Thursday, June 21, 2012

Meaningful Work

One of my favorite things each year at my amazing school is that I get to give a speech at our 8th year graduation.  It is a very moving ceremony each year, because many of our graduates have been in the school since they were very, very young--some as young as two years old!  Last year, the theme of my speech was Believe Impossible Things, but this year I took a different tone:

Meaningful Work
by Rebecca Kaplan

Good evening, everyone!  I am happy to see you all here tonight.  The theme of my speech this evening is one that is very dear to all Montessorians.  It is entitled, “Meaningful Work”.  I read a book this year called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.  It was absolutely fascinating, I couldn’t put it down.  It is an amazing work of nonfiction that discusses the relationship between opportunity and meaningful work in the context of some of the most interesting people in our country.  Has anyone in here read this book?  Well, if you haven’t, I highly recommend it.  Malcolm talks at length about the meaningful work that we all are looking for and this is what he says about it:

“Those three things--autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward--are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.  Whether or not our work is fulfilling is what ultimately makes us happy.  Being a teacher is meaningful. Being a physician is meaningful.  Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning.  Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab [your family} and dance a jig.” (p.149)

When you feel the way I do about the universe--the way it is put together and the way it is expanding and unfolding--you can see that it is easy for me to love being a science teacher and to find my work meaningful.  And if you look at this fantastic group of students sitting up here on the dais you can understand how much more rewarding and meaningful my work has been for me over the past two years.

I would like to extend my sincerest and most profound gratitude to each student and to their parents.  I have had the chance to be their science teacher, SSAT coach, lunch server, recess supervisor, student advisor and “professional expert project consultant” and I have enjoyed every minute.  The two years I have spent with these young men and women are two of the most extraordinary years in my career.

Never before have I been given the opportunity to spend as much time with my students as I have with you--getting to know you, laughing with you and learning how you learn best.  How rewarding it has been to be met with such willing dedication, passionate enthusiasm, tenacious hard work and above all, exuberant good humor.  We have done a lot of hard work, but we have also had a lot of fun.

Some of our work over the past two years includes:
  • Discovering Newton’s Laws, or “rolling lots of marbles down a track”.
  • Learning the foundations of experimental design, aka “making coke and mentos fountains”.
  • The principles of rocket science, affectionately referred to as “blowing stuff up”.
  • Exploring phase changes in matter, or “making ice cream in a bag”.
  • Discovering chemical and physical changes, which I like to refer to as “lighting things on fire”.
  • Learning the relationship between astronomy and cartography in navigation, or “getting lost in the athletic field (which is flat and has no trees) even though you had a compass and directions”.
  • Modeling the layers of the earth (playing with clay and playdough).
  • Using solar observations and models to prove the direction of the rotation of the earth, or “drawing with chalk all over the parking lot”.
  • Experimenting to examine a heating curve of H2O, affectionately nicknamed by the students as the “watching grass grow” lab.
  • Last and most: the extraordinary Expert Project.

The Expert Project was a complex independent study project that was hard work that came with an exciting and satisfying payoff at the end.  So, “Expert” and all of these other works that I have just told you about have in common the very qualities of meaningful work that Malcolm Gladwell was talking about in his book.   You can tell when you are doing meaningful work--it always has that same feeling: it’s hard work, but it’s easier somehow.  It is satisfying.  In fact, many times it also feels exhilarating.

Think back, everyone (graduates, parents, students and teachers): think back to some of your most fulfilling work at Fraser Woods Montessori.  It was independent and autonomous.  It was complex and difficult.  Above all, however, it was satisfying and rewarding.

My advice to our graduates is:
Remember that rewards of meaningful work are infinite--it pays you back with as much as you put in.  Reap the unlimited rewards that life has to offer you by finding your meaningful work and throwing yourself into it.

The philosopher Theodore Geisel commented wisely on the rewards of finding your own meaningful work.  Do you know who Theodore Geisel is?  Dr. Seuss!  He said:

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

You'll look up and down streets.  Look 'em over with care.
About some you will say, ‘I don't choose to go there.’
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any
you'll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you'll head straight out of town.

It's opener there
in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen,
don't worry.  Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll start happening too.

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!”

Exerpted from Oh The Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss

I love you all, 8th years!  Good luck!



  1. I love this! It makes me want to strive.

  2. I persist on praising not the life I lead, but that which I ought to lead. I follow it at a mighty distance, crawling.
    --Lucius Annaeus Seneca