Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reflections from a Snowy Winter Day

In my pilgrimage to visit progressive schools, I had the time and luxury to reflect on the great contrast that exists between mainstream and progressive education. Here are some thoughts that occurred after I visited schools in the midwest during blizzard season in March.


What strikes me as I visit progressive schools throughout the country is the common teaching practice. The way the classrooms are organized; the way teachers talk with students; the pedagogy encompassing so many aspects of progressive education. Where have they learned it? Perhaps secret code written on the bottom of teachers desks?  These ideas and methods are rarely taught in schools of education, now shackled by the restraints of Race to the Top and its first cousin No Child Left Behind.

I see teachers trusting the innate and growing capacities of their students; putting them to independent work and expecting a high degree of collaboration and resilience. I see teachers allowing for the noisy messiness that comes with discovery and creativity.

Somewhere in navigating the educational mainstream in this country we’ve lost our bearings and decided that what is best for children is to create an educational environment that emphasizes mastery of information with the goal of scoring as high as possible on standardized tests. It arises during the time our country is obsessed with measurable outcomes and normative standards. In business, economics, and now education we develop new metrics to measure achievement and success.

Normative standards have always been anathema to progressive education. They steal from teachers the right and duty to measure in an authentic way the growth and development of their students. They move us further and further away from the focus on the individual students and their passions, interests, talents, and skills. It relegates to a dispassionate authority the responsibility of aggregating entire classes, schools, and school districts into categories that are based on student performance on the tests.  Even now, with the national zeal to formulate common core standards, we’ve determined that teachers lack the wherewithal to develop goals and objectives for their students. The national mandate to teachers in 2013: teach to the test.


The dirty secret is that teachers hate this. In February I sat with the faculty of a public elementary school in the Midwest to discuss curriculum and teaching practice. It wasn’t long before the tears were flowing; these gifted professionals were feeling more and more pressure to comply with the state assessment mandates, with prescriptive guidelines for how to structure class time, and state mandated curriculum mandates. One complained that it was like going to work in a factory – here is the text; this is what we want you to teach; this is how long you are to spend teaching it; this is how we will measure your students mastery of the material; here is how we will base your performance as a teacher. We are not interested in your creativity and judgment; be sure your students score as high as possible on the test. That is your number one priority; period.

Teachers are scared to death, worried about their jobs. Principles are under intense pressure. District administrators are obliged to push the standards. Superintendents have little room for innovation.

Good teachers understand that this is not how children learn; this is not what motivates students; these are not the ingredients that help students discover their potential. This is a narrowly focused body of skills and information, much of which will be forgotten shortly after the tests are scored and filed. There is no depth; there is not room for deep conceptual understanding; there is no time to focus on the social and emotional development of students; no time for building character. Oh dear, not even time for recess.

So, we’ve entered the era of the great “workaround.” More and more teachers and principles, at great risk to themselves, are surreptitiously finding ways to skirt the prescriptive curriculum, and bringing innovation and creativity to their classrooms. They understand that tried and true progressive educational practices are effective teaching strategies that do not put their students at a disadvantage when test time comes, to the contrary they enhance understanding. These bold and heroic teachers know that it is futile to dissent in any organized way, so they close their classroom doors and do what they know is best for the kids.

At that same Midwest school, I had a revelatory moment with two first graders. It was a below freezing day, with snow covering the ground outside, and I, a California kid born and raised, was delighted to be inside, listing as closely as I could to any available radiator. At recess time, even on these unbearably cold days, the teachers allow the kids to decide if they would like to play outside or stay inside. The school is equipped with sleds and all manner of buckets and shoveling equipment for snow play. Even though I sensed that the teachers were dearly hoping the kids would choose to stay indoors, there were two or three first graders who wanted to go out to play. So - visible deep breath - the teacher on duty said, “OK, let’s put on our gear.” And, in a senseless act of misjudgment, that only a kid from California would make, I agreed to go with them.

As much as I was pained by the cold, as I watched the students don their snow apparel and head out to the schoolyard, I was reminded of an important principle.  It is about the progressive school and its relationship with time. Do you know how long it takes for a six year-old to pull on her snow pants, jacket and snow boots? The zippers, the buttons, the laces: each one an act of fine motor control and eye-hand coordination. Many teachers would never have countenanced the time being taken away from the academic schedule. In this moment, it became clear to me that the cultural obsession to account for every minute in the life of a student is so misguided. We somehow think that a certain number of minutes per week reading or doing math is of greater value than the experience of putting on your gear and going outdoors to play in he snow.



I followed the children outside where they picked up a snow sculpture project from the day before. Here, in this project, artistry and creativity met patience and resilience. Though much of the figure had deteriorated in yesterday’s button of sunshine, undaunted, the kids had at it. One was determined to try and fashion ringlets out of the snow to place upon the figure a festive crown. Here, she was discovering the properties of ice and the nature of structure as one attempt after the other dissolved in a snowy pile. She thought it was a density issue, and packed more and more snow on her ring; but one failed attempt after another, she soon discovered the improbability of her idea. The curriculum and learning emerged as a snowman – spontaneously. And the good judgment of the teachers - to allow the time for this play and learning, created the moment of profound discovery. 

Now can we go inside?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Berkwood-Hedge - Berkeley, CA

For many years, I've considered Berkwood Hedge a sister school of Park Day School. For almost thirty years, I have worked on several occasions with the teachers and administrators of the school, and we share in common many educational practices and beliefs. The result of a merger in 1975 of two very small Berkeley Schools, Berkwood School and Hedge School, it moved to its current location and now enrolls approximately 120 students in grades K-5. The Berkwood School was Berkeley's first racially integrated school (1946), while Hedge School (1960) developed as a teacher collective, a perfect reflection of the 1960's Berkeley body politic. I met with the Director of the School, Love Weinstock.

Known for its developmental approach to teaching, Berkwood-Hedge is a school with empowered teachers who deeply know and understand their students. The staff spend a good share of their meeting time discussing individual students and how best to meet their needs. For years, they have pursued best practices that will enhance the classroom environment and engage students. Rather than leading with the "progressive" label, Berkwood Hedge would more aptly describe themselves as a constructivist school, where they continually assess students and draw upon the experiences of children to help shape the curriculum.

Love Weinstock, Director
Berkwood Hedge School
Love Weinstock is in her first year as the Director of Berkwood Hedge. She is a veteran Bay Area educator whose expertise in social justice and equity education is a perfect match for the progressive philosophy at B-H. In my many interviews with educators during this tour of schools, I have heard several define progressive education as that which starts with the motivation and interests of children. Love feels similarly and she would describe Berkwood Hedge as a progressive school insofar as it offers a learning environment to meet each student where he/she happens to be along a developmental continuum. Love also emphasizes the community aspect of progressive schools, where teachers, staff and parents are in continuous collaboration for the well-being of the students. When I visited the school, I noticed parents scattered around the school serving important volunteer roles, as teachers were busily attending to their classes. One is struck by the atmosphere of community at the school- it is not just lip-service that is paid to this component - it is an integral part of building a successful school environment.

When I asked Love how the progressive philosophy best manifests at Berkwood Hedge, she cited the three-day "teach-in" that occurs each year, which is focused on a particular social justice theme. In past years, themes have included peace, the environment, understanding learning differences, and world geography. Each of the the three days, the kids experience workshops, presentations, performances, games and other events that are geared toward a deep understanding of the theme, and built to engage kids at their appropriate developmental level. It has become a time-honored tradition at the school

"Sign-ups," which occur three times during the year, provide teachers and students an opportunity to develop classes that arise from the interests and skills found in the community. The third "sign-up of the year is run entirely by the fourth and fifth grade students.

Love has been impressed with the level of student engagement in the Berkwood Hedge classrooms. She talks about how few discipline issues arise because the teachers have created such engaging curriculum: "There is little reason for kids to act out; who they are is honored here at the school, and they know they have the respect of their teachers, who keep their social and emotional development at the forefront."

The day I visited the school, I navigated my way past the chicken coop, around the playground, dodging running kindergarteners and wheeled toys. Love stopped often to introduce me to the students and engage in a brief conversation. It truly is a fun and enthusiastic place where joyful learning is taking place. I am always impressed with and inspired by the commitment of the Berkwood Hedge teachers to keep their eye on what is best for the kids. Clearly at this school, even when things get busy, the children come first.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Hubbard Woods - Winnetka, Ill



I am back on the road this week to deliver the keynote address to the PEN regional conference in Chicago. I took the occasion to visit my friends at Hubbard Woods, and interview its principal, Daniel Ryan. With spring in full bloom, I visited the school on a muggy Monday morning, with a thunderstorm threatening.



Located in the bucolic upscale village of Winnetka, near Chicago,  Ill., Hubbard Woods Elementary School is one of the longest continuously operating public progressive elementary schools in the country. In my welcome address to the 2007 conference of the Progressive Education Network in San Francisco, I referred to Winnetka as the "County Seat" of progressive education, and at the K-4 Hubbard Woods, the progressive pulse beats strongly. Three past and present members of the Board of the Progressive Education Network are either current or former members of the Hubbard Woods' staff.

After a bitter winter, spring
is always a welcome sight
Chicago is the cradle of public protest and student activism. From the early days of striking meatpackers, through the protests of the 1968 democratic convention, the area has been a center of struggle and protest. This weekend and today, teachers and students from throughout the Chicago Public School district launched three days of marches to protest the city's pending decision to close 54 schools. It is a tragedy facing a great city which has played a major role in the history of progressive education

So it was with no small feeling of irony that I walked through the doors of Hubbard Woods this morning, along with the relatively well-heeled parents dropping off their children at a school that is unlikely to ever face closure. Yet Hubbard Woods and the Winnetka school district has been a symbol of progressive steadfastness throughout its history. Faced with many conservative political swings over time, it has maintained its progressive principles. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Carleton Washburne was the Superintendent of Winnetka in the heydays of the progressive movement, and it was Washburne who led the development of the Winnetka Plan, an organized curricular strategy which had a profound impact on the early history of progressive education.

Daniel Ryan, Principal
Hubbard Woods
Daniel Ryan, a die-hard progressive educator, is the current Principal of Hubbard Woods. Daniel founded The Children's School  in Berwyn (see my blog entry from Feb. 20), and in 2011 succeeded Maureen Cheever at Hubbard Woods after his 10-year start-up stint at The Children's School. Located in a beautiful building first opened in 1926, the place reeks of history - the walls adorned by framed photographs from the 30's and 40's showing kids and teacher playing and working on projects. My visit coincided with the 25th anniversary of a tragic episode in the history of Hubbard Woods when a mentally ill woman carried weapons into the school and turned them on the students, injuring several and claiming the life of a second grader. Each year around this time, the media descends on the school and the HW community is reminded of the sadness that befell the campus on that horrific day.

If Daniel Ryan uttered the phrase "student voice" once during our conversation, he uttered it ten times. Clearly this is at the heart of his definition of progressive education which he describes as a process of teaching and modeling democracy to encourage the emergence of student voice. Daniel has encouraged a student-led town hall meeting that allows the K-4 students important leadership opportunities. As much as possible, the teachers have guided the students in how to run the all-school gatherings, and as the first year of this experiment comes to an end, the practice is becoming an important part of the school culture.

Hubbard Woods is also the beneficiary of funding that allowed it in 2003 to open a television studio, where daily the students produce a closed-circuit news program on station WGST (World's Greatest Student Television). Each day, the students broadcast announcements, lead the Pledge of Allegiance, provide the weather report, and give the news of the day. The students take the roles of news anchor, meteorologist, audio/video mixers, and teleprompter operator. They also write the news reports and the script for the anchors. It is another opportunity where the school encourages student voice and where students are given important leadership opportunities.

As is the case these days with many progressive public schools, it is sometimes a struggle facing the mandates and requirements which arise from the state or district, and teachers can find themselves hard-pressed to incorporate emergent curriculum or sustain a project-based program. The nature of high stakes testing can be daunting and teachers will often default to more conventional teacher-centered practices. I sense from the climate at Hubbard Woods that teachers are feeling this pinch. Nonetheless, there is a strong sense that the staff is doing all it can, largely validated by Daniel Ryan, to keep its progressive legacy alive and flourishing. If the Winnetka School District is to keep its historical legacy as one of the only self-aclaimed progressive districts in the country, it will be the teachers who make manifest the core tenets of the movement.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Overcoming Stereotypes

After several weeks of continued research and review of the notes and recorded interviews from my travels, I would like to share reflections that have arisen as I work toward a larger piece on the state of progressive education in this country. I start with thoughts on the stereotypes that progressive educators have faced for many years.



Since the 1950’s, stereotypes have plagued progressive educators. Perpetuated by caricature depictions in the post-war popular media, to this day, they continue to contaminate the reputation of the movement. Not a single educator with whom I spoke failed to have at his/her fingertips the nauseating list of depictions: loosey-goosey (the most popular); crunchy granola (more contemporary); “hippie schools” (from the 1960’s resurgence); not rigorous academically (the most harmful yet enduring characterization). The typical description (rap) of/on progressive schools depicts undisciplined children running wild without boundaries, freely choosing their activities, and adults waiting to follow their lead.

What saddens me about this set of stereotypes is the morale-eroding impact they have on teachers. I lunched with the faculties of many progressive schools during my tour and a recurring observation I made was how very serious-minded the teachers are about their students and their teaching practice. These are not dilettantes. These are well- trained, intelligent professionals who toil endlessly building their curriculum, pursuing professional development opportunities, collaborating with their colleagues, and deeply understanding the learning profile of each of their students.

Equally as corrosive to its reputation is the perception that progressive education leans left politically, and that progressive schools promulgate a liberal agenda. Certainly to the extent that progressive education arose during the progressive era, its humanitarian impulse to improve the lot of society is indisputable. However, each progressive school emerges as a product of many factors including its location, the philosophy of its founders, the practice and pedagogy of its faculty and staff, the leanings of its cohort of parents, and the beliefs and values of its leaders.

I visited a very large self-proclaimed progressive school in a red state, for example. Here, school leaders carried what I sensed was an unspoken admonition to toe a centrist political disposition. They let the program speak for itself and shied away from too much talk about the tenets of progressive education. Since the school was founded during the progressive era (early 1920’s), it keenly reflects the pedigree through its teaching pedagogy: project based learning; integrated, interdisciplinary and thematic curriculum; focus on critical thinking and problem solving; and constructivist teaching.  Notwithstanding this flagrantly progressive program, I would venture that there are as many politically conservative families enrolled in the school as those with more liberal inclinations. But it works for the area.

There is also the entrenched notion that teachers in progressive schools operate at a high level of autonomy at the expense of program continuity within a school. I found in my travels that indeed, progressive schools championed teacher autonomy. Allowing the professionals to pursue their passions and craft a classroom program is important for teachers to feel supported. One administrator said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Teacher autonomy has allowed us to hire more men and teachers of color at the elementary level. I want the teachers to feel that they have the freedom to be creative and develop their own curriculum and materials. The last thing they need is an administrator breathing down their necks”

Other school leaders, however, acknowledged that teacher autonomy can be problematic, if the school does not vigilantly administer to its scope and sequence, and if the teachers are not collaborating. At the far end of the spectrum would be the teacher suffering from the “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie syndrome, “ who operates wholly at his/her own imperious whim, with wholesale disregard to the school’s curriculum and mission, disrupting morale more than supporting it. More insidiously, however, is the teacher whose classroom becomes a silo; who cares little for the notion of scope and sequence, and who pursues little or no professional development on the grounds that he or she is already competent enough. One will often find that such a teacher has been ensconced on the faculty of a school for many years, outlasting school leaders and becoming untouchable.

Needless to say, this phenomenon is not particular to progressive schools; any school public or private can suffer from teachers who fail to see that they are part of a learning community and tread only along their own pathway. But progressive educators are compelled to avoid being their own worst enemy, lest the caricatures are deemed all too true.