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Amazon, Google and the royal family. Is the Montessori Method the secret sauce to success?

Children are often told what they should do, rather than what they can do.

Shifting that philosophy from directive (should) to open-ended (can) is at the heart of the Montessori Method of teaching. Rather than being told what to do, children are granted independence to pursue their unique, personal interests, inspiring a love for learning at an early age.

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Introducing James Taylor—New Head of Middle and Upper Schools

It is a pleasure to introduce James Taylor, a seasoned and talented independent school teacher and administrator who will join MSR this summer as Head of Middle and Upper Schools. A native of Vermont and currently serving in several capacities at Verde Valley School, a boarding/day school in Arizona, James is a gifted teacher and will bring a decade of administrative experience to his work at MSR. He has taught in and administered IB programs for 16 years of his career. A graduate of the University of South Florida with a B.A. in English Literature, James has two Master’s degrees, an M.A. in English Curriculum & Instruction from the University of South Florida, and an M.Ed. in Educational Leadership from Georgia State University.

James’s recommenders spoke consistently about his superb skills both as a teacher and administrator; his keen insight into students and their learning; his enthusiasm for working with faculty; his gracious, collaborative, and kind nature; his high work ethic; and his track record in bringing people together to accomplish shared goals. When learning that James was being considered for a Montessori school, one recommender shared that James had encouraged her at one point to found a Montessori school. This comment didn’t surprise us as we noted during his campus visit that his temperament, educational philosophy, style, and personal values align well with MSR’s Montessori foundation.

As Associate Director of Academics at Verde Valley, James supervises the teaching staff, overseeing observations, evaluation, and coaching. He also is involved in scheduling and policy development and implementation and led the school’s recent reaccreditation process. For five years, James was Assistant Principal at King High School, an IB World School in Tampa, and oversaw academic, extracurricular, and disciplinary programs for 600 students. He also mentored and supervised teachers in the teacher orientation program.

In 2007, James was hired to develop the Wesley International Academy, a newly founded public charter and IB World School in Atlanta for children kindergarten through eighth grade. In that role, he supervised all faculty and staff, implemented the IB Primary and Middle Years Programmes, managed the educational design on an $11M school campus, developed and led student recruitment activities that moved enrollment from a handful of students to several hundred, and created a comprehensive school advisory program to promote socio-emotional growth. We spoke with the founder and Board Chair at Wesley, who said she keeps a photo on her desk of James at the ribbon cutting because “James is why my school is successful.”

Prior to Wesley, James taught and held leadership roles in two IB World schools, the Atlanta International School and the prestigious Hillsborough High School in Tampa. Assignments ranged from English Department Chair and Extended Essay Coordinator to Professional Development Chairperson and Chair of SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) and CIS (Council of International Schools) reaccreditations.

We asked recommenders to give us five adjectives to describe James’s character, and the words heard consistently were the following: genuine, articulate, gracious, collaborative, kind, responsive, and thoughtful. One recommender said, “James has incredible stamina and is fantastic with faculty and staff.” This same person added, “He is very smart and is not afraid of the messiness of growth.” Another recommender described his work leading reaccreditation as follows: “His approach was a great example of clear process. Everyone had a voice. Throughout the process, no one had a critical thing to say.” We particularly liked what one Head of School said, “James is a truly nice person. Dependable and reliable, he always has a smile. He is thoughtful and thorough and always gets buy-in from others.”

Those who interviewed James noted his positive energy, passion for education, diverse and holistic perspective, honest and genuine approach to people, and clarity of thought in the spoken and written word. What all of the information gathered throughout the process told us is that James is optimistic, visionary, devoted to leading through collaborative effort, and dedicated to students’ success and
well-being. When he was offered this position, his quick and enthusiastic acceptance confirmed that we had made the right choice. We see a steadfastness in James that will complement the resolve we all have in stewarding this wonderful school with excellence and we welcome him warmly to the MSR Community. Stay tuned for notices about James’s arrival and Get-to-Know You sessions we will schedule for the summer.

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.

Maintenance Assistant

Department: Buildings & Grounds
Reports to: Director of Buildings & Grounds/ Director of Business Operations
Purpose of the Job
Maintenance Assistant perform a wide variety of maintenance, repair, grounds keeping and other interior and exterior maintenance duties for the school under the supervision of the Director of Buildings and Grounds.

Essential Functions and Responsibilities:

• Show respect for School Community (i.e. administrators, faculty, staff, parents and students) at all times, providing excellent service with a positive attitude
• Perform routine interior and exterior maintenance duties as scheduled & requested; may include painting, snow/ice removal, gutter cleaning, replacing filters, working with ongoing program needs, etc.
• Perform routine maintenance and repair on School Community equipment to include: plumbing, light bulb replacement, A/C maintenance, electrical, carpentry and mechanical repair
• Respond to all repair requests and maintenance concerns from administrators, teachers and staff
• Report equipment malfunctions or breakdowns as well as any hazardous conditions to the Director of Buildings & Grounds in a timely manner
• Ensure that all maintenance items are kept in a safe area
• Attend in-service training and education sessions, as assigned
• Work with vendors as instructed, including vendors for landscaping, painting asphalt, etc.
• Must follow all safety/OSHA Requirements
• May support various renovation activities
• Additional duties as assigned

Core Competencies
• Organization Skills-Can marshal resources (people, funding, material, support) to get things done; can orchestrate multiple activities at once to accomplish a goal; uses resources effectively and efficiently arranges information and files in a useful manner
• Action Oriented- Is action oriented and full of energy for the things he/she sees as challenging; appropriately responsive to unscheduled repair needs that may arise
• School Community Focus- Is dedicated to meeting the expectations and requirements of internal and external School Community; gets first-hand School Community information and uses it for improvements in products and services; acts with School Community in mind; establishes and maintains effective relationships with School Community and gains their trust and respect.
• Perseverance-Pursues everything with energy, drive, and a need to finish; seldom gives up before finishing, especially in the face of setbacks or interruptions.
• Functional/Technical Skills- Has the functional and technical knowledge and skills to do the job at a high level of accomplishment.
• Problem Solving- Uses rigorous logic and methods to solve difficult problems with effective solutions; probes all fruitful sources for answers; can see hidden problems; is excellent at honest analysis; looks beyond the obvious and doesn’t stop at the first answers.

Knowledge, Skills and Abilities:

  • Must understand and have ability to repair, plumbing, electrical, basic carpentry and mechanical systems
  • Must be available to work days and evenings, weekdays, and weekends
  • Must demonstrate ability to provide exceptional School Community service
  • Must demonstrate ability to successfully work on a team
  • Must be able to clearly communicate both orally and in writing
  • Must have a valid Driver license
  • Must be able to lift 50 lbs

Education and Background:

  • Must be a minimum 18 years of age
  • High School degree or equivalent
  • 1-3 years previous maintenance experience desired preferably in a similar facility

Please send a cover letter and resume to

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!

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.