A baby owl fell from its nest in a tall tree overlooking the grounds of Brandeis Marin last year. A kindergartener found it behind a planter, still alive. That was just the beginning of an unplanned learning experience that grew and redoubled for weeks, connecting the children to science, art and the community.
They brought the owlet to the local wildlife rescue group, WildCare, which examined the bird, then hoisted it back up the tree to rejoin its mama. That excitement spurred the kids to study up on the lifecycle and habits of owls. Learning launched their expression in art, and their lively drawings were reprinted as Mother’s Day cards. Finally, they sold sets of the cards to make a donation to WildCare.
That’s just the way it rolls in the classroom of Marni Shapiro, who has taught kindergarten from the day the school opened in 1978 as the Marin campus of Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco.
Did you do the math? That’s 41 years ago.
Shapiro was honored at the 40th anniversary of the school in May 2018, her career a mirror of its history.
“Marni has been there through it all,” said Peg Sandel, head of the private Jewish day school since it separated from what is now the Brandeis School of San Francisco.
At the anniversary event, “It was such a pleasure,” Sandel told J., “to see how many people —some of them now people in their 40s — are still connected to Marni, and to the school, which had a lasting effect on their lives.”
The first year, the entire school had only 40 students, nine of them in her kindergarten class.
“And among those nine was a set of three identical triplets,” Shapiro recalled.
To keep them distinct, Shapiro came to an agreement with the little sisters that they would all wear their hair in different styles. Andy Saal cut her hair short, while Stacy wore a ponytail and Julie wore her long hair down.
“But sometimes Stacy and Julie would try to trick me by switching hairstyles,” their long-ago teacher recalled. (She recently reconnected with the triplets, all well and living in Las Vegas.)
Shapiro says that it is the school’s “palpable sense of a loving community” that has kept her teaching there all these years. That, and the ability to co-create a learning environment connected to her strongly held beliefs about early childhood education.
While earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at San Francisco State University, Shapiro became a proponent of the Reggio Emilia approach, a pedagogy developed in postwar Italy that holds that learning should emanate from the child’s own interests — the motor of their engagement.
“I did some wonderful training with people who had been students of [child psychologist] Jean Piaget, whose research influenced this approach,” she said. “He held that learning should be project-based and child-directed.”
Hired when Brandeis Hillel opened its Marin campus on the grounds of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, Shapiro helped shape a program that allowed children to explore their interests, drawing them together in collaborative efforts that would last as long as there were dimensions of the idea to explore.
“When they are allowed to take charge of their own learning, they gain a sense of ownership and pride in their work, and the self-confidence to be able to challenge themselves later with other things that are not so easy,” she explained with the passion of a true believer. “‘Passionate’ is really the best word to describe Marni,” said Sandel. “She has a kind of boundless energy for her students, for learning, and of course for the community.”
These qualities were acknowledged by a Helen Diller Award for Excellence in Jewish Education in 2007.
As with the owl project, educational projects can be sparked by anything, and there is no telling where they might lead.
One year, Shapiro recalled, the school was rebuilding the playground, and as the kids watched the construction process through the safety gates, they became interested in designing and building. The children worked for weeks” in the sandbox, using PVC pipe and other recycled materials to build an entire miniature community, with signs and labels, rules and relationships, “When kids are encouraged to participate in their own development, it doesn’t stop at recess,” she said. “It continues through their whole day.”
Another aspect of the kindergarten program is that it integrates the subjects throughout the day.
“There is not a math period, then a science or reading period,” Shapiro explained. “All of the branches of learning come into play organically.”
That includes Jewish learning. Shapiro has a co-teacher, Bat El Alon, who speaks Hebrew in the classroom and integrates principles of Jewish values wherever they might fit.
“A lovely thing that I didn’t realize would be the case when I was first starting out, was that using a Jewish lens for learning would become a way for me to help the children see the world through eyes of lovingkindness,” Shapiro said.
“The lessons of Jewish education have also made it possible to instill in them an early awareness of social justice and a sense of positive self-worth. And also, gratitude for Mother Earth, actively involving them in her care.”
In 40 years of teaching, Shapiro has taken off only one year, in order to have her own daughter. But teaching at the school has provided a sense of extended family that seems to have no expiration date. Every single alumnus of the school who started there in kindergarten was at one time her student. Two of her past students have become teachers at the school, and some former students have had children who also came through her classroom.
“Nothing is better than spending the day with 5- and 6-year-olds,” she declares. “I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather have done with my life.”
That’s why she sees no reason to stop now.
“People ask why I’ve stayed 40 years. The first place my thoughts go is that I learn from the children every single day. I absolutely get as much as I give, and I’m still totally celebrating that I get to go back to school.”
Brandeis Marin has grown since the early days, and Shapiro is looking forward to a new crop of 18 to 20 children this fall. She’s got their reading, writing and social skills covered. “But the real excitement for me is: where will we be going this year?” she wonders.
And that, she says, is really up to the kids.