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.

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