6-7s Building Study: Progressive Education

Frogs Live in the Thick of it All

Frogs Live in the Thick of it All

Thursday, September 20, 2018

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.

MCS is in the middle of the Expanding Purpose Campaign – a $15M comprehensive campaign to ensure our long term sustainability with goals to:          

  • 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.