Lower School Back to School Night 2019 - Erin Gordon

Good evening and welcome.

This evening is a real highlight for us as educators in our treasured journey to partner with you around educating your children.

While you’ll learn from your child’s teachers about the inner-workings of the classroom and the curricular arc of the year, I want to talk for a bit about the bigger picture, what it means for your young children to be students at our school, an academically excellent, progressive school. 

At TPS, our students engage in deep, authentic, rich content and use an evolving toolkit of carefully taught skills across their days. I saw a third grade parent at dismissal recently, and I asked her how her son was feeling about third grade so far. She said,  “It’s going great. I’ve got to tell you what he said about his teacher. He said, ‘Mom, Kaitlin really gets me as a writer.’” This simple line struck me for many reasons. 

  1. This 8-year-old boy views himself as a writer. Not someone who is learning to write or whose teacher is a writer. He has developed a sense of self and purpose as a young child and sees himself as a writer, a writer who has the power to communicate and the power to continue to grow and develop as all writers do.

  2. He feels known and seen by his teacher (on like the 5th day of school) as a writer, a part of his academic identity. 

  3. He feels supported by his teacher. She knows him as a writer for a reason. Knowing a child and their development allows us to know where to direct or encourage the child next. It informs us in our next steps as teachers.

I want to lift this child’s quote up because it’s one I think we could hear across our school in many different contexts: “They really get me as a mathematician.” “They really get me as a reader.” “They really get me as a researcher or a scientist or a friend or a community member.“

At TPS we do “get” kids in all of these ways. This is the power of our progressive pedagogy. It’s because of our progressive pedagogy that we are able to build a rich, compelling, and powerful academic program. 

We understand that there is a close relationship between child development and learning, and that children’s emotional lives are inseparable from their learning, interests, and motivation. We set out to use what we know about how children learn to create classrooms that embody the ideals and practices of a democratic community. In contrast to a more traditional, rote-learning environment, we encourage children to be active: to venture out and inquire about the world around them.

So, yes, we do know kids in all of their facets, and we want children to know and understand themselves in those ways as well. As early as kindergarten, we expect children to engage with us in conversation about what they are working on in their reading, for example, and to show us what that looks like. That is our way of validating the work they are doing, re-enforcing the child’s identity as a reader, and informing our knowledge of the child’s reading development. It’s from small questions like, “What are you working on in your reading?” that allow us to elicit important information and strategize around the next steps in our instruction. 

A professor of mine in graduate school said something so simple yet powerful to me that I now always keep at the center of my thinking about progressive education. He said, when you think about progressive, you need to look at a the root of that word, “PROGRESS”. Progressive educators use their knowledge of individual children and child development to progress, to move with children in their understanding and application of content and skills.

As you may know, one of the core tenants of progressive education is attending to the whole child. We believe that a child’s academic and social-emotional selves are interconnected and serve each other. It’s our job to know and teach into both. Research shows that when a child’s social-emotional self is well known and cared for, they are more able to take risks, engage bravely, and participate productively in their learning. Our attention to the whole child allows us to provide every classroom and every child with the highest quality academic program and outcomes. 

Another aspect of our progressive approach that allows children to feel safe enough to take risks and lean into new learning is the value we place on community. Our teachers and your children work all day every day to learn what it means to be part of a community - the responsibilities, the care-taking necessary, the benefits, the challenges. Learning, both academic and ethical, happens with and from one another in a community. 

Collaboration is also critical. In our school, you will see adults working with children with an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving. We look for and want to hear many voices in understanding situations and scenarios. The ability to hear, respond to, and be comfortable with varying perspectives provides children with deeper and more complex learning opportunities. 

And, Social Justice fuels our purpose. While community and responsibility are surely alive within the classroom, we are ultimately working with children to help locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond self, beyond friends, beyond their own known experience in order to take action and seek to know about and positively impact the lives of others. While we don’t expect this of our youngest children, this is what we work towards. 

Our progressive pedagogy, the beliefs that savvy educators over a hundred years ago lifted up when looking for ways to bring the qualities of democratic society into the classrooms of children, are at the heart of what allows us to teach your children the skills, hard skills and soft skills, with the quality, consistency, and passion that you will hear about tonight. For at the end of the day, our belief in children and their potential underlies all that we do. Children - their wants, interests, needs - are at the center of our decision making at TPS. We don’t simply design curriculum that is recycled year in and year out. We take our cue from children, the particular group of children that is in front of us at the moment. 

These early years of schooling are so precious. We are grateful to have the opportunity to shape them for your child and for your trusting in us to do so. I look forward to the year ahead and to getting to know the readers, the writers, the mathematicians, the scientists, the naturalists, and the friends and community members in our lower school. I know with all my heart that they will be seen, they will be known, and they will be taught with excellence and care.