Before contributing to the New York Times Magazine and achieving success at Harper’s and This American Life, Susan Burton was a founding student at Stepping Stones Montessori, initially attending Marywood Montessori. When Stepping Stones opened in 1982, her family was a vital part of the school. Her mother, Nancy taught in an Elementary classroom. Susan graduated from Stepping Stones in 1984, and subsequently moved to Colorado with her family.
Susan described her years at Marywood and Stepping Stones as “wonderful” and “formative.” Susan said she “really felt like myself.” She noted that Stepping Stones provided her with a solid sense of who she was that was special and unusual (compared to other schools).
One of Susan’s favorite memories was her sixth grade Battle of the Books competition. Battle of the Books was an annual competition held by the Grand Rapids Public Library. Students from schools throughout Grand Rapids would read a list of fifty books, and then compete in a quiz bowl-style competition.
That year, the book list included The Master Puppeteer, by Katherine Patterson. The Stepping Stones team was asked the question, “Who was the master puppeteer?” The book did not clearly answer this question, and the Stepping Stones team crafted their best answer. Unfortunately, the quizmaster disagreed, and the team was eliminated from the competition.
Susan and her teammates were convinced that the question was one that could not be answered. With the help of their teacher, Chrystal Abhalter, the Battle of the Books team telephoned the author, Ms. Patterson. They discussed The Master Puppeteer in detail, and Ms. Patterson agreed that the book did not answer the question, and it was subjective. Susan notes, “That is the kind of thing that can happen at Stepping Stones!”
On Montessori Work
Susan fondly remembers the Montessori math materials, particularly the stamp game, division bowling pins, and the bead frame. She recalls frequent searches for the smallest cube of the pink tower.
Susan also still thinks of a noun as a black triangle and a verb as a red ball. “I didn’t realize that this was a Montessori system for years, and that it wasn’t universal!”
Much of Susan’s work has been based on her childhood, and Susan features prominently her love of reading, writing and storytelling. She clearly remembers sitting in the red building at Marywood, listening to Sister Maria Tardani read to her class. Her love of reading quickly developed into a desire to tell stories. “I wrote because I loved to read. At Stepping Stones, I was encouraged to follow my passions. I wanted to write my own books!”
Susan was excited to hear about Stepping Stones’ new elementary newspaper, The Student Gazette. She encouraged our young journalists and writers to ground their stories in their personal, lived experiences. “That is what readers will connect with!”
The Importance of Montessori Education
“Stepping Stones was crucial to who I am.” She notes that she constantly relies on the time management skills that she developed at Marywood and Stepping Stones. With a creative job, Susan is thankful that Montessori taught her to set priorities and structure her own days.
More importantly, she notes that her Montessori education allowed her to follow her passions. Her time at Marywood and Stepping Stones gave her the confidence to take her own path. “I learned that if you love something, you should engage with it.”
Susan also had some advice for our current sixth graders. While she notes that moving on is wonderful and exciting, Susan remembers leaving Stepping Stones with some sadness. “You are really in a special place!” She encourages our departing students to allow themselves to be sad, since this sadness is due to how unique and special the Stepping Stones community is.
However, she notes that her Montessori education gave her a strength and resilience in other schools. “I knew what it was to love being at school from Montessori.” She took that inner strength and confidence with her, and tried to incorporate her Montessori background in traditional classrooms.
“Stepping Stones is really empowering.”
Susan Burton graduated from Yale in 1995, and has worked as an editor of Harper’s and a producer of This American Life. She co-authored Come Back to Afghanistan, an ALA top-ten book for young adults in 2006. Susan is currently working on a memoir, focusing on her teenage years in Colorado, which will be published by Random House. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.
More information about Susan’s professional life can be found at www.susanburton.net.