The perpetual motion machine
Tanya Johnson Muse ’02, a lead Kindergarten teacher and Varsity cheerleading coach at Friends’ Central School, is a woman who never stops.
By her own admission, she doesn’t always know how to turn off her teaching engine. And teaching the Muse way means a lot of movement, gesture, dancing, and an endless flow of joyful conversation. Even when she was temporarily derailed by an acute health crisis last year (don’t worry, she’s fine), Muse managed to grab all of her teaching gear and lesson plans on her way to the Emergency Room so she could stay in touch with her students and work from her hospital bed. Her doctors were impressed, and maybe a little concerned. “We’re afraid,” they joked, “that your body might not be able to tolerate even the briefest of pauses.”
Muse’s energy, her playfulness, and the physicality of her teaching style are a perfect match for her roles in the Kindergarten classroom and the gym at FCS, the school that’s been an integral part of her world since childhood. A lifer as a student, she took an assistant teaching job at FCS right out of college and never left. Since taking over as a lead Kindergarten teacher in 2019, Muse has worked tirelessly to create bold, immersive, play-heavy academic units for her Kindergarten students, some of which focus on subjects that most parents don’t expect their children to start learning about until they’re teenagers, such as the Harlem Renaissance.
Muse is always willing to talk. The challenge is finding an island of free time that she isn’t devoting to her students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she interacts with them in the classroom or via Zoom throughout the day, then in one-on-one sessions that continue into the evening. We caught up with her after the latter—a solo conference that drifted well past sundown with a student who needed a little extra attention—to chat about her teaching.
When you walk past your Kindergarten room, you see children playing. Constantly. Why do your students spend so much time playing?
TJM: Play is so important developmentally. Especially in Kindergarten. Kids can’t do without play—it’s crucial to developing their intellect. It’s how they learn problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills, resilience, and creativity. Some people talk about play like it’s a relief from the real work of school. In our Nursery, Pre-K, and Kindergarten programs, play is the schooling.
Are you trying to hit specific developmental milestones?
TJM: We do expect them to acquire certain skills, but there isn’t a mold that we’re trying to fit them into. Each child is different developmentally. That’s part of the challenge of being a Kindergarten teacher—you can’t just teach a lesson one way. I recognize that my 14 students learn 14 different ways.
That can’t be easy.
TJM: It takes a lot of prep work! I have to plan lessons so that all 14 students understand what I’m teaching.
Where does anyone get the energy to do that?
TJM: I have no idea. [She laughs.] Look, it comes down to this: I know how important it is. Kindergarten is a crucial year in a child’s education. It’s when kids learn how to learn. If that doesn’t happen, the data show that they’ll struggle in the future. I feel it’s my responsibility to give these kids everything that they need in order to be successful as learners and be good citizens when they grow up.
Your students are famous among parents for coming home bursting with facts about weighty, big-kid subjects that are more typically associated with middle school, high school, or beyond.
TJM: Kids are capable of being experts at an early age. I try to harness that. One of the things I teach every year is the Galapagos Islands. The kids love becoming experts about a place that many adults don’t know anything about. They can talk about Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, about the voyage of the Beagle, and about how [breathlessly, as if a child was speaking] marine iguanas are the only iguanas in the world that can swim underwater and they’re indigenous to the Galapagos Islands!
That’s a lot of expertise for a kindergartener.
TJM: Kids can absorb a wealth of knowledge, but that’s not the end goal. When they immerse themselves and become experts, they take ownership of their learning. We also want them to make connections. I had this one student whose parents were talking about Hawaii and looking at a map. The student said to his parents, ‘Hawaii is an archipelago.’ ‘What?’ they said, ‘What’s an archipelago?’ He said, ‘It’s a group of islands, like the Galapagos.’ They were floored.
How is that different from how early childhood education works elsewhere?
TJM: At Friends’ Central, we teach thematically. We delve deeply into subjects. For example, every year the entire Lower School picks a theme for a study. It’s an immersive experience. This year, the theme is cities. Every Lower School classroom is learning about a fictional or real city. We can collaborate because we’re all studying the same theme.
For this year’s theme, your students took part in an in-depth experience that you introduced two years and has since become a beloved staple in your classroom—a months-long unit on the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of Black consciousness and artistic expression in the 1920s and ’30s. Again, it’s not your typical kindergarten subject. What inspired that?
TJM: Like all teachers at Friends’ Central, I believe in social justice learning. I teach my kids very specific words, like ‘discrimination,’ ‘empathy,’ ‘identity,’ ‘ally,’ ‘upstander,’ ‘bystander,’ and ‘equity,’ terms that are important to learn—and kindergarteners can understand them, no matter what people think. I’m also a lover of music and poetry. I use them to unleash kids’ imaginations and help them make connections.
So who better to teach social justice than the moral and creative giants of the Harlem Renaissance? Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald, Romare Bearden, Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, Marcus Garvey, Josephine Baker, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg—musicians, poets, artists, and thinkers who, in a time of segregation, became their own allies and stood up for equal rights and opportunities for everyone around the world.
That’s powerful, but how do you get 5 and 6-year-old students to connect with something so old, so mature, and so removed from their present-day lives?
TJM: I know, right? When I was planning the curriculum two years ago, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I just decide to do?’ But the music kids are listening to these days and the lyrics they’re hearing—a lot of that style came from the jazz, blues, rhythm, and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. And even though it was a hundred years ago, it happened in an actual place in the United States. A place that’s close to us. I believed they could relate.
TJM: Yes, I think they do. And they seriously enjoy it. We memorize and analyze poems. We dance to Fats Waller’s ‘Your Feet’s Too Big.’ We do plays. We have ’20s parties and decorate the class like it’s the Savoy Ballroom and wear flapper dresses and zoot suits.
Was there a moment when you knew you had created something special, something that was resonating with your students?
TJM: I love hearing that kids go home and ask their parents, ‘Can we go to Harlem?’ We went there in March 2020, just before the world shut down. When students saw the Apollo Theater, they shouted, ‘Hey, that’s the same place from the old black-and-white pictures!’
But the moment that always gets me is when the kids interpret Langston Hughes’ poem, ‘Dreams.’ That’s the one with the line that goes, ‘Hold fast to your dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.’ I have no words to describe the emotions I feel when I hear children explain what that poem means to them—when I hear them tell their classmates, ‘I can be anything I want as long as I believe I can be anything I want.’