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Message From Michèle: Talking with Children About the World

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Michele Sola, MCS Director

It’s the beginning of the school year, a new school for some, a new class or grade for others. A new landscape that doesn’t always feel like progress is a one way street. Race and culture, DACA and immigration, hurricanes and earthquakes, war and peace. These are topics that students don’t leave at Manhattan Country School’s front door. Instead, we listen carefully to children’s questions and comments, purposefully nurture classroom environments where teachers provide safe spaces for discussion, and pay attention to lessons learned from MCS history that serve as our roadmap today. “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” by Nikole Hannah-Jones in The New York Times Magazine is a vivid reminder of what’s at stake 50 years after MCS was founded and more than 60 after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Over the summer I was inspired to spend time reading some recent research to help me talk about MCS with audiences as intimate as this and also more far afield. I’ve learned to be a firm believer in a pre-K-to-eight school model. “Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework,” a University of Chicago Consortium on School Research study, synthesizes decades of research that is pertinent. Their findings highlight things I know are part of an MCS education. “Developmental experiences can happen in all settings.” They “require reflection and action.” They also substantiate the value of developmental experiences that build a foundation for self-regulation (awareness of one’s self and one’s surroundings), knowledge and skills, mindsets (beliefs and attitudes), and values.  Their definition of “success” also feels familiar, “having the agency to make active choices about one’s life path, possessing the competencies to adapt to the demands of different contexts, and incorporating different aspects of one’s self into an integrated identity.”

"Putting It All Together," a study that The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development released, concludes that “curriculum that addresses social and emotional dimensions of learning helps all students thrive academically and prepare for challenges beyond school.” The four schools that serve as their case studies have a lot in common with MCS. One thing that distinguishes us is the 50 years that the work has been happening here.

A strong social curriculum, where kids are learning how to interact with one another, share with one another, be a part of a community, take their work seriously and have a sense of purpose, makes their academic learning richer.

Through principles of a “growth mindset,” students are helped to expect and embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, are given time to reflect on their mistakes and try again, and they are encouraged to learn from one another.

Curriculum is designed to allow for divergent ways of thinking and support students’ “productive struggle.” Curriculum engages students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice and religious intolerance in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. Teachers must feel ownership of the curriculum and be given time to plan and collaborate.

Bank Street College of Education, our partner for 50 years, publishes an Occasional Paper Series, and those delve explicitly into teaching and progressive pedagogy. Last spring, Alisa Algava visited MCS and Castle Bridge School, a progressive public school in District 6, with her class. She comes to show the next generation of teachers what she writes about in one of those paper, “Beyond Child-Centered Constructivism: A Call for Culturally Sustaining Progressive Pedagogy.”

“If we want progressive education to live up to its potential for all kids and for our society, pedagogical shifts that prioritize sociopolitical understanding are needed in every kind of progressive school, with children and families of all races and ethnicities, heritage languages, family structures, and economic backgrounds. With culturally sustaining pedagogies we can take a step closer to truly democratic and perhaps even socially transformative public education.”

With these three studies in mind, we take up a new school year, build a community together, and commit to talking with children about the world. We question our assumptions, appreciate the evolution of our program, embrace what all the teachers and subject areas bring to the table, understand the experiences at the Farm, and stand together as children develop a set of values that turns them into committed students and activists. I look forward to continuing a dialogue with all of you as the year progresses.


Delivered at the September 18, 2017 Parents' Association Meeting