Dr. Shira Leibowitz, author, university doctorial professor and pre-school/childcare founder, shares insights from her new book, “Havens of Hope: Ideas For Redesigning Education From the Covid-19 Pandemic.” She describes how a crisis can be a catalyst, accelerator, anchor or sculptor. The questions “Why hope?” and “Why redesign?” are explored.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:01 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley, ponders out loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening. I’m thrilled you’re here.
Steve: 00:34 Redesigning learning for our turbulent times. Featured on our podcast today is Dr. Sherra Liebowitz. She’s the CEO and founder at Discovery Village Childcare and preschool and Revabilities, a professional learning academy for educational business owners. She teaches education doctoral students at Northeastern university. I first met Shira several years back through one of the first Twitter chats on the topic of coaching. Later, she and her co-authors of the book, “The Coach Approach to School Leadership: Leading Teachers to Higher levels of Effectiveness” joined me on a podcast. I’m excited to have her join us today with the release of her new book, “Havens of Hope: Ideas for Redesigning Education From the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Welcome Shira.
Shira: 01:36 Thank you so much. It’s so great to reconnect.
Steve: 01:39 So I’m wondering for starters, if you could talk a little bit about Discovery Village and knowing your years of experience as an administrator, I was kind of wondering how those experiences influenced your design of discovery village.
Shira: 01:59 Absolutely. For the longest time as a principal of mostly K-5, but pre-K to 8th grade schools, I tried to pull the magic of play and project based learning of early childhood up through the grades rather than pushing academics down while still maintaining quality of learning. And Discovery Village is my now ability to create a school the way I want it to be. So when we opened in July of 2019, it was based on project based learning. We talked about and still do, giving the care of a village, the creativity of an art studio and the discovery of a science lab. And it was very highly focused on child centered, emergent learning relationship-rich, heavy doses of the arts and sciences and exploration based on kids learning. And that remains at core who we are, but something deeper that came out of our experiences leading through pandemic, which is a core focus on wellbeing. Wellbeing in the present moment and developing the skills and qualities of character to be able to find yourself wellbeing for a lifetime, regardless of the adversity that’s thrown at you. And it’s an approach that I do believe can spread through all the way from early childhood through graduate education. And I think that early childhood is an amazing arena to create approaches, to experiment, to explore and to design. And it’s been an amazing journey.
Steve: 03:41 It rings for me because the first work that I did in high school, restructuring and reform, I was encouraging people to go observe some head-start classrooms to begin to get an idea of the directions that we needed to head. And I’ve frequently heard it suggested that after preschool, there’s a tendency not to get that kind of agency in your learning again until you’re a doctoral student.
Shira: 04:13 Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s kinda cool for me right now because the two things that I do are, I own and run this childcare center and preschool and I advise doctoral students on their dissertations and coach educational leaders. So it’s agency all the way and something that I see sadly among early childhood directors and owners, is this desire to be treated with the respect that they perceive K to 12, getting, rather than saying K to 12, we’ve got so much to show to you.
Steve: 04:52 Absolutely. So tell us a little bit about about Revabilities.
Shira: 04:58 So Revabilities stemmed from my work during the pandemic. So to go back, I found myself with this new childcare center that I had just really gotten up and running and doing well. So February, 2019 was the first time we were profitable. We opened in July of 2019 and then March, 2020 you all know what happened. And I’m just north of New York city. We were one of the first and worst hotspots in the country. We were actually the first place, the first quarantine in the state of New York happened just 10 miles, then governor Cuomo isolated a one mile radius where the second person in the state to have COVID had been a super spreader. And so it was scary and I never closed. We stayed opened, we were encouraged to remain open to serve essential workers.
Shira: 05:58 And so enrollment dropped dramatically from, I can serve 128, we were inching up toward that and it dropped to six, literally overnight. I own this business so I didn’t have any money coming in. I was still paying teachers out of my own savings, how this was gonna ever work out, we had no idea. But I walked into it saying, who do I want to be through this? How do I want to serve, how do I want to come out of this? And I made the decision that I wanted to serve to the best of my ability and figure it out. And in that figuring out, we found this depth of character and creativity that we hadn’t known existed. And it felt like things that I had read about the early days for Maria Montessori or Rudolph Steiner founding Waldorf, or Laura Malaguzzi, starting Regio inspired learning, where there was this incredible purpose and passion that stem from hardship.
Shira: 06:58 And I wondered, are we standing at such a moment where we could redesign what we’re doing? And there were these two narratives in the field. They hit early childhood first, those of us who remained open and everything that happened to us kind of followed into the K to 12 space. But we experienced it first and we experienced it before anyone knew what it was. I wrote our COVID health and safety protocols three months before New York state gave us anything. The CDC had no information about what it is to implement safety protocols in a childcare setting. And we figured it all out and we figured it out our way that was playful and joyous and what I found through it is there’s one thing that matters – really only one thing and that’s a commitment to wellbeing. And that’s intellectual wellbeing, it’s social-emotional wellbeing, it’s financial wellbeing, it’s physical wellbeing.
Shira: 07:55 And when you focus on that one thing in the present, so that kids and teachers are thriving today and building the skillset to find their way back to wellbeing, whatever happens in the future, whatever adversity is thrown at them, and the adversity keeps coming. So first we have pandemic, then we have staff and shortages, now we have recession. So the challenges keep on pounding us. And with each time we have the mindset to say, how can this help us get better? How can this help us serve more effectively? How can this help us take care of our students and our teachers and redesign education for what we know it can be, but hasn’t yet. And so just to go back to your question, that was the long winded way to say, what does Revabilities do? Revabilities trains additional leaders to create their own customized plan to align their purpose with their vision and implementation and lead through adversity in a way that enables them to overcome burnout, reclaim joy, and redesign learning in a way that works for them.
Steve: 09:11 So I think you set me up for my next question. I went I went searching to find out a little bit more about you online and I found a a presentation that you had had done. And in that presentation, you said that a crisis can serve as a catalyst, an accelerator, an anchor, or a sculptor. And I thought that was perfect. I’m wondering if you could just give us a little bit more on that. I’m assuming it’s connecting to what
you had to deal with with the pandemic and the fact that it generates those four options for how people respond.
Shira: 09:59 Yes. So that those images come out of my book. And in the early days of the pandemic, it struck me that once we got through to the other side, whatever this other side was, we didn’t know at the time, we wouldn’t remember the intensity of those early days. And it felt like something that should be documented. And so I wrote this book havens of hope that was written in real time during the 2019/2020 spring semester and the 2020/2021 academic year. And it traces my experiences written in real time. And it traces the experiences of 24 other programs, early childhood, K to 12, micro-school pods that remained together and became micro-schools, people who actually started new schools during this time and alternative community programs. And I told their stories and it was this beautiful experience because in doing these interviews with these educators who I have the most profound respect for, I was listening truly to try to understand and to try to share their story in a way that was respectful and appreciative and showed the immense skill and talent and heart they were bringing.
Shira: 11:18 Then I stepped back after I wrote that first part of the book and tried to pull out what was common in all of these experiences. And these were the analogies that I came to. So COVID, for each of these programs, helped them become better, grow into the next more elevated version of themselves each in their own unique way. The commonalities were COVID was either a catalyst. It set them on a course they never would’ve imagined for themselves, had the crisis not struck. For some, it was an accelerator. They were on a course that they were passionate about, believed in, had the strong purpose, and it helped them move faster to where they were going. Not only faster, but with higher quality. For some, it was an anchor and they were so grounded in what they believed that the core of who they were got them through, and they become stronger in that core.
Shira: 12:17 And for some, and this was my experience. It was a sculptor. It pushed us to take the layers off of everything that we had experienced learned, knew, could talk about an education, of a PhD in education, I can do the educational jargon and research and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah but I pulled it back to this one word, which was wellbeing. So that was my experience. And there were pieces of all four of them in all of our stories, but each of us connected more to one of those than the other. For all of us, the crisis didn’t beat us down. We didn’t allow it to, we had our down moments. We had our dark moments. We had our moments of fear and terror and angst, but we kept finding our way up and finding our way forward in one of those four ways.
Steve: 13:12 So the concept of going back to something really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense coming out of the pandemic.
Shira: 13:21 We can’t. Time is this funny thing that you experience it, and it’s like you’ve walked through this tunnel and you’re on the other side and the door has closed. You can’t go back. It’s not 2019 anymore. And so as much as many of us would like to go back to what we had and what we were, we’ve experienced too much, and that’s not possible. So we can either live in our suffering and sorrow that has changed, or we can embrace the change and create something new that serves our students and our teachers today.
Steve: 13:59 I was gonna say, not only are we different, but our clients are different, so parents are different and it’s a different world for all of them. However we were serving them previously is going to need something different to serve who they are today.
Shira: 14:20 Yes. And you see these two narratives in the field of education of people who are lamenting that and feeling burnout and stress and overwhelmed, and those who are allowing themselves to be stretched. And there’s pain in that growth transformation is not easy. It’s messy. Yet, there’s this optimistic sense of possibility even through the pain and the challenge and the messiness.
Steve: 14:46 So there’s two words that hit me in the title of your book and I’m wondering if you’d speak a little bit to both of them and you decide the order. The hope word certainly jumps out at me. And then, redesigning. Tell me a little bit about your thinking on both of those words.
Shira: 15:06 Absolutely. During the early days of the pandemic, when I decided to remain opened, I was open for six students and I had many more who were still at home. So we also provided remote learning. Now it’s hard to remember what it was back in March 2020, but remote learning for infants toddlers and preschoolers sounded like the dumbest thing I had ever heard of could not imagine it. And then we all started doing it and there are online preschools now that are successful and quality. So there’s been a lot of change. So I started out really simply with these messages to families with hands on activities they could do with their kids at home. And I took this theme of hope in the messages that I sent. And they were a range of – it was all art and science activities, but it was all connected to being hopeful.
Shira: 16:11 And I would send these messages that I hoped were uplifting and inspirational, and I ended each message with the phrase, “be healthy and hopeful.” It emerged from me as what I wanted to say as what mattered. And so when I wrote the book, I called it, “Havens of Hope” because I recognized that what I was trying to do in those early days and continue to strive to do is to be a haven of hope in a world that was chaotic and needed so much healing. That’s what I was trying to create. That’s what I was aiming for, that what I was going for and continue to. I struggled a little bit with the word hope, because hope can be passive. And what I meant by it was an act of hope, not sitting and wishing and praying and lamenting that things aren’t different than they are, but it’s this very active, energetic hope where you’re designing an environment that is a haven of hope, no matter how hard your circumstances.
Steve: 17:24 Shira, there’s there’s kind of four groups of people that end up finding my podcast. I’m wondering, if I gave you the four groups, if you could talk about what they might find in your book. I’ve got the school leadership at the principal kind of level, I’ve got folks working as instructional coaches with teachers, then teachers, and then parents. So I’m wondering if you kind of thought about each of those as they look into your book, kind of how they might look or the kinds of things they might find.
Shira: 18:02 Absolutely. So the book shares the experiences of 25 different programs from the perspectives of people leading those programs. Some of the people featured in the book are educational leaders, principals, owners of early childcare centers, assistant superintendent. Some of them are teachers talking about from their perspective, leading their classroom through these chaotic times. For instructional coaches, there are no instructional coaches per-se, featured in the book, yet the book talks about the whole second half of the book is how do you redesign schools? And so that instructional coach supportive role of helping the school leaders and the teachers take the constraints thrust upon us and move forward with passion and purpose anyway, through any of these ways, the catalyst, the accelerator, the anchor, the sculptor or through ways of letting go. The book also talks about what we have to let go of in order to move forward.
Shira: 19:12 So there’s a lot in there for people who are supporting those on the front lines. And the book also features some parents. So it features alternative community programs. One of the programs is a synagogue that stepped in and said, we want to, at the end, be able to say that for our members, we were what got them through. So they created a ton of different programming and there’s, featured in the book, this extremely innovative online community for primarily, BIPOC homeschooling and unschooling families who have not found their world either in schools or in mainstream, if they’re such a thing, homeschooling unschooling communities, but really looking at an education of liberation. So there’s different programs for parents as well. The pandemic opened people’s eyes to possibilities in education. So it helps parents think through what is it that they want for their children.
Steve: 20:17 How about the redesign word, Shira?
Shira: 20:20 One of the most inspiring moments of the pandemic, I was in the one open classroom in my center. And it was at a point where there
was a short period of time, six weeks where I had to furlough most of my staff. I had wanted to avoid it and there was just no way. So I was in this one room with six students, myself, one member of my leadership team and one teacher. And it struck me that we were redesigning learning because what was happening in that room at that moment was the most magnificent instance of learning at any age I had ever seen in my career. So the students were either toddlers or preschoolers, and they were creating with recyclable materials and they had built a farm because they really like animals. We were spending a lot of time focused on making COVID health and safety protocols playful and fun.
Shira: 21:18 Washing hands was the big one. And we were washing our hands a minimum of every half hour and we wanted it to be fun. So we we were splashing around in the water and playing with soap suds and they were really into water. This ended up leading into an investigation of water that lasted us six months. In that moment, this was the beginning of it. And so they decided that we wash our hands, we need to wash everything. We need to wash our cars. They were also really into transportation vehicles. So they built this car wash out of a cardboard box. It was really cool. It was large. And it had a hose hooked up and they were washing toy cars. And then one of the students said, well – four year old – if we have these clean cars, we can go somewhere. So he built what he called the highway to happiness.
Shira: 22:02 It was cardboard road. And at the end of it, there was this picture of this sunrise. And you would drive your clean car down the road and you’d get to the sunrise and you could be any place real or imagined, past, present, future, that you wanted to be. So we’re all driving to the highway of happiness and we’re talking about where we would go. And in that moment, stepping back, I just thought I’ve spent my career trying to create a scene like this one. And here it is in the worst of times. And I stepped back and my mind started going to, where would I wanna be if I could go anywhere? And this image of this photo I had seen and love of the families building the first Regio inspired school. So the scene was five days after WWII ended.
Shira: 22:55 Devastation in this area. Northern Italy had been bombed by the British, had been attacked by the Italian fascists in the Italian civil war. And they built this preschool on Land donated by a farmer, rubble of bombed out buildings, funding they got by selling a tank and a couple of horses he Germans had left behind when they left and they’re building a preschool because they recognized that the war was over, but the threat to Liberty, to equity still existed. And they needed a preschool to prepare their youngest children to fight the oppression, inequity, and injustice they knew would continue. And I thought about it then it struck me that those preschoolers are still in Northern Italy. They’re in their seventies now. And we were a hotspot and Northern Italy had been a hotspot right before us. And there was this moment of wondering where they were and how they were, saying this prayer for them and just from my heart, wishing the blessing that I could send out and imagining whether their experience, and then I went back and thought more about Montessori and Waldorf as well, were models that we could look to take the crisis we were experiencing and create something beautiful and impactful for our own times. And that started my journey in thinking about what does education redesign really look like for today? What’s at the core?
Steve: 24:39 So I’m wondering, how does that carry over to one or two of the most important messages you’re looking for doctoral students in ed-leadership program to be to be gaining as they’re starting out their careers?
Shira: 24:56 For me, the most important message is that it’s not 2019 anymore. And the educational philosophies and approaches that fueled us, continue to give us strength. There remains profound value in them yet, they’re not enough. They can’t be enough because our world has changed. And so to thrive, to serve, to be the educators our students need to be the leaders our teachers need, we need to adapt and we need to live into the
next versions of ourselves and the next version of what education can be.
Steve: 25:46 I’m hearing the, the need for students at that level to be learning how to, rather than what to, because for their careers, we won’t
know the, what to’s, they’re gonna have to discover and create those pieces. The how to is how they empower themselves and the people that they’re leading to be able to make that happen.
Shira: 26:13 Absolutely. And what they’re going to need is, and this is a framework that I created that has helped me so much in my school. I call it VIP – it’s vision, implementation and purpose. And starting with the end in mind, you allow your purpose to shape your vision and your implementation and your purpose, can be a word. Like for me, it’s wellbeing. For me, at Maria Montessori, it was peace. So I think it becomes more and more powerful when you can get it to one word and then that extends from there. So you have your purpose and then that purpose you take backwards and you infuse your vision, you allow your vision to adapt as circumstances change, and it just keep on changing and you pay close attention to the how and the implementation, or else it’s dreaming in the sky words and it’s not really shaping the experience for teachers and
students and families today.
Steve: 27:12 I have to tell you that one of the big words for me is empower. And as I listen to you, I heard the four year olds and your story empowered and I’m envisioning your doctoral students being empowered. And that’s a piece of that driving work behind your passion.
Shira: 27:35 Thank you. It absolutely is. We all need our own customized plan that reflects who we are and a challenge in many of our educational systems today is the push towards standardization. But people aren’t standard and we thrive when we’re empowered to be our unique, authentic, customized selves.
Steve: 27:59 Well, Shira, thank you so much. Would you take a moment or two and let listeners know the best way that they can get in touch with you, find out more about your programs, more about your book, maybe get a question or two sent directly to you?
Shira: 28:13 Absolutely. So there’s lots of ways you can get in touch with me. The book is available everywhere. Amazon, Target, Barnes and Noble, Red Leaf Press. “Havens of Hope: Ideas For Redesigning Education For the COVID-19 Pandemic.” You can email me directly email@example.com. Revabilities.com is my website. If you wanna know more about my school, that’s discoveryvillagecenter.com. And I’m @shiraleibowitz everywhere – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, you name it, find me I’m there and happy to connect.
Steve: 28:50 Great. We’ll be sure to post some of those links in the lead-in to the to the podcast so folks can go back and find them. Thank you so much for your time and best wishes on the very, very important work you’re doing.
Shira: 29:05 Thank you so much Steve, it was so great to connect with you again.
Steve [Outro]: 29:10 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me
your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.