Some high-school students at Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in the Bronx, this year have attended an experiential project-based class called City Semester.
The course, which integrates English, history, languages and sciences, has taken students on field trips to homeless shelters and tenements, to a cemetery in the Bronx and Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, and on a two-day canoe trip down the Bronx River.
“The idea of this project-based class is to use place as a primary source,” said teacher Andrew Meyers.
On a drizzly Tuesday morning, Shiloh Shabazz, a wiry and excitable 71-year-old, was talking about sleeping on subways, on and under park benches, and generally about being an addict and a nomad. “Crack was big. Base was big,” he said of the time when he was using drugs. The shelters, he said, were rough.
“I don’t know if any of you are aware of those.”
It was a fair question, considering his audience was 16- to 18-year-old students from the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. The private school, in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, is not far from Honeywell Apartments, the low-income housing complex where Mr. Shabazz was speaking. But he may have sensed it was a long way away.
If the students were not aware of shelters and affordable housing before the trip, they were getting a crash course now. That same morning, a Fieldston parent, Adam Weinstein, who happens to be chief executive of the nonprofit organization that developed Honeywell, led a discussion about the evolution of public housing from tenements to towers. The students had also visited Lambert Houses, another low-income complex, and would set off for Via Verde, a new subsidized, sustainable development.
The trip was one of many making up Fieldston’s City Semester, an experiential, project-based class that integrates history, English, ethics, languages and science.
“The idea is to use place as a primary source,” said Andrew Meyers, chairman of City Semester and one of the eight teachers leading the class. Students have explored the Bronx and beyond.
Lena Cole, a junior who lives in Chelsea, said, “In the semester, I’ve seen more of New York than in my whole life.”
Project-based, or hands-on, learning is a buzzword in educational circles, the theory being that it helps students absorb information better and think more critically than they would in a classroom.
“Aristotle said that which we learn, we only learn by doing,” said Patrick F. Bassett, head of the National Association of Independent Schools. “Schools somehow found themselves migrating away from that.”
A few years ago, a group of private schools founded the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network. Lakeside School in Seattle (Bill Gates’s alma mater) and the Watershed School in Colorado are among a growing number that are expanding their curriculums around experiential and expeditionary learning.
“They are getting great results,” Mr. Bassett said, noting that at the Watershed School, scores on a test of critical thinking were exceptionally high. “It’s what colleges are looking for.”
City Semester evolved from other Fieldston courses, including one on the Bronx and another called “Inventing Gotham.” But those were expensive, with the Bronx class including six teachers. Last year, Mr. Meyers and his colleagues secured a $10,000 grant from the venture grant board at Fieldston, which finances new initiatives. They used it to develop a class that all of them could teach.
Students led walking tours through Harlem and the Lower East Side. They took sides defending or prosecuting the renowned urban planner Robert Moses in a weeklong trial about his role in the deterioration of the South Bronx. They went to Hunts Point in the Bronx at 4 a.m. to see the city’s food supply arrive and to interview owners and workers, and a two-day scavenger hunt took them from Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.
CONTINUE READING this article by Jenny Anderson of The New York Times.