Farewell, Miquon: Reflections from Outgoing Principal Julia Finney

By Kristin Sanderson

3-leaf-motif-francesThis has been a singular year among the many I have been privileged to be the Principal of Miquon. Not only have I been prompted to reflect personally on what I have learned in the last nine years, the staff and board have gone through a formal process of self-study in preparation for our re-accreditation from the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools in 2015-16. We have taken the time to consider all that we are proud of and how we want to grow further in the years ahead. Teachers have affirmed the value we place on children’s autonomy and their ability to choose well, the opportunities we allow children to appreciate and explore our natural environment, and the time we devote to play and the deep learning within it. These are core strengths that make Miquon a national model for best Progressive practices and a crucial bulwark against the ever-increasing waves of media, marketing and standards-based education that pressure children to grow up too fast, conform to stereotypes and suck the joy and meaning out of learning. “We are,” as Tony Hughes wrote, “proud of what we stand for and proud to do our part.” At the same time, we are embracing the new tools and brain research that improve teaching and learning and we are challenging ourselves to bring more diversity and global awareness into the Miquon valley.


3-leaf-motif-naomiDuring the last decade, I have gotten to meet and to know our last eight principals and/or their children. Speaking with alumnus Ted Clisby a couple of weeks ago, I learned that his father, Charlie, was introduced to Miquon while teaching at The Trinity School in New York City in 1948. Charlie leapt at the chance to lead a Progressive school outside of
Philadelphia and moved his young family into an unheated shack on River Road until they settled into a house on Ridge Pike, where they often brought home the school pig. I think of the numerous stories I have heard of Don and Lore Rasmussen, coming from Talladega,  Alabama in 1956, who planted educational innovation and civil rights deep into our culture and inspired a generation of students and teachers alike, some of whom, from the Class of 1964, recently gathered again at Miquon and gave a generous gift in their honor. Richard Mandel has shared that he feels his greatest legacy is in re-establishing the Progressive Education Network in 1982 during our 50th anniversary while he was Principal. PEN is now a national association of one hundred educational leaders and Progressive schools that organizes a biennial conference to which Susannah Wolf already has plans to take our entire staff this fall. Penny Colgan-Davis always spoke out for equity and equal opportunities with eloquence and passion while being a master teacher and Principal. The Miquon Institutes she launched while here further strengthened the Progressive network in our region.


These larger themes of risk-taking, innovation, challenging the status quo, naming injustice, and working for social change dominate our history, and, yet, we think of Miquon nurturing and tenderly supporting the minds, bodies and spirits of young children
in a sort of protected Shangri-la. Reconciling these seemingly opposing energies only becomes possible when you look and see that children are natural activists whose earliest (and effective) method of learning is trial and error. They must handle and test and question the world around them – regularly ask how and why – to master skills, successfully adapt and learn. As they get older, they come to understand their own agency and ability to influence their world.


Last week, I stepped outside the office to see an eight year old with an armful of recently made signs and a roll of tape. She explained that she was going to “poster” the crabapple trees to warn other children not to harm the caterpillars. I commented on her compassion 3-leaf-motif-nathanfor the lives of the tender caterpillars and she said she just wanted to make sure they were alive for the birds to feed on them. This child reinforced for me something that I intuitively know and witness every day here: Children are capable of nuanced understanding, complex reasoning, initiative, advocacy, and great social action. From that place of knowledge, they learn to care. Whether it is through building a workbench, making a movie about the watershed, leading a book group, throwing a clay pot on the wheel, marching for justice or hanging a poster, Miquon teachers offer children numerous opportunities to practice with tools and vehicles in order to express their unique sensibilities. The respectful and responsive arena teachers design every day allow children profound and seminal experiences of power, success, failure, and control. But it is the compassion and love the children develop from those around them that transmute their actions into social justice.Looking back at Miquon’s past principals and their legacies, I clearly see the Miquon lineage of change agents — those devoted to young children, ensuring they receive the respect and freedoms they deserve as valued humans and contributors to our community and our world.  In the current national climate, it is a very radical proposition.


Susannah asked me to make a list of things that I wished I had known before I became principal.  The most important lesson – which she probably already knows, because she is herself a graduate of Miquon –  is implicit in our principals’ legacy.  It is something that I learned from the teachers and children here:


Trust the child to lead you.


It has been an honor and a joy to have been transformed myself through the trust and respect this community has shown me.  I am so very appreciative of your kindness and the great wisdom and vision you showed in hiring Susannah Wolf.  Miquon currently enjoys a strong position in the Progressive education realm, and I know we will continue to grow and flourish under her leadership. I am so looking forward to this next chapter for Miquon.


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