In continuing the quest, last week we visited another middle school (and yet another is scheduled for tomorrow, and another next week). This one, The Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, MS 448, is a very popular choice in the area…which was demonstrated by the fact that there were over 200 people there for the tour on Friday.
The school is known as “progressive” or “alternative” and that’s one of the reasons for its popularity. Now, I’m a progressive educator myself, of course, as I think should be pretty evident to anyone who knows me or at least has read some of this blog. I’m interested in a student-centered classroom, inquiry-based learning, socially constructed knowledge, multiple intelligences–I know all the jargon, and I know all the practice, and I’ve got quite a few years of experience (about 20) implementing it (mostly at the college level, but I began my career as a high school teacher, and my Masters degree is from Lucy Calkins’ program at Teachers College).
So I’m certainly no stick-in-the-mud, and to call me a reactionary or a conservative approaches fighting words.
I was not impressed by what I saw at BCS. The principal (a committed and serious person, clearly, with a lot of experience), gave a long introduction, with a lot of emphasis on what the school is, and what it isn’t. She was very clear that there were ways in which the school was not for everyone, and one of those ways was that the school was very definitely engaged in a project of teaching students first and foremost about collaboration (it’s right there in the name of the school). Every activity, every method, is designed to foster that goal. She described some of what she felt made the school unique, too, and much of this, I thought, was really not particularly unique (a strict policy of no hitting and no hitting back is not at all unusual–I don’t know of any schools in NYC or anywhere else where they have a policy that hitting is just fine).
What is truly unique is this focus on collaboration as a primary goal, and a primary technique. Now, that’s unique, definitely, and I can see that for some parents and some kids it might be the most important thing. But in my opinion collaboration is something that is only partially taught at school, and partially taught at home, and partially is a developmental step or stage that kids develop through experience. It’s good for a school to encourage it, and to model it, but it’s not in itself an item of academic content which deserves such a primary focus.
And that’s where the school really seemed to break down. We saw surprisingly few classes in session–most of the rooms seemed to be empty–perhaps we were touring at a bad time, a gym hour, or something, but even the rooms where classes were meeting were locked. And in the classrooms where we did see class sessions, the atmosphere was chaotic, unfocused, and it seemed that in several instances the groupwork that was going on was productive and engaging only at the one table where the teacher was sitting, while the kids at the other tables were goofing off, chatting, or not entirely sure what they should be doing.
I also noticed that the teachers did not seem energized, or happy, but somewhat harried or desultory and resigned to their lot. Not a good feeling to get from them, and they were certainly not welcoming or interested in the prospective students and their parents who were coming through.
There was also an emphasis (that seemed excessive) on students’ self-awareness, self-centeredness, and self-development. It was present in art projects, essays that were posted, just about every activity or assignment that I saw. I certainly think that kids at middle school age need to be thinking and learning about themselves and their place in the world…but that’s not all they need to be learning about. And even then, the important part is “and their place in the world,” not just “about themselves.”
In addition, the assignments themselves, even the ones that were touted as unusual and innovative (building structures out of toothpicks and then destroying them with an earthquake machine), did not seem to include the vital step of making a connection between the fun and innovative experience and real academic content. They built the toothpick structures and destroyed them, and that was fun, but I never really heard, and no one seemed to really think it important to articulate, what they learned from that.
Of course, it’s not easy, and not really fair, to judge a whole school from one brief morning visit. But that’s pretty much what we’re reduced to in this system, and the contrast with the visit to Sunset Park Prep Academy was just so striking. Even in that one short visit, the feeling was so opposite–it wasn’t anywhere near as touchy-feely, politically correct, alternative or innovative as BCS, but there was such a marvelous feeling of enthusiasm, engagement, and real, directed, organized, and productive collaboration. And real respect, for the students, and the faculty, and the prospective parents.
BCS is not going to be in our list of top choices. Sunset Park Prep certainly still is.