DANSVILLE — "Hearts Afire: The Story of Moonwhistle School," a new book by Dansville-based author Lee Marcus is hoping to change hearts and minds on the topic of early-childhood education.

The 239-page autobiography details Marcus' 40s, during a period where she operated an experimental pre-school known as Moonwhistle School in San Francisco, Calif. 

The author got her introduction to teaching early in life. Her mother taught second grade at Arkport Central School, where she attended, and her father ran a reading and writing academy for students. She was called on by her mother to sit in on reading groups as early as the third grade, and teaching lessons alongside her father in the fifth grade. 

"I kind of started teaching in third grade, and became aware of how teachers function and the process of how people take in new information," she said. "I've always been a teacher." 

After a college career majoring in music education, Marcus took a job at a pre-school in Upstate New York's North Country, which allowed her the freedom to experiment with education outside some of the constructs of public schools. 

"I had an insight into public schools my whole life, and I wanted to do it in a completely different way ... I thought there were better ways," she said. 

Tasked with building the program from the ground up, from recruiting students to transportation and all things in between, Marcus was inspired by a bounty of new literature on alternative education in the early 1990s. 

"We kind of flung the doors open and said 'let's see what happens,'" she said. "I wanted to start from scratch, and determine what was necessary and what was not. I didn't want children standing in line, raising their hands and calling me Ms. Marcus." 

As that job came to a close, she set her sights westward, following a boyfriend to San Francisco, where 

"I had one year where every aspect of my life flew up in the air and came down totally different," she described.

The end of a 10-year relationship, surviving an earthquake, two moves, quitting a well-paying corporate job and a fall from a mountain, forced Marcus to re-think everything and find something to be passionate about. She returned to teaching, channeling her energies into asking big picture questions about education. 

"I had to ask myself 'What am I doing with my life?' I had been in the corporate world and felt like I wasn't doing anything but making someone else rich. I couldn't think of a single reason why it was productive for the world or for me," she recalled. 

When she moved into a small apartment in San Francisco, she was beckoned by "little voices" at a daycare next-door to give teaching another shot. For a year, she would live a bare-bones existence, living and working at the facility for a small wage. 

"I was on fire from that day on," Marcus said.

A new relationship sparked by an Arkport High School Reunion also gave Marcus a breath of new life. Building on her years of experience, the couple took a leap of faith. 

"He ended up moving into the daycare with me, and a few months later we started our own school," she said. 

Moonwhistle School opened in 1991, and would become a laboratory for asking the big-picture questions about education that had always fascinated Marcus. At the school, Marcus set out to do three things, put art and music on the same level with other subjects; teach children to enjoy foods that were good for them; learn whether segregation among genders was a natural or learned social phenomena. 

The school hosted children ages 3 months to 5 years old, and brain development in the first seven years of life — prior to the development of reasoning and logic — became a central focus of Marcus' work as a teacher.

"(The child's brain) is not logical, that's why kids are so hilarious and their perceptions so magical," she outlined. The period where they are "roughing in" the functions of their cerebral cortex, is critical, according to Marcus.

By fostering the natural modes by which children learn through play, visualization and imagination she hoped to see progress, and was not disappointed. Marcus also continued to be inspired by ongoing research into the topic by Joseph Chilton-Pearce and other leading minds in the field. 

"Play is what they're wired to do. When they're playing, they're actually building their cerebral cortex," she said. "That's when they're on fire ... I started to ask, what can I do to promote that idea and what can I do to get out of the way of their process."

She determined that imposing adult reasoning on children who have yet to develop the ability to reason was an ineffective method to educate. For nine years, her teaching influenced dozens and dozens of children in San Francisco. 

In August 1998, Marcus was prompted to move back to New York state after the loss of a sibling to cancer. Moonwhistle was shut down, with no hope of recreating the success locally, given the economic viability of the small classes necessary to properly execute the vision. 

Upon her return, she immediately sat down and penned "Hearts Afire," which has been shelved for 19 years, awaiting a publisher. In the meantime, she's stayed in touch with many of her students. Some have chosen creative paths, Marcus said. The author is hopeful that the book can change common misconceptions about early childhood education. 

"I hope that it makes people think about what early childhood is, because our culture is drifting towards ignoring it, and just assuming children are irrational and illogical," she said. "There's a painful misconception that play doesn't matter, and it's the only thing that matters."

Hearts Afire" is available in in paperback ($12.40) or as a Kindle book on Amazon.com for $3.49. An audio book will be made available soon.