Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Presidio Hill School - San Francisco, CA

Presidio Open Air School
c. 1920's
Nestled in one of San Francisco's finest real estate neighborhoods, Presidio Hill School is the oldest continuously operating progressive school west of the Mississippi River. Founded in 1918 as Presidio Open Air School by Helen Saltz and Flora Arnstein, the school has a rich history of continuous commitment to progressive values and teaching principles. I met with Head of School, Scott Duyan.

Scott Duyan
Head of School
With great resilience and fortitude, Presidio Hill School (PHS) has survived and flourished for almost 100 years. Time has taught great lessons about what it takes to be a progressive school given the exigencies and tumultuous political history of San Francisco during the century of the school's existence. Fittingly, Scott Duyan, a veteran progressive educator sits at the helm of PHS, leading an outstanding group of teachers and staff, deeply committed to the tenets of progressive education. After interviewing over 100 school leaders and educators over the past few months, my time with Scott stuck a rare chord of depth, gravitas, and understanding about the history, structure, and nuance of progressive education. 

At PHS - The Center of Gravity: Kids
As we began our discussion, Scott invoked the latin root of "education" - educare - meaning "to bring forth," to underscore the progressive presumption that children "come to the educational enterprise with interests and skills." He describes a teacher's job as needing to "weed out the skills and talents, and build upon the interests." He referred to the one hundredth anniversary of John Dewey's book, Interest and Effort (1913), where Dewey articulated his child centered philosophy wherein education starts with the interests of children. Scott measures a certain irony that a century has transpired since Dewey postulated his philosophy, yet our mainstream educational systems fails to grasp what, for Scott, is fundamental truth about children and their education. So, at PHS, the program is alive and vibrant with children as the center of gravity.

Relationships at the heart of
progressive education
Scott's definition of progressive education begins with his views on social justice. At the heart of a progressive school is "working for the greater good." In today's world, this means paying close attention to diversity, inclusion, multicultural education, and community service. He sees progressive education best manifesting at PHS through the relationships within the school community - teacher to student; student to student; teacher and staff to parent. The good will of these relationships spills over to the serve the good of the wider community.

Scott also points to a flat administrative structure as a contributing factor to the progressive spirit of the school. "Everyone has a job to do, and we are not very hierarchical at PHS. Our informality serves this dynamic - everyone is on a first-nme basis, even the students." (By the way, children being on a first-name basis with their teachers and school leaders is quite common among progressive schools). 

When I asked Scott to identify the primary benefits and advantages of a progressive education, he was ready with a formidable list as the school had recently surveyed its alumni and asked them the same question. They articulated many: continued love of learning; creativity; finding their own voice; knowing how to advocate for themselves; critical thinking, and a host of others. These testimonials validate the work of the teachers and staff at PHS - the learning goes far beyond the academic. 

Finally, Scott was also at the ready when I asked him what it takes to be a leader in a progressive school environment: vision based on progressive principles; openness to new ideas; willingness to delegate and share authority; flexibility and a non-anxious presence; intellectual curiosity and a growth mindset a la Carol Dwek; and a willingness to take risks. From my viewpoint, Scott embodies these attributes and the school stands as a model of what it means to hew closely to its founding progressive principles, even in these days of our societal obsession with normative standards. It's a happy place to be.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reflections from a Snowy Winter Day

In my pilgrimage to visit progressive schools, I had the time and luxury to reflect on the great contrast that exists between mainstream and progressive education. Here are some thoughts that occurred after I visited schools in the midwest during blizzard season in March.

What strikes me as I visit progressive schools throughout the country is the common teaching practice. The way the classrooms are organized; the way teachers talk with students; the pedagogy encompassing so many aspects of progressive education. Where have they learned it? Perhaps secret code written on the bottom of teachers desks?  These ideas and methods are rarely taught in schools of education, now shackled by the restraints of Race to the Top and its first cousin No Child Left Behind.

I see teachers trusting the innate and growing capacities of their students; putting them to independent work and expecting a high degree of collaboration and resilience. I see teachers allowing for the noisy messiness that comes with discovery and creativity.

Somewhere in navigating the educational mainstream in this country we’ve lost our bearings and decided that what is best for children is to create an educational environment that emphasizes mastery of information with the goal of scoring as high as possible on standardized tests. It arises during the time our country is obsessed with measurable outcomes and normative standards. In business, economics, and now education we develop new metrics to measure achievement and success.

Normative standards have always been anathema to progressive education. They steal from teachers the right and duty to measure in an authentic way the growth and development of their students. They move us further and further away from the focus on the individual students and their passions, interests, talents, and skills. It relegates to a dispassionate authority the responsibility of aggregating entire classes, schools, and school districts into categories that are based on student performance on the tests.  Even now, with the national zeal to formulate common core standards, we’ve determined that teachers lack the wherewithal to develop goals and objectives for their students. The national mandate to teachers in 2013: teach to the test.

The dirty secret is that teachers hate this. In February I sat with the faculty of a public elementary school in the Midwest to discuss curriculum and teaching practice. It wasn’t long before the tears were flowing; these gifted professionals were feeling more and more pressure to comply with the state assessment mandates, with prescriptive guidelines for how to structure class time, and state mandated curriculum mandates. One complained that it was like going to work in a factory – here is the text; this is what we want you to teach; this is how long you are to spend teaching it; this is how we will measure your students mastery of the material; here is how we will base your performance as a teacher. We are not interested in your creativity and judgment; be sure your students score as high as possible on the test. That is your number one priority; period.

Teachers are scared to death, worried about their jobs. Principles are under intense pressure. District administrators are obliged to push the standards. Superintendents have little room for innovation.

Good teachers understand that this is not how children learn; this is not what motivates students; these are not the ingredients that help students discover their potential. This is a narrowly focused body of skills and information, much of which will be forgotten shortly after the tests are scored and filed. There is no depth; there is not room for deep conceptual understanding; there is no time to focus on the social and emotional development of students; no time for building character. Oh dear, not even time for recess.

So, we’ve entered the era of the great “workaround.” More and more teachers and principles, at great risk to themselves, are surreptitiously finding ways to skirt the prescriptive curriculum, and bringing innovation and creativity to their classrooms. They understand that tried and true progressive educational practices are effective teaching strategies that do not put their students at a disadvantage when test time comes, to the contrary they enhance understanding. These bold and heroic teachers know that it is futile to dissent in any organized way, so they close their classroom doors and do what they know is best for the kids.

At that same Midwest school, I had a revelatory moment with two first graders. It was a below freezing day, with snow covering the ground outside, and I, a California kid born and raised, was delighted to be inside, listing as closely as I could to any available radiator. At recess time, even on these unbearably cold days, the teachers allow the kids to decide if they would like to play outside or stay inside. The school is equipped with sleds and all manner of buckets and shoveling equipment for snow play. Even though I sensed that the teachers were dearly hoping the kids would choose to stay indoors, there were two or three first graders who wanted to go out to play. So - visible deep breath - the teacher on duty said, “OK, let’s put on our gear.” And, in a senseless act of misjudgment, that only a kid from California would make, I agreed to go with them.

As much as I was pained by the cold, as I watched the students don their snow apparel and head out to the schoolyard, I was reminded of an important principle.  It is about the progressive school and its relationship with time. Do you know how long it takes for a six year-old to pull on her snow pants, jacket and snow boots? The zippers, the buttons, the laces: each one an act of fine motor control and eye-hand coordination. Many teachers would never have countenanced the time being taken away from the academic schedule. In this moment, it became clear to me that the cultural obsession to account for every minute in the life of a student is so misguided. We somehow think that a certain number of minutes per week reading or doing math is of greater value than the experience of putting on your gear and going outdoors to play in he snow.

I followed the children outside where they picked up a snow sculpture project from the day before. Here, in this project, artistry and creativity met patience and resilience. Though much of the figure had deteriorated in yesterday’s button of sunshine, undaunted, the kids had at it. One was determined to try and fashion ringlets out of the snow to place upon the figure a festive crown. Here, she was discovering the properties of ice and the nature of structure as one attempt after the other dissolved in a snowy pile. She thought it was a density issue, and packed more and more snow on her ring; but one failed attempt after another, she soon discovered the improbability of her idea. The curriculum and learning emerged as a snowman – spontaneously. And the good judgment of the teachers - to allow the time for this play and learning, created the moment of profound discovery. 

Now can we go inside?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Berkwood-Hedge - Berkeley, CA

For many years, I've considered Berkwood Hedge a sister school of Park Day School. For almost thirty years, I have worked on several occasions with the teachers and administrators of the school, and we share in common many educational practices and beliefs. The result of a merger in 1975 of two very small Berkeley Schools, Berkwood School and Hedge School, it moved to its current location and now enrolls approximately 120 students in grades K-5. The Berkwood School was Berkeley's first racially integrated school (1946), while Hedge School (1960) developed as a teacher collective, a perfect reflection of the 1960's Berkeley body politic. I met with the Director of the School, Love Weinstock.

Known for its developmental approach to teaching, Berkwood-Hedge is a school with empowered teachers who deeply know and understand their students. The staff spend a good share of their meeting time discussing individual students and how best to meet their needs. For years, they have pursued best practices that will enhance the classroom environment and engage students. Rather than leading with the "progressive" label, Berkwood Hedge would more aptly describe themselves as a constructivist school, where they continually assess students and draw upon the experiences of children to help shape the curriculum.

Love Weinstock, Director
Berkwood Hedge School
Love Weinstock is in her first year as the Director of Berkwood Hedge. She is a veteran Bay Area educator whose expertise in social justice and equity education is a perfect match for the progressive philosophy at B-H. In my many interviews with educators during this tour of schools, I have heard several define progressive education as that which starts with the motivation and interests of children. Love feels similarly and she would describe Berkwood Hedge as a progressive school insofar as it offers a learning environment to meet each student where he/she happens to be along a developmental continuum. Love also emphasizes the community aspect of progressive schools, where teachers, staff and parents are in continuous collaboration for the well-being of the students. When I visited the school, I noticed parents scattered around the school serving important volunteer roles, as teachers were busily attending to their classes. One is struck by the atmosphere of community at the school- it is not just lip-service that is paid to this component - it is an integral part of building a successful school environment.

When I asked Love how the progressive philosophy best manifests at Berkwood Hedge, she cited the three-day "teach-in" that occurs each year, which is focused on a particular social justice theme. In past years, themes have included peace, the environment, understanding learning differences, and world geography. Each of the the three days, the kids experience workshops, presentations, performances, games and other events that are geared toward a deep understanding of the theme, and built to engage kids at their appropriate developmental level. It has become a time-honored tradition at the school

"Sign-ups," which occur three times during the year, provide teachers and students an opportunity to develop classes that arise from the interests and skills found in the community. The third "sign-up of the year is run entirely by the fourth and fifth grade students.

Love has been impressed with the level of student engagement in the Berkwood Hedge classrooms. She talks about how few discipline issues arise because the teachers have created such engaging curriculum: "There is little reason for kids to act out; who they are is honored here at the school, and they know they have the respect of their teachers, who keep their social and emotional development at the forefront."

The day I visited the school, I navigated my way past the chicken coop, around the playground, dodging running kindergarteners and wheeled toys. Love stopped often to introduce me to the students and engage in a brief conversation. It truly is a fun and enthusiastic place where joyful learning is taking place. I am always impressed with and inspired by the commitment of the Berkwood Hedge teachers to keep their eye on what is best for the kids. Clearly at this school, even when things get busy, the children come first.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Hubbard Woods - Winnetka, Ill

I am back on the road this week to deliver the keynote address to the PEN regional conference in Chicago. I took the occasion to visit my friends at Hubbard Woods, and interview its principal, Daniel Ryan. With spring in full bloom, I visited the school on a muggy Monday morning, with a thunderstorm threatening.

Located in the bucolic upscale village of Winnetka, near Chicago,  Ill., Hubbard Woods Elementary School is one of the longest continuously operating public progressive elementary schools in the country. In my welcome address to the 2007 conference of the Progressive Education Network in San Francisco, I referred to Winnetka as the "County Seat" of progressive education, and at the K-4 Hubbard Woods, the progressive pulse beats strongly. Three past and present members of the Board of the Progressive Education Network are either current or former members of the Hubbard Woods' staff.

After a bitter winter, spring
is always a welcome sight
Chicago is the cradle of public protest and student activism. From the early days of striking meatpackers, through the protests of the 1968 democratic convention, the area has been a center of struggle and protest. This weekend and today, teachers and students from throughout the Chicago Public School district launched three days of marches to protest the city's pending decision to close 54 schools. It is a tragedy facing a great city which has played a major role in the history of progressive education

So it was with no small feeling of irony that I walked through the doors of Hubbard Woods this morning, along with the relatively well-heeled parents dropping off their children at a school that is unlikely to ever face closure. Yet Hubbard Woods and the Winnetka school district has been a symbol of progressive steadfastness throughout its history. Faced with many conservative political swings over time, it has maintained its progressive principles. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Carleton Washburne was the Superintendent of Winnetka in the heydays of the progressive movement, and it was Washburne who led the development of the Winnetka Plan, an organized curricular strategy which had a profound impact on the early history of progressive education.

Daniel Ryan, Principal
Hubbard Woods
Daniel Ryan, a die-hard progressive educator, is the current Principal of Hubbard Woods. Daniel founded The Children's School  in Berwyn (see my blog entry from Feb. 20), and in 2011 succeeded Maureen Cheever at Hubbard Woods after his 10-year start-up stint at The Children's School. Located in a beautiful building first opened in 1926, the place reeks of history - the walls adorned by framed photographs from the 30's and 40's showing kids and teacher playing and working on projects. My visit coincided with the 25th anniversary of a tragic episode in the history of Hubbard Woods when a mentally ill woman carried weapons into the school and turned them on the students, injuring several and claiming the life of a second grader. Each year around this time, the media descends on the school and the HW community is reminded of the sadness that befell the campus on that horrific day.

If Daniel Ryan uttered the phrase "student voice" once during our conversation, he uttered it ten times. Clearly this is at the heart of his definition of progressive education which he describes as a process of teaching and modeling democracy to encourage the emergence of student voice. Daniel has encouraged a student-led town hall meeting that allows the K-4 students important leadership opportunities. As much as possible, the teachers have guided the students in how to run the all-school gatherings, and as the first year of this experiment comes to an end, the practice is becoming an important part of the school culture.

Hubbard Woods is also the beneficiary of funding that allowed it in 2003 to open a television studio, where daily the students produce a closed-circuit news program on station WGST (World's Greatest Student Television). Each day, the students broadcast announcements, lead the Pledge of Allegiance, provide the weather report, and give the news of the day. The students take the roles of news anchor, meteorologist, audio/video mixers, and teleprompter operator. They also write the news reports and the script for the anchors. It is another opportunity where the school encourages student voice and where students are given important leadership opportunities.

As is the case these days with many progressive public schools, it is sometimes a struggle facing the mandates and requirements which arise from the state or district, and teachers can find themselves hard-pressed to incorporate emergent curriculum or sustain a project-based program. The nature of high stakes testing can be daunting and teachers will often default to more conventional teacher-centered practices. I sense from the climate at Hubbard Woods that teachers are feeling this pinch. Nonetheless, there is a strong sense that the staff is doing all it can, largely validated by Daniel Ryan, to keep its progressive legacy alive and flourishing. If the Winnetka School District is to keep its historical legacy as one of the only self-aclaimed progressive districts in the country, it will be the teachers who make manifest the core tenets of the movement.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Overcoming Stereotypes

After several weeks of continued research and review of the notes and recorded interviews from my travels, I would like to share reflections that have arisen as I work toward a larger piece on the state of progressive education in this country. I start with thoughts on the stereotypes that progressive educators have faced for many years.

Since the 1950’s, stereotypes have plagued progressive educators. Perpetuated by caricature depictions in the post-war popular media, to this day, they continue to contaminate the reputation of the movement. Not a single educator with whom I spoke failed to have at his/her fingertips the nauseating list of depictions: loosey-goosey (the most popular); crunchy granola (more contemporary); “hippie schools” (from the 1960’s resurgence); not rigorous academically (the most harmful yet enduring characterization). The typical description (rap) of/on progressive schools depicts undisciplined children running wild without boundaries, freely choosing their activities, and adults waiting to follow their lead.

What saddens me about this set of stereotypes is the morale-eroding impact they have on teachers. I lunched with the faculties of many progressive schools during my tour and a recurring observation I made was how very serious-minded the teachers are about their students and their teaching practice. These are not dilettantes. These are well- trained, intelligent professionals who toil endlessly building their curriculum, pursuing professional development opportunities, collaborating with their colleagues, and deeply understanding the learning profile of each of their students.

Equally as corrosive to its reputation is the perception that progressive education leans left politically, and that progressive schools promulgate a liberal agenda. Certainly to the extent that progressive education arose during the progressive era, its humanitarian impulse to improve the lot of society is indisputable. However, each progressive school emerges as a product of many factors including its location, the philosophy of its founders, the practice and pedagogy of its faculty and staff, the leanings of its cohort of parents, and the beliefs and values of its leaders.

I visited a very large self-proclaimed progressive school in a red state, for example. Here, school leaders carried what I sensed was an unspoken admonition to toe a centrist political disposition. They let the program speak for itself and shied away from too much talk about the tenets of progressive education. Since the school was founded during the progressive era (early 1920’s), it keenly reflects the pedigree through its teaching pedagogy: project based learning; integrated, interdisciplinary and thematic curriculum; focus on critical thinking and problem solving; and constructivist teaching.  Notwithstanding this flagrantly progressive program, I would venture that there are as many politically conservative families enrolled in the school as those with more liberal inclinations. But it works for the area.

There is also the entrenched notion that teachers in progressive schools operate at a high level of autonomy at the expense of program continuity within a school. I found in my travels that indeed, progressive schools championed teacher autonomy. Allowing the professionals to pursue their passions and craft a classroom program is important for teachers to feel supported. One administrator said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Teacher autonomy has allowed us to hire more men and teachers of color at the elementary level. I want the teachers to feel that they have the freedom to be creative and develop their own curriculum and materials. The last thing they need is an administrator breathing down their necks”

Other school leaders, however, acknowledged that teacher autonomy can be problematic, if the school does not vigilantly administer to its scope and sequence, and if the teachers are not collaborating. At the far end of the spectrum would be the teacher suffering from the “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie syndrome, “ who operates wholly at his/her own imperious whim, with wholesale disregard to the school’s curriculum and mission, disrupting morale more than supporting it. More insidiously, however, is the teacher whose classroom becomes a silo; who cares little for the notion of scope and sequence, and who pursues little or no professional development on the grounds that he or she is already competent enough. One will often find that such a teacher has been ensconced on the faculty of a school for many years, outlasting school leaders and becoming untouchable.

Needless to say, this phenomenon is not particular to progressive schools; any school public or private can suffer from teachers who fail to see that they are part of a learning community and tread only along their own pathway. But progressive educators are compelled to avoid being their own worst enemy, lest the caricatures are deemed all too true.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sidwell Friends School - Washington, DC

The historic Zartman House
a campus feature
Known originally as Friends Select School, Sidwell Friends was founded in 1883 by Thomas Watson Sidwell as an initiative in co-ed urban day schools. Only 24 years of age at the time of its founding, Thomas Sidwell had been a teacher at the Baltimore Friends School and started his Quaker school as a proprietary venture. The school operated for over 50 years before incorporating as a non-profit organization in 1934, taking the name Sidwell Friends School. Today, the school serves over 1000 students PK-12, and occupies two campuses -  one (middle and upper school) on Wisconsin Street in the heart of DC, and the other (lower school) in neighboring Bethesda, approximately 15 minutes away by car. Both are state-of-the-art, beautifully equipped facilities, and both exemplify green building practices and environmental stewardship. Wendy Wilkinson from the Upper School Admissions Office hosted my visit to the school, and I met with several members of the staff including Head of School, Tom Farquhar.

The Quaker Meeting House
An all-green project
My visit to Sidwell Friends began with a tour, conducted by School Archivist and Administrator Loren Hardenbergh, of the green building projects, which took place between 2005 - 2010, and included a new middle school building, the renovation of the lower school and administrative building, a new athletic center, Quaker meeting house, and art center. The school has been recognized nationally as green school. It is a founding member of the Green Schools Alliance, was named a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Dept. of Education, and has been selected among the top 20 schools in the EPA's Green Power Partnership program.

The grey water system
acts as campus
These green projects are perhaps the most striking example of Sidwell's commitment to environmental stewardship, an evolving contributor to the progressive education movement. As you tour the buildings, you notice that virtually every architectural and construction choice has a green component. Re-purposed wood and other building materials; the flow of light capturing heat and light at various times of the day and the year; monitoring devices in all the rooms to adjust the use of energy; a remarkable grey water wetlands system which recycles human waste products into use for the school's plumbing systems; a green rooftop garden with solar energy, wind power and extensive gardens. This list scratches the surface, and you scratch your head - they've thought of almost everything! Visitors from all over the world flock to see this extraordinary example of how a school can create a sustainable campus, and how students can be a part of the process, learning the science and art of the campus complex.

Tom Farquhar
Head of School
My visit with Head of School Tom Farquhar featured an interesting discussion of how progressive education finds its symmetry with Friends education. Sidwell's abiding commitment to deep personal reflection was evident as I witnessed the Meeting for Worship. As I have learned in my visits to other Quaker Schools, this time for reflection is in service to the set of "Testimonies" which underpin the philosophy of the school. Among those testimonies held at Sidwell are Integrity, Peace, Compassion, Simplicity, Justice, Stewardship and Service. As Tom points out, reaching far beyond the academic mission of the school, Sidwell attends to the development of these internal values and virtues in its students through its service in the community, its in-house student buddy programs, and its care for the environment. Though Tom will be the first to claim that the word "progressive" carries with it a great deal of baggage and some unfortunate stereotypes, he will also acknowledge that there is a clear intersection with the mission of Sidwell Friends.

I visited the lower school and spoke with long-time Sidwell teacher and tech coordinator, Jenni Voorhees. Jenni has seen the school evolve over the years, but definitely places it in the progressive tradition. In its most progressive incarnation, teachers have incorporated thematic, integrated, project based curriculum. Jenni feels that the current practice of teachers conducting grade level meetings is helping the school re-kindle some of its progressive practices. For Jenni, progressive education is teaching to kids' passions and strengths, and helping expand their world view through interdisciplinary curriculum. A product of Hampshire College, progressive education courses through her DNA, and Jenni emphasizes that students come to their education with a grand curiosity and love of learning, and it is the responsibility of educators to nurture those attributes and help students learn how to learn. Jenni admits that the term "progressive" is rarely used at Sidwell, but sees teaching practices that clearly fall into the tradition.

Loren Hardenbergh
my tour guide
Wendy Wilkinson
my host and friend
My visit to Sidwell ends the first phase of my journey to visit progressive schools in America. As I leave the school, I realize again the deeply complex situation that progressive education faces today. Ambivalent school leaders, fence straddling parents, loyal adherents, die-hard practitioners, dangerous stereotypes, deeply held values and beliefs. I am so grateful to Wendy Wilkinson who hosted my final school visit to Sidwell Friends. In this school, I found examples of almost all aspects of this complexity. It is time to go home and hunker down to pull of this research together. I am determined as ever, and my journey to over 40 schools has only validated my belief, that notwithstanding this complex set of circumstances, the progressive education movement is alive and thriving. My next set of blogs will be reflections on my school visits as I review and consolidate all that I have discovered.

I hope you'll continue to join me.

Sheridan School - Washington, DC

Sheridan School is another progressive school with a long history of change and transition. Started in the early 20th Century as the proprietary Miss Tomlin's school, it first transitioned in the 1920's as The Cook School and grew to over 100 students. In 1952, the school took it current name as it moved near Sheridan Circle, and then became a non-profit in the early '60's. Finally, in 1965, the school moved to its current location in the North Cleveland Park area of Washington, DC, where it grew to over 200 students and added 7th & 8th grades. The school also operates The Sheridan Mountain Campus, 130 acres of wilderness bordering the Shenandoah National Park near Luray, Virginia, where the students visit twice each school year. My visit was hosted by Director of Curriculum and Instruction Adele Paynter, who guided my tour and sat for an interview.

The co-teaching model
allows for improved
As you visit the classrooms at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, what immediately jumps out is the very small student-teacher ratio. The school employs a unique co-teacher model where at least two teachers collaborate as equal partners in all grades in the school. With other assistants and specialist teachers present, it is not unusual to find three or four adults in a classroom working with students. Clearly, this model allows for an optimum level of differentiated instruction, which was in full evidence when I toured the school. The co-teacher program fosters a collaborative environment, where the adults are talking about the students, planning curriculum, and communicating with one another on a regular basis. Another significant advantage afforded by this model is found in the area of student assessment. More frequent monitoring of student progress is possible with this collaborative format. Teachers are able to meet with students individually on a regular basis, providing an authentic, formative assessment of their progress.

Adele Paynter
Director of Curriculum and
This model supports the definition of progressive education posited by Adele Paynter, Sheridan's Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Adele's starting point is that in progressive schools teachers know their students deeply, and she invoked Alfie Kohn's observation that these are places where "children are taken seriously."  Progressive educators design curriculum and program to address the needs of the whole child, focusing on academic, social and emotional development. The progressive philosophy came to the school in the late 1990's, when it was fully embraced by the school, and manifests in a climate that allows students to feel safe and supported; a place where they can take risks and learn about themselves. Because Adele has observed that the definition of progressive education can be hard to pin down (the challenge I have given myself for this tour of progressive schools), she refers to the approach at Sheridan as "Coherent Progressivism," where the values, beliefs and practices of the schools are made explicit and clear, especially to parents.

The arts are vibrant
at Sheridan
Another striking aspect of Sheridan's progressive identity is the recent commitment of the school to its social justice mission, brought to life in its diversity vision, which has been imbued in every aspect of the school's programs and practices. Not seen as a separate initiative, the current work in this area involves faculty, administrative staff, parents, and students working together to ensure the school is safe and inclusive for all members of the community, and mirrored in all aspects of the curriculum. The school has been employing the services of a consultant who has been helping with strategic planning and conducting board, faculty and students workshops. It is an amazing full court press that the school has employed to fundamentally transition the culture of the school in its commitment to social justice.

Adele points to the self reflecting aspect of Sheridan's school culture as an essential part of its ethos. I have found this to be the case in many progressive schools. Teachers and administrators assume an obligation to self correct as they are constantly assessing the effectiveness of curriculum and administrative practice. At Sheridan, the buzz in the classrooms, the discussion between and among the faculty and professional staff, the frequent meetings to address curriculum and student assessment, all point to a school seriously committed to realizing its philosophy of knowing children deeply and serving their interests as well as possible. This is an admirable commitment - certainly hard work - the folks at Sheridan are fighting the good fight.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Burgundy Farm Country Day School - Alexandria, VA

Progressive roots run deep at Burgundy Farm Country Day School. Long before the Civil Rights Movement took shape, the school became the first integrated school in Virginia, actively recruiting and enrolling African American students as early as 1950. Founded by parents in 1946, the vision of the school was to serve an ethnically, racially and socio-economically diverse student body. These courageous founders believed in freedom and egalitarianism, motivated by what founding parent Eric Sevareid (and long time CBS journalist) described as "a good thing to do." The school is located in Alexandria, VA., on 25 partially wooded acres. To advance its environmental vision, the school acquired in 1967 the Burgundy Center for  Wildlife Studies center on 500 acres at Cooper's Cove in West Virginia, where students experience twice a year an immersion program in natural science studies. The school serves 278 students in grades JK - 8. Head of School Jeff Sindler (with his gracious dog, Cameron) hosted my visit.

The first integrated
school in Virginia (1950)
As soon as you enter the campus at Burgundy Farm Country Day School (BFCDS), you become aware of the school's history as so many of the original buildings are still in use today. While one "barn" houses chickens, goats, and other farm animals, the other "barn" is the home of the Junior Kindergarten, Kindergarten and First grades. The other classroom buildings are scattered around campus and divide the school by grade level clusters. As kids grow through the grades, they "graduate" to the next region of the campus (farm), and the transition represents a rite of passage. Add to the layout of the buildings the flow from indoor to ample outdoor space surrounding each part of the campus, and you have a dynamic campus design which has served the school for almost 70 years.

Jeff Sindler
Head of School
Head of School Jeff Sindler talked about the school's deeply progressive history, but noted that over the years the identification of Burgundy as a progressive school has waxed and waned. Institutional ambivalence has creeped in at various times depending on the time in history and the challenges the school has faced. In its current incarnation, BFCDS has declared itself a progressive school and is trying to help its constituent groups understand the principles and practices of progressive education to avoid the tendency to fence straddle. In framing his definition of progressive education, Jeff characterizes children as being receptive to learning when and if they feel themselves to be a valued part of the learning community. He describes this as the wellspring to success for any school, no matter the educational philosophy. The democratic principles of progressive education manifest at BFCDS through the way that students are valued and included. The students see themselves as part of a functioning community, and are preparing to function well in any educational or working environment.

 Consequently, because there is a level of comfort with the adults, the students are more self-reflective and evaluative. Ask any student on campus to describe how they learn and with few exceptions, they will give a cogent response. Jeff believes this is the key to building a students' internal motivation for learning. As they comes to know themselves better and better, as the learning environment respects their needs, they will seek knowledge and be more receptive to deep conceptual understanding. Jeff contrasts this learning climate with the "mile wide, inch deep" curriculum that is so prevalent these days in the mainstream educational system. There is a palpable excitement among the kids at BFCDS, and a level of real engagement all over campus.

A charming farm
setting sets a tone
for exploring and learning
As I have done in each of my interviews, I asked Jeff what stereotypes he has encountered about progressive education. We had a fun moment as he recounted the usual suspects: "tree-hugging, unstructured, not data driven, disorganized." Jeff knew them all. Parents are dazzled though, when they see the serious-minded approach the faculty at BFCDS takes to program development. Subject-by-subject, the teachers have illustrated how the students are developing literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and problem solving skills. This is how the stereotypes vaporize - with a real demonstration of the learning environment, and engaged students growing more and more skillful.

My swing through the east coast has revealed more and more schools sharing this philosophy and dodging the invectives of those who truly misunderstand that in these schools happy and engaged students are preparing to be leaders. I was able to witness first-hand the confidence and ownership that the students at Burgundy Farm possess; this is an impressive campus environment, pulsing with excitement and the true spirit of progressive education where "kids come first."

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Capitol Hill Day School - Washington, DC

With a view of the United States Capitol Building from its classrooms, Capitol Hill Day School is situated in the heart of Washington, DC. The school was founded by parents in 1968, who were seeking an alternative to the educational choices available at the time in the city. Ironically, given its commitment to diversity and inclusion, the former public school was the Dent School, a segregated school for all white students, closed in the 1940's, then occupied as a maintenance facility until leased by CHDS in 1980. Finally, in 1997, the community acquired it from the school district and worked tirelessly on a major renovation and upgrade project to deliver the beautiful building now serving 210 PK-8 students. Head of School Jason Gray hosted my visit and guided me on a tour of the campus.
Lisa Sommers
Director of
Field Education

With its prime location in the heart of the nation's capitol, one would assume that Capitol Hill Day School would take full advantage of the opportunities its location affords the school. Indeed, with over 300 field trips annually, the school is noted for it Field Education Program, which connects the classroom to the real world, one of the foundational practices of progressive education. The commitment of the school to this program is realized through the Director of Field Education Lisa Sommers, who organizes and monitors trips almost on a daily basis. Each class takes weekly field trips, and all grades participate in at least 20 trips per year. One would be hard pressed to find another school getting kids out into the world as much as CHDS.

Jason Gray
Head of School
Head of School Jason Gray, in only his third year as Head of CHDS, has a wise intuition about avoiding strict pedagogical beliefs in his definition of progressive education. Understanding children and discovering how they learn best takes a practical, on-going effort requiring discipline and collaboration. When Jason is asked to identify the "best" part of the school, he points to the relationships that exist between the teachers and their students, and between the parents and the school. He illustrates this point with a venn diagram whose intersecting circles - the student, the parents and teachers, and the community beyond the border of the school - must be synchronized in order for the interests of the children to be served. Jason believes that careful attention should be paid to balancing social, emotional and academic growth and ensuring that "learning be joyful, challenging, engaging, and authentic." For him, "knowing and liking the children is as important as the content we teach."

Math projects help students
stay engaged - this graph from a 2nd
grade class shows the longevity
of teachers at CHDS
On our tour of the school, Jason and I stopped off in Upper School Math Teacher Tom Sellevaag's classroom. Tom had a prep period and had time to talk about his middle school math program. Math education poses its own special conundrum for progressive secondary schools, and I have discovered in my travels, that it is very easy to default to a more traditional methodology at the middle school level when teaching math. Tom and other 7th & 8th grade teachers grapple with this phenomenon in light of the pressures they have to prepare students for high school, which almost invariably means a more traditional educational system for the alum of progressive schools. How can we sustain our progressive philosophy of experiential, hands-on, project based teaching, and ensure that the students are "exposed" to the canon of the conventional math sequence? Tom's intriguing approach is to have a variety of resources available to be sure the materials and methods are a suitable match for individuals students. He uses TERC, Key Curriculum, EMPOWER, and several other curricula, while equipping his classroom with lots of math manipulatives and resource materials for the kids to apply what they are learning to real problem solving. I've seen other teachers incorporating the Khan Academy and other on-line resources to be sure that alternative resources are available for the range of students we inevitably find in the typical middle school math classroom. Perhaps the key is versatility - and ensuring that the needs of individual students are met. Kids reaching seventh grade will often possess a low math self-esteem even in the most progressive schools. Tom and others are trying to create a program that is differentiated enough to accommodate the various levels they encounter among their students. It is not easy work. We'll discuss this topic more in-depth in future blogs, after I chronicle my tour of schools.

A view of the capitol from the
I admire Jason and the staff at CHDS for adhering to their progressive roots at a time when the pressure is fierce to shade toward more traditional practices, especially in urban areas like DC. It all comes down to doing what they believe is best for kids - providing them the programs that will engage their interests - in an era where schools are driven by performance on standardized tests, this is a noble commitment.

Friends Community School - College Park, MD

Abutting National Park Service land in Greenbelt Park, Friends Community School moved to its current location in 2007. The school building is the largest known straw bale insulated building in the world, and with a green roof, solar tubes, an energy recovery mechanical system, and rain gardens, the school incorporates sustainable practices throughout its campus. The natural setting of the property allows FCS to utilize the surrounding area for academic, extra-curricular and summer programs. Founded by the late progressive educator and Quaker Jane Manring in 1986, the school celebrated its 25th year in 2011. I met with Middle School Head, Adriana Murphy, and Head of School, Larry Clements.

Adriana Murphy
Middle School Head
One of my lasting impressions of Friends Community School (FCS) is the brief time I spent with Middle School Head, Adriana Murphy. Out of the chute, in our conversation, Adriana drew a distinction I had not encountered in my dozens of interviews with progressive educators during this tour - that between "old school" progressives, and the "current crop" of educators who are peppering progressive schools around the country with a new ethos. Not as flag waving, new progressives are intent on supporting progressive pedagogy with relevant research on learning and the brain. They look to innovative technologies to advance curriculum, and understand that the defensive posture long held by many progressive educators is not working for today’s parents and young teachers coming into the field.

Consequently, FCS does not wear the “progressive” label on its sleeve, but finds authentic and contemporary ways to characterize their programs and strategic curricular planning. For Adriana, the bottom line rests in the exhortation to teachers to answer the question, “What are we doing to spark the interests of students?” Though certainly a quintessential question for the progressive educator, Adriana is focused on what the education should look like today in 2013. Her definition of progressive education is two-fold. First, and at the core, is the social component: the purpose of education is to help children know how to participate in society. And, secondly, the program/curricular component: what are schools doing to help kids achieve this understanding? Located a short distance from the nation’s capitol, Adriana acknowledges that the education gap is the widest it has ever been in this country, and she points to the education of our children as the key to positively influencing the direction in which our country is heading. What does progressive education have to offer the educational system as a whole? In this pivotal moment in our history, she believes that the role is a vital one. In this way, our schools are agents of social change.

Larry Clements
Head of School
Head of School Larry Clements explained how progressive education fits into the Quaker tradition where the belief that "God is within each person," dovetails with the progressive legacy of honoring each individual student.  The nature of education, Larry describes, is to focus on the child and all program design will follows suit. The progressive school ignites a deep level of student engagement and provides the student with many opportunities to pursue his/her interest. The Quaker notion of equality cultivates in the student the sense that teachers are equal and approachable, again demonstrating the intersection with the tenets of progressive education. In this climate a students can learn self-advocacy, and attach a purpose to learning. 

When discussing the topic of leadership in progressive schools, Larry had an interesting perspective on the importance of having a collaborative working style. He has witnessed many times when the staff is discussing an important policy or program question, and one of the teachers will ask the perfectly placed question that moves the discussion to a higher level. If decisions were made more unilaterally without the consensus model, there would rarely be the opportunity for the teacher voice to emerge, which is often the most important voice in the decision making process in schools. As a leader in a progressive school, Larry invites consensus, which is also in perfect harmony with the decision making process in a Friend's school.

The award winning straw
bale building design
My visit to Friends Community School brought to me a fuller realization of the proximity of progressive education to the fundamental values and beliefs of Quaker Schools. Though not all Friend's schools would label themselves progressive, Friends Community School does consider itself part of the tradition. But, as Adriana Murphy has suggested, it will represent the new incarnation of progressive education - one that advances the school into the future, and bases its success on measurable goals. This is a model for us all to examine carefully.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Lowell School - Washington, DC

In many ways, Lowell School has been growing and expanding since its founding by Judith Grant in 1965. Now in its third location, the school purchased the former Marjorie Webster Junior College Campus bordering Rock Creek Park in 1997, growing from PK - 3 to PK - 6. Three years ago, the school added 7th & 8th grade, and has now settled with this configuration in a beautiful permanent location. The middle school building is soon to undergo a renovation, creating a state-of-the-art program space for the school's oldest students. My tour was hosted by Winnetka transplant and Science Curriculum Coordinator, Kavan Yee, and I met with Head of School, Debbie Gibbs.

Lowell Campus
Rising like a castle
Driving up to Lowell School feels like one is approaching a small castle. Set on a knoll, the design of the building includes a turreted wing with high transom windows that resemble guard lookout stations. Across from the school is a large playing field, cut into the landscape that could be (in the mind of an imaginative child) an impassable moat protecting the fortress. It's a location perfect for the adventurous at play - images of knights, princesses, and ladies-in-waiting - oh, to be eight years-old again!

Back in the 21st Century, when entering the building, one is taken by how thoughtfully the Junior College has been transformed into a beautiful space for elementary school-age children. High ceilings, spacious classrooms, and ample gathering spaces, the school has yet to fully fill all of its available spaces, even after inhabiting the site sixteen years ago. Landing this property was a coup for the Board in 1997, and Lowell will reap the benefits of this campus for many years.

Debbie Gibbs
Head of School
Head of School, Debbie Gibbs claims the progressive mantle when describing Lowell, but is careful to add that the programs are eclectic, an oft-repeated theme of my journey to visit progressive schools around the country. Debbie is in that group of educators who shy away from the dogmatic approach of progressive purists and looks for effective teachers and programs designed to engage kids in an authentic learning environment. At times, this might involve a more conventional approach to teaching. That said, Debbie holds true to a classic definition of progressive education - one that incorporates democratic values in all aspects of the school operation. Education arises from the experience of children and incorporates hand-on, experiential learning.

Lowell features a unique thematic approach in constructing its curriculum. The themes correspond to the developmental levels of the K-8 students: Kindergarten - Patterns; First Grade - Relationships; Second grade - Adaptations; Third Grade - Change; Fourth Grade - Systems; Fifth Grade - Structures; Sixth Grade - Diversity; Seventh Grade - Identity; Eighth grade - Communication. It's easy to see how the teachers can integrate any subject area into their thematic programs, while having the flexibility to change directions if a particular topic is not working with age group. The staff worked hard to establish this sequence and it is well represented on the walls and in the classrooms as you move through the school.

A change agent unit for
third graders
I met with third grade teachers Kathie Clements and Laurie Carter who have teamed together for 16 years. The third grade theme is "change," perfect for the eight, turning nine year-old child who is transitioning from a reigning status in the early childhood program, to the youngest of the "big kid" cohort. This age represents major developmental leaps cognitively and physically. The teachers were in the midst of their "change agent" project, where kids had studied Martin Luther King and the nature of social activism. Students selected a notable person from history to study, and they were preparing three dimensional dioramas to illustrate their learning about the notable person. The curriculum was a good example of providing students with choices within a guided structure. The methodology dispels the notion that progressive classrooms lack structure and a sense of direction. There is an order and sequence to the unit and the feeling among the children of ownership over their learning was quite extraordinary. And, to top it off, there is an important social justice component at the heart of the learning.
The inner self

The outer self
A seventh grade art exhibit featured multi-dimensional plaster cast self portraits aligned with the theme of identity. While the outside "face" of the portrait may be abstract, whimsical, or dark, turn the portrait around, and the student's "inner"identity is revealed. As twelve and thirteen year-old students grapple with their identity and search at times to redefine themselves, this activity brings expression to an important stage of their development. Many units and learning activities across subject areas intersect with the theme and the teachers are extremely creative.

A beautiful space for learning and growing, Lowell School is steeped in key progressive traditions. Its integrated and thematic approach brings an extraordinary continuity, again dispelling the myth that progressive schools lack cohesiveness and structure. The teachers and staff have created a wonderful, playful learning environment, where knights and knaves of the Lowell realm can frolic and grow. Be careful crossing the moat!