Progressive Education Prevails – Editorial, Issue 7 – Volume CXI

What Parker Curriculum is Getting Right About Ukraine

Progressive Education Prevails – Editorial, Issue 7 – Volume CXI

The Francis W. Parker School was founded in 1901 on Colonel Francis Parker and John Dewey’s principle of progressive education. While progressive education in 1901 is not the same as progressive education in 2022, the basic principles remain the same. These basic principles are stated in the Parker Mission Statement: “Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.”

The application of Parker’s Mission Statement results in an educational experience that is different for each student in each grade of the school. For outsiders looking in, a Parker education looks different, particularly in the Upper School. The Parker Upper School curriculum is not static; it is a “living” curriculum that can pivot to meet the needs of the students, the school community, and the broader global community. This is progressive education in action.

Parker’s Upper School students are not without opinions, or more frequently, complaints. Grievances range from the schedule, to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programming, to the cafeteria menu. However, there is one area where the recent hallway chatter has been overwhelmingly positive. Since the onset of the war in Ukraine, Parker students have been provided with meaningful opportunities to learn about the current conflict, its origins, and the potential ramifications. Obviously, none of this was in the curriculum plan for the Spring of 2022. This is progressive education in action.

Throughout the Upper School, from freshman to seniors and regardless of teacher, the war between Ukraine and Russia has been a leading topic. Upper School history teacher Andrew Bigelow starts most classes with a news clip recapping major world events from the previous day. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, this always includes an opportunity to discuss the most recent news from Ukraine. This is usually followed by a brief discussion, in which students can ask their questions or voice concerns.

This practice is not only for those students fortunate enough to be in a class with Andrew Bigelow. The entire Upper School History Department is taking class time to allow students the opportunity to learn about Ukraine, the conflict, the history, and the global implications. This was not an edict from the Illinois Department of Education or even Parker’s Administration. These teachers were not required to adapt their curriculum to teach about the war in Ukraine. They could have ignored the situation and stayed true to the planned curriculum, but that is not the role of a Parker teacher. The Upper School History Department saw the needs of the students and the global community, and adapted their classes to the current situation. This is a progressive education in action.

Progressive education also frequently demands learning outside the confines of the classroom. According to the Mission Statement, “we know that our ability to think for ourselves expands when we engage in healthy, nuanced discussion and persevere with integrity when complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity challenge us.” For the History Department, this translated to a March 16 optional teach-in focused on the war in Ukraine for all Upper School faculty, staff and students. 

At the teach-in, each member of the History Department provided information on the conflict, touching all the nuances of the current violence. All in attendance were provided an opportunity to ask questions, and answers were given in an open and non-judgemental manner. The teach-in was an opportunity to think about history, current events, and each respect each attendee’s individual reaction in a healthy and nuanced discussion. This is progressive education in action. 

As it has on numerous other occasions, Parker stands alone in providing students the opportunity to both learn and express feelings in light of the war in Ukraine. While the war is on constant broadcast on every news channel, other Chicago area schools have marched on without reaction. At DePaul College Prep, a traditional Catholic school, there has been no adjustment to the curriculum. Instead, students are learning from the curriculum set out in the syllabus at the beginning of the year. In fact, students at DePaul have heard not even a mention of the war in Ukraine as part of their educational program. Without a progressive mission, DePaul’s education continues on without consideration for the needs of the student in an ever changing global society. 

Students at some of Chicago’s top public high schools are experiencing the war in Ukraine like their friends at Catholic school. A student at Lane Tech shared that there has been no adaptation to the educational program as a result of the war. According to this student, when a history teacher was asked if they would be learning about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the teacher responded, “it seems above my paygrade to change the lesson plan.” 

Parker is a school of choice. Whether we are here because our parents chose before we were old enough to tie our shoes or we made a choice to join the Parker community for Middle or Upper School, we each enjoy the privilege of an education that is reactive and responsive to the world in which we live. 

When we leave the halls of 330 West Webster, our progressive education will have provided us with the skills to understand the broader world perspective and make positive change happen. When we are asked what made our education different, we can cite how our school responded to the war in Ukraine. We can use this example to demonstrate that “Parker stands as a progressive school, dedicated to the growth and development of the whole person in relation to the growth and development of the whole school community, on behalf of our democratic society and the wider world.” We can say that this is progressive education in action.