In Context IV by: Melinda Tsapatsaris

What it means to be a progressive school is that we are preparing young people to be a full scale member responsible for the society we live in, exercising good judgment personally and for the common wealth.
— Deborah Meier, Founder Central Park East School - Harlem

In a previous blog, I discussed common threads of progressive education that Tom Little researched in his book Loving Learning. He found three common attributes in all progressive schools: 1.) An ardent commitment to social justice 2.) An emphasis on active citizenry, and 3.) Attention to the whole child. An aspect of his research that I haven’t yet shared was that Tom Little also found that there are three common threads of how progressive schools educate:

  1. Experiential Education: Learning is hands-on and active with multiple modalities

  2. Emergent Curriculum: The learners’ curiosity and questions help guide where the curriculum goes and how it culminates

  3. Integrated Curriculum: Learning is most powerful when there are connections across subject matter

The Progressive Education Network’s semi annual conference in Boston this past month satisfied these three areas for us as adult learners. We experienced professional development through workshops and experiences that were experiential, integrated in nature, and that honored our questions. They were hands-on, engaging, and collaborative. Curiosity and questions guided our grappling, inside the formal structures of workshops and even at our full staff dinner (where only one glass of red wined got turned over; I won’t reveal who). Connections and integrated learning were rampant—discussions on leadership got connected to how classrooms are run, high school teachers reflected with grade school teachers, and in a all-morning workshop on Islam that I and three other Westland teachers attended, science got connected with music got connected with history got connected with anti-Muslim tropes that we hear in the media today. The learning was progressive through and through—no matter the geographic location of our schools, the size, the community composition, or how long the school had been around.

I divide the PEN conference up into four sections: school visits; the informal, not-scheduled “field trips” of our own; plenary keynote speaker Debbie Meier (who is a progressive education giant and deserves her own category); and workshops.

  1. School visits are a powerful way to reflect upon our own practice by looking at others’ practice at work and at play. In some instances school visits can inform work that we already do at Westland, but in other instances a school visit can be likened to the power of negative space in a painting. The importance of noticing what’s not there. Westland teachers went to a variety of schools and came back jazzed about what they saw and didn’t see, what we do well and what we could do better.

  2. Westland teachers know the power of a good field trip and went on many in Boston whenever they got a chance. Not surprisingly, Westland teachers know how to make their learning active and experiential. My idea of a break is reading at a coffee shop. Thus, I was dazzled and inspired by my colleagues’ sense of adventure: museums, archives, schools that weren’t even a part of PEN, the Freedom Trail, historic book stores, university campuses, and art shows. They went, they found, they researched, they learned, they talked to experts (historians, scientists, professors, curators, you name it), and of course they had fun. I had a magical moment where I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and I gave myself the decadent privilege of sitting in the impressionist room for one hour (I know, it’s potentially cliché, but since 9th grade I’ve been captivated by the impressionists) sketching a Renoir piece. It was a gift to get lost in a project, to create, to meditate on line and shade, to be a learner and creative, to not look at my phone. This, I was reminded, is the stuff of lifelong learning.

  3. Deborah Meier is one of my heroes. She is the founder of Central Park East School in Harlem, author, and epic female role model. She is a force. One of my colleagues jokingly/not-jokingly shared, “I loved Deborah Meier’s talk of course, but I regret that she wasn’t on a panel this time. I just can’t get enough of watching her argue with people.” Deborah Meier models the imperativeness of getting into mighty disagreements, without any blaming or shaming of the other person. Here are a handful quotes from her talk on democracy in schools that I think capture her wisdom, intelligence and glorious 80-something-year-old feistiness:

    • “They [children] are the most interesting of people I know today.”

    • “What it means to be a progressive school is that we are preparing young people to be a full scale member responsible for the society we live in, exercising good judgment personally and for the common wealth.”

    • “We should all be equal as citizens in some interesting way. That’s the assumption: that we are equals.”

    • “In a school, everyone’s role is important, where there is a tone of mutual respect. We all deserve it.”

    • “Schools should be the place where all the hard-to-think-about and all the hard-to-talk-about issues should explored.”

  4. Finally, there were the workshops themselves. Workshops led by progressive teachers and leaders exploring topics from gender equity policies to math instruction to democratic leadership and decision making to equity and inclusion to Writer’s Workshop to practicing mindfulness with young children to the history of progressive education. It’s dreadful picking just three.

And in debriefing our experiences in Boston,

Visiting another school pulled me outside, and was a reminder of the richness of play that we see here all the time. Seeing play in the context of anther school gave me new ideas about what to do in our space. It feels like to me every time I go to other schools, I’m now more and more in the mindset of grappling with reoccurring challenges: How do we keep going back to mission in the context of what’s happening now?

Key questions came to mind listening to Deborah Meier: What assumptions are we making at Westland? What assumptions are we making about people who bring their children to Westland? Is our mission relevant to new families? Who are our students? What are our assumptions about who our children are?

We really want our children to know that they are powerful members of a democratic community. What are the habits we want them to have here and beyond?

I visited a school with inordinate resources and immense staff and facilities…and they still struggle with the same struggles with which we struggle!

At workshops on gender, it seems like schools had done an enormous amount of work, the forms had social consciousness about their family structures and gender identity.

On my school visit, I saw an abundance of different sensory accommodations: individual desks could raise or lower, there were multiple stools that could gently wobble. All of those were integrated into the classrooms, noise-cancelling headphones and so on.

It’s our job to uncover the world for the students. How can I do that more intentionally? Looking at systems in our school, our city, and beyond…so that I’m uncovering the world, rather than covering it up.  

One of my key takeaways is how common so much of our histories are—periods of growth, common strains. We all similarly face challenges that come and go.

My key takeaway: I was noticing how schools were wondering how to make their schools diverse. Can we be progressive and not diverse at the same time? There are so many voices missing in the room. So many of us are working on our diversity.

What can we do to continue to have a public purpose?

I was struck by outside play at my school visit. It was really amazing to see the children’s freedom and how they were interacting with the materials and each other.

On my school visit there was this whole model of social justice everywhere. They had key questions around social justice and democratic ideals. Thinking self-critically about us, I wondered how can we better and more proactively further our democratic ideals? Are we preparing our students to be active in their communities enough and to honor the history of progressive education?

One thing, and perhaps no one wants to say it: my big takeaway is I take certain things for granted that we do here. There’s a lot that we do here that’s really where it should be! We can be so hard on ourselves.

It’s just a wonderful thing being together, there’s something about traveling together, being together, wondering together, being tired together. It’s wonderful.

Our work now is to make holistic meaning of the conference and methodically apply the learning forward. While we continue to reflect and ask our tough questions, we also need to integrate ideas and ask the questions in the context of Westland’s strategic plan. And to understand the places where this work and application lives: in faculty meetings, teacher task forces, Board committees and in the full Board meetings.

I do want to close with gratitude. I don’t exaggerate when I say that going to a conference as a full faculty is a gift. I have gratitude towards Scott and the Board of Trustees before my tenure for making this kind of professional development possible. I have gratitude for the Westland families who demonstrate flexibility to make the days off work, as I know it’s not convenient at all. And I thank the school culture in general for honoring lifelong learning and community in all spheres of school life. Again and again, I am struck by what a special school Westland is. PEN reminded me of that.