Elizabeth Nathanson, Ph.D. ’91 : The Miquon Tradition Continues

By Brenda Lange

Now the mom of a Nursery student at the Miquon School, Elizabeth Nathanson ’91 started her own Miquon experience when she was about the same age as her daughter, Lucy. 

Elizabeth’s mother grew up in New York City and yearned for her daughters to experience the outdoors. Later, as a Philadelphia resident, she found the environment — the deep connections to nature and its values — that she wanted for them at Miquon. (Elizabeth’s younger sister, Jane, graduated from Miquon in 1994.)

Elizabeth remembers being enthralled by that natural environment as a youngster, and now as a current Miquon parent, she has been floored by the organic way that academics are woven through what play. “It all just cultivates an openness, curiosity and opportunity for learning that is rigorous,” she says.

Oh! The memories!

Once she begins speaking about her Miquon years, memories come quickly. 

“In 2nd or 3rd grade, I was fascinated by dinosaurs,” she says. “[Miquon] had so many names and the whole range of letters came together to form them. I remember asking lots of questions: ‘What is the nature of evolution? What happens to the dinosaurs when they’re extinct? How do we know about them without seeing them?’”

In 4th grade, Elizabeth visited Canada with her class, first learning about the country in the classroom and then gaining a sense of confidence and independence when the students experienced it as a group. They stayed in the homes of Canadians, which she recognizes now as a pedagogical as well as a logistical necessity. “As children, to see how people live in another country and to appreciate those differences … was special.”

“We took the classroom learning and put it into action, which was deeply inspiring.”

She explains that learning how to touch-type in 6th grade provided the “ability to translate words into content seamlessly and with confidence and to feel a sense of control over my engagement with a machine.”

She talks about the popsicle-stick structures built collaboratively with her peers, when each individual had a particular task, but all worked together, learning how individual responsibilities contributed to the success of the whole group.

The point is that learning never felt like a chore. “Activities never felt like tasks that were unwelcome or anything other than an experience that would reveal to us a range of unknowns,” she says. “The interpersonal negotiations of the popsicle stick collaboration, learning how to respect others’ work while contributing in a way that helps the whole group — that’s a bigger project than the act of putting glue on sticks.”

“For me, Miquon was a beautiful opportunity to cultivate a deep and abiding curiosity about the world from day one. Don’t be afraid of asking questions, and you never know what you’ll find out,” she says.

Independent thinking

Elizabeth went on to attend Germantown Friends School. Always interested in helping others and in issues around social justice and caretaking, Elizabeth thought she wanted to be a doctor, and then realized that those issues could be addressed by studying art and culture.

Her undergraduate years were spent at Haverford College, where she too many pre-med courses, majored in English, and studied art history and film in Rome during her junior year. After taking courses at Swarthmore in film studies, Elizabeth developed an independent study at Haverford in film and media studies, the first student to do so. 

After graduation, Elizabeth worked in New York City for a film distribution company and at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, where she was an education coordinator and discovered her love of teaching. Graduate school at Northwestern University in Chicago culminated in a dissertation on women’s work and lifestyle television — cooking, cleaning and childcare television programs — and a master’s degree and doctorate in Screen Cultures.

Elizabeth Nathanson ’91

Today, she teaches courses in Critical Media Literacy at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, in the Department of Media and Communication.

“How do websites, social media, films and television present images that shape the way we think about the world?” she asks. Although it wasn’t easy to make this significant shift in her educational goals, the confidence that came from Miquon’s self-directed learning gave her the confidence to understand that it’s okay to love a particular kind of learning over another kind.

“I came to realize that what drove me to medicine could be found elsewhere,” she says. “Social justice issues could be addressed in many other realms and for me, studying art and culture and commerce was another way of getting at the way people live and their struggles.”

The confidence she gained from Miquon’s education helped her forge her own path and make changes along the way. Today, she studies ways in which women are portrayed in popular culture and addresses the way in which ideas about feminism are represented and sometimes undermined in media representations.

“I teach the politics of representation and how identity gets repurposed and reproduced in the media, which is so much a part of everyday life. I teach my students how to think critically. And it all comes back to Miquon,” she says.  

Elizabeth traces her love of learning and the richness it provides throughout one’s life directly to Miquon. She even has based her teaching philosophy on the way she and her fellow students were encouraged to find their own place in the content by observing the world around them and then asking questions — lots of questions. As a teacher, she leads discussion-based classes; with goals in mind and issues to explore, and she inspires her students to find their own place in the world.

Miquon offers this inspiration to even its youngest students. For example, even something as small as Lucy’s choice of which lunch to purchase teaches her that different items cost different amounts. Later, these economics lessons will translate into social choices facing the 5th and 6th graders, and she feels, are reflective of the community values that Miquon holds at every level and provides a sense of connectedness to a community of learners.

Continuing the tradition

After touring Miquon last spring, Elizabeth says all her “gestalt memories came back” and she is grateful that she can send her daughter there as well.

“My deep appreciation for the privilege of being able to attend Miquon cultivated endless joys of learning that felt so apparent to me on returning as a parent — even stronger than in the past,” she says. “Lucy loves to read and asks lots of questions, and I wanted that curiosity fostered.”

She knows that her daughter will gain joy and confidence from her own Miquon experience, which is one of the best gifts she can give her. Lucy loves school and regularly shares what she does in her classes, what songs she’s learning and what games she plays with her friends.

“Meeting each child where they are, in such a deeply child-centered atmosphere, is priceless. I can see her blossoming and I can’t underestimate how fortunate I feel every time I drive her onto campus.”