The Progressive School of Long Island , established 1985, now has 128 students in Grades K-8. The following article is excerpted from an interview conducted by Didi Anandarama on July 9, 2005 with Eric Jacobson, the director. For more information on PSOLI, please visit <www.psoli.com>
We discovered that the students in this school benefited from appreciating what’s special about this school. In our Spirit Assembly we take one unique aspect of our school and highlight it. It is like cheerleading without standing up and waving the pompoms; that’s why we called it the Spirit Assembly. After we choose an aspect of the school to emphasize and experiment with, we talk about it and bring it up in our shows, our discussions, our songs and music. At the end of every month we have a Spirit Assembly. It is held in the morning with all children during an extended Quiet Time session. In this way all come to appreciate and enjoy the specialty of the education that their parents and teachers are providing them with. So we celebrate the specialty of our school; that helps us grow. This enhances the collective spirit, enthusiasm and pride in the school.
The first Spirit Assembly was a story on thelife of P. R. Sarkar as the founder and inspiration of PSOLI. We did a play acted out by the teachers, which the children really liked watching. It raised their appreciation that we have a great philosopher and a great philosophy behind the school. There were three parts to this story out of his life, one from his childhood, one from his youth and one from his older age. We adapted some ideas from his books and made fictional stories from his life based very closely on what he said in his books.
In the first scene he was sitting with a childhood friend near a well and talking to a frog in the well. The childhood friend asked him,
‘What are you doing?’
‘I am talking to the frog.’
‘So well, what is the frog saying?’
And he said, ‘the frog is saying that this well is the most beautiful well in the whole world, and there is no place better than this.’ (All are laughing). And then he wrote that Tiny Green Island song and taught it to them. It was just his childhood thing of being aware of what animals are saying.
The scene from his youth was when he was putting a question to a university professor and showing determination for his mission to make this place a better place to be. That is when he introduced the philosophy of Neohumanism.
And the final stage was about him starting all these schools around the world. His idea was that through these schools you can change the mind of people and the young people are ready for it.
The next assembly was about Paying Attention. This was also this year’s theme of the year. On this the children made a silent movie on a story about a child that did not pay attention. The movie was made with flashing light that made it appear like the old silent movies and the children acted it out in slow motion. In this way the topic was brought closer to the children. We were celebrating Paying Attention as a valuable quality of a person. We came to understand how valuable attention is, how everyone wants your attention and how nobody wants to give their attention. It is very hard to give attention. It is a very precious commodity. There are so many things people will do to get attention. The greatest gift you can give to someone is your attention.
Then we did a Spirit Assembly on Spanish. The children learn Spanish from an early age.
THEME OF THE YEAR
The theme of the year goes for the whole of the year. With a theme we can introduce a topic and experiment with it for one whole year. In this way the experimentation stays within a large frame and parents who are somewhat conservative can follow it well. We see how the theme can be incorporated into our school; something we learn every year.
We had many different themes, some were:
• paying attention
• your PATH (positive action and thinking)
• how to be positive no matter what the circumstances
• ecology – we had it several times, such as care of animals, care of plants
• mathematical games
For example, when we did the theme ofDrama , we wanted to see what the teachers can best teach through drama. We found that children can learn basic concepts very well through drama especially in social sciences. From this yearly experiment the teachers now teach social science through drama.
About Paying Attention for example we learned that it is important to define the needs of each teaching session. Some sessions require total attention with nothing in one’s hands, and one’s eyes and hands quiet. Some sessions require people to participate, call out, and not take turns. And some sessions require independent focus. We have found that it is important to tell the children that for the following time period we will do this type of lesson which requires this type of attention from them. They have learned for example that to meditate that requires a certain type of attention, where one is actually shutting out attention to all types of external things. It requires one’s focus. And that does not work in a lesson. Some children sit in a group lesson and meditate. They do not respond and when it comes to meditate they want to be talking. We help them to see that they have all the abilities but they are putting them at the wrong time. We tell them, you are using meditation time when it is group activity and that they are using group activity attention when it is meditation time. We have to define different types of attentions and when we apply them appropriately we will be successful.
CHILDREN DON’T FORGET WHAT THEY LEARN BY DOING
This has been the main point I talk about to parents when they enroll their children. I say they are going to find lots of things that are different about our school from any other schools they have been to. And if they remember just one thing they’ll understand it. And that is: Think long term – stop thinking short term.
What will the child remember years from now? What will they keep with them forever? That’s what we are aiming for. So everything we do, the way we teach lessons, homework they’ll understand this. The child’s being is at the core and the subjects on the periphery. The things that they learn that are related to them, they remember. And the trick is to pull the subjects into the centre core or make connections. If the subjects are standing by themselves, and the children are memorizing facts for a test; that knowledge tends to go out of the mind, it will not remain with the child. But if what they learn is connected to the child’s inner life it tends to be remembered. I have been seeing this for twenty years. Kids learn when it is connected – everything is brought into that centre piece.
What is the connecting link?
SERVICE AND HANDS ON PROJECTS
The connecting link is doing service and hands on projects. Anytime the child is “doing” – as with drama, stories and games – the activity is connecting with their inner life, with their personality, with their personal development. When you read from a textbook and answer questions an intelligent child who has a good cognitive ability can connect that through their brain but if you tell them act this out, their personality comes out, and then it becomes important to them because they think ‘I want to do well,’ ‘I want the best part in it’ or ‘I don’t want a part at all’. It becomes a part of their development. In the forefront of their mind is ‘I remembered my lines’ or, ‘they gave me the best lines,’ or ‘everybody liked how I interpreted that character’ – that’s in the forefront of their minds but connected to that is for example, ‘I learned the story of slavery written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
I am slowly learning to understand why those ties work. One of the things I do to act out slavery, I let my class act out Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I divide the class into 4 groups and let each group dramatize an act. And when they do that it’s worth so much study about slavery, because they understand it, they understand how cruel it is, they understand why this play affected people and why they wanted to end slavery, why Americans wanted to end slavery after seeing this play on stage. How a book can change the world. This woman’s book changed the course of America . And was probably the most powerful force behind the civil war and the change in America in the civil war. It became a sensation. This book of a woman changed the course of America .
In the same way in the American Revolution – there was a book ‘Common Sense’ that ignited the revolution. That’s microvita; an idea can do that. They don’t learn that from reading, they learn it from acting it out.
Another example is a hands-on project. We did one on an endangered species on Long Island called the Piping Plover. You have to do research on the bird, find out what organizations are active for and against it. And then do a project which could be either political like letter writing or it could be scientific such as building nesting areas. That’s a tremendous learning opportunity. We did that and our students built a nesting area which stands on a pole in the water. They had to get permission from the government. We also put up some fencing to protect the area and signs at the beach.Anything that the children learn when they do something, they don’t forget.
IDEAL OUTCOMES OF A NEOHUMANIST EDUCATION AT PSOLI
At our school we have a simple focus for the outcome of Neohumanist Education and that is for the child to realize that: “I have a gift, the world needs my gift and I am not afraid to offer it.”
I have a gift – Now what this does is that you keep this in mind as a goal. You will try to see that God has given them a certain gift. So there is that connection to God. And there is the self-esteem.
The world needs my gifts – this means the gifts are there for you to help others not for you to study for yourself, so this is your mission in a nutshell.
I am not afraid to offer my gifts – I have all the skills and I have been given them in a proper psychology and proper academics so that I can do it.
When I do individualized teaching I try to meet these goals. I do not try to get Danny to get in mathematics three years ahead. I’m trying to get Danny who is very poor in self control to go through his childhood feeling ‘I have gifts; I have something of value to offer to society.’ For him it may be math, for another child reading, for another art or for another child the ability to be a mediator. Every child has something that they can contribute. This is probably the most essential key to the success of PSOLI.
I can tell it in one story where you can see it all:
I had a little girl. She had all kinds of academic problems. She was diagnosed as having severe memory loss, language processing difficulty, inattentive and so she wasn’t good in anything from her point of view. What a burden for a child to go through childhood being evaluated for all the right brain activities that she can’t do, she can’t remember, she can’t process, she can’t copy; she has physical problems. So if she would be in a traditional school she would go through feeling ‘I’m a failure.’ She would not understand until she is an adult that you can succeed without being good at school things, school tasks. But by that time the damage is already been done to her psychology. By the time she reaches 21 or maybe even 40 or 50 she would think, I could have been a councilor, you don’t have to have a good handwriting, you don’t have good memory, you don’t’ have to be good at math, you have to care about people and you have to have a good insight, but that was never taught at school, that was never part of my report card.
What happens to this child at PSOLI is that the whole child counts, and so when we look at the whole child we see weakness, weakness, weakness but we also see strength, strength, strength. What are the strengths? Artistic strength? interpersonal strength? And so we think how can we use the individualized learning time for that. Well, we made suggestions to her. And because she could remember everyone’s names, everyone’s birthdays, everyone’s face and she cares about every new person – even though she can’t remember anything else she seems to be able to remember that. She does it better than I do. I once heard myself saying, ‘you know, I’ll just ask J. what’s the names of the new kids from B. and she’ll know.’ I don’t know how she’ll know but she’ll know. So why can’t we put that to use and maybe some of her artistic ability.
So we came up with some suggestion over a period of time. One of the suggestions that took root was to beautify the school bus. This combined her artistic and social ability. And the bus driver could not believe it, that a child in the school is actually trying to beautify her bus. She actually came up with an organizational plan to keep trash off the bus and making sure nobody lost anything. Now the buses are not even ours, they belong to other companies. So they were very thankful. Out of this the idea came that she could conference with children who were not happy on the bus and find out why. And out of that came a bus-conflict resolution committee where she would be the student chair person. She brought in a psychologist, a teacher representative. Every time she had her free work period she would go around the school to the different bus groups of children and find out who was not happy and what their problems was. So as a result over time all the little children started to look up to her. They said if you have problem, go to J. and she will help you to solve your problem and you’ll be happy. They went to her, the parents started to call and thank her and send her little gifts because the children ware happy now on the bus instead of crying.
And as a result of that J. started to stay ‘I have a gift and the world needs my gift.’ And what happened? As a result of that natural reward from her little society J. started to think, she started to accept instead of tears and frustration and ‘I hate math’ she started to say, ‘you know Mr. Principal, I am not so good at math.’
And I said, ‘you know, I am not so good at spelling and I can’t remember people’s names the way you can.’
She said, ‘that’s easy,’
‘Well math is easy for me.’ I said.
She said, ‘so why don’t you help me?’
‘Well, you help me!’
So I started to tutor her and she was willing to work harder than all the other children, hours and hours and hours. It took her only two years and she could remember her time table, being age 9 and 10. But at the end of the two years, we have a child who was, let’s say on an A-B-C-D-E-scale, a D student going to B+ and some As. She was getting an A – a 95 on social studies exam, getting 85 on math exam, being happy at school, caring about doing her homework. As a result I got parents who would say, ‘you have saved my child’s life. Anything you want I’ll do for you. Anything, I don’t care what you believe, I will just help you. Her father was a doctor. He would do anything for me. He’ll come in during office hours and do blood tests or come after work hours because he feels I have saved his daughter’s life. And that has a domino affect on other people.
So this story in a nutshell I think says what our school is best at. It is not about learning more than other children in other schools, it is not about learning as fast as you can. All the things, the individualized learning, the electives are so designed to get to the center of the person, to give them a sense of mission, a sense of purpose and sense of self-esteem. If the child does not have self esteem they will not – they will be afraid to offer their gifts. They will not offer. The ultimate self-esteem is, ‘I am God’ but in the meantime if they don’t feel that, they should at least feel, ‘I am here for a reason, God put me here and gave me something, it’s not an accident, I have to do something. I have to find out what it is.’
Children should not wait until they are 50, they should find out when they are young that they are valuable. Then they will do good things. When a child is happy, doing good things and feeling purposeful there is no limit to what the academics can become. And that’s why you see these newspaper articles all the time. All these kids were average kids, why are they on top of their class? Because they went through their childhood feeling a sense of mission, feeling a sense of purpose, dedicating themselves and remembering everything they learned. It blossoms – it takes a long time for the academics to blossom. You cannot expect a five year old to learn to read, not everyone will do it, some will, and some won’t. But the long time effects come from the core of the child being healthy. I always tell parents if you are looking for a school that has academic excellence you found it, but if you are looking for us to get there by testing and pressuring and homework and drilling your child, you did not find it. All the academic achievements that you hear about in our school are all side effects of the whole child being addressed. These are just the side benefits of the core being done well.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENTS OF PSOLI
We had entered the New York State ‘s Stock Market Game thrice and won twice. That’s a state wide competition in mathematics. We have had students accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, we have had 9 school valedictorians in the last 6 years, 6 children on Broadway starring in Broad way shows (Lion King, Fiddler on the Roof, one playing Nelson Mandela etc.), we had the number one scrabble team in the entire State of New York last year. We had the number one and two math students of Nassau County and we only had 12 children in the class! Our state test scores have been first or second for 5 years in a row in math and reading. This is for the whole state of New York compared against private and parochial schools. They don’t compare us to the public schools but they used to rank us and we used to be always one or two in the whole state. That attracted a lot of people but we had to make them clear that they were coming to an alternative school because they thought they are coming to a rigorous academic school. But that’s the unusual thing.
The practice of individualized work takes the teachers two years to learn. It’s hard, but there are certain clear steps: you have to evaluate their math, their reading and their writing. And then you have to form groups of similar ability, and then you have to assign teachers to teach those groups, and then you have to provide a lot of independent work time, so the individuals can bring up their work one by one to the teacher and the teacher can see that their work is challenging in an appropriate fashion – not too easy and not too difficult. And then the teacher has to make adjustments according to the speed the children are learning at. So let’s say Tess comes to my classroom to 4 th grade and after I evaluate her I see that Tess is an average 4 th grade math student with a weakness in multiplication facts, so I will group her with 5 other average math students and I will teach them math together every time I do math. But when we do individual work I give Tess some extra task of multiplication. When she brings me her work I find that Tess is progressing fast with her multiplication tasks and I find that she is the fastest learner of her group. And I begin to suspect that if I would give her a little bit more homework she could move up to the next level of math group, so I ask her parents would you be willing to work with your daughter on some topics she hasn’t learned yet. And after a few months she would be sent to a higher math group which is at the level of 5 th grade math. That’s adjusting to her speed, that’s an example of individualized learning.
Another example: I listen to Tess read and I find she is an expert fluent reader, she reads a lot of books, more than most children her age. So when it’s time to do required novels instead of having her sit in and read with the class, I give her another book, tell her you have 7 days to read this book and then we’ll have a study circle to talk about what this book means to you. The class may take 20 days to read the book. So when she is done with reading the book, the next 14 days I am going to give her another book that she is going to read independently and make it into a project. So while the class is studying one novel, Tess is studying two – that’s individualized reading; it takes a lot of practice. You need a flexible schedule, with periods of individualized work time, need general independent work time. And you need an extra teacher; one teacher can’t do it. Teachers in public schools aim at the middle because they can’t take care of either the slow learners or the gifted because they have the whole class. They have no extra energy attention to give those below and above, it’s the machine gun approach, it benefits the average. In our way we see that the children are unique, they can be good in one area and not in another; the real goal is not the academic but the personal.