I am an educator, researcher, and an avid advocate for children having a voice in their education. My mission is to help cultivate children‘s intrinsic humanity and wisdom with the goal of creating a more just and harmonious world. I am a keen supporter of educational programs that count on children as active participants by trusting children to initiate and direct their own learning.
I founded Pono in 2010 and continue as its director. My journey to democratic education took several years of research into the history of various classical and modern systems of learning and education, along with introspection into the purpose of education and process of learning.
Prior to starting Pono, I was a Professor in teacher education programs at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the City University of New York. I have taught in the areas of learning disabilities, disability studies, and inclusive education. I have published many articles and given numerous talks on the development of special and inclusive education programs in the United States and abroad, as well as on the intersections of spirituality, post-coloniality, and disability.
I hold a B.A. in English literature from Damascus University, an M.A. in learning disabilities, an M.S. in reading and learning disabilities, and an Ed.D. in curriculum and teaching. All of my graduate studies were at Teachers College, Columbia University. I lives in New York City with my husband and our daughter, Sulaf, Pono’s first student.
When people ask, “Why Pono?” it’s easy for me to respond. Pono children have an active voice in their education; visiting teachers are experts in their fields; and weekly field trips introduce students to the rich diversity of New York City. Pono provides authentic learning experiences and engages the whole child. I am enthusiastic about Pono as a parent and as a teacher. My daughter thrives in an environment that respects and encourages her curiosity. As a teacher, I benefit from exchanges with children who are inquisitive, kind, and engaged. I often discover I am learning with my students! In my role as Pono's admissions director, it is rewarding to introduce new families to the Pono community.
My background is in educational publishing and bilingual education. I have written and edited programs for emerging and struggling readers and for reading teachers, taught in a bilingual (Spanish/English) classroom, and instructed adult and children English language learners. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and religion from Wittenberg University and a master’s degree in theology from the University of Chicago. My most rewarding learning experiences have been immersive, as when I lived with a local family in Melilla, a Spanish community in North Africa. I have also studied human rights, sustainable development, and theology while living and traveling in Mexico, Central America, Israel, Palestine, and India.
I live in Manhattan with my husband, Adeet, and our daughter, Zoë, who is always happy to answer the question, “Why Pono?”
It’s hard to believe that I have been an educator for more than 22 years now—it still feels as fresh, new, and exciting as when I first started teaching! For me, teaching is the ultimate learning experience; a constant process of questioning, refining, and making new connections with people and ideas. My journey first began in high school when, sitting in my physics class in one of the nation’s “top” schools, I heard my internal voice say, “This is a missed opportunity.” I was responding to the passive format in which my learning was taking place—teacher standing at the front writing on a board, students passively taking notes. This “hands-off” approach made me feel cut-off from my nature. As a visual artist, dancer, singer, and amateur linguist, I craved diverse, multi-sensory, active ways in which to process and retain new information: to bring my whole self to the experience. I believed that most students would learn better and gain more enjoyment from this way of learning. As I look back now, it makes perfect sense. It’s natural for human beings to want to learn in ways that engage who they are as individuals: their passions and their modes of interacting with the world. After experiencing learning in a similar, one-dimensional way in college, I set out to change things; to create for my students a three-dimensional, multi-modal, and personalized world of wonder and inspiration!
I believe that all human beings, young and old, want to feel capable, valued, cared for, safe, and understood, to be involved in activities that excite, engage, challenge, and teach them about the world and themselves, to experience opportunities for large group, small group, partnered and independent activities, to be close to one another and to have space, to have time for lively external expression and interaction and time for quiet, internal processing, and to be allowed a voice in how this happens. We all need our physical, emotional, and intellectual needs respected and met in order to be happy, healthy and successful. In all of my incarnations throughout the years: high school Spanish teacher, dual language kindergarten and second grade teacher, Spanish poetry and drama teacher, and now literacy specialist, I have kept this ever present. My work has been driven by the awareness that my students are multifaceted, natural individuals with minds, bodies, and spirits that need to be fully engaged and respected. My own experience tells me that when this happens we feel empowered. This is how I want my students to feel!
I have enjoyed all of my teaching experiences but, as a public school teacher, politics sometimes proved an obstacle to creating the type of community and experiences I longed to offer children; my approach could only extend as far as the boundaries of my own classroom. I had been researching about democratic education, and I discovered Pono. Pono is a democratic learning community where all members have a voice and students have a right to learn in the ways that work best for them. At Pono I have found a home where my awareness of and respect for children’s multifaceted nature is shared. Here I can move forward, striving to apply my whole self to nurturing the whole child, in a connected, like-minded community. I’m so happy to be a part of Pono!
I have been an educator for more than 20 years, founding Storefront Science in 2012 to create a science learning space that focused on exploration and inquiry. However, I am more than just a science educator. I am a mother, a jazz musician, an avid traveller, a published author, and a seeker.
I hold a BA in Biology, an M.Ed in Science Education and an Ed.D. in International Educational Development with a specialization in Peace Education. I was drawn to my concentration in peace education since I believe strongly that education can transform the world and that educators must work for peace and justice. If we provide children with holistic, cooperative and interdisciplinary learning experiences, they learn the underlying core values of peace education: Humane Relationship, Global Citizenship and Planetary Stewardship.
I started my career as a middle and high school science teacher, teaching in Seattle, Ithaca, and New York City. After completing my doctorate at Columbia University (Teachers College), I was an assistant professor for five years at Adelphi University. I later taught courses in science education, educational philosophy, psychology, sociology, and curriculum development at Fordham University. Needing to feel more connected to education “on the ground”, I then served as the Executive Director of the not-for-profit Salvadori Center for five years, transforming it into one of the leading math and science organizations in New York City public schools.
Believing that I needed to do more for my Northern Manhattan community, I founded Storefront Science in 2012 to bring my love of exploration to the children and teachers of NYC. I believe in play…and think lots of science can be learned by playing.
I love my time at Pono. The children and adults are curious and energetic and I love creating “emergent” curriculum based on the children’s interests and scientific questions.
In addition to teaching at Pono and Storefront Science, I provide professional and curriculum development for schools, community centers, media and museums. I sing jazz when I can. And write as much as possible. I have numerous education publications to my credit (and blog for the Huffington Post). My first book Gettin’ My Word Out: Voices of Urban Youth Activists was published in 2007 by SUNY Press. It is based on my research with NYC teenage peace builders. My latest book Science: Not Just For Scientists. Easy Explorations for Young Children was released in 2014 by Gryphon House Press and was informed by some of the lessons I did with the kids at Pono. It is the winner of the 2015 Tillywig Toy Brain Child Award, the 2015 Mom's Choice Gold Award, and the 2015 National Parenting Publications Award.
I am currently writing a science-themed middle-grades novel and recently received a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary, where I studied Inter-Religious Engagement. I am seeking ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister.
At my core, I’ve always been an artist, one that is at ease with being creative and motivated by doing so. In my teenage years, I won an Art Scholarship to be trained by practicing artists on Saturdays for the duration of high school. A moment of inspiration came in math class though, when I realized that my fascination with art was directly related to problem solving and the creativity that was required to answer the math questions posed by my professors. For this reason, I enjoy the fruits of Visual Art education, knowing that my students may not aspire to become artists themselves, but whose lives will ultimately benefit from classes infused by heightened creative challenges, awareness, imagination and the ability to truly ‘see’ with depth and insight. There’s so much more to art than art!
My BA in Fine Arts is complemented by a Graphic Design diploma and MA in Art and ESL Education. Spanning my 18-year teaching career, I have lived on three continents: from the outback of my native Australia, to the high Andes of South America and currently, the United States where my husband and I call the metropolis of New York home. I have been a ‘founding mother’ at the beginning stages of two international schools and established Visual Arts departments and enriching curriculums for the vigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma. Teaching on the international circuit taught me the value of diversity and an appreciation for different learning styles across different continents and cultures. Now, working part-time with Pono, I appreciate the dramatic shift in emphasis towards democratic learning as they choose to celebrate the individual voices of the children. For this reason, it is an absolute pleasure to engage with the Pono children and their upbeat energy.
While in the Americas, I have become proficient in Spanish, won a national award for my first children’s book, been witness to volcanic and political eruptions, explored the cloud forest, volunteered to build houses for the underprivileged in Nicaragua, adapted to a metropolis, launched countless student art careers, coordinated community service projects for teenagers, marched in the name of Planet Earth, started a small business and dared to follow a creative life.
Today in the US, and with the buzz of the Big Apple outside my window, I continue to draw, paint and design; solving daily creative problems for both my clients and myself. As a practicing artist, environmental and cultural themes are my absolute passions as well as working with small business and socially responsible organizations. My artwork is seen in print, on social media and in private collections in the Americas, Europe and Australasia.
I am a native New Yorker, who has spent the past several years exploring different worlds of music and art, while honing my own craft. I grew up surrounded by music in my home, and began singing in choirs, musicals and bands during high school. After graduating from Bard College in 2012 with a degree in studio art, I worked as a carpenter at Berkeley Repertory Theater in California. Since then, I have worked and toured with Bread and Puppet Theater, as puppeteer, singer, and musician, and performed and recorded with different musical groups. I released an album of original music in 2014 and another, Light Comes In, in 2016. I play accordion, guitar, washboard and piano, and am currently working on shadow puppet shows and original music, as well as visual art for activist campaigns in NYC. I am very grateful to be in the Pono community, and to learn every day what true kindness and compassion are from everyone at the learning center.
LIEH CHEN VERTUOSO
My interest in education was first sparked by a high school history teacher who admired alternative teaching models. As we explored education as a cooperative process between students and teachers, I began to realize learning doesn't have to be a passive experience. Ever since, I have been fascinated with the idea of offering children an education that fosters their curiosity and makes them feel empowered and understood.
I was born and raised in Brazil and came to understand that education has the power to move mountains not only for individuals, but also for nations. In 2013, I moved to the United States to pursue my bachelor’s degree in history from Reed College and investigate how countries and institutions can approach education both culturally and methodologically.
In 2016, I came to Pono for a three-month internship with the hope of learning what a revolutionary education looks like in practice. During that summer, I discovered that Pono represents trust, love, and compassion: a place where children and adults are motivated to grow. After receiving my degree, I returned to Pono in 2017 as Executive Assistant. It is a pleasure to continue exploring the joys of a balanced education.
I am a dance and movement enthusiast, and it brings me great happiness to share this passion with my students. I value children’s imagination, creativity, and joy for life, and it is exciting to be part of Pono, a school that respects and nurtures these qualities.
Before finding Pono, I was a dance teacher at Next Step Broadway in Jersey City and also taught in many New York City daycares and preschools with the JumpStart Creative Movement program. For two seasons, I was a teaching artist with Limón4Kids, a program that brings Limón modern dance technique to children in New York City schools. I am currently performing with Dance Visions NY and have previously danced with UrbanHumans, Chris Ferris & Dancers, and the Limón Dance Company as a guest dancer in the José Limón International Dance Festival at the Joyce Theater. I have earned my certification as a Moving For Life instructor, allowing me to share the joy of movement and dance with cancer patients and survivors.
It brings me great pleasure to move, dance, and create with the Pono children, especially the littlest Pono friends!
Why Pono? I answer with my heart: Pono makes me feel at home. Pono respects the values of every individual in our community, a community in which we all have a voice. The educational foundation that Maysaa has laid at Pono helps ensure a better future, for us and for our children, as it fosters curiosity. At Pono we strive to fulfill the philosophy of becoming balanced human beings. Pono has helped me grow and learn as an educator. It has encouraged me to realize my passion and has given me the push I needed to put that passion into focus.
I knew at a very young age that I wanted to work with children but wasn’t sure what direction to take. Math took that early spark and helped it grow into a light. Pono has helped me understand that my passion is teaching children what I know, in a way that they want to learn it. In turn, I learn from the children. It is rewarding to see their expansive creativity and imagination, and how they can create something beautiful seemingly out of nothing. I want to be a part of their lives as they discover and understand themselves.
I’m currently finishing my bachelor’s degree at Hunter College in Education. Soon, I will pursue my master’s. Pono has given me the opportunity to start my journey as an educator. I look forward to seeing where this exploration leads!
I am a Boston native with a passion for early childhood education. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from New York University, as well as an associate’s degree in Children and Adolescent Mental Health Studies. It was love at first sight with Pono, and I’m grateful to be a part of Pono’s truly revolutionary method of learning. My favorite Pono moments are when I witness students of all ages experiencing genuine wonderment. It is gratifying as an educator to positively influence children, not only academically, but also on a social and emotional level. I feel fortunate to be surrounded by individuals–children and adults–who are committed to cultivating a kinder generation of human beings.
Growing up, I never questioned the teaching methods of the the standardized curriculum in which I was educated. However, in high school I tutored two fifth grade girls, and I saw the girls struggle as they suppressed their individuality in order to write what was considered “acceptable” and get a good grade.
My own educational path has brought me to Pono, a system opposite to the one I worked in, where each child's spark is nurtured and encouraged. I want to share this fostering of love and kindness, so children all over the world can feel encouraged to express themselves freely.
I am from São Paulo, Brazil, and am pursuing a BA in Food Studies and Public Health at NYU. I have enjoyed teaching cooking classes with the young Pono friends, and my hope is to reconnect people with the food and health we all deserve.
I believe that education can be a powerful force for good in people’s lives, and that learning can and should be enjoyable. I'm excited to be a part of Pono, where I can learn more about educational programs that nurture students’ interests and passions.
I am currently in the final year of my undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College. I have studied Japanese for over nine years, and have studied abroad in Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom, both during high school and university. My other academic interests include Spanish, Chinese, and Middle Eastern history and art, and I look forward to continuing my education in the field of Japanese translation and interpretation. I have taught children of various ages about Japanese language and culture, first as a private tutor and then as part of a summer camp hosted by the Asia Pacific Language School in Seattle. While I consider the Pacific Northwest home, I find New York City a vibrant and multifaceted city, and living here has given me countless wonderful opportunities for growth. I’m happy that one of those opportunities is joining the unique learning community at Pono.