Home » Project LEAD » Project LEAD: How “listening to children” translates in the Pono approach to learning

Project LEAD: How “listening to children” translates in the Pono approach to learning

The Jewish Education Project
The Jewish Education Project is a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York

Shariee Calderone

If you were to interview an early childhood teacher or leader, even the most progressive teacher or leader, and ask them to describe their educational approach, you probably wouldn’t hear the word “democratic” come up too often. But when Merril Feinstein and I visited the Pono Learning Center (a preschool) in New York City on a 90+ degree day this summer, this is exactly how the founder and director of the school, Maysaa Banza, describes the approach to learning that’s core to the school’s vision and approach.


I should premise the rest of this post by saying Merril and I had, in part, misinterpreted what the Pono Learning Center was about. Literature describing the school, says it’s,  “An “outdoor” center where children…” The emphasis on the word “outdoor” is there’s and not mine, and therefore, Merril and I thought we were visiting a school where nature engagement played a bigger role. We were wrong.

However, that’s not to say that the children in the Pono school don’t occasionally enjoy traipsing through the woods, collecting and sorting rocks, or listening to water as it hits the ground during a rainstorm. They may very well do all of those things. What I am saying is that nature is not a core component of the school in the same way I would define it to be by a school that says it’s an “outdoor” center. Probably because I’m so deeply involved in the nature movement. For the Pono school, “outdoor” means two things. A) It means at least 50% of their time is spent outdoors, or out of the school (which is amazing), and, B) that learning experiences are rooted in the community itself and its resources (included people and places). This is one of TWO essential ingredients at the Pono Learning Center that Maysaa says makes her school unique.

The second ingredient is this concept of Democracy. And the part of the visit that I’m sure had the strongest impact on us both as we tried to make connections to the work we each do. Merril as the Director of Brotherhood Synagogue Nursery School, and me as a consultant in early childhood and family engagement. So what is this “democracy” thing? And what does that have to do with listening to children? And what does all of this have to do with Project LEAD?

Democracy at Pono Learning Center

This is where it’s important for me to finish the quote that comes from Pono’s own literature that I began above. The full sentence there should have read, …

An “outdoor” center where children suggest and agree upon their own curriculum, including the location of the ecological adventures in and around New York City.

This time the underlined emphasis is all mine, because this is a core component to the Pono approach. They don’t mean “suggest and agree” in some small way. When they say the children “suggest and agree upon their own curriculum”, they mean exactly that. Everything that gets investigated stems from the children’s suggestions at the beginning of the term, and from their suggestions Maysaa leads the teachers in a three week process to uncover all the opportunities that exist in the community that could help the children deep dive into the topic. The photo below showcases how the children’s suggestions become a living map and a target that guides the teachers. And the children’s interest areas can range from “hold chickens” to “volcanoes” to “magic tricks”.

Children's Study Interests

Children's Study Interests

Samples of the children’s study interests at the Pono Learning Center

The goal Maysaa explained, is to hit 70% or more of the children’s interest areas during any one term. And there are four terms per year. And planning by the teachers happens between each term. The check-marks you see is a remarkably simple, yet effective, way to show that there’s been an investigation in that subject. And the two-letter symbols near many of the topics are the initials of other children who said they too would be interested in the topic as well. It’s like a large puzzle that gets pulled together day by day and which eventually fills out the entire term and experience for the children.

Listening to Children

So what does this have to do with listening? Well, as Merril quickly pointed out during our visit, it has everything to do with listening to children. And she felt totally connected to this in-depth listening approach that personified the Pono center. It also reflects the values that guides their work – inclusion, respect and kindness. Every child is included in the direction of the school. The children show respect for others and even for their own intentions. And it was completely clear to Merril and I that there is a sense of kindness that permeates the children’s interactions – with each other, their teachers, and even with us as visitors. Yes, the children are listened to by their teachers, and yes this is what they mean by Democratic.

The Project LEAD Connection

Next year each leadership team participating in the Jewish education project’s Project LEAD initiative will be practicing and understanding better what it means to listen to children. How listening to children can shape the learning. And how listening can shape the intention of the educators in their interactions with the children.

So while this visit took a turn I didn’t expect, I think the Pono Learning Center offers educators – no matter what your own educational approach is – an incredible example and model for listening to children in an incredibly intentional and unique way.

I wish I could write more about the Pono approach, but I simply can’t, I don’t know enough. For that you will have to turn to the woman who carved out a little piece of democracy for children on the corner of 124th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. For more about the Pono Learning Center, please visit, or email Maysaa at [email protected]. Another good description of the school exists here:

To learn more about Project LEAD, contact Bryna Leider, [email protected]

To read the next post in the Project LEAD series, click here.



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