In his farewell address this week, President Obama spoke about the “rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste” and urged us all not to retreat into our bubbles but to seek out difference and engage in debate.
Finding ways to deliberately resist this stratification is one aspect of our mission as educators. Progress reports are being sent home. And while the content of your child’s classes is interesting and thoughtfully crafted, the impact that school has on students is frequently not just in imparting skills and ideas but in the experience of being in a classroom itself. Each classroom is a model of civic life, a community assembled and tasked with getting along and moving forward together. Students learn some of the most important lessons as they negotiate their disputes, allocate tasks, decide to share, listen to someone they don’t get along with, or learn to critique a friend. While our students have a lot in common - they are New Yorkers, they are English speaking, they attend an independent school - the classroom is in some ways the opposite of a social media feed. It’s where they don’t always get to choose their partner or the activity or the topic of conversation. How to negotiate those moments that are not going exactly as they would want is one way they learn to be citizens.
This learning isn’t just incidental in the middle school, it’s explicit. Teachers evaluate students’ ability to listen actively and patiently, to compromise and collaborate. We let students know when and how they need to be better classroom citizens; to pitch in more, or to be more flexible. These skills are even central to our progress reports - reported first, right at the top.
Adolescent issues class is one place - though not at all the only one - where we have explicit conversations about these habits. Last week in fifth grade adolescent issues, for example, we brainstormed the qualities and behaviors of a good friend. Some of their ideas are pictured here. They said a good friend is someone who: believes you, not the gossip, helps you get rid of your bad habits (nicely), checks in and pays attention, is happy for you (not jealous).
At the end of President Obama’s farewell speech, he said, “Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I've seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America. You know that constant change has been America's hallmark; that it's not something to fear but something to embrace. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You'll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.” And I thought of us here at LREI. And I felt hopeful and proud.