Embracing/Fighting for Change
Delivered June 9, 2017
This has been a year of change. Settling into this building took time, but also gave the students an opportunity to create new spaces. The other day I watched a few seventh graders play a game they created, where they run from square to square in the courtyard, tagging each other and ducking away. They’re growing comfortable in the space, squeezing through the gap between the column and the window when walking down the hall, running up and down the stairs, playing basketball in the gym and hunting for each other in brand new nooks and crannies during Sardines.
We’ve also explored our new surroundings. The neighborhood elective in the fall discovered the beautiful views of the water in Riverside Park, visited the giant dinosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum, smelled the flowers in the community garden a few blocks away, toured a local food pantry and conducted a pizza taste test of the three closest pizzerias (T and R Pizza won).
Then, in November, a huge change. The election spurred many emotional conversations among the students, and the teachers. As adults, we wrestled with the complexities of discussing politics in a school. Once we decided that school could not possibly be a politically neutral place, what did that mean about how we shared our views with students? Communicating our shared values of celebrating diversity and speaking up for women, Muslims, immigrants, people with special needs, people of color, LGBTQIA individuals and other marginalized groups felt crucial. For the students, the election was a change regardless of their political views. They grew up with Obama as president. Most of them have only been aware of an African-American man holding the highest office. Their reactions reflected the enormous shift in their worldview. One student wrote:
Social justice is something that I hold dear to my heart, thanks to MCS. Honestly, I feel that I was spoiled having Barack Obama as my president for the eight out of nine years I’ve been here. Every time something important happened in the world, we would talk about it in morning meeting, then when I get home, Obama is addressing the same thing from the same perspective. That’s probably why the victory of No. 45 has shaken me up so much. Because No. 45 will most likely be president for my years in high school, that puts a responsibility on my shoulders to take action. And I think MCS has well prepared me for that.
The sixth-graders were at the Farm during the election, and Karen wrote the following in her farm letter:
We woke up this morning to face a new chapter in America's story. This Farm trip is special because we are here during the election, which is both challenging and fortunate. Whether you favor or despise the outcome, this is a seminal moment with effects that will reach beyond just the next four years. As you know, the class has been studying government and reading the Constitution. The students have been deeply engaged and articulate in conversations about the candidates, our government, and the direction of our country. Being at the Farm adds an additional layer of intimacy and openness; students have more time and freedom here to find each other, to listen and to think.
I watched the Inauguration with the sixth-graders, both to witness a national event and as part of their government study. Some of the reflections they shared:
“Protest. Use your voice to express your dissatisfaction. Remind people that we care!”
“Contact your representative.”
“Continue to live your life! Celebrate our America!”
“Help the people who will be affected by his policies. Donate, or make a foundation.”
“Speak your truth. Say what you think. Don’t feel like you have to follow others.”
As the world changes around them, students are also changing. Adolescence is marked by rapid change and development. Some assignments provide a way to explore these changes, as students delve into who they are and who they are becoming.
One student writes in her autobiography:
I am not a stereotype. I feel the eyes on me as I walk into high-end restaurants with my Caucasian friends. They are little pins pricking into my soul that remind me of American history. I can sense the tension between cultures when I sit down on the baby blue plastic seats on the subway as my thighs struggle not to spill out onto your seat and make you uncomfortable. I feel a wave of relief when I walk through the MCS doors because I know I will always feel complacent within those walls. I am aware of my surroundings and often find myself automatically sitting up and crossing my legs in the presence of a police officer, to come across as civilized. I listen to my mother’s words when she prohibits me from sitting in the seat closest to the subway door, the fear of being stabbed or robbed roaming in my head. I hear the stories about police brutality, hate crimes, countries stealing money from their own people who are currently dying of starvation, and presidents who are misogynistic, racist idiots. I am a part of this corrupt society.
The autobiography also includes identity poems, where students write about their heritage and families in Spanish:
Soy de Nueva York, la ciudad de oportunidades y segundas oportunidades.
Soy judía, huyendo desesperadamente del Holocausto.
Soy de irlanda, viniendo a América, buscando el éxito prometido.
Soy católica, soy judía, soy atea.
Soy de la Gran Manzana, donde se supone que la igualdad está en todas partes.
Soy del Upper West Side en Manhattan.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March gives eighth-graders an opportunity to speak about an issue that’s important to them, which also connects students to their sense of identity:
I’m speaking for myself and the black youth of America. Why is it that I, as a black male, have to care more about how other people see me than I care about myself? Why is it that there are unwritten rules I must follow with no explanation? How come when I leave my neighborhood, I have to put on a face that’s not my own? Why must I sacrifice my whole identity for another’s? Is it to make someone who does not associate with me feel safe? Are there unwritten rules to keep me away from the people who don’t understand me? Or is it because if I don’t, I’ll become another statistic, one of the tens of thousands of black males that are incarcerated? Or worse.
Another student writes about his identity as a youth activist:
I urge all the young people in the crowd who want change to be made on an issue that you care about to not underestimate the power you have as children. Martin Luther King, Jr., the organizers of the Lawrence strike in 1912, and my grandparents (MCS founders Gus and Marty Trowbridge) didn’t. I encourage you to take action on the issues that are important to you in any way possible, whether it be calling a phone number, signing or writing a letter to your elected representatives, or signing a petition proposed by my classmates.
Similarly, research papers give students an opportunity to explore critical analysis of a topic that relates to their personal interests. One eighth-grader wrote about colorism and intersectionality within the Young Lords movement, for example:
Women highlighted the urgency of addressing sexism within the organization and, because the organization’s focus was to serve the community, this also effected change in the community at large. According to an article from Colorlines.com, “The women began to caucus out of the group's El Barrio office.They talked about personal experiences and studied Puerto Rican women in history, from workers' advocate Luisa Capetillo to nationalist Blanca Canales. The line on revolutionary machismo became a focus of discussion—and sharp criticism.” By setting the example of asserting independence from men, and questioning the long-accepted tradition of male chauvinism and machismo, women from the Young Lords sparked the revolution within the revolution.
Sometimes the transitions within are most apparent when visiting the Farm, a place that changes seasonally but also remains a constant for students. At the beginning of their eighth grade trip, students were asked to reflect on a wish they had for their final venture:
For the past eight years I’ve been at Manhattan Country School, I spent seven of the eight years attending a farm trip with my class. For this last trip to the Farm, I have no requests. I feel like I’ve gotten to know the Farm well enough to determine what I should do to make my farm trip spectacular. Seven years ago, I remember leaving the 7-8s farm trip with a lot of questions going through my mind about what to do, where to go and how to do it. But it’s been a while since then and it is like the Farm is my second home. This trip is one of the many special ones.
The Farm shapes who they are while being a place where they are allowed to be themselves. Tom asks them to write personal essays about their farm experiences:
I knew that we weren’t allowed to climb the lean-to, but that was half the fun. It was my seventh grade winter farm trip and as I looked at Thyme Hill, slick with frost, I felt the cold nip at my uncovered face and wrists. Our class wanted to hike up the hill to hang out in the lean-to, so I waited outside the house with the rest of the group while a pair of kids searched for a teacher to alert them of our trip. After what felt like an eternity, they finally returned and we began our journey. As we walked up the hill I took in all the details: the slow movements of the glittering, frozen stream, the frozen mud hard against my feet, the shining rocks with murky green tendrils spreading over them. I could hear the crunch of the ice under our feet, the excited murmuring throughout the group, the light click of Knit’s claws as he padded on the ice next to us and I took in the clean, sharp scent that comes with winter, cold and refreshing. The whole experience was over too soon. This is one of my favorite and most memorable farm moments and even if it didn’t mean much to others, it did to me, because in my opinion it’s the small things that count.
I looked out across the farm's frozen landscape. I realized I’m going to leave this beautiful place soon – the place of my childhood, the place of laughter, the place of rosy red cheeks in the winter, and the place of private jokes I’ll remember forever. I didn’t want to spoil the mood, so I turned back around, stuck my tongue out and felt the cool, crisp water fall into my thirsty mouth. We took pictures and vowed we would never forget this. We climbed up the frozen water bank to the road leading back to the farm. We skipped down the road, frozen gloves in hand, rosy cheeked and smiling, ready to tell the world of our journey.
Along with the Farm, the other important constant for students at MCS is the focus on activism and their responsibility to fight for social change. This focus begins when they are very young, and in the Upper School they begin to articulate their thoughts with more depth. The fifth-graders write about their sustainability studies with an environmental justice lens:
I think that factory farming should stop and this is why. Factory farming pollutes the earth by letting out smoke and air pollution. It is not natural or kind to the animals by making them grow a lot faster and it is not healthy. It will have chemicals that make humans sick when the humans eat them. This is super bad for the environment.
Littering is very bad for the earth. You cannot just litter when you are done with whatever you are eating or drinking and you are just too lazy to put in the recycling or even put it in the garbage. It will destroy the earth every time you litter and some people litter A LOT. Garbage will wash into the river and then the fish will swallow it and then get sick and die or they will just get sick and we will probably eat the fish and get sick too from eating the fish who ate the garbage. Even if it doesn’t wash into the sewers, in a flood the sewers might get overloaded from all of the rain so the trash will still go into the river.
My project is about how a lot of foreign farm workers get mistreated every day at their jobs. Farm workers and their families have to live off of their pay. The goal of their work is to make enough money to live off of and give us food. But most people aren’t grateful for what they have because you have never experienced what a lot of farm workers go through. Most people get paid an unfair amount of money compared to how much and hard they work. They work in hot and sunny fields all day with a small amount of water. That small amount of water sometimes leads to dehydration, then passing out and sometimes even death. Have you ever thought about how your tomatoes or grapes got to you? No, you haven’t. I’ll tell you who gives you those things. Mistreated undocumented farmworkers.
The sixth-graders learned about a new issue, lunch shaming, through their current events discussions during morning meeting and decided to take it on as their activism project. They educated the school community, asked people to sign their petition, held a bake sale to raise money for food security by donating to a local food bank, and wrote a letter to the mayor:
Lunch shaming is a problem that is ever so common in the public schools of America and is something that must be eradicated from our society. Lunch shaming is just another example of people being unaware of the struggles of people who have less of a voice and power in our society, and showing that we feel that their everyday struggles are of less importance. Lunch shaming is the act of shaming a child for not having enough money to buy a normal lunch from the school. Sometimes workers will put stamps on children to let the families know that they need to pay, but in doing so, it lets everyone in the school know that that child is unable to pay, usually resulting in that child being bullied. They sometimes have to work to get that food and they barely get any food for doing the work, not providing a child with a nutritious lunch. This is also ethically wrong because it affects learning capabilities. It is very unhealthy and embarrassing for the child who has to skip lunch because they don’t have enough money to pay for it.
The seventh- and eighth-graders took on climate change this year, particularly focusing on advocating for divestment from fossil fuels. They are going to the mayor’s office this afternoon to deliver the letters they collected from the MCS community telling Mayor de Blasio why this issue is important to us. The Activism Committee wrote the opening of the letter and then invited individuals to add their thoughts at the end:
Divestment is a huge movement that has already removed over $5 trillion from fossil fuel companies and, with your help, that number can grow exponentially.
It is crucial that New Yorkers like us do not stand idly by and allow the greed of the fossil fuel industry to destroy the planet, change the climate, and impact our air quality. New York is on the frontline of climate change and is among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Now, more than ever, we need bold climate action at the local level. Divesting from fossil fuels means investing in our future, our health, and our city.
Fossil fuel companies have been blocking climate action for too long. The reason they have so much power right now is because they have so much money. Let’s remove our money from their pockets. Let’s divest from corporate greed and invest in the future we need!
There are so many other examples from the year of ways that students are exploring their developing identities or speaking out about the state of the world and the need for social change. Flannery worked with the eighth-graders in developing a new project where the students calculate the impact of replicable climate solutions across the country. Alaina led students in an in-depth project where they compared census maps to identify inequalities in New York City neighborhoods, looking at how various factors, including access to health care, quality education, healthy food, and clean air, intersect with race and class. She asked students, “Can we use maps to display how the places where we live reflect the systems of injustice in our society?” The fifth-graders at MCS, Children’s Workshop School, and CPE II chose I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy, for their MLK Book Award recipient this year. When the author came to accept the award, she spoke about the parallels between Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg in their role as lawyers and justices fighting for sweeping change. Students and parents engaged in discussions about an all-gender room at the Farm to help make our own community more equitable and gender inclusive, an initiative we plan to extend to the entire Upper School next year. We hosted speakers who talked to us about the detention centers in Dilley, Texas, volunteering at refugee camps in Greece, and advocating for counting LGBTQ individuals in the next census. The Social Justice Data Fair speaker outlined the importance of collecting data to ensure certain group’s experiences are seen and recorded so we can identify areas of inequality. He confessed that he was nervous to talk to middle schoolers, but after hearing the students’ thoughtful questions and seeing their work at the fair, he observed that he sees hope in the next generation and is excited for their leadership 20 years from now.
During the last week of school, in addition to spending most of the day rehearsing for the play, each of the eighth-graders presents a portfolio of their work to a panel of students and staff as one of their graduation requirements. Their words speak best as to the changes that students undergo while at Manhattan Country School:
“That year was tough – when I would do something wrong, then I felt motivated…I was always looking for what was better in myself.”
“Here I found my creative abilities and I’ve found my voice. I’ve done so many things. I feel like I’m ready to teach other people.”
“[My Social Justice Data Fair project] was a good representation of how I put the math we learned in school into a real-life context.”
“It was really fun to think back…and it was the first time that I thought, ‘Whoa, I can write.’”
“Just in the short time I’ve been here, MCS has given me the tools I need to be a community leader.”
“Focus, progress and time – the more you do it, the better you get.”
“[Reading my speech at the MLK March] was a really big thing for me – I’m super shy, but when I did it, it was kind of easy.”
“One of the best things I’ve gotten from MCS is learning about the environment and environmental justice at the Farm.”
“I think the biggest thing that’s special is the activism and the community. That’s the thing that’s going to stick with me the most.”
“I definitely work best when I’m very interested in the topic I’m working on.”
“MCS encourages you to write about stuff that’s important to you. Teachers push you to think bigger and go past the surface.”
“Last year I showed up [as a new student] and I was like, ‘What is this?!’ but now I’m like, ‘This is me.’”
“Something that MCS teaches is to be passionate about your work and what you believe in. MCS teaches you to learn from yourself.”