An Invitation to the Past

Craig Kridel

Dr. Craig Kridel

Today’s blogger is Craig Kridel (University of South Carolina), who authored the article “Black Progressive Educators of the 1940s: An Overlooked Chapter of Progressivism in American Education,” which appears in the July 2020 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article, which is part of the John Dewey Memorial Lecture series sponsored by the Daniel Tanner Foundation, through the month of August 2020.

I didn’t know what to expect when I embarked on an oral history project many years ago.

I thought 1930s and 1940s progressive education would have entered African American schools in some way, but because there was so little documentation, I was uncertain.

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Lincoln High School faculty, Tallahassee, FL, ca. 1944; courtesy of The Lincoln Room, The Lincoln Neighborhood Service Center, Tallahassee, FL

To my delight, I would discover a group of black progressive educators and their students, many still living, who participated in the Secondary School Study, staged from 1940 to 1946 in 17 experimental high schools in the American Southeast.

My article, “Black Progressive Educators of the 1940s,” introduces KDP members to this overlooked chapter in progressive education and African American education during the time of Jim Crow. But my essay is not as much research as an invitation for readers to hear directly from those magnificent teachers and students as they describe these extraordinary experimental schools.

The 1940s narratives . . . give us the opportunity to “enter the classroom” and watch the joys and problems of the experimentation by a group of courageous teachers and students.

These teachers welcomed classroom experimentation as a way to improve the lives of their students. Like today, they were aware of problems and issues caused by change, but they felt little fear. They built strong communities among themselves and among the other participating schools in the study where, unlike today, they were encouraged to experiment with their curricular materials and instructional methods. They didn’t have professors hounding them about research designs or establishing validity and reliability. Experimentation was a natural part of their educational life, a way of life, and the Secondary School Study would ultimately maintain that an experimental school was a healthy school.

I interviewed more than 150 individuals, between the ages of 80 and 102, during a 13-year period (2007–2019). This resulted in a 150-page exhibition catalog, Progressive Education in Black High Schools (with 102 historical images and 186 contemporary photos), and a museum website, The Secondary School Study Web Exhibitions, presenting more than 500 images and historical documents and 750 statements from the interviewees—from teachers and students themselves—as they describe progressive and experimental methods from their classrooms. The interview statements do have some glow of “those were the days,” caused by the passing of the years; yet, racial injustices and the daily indignities that black teachers, students, and parents endured during that time (and beyond) never permitted our conversations to float off into idealistic utopian rhetoric.

During my work I discovered a remarkable set of materials like no other I have ever seen in my decades of archival and historical research.

All participating schools were requested to submit final reports; however, three schools prepared creative nonfiction narratives of their experiences with classroom experimentation. In these 1940s ethnographic, historical school monographs, we join educators discussing their curricular and instructional methods and ways to better convey meanings and to connect with young adults. We overhear teachers talk to students about their hopes and plans for the future and their search for ways to make school more meaningful and more able to prepare all for the indignities that they would inevitably face.

The 1940s narratives, recently republished and now titled Becoming an African American Progressive Educator: Narratives from 1940s Black Progressive High Schools, give us the opportunity to “enter the classroom” and watch the joys and problems of the experimentation by a group of courageous teachers and students.

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High school students from Moultrie High School for Negro Youth, Moultrie, GA, 1947; courtesy of Odessa Walker Hooker.

We meet Susan Prim, a teacher with a “mule-in-the-middle-of-the-road attitude toward newfangled ideas,” but who recognized that her students’ needs were not being met; and we watch her change from a traditional teacher to a progressive educator. We are introduced to Miss Parker, a first-year teacher who comes to understand the basic tenets of progressive education and the practice of teacher–pupil planning. And we follow co-valedictorians Sarah and Herbert as they walk around their high school interviewing teachers and students to prepare their commencement speeches.

My research became a gesture of service and, ultimately, of affection for those I met.

I was graciously invited into homes so that those who had been ignored and silenced for years could finally speak.

I was able to offer teachers and students a public and academic venue for their astonishing tales of the joys of education under the harsh circumstances of segregation and social injustice.

They spoke with grace and dignity, with pride and with laughter, and with anger and righteous indignation that these special experimental schools had been ignored and dismissed by their local and regional communities.

I invite you to join me and stand in the corners of experimental classrooms of the 1940s.

The published narratives and hundreds of oral history descriptions allow us to see life in those schools and to wonder how progressive ideals and classroom experimentation could alter and improve our lives in classrooms of today. “Black Progressive Educators of the 1940s: An Overlooked Chapter of Progressivism in American Education” appears in the July 2020 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record.

The Secondary School Study Web Exhibitions may be visited here.

The exhibition catalog, Progressive Education in Black High Schools: The Secondary School Study, 1940–1946, may be downloaded gratis here.

The three school reports, now presented as one volume, Becoming an African American Progressive Educator: Narratives from 1940s Black Progressive High Schools, may be downloaded gratis here.

The Daniel Tanner Foundation supported the printing and web-dissemination of these Museum of Education materials as well as the article, “Black Progressive Educators of the 1940s: An Overlooked Chapter of Progressivism in American Education,” in the KDP Record.

Get free access to the article, which is part of the John Dewey Memorial Lecture series sponsored by the Daniel Tanner Foundation, through the month of August 2020.

Craig Kridel is the E. S. Gambrell Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Educational Studies and Curator Emeritus of the Museum of Education, University of South Carolina, and is currently completing the unfinished memoir of Harold Taylor (1914–1993), former president of Sarah Lawrence College and KDP Laureate.

We Are Fully Aware That We Are Facing a “Global Learning Crisis”

But What Are We, As Americans, Truly Doing To Solve Our Own Education Crisis?

Shortly before the 2019 International Youth Day, the United Nations General Secretary, Mr. Guterres, stated that the world is currently facing a “learning crisis.” The UN Chief also mentioned how pivotal it is for students to not only learn, “but to learn how to learn.”

One of the goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to ensure that all students have access to an inclusive and equitable education.

As a first-year teacher and sociology of education graduate student, I believe that before we can solve our “global learning crisis,” we must acknowledge that in our very own backyard, here in the United States, our public education system is failing our students.

In fact, in his book, City Schools and the American Dream: Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education, Dr. Pedro Noguera expresses how as a nation, we are aware that our public education system is failing our children and youth. Yet, very little is being done to ensure that our students receive an inclusive, equitable, and high-quality education.

For that reason, as a first-year third-grade language arts and social studies teacher in Newark, New Jersey, I agree with Dr. Noguera, “we can’t wait for permission to do what’s right.”  We simply cannot wait for our elected officials to establish equitable policies, nor can we wait for the “political climate to be right.” Real change happens from below.

With that being said, come September, in my third-grade classroom, my top priority will be to ensure that I provide my students with a high-quality education. An education that will enable them to challenge and enhance not only their thinking, but the thinking of their fellow classmates and teachers as well.

When we provide students with the necessary skills, they are given the opportunity to make a difference in their world.

To end, I urge all teachers, specifically all first-year teachers “to not wait for permission,” as per real change can certainly occur in their very own classrooms.

Kevin Cataldo

Hi, my name is Kevin Cataldo, and I’m a recent graduate of Felician University in New Jersey. I was the chapter president of the Alpha Zeta Rho Chapter of KDP on campus. I’m also a representative of KDP to the United Nations, as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), and I am at currently a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Thinking Critically About Our Current Education System

Hi, my name is Kevin Cataldo, and I’m a recent graduate of Felician University in New Jersey. I was the chapter president of the Alpha Zeta Rho Chapter of KDP on campus. I’m also a representative of KDP to the United Nations, as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), and I am at currently a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University.

On July 15, 2019, Teachers College welcomed K–12 educators and all other stakeholders from across the country and around the world to its 4th Annual Reimagining Education Summer Institute (RESI).

During the Institute, participants got the opportunity to critically think about our current education system.

In fact, during Day 1, the participants were asked to keep the following questions in mind: Why must we “reimagine” education here in the United States? The remaining 3 days focused heavily on the following: (a) racial and cultural literacy, (b) equity pedagogy, and (c) culturally sustaining leadership.

Here I am with Dr. Ladson Billings!

This year’s keynote address was delivered in an eloquent, powerful, and thought-provoking manner by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, a KDP Laureate.

She is considered a pioneer of culturally relevant teaching, a pivotal area of study in education that I hope to learn more about as I continue my graduate studies at Teachers College.

The Institute was extra special for me this year, as this was my first time participating in it. I also was a dialogue session co-facilitator.

During the 4 days, my co-facilitators and I provided K–12 educators and other stakeholders with a brave space to share their thoughts, feelings, concerns, and knowledge about our education system. As a soon-to-be first-year third-grade language arts and social studies teacher in Newark, New Jersey, the Institute provided me with hope that I have the power to “reimagine” our education system and truly make a difference in the lives of my students.

At the conclusion of the Institute, both educators and stakeholders were asked to return to their respective school communities with a crucial question in mind: “What Now?”

In other words, what will I do to bring equity pedagogy into my school community?

Today more than ever before, the United States and the world must join forces and “reimagine” education, especially since one’s society depends heavily on an educated citizenry.

Furthermore, as a member of Kappa Delta Pi, International Honor Society in Education, and as one of its UN Youth Representatives for the upcoming 2019–2020 academic school year, my goal is to raise awareness about this unique Institute at the world stage—at the United Nations Headquarters.

To end, raising such awareness can be beneficial not only to educators, but to other stakeholders within the United Nations as well.

Why? Think about it: The goal of the Institute is to help educators realize how vital it is for schools and stakeholders to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (SDG 4: Quality Education).

True Confessions

Dr. James A. Banks

Dr. James A. Banks is a KDP Laureate and one of the education “rock stars” Faye is excited to meet at Convo.

Faye Snodgress is the executive director of KDP International.

I was asked recently by a fellow KDP staff member why I seem to be a bit giddy when Convocation is being discussed. I had to confess…I am genuinely getting excited about Convo, and in particular about  seeing  my “rock stars” in education. Having heard about and read  works by James Banks for decades and frequently coming across his name in my work with the Laureate Chapter, the thought of meeting him and hearing him in person at Convo is nothing short of exhilarating. And Linda Darling Hammond! Her extensive research and thought-provoking articles are at the center of  education reform debates and teacher retention discussions. I still clearly remember her participation on the Laureate panel discussion of NCLB at Convo in 2003.

We all have education scholars that we remember from our days in teacher preparation and  from our ongoing  professional reading. They are people whose ideas and research challenge us to reflect on our understanding and practice as we pursue ever higher standards and performance for ourselves, for our schools, and for our educational policy. Laureates influence our profession in ways that makes all of us better educators. They are individuals that I greatly respect and admire. While I am busy  with the final preparations for Convo, there is still a growing  feeling of nervous excitement about meeting someone special. Yes, I’m giddy with anticipation. It doesn’t matter that I’m a self-proclaimed nerd. I can’t hide my excitement about the upcoming Laureate panels at Convo, where you will find me sitting in the front row. Convo is one of the very few venues when all members can personally and informally meet and talk to their personal “rock stars.” You can bet that I already have my books packed, ready to be signed by the scholars who authored them. For now, I continue to count the days until Friday, Oct. 25!