Middle school humanities teacher, Melissa Andersen, reflects: One of the things I greatly appreciate about teaching at Friends School of Minnesota is the amount of freedom and encouragement I am given to continue my growth professionally and personally. This last week, I was lucky enough to attend the Progressive Education Network’s (PEN) national conference, Access, Equity, and Activism: Teaching the Possible, with fellow FSM teachers, Laura Pereira (art), Andrew Rutledge (third & fourth grades), and Marshall Anderson (kindergarten). The conference, held biennially, was in New York City, where many of our country’s oldest and leading progressive schools are located.

I began this school year with a desire to be inspired not only by new ideas, but also by reaffirming what I know and believe about progressive education. Tom Little, a founder of PEN, states in his book Loving Learning that, “progressive education prepares students for active participation in a democratic society, in the context of a child-centered environment, and with an enduring commitment to social justice.” While I know that this is something that lives in FSM’s mission, philosophy, and practices, it felt encouraging to network and learn from the talented educators, authors, and activists we were surrounded by at the conference.

Friends School of Minnesota teachers Andrew, Melissa, Marshall and Laura at the Progressive Education Network’s National Conference 2015
Friends School of Minnesota teachers Andrew, Melissa, Marshall and Laura at the Progressive Education Network’s National Conference 2015

Our participation at the conference began bright and early on Thursday morning when we left to spend the day at different progressive schools in New York. Marshall spent the day at the City and Country School, Andrew at Fieldston School, Laura at the Brooklyn Free School, and I at Manhattan Country  School.

Manhattan Country School, on 96th Street in Manhattan (on the east side of Central Park), is a K-8 school of similar size to FSM. The school, housed in a large, old, beautiful row house, showcased its progressive nature right away. Its creative use of the space and child-centered atmosphere made me feel at home the minute I walked in. While at the school, I got to observe classes of all ages, tour the school, speak with teachers, and during lunch, discuss how the school has actively worked to create diversity in their faculty and students. I also learned about the school’s farm, located north of the city in the Catskill Mountains. All students spend time at this fully-functioning farm several times a year, where they bond with each other and their teachers, learn how to work together and solve problems, experience real-life work, and discover themselves.  In the afternoon, host teachers took our group to several sites in East Harlem, including a community garden and a series of murals. The school’s focus on place-based education was evident throughout.

On Friday morning, we heard from a panel of educator-activists speak about the future of progressive education, with a particular focus on access and equity. Ever since, I have been thinking more about FSM’s commitment to diversity and wondering how we can make our great progressive school more accessible to more families, particularly of students of color and from varying socio-economic groups.

After the panel, I departed with a group for a walking tour of Harlem. The tour, led by Manhattan Country School’s sixth grade teacher Karen Zaidberg, modeled a tour she takes with her class each spring. We saw a host of sites that have played an important role in black history and culture both past and present. I gained a new appreciation for learning about the importance of place while seeing sites such as Sugar Hill, the Apollo Theater, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the site of a former Black Panther headquarters, the Harlem YMCA, and the Harlem Hospital.  I was struck by the new construction of so many condo buildings, a sure sign of gentrification. While I realize I can’t necessarily bring FSM students to walk the streets of Harlem, I know similar opportunities await us here in the Twin Cities, and I’m excited to see what we can do.

Friday afternoon’s keynote speaker, Fania Davis, spoke about her work in implementing a restorative justice program in Oakland’s Public Schools. I thought about how we might use pieces of this model in FSM’s conflict resolution program, and I’m interested in exploring this more.

Saturday morning’s panel of activist authors was something I was very much looking forward to, and it was no disappointment. The panel included Andrea Davis Pinkney, Jacqueline Woodson, and James Lecense. They spoke about their personal experiences of equity, and the importance of schools in providing books that serve as windows and mirrors for students. Students need to see themselves reflected in books (mirrors) just as much as they need books to provide them with opportunities to learn empathy (windows).

Later in the morning, I went to a session on poetry and social justice. I’m ready to use some of the tools and resources, including music and art in addition to poetry, in our existing poetry units in middle school. I ended the day by attending a session on promoting social activism in schools. While I didn’t walk away from this particular session with any specific ideas, I gained a stronger understanding and some language ro use about how social justice is a vital element of progressive education.

In reflecting together, Marshall, Andrew, Laura, and I agreed that this was definitely one of the more worthwhile and inspirational professional development opportunities we’ve had. We appreciated being able to go together and have this common experience, and I’m eager to see what we can do back at FSM.