What does it take to change the world?
This. This is what it takes to change the world.
This is the story of a remarkable group of middle-school students from a small Montessori charter school in Pinckney who witnessed history and then took a step toward changing the world, all in the same amazing day.
If you’ve ever wondered whether a child can make a difference in the world, well, here’s a story that will answer that question.
Last Wednesday, March 14, was a remarkable day in America’s history. Spurred to action by the horrific shootings in Parkland, Fla., that was the day that students across the country made their feelings known about school violence. Some of them walked out of school. Some of them “walked up” in school. Some of them took part in protests.
Whatever the students did, they were all making their feelings known, and they did so in numbers that were unprecedented. All of them were hoping to change the world for the better, too, and I’m praying they succeed.
One of the biggest demonstrations that day took place, naturally, on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. As circumstances would have it, I was there.
I spent three days last week helping to chaperone a middle-school trip to Washington, D.C., for Light of the World Academy in Pinckney. It’s a K-8 Montessori charter school, and my wife, Kathy, is the Montessori director there. My daughter, Lottie, is an eighth-grader at Light of the World, and she was one of the students on the trip. It was a small group – only about 12 students, a few parents, a couple teachers and my wife.
And me. My job was to carry luggage and make sure we always got on the right Metro train, and for the most part, I didn’t screw up too badly.
We saw all the usual sights that middle-school kids see when they go to D.C. – the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Smithsonian museums – and as it turned out, we were at the U.S. Capitol on March 14 at the exact time the protest was taking place. We didn’t plan it that way – it’s just how the schedule worked out.
As we talked toward the Capitol, we saw all the people gathered on the lawn, and we knew right away what it was. The closer we got, we could see the signs and hear the chanting.
It was a remarkable opportunity for our kids to experience something historic first-hand. There are protests every day in D.C., but this one was different. It was historic.
There were hundreds of students on the Capitol lawn – maybe even thousands – taking part in the protest. All sorts of media people and TV cameras. We later heard that there were several members of Congress out milling around with the students, including the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders. We could see some other Senators and Representatives on the balcony outside the Capitol rotunda, waving to the crowd. It was a fascinating sight.
Kathy had the students walk right up to the protestors to see what they were saying. “This is what our democracy looks like,” she said. “We’re lucky we live in a country where we’re free to do this.”
And now we get to the part of the story where the students took a step toward changing the world.
The reason we were at the Capitol that day was because we had a meeting set up with our Congressman, Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester). We were going to be meeting him at the Cannon House Office Building, and the kids were excited about it. None of them had ever met a member of Congress before.
These kinds of meetings take place every day on Capitol Hill, and for the most part, they’re fairly unremarkable. The Representative or Senator comes out, asks the children how their trip to Washington is going, takes a few photos, and that’s that. Two seconds later, the lawmaker has forgotten all about it.
This one was different. Very different.
Primarily because I was a newspaper editor for so long, I’ve gotten to know most of the people who have represented Livingston County in Lansing and Washington over the last 30 years pretty well. But I didn’t really know Mike Bishop. He’s been representing the 8th District (which includes all of Livingston County) since being first elected in 2014, but I had only met him a couple times. This was the first time I had spent any extended amount of time around him.
I came away very, very, very impressed. Mike Bishop is smart, perceptive and extremely sincere.
And the minute he got into the room with these kids, I could tell this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill meet-and-greet with a politician.
Bishop knew very well what was happening around the country that day, and he knew very well what was taking place just a few hundred yards away on the Capitol lawn. Later that afternoon, he was going to be voting on a school safety measure that had wide bipartisan support. So it was obvious that schools and students were heavy on his mind as he sat with these kids from Light of the World Academy.
He had a group of students who had come to his office to meet with him, and he clearly wanted to make the most of it.
The students were all seated around a conference table, and after the introductions were made, Bishop said, “Tell me about your school.”
“We’re a Montessori school and we do a lot of community service projects – not just in our local community, but globally,” my daughter Lottie said. “Right now, we’re raising money to help a small school and village in Uganda. We’re a WE School, which is part of the WE Day program, and as part of that, we make a commitment that we’re going to do a certain number of community service projects every year.”
The kids then explained how being good global citizens is a part of the social and emotional education that’s integrated into the daily fiber at Light of the World Academy.
That’s when the conversation got interesting, and that’s when Mike Bishop’s ears really perked up.
“You know, we’re tested so much on how well we’re teaching our kids reading and math, which is important, but nobody ever tests us on how well we’re dealing with our students’ emotional and social needs,” Kathy said. “That’s more important than anything. A child can’t learn if we don’t tend to their basic needs. Before we do anything, we have to make sure they feel safe and loved. And we have to teach them how to deal with their frustrations, their fears and their problems. We start that in preschool, so by the time they get to middle school, the age these kids are now, they know how to resolve their differences and they know how to advocate for themselves and others.”
And then, one by one, these children told their Congressman how their school has given them a social and emotional education that has allowed them to flourish.
One boy told of how his grades were tanking at his old school because he felt frustrated and ostracized. Since coming to Light of the World Academy, he’s felt included and valued. His grades are soaring and his self-confidence has improved tremendously.
One of the moms told Bishop of how her son was being bullied at his old school. “This is the first year we’ve been here, and it’s truly saved his life,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, and then we found Light of the World Academy. These kids love my son. They truly love him. And he’s doing so well in school now.”
The kids spoke out, the parents spoke out, the teachers spoke out, Kathy spoke out. One by one, they told their stories of how a special little school that integrates social and emotional education into their daily life has prepared them for life. They didn’t think they were doing anything special – they were just talking about their school. They do it every day.
But Bishop soaked up every story and listened to every word. He asked questions and probed for more information.
And then he paused, looked around the room, and said, “Do you know what you all just did? You just came in here with a solution.”
The kids smiled. They had no idea what they had just done.
“My wheels are spinning right now,” Bishop said. “You just came in here with a solution. This is such a polarizing time in our country right now, and everybody’s pointing fingers at everybody else, trying to assign blame and find fault. You didn’t do any of that. You came in here with a solution.”
He had no doubt heard of other schools that teach character education, but hearing the stories of how social and emotional education is integrated into everyday life at Light of the World Academy really struck a chord with him.
“This is the best meeting I’ve had in a long, long time,” he said. “By far. You need to help me figure out how we can get this into other schools. I have no idea what it’ll take, but I need you to help me figure it out.”
You could see where his mind was going with all of this. As the country wrestles with the problem of school violence, we need to approach the issue from all sides. A huge part of that is doing whatever we can to make sure that no child ever feels like violence is the answer.
That’s an enormous puzzle to solve. And on this historic day in March, Mike Bishop was feeling that the students from this small Montessori charter school in his district might have given him a piece to that puzzle.
Bishop’s aides let him know that he was needed on the House floor, but before he left, he asked if he could visit the school to learn more.
“We can’t do this alone,” he said to the kids. “You need to help me.”
And that’s where we are now. Bishop is going to visit Light of the World Academy soon, and he’ll be able to see firsthand now they integrate social and emotional education into the curriculum. As Kathy explained to him, character education at this school isn’t a campaign, a single class once a week or a few posters on the wall. It’s integrated into everything they do. That’s the only way it can work.
That’s part of the Montessori method, stressing peace education at every turn (Maria Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times), but Light of the World Academy has put its own special spin on it. As a parent, I’ve seen firsthand with my own daughter how well it works.
It’s also important to know that when you give a kid a solid social and emotional education, their academic education will soar. As Kathy said, you can’t learn if you don’t have your basic needs covered; if you don’t feel safe and cared for at school.
So we’ll see where this goes. Hopefully, Mike Bishop will see something at Light of the World Academy that will find its way into policy, and hopefully, that policy will help make things just a little bit better in our country.
When that happens, these kids will know exactly what it takes to make a difference in the world.
It takes this.