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Our March 10, 2018 conference exploring the theme of progressive education in practice was a resounding success. More than 100 educators gathered at City-as-School to explore how progressive practices live in public and private schools across New York City and learned from each other through a series of interactive workshops.

Keynote speaker Shael Suransky, President of Bank Street College of Education, framed the day around a series of provocative questions: Why do we need progressive education? What can progressive schools and educators gain from working together? How can we deepen and refine our own practices and expand the reach of progressive education so that more youth can benefit from this approach? Below are his opening remarks:

Good morning – I want to begin by sharing four key values that I believe shape our work collective work and a story that I think brings these values into focus.

Number one — children need to be known well.

When you have large schools, high student-teacher ratios, and a structure that encourages standardization, you end up with children and adults interacting without developing real relationships. If children don’t feel known, if they don’t feel connected, then they will not engage, they will not communicate, and, most of all, they will not learn. This is even more important for children whose lives have been destabilized by poverty. Children need to be known well because relationships are the foundation of all learning and development. This must be our starting point.

Number two — in schools, the way adults learn always shapes the way students learn.

Educators must be engaged in authentic learning communities. When teachers aren’t given the chance to think and learn together, when they don’t explore students’ work together or share their own work with each other – they stop growing. When teachers stop growing, learning for children becomes an exercise in complianceBut when educators are actively connected to their colleagues — they solve problems, they generate new ideas, and they bring that lively and engaged thinking into their classrooms.  

Number three — evidence matters.

We learn about others and make most decisions based on carefully gathered evidence of many types. In educational settings this evidence should draw thoughtfully on both careful observation and hard numbers. We cannot shy away from the question of whether our children are learning and how they are developing because of this learning. Schools succeed when they develop cultures where faculty regularly use evidence to explore questions like:

What are our students strengths?
What do we mean by good student work?
How good is good enough? and
What can we do differently?

Number four — innovation requires autonomy.

Policy decisions need to be made as close as possible to those who have to implement them. This isn’t easy, and it typically involves what’s referred to as failing fast. Making mistakes is a key stage in developing new ways of working and thinking. Educators need the freedom to experiment. Compliance-oriented systems have failed us over and over againIf we want to see different outcomes for children, educators must have the freedom and the support to shape the classrooms and schools they are leading.

 So today I want to encourage you to to figure out how to break the rules effectively in order to create schools and classrooms that are true to these values. While this work often can feel lonely – you are not alone – there are over 100 progressive schools in New York City and across the world of education policy new advances in Neuroscience are teaching others what progressive educators have known for decades – relationships matter and we need to build from our students strengths. I believe the key value that links all of our schools together is our shared belief in the importance of finding and building on the strengths in our students. So let me tell you a story that illustrates the power of this value. It’s about a teacher and a student. I’ll refer to them as Emily and Jovanny.

Emily was a 6th grade special education teacher up in the South Bronx, at a middle school. In her first year of teaching, Emily had Jovanny as a student. Jovanny was an English language learner who was doing the 6th grade for the second time. The year did not go well for Emily or Jovanny, and in Emily’s second year of teaching they found themselves together again. Jovanny was doing the 6th grade for the third time, and Emily was thinking about applying to law school. The difference this time was that Emily, who was in graduate school, was taking a class with Cecelia Traugh, who is now the Dean of the Graduate School at Bank Street. Cecelia taught Emily about descriptive review, an inquiry process based on this idea: even in the most difficult of circumstances, strength can be found and when it is discovered it can be the basis for reimagining possibilities.

As Emily puts it, “The process involves a series of careful observations of students in different situations – without making any judgments. You also examine student work and discuss with your colleagues what you see.” Cecelia told Emily to focus on one student. Emily chose Jovanny. By that point, Emily’s relationship with Jovanny had dissolved. He threw pens, pencils, and everything else around the room. He tipped his desk over and made fun of other students. Perhaps most frustrating for Emily, Jovanny refused to acknowledge her. When she would talk to him, Jovanny would say to his classmates, ‘Do you hear anything? I don’t hear anything.’ 

Jovanny would just make it impossible to lead a lesson. Emily began to think he was a really bad kid, that he was malicious. And then Emily began to closely observe Jovanny and describe his actions. When she did, she noticed patterns in his behavior that she had not seen before. For example, when Jovanny had to produce his own writing, he’d act out – he was very insecure about the fact that he couldn’t write well. But it took time to notice that. In the meanwhile, some teachers would get frustrated. “That’s why you got a 1 on the State test,” a colleague of Emily’s said to Jovanny. “That’s why you’re repeating the grade for the third time.” Emily was starting to understand Jovanny a little bit better, and this was happening just as the middle school was holding a dance. Two kids at the school were banned from the dance—one student because he’d brought a knife to school, and Jovanny, because his teachers did not trust him. Emily is chaperoning the dance, and as she looks outside at one point she sees Jovanny and his sister and a cop.

“Oh no,” she says to herself. What did these kids do now? She approaches Jovanny, who is holding a box. Inside the box is an emaciated puppy.

“Miss,” Jovanny says, “we found this puppy, and it needs to go to a doctor, and this cop won’t help us.” Emily had a choice to make. It was getting late on a Friday night at the end of a long week. Emily could have decided not to engage – but instead she took a risk and got on the phone looking for a 24-hour animal hospital. She found one in Manhattan that was open. She called Jovanny’s mom and then got in a cab with him and his sister and the puppy. In the cab, Jovanny starts talking a mile a minute. “I love animals,” he says. “I watch Animal Planet all the time.”

Meanwhile, his sister pipes in and starts talking about how Jovanny is always building these little machines at home, how he’s built his own remote-controlled car. It turns out that Jovanny is brilliant at building things. Jovanny also shares that they live in a homeless shelter. “But we’re moving soon,” he says, “and after we move I’m not going to be bad anymore. I’m tired of being bad.” The trio arrives and gets the puppy the help he needs at the vet. Afterward, Jovanny and his sister are walking down the street and looking into stores on the Upper East Side. They’re going a little crazy, they’re so excited. It turns out that they’d never been to Manhattan before.

This experience was transformative for Emily. After the puppy rescue mission, Emily’s relationship with Jovanny improved dramatically. And Emily realized how important it is to listen to children, especially the ones with the most challenging behaviors. I’m happy to tell you Emily continued as a teacher instead of going to law school, and that year Jovanny graduated from 6th grade and today he is a high school student. I hear this story, and I want to know: Did any of Jovanny’s teachers ever ask him what he cared about, and what he liked to do? What support was Emily’s principal getting to build a strong learning community for the teachers in this school? If more of Jovanny’s teachers had the support Emily did to look closely at his experience in school, would he have been in the sixth grade three times?

And even earlier: What kind of early childhood education did Jovanny receive? What supports did his family have, and what was the crisis that led them to live in a homeless shelter? These are the complex questions we have a responsibility to tackle. Jovanny’s story is a reminder that the assumption of human capacity and strength is powerful ground for real education. Acting on this assumption requires a re-thinking of systems and classrooms and schools. That is the work you’re engaged in together. Part of the strength of the PENNY network is that it includes both public and independent schools   By joining together you are also taking the powerful step of taking responsibility for supporting each other. For me this brings to mind the South African concept of “Ubuntu” which means “I am because we are.” As goes the lower east side, so goes the Bronx, so goes New York City. I want to say I am deeply grateful for your efforts. This is our moment – and I am more motivated than ever to fight to ensure a good education is a human right for every child across this city.  

Here are some images from the day:

Workshops Session 1:

  • The Impact of Islam on Western Civilization and American Culture: Fighting Islamophobia through social studies and STEAM | Presenter: Nassim Zerriffi, Manhattan Country School, NYCORE, BLM Edu
    Click for workshop description
    This workshop will show how the “Golden Age” of Islam (750-1250) transformed mathematics, science, medicine, music, art, cuisine, and fashion in Europe contributing significantly to the Renaissance. We may also explore the muslim roots of American blues music and other pillars of American culture. We will begin with a brief exploration of the basics of Islam and the controversial issues that tend to come up in schools. [for Middle School, High School]
  • Data Driven: Teaching History and Math Through the 1790 Census and Lies2K | Presenters: Karen Zaidbergand, Manhattan Country School, Robert Berkman, Manhattan Country School
    Click for workshop description
    Data is interdisciplinary!  In this workshop, we’ll demonstrate how we use two interesting data sets – the 1790 first-ever U.S. Census and The Washington Post‘s accounting that President Trump told his 2,000th lie on January 10, 2018 – in open-ended mathematical investigations and progressive social justice discussions with our middle schoolers.  Participants will engage with the numbers and walk through the conversations and activities we do with our students, and will leave with two great lessons to do in school! [for Middle School]
  • Problem Based Learning (PBL) in Mathematics | Presenter: Manjula Nair, Little Red Schoolhouse & Elisabeth Irwin High School
    Click for workshop description
    How do we bring a progressive approach to HS math? One option is through Problem Based Learning. In PBL students strategize and solve problems collaboratively. They present their ideas, work, and solutions to each other and to the teacher who acts as a guide rather than as a sage. PBL will look different depending on the community and the school but there are elements that can be brought into all classrooms to help bring students to see that they are in control of their learning and that their previous knowledge, ideas, and methods are valid and welcomed. [for High School]
  • Engaging Families and Communities: Culturally Relevant Work in a South Bronx Community-based Charter School | Presenter: David Rosas, HEKETI Community Charter School
    Click for workshop description
    Participants will explore the main principles and tenets of culturally-relevant pedagogy.  They will have the opportunity to learn about a school-wide event held at HEKETI Community Charter School in the Bronx as an example of culturally-relevant pedagogy at a whole school level.  They will discuss and explore applications in their home school settings. [for Elementary School]
  • Schooling for and with Democracy | Presenters: Anthony Conelli, Bank Street Graduate School of Education & Doug Knecht, Bank Street Education Center
    Click for workshop description
    The commitment of our public education system to strengthening our democracy is as important as ever. But how do schools approach this work? After collecting data from ten interviews of 13 NYCDOE progressive public school leaders, we will share patterns from those conversations of beliefs and practices that connect education and democracy in the daily life of these powerful schools. Participants will discuss these approaches of schooling for (to strengthen) and with (by using concepts and processes of) democracy and reflect on their own school’s or organization’s ways of building democratic habits and practices in our youth and educators. [for All Levels]

Workshops Session 2:

  • Middle School Math as a Tool for Social Justice! | Presenter: Flannery Denny, Manhattan Country School
  • A Private and Public School Collaboration – The MLK Living the Dream Book Award Project | Presenters: Jay Fung, Manhattan Country School & Jessica Bobbins, Children’s Workshop School
  • When Work is Play is Justice: Student Voice and Agency in Project Time | Presenters: Corinthia Marisol-Spath, Neighborhood School, Laura Tiktin-Sharick, The Riverside School for Maker’s and Artists, & Alisa Algava, Bank Street College of Education/ CUNY Graduate Center
    Click for workshop description
    During Project Time in a diverse NYC public progressive elementary school, students choose, design, and reflect on their own questions, projects, and collaborations. Join us in a Descriptive-Review-of-Work inquiry that pushes back against dehumanizing standardization in our schools. We’ll view photos/videos of Project-Time-in-action, listen to students’ recorded reflections, and explore student work-play and project journals. All students need and deserve the pedagogical/curricular structures and processes that support the inseparability of their social-emotional and intellectual development through play. Both Project Time and Descriptive Review are oriented around seeing, listening, describing, creating, and acting – at their core, these two processes honor students, foster critical consciousness, and promote equity and justice in our classrooms and schools. [for Elementary School]
  • Restorative Justice as a Vehicle for Educational and Social Equity | Presenter: Taeko Onishi, Lyons Community School