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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503



Filtering by Tag: Elementary

Montessori Elementary: Why We Stayed at Stepping Stones

Leigh Ebrom

By Jason Lee, Parent

When we enrolled our son in Stepping Stones’ Toddler Room, we planned to transition him to a public school at first grade. However, at Stepping Stones we have established friendships with children and other parents, bonded with the community, and seen the wonders that the staff and teachers bring to life in our child. After our first years, we changed our minds and decided we would stay with SSMS.

We still wanted to do our due diligence:

·       We met with the teachers to discuss our child and his unique needs.

·       We talked to parents that have stayed at Stepping Stones for elementary and those that went on to the public system.

·       We visited all the classrooms and schools to get a first-hand look.

Our assumptions were of course wrong. It wasn’t an easy decision. We went for a visit to our local school and found a dedicated staff, committed volunteers, and impressive work that the kids had produced. Because of this, our decision to stay at Stepping Stones Montessori was more about philosophy and staffing.

For us, it came down to a few critical points in favor of Stepping Stones Montessori:

·       Individualized teaching

·       Independent learning

·       Continuity of curriculum and

·       Community.

Many students excel in the traditional model, which is used in public schools. The traditional model teaches to the center of the bell curve along a set curriculum that is largely driven by standardized testing. Children who fall outside the middle of the curve - those falling behind in certain areas or those who have the advanced capacity - get lost in the shuffle. At Stepping Stones, each child is allowed to find her own path to learning and has the opportunity to dive deep when a spark is lit. This is possible because Stepping Stones’ teachers have the capacity within the Montessori model and with the staffing ratio to give individualized attention and enable the child to create his own curriculum.

There is also something truly special about the way that the Montessori curriculum builds as the child moves through the levels – something I’m only beginning to understand myself. The foundations of math, reading, and practical life built in the Young Toddler and Toddler years, are reinforced in the Children’s House and are given a chance to come to full fruition in the elementary. In the elementary classroom, lessons use many of the same materials that are found in the Children's House, but they are put to a more complex use. What may have been a sorting activity in Children's House, now results in completed math pages in our Friday folders.  True understanding develops and lifelong habits are being established.

At the same time, this process is happening within a community of children on a similar journey, but at different age levels. A Montessori elementary classroom contains first, second and third grade students. Those children who were leaders in Children’s House are eased into more challenging and difficult work through the mentorship of the second and  third year elementary students. In the end, we believe this environment, which nurtures a true Love of Learning, is the best place for our child and we hope for yours as well.  if you are interested in Montessori education, contact Stepping Stones for more information and a tour of our school.


Susan Burton: An Alumna Profile

Leigh Ebrom

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


It's Elementary, My Dear Watson: Why Montessori Isn't Just for Little Ones

Elizabeth Topliffe

By Elizabeth Topliffe

 “Montessori is great for pre-school, but now that my son is entering elementary, I think he needs something different.”
“We had always planned for Montessori when we needed daycare. We’re in a great school district, and we pay for kindergarten and elementary through our taxes. I don’t see why we would pay tuition when we can get a great education for free.”

Here we are, three months into the academic year, and already we’re thinking about next year! Re-enrollment for current families opens on January 25, and with a current waiting list for our toddler program and Children’s House program, we suggest that parents re-enroll as early as possible.

As parents begin to think about what is next for their child, I usually hear from them one of two objections to continuing a Montessori education (see above). Doesn’t my child need something different? Why pass up free?

The answers to those questions are really pretty straightforward. Of course your child needs something different in elementary. This is why we have an entirely different environment for elementary children. The classrooms are larger. They reflect an elementary child’s need for social time with friends. The environment has more open-ended work, especially in science and cultural studies. The work provides opportunities for children to apply their analytical skills in creative and imaginative ways. The students also do more community governance, applying democratic principles to their classroom.

As for why to choose a private education over a public education, I again refer to the environment itself. Traditional education teaches and measures outcomes against a state-defined standard of education. Unfortunately, in that system, many children are not taught to understand themselves or to value learning. Instead, they measure themselves against their peers, against a standardized outcome, and against the teacher’s reflection of value.

In a Montessori classroom, children are taught how to understand themselves and their own motivations. They chart their own progress, working on something until they are satisfied that they have achieved their best work. Our guides lead children to the work, giving lessons and assisting them in opening the bigger and broader world.

The materials in the elementary classroom were designed with as much purpose as the materials in the Children’s House environment. Even better, they are designed to build on what a child has mastered in Children’s House. No other educational environment builds on the primary years as well as a Montessori classroom. Our Children’s House students have worked diligently for three years to master those materials. Imagine their interest and excitement when they see those same materials opening up new levels of understanding!

It’s true that the friends who leave our school usually do well academically in their new environment. Unfortunately, there’s a downside: they are bored by the work. In a Montessori environment, boredom isn’t part of the equation.

The elementary years are a time when children further develop their creativity and imagination—when math, science, writing, and cultural studies take on burning importance in children’s understanding of the larger world and of themselves. A good education fuels that flame and breathes life into children’s desire to understand everything.

You carefully selected your child’s preschool. You chose an environment that was richly prepared to enable your child to make choices for herself. You chose deep concentration and independence. You chose education for the whole child—an education for life.

Why would you choose anything less for your child’s elementary experience?

 If you're interested in Montessori resources about education, check out Montessori Madmen's resource list here.