A New School for Place and Heart
Anne Stires was a sixth-grader at Bank Street School for Children in New York City when she realized that school could be something different, and better, than a seat in a classroom. “I learned early on to be a good girl in school, she said. “But what I really wanted to do was get outside and do something besides play on the playground at recess.”
So it was a nice surprise when her teacher announced “We’re going outdoors.” The students spent an hour on the streets of Manhattan, tuning in to their sensory experience, then came back to write poetry.
That day changed how Anne thought about learning. She went on to become an educator steeped in a place-based approach that embraces the environment, the community and a child’s love of play. She started a school with the same spirit of independence and discovery, Juniper Hill School for Place-Based Education, in Alna, Maine, which opened its doors in September.
A Word from Horace Mann
Anne was interested in environmental writing and teaching, when she started to consider graduate school. She checked out Antioch Seattle, thinking it would be interesting to live on the West Coast. But it was Antioch University New England (AUNE) that she finally settled on.
“When I walked in and saw the Horace Mann quote-about how the world needs you now and winning a victory for humanity-I said, ‘I’m in the right place.’ I can’t work at just any job; I can’t separate my life from my work. I had to find work for the kind of passion and commitment that I have. Then I met Jane [Miller] and Ron [LaBrusciano], Judy Coven, and David [Sobel] and I said, ‘I’m really in the right place.’”
Anne’s expansive imagination, which could envision building an innovative school from scratch, was nurtured at AUNE, where she graduated from the elementary/early childhood education program in 2006. “The idea of working in a school and changing it from the inside – it wasn’t going to happen fast enough in an existing school. I wanted to change it quick and change it big.”
“I felt like I was coming home when I came to Antioch. It was exactly what I believe education should be,” she said. “There’s something magical at Antioch that appreciates children, and it was a breath of fresh air for me.”
Place, play and heart
Anne and colleague ZoÃ« Foster are the sole teachers at Juniper Hill, which educates children from pre-kindergarten through second grade this year. They plan to add one grade each year and, by 2016, serve children through grade eight.
Juniper Hill is located on the property that Anne’s grandmother, Jane Keyes, owned for forty-five years. Anne’s father often visited in his childhood and many of Anne’s best childhood memories abide there. It has an eighteenth-century house and forty-two acres of gardens, fields, and woods near the Sheepscot River, making it just the place to carry out Juniper Hill’s mission.
Through its focus on place-based education, Juniper Hill’s curriculum integrates nature, imaginative play, creative arts and the surrounding community. Children, according to the school’s vision, “are not vessels to be filled up with knowledge; they are gatherers and developers of their own understanding through exploration, opportunity, support and guidance.”
“Juniper Hill is more than just a nature preschool,” Anne said. “It focuses on a child’s inherent need to play, along with social skills, or what she calls ‘heart education.’ We honor the work of the child, which is playing, and we also focus on heart education. Our one rule is safety-we keep each other safe in our bodies…and our hearts. Children want to be treated kindly and want to treat each other kindly; they just don’t always know how to do it.”
The outdoors is Juniper Hill’s main classroom. Students spend four to six hours outside, where they’re as likely to be rolling down a hill or running across the fields, pretending to be flying like birds, as they are learning a bird’s Latin name. The two AUNE courses that Anne uses most often are bookmaking and circus arts, taught by Education professor Ron LaBrusciano. Her teaching also integrates clear curricular connections to AUNE’s Place-Based Learning, Problem-Solving Science and math courses, as well as the teachers’ focus on a human developmental model when teaching and observing that she absorbed at AUNE. “Every day my co-teacher and I look at each other and say ‘Really? We get to work here every day?’” Anne said.
The human community is part of “place” at Juniper Hill, and so Anne and ZoÃ« visited each student’s family before the school year and welcomed families into the school to join in projects and celebrations. The entire school also went to each student’s home during the first three weeks of school to explore the children’s special places. The local community is involved in the school’s festivals and other projects.
A Daughter of Maine
Anne grew up on Westport Island in Maine, the daughter of educators, and attended Maine schools, except for one year when her family moved to New York City and she went to Bank Street School. Later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and English from Hamilton College. She loved coastal biology and natural history, and spent her junior year abroad in a marine research program. She also worked at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center while in college. Later, before coming to AUNE, she worked in environmental education at the Chewonki Foundation, in Wiscasset, Maine, and Tanglewood
Learning Center in Lincolnville, Maine.
She brought a wealth of experience in classroom education back to Juniper Hill as well. She taught at Sheepscot Valley Children’s House and at Boothbay Regional Elementary School, where
she was also an AUNE intern. She went back to Bank Street School for Children, the place where it began for her, to teach four- and five-year olds for a year. From 2008 to 2011, she was the place-based education coordinator for the Quebec-Labrador Foundation’s marine program, called Questing to Learn, working with students and teachers in four midcoast Maine school districts.
Today, in addition to Juniper Hill, she directs the Whitehead Island Program for Pine Island Camp in the summer. She and her husband, Jon Weislogel, and their son, Eben, live in Walpole, Maine.