Message from Our Interim Dean

First Impressions

I am new to Bank Street, but I have been a longtime advocate for and practitioner of progressive education. When asked to write a piece for this issue of “Progressive Education in Context,” my first thought was, “I should call the Dean of Children’s Programs at the Bank Street School for Children” and mine his wisdom about how this nation’s torch-bearing progressive school incorporates progressive principles into daily practice. And then it occurred to me, I am the Dean of Children’s Programs at the Bank Street School for Children, so I dialed up my reflections on the several months I have spent orienting to our community, meeting and interacting with various constituents of the College, and observing the school in action. To highlight my emerging sense of progressive education in context at Bank Street, allow me to share four brief vignettes.

Vignette Number One

I was in a 10/11s classroom a few weeks prior to Science Expo, Bank Street’s annual exhibition of collaboratively designed, student-led science projects. Pairs of students were fastidiously immersed in their scientific inquiry—testing out the angles of the light to optimize the generation of solar energy, examining the impact of fan speed on the effectiveness of wind turbines, etc. After a bit of eavesdropping on various design-oriented brainstorming sessions, I casually approached two students and inquired as to whether their final projects would be judged by outside experts. Unfazed and resolute, one girl responded, “At Bank Street, we don’t do competition. At our school, everyone is a winner.”

Vignette Number Two

At the beginning of the summer, as the School for Children Leadership team was confined to close quarters in a small room during the building renovations, I entered one morning to a veritable obstacle course of index cards strewn across the floor. Emily Linsay, the Lower School Coordinator, and Associate Dean Laura Guarino, were on their hands and knees moving cards around and in deep dialogue about their contents. Upon inquiring what game they were playing, I learned that they were in the final stages of grouping students and paying careful attention to which children would be placed with which peers and in which classrooms. Among the many considerations that were informing their discussion were knowledge of existing friendships, demographics (race, gender, socioeconomics, family structure, age), learning styles, family history with the teachers, and temperament and personality. While both Emily and Laura acknowledged that student groupings are an imperfect science, they were clear in their overwhelming intent: to ensure that each child’s identity is known, seen, and understood and that no child ever feels like she is alone.

Vignette Number Three

During our official visit day as a prospective family, my husband, sons, and I were eating lunch in the cafeteria just prior to our interview with the admissions team. No sooner had we sat down at our table, accompanied by a couple of other adults, when a boy in the 7/8s approached, walked straight toward our sons, and offered, “Would you guys like to eat with us? It might be more interesting.” A brief approving glance later, the boys were happily immersed in a captivating lunchtime conversation with new classmates and friends.

Vignette Number Four

At a meeting this summer with the leaders of the Family Center, Bank Street’s inclusive child care center for children aged 6 months to 5 years, I endearingly referred to the little ones in their care as adorable. Noticing that I had struck a nerve (and that my colleagues were being extremely gracious to me as the newcomer), I inquired as to what I had said that had landed so awkwardly. With tremendous compassion, they informed me that when we reduce children to being “adorable,” we fail to recognize the depth of their moral, social, and cognitive development; the seriousness of purpose with which they engage with each other, the curriculum, their teachers, and the environment; and the rigor and intentionality of the planning, teaching, and learning that occurs each day. And, after emphasizing these important points, my colleagues did acknowledge that I am not nuts and that the kids in their care are indeed adorable!

So, what do these vignettes have in common? And what do they tell us about progressive education in context?  For one, at Bank Street, a deep knowledge of children, their development, and their intricacies underscores all that we do. Two, building community is an ongoing and deliberate act that requires careful consideration and attention—from our youngest members to those who have dedicated their lives to the cause. Three, what matters most is not arbitrary markers (and incentives) such as class ranks, test scores, and grades but authentic, student-centered, and sustained learning over time. And four, educators at Bank Street approach their practice with the same passion, compassion, vigor, and reflectiveness that they desire of their students.

I guess my instincts were right. Bank Street is indeed abuzz with examples of progressive education in context. And now I know for certain: The next time I am asked to write something along these lines, I simply need to walk down the hallway and observe a classroom, listen carefully to teachers talking about children, or pay witness to a group of children at play on the deck. But let me be clear—you will certainly not find me as a judge at the Science Expo!

– Jed