How to Thrive in Change

During the 2015-2016 school year—Roadstead’s first year as an independent program (we were hatched in the previous year within Ghent Montessori Middle School)—we centered the science curriculum on a low-cost solar energy plant developed by a Norfolk-based inventor, Steve Nelson (the founder of Zenman Energy. The climax of these science lessons was a trip to Washington, DC, in April 2016 to participate in the biennial USA Science and Engineering Festival—the largest event of its kind in the country. We rented a booth on the energy floor and brought a working prototype and posters that illustrated its principles of operation. The students’ role was to give tours to the visitors: families with children, school and university students, professors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and more. 

Our experience at the USASEF 2016 illustrates one aspect of preparation for adult life: lessons on thriving in change. These practical lessons are seamlessly woven into the academic program and cultivate the students’ natural power of adaptability. The power of adaptability builds on a more foundational power, adaptation, that is cultivated in Montessori early childhood classes. 

Why do we need to adapt and be adaptable? Because panta rhei, (“everything is in flow”). 

This phrase coined by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, expresses that nothing in the universe stands still. Everything is constantly changing. “One cannot enter the same river twice,” as Heraclitus famously explained. Whatever appears is ephemeral and soon gives way to something else. The flow of the river, however, is not arbitrary. Change takes place according to an order whose rules are subject to scientific investigation. And so, being able to embrace order and change equally is a key to leading a happy, independent, creative and constructive life. 

A week before the festival, we took a break from our regular school schedule. The students rehearsed their presentations in front of the prototype at Steve’s workshop. Steve took care of the content level of the presentation. He corrected factual mistakes, added missing information and prepared the students for possible questions by visitors. Judy Ziegler, our video and drama teacher, guided the students’ public speaking, such as how to stand, how to use their voice, how to create eye contact, what body gestures should and should not follow their speech. The students also video recorded each other’s rehearsed presentations for further polishing work in Judy’s class. 

To finance the trip, our students created a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. They wrote the story page and created a 3-minute video commercial. Right before the trip, they designed and printed the T-shirt we all wore at the booth. That project was part of their weekly make STEAM (a.k.a shop) classes with Beau Turner at 757Makerspace. We rented an apartment across the Anacostia River and commuted to the convention center with the metro. One of the parents joined us as the crew’s cook.

Our humble booth stood at a high traffic spot alongside enormous booths of leading energy corporations, tool manufacturers and research organizations. The outstanding difference of our little booth actually played to our advantage. People were intrigued to see such a low-tech display after being bombarded with so many futuristic technologies. For an entire weekend, the students welcomed visitors from morning to early evening and gave them detailed presentations of the prototype. They referred visitors to Steve Nelson only when they were confronted with questions they could not answer. Without being told, they took great care to listen to his explanations. When such questions came up again, the students addressed them with ease. After the festival was over, our exhausted crew went to celebrate the end of the trip at an Afgani restaurant in Arlington, Virginia.

The impact of the experience was so strong. We all went through a profound change: each of us individually, the pioneering student community, and our newborn high school program in general. It is hard to describe briefly what happened to us during that weekend. All I can say is that, up to the beginning of the first day, the whole idea of presenting Steve’s prototype at the festival seemed quite virtual. We knew what we were planning to do, but did not identify with our role, as if someone else was about to do it and we were only bystanders who were looking at it from afar. By the end of the festival, we all were fervent advocates of low-cost solar energy. We saw ourselves as partners in Steve’s invention and could explain its importance for humanity and the environment in a highly informed manner to people of all ages and educational backgrounds. This proficient identification was the outcome of countless practice hours during the school year, culminating in a real-world meaningful experience.

The scientific facts of the prototype remained in our minds long afterwards. The students used to give parodized presentations to each other as part of our communal internal humor. Over time, memories of the festival gradually turned into sweet nostalgia and then to legacy. I can present Setve’s invention even today (an important disclosure, natural sciences and engineering are absolutely not my fields). The students of this pioneering class are already beyond high school. However, I can recognize the experience of the USASEF 2016 inscribed in our current school program. 

The impact of the festival also had a big impact on Steve Nelson himself. Never planning before to have a teaching career, a couple of years later he became our highly popular math and natural science teacher as well as a central member of the school’s leading team. Steve teaches in the same way he invents technologies. His classes go way beyond lecturing and imparting information. He guides the students how to welcome moments when things do not work, break down and seem irresolvable. These moments are the starting point of a fascinating learning journey with experimental games of trial and error as well as with tedious delving into hard new topics.

Reflecting on the process we went through in the USASEF 2016, I can summarize that we received two lessons:

Adaptation, which is the lesson of order formation, and its counterpart, adaptability, which is the lesson of adjusting to change. 

Maria Montessori explains that adaptation happens in children during the first 6 years of life. The child’s body and flesh take the shape of the surrounding environment allowing the child’s mind to embody the environment (she uses the word “incarnation” to stress the essential role of the body). At that time, the child’s mind is so sensitive that it is ready to absorb effortlessly and spontaneously every impression that strikes the senses and goes through the organism’s system. This absorption allows the mind to take in the shape of the abstract rules and order of the environment. In the next step of development, the child’s mind forms the foundations of all aspects of human thought, including early enculturation with social values and practices. Maria Montessori earned her fame for preparing carefully and meticulously classrooms that provide an optimal environment to support this process of absorption. Successful adaptation results in attaining psychological independence. The ordered environment allows the child to shape a strong, stable and solid sense of self.

Adaptability is the lifelong skill of adjusting to changing life conditions. The building of this skill starts immediately after adaptation; however, its critical phase happens during the transformative years of adolescence (12-18 years old). Adaptability is an orientation to the outside world and so it becomes most crucial to the stage of development in which life no longer revolves only around myself but around myself in regard to my peers, the adults in my life and everything that makes up my social surroundings. 

Successful formation of adaptability during adolescence results in social independence. Growing toward early adulthood, teenagers need to develop the skills of changing with the changes that take place around them. Within a few years they will not be able to rely on adults who keep their reality stable. They will have to know how to respond in their professional and personal lives to trends and shifts, opportunities and risks, growth in demand and decline and all the other components of change. The more solid, stable and ordered (in other words, the better adapted) adolescents’ internal sense of self is, the more confident, realistic, happy and creative will their adaptability to change be. 

Indeed, all of the people involved in the USASEF 2016 experience were already beyond the age of adaptation. However, figuratively, Roadstead was like a child during the sensitive period. The abstract organism of the school absorbed the impressions of the festival and all other interactions with the environment. Gradually it has shaped the foundations of its current identity, which is still fairly young but already strong, stable and solid. 

Our adaptability was most recently tested during the COVID-19 crisis.

We had a great year until then. Roadstead had just moved in the Fall to a bigger location that fit the growing student community. Together we created a cosy space with many spots for both individual and communal work. We added new seminars and lessons. Off-campus partnerships continued to evolve. And, then… within a day we switched the entire program to Zoom. Fortunately, we managed to save almost all of our classes. Only two that require face-to-face contact had to be replaced with alternatives. Two mottos framed our adaptation to remote learning: one, our program may be modified but will not be compromised; and two, as long as we are healthy, we should take the discomfort of the closure with curiosity and excitement of discovery.

Our students miss very much being together at the physical space. They also grieve the loss of the almost daily going to places outside school. However, trained to be adaptable by the structure of our program, the structure that was inscribed by experiences like USASEF 2016, they adjusted to the changes with ease. In addition to all the lessons, we meditated together in the morning and afternoon, practiced Aikido stretching every day before lunch and met weekly for student-led community meetings. We could not perform the play Arsenic and Old Lace on a theater stage, so we created with Zoom a virtual one. The students performed the 90-minutes long dialogues from their homes. Judy Ziegler edited the Zoom recording as if the students were co-present. The traditional beach day at the end of the year was adapted to a day-long Minecraft game. I was most moved by the change of roles. The students were now the experts. They mentored us—the adults—the clueless newbies, with patience and grace. 

Maria Montessori writes, “[t]he material world is in the process of rapid evolution and contains dangers and uncertainties of a new adjustment…The world is like a piece of land that is going through the vicissitudes of settlement of the soil….It is necessary that the human personality should be prepared for the unforeseen, not only for the conditions that can be anticipated with prudence and foresight. Nor should it be strictly conditioned by rigid specialization, but should develop at the same time the power of adapting itself quickly and easily….Adaptability — this is the most essential quality; for the progress of the world is continually opening new careers, and at the same time closing or revolutionizing the traditional types of employment.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, Appendix A, p. 60-61, Clio Press, 1994)

This text was first published in 1948, when the world was going through a historical change in the aftermath of two world wars and the beginning of the Cold War. Indeed, the river of 2020 is completely different than that of 1948. However, nothing has changed since then regarding the order of flow. As in the past, much of it can be learned. However, much of it is still unforeseen and still requires schools to train the young generation to develop a strong, solid and ordered self that knows how to protect itself from the dangers of change and, at the same time, welcome its endless new possibilities.