6-7s Building Study: Progressive Education

Mary's June 2019 Talk to Parents

Mary's June 2019 Talk to Parents

Saturday, June 22, 2019

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:

Dear Mary,

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:

Howdy! Mary,

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.