Miquon Teacher Rachel Elin-Saintine: Helping Kids Think about Human Rights

By Kristin Sanderson

Miquon-Staff-26One of Miquon’s newest teachers, Rachel Elin-Saintine brings a variety of experiences to her classroom.  An architecture major at the University of Pittsburgh (she minored in French and studio art), Rachel’s first teaching experience post graduation was in France, teaching fifth- and sixth-grade students English. Upon returning to the States, she earned a master’s in international affairs from the New School and then, driven by her interest in human rights, went to work as a community organizer at the Harlem Children’s Zone. There she focused on making sure the educational, social, and physical needs of the St. Nicholas community of Harlem were met through the building and development of a local school/community center in their community. That experience was fulfilling, Rachel says, but “at some point…I missed the kids.”

Rachel then returned to school, studying elementary inclusive education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. It was while she was a student-teacher at Central Park East School, a Progressive public elementary school, that Rachel first encountered progressive education in practice. “Not showing kids what to do, but asking questions along the way—I never knew school could be that way. I was on board.”

After earning her second masters, Rachel moved to Philadelphia and taught for two years at Young Scholars Kenderton Charter School. Still, because of her experience at CPE, Rachel knew she ultimately wanted to return to teaching at a Progressive school. “When I heard of Miquon, I knew that we shared a commitment to Progressive education, teaching children holistically, while placing value on collaboration, exploration, and communication.” The transition, she says, “has been a welcome change for me. The administration cares deeply about the teachers, students, and families. They go out of their way to make sure all community members’ needs are met, but not only that, they value everyone’s. That may mean staying well past school hours, or talking on the phone over the weekend. I’ve never witnessed that kind of dedication from a principal, and it’s made transitioning to Miquon easier, as I know I have an equal and valued voice.”

Teaching at Miquon has allowed Rachel a greater freedom in developing a curriculum. In her class’s exploration of power with her second and third grade class, Rachel and assistant teacher Rich Murray read aloud R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, whose protagonist, Auggie, is born with a craniofacial deformity. “My interest in teaching the idea of power came from my background in human rights. I wanted to explore a topic that gave younger students an entry point into the discussion of representation, identity, voice, and opportunities. A major focus of our power study is the power of voice, and how some people are heard more often than others, how books often present similar people speaking up, and especially, that children can use their voice to stand up for others who may not have one. Wonder . . . is divided into sections, and in each section a similar story is told from different characters’ points of view. I found it interesting and important for the students to experience literature that explored how characters can feel powerful and powerless, and it would often change depending on who was telling the story.”

The discussion of power has generated meaningful discussion both in the classroom and outside it. In class, the students brainstormed what communities are, who holds power in them, what the values of different communities are, and where those values overlap. “The students are incredibly insightful. That insight transferred from the classroom to everyday interactions at Choice Time. Getting what you need from friendship and giving what friends what they need is a fine balance.”

Mini courses have allowed Rachel the opportunity to meet and work with children from other grades, as well as some of her own students. During the first session, she led international cooking with fellow teacher Bree McNamara. Now, in the second session, she’s guiding a group of children in creating stop-motion animation movies. “I love that opportunity to teach to a group of kids I don’t normally see, but also to see what other teachers are good at outside school.”

This spring Rachel is taking on another role at Miquon: She has joined the Miquon board, filling the spot vacated by Nursery lead teacher Marisa Campbell, who is on maternity leave.

Check out Rachel and Rich’s group blog.