Presenting and Learning at the Progressive Education Network's Biennial Conference

Have you stepped outside of your comfort zone today? At PKS, we’re always encouraging our students to challenge themselves and learn from the world around them. So of course, as teachers, we need to do the same! A team of PKS teachers, myself included, just came back from the Progressive Education Network conference in Minneapolis. This conference was a twofold opportunity – not only did we get the chance to be “experts,” presenting our perspective on progressive immersion education to educators from around North America, but away from the comfort zone of our SF bubble, we also had the opportunity to learn as our students do – by questioning, exploring, and trying new things.

Some of our students’ most authentic learning experiences happen through PKS Travels, which was the topic of a workshop I led with Ophelia and Jing. As an English teacher, I sometimes feel that I can’t possibly add to a conversation on international trips to China but I was pleasantly surprised. Educators from other schools were very interested in talking to all of us, and asked us how our project class teachers and specialists worked together to design trips that supported student learning in all areas, not just language acquisition. This question made me realize how truly unique our travel program is. Very few schools have a travel program where the work students do while traveling is a continuation of the work they do in the classroom all year round. The sequence of our trips is also carefully planned to build our students’ ability to act cross culturally and be advocates for a sustainable and equitable world. 

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Kate and Xuejing’s workshop, Fostering Natural Language Acquisition through Playful Inquiry-Based Learning, provided an opportunity for other educators to learn about how we combine language immersion with progressive methodology. Kate and Xuejing shared their examples and ideas with teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools, who taught subjects ranging from Chinese, Spanish, and German, to ESL and linguistics. It was validating to know that we are not alone in progressive immersion education, and that we share goals with colleagues in such diverse classroom settings. Although we were the presenters / experts in the room, we were also learners, hearing best practices from our colleagues.

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PEN is not a conference that shies away from big topics, and the theme this year – Educating for Democracy – asked attendees to consider the wider implications of their teaching. The two keynote speakers spoke frankly about racism within American society, and how it manifests within the school system. Paul Gorski challenged us to answer the question: “How can I be a threat to the very existence of injustice within my spheres of influence?”, and we were inspired by Dr Bettina Love’s talk on understanding and teaching black history. We also attended interactive workshops on mindfulness, multicultural literature, peace circles, progressive math education, and what it’s like to teach in a progressive school for 50 years. 

The conference wasn’t all talk – we also spent a day visiting elementary, middle, and high schools around Minneapolis. I was struck by how welcoming all the students were, and how keen they were to show us their learning, talk about how their schools are run, and give us ideas to bring back to try with our students. I met students who raised chickens, sewed costumes for theatrical productions, wrote graphic novels, produced popular podcast series, and carried out year-long self-guided math investigations. These students are the real-life proof of the potential of progressive education. I was both excited by the possibilities created by these young people, and saddened that I could not go back in time and relive my own high school experiences. Although I can’t go back in time and change my past, I can focus on the present and the future. What does a really great progressive school look like? How can we turn dreams into reality? PKS has come so far in such a short time, and we’re still growing. Now that I’m back in the SF bubble, I’m determined to find more ways to step outside of my comfort zone, and to encourage students to do the same.