A Profile in Innovation and Inspiration
By Timothy B. Rien
At the end of this summer, Roz Hamar may have arrived at Valley Montessori School to assume her responsibilities as the third Head of School filled with the same trepidation evident on the faces of some teachers and administrators, each of whom had lined up to offer an obligatory welcome. But you wouldn’t have known it. She shook hands, re-asked names, smiled warmly and worked her way slowly to the school’s Cultural Center, where she assumed her seat in the front row next to the only person she really knew: her partner, Ed.
A performance and fine arts enthusiast who collects folk art, abstract and realist paintings by teachers, and who regularly attends the Berkeley Repertory Theater, Marin Theater Company and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Roz was particularly moved upon her arrival at VMS to attend the Jungle Book, a lush and lively musical production staged by Jack Quigley, the school’s music director, along with art teacher and painter, Kate Malson. The quintessential beauty of this summer’s greeting for Roz was that the children were front and center, showcasing the commitment of Valley Montessori School to the arts at a time when so many other financially strapped schools are cutting music, theater, and fine art.
Valley Montessori School, an aesthetically inspired campus perched on a hill overlooking the entire Tri-Valley, with its warm light, pint-sized lacquered birch tables, shelves and chairs, is a model educational environment. The only school in California fully accredited by the American Montessori Society (AMS) and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), Valley Montessori School was founded in 1976 by Elizabeth Marshall, who not only served as an administrator, but continued teaching there for 20 years. Her successor, Mary Ellen Kordas, was the first named Head of School until her retirement this summer. She oversaw the growth of the student body to some 475 students—toddler through 8th grade—and the consolidation of the campus from six various locations over the years to the state-of-the-art facility now located atop the hill on North Livermore Avenue.
Rosalind Hamar (pronounced: Hay mer) is a disarmingly gentle presence with a ready smile, merry wit and acute sensibility to the needs of children—and children get it. Her journey to the front seat of Valley Montessori School is an intellectually restless story that typifies what most parents seeking a quality education have in mind for their own children.
What parent hasn’t experienced the perplexity over what will become of their child as an adult, and what they might contribute in fostering a life-long love of learning, encouragement that unleashes their child’s natural talents, loves, strengths and interests? These perennial questions not only challenge and inspire parents, but motivate dedicated educators and, ultimately, shape the lives of children.
Much like a child’s experiment in germinating a seed nestled in a moist cotton bed and exposed to the warm sun, “a child’s learning experience is borne of her environment,” Roz says, “and her interaction with the world.” The teacher’s role should be that of a guiding hand, introducing each child to life’s wonders, encouraging interaction and exploration without demanding or compelling it. To this point, Albert Einstein famously said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” So, how did such a paradigm play out in the early life of Rosalind Hamar?
Imagine a child nurtured by a father fluent in five languages—his native English, Russian, Spanish, Japanese and German—a Stanford PhD., theater arts major who taught at Yale; a mother—herself a Stanford graduate, a high school teacher of English and Russian; and a maternal grandmother—likewise a Stanford graduate who studied botany and zoology, and became a teacher, an ornithologist, birder and expert in wildflower identification. Such a confluence of genetics and nurturing is bound to produce a child filled with wonderment, restless for knowledge and passionate about sharing the intense thrill of learning.
It is not surprising then, to know that Roz, fresh from earning a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in History and Secondary Education and a Master of Arts degree in Teaching (M.A.T) at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, would have been the first educator at Washington High School in that city to teach a black history course, or to create and teach one of the most wildly innovative 2-hour integrated English/Social Science courses in the history of the school.
From this early innovation, Roz developed the “Island Unit” in 1970, a survival program conceived in the climate of racial unrest prevalent in the late 1960’s. Step one: challenge a classroom of 30 restive intercity adolescents to sit down, put pen to paper, and organize a social order based upon a hypothetical island with one source of water, no leadership and otherwise limited resources. Step-two: with the imagination thus primed, pack them up and drive, far from their comfort zone, to the rocky canyons, escarpments and grassy meadows of the Metolius River Gorge in Eastern Oregon for the test: five days of sun and rain, dragonflies and ants, coyotes yipping from the dark recesses of the forest floor, and empty, cold nights, all thinly separated from the students by hand-built shelters of tarpaulin held fast with parachute cord.
With only survival at stake, now fashion a social order through the collective planning and preparation of meals, hiking, rock climbing, rappelling, map and compass instruction, tree and wildflower identification.
“It’s all about context,” Roz says, “…experiential learning.” And what better context within which to impart the subtext of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the cruel lessons of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. This was no ordinary educator; the students knew it, and, soon, other parents clambered for this innovator to stir the nascent potential of their children.
Enter Maria Montessori, the progenitor of one of the most proven effective methods of education worldwide. A physician, this innovator recognized as early as 1907 that experiential learning was the key to a rich, sustained, life-long education. Could it be, for example, that the building blocks of geometry and calculus were actually to be found in building blocks—real, hand-sized pine blocks? Unlike traditional methods of imparting the concepts of higher mathematics from drawings and calculations rendered in flat, two dimensional texts, a Montessori child is introduced to the three dimensional world of ovoids and cones, cylinders and ellipsoids. From the tactile interaction with these wooden blocks, and with beads and stings, emerge percentages, proportions and fractions, long before the child is called upon to reduce their real-world nature to the four corners of a piece of paper. This is the essence of experiential learning—concrete to abstract; simple to complex. This methodology, rooted in the basic principle that each child is endowed with unique and untapped gifts, must be inspired and encouraged so that children discover and learn for themselves.
Thus, despite occasional misconceptions that the philosophy somehow had political or religious origins—which it does not—the experiential methodology Maria Montessori espoused was something inimitable, a grail only offered in an environment of loving community support. Dr. Montessori found that, “[t]he greatest sign of success for a teacher, is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’”
Expanding the life and minds of students in unique and challenging ways is the gift that Roz brings to her new post, a gift bestowed upon her by parents who taught her to love the act of learning itself. It’s a way of life, a rich daily reward of unending intellectual curiosity. Once, after leading a bold high school immersion program to Denmark and the Asgard Northern peninsula, Roz traveled on to Paris where her sister, Virginia—a Montessorian who would later establish two Montessori schools in Hawaii—spirited her off to Iran. Roz remained in Tehran long enough to add Farsi to a language skill set that already included Russian.
In 1995, Roz settled into the Head of School position at Marin Horizon School in Mill Valley, California, but not before a dizzying array of accomplishments. She earned a second Master of Arts Degree (M.A.), this time in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., wrote a 5-year educational plan for the Federated States of Micronesia, traveling to Yap—one of four states governing 607 islands in the Western Pacific Ocean—every 6 months to implement the plan, train and advise academics and administrators. After a brief flirtation with broadcasting, including a series pilot narrated by veteran newsman Daniel Schorr, Roz returned to educational research at Westat in Maryland. She wrote educational grants there, and for a wide variety of research firms, studied Indian Nations at Risk, prison education and the efficacy of governmental funding of education—in other words, a personal immersion in the multi-cultural and anthropological underpinnings of education itself.
But among her greatest accomplishments, even before returning for a second masters degree at Johns Hopkins, Roz counts her work with the Multnomah County Youth Commission. There, she successfully lobbied the Oregon State Legislature to pass a law paving the way for the Annie E. Casey Foundation to establish 10 service locations throughout Oregon for disadvantaged youth. This effort was followed by a return to academia as a researcher at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland.
After serving four years as Upper School Head (grades 7 through 12) at the Barrie School in Silver Spring, Maryland, Roz set out for her post in Mill Valley. The first order of business at Marin Horizon School, a Montessori inspired program, was to raise flagging staff morale, improve the curriculum and stabilize the school financially. Having met these considerable challenges, she next orchestrated raising 3.5 million dollars in cash reserves and secured an 8 million dollar construction bond, together with a 75 year lease from the school district, all to construct a new middle school building, a stunning work of architectural art. The project was completed in 2006.
Administrators and teachers at Valley MontessoriSchool are coming to know this quiet and unassuming innovator. One of the longest serving teachers and administrators at the school, Associate Head of School, Ann Clark—who had the privilege of working with VMSfounder, Beth Marshall, says, “The serenity and calm with which Roz has approached her new position, belies an insatiable energy and marks her as a wonderful Montessori role model, a leader of unquestionable intellect and subtle but steady influence.”
Not surprisingly, after only two months at Valley Montessori School, Roz has developed an arms-length list of ambitious goals. While she finds the school’s finances sound, with a strong reserve fund, she is mindful of the current sagging economy. She has engaged the school’s Board of Trustees in a project to renew the school’s long-term strategic financial plan. “Schools like VMS that are ‘built to last’ require good strategic planning tools and must take a conservative approach so they have resources to weather lean times.”
She has reorganized the administrative staff, inspiring the changes with one of the most unique opening teachers’ work days in staff memory. Rather than mustering for a pre-school year cheer, she, instead, played a video that featured individuals from all over the world singing “One Love.” From this singular presentation, the staff was reminded for themselves that while there are wide visible differences between human beings, we are, ultimately, all singing the same song. This was followed by an exercise in what Roz termed, “generational perspective.” The staff was broken out into discreet groupings of teachers of varying ages, according to Development Director Elizabeth Brice. “She then asked music director, Jack Quigley, to play songs from every decade over the past fifty years.” Each table was required to, “name that tune.” It soon became apparent from this collaborative effort, and the vigorous discussion that followed, what variant interests and strengths existed in the room. For Elizabeth, the lesson of that day has not faded, but has informed her perspective each day since.
The entire staff came away empowered, too. They found that Roz trusted their professional training and judgment and that she was open to their innovative ideas. “It was so Montessorian,” middle school teacher Sue Bayer remembers. “Rather than dwelling on the introduction of herself that day, Roz introduced us, instead, to the perspective of others.”
“My god,” Kate Malson, the art teacher said when she returned from summer vacation. “I had met her [Roz] only one time over the summer and had mentioned in passing how much I wanted to paint my art room. When I walked into the room this fall, it was the warm, beautiful yellow I had been wanting for so long.”
The faith and flexibility that Roz places in her staff and teachers comes with a catch, however—she sets a very high bar. “She’s very smart, but humble,” Ms. Bayer says, “a walking academic resource.” After listening carefully to my history curriculum ideas, she suggested a Rube Goldberg approach, which in the spirit of the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, might utilize comic diagrams of wheels and gears, cups and rolling balls, etc. “I was stunned,” she said. “It was a simple, but brilliant suggestion.”
Ms. Malson echoed the sentiment. One of the first newsletters that Roz sent out to parents caught her eye. “She was quoting Elliott Eisner,” she said—the Stanford art critic and professor known for his advocacy of “Disciplined-Based” art education. “This is a woman who knows art education,” Kate said.
The “high bar” for Roz includes an educational environment of transparency and communication. It begins with the relationship a child has with the teacher, permeates among students of varying ages in classroom blocks, and extends to a teacher’s interaction with supervisors and administrators, and all of them with parents.“This is a new generation of parents,” Roz says. “They are themselves, children of the information age, which means we must be proactive in providing clear and meaningful information about their child’s academic progress and development.”
By her early reckoning, the VMS curriculum is strong and students are engaged and inspired by their teachers. But she is vigilant. As in art, a Montessori education is surprisingly disciplined. “My goal is to work with administration and faculty to ‘make visible’ and fine-tune existing benchmarks across the core curriculum. I want the benchmarks to then become part of our student reports, so that parents can easily know where their children are in development of reading, writing, speaking and math skills.”
Community outreach is another goal on the long list of to-do’s. Roz, along with other local leaders, has joined Leadership Livermore, an ambitious, nine month program sponsored by the Livermore Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with the City of Livermore, to acquaint members with various aspects of local and state governance and to put them in touch with leaders across the political spectrum.
On August 26th, Roz, along with Associate Head of School, Ann Clark, and Development Director, Elizabeth Brice, traveled to Berkeley to meet with Alice Waters, renowned owner and 1971 founder of Chez Panisse, a restaurant dedicated to using only organic, locally and ecologically grown and harvested food. Ms. Waters—a Montessorian who trained in London—established the Edible Schoolyard, which engages children in the preparation of fruits and vegetables that they tend under the guidance of their teachers. This hands-on, experiential training began in 1996 at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School with a one-acre garden planted next to a kitchen-classroom with an “eco-gastronomic” curriculum. Ms. Clark, a long-time advocate of bringing this program to Valley Montessori School, was heartened by the support she received from Roz. The event, attended by Governor Brown, culminated in the VMS representatives receiving not only inspiration for the project but promised support.
Dave Eastman, the school’s Facilities and Maintenance Director, who teaches a shop class that includes woodworking, where “hands-on” experience is everything, was inspired by the proposed edible garden. He has been charged by Roz with assisting in the design and construction of the garden site. He sees Montessorian principles at work in everything Roz does, particularly in the metaphor of a garden where a child will plant and nurture a seed that, given the right care and loving attention, will germinate and flourish.
This summer, Roz asked Mr. Eastman to fashion a few structural changes. After repainting the art room, which he found brought it to life, he relocated the Head of School office to the front of the building, first floor. He was impressed by the wisdom of these, and other, moves. Now Roz not only had a view of the children at play outside of her window, she had become “completely accessible” to parents, students and teachers. And while he euphemistically says, “her door is always open,” Dave knows that she will always be visibly present even with the door closed because she asked him to install a window in the office door, too.
“She has a vision for the things that have always been there,” Dave says, “but no one else seems to have seen.” For example, she asked him to construct bookshelves into otherwise wasted alcoves along the hallways of the school and furnish each with wooden benches. It was one of the most innovative ideas for a school library he had ever known. The alcoves now invite passing children, at all hours of the day, to sit and read, or self-check out books. The library is no longer a destination at Valley Montessori School, but a living part of a child’s everyday movement, “a learning environment within a learning environment,” he says.
Molly Oto, a lower elementary teacher, is elated by the pervasive spirit of delegated responsibility and trust in teachers. “At our first staff meeting,” she says, “it became clear that a child’s reading development was huge for Roz. I told her how important I felt it was for parents to read to their children at home, and to have them read to their parents. Roz asked me to prepare a one-page handout encouraging the practice for distribution at Parents’ Night. I showed her the draft of the handout. She read it, looked up at me and smiled, ‘It’s perfect,’ she said quietly. ‘No changes?’ I asked. ‘It’s beautiful,’ she said. “You’re the teacher.’”
Roz Hamar does not walk the halls of Valley Montessori School—she saunters; strolls as if every moment is ripe with a learning opportunity. Each teacher, parent and child she encounters is more important than anywhere she needs to be. If there was ever trepidation at her coming, there is no longer.
She pauses. She listens. She chats and smiles. Then she winks. That’s it: the love of learning, and of children, revealed in the twinkle of an eye.