Posted two weeks late – sorry!
Anna is in the Netherlands with fourth grade teacher Cora, sharing about Brooklyn New School at a conference, so this week’s letter has a guest writer.
At our staff meetings this year, we’ve been starting our time together with storytelling, reflecting back on the years we’ve spent at BNS. Here’s one of those stories.
In the spring of 2008, I, Diane, assistant principal, was a student teacher in Beth Vertucci’s small class of 12 students at the Brooklyn New School (Beth has since retired, but she sometimes takes our second graders swimming, if you’re wondering why her name seems familiar). We worked with one paraprofessional named Johnny. Each student had an IEP, or individual education plan, and each child had his or her own strengths and challenges to share. I watched and learned as Beth prepared for each day – sometimes teasing 12 different threads out of a single story read aloud, a connection for each child, a goal and a next step. Beth and Johnny’s room, as it was, was both a home and a space for learning.
One morning, I arrived before Beth and found a small fish, deceased, on the classroom floor. I went across the hall to chat with Matt Sheehan, then fourth grade teacher, now head farmer at Edgemere Farm (where your first graders go) to find out if the class had a new pet, perhaps one that joined the room on the Tuesday between my Monday/Wednesday student teaching schedule. Matt affirmed, yes, they had a new small freshwater shark who arrived just the day before. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize it could jump out of an uncovered tank.
Soon, the children arrived, and Beth opened up a conversation to talk about feelings around loss and to answer questions. The group marked a range of understanding about death – some told stories of pets and people who were no longer alive, some stayed quiet, and one student ventured a question – “will it come back to life if we add water?” Beth’s years of wisdom framed her response, “what do kids think?” Most were skeptical, some unsure – so Beth got a small tub of water, and as 12 third, fourth, and fifth graders gathered around, they tried, they waited, they learned and concluded. That concrete experience, the space to ask the question, the environment where even children sure of an impossibility allowed for others to come to their own learning – the success was so clear.
A few weeks later, those same 12 children were required to take the state test. Some took the third grade exam, some took the fourth, some the fifth – all with a slew of accommodations, but none with the individualization of the questions Beth could craft, knowing them each deeply. Beth and I spoke often about why the 12 individuals in her class were required to take the test, one that didn’t truly assess how they made meaning of science experiments and of stories read aloud. This was long before the “opt out” movement had a title or a following, and instead some students simply “opted out” by refusing to write in their booklets or stay in the room during the exam.
Beth shared a quote with me, which I kept for a decade, only to uncover it as we find ourselves in the midst of this year’s testing season:
Every day at BNS is an opportunity to celebrate our individuals – their own questions, wonderings, ideas and successes. We hope you have a restful and adventurous break with them.
All for now,
A special note from fourth graders in Josh and Cora’s class:
Dear parents, teachers, and children of BNS,
We, a few 4th graders in Josh and Cora’s class, are overjoyed to announce a project we’ve been working on since March. It is a website that we call the BNS Climate Journal. We thought if we announced the problems of our planet openly to the world we could make a difference. The topics that our website contains include water overuse, combined sewer overflow, and plastic in the ocean. The website is live right as you are reading this and we hope you get to reading the amazing articles we and our friends have worked so hard to create.
Narwhal, Noie, Langston, Anna, Madeleine, and Hugo
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