Our Strategic Vision

Upper School English Sparks Joy—and Freedom

I remember my English teacher in my junior year of high school. Her name was Hester Keller, and I remember being terrified of her. The summer before the class began, I remember dreading the work that I would have to do that year, believing it would be too hard. I had heard from older students that she was draconian because of the work that she assigned and the volume of quizzes she gave. She had a tough exterior and smoked cigarettes around the corner of our school building each day, rain, snow, sleet, or shine.

On the first day of our English class, she asked us to share who we were and our favorite novels. At the time, it was a tie between Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. She smiled at my choices and continued down the line of students in her class. She ended our first class together sharing with us, what we would now call, her teaching philosophy, although she certainly didn’t call it that all those years ago. She told us what she demanded of us, all of us—hard work, research projects, crisp prose, original thinking, and more. She told us that she was not going to give us girls the answers, and she certainly wasn’t going to tell us what to write. We had to come up with our ideas all on our own.

Some students snickered, some began to whimper, and some of us smiled. She made us write and rewrite; she forced us to pour ourselves onto the page, and she got to know each one of us as individuals. What I didn’t know then, but I know now, was that she was mirroring a movement of dynamic education in each one of her classes long before it became popular. She became one of my favorite teachers that year because she saw my potential, and she requested nothing less than my best. Ms. Keller died of cancer at the end of my senior year, but her way of teaching and her commitment to excellence, critical thinking, and the centering of student voices has stayed with me to this day.

While Ms. Keller didn’t begin her English classes naming that she was a proponent or disciple of educational theorists like John Dewey or Maria Montessori, I know today that the kind of classroom teachers like Ms. Keller created way back then are the same kinds of classrooms that we have here at BFS—the kinds of classrooms where children both love their learning and thrive.

At the beginning of each school year, I return to two perennial questions: what does a dynamic classroom or academic program entail, and how can we continue to safeguard the identities and the dignity of all the children in our care? With COVID-19 still at our necks this year, my answer to these questions has been, as my grandmother and Emeril Lagasse would say, “kicked up a notch.” What we do in and out of our classrooms each day here at BFS is dynamic, mission, and values-aligned. And while we will always try to tinker with and tweak our recipe for educational success, we have all the ingredients and, gratefully, have been able to see a finished product: our children’s ability to thrive outside of our walls. For me, a dynamic educational experience includes four components: discovery, relevance, student-centeredness, and, most importantly, interpersonal connections that allow all students to feel seen, heard, and valued. This year my answer is also that we need more—more joy, more fun, more celebration of our students’ varied identities, more choice in assessments, more equitable-based grading, more discovery in their learning, and still more.

Scholar, activist, and overall bomb human being, bell hooks writes the following in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom:

“Student’s want an education that is healing to the uninformed, unknowing spirit. They want knowledge that is meaningful. They rightfully expect that my colleagues and I will not offer them information without addressing the connection between what they are learning and their overall life experiences. This demand on the students’ part does not mean that they will accept our guidance. This is one of the joys of education as the practice of freedom, for it allows students to assume responsibility for their choices.”

A superior program, as hooks says, is “meaningful,” is lasting, centers the student perspective, and is, therefore, freeing.

We have seen many moments these past few months in the Upper School of education that allows for the kind of freedom that hooks espouses. We saw it at November’s Intro to Upper School, 8th Grade Family Event at Lawrence when our senior, Luca, talked about the joy he feels in being an active participant in his own learning. The words of each one of our panelists on that Friday morning would have made John Dewey smile. Each one of them, without a nudge from the adults, talked about the doing of their learning—working on their internal assessments as scientists, musicians, or mathematicians here on campus. We also saw it during the senior classes’ viewing of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Liz Heck and I teach senior IB English, and we have been fully immersed in the work of James Baldwin for the past month or so. Anyone who walked into the crowded Black Box that morning on Lawrence Street could have heard a pin drop. The students were not just engaged, but they were also focused, honing in on the film before them. Together, we have read and analyzed not just the film but also a few of Baldwin’s essays and his stunning and painful novel Giovanni’s Room, pouring over the pages of his prose, unpacking as many words, phrases, and motifs as possible. We discussed systems of oppression like racism and sexism and how there are many, like David, still strapped by their own self-hatred, unable to love or be loved. I hope we did Baldwin proud. And finally, we see it in the ways in which our students advocate, whether it is our environmentalists in Friends of Nature and senior Hannah Vinson proposing an overhaul of our dining experience by providing each student with reusable utensil kits, our joint field trip of the Middle and Upper school Black Affinity Groups celebrating their identities by seeing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, or the large group of Model UN students preparing to voice their convictions on a national level.

There is still much to do, much to learn, and much to reflect on here at BFS. But I am glad that who we are and the work that we do continues to spark joy and center engagement in each of our classrooms, continuing the work of teachers like Ms. Keller. 

Kamaya Prince Thompson is the Head of Upper School at BFS.


This story originally appeared in The Light—Brooklyn Friends School Magazine. You can view the entire issue of The Light online. 

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