of my 7th and 8th grade students arrive with math skills that are expected from a 4th or 5th grader. What can I do to help them to reach this level of math confidence and comprehension?

What I didn’t realize initially was that this work had already been begun by Savannah Rabal, a junior high math teacher at our sister school, Clark Montessori. Savannah was out of town for the first two days of the training, but when she arrived on the third day, I began picking her brain for how she had done it. Her wise words, “Trust the Process,” provided me with hope in my ability to implement something similar in my own classroom.

Here are some of the expectations that she and her class developed for working with this type of instruction.

Exeter Savannah

So perhaps it is possible to do something like this after all – to provide my students with the opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers solving high-level math problems through exploration, discussion, discovery, and critical thinking. I do not know yet exactly what implementation of this methodology will look like in my classroom, but here are my thoughts so far:

  • Begin with just 1 day a week
  • Provide direct instruction in expectations for the process; allow for student input and suggestions as we identify strategies for working together
  • Establish small groups that would work together consistently
    • Groupings could be heterogeneous, allowing stronger students to support those who are struggling
    • Groupings could be homogenous with differentiated questions, allowing strong students to work together toward acceleration, while struggling learners would be obligated to take risks and make attempts to approach the task without the support of their typically-relied upon peers.
    • Groupings could be a flexible combination of both homogenous and heterogenous groupings, allowing for the benefits of both options
  • Develop scaffolded supports to support student exploration and learning
    • Teacher prompts
    • Written structures such as guiding prompts and organizational supports
    • Pre-select appropriately leveled questions or design our own
  • Begin the process by working the problems together in class rather than expecting students to tackle them independently as homework in the initial roll-out phase

I’ll be honest. I am nervous as all get-out to even attempt beginning this process. There seems to be so many hurdles in the way. The challenges my students face with math content is just the beginning.

How on earth will I get my colleagues on board? They will not have the benefit of a four-day experiential training to elicit their buy-in; they will only have me (and Rosalyn and Erin, who also attended the workshop) waxing prophetic and showing them the materials that at first glance seem utterly ridiculous.

Even if I only implement this approach one day a week, it will throw us further off the curriculum content pacing that the district expects. How can I demonstrate that this is beneficial enough to make it allowable?

What will the parents think? Savannah already had this experience when a parent contacted her saying, “So, I hear you don’t teach math anymore.” Many parents are already wary of Common Core math, and already feel beyond their ability to assist with junior high-level math. What will they think when we throw this at them?

And what will happen when it doesn’t go as I have planned? In fact, the only thing I am certain of is that it won’t go exactly as I have planned. What then?   Will I have the courage to stick with it? Will my students? Will my fellow teachers? Will my administrators?

It helped to discover this excerpt by Elisabeth Ramsey in the Exeter “Introductory Math Guide – Written For Students By Students.” It feels a bit as if she was writing directly to me regarding my apprehension about implementation, “I learned one of the more important lessons about math at Exeter; it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. Your classmates will be supportive of you, and tolerant of your questions. Chances are, if you had trouble with a problem, someone else in the class did too. Another thing to keep in mind is that the teacher expects nothing more than that you try to do a problem to the best of your ability. If you explain a problem that turns out to be incorrect, the teacher will not judge you harshly. They understand that no one is always correct, and they will not be angry or upset with you.”

And I continue to hear Savannah’s words echoing in my head, “Trust the Process.”

And Sami’s comment, after I acknowledged him for the powerful impact his words had on me, “Yeah, this is social justice work.”

So, remembering the feeling of: “I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them,” I am ready to take the plunge. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

The Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement

-by Krista Taylor

Seeking Courage

The day before winter break this year, I found myself pacing back and forth in the hallway outside of Sylvia’s classroom just before first bell, trying to muster up the courage to go in. I didn’t do it.

I returned to that same spot during my planning bell. This time I managed to get through the classroom door, but wound up just having some silly conversation about something random, and then exiting.

I tried again at lunch thinking surely that the third time would be the charm. I had no greater success.

The night before, I had resolved to have a Difficult Conversation. (see Jack’s post on this topic linked here)

A few days earlier I had popped into Sylvia’s classroom to ask a question, but in the brief time I was there, I had observed students in this class violating several of our basic Building-Wide Expectations. When I corrected them, they told me that they were allowed to do these things in this class.

It bothered me. Not because the students’ behavior was particularly disruptive. It wasn’t. (The rule-breaking in question was about dress code, headphones, and the food and drink policy.) It bothered me because our Building-Wide Expectations are supposed to be just that, “Building-Wide;” they are supposed to be “What We Do Here.”

It would have been easy to just ignore it. Ignoring it was especially tempting because Sylvia was someone who had regularly supported me, helped me out on many occasions, and someone I consider a friend. I wanted to choose what was easy.

Besides, correcting a fellow teacher isn’t even my job, is it? Isn’t that the work of an administrator? Co-workers are under no obligation to hold each other accountable to expectations. Right . . .

This was the argument I had tried to hide behind for days, but it just wasn’t sitting properly with me. How was I helping things by being privately irritated by the actions of someone I like and respect? How was I helping things by not addressing my concerns directly? By failing to do so, I was potentially setting my colleague up for being corrected by an administrator – how was that helpful to her?

Avoiding the Difficult Conversation certainly felt better for me, and likely for Sylvia as well, but was it really better? Was I really being supportive by not saying anything? Was I really being a friend? Was I advocating for the needs of students? Was I really doing my job? Ultimately I decided that I was not, because when it comes right down to it, I do believe that it’s the job of co-workers to hold each other accountable. I believe this, in part, because it is a component of what we agreed as a staff to do for one another back in August of 2013 when, together, we wrote our Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement.

Developing the Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement

Each year, Gamble holds a two-day staff retreat during the summer. The retreat is a combination of professional development and team-building activities. Participation is purely voluntary and unpaid, yet almost our entire faculty attends. This is, in part, because each year, the retreat is led by Gamble staff and is structured around the specific needs of our building. However, I believe that the primary reason for the high-level of attendance is the tremendous commitment of our faculty to honing their craft and to developing our program.

At our retreat in 2013, we had to address the elephant in the room.

elephant

The 2012-2013 school year had been challenging. We were preparing for a significant expansion in our junior high – this meant that our existing junior high teams were being disbanded and reformed as new teams. Our ninth and tenth grade team was experiencing partial staff turn-over, and our high school program as a whole was exploring new ways to increase inclusion of students with disabilities. Add to all that the challenges of moving our entire program from one building to another across town, and it is little wonder that we were experiencing stress on a building-wide level. On virtually every team, teachers were angry with one-another. It felt almost like a contagion. Arguments were popping up in committee meetings. Regular “venting” sessions were happening behind closed doors. It didn’t feel good. Anxiety was high. Tempers were short. Frustration was increasing. We were talking about each other rather than to each other, and you could have cut the tension with a knife. Summer couldn’t come soon enough.

As a team-based school, there is very little that is ever done at Gamble by anyone operating in isolation, and this makes us heavily interdependent with one another. Team functionality is critical to our success and well-being as an institution. Part of the natural cycle of teaming is “Storming” – a period of time when conflict and discord emerges within groups. This is not a problem per se – conflict is often what moves us forward, and it can be a powerful part of the growth process. However, we were being profoundly impacted by the storming we were experiencing, and we had become a bit stuck. We needed help navigating through this storming phase.

The summer staff retreat seemed to be the right time and place to talk about our resident pachyderm. As a member of the retreat planning committee, I asked Jack to allow me to lead our staff through a problem-solving process. To this day, I have no idea why he trusted me enough to let me do this.

Once I had the go-ahead, I had to figure out how to guide our entire faculty through one giant, whole-group Difficult Conversation. There was no existing blueprint for this.

After significant reflection, I developed a plan that ensured each of the following:

  • Focus on solutions, not problems: Getting bogged down in identifying problems would only serve to distance us from one another and keep us focused on the negative.
  • Engage all participants in order to enhance buy-in: If we want people to implement change, they must believe in what they are being asked to do; this is easiest when they have had the opportunity to give input.
  • Find a path to consensus: In some situations, making decisions by majority vote is appropriate, but something like this requires that everyone is on board.
  • Provide enough time to allow for a thorough process: It is not helpful, and can be detrimental, to open up a sensitive topic without the resources of time and energy to see the conversation through to resolution.
  • Generate something substantive: It is not enough just to come up with good ideas; there must be some kind of visual repository or tangible product that is developed from those ideas. 

Here is the specific step-by-step process we used to help extricate ourselves from the whole-building storming we were experiencing.

Step 1.) Name the elephant. Like most schools, we have all kindsGSA slide 1 of rules and processes for helping students understand how to interact with one another, but we had nothing that guided our adults. This meant that when we were under stress, we had no protocols to turn to for assistance. We needed to create expectations for ourselves. The first step was simply to identify this as a need and as something that we would all benefit from developing.

Step 2.) Brainstorm. Each participant was asked to record on notecards three explicit actions or behaviors that they believed they needed or wanted from their colleagues.  GSA slide 2The provided prompt was, “What do you most want/need from your colleagues?” The specific process directions were to record up to 3 specific actions or behaviors, phrased positively, that each individual wanted from their colleagues. Each suggestion was to be written on a separate on a separate index card to allow for sorting in the next step.

Step 3.) Identify commonalities. All of the index cards were then collected, shuffled, and redistributed to small groups. Each group went throuGSA slide 3gh their stack of cards identifying responses that were similar, and determining the weight of each category based on the number of comments on that topic. This served several purposes. It gave participants the opportunity to anonymously see each other’s responses. It allowed common threads to begin to emerge. And, most importantly, it got everyone engaged in working collectively on the task.

Step 4.) Consolidate and find common language. Each group reported out and those things that had been identified as important to the majority of people became apparent based on the number of responses. We worked to ensure that individual voices were heard and honored, while still maintaining the value of seeking consensus from the group. We debated word choice. We argued about the importance of specific components. We touched on old, long-buried arguments, and, at times, we stepped on one another’s feelings. This part of the process felt much like tiptoeing through a minefield.

minefield

There was angry debate over the importance of including a statement about cultural differences. Several staff members felt that it was critical to have this explicitly stated, while others believed that it was implied in the components we had already agreed upon and was an unnecessary addition. This argument was indicative of the struggles we were experiencing. Of course a statement on cultural awareness was an appropriate thing to include in our agreement. With hindsight, I can’t believe that we were arguing over such a thing. It seems utterly ridiculous now, but at the time it was hotly contested.

As the facilitator, it was challenging to allow the discomfort to be felt and to use it as a catalyst, while not becoming side-tracked from the task, or allowing the work to devolve into a battle between competing agendas. I had to listen hard, carefully re-state, negotiate personalities and old conflicts, and keep pushing toward the goal of establishing shared expectations.

Step 5.) Create a tangible product. Somehow, we made it through – we clarified, we compromised, and we came up with the following statement to identify what was most critical to establishing and sustaining beneficial interactions with one another.

IMG_0439 (1)

“Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement for working collaboratively and supporting each other.  We will utilize effective communication, which is grounded in respectful and professional conversations.  We will strive for excellence while maintaining positive interactions and attitudes and providing each other with instructional support.  We will have empathy for each other, and be open to seeing and celebrating each other’s unique and different perspectives — including cultural ones. We will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions.”

 Implementation: So we have a Staff Agreement, now what?

 Developing our Staff Agreement was the easy part. Using it to actually guide how we interact is much harder.

This year, on that day before winter break, I never did get brave enough to start the discussion with Sylvia in person. I regret that. Instead I retreated to the safety of electronic communication, and I sent this.

Dear Sylvia,

I feel incredibly uncomfortable about having this difficult conversation.  In fact, I have lurked outside your classroom on 3 different occasions today just trying to get up the courage to address you in person, but I can’t do it.

Here is my concern. When I was in your classroom earlier this week, I saw several things, which are in violation of our school policies — hats, headphones, food that wasn’t a fruit or vegetable.  When I redirected your students, they indicated that this is something that is allowable in your classroom.  Can you help me to understand? Even though you and I don’t teach the same students, it’s really hard and frustrating to uphold the expectations in my classroom when others don’t do the same because it sends a message that the expectations really aren’t that important.

My intention is not to come across as hyper-critical, but rather to seek understanding and solutions. Please know that I stand on no pedestal here.  My classroom is not a perfect place; we are all “works in progress.”  I express my concerns to you based on the understanding that part of each of our jobs here is to push each other to get better at what we do.

I love working with you, and I love the ways you provide me with assistance and support.   I just didn’t feel like I could let this concern go un-discussed, and I apologize for not having the courage to do so in person.

I hope you have a wonderful break, and I look forward to seeing you next semester.

This was what I received in response:

Thank you for your candor, and you are always welcomed and invited to share your opinions and concerns with me.  I respect you and your opinions perhaps more than anyone else at this school.

Let me address your concerns although it really is just a matter of my shortcomings.

I do not allow headphones in my class, at least not normally.  On the day you were here, before your arrival, a student had asked if they could listen to headphones that day, and I said “Yes.”  Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I felt like on that particular day it was okay for them to carve out some space for themselves to review.

As far as hats go, the problem is that I generally do not notice them.  It is like someone’s shoes, or socks, or belt–they just don’t seem to register in my active attention.  When I do notice them, I ask them to be removed.

Food is another one I struggle with.  Since Cincinnati has a 53% teen poverty rate (the second highest in the United States), I feel like I never know if a student has eaten on any given day.  Even if the school provides them with breakfast and lunch, a student may not have eaten enough calories in a 24-hour period.  Because of these things, I am always hesitant as to what I should do.

Rest assured I appreciate your input.  Out of the 20 emails that were unopened when I logged into my Inbox, yours was the first I read.  I am taking your concerns to heart.

This wasn’t an easy exchange – they’re called “difficult conversations” for a reason. I felt a lingering sense of awkwardness in this relationship for months afterward, but it was an honest awkwardness. There was no hostile residue of unspoken concerns, nor was there any venting to others. (We all know what that sounds like, “You’ll never believe what I saw going on in so-and-so’s classroom!”) Ultimately, I may never know whether or not the issues were resolved, but that matters less to me than knowing that I directly expressed my concerns. Was it my job to address this? Some would say no. I don’t think it’s always clear, but I find myself guided by what Jack says about things like this: We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.”

That’s the goal, of course, to get better at what we do.   Sometimes helping each other to do this feels good. Sometimes it doesn’t. The staff agreement provides guidance regarding how it is we’re supposed to “empower each other to help us get better at what we do;” it gives us parameters to fall back on when we forget what it is we are supposed to do for one another.

The Staff Agreement reminds us that . . .

  • We need to talk to each other, not about each other
  • Rather than allowing colleagues to vent to us, we need to gently prompt them to address their concerns directly
  • Much of the time when feelings are hurt, it isn’t intentional
  • Our differences make us stronger, and better able to do our jobs
  • We have a responsibility to support each other and to maintain high expectations
  • When we focus on the positive, it improves the environment for each of us

We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.

These things are not easy to do. But they are the foundation of institutional integrity.

 

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.