Educating the whole child and honoring the diversity of each individual from
Pre-elementary (age 3) through Grade 8.

A Purposefully Designed Journey

A Purposefully Designed Journey
Sonja Everson, Director of Admission and Enrollment Management

One particular moment I look back on from my first year of teaching at Eton School makes me laugh. It was the first week of school, and all fourth-grade students had just settled into their work time. Students were spread throughout the classroom, some reading in pairs in the library corner, some sitting at their desks working on a vocabulary assignment, and others writing their homework in their planners. There was a nice, busy hum of learning in the classroom.

A parent popped her head into the doorway requesting to talk with me. I stepped into the hallway, and midway through our brief conversation, a sense of sheer panic set into my stomach—I wasn’t leading the class! I envisioned squealing students standing on their desks and paper airplanes whizzing through the air.

In my moment of desperation, I quickly abandoned the conversation and jumped back into the classroom expecting to find a scene of total anarchy. My eyes quickly scanned the room, and I was greeted not by the chaos I expected but by little Emma looking up from her book, giving me a quick, concerned smile, and asking, “Are you okay?” I released my breath and relaxed my shoulders. I scanned the room once more, only to see students deeply engaged in the business of learning. I chuckled and thought, “What is this magical place I’ve found? I think I’m going to like it here!”

During my eleven years teaching at Eton, I never put much thought into why my students loved to learn; I focused most of my energy into making sure Upper Elementary continued to nurture that internal drive and deep curiosity that the students came equipped with. But now I have stepped out of the Upper Elementary classroom and into the role of Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management. In my new role, I am constantly in and out of classes at all grade levels, and I have begun to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the “Why” behind Eton’s Upper Elementary and Middle School students’ internal motivation, love of learning, and success in the classroom.

Think of the skills you need to be successful in middle school. An eighth-grade student confronted with a challenging math problem must be able to make connections across topics she has learned, concentrate on the task at hand, and have the self-discipline to overcome difficulty. Similarly, a fifth-grade student composing an essay about his week-long trip to NatureBridge must order his thoughts, collaborate with peers to revise his written work, and tap his self-confidence to believe his experience is worth communicating to others in the first place. The seeds for these skills are purposefully planted and nurtured throughout Eton School’s program.

In our Pre-elementary Montessori classroom, a three-year-old in the practical life area pours water from one pitcher to another. At face value, this seems like a simple task, completely unrelated to the work in a middle school. This impression holds true until you understand the purpose is not to get the water into a different vessel; the task’s real purpose is to help a child build precision, focus, order, and independence, foundational skills needed for more complex thinking. A young student shares an object of importance during group time, building her confidence and voice. The manipulation of math materials gives students a beginning understanding of how to arrange quantities and that numbers are not just symbols, but a language used to represent our world. Maria Montessori designed each lesson for the pre-elementary classroom with these deeper goals in mind, setting the foundation needed for later success.

The confidence that started in Pre-elementary carries over into group projects, presentations, and performances in Lower Elementary. Students at this level are capable of longer periods of concentration, have the ability to organize priorities, and ask big questions. During their self-directed work time, students solidify their internal motivation for learning. Through the five great lessons, they investigate topics of interest and are so enraptured by the stories of how life came to be that they learn not because the teacher tells them to but because they cannot help but be invested in the topics.

When you walk into a Lower Elementary classroom, the busy hum of learning is ever present. Multi-age groups of first-, second-, and third-grade students work to research fascinating people for their Halloween projects. A group of first-grade students sits together during an art lesson about the parts of speech while another group of third-grade students practices memorizing lines for the Lower Elementary musical. It is internalized in Eton students that learning is not something that has to be done because a grown-up says so, but rather learning is intrinsically necessary and exciting because it is how you become connected to the world.

When the third-grade students complete the three-year cycle in Lower Elementary, they join together to form the fourth-grade class and join the fifth-grade class as part of Upper Elementary. They are ready and excited for the complex work of the advanced grades—academically, socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Eton’s Upper Elementary students are confident and independent, which is on full display during their overnight trips to IslandWood in fourth grade and NatureBridge in fifth grade. During these trips away from home, they take care of themselves and each other.

Eton students love to learn, and this is only strengthened throughout Upper Elementary as they make connections across subjects and begin to understand their strengths as learners. In class, Upper Elementary students collaborate to investigate the depths of the ocean trenches, support each other as they deepen their understanding of characters’ perspectives during novel studies, and begin to finalize their move into the abstract understanding of mathematical concepts. With each opportunity of success, Eton students move through the Upper Elementary grades, building the confidence and academic skills needed to confront the next challenge of Eton’s Middle School head-on.

In this tight-knit Middle School community, the older students know they are valued, that they have a voice deserving to be heard and the power to work for a greater good. The seed of confidence, planted so long ago when sharing an object during group time in Pre-elementary, has grown into the strength to stand in front of a ballroom of adults to give a presentation on the class’s scientific findings that were gathered while conducting research on a sailing trip through the Salish Seas trip. The Middle School students take on leadership roles throughout the school and community, serving as role models in the Pre-elementary and Lower Elementary classrooms where the seeds of their learning were sowed so many years before.

On graduation day, each eighth-grade student delivers a speech, summing up their journey through Eton’s program. They often speak nostalgically of their first memories at Eton: I remember walking into Mezzo A, scared of not knowing anyone, and being welcomed and encouraged. Teachers and families sit in the audience, pride stuck in their throats at having had the privilege to witness, step-by-step, this awe-inspiring journey of that timid three-year-old growing into the confident eighth-grade student now standing on the podium before them and about to head out to high school and beyond.

As I tour prospective families through the various levels of Eton School, it has become apparent to me, now more than ever, that Eton School’s eighth-grade graduates represent the culmination of a joyous, purposefully designed journey that starts at age three. Every step of the way, the goal is never simply to get water from one vessel to another or to solve a single math equation. The goal is that through this purposeful journey, Eton students become curious, confident learners who have a passion for learning and are poised to contribute to the world. Eton School is truly a magical place that I feel so lucky to have found.