Find & Seek hosts ongoing discussions about education in Red Hook. We co-hosted (with Anthony Fatato of World Education Endeavor) our first round table in the back classroom at the Red Hook Public Library (the same room where we give our classes) on the evening of September 10, and filled the room with representatives from Good Shepherd Services, Red Hook Initiative, Brooklyn Public Library, PS 15 (Principal & PTA), Brooklyn New School, Young Life (and its new Red Hook chapter of Young Lives, a service for young mothers), the Child’s Place for Children with Special Needs, Kentler International Drawing Space, Project Hope, and the Library’s GRE program. At that meeting we introduced our program by sharing images of our practice, and we invited members of the Red Hook community to discuss inspiring stories that had come about in and through their work with children.
Our latest conversation widened to include other educators' voices from around NYC and Boston. On the evening of Oct 23 at the Miccio Center (NYCHA) in Red Hook, Find & Seek and WE Endeavor co-hosted a conversation with Alyssa Kierkegaard, the program director of the Boston-based group the National Institute for Student-Centered Education. NISCE provided valuable context to the meeting with their model of "Why Context Matters– A Professional Conversation on Student-Centered Education.” Our discussion was facilitated by Anna Allanbrook, the principal of Brooklyn New School, and included voices from Red Hook Playgroup, Bumblebees R Us, the Alex House Project (for Red Hook young mothers), Cora Dance Studio, Red Hook Makerspace, Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, A Child Grows in Brooklyn blog, and parents and educators from the Red Hook and larger NYC community. At Find & Seek we were happy to find a kindred spirit in Alyssa Kierkegaard of NISCE, who posed some great questions to our group about our collective efforts to achieve true child-centered education: How well are we doing in teaching to each child as an individual? Where is variability in teaching happening? Have we found any approaches that are scalable beyond a single classroom, school or district? All who attended seemed to have been led there by the power of these questions.
Anna Allanbrook opened the conversation with her claim that child-centered education is at risk. She then helped to provide a framework for student-centered education within Brooklyn New School (PS 146), by setting out a well-articulated definition that placed “relationship” at the center, and which followed the course of “flexibility” in teaching since the school’s inception in 1987. The emphasis on relationship was echoed by the recommended reading--a NISCE paper written by Dearborn Academy Director Mark Dix, “Putting Student-Centered Education in Context.” Because relationship lies at the heart of the Brooklyn New School mission, all learning that takes place at BNS is dependent upon the child feeling safe within the school environment and with members of his/her classroom community. Secondly, Anna pointed out that each child’s learning must be differentiated and teachers must try very hard to determine what success means for each child. Anna provided thoughtful guidelines for implementation of child-centered education. She mentioned many, but these stood out:
• The school environment should support children in taking risks and making discoveries on their own.
• Children should be allowed to learn at their own pace.
• Teachers need to pay attention to a child’s development of interpersonal and social skills.
• Schools should avoid tracking with favor placed on diversity so that children can learn different things from one another.
• Schools should invite parents into the classroom on a daily basis.
Many in the room wondered why this model is not being implemented more widely today. “Since everyone loves BNS, why aren’t there more schools like it?” The discussion touched upon another point made by Dix in the NISCE paper, that schools seem to be still operating as if we were living in the original industrial revolution, when schools were truly designed to create factory workers. Anna lamented that many student teachers are finding it difficult to locate truly child-centered schools to study under in the city. If our new teachers cannot learn a child-centered approach from teachers who are actually practicing it, then where will they learn it? As Anna mentioned, the role of the teacher is always to be “watching”. She encouraged us to “go at a way slower pace” and do away with damaging initiatives like “Race to the Top”.
Some main points emerged from our discussion:
• Why is student-centered education at risk? What are the forces stopping it from growing? Many people in the room could find anecdotal evidence in their own lives or teaching practices where the exact opposite of child-centered approaches to learning were being modeled.
• Play, the arts, parental involvement and other facets of a well-designed child-centered school are inarguably important as we strive to serve the needs of all children.
• There is a great disconnect between the inspirational philosophy behind student-centered education and the reality of the situation within today’s public school classroom.
• Why aren’t parents included in school community? When schools close themselves off to parents, they not only do not support child-centered education, but they pit parents against teachers. We agreed that parents and teachers need to work together more.
Another idea arose: “We live in a culture of fear.” If that is the case, we must ask, as writer and mother Sarah Moriarty did, “What is everyone afraid of?” We agreed that there are a host of forces in education and society which are at odds with child-centered education: poverty, unequal schooling environments, big business in education, teachers facing top-down mandates, and a culture of teaching to the test. Educators Takiema Bunche Smith and Joseph Ubiles reminded us of the danger of attempting to solve the complex problem of educational equality when inequities are so persistent a reality in our society. If children are not coming to school from a warm home, where they are well-fed, then how can we teach them? “Child-centered learning” is thrown around a lot as a pedagogical term, and it sounds great in theory. As educator and mother Mollie McQuarrie noted, there are ever growing volumes of research in neuroscience to support it, and press touting it, but still our country is seriously struggling with allowing all children to access it.
At our next round table, we will discuss the “how" of child-centered education: real life examples of ways it is working in the world. Real anecdotes of teachers’ and administrators’ practices and challenges when it comes to designing and best utilizing a child-centered environment. For Find & Seek, as educators with an eye to documentation, we are asking ourselves: how might we make successful progressive schools, schools who are excellent at doing the how well, more visible to the the public at large, so as to begin to dispel some of the fears and myths surrounding student-centered education? We are committed to having more conversations like this one, gathering together with kindred spirits in Red Hook and beyond to mobilize around this issue and to educate beyond families and schools. This will help us to deepen our understanding of student-centered education, so that we can become better advocates for it, especially as NYC experiences a massive shift in local government, in just a few weeks.