Reflections on Access, Equity and Activism in Progressive Education
In our founding commitment to progressive education and social justice, the Manhattan Country School community reflects the cultural, socio-economic and gender diversity of our city. In this child-centered environment, differences are immediately experienced, valued and understood through our work. Our students are open to new perspectives and experiences and they feel safe taking risks and making mistakes. Learning is a communal activity. Collaboration is the result of community meetings and taking on real-world challenges. Our students imagine the possible and play with these ideas, in the block area and at City Hall. The 5-6s are encouraged to be risk-takers while the 6-7s develop a sense of social justice as they make posters, announcements and count pennies during the Penny Harvest to help meet the needs of a community.
Sixteen years ago, I began my journey teaching in a public school started by parents in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. At the time, I could see progressive principles in action but couldn’t name what was happening. Teachers and students were relating to one another in ways that felt both unfamiliar and just right. A few years later, I went to Bank Street to discover the how and why of progressive education. I came to MCS 11 years ago to explore these questions as a student intern in the 6-7s. I was exposed to thoughtful collaborations and students driven by curiosity.
At MCS, the social studies curriculum draws on every discipline. It is a unifying strand and viewed as the “understanding of lived experience.” It begins with the individual child and builds outward to include family, school and community. It is within this progressive history and context that I develop curriculum in the Lower School Spanish program.
This summer we chose Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools as one of our reading books. After meeting with hundreds of progressive educators throughout the country, the author and Progressive Education Network (PEN) founder, Tom Little, took on the challenge of providing us with a definition. “Progressive education prepares students for active participation in a democratic society, in the context of a child-centered environment, and with an enduring commitment to social justice.” MCS was amongst the dozens of schools he visited. At the PEN conference this month, educational leader and activist Deborah Meier reminded us that all children deserve the education you give to the ruling class, regardless of ability, skin color or class. In 1966, our founders Gus and Marty Trowbridge, like our students today, imagined the possible, played with these ideas and opened the doors to our school.
Tom Little lists six core strategies present at progressive schools today:
1. Attention to children’s emotions as well as their intellects.
2. Reliance on students’ interests to guide their learning.
3. Curtailment or outright bans on testing, grading and ranking.
4. Involvement of students in real-world endeavors, ranging from going on field trips to managing a farm.
5. The study of topics in an integrated way, from a variety of different disciplines.
6. Support for children to develop a sense of social justice and become active participants in America’s democracy.
Making Connections That Matter to Children:
Interdisciplinary Learning in Your Language Classroom
At this year’s PEN Conference, Upper School Spanish Teacher Carolina Drake and I co-led a workshop on interdisciplinary learning. At MCS, collaborations and connections are key. In the Spanish classroom, my students engage in activities and communication that are relevant to them. And in the real world, learning is a naturally interdisciplinary process. For example, in order to plan for an upcoming celebration, students need math to understand how calendars work, music to sing, art to decorate, language arts and science to follow a recipe, and games to play. In this child-centered context, with attention to emotions as well as intellect, my students are not preparing for a distant future. Age-appropriate curriculum, guided by students’ interests, encourages young children to share and gain a deeper sense of self, their peers and the greater world, all while communicating in Spanish.
In 7-8s’ Spanish, students engage in an interdisciplinary study of self and family. The cultural focus is Puerto Rico because of our proximity to, history with and opportunities for activism in East Harlem, a neighborhood known as El Barrio. This follows their social studies strand and provides a framework for students to talk about their lives in Spanish. The 7-8s are curious about the plants we grow for food at the MCS farm. Science is embedded as we notice which parts of the plant are sweeter or used in our salad frutas, tallos y hojas. Students are ready to take surveys, then create and interpret graphs. Their interests guide games, while conversations about clothing reflect who they are. Students draw and label maps of their homes, complete with family members and pets. Difference is valued. Students speak, listen, read and write, using adjectives to describe their feelings, personalities and family members. When students collect compost at El Sitio Feliz community garden in El Barrio, they expand their understanding of activism.
In the 8-9s, farm-city connections expand as students play acting games, revealing their interests at home and the Farm. These verbs are revisited after their farm trip in the fall. Students draw maps that include the places, animals and “doing” they value. For example, after drawing themselves petting a cat near the barn, they will label el granero, el gato and write, “Me gusta acariciar.” Other students will draw themselves weaving, cooking, milking a cow, collecting eggs, on a nature hike, harvesting potatoes, even cleaning stalls—and always, playing with friends. Back in the city, these maps encourage students to reflect on the learning and real-world endeavors they carry out at the Farm. Hands-on experiences in textiles class and caring for the sheep at the Farm, lay the foundation for our study of Mayan weaving.
In the 8-9s, the family study extends into the past. Students begin to uncover their personal histories by interviewing family members to learn about an ancestor. This ties in with our study of the Day of the Dead, and cultural focus on México y América Central. Students begin the study of culture with a historical view of the self. They begin the year sharing stories and reflecting on present family traditions, beliefs and ways of doing things. Then, as students examine the changing nature of culture, they uncover how and why their own cultures have changed over time. A trip to interview el Señor Javier at a Mexican bakery on 110th Street reinforces this aspect of culture. It helps reveal how El Barrio has changed and how immigration impacts neighborhoods and culture.
When asked, “What is the culture of our school?” the 8-9s move from naming the parts to examining the relationships that exist before they can question, critique, re-imagine and redesign an existing system. Recently, after a year-long study of Native Peoples and early New York history with Debbie, the 8-9s’ teacher, our students petitioned to rename the second Monday in October, Columbus and Indigenous Day. This is progressive education at play, students taking on real-world endeavors, expanding their sense of social justice and ability to be activists. At MCS, our students receive an education that every child deserves, one that empowers them to shape their worlds.