Emergent Curriculum at Progressive Education ConferencePosted by Nick Gray on November 04, 2013
In October, Allie Bruce, Bank Street’s Children’s Librarian, and Anshu Wahi, the School for Children’s Director of Diversity and Community, traveled to Los Angeles to present at the Progressive Education Network (PEN) conference. Their presentation, “Loudness in the Library: Empowering Students to Think Critically About Identity and Bias,” demonstrated the benefits of emergent curriculum — lesson planning that takes children’s innate curiosity as its compass.
A Richer Conversation
Anshu and Allie’s presentation grew from a library visit from Jamie Steinfeld’s 11/12s School for Children class last fall. The class was to discuss realistic fiction, but in preparing for the book talk, Allie encountered a problem.
“When I was preparing for the kids’ visit,” Allie says, “I found that very few of the books featuring characters of color were actually fun. Most, in fact, only displayed the negative and tragic aspects of those characters’ experiences.”
She consulted with Anshu to discuss how to handle the topic. “Just be honest,” Anshu replied. She recalls,
“My goal was to present the problem to students, and get them thinking about these negative stereotypes, and about how the books didn't represent the full spectrum of experiences. But as the project grew, we saw that the problem wasn't just about race, and we started talking about gender, body image, LGBTQ issues, and more.”
When the class convened, a single question from one of Jamie’s students launched what would become several weeks of meaningful curriculum. A student asked why one book, in which the main character was a Latina girl, showed a bird on the cover, while every other book had an image of main character. The class discovered that books about children of color rarely include images of those characters on the cover.
“Instead,” says Allie, “they often use a symbol, or do something called ‘whitewashing’ — including a white character on the cover who isn’t essential to the plot, or even incorrectly depicting a main character as white.”
Anshu says the curriculum that emerged from this conversation provided an opportunity to connect with kids about issues of language, race, and culture. She recalls:
“When we discussed the vocabulary around these issues, the kids hesitated at first because they didn’t know how to talk about it. It can be complicated —even for adults. Some things are not okay, and others have no clear answer. These book talks created a space for them to feel comfortable to ask questions and understand the difference between naming race and racist language.”
Progressive Education at Work
At the conference, Anshu and Allie presented a week-by-week recap of how the lessons evolved, aided by photos of the classes, quotes from the students, and a video of Jamie discussing the process of developing a meaningful and agile curriculum that was truly responsive to the children’s concerns and interests.
Over 30 people attended their presentation. Attendees included educators from across the country who were interested in adopting Bank Street’s child-centered approach into their classrooms, regardless of location and resources.
Allie recalls that Bank Street’s founder, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, came up again and again at the conference. “Representing the College at the PEN Conference was a big privilege for us,” she says. They were joined at the conference by three other Bank Street educators, who presented on the importance of shop class and keeping play in the classroom. “Having all five of us there helped us continue to be leaders in the field by sharing meaningful progressive practices with our peers.”
Anshu says she recognizes not every school has the same resources to recreate the curriculum in the same way it emerged for Jamie’s class. “But we wanted to show ways we used the ideals of progressive education, and we hope educators walked away with tools to incorporate that approach into whatever works for them. Because in the end, the most important thing is that we know the kids responded to our approach.”