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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503



On Time

Elizabeth Topliffe

Does anybody really know what time it is?
— Chicago

By Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

Parents often wonder why we’re so regimented about start times at our Montessori School. I can assure you that we aren’t maniacal time-keepers or rigid people! Rest assured. The reason is that it is important to your child, and we take that pretty seriously.

Three Hour Work Cycle

To begin, I need to back up to Maria Montessori’s research. When observing children, Dr. Montessori noticed that children (even very young children) reach deep levels of concentration and learning. It was during these deeper periods of concentration that children were able to work with materials and lessons to achieve mastery, returning to the concept or materials with repetition until they became satisfied with their work.

All of us are familiar with the feeling of satisfaction for a job well done. For adults that comes in many forms. It may be figuring out what has been holding us back and using our morning to solve that problem. Or, we might complete a writing project or presentation. Or it might be something physical, like cleaning up a tree that has come down in the yard. It is just so gratifying to see our efforts pay off.

Children feel this same sense of joy and gratification when they master something or complete a project. Dr. Montessori noticed, however, that children did not reach this state of concentration (many of you would call it “flow”) until they had worked through some shorter, easier tasks, and then experienced a state of “False Fatigue”, which is a period of restlessness that sets in about 1 1/2 hours into the work cycle. The same is likely true for adults. We settle in to our days and then get to work on our own work cycles.

A Children's House student works with the 3 chain

A Children's House student works with the 3 chain

As a parent who has been late my fair share of the time, it is easy for me to think that my daughter didn’t miss much when she was late. Maybe she missed only the time to hang up coats, chat with friends, etc. She is pretty adaptable and can jump right in. I assumed that she hadn’t missed out on anything important—the meaty stuff.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. We can’t skip the small stuff. A child arriving at school will still take time to settle in and put away their belongings. They will check in with friends. They might wander in the classroom to find work that intrigues them. If they cannot find work, they might receive a short lesson. A child often completes one or two smaller, easier tasks not long after they arrive, repeating something they have already mastered. They will likely have snack.

These tasks are what allow the child to settle in to the concentrated work. Children (and adults for that matter) need to do those things first in order to reach that state of flow or deep learning.

An elementary student deep into the timeline of life

An elementary student deep into the timeline of life

When we’re late, we take time away from our children’s deep learning. If we’re ½ hour late, our child may not reach that state of flow at all during the work cycle. It doesn’t matter how much effort and energy we put into a carefully prepared environment, if a child is not there to receive the work, it is wasted. We are pretty attached to our students, and we do not want them to miss out on this important time!

It is also important for parents to say their goodbyes somewhere other than the classroom. Saying goodbye at the door or front-office allows children the dignity of caring for themselves. It sends the message that you think they are capable, resourceful, and whole. They receive that message from the staff and the entire environment of the school, and this is a way you can reinforce that. It is an act of dignity and agency to walk into a work environment on our own, without emotional assistance.

Sarah B. and her sign-in sheet

Sarah B. and her sign-in sheet

Montessori schools, teachers and administrators really do understand. We know snow storms, dentist appointments, lost shoes, etc. happen. We get it. We know that sometimes being on time is a challenge. It is our hope to help you understand why it is worth some up-front effort to build some consistency in arrival.

An Invitation

Our work is to establish peace. The first step in doing so is to respect our work, the work of others, and to respect ourselves—our agency and our dignity.

The best part is that every one of us is invited into the work of peace, grace, and courtesy. Our age, economic-class, social-class, religion, education, etc. have no bearing on the invitation.

You are welcome here. Your child is welcome here.


Community Sing!

Elizabeth Topliffe

Funny how a melody
Sounds like a memory
Like a soundtrack to a July Saturday night
            --Eric Church, Springsteen
I have some great news to share! Stepping Stones Montessori is starting a Community Sing!

Just in case you’re asking yourself what the heck is a community sing and why would we do it, I’m hoping to explain that here. A community sing is a group of people getting together to sing. That’s it. As for why, here are some of my thoughts….
Some of you know that I often begin my notes and posts with song lyrics. I really don’t know what inspired me to do this, but I keep doing it because songs often convey more effectively anything I could share in words here. For example, the lyrics above from Eric Church remind me how much of my own memory is tied to song.
Music has that quality. It can take me back to the roller rinks of my youth, the beaches of young adulthood, and the nostalgia of singing around a campfire.
But for years, I refused to sing while in the company of any other human. The truth is that my voice is tinny, flat, and rarely on key. I was too embarrassed to sing.
Then, I became a parent.
Soon, I was singing to help my daughter sleep. I was singing silly songs to share with her. We were singing together about cleaning up or getting dressed or any other chore. We would even sing-song speak to one another.
Some scientists believe that human language evolved from song and that our ancestors sang before they spoke. Regardless of whether that is accurate, human beings have been singing together for millennia. There was a time (before smartphones) when singing was a part of everyday life. Women sang as they churned, wove, worked. Men sang as they did the same. When groups of people gathered, they sang.
Among other things, singing creates a sense of belonging, which was important to early humans as they relied on their group for survival.
Today, we need that sense of belonging as much as ever. And, we have lots of modern research that describes the benefits of singing for health, immunity, warding off depression and anxiety, better sleep, lower blood pressure, longer life, and improved muscle tone and posture.
In our classrooms, children sing together—sometimes serious songs and sometimes fun songs. Last year, as the upper elementary students prepared our garden at River Ridge Farm (the location of our new middle school), they sang together as they worked. When I arrived during their work, the sense of joy was palpable. Singing helped create that joy and express it.
Singing is also a part of the quieter moments in our community. A couple years ago, Sarah B. heard singing in the staircase. She peeked over the rail to see a student taking care of the classroom’s recycling. As she worked, the student sang a made-up song about recycling.
Music is an important part of our learning environment, but we have not really extended it to our larger community. Until now. Jenn Porter and Josh Dunigan, our upper elementary guide and music teacher, suggested a community sing.
It is a monthly gathering of anyone (children, neighbors, grandparents, parents, your second-cousin, everyone is welcome!) who wants to join us to get together and to sing. Our first sing will be September 11 at 6. We will meet outdoors (if the weather is nice—otherwise in the cafeteria), share a meal (with suggested donation), eat together, and then sing for about a half hour. Jenn Porter and Josh Dunigan have agreed to help lead this. We plan to begin with songs from Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Songbook. If you have a guitar, play an instrument, or otherwise love to help a group to sing, please bring your instruments and leadership capabilities!
Lest you think that you cannot sing, please join us anyway. I will be there, singing off key. Please don’t make me the only one.
Our greatest songs are yet to be sung. Join us as we grow them together.
In peace,


Elizabeth Topliffe

Imagine all the people living life in peace


You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

            --John Lennon, Imagine

On behalf of all of the educators and staff, Welcome to Stepping Stones Montessori for the 2018-19 Academic Year!

As a parent, you’ve signed up for a cosmic education for your child. Around here, we don’t think of ourselves as a school. We think of ourselves as partners in a child’s cosmic journey. Our work is intended to save humanity and bring about peace.

The challenge is to truly hold that out front rather than allowing our inner cynic or realist to invade, clamoring that this is impossible! Why not focus on something realistic!

The work of our school is so big that a great deal of the time we cannot even imagine it. Maria Montessori said a great deal about the work of education. Here are a few of her thoughts:

“It may seem that we have drifted rather far from our original subject—Education. This digression, however, must open up the new road along which we now have to go. In the same way in which we help the patients in a hospital to recover their health and continue to live so we must now help humanity save itself. We must be nurses in a hospital, as vast as the world itself.” [The Formation of Man, translated by A. M. Joosten]
“An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking: it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to times in which they live.” [Education and Peace, translated by Helen R. Lane]

Let’s face it. Something as big as an “education capable of saving humanity” is difficult to imagine, and it is hard to see the whole thing at once.

When even our imaginations fail to see the picture, our human tendency is to make the dream smaller. We naturally tend to resize it, to think of its components, and to focus on the small things we can understand. When we do, we diminish the ourselves and the children in our school. It is a mistake and error to forget the big and beautiful quest we are on.

Even though I know this, there will be times when I will fail to focus on the vision of an education capable of saving humanity. In my desire to take care of the school and our children and adolescents, I will focus on academics, or independence, or grace and courtesy. All of those things are tremendously important to our mission, but individually, one does not take precedence over the others. Only in the context of this larger goal—saving humanity and bringing about peace—do those concepts have a place.

I think this happens, in part, because I was educated in traditional schools, and our culture tends to think of education with that kind of model. Under this model, the school and its teachers are responsible for “teaching” a child. Teachers are evaluated based on their students’ performance, rather on their own capabilities in the classroom.

The truth is that teachers cannot control whether children learn. Likewise, our school is not in control of their learning. You’re not either. They are.

You get the picture. It is the same mistake most parents make, only to be brought to their knees by a crying, sleepless infant, or a pre-schooler’s tantrum, or an adolescent’s moodiness.

We are not in control. The children and adolescents of Stepping Stones Montessori come to us with everything they need to learn. Their curiosity, their desire, their work results in their education.

Of course, our efforts matter, but they are more about shaping an environment and culture where students realize their own growth—learning, spiritual development, individual value, and a place in the world.

Despite this, every year I think that we must do x, or y, or z to make children learn, become kinder, behave in a certain way. The moment comes when I forget that in the end, we are helpless to determine what the child absorbs, learns, retains. We can only offer the environment.

In return for your grace on these two things, I will offer my own. You will also make these same mistakes. They go along with being human.

As we set off on this path, I ask you (and colleagues, friends, and students) to gently remind me that this education is vast and not to make it too small. I ask you to help me remember that I’m not (nor is anyone other than the child) in control of a child’s learning. I will do my best to return that favor.

I’m looking forward to our journey together!

Peace and grace,