Why Learning the Ethical Culture Way Sticks

From kindergarten through the fifth grade, I attended The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York. This was no ordinary school, but an educational environment so interesting and alive that I couldn’t wait to get dressed in the morning in order to walk the numerous blocks with my sisters from our house situated in the Catholic–wrong side of the tracks– neighborhood to the wealthy neighborhood near Fieldston Road where the school was located.

In the third grade, when we studied Native Americans across the curriculum, we sewed our own Native American garments in industrial arts, crafted papooses in woodshop, learned Native American dances in rhythms, sang Native American songs in music. At the end of the year, as a culminating project, we dressed in our Native American clothes and took to the woods for a day where we baked fish in clay over a wood fire we built, ground corn for cornmeal cakes, played Native American games and lived for seven hours communally as Native Americans.

I loved this school. When I became a teacher of gifted kids, I used the emersion techniques I experienced as a Fieldston student to create curriculum for gifted kids to make their own learning meaningful from the inside out…the students encouraged to seek answers to their own questions in areas of their own interests.

If you go on The Fieldston School website today, the school’s philosophy of learning remains unchanged from the school’s philosophy when I attended the school in the 1950’s:

“The students become active learners and engage in vital discourse in a community of dedicated teachers and an atmosphere of intellectual discipline and creativity. Through a curriculum rooted in the tenets of progressive education, students become independent thinkers as they learn that asking their own questions and seeking their own answers provides the key to the deepest kind of understanding. Cooperative, student-centered, discussion-based learning, and the freedom to make mistakes, are part of our students’ everyday lives. We value inclusion and economic and racial diversity, and we honor all of our students for their unique contributions, cultural backgrounds, and beliefs. We consider service to be critical to the development of character, so we incorporate community service into the children’s school experience from the earliest grades.”

Teachers of elementary school students in public schools today have to meet so many requirements: school, district, state, nation. I think it is only the exceptional teacher who can meet those requirements and still create a living, breathing, exciting educational environment for students in which there is time for the students to ask their own questions about what they are learning–or better yet–choose something they want to learn and be guided to get meaningful answers to their questions.

I have not forgotten my elementary school teachers. Nor have I forgotten the satisfaction I felt in learning in the ethical culture way. My third grade teacher’s name was Ms. Barbara Phenner. We called her Phenny.

It might even be because of her I chose to be a teacher of gifted kids. She certainly made us all feel important and unique…special. Learning, Phenny taught me, is exciting, interesting, understandable, fun.