Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Miquon School - Conshohocken, PA

Another school from the progressive era, Miquon is a PK-6 school (ages 3-12), located on ten acres in Whitemarsh Township in Conshohocken, PA (near Philadelphia). Capitalizing on its sprawling wooded property, students have the run of campus and can be found building forts, climbing trees, playing near the creek, or sitting together in a quiet grove hatching a new idea. I was welcomed by the Principal of Miquon, Julia Finney.

Eighty years ago, Miquon was founded in an old farmhouse by two mothers who were disillusioned with their own traditional education and intrigued by the potential of progressive education for their children (the farmhouse serves today as the school office building). The name of the school springs from a legendary meeting between William Penn and the Lenape nation of native Americans who inhabited the area at the time. When Penn held up his goose quill pen, the natives are said to have exclaimed, "mi-quon." The school was literally built by parents as six of the eight buildings were "barn-raised" by parent volunteers.

Julia Finney
My visit was hosted by Julia Finney, the Principal of Miquon whose beliefs in progressive education hew closely to its historical tenets. "We start with the children at the center of our work," explains, Julia, "building out from their identity and strengths." Learning flows from the student's questions, and is guided by their ownership of ideas, concepts, and knowledge. Education needs to matter to children and be purposeful and related to their interests. At Miquon, play is essential to the learning and students are given plenty of time to explore freely. Teachers build lessons arising from the discoveries of the students as they immerse themselves in nature. For example, one of the classes recently studied macroinvertebrates after discoveries the students had made in the creek. The learning was relevant and held the children's interests. Miquon teachers are comfortable when students take the lead and they allow curriculum to emerge from spontaneous discoveries.

Creating, imagining and learning
We stopped off to watch the preschoolers building on the playground. They were testing the uses of an abandoned corrugated drainpipe and had created an imaginative world of adventure and intrigue. Their teacher, Marissa Campbell, was carefully recording their conversations and interviewing them to capture their good ideas and what was driving their interests; she was very excited and eager to talk about the learning that was taking place over the past week. It was a living example of the point that Julia was making about learning emerging spontaneously from the students experience, and a teacher willing to follow the interests of the kids.

We visited third and fourth grade teacher Sarah Walsh, whose enthusiasm for an integrated social studies unit was palpable. In the older grades, the teacher often establishes the curricular themes for the year and launches the unit with specific activities. However, within that framework, the students have a great deal of autonomy and can take the learning in any number of directions depending on their questions and interests. In this case, Sarah was investigating ancient civilizations and the students were divided into four learning groups. The students were in the middle of creating a public works project for their civilization and deciding how to tax their people. Based on what they were discovering about units of currency and population, on occasion, the students needed to change their plans. They were discovering important concepts about economics, governance, culture, and society, framed around Sarah's four essential questions: What is civilization? Why do some civilizations last longer than others? How do you know if a government is good? And, What do you think makes a civilization great? The walls were teeming with student questions, observations, and the discoveries from their group work. I observed a very high level of interest and ownership among the children as they shared their learning with Julia and me.

The balancing act
Julia also depicted the culture of Miquon as non-hierarchical, where respectful relationships are valued. This concepts is applied to the relationships among the adults, the children, and between the staff and the students. Teachers work closely together and Julia learns much from them as many hold the story of Miquon from generation to generation. Julia admits that it is not always easy for adults to share authority and decision-making with children and, practically speaking, there are many decisions made that do not involve them. But, beyond a leap of faith, the staff has discovered that the student learning is advanced whenever the kids are in the forefront when decision are made. It is a tricky balancing act. I was intrigued when Julia spoke of leadership at Miquon, "We look to everyone for leadership," she says, "and in our small community it is important that many show initiative and ownership." She quoted a colleague as having said, "Independent schools are more legislative than executive places."

My time at Miquon has been a highlight of my journey to visit progressive schools. I saw a spirit of playfulness, adventure, and discovery; engaged kids having fun and learning concepts and important lessons that will serve them well beyond their time at Miquon. There was such integrity between Julia's descriptions of the school's philosophy and programs and what I observed in the classrooms and on the playground. Julia and the Miquon teachers' good work should be heralded and shared widely - a goal of my project in visiting schools. Miquon is the kind of school I had hoped to find in my travels and it makes me hopeful that our progressive model of education can endure into the future.

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