Delivered at the June 7, 2019 State of the School and Final Parents' Association Meeting
Delivered at the June 7, 2019 Parents' Association Meeting
Delivered at the June 7, 2019 State of School And Final Parents' Association Meeting
A week ago, upon the arrival of the 9-10s’ pen pals from Roxbury Central School, two 9-10s greeted their bus as it pulled up out front. “Welcome to our school. We call our teachers by first names here -- no last names.” This child was not prompted to say this, but somehow knew that this was important information to convey. What this child intuitively senses, I believe, is that this pronouncement is more than just a minor detail about our school, but rather one that helps to orient our guests to our school culture. In fact, it speaks to a key tenet of how we are a progressive school.
In 1996, my father gave an address at Bank Street College of Education on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate. His address was later adapted for an article in Encounter Magazine entitled “Progressive Education and Civil Rights.” I thought about this article that morning when those 9-10s’ children welcomed their Roxbury friends.
In Gus’s words: “When I was a child, I was told that I could not have my cake and eat it, too. I have always resented this adage. Progressive schools, I believe, share a rightful disbelief in this proposition. You can play and work at the same time; you can nurture cognitive and affective learning at the same time; you can achieve academic excellence without competition. Classrooms can be child-centered without teachers losing control. Teachers can be addressed by their first names without diminishing their respect.”
Sometimes parents let me know that they are unsure of what it really means to be a progressive school. Progressive education is hard to describe by merely defining it in words. It seems to me that this is, in large part, because a school that decides to align itself with the theory and practice of the progressive education movement is best understood in how the school feels to those who are a part of its community and to those who visit. Progressive schools are meant to be dynamic places where democracy is constantly at work and where active, rather than passive, learning is occurring in all different ways as children interact with one another, make discoveries and connections, deepen their understanding and debate issues.
In order to better understand the education that children experience at MCS, an essential way is to learn from the children who are here at any given time, and in particular to hear from those who have graduated some time ago – ones who have the benefit of perspective. Learning about the history of the school is key to understanding our progressive roots and the context in New York City and the rest of the country that helped to shape the founding of our mission. An optimal way to understand what happens here is to learn from the teachers – those who are here now and those who have been here before – for it is in their skilled work, within this art of teaching, that an environment is created for all else to unfold with and among children.
This week the 7-8s have been on their first trip to the farm with their class. Each year it feels like a rite of passage for the 7-8s and it always seems as though the children come back changed in some remarkable, intangible way.
In preparation for this first trip, John the Farm Director came down to talk to the 7-8s’ children and parents.
John asked the children several questions.
What do you know about the farm?
“There are bunks.”
“There’s a creek.”
“There’s a cabin with a sewing thing on the second floor.”
What things do we do at the farm?
“Milk the cow.”
“Feed the pigs.”
“Take care of the cats.”
“Feed the chickens and the baby chicks.”
“Clean the cow stall.”
“We have to grow the garden and cook the food, too.”
What should we eat?
“Eggs and pancakes?”
“Can we have bacon cause it comes from pigs?
“Wait! What if we don’t know how to cook?”
Clearly, the 7-8s are well on their way to understanding all the work it takes to help the farm run smoothly. Important information about the school naturally has a way of being passed down from class to class. When thinking of what to impart about the community to a new student teacher, a 6-7s child had this to share:
“There is a farm and all the older graders get to go and spend the night. They can’t take a shower. My brother liked having free time.”
Well, most of the information passed down about the farm is spot-on. But, just to clarify: There is a “sewing thing” at the farm in the form of the textiles studio and children can take a shower at the farm, just not this first trip, and not every day.
Well before they go to the farm, children have lots of experience being out in nature nearby MCS. One afternoon recently, I came to the lobby on my way to an errand at the same time that a small group of 5-6s was heading to the community garden around the block with Ian, their science teacher. The High School next door, The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, graciously allows us to have a plot in the garden and teach classes there. Needless to say, the errand could wait.
Before we enter the garden, Ian points out a raspberry bush whose branches extend beyond the fence. He asks the 5-6s how we can tell whether the raspberries are ripe yet or not. Pointing to a bud, a child responds, “No, they are not in full extension shape yet.” Nearby, a group of adults listened in awe to the 5-6s’ observations.
We enter the garden and sit at one of the picnic tables, the one painted by the High School students with bees and honeycombs. Next to the beehive is a chicken coop near completion to welcome chickens next school year. The 5-6s learn more about the worker bees, the drones and the queen bee. Ian brings a panel from the hive that is no longer in use so the children can touch the cells and sniff the honeycomb if they choose to do so. They are asked to count the sides of each cell.
“It has 6 sides!” That’s like the blocks we have – the yellow ones.”
“Oh, yeah, right – the pattern blocks! The yellow one is a hexagon.”
Ian sets out a small jar of honey with sticks for dipping. Children take turns savoring the honey, describing it as “sweet,” “sour,” and “minty.”
We then walk over to the MCS plot to see the growth of the kale, peppers, corn and marigolds since the 5-6s’ last visit. Ian picks a bit of sorrel and offers a taste. This time, “bitter” and “sour” are the descriptive words offered.
The fish pond at the center of the garden awaits us next. The 5-6s feed the koi and goldfish, patiently waiting for them to emerge from the murky water to the surface to munch on the pellets.
It is almost time to head back to school. But first, we stand near the gate to enjoy the scent of the lemon balm. A child spots a dragonfly and we marvel at its intricate wings in the sunlight.
What a pleasure it is to be in the company of your children and their inspiring teachers.
Not long ago, the 8-9s wrote and illustrated haiku nature poems while visiting the West Side Community Garden in full bloom. Their pieces are on display in all their glory on the 5th floor, but for now, one will just have to imagine the art work that complements this sampling of their creative expression:
Grass soft like a bed
Smells like fresh grain on the ground
Wet like cool rain
A weed laying down
Crushed five hundred times alive
Still it stands there still
Birds flying freely
How would you feel when flying?
Free is my way now
This quote from “Progressive Education and Civil Rights” is fitting here:
“I was told once that if you had only one measure of a progressive school you could spot it by the expressiveness of the children’s art work. What this says is that progressive education is a climate of creativity and of freedom from conformity. Progressive education is an ambience, carefully crafted by people who recognize that physical settings matter. People who sit in circles and people who sit in rows have fundamentally different perspectives. Children who are called 6-year-olds have a better sense of self than when called First Graders.”
Speaking of 6 and 7-year-olds, the anticipation was palpable as the MCS community counted the days before the opening of this year’s post office. In true democratic fashion, the name “The Speeding Post Office” garnered the most votes and the 6-7s wasted no time after the spring break to open up on April 2nd. They had studied how the U.S. postal system works and thought about the jobs, materials and tools they would need to run their own post office. They practiced money math, designed their own mailbags, and made countless postcards and stamps. In exploring and categorizing the stamp collection, one child remarked, “This is the old kind that you lick. Oh, this one is Lincoln. That goes with people stamps.” For weeks, children throughout the school wrote letters and postcards, happy to forgo playing a coveted game during their free time to write letters. Each year this excitement about writing and receiving letters extends well beyond the duration of the post office.
I am always taken by children’s ingenuity in their letters. A week or so into The Speeding Post Office, I received this letter:
I am in the 6-7s.
My name starts with an E and my brother’s name starts with an I.
I HATE pizza!
Who am I?
P.S. Please write back.
Shortly after Grandparents’ and Special Friends’ Visiting Day, I received this one from a 7-8:
Next year at the assembly can I light the candle, please?
Do you like my grandma?
How is work doing?
Please write back.
The 9-10s have an assignment each year to write a persuasive letter as they learn how to convince their reader that their request is worthy of consideration. Sure enough, this year had its fair share of clever letters:
Another reason you should get me a dog is because I would train it. Cool fact: I have never been bitten by an animal before (NOT counting mosquitoes). I have a lot of experience with animals and I will make sure the dog doesn’t hurt anyone or anything.
Sometimes a second pet is requested:
If we got another dog, it would be a way you could make us want to do our homework. After homework, we would be able to play with the dog.
9-10s’ teacher Julianna and I predict that the request for pets over the years must rank highest in terms of topics for these letters.
I sometimes wonder how many families actually have pets by 5th grade.
Regularly, the two classes of the 5-6s meet for a discussion. During one of these meetings, a child declared, “There’s no such things as boy things and girl things.” By the end of the group discussion, this same child announced, “I wish people were watching us on television right now so they would know that this is true!”
When the 6-7s were discussing what they wanted to do to change the world, one child responded, “I want to stop people who are stopping people from other countries to come here. People should be free.”
In September, my sister and I, along with other MCS community members, attended an occasion sponsored by The School of Education Committee for Democratic and Caring Communities in partnership with City College. The gathering was entitled, “On the Frontlines Defending Immigrant Families: A Conversation with Lee Gelernt, Lead ACLU Attorney Challenging Trump’s Family Separation Policy.”
Lee started off by saying that he attended a special elementary school called Manhattan Country School and how going here helped children to “see the humanity in everyone.” Throughout the evening, audience members periodically asked Lee if he had advice about what people could do to help. The advice he gave included the following:
Support State-level pro-immigrant measures
Vote and pay attention to the appointments in the lower courts that are being stacked with conservative judges
Fund efforts to help protect people seeking asylum here
Go to detention centers if you have specific training, such as immigration lawyers and translators
Education and health care professionals can help children who have been granted asylum here to cope with their trauma
Keep up the attention and pressure now and in the future, for that is the only way we can keep helping
In December, as part of their year-long social studies focus on immigration, the 9-10s hosted a visit by an immigration lawyer, Sharon Phillips, who is the parent of two MCS alum. Sharon shared her experiences over the past several years volunteering in Dilley, Texas at the largest family-detention center in the United States. She explained how she is part of a group of lawyers who goes down to this detention center to help the immigrants by giving them advice about how to share their story during their interview process so they may be granted asylum.
As the 9-10s learned more about the conditions in the detention center they had this to say:
“America is a country of immigrants and we were colonized and these immigrants have no power and they try to tell the truth and they are told they are liars.”
“Last year we learned about explorers and Native Americans and the Native Americans were treated horribly but they were here first.”
The 9-10s wrote letters to immigrants being held at a detention center in Georgia. Sharon explained that she could share other ideas about how our community can take action.
When 4-5s’ teachers asked the children what they know about community, a child explained it in this manner: “If someone wants to play with you, you let them in – that is community. The best thing about people in the community is loving each other when they make mistakes.”
As part of multiple conversations about how people can continue helping to realize Dr. King’s dream, 4-5s’ teachers posed this question to the children: What are your dreams or ideas to make the world a better place?
“To make things equal for all people using our words.”
“To make the world a better place by marching.”
“Make the world cleaner.”
“To use kind words and be respectful.”
“To convince people to treat brown skinned people really nice.”
“By making things right. For example, if something is wrong and things are bad, I want to make things right.”
“I want to help get food from the farm and give it to the people who need food.”
“It does not matter the color of your skin because you can do anything that you dream. Dr. King was a doctor of voices. He helped the people with their voices to be kind.”
Here is another quote from “Progressive Education and Civil Rights”:
“The real voice of progressive education, like that of the spokespersons of the Civil Rights Movement, is the voice of transformational ideology set into practice. It is the voice of the prophetic tradition, and we should declare it proudly.
If democracy is bringing everyone to the welcome table, a round table I assume, then we must redefine whose table we are talking about. The American Dream invites all people to the table. The failure of its realization has been that those controlling society have assumed America is their table.
Those opposed to diversity are frankly afraid of a table to which there may be uninvited guests. Their fear is not fragmentation; their fear is loss of control.
My hope for the future of MCS, and for all of us inspired by the prophetic longings of progressive education, is that we educate others, who can educate others, who can help us fulfill the dream. I look forward to new generations of schools demonstrating that progressive education and civil rights can succeed.”
On May 22, we held the first Trowbridge Forum on Equity and Diversity in Education. The public mission of MCS has always been a critical component to its founding and the Forum was established to help ensure our public mission. This first Forum was entitled: “School Segregation Persists: Thinking and Acting Together for a More Equitable Education for All Children.”
In defining the purpose of the Forum, we chose the following quote from my father’s Graduation Talk in 1996:
“Most Americans live in worlds that barely touch. That is our national ailment. You are in a position to help remedy this ailment because you know how to bring worlds together. May your lives continue to interlock with others to spread the dream.
We then followed that quote with this statement:
Beginning with children at the earliest ages, schools play a critical, formative role in achieving equity and justice in our society. In establishing the Forum, Manhattan Country School aims to bring communities together to find solutions to our “national ailment.”
I know some of you were able to attend the Forum. If you were not in attendance, the event was taped so that it can be shared with the
MCS community, as well as the wider community, and we welcome everyone’s ideas for future Forum topics.
Following the Forum, in a letter to the speakers, Sabrina Hope King and Jelani Cobb, my mother wrote, "I know Gus would have been beaming about last night’s gathering, and I join him. It was clear that people came committed and were excited to be part of a movement, one that has a long history and yet is specific to this time. MCS is a firm cog in that wheel, and the Forum will be a mechanism to keep it moving forward."
The 8-9s branched out this year to try something different with their school job of running “La Tienda” by creating homemade items to sell. This year’s proceeds will go to support the organization called Rocking the Boat, started by MCS alum, Adam Green. Several days ago the 8-9s visited Rocking the Boat workshop.
Here is their mission statement:
“Rocking the Boat empowers young people from the South Bronx to develop the self-confidence to set ambitious goals and gain the skills necessary to achieve them. Students work together to build wooden boats, learn to row and sail, and restore local urban waterways, revitalizing their community while creating better lives for themselves.”
One of many ways MCS can continue to honor our public mission is by partnering with those who are educating and supporting children in meaningful ways.
At one point during a discussion about a school in another place in the world, a child in the 6-7s shared that at MCS “we learn how to be a good person.”
Not long ago, a 7-8s’ teacher shared this anecdote with me. Inspired by conversations around Black Lives Matter Week of Action, a child in the 7-8s chose her own cause for which she wanted to be an activist. She made a poster about people being nice to her.
Among her demands was, “Let the world have kindness.”
I couldn’t agree more.
May we all learn how to be a good person, to see the humanity in everyone, and to let the world have kindness.
Dear MCS Community,
Happy New Year! Our January launches each new calendar year with tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and work. “What tools did Dr. King use?” Wondering as adults how seemingly out of sync those tools seem to be, it’s striking to be getting so many inquiries from the press, alumni, and educators seeking to replicate our long-term traditions. “Love,” “words,” “peace,” “marches,” are familiar answers to even the youngest students at MCS. “What would Dr. King be speaking or marching about today if he were still alive?” Connections between then and now bring up sometimes difficult conversations about his assassination. They also provide clarity to bold aspirations for the future and a reality check on what enduring change requires. MCS merits every bit of attention it gets when the world is paying attention to Dr. King. And even closer attention when it is not.
On Friday, January 18, two annual Martin Luther King, Jr. assemblies will accommodate family and friends of younger and older classes, please click here for assembly times. Songs and recorded voices of the Civil Rights Movement are a standard part of these assemblies, as familiar to alumni as the newest members of the 4-5s. Sixth graders remind us to remember unsung heroes of civil rights movements whose stories we should remember too.
Our annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March will celebrate 31 years of MCS’ out-loud, grassroots activism and generations of young people and students whose ideals and impatience inspire collective action to make the world more fair in myriad ways. The route of the March takes us place largely in Upper Manhattan, beginning at Fredrick Douglass Circle and ending on 85th Street in our gym – click here for full route details. Eighth graders in groups of three or four deliver speeches at six symbolic stops, including the historically significant steps of Low Library at Columbia University and inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Dr. King’s influence dates back to the origins of MCS, as an inspiration for our founders Gus and Marty Trowbridge. Today, the MCS community embodies the vision that “began with a dream.” Revisiting that history, students appreciate that the diversity in their classrooms was not always the norm. Debates within the Movement and challenges amid the resilient leadership of Dr. King are part of MCS curriculum. As eighth graders reflect on their evolving understanding of how the past informs the present, they also remind us of the origin and effects of the laws and provisions that continue to have an effect on American life today. During the school day, after school, and at home we debate individual and community responsibility. Multiple perspectives, contemporary challenges, and a search for allies coalesce around a shared common purpose -- dedication to all humankind.
“This isn’t a day off, this is a day on!” is a slogan activists associate with the national celebration of Dr. King’s birthday. MCS’ March in honor of Dr. King this year is proof the slogan is more than words. The class of 2019 march focuses on the need for continued civil rights protections. Rights preservation has inspired the March theme of protesting the "governmental trend of chipping away at the rights people have been fighting for." We’ll hear speeches on climate justice, voting access, LGBTQ rights and more. Tom Grattan, English Teacher and Coordinator of the March, explains, “This is one piece of writing they edit five or six times. They are very proud of what they have to say, and very proud of having reached consensus on a theme that unites them all.”
Carol O'Donnell, the former MCS English teacher who began the tradition of upper school students planning the march, has connected the rally to our identity as a progressive school: "On a pedagogical level, the idea of a student-led march embodies four classic dimensions of progressive education: the importance of student-centered, inquiry-based learning; the teaching of meaningful, hands-on skills, respect for each student's own ways of learning, and the centrality of community.”
We look forward to continuing to work together to provide our students and the student-communities around us with an educational experience that strives to meet our vision - students as future leaders whose shared experiences in learning and activism inspire them to champion justice, compassion and peace, and the rights of all people to racial, economic, environmental and educational equity.
The meaning of a school like Manhattan Country School is something we cannot take for granted these days. Our aspirations for a society defined by big ideas like justice and peace are powerful for our small caring community and for society-at-large. Diversity defines us, and makes for rich, sometimes contentious, interactions. Working to improve how we listen, show empathy for others and restore when things go wrong are daily undertakings. I stand at the front door, listen to children and teachers, get calls and emails from alumni, and appreciate the many acts of generosity that sustain MCS.
We will celebrate at the winter assembly on Friday and then be away from our familiar routines for the holidays. While things will be quiet inside the school, we can all take a little of MCS’ idealism and tool kit with us.
Sharon Phillips is an MCS trustee, immigration attorney and activist working to ensure that the public knows what is happening in detention centers holding Central American children and families in Texas. The 9-10s interviewed her recently in connection with their immigration study. Learning of the conditions at Stewart Detention Center, they asked “How will those children be spending their holidays?” Sharon wrote to Julianna afterward with a message I will tell people who ask me about the school this vacation.
“Your students are incredibly thoughtful and caring people. I was so impressed with how they connected their questions and comments about the detention of immigrants today with what they learned this year about immigration history, and what they learned last year about the encounter between Native peoples and Europeans. The comment about the irony and cruelty of detention and what it means to be an immigrant in view of our colonial history was especially pointed. It was truly a privilege to be part of this process and to see MCS’s unique curriculum – its “special sauce” – in action. Thank you again for the letter-writing to detainees at Stewart Detention Center. As you and Mary asked, I will investigate and see if I can suggest other things that children and adults can do to help immigrants.”
In 2019, there will be many more experiences and stories to tell. We have much to be grateful for as children grow and change, make mistakes, but keep their sights set on some ambitious ideals. Thank you for being part of and supporting the mission and program of MCS.
Accreditation is a comprehensive year-long process that members of New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) undergo every ten years. A narrative self-study report examines every aspect of the school including governance, administration, the community, and academic programs. For MCS it includes the school and the Farm. We also submit reports that provide them with quantities of data. Then NYSAIS schedules a team of educators to visit the school and assess the alignment between its mission and program, and its progress toward strategic goals. Our 2018 visiting committee just left after four days. Their report will be submitted to NYSAIS and we will hear their assessment and recommendations later in the year.
The educators who made up the 2018 visiting committee were from some of the leading progressive schools in New York City. None of them served on the visiting committee that conducted our NYSAIS accreditation ten years ago in 2008. Yet it was clear to all of them that we’re part way into a big undertaking, and they encouraged us to keep going. Emily Jones, the director of the Putney School, was the chair NYSAIS Committee. Representing the whole team, Emily shared a few highlights before they left. The welcome reception on Sunday evening set a tone that they realized was completely consistent with our mission, and a distinctive definition of “community” at MCS. The meetings with Student Council, Parent Council, and virtually every member of the faculty and staff revealed uncharacteristic agreement on why MCS is important and what the purpose of education should be. The differences of opinion, reflective of our purposeful diversity, are mostly about how.
Thank you for sharing with NYSAIS and helping MCS’ accreditation process by completing the family survey last spring, as well as for attending the reception and meetings this week.
Research has been a fascination of mine since working on my doctorate at Boston University (and took my first teaching job as the Upper School Spanish teacher at MCS).
What Mary and Maiya choose to share is always the most beautiful example of ethnographic research. This definition of ethnography particularly struck me as I anticipate their stories of the first few days in a school year.
What is ethnography? Frogs live in the thick of it all, and so do ethnographers, observing daily life and its practices and rituals in context.
Their talks reassure me that MCS is a beautiful place to learn, a community where children’s cultural lives, alongside their social and intellectual development, is embraced and appreciated, fully and in all its complexity. If John were here, we would hear even more how that happens because of the Farm. As the year continues, we’ll hear more as children learn more, and as we get to know each other better too.
Other kinds of research will absorb us this year too.
Our NYSAIS accreditation year means we will complete an in-depth report called a self-study that informs a visiting committee in November. The NYSAIS mandate is to ask: Are you living up to your mission? By what means do you hold yourselves accountable to that, in program, in community, in governance? The parent survey you completed last June will be integrated into that study.
Equity is a major focus of education researchers trying to understand how education can work for all children, not just a few. We know from them that schools like ours with built-in equity are rare. Researchers and policy makers are grappling with the history of inequality in education, and MCS provides counter-evidence.
Children’s social-emotional development, empathy, and mindfulness are other areas of research that have sparked new interest as test performance has proven inadequate in understanding students’ learning and school performance. Anna and Laura spent the summer organizing a framework they will work with teachers to fill in over the course of the year.
School climate, mindfulness, restorative justice, student agency … there are many more.
As MCS 2020, our strategic plan, invites us to reimagine the school on a larger scale, the ethnographies and other research will help us in anchoring our present and future in our history.
- Sustain MCS’ socioeconomic diversity and public mission.
- Complete construction of top two floors of West 85th Street.
- Expand the dynamic education program at MCS and MCS Farm.
- Increase compensation for faculty and staff.
We have seen extraordinary generosity since embarking on this campaign and I am grateful to our MCS community for that.
I hope that you have time to visit the 6th floor and see the two new classrooms for our 7th and 8th grade students. My first visit there, I saw math, English, and history teachers organizing the space to enable the rich engaging program I have come to expect. The carpenters were nailing the new counters and sink into place; the flooring specialists gluing the last baseboards into place. “Why Students Should Study History: An Interview with Howard Zinn,” was the first assignment sitting on one of the tables. Howard Zinn, author of "A People’s History of the United States," was my professor when I was studying for my doctorate. He was provocative then, and is still. But I was 30 years old, and MCS 7th and 8th graders are not even half that. The same provocative questions and invitations to find history nonlinear, expansive, and connected to life. These are a few excerpts:
Why should students study history?
There’s a certain interest in inspecting the past and it can be fun, sort of like a detective story.
I can make an argument for knowledge for its own sake as something that can add to your life.
But while that’s all good, it is small in relation to the very large objective of trying to understand and do something about the issues that face us in the world today.
Teachers must also address the problem that people have been mis-educated to become dependent on government, that their supreme act as citizens is to go to the polls and vote every two or four years. That’s where the history of social movements comes in.
Emphasizing social and protest movements in the making of history gives students a feeling that they as citizens are the most important actors in history.
I returned to hear the discussion. What stood out was how much 7th and 8th graders seem to love learning, how freely they challenge ideas in ways that reveal what is capturing their attention.
What would Zinn say about the Parkland students? Didn’t they do a bus tour around the country to encourage young people to register to vote? Are they an example of ‘the supreme act’? Or would they be a social movement?”
I had to deliver a message to Sarah in the 4-5s right afterward. On the first full day of school, choosing worktime activities was still new. Thirteen out of fifteen made their choices, with the water table the favorite, pretend play close behind, still a few places for block-building, puzzles, painting and play dough. Two other showed displeasure at not getting their first choice. The way they showed being upset was exactly what Mary’s stories about this year’s 8th graders might have told. The patience and kindness and space the teachers and their peers showed in the first days of school will become habits, be tested, and re-learned many times between these 4-5s and their 8th grade year.
Building two new rooms on the sixth floor for 7th and 8th graders might be perceived as only relevant to the Upper School. But, in truth, it is equally as beneficial to younger students. Our culture of sharing spaces and encouraging collaboration isn’t completely new, but it is even more important now.
As part of the Expanding Purpose Campaign, our plans over the next two years include extending the elevator and completing more new classrooms on the 6th floor to meet the needs of our expanding enrollment. We also have plans to expand the MCS Farm in Roxbury.
Akemi Kochiyama, Director of Advancement, and Sarah Beck, Parent, Trustee and Chair of Advancement Committee, are leading this effort. We invite you all to learn more and support our growth. You’ll hear about 100% parent participation in the Expanding Purpose Campaign, and also some ways we are reaching beyond our community for support.
In some ways MCS started on this part of our journey 10 years ago. In others it started in 1966. What we are part of now is sustaining the vision that Marty and Gus Trowbridge started: a vision that is an enduring today as it was then.
A new year is a new beginning, just as it was a few years ago when Ta-Nehisi Coates made MCS his choice of school. We had many conversations over that first year, and you can imagine it was a relief to read the title, “School as Wonder, or Way Out?” and these Op Ed excerpts in his article in The New York Times:
My 11-year-old son completed his first year at Manhattan Country School without cataclysmic incident. My wife and I …. were attracted to the school’s diversity of race and income, and even more attracted to the sliding-scale for tuition, for reasons both societally broad and personally austere.
From the first day I dropped the boy off, I was dogged by dark ancestral fears. School is the site of my most middling triumphs and my most spectacular failures.
By some stroke of luck and by a great stroke of privilege, my son enjoys a school that is the opposite of what I knew school to be. His teachers have seen him as something more than a potential statistic, as something more than another brown face in a demographic overrepresented in all the wrong columns. For him education has been not just the shield, but the sword.
I hope another sentence that he wrote in “School as Wonder, or Way Out?” will be true for all of you too. “The school is the kind I think I would have wanted as a kid.”
This is the school I would have wanted as a kid. As frogs in the thick of it, our journey has just begun. Thank you for jumping in.
Delivered at the September 20, 2018 Parents' Association Meeting.
The theme of the Upper School this year is “turning points and tipping points.” We introduced the theme with our new math teacher, Ava, leading a game with all 84 students on the first day of school. Every student started as an egg. When they encountered another egg, they played rock, paper, scissors, and the winner became a chicken.
The process of evolution continued with students playing people at the same level to see who would move further up the evolutionary ladder. Chickens became dinosaurs, dinosaurs became superheroes, and superheroes became teachers-in-training. Teachers-in-training had to play rock, paper, scissors with three different adults, and if they beat the grown-ups all three times, they became one with the universe. Anyone who lost a game of rock, paper, scissors along the way went back to being an egg, no matter how far up the ladder they had climbed.
After the game, Alaina led a discussion to help the students think about turning and tipping points and the differences between them. They identified that each time they won or lost rock, paper, scissors was a turning point for the individual. They also observed how difficult it would be for everyone to become one with the universe. Each time the group got close to a tipping point where more people had evolved than not, more people would go back to being eggs again. We could come back to this metaphor throughout the year. The game was filled with the boisterous energy and laughter of reconnecting with friends after a long summer, but the underlying concepts of change and the challenge of rising upward speak to other conversations about justice and equity. The teachers chose the theme because it applies easily to lessons – the 5th and 6th grades recently discussed turning points and tipping points in their shared summer reading book, The Wild Robot – but also because we are thinking about turning and tipping points in our nation, how they come about and what causes them.
The new school year also brings a new set of 17, soon to be 22, Chromebooks to add to our current laptop program. The students are increasingly using technology as part of their daily work in the classroom, and we’re looking forward to having more devices to keep up with the demand. Student Council elections will be happening soon, and I’m hoping that the Council will tackle some meaningful topics this year, alongside planning for Spirit Week and evening events. Dress codes are an issue frequently featured in the news because they can lead to gender or race discrimination. Student Council will take a look at our dress code in the Upper School to ensure that it is equitable. Another topic on the table is restorative justice. My staff summer reading book this year was The 57 Bus, a true story about the complexities of a case where a young black man lights an agender person’s skirt on fire on the bus on the way home from school. The book tells the story from both sides, bearing witness to the horror of the event and denouncing transphobia, while also critiquing the inequities and inadequacies of the criminal justice system. Restorative justice, where the focus is on repairing the community as opposed to punishment, was presented as a possible approach in the case. While we have elements of a restorative justice philosophy at MCS, starting an actual program would empower students to have a greater role in problem solving, conflict resolution, and the community’s response.
We welcomed two new teachers to the Upper School this year. Ava joins us as the new sixth through eighth grade math teacher and Tiffani as the new sixth grade teacher. One of Tiffani’s first writing assignments for the sixth graders was designed to help her get to know them better. They each wrote a poem modeled after one by George Ella Lyon. The format invites them to share their individuality and culture:
I am from Bobby Pins
From Chapstick and face masks with my mom
I am from the smell of delicious food always in my house from my mom’s cooking.
Yummy. Cozy. Home.
I am from the jasmine flowers we used to have in honor of nano/dado.
Sweet. Smelling. Aroma.
I am from Eid and loud voices.
From a big feast of food on special holidays and playing cricket with a tennis ball.
I’m from Ramadan parties we have and slobbery kisses from my family members
From “be yourself” and “don’t let anyone put you down”
I’m from Allah Akbar, family traditions.
I am from Harlem
From biriyani and samosas
From the stories that I was told of my grandfather and how strict he was, but everyone loved him.
I am from aunties that always tell me how clear my Urdu has gotten
From old pictures of my family members in Pakistan
From the time I spend with my family.
I am from cotton balls
From cinnamon and caramel
I am from yellow walls
Soft Cuddle Pillows
I am from mint leaves
In the windowsill
From fish and hardo bread
I’m from talking too much
Singing too loud
I’m from night
And going to church
NYC and Jamaica
Curry chicken, ackee and saltfish
The stories of home
The fifth graders spent the second week of school at the farm. Shani’s letter home to the parents shared some of their experiences:
The fifth graders had a lot of time to play outside. Many of them enjoyed catching crawfish in the stream or playing Cornhole, which was built during Farm Camp this past summer. In nature class, the fifth graders experienced a long-standing MCS tradition of getting "lost" in the woods and safely finding their way back to the farm house (all of this happened under the watchful eye of Annie, our nature teacher). They began their back strap weaving with Donna, made delicious meals with Gaby, and learned about the ways we care for our animals during farming with Cathy.
In our evening academic classes, we developed our fifth grade classroom contract and named concrete ways to show respect to one another. Tonight, we played a game to help us think about and discuss systems.
Back in the classroom, the group discussed the meaning of systems and made a chart of their definition: “[A system is] many ‘things’ working together to do one ‘thing.’ A system does not work well if it does not do what it needs to do. A system works well if it is efficient.” They will continue to discuss systems in their study of sustainability this year, as they examine the role natural resources play in the ecosystem, as well as in our social systems.
In the seventh and eighth grades, students are thinking critically across a departmentalized curriculum. When I visited algebra the other day, the 8th graders were solving problems to build an understanding of slope and how it is represented in equations and graphs. Ava, noticing that they were solving the problems but not necessarily understanding the concept, asked them to think about how they would build two different ramps, one steep and one not steep. With ten feet of plywood to work with in their drawings, they had to think about where they would cut the wood to build the two different ramps, thus pushing them to think about the relationship of “rise over run” in each context. Yesterday they graphed the weight and volume of sugar vs. flour, and again she asked them to think about which would have a steeper line and why. When students can explain what will happen in real-world contexts, algebra becomes a tangible representation of our surroundings rather than a collection of numbers and variables.
In Spanish, Carolina’s new unit combines language study with an opportunity for students to reflect on their identity: ¿Qué hay en un nombre? What’s in a name? After reading “Mi Nombre” from La Casa en Mango Street, they will answer questions about their names: ¿Te gusta tu nombre? ¿Tiene un significado especial en tu familia? Their answers will provide a foundation to discuss the main character’s relationship with her name: “En inglés mi nombre quiere decir Hope. En español tiene muchas letras. Quiere decir tristeza, decir espera.” “In English, my name means Hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting.”
Nassim opened history class with a series of prompts; for each one the students had to choose their corner – strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Then they wrote historical arguments to represent their point of view about one statement of their choice. The prompts included statements such as, “The news is always biased so people just choose what to believe. Nobody’s version of the truth is more right than anyone else’s.”
In response to the prompt, “Taking down historical monuments is wrong because it is erasing history, even if the history isn’t very good,” one student wrote the following:
I think that history should be preserved, but not in that way. Having Confederate statues, monuments, memorials, etc. is celebrating the people who fought for slavery during the Civil War. If the monuments are moved to a museum, it’s acknowledging that they existed or what happened but not in a positive way…. Keeping monuments of Confederate soldiers only promotes white supremacy…. Overall, it is better that Confederate monuments be taken down and moved to places such as museums for people to learn about history, even if it wasn’t something to be proud of.
Current events classes kicked off by discussing the presentation of truth in the media. One student brought up the example of the dispute over the number of people killed by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Nassim pushed the class to explain how they could know who was telling the truth, particularly when one of the people arguing over the facts is the President of the United States.
The seventh grade science seminar class also spent time considering the meaning of truth and fact in preparation for their social justice mapping study, where they will map data to explore the connections between various environmental statistics. They debated whether or not “science is a way to look at the world in an unbiased fashion.”
“I’m in the middle. Science is less biased than a lot of other things. It’s not unbiased but it’s better than other things.”
“Science is unbiased, but it doesn’t mean that you’re unbiased.”
“Whatever you’re using those facts for can be misinterpreted. You can manipulate the facts or the science. They can only show certain parts of the whole.”
Then Alaina asked them if facts can be unbiased. One student led with, “Facts are straight facts.”
“Sometimes there are lies that are similar to facts.”
“A real fact would always be true but sometimes what people believe is a fact can be not true.”
“You always get your facts from someone – the people who provide the facts could be biased, but at the time people think it is a fact.”
Tom’s English class begins with shorter pieces. They read the poem "On Turning Ten" by Billy Collins in connection with the short story “Flyboys” by Tobias Wolff:
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself…
Tom asked them about the images in the poem that stood out to them, and they highlighted the author’s colorful description of his youth and the bicycle leaning against the house as a symbol of his lost childhood. One student commented, “In his youth he had creativity and imagination,” but explained that he lost those qualities as he got older. Another added, “He had a life of fantasy but now he feels the pressure of age.” As adolescents, they understand the fragility of turning ten because, even as seventh and eighth graders, they are already moving on from being children. As they examined the poem, it was clear that they understood the sense of loss the author described. They themselves exist between the whimsy of childhood and the maturity of adulthood, constantly choosing between two different kinds of freedom. It is our work in the Upper School to challenge our students’ opinions and to push them to think and reason and write, but the magic of young people solving the world’s problems and working toward justice happens when we also hold firm to the joy of play and the sense of possibility that only children can embrace.
Delivered at the September 20, 2018 Opening Parents' Association Meeting.
Prior to the opening of school each year, teachers work hard to prepare the classrooms for the children. Careful consideration is given to each detail while at the same time the classrooms purposely await the children’s arrival to fill the walls and spaces with their work, their interests, and their connections to the curriculum and to one another.
6-7s’ bulletin boards hold summer stories for all to share. A scaled map of the 9-10s’ classroom has begun to take shape. As walls and other spaces begin to reflect more of the students’ work, children may be invited to contemplate a variety of photographs, pieces of artwork or quotes around the school.
In an 8-9s’ classroom, certain notable statements hang on the wall by the meeting area. Jessica, the teacher, has asked the 8-9s to consider what these quotes make them think about:
“ It always seems impossible until it is done.” - Nelson Mandela
“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” - Helen Keller
“The important thing is to not stop questioning.” - Albert Einstein
On a 6-7s’ wall, the next quote serves as a reminder of the school’s founding:
“The time is always right to do what is right.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Inspired by the book Amazing Grace, 6-7s’ children reflect on the devotion of Grace to pursue her passion for acting despite obstacles she faces. One child expressed that “anyone should follow their dreams, no matter what their skin color is.” The teacher, Reese, asked the children to think about what they like to do and how they, too, might be following their dream.
He relayed how much he loves to play guitar. A child then added, “AND, you like teaching kids!”
It is always a treat to visit the 6-7s on their first day of shop class. The children relayed the following news from their first week together:
“We are all excited to go to shop. We found a dead mouse at the stage in Central Park. And then we buried the dead mouse. Outside, most people played the Bat Game. There were bats and there were evil and good humans. The good humans helped the bats. The evil humans were on their own side. Some people played the Floor is Lava Challenge game outside. We celebrated two birthdays and we said compliments about the birthday people. We said things like, ‘She’s a good partner,’ ‘I like building structures with her,’ and ‘She helps take care of our community.’”
After playing the math game Pig, the 7-8s talked about the rules of the game and teachers asked them why we have rules in games. That led to a discussion about why we have rules in school:
“We have a rule that you can’t be a mean person.”
“And, don’t throw a fit. Don’t throw a stapler, either, or you could …”
“And don’t interrupt,” interrupted another 7-8.
And so, the 7-8s worked on composing community guidelines for the class:
Be nice and flexible
Be a good sport
Use a calm voice
Take care of materials
One voice at a time
Be safe with your body
One day as the 7-8s walked back from the park, Rosalinda, the teacher, was telling a child about the upcoming family study:
“Another study?” the child blurted. “Last year we did the bird study AND the neighborhood study. And NOW we’re doing a family study? It’s like you want us to learn EVERYTHING!”
“Yup, pretty much,” was Rosalinda’s response.
The morning messages in the 4-5s last week prompted the children to get ready for the new specialist classes that were starting up, such as movement and music.
Today we will have movement with Jermaine. What do you know about exercise?
“My mom does exercise in the morning.”
“It helps your body to feel better.”
“Sometimes you get a boo-boo from exercise and then the doctor needs to give you x-rays of your skeleton.”
“It’s a kind of stretch.”
“I know how to do downward-facing dog.”
Sarah, the teacher, asked this child if they would like to demonstrate that yoga pose. Other children then showed various poses.
“I know how to do a karate kick,” chimed in another 4-5.
“Ohh, good,” replied Sarah, “that is another kind of exercise. Could you show us outdoors later today so that we have more space than on this rug?”
Today we will meet our new music teacher. Her name is Susan. What do you know about music?
Susan asked the children which songs they would like to sing. Well, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" was a hit, and so was "The Eensy Weensy Spider." Though, by far, the song requested most was "Jingle Bells." And so, they sang the refrain multiple times. They even danced to the song, pretending to be stars around the room.
Earlier this month, I was intrigued by an article in The New York Times about the importance of play in children’s lives. There have been many articles in recent years promoting the benefits of play – a concept we have honored all along at MCS. The article defended play’s role in relation to democracy right from the start in its choice of title: How to Play Our Way to a Better Democracy. The authors make the point that as children engage in free play, they “practice their social skills. For a pickup soccer game, the children themselves must obtain voluntary participation from everyone, enforce the rules and resolve disputes, and then vary the rules or norms when special situations arise, such as the need to include a much younger sibling in the game.”
The article ends by affirming, “Democracy is hard. It demands teamwork, compromise, respect for rules and a willingness to engage with other opinionated, vociferous individuals. It also demands practice. The best place to get that practice may be out on the playground.”
I was curious what children would say about the importance of play.
So, over lunch last week with the 8-9s, I asked them why they thought engaging in play might be important for children.
“Because playing gets your energy out.”
“Yeah, you get your wiggles out.”
“It helps you learn things, like how to play with everybody and share.”
“It gives you more energy and makes you smarter. A grown-up told me that and I believe it.”
“You can find new stuff outdoors, like a pine cone or insects or leaves.
You can learn a lot about nature if you play outdoors.”
“Playing makes kids more behaved. I heard that somewhere.”
“Yes, after you run around, you’re a bit more obedient when you come back.”
As luck would have it, I switched my lunch coverage to Fridays, so last week I got to spend time with the 9-10s at the playground. I marveled at how happy children can be as they play together. It helps that this particular playground is covered in sand, and they like nothing more than to be there -- barefoot would be best for them, if only we allowed that. In my time with them that day, I caught a glimpse of the formation of a new rule for the game, requiring the negotiation of certain details as the play developed and the inclusion of newcomers who joined in later.
While walking back to school with them, we chatted about how things were going and what they liked about the 9-10s so far, in just these few days.
“Outside times are my favorite because you get to run and play.”
“I like that we get to study about immigration because it is my best topic.”
“I can’t wait to have art because art is another way to express yourself.”
“Independence – that is my favorite thing about this year. We get to be a lot more independent, like we get to choose our own spots for snack. We are going to have more privileges this year.”
“I am excited about the farm because I really miss the feeling of being so free and independent.”
“It is neat that we are reading buddies now. I remember my buddy when I was in the 6-7s and I have been waiting for this.”
On the first day children were to ride the school bus to MCS, two of the 9-10s’ reading buddies came bounding up to the fourth floor.
“We’re angry, Mary! We waited and waited for the bus and it didn’t come!” I tried to explain to these 6-7s that, as the bus drivers learn the new routes each year, there are always problems, but that things should get better soon. Well, it was clear that wasn’t much comfort to them. “Hey, Mary, we want to know if we can have a parade and hold up signs and walk around school. Do you think that’s ok, or should we start with our classroom first?”
I smiled, and before I could respond, they ran off to their classroom, calling back to me that they would ask their teachers, also.
I was thinking about what the 8-9s’ child said about how you can learn a lot about nature from playing outdoors. MCS has always valued this time, whether out in Central Park, in the community garden, or at the farm.
Last week, I joined the 5-6s for their science time with Ian. In their classroom, Ian asked the children what they thought we might find as we explore outside.
“Maybe we will find animal eggs.”
“Maybe we will see footprints of animals. I have searched the jungle and seen them.”
“Maybe we will find butterflies.”
Ian then asked them what they thought exploring meant:
“You’re looking at things you’ve never seen before, like investigating.”
Ian then asked, “What is investigating?”
“It’s like spying on someone.”
“It’s like finding things – like dinosaur bones.”
Once out at the park, the children made a circle. Ian posed this question: “What do you notice out in this nature space?”
“Some leaves are turning yellow because it is almost fall.”
“Some plants have grown more since last year.”
“I see yellow and brown and red leaves in the fall.”
“I saw a chipmunk over there by the tree.”
Ian asked them to explore the area nearby and find one thing that is very interesting to them and to then find a good hiding spot for it. “Next time we come out for science class we will see if we can find it.”
I look forward to spending much more time with your children this year, indoors and out. And I look forward to the many conversations we all will have in the years to come. And for new families to MCS, I am delighted to get to know your children and for you to join this community – one where we help to take care of each other while practicing the hard work of democracy and one where we are reminded time and again in this world that “together we can do so much” and “the time is always right to do what is right.”
Delivered at the September 20, 2018 Opening Parents' Association Meeting.
While school-year calendars have defined my life for more than thirty years, the excitement and anticipation of a new school year never fades. These years of building a bigger school and community seem (without regrets) to have shortened my summer months. During July, MCS City Camp and Farm Camp affirm that children in mixed age groups can flourish well beyond the usual dimensions of a school year. I also appreciate the chance they provide our high-school and college-age alumni to gravitate back to the MCS community as teachers and mentors, and young MCS students and their parents the chance to see what lies ahead.
289 Students Enrolled for 2018-2019
A record 289 students are enrolled at MCS this year. Many were at Farm Outing Day in June, where record-breaking attendance climbed all day -- 500, 600, 700. Thank you! Among the returning and new families, a few siblings and a few children of alumni, MCS enrollment this year mirrors the diversity of New York City, many neighborhoods in the 4 boroughs and commuters from further away, speakers of a dozen languages, and transnational experiences that this city attracts.
Staffing Grows Too
New faculty and staff will be introduced at the Opening PA meeting on September 20 and in profiles published in the second issue of Nuestra Semana. I am looking forward to seeing what they add as we redefine this place that has nourished our faith in a community and a program academically rich and socially inspired. We owe a lot to administrative staff who worked some part of the summer.
Changes on West 85th Street
MCS 2020 was a strategic plan initiated in 2011 to enroll twice as many students. We have reached the half-way point as the 4-5s through 8-9s all have two sections this year. Accommodating the growth, maintaining our sliding-scale tuition model, expanding teaching spaces on 85th Street and at the Farm, and supporting teachers are built into the Expanding Purpose Campaign for the Future of MCS. You may remember that Akemi announced a matching challenge to be met by the end of September. That generated several large gifts over the summer, and lots of smaller ones. Thank you to all the families who contributed or solicited gifts toward this end.
I returned from time in the Adirondacks to find signs that we are near, but not quite at the end, of an ambitious summer construction project. Two new classrooms on the 6th floor will be stunning additions to the teaching space for 7th and 8th grades. They won’t be entirely complete and ready for classes when school opens, but we expect they will be ready soon after. We will issue regular updates.
Other changes you may notice are a new wall that separates the library from the library annex (formerly the computer lab) on the 3rd floor. On the 4th floor, the computer lab is relocated to the old Spanish room overlooking the library. On the 5th floor, two adjacent 8-9s classrooms are right off the stairs.
New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) Accreditation in November
“Beacon of Light Shining in these Dark Times” is the title a parent committee gave the summary of a schoolwide survey done last spring. Thank you to the families who responded, and to the large number of volunteers who gathered in July to pull out the essential takeaways. A full report will go to a NYSAIS committee that will conduct our ten-year accreditation from November 11-14. It is perhaps not surprising to read that families list the “diverse school community,” “progressive education,” “sliding-scale tuition,” “values of equality and justice,” and “MCS farm and sustainability curriculum,” as the qualities that attracted them to MCS initially and they continue to appreciate. The survey also contains fruitful insights into changes and areas of improvement that could make it even better.
“Beacon of Light” aptly describes how I feel when school opens, as I witness children from 4 to 14 make their joyful entrance high-fiving George, greeting friends and teachers, curious what they’ll learn, or packing their bags on the bus for a trip to the MCS farm. “In these dark times” is a subject occupying this community in complex personal and professional ways. With alumni, faculty, and parents so alive and active, I am confident that as adults we will find ways to learn deeply from one another about what we share and our differences. I also trust we can work together so our voices will be heard as a community.
“Reimagining Education: Teaching and Learning in Racially Diverse Schools”
One of the highlights of my summer was attending a week-long conference at Teachers College. A group of current and former MCS administrators and parents joined over 350 other participants from a wide variety of schools (primarily public, urban and suburban, from across the US and a few from other parts of the world). Integrated schools and school districts are the exception rather than the rule. With demographic shifts, there is a perceived opportunity to re-shape that history today.
Amy Stuart Wells and Philip Smith, TC professors and researchers in the forefront of thinking beyond racial injustice, economic inequality, and undemocratic education policies, convened the conference calling for “reimagining education” around “vision-driven justice.” The “Reimagining Education” conference featured panels of speakers who revealed multiple perspectives on challenges they confront in pursuing “culturally- sustaining pedagogy” that works for all children. Their presentations also provided insights into the creative ways people are working to institutionalize a vision of justice for all. Sessions featuring young people a little older than MCS 8th graders, in theater productions or sharing their stories about organizing for justice, made “reimagining” seem possible. I came away with greater understanding that “centering youth” is a productive pursuit in our resolve to embrace “vision-driven justice,” “racial and cultural literacy,” “equity pedagogy,” “culturally-sustaining leadership.”
Spending a week at this conference, there was much to appreciate about MCS, founded to reimagine education more than fifty years ago. There’s something for others to learn from what we do but no room for complacency about our own practices and our role in a broader movement for reimagining education.
Like any other year, children will come to school this fall asking a lot of questions. To the educators who will be helping them make sense of their worlds, treating children’s questions seriously matters. Validating children’s multi-layered identities matters. So do their daily experiences building a respectful, equitable, and democratic community. Classrooms are already being set up as stimulating learning environments, inviting children to be full participants in their growth. The work and the fun of it is what adds up, one year at a time, to what gets our 8th graders admitted to high school and on diversely interesting paths for life. I can’t wait to be stretching the minds of curious children and, in your company, building a diverse community that will carry on a history of reimagining education based in equity and justice together.