Spotlight on Progressive Education

Social and Racial Justice Curriculum

by Chiara Di Lello, David Mortimer, Lila Mortimer, Edna Moy, Nayantara Mhatre, Maria Richa, and Morika Tsujimura

Step inside Bank Street School for Children. Eighth-grade students are writing bills and passionately advocating for causes in front of their peers in a simulation of the legislative process. Second-grade children are building a Lenape wigwam inside their classroom. Fourth graders are mummifying an assistant teacher following the steps used by the ancient Egyptians. Kindergartners are installing a restaurant in their classroom and are taking reservations. At Bank Street, more than 430 students from nursery to eighth grade learn through play, simulation, collaborative interaction—all hallmarks of progressive education.

Bank Street faculty provide a structure and an expectation for students to engage with each other and take ownership of the curriculum in each subject area. The process of educating our students is collaborative and inclusive: student to student, teacher to student and student to teacher, teacher to teacher. As a New York City independent school, we make regular and deliberate use of the world outside our walls. Social issues are examined and discussed head-on. Indeed, marches for justice have happened within the school, in the neighborhood, in collaboration with adjacent schools, and in citywide marches such as the annual NYC Pride Parade.

Bank Street faculty and staff are experienced and trained in addressing social issues that arise out of living in a culturally rich nation. At the core of this approach is the Racial Justice and Advocacy (RJA) curriculum, taught to students in the Middle School (first through fourth grades). RJA has evolved from more than 20 years of work examining educators’ own racial identity development and considering developmentally appropriate teaching and learning practices for children. Led by the Director of Diversity and Community in collaboration with the Dean of Children’s Programs, the RJA curriculum is jointly created, reviewed, revised, and refined each year. Bank Street teachers depend on each other, on research in the field of racial identity, and on professionals in the field of education in the process. We work hard to ensure that the curriculum is age-appropriate at all levels.

A hallmark of Bank Street’s education is the practice of the “meeting”: a time when all students are able to have a voice regarding a particular theme. In one such class meeting, students (ages six through ten) are presented with a set of infant dolls representing a variety of ethnicities. They are informed that Lower School teachers (teachers of three- to five-year-olds) need their help—that the Lower School students are not playing with dolls of color and that teachers are wondering what can be done. Our six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds respond with answers like “Hide the light skin babies”; “Buy more dark skin babies”; “Have a meeting about it”; “Buy more light skin babies”; “Play more with the dark skin babies and have the teacher also play.” And: “Have a dark skin baby and their mom visit the classroom and talk about themselves.” These comments reflect the understandings that even young children possess of systemic issues prevalent in our society today.

The Bank Street faculty believe that it is of utmost importance that children have spaces in which they can discuss issues relevant to themselves with people who are like them. Sometimes the classroom teacher conducts these discussions regarding racial justice with the entire class, heterogeneously grouped. Other times, teachers allow discussion to occur within affinity spaces, in which students choose a group based on how they and their families identify. The role of the teacher in these groups is always the same: to listen and ask clarifying questions, to observe child behavior, and to record the comments of the group for later review. Teachers present questions regarding exclusion and inclusion and allow children to respond freely. With time and more conversation, children start to consider how the emergent themes relate to their everyday experiences.

In the oldest division, the Upper School (fifth through eighth grades), racial justice curriculum is closely integrated with the traditional academic subject areas. Students read the writing of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and the pro-slavery John C. Calhoun, as well as different historians’ interpretations of the actions of President Andrew Jackson. They study origins of the concept of race, the events that led to the development of institutionalized slavery, and consider how slavery, as a system, is unique among other systems of oppression. Students explore the idea that race is a social construct with no genetic foundation. This wide range of viewpoints—historical, scientific, sociological, and psychological—enable students to perceive a fuller picture of the development of the United States and the events that take place in modern society.

In addition to focusing on the aspects of racial justice that are closely tied to a study of American history, students of color also have the option of attending an affinity group, Kids of Color (KOC). Here, children who identify as kids of color learn vocabulary that helps them make sense of their emotions, practice how to express themselves, and acquire the historical context that illuminates inequity so that they can address it in their own lives. Being a member of an affinity group can offer clarity; individuals come together to explore the systems that hold us back while sharing what brings us joy and strength.

The impact of this experience is perhaps best summed up by an African-American eighth-grader who recently reflected, “At Bank Street, I have learned how to cope with the struggles that confront African-Americans. Recently for KOC, I attended a special lunch with kids from the second grade. A black boy asked me, ‘Does it get harder?’ I responded, ‘Yes, going forward there are things you’re going to have to face, but surround yourself with allies, people who will support you, love you, and you will be okay.’ Being able to experience that moment of connection, when I got to teach this young boy something, was powerful beyond belief. Thank you, Bank Street, and especially my mom and dad, for giving me the tools to face the world.’”

Social justice conversations about race, privilege, and equity take practice, trust, empathy, and a willingness to take risks on the part of children and adults. Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who founded Bank Street College of Education 100 years ago, believed in the social and political nature of education and viewed children as makers of meaning at every age. She envisioned education that prepares children to be active citizens and community members who care for the rights and well-being of others, not only intellectually but empathetically. It is with this history and attitude that we, people of all races, work together with the understanding that “our work is based on the faith that human beings can improve the society they have created.” Teachers at Bank Street work hard to make sure that students understand that while they did not create the problems faced by our nation today, it is their right and responsibility to be a part of creating a society of which they do approve.