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Education is a Story: A Conversation with Stephani Sarnoski

Stephani Sarnoski
Stephani and some of her children following
a Stone Soup neighborhood walk.
"Storytelling is the heart of everything. Education is a story. It's not about isolated events or cardboard cut-out tests, it's about the story." -Stephani Sarnoski

Epiphany Community School - located just outside the city limits of one of the greatest places in America, Flagstaff, AZ - was the brainchild of Stephani Sarnoski. "Our educational philosophy is grounded in an inherent respect for each child as an individual and diverse learner," she writes on the school's website. "We are inspired by the philosophies of Free Schooling, place-based education, Montessori, Expeditionary Learning, Waldorf, Homeschooling, Service-Learning, Inclusive education and the idea of democracy in education."

I first met Stephani about ten years ago when she showed up at the Grand Canyon International Youth Hostel, where I was working at the time. She had moved to Flagstaff to finish her degree in Special Education and took a job tending bar where I became a regular fixture, little suspecting that one day we would live thousands of miles apart with families of our own and having a conversation about storytelling.

The San Francisco Peaks

What role does storytelling play in the development of a child?

Storytelling is as key as imaginative play, and in the same developmental framework. Some children truly struggle with it and I think every early learning center should understand its importance in helping children develop social and emotional competence into adulthood. Storytelling/Imaginative Play is learning, period.

We have  a fun activity called Storytelling Yoga we often do after our Quiet Rest period of the day. We start with an animal position, for example: Camel pose. There’s a die that has ‘Who,’ ‘What,’ ‘Where,’ ‘Why,’ ‘When,’ and ‘How’ written on each side. We roll it to help extend the story and act it out as we go. We often use pictures as prompts for stories or sit outside with the goats, llamas, ducks and chickens, sending them on adventures with our imaginations.

Those are some more organized activities to help extend and isolate skills, but I'm always amazed at how children are just natural story tellers even without prompts! Just sitting and listening to them play while building, painting, running or drawing can be enough to inspire a litany of picture books! As the year goes on, the storytelling in their play becomes more complex and directed. It has been amazing to watch.

What about picture books, what role do they  play in your classroom?

They are integral, and they play many different roles in my classroom. Sometimes they are the inspiration for an art exploration, or even some cooking or snack lessons!

Picture books tell a story in a non-threatening way that allows for children to process what might be considered a stressful situation much in the same way as pretend and imaginative play.  For example,  we read The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia to discuss the cycles of life and death as the seasons changed and the leaves fell.

Stories can also give the children another perspective, whether it be about the challenges of making new friends or the uniqueness of their feelings and struggles. One of my students who happens to have some learning challenges chose to repeatedly listen to Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus and I think it helped him gain perspective.

We also use them to teach about cultures, celebrations and different religious customs as they come up.  Is there anything picture books can't be used for?

Grinding Corn into Flour

Ah, speaking of cultures and customs, there's a definite Native American presence in Flagstaff. How has that aspect of your community influenced the school?

There is such an abundance of rich cultural history in Flagstaff – specifically Navajo and Hopi - that incorporating it into the school's curriculum through literature, music, food, and activities comes naturally. We grow a Hopi variety of blue corn at the school that the children helped to care for, dry, harvest, and eventually grind into flour.  

We also regularly use a version of Navajo Peace Making to help the children resolve the inevitable conflicts between children in a way that focuses on them strengthening their relationships with one another and find peaceful resolution.

I don't know how we could call ourselves a community school that promotes a social justice curriculum, and neglect to actively introduce children to such an important part of their community!

In addition, our outdoor classroom provides a clear view of the sacred San Francisco Peaks and we often discuss their tribal significance. On one of our recent hikes up to Caves Crater, the students and I sat under an Alligator Juniper and were introduced to some of the stories of Kachinas while we ate our lunch over looking the mountain.  On that same adventure we were also lucky to discover pottery shards and explored a few of the 70-80 rooms/caves that were the home of the ancient Sinagua from about 1250-1300.

Sinagua Tribe
Exploring the dwellings of the Sinagua tribe.
Wow, I can hardly imagine being exposed to those sorts of concepts from such an early age. Do you find that being exposed to these sorts of concepts is getting your kids to ask deeper questions about themselves and the universe?

Kids do have a logic and many times that logic is a lot less scrambled than the "adult" type. I've learned a great deal about myself and my own belief system by listening to their conversations with each other. To be honest, they have taken it all in with stride and none of them seem to have nearly as much trouble taking it in as an adult would. To them it's often just the way things are- different for everyone.

That's not to say they don't ask questions. Asking questions is integral to learning and being in a space where it is safe to ask questions is the key to a healthy classroom environment. The students all have different belief systems and family traditions that they share with one another

One of the reasons I like our community investigations so much is that we bring a list of questions for them to ask and they always expound upon them once they get going.  The questions they asked the vet when we when were there were amazing. ("How do animals get sick? What happens if you can't fix them?")  They were also filled with questions about the caves at the top of Caves Crater ("Do you think they were comfortable here? Where did they go? Why aren't they here anymore?")

During the winter holidays, we spent a good amount of time reading about the different cultural traditions of that season. One student explained that it was Jesus' birthday for him and his family. That started a whole discussion between the students about why they chose to celebrate this particular person's birthday, why was he so special? What did Jesus have to do with Santa?  Was he friends with Jesus or was Jesus his mom's friend?  These questions were asked in such a simple and innocent way. It made me wonder if an adult conversation about the topic would have been as cordial or productive.

What was your own early schooling like, and how do you reckon that evolved into Epiphany?

I started out in public school for K-1st grade. I clearly remember not being allowed to eat lunch with the other students because I was constantly being sent to the Principal's office. I had to eat my lunch most days on a bench outside the office and wasn't allowed to go to recess because I couldn't sit still or keep my mouth shut during class.

I was transferred to Catholic school by the 2nd grade because my parents were incredibly religious and felt that the nuns might be able to instill some discipline in me. In other words, I think they hoped the nuns would break my spirit! It didn't work and I continued to spend a good amount of time explaining my impulsive and passionate actions to the principal. I got nearly straight A's in my classes, but D's in conduct. Catholic High School was basically a repeat of that situation, only there was no recess to take away from me anymore!

I was offered little-to-no opportunity for hands-on activity throughout my schooling. My classes were lectures that resulted in me spacing out or putting my head down, and then getting into trouble for it.  I was an honor student with a GPA close to 4.0, so I think that caused a good amount of frustration amongst my teachers. I would memorize for the test the night before and forget it all within a week.  School to me wasn't about learning, it was about a hoop to jump through, good grades, and approval from an external source.  No one wanted me to think outside of the box- I was punished whenever I tried, so I stopped offering it. Creativity wasn't valued, but test scores and being quiet were.

Had I grown up in a different time, I would have been diagnosed with ADHD ( I was later, as an adult) and been provided some accommodations to help me adapt to the teaching situations presented to me. Maybe I would have been able to knit (that's how I got through college lectures) or been allowed to move around or take a walk. Punishing me didn't help, and neither did excluding me from recess! I've never understood why teachers force the kids who can't stay still or focus to stay inside. It doesn't make any sense! I probably would have been more focused if I had been given more opportunities to move.  

As an educator and director I'm constantly thinking of my schooling and often trying to unlearn how I learned to teach from my teachers growing up. Looking back on it made me ask a lot of questions. Why do we want to teach our youth to sit for most of the day? What does that teach them to do as adults? Why is innovation and creativity not valued? How can we educate instead of "school" children? Why don't youth have choice and direction over their learning?  What kind of adults would they become it they learned to analyze the world and be part of it, instead of passive participants looking for approval? 

Epiphany is a huge step in the other direction from what I grew up - it's my attempt to answer and resolve those questions. It is my opportunity to offer something different and to teach children they are valuable to our communities. Research has proven how developmentally inappropriate it is to expect young children to sit and listen for long periods of time. My Master's in Special Education convinced me that learning is individual and all education should meet the needs of the student, not the teacher.

For that to happen, though, we need to get youth invested in learning, we need to get them excited about it! School shouldn't just be days filled with kids doing things they don't want to do. How can we expect our youth to spend their lives in a dictatorship and grow up to live successfully in a democracy?  We have a democratic system here at Epiphany and the students are part of the decision making process. They have control and a say in their lives and they know it. It not only involves them in their education but it extends beyond any classroom. Learning about the world and how it works is invigorating - so why can't education be more individual fun, exploratory, and creative? 

I think there are benefits to every type of education. I don't disagree with lecture based or more linear styles of education at the older grades for some students. I just don't believe in a "one-size fits all" philosophy at any grade. We all learn differently.

You first began envisioning having your own school when you were ten. To what extent does Epiphany resemble that initial concept?

I didn't have as many details, but in my young mind Epiphany was a safe haven for kids like me. It was a place for the "misfit toys," so to speak, a place that never turned anyone away and appreciated the unique gift of every individual who entered it's doors.  Even as a kid I had the dream of starting  a school where kids had a choice and were a big part of deciding what happened there every day. I was a huge proponent of democratic education even before I knew what the word meant!

My original plan had been to buy a block of abandoned homes in Detroit and turn it into a school that provided cheap or free housing for families who want to be actively involved through teaching, gardening, caretaking, or repairs. I've always felt that school and family should be more intertwined and that our busy work lives little time for families to spend with their children.  I'm just waiting for someone to fund me. ;)

School shouldn't be a building, but a community that expanded out to children participating in service-learning projects and being actively involved in their community. Education isn't a place-it's a well-written story-kind of like a good book.

Storytelling is the heart of everything. Education is a story-it should be unique and individual and a beautiful process, not an end product. It's not about isolated events or cardboard cut-out tests - it's about the story. That's what makes it real. Without the journey, it's meaningless.

Learn more about Epiphany.

Flagstaff sleeps.
Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.


  1. Anonymous25.5.12

    Love your blog, Ms. Sarnoski!


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