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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503



Filtering by Tag: alumni

Dr. Catherine Sundt: An Alumna Profile

Leigh Ebrom

Catherine Sundt has taken a talent for languages, evident in her earliest days at SSMS, and built on it to achieve a career as a Spanish professor. Catherine received her B.A. in Spanish from Grand Valley State University and went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in Iberian Literature and Cultures from the Ohio State University. 

At SSMS, Catherine showed not only a talent for language but also for music. Catherine displayed this talent most memorably when she starred as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Despite being the youngest member of her class, she proved to be very social and a leader. She loved music and drama class, and excelled at French, which she continued learning until high school.

She encourages SSMS’ current students to use the flexibility of Stepping Stones to pursue their passions - if they demonstrate an interest, the teachers are there to guide them. She personally loved her Québec trip, the school plays, and independent reading. 

Catherine currently is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Rhodes College. At Rhodes, Catherine teaches courses on Spanish language, literature, and grammar. She is an innovative teacher and incorporates games and popular culture into her classroom to keep her students inspired. Catherine has published work on urban studies, the popular press, and 19th-century literature, and has presented her research across the country in both Spanish and English.

She continues to use her Montessori experience in her teaching. She emphasizes communication and lets students guide the conversation according to their interests and knowledge.

Catherine currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee with her husband Greg. She enjoys trivia, listening to local live music and singing in her free time. Catherine also loves traveling and she shares her love for adventure with her students when she takes a class to Ecuador for an intensive study abroad course over the summer.

- Kyra (Glass von der Osten) Hunting, SSMS class of 1996

Dr. Michele Castleman: An Alumna Profile

Leigh Ebrom

by Dr. Catherine Sundt (Class of 1996)




Michele Castleman attended Stepping Stones from 1987-1996, all the way from Children’s House to 6th grade. While there, Michele loved reading, writing, and drama – her cackle as the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz is still famous.

She cherishes her experiences with acting in the spring musicals, the read-alouds her SSMS teachers conducted, and the author visits by the late Brian Jacques. These experiences fostered strong bonds within her class. Even 20 years later, Michele maintains friendships with fellow students from that period.

After Stepping Stones, Michele entered the Northview school system, where she became involved in swimming, Students Against Destructive Decisions (S.A.D.D.), and Spanish club. She took many AP classes during high school and earned college credits at GRCC.

After graduation, she attended Michigan State University, and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in English in three years. She received her Master’s in Fine Arts in Young Adult and Children’s Writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, and then earned her Ph.D. from the Ohio State University at the age of 27. Her doctoral degree is in Teaching and Learning, with a focus on Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Michele is currently an Assistant Professor of Education at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio.  She teaches courses on children’s and young adult literature, English and diversity education, and writing. She notes:

My passion is young adult and children's literature.  I love discussing books with my students.  My dissertation was focused on examining the way ancient myths were presented and used in middle grade and young adult books set in the present day; like the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.  Now I am researching violence in young adult literature. (

Her work on violence in young adult literature was published in the Spring 2013 issue of ALAN Review.

As an educator, Michele understands the value of student-directed learning, as well as the level of inquiry the Montessori Method fostersShe encourages Stepping Stones’ current students to cherish the friendships they make at SSMS, read as much as they can, and to enjoy the Montessori experience.

Michele enjoys running, acting in the community theater, wrangling her cats (Frankie and Freddie), and writing. Her blog, The Hungry Readers ( has reviews on books for kids children and adolescents, including guest posts from her friend, East Grand Rapids youth librarian Monica Walen. 



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