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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Skills for Real Life


Skills for Real Life

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

Recently, the upper elementary students served their Fancy Dinner to 10 guests, all of whom purchased a seat at our November Auction for the Love of Learning. The students prepared all of the food, used formal place settings and served the guests.

Leading up to the event, Jav and Marcus (the upper elementary adults) assured parents that while it was a great deal of work, the Fancy Dinner offered lessons for real life. All of those references to "real life" left me wondering what was so real or so different about these lessons than those offered every day at Stepping Stones Montessori.

As the week unfolded, I can confidently say that the preparations leading up to the evening were chaotic and electric (with a tinge of panic).  The students learned a lot about project management, collaboration, and themselves.

As adults, it can be easy to forget all of the steps involved with putting on a Fancy Dinner. I’ll take this opportunity to remind you of some of the steps involved.

  • Research menu ideas & present them
  • Research recipes
  • Apply multipliers to recipes in order to plan for 10 guests
  • Calculate grocery quantities
  • Shop for groceries
  • Prepare food
  • Write rubrics for each task and assign them
  • Set a formal table
  • Prepare a map for where guests will sit and what they ordered
  • Learn how to serve at a formal table

I look at that list, and I see some pretty solid academic skills being applied—math, writing, mapping, and research. Even better, our students got these academic lessons in a high stakes environment. They had guests counting on them for accurate math, writing, mapping and research.

Some students failed in their efforts. Baking bread was one of those lessons. Students ended up finding another avenue for bread on the table. They also learned that a single stove and oven meant that they had to adjust on the fly.

As a guest, I can confidently say that despite the failures, the adjustments and the craziness leading up to the evening, it was lovely. I was prepared to be impressed, and the students exceeded even those high expectations.

I wondered how the students felt about it. None of them mentioned the math, writing, mapping and research. Instead, this is what they said:

“I learned that I couldn’t pay attention only to my work and my assignment. I needed to help other people because if only my work got done, it wasn’t going to work. We all had to get our work done together.”

“The biggest thing I learned was not to rush. If you do, you get overwhelmed and freaked out. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re like that.”

“I learned communication is key. If you don’t have it, you’re sunk.”

“I learned that a cook’s job is a lot harder than it seems. We don’t think about where our food comes from enough.”

And, lest you think it was all work and no play… “I learned not to mess with lasagna!”

These lessons are so much more relevant to success in the world than math, writing, mapping and research.

Throughout it all, Jav and Marcus (the adults in the community) focused on acting as guides, coaches and models. If they had focused instead on telling the students what to do, I wonder if they would have had the same answers. Would students have learned how to navigate some of the problems presented in the evening?

Research indicates that Montessori educated students have strong academic skills. They also have better executive function, are better able to adapt and have a stronger sense of community. Check out this synopsis of some of that research here. Based on our students’ responses to what they are learning, I’m not surprised.

What a lovely reminder of the richness found in our elementary community.