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Drama and the Amygdala

Notice how many pop-up ads there are this time of year about cleaning out and reorganizing our stuff? For some reason, we associate rearranging items with rearranging our mood. The holidays are over, spring break is months away, and the cold grayness of January and February do little to lift our spirits. Maybe if we reposition the furniture in the bedroom or clean out a closet or two, we will, to borrow from tidying-up guru Marie Kondo’s philosophy, find joy.

Children and teens also react to changes in the seasons, and February can be a low point in the year. A new semester brings the excitement of a fresh start but perhaps also disappointment over last semester’s grades. Starting new projects or units is exciting but can churn up worries. Standardized testing, which creates angst for many teens, is right around the corner for students at Brier Creek. Juniors may already be feeling a bit anxious about the college search even though that process won’t start formally until at least summer. Whereas adults may be able to change their mood by refolding t-shirts and organizing socks by color, adolescents have a tougher time because of what we now know about brain development.

Research over the past two decades has shown that the brain of adolescents is not fully formed in childhood but continues to grow and develop through the mid-twenties for young women and late twenties for young men. That is good news because it gives parents and teachers longer to coach young people in good decision making and mood management. The less good news is that while this evolution is in process, dealing with adolescent mood swings and meltdowns is a challenge.

Understanding the biology is helpful. Basically, the frontal region of the brain, which contributes logic to decision making, is underactive in adolescents. The limbic brain structures, which include the amygdala and control emotions, however, are working overtime. (This should not surprise any of us.) The problem, as Marwa Azab, Ph.D. at California State University explains it, is that the amygdala is doing its job, that is, warning the adolescent of danger, but because the frontal lobe is not fully developed, the youngster lacks the skills to assess the messages and determine whether the danger is “real, exaggerated, or imagined.” That is, not being able to “apply the brakes,” the adolescent may well react to a “Hello” she interprets as insincere the same way she would react to being chased by a large, hungry bear. Is it any wonder upset, anxiety, and drama are hallmarks of the adolescent years?

Does this scenario sound familiar?
• Parent: “How was school?”
• Adolescent: “I hate the drama!”
• Parent: “What happened?”

At that point, if an adolescent is interested in sharing, we hear about “the look,” or a slight of some kind, or a text, which the youngster has determined was mean or disingenuous. Of course, there can be unkind behaviors among students, and we must always address them. More frequently, as Azab explains, “teens are likely to interpret neutral stimuli as threatening” and perceive there is a crisis when none exists.

Parents also have a role to play. First, it is essential that we resist the temptation to join with our daughter or son in reacting immediately and emotionally to whatever an adolescent is sharing. Remember that the child does not yet have the cognitive capacity to assess and report accurately 100 percent of the time. Our job is to listen to children and teens and allow the rational processing skills we have honed over a lifetime to help them gain clarity and perspective.

Second, keep the lines of communication open and acknowledge feelings. When a youngster appears troubled, say something like, “I can tell you’re upset.” Then, invite the adolescent or teen to provide more detail: “I would be interested in hearing more about what has happened.”

Third, coach a daughter or son in how to reassess, gain a better understanding, and design a plan for moving forward. The best technique is to coach with questions. Here are a few you may want to keep handy.
• Have you thought about what you might do now?
• What would you like to see happen?
• Are there others who are upset? Might you find a time to talk with them about how to solve this problem?
• Which adult at school would be a good partner as you work through this situation?
• If you were advising a younger child about how to resolve this issue, what advice would you give?

By asking questions, we encourage more rational thinking in our adolescent, facilitate the healthy rewiring that is part of brain development, and remind students that not every upset is a hungry bear on the loose.


Decision-making is Still a Work in Progress for Teenagers

This article originally appeared in the February addition of Spice Box.

Brier Creek Upper School Ribbon Cutting

Head of Middle and Upper School Kevin McLean cuts the ribbon at the ceremony for our new Upper School building at Brier Creek. Rising seniors Gracie Felts and Alex Rangnow, Interim Head of School Jeannie Norris and Board Members Jeff Ammons and Joe Lee as well as Kevin spoke to a full house at the dedication party. Parents were eager to get a look at the incredible new facility and mingle with staff, faculty and several dignitaries. Thanks to everyone who helped make this exciting night possible!

MSR Merit Scholarships

The Montessori School of Raleigh now offers two merit based scholarships for incoming Upper School students. One scholarship is for the International Baccalaureate Programme and the other is for character and academic achievement. Read below to learn more about both of these amazing scholarships.

The International Baccalaureate Merit Scholarship

The International Baccalaureate Merit Scholarship recognizes an incoming 11th grade full IB Diploma student who has a proven record of academic excellence, demonstrated involvement in student leadership and who exhibits exemplary character. This scholarship will fund $5,000 a year for two years of the IB Diploma Program.

The Brier Creek Merit Scholarship

This scholarship recognizes an incoming 9th grade student who exhibits qualities of good character, potential for strong academic achievement and a passion for some area of study in the sciences, humanities, the arts, or technology. This scholarship funds $3,000 for the 9th grade, $4,000 for the 10th grade, and $5,000 a year for the 11th and 12th grade years.

Vision, Resolve and 5,000 Pounds of Food

Bijou and Isabel fairly float into my office and light on the two chairs facing my desk. They have just come from a meeting with Mr. Hughens, Director of Marketing & Communications, where they strategized with him about their social media campaign for the Sixth Year Food Drive. “We’re in charge of marketing,” they chirp with confidence, “and we want to collect 5,000 pounds of food and hygiene products to help North Carolina families.” I learn that typically the Class donates 3,000 pounds, but, as they say, “the recent hurricanes have motivated us to think bigger.”

And what is their strategy for marketing? “Facts,” says Bijou. Isabel quickly adds, “Do you know that one out of five children in North Carolina go hungry?” I admit that I didn’t know that. “That’s 20 percent!” Isabel exclaims. Bijou continues, “People have to know the facts so it will be vivid for them and so it will empower them to act.” (These really were their words—I am not making this up.) Then Isabel sums it up: “This is an actual problem, and we must solve it.”

All three sixth year classes are involved in the project, and the committee structure spans the three classrooms. Bijou and Isabel weren’t handed their leadership roles. They had to compete by writing a proposal on what they would each bring to the work. Isabel explains her approach: “I wrote that I like to raise the bar high and accomplish what I set out to do…I like to get things done on time.” Then she adds, eyes bright, “But if something goes wrong, I say, ‘Let’s try again!’” As for Bijou, the emphasis is on organizational skills and outcomes. “I want everything to turn out as close to our vision as we can make it,” she explains, adding, “I am willing to make sacrifices, and I believe we can be great if we just put our minds to it.”

Optimism and resolve dance in the air, so I ask if they have had any challenges. Relieved that I ask, Isabel immediately shares her worries about her tight schedule—that there are so many presentations and whether there will be enough time. Bijou’s head is nodding rapidly in agreement, and she references the commitment they both have to girls basketball. “Balance,” says Bijou, “we must find the balance—athletics, academics, food drive.” Now Isabel, on the edge of her chair, jumps in. “We just have to set our minds to it and stick with that!” she announces, a decidedly determined expression crossing her face. (I am seriously considering putting these girls in charge of a couple projects languishing on my desk.)

New topic. Forget the challenges. What has gone well? I want to know. Isabel leads off. “We work well together and that helps everything.” Bijou, looking a bit more pensive, says that at first she was “freaking out” with everything that had to be done. “Then,” she recalls, “we had a group discussion—a beautiful discussion, and we all realized that we balance each other.” Isabel wants to make sure I know that she and her classmates are learning to be “flexible,” that is, she explains, “we are learning to move on, remembering that the important thing is to collect the food” and have “a big impact.”

The conversation continues, and I learn that the Food Drive occurs between December 10 and 14, that the children deliver to the food bank on December 17, and that they have put in place an aggressive marketing campaign (presentations to classes, social media campaign, sandwich-board advertising, etc.). I think that overseeing and managing all this is the stuff of leadership, and I ask the girls if they are leaders. When I sense hesitation, I sum up the leadership skills they have convinced me they have: their ability to collaborate, envision, recover from setbacks, problem solve, be strategic. They watch me closely as I list their strengths.
Then I ask again. Are you leaders? Isabel and Bijou look at each other, then at me. A smile breaks out on each face, and I hear, “Yes, we are.”

The Way We Teach: Out of Our Heads

There is chatter as class begins. “Who is leading the discussion?” “Did you finish the analysis sheets?” “What analysis sheets?” “Has anyone ever thought how it would feel to wake up without language?” The student’s face is full of inquiry, and he continues, “Would it be our worst nightmare or a relief…you know…we would be unencumbered by language.” Other students pause and seem to be pondering the dilemma. Rose, the teacher, appears, and today’s session of the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) begins.

Sometimes referred to as both the most challenging and most loved course in the International Baccalaureate Programme, TOK asks students to reflect on the nature of knowledge and on how we know what we claim to know. It is, in the words of one student, “very, very challenging” and also mandatory for all students enrolled in the IB Diploma Programme.

Today’s focus is on language, and the slide projected on the whiteboard reads “Reading critically allows us to recognize perspective.” The questions begin. Rose: “Language is a way of knowing—of sharing knowledge, but how do we get language? What are the sources?” Students respond, “What about body language?” “Language forms the basis of all other ways of knowing.” Rose broadens the frame: “IB started with four ways of knowing; now there are eight.” We make a note to research the ways of knowing and later learn that Language, Senses, Emotion, and Reason are the original four ways and Imagination, Faith, Intuition, and Memory were added later.

Students continue to share thoughts, and then Rose says, “Remember the prismatic qualities of diamonds.” A student responds, “Using imagery with two perspectives—the sparkle from diamonds can be about manipulating light (negative) or about a rainbow (positive).” The discussion moves forward to SELECTION, which now appears on a slide on the whiteboard. We listen intently to Rose to catch the gist: Out of all that could be reported, what has been selected? How do we know we are getting the whole picture when something is reported? Rose’s point, as she hones in, is “You must read critically; if not you can be hornswoggled…always know the sources being used…look for corroboration for what is asserted as being true.” (Our minds stray to the current landscape in journalism and the media, and we decide this lesson is very, very important for young people who will be in charge in fewer years than we think.)

Rose is now on to a new analogy: “When you have your first car accident, your mind will probably go blank. You will need to rely on the perspective of others.” With a look that signals Brain at Work a student says, “Perspectives will come from others in the car, from those ahead and behind, from pedestrians passing by—everyone will have a different story.” The point: accidents, like books, can have many interpretations.

Change in slide: EMPHASIS. Rose begins: “When you read an article what do you look at first?” Answers tumble out. “Headlines?” “The first sentence?” Rose doesn’t hear what she is looking for. “Let me ask again,” she says, leading them to reconsider. “You are short on time…you are in a rush…what do you do?” She scans the faces, and then a student says, “You read the first paragraph?” “Yes!” exclaims Rose, “because what is emphasized there will inform how you read the rest of the piece.” Suddenly a student makes a connection. “In scientific writing the passive voice is used to highlight cause and effect.” A new slide comes up, and the discussion moves to COLORING. We read in the handout about how emotions or values can color the use of language. And about what the choice of words tell us about the perspective of the writer. A lively discussion unfolds, then on to a new focus.

RELATIONSHIP OF PARTS, announces Rose. When you read a news account, are the parts of the story sequenced in logical ways? Or are they arranged to imply meaning through juxtaposition? (Our brains are spinning.) Rose continues, “Is language a form of brainwashing?” “That’s a strong word,” says one student, and another joins in, “But language is a tool and can be used to brainwash—think of articles on Hitler.” Another classmate counters, “But using language simply to convince is not the same as brainwashing.” Yet another classmate finds middle ground: “The goal is to find the balance.”

Time is getting short, and a new slide appears: FRAMING IN CONTEXT. Rose shares two headlines about a single story. The first, “Troops Abandon War-Gutted Iraq,” accompanied by a photo of bombed-out buildings. The second, “Joyous Families Welcome Troops Home,” with photo of family members hugging each other. Studying the slide, a student says, “‘Abandon’—that is a very powerful word.” Another student, “So is ‘home.’” This is “framing,” says Rose, and it can expose bias. She continues on, “What is the deeper message here?” No one speaks up. “I know I ask big questions, and by that I mean questions that can have a lot of right answers.” Silence. Then from a student, “We should develop a healthy level of skepticism and recognize that we can be influenced by what we read and know that we can write in a way to influence others.” Rose smiles.

This topic seems to capture everyone’s attention. A student asks classmates, “Can I take advantage of you with a single word or a snippet? Or do I need full sentences?” A classmate jumps in with a comment about the role of jargon. Now the synapses are firing. “Hmmmm—math is a language…as is science.” A light bulb: “We’re actually studying language in every course!” The upcoming elections come to mind and prompts one student to note the importance of “reading in depth on both sides of the issue…. Only then can I know what to do.” With impressive insight, a classmate acknowledges that when we read something we are often already predisposed in one direction or another and, therefore, we don’t read as critically as we should.

The class is drawing to a close, and Rose begins to describe the map assignment. We check the study materials and follow along as she explains that students are to pretend to be the president of a European country who wants to do nuclear testing in the South Pacific. “Before starting your testing,” Rose says, “you want to persuade Europeans that testing so far away will not cause damage or harm to Europe. With that goal in mind, how will you design the map you will use to persuade the citizenry?” Seeing puzzled looks on students’ faces, Rose explains that not all maps are geographical. There are other kinds. “Perhaps we want to put the South Pole at the top or design a map to show where people make the most money.” Then she reminds the class what the conversation has been about today: Selection, Emphasis, Perspective, Emotional Coloring, Framing. “All these factors can be applied to designing maps…it depends on what we want the map to communicate.”

Heads nod. Assignment is understood, and Rose suggests we spend time with the students alone to learn more about what they think of TOK. “It’s more challenging than I thought…it’s intense.” “I wondered if my brain would work this way.” We looked confused. “What I mean is I am having to think of so much I have never thought about before.” Another student chimes in, “That’s it…. This class makes us think.” Now we have hit upon a topic of great interest. From the other side of the table, “Even if you are not used to thinking, Rose will pull it out of you. She keeps saying ‘Think deeper.’ ‘Why?’ ‘More!’ ‘Why?’” As though summing it up, a student says soberly, “We think the most and the deepest here.”

And, we think we are finished and begin to close notepads when we hear, “Epistemology gives me an existential sense of dread.” We believe those words never came out of our mouths when we were 15 but we want to know more and ask for an explanation. “It’s the way knowledge is deconstructed—we’re used to how we think, then it all gets deconstructed.” We sit back down and open the note pad as another student begins to talk about “cubes.” “We look at every side of the cube, then we cut up the cube and examine every side of each of those new cubes.” Another summation: “This class moves us out of our own head to question… everything.”

As we leave we’re thinking of Imagination—one of the ways of knowing. This class leads us to imagine what the world will be like when these students are in leadership roles and thinking critically about the decisions that will affect others. Students, we are optimistic.

Rose Barnett teaches Middle School Humanities and Global Politics, another IB course, in addition to TOK and has been at MSR for 7 years.


How We Teach: From Shy to Hi

The two-year old approaches … hand outstretched. We shake. “Good morning,” I say. He moves on—silent. An older toddler and another confident handshake. To my “Good morning” he shouts, “I’m four! I can have gumballs!” A shy youngster emerges from the crosswalk … glides past my outstretched hand. I turn to watch her ascend to Children’s House. She looks back and blows a kiss.

I am standing across from the parking lot on the Lead Mine Campus, greeting children and parents on their way to classrooms. It is an independent day school ritual but at MSR it is about much more—a lesson in Montessori’s “practical life” curriculum, which, even before 8:30 a.m., I am helping to teach by saying “Good morning,” making eye contact, and inviting a child to engage in a chat. This is how we begin our work with children, Montessori writes, “by preparing the child for the forms of social life ….”

When I ask her name, she replies, “I’m named for a flower.” “I carried that flower in my wedding bouquet,” I say. She walks on. I see a young boy out of the corner of my eye. No greeting, just an exuberant “It’s a firetruck!” and his small finger pointing to the design on his shirt. “I like that color of red,” I respond.

The “practical life” curriculum is, in part, about helping the child adapt and orient to society, and teaching grace, courtesy, and respect for others, values rooted in Montessori philosophy, is a central focus. Parents who choose a Montessori environment embrace those values, and together, parents and teachers, partner in ensuring that children are “socialized,” i.e., that they know how to exchange greetings, respond appropriately, listen, share, take turns, i.e., how to adapt and work well with others.

I had the chance to learn first hand how well Lower Elementary (LEII) students are progressing in their socialization skills when I received an invitation to tea during the first week of school. Two confident LEII girls arrived at the reception area close to my office and asked to speak with me. When I appeared, they greeted me warmly, presented me with a handwritten invitation, and asked me to join their class for tea at 12:45 p.m. that same day. I expressed concern about not knowing how to find the LEII classroom. Without skipping a beat, one student looked at the other and said, “Do you think we should come back and get her?” The other replied, “I think we could do that right before we begin.” Imagine having the maturity at the age of 9 or 10 to engage, analyze, and problem solve without any assistance from an adult.

Arriving at the appointed time for the party, I saw again the social maturity of these youngsters. They had prepared questions for me, and we embarked on a serious discussion about leadership. For the better part of an hour, the students were quick to pick up on social cues, facile in the give and take of group dialogue, and clever in telling jokes, which added some silliness to our conversation. I left our little gathering impressed with the social IQ of children so young.

“I’d like to talk more, but I need to get to class—I have things to do.” Hurried words from an older elementary student as she rushes off. On the Brier Creek Campus, I see a self-assured middle school student coming my way. “You must be Ms. Norris … We’re glad you’re here. Good to meet you!” A few minutes later a high school student engages easily in conversation and agrees to talk later about an IB course she is taking.

Not only do schools help socialize children but, of course, parents do as well. Well known child psychologist Mary Pipher writes in The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families that beyond caring for the young, parents have two other major responsibilities: to protect and to socialize, i.e., to help children connect to “a larger world of meaning.” [224] She adds that these roles, however, “are often at odds with each other.” We want our children to integrate successfully when they step into college and adult life. And, we want to protect them when we note the collision between values we hold high and those saturating the messages that surround children and young people in today’s media-driven culture.

She turns away at my “Hello.” “So sorry,” says the parent of a toddler, “she’s not very talkative today.” “No problem,” I respond, “Some day she will have a lot to say.”

In fact, we can’t continue to protect our children as they become young adults and move out into that larger world. What we can do, and what MSR parents know well, is provide an environment when they are young that offers freedom within structure, aspiration and challenge, a values-heavy culture, and respect for each child’s unique path to accomplishment and independence. That is, a Montessori setting. In this rich soil, a child develops roots of resilience, self-worth, a lifelong love of learning, and values that have stood the test of time. With those strong roots, the child is free to grow wings and soar.

We will continue to socialize students because we know opportunity awaits those who have both the confidence to be independent and the skills to work with others. A recent study conducted at Harvard’s School of Education and Kennedy School confirms the value of a high social IQ by noting that the job market “favors those who have the skills to be good team players.”* According to the lead researcher in the article, “Technological change is disrupting the nature of existing jobs … ,” and industry is moving more toward “team-based, project-based approaches.”

“Good morning.” High-five instead of a handshake. “Have a good day!” “You, too!”

With roots and wings Montessori graduates are prepared fully to step out, adapt, connect in meaningful ways with others, and greet every new setting with a confident, “Hello, world.” High Five!!

*Source: accessed on 9/16/18

This article originally appeared in our new monthly email newsletter called Spice Box.

Amazon Founder Pledges $2 Billion for Montessori Education

The Amazon founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, and his wife, MacKenzie, pledge $2 billion for a new fund to start Montessori preschools to serve low-income students across the country. This sizable pledge shows his commitment and belief in the Montessori method and is a great vote of confidence in the benefit and impact of this type of education. Mr. Bezos attended Montessori as a child and believes it is what gave him his sense of exploration and focus. It is quite amazing that two of the three largest technology companies in America have founders who attended Montessori schools. The other company is Google! Both Founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin attended Montessori schools. They met while attending Stanford.

So, you want to go to Harvard?

Well according to their website, here is how your application would be considered.

In their admissions process, they give careful, individual attention to each applicant. They seek to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors—individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.

Here is The Montessori School of Raleigh’s Philosophy:
As life-long learners and mentors of their younger classmates, MSR students are routinely fulfilling this role. Everyday in our multi-age classrooms, older students collaborate with younger students, reviewing lessons with them as needed. The idea is that the older student is much more approachable for the younger student, and younger ones learn by example from classmates they look up to. Further, older students benefit by reinforcing the lessons they are teaching. Teachers guide older students in their roles as mentors and help build pride as they take on ownership of not only of their own education, but also that of their classmates.

Harvard asks … “Have you reached your maximum academic and personal potential?” “Have you been stretching yourself?”

Here is The Montessori School of Raleigh’s Philosophy:
MSR challenges students to reach beyond themselves as teachers help identify topics in which students have increased ability and interest and then guide them to delve more deeply into the subject. In our Upper School, the International Baccalaureate Programme (IB) challenges students academically with a curriculum that is becoming the gold standard for university admission, while engaging students socially through its Creativity, Activity, Service program called CAS.

Harvard asks … How have you used your time? Do you have initiative? Are you a self-starter? What motivates you?

Here is The Montessori School of Raleigh’s Philosophy:
Our students take the initiative. Whether it’s starting a club, organizing a community service experience, or exploring a career path, they are intrinsically motivated to take charge of their education. Students begin using a daily planner as early as first grade and are held accountable for their work through this tool. They are encouraged by teachers to cultivate that internal motivation, to do their best work, and to find personal pride in a job well done.

Harvard asks … Will you contribute something to those around you?

Here is The Montessori School of Raleigh’s Philosophy:
Students at MSR learn from an early age to give back to the community, whether it’s their very own classroom or in another school in need on the other side of the world. Community service is sewn into the fabric of an MSR education from the earliest years and is a requirement in Middle and Upper School.

Harvard asks … Do you care deeply about anything—intellectual? Extracurricular? Personal?

Here is The Montessori School of Raleigh’s Philosophy:
Our students are taught to think deeply about meaningful topics, to develop empathy in order to learn from others, and invest in passions that move them on a base level.

Harvard asks … What have you learned from your interests? What have you done with your interests? How have you achieved results? With what success or failure? What have you learned as a result?

Here is The Montessori School of Raleigh’s Philosophy:
As our students follow their passions and interest, they traverse the bumpy landscape of learning guided by expert teachers who allow them to stumble and fall and are there to encourage and teach them how to bounce back. They learn so much more than students who never get the opportunity to develop resilience.

Harvard asks … In terms of extracurricular, athletic, community, or family commitments, have you taken full advantage of opportunities?

Here is The Montessori School of Raleigh’s Philosophy:
Our entire culture is built upon being involved and that includes taking part in a diverse array of extracurriculars, athletics, and community opportunities.

Harvard asks … “What about your maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others, and grace under pressure?

Here is The Montessori School of Raleigh’s Philosophy:
As our students complete their education at MSR, whether it is Montessori, IB, or a combination of both, they have acquired skills as agile thinkers, poised communicators, gracious collaborators, and engineers of authentic and fulfilling lives.

Are MSR students prepared for Harvard? Of course … and for anywhere else they choose to go.

10th Annual Miners Golf Tournament

Join us for a great cause and some amazing golf on the beautiful Bermuda greens of the Heritage Golf Club. Enjoy a day of golf and support The Montessori School of Raleigh in the 10th Annual Miners Golf Tournament. Last year we had 47 parents, grandparents and friends of MSR supporting us in tournament play. Together with 6 sponsors and 21 area businesses graciously donating prizes, we were able to raise over $6,300 for the Miners Athletic program.

Event Date:
October 22, 2018
Registration 11:00 a.m.
Lunch 11:30 a.m.
Golf 1:00 p.m.


Event Location:
Heritage Club
1250 Heritage Club Avenue
Wake Forest, NC 27587

Courtney Nutter, Athletic Director
919-848-1545 ext. 253