Falling in Love with Bank Street…and Out of Love with “Education”

November 10, 2009 at 9:30 am 2 comments

posted by Fred Baumgarten ’84, writer/musician/naturalist/father

fredTwenty-five years ago I earned my master’s degree in pre-service teaching at Bank Street, squeezing by on a rather thin thesis five years after I first enrolled in the program, fresh out of college, and a year before I would leave teaching for good.

I was ill-prepared to be a teacher, not because of Bank Street, but because I had a poor sense of myself and what I wanted in life.  In my confusion, I struggled uncomfortably through my year of coursework, my thesis, and my brief teaching career.

I didn’t “get” Bank Street.  In my naivete, I remembered only my own traditional public school education and thought, “I turned out to be a decent student.  What’s wrong with traditional education?”

Now, a quarter-century later, not only age and (perhaps) wisdom have changed my perception.  I have grown up and had children and watched my two girls make their way through elementary school.

It would not be an overstatement to say that my perspective has done a complete reversal.  I must have absorbed everything I learned at Bank Street by osmosis.  As a practical matter, that means I spend a good part of my day wishing I could magically transpose my daughters from the school they’re in to Bank Street or one of the many schools inspired by the Bank Street model.  (Not a very productive pursuit, admittedly.)

I see and grasp what a real education can be.

Yet life circumstances preclude any imminent change in my daughters’ schooling.  Ironically, the public school they attend is in a tiny town two hours from New York City, with tiny class sizes.  Yet the curriculum and teaching could have been imported wholesale from the New York City public school I attended more than forty years ago.  A factory model predominates.

Undoubtedly, larger pressures are at work: No Child Left Behind, relentless standardized testing – the results of which affect school district funding – and the national pendulum swing toward “basics,” “standards,” and “accountability.”  But that can’t possibly be the whole story.

It can’t explain social studies lessons that are ripped right out of mass-produced textbooks, or a mathematics curriculum that is an endless parade of facts and operations devoid of any meaningful context or joy in numbers and patterns.  It can’t explain the unending stream of homework assignments that consist of inane worksheets, random spelling words, and rigid reading assignments – never reading just for pleasure.

It can’t explain why, even though our school is located adjacent to a wetland and a forest, with even a desultory nature trail right behind the ball fields, my children have never set foot anywhere close to these areas. It can’t explain why my daughters get 20 minutes for lunch – often not enough time to finish a single sandwich – and 20 minutes for “recess,” on a full (or semi-full) stomach, one assumes.

For my older daughter, now technically in “middle school” in grade 5, the problems grow acute.  The daily schedule is built on the old-school model of a bunch of fragmented 45-minute periods.  Typically a good student, she is already struggling under the weight of 90 minutes of homework a night, including weekends.  Worst of all, her love of learning is being extinguished, particularly in math.

I went to talk with the principal about some of the problems.  In the waiting room was a copy of John Holt’s classic “How Children Learn.”  If only they would read it, I thought.  All the flaws in the traditional paradigm Holt wrote about 25 years ago are still true.  Nothing has changed in our little corner of the world.

Now I face the problem of trying to improve my children’s educational experience without becoming a pariah in the community.  I would welcome ideas and hearing about others’ similar experiences.

Fred Baumgarten is a writer, musician, and naturalist, and is presently Director of Foundation, Government, and Corporate Relations at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY.  Fred was previously at Bard College and before that he spent 20 years at the National Audubon Society.  He lives in Sharon, Connecticut. Fred would be thrilled if you click “Add Comment” below.

Entry filed under: classrooms, dialogue, families, our teachers, school reform, standardized testing.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. maria Johnson  |  March 11, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Hi Fred. I attended Bank Street in 92-94. I was enraptured with their methods for teaching, and yet was already teaching. Because of that, I was able to question BS on how they could possibly attend to each child which they ensured was possible. Fast forward to my life as a mother of 2, no child left behind, and the the tragic collective conscious from those without teaching experience of what ‘education’ is today. We too have a beautiful lake which is only a 10 minute walk from the elem. school, and yet none of the lessons use the lake. Recesses are such a bother to many of the teachers having to coral the kids, and deal with the mud and complaints from the parents that they frequently elect not to go out. I see both sides, as a teacher, and yet I can’t help but ask what happen to John Dewey and the common sense of teaching children? I am very frustrated. Having taught in the Middle School for several years, we decided to place our child in private school. It’s crazy I know, and yet she is in such an experiential place. We can only afford it for her 7th and 8th grade. We also ask ourselves given the commitment of it financially if we aren’t crazy. But she comes home happy and very engaged in her learning. So as a rather old parent, I can only ask what my mission is here in this short time. I think it is about good music, storytelling, the arts, and of course finding what it is that you feel the ‘passion’ from, and then going for it. So far so good. Can’t afford to fix our shower, but hey she’s 12 and whistles every morning. I understand both sides and yet as you mentioned, it is the memory of Bank St. which resonates.

  • 2. anamcarahealingeducation  |  December 3, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Thank you for your reflections on the Bank Street Model. I had a KG teacher who was influenced by Bank Street and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. The hope of those early days kept me going through the inane worksheets and stupid testing of later years. I really appreciate your words and am sharing them on Facebook. I am currently studying Early Childhood Education in Canada and know just what you mean about becoming a pariah. Keep it up! Our children need us.

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