An Interview with Leigh

One of the fortuitous new changes the pandemic precipitated this year was the creation of a stand alone Kindergarten classroom here at Parker. An independent Kindergarten class has been a long-standing dream of Parker teachers and administrators alike. Kindergarten serves as a transformative transitional year, both academically and emotionally. This year, especially, we felt it was more important than ever to give our Kindergarten students a classroom dedicated to their unique developmental needs. There was no question that the right teacher to pioneer this new class was Leigh Augustine.

Leigh joined Parker in 2018 as our new PreK 3 Lead Teacher, and she has been spiritedly showing Parker children and grown-ups the value of emergent curriculum for early childhood education ever since. Prior to Parker, Leigh taught at Williamsburg Northside in Brooklyn, where she was also assistant head of their preschool. She also has experience as a museum educator with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. In addition to teaching at Parker, Leigh also teaches a course on Creative Arts for Children to aspiring educators at Hudson Valley Community College. 

Leigh lives in the Capitol Region with her husband Chad, and her two sons, Asa (3rd grade) and Forrest (PreK 4), who also attend Parker. In her spare time, she likes to knit, kayak with her son Asa, and haunt local historical societies. Please read on to hear more about Leigh, in her own words…

How did you get in to teaching?

“I started teaching because I always had a love of being around and working with children, and it was a natural calling to me. When I graduated from art school, I was looking for ways to merge the joy that I felt being around young children with my passion for the creative arts. Early childhood, in particular, is well suited to that marriage because it requires so much creative thinking. That’s why I love progressive education — because it allows me to stretch that creative muscle and do things that you might normally not be able to do in a Kindergarten setting, like draw outlandish, toothy-grinned self-portraits.”

Describe your educational philosophy?

Kids learn by doing. They learn by following their innate interests versus being put upon with teacher-driven lessons and knowledge. My educational philosophy is that by following and nurturing a child’s natural curiosity and their natural tendencies towards following information, we can harness that energy into making learning not just fun, but also a worthwhile pursuit in the eyes of children. All of this falls under the umbrella of respect for children. By respecting children and listening to them as collaborators (as opposed to empty vessels), that’s when we can really get into some meaty stuff. If I listen to children’s play and notice, for example, that every single one of them is talking about losing their first tooth, they will be a more engaged group. We can study math and graph how and when people lose their teeth; we can study how our different teeth make us unique. There are so many avenues you can take it, and it doesn’t matter as long as they are interested. You can do whatever you want within that framework. You can teach them anything, you just have to hook them. If they’re not hooked, you can’t go there.”

What do you like about teaching at Parker? 

I really love the collaborative nature of teaching at a progressive school. There is a real convergence of thinking and collaboration that can occur. For example, I really wanted to make pinch pots with my kids to hold their first tooth. I approached Claire and said, “I can do this on my own, or you could do it with them,” and she took it on as an art project. That’s a really nice thing that can happen at a school like Parker that doesn’t happen in elementary schools that are public. It just doesn’t.

Another great example is what we recently did in Spanish. Jen Baker has been teaching the kids their colors in Spanish. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing this identity piece with them and finding their own skin tone. So, I approached Jen and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun for you to translate the colors that they named into Spanish?” I know it doesn’t really matter that they’re able to describe their skin tone in Spanish, but I want them to grasp the idea that anything can be communicated in another language. That explodes this idea of different perspectives for all of them. It’s all interconnected, and I like that interconnectedness in a progressive school. It is the freedom to be able to follow through on your educational philosophy and do the things that you know are the right things to do.”

What is happening in your classroom right now?

“There is so much happening right now I almost can’t even wrap my mind around it. We’re wrapping up our tooth study by analyzing the data that came from our Tooth Poll. We made a graph and talked about what a graph is and how it can help us see data. We are doing a lot of storytelling and talking about publishing work and what that means. We have a little side thread going on about poetry. We walked into a yellow wood last week where two roads diverged, and we talked about that and read that poem. We wrote our own poem. We also read Charlotte’s Web, so there is another tangent going on with weaving that into our work. We’ve also been using E.B. White quotes from his biography as journaling prompts. 

So we’ve got all this project work, but then we also have these underlying themes of identity, self-identity, and the perspective of others that I am working on. Part of the identity work that is happening right now is examining how others see us. Using Charlotte’s Web as a jumping off point, I assigned each student a random partner and asked them to think about that person and think of a word for that person that is complimentary. Ultimately, we’re going to do a craft project where they put that word into a web, like Charlotte would do.”

What do you enjoy about this new adventure teaching Kindergarten?

“I really like that ideas that I’ve had over the years that weren’t possible because of the developmental level of a preschooler suddenly are possible in Kindergarten. That’s been really fun to do those higher level projects. I would have never been able to do this Charlotte’s Web project with preschoolers. That has been fun and challenging for me to reimagine what project work can look like and really get into some more complex thinking skills.”

What are your hopes and dreams for the school year?

“That’s an easy answer. My hope and dream for this school year — and I’m going to cry when I tell you this — is that when the kids look back on their Kindergarten year they won’t think “That was the year we had Covid.” They will just think about Kindergarten. I just want this to feel like a fun, regular experience that they will look back on without that filter. That’s my hope.”