Saturday, March 9, 2013

PS 234 - Manhattan, NY

Manhattan's PS 234 is known as the Independence School, and was founded in 1977 by Blossom Gertner, after whom the school library is named. With over 800 students, grades K-5, it is a large school with as many as six classes at each grade, most averaging 25-27 students. Located in the bustling Tribeca district of lower Manhattan, the school is teeming with teachers, occupational therapists, special education instructors, teacher aides, administrators, office personnel, security officers, and maintenance staff. Clearly at the helm is Principal Lisa Ripperger, who I met at 7:30 A.M. on a very busy morning.

Lisa Ripperger
It's hard to keep up with Lisa Ripperger. She talks fast, moves fast, and thinks fast. A brilliant young educator, Lisa knows every student in the school. On my tour, she greeted scores of kids by their first names, and stopped to check in with several who, for some specific reason, were on her immediate radar. I observed her interaction with one of the students who had been asked to leave the classroom for behavioral reasons, and her understanding of everything from this child's learning profile to his home situation was mind-boggling. If this is what it takes to be the principal of the acclaimed 234, then no mere mortal can sit in Lisa's chair. We toured almost every classroom in the school and saw progressive teaching practices at every turn.

Lisa describes 234 as a "constructivist school." If I were to best characterize her definition of progressive education, I would use the word "balance." She is not dogmatic about any single teaching pedagogy and believes that educators should find strategies that work for kids, regardless of their philosophical ilk. Clearly put, she believes in moving kids along successfully. To accomplish that, a school needs a tight structure and may find itself implementing more traditional forms of curriculum at times, alongside a messy openness and innovation. Lisa returned again and again to the word "messy," acknowledging that teaching and learning do not always move along in a straight line (and also because sometimes a messy class session or activity can mean there is a vibrant buzz of deep learning). A former literacy coach, Lisa's understanding of curriculum has led her to believe that as much as children construct their own meaning and learning, they often need external scaffolding.

Cause and effect
illustrations and writing
The road to revolution
The school has a long history of being organized around inquiry learning where teachers will spend as much as a month delving deeply into a unit of study or theme. We visited a fifth grade classroom where students were learning about the American revolution. The teacher had a display on the bulletin labelled The Road to Revolution. In sequence across three rows, student painted detailed water-color/black pen illustrations with accompanying essays depicting the cause and effect of events leading to the revolutionary war. This was a vivid example of content and process being in balance. The students were learning a remarkably sophisticated and detailed understanding of the historical facts, and at the same time engaged in hands-on experiential activities that cultivated their interest and engagement.  Every classroom reflected this balance.

I was struck in a first grade classroom where the students were differentiating between personal narrative and non-fiction writing. This was a classroom of 25 students, most of whom had been identified as needing intervention. There were five professionals in the classroom. At one table, I observed two members of the staff observing and working with one child. As counter-intuitive as this seemed at first blush, the obvious advantage became clear as I debriefed the observation with Lisa. Here, the teachers can observe at the same time, the tendencies and patterns that the child is exhibiting. It deepens their conversation and helps pinpoint teaching strategies that are appropriate for each child. I recalled a core tenet of Lisa's definition of progressive education, when she said, " with the children where they are in their understanding and learning; pay attention to their work alongside what needs to be taught."

This time with Lisa Ripperger filled my notes with many insights into progressive education as it manifests in 2013. No slave to a single pedagogy, she helps teachers and students find what works. I observed clusters of teachers meeting in grade level pods to discuss curriculum; I saw engaged teachers working hard to fine-tune their curricula and grow their practice. I saw this heady and vibrant working environment at play, reflecting extraordinary leadership, passion and commitment. No wonder those families who could well afford to send their kids to private school are clamoring to enroll then at PS 234, The Independence School.

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