Recently I had one of those quintessential Bank Street moments—a moment that made me both proud and grateful to be an educator and a parent in our community. One of my sons, who is in the 11/12s at Bank Street School for Children, expressed at dinner that he was distraught about something that had transpired earlier in the day. In science, the class had been studying reflection and refraction of heat and light, and as a culminating assessment, the task was for small groups of students to build an oven—using cardboard boxes, aluminum foil, construction paper, and lamps—that would heat a marshmallow to the point of being s’more-worthy.
Having spent time in numerous schools throughout my 25 years as an educator, my first thought pertained to the value of the task itself. Unlike most middle schools, where science investigations involve following a prescribed sequence of steps, often on a worksheet copied from a manual, in which students conduct the experiment in lock-step fashion, record the data, and generate conclusions based on pre-ordained results, my son and his classmates were provided a compelling and open-ended challenge, required to draw upon prior knowledge and then given the freedom to derive their own solutions. In other words, the cognitive “heavy lifting” fell squarely on the children themselves.
And, wow, did things go awry. That evening, my son’s frustration was oozing infinitely more than the marshmallow itself, which—to his great chagrin—had remained in the same state of matter at the end of their experiment as it was when they received it. “Our experiment was an epic failure,” he proclaimed. When I probed for specificity, my son relayed that he was upset not only that he and his classmates were unable to apply their scientific knowledge to elevate the temperature of the marshmallow but, just as significantly, that they had not succeeded in working well together. “No one was listening to each other … We just kept blurting out our own ideas … We never really got to make a plan.”
At the end of the lab period, realizing that emotions were high and that the students had not yet achieved their desired results, their teacher skillfully intervened and suggested that, for homework, each of them spend time thinking about what they learned and write down their best ideas for how to construct the oven. Further, the teacher invited them to come in the next morning before school to take another stab at the experiment.
Back to our dinner table conversation. Soon after my son released his feelings and frustrations, he took out a piece of paper and got to work. He sketched a box, labeled the sides, identified the materials, and wrote an explanation of why he felt that his proposed oven design would sufficiently heat the marshmallow. He felt grateful for the opportunity to reconvene with his classmates, with the personalized guidance of their teacher, and to have another shot at the task at hand.
I share this story, not because it is extraordinary, but because it highlights what is commonplace at the Bank Street School for Children. Students being asked to do real work. The essential interplay between academic rigor and social-emotional development, hard and soft skills. Teachers knowing just the right way to intervene at just the right time, and then availing themselves for additional support. The value of reflection and metacognition. The importance of failure.
Head of School