Miquon Teacher Bree McNamara: ‘It’s not telling them, but asking why.’

By Kristin Sanderson

Miquon-Staff-6Brianna McNamara came to Miquon after four years at the Academy University Charter School in Camden, New Jersey. Assigned to the school as a Teach for America corps member, Bree took advantage of TFA’s partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education to earn her master’s at the same time.

It was at Penn that Bree first encountered the theories of Progressive education and realized what sort of school would best complement her teaching style, but it wasn’t until her arrival at Miquon that she was able to implement those theories. The approach, she says, feels similar to her undergraduate philosophy studies Villanova. “It’s not telling them, but asking why. In math, for example, it’s presenting puzzles to them and asking them to figure out any way to solve it. Then we come back as a group to discuss it.” That sort of approach—wondering and experimenting and asking why—“I didn’t get that until I was in college,” Bree says.

At Miquon, Bree and her group begin the school year working to establish and nurture a sense of community in the classroom so that students are willing to take risks together over the course of the year. This proved especially important during the 2015-16 school year, when her second and third grade class took on a yearlong discussion of power. “We started looking in picture books,” Bree says, “talking about who has power and why. Then we asked what power looks like at Miquon.” The class then turned to what power looks like in the world, using the recent defacement of Black Lives Matters signs in Mt. Airy as a springboard for classroom discussion: What is Black Lives Matter? What could the students’ roles in the movement be? What does the defacement of the signs mean? Why is it an important movement in our society? “My number one priority is listening to kids. I go in with an open ear each day. When they bring in something, I give it back to them, ask ‘Why is that important?’ ‘How can we dig deeper?’” Bree says.

Bree sees Miquon as “a place where young people are encouraged to look critically at presented information and are given the tools to construct their own answers,” and she’s doing her part to imbue this in her own group. For example, when a reading of Marc Brown’s Arthur’s Thanksgiving prompted a discussion of the stereotypes depicted in the book, the children wrote letters to Brown. The author responded with a handwritten note, telling the children, “I loved all of your great letters filled with wonderful insight and corrected facts. Where were all of you when I wrote this book? . . . I wish I could rewrite the story with your help and correct all of those mistaken historical facts we have been believing for so long.”

Bree cannot imagine teaching any place other than Miquon. “I’m really happy here. I work with a great assistant teacher, and I have a freedom to bring in more of my interests.” Her colleagues have universally offered “overwhelming support,” be it suggestions to help with the curriculum, such as Principal Susannah Wolf’s recommendation of math educator Marilyn Burns’s writings, or frequent one-on-one conversations with her mentor and fellow teacher, Elisa Rosenwinkel.

Mini courses offer a chance for Bree to work with a mixed-age group and to bring her other interests to classroom. Last session found her leading international cooking with teacher Rachel Elin-Saintine; this session Bree is guiding a group of children in upcycling. What’s next? As the daughter of a carpenter and a student of Philadelphia Woodworks, Bree would love to bring woodworking to the Miquon campus.

Visit Bree and Marie’s group blog.