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2015 PEN Conference: A Milestone in MCS History

Thursday, June 16, 2016

“Access, Equity and Activism: Teaching the Possible,” the 2015 Progressive Education Network Conference, has been on the calendar for October 8-10 and on the minds of faculty, administrators, parents and the Conference Planning Committee for nearly two years. The planning committee, a coalition of educators from two dozen public and private schools, worked together during that time to create an exhilarating and energizing coming together of more than 830 progressive educators from across the country.

“Equity” and “Activism” became the motivation for inviting speakers at the forefront of contemporary civil rights movements. “I cannot stop thinking about the will to act (Huitzilipochtli)—the concept [education consultant and keynote speaker] Curtis Acosta translated from Nahuatl to English,” Paulo Arango, MCS 4-5s teacher, reflected. Acosta’s story traced the ongoing fight for Mexican-American studies programs. Fania Davis, co-founder and executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, told the story of working to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by introducing restorative justice to Oakland public schools. “It was moving to hear those stories, but also made me proud to be a part of MCS,” Paulo added.

“Access” made for productive tension from the early debates within the Conference Planning Committee and interactions with New York City organizations like NYCORE. Maiya Jackson, the conference chair, and PEN, as an organization, changed its traditional registration system to one based on a sliding scale. More commitment to fundraising by the PEN Board doubled the number of public school educators able to attend. That made a difference, and challenged us to do even more in 2017.

“Teaching the Possible” led to an impressive program coalesced around some of the toughest challenges progressive education faces today, and the implications for the role of education in a democracy. 

Visiting schools has traditionally been a part of PEN conferences, as one of the experiences educators value most is a chance to observe, ask questions and exchange ideas with their peers. Hundreds of progressive educators spent a day engaged in one of the many schools in New York City that embrace a progressive purpose. Site visits to MCS and the MCS Farm, as well as 30 other public and independent schools, were paired with afternoon explorations of curriculum in New York City neighborhoods and with community and cultural organizations

Four panels addressed The History and Future of Progressive Education, Educators as Activists, Authors as Activists and the Importance of Multicultural Literature, and Testing Resistance. This format demonstrated how multiple perspectives can embolden presenters to speak honestly about the tensions, contradictions and compromises faced by those of us committed to a progressive agenda. For me, sharing the stage with Debbie Meier, founder of Central Park East Schools in New York and Mission Hill School in Boston, was thrilling. These panels and keynotes are all recorded, and will serve us long into the future as resources and reminders of this year’s conference.

More than 100 workshops gave the floor to educators, community activists and organizations to share their work. Laughter, music and dancing, and the voices of student activists were prominent in the exchanges.

With 37 MCS faculty and staff members registered, PEN 2015 was professional development as it should be. The donors who contributed to the registration of such a large group are parents and alumni parents who have special appreciation for MCS’ particular interpretation of progressive education. One reminded me of a favorite quote from an MCS teacher, “I live for the day when society’s building blocks are a more perfect reflection of our ideals and the imagination of our children.”  She wrote, “It’s good to know that MCS is keeping [former] 5-6s teacher Toni-Leigh’s tradition, and is sharing it with the rest of the world.”

The whole MCS community rallied around the theme that was chosen. Dozens of MCS volunteers, from the staff and parent community, ensured that registration went smoothly, and that conference participants easily made their way around New York City on foot, and by subway and bus. A few volunteers managed to listen in on sessions they found to be moving, much like other experiences they’ve had at MCS.

I’d like to acknowledge those MCS staff members who played a role in making PEN 2015 a success:

  • Maiya Jackson who steered the ship as conference chair.
  • Flannery Denny, Jay Fung and Anna Sobel, who chaired planning committees, organized panels, designed the conference poster, booked speakers and tackled a host of additional conference logistics.
  • Mary Trowbridge, Ellen Porter, and Monica Amaro, who coordinated the site visit to MCS.
  • Aimee Arandia Østensen, MariaTere Tapias-Avery and Carolina Drake, who planned and led the walking tour of East Harlem that was part of the MCS site visit.
  • Ed, John, Donna, Aimee, Cathy, Stacey, Lynn, MaryAnn, Garth and Annie, who hosted the site visit at the MCS Farm.
  • Karen Zaidberg, Debbie Roth, Laura Swindler, Nassim Zerriffi, Susan Harris, Tom Grattan, MariaTere Tapias-Avery, Carolina Drake, Monica Amaro and Mary Trowbridge, who all led workshops at the conference.
  • Asha Avery, Savannah Perez and Maya Barbosa (Class of 2015), who shared the students’ perspective on activism projects and the MLK Walk.
  • Deirdre Hollman (Myles ’17), who moderated the panel of authors, one of the conference highlights.
  • Angela Johnson Meadows and Michael Gillis, who worked to ensure the event was documented in video and photographs, and Akemi Kochiyama, who assisted in securing funding to cover registration fees.
  • Thank you to everyone for making “Access, Equity, and Activism: Teaching the Possible” an early highlight of our year.