Learning By The Block

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One afternoon, more than 75 years ago, teacher Caroline Pratt was watching a friend's 6-yearold son create a railway system out of old boxes. It struck her that children like to reconstruct the real world when they play. They build houses, trucks, hospitals, and grocery stores, not just for the sake of building, but also to explore the relationship of one thing to another. She guessed that as children play, they test and increase their knowledge about how the world works.

Play, she concluded, is really children's work, and it is so educational that children should be doing it during, not after, school. At a time when desks were literally nailed in straight rows and most teachers focused on the recitation of facts and endless arithmetic and spelling drills, the idea was heretical.

She left her teaching job at a Philadelphia normal school, borrowed a room in a friend's Greenwich Village apartment, and filled it with blocks. She convinced six neighborhood mothers to send their 5-year-old children to her "school,'' and the experiment began.

The sound of block meeting block still reverberates today. Pratt's innovative ideas about learning have been kept alive for the past 75 years at the City and Country School--named because trips to the country have been a traditional part of the school's program. Housed in three old brownstones in the same New York neighborhood where Pratt first set out her blocks, the school now serves 130 students, ages 2 through 13.

Block by block, Cheney, Morgan, and Harry have built two towers as high as their pint-sized arms can reach. Now, they step back to survey the structures. But rather than express the usual childish pride or glee, they scrutinize the buildings with a critical eye. After all, these are not towers to erect and knock down; these are the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and they want them right.

"We need antennas!'' Cheney exclaims. Julia, who is pressing down on her half-finished Empire State Building to see if it is sturdy, pipes in, "Only one of the twin towers has an antenna.'' A discussion between the three erupts: Is that true? Which one has the antenna? The teacher enters the small circle of debate with a New York City tourism pamphlet. On the cover is a photo of Manhattan with the twin towers of the World Trade Center jutting into the sky; sprouting from the northwest tower is a bright red antenna.

Harry and Cheney rush to the block-filled shelves in search of something tall and skinny. Harry tries balancing a long, rectangular block on its end, but it is too narrow and will not stay upright for long. Cheney comes back with a handful of small, red wooden cubes. Quiet excitement mounts as he stacks the cubes one on top of the other in the center of the tower's roof. They smile at each other with wild, pumpkin-toothed grins: It's just right.

It is all part of an average day for kindergarteners, known as the Fives in City and Country vernacular. Rather than use grade levels, C&C labels classes according to the students' age: Sixes for 1st grade, Sevens for 2nd grade, and so on.

Rising from the floor is Manhattan in miniature: Central Park, a market, and a museum, with the Empire State Building at one end and the World Trade Center at the other. Across a river of blue paint drying on the linoleum floor is Liberty Island, with Andrew and Nino's own geometrical rendition of "The Lady'' with her torch.

The teacher, Elena Coniaris, is performing one of the C&C teachers' most important roles: She is staying out of the way. She jumps in from time to time to help the children find information and, more often, to ask questions.

"What is going to happen when you make your building this high?'' she asks the redhead who is stacking heavy columns on top of a rickety base. "Wait a minute,'' she says to two boys who have been arguing about whether boats can go inside the Statue of Liberty. "How can we find out what it looks like?'' A minute later, they are poring over the pages of a picture book of New York--getting an introduction to the process of research as well as learning what the statue looks like.

Part of each day is devoted to this kind of block-building. The children initiate what they want to build, and it is the teacher's job, not to teach them how to do it, but to "facilitate'' when needed. It's a child-centered approach, based on the concept that when students have the raw materials they'll present themselves with educational challenges.

"Most teachers think that they have to get the children's attention, keep it, and keep order, '' says teacher Mary Hansen. "If you decide that you know what children are to learn and you're going to teach it to them, slowly you disengage them. Whereas, if you help them set their own task, they usually set the appropriate learning task for that age.''

For the school's youngest students, blocks are used much as they are in many preschool programs today: They are available along with paint, clay, and a water table. But unlike other rooms set up for tots, this one is void of commercial toys; the children are encouraged to make their own.

They do it indoors, with the now-familiar "unit blocks'' that Caroline Pratt designed but never patented. And they also do it on the rooftop play yard. With the help of their teacher and two aides, they use larger-scale materials--wooden boxes big enough for them to crawl on or into, kid-sized planks, ladders, and sawhorses--to construct their own houses, trains, sailboats, and more. "They build wonderful places for themselves and learn to use materials in a safe way,'' teacher Susan Friedman says. "They start exploring how to put things together, how tall they can build things, learning concepts of number correspondence and balance.'' And, she adds, as the year progresses, the building helps them learn social skills. "Someone will make an airplane and add more and more seats,'' Friedman explains. "Someone will make a store and start selling things.''

Kindergartners, who spend all day at school, work part of each day with the blocks. They continue to build outdoors, but use larger boxes with the planks, ladders, and sawhorses. And their work with indoor blocks becomes much more structured and elaborate. At a "block meeting'' each Monday, children verbalize what they intend to build. The teacher writes their goals on the board and the blocks "stay up'' all week to give students time to complete their tasks.

There are practical rules to follow: They can't build too close to one another and they are responsible for repairing any damage they cause to another's building. The teacher maintains a kind of editorial control. "We stick to reality,'' says Coniaris. "They need to build something that they know about and it should be realistic. For instance, if everyone wanted to build their own Empire State Building, I wouldn't let them because there is only one.'' The focus is not how well they duplicate the buildings but how well they solve the problems that arise in carrying out their work.

The curriculum also includes singing, working with clay and paint, listening to stories, and dictating their own to a teacher or aide.

The blocks continue to be an important--though less time consuming--part of the curriculum through 2nd grade. In addition to the blocks, 1st grade students focus on understanding sounds and letters. But unlike traditional 1st grades, there is no formal reading instruction--Pratt believed that children would become more successful readers if they were not pushed into it at the age of 6. In 2nd grade, the curriculum becomes more traditional. The day is divided into periods: math, journal-writing, reading (including 30 minutes of reading for pleasure in the library), language arts, and outdoor exploration. But the sessions are shorter to preserve one hour for the blocks. This is not considered free time; it is the most valuable period of the day, says teacher Kathleen Holz.

Students at this level build block cities that grow not necessarily in size but in detail and sophistication. Again, every Monday the children set new objectives. But now they build quickly and spend the majority of their time adding what Holz calls "accessories.'' And the focus shifts from the building's appearance and location to what happens inside the hospitals, police stations, and airports they build. Their block cities provide a framework for the class to learn the basics of government, economics, and transportation.


Upstairs in the Sevens' class, Lulu and David hover around a monolith of blocks, four-stories high. On the base, taped above an entrance, is a card on which is scrawled in a child's writing: David and Lulu's apartment building/$100 a year/93 2nd Ave. David is tacking on a "No Parking'' sign while Lulu figures out how to rig up an elevator using string, a small metal pulley, and an empty butter dish.

Around the corner from the apartment is a movie theater. It's a "triplex,'' the two architects are quick to point out "so that we can show three movies at once.'' And, sure enough, spread out over five feet of floor space is their masterpiece. It has three rooms with tiers of seats ingeniously separated by tall, wide screens. Patiently, the two theater designers are labeling each block seat with a number and cutting tickets out of construction paper. A question arises that Holz puts to the whole class: "How do people in a city know what's playing at the movies?'' Someone suggests slipping notices under all the doors in the apartment building. "There is writing on the front of it!'' offers a girl who is shaping tiny bottles of medicine out of clay for her hospital. So, the theater owners decide to make a marquee to advertise the premiere of a movie that promises to be a real 7-year-old's blockbuster. It is called "Nostril Juice.''

Suddenly there is an accident. One of the little wooden people living in the apartment building has broken a leg. He is rushed to the hospital. The chief surgeon does some quick thinking, then creates a cast out of cotton and masking tape. "That will be $1,000,'' she demands. And so another discussion begins. Where do people get money? Do banks make money? Do the people who work in banks own money and give it away? Holz says such questions offer learning opportunities in math and science. "You can see they are curious about money. So, we'll get into banking, learning place value, and how to make change.'' A question about lights might inspire a trip to the Energy Museum and experiments with batteries and bulbs. "By the end of last year, the children made a permanent city with running water, lights, buzzers, and a working subway,'' Holz says.

And language arts opportunities abound as well. Getting a 7-year-old to practice penmanship in a workbook can be a chore, but Holz's students gladly pen dozens of signs for the block city every week. In the process, they get practice in sentence construction, spelling, penmanship, and reading.

Eventually, more complex language arts projects take shape. Holz recalls the time when a child decided that the city needed a newspaper. "She went to the buildings and interviewed each person, took notes, then asked me how to spell the words correctly. Then, she wrote it neatly--because she realized that if she wrote sloppily no one could read it--and called it Block City News. She took it to the copier, miniaturized it, cut it out, folded it like a newspaper, and sold it in the block city.'' Holz goes to one of the few closed cupboards in this school and pulls out a box filled with tiny newspapers. "It was the most wonderful thing,'' she says. "When it came hot off the press, every child would get a copy and be absolutely absorbed in reading it. After she did it for a couple of weeks it became a permanent job in the city.''

Other than the work with blocks--and the opportunities they afford for putting math, language, reading, and writing skills to use--Holz says the academic expectations of students do not differ too much from a more traditional school. With classes capped at 12 students, however, teachers can give each child more individual attention. Instead of all children working from the same chapter of a book, for example, she puts together individual packets of work geared to the needs of each child.

After 2nd grade, the children put away their blocks and assume jobs that are essential to the operation of the school. The Eights and Nines manage the school store--ordering, stocking, and selling supplies for staff and students. The Tens hand-letter all the school's signs and run a messenger service between the office and each classroom throughout the day. The Elevens print attendance and library cards, and other school forms on two 19th Century letter presses. They also publish a literary magazine and set and print original poems and stories that the Sevens write. The Twelves work as mentors with the Fours, and the "seniors'' of C&C--the Thirteens--are the writers and editors of the school newspaper.

The jobs program, as it is called, is designed to give students a sense of responsibility for the school, and purpose and meaning to their academic work. As they cross over from play-acting in the land of blocks to operating a real store, they put their skills to the test. "They pretend that they are purveyors in a store when they are Sevens, then they become the workers in the real store, using real money, when they are Eights,'' Holz says. "Here they make signs for their buildings; later they have to make signs for the school, and their signs have to be truly clear.''

As with the blocks program in the lower grades, older students spend about an hour each day on the job. They also take traditional subjects such as math, science, and writing; read independently for a halfhour daily; and attend regular art, shop, music, and movement classes. And, for the first time, students are immersed in a historical period introduced through an unusual social studies curriculum.

In most schools, the social studies curriculum is determined by the school-adopted textbooks. The goal is mastery of the subject matter. At City and Country, there are no adopted social studies texts. The focus is not what to learn, but how to learn.

Instead of giving students a list of names, dates, and places to memorize, teachers encourage them to ask their own questions about history and help them to learn how to find answers. They also learn by re-creating history. The Eights, for example, spend a week in the country simulating early farm life.

Each grade level concentrates on a particular period or theme in history. The store owners study early trade and commerce; the sign makers and printers study ancient cultures, such as the Phoenician and Egyptian, and medieval history with its illuminated manuscripts. As the children get older, the study becomes more abstract. The Twelves and Thirteens study ancient Greek civilization, the Renaissance, and American history.

Teachers draw on a variety of sources for reading material and encourage students to use primary sources rather than relying on encyclopedias or watered-down texts. That's unusual for elementary and middle school instruction, Hansen says. When a textbook is used, it is as a resource, not a bible--an important distinction for teachers who want children to take responsibility for their own learning.

"Give a child a textbook, and it says that all the answers are known and your task is to memorize them,'' Hansen says. "If that's the message, then where are the children who are going to grow up to be world leaders, inventors, and thinkers? From the beginning here everybody says, 'Here is a little bit of what we know and you can help find it out.''

Students' research projects emerge from their own questions rather than a teacher-supplied list of topics. One time, Hansen recalls, the students were reading an account of a trip up the Hudson River by Henry Hudson's first mate. They came to a part where two Native Americans go aboard the ship, steal two feather pillows, and are shot for it. That upset the children who wondered why a pillow was so valuable that the Native Americans would risk stealing it. " So, for a long time two young boys tried very hard to find out what Native Americans slept on.'' Hansen chuckles. "As they researched that, they found out a lot more.''

The research projects differ each year and with each child, Hansen says. Some will write historical plays or books, others will create art projects, some will just share their discoveries orally. "It really becomes very intense, though,'' she says. "They almost feel like they're living in the period that they are studying.''

The impressions of these projects remain in the memories of the students long after they leave the school. Margot Adler, a 1960 graduate of C&C who is now a reporter for National Public Radio, remembers the year she studied medieval history. She recalls devouring the King Arthur tales and making illuminated manuscripts. "We worked with gold leaf, made parchment out of animal skins, actually took hair off of them, soaked them, and stretched them.'' That work with calligraphy and parchment came in handy because the job that year was sign making. "Of course, we made the most beautiful signs you ever saw,'' Adler says.

And her voice swells as she recounts a particularly wonderful day: "It was May 1, and at 4 A.M. the whole class went in buses or cars to a home in the country. We learned medieval May carols and picked arms full of flowers. Then we came back to school singing carols and strewing flowers through the entire school. It was so beautiful and romantic.''

These unique beyond-the-book experiences give the school its character and its critics fodder. "There are rumors that at City and Country, kids only play,'' says the president of the C&C Parent Association, Zoe Hauser. She says that there are times when she has to defend her choice to parents who believe that traditional methods are the only methods. "They don't realize that kids here do read and do math and everything else. But it's just not on the same schedule as in a traditional school. You have to explain that kids who graduate from here go on to wonderful schools and universities.''

The City and Country staff insists that their academic goals for students are on par with the goals for children in the public school system. "Children are not cocooned here until they are 13,'' says C&C's director, Karen Longos. Teachers do use traditional materials and methods: There are spelling tests, worksheets, textbooks, and a science lab. And, in keeping with the times, there is now a computer lab. But they believe that in addition to giving kids the basics, they are also helping them develop independence, responsibility, creativity, and critical thinking.

And many of the nontraditional teaching methods that Pratt and her staff members employed back in the 1920's and that are still part of the curriculum--such as having children read for pleasure during school and write stories based on their own experiences--are in tune with current educational philosophy, Hansen points out. "Teachers are suddenly showing children real books instead of learningto-read books,'' she says. "From the very beginning we took children into the library to read books. 'Writing-to-read' is another example of something we've always done here. Children write stories and illustrate them and the Elevens set them in type, print them, and give them back for the children to read.''

All the recent talk about "school-based management'' is nothing new to C&C, Hansen says. "From the very beginning, this school has been run by its teachers.'' Most of its 28 teachers and teaching assistants are City and Country originals: individuals with degrees in fields other than teaching who took entry-level jobs at the school because they believed in its philosophy. Several, like Mary Hansen, became involved with the school as parents. She started out as an assistant, and worked her way up the ranks to teacher in 1963. A few began their love affair with C&C as students.

Several teachers graduated from teachereducation programs, but none has had much experience in the public school system. Longo says she prefers it that way. Teachers with a lot of public school experience would have to "unlearn'' too much, she says.

Then there are the veterans: Cynthia Beer, who has taught at the school for 31 years; Virginia Parker, who has been there for more than 39 years; and Veronica McLeod, the art teacher, who, in her words, has "always been here.'' They say that it is a wonderful place to teach because every year is different: They are constantly learning from their students.

They all have something in common with Pratt in that they are willing, in a sense, to give up their own egos and be guides and facilitators rather than the traditional authority figures. Teachers in the lower school have no desks. And in the upper school, the teacher's desk is not the focus of the room. Again and again, the teachers say that they are not teaching in order to feel needed and that the best compliment is not to be needed.

For some parents the match is not so perfect. Says admission director Margaret Bloodgood: "City and Country is good for every child, but not necessarily good for every parent.'' For parents, the challenge is being able to have faith in a program that is not like the elementary or middle school they attended. Some withdraw their children from the school out of concern that C&C's curriculum will not give them adequate academic preparation. The panic happens when the children are about 6, says Hauser. Parents suddenly get the feeling that their kid "should be doing this, that, and the other,'' she notes. 'You can't point to a book and say the kid has learned everything in these chapters. The learning that happens here is much more difficult to quantify.''

Laurie Colwin, whose daughter is 5-years old, agrees: "The kind of parent who has problems with City and Country is the kind who needs visible, tangible evidence that the child is learning. You're never going to get a piece of manila paper with glued macaroni and spangles that says, 'I love you, mom.' They don't do that stuff here. They don't give you that kind of feedback. You have to look at your own child for feedback.''

Parents at C&C do look at their own children for feedback--literally. They are encouraged to visit the school and to observe their child in class. Written report cards don't exist. Instead, teachers write a lengthy narrative report and hold at least two parent-teacher conferences each year. And as the year progresses, City and Country parents attend structured meetings and informal potluck suppers to learn about the school's phil- osophy.

Enough parents have believed in the philosophy to keep the school's doors open for 75 years. City and Country started out as a neighborhood school, and it remains one. According to Longo, 95 percent of the students live within a five-block radius. That means that the student body has changed with the gentrification of Greenwich Village. Now, 89 percent are white, 11 percent are minority. Tuition costs are average for a New York private school: $5,500 for the lower school and $9,700 for the upper. But C&C has an aggressive recruitment policy, and 31 percent of its students are on scholarships.

In 1990, parents and staff will mark the school's 75th anniversary by sharing what they have learned. Historians of American education and followers of progressive education know Pratt's work, but most educators are unfamiliar with City and Country. "For a long time our nationwide profile has been low,'' Longo notes. "Our energy was put toward running the school.'' But this year, she says, "we plan to open our doors very wide. We have much to offer in terms of a model for education.''

The annual workshops and festivals for the C&C parents, alumni, staff, and students will be open to the public. Interested educators can attend a January 18 workshop on block building or a March 22 workshop on curriculum. On May 19, the public is invited to an open house during their gala Spring Fair. There will be events for children, and a chance to see the C&C children in action in a documentary video that is now being produced by several parents who are in media-related professions. (For more information, call the school at 212-242-7802.)

To kick off the celebration in January, Caroline Pratt's book, I Learn From Children (first published in 1948), will be reissued by Harper & Row. It outlines her philosophy and chronicles the City and Country experiment.

And Mary Hansen has reduced her teaching load to become the school's archivist and bring order to the volumes of notes, stacks of photos, and cabinets full of children's work that date back to 1914. Pratt was adamant about keeping records of her experiment and asked her teachers to write down their observations. Vito Perrone, director of teacher-education programs at Harvard University, calls the City and Country archives a gold mine. "I often think that if I had another life, I'd love to work through their archives,'' he says. "I think the records of the weekly teacher discussions could provide some of the richest literature about teaching and learning in this country.''

Pratt's book and the archival material make clear that not much has changed at C&C during the past 75 years. Despite the dramatic changes in society, the school remains a place where children can be children without the interference of made-for-TV images--a place where children can work to solve problems safely and at their own pace.

"This is about children,'' says parent Colwin. "It may be the only place in the world where children come first.''

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