Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bank Street School for Children - New York City

The mecca for training teachers in the progressive education tradition, Bank Street College includes a Graduate School and a PK - 8 independent School for Children. A place steeped in constructivist pedagogy, it is where teachers learn how to bring experiential, project-based learning to life. The school was founded in 1916 by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, one of progressive education's high priestesses from the progressive era. She founded the school as the Bureau of Educational Experiments, a laboratory nursery school staffed by teachers, psychologists and researchers, which later became Bank Street College. The school moved from Bank Street in lower Manhattan to its current site on W 112th Street in 1970. I interviewed the Dean of the Children's School (Head of School), Alexis Wright.


Developmental practice at
the heart of all teaching at
Bank Street
Give credit to the hundreds of Bank Street trained teachers peppered around the country for providing much of the sustenance to the health of progressive education today. The college immerses teachers into an environment where the developmental needs of children are considered primary to the curriculum and program. It is not easy to be a teacher in the Bank Street Children's School because you are responsible for supervising interns and there is a revolving door of visitors and observers entering your classroom, asking questions and forcing you to justify every choice you make as a teacher. At the same time, the school cultivates a teaching practice that is solidly grounded in progressive educational theory and pedagogy. If ever I receive a resumé from a Bank Street trained teacher, I can be confident that she/he will have an excellent training in understanding what it takes to work in a progressive school.


I met with the Dean of the Children's School, Alexis Wright whose definition of progressive education ties closely with the developmental teaching practice at Bank Street. "We start with the children in our classrooms; of course we provide a challenging and engaging curriculum, but we design our program to respond to the developmental needs of the students." Alexis acknowledges that there can be a tension in progressive schools finding the balance between the academic program and attending fully to the social and emotional needs of the students. After decades of experience, Bank Street teachers have found an equilibrium in attending to the the full needs of the child and have created a model program. Being prepared academically means understanding how to approach problems; teachers focus on helping children analyze what strategies are necessary for solving problems in all areas of the curriculum.

Students create a neighborhood
community
Bank Street classrooms are an example of how the classroom environment reflects the learning, and of how integrated curriculum is constructed. Alexis alluded to the six-sevens (first grade) unit on the neighborhood. I had toured the classroom with Ronnie Sampson, Admissions Assistant and Visitor Guide, and noticed that the unit integrates, language arts, visual arts, social studies, and math. After field trips and walks through the neighborhood, the students began to understand the various kinds of organizations, businesses, and housing that exists in the community around the school. Moving the furniture around and displaying their art work, signs and posters, the students created their own neighborhood, writing detailed explanations for the new community they had created. This took a great deal of collaboration on the part of the young children, who were required to listen, compromise, and cooperate with one another. With this kind of learning, one sees how a school incorporates its "whole child" philosophy into the everyday program.

On is struck, of course, by the heady atmosphere created by teachers constantly in conversation and dialogue about their practice. At Bank Street, professional development permeates the day-to-day environment. Research underpins practice, as interns "sit at the knee" of very experienced teachers who discuss the pedagogy that surrounds the teaching. It is a place of constant questioning and learning; an idea factory; intense and productive; an ineffable buzz of creativity and innovation.

Work is carefully
captioned (see opposite)
Here the thinking of students
is made visibe
My pilgrimage to Bank Street was not my first as I have visited a few times over the years. But this particular visit reinforced the importance of those colleges of education who are presenting to students an alternative to the "normative standards" approach to teaching, which has taken hold of the educational mainstream today. There are several progressive teacher education colleges around the country, and we need to bring into relief how important these institutions are to keeping alive the progressive education movement. On my journey, I feel the full measure of this as Bank Street has been doing it successfully for almost a century, and I pay homage to its contributions.

1 comment:

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