This weekend I thought I’d share a letter I sent in support of an important, courageous, and responsive undertaking by my colleagues at the New Trier High School (Winnetka and Northfield, Illinois).
For a second year, New Trier High School has organized an all-day “Seminar Day” on the theme of race and identity. Seminar Day came into being — in part– in response to feedback from New Trier graduates who felt that their homogeneous school experience left them without the skills they needed to understand the history of race, concepts surrounding identity, so as to be able to have meaningful interactions with folks who are different from themselves.
This year’s Seminar Day, “Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights” is scheduled to take place on February 28th. Students will attend two of more than 100 offered workshops and sessions, and hear one of two keynote speakers: Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) or Andrew Aydin, (co-author with Congressman John Lewis of the March series) .
A backlash to this Seminar Day began last year and is continuing even more forcefully this year. I live in Evanston, which is a racially and economically diverse community just to the south of Winnetka and Northfield. While Evanston tends to be seen as a paragon of diversity, it is not without its own struggles, questions, and issues surrounding race and equity. That said, the kids who attend our community high school, ETHS, are afforded with the gift of being in a place where there is a wide range of cultural, ethnic, economic, and racial diversity, and where ongoing conversations, coursework, and experiences with folks who are different from each other are part of the fabric of daily life at ETHS. Their peers at NTHS are clamoring for something to fill a gap in experience and understanding that will surely require more than a day– but Seminar Day is a great start.
Here’s my letter, sent in support of Seminar Day.
I write today in support of New Trier High School’s Seminar Day on Feb. 28, “Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights”. I write as a lifelong learner and career-long classroom educator, and I write as the current president of the Progressive Education Network. Winnetka has a large slice of the historical pie in the progressive education movement, and Carleton Washburne one of its early champions and proponents. In fact, Tom Little (Loving Learning) refers to Winnetka District 36 as “the county seat” of progressive education in the early 20th century. There is no better time to keep Dr. Washburne’s work and vision in mind than right now, because the progressive education approaches and practices for which he advocated are needed now more than ever.
I understand that New Trier has been accused of being progressive in its approach with this day of learning, exposure and conversation. I applaud the label heartily. With a history that spans decades, progressive education is concerned, primarily, with the student experience; it is concerned with and seeks to, among many other things, “amplify students’ voice, agency, conscience, and intellect to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world.” In a very small nutshell, progressive educators create responsive curriculum which engages students in their world as it spins, as things change, so that our students– our future– can become better prepared for the adult world which they are steps away from inheriting. I read the genesis of Seminar Day and as I did so, found myself thinking that nothing could be more responsive than answering the student call for more conversation, more preparation, more learning around the history of and issues surrounding race, privilege, and justice in this nation. Nothing could be more responsive, and nothing more timely or, frankly, correct than listening to the students when they express a need for more understanding of their world, and as such, my colleagues at New Trier High school should be lauded for their efforts, planning, and consideration of the creation of this day that will be of benefit to the young citizens who attend the school. In fact, I heartily extend an invitation for my colleagues to submit workshop proposals for our 2017 national conference, to be held in Boston this October. The theme is in alignment with our first principle, which is that education must: “amplify students’ voice, agency, conscience, and intellect to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world.” Any of your faculty are welcome to attend the conference and join a community of educators who are committed to nurturing “citizens in an increasingly diverse democracy, engaging students as active participants in their learning and in society, and who support teacher voice as experienced practitioners and growth as lifelong learners.”
I wish my colleagues and their students rich conversations, inspiring sessions, and thoughtful deliberation as folks consider what their needs and calls to action might be in this 21st century world. May the students of New Trier see in the adults who care for them a courage to join with them as they lean into difficult conversations and to acknowledge , as William Faulkner wrote, that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The exciting news is, our students have an opportunity to use the past to shape a more just and equitable future.
With all best hopes for a thought provoking day,
Theresa Squires Collins
President, The Progressive Education Network
PEN is committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment in all of our activities and operations. We do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, gender expression, age, national origin, ability, marital status, military status or sexual orientation.