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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Commencement – A Celebration of the Individual

-by Jack M. Jose

Graduation 1
In community, preparing for commencement.

It is commencement season, and our Facebook feeds and conversations with friends are filled with celebrations: hard-won degrees earned, and lifelong goals met. It is a joyous time of year.

Every commencement is special, but some years and in some locations, there is magic. In 2014 Gamble Montessori senior Michael Tucker reached a personal milestone as he crossed the stage and received his diploma. Michael was not just graduating from high school. He was confined to a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy – or at least he had been. Though this was his situation during his entire time at Gamble, he had expressed to his teacher and mother that he wanted to walk across the stage at graduation. For more than a year, he regularly left school twice a week to get physical therapy. He had knee surgery to extend his tendons so he could stand upright enough to walk, and he engaged in extensive recovery therapy. He even started walking to different places around the classroom, practicing the commencement walk tirelessly.

On commencement day, we had a lift available to get him on and off the stage. This was a precaution, in case fatigue or the excitement got in the way of his plans. At our rehearsal he stumbled a bit, but assured us through sign language and his determined look that he would be fine for the big event. That afternoon, when his name was called, he started confidently across the stage … and did exactly what he said he would, walking independently toward me to get his diploma. Michael’s mother reported that, behind her, another woman exclaimed loudly, “It’s a miracle!” Certainly it was. We were crying at the celebration of a goal visibly achieved through hard work and pain over an extended time. It was better than a miracle: it was a hard-won victory.

This celebration of personal and individual triumph is, of course, why we were crying and applauding for every child. For each graduate, the obstacles are very real, if not as dramatic or as visible.

Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar. There is no more powerful reminder of the importance of a teacher’s work, and the value of our time spent in conversations with students about quality of work and matters of integrity and timeliness. I remind my students that this particular ceremony is an important gateway into society. Their diplomas, already earned, wield the real power to their post-secondary future. The ceremony, however, remains an emotional symbolic transition into adulthood.

The photos and stories in our Facebook feed reveal that, over time, every school develops its own traditions and ways of taking care of the important business of sending students out into the world. Some have mechanical, no-nonsense commencement ceremonies, appropriate especially for schools with large graduating classes, while others have developed odd traditions, like the Smith College Diploma Circle, where students are handed someone else’s diploma and seek their own in a method described here: http://www.smith.edu/events/commencement_traditions.php . Almost all feature a speech by a student in the class, a dignitary or two, and representatives of the Board that oversees the school. Many feature music by the school’s choir, band, or orchestra, perhaps performing the processional and/or recessional.

In the spring of 2010, Gamble Montessori, in just our fifth year of formal existence, celebrated our first commencement, and faced a bit of a challenge. The Board of Education provided an outline of required events in a certain sequence (pledge of allegiance, conferring of diplomas, etc.) but these were not a graduation ceremony in themselves. There was no personality there, no recognition of what made us unique. So we turned to ourselves –a graduation committee consisting of teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, students and myself – to create an event worthy of our students.

For our first commencement, Janice Dale, a paraprofessional who had worked with our students for years, and who our students intermittently addressed as Mrs. Dale and “Grandma,” offered a bold proposal: in addition to focusing on the achievements and development of the individuals, we would have a series of 3 commencements that would served to place Gamble appropriately in the timeline of public Montessori schools. Our school was the 7th public Montessori school in the Cincinnati Public Schools system, and the second high school. There is no public Montessori system like it anywhere in the world, but we often took it for granted. She wanted to give our faculty, students, and families a remarkable gift. She suggested we should honor those who made our school possible, in order to remind ourselves how we were special. More importantly, with Mrs. Dale’s help, we made sure that our commencement was a space for our students to celebrate their individual talents, whether it was reciting poetry, dancing, or singing.

[Author’s note: We followed her plan. Our first 3 years we honored: the beginnings of Montessori in Cincinnati including those who worked to create the first public Montessori elementary schools here, then the more recent past including those who broadened the number of Montessori elementary openings in Cincinnati, and finally we recognized those individuals who were directly responsible for the creation of Gamble Montessori 12 years after the opening of the first public Montessori high school, Clark Montessori.]

Each year we sought ways for students’ talents and interests to define the ceremony and make it unique. It is crucial, we believe, to honor the individual student. Just as we build choice into work and tailor assignments to match the strengths and interests of individual students, we understand that to truly be in community, we must celebrate each of our individuals. This is what makes Gamble strong: we understand that when we share the responsibility and shine a light on each other, we make our community stronger. For this reason, students are entrusted with several opportunities to make the ceremony theirs:

  • We allow students to pick their student speaker, instead of having this determined by a GPA or by a committee. Many believe the valedictorian to be the student with the best grades at the completion of school, and that this person is required / entitled to give the main student speech at commencement. However, the accurate definition of valedictorian is less specific, simply the student chosen to give the main address at commencement. Rather than a formula or a committee deciding, our seniors choose this person internally.
  • We allow seniors to invite to the keynote speaker of their choice. They have historically chosen favorite teachers from their younger years at Gamble. In each case, they have selected teachers who were storytellers and who both loved and frustrated them.
  • We allow our students to choose their graduation gown color from one of our three school colors, instead of assigning them by gender.
  • We have sometimes had student videos featuring pictures and quotes or baby pictures. Sometimes we have had posters featuring seniors’ favorite photos of themselves.
  • We allow our students to choose which talented students will display their artistry at commencement. In five short years we have had singers, a praise dancer, and poetry readings.
10408593_972560272754794_3409153715016835708_n
2015 Gamble Montessori Mortarboards celebrating the journey, the future, college, and life-long friendships!

In 2014 students asked if they could decorate their mortarboards, those flat-topped square hats that graduates wear. The traditionalists among us initially rejected the idea, but again, respect for the individual won out. We quickly created three simple rules for the mortarboard decoration and a new tradition was born: it had to be two-dimensional and fit completely on the board, and it had to be school appropriate. What followed were dozens of decorations that compared their journey from kindergarten to commencement to a popular video game, touted their college choices and majors, and touchingly celebrated their friendships.

Certain parts of the ceremony have remained steadfastly the same, in place to make sure we honor each student individually. First, we remind our families early in the ceremony how important it is that we honor each student fully, but within the time provided. Many of our students have invited distant family relatives to this milestone ceremony, and they take the occasion of commencement to loudly exclaim their pride and love. Rather than suggest that this is not appropriate, we remind our parents that the child being introduced after their child is equally deserving of praise and applause. Then, as a cushion, we have built in a little extra time for each student. When a child’s name is called, she steps onto the stage to shake my hand, accept her diploma, get our picture taken together, and shake the hands of the Board member and other dignitaries. Rather than immediately calling the next name and being frustrated by continuing applause, we allow the student their full moment, only calling the next name when she reaches the top of the stairs to descend.

Gamble’s graduation has never been interrupted by cheering extending into another student’s introduction, or marred by silence as a graduate’s name was called and his small family’s applause was lost in the crowd and reaches of the conference center. Each year our families have honored every graduate, and demonstrated the sense of community we seek to instill in each of our students.

One year, the students asked Tara to sing a solo with the choir. She worked with the teacher to select the appropriate song, “Dare to Dream” by John Legend. Weeks of practice got her fully prepared, vocally, for commencement. Nothing had prepared her emotionally for singing in front of such a large crowd and – more importantly – singing to friends she was just starting to realize she might not ever see all together again. We cried with Tara as she stumbled through her solo, singing a prayer of hope as a gift to her classmates: “Hold on when hope is gone / Race may not belong to the swift or the strong / It’s given to the ones who can endure for long / I know we care.”

One year we laughed as teacher Jason Banks pulled the microphone free from the podium, jumped off the stage, and urged the graduates to leave their seats and sit Montessori-style in a circle on the floor. He reminded them of their marine biology study in Pigeon Key, Florida, and their whitewater rafting trip where they woke up to 4 inches of fresh snow. He prompted them with, “Always leave a place …” and they finished, “Better than you found it!” Then he read them key excerpts from Oh! The Places You’ll Go.

The best commencements are the ones where the crowd is just a little bit lost, but each student feels completely found.

Each year, as we gather for graduation practice, I remind my students that commencement is an important ritual, yes, but also just a grand show. The hard work has been done. They have earned their diplomas with nights of hard work and days of concentration. They have raised and spent hundreds of dollars, and invested thousands of hours over 12 or more years of their lives. The big work of their lives so far has been completed, and everyone has gathered to honor them. They have earned this celebration, and we are so proud of them.

This is the time to pay close attention to each other, be patient, and be in love with the moment and with our students. We follow the child, hit our marks, and let the miracles happen.

 

 

 

 

 

“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/