Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wickliffe Progressive Elementary School - Upper Arlington, Ohio

One of the few unabashedly progressive public schools, Wickliffe Progressive Elementary School wears the label on its sleeve. Located outside of Columbus, Ohio, in Upper Arlington, this K-5 school serving 450 students is situated in a beautiful part of the town within a stone's throw of the Scioto River. I met the Principal, Chris Collaros on a snowy, icy, blustery morning at 7:30. I could tell Chris had been there for some time.

Wickliffe rose out of the informal/open classroom movement of the 1960's and early '70's. The original teacher of the school, Carol Kane was a student of this methodology and risked much as she withstood criticism from the community (including being labeled a communist) to implement a program that she saw as more responsive to the needs of individual students. Fred Burton, one of the school's progenitors who served as the principal for many years, describes Wickliffe as a place where "children learn to imagine and to contribute to something larger than themselves." He asked parents to never underestimate the roles of passion, imagination, and joyfulness.

Chris Collaros
The current Principal, Chris Collaros is an ardent and unabashed believer in progressive education and dreamed of being the school's principal for many years. He is a devotee of Grant Wiggins, whose groundbreaking book Understanding by Design (2005, ASCD) resonates deeply with progressive educators. The school teams with supporters of progressive education who lament the current state of public education in America with its overemphasis on normative standards. When I asked Chris (as I ask all of the school leaders I meet) if the Wickliffe teachers have a strong working understanding of the principles of progressive education, he answered immediately and unequivocally: "Absolutely!" In my later meanderings around the school, and in my lunchtime meeting with the teachers, I found Chris's claim to be, well, absolutely true.

His article, Co-Creating a Progressive School: The Power of the Group appears in the latest issue of the International Journal of Progressive Education, where he chronicles the history of Wickliffe and the story of its "Ten Principles of Progressive Education." Chris was the latest in a series of conversations I have had with school leaders who define progressive education first and foremost as preparing students to be active citizens in a democracy. Many leaders focus on this concept and believe it brings purpose and meaning to teaching. For Chris, Wickliffe is characterized by interdisciplinary teaching, authentic assessment, and where curriculum springs from the teacher and students. Teachers in progressive schools have a deep understanding of how children learn and how to create the conditions that cultivate learning.

As a public school, Wickliffe is responsible to the school district, which has just developed an intervention model and principals are required to form data teams. Rather than perform the work in a more traditional way, Chris is working to see that the required documentation works to support the teaching practices at Wickliffe. The staff is evolving a protocol in "MUD (Making Use of Documentation) groups. As challenging as it sometimes becomes, the staff is determined to maintain the philosophy of the school alongside mandates and initiatives that come from the state or district.

Julie Eirich

I also was able to spend time with Dr. Julie Eirich, the Wickliffe Director of Instructional Programs (Julie co-authored the IJPE article with Chris). As part of her dissertation work, Julie spent an entire year transcribing class meetings and listening deeply to children. Through these studies, she deepened her understanding of how classroom culture emerges and how teachers can cultivate a sense of community in the classroom. At Wickliffe, routines, rituals, and traditions have grown from the classrooms being powerful contributors to the life of the school. Julie is another proponent of multi-age classroom configurations and describes the pivotal impact this structure has on student learning and development.

When hiring teachers at the school, Julie and Chris include faculty on the hiring team and the first questions always probe if candidates have a working understanding of progressive education. They are looking for teachers who are committed to the values of the school and willing to work hard sustaining its mission. The strength of the school is in its legacy of teachers who believe in the principles and are willing to take risks, much as Carol Kane did in the early 70's, to do what is right for the children in their charge.

After touring the school and visiting classrooms, I met with the faculty who graciously gave over their lunchtime to talk with me. I was struck by how firmly the teachers adhere to the ten founding principles of the school, and how committed they are to co-creating the curriculum with the students. Notwithstanding the pressures they face preparing for standardized tests, the teachers nurture student voice and make learning meaningful and relevant. With a supportive school leadership team, they are able to meet district requirements, while also bringing creativity and depth to the curriculum.

Wickliffe Foundational Principle number ten is a perfect reflection of the spirit of the school: We view our school as a center for teaching and learning of all ages. Indeed, as I met students, teacher and staff throughout my visit, it was clear to me that Wickliffe is a principled place of integrity, deeply rooted to its progressive values.

North Dakota Study Group

The North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) was founded in 1972 by Professor Vito Perrone from the University of North Dakota (later Harvard University). Professor Perrone brought together educators from around the country to discuss common concerns about the narrowness of accountability and assessment that were becoming popular with educational policy makers. The group included luminaries from the world of Progressive Education and has been meeting annually for the past 41 years. Since I was touring schools in the midwest, I took the opportunity to carve out time from my school visits to attend the gathering in Detroit. 

The theme of this year's gathering of NDSG was Reimagining Education. Learning with/in Detroit. The planners wanted to create an experience where participants were immersed in a community struggling for transformation. The three-day event allowed us to engage with members of the Detroit community who are creating solutions intended to create hope for the citizens of one of America's most storied cities. The steering committee made arrangements with local educators and activists to directly engage the NDSG group in meaningful conversation and actions. A major influence in the direction of NDSG is Grace Lee Boggs, who with her late husband Jimmy Boggs, has been a leader and social activist in the city of Detroit. Grace presented to the NDSG plenary in 2011, and inspired the planners to hold the meeting for the first time in Detroit, with an interest in direct participation with other community activists.

Grace opened the conference with a brief address to the plenary. She is revered not only as an inspirational speaker, but for years of transformational work on the streets of Detroit. Her voice is singularly hopeful and she describes the current generation of activists as "solutionaries." In 2011, at the age of 95, she published her fifth book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century (2011, University of California Press). I connected with the group of educators planning to open a new charter elementary school in August, named after Grace and James Boggs. It was a powerful experience for me.

After a bus excursion through the heart of Detroit, we met at the headquarters of the United Auto Workers, one of Detroit's icons. An employee of the UAW, who has been a regular at NDSG is supporting the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, and offered the offices of UAW for the group to meet. We heard the story of the school from Julia Putnam, who will become the Director when the school opens. Julia described the project as being rooted in the surrounding community. The school will bring the model of place-based education, identifying the problems, needs, and strengths of the community where the children live and attend school. A motto for the school is "Educating children and serving the community." Teachers will engage neighbors, community artists, and workers to develop curriculum content for the students. Julia asked the group to assist with strategies for recruiting and hiring new teachers, exploring ideas for the school schedule, and developing an ethos for working with parents. Over the course of the next two days, the group reconvened and at one point worked on a fundraising plan which was rolled out to the entire NDSG plenary.

Jay Featherstone
I met many educators and social activists at NDSG and made wonderful connections. I have always wanted to meet writer Jay Featherstone, the author of several books which have deepened my understanding of progressive education. Jay wrote Dear Josie, Witnessing the Hopes and Failures of Democratic Education (2002, Teacher College Press), a collections of his essays reflecting upon forty years of American education. Jay has been a poet and editor for the New Republic and I have always admired his work. Low and behold, there he was reading one of his recent poems to the plenary on the opening day of the conference. I approached Jay and he graciously gave an hour of his time to hear about my project. Jay asked great questions and added immensely to my thinking. He was very encouraging and introduced me to Amy Valens, the teacher featured in the new film August to June, which chronicles a year in a progressive public school classroom. Amy is a wealth of information and resource about progressive education and the many public schools trying their best to offer nurturing, child-centered programs. She strongly encouraged me to include as many public schools as possible in my research as she believes there is a thriving progressive pulse beating in schools scattered throughout the country.

The planners succeeded in creating a deep dive into Detroit, and we came away with a new appreciation for the work being done in the Motor City. Plans are to reconvene in one year in the same place. I hope to return.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wingra School - Madison, Wisconsin

After Chicago, I headed to Madison, Wisconsin to visit Wingra School. The staff at Wingra has been a full participant in past PEN conferences, and I was eager to reacquaint with these friends in a beautiful part of the country. 

Founded in 1972, Wingra School sits on a hill near scenic Lake Wingra, across from the Arboretum of the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. A K-8 school with 120 students, the name "Wingra" means "duck" in the language of the Ho-Chunk nation who inhabited the area. The charming school building was purchased from the Madison Unified School District in the early 2000's, and spacious classrooms and hallways are a signature part of the identity of the school.

I visited on a cold but sunny winter day with snow covering the ground and watched kids sled and play in the snow at recess. For this California kid, it was an entirely unique experience as I watched how long it took teachers to supervise the "transition" to outside. Kids sit in the hallways donning their ski gear and boots (imagine, you Californians, how long it takes kindergarteners to pull this off). The landscape and the setting play a major role in the culture of the school. The multi-age class names are descriptive of duck habitats, and are metaphors for the students' developmental stages: Nest (5-7 year-olds), Pond (7 - 9 year-olds), Lake (9-11 year-olds) and Sky (11-14 year-olds). 

Paul Brahce
Paul Brahce is the Head of the School and he kindly hosted my visit. Paul's dedication to progressive education traces back to his high school days when he was involved in the creation of an "open-classroom" model high school, which he then attended. As a young person he read Jonathan Kozol and John Holt, whose writing formed deep impressions. Since those days, Paul has been a student and devoted practitioner of alternative and progressive models of education. He has been the Head of Wingra for five years.

I also had a delightful conversation with Mary Campbell, Wingra's Education Director, who taught at the school between 1990 - 1997, then returned in 2006 after raising her children. Mary cut her progressive educator's teeth studying the British Infant System and now works closely with teachers to co-create the school's educational programs. She is proud of the climate of collaboration at Wingra, and describes it as a place where teachers are highly valued and receive respect from the entire community. I am observing a common attribute of progressive schools - seeing teachers as respected professionals who constitute the heart and soul of a school. Indeed, in this era of normative standards, when much has been taken from teachers, it is refreshing to be around other educators who believe strongly in this principle.

Mary Campbell
Paul's definition of progressive education starts with an acknowledgement that humans are natural learners and social creatures. In his words, "...learning is what we do and what we do together." The purpose of a school is to support this understanding and to cultivate and nurture a safe environment for children to learn and make social connections. Helping children learn to care for one another is at the heart of this enterprise and at the heart of building a democratic society. People need to build and support communities and this learning begins in school. Paul brings politics into his definition of a progressive school insofar as he views the mainstream educational system in this country as damaging to children. Progressive schools have agency as institutions and need to lead the way to discover alternatives to the testing frenzy that has consumed this country's educational system.

Paul (and the Wingra staff) is another proponent of the multi-age classroom grouping. At Wingra, students spend two (and possibly three) years with one teacher and Paul describe the continuum of growth over the two years as profound. Teachers develop a deep understanding of their students while the "youngers" become "olders," and bring wisdom and leadership to their classmates. As the relationships build, a culture of traditions form at the school to support the learning and create a secure environment for the students.

Olders share with youngers
I observed this in full measure as I visited the "Sky" class of 11-14 year-olds. The students were just starting to learn an abstract algebraic concept through a measurement activity, and create their own "string equations" to illustrate their understanding. The teacher invited the "Lake" group (9-11 year-olds) to visit the class and hear the "olders" explain their new learning. I observed two thirteen year-old girls take the plunge and, in front of all the other students, explain the concept verbally and by writing out string equations on the white board. The teacher asked for feedback from the "younger" students, and one of the Lake girls offered to share her understanding (mind you, she had just heard this concept for the first time), and she went to the board and with great confidence, created her own string equation, while giving a courageous attempt at explaining the concept. I was almost moved to tears seeing the confidence and level of comfort among the students (teenage girls skilled and confident in math - are you hearing that??). All that Paul had talked about - right in front of me - I was amazed!

The warrior teachers of Wingra
I lunched with the faculty, who were warm, welcoming, and wonderful! It was such a pleasure to spend time with these teachers who have a well-developed understanding of the principles underlying progressive education. They are warriors for children and for preserving a nurturing and intellectually engaging program. What heroes, every one. We discussed the stereotypes of progressive education and they had heard them all: "loosey-goosey,  kids running amok, no structure, not rigorous, the hippie school." There is an almost palpable resentment (between the giggles) as they rattle off these old notions of progressive schools. These teachers, who take such a serious-minded approach to their practice and who deeply commit to professional development, and collaborate with their colleagues, bristle at the stereotype notions. And, they are grateful that they teach in a supportive environment where they can build healthy and positive relationships with parents and their students.

Wingra, one of the few progressive schools in an ostensibly progressive city, swims upstream in the current mainstream of schools in their region. Give these courageous educators credit, and feel good for their lucky students - these guys are doing it right - in beautiful (but very cold) Madison, Wisconsin.

Baker Demonstration School - Wilmette, Ill.

What a pleasure to visit Baker Demonstration School, a school seeped in the history of Progressive Education. Dan Schwartz, the Head of School who guided my visit, sits on the planning committee for the 2013 PEN conference to be held in Los Angeles next October. Dan has been a principle in the Winnetka and Chicago public schools, and is a principled believer in Progressive Education.  

Baker Dem, an historically progressive school founded in 1918, is a toddler - grade 8 school located in Wilmette, Illinois, a northside suburb of Chicago. Once a lab school of the National College of Education, the school became fully independent in 2004.

Dan Schwartz, Head of School
 I have many vivid images of my visit to the school, but one that will always be with me is the image of its Head of School, Dan Schwartz, jumping out of his chair time after time during my interview with him to pull from his vast collection of treasured books about progressive education. His desk was a scattered wealth of resources as we concluded our discussion. Dan is a scholar of progressive education, and someone from whom I did and will continue to learn much.

Dan is a purist when it comes to progressive education. Though he laments that the term carries its share of baggage in our 21st Century educational lexicon, for him it represents all that is best for children and their learning. Dan wants progressive educators to reclaim their historical identity and posits that in not doing so, we are avoiding an important, though difficult conversation. He alluded to Chris Gallagher's Reclaiming Assessment (Heineman, 2007), to compare the phenomenon of how the status of progressive education has been stripped away and demeaned.

Dan defines progressive education as succinct as anyone with whom I have spoken. For him it is teaching students to think critically, synthesize, and learn the fundamentals of the world around them, so they can use the information to create new knowledge. It is education that encourages students to act upon the world, rather than have the world act upon them. 

At Baker Dem, the manifestation of these principles abound. The halls scream everywhere with student work. Dan stresses the importance of play in the lives of children and believes play should not be relegated to the early childhood program, but should be a part of a student's experience throughout his/her education. To illustrate this, Dan told me about the boat building project that engages the eighth graders as a culminating activity during their time at Baker Dem. Using cardboard, the students design and build a boat for two, that they test and launch in the school swimming pool. Taking on the characteristics of a big exhibition, the students delve deeply into the concepts of displacement, mass, and density. It is a howl for them, and a fun way of learning important science for thirteen and fourteen year-old kids. 

I visited the kindergarten and third grade classes and was struck by the notion of memories as they shape an important part of the program.  The teachers (Merle and Liz) share the belief that shared memories help the children learn that we are friends when we have memories together. Their collective memories form a sense of "this is who we are together," an important antecedent to building a strong community of learners and cementing cognitive understanding. Around the room are posters and displays of the children's memories embellished with their drawings. In the block area where the children create ships, we see visibly how the memories work to inform the learning; the kids' conversations are replete with the thinking that arises from their collective memories. Clearly Baker Dem. is a school where children are taken seriously and the teachers are committed to observing and understanding their thinking.

Student work is everywhere
The students emerge from Baker Dem. not afraid to challenge authority. This is a theme that I have found on my tour to be common among progressive schools. Dan describes the phenomenon as students knowing how to look behind and under the curriculum that is being taught and not accepting it at face value. As questions arise, the students are taught to voice them and not defer always to the adults. He adds that Baker Dem. places great value on questioning authority in a respectful way that keeps dialogue open.

Dan believes that leadership in a progressive school requires one to always be asking, "What does good teaching look like?" It is recognizing that curriculum needs to be vibrant, always changing, and evaluated constantly. What serves one group of students may not serve another. Dan aspires to co-create with the staff a model of shared leadership where teachers feel respected and have a vital role in institutional decision-making. Leadership teams have been formed and the teachers deeply engage in curriculum review. 

Baker Dem. is an impressive place. The school is well equipped and the campus facilities outstanding. With a century of rich history behind him, Dan Schwartz and the staff are leading the school to its next incarnation as an unabashed exemplar of what possibilities exist in a progressive school environment.

Namaste Charter School - Chicago

I had not planned to visit Namaste as I originally mapped out my itinerary, until my colleague and friend Maureen Cheever from the Winnetka, Ill. school district insisted I visit the school and meet Allison Slade the founder and Principal of Namaste. What a thrill to discover this model program and thriving school community which has just been awarded an extraordinary dissemination grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Any notion that progressive education cannot work for the widest range of students is properly dispelled at Namaste. It is a remarkable place.

Located  on Chicago's under-resourced southwest side, and founded in 2004, Namaste is is a K-8 Charter school for 460 students, most of whom are Latino and African American from low income households. The students are selected through a blind lottery system and the school is tuition-free.

I was greeted by and toured the school with the Director of Development Allison Lipsman, a former teacher who possesses a deep understanding of the educational mission and program at Namaste. Allison Slade the founder and Principal of the school carved time for me out of her very crowded schedule. Allison and many of her staff attended the PEN 2011 conference in Chicago.

  Healthy living means a strong P.E. program          Allison Slade, the visionary founder

The school is centered around a health and wellness mission, recognizing in this community the disproportionately high rates of obesity and chronic desease, coupled with a lack of access to high-quality nutrition. The vision of the school is "to change the trajectory of underserved children's lives," starting with healthy life-style where the children are served up to three well balanced and nutritious meals a day.

The kitchen staff is an essential part of the Namaste team

The approach harkens back to the Gary Plan developed in Gary, Indiana during the progressive movement of the 1920's by William Wort, who believed that children required a "wholesome environment all of the day, every day." The notion of serving communities in such a way is not new to Chicago, the home of Jane Adams and the Hull Settlement Houses, developed to providing comprehensive health, educational, and social services to low income members of the community. In a way, Namaste is a modern day version and aligned with the full service school movement.
Though you'll not find the word "progressive" in their literature or website, and Allison Slade pointed out that the school does not refer to itself as a progressive school, Namaste embodies the core principles of progressive education. The school's six core pillars: Peaceful School Culture, Balanced Learning, Collaborative Practice, Movement, Language and Culture, and Nutrition, Health and Wellness constitute the "Namaste Way," and I would submit fall under the progressive rubric. Notwithstanding the many progressive teaching practices I observed during my tour, out of respect for Allison and the school community, I'll not pin the label "progressive" on them.

Namaste has a focused vision. There you'll find committed teachers and a school principal who had not taken a sick day for the first nine years of the life of the school. The school prides itself on practicing what it preaches and always modeling its expectations for children. They believe in collaborative practice and I saw teachers working together to meet the needs of individual children who have not been well supported educationally. The school implements a respectful dual immersion program, where students begin kindergarten and first grade in a Spanish immersion program where they learn to read and write in Spanish, then transition to a dual language (Spanish and English) program for the remainder of their time at the school. College banners line the walls and the faculty speak about what "normal" success looks like.

The school has high ambitions, and last June graduated its first class of 8th graders. It is a place of happy learners, where children are loved, valued, and always at the heart of the decisions made by the adults who care for them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Children's School - Chicago

Chicago has a rich history of progressive education with John Dewey and Col. Francis Parker starting schools in the early days of the progressive education movement. It is still a place where many progressive schools flourish and I continued my journey to visit Chicago schools. I started with The Children's School.

Located in a beautiful old former Catholic School building near the Oak Park (actually Berwyn) area of Chicago, The Children’s School (TCS) was founded ten years ago by Daniel Ryan, Ph.D. (Daniel is a former PEN Board member and currently the Principal of Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka). To name the school, Daniel reached back into the history of progressive education and named the school to honor a school that later became Baker Demonstration School. Unabashedly progressive, the K-5 (and growing to K-8) school is a diamond in the rough, deeply committed to project-based learning and to creating a developmentally appropriate, intellectually stimulating environment for its students.

Christy Martin, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and Pam Freese, the Director of Administration hosted my visit. Christy and Pam handle all of the administrative duties for the school, including answering the phones and running the school office (a tiny space they share together). I interviewed them together and their enthusiasm for progressive education was uplifting.

                                          Christy Martin                     Pamela Freese

Their view of progressive education starts with honoring childhood. Christy says, “Let them be children with their joys and struggles, and create an environment that supports their complete development as learners.”  For Pam, progressive practice de-emphasizes testing and competition and creates a safe learning environment where the attributes of each student can shine. It is education that starts with teachers understanding the interests, motivations, and experiences of the child and upon those discoveries build a meaningful learning program.

Christy and Pam believe that by creating a democratic school community where student participation is encouraged, they are preparing students for their role in society. An important purpose of education is to nurture citizens who can fully engage in the world.

At TCS, the academic program is integrated and not separated into little separate boxes. Pam alluded to the quote by Alfie Kohn: “We give students a brick of information, followed by another brick, followed by another brick, until they are graduated at which point we assume they have a house. What they have is a pile of bricks and they don’t have it for long.” (In Published by Rewards, 1993, Mariner Press). For Pam and Christy, the building of skills must be in service to a deeper understanding of context and concepts. The school attempts to build in students the skills of critical thinking and analysis. Especially as information becomes more easily accessible, these are important attributes as children move into secondary school and their adult lives.

With 120 students, TCS faculty and staff can keep their arms wrapped around a student body where each kid knows every other student in the school. I attended the morning meeting (held daily), which is run by the students (each child in the school has the opportunity to run one of the morning meetings), and watched a third grade girl lead the entire faculty and student body with poise and confidence. Leadership among the students is palpable as the teachers provide one experience after another where students run the show. On more than one occasion I heard adults on staff proudly share anecdotes about how the students had influenced school policy by their participation in decision-making.

Anyone who doubts the progressive educator's approach to academic development would be enlightened by an activity I witnessed as second and third graders (TSC groups second and third graders together) presented their project on the senses. In this case, I observed four students explaining the role of the vestibular and proprioseptive systems using an oversized model of a human head they had created. The inner workings of the head were visible and demonstrated the senses of hearing, seeing, and smelling.  To observe eight and nine year old students accurately teach about the role of the cochlea and the various ear canals was a sight to behold and very inspiring. They were almost jumping out of their shoes to share what they had learned.

          The inner ear (notice the ear drum)    The human head with all its senses displayed

What was poignant about this unit is that it arose because two of the students in the class experience acute sensory difficulties. As the children in the class learned more about the challenges their classmates were dealing with, they wanted to know more about the senses. Not only were the kids learning a great deal of information and understanding about the science of the senses, they were also developing compassion and empathy for their classmates. 

I lunched with the faculty of The Children’s School and they stressed the importance of emergent curriculum that is developmentally appropriate for students. Three years ago I visited the school and observed an extraordinary unit on Shakespeare in Kate Miller’s fourth grade classroom. When I returned, I was hoping to go back to Kate’s class and learn more about the unit. But, when I asked Pam if the Shakespeare unit had begun yet, she answered, “No, the kids have not yet decided what they want to study.” Instead of repeating a successful unit year after year as so many teachers do, TCS faculty listen, wait patiently, and develop units arising out of the current interests and passions of their students. It is teaching at its most challenging and, in my view, very progressive. These examples exist in every classroom in the school.

TCS is an exciting place to visit and a school walking its progressive talk, day in and day out. It was a thrill and a privilege to see them in action.

Odyssey Charter School - Altadena, CA

One of the important goals for my journey is to locate and visit public and charter schools which have progressive practices. Though few and far between I have discovered that many exist. These schools may not wear the "progressive" label on their sleeves, but the values and principles bear a close resemblance to the pillars of progressive education. My first such visit was to Odyssey Charter School in Altadena, CA., and its Principal, Lauren O'Neill,

At Odyssey Charter School in Altadena, a community close to Pasadena, CA, progressive education manifests in a cohesive workshop climate set in multiage classrooms. These two components speak to the heart of the school’s mission. A K-8 school for 420 students, I saw an engaging activity-based program in one of the most diverse communities one will ever encounter. Children from a wide range of socio-economic, racial and cultural backgrounds come together each day with a passionate group of teachers on a very attractive six-acre campus.

Lauren O'Neill
I met with Lauren O’Neill, the Principal of Odyssey, who is serving on the planning committee for the 2013 PEN Conference. Lauren is a graduate of Pacific Oaks College, which emphasizes a developmental approach to teaching and the importance of early childhood education. Lauren cut her teeth as a teacher in a multi-age student environment and has never looked back from her discovery of the power of that configuration. I am discovering that the multi-age approach to grouping students is quite common among progressive schools, and wherever I go, in large schools and small, I hear ardent testimonials supporting this approach.

Though she sees her school falling within the rubric of what she understands defines a progressive school, and she herself identifies as a progressive educator, Lauren avoids using the word to describe her school. Since Odyssey is a charter school, every five years the school must petition for its re-charter, and Lauren prefers to describe the school in more specific terms, rather than categorizing it generally. Honing in on the school’s workshop approach, she can better identify the approach to teaching. Indeed, when you visit any Odyssey classroom you are likely to see students engaged in reading, writing, or math workshops. It is a vibrant learning environment.

Lauren believes there are several components to the definition of progressive education. She starts by highlighting how important it is for teachers to focus on students’ social and emotional development and create a safe place for the learning community. Teachers help students take responsibility for their own learning as early as possible because in a school where class size can expand to 25 – 28 students, self-direction is crucial in making the program work. I saw students working individually or in small groups, and each one of them could describe in detail the objective of the activity or assignment. The teachers have done a masterful job in helping the students understand how to make the classroom function without disruption.


Middle School students
care for the rolling chicken coop
Lauren also emphasizes the power of working closely with parents to help align them with the philosophy of the school. In this way, learning occurs beyond the walls of the classroom, including actively being involved in the wider community. Expecting that teachers will be reflective about their practice is also an important component in building a progressive teaching environment. Each year, the school surveys its parent community and provides feedback to teachers who incorporate the input into their professional goals. Correspondingly, for teachers to be empowered, they should be integrally involved in guiding the direction of the school. Lauren believes in building a consensus among the faculty as major curricular and school policy decisions are made.

As a charter school, Lauren’s teachers are obliged to administer the state standardized tests. Though she does not want the program to be driven by testing requirements, it is a stark reality facing all public schools today and Lauren recognizes that quantitative measurements can help construct a convincing argument for why the school is working. Although normative standards are only one component, it is another way of communicating with parents who are interested in measuring the progress of their children in a more standardized format.

I loved my visit to Odyssey. Any notion that progressive education cannot be successful in a diverse unban environment with children from disadvantaged backgrounds was roundly dispelled by Lauren and this faculty. I saw at every turn a nurturing, respectful, and supportive learning environment, where children take responsibility for their learning and teachers function as facilitators of learning. It is an evolving, purposeful, and dynamic curriculum, well established as a good example of progressive education in action.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sequoyah School - Pasadena CA.

I have known about Sequoyah School since the mid 1990's when they co-hosted a gathering of progressive educators for a national conference. The school has grown since my earlier visit, but the feeling of joyful learning remains the same. The Head of School Josh Brody is a kind and thoughtful man who reflects deeply about education and teaching practices. One will never hear cliches from Josh as his creative and original way of describing the Sequoyah program is truly refreshing.

Next stop - Sequoyah School, located in Pasadena, CA, to visit with Josh Brody, Head of School, and Marc Alongi, Director of Professional Growth. Josh describes Sequoyah as deeply committed to progressive practices. Regarding the use of the term “progressive,” Josh wants to ensure that Sequoyah is welcoming and appealing to the broadest range of parents and the term has proven to be alienating to some prospective families. Consequently he thinks carefully about the way he represents the school and helps parents understand why the kind of education offered by Sequoyah is beneficial to a wide range of children. That said, Josh is proud that the school is part of the long tradition of progressive education.
                                       Josh Brody                           Marc Alongi

His definition centers on an education that brings meaning to a child inside and outside of the school environment. The school prepares students to be a part of a democracy and thus the emphasis is on creating meaningful relationships where teachers understand students deeply, and help them recognize their role in the school community and beyond. Educators start with the experience of the child and co-create a learning community that motivates and engages students. The school tries to balance the need for helping children grow cognitively and academically, with the aim to help them develop resilience, self-regulation, and a positive self-concept.

Josh emphasized the need for progressive schools to be very clear and intentional about their mission. He stressed the importance of providing evidence whenever possible that the kind of learning that children experience is measurable. Students maintain a portfolio of their work to demonstrate their authentic growth from year to year, or showcase their learning in culminating presentations at the end of a unit of study. The only way to overcome the stereotype that progressive schools are not adequately rigorous, is to bring into relief the evidence of student growth and accomplishment.

At Sequoyah, students spend two years in a group, with the same teachers. I have found this to be a common practice in progressive schools. Josh describes the second year as transformative when children blossom with self-confidence and leadership. The academic experience is engaging and challenging, but Josh characterizes the two-year cycle as allowing students to “grow their roots.” A major emphasis is on helping (and expecting) students to be responsible for their learning, their peers, and their community. In the classroom, I saw many examples of collaboration and cooperative learning, and I learned that students, with increasing levels of responsibilities, participate in their parent-teacher conferences. When issues arise at the school, Josh or the staff will take them to the student government, or sometimes to the entire student body, to allow for students to participate in institutional decision-making. In these respects, students are given the agency to be stewards of the school, the campus, and their learning.

On our tour of the classrooms, Marc and Josh showed me many examples of the school mission at play. In the combined third and fourth grade, the essential question is “How do our food choices affect us, our families, our community, and the world.” Especially to children living in California, this through-line allows students to focus on topics from food production to the conditions faced by migrant farm workers. Each year, the students study campus water use and issue a set of recommendations for conservation. It is wonderful to see place-based learning in action, and Sequoyah is a fine example of a wonderful school with its shoulder to the wheel of progressive practice. Lucky kids!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wildwood School - Los Angeles, CA

My second day on the road included a visit to Wildwood School, which sprang up in the early seventies as did many progressive schools when experiential and project based learning was taking the educational community by storm. This was a heady time in educational circles and I cut my teeth as a teacher in an open classroom setting way back then. Wildwood continues to evoke the spirit of hands-on, active learning and is located on a beautiful campus in Culver City.

Founded in 1971, Wildwood School in Los Angeles is a K-12 independent school set on two campuses, approximately 15 minutes apart by car. I visited the lower school and spent time with Katie Rios, Head of the Lower School, and Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching and Learning. I’ll interview Head of School Landis Green at the end of February. Landis and Steve also serve on the PEN 2013 Conference Steering Committee, along with Neal Wrightson and Bob Riddle. The LA progressive schools are very supportive of the PEN Conference, the theme of which is Play Hard, the Serious Work of Keeping Joy in Learning.  (I currently chair the Board of PEN).

Katie centers her definition of Progressive Education on schools helping children discover their passions, while acquiring the skills that will help them have a successful life. She weaves the focus on social justice around the ethos that when much is given to one, much is expected. As children discover more and more about family, classroom, community, and society, the school guides them to understand that they are part of something much bigger than themselves. At Wildwood, even in kindergarten, children see themselves having an important role in their community where they can make a difference. This notion is woven into the mission of the school.

Steve Barrett directs the Wildwood Outreach Center, which partners with educators from public and private schools to focus on progressive teaching practices and building learning communities that emphasize personalized education. Steve took me on a wonderful tour to visit Wildwood classrooms where great examples of progressive teaching practices were on display. Two examples: Fourth grade teacher Colleen McGee’s Identity Project was inspired by Kip Fulbeck’s  work on identity politics. Students demonstrated great courage exploring racial identity, and their posters were exhibited in the classroom. Fifth grade teacher Allan Yu implements a Cognitively Guided Math Program, which helps build number sense by having children engage in problem solving rather than on rote memorization and algorithms.

Katie, Steve and I had an interesting discussion about how important it is to help parents understand how progressive practices manifest in the older grades, and how important it is to reassure them that their children are being well prepared for academic challenges when immersed in a program that requires daily critical thinking and problem solving. This theme of parent education has arisen several times along my journey. We’ll see how other schools are addressing this important existential challenge.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Children's Community School - Van Nuys, CA

Children's Community School is a special place, holding true to the lineage of Progressive Education. I have had the pleasure of knowing the school's Director, Neal Wrightson for many years and have learned much from him about the progressive movement and its core tenets. Neal has been a warrior for Progressive Education and his school embodies all that one would expect to find in a school deeply committed to creating a joyful place of learning for children. It is always a pleasure to spend time with Neal and visiting his school so early in my tour sounded a resonant note.

Neal Wrightson
There is certainly no ambivalence for Neal Wrightson, Director of Children’s Community School (CCS) in Van Nuys, CA. when it comes to claiming CCS as a progressive school. Neal is a long-standing progressive educator and one of the key players on the national scene through the nineties, as a group tried to resurrect the Progressive Education Association.  Neal’s school, a K-6 independent school with 120 students, is located in the heart of a working-class neighborhood, largely populated with residents living in multiple-unit dwellings. The school was founded in the early 1970's, and serves a diverse socio-economic population, with over 40% of the students receiving financial assistance. The location of the school in Van Nuys was chosen intentionally to allow access to a wide and diverse range of families.

Neal assumes a political stance in defining progressive education. At its heart is educating children to be citizens in a democratic society. For Neal, everything that goes on at CCS flows from the principle that a democracy demands that its citizens collaborate, compromise, take responsibility for themselves and one another. At CCS, the teachers aspire to help children imagine how their world could be better, and then determine what active role they will play in that endeavor. There are no text books, no grades, and no standardized tests. The staff models collaborative decision-making and employ a descriptive review process, which they have studied and learned at the Prospect Education Center in Vermont. This past summer, the entire staff attended the center and performed a full descriptive review process.
For Neal, to keep a clarity of purpose, there must be constant open dialogue, a vetting of practice, and a spirit of collegiality.

There are 120 students at CCS, a relatively small number that Neal particularly favors. The staff know each child intimately; understand the needs and desires of the families, and can wrap their arms around the community in a particularly effective way. Over the years, they have resisted any temptation to grow or expand from the current number precisely because meeting the needs of students requires a cohesive community of like-minded educators and parents who support the philosophy of the school. In this age of independent school expanding their numbers and developing their facilities, it is admirable to see the commitment of Neal and the CCS community to want to sustain the size of their school in order to deeply understand what will allow their students to flourish and thrive in a supportive and happy school setting.

I visited classrooms and  spoke with teachers who so impressed me with their passion for progressive education and for a truly child-centered education. They are the heart of the school where the fun and serious business of learning takes place every day. Lucky kids; lucky families. Lucky me to see a true model of progressive education in action this early in my journey. It establishes a high bar!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Visiting Progressive Schools: First Stops PS1 and Crossroads

With the good graces of the Park Day School community, today I launched my tour of approximately 50 progressive schools in America. A long-standing dream of mine has been to study the current state of Progressive Education, with a primary focus on those teaching practices that best illustrate the principles of progressive education. Today I started my tour of schools, which will take me around the country.

I launched my journey by visiting two extraordinary Los Angeles schools, PS1 ( and Crossroads ( in Santa Monica. Heads of School Joel Pelcyger (PS1), and Bob Riddle (Crossroads) rolled out the red carpet for me, and allowed me to visit classrooms and witness the exemplary programs that underpin the philosophy of the two schools. These two gracious Heads personally guided me on tours of their school campuses, and sat for interviews to explore a working definition of Progressive Education. I saw the challenges they face in developing the master plan for their campus, while trying to bringing program continuity to the curriculum.

                                     Joel Pelcyger                                          Bob Riddle

The irony, as I begin my journey, (and I suspect there will be more of this to come), is that both Bob and Joel expressed ambivalence about the label of "progressive education." Though both consider themselves progressive educators (both serve on the steering committee for the Progressive Education Network conference in LA - October 2013), they share the sentiment that labeling themselves as progressive may narrow the overall perception of their school; neither would like to see their school boxed in. As much as they acknowledge progressive practices being alive and flourishing in their teaching practices, they would like to see their schools exemplify a wider educational spectrum.

Pluralistic School 1

PS1, or the Pluralistic School, abides by its name of building a respectful and nurturing learning environment where children can see themselves as part of a whole community. The schools works assiduously to balance a deep understanding of children on an individual basis, with the desire to create a cohesive community working together in the best interests of the school. Joel invoked the unofficial national motto e pluribus unum in describing the mission of the school, and sees a profound influence that this concept has had on the PS1 community.

Joel eschews the binary way of opposing progressive and "traditional" forms of education. He sees power in both and both are reflected in the PS1 program; he prefers not to be dogmatic.

To pursue its mission of understanding kids, Joel asks the teachers early in the school year to write what they honor, value and admire of about each of their students. This creates a positive tone in the school community and the strengths of the children are clearly brought into relief. As the teachers deeply understand the children, they support them in finding their voices and being empowered to participate fully in the classroom. One way of measuring if this is working is when children challenge the authority of their teachers and school leaders. Joel wants to see a healthy amount of dissent among the students and loves it when the kids petition him for change in a policy or school rule.

Fundamentally, Joel believes that progressive education is about building relationships. Teachers and parents partner in raising children, and together create an atmosphere where children can flourish. He describes parents as rolling up their sleeves to help build the foundation of the school, and collaborating with staff in many ways. Teachers cluster to create program and have become very cohesive in their curricular approach. One interesting practice at PS1 has teachers switching grade levels every few years. Joel believes that this builds an understanding among the faculty of the needs and interests of the various grade levels, and increases the likelihood that children will encounter a teacher more than once, thereby advancing the goal of the school to understand the students as deeply as possible. The school's motto is Competence, Confidence, Connection. What we know, How we feel about what we know, snd what we do with what we know.

With their new building, which includes a wonderful community gathering space, it is clear that PS1 has a bright and successful future. Though I will respect Joel's wishes and not place a label on the school, I do see it as a clear example of progressive practices in action.


Bob Riddle, the Head of School at Crossroads, taught at the school for 27 years before assuming his position five years ago. The K-12 school is set on two campuses in Pasadena, CA., only one block apart from one another. When visiting the Upper School (Grade 9-12) one is struck by an old alleyway located at the center of campus and divides the campus buildings, that is regarded by students as the heart and soul of the high school campus. There students gather at lunch and between classes and the atmosphere is urban-sophisticated, lively, and unique.

Though Crossroads no longer refers to itself as a progressive school in its mission, the school has long been regarded as a school where many progressive practices are at play. Describing Crossroads more as an "innovative" school, it was founded on five basic commitments: to academic excellence, to the arts, to the greater community, to the development of a student population of social, economic and racial diversity, and to the development of each students' physical well-being and full human potential. In many ways, these commitments point directly to the basic tenets of progressive education, and I surely saw several examples of progressive teaching practices.

Bob defines progressive education first as nurturing student voice and building a culture where students develop an ownership for their learning. He believes in constantly challenging the traditional norms of teaching and asking if current approaches to curriculum are best for supporting student learning. Whenever possible, learning should be active and experiential, and not just consuming or absorbing the knowledge in a passive learning environment.

In todays's independent school milieu, Bob sees youth being challenged by the pressures of "grade lust," and of being over-scheduled. How can the Crossroads address the well-being of it students, while meeting their academic needs? Crossroads has been a pioneer in the concept of "education in balance," and I saw lots of examples of how the school nurtures students emotionally. I sat in on the Life Skills class where the 11th grade students sat against back-jacks in a circle on the floor of a darkened room. The teacher asked the students to select from scattered slips of paper on which were written an iteration of a "first experience." First frustrating moment; first fear; first memory; first love; were examples. After selecting a slip, the students in turn shared their memories and experiences. The climate in the class was respectful and engaging. The students listened and built an understanding of one another, and within the conversations addressed emotional and social aspects of their lives. One of the kids who had been at Crossroads since kindergarten told me that these kinds of conversations had been a part of his school experience throughout his twelve years. It is embedded in the culture of the school.

While at lunch, a student excitedly invited Bob and me to attend the showing of a dance recital in the black box theater. The students were performing the dance pieces they had choreographed, some individually and some in pairs. Again, it was an example of finding student voice and expression, while  integrating the arts as a core part of the curriculum.

I also interviewed Jeff Ranes, an alumni of Crossroads, who is now the Director of Environmental Ed. programs for grades 4-12. This is an essential part of the school's mission and cultivates outdoor leadership and designs outdoor and environmental experiences for the students. As students learn about their environment and the principles of sustainability, this program fully integrates an experiential component to break down the walls of the school and engage students outside the school and in the community.

So, from a distance, notwithstanding their respective ambivalence about the label of progressive, I would include both PS1 and Crossroads in the lineage of progressive schools. I observed in both schools, happy kids who love to come to school, engaged in their learning, in a nurturing environment. What a start to my journey!!