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With a bold black chiseled marker, I wrote FREE on a scrap piece of cardboard, and with that word came the end of our very last Spring Carnival. Sitting on the curb in front of our school was the last remnants of an event that had become unwieldy over the years; a wooden puppet stage and boxes of carnival trinkets, prizes, and such. None of us really knew when Spring Carnival came into being. Most folks would say that we have always had it. The funny thing about rituals is that most people do not know their origins; they just simply exist.

Were we the first Spring Carnival in our town, or did we just make a copy of someone else’s? What I did know is that to arrive at our Spring Carnival, a family would need to drive by two others in our town, a church and a public elementary, on that very same day and at the very same time! In addition to none of us knowing how our Spring Carnival had started, none of us knew how it had gotten so out of control. All we knew was that we were tired and a bit resentful on this particular spring Saturday. Our pile of FREE carnival leftovers was gone before we finished lugging the last bag of sticky trash to the dumpster. That was 2012.

So what pushed us over the edge, and what got us to where we are now? Well… a lot of things, really.

Over the years, we have discovered a few truths about rituals and about our core values and beliefs.

We were well on our way to these discoveries when COVID hit. It made us question why we do anything and what is truly important and worth fighting for. Pulling off an event in the midst of a pandemic was, a life-or-death decision.

We did know that rituals in and of themselves were worth fighting for, in a peaceful Montessori way, of course. In his book Rituals- How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living, anthropologist and cognitive scientist Dimitris Xygalatas makes a case for what rituals do for people and why we need them to live in community. Humans need them.

As COVID took away many of the activities on our school calendars and in all our lives, we humans persevered and simply created new rituals. Think back to those car parades, family porch photos, and folks banging pots and pans on their balconies at the end of the day to celebrate front-line workers-all this to create unity and community through a ritual.

So what we did is we took a super hard look at all that we were offering in the way of events, aka rituals. The seemingly countless, exhausting, time-sucking activities cluttered our school calendar, and we asked ourselves:

• What is the direct aim of this undertaking?

• What was the underlying, fundamental need that this event was satisfying?

• In Pines parlance- Was the juice worth the squeeze?

Back to the Spring Carnival.

We had to obtain a City of Houston food permit to sell bagged candy and canned soda. We had to set up a threepart sink and an outdoor handwashing station. All of this cost us money. Did I mention that this was a fundraiser?

The amount of trash this “carnival” generated was obscene, and the contradictory message of selling candy and soda to children, not to mention the behavior of the children, and the adults, once fueled up on sugar, was a sight to be seen.

The hundreds of dollars spent on toy prizes, the commercialization and consumerism, the winners and the losers, was nothing we taught or believed in Monday- Friday as a Montessori school. Still, apparently on a random spring Saturday, all bets were off.

Why? Because we are a school and parents and families, expect a Spring Carnival, or was it a Fall Festival, or both?

How many Truck or Treats, or Easter Egg Hunts are there in your area?

To paraphrase Sir Richard Branson, if you are going to do something, make it the best. Don’t just meet expectations but exceed them- preferably in unexpected and helpful ways.

If someone in your community is doing the same event as yours, what makes yours unexpected? How is this event helpful to your families if you send their children home hopped up on sugar, smeared face paint, and cheap toys they will just lose or toss away?

So back to the Direct Aim.

“Families want to spend quality time participating in unique and meaningful interactions with their children and our school community.”

Once we stripped everything from every event on our school calendar, we discovered the simple truth. Families want to spend quality time participating in unique and meaningful interactions with their children and our school community.

So why were we trying to duplicate, or at worst, trying to chase after what other people are doing?

Let them have their rituals, and let us create our own.

We began with our mission statement. In a nutshell, ours is to contribute significantly to a better world . Pretty audacious goal, but we like to think big, us Montessorians. There are millions of school events possible, but are the ones on your school calendar a true reflection of who you are? Do they match your mission? The activities in and of themselves might be great. They might even raise some money, and families might even have fun, but are they who you are? Does it magnify and amplify your mission?

I will not tell you that you should not have a Spring Carnival or Fall Festival. If the way you do yours makes sense for your school, then by all means, enjoy it! The questions for us were about how can our events match our mission and exceed our parents’ expectations.

This year we are retiring Science Fair.

People bring their personal expectations with them to your school and your events. The mere fact that all adults were once children themselves means that expectations from their own childhood will come with them. If they remember Science Fair fondly, then they will happily join you. If their own parents made their Science Fair projects, then chances are they will jump in and work on their child’s project well after their child has gone to bed!

Science Fairs can bring up images of tri-boards of typed research, downloaded pictures from the internet, and ribbons for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. Parents might be disappointed if your Science Fair looks different from the one they remembered and/or imagined.

Back to the Direct Aim. We thought about how we try so very hard to explain to parents how we do not silo the curriculum – that the Uninterrupted Workcycle enables students to see that science and math and art and language and nature and, well, everything is interconnected and that Peace Education was as important if not more important than academic. And yet here we were, making science its own siloed day. Then inevitably had parents asking, “What about Technology, Engineering, (sometimes Art), and Math?”- you know STE(A)M.

No Science Fair this year at our school. We decided to draw attention to science in all the other events we do, just as we will highlight all areas of the curriculum in all of our events. Our events will match our Montessori mission.

Rituals need to speak and support the community that participates in them. In Xygalatas’ research, he attached heart monitors to both the participants of rituals and the spectators of the rituals. He found that there was a synchronicity, a togetherness in their heartbeats. Sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term ‘collective effervescence’. A sense of emotional alignment; when a community comes together and simultaneously communicates the same thought and participates in the same action. Is this a form of normalization?

Rituals also serve as a way to reduce anxiety. Even seemingly useless rituals give us a sense of routine and togetherness. Is this why we all are so desperate to get back to “normal”? What we want is to go back to a new and improved normal, this time without all the clutter.

We host a Thanksgiving Feast each year. 350+ adults and children were eating on every available flat surface in and around our 5-acre campus. Well, we are attempting to bring it back this year after a two-year hiatus. Apparently, the supply chain difficulty is real in that there is a turkey shortage. But was this event even about the turkey?

We adapted a poem from Mother Teresa.

It may be tough to find a parking spot. Park safely anyway.

It may be difficult to find a place to sit. Smile anyway.

We may run out of food. Be happy anyway.

If you forgot to reserve your place at the table, come anyway.

The morning may be long. Have fun anyway.

This event is about sharing and about community and is not about food. Today is about family.

Rituals create a sense of identity that is fundamental to our personal identities. For us, this is mission-critical. What we are doing, the moments and touchpoints we are creating, is our school’s identity and, in some way, fundamentally a part of each parent, child, teacher, and grandparent who participates. We want our events to be worth the time people invest in them. Time is priceless. We want our events to add value and be helpful.

Xygalatas’ research also found that both participants and spectators were more generous with their money after a shared event. It is important to note that the participants were much more generous than the passive observers. This clearly demonstrates why hands-on participation from both parents and children is critical. Every event we have is participatory. But please do not confuse participatory with parentvolunteer-led. Setting up an event and/or writing a check to underwrite an event is not hands-on participation. We are talking about the get-down-on-your-child’s-leveland- wonder kind of participation – the play-and-enjoy and partner-with-others kind of participation. Science Fair was a gallery walkabout.

We are a bit of control freaks at our school. Did I just say that? What I meant to say is Freedom with Limits. Our mission statement is so important to us that we do not leave it up to chance or up to parent interpretation. When you are giving a sound box lesson with an object, you, as the teacher, declare the object’s name. You do not leave the name of the object up to the child. A small plastic bird must be introduced as a hen if you want to isolate the initial sound of /h/. If you don’t, the child could call the object a chicken, a rooster, or even a dog!

Don’t get me wrong, we want and encourage parent assistance, but the faculty and staff set the direct aim and keep steady the course of the event. We are the tone keepers. If not, you leave yourself vulnerable to Mission Creep. Contributing Significantly to a Better World can quickly become diaper gel down a storm drain. Yep! I can’t make this stuff up.

It was 2013. A parent suggested that we host a 1K and 5K Fun Run. It checked all the boxes of family participation and health and wellness. It was also to be a fundraiser. Where the Mission Creep set in, and you would know this if you have hosted a Fun Run or a Golf Tournament before, is that there is very little money to be made until you can increase the volume of runners or golfers. (We got out of the Golf Tournament business as well- also suggested by a well-intentioned parent). So our little Fun Run was now open to the larger running community. In the wisdom that can only be found in that great book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, if you invite serious runners to your event, chances are that it needs to be chipped and have a professional timing company. If you hire a professional timing company, chances are you need to have your fun run sanctioned as a race. If you are sanctioned as a race, you will need to have a medic, and chances are, you also need to offer bagels, bananas, and for reasons I will never understand… a face painter.

So back to the diaper gel. I haven’t forgotten. We can’t forget because it cost us the entire profit of the Fun Run. What I did not tell you was the name of this run was Snowball Run. The novelty was that we had edible-grade frozen snowballs for the children after the run to throw, not at each other, because that is not very Montessori! (We are located in southeast Texas- snow is a rare and fun happening.) Because we were passengers on this bus driven by parents, they decided not to use frozen water but rather faux snow, which, as it turns out, is made of the same non-biodegradable product that lines diapers. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they chose to dispose of this gel, which is chemically designed to inflate when it gets wet, by pouring it down the storm drain in our backyard. The cost was nearly $5,000 to dig up, remove and replace some 10 feet of the storm drain. Where did our better world go?


This is one of our most favorite words. Again, thanks to our COVID reset, we had about eighteen months to strip everything back to its bare bones and rebuild it from the ground up.

Most of our events are held on a Friday at dismissal. This enables parents to calendar better and increases the likelihood that they can sneak out of work early. The bonus feature is that children in Extended Care usually get picked up early on those days. Win-win.

Our events are simply an extension of the work in the classrooms. Set up and clean-up is a breeze because all we do is gently pull the work out and then back into the classrooms. On the following day, children can restore it. The bonus here is that if the children are participating in creating the event, then they talk it up at home, and as a result, parents are more likely to come. Again, win-win.

No elaborate setup is needed. No extra parental help is required. This means we keep the Direct Aim intact, and parents can enjoy the event and not be pulled for their “volun-told” shift.

Children and teachers shine because the children can confidently explain the work to their parents and grandparents. Our school serves Infants through Middle School, so the work laid out for families to see demonstrates how the scope and sequence progresses from 6 weeks to 15 years. What does Peace Education look like over the course of nearly 15 years? Parents can walk this timeline and participate.

Another Montessori hack is to pick a three-year cycle of activities for your event and simply rotate the work or theme. So, for example, we celebrate the United Nations International Day of Peace. We transfer the date from September 21 st to the next available Friday to keep our Friday-at-dismissal trend going.

We choose this event to highlight because

• it matches our Mission Statement

• the work is already on our shelves

• no one else in our town is celebrating this

• we can make it our own

We have variations on three activities, and we rotate each year. This keeps us from having to overthink. That in itself is a gift to ourselves. As families revisit these themes, since they can be with us for over a decade, they get to see how their family has grown and changed. Their children are getting older, more children are added, etc. Families and students also have that warm feeling of familiarity that is a basic tenant of a ritual.

Each Peace Day brings a family project. Something sent from our school for our families to complete together and send back for a display. Families look forward to this work, and it promotes wonderful conversations.

“Every event we have is participatory. But please do not confuse participatory with parent-volunteer-led. Setting up an event and/or writing a check to underwrite an event is not hands-on participation. We are talking about the get-down-on-your-child’s-level-and- wonder kind of participation – the play-andenjoy and partner-with-others kind of participation.”

Peace Day activities for the home have been:

• Creating a poster on the origin of your family name or the name of your child

• Framed photographs of what peace means to you

• Painting a small peace pole that we made of wood and sent home

• Decorating a white handkerchief to make Peace Flags to string around the school

Lastly, we found that we spent too much time trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. We have found that creating our own events and declaring what they are about and what they are celebrating is so much easier than trying to fit someone else’s into what we do and what we believe. Get creative. Make-up stuff. That is how all rituals get started in the first place!

We discovered that no one was coming to Back to School night because it sounded like, well… Back to School night. We renamed it Orientation, and even fewer folks came because how many times do you need an orientation? We knew that this night was important. We knew that if we could just get folks here, they would see the value of this annual ritual. This time we rebranded it as Compass Night! No one knew what Compass Night was, and we had over 300 parents attend this year! They loved the evening. They learned the “direction” of the cultural studies in their child’s classrooms and the rules of the road for the school year- hence the compass. No one brought their past preconceived notions from their childhoods because we made the whole thing up! Have fun!

What is the “right” event for your school is whatever is “right” for your school. We have discovered that our events must speak for our values because they will leave a footprint on the collective community. We must love our rituals. Our rituals must have real value. We must be able to defend them and fight for them in warm and wonderful times, as well as in the midst of a global pandemic. These will be the rituals that remain.

Patty Sobelman is the Head of School of Pines Montessori School in Kingwood, Texas. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education.

She is a trained Early Childhood Montessori teacher, a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Business and a facilitator of the CEO Roundtable. She leads a team of 42 employees with an enrollment of 180 children from 6 weeks through 15 years. She is the founding Head of both the Infant and Middle School communities.

Patty is an internationally published author and speaker. Her consulting work has been with private school startups and continuing business development such as finding markets, driving business, culture development, setting tuition and compensation. Basically… a Montessori business nerd. She does not like writing in the third person but she does love her work!