Generations of Bank Street Teachers and Learners

November 29, 2008 at 4:24 pm 1 comment

posted by Debbie Stone ’84, former teacher/co-director of High Valley School

Debbie Stone '84

Debbie Stone '84

My Bank Street experience did that wonderful thing that you hope for in teachers’ education but seldom find: it gave me the kind of hands-on, self-exploratory and self-directed learning experience that my Bank Street instructors wanted me to give my own students. I had such wonderful teachers at Bank Street! Rose Rappaport, Ruth Hirsh, Leah Levinger, Marian Howard, Lucy Burrows, and, most of all, Gordon Klopf. I was in class in the summer, on weekends, and, one school year, every Tuesday night, when I carpooled from Dutchess County up the Hudson River with two other teacher/administrators who were classmates of mine in Gordon’s leadership program.

I came to Bank Street with a huge advantage. As a child, I had gone to the Poughkeepsie Day School, in those days a progressive school closely associated with Vassar College’s Child Study Department. The school’s director was Elizabeth Gilkeson, who went on to Bank Street and there became Gordon Klopf’s mentor. My mother had taught at the Day School, and my father had taught the student teachers from Vassar. The world I came from was aligned with Bank Street’s philosophy and methodology. When I first arrived at Bank Street in 1976, I was beginning a program that would take me eight years, studying to earn the master’s degree that would lead to NYS certification in Supervision and Administration, as well as several other areas. Like most of my classmates, I could not attend full time, as my full-time job was teaching at and co-directing a small, progressive alternative school whose students could not manage traditional school settings. I spent my days working with the woman who had been my teacher at the Poughkeepsie Day School when I was four, and then again when I was ten, Olga Smyth.

In 1983, I walked into Gordon’s office, with its beautiful bowls, baskets, paintings, sculptures, and furnishings, mementos of his trips abroad and in the U.S., gifts from students and colleagues. The shelves and desk spilled over with books, many written by Gordon himself, many related in some way to his fascination with adult development and adult learning, all available for his students to read and return or keep. His enthusiasm and generosity had always made me feel so welcome at Bank Street. That day, he greeted me and said to Ibby Gilkeson, “Here’s Debbie, and she doesn’t know what to write her thesis on.” The reply, “Why doesn’t she write about Olga?” was so perfect a suggestion that I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of that myself. Mrs. Gilkeson had known Olga as a Day School teacher, but she also knew that Olga was a Bank Street graduate and had studied with Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Barbara Biber in the early thirties.

The next months were exciting for Olga and for me. I had studied with Ruth Hirsh about doing oral histories and the extraordinary effect on both subject and interviewer, and indeed Olga and I were changed by the experience. I have hours on cassette tape (remember, this was more than 25 years ago) of Olga’s recollections of her life and work, and tapes of my interviews with her former students and former colleagues (including Elizabeth Gilkeson). Transcribing the interviews and writing about Olga helped to clarify for me what I had learned from her by my childhood experiences and my years of working with and for her. She was a more daring and independent person than I, while I was a more solid and nurturing presence in our classroom than she was. We worked well together, and I know I was a better teacher because of working with the woman who has been a lifelong mentor.

At the graduation ceremonies in the summer of 1984, Gordon Klopf paid special attention to Olga Smyth’s graduation fifty years before, and the historical connection that gave us to Lucy Sprague Mitchell. Several years later, when a group of Gordon’s former students worked together to make a tribute for him, I was proud to have the opportunity to interview Gordon and write about his life and work. He affected so many of us, and deeply influenced the way we see the world of education and our place in it.

Debbie Stone currently teaches at The Randolph School, a small progressive school in the Hudson Valley.  As a consulting teacher for children with different learning styles and experiences, she focuses on a particular student, or works with large and small groups, benefiting enormously from a chance to work with colleagues who share her enthusiasm for an integrated, alternative approach to teaching and learning.

Entry filed under: bank street history, collaboration, our teachers, special education.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lynn Gross Straus  |  December 2, 2008 at 9:41 am

    Debbie,
    I read your blog with pleasure and nostalgia. I remember so well working with Ibby and your father at Vassar and the Poughkeepsie Day School. What a great background it gave all of us! I became a student to Bank Street the year Ibby joined the staff there.

    I went on to teach first grade, then to start one of the very first Head Start programs and then- downward in age, upward in impact- to work with infants and their families. I am still active at the board level at Bank Street and Zero to Three.

    Thanks for your blog.

    Lynn Straus

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