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!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Green Acres School - Rockville, MD

A rich progressive

The history of Green Acres School follows a quintessential progressive school course, having been founded by a visionary woman in the mid-1930's during the heart of the progressive movement in America. Influenced by John Dewey, Frances Parker, and the early pioneers of progressive education, Alice Mendham Powell opened the school in 1934 on Greenwood Farm in Brookville, Maryland (the school moved to its current location in 1948). Her vision was to create a school where children of all races and social stations could form a learning community where learning would arise from the real experiences of children, who made connections with the larger world around them. The history of the school, Think of What They Could Be Learning, was written by Lisa Nevens Locke, and is found on the school website. As was the fate of many progressive schools, Green Acres struggled to maintain its progressive philosophy and programs during the 1950's when the country turned to a more conservative political agenda. Today, however, the PK-8 independent school serves 320 students, and is unabashedly committed to its progressive roots. Lower School Teacher, and PEN Board Member Terry Strand hosted my visit and I met with Head of School Neal Brown. Terry has been one of the driving forces behind the establishment of CAPS (Capital Area Progressive Schools), a regional PEN network which gathers seven progressive schools in various collaborative activities.

Beautiful spaces
adorn the campus
Tucked away in a residential neighborhood on 15 acres of wooded property, Green Acres school is a campus reminiscent of several schools I visited on my tour of progressive schools. Six classroom buildings serving various program needs and children of different age groups, the campus features wooded areas, a stream, athletic fields, and themed playgrounds. The thoughtful design of the space allows an easy indoor-outdoor flow with an ample supply of natural light spilling into the classrooms. The library is a work of art with private niches graced by beautiful stained glass windows. It's a place that speaks, "Children are here, and we value them." 

For a real immersion into an exemplary project based classroom, I visited Nic Ribya's sixth grade science classroom where the students were studying natural disasters. This was a fully loaded 3-month unit where the students, working in groups of three, selected a natural disaster and dove deeply into the research to discover as much as they could handle on the topic. They created their own website with illustrations, photographs, charts and tables and information. Students were responsible for creating a three-dimensional model of the phenomena, and a blue-print of a dwelling that was designed to withstand the full force of the disaster. The day I visited, Nic had the children designing a lesson to teach to visitors who would be touring their exhibits later in the week. She has created a web-based portal with a discussion board for the students to interact and parse through their questions.

Lower School Teacher &
PEN Board Member
Terry Strand
This multi-disciplinary activity demonstrates an archetypal progressive education notion – students who are given rigorous expectations, allowed the freedom to pursue their learning independently, and expected to work collaboratively, are capable of extraordinary accomplishments. The activity called to mind my visit to The Children’s School in Chicago (see my blog entry from February 20, 2013), where the students were demonstrating their understanding of the vestibular and proprioseptic systems.

Head of School
Neal Brown
These programs support Head of School, Neal Brown’s definition of progressive education, which he believes emanates from the earliest days of the movement. Teachers possess a great respect for children and their ideas and they have students spend their days engaged in authentic work that mirrors the world. According to Neal, students must be “creating more than complying; encouraged to take risks and learn from their mistakes.” If students have ownership over their learning they will invest more and create things and ideas of real value. Students understand that school carries many responsibilities and not everything is being done for them; they learn how to collaborate with others and become resilient. 

Neal acknowledges that it sometimes makes visitors or parents nervous to see how much fun the students are having at school. That they love to come to school each day can mystify the adult who spent his/her earliest school days dreading school and laboring through the long hours of a school day. But in our progressive schools, the notions that learning should arise from the interests of the children, and that teachers should be working assiduously to understand the needs of individual students, bring a tonic to that dull and dreary conventional educational system. This is the heart and soul of progressive education, and Green Acres provides acres and acres of beautiful examples where this model comes to life every day. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cambridge School of Weston - Weston, MA

A state of the art campus
graciously greets visitors

A boarding and day high school for 330 students, located 30 minutes from Boston, The Cambridge School of Weston (CSW) was founded in 1886 as the Cambridge School for Girls by Arthur and Stella Scott Gilman. The school moved to Weston in 1931. CSW has followed a progressive mission for many years and hosted a conference in 1987, which was one of the last gatherings of progressive educators until the re-establishment of the Progressive Education Network in 2005. A very special day was planned for me to meet with members of the staff, tour the school, and learn of the Progressive Education Lab, an apprenticeship program for teachers co-founded by CSW, The Calhoun School, The Putney School, and Unquowa. Jane Moulding, Head of School, hosted my visit.

It is the rare high school these days, as deeply committed as The Cambridge School of Weston to the principles of progressive education. The PEL partnership of CSW, Calhoun, Putney and Unquowa  has formed an alliance supporting the deep dive these schools are taking into the history, pedagogy, and cutting edge of progressive education. Not satisfied with the status quo, CSW has fully embraced new technologies and STE(A)M practices, illustrating a foundational tenet of progressive education, that schools must always be assessing the most current state-of-the-art teaching practices and technological advances to enhance student experience and learning. (In a future entry, I’ll reflect more on this aspect of progressive education, and review the parts of my journey that clearly dispel the stereotype of progressive schools as inert and not future focused).

For Jane Moulding, progressive education is defined by three primary elements. First, we place students at the heart of the school. Their passions, desires, drives, and developmental milestones inform and propel our work. Next, we cultivate critical thinking to empower creative problem solving, and we pay close attention to how students are expressing their thinking. And finally, our emphasis on social justice lays a foundation for students to participate in a democratic society. 

The daily schedule allows for
curricular innovation and
At CSW, these beliefs manifest everywhere from the governance structure (students serve on the Board of the school and participate in decision-making), to hiring policies, and to the practice of students creating curriculum. During a typical academic year, there are over three hundred course offerings, many established by a student-led curriculum committee. CSW offers a unique four-block modular schedule that allows teachers to pursue a curriculum with much greater depth than the standard forty-minute high school model.

When I asked Jane to identify the necessary components of leadership in a progressive school, I found her response unique. It starts with a light touch and an eye for cultivating teacher leadership. At progressive schools, there is a high premium on shared decision making and Jane recognizes the impulse among teachers to be integrally involved in steering the school. Accordingly, leaders must be nimble, comfortable in grey areas, and aware of the nuances that are necessary in moving a faculty or board to a place of decision.

Julie, Aaron and Sidra
To explore more of the school’s current journey as a progressive school, I spoke with three gifted members of the CSW administrative team, Aaron Hirsch, Dean of Student Life, Sidra Smith, Academic Dean, and Julie Johnstone, Assistant Head of School for Internal Affairs. Aaron represented the ethos of the faculty as never being satisfied or thinking that “we have things nailed.” This validated Jane’s point about keeping the curriculum alive. Sidra pointed to a tension that can exist when things are always being assessed and tweaked. Schools face the pressure to prepare students for colleges that are rarely progressive. Getting strong SAT scores, having the academic chops in each subject area is a prerequisite for college entrance these days. Though she does not see progressive practices as mutually exclusive from the acquisition of the knowledge necessary to do well on the SAT, Sidra acknowledges how easy it is for teachers to default to a more traditional model, when facing these pressures.

A course on flight and
Julie validated Sidra’s notion that there is the push and pull all progressive schools face these days. But she takes heart that the school approaches all aspects of its operation with student interests at the forefront. If we are willing to deviate when great learning opportunities arise, and be open to new ideas, the students will be well served. The proof is in the pudding. After all, the graduates of CSW are very successful at a wide variety of colleges and universities.

One of the most poignant moments in my visit to CSW came during a brief interaction I had with a senior student who was installing an art exhibit. It was a form of self-portraiture, and included abstract paintings, poetry and three-dimensional components. She talked about the meaning of the piece, and how she’d wanted to reflect the personal journey she’d experienced at CSW. She has found her voice and this project allowed her to illustrate how she had overcome obstacles that she faced during her childhood and over her four years at CSW.  This is where the proof is truly in the pudding: students reflecting the mission of the school in the most meaningful way – empowered, finding their voice, and ready for the next stage of life. Progressive education at its most vibrant.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mission Hill - Jamaica Plain, MA

Mission Hill K-8 School

A Boston Public Pilot School

Founded in 1997 by Deborah Meier, Mission Hill is a K-8 Boston public elementary school primarily serving low income children, most of whom are Latino or African American. The school district recently relocated the school from its former location in the Mission Hill neighborhood to Jamaica Plains. The school has become an international model of democratic/progressive education, and is featured in a film series created by Filmmakers Amy and Tom Valens, which beautifully captures one year at Mission Hill. My tour of the school was hosted by Dani Coleman, Director of External Affairs, and I met with the Principal of the school, Ayla Gavins.

Ayla Gavins
School Principal
There is a certain humility you'll find at Mission Hill, embodied in its principal, Ayla Gavins, Her calm and modest presence speaks to an ethos of equanimity, determination, and resilience at the school that is felt throughout the faculty and staff. Always deflecting the attention to teachers and students, Ayla holds a prodigious set of responsibilities, beyond the reach of most mere mortal school administrators. Since its founding in 1997, the school has been committed to directing its resources as directly as possible to the students, and consequently the layer of administrative support found in most public or private schools does not exist. Funding normally channelled to administration has been redirected for the purpose of hiring teachers and keeping class size as small as possible. Most of the classes I visited had 16 students. The day I visited, Ayla, whose desk sits alongside the school secretary in the outer office, answered several incoming phone calls, handled two deliveries to the school, comforted a distressed after school teacher, gave directions to several visitors, administered to a child who'd been involved in an altercation, and calmly answered my interview questions. All this after spending the morning at the district office at a principal's meeting. At 2:30 PM, she'd not stopped for lunch.

Ayla defines progressive education as the natural enhancement of that which humans bring to learning. Progressive educators consider all things about the child in developing around him or her a learning experience. In a progressive school, each child's individual experience is considered in the context of the whole; this does not mean that each learning experience is unique- indeed, schools create learning experiences for groups - however, each child is deeply understood as a learner and as a full human being.

The archive, where student
work is respectfully kept
When I asked her how progressive education manifests at Mission Hill, Ayla points out that some of the origins of public education are in Boston, a place deeply rooted in tradition. Boston is also one of the first school districts to introduce the notion of autonomous public schools, and Mission Hill is one of the pilot autonomous schools implementing alternative avenues for student success. This context created the perfect climate for innovation and school founder Deborah Meier, whom Ayla affectionately refers to as a "preservationist," happened along at just the right time to bring progressive education to a very traditional school community. The mission of the school tethers all adults to the interests and well-being of the children; all decision and actions must flow from this covenant.  

Habits of mind
Five "habits of mind" bring ballast to the curriculum and learning program at Mission Hill. Evidence (How do you know?): Conjecture (What if things were different?); Connections (What does it remind you of?); Relevance (Is it important? Why does it matter?); Viewpoint (What would someone else say? What would someone else feel?). These essential framing questions are prominent throughout the school and very alive in the classrooms. The teachers are scrupulous in their work to make these questions underpin the activities and lessons they construct with the students. A child going through Mission Hill will no doubt assimilate these habits, serving him/her well in the transition to high school.

Dani Coleman
Director of External
I pursued the question about teacher autonomy that I have asked every school leader in my interview. Progressive schools are "teacher strong" schools and pride themselves on teacher autonomy. I have been inquiring about the possible impact this might have on program continuity. True to form, Ayla's take on this question was unique - she'd not have it any other way. The relatively high number of male teachers and teachers of color at Mission Hill can be directly tied to the phenomenon of teacher autonomy at the school. Because each member of the Mission Hill faculty must assume a leadership role in the school, a top-down administrative structure would never work. Ayla relies on the teacher autonomy factor to bring a work ethic to the school that would not be possible if teachers were always seeking direction. That said, Ayla is quick to point out that autonomy comes with accountability and responsibility. To be sure, it is a teacher's privilege to have the autonomy to build his/her program, but it is also his/her responsibility to be accountable to the cohort of teachers and the mission of the school. A rogue teacher would stand out like a sore thumb and never be successful; the faculty is far too collaborative.

Misson Hill answers the question, "Can progressive education work for all children?" As an inclusion school, not only do the classrooms include children from disadvantaged backgrounds, they also include the widest range of learning and behavioral profiles. By fixing its destiny to the mission of the school, Mission Hill brings care, attention, and joyful learning to all students. It's well-earned excellent reputation is no surprise - the school will continue to receive attention from any educator with a serious- minded intention to transform the broken educational system in our country. That the school is a self-avowed progressive institution is something about which we can be very proud, as its practices stretch back to the earliest days of the progressive education lineage.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Shady Hill School - Cambridge MA.

Established in 1915 during the "Open Air Schools" era, Shady Hill is located on eleven acres in the upscale Coolidge Hill area of Cambridge, MA. Serving approximately 500 students in grades PK- 8, the campus resembles a charming village of cottages which house grade level classrooms. The playground and athletic facilities are extensive and the campus includes a wetlands zone, which the students study and preserve. I toured the school with Kim Walker, Director of Special Projects, sat in on classes, and met with Head of School Mark Stanek.

Throughout its history, Shady Hill has had a tumultuous relationship with the label "progressive." Though widely recognized as an historically progressive school, Shady Hill has not always claimed to be so.  Writing in 1955 of its early history, Ernest Hocking claimed, "We were often classified as progressive - chiefly, I suspect on the ground of a certain informality in our procedures, which led to the supposition that, like the typical progressive school, we were consulting and catering to the existing 'interests' of children. Our principle was the exact reverse of this. ...We expected children to take an interest in what was worthy of their interest; and with teachers who cared for the subjects, they did so. ...This was a far cry from the yielding morass of progressivism as it was then." The first half of Shady Hill's history is recounted in Ed Yeoman's book, The Shady Hill School: The First Fifty Years (Wildflower Press, 1979).

For the past few decades, the school has meticulously avoided being labeled progressive and still maintains its aversion. Scouring the school's website, the "p" word is only prominent in the section on the school's history. Katherine Taylor, the first Director of Shady Hill was a member of the commission responsible for implementing the famous Eight Year Study, and though Shady Hill did not participate (only high schools were studied), the school became closely connected to the lineage of progressive schools, notwithstanding its modern-day resistance to this categorization. Laying side by side the teaching pedagogy of Shady Hill and the historical tenets of progressive education, there is a striking similarity. And, it's teacher training program is a bastion of progressive theory and practice. However it categorizes itself, this is a wonderful school with joyful learning and skilled, passionate teaching.

I spent time in Barbara Bratzel's eighth grade Physics by Design class. It would be easy to mistake the day's discussion and project for a high school physics class, as Barbara was helping the students understand the formula for pressure, force, and area, by constructing different configurations of leggos. It was a brilliant example of experiential learning and making mathematics come to life. Also around the classroom were displayed constructions the 7th and 8th graders had made using leggos to illustrate concepts of fulcrum and balance. The students also shared with me their use of an online program Labview, which further illustrated the concepts. The work was intellectually engaging and the students were very challenged, learning the math that accompanied the concepts.

Kim Walker
my tour guide
I visited the second grade and helped seven year-old Ned sew the stuffed striped bass he had created in the class unit on the Charles River. Teachers Cheryl Brunn and Tamyko Morris, welcomed me warmly into their vibrant classroom, where the students had visited the nearby Charles River, studied it extensively and were now writing about their learning and creating fish models to display around the room. It was an excellent example of hands-on, project based learning common to many of the schools I have visited.

After my visits to the classroom, which were guided by Kim Walker, the Director of Special Projects, I met with Head of School Mark Stanek. Mark is in his second year as Head of Shady Hill, and when asked, identifies himself as a progressive educator. Mark's philosophy of education has evolved over the years as he was shaped during his time in the Klingenstein program at Teacher's College where he was exposed to the theories of John Dewey and others from the progressive movement. When seeking a leadership position, Mark was drawn to schools which lean to progressive practices. Though he rejects the notion that there is any single fixed definition of progressive education, for Mark the necessary ingredient is a pedagogy where the child is at the center of every consideration in designing a learning program. He has found this philosophy alive at Shady Hill.

Though I believe that many of the teaching practices I observed at Shady Hill fall under the core principles of progressive education, I will respect that the school does not use the terminology to describe itself. I had visited the school a decade ago and had a similar conversation with Mark's predecessor Bruce Shaw, who similarly eschewed the label. So be it; what I did see in my visit was a school that believes in teaching practices that cultivate student voice, in classrooms where project based learning is prominent; and students involved in engaging experiential learning. With these ingredients, for almost a century, Shady Hill has provided a wonderfully nurturing learning environment for its students.

Cambridge Friends School - Cambridge, MA

Birthed during a time of moral crisis in America at the height of the McCarthy era, Cambridge Friends School (CFS) was founded by a group of Quaker transplants from Philadelphia who opened the school, after three years of planning, in the Fall of 1961. Arising out of the Cambridge Quaker meeting, the founders formed a School Committee with the intention of creating a school committed to the socially conscious values of the Friends Peace Testimony. Today, the school centers its mission around the six testimonies of Quaker faith and practice: equality, peace, integrity, community, simplicity, and stewardship. Serving 204 students in grades PK-8, CFS is the only Quaker school in Massachusetts and one of only four in New England. Head of School, Peter Sommer hosted my visit.

Peter Sommer
Head of School
Although most Friends schools embody progressive values in their mission, in 2013 few would claim to be progressive schools. Not true with Cambridge Friends, a self-avowed progressive school and the only friends school in Massachusetts. Head of School Peter Sommer aligns his definition of progressive education with the aspirations of CFS: to graduate all students who can engage with the problems facing society; who can uncover political, social and ethical issues; and who will make a binding commitment to the interests of community. For Peter, progressive education recognizes that all children have worth and limitless potential to make meaning in the world around them. A friend's education makes this aspect of mission easily accessible by "recognizing God in everyone." At CFS, all children are recognized as leaders and all have responsibility for one another. According to Peter, "We listen to one another, and we attend to one another."

CFS Testimonies
There is a particular gestalt I observed at CFS that validates Peter's statement about the school's mission. As I walked through the halls of the school, not a single student failed to make eye contact or greet me. Peter had a "hello" or kindly touch for every student we passed, and each teacher in the school greeted me with smiling warmth. It is a singularly welcoming, friendly place. If you've been following this blog, you'll notice that I am paying close attention to this dynamic in the schools I visit. Not that I hold the belief that students and faculty should be greeting each visitor, but because I believe these gestures of hospitality reflect the mission and values of a school, and taken as a whole can be one indicator that the school is walking its talk.

CFS values
displayed prominently
Peter shared an anecdote about his interview process when he was applying to become the Head of School. He tells of a committee of middle school students formed to be part of the selection process and with whom he would be meeting. As the interview unfolded, an eighth grade student asked Peter, "Can you share with us a time when your integrity has been compromised?" This question was one reason Peter found CFS so endearing; that the school would have a committee of students involved in the selection process was a strong message about how students are respected at the school; but equally impressive was the courage of the students to go to the heart of the school's values and ask candidates about integrity.

Scale models of the campus
We visited a 5th grade classroom, where the students were designing and building an amusement park ride. This hands-on activity created a buzz of excitement among the ten year-lds as they were making scale, working models of ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and other fun structures. I found a project-based program throughout the school, with the teachers providing an experiential underpinning for much of the curriculum. In the middle school, students made two and three dimensional scale models of the CFS campus. A group formed to start a student literary magazine was grappling with whether all students should be published or if there would be a selection process. I found an eighth grade math teacher utilizing the Kahn Academy math program with his students. As he was able to track their progress, it freed him to work with individual students and small groups on special applied math problems. Now the teacher is advising the Kahn Academy staff.
Making amusement park rides;
the smallest saw I ever saw

CFS is known widely for the anti-racist work it has been doing for over a decade. I visited the school in 2001 when there was Center for Anti-Racism in the main school entryway. The latest incarnation of the school's commitment is the staff position of Project Manager for Anti-Racist Education, devoted to working with students and faculty on matters of race and equity.  

As we look at the range of how educators define progresive education, CFS falls along the continuum of schools with strong commitments to social justice and activism. I found the school to be an exemplar among schools doing this work, and a model for all of us to emulate. My thanks to the students and staff at CFS for making me feel so welcome.

The School at Columbia - New York City

Serving in equal numbers the children of employees at Columbia University and the families in Harlem and the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, The School at Columbia enrolls 500 students in grades K-8. Located in a state-of-the-art, 75,000 square foot campus on W 110th street, within easy walking distance of the Columbia campus, the school occupies a unique niche in the independent school world. Subsidized in part by Columbia University, the school has access to university faculty and graduate students, and a wide range of resources. Admissions is by random lottery, meaning that the racial, ethnic and socio-economic range of students is one of the highest among independent schools in New York City. My colleague Amani Reed, with whom I graduated from the Leadership Academy at Teachers College, is Head of School and hosted my visit.

Cooperative group work
cultivates student voice
My tour of the School at Columbia began with a visit to three fourth grade classes to hear students present to the Head of School and Head of the Lower School their plans for re-designing the rooftop playground, which is undergoing a face-lift. Officials from the school went directly to the students to seek their ideas and input for the new design. It was impressive to see the school philosophy and curricular approach of the school emerge through this fully integrated activity. Not only were the students asked to develop ideas for the design, they were required to carefully measure and calculate how their ideas would materialize. Working in small cooperative groups, the students were asked to write up their proposals, create a large display poster with illustrations to visually represent their design, and plan for an oral presentation, giving each member of the group equal air time. The students clearly felt that their ideas were being respected and would be considered for the final design.

Amani Reed
Head of School

Head of School Amani Reed connected this activity to the school's progressive teaching practices. First, including student voice as the school considers institutional changes, is fundamental to a student-centered curriculum. The program should be a meaningful reflection of the real lives of students. This particular unit of study  combined elements of design-thinking, student collaboration, mathematics, language arts, and visual arts. The math department visited the classrooms to help frame the problem, and the school took seriously the ideas of the students.

Amani is excited about recent meaningful professional development activities which engaged the faculty and the school community. Earlier in the year, for instance, the faculty fanned out on a staff development day to visit 30 schools around the city for the purpose of discovering how schools are approaching gender and sexuality. Teachers returned with a wealth of ideas and activities that will be considered by the faculty. One of the primary level teachers traveled to Reggio Emilio in Italy to discover how the pedagogy plays out with older children. The school recently sponsored a TedX Youth symposium, which brought together talented young people from all over the city.

Now in its tenth year, The School at Columbia is a well established progressive school in highly competitive New York City. I felt a serious-minded climate of teaching and learning at the school in my all-too-brief visit. I loved watching the kids present to the school administration, and how respectfully the school responded. With the continued support of Columbia University, and the enthusiastic vision of it's new Head of School, Amani Reed, the future of the school seems bright indeed.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Putney School - Putney, Vermont

The campus stretches into
the exquisite distant
A place of alluring beauty and natural splendor, The Putney School sits on 500 acres of farm and woodland in Putney, Vermont, 10 minutes from the town of Brattleboro. One of progressive education's icons, the school was founded in 1935 by Carmelita Hinton, whose spirit seems very much alive at Putney today. Many of the staff with whom I spoke, mentioned "Mrs. Hinton" with reverence. The book, The Putney School: A Progressive Experiment, by Susan Lloyd McIntosh (Yale UNiversity Press. 1987) chronicles the early history of the school. A boarding high school, Putney features a working farm, which students care for year-round with a rotating set of "work-jobs." One would think by the name "work-jobs" that students attend to a few chores here and there, when, in fact, the students do all of the work on the farm, including care of the animals (livestock), tending to the fields, and managing the flow of work (students are even hired back over the summer to ensure that the work is student driven year round). It is a sight to observe these young people with their heads down, industriously attending to the hard work of running a farm. Though the farm program is a defining feature of Putney, the outstanding arts and academic programs create a vital and relevant school experience. I met with many of the staff, and my visit was hosted by the Head of School, Emily Jones. 

Although it's been said many times...Putney is a lifestyle as much as it is a school. More than almost any other school environment, the school creates among the students an ethos of independence, creativity, and hard work. Putney is a living example of how, given trust and confidence, young students are capable of great accomplishment. Carmelita Hinton believed this and in 1935 started a school where this vision became a reality. Her desire was to "make school a more real, less self-centered venture," where students would be "attached to the soil to care for animals, to be an integral part of the cycle of the seasons." I found the current staff committed to these beliefs, working to sustain the founding ethos of the school, while ensuring that Putney is relevant and vital in today's changing world. The campus lends itself to this endeavor.

Pete Stickney
I visited with Pete Stickney, Farm Manager and History Teacher, who has worked at Putney for over twenty years. Pete sees more and more student interest in sustainable farming and agriculture, and the farm program at Putney is a model for other educational institutions; visitors from around the world visit Putney to see how the students manage the necessary work. When I first walked into "The Barn," where the milking of the cows take place, I was struck by the number of livestock - 30 cows lined the barn and the enterprise is a small working dairy, which supplies all of the dairy needs of the boarding school, while selling the surplus in local markets. The rows of vegetables in the garden similarly supply much of what ends up on the table in the dining room; Putney is an early pioneer of the farm-to-table concept that is all the rage among schools these days.
Students are fully responsible for
the livestock 

Students are fully responsible for the work that takes place on the farm and adults assiduously resist the temptation to help out. The key is learning the importance of one's contribution to the ongoing health of the livestock and the gardens. To miss work is to betray the confidence of your workmates; students govern themselves and one can be "fired" for intransigence or not showing up. Here the students learn what a real work environment is like and with few exceptions rise to the occasion. They learn to juggle their academic and personal lives around the work-jobs; they learn to be responsible young adults.

Emily Jones
Head of Putney
The room of looms
one of Emily's favorites
In my conversations with Emily Jones, the Head of School at Putney, she mentioned one of the few challenges that face Putney graduates. They go off their colleges and many are stunned by the lack of independence and resilience among their new classmates. Few had faced in high school the kind of responsibility that is de rigueur for Putney students. Emily talked about the benefits of a Putney education: "These kids know how to figure things out." Over the nine years she has been Head of School, Emily has observed that Putney graduates have a strong sense of efficacy; they are required almost constantly to face new challenges and newly offered programs. Besides their farm duties, the students are offered many special programs in the evening. I visited the "loom room," where beautiful weavings are created by the students; there are many other offerings, and students take good advantage of them. The staff at Putney has a level of comfort with experimentation and failure. They see failure and iteration necessary components of learning and constantly impose challenges on students.

Emily's definition of progressive education is unique among all I have heard in my travels. The big idea of education has not changed, but the world keeps forgetting. Alive since the time of Montaigne and the Renaissance is the belief that education is the development of intelligence. Progressive education keeps alive the classic education born thousands of years ago. The Putney manifestation begins with students seeing and understanding everything that goes on at the school; nothing is secret. Students participate in governance and have access to all aspects of the school's decision-making structure. Through this transparency, they interact with wise adults who mentor them in the ways of collaborative decision making; new students observe older kids making decisions and grappling with real world issues. They become more intelligent in a practical and authentic way. Leadership arises naturally among the students - there is no need to teach it - important decisions need to be made every day. Social justice lives in the school and is not an abstract concept; create a place where student views are valued and respected, where everyone is expected to pull his/her weight, and the ethos of equity and justice will arise naturally.

Ann Marie White
Academic Dean
Ann Marie White is Putney's Academic Dean and another believer in the capacity of her students. She teachers molecular genetics and on the first day of class, without introducing a lab protocol, she gives the students one hour to extract DNA. The next day, she requires them to share with another student, without filter, the results of the experiment. Again, the experience plunges the students head-first into a complex problem that they are required to face and solve. This approach sets the stage for a class where creative thinking exists alongside the scientific knowledge they will amass over the course of the year. Emily sees the benefits of progressive education in allowing students to take risks and develop independence of thought. Because they are asked to function independently, Putney student are not afraid to ask questions - good questions, according to Emily - it is a necessity arising out of the moment-to-moment need to think on your feet.

The Putney gorilla beckons
All around you at Putney is evidence of student art and creativity. There is an iron gorilla sculpture hanging from a tree near the art studio beckoning the whimsy that surrounds you. Inside the studio is evidence of serious-minded craftsmanship: a blacksmith shop; painting studios; metal works of every kind. The studio loft is reserved for the handful of students who have been admitted to the fine art colleges, like the Rhode Island School of Design. The school respects artistry, and this is a place that pulses with student work. Putney is a place where you learn to use your hands; you might be caring for a calf's infected udder one day; harvesting broccoli the next; and throwing clay the next. You get dirty playing and working at this school; but things are not messy in a cluttered way - there is a meticulous order, maintained by the kids themselves.
Would most high school students
know their way around an anvil?

This fairly long entry only scratches the surface. On my one day at Putney, I collected hours of conversation and pages of notes. I could go on and on describing this unique learning environment. At the heart of the enterprise is the faculty - courageous and innovative - working to sustain the dream of Carmelita Hinton. The school is an enigmatic example of progressive education reaching for its greatest heights, and after almost 80 years, they are still at it - planning strategy and examining the school's future in the 21st Century.

On a morning walk through the snowy Putney's woods with Emily, Drama Director and Dean Karla Baldwin, and their exuberant young canines, it struck me that perhaps Putney should be considered a national treasure. Not because of its exquisite natural beauty, but because it offers a rare educational model to which all high schools should aspire. Our society would be better off if all students had the experience of a Putney education.