Montessori, Area 51 and more: Elissa Slotkin’s insightful visit to Light of the World Academy

It’s become a tradition every March that politicians across the country visit schools for March is Reading Month. And these visits – while they’re always nice – usually go the same way.

The politician shows up, visits a class or two, reads a book, and then leaves. That’s about it. It’s nice for the politician to get out of Lansing or Washington or city hall for a day – and it’s cool for the kids to get to meet an elected official – but I’m guessing the visits don’t always make much of a lasting impression on the politician.

It was quite different last Friday, though, when U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, paid a visit to Light of the World Academy, a Montessori charter school in Pinckney.

Slotkin’s visit came during March is Reading Month (and she graciously donated a couple of books to the school’s library for the occasion), but she wasn’t there to just read to a class and then leave. In fact, she didn’t read to a class at all. She was there to see what makes the school truly special and unique.

Full disclosure: I’m as biased as you can possibly be here. My wife, Kathy, is the school founder and Montessori director at Light of the World Academy, and my kids went there. So I know firsthand just how special and unique this school is, and the pride I feel for what my wife has accomplished at LOTWA knows no bounds.

But heck yes, I’m biased, so if you don’t want to take my word for it, you can just ask any of the parents, teachers, alumni or students at Light of the World Academy, and they’ll tell you the same thing. This is a very special school that’s doing very special things.

Light of the World Academy founder and Montessori director Kathy Moorehouse gives a classroom tour to Rep. Elissa Slotkin and her staff.

And I’m guessing that after spending some time at the school on Friday, Congresswoman Slotkin might agree, too. She’s blessed to have a lot of great schools in her district, and this is certainly one of them.

Now, whatever side of the aisle you’re on, it’s a HUGE deal to have a member of Congress visit your school. The same goes for a state senator or representative. It’s a huge, huge deal. These are the people who make decisions that can greatly affect what goes on inside our schools and their ability to educate kids, so it’s vitally important that they take the time to do this.

And not just to read a book and then leave. It’s a special thing when a member of Congress visits a school to truly find out what makes that school tick.

And that’s what Elissa Slotkin did last Friday. She took the time to find out what truly makes Light of the World Academy special.

I tagged along for the visit, as did some other folks from the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA, the state charter school association), where I work.

The visit began with Congresswoman Slotkin meeting Light of the World Academy’s most famous student, a 9-year-old named Henry Boyer who became a viral Internet sensation earlier this year after writing a letter to the Michigan Marching Band, saying he wanted to join the band someday.

Rep. Slotkin meets Henry Boyer, the Light of the World Academy student who dreams of joining the Michigan Marching Band someday.

In case you didn’t see the amazing segment on this from CBS’s “On the Road With Steve Hartman,” click here. And have some tissues ready.

Even before she came to Light of the World Academy, Rep. Slotkin was so impressed with Henry’s story – how this little third-grader took the time to write a note to help make his dreams come true – that she wrote him a note. When she found out that Henry was a student at LOTWA, she thought it would be a great opportunity to deliver the note in person.

“I’m so proud of you,” she told Henry. “Even before I found out that you lived in my district, I just loved seeing your story. What you did was just so inspirational to so many people. Everyone in Michigan is proud of you.”

Henry was overwhelmed, and told her that he’s working hard every day to make his dream of being a drummer in the Michigan Marching Band come true.

“I practice every day,” Henry said.

This made MAPSA President Dan Quisenberry – a drummer himself – very happy. “You picked the right instrument,” he said.

MAPSA President Dan Quisenberry and Rep. Elissa Slotkin with Henry Boyer.

Rep. Slotkin got to see Light of the World Academy’s chicken coop – which raises money for a small village in Uganda by selling the eggs they raise – and heard the story of how it all came about thanks to a student named Elijah.

And then they visited some classrooms, where Kathy provided an in-depth explanation of how Montessori education worked, and why it’s so effective. Some family members had attended a Montessori preschool, so she had some knowledge of how it works, but this was a pretty intense look.

“Until I heard about this school, I didn’t even realize I had a public Montessori school in my district,” Rep. Slotkin said.

She got to see some kindergartners working on math and language skills as they spread out on rugs on the floor, and Kathy explained how Montessori combines a follow-the-child philosophy with true hands-on learning. You learn math using beads and blocks, not pencil and paper. It’s an amazingly effective way of learning.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin visits a classroom at Light of the World Academy.

My personal favorite part of the day came when we visited the grades 5-6 classroom. When the kids found out that an actual Congresswoman was in their midst – one with a CIA background, to boot – one fifth-grader raised his hand.

“I just had a question,” he said. “What’s really in Area 51?”

“That’s a great question!” Rep. Slotkin said. “The truth is, I don’t even know. You’d think they might have told me, but I don’t even know.”

The boy looked a tad disappointed because he was hoping to FINALLY get some confirmation that the government was holding space aliens there. And he wasn’t alone – I was a tad disappointed, too. I was really hoping that Elissa Slotkin was going to spill the beans. But hey, the truth is still out there.

The most impactful part of the trip, though, came when Rep. Slotkin and the group visited the middle school at Light of the World Academy – the combined seventh- and eighth-grade classroom. The students were already sitting in their circle – like they do several times a day – and the Congresswoman and her group were invited to join them.

Montessori schools are big when it comes to circles. Every class – from preschool on up – starts the day with all the teachers and students seated in a circle. They demonstrate new work, they talk about what they’re going to be doing today, they talk about issues they might be having.

And in the middle school, as Rep. Slotkin learned, the circle has even more purpose.

Kathy explained that Light of the World Academy – like some other schools – uses restorative practices in everything they do. Restorative practices is a social science that stresses relationship-building and problem-solving above all else. And when there’s an issue at school – like, when two kids get into a fight on the playground – the victims, offenders and their supporters all come together to address the issue and solve the problem.

In teacher Lexi Salisbury’s middle-school class, they do this every single day. If there’s an argument or disagreement, the students circle up to discuss it. It’s remarkably effective.

One of the boys in the class explained to Congresswoman Slotkin that the restorative circle has helped him deal with his own anger issues and frustrations to the point where he’s able to thrive as a student now.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, right, sits in the middle-school circle at Light of the World Academy in Pinckney.

“We believe that a child’s social and emotional needs are more important than their academic needs, and one will take care of another,” Kathy explained. “You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe and loved, so we make sure that first and foremost, our students feel safe and loved. And we’ve found that once you do that, their learning will take off.”

The proof is in the pudding. Last year, Light of the World Academy’s middle school was the No. 1-ranked middle school in Livingston County (based on PSAT scores), and No. 54 in the entire state. It’s safe to say that Miss Lexi is getting results.

Another point: They’ve gotten to the point now where suspensions and expulsions are almost non-existent at the school.

Kathy also pointed out that if a school uses restorative practices starting from the very beginning, it will have an incredible impact on virtually eliminating the possibility or school violence.

“We can’t imagine one of our students would ever get to the point where they felt they wanted to do something violent,” Kathy said.

Light of the World Academy didn’t invent restorative practices, but they believe in them strongly and I have to believe they do them as well as anyone.

And as Congresswoman Slotkin sat there in the circle, listening to the students and staff tell their stories, you could tell it was having an impact.

When Kathy said she would love to speak to other schools about the success they’ve had with restorative practices, Rep. Slotkin offered to help make that happen.

“We’d love to connect you with some other schools in the district,” she said.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

All in all, it was a highly productive school visit. And even if that one kid and I are very bummed out that we didn’t get the inside scoop on Area 51, it was still a great time.

And I’ll go back to what I said at the beginning. Democrat or Republican, it’s a highly wonderful thing anytime a state or federal legislator takes the time to visit a school and see what makes that school tick. They have the authority to control so much of what happens in our schools, so when they take the time to actually SEE what the schools are doing, that’s nothing but great.

That’s exactly what happened here, and yes, that’s a highly wonderful thing.

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