Hilltop Montessori

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Sunday, 21 Dec 2014
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Nora Gordon Class of 2000
Though Nora bid farewell to Hilltop in the spring of 2000, after nine active, hands-on years of independent learning, the guiding spirit of a Montessori education is alive and well within her. From school to internship to work experiences, Nora's pursuit of learning that is interdisciplinary, practical, choice-filled, and connected remains a priority. "I am always looking for those epiphany moments when I see myself as a self-directed learner." Nora left Hilltop for the bigger environs of Northfield Mount Hermon School. The adjustment was not so easy. "For the first two years the comfort level and learning style I had enjoyed at Hilltop conflicted with NMH." But, as has happened on more than one occasion, a passion and a mentor ultimately emerged. Nora enrolled in the "Turtle Island Seminar", an interdisciplinary, environmental history and ethics study that, first, studied the local region, next, crossed the continent by train to visit important sites in the environmental history of North America, and, culminated in independent research projects and a common statement about the ethical future of humans on the land. For Nora, the environmental studies' focus was one of those "epiphany moments…the perfect capstone experience. I now had great friends, great teachers, great authors and subject matter, and a knowledge base that really clicked. I discovered that what I do best is experiential learning." The passions ignited by the Turtle Island study influenced her decision to choose Oberlin College in 2004.

Once again, however, the transition to new surroundings and structures left Nora feeling less than inspired or fulfilled. And once again she was drawn far beyond the classroom walls. This time she signed up for the SEA (Sea Education Association) program based out of Woods Hole, MA: six weeks on land and six weeks at sea on a tall ship. Sailing the Caribbean from Key West to Jamaica to Honduras and back, students learned everything needed to know how to operate the ship. Nora worked on deck, in the galley, the ship's lab, and in the engine room. She learned to set sails, cook for the crew, and, her favorite, to navigate celestially. "The whole thing was just outstanding; it is just magical at sea, especially at night when I was on watch just looking out over the ocean, sometimes there were dolphins, sometimes the sea was phosphorescent, and there were the stars, and I would be in the middle of all this sometimes singing away, and I would become totally addicted to the sea." The program also taught Nora "how to work with a group, to problem solve, to be brave, to make decisions, and, most importantly, in the midst of the experience I learned that I needed to do that again."

Upon returning to Oberlin Nora declared as an environmental studies major and promptly applied to the Williams Mystic Maritime Studies Program. Based out of Mystic Seaport Museum the program blended courses such as Coastal Ecology and Maritime History with field trips all over the country, on which students met policy makers, tug boat operators, salmon farmers, and more. "What became clear through the program was the humanities side of it: I wanted to be involved in the [tension] between the people and the landscape and why it persists." Nora graduated from Oberlin in December 2007 with a B.S. I Environmental Science and promptly headed back to Vermont to complete the final part of a grand plan-in-progress: to work an entire year on a farm. Having spent the previous summer working at Walker Farm and autumn on a farm in Oberlin, she now entered an internship program at Merck Forest and Farmland Center in Rupert, Vermont. As with the Turtle Island, tall ship, and maritime program experiences Nora placed herself smack in the middle of an opportunity to learn as much as desired. There was no bar, no limits.

"Merck Forest is an environmental education center that covers the full gambit of seeing what the Vermont landscape is capable of producing year round…including working in 50 mph winds, sub-zero temps, and very wet conditions." She loves farm life, be it learning to use a chain saw, work the sugarbush, or to drive a tractor. "The same passion I discovered in the coastal program has been transferred to a passion about food and food production. Herein lays the conundrum in my life: I would love to be a deckhand, but the connection with the land and the landscape hold more weight to me. Coastal studies is fun, but the land is more important, holds more opportunity for me to make a difference in my community around important issues such as food security or being more reliant on our local landscape rather than fossil fuels. It just makes more sense to me." The time for change is again at hand. Nora will be leaving Merck Forest in October. What now? "At this point in my life I am still looking for adventure but am also getting more specific in what I want to do. I am getting very interested in sheep and fiber farming. It is all an extension of the local reliance industry. I am looking for more responsibility.

I want to work closely with someone who is a master at and active and successful in his or her craft / profession."
Ultimately, whatever opportunity arises, it will have to possess a healthy dose of choice and independence. "I just don't like someone else making the decisions as to what I am supposed to be learning. I look for ways when I can find what I am interested in and ways to further that interest. It is less about the area of study and more about connecting with what I am interested in and with others I share those interests with." Surely the next "epiphany moment" isn't too far off.

Suzannah Wainhouse Class of 1997
Suzannah Wainhouse is a “pioneer middle-schooler”; she graduated in 1997 when the middle school, located at Center Congregational Church, was in its second year. Suzannah has remained a pioneer – a creative, thoughtful risk-taker – which has had an exciting result:

I went to Pratt after BUHS and studied painting but didn’t graduate. About four years ago I moved back to Brattleboro, and worked at Delectable Mountain. I have always made jewelry but didn’t get serious about it until I got an apprenticeship with Bob Borter who is a master jeweler and who taught me everything I know. I worked with him for a year and a half and then moved to Brooklyn and began working for jewelers down here. Slowly I developed my own collection and in October 2010 I approached Barneys. Amazing. They bought the first collection and the jewelry is in the LA, San Francisco, Madison Ave and Brooklyn Barney’s stores. Although I am expanding and have other accounts my intention is to focus on specialty stores. I personally make a lot of the pieces, but I also have two interns at my studio in Brooklyn. The materials I use come from a variety of places – a lot of the stones come from a supplier in Brattleboro; the metals from a supplier in NYC.

Looking back on my many years at Hilltop I feel very grateful and honored to have been part of a dream and a huge leap of faith that so many wonderful people were a part of. I learned most importantly to be an independent thinker and someone who can adapt to and utilize whatever came my way. I was also greatly influenced by the passion and conviction of my teachers at the time and looking back as an adult, I see myself striving for the same kind of life. The people I met at Hilltop are to this day my beloved friends and it's such a blessing to have them all in my life.

To see Suzannah’s jewelry collection go to or and under designer you will find her name! Suzannah has also returned to painting.

Henry Wainhouse Class of 2001
Henry Wainhouse is a Hilltop lifer (11 years), class of ‘01. He is also a graduate of Northfield Mount Hermon School (class of ’05) and the University of Vermont, class of ’09, with a BA in English. The following is an excerpt from a letter to former Hilltop Head of School, (originally printed in Dec '2010 Moments) and Henry’s middle school teacher, Kevin Campbell reaffirming the time-released appreciation for a Hilltop Montessori School education, the value of good teachers and good schools in children’s lives, and the need to give back and be of service.

I am currently teaching 6th grade SPED, as part of the Teach for America program, on 196th street in the Bronx. I began the training in June spending the summer, along with 220 other New York Corps members and staff, living in dorm rooms at St. Johns College in Queens, waking up every morning at 5am, taking school buses at 6am into Manhattan, and teaching summer school at a middle school in Washington Heights.

The days were long and exhausting - I taught one full block a day with the rest of the day basically spent in two hour blocks of power point training sessions at the school. The school had no air-conditioning and the heat in New York was pretty awful. To keep a class of middle schoolers engaged in lessons, given the heat, the fact that they were in summer school, and my inexperience as a teacher was a challenge to say the least. But the hardest part of the days was trying to stay awake during the late morning and afternoon training sessions. We bused back to St. Johns around 4:30pm, ate dinner, and then had to start preparing and revising lesson plans that were due on a regimented schedule and in advance of the week’s work. I usually got to bed around 1:00.

My experience so far has been generally positive. I teach at a district school (P.S. 86), grades K-6. It is one of the biggest public schools in the city in terms of student population. The school administration does a really good job of running the school and there is a strong system of support for teachers. One of the main reasons that I was hired for a special education position is the reputation and success of Teach for America. I am taking Master's classes at Hunter College twice a week to supplement my work in the classroom – a mandatory part of being in Teach for America. After two years, I will have my Masters and be certified to teach Special Education in New York. The cost of my tuition is largely subsidized by Teach for America because it is an Americorps program.

I was lucky to be hired at this particular school – the Teach for America experience can be drastically different depending on what the school staff is like, location and the students. PS 86, while it has its problems, has a very strong principal and a lot of other TFA corps members, which makes things a lot easier.

The training prepared me for some aspects of what I experience, but it's pretty much been trial by fire. I co-teach with another TFA teacher; the two of us spend all day in a small classroom with nine 6th grade special education students. She plans and lead-teaches the math lessons; I offer support to kids who are struggling. I lead teach and plan the reading and writing lessons. After 4 weeks of training am I perfectly prepared and capable to be teaching reading and writing to 6th graders? No, but in two months I know which areas need improvement

Most of the nine students in my class read and write on a 1st or 2nd grade level. Most of them come from single parent homes, with little to no positive role models. Most have mild to serious learning disabilities and mild to very serious attention disorders. Overall, they are a good group of kids. I am consistently humbled by their ability to remain positive given all that works against them. The dynamics of the job are incredibly complex; every day presents a new challenge.
My weeks are exhausting. I considered myself someone who was organized and managed time well, but I have had to take these skills to new levels. Say what you will about TFA, but the level of professional development for success in whatever path that people choose to pursue after their two years is absolutely unparalleled. Given the size and complexity of the many problems in education in America, TFA demands that you have to be able to work harder and longer.

Christie Wilcox Class of '99
Christie is a Hilltop graduate and currently working towards a PhD at the University of Hawaii in Cell and Molecular Biology.  Below is a letter sent to Kevin back in August 2009.
A few weeks ago, I posted some old Hilltop class photos on Facebook. I tagged my friends and put a note to tag whoever else they knew. The next day almost every single person in the photos was tagged, and my page was flooded with friend requests. Hilltoppers seem to be doing well and have truly spread everywhere!

Kian [ed: Christie’s brother] went on from Concord Academy to the University of California at Santa Barbara. He's a programmer (is anyone shocked?) and does very well for himself in California. As for me, I graduated from Concord Academy and ended up at Eckerd College, a fantastic liberal arts college in Florida, on a full tuition merit scholarship. I got my B.S. with Honors in Marine Science and then spent two years working as a biological researcher before deciding it was time to start a PhD. I am now at the University of Hawaii, on a fully-funded PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology. But I'm not just a total nerd. Hilltop fostered my love for writing, which I still cultivate by blogging on the internet and freelance work.

I know that Hilltop was key to my successes in life. The education was simply fantastic. I was amazed in high school that so many of my peers, whether from a public or private school background, weren't taught the basics of how to write an essay or critically read literature. It amazed me even more that the same held true in college. I've told the story of writing my first essay — a group one, in middle school, about whether or not an elephant could fly — at least a hundred times.

Hilltop also taught me time management, a skill which proved vital throughout my high school and college career. At boarding school, I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted. But because of Hilltop, I instinctively knew how to do my homework and manage my social life. While my friends lamented that there never seemed to be enough time in the day to get things done, I excelled without even thinking about it. I'm certain that without the self-structured nature of Hilltop, I would have been just as overwhelmed as they were. And because I was able to excel at Concord, I was able to get my scholarship for Eckerd and pass out of many courses with APs. That gave me the flexibility to do the side projects, internships and volunteering that made me stand out as a marine biologist. It gave me the amazing opportunity to do self-directed research as an undergraduate — research which was recently published in the journal Marine Biology.

In short, I owe a lot of my success to Hilltop and my amazing teachers there - like you. Thank you for being such a wonderful teacher and mentor. Though I might be about as far away as humanly possible, I still carry Hilltop with me, and still tell stories about morning circle, classes, and the odysseys. My friends always seem shocked at the level of sophistication and freedom I was granted. In truth, I am amazed, too. There is no school quite like Hilltop, and I am lucky that I got to go there.

Zoe Goehring class of 2001
A graduate of Hilltop, attended high school at Westover School in Middlebury, CT (preceded by Hilltop friends Tonia Wheeler and Evelyn Mervine) and most recently a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, from the Bachelors of Humanities and Arts program.

Has it really been ten years since I graduated from Hilltop? Am I really back in Brattleboro, back at Hilltop as well, working in Melissa’s classroom and living on Hilltop’s new campus? Hard to believe! I’ve found my experiences as a student at Hilltop to be some of the most valuable in my education, so it comes as no surprise to me that I am continuing to learn here in this new role. It’s a great experience seeing the Montessori process from the other side!

After graduating from Hilltop in 2001, I attended Westover School in Middlebury, CT.  Although living away from home during high school was a real challenge, I wouldn’t trade anything for the friendships I found there, or for the preparedness I experienced at Carnegie Mellon University. At CMU I was a part of the Bachelors of Humanities and Arts program, an interdisciplinary degree that allowed me to focus on two majors, art and creative writing, and integrate them into one study. While there I tutored 4th and 5th graders, worked in a bakery, and sorted and cataloged insects in the Invertebrate Zoology department at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Last April I moved to Maine, where I apprenticed on an organic farm. I fell in love with the process. Farming allows and requires so many different kinds of knowledge and creativity to come into play. Along with the challenges, there is so much room for playfulness, imagination, thoughtfulness, and growth. As someone who has always struggled with choosing just one thing to do or place to be, I usually just try to find a way to do it all so farming strikes a perfect synthesis of what I love! On a larger scale, I am excited to learn more about farming as a means to educate and empower communities. I’m planning on moving to Philadelphia this summer to continue my education as a farmer through involvement with urban agriculture projects, and would like to work toward eventually having my own farm.

Looking back at my time at Hilltop, some of my most vivid memories are from times spent at the North Campus – cutting shingles, digging post-holes, cooking together over the fire, my first writer’s workshop as a seventh grader while we sat on fallen trees in the rich calm of the woods. Those experiences fostered an awareness in me of the importance of community, the discovery that contributing to the group in a meaningful way can also lead to self-discovery and empowerment, and appreciation for both the rewards and challenges of physical labor. I’m grateful for the teachers at Hilltop who instilled in me a desire to grow and to seek opportunities for growth when none were immediately apparent. Seeing this same excitement for discovery nurtured every day on the Hilltop campus is so inspiring! I’m thankful to be a part of it once more.

Maya Sutton Smith Class of 2010
As a graduate of Hilltop in 2010, Maya and her classmates had the unique distinction as the first graduates on the new campus. Maya is now attending Northfield Mount Hermon.

After six years at Hilltop, I left for a year in seventh grade, but even then I came back. Last June, it was final: the end of an era. Seven years of hard work had paid off. I was on my way to Northfield Mount Hermon.

Total culture shock ensued. I went from 125 kids, some of whom couldn’t even read, to 650. From a class of three to a class of eighty-one. From Hilltop’s small campus to NMH’s hundreds and hundreds of acres. From eating lunch on a raft in the middle of the pond to a giant dining hall. From project time to a block schedule. Numerous changes could have gone awry. But I love NMH. I’ve adjusted to the schedule and to the size, to eating in chairs. The actual work turned out to be one of the easier transitions. My classes were hard, definitely, especially Chinese.  Learning a completely foreign language was the one topic I felt totally unprepared for. But in all of my other classes I had been given the tools to excel.

At NMH all freshman take a course called Humanities I, which consists of English and Religious Studies. My English class is the highlight of my day. I’ve always loved to write, as Connie and Jessica and Dan and Tom can attest. Writer’s Workshop was, for me, a time of prolific creation, and I can still hear Dan’s voice in my ear every time I try to slip the word ‘thing’ into a piece of writing.  As for Religious Studies, all I can say is that my experience in Boston last spring added numerous layers of depth to the work I do in class today.

Overall, my time at Hilltop honed my time management and independent thinking skills more than anything else. It hasn’t even been a year since graduation, but I can already tell what a great foundation Hilltop laid for my career at NMH and beyond.


"For us Hilltop is not only a's part of our community and our family."

—Hilltop Parent