A Conversation with Mike Levy

Mike Levy, PKS’s new Head of Middle School, comes to us from Avenues: The World School, a K-12 independent, progressive language immersion school in New York City.  Mike helped open and grow the school’s New York campus, and helped work to establish its Beijing campus as well.

Born and raised in Chicago, though a New Yorker for much of the last ten years, Mike has taught and learned around the world. He spent three years living in rural China, and another three years in Beijing with his family, all of whom are dedicated Chinese learners. We sat down with Mike in March when he last visited PKS to learn more about his background.

Q: Relocating from New York to San Francisco is a big move. Do you have ties to the Bay Area?

My wife Ines has family in Marin—her parents and her brother and his family live here, so we have deep ties to this area and have spent lots of time here. We have sampled all the best dim sum in the Bay Area!

Q: Tell us more about your family.

We’re a global family. My wife grew up in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese and Mandarin. My brother is a Judaic Studies professor in Norway. I studied in the U.S. and Israel and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China (I taught at Guizhou University in the southwest of the country). My wife and I met at Cornell. Ines is a Wall Street banker—I’m a Panda dad. Our daughter will start preschool at PKS in the fall, and we have a one-year-old son and a rat terrier named Tudou. He’s very handsome.

Q: What drew you to teaching as a career?

I decided to become a teacher when I was a YMCA camp counselor in Michigan. Being a camp counselor really taught me what good education is all about: you’re having fun, life is full of joy, but you’re also learning about who you are and what you are passionate about. If you saw me teach, you’d think: this guy was a camp counselor. I think great teaching is both purposeful and rigorous, but also full of laughter and wonder. I studied philosophy and religion in college, and my first teaching job was at a boarding school in upstate New York. It was a “second chance school” in a Shaker village, and the experience was fantastic. I thought—this is it. I could do this for the rest of my life.

But first, I wanted to test something out: I went to Yeshiva Jerusalem to see if I wanted to become a Rabbi. I discovered I did not, so it was off to graduate school at Teachers College at Columbia University. My first job after grad school was at a Quaker school in New Jersey where I taught history. I’ve been in and around the classroom ever since.

Q: You were heavily involved in the middle school at your previous job at Avenues in New York City. We should PKS families know about middle schoolers?

Kids are going through huge changes when they get to middle school. Chemical, physical, biochemical changes in the brain and body. Two periods of a kid’s life involve incredible changes: the first 18 months of life and middle school. Other periods of life are relatively placid—you don’t have hormones blasting in your system. What this means is that middle school is a very delicate stage in life. We sometimes forget this and do not treat these years with the specific structures, support, and mindset kids need. Too often, as a result, middle school is just “high school lite.” This is actually quite destructive.

Q: Can you talk about progressive education, and how to address parents looking for rigor and structure and those seeking a less structured, more experimental approach?

When I was in school I was fixed into a box. I was convinced I couldn’t learn a second language because I got a C in Latin in sixth grade.  And I was convinced I wasn’t a math student because I didn’t find math as easy as, say, English class. To be that young and have such a fixed mindset is tragic!  Progressive schools don’t let this happen. We let kids grow and change and transform, we want them to thrive and we carve out the space they need to explore their interests. We know wild transformation can occur between, say, 12 years-old and 15 years-old, and we fight tooth-and-nail to prevent our kids from settling into negative, fixed ideas about themselves.

At PKS the big boulders are in place: progressive learning and Mandarin immersion. As a progressive school, kids won’t be sitting in rows, they won’t passively recite facts, they won’t regurgitate information on tests. But “progressive” at the PKS middle school will be so much more than this. Our curriculum will be research based. It will get kids out into the city and into the world. It will continue to teach kids to be bi-cultural ambassadors. 

To be more specific: In middle school at PKS, students will be answering life-worthy, 21st century questions that require high levels of academic proficiency in both English and Chinese. Students at other middle schools might write an essay about Abraham Lincoln, or take series of Chinese vocabulary tests.  Our students will answer questions like: Is BAT (Baildu, Alibaba, Tencent) or GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) better positioned to own the 21st Century?  How do cultural, linguistics, and history inform an answer to this question?

If you don’t know Chinese and English, you can’t answer this question very well. You have to be able to talk to people in Chinese, you have to know some source coding for WeChat, you have to be able to get out into the world. PKS grads will be able to answer questions like this far better than I can, that’s for sure.

If I were to sum all of this up in a sentence, it would be this: a lot of schools are preparing students for the world we remember, not the world our kids will inherit. Not PKS

Q: What do you do to chill out?

There are three things I need every day to make me happy: ride my bike to work, walk my dog, and take a nap. I’m hoping I’ll have the first two-out-of-three once we settle in San Francisco.

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