Tuesday, March 12, 2013

PS 87 - NYC

One of New York's finest public elementary schools, with over 900 students in grades K-5, PS 87 is located in the upper west side of Manhattan on W. 78th street. The parents of the school are very active and raise funds to support the arts and other special programs at the school. PS 87 has a long history as a progressive school and I met with its Principal, Monica Berry.

When Monica Berry was in the 6th grade, she was a citizen of Sparta in the first Olympiad recreated by her teacher and classmates.  Her teacher created a democratic classroom climate, and the experience left a big impression on her and, in part, shaped her educational philosophy. Her pathway to education was circuitous as Monica started her career as a technical recruiter, then became attracted to the idea of working with children. As a teacher, her intention was to re-create that democratic climate in the classroom, and the notion guided her work when she became a math coach and later as a school administrator.

Monica has been the Principal of 87 for four years and acknowledges that it has become challenging to sustain the progressive traditions of the school, as more and more, teachers are required to prepare students for standardized tests. As I walked through the school, though, I concluded that Monica was not giving herself and the teachers enough credit; more than the presence of a few progressive practices here and there, I found a remarkable cohesiveness to the experiential and project-based classrooms I observed. She and her staff are courageous in the face of stringent district and state mandates and testing requirements.

Monica’s definition of progressive education centers on the notion that school must attend to all aspects of a child’s development – physical, social, emotional, and cognitive. This “whole child” approach is not easy to sustain when the powers on high are requiring teachers to spend so much time on drill and practice in preparation for the tests. (It is a lament I heard in each public school I visited). Monica expands on her definition of progressive education with the notion of schools preparing students to be productive and active citizens. Her belief in the goodness of children has built in her a sense that students love finding solutions to problems in their lives and in the world; schools must encourage this spirit and cultivate in students curiosity and responsiveness.

I observed the restaurant the first graders had created in the classroom. The day before, they had transformed the environment into a virtual bistro, and served a lunch to the parents. One of the students showed me all the things they had done to create a menu, prepare the food, and transform the classroom into a space that looked and felt like a restaurant. They had visited restaurants in the city and learned what it took to run this kind of business. The students took on various roles and discovered how important each role is to making the enterprise work. You could feel the enthusiasm and tell how much the kids had learned through this project. These six years old owned their classroom and owned their learning – bring home the points that Monica had discussed in her description of the teaching practices.

The third graders have spent a year observing the birds that alight in the trees outside of their classroom. The children had noticed that many different bird species were landing in the trees, depending on the time of the year. Picking up on this observation, the teacher decided to spend the next several months having the children learn about birds and center her science program around this study. The classroom was resplendent with student paintings, essays, and science observations depicting the study of birds. It was the example of another classroom environment teeming with student work. 

As a result of these units of study, the six and seven year olds of the first and second grades at PS 87 old owned their classroom and owned their learning – bringing home the points that Monica had described in her descriptions of the program - experiential, project based learning and emergent curriculum.

Monica Berry, the teachers at PS 87, and the public school educators I am visiting on my tour are nothing short of heroic. These schools, as large and sometimes unwieldy as they have the potential to become, are determined to create a learning environment that is not only conducive to deep conceptual understanding, but in the face of the standards frenzy, be sure they are helping students discover their humanitarian potential. It is quite moving to see it in action.

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