Wednesday, February 27, 2013

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.

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