Friday, May 13, 2011

Shaping the Future of a Progressive School

Picture this scene on a sunny Tuesday morning at Park Day School:

Six eighth graders, holding IPads in their laps, sitting quietly in the gazebo viewing a webinar on first amendment rights for a unit on civil disobedience. Follow up questions flash on the screen and they upload their answers to the class wiki site.

Sixth graders huddle in the computer lab brainstorming an approach to a new   puzzler on an online math forum as they prepare for an international virtual math olympics.

As part of their unit on Bay Area waterways, fifth graders deploy Google Earth technology to create clay models demonstrating runoff and erosion. 

Four kindergarteners sit at computer stations as an online environment provides them visual prompts to do counting activities. An assessment of their progress is recorded instantly online.

Six goggle-clad seventh graders are guided in safe practices using the table saw in the Maker Center to construct the last structural parts for their robots. The day before, they had incorporated what they had learned from their JAVA programming class. 

After recording the results of their soil tests on a smart phone, two third graders check the timer on the grey water system, which they are using to irrigate vegetables the class had planted earlier in the month. 

First graders show their Bridge-K buddies how to feed the chickens in the mini-farm.

One of the fourth grade classes is in Skype conversation with students in Japan, about to publish their “Buddy Biographies.”

A second grader rings a Tibetan bell, asks her classmates to find their mindful bodies, and leads the class in a mindfulness session.

Innovative technologies, global education, the maker movement, green schools, mindfulness: these pillars of school life in the 21st century are changing the face of the modern classroom. What may surprise you, is that they are all in perfect harmony with the basic tenants of progressive education. 

As a progressive school, Park Day stands to benefit from these changes, though there are times when I have had my doubts. Over the years, we have worried that bringing new technology to the classroom may have an isolating impact on students. The thought of children sitting for hours at the computer sends chills up the spine of the progressive classroom teacher. We crave interaction and hands-on learning, and have cast a wary eye on the technological bandwagon. However, recent possibilities created by innovative technologies have created new pathways for students and the very nature of how students are learning has shifted dramatically.

Social and conversational technologies and on-line constructivist learning tools now include weblogs, wikis, instant messaging (texting), podcasts, and, of course, social media such as Facebook. A student no longer needs to be isolated to benefit from these resources, and schools are beginning to tap in. As the need for direct whole group instruction diminishes, teachers are freed to pursue project-based activities and meet with individual students. This can further our goal of deeply understanding the needs of each student. The most evolved applications of learning technology are incorporating interactive strategies. Students are building personal learning communities and connecting over ideas, projects and concepts. As much as ever the theme is “learning together,” but the “other” may be in a village in India, a classroom in Japan, or kids at another independent school.

As modern technologies make their way more and more into classrooms, the historical role of teachers is reshaped. As teachers learn to integrate technology as part of their natural teaching repertoire, they see these innovations in service to student learning. The emphasis on direct group instruction gives way to the teacher as guide and facilitator. In this regard, the teaching pedagogy in a progressive classroom does not falter or change significantly. When I visit classrooms at Park Day School, I have always appreciated the flow of activity from small group, to independent work, and whole group learning. On the best days, there is a school wide buzz of activity and conversation. Innovative technologies represent new friendly tools to enhance our project-based classrooms and provide new ways for students to take responsibility for their learning.

The maker movement, green schools and global learning are right up our progressive philosophical alley.

In his April 2009 address to the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama implored the assembly, “…to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it’s science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent – to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.” This past fall, Park Day School held its first mini-maker faire along with the dawning of a “mini maker movement”  here at Park. I see the confluence between this movement and the goals of the president. Dale Dougherty, the founder of the Maker Faire Festivals describes makers as people who “look at things differently and who just might spark the next generation of scientists, engineers, and makers.” In a progressive school we want to encourage tinkering, creating and learning by discovery. A committee of staff and parents are busily crafting a vision for a campus Maker Center, hopefully to be opened next fall.

That Park Day School has become a green school is quite an understatement. Other schools have been calling us to discover all that we have accomplished over the past few years, and to visit the campus. From being named Oakland’s first Alameda County Green School, to the blossoming of our Learning Garden program, the campus is alive with new opportunities for student involvement and learning. The expanded campus has opened many new possibilities. During a recent work party, volunteers worked hard on the mini farm and the pizza garden…chickens are not far behind!

The idea of global education is to hold the vision that curriculum and learning is international in its scope and that schools should be cultivating among the students responsible citizenship in a one-world environment. Our emphasis on multi-cultural education over the years has certainly positioned us well to pursue these goals. Park’s Children Without Borders magazine project is a perfect example of bridging relationships across international borders, as the children from Park build a partnership with students from the Ramallah Friends School. First graders who knitted scarves for villagers in Afghanistan were instantly able to see digital photographs of the individuals who received their scarves. The innovative technologies that we are discovering will certainly help advance this part of the program.

The mindful schools movement is taking public and independent schools around the country by quiet storm. Of course, Mindful Schools was started at Park Day School and most of the teachers on campus incorporate mindfulness into their daily classroom routines. Teaching children mindfulness encourages students to purposefully bring attention and awareness to their present experience. The practice has helped improve classroom climate, student focus and concentration, increase a sense of calm and become more skillful in challenging situation. 

In 1917, Caroline Pratt, who founded the City and Country School in New York City, one of the historically progressive schools, wrote: “We aim to attempt the revision of school practice from the ground up, by discarding at the beginning of our work all the traditional preconceptions that govern the standard practice of the schools today.” I often invoke this quote for inspiration as I realize the job of a progressive educator is to question the status quo in pursuit of a holistic and humanitarian education for the children of the world. 

Ms. Pratt’s words were never more apt as we explore and experience the changing face of education in 2011. That vision of a sunny Tuesday morning, may be closer at hand than we realize. It is our responsibility to make it happen.

Reflections: Tuscon and Childhood

In his Tuscon Memorial Speech yesterday, President Obama spoke of Christina Taylor Green, the nine year old child tragically killed in the senseless shooting last weekend. “Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future.” The President spoke of her as a child who saw the world, “through eyes undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.”

Yesterday I watched the kids on the playground  -each moment of play standing in relief against the context of our times; the smiles, the laughter, the passion of a game – our precious children.   I watched a group of seventh and eighth graders play a game of soccer. The mood was light and the smiles plentiful. No one took the game seriously, and when the whistle blew, no one stopped playing - it seemed as though the kids wanted to hold on to such a sweet moment. After all, they are in this world with us.

Are their eyes undimmed? Or, does the wrath seep in?  How much can we protect their tender innocence from the bad temper of the day? We see by turns unhappy moments of aggressive or hurtful play that make us fear that the cynicism and vitriol have infected the consciousness of our children. We measure the importance of CARE week, as we see so many kids in our school day-to-day try hard to be allies for one another and bring caring and compassionate to their relationships. What a challenge these children face in our complex world.

Living in Oakland, at times a landscape of poverty, crime and violence, our kids are face-to-face with life’s hazards and challenges. In our own city, public officials rarely memorialize, nor do we stop to mourn the many youth who, trying to navigate life on the streets, do not live to adulthood.

I see lots of nice kids at Park – lots of kindness and empathy every day.   As our mission states, we aspire “to prepare students to be informed, courageous and compassionate people…” As the president observed yesterday, the obligations of being citizens in a democratic society are dawning on our children as they become aware of how they will shape their world. We keep our hope even under tragic circumstances, because as the President has reminded us, “we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.”