Built for Children: A Perspective on Little School

By Evan Brown
Director of Communications and Alumni

Winter 2012

“The Little School was given a new building specifically designed to educate young children.  Down the hill from her mother’s home, a model school was erected as a living memorial to Elisabeth Morrow’s vision.   ­­­­­As the decade came to a close, Miss Chilton bent low to shake the hand of each and every student entering the new building on Lydecker Street, echoing the graceful movements of Miss Morrow, who had always treated children with dignity and respect by looking them in the eye and firmly grasping their hand.”
           ~ Tracy Peter-McKee:  from The Elisabeth Morrow School, 75 Years, 1930 to 2005
Two years ago, when I got the call to come to interview for my position at The Elisabeth Morrow School, I was curious. Therefore, one Saturday in the spring of ’09, I rode from Queens to Englewood to see what might lie in store. It took a while to get there, but when I finally found the white shingle sign on Lydecker, I pulled over, parked my bike and walked up the stairs.  I stopped at the first landing to catch my breath and take in the view.  My first impression:
    “You’ve got to be kidding me.” This place was like no elementary school I had ever seen.
    When you climb the steps from the visitors’ lot, you pass vaulting trees with rustling leaves, flowering gardens, scurrying chipmunks, singing birds and the faint sound of trickling water in the distance.  It is also not unusual to encounter wandering deer or wild turkeys that drop in from the neighboring woods.  There are no gates or thresholds here. There are no tall buildings, no statues, sculptures or imagery of any kind to remind you that this is a place of learning.  Just a beautiful walk, a fluttering flag, cottage-like buildings, and, when school’s in session, the students getting a handshake and a “good morning” at the door, leading inside to teachers and classmates who are always glad to see you.
    If you are an Elisabeth Morrow alum or parent, there is nothing revealing about any of this. You may be saying, “So what? Okay, I get it.”  But, take a moment to remind yourself that this place is exceptional.  For most people, myself included, we went to elementary school in glass and brick oblongs, or concrete pillboxes, surrounded by burned-out grass fields, some shrubbery and an acre of asphalt enclosure.  There was no forest, no courtyard, no babbling brook, no smiling teacher at the door looking to shake our hand, let alone wish us “good morning.”        
    Furthermore, extra help wasn’t a one-on-one situation, unless you were the only one in detention.  I am not saying that EMS is the only wonderful elementary school out there.  I am sure there are plenty. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that The Elisabeth Morrow School, by most measures, provides an exceptional experience.  This was and is a school built for children.

“With its profound understanding of children and the developmental stages of their growth, The Elisabeth Morrow School challenges and nurtures each child’s journey toward maturity. The atmosphere here is calm and purposeful: busy hands and minds at work, with an emphasis on respect for all.”
      ~ David M. Lowry, Ph. D., Head of The Elisabeth Morrow School

Walking on that path toward Little School, you may see Mrs. Jane Phend, Elisabeth Morrow’s Principal of Grades 1 – 4, standing at the door, carrying on the tradition of Elisabeth Morrow and Constance Chilton, greeting each and every student.  She possesses a quiet and serene demeanor, a perfect fit for these pastoral surroundings.  When asked about the handshake, I expected to hear that it was a tradition, and you have to keep up with traditions.  Well, yes and no; instead, she says, “The handshake helps me make a connection, recognize them by name and make a personal comment as time permits.” It is no hollow gesture and more than just a common courtesy. The handshake symbolizes a significant characteristic of our school, as it has been since the beginning. It is a sign that we treat children with dignity and respect.  “I enjoy working with students,” she continues, “I like to get to know them, understand their needs and their strengths.  When children have an idea to talk about, whether a community service project, an assembly idea, or a concern on the playground, I like to hear those ideas and try to find a way to incorporate them.”
      In a school marking its eighty-first anniversary, however, tradition does remain important.  For instance, the third graders still study colonial America and culminate the unit by enacting a colonial schoolhouse, and children and teachers still dress the part, dipping candles, weaving fabric and trying out the stockade.  “While traditions may help to define who we are,” says Mrs. Phend, “we try to balance tradition with innovation and newer approaches to pedagogy and curriculum.”
    The “best of the old and the best of the new” mantra has been with the school since its founding, the axiom coined from a quotation written by Elisabeth Morrow in a letter to her mother.  Today, whether the lesson involves iPads or creative writing, the priority for Little School is to provide an engaging educational experience that speaks to all aspects of a child: mind, body and character.  “Skills and concepts can be taught or learned in any context,” says Mrs. Phend, “however, when teachers engage the children, actively bring them in, subjects are more easily and thoroughly mastered.”
    Mrs. Phend’s approach is the norm at Elisabeth Morrow, not an exception.  She simply leads a division of experienced and passionate educators, all focused on providing experiences that captivate the focus and attention of students, building one experience upon another.  The Elisabeth Morrow School is fortunate to have such a cadre of experienced professionals.  Over half of the faculty and administration have worked at EMS for 10 years or more.  For that reason, when Dr. Lowry mentions “profound understanding,” the observation is rooted in fact: our teachers and administrators have accumulated many years of working with children.
    In Mrs. Phend’s case, she has been an educator for over forty years, including twenty at EMS and six years at the helm of Little School. She and her faculty understand the developmental characteristics of the elementary school student. In particular, they recognize this as an age when students take significant steps toward establishing character and autonomy.  To this end, “Our priority is to meet the children where they are and provide a curriculum, both cognitive and social, that fosters positive growth and the mastery of skills and content."

“What I learned about teachers from shadowing students in school is that I absolutely admire teachers who love their subject, who love children, who love the developmental arc of the age they are teaching.  Every time I run into a teacher who doesn’t love the age he or she is teaching, I can sense it; it always feels tragic and terrible.”
          ~ Michael Thompson, Ph. D, Excerpt from "The Pressured Child," lecture, New York City, 2006

Providing hands-on, engaging projects and activities for a class of children is hard work.  Says Mrs. Phend, “From the simplest questions posed by students or teachers, to the choices of literature used in our instructional reading program, or to the problem-solving tasks in mathematics that may be integrated with other areas of study, there is a great deal to consider.  Our teachers recognize the academic, social, physical and emotional needs of the children they teach and plan accordingly.”
    Just down the steps from my office is a third-grade classroom where, last year, the students decided to substitute stability balls for chairs.  Apparently, it is good for developing core strength, the abdominal and back muscles of our torso. Whether they do or do not is irrelevant.  The point is that the teacher, Mrs. Bliesener fielded this suggestion from students, had them talk about and research it, and write up their own rules and guidelines.  When I last looked in, they are still using the balls.
    Think about that.  A room of young children? Bouncy red balls?  Seven hours a day, five days a week?  Seems like a gigantic distraction at first, but they have it working. Here is my take: first, the idea had to be entertained and taken seriously.  Second, the children had to be guided in procuring the balls and establishing their own rules for use, including consequences.  Third, they had to be guided to manage and oversee their own procedures, calling upon more mature behavior as they used the balls for seats.  It is not groundbreaking and it has little to do with the content of the curriculum, but everything to do with developing responsibility and initiative.  As Mrs. Phend pointed out, “We have a clear sense of mission, which is by no means just academics.  Our teachers work hard to help children become balanced individuals, supporting their strengths, creativity and interests, as well as challenging them and assisting them when perseverance is needed.”
    The stability ball initiative, as with many other aspects of EMS, is not necessarily embedded in the curriculum.  These endeavors are unplanned, and require additional attention beyond everything else the teachers must cover.  In many other schools, this suggestion coming from the students would never have been taken seriously.  Very few teachers or administrators would want to initiate such a project, let alone guide it over the course one year to another, from one class to the next.  Yet, such activities occur here, all the time. Why? This faculty loves children. They love the “developmental arc” of the age they are teaching and it shows in every morning handshake, every full-on colonial day, in every red, “bouncy-ball” student suggestion.  A great education is as much empowering students with the capacity and initiative to make their ideas come to life as it is about passing along the “core” skills and knowledge that comprise a more traditional academic syllabus.
    It is a gorgeous and serene walk up the steps to Little School; sometimes we miss these qualities in our hurry to get inside or because it is a trip made so often we no longer register the beauty in the details. We do the same with education.  In our hurry to get from point A to point B, from grade to grade, with a single destination in mind, perhaps we sometimes fail to see what is important along the way.  Remember that this school was built for children, both in mission and in facilities.  We can ponder the right balance between “best of the old” and “best of the new” in what we teach, but these things are marginal when we consider, how we teach.
    For The Elisabeth Morrow School, few things possess the same degree of priority as treating children with dignity and respect.  Mrs. Phend remarks: “I realize that the years students spend in Little School are only a small piece of their educational journey, but their time here sets the building blocks for who they become as middle schoolers, for high school, and beyond.”