Philosophy of Education
In schools children deserve opportunities to develop a healthy and strong identity by fostering social, emotional, physical, creative, intellectual and academic competencies and interests. These learning opportunities are widened by offering children a variety of learning experiences that enable them to explore diverse ways of acquiring skills and concepts that better enable them to navigate their individual life circumstances. Having designed and used learning environments in schools as both a teacher and principal that include classrooms, gardens, playgrounds, art, dance, music drama and technology studios as well as communal dining rooms, I have seen students understanding their interests more deeply and building their individual competencies more successfully when they have access to diverse learning activities throughout their school day.
As a middle school student, I had a teacher who took a group of us on a Saturday to plant native saplings before the rainy season for erosion prevention in an area of the Santa Cruz mountains that had been damaged by a summer fire. Those experiences in the outdoors strongly influenced me about the powerful learning experiences that can occur by exploring ecosystems first-hand. Working for three summers as the director of an outdoor education residential program in Northern California that served disadvantaged migrant farmworker youth in the fourth through sixth grades also strongly effected my understanding of learning environment design in schools that I conceived to combine outside and inside learning opportunities. Optimally, this requires careful development of the outdoor environment of the school campus to coordinate with classroom learning activities with flow of inspiration and motivation being generated from both areas of the school.
Over and over again, I observed students awaken their curiosity and motivation for learning about the world around them that started with direct hands-on experiences in an outdoor setting. These experiences served as a catalyst for inquiries that led students to enhanced learning in the following areas: expansion of their vocabularies and language use because of their strong desire to explain their ideas and to ask questions that clarified their growing understandings; sharpened thinking and observation skills that allowed them to generate hypothesis and theories from their forming concepts; how to study and work as a team; while also learning how to use scientific instruments for learning such as tape measures, microscopes, telescopes and water gauges. Students grew healthier identities of themselves as learners from these types of meaningful and powerful learning experiences.
University students interested in careers in teaching, counseling, social work or nursing provided the instruction to the students after receiving intensive preparation that consisted of structured workshops on specific teaching strategies and behavior management techniques in the outdoors along with a four day backpacking trip that included repelling and other initiatives that built their self-confidence, informed them how to use nature as a springboard for deeper learning and to work as team to better accomplish common goals. The learning experiences planned during the week- long outdoor education program were designed to support to student leadership development, expand their awareness of ecoliteracy and conservation, oral language development and other means to express themselves through artistic expression (music, painting, drama, dance) and crafts.
My learning experiences in the outdoors as a student and educator have had a profound influence in how I understand optimal learning opportunities that include a combination of outdoor and indoor settings. At Sanchez School the transformation of the school campus into a more vibrant outdoor learning environment through a greening master plan (refer to the actual plan below), while restructuring the indoor educational infrastructure to improve the connections between indoor and outdoor learning. An example is the planning of the school sculpture garden that originated in the art studio with an eventual installation in the school garden. In the sculpture below, fifth grade students were learning about the geography of the United States studying the Native American culture of the Pacific Northwest that preserved important stories, myths and legends through the making of totem poles.
This approach to education becomes even more powerful when staff, parents and other family members (grandparents, aunts/uncles, godparents,etc.) participate through modeling that learning is life long. Schools are places of learning for adults as well as children. As schools become more vibrant and interesting communities of learning for children and adults (parents/ families and staff), this process of learning together enables community members to establish a stronger sense of place about their school.
Building Bridges Between Home and School and Across Positions Within Schools: Teamwork based on Four Principles
We used four principles as guideposts to build the professional connections underlying a quality PreK-5 program:
Reggio Emilia educator Loris Malaguzzi suggested, “We need to define the role of the adult, not as a transmitter of information but as a creator of relationships — relationships not only between people but also between things, between thoughts, with the environment.” This view of relationships is reciprocal: we learn from one another. No one is an expert all of the time and everyone has expertise to share.
At various times, different types of expertise were needed to accomplish specific tasks. Operating as an interdependent team created reciprocal learning experiences. Dr. Isola implemented a horizontal, shared leadership structure creating professional relationships based on trust, respect, and reciprocity. This approach allowed team members to learn from one another’s knowledge, skills, and experiences, while acknowledging an individual’s unique roles and positions within the school. A strong esprit de corps emerged through supporting individuals to expand and to refine their skills and knowledge leading to an overall elevated quality of educational services. This structure enabled Dr. Isola to gain valuable insights into children’s experiences at school and home by listening to staff members share observations and experiences.Reciprocal relationships extended to parents as well. Parents took on leadership roles in presenting parent workshops on the Reggio-inspired approach, visiting other preschool sites, and organizing potlucks to build community. Carmen Cano, past-president of the Sanchez Head Start Committee, explained, “The Committee asked other parents and me to participate; we felt like we were real equals and partners to help students be successful in school.”
Preschool parents were also included in school governance as co-educators of their children. Inviting preschool parents to join the school’s parent group, we welcomed them into the school community. This communicated the expectation that they would be contributors and valued members for the next six years as their child matriculated from preschool through fifth grade.
To foster this concept further:
- The principal convened annual preschool parent tours of the K-5 classrooms so they could imagine their child’s trajectory through their years at Sanchez.
- Parent and student orientation sessions were held during the last month of the school year to build a bridge between preschool and kindergarten. These orientation sessions, conducted by kindergarten teachers along with kindergarten students and parents, gave incoming kindergarteners and their families an opportunity to meet the teachers and learn more about the learning environment.
Shared Educational Values
Studying and implementing a Reggio- inspired approach unified the team around a system of shared educational values that raised the quality of our pro- gram. We considered how to enrich the environment as the third teacher (along with teachers and parents), how to support teachers and paraprofessionals as researchers, and how to document students’ inquiries. Teachers met weekly by grade level and bi-monthly with para- professionals in classroom team meetings. Both teachers and paraprofessionals read articles from professional journals and relevant books, visited Reggio-inspired preschools, and attended seminars and institutes. From these experiences they determined practical next steps that narrowed the gap between theory and practice, increasing the quality of educational services for students and families.
Common Learning Experiences
We emphasized a whole team approach to professional development by attending a series of Reggio-inspired institutes. This provided the opportunity to develop the shared educational values that form our vision for the classrooms and to build trust in one another’s role that supports changes in classroom practices. Our professional development team was comprised not only of the teachers and paraprofessionals but also the principal, university partner, parent representatives, and the art teacher.
A Focus on Building Bridges from the PreK program to grades K-5
Despite widespread recognition of the vital role that early education plays in children’s development and later academic success, preschool programs typically operate independently of elementary school systems. In preschools that are based on elementary school sites, we can begin building bridges to other grade levels by providing equitable access to school services. This was accomplished in the following ways at Sanchez School:
- We established a regular grade-level meeting time for our two PreK teams by rotating their students into enrichment classes that provided teachers valuable time for collaboration and planning.
- Preschool students received art, music, gardening, and computer classes each week, while their teachers met to review assessment data and to plan instruction.
- Preschool teachers were included in the instructional leadership team and participated in quarterly faculty meetings to share student assessment results.
- Preschool teachers met in cross-grade level groups with kindergarten teachers, sharing student data and making plans to strengthen curriculum at both levels.
- Each spring, the PreK and kindergarten teachers met to discuss the transition for incoming kindergarteners.
These guideposts strengthen the interdependence of teaching staff in the classrooms to jointly support children’s development across grade levels over time. Collaboration based on reciprocal relationships emphasizes the notion of interdependence, teamwork and learning from one another while respecting and understanding the distinct responsibilities each individual has on the team. Developing reciprocal relationships proves useful for principals who are continuously multi-tasking as they balance the multiple roles they perform in leading schools.
Raymond implemented a horizontal, shared leadership structure creating professional relationships based on trust, respect, and reciprocity. Another benefit of this structure was the formation of a co-equal status amongst the team members; this had a positive influence on paraprofessionals’ perceptions of themselves as competent educators because administrators and teachers valued them as contributing team members. This shift in status empowered paraprofessionals to see their potential to become early childhood education teachers and motivated them to continue their education. Sanchez paraprofessional Adriana Garcia, who recently completed studies for her preschool teaching permit, believes that this shared leadership model supported her progress along her career pathway: “These new experiences have been very motivational and have served as mirrors for me to see the capacity I have within myself.”
As principal at Sanchez School for 13 years, time and time again I saw a very positive influence on students’ attitudes about school and their motivation to get involved in learning activities when their parents ands staff demonstrated a genuine interest and enthusiasm for educational projects through active participation. Hence, the people who share this place called school through their participation in this type of educational process, define themselves and create endless possibilities to open doors leading to caring and hope for themselves as well as other members of the school community.
This broadened approach to learning originates from my own personal experiences in school because I was not particularly interested in conventional academic learning. I realized at an early age the importance of schools offering a range of opportunities for students to feel that they belonged to the school community. As a result of having opportunities to play sports for my school’s team, I felt more strongly connected to my junior high school and had opportunities to build meaningful friendships with peers and positive relationships with coaches and teachers that created a stronger sense of connectedness to my school. Through this web of relationships, I found different entry points to the school community and learning. I’ve become convinced from my childhood and professional experiences that schools need to provide a wide range of entry points with common expectations that are lofty, yet achievable for students and adults. This approach for stimulating students’ and adults interests and connections to school is important because it accommodates, utilizes and respect diverse learning styles across school settings that lead to increased success and a stronger belief in one’s ability to achieve by creating an authentic and meaningful learning opportunities in schools that become beacons of hope and inspiration in their communities.
“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves”.
(Philosopher, Poet, Essayist, Farmer, Novelist and Social Activist)
Breonna Frierson who started in first grade at Sanchez School in 2001 and graduated from Leadership High School in San Francisco. This photo is in 2013 when Breonna accepted a tuition scholarship to Clark Atlanta College. During her five years at Sanchez, Breonna had classroom teachers who challenged and supported her to exceed grade level expectations in reading, writing and math. These academic accomplishments helped Breonna build self-confidence and an identity as a competent learner. Her teachers guided her through carefully leveled arts-integrated instructional cycles with an insistence she give her best effort. The after-school arts program also provided her with a creative outlet for self-expression after a demanding day of classroom learning.
She began her first year at Clark Atalanta College the fall semester of 2013. She is completing her undergraduate studies with an interest in becoming a juvenile defense attorney to help youth in the juvenile justice system. “I know I want to work with youth to steer them away from a path of destruction,” Breonna said.