New Hopes, New Opportunities
One of the greatest benefits of working in education is that each fall brings with it new hopes, new opportunities, new friendships, and new ideas. We are fortunate in that summer not only provides a real break from the familiar routines of the school year but also serves as an occasion to reflect deeply and plan intently for the year ahead. Having had time to do just these things over the past couple of months, we are thrilled to begin the school year.
What a summer it has been. As our nation grapples with widespread political polarization, even more senseless killings, and further entrenchment of xenophobia and racism, the importance of Bank Street’s mission becomes all the more clear. In 1916, Lucy Sprague Mitchell founded the Bureau of Educational Experiments, now Bank Street College, under the belief that “we seek to strengthen not only individuals, but the community as well, including family, school, and the larger society in which adults and children, in all their diversity, interact and learn. We see in education the opportunity to build a better society.”
Nearly half a decade later, in October 1963, James Baldwin delivered a powerful talk to teachers that remains as prescient today as it was fifty-six years ago. That year, our country suffered an epidemic of race-based violence, and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode through the streets of Dallas, Texas. Baldwin opened his talk by stating the obvious, “Let’s begin by saying we are living in a very dangerous time.” He then went on to impress upon the teachers the fierce urgency of their work:
The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity… The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it…”
Baldwin was essentially imploring teachers at the time to engage in critical pedagogy, the practice of creating space in their classrooms for students to develop their own sense of critical consciousness and engagement with the world. This is not about teachers indoctrinating children with their own beliefs but rather opening up pathways for exploration, dialogue, and careful examination of the social, political, and historical contexts that contribute to present circumstances. At Bank Street, this is what our teachers do best. They encourage and examine multiple perspectives. They tackle hard issues in careful and developmentally-appropriate ways. They probe for the why behind the what. And they support their students, your children, in finding their own way. As the late, great Toni Morrison proclaimed, “You are your own best thing,” and we view our role as educators as guiding each child to become the best version of themselves. [For evidence of this way of teaching in practice, take a look at this newly-released video of our eighth graders engaged in their Model Congress study.]
As we enter the new school year, I am particularly compelled to seek and find ways for our broader adult community to practice critical pedagogy, and I invite you to join on this essential journey. Whether it be initiating a conversation with someone you don’t know well, or attending a workshop about a topic that is not immediately of interest to you, or reading an article or listening to a podcast that offers ideas that diverge from your own, our community will only go stronger when we open our minds to different experiences and points of view.
It is in this spirit that I remind you of the summer reading book I suggested for adult members of our community, Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times by Irshad Manji. The construct of the book, a conversation with her dog, may be off-putting to some, but the substance of the dialogue is significant nonetheless. Further, in her critique of the current ideological gridlock we find ourselves in as a nation, Manji calls into question some of the beliefs and practices that are core to a Bank Street education. Through it all, she remains steadfast in her view that the health of our democracy is dependent upon our ability to relate across difference.
I also want to remind you that Bank Street honors and celebrates diversity in all of its forms. As the new school year begins, let’s remember that ours is not only a racially-diverse community, with this being the first year that the majority of our families, 52% to be exact, identify as people of color, but we are also an international community, a community of physical differences, a community with a range of family types and structures, and a community in embrace of various religious, cultural, and ideological backgrounds. In the landscape of New York City independent schools, these differences set us apart and contribute to the deep value of a Bank Street education. We are so grateful to our community and look forward to a rich year of learning, laughter, and love.
What follows is some important information relating to the 2019-2020 school year. Much of our thinking and planning this summer stems from the five priorities laid out in The Courage to Work, the School for Children’s 2018-2023 strategic plan. I hope you find these developments as exciting and compelling as we do.
In concert with our strategic priority related to promoting positive school culture and discipline, the School for Children has entered into a partnership with the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP). With the support of the professional development funds raised at last year’s School for Children Benefit, in late June, forty members of our faculty and leadership team participated in a two-day training focused on the theory and practice behind Restorative Practices as well as the use of restorative circles as a vehicle for building community and relationships. Then at the end of the summer, eleven individuals followed up with another two-day training on restorative conferences as a formal intervention used when harm has been inflicted and needs to be restored. Kris Wraight, our IIRP trainer, will be working with our faculty throughout the year, and there will be opportunities for parent education and engagement as well. For those interested in learning more about Restorative Practices, I encourage you to peruse this article, Defining Restorative, to understand the various components of the framework and how it aligns with the values that are already so strong and resonant at Bank Street.
STEAM Scholars in Residence
To bring in external expertise and bolster our capacity in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, with a particular focus on Technology and Engineering, we have engaged Dr. Azadeh “Azi” Jamalian and Dr. Jessica Mezei, co-founders of The Giant Room, as Scholars-in-Residence for the upcoming school year. Both Azi and Jessica received their PhDs in Cognitive Science in Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College. They founded The Giant Room to explore new approaches to teaching STEAM concepts that stimulate students’ creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. Their approach helps children to give and receive feedback, present their work and ideas publicly, and make a case for their design.
Azi and Jessica have already begun to immerse themselves in the Bank Street community; last spring they taught an after-school coding class that was wildly popular with Upper School students. Alongside Charles Vergara, Bank Street’s Technology Coordinator, and working closely with faculty members, Azi and Jessica will support the design of an integrated curriculum around Programming, Fabrication, and Technology in Society for the 2020 – 2021 academic year. They will facilitate bi-weekly meetings of the Upper School Math and Science Team both to inventory what is currently working and map out possibilities for bolstering our approach and improving our curriculum. This iterative process will include a system for continuous feedback and assessment to refine, adjust, and ensure alignment with Bank Street’s educational approach and progressive values.
In addition, Azi and Jessica will continue to offer after-school classes at Bank Street and will support the School for Children leadership team in developing the job description for a STEAM specialist, and then work within their networks to identify and source candidates. This new, specially funded faculty position will serve as the coordinator of STEAM integration and maximize the impact of the Innovation Studio (to be renovated in the summer of 2020) for the next five years.
In closing, as you can see, there is so much to look forward to in the new school year. I truly hope that the time away, for you and your children, has been joyful and easy. I also imagine that for many of you, you are more than ready to return your children to our care, and you can rest assured that we cannot wait to receive them!
As for these final days of summer, as the wise Dr. Seuss once said, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”
Until (very) soon–
Dean of Children’s Programs
Head of the School for Children