School of Thought

D esks? Tables.

Chalkboards? Whiteboards.

Grades? Benchmarks.

Report cards? Progress reports. 

Schoolyard? Public park.

One teacher? Two.

Homework? Eventually.

Grade levels? Doubled up.

Climbing wall? Yes.

“Tinkering Lab?” Yep.

Idyllic classroom around a pear tree? Uh huh.

Cookie-cutter lesson plans? No way.

Little is cookie-cutter about Cold Spring School, from its “emergent curricula,” in which students help define what topics and challenges they’ll take on, to its often quite beautiful classroom spaces, which are radically different from one another. Established by a group of intrepid parents in 1982, it was initially conceived as a grade-school extension of what the founders’ children had been receiving at East Rock’s Leila Day School—the second-oldest active nursery school in America and, by then, a hub of what theorists and practitioners call “progressive education.” The institutional connection was so close that the private elementary school’s first years occurred in a cottage right behind Leila Day.

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Cold Spring has long since come into its own. Within a few years, it had moved to a new neighborhood, Fair Haven, and into its current headquarters: a four-story former industrial space with a Chapel Street address. The main egress is around the corner on James Street, where, further up, the school has converted two neighboring homes into a superstructure housing its art and music programs. Past that, Cold Spring recently built a spiffy “community building”—with an exterior like modern art, ceiling lights like laser blasts and that aforementioned climbing wall—for fitness sessions and school-wide gatherings.

The latter are held Wednesday mornings, when parents who can make it assemble with teachers and students. Emceed in part by the kids themselves, a recent assembly featured a quick meditation session led by a tiny voice; touchingly sincere birthday wishes for the week’s celebrants, who blushed and fidgeted as the crowd cheered; presentations of project results; performances of original skits; and a collective song. The students, numbering 147 total, sang something they’ve been learning in music class: a slower, more wistful version of Jay Mankita’s poetic “Living Planet,” chosen and adapted by music teacher Rob Brereton, who also lent his voice and guitar.

As you might expect, parents and teachers clapped and beamed for the children who got up and did something. But here’s the shocking thing: so did the other kids. For survivors of the standard American educational experience, where caring about things and taking risks makes you a target, it’s hard to imagine a place this kind.

Where normal schools can easily slide into social Darwinism, Cold Spring enacts a “social curriculum.” Succeeding here is not just about learning facts and figures and how to deploy them; it’s also about learning how to be good to yourself and others. At the beginning of the year, prompted and guided by their teachers, students in each class contribute ideas for creating a classroom “charter,” in which the values and features they believe would help them feel respected and supported are collected.

Classrooms I observed during the first couple weeks of school were already underway on their charters. In one of the younger classes, a list of concepts like “happy,” “weird,” “polite,” “safe,” “have friends,” “good lunch and snack,” “the right temperature” and “feel like I’m a big kid” hung from the wall, with little check marks next to the items that resonated most with their peers.

Once a consensus is reached, which can “take months” of engaged conversation, school director Arati Pandit says, a class’s charter will guide interactions—including resolutions to inevitable conflicts—for the remainder of the year. Since the rules are created by and for the governed, so to speak, the governed are more likely to take them seriously. They’re also more likely to consider the needs of others outside the classroom.

Amplifying the effects of its social curriculum are Cold School’s multi-grade pairings: kindergarten with first grade, second grade with third and fourth grade with fifth. (Preschoolers and sixth graders each get a classroom to themselves.) The younger kids learn from the older; the older kids guide the younger; K-5ers who stay at least two years get the benefits of experiencing both roles; and the entire student body is more connected as a result.

Concerns about younger kids holding older ones back academically are defused by clever structures and practices. Each class has two teachers, one to take the older kids through age-appropriate tasks or projects while the other does the same for the younger. Moreover, Cold Spring’s embrace of emergent curricula gives students the potential to exceed what any preordained set of lesson plans might deliver over the course of a school year. “Kids have curiosity. It’s not that they’re coming to Cold Spring and we’re teaching them to have [it],” Sara Armstrong, the admissions director and a former teacher herself, says. “One of the biggest things we do is simply not take that away from them.”

As empowered as the kids are, the approach makes things difficult for the adults. “It’s really freakin’ hard to be a teacher at Cold Spring,” Armstrong says, laughing. “There’s great comfort if you’re handed a curriculum and you know that on April 3 this is the skill you have to [teach]. There’s quite a lot of discomfort not knowing what you’re doing on April 3 and where exactly your class is going.” But it’s also an opportunity to fulfill yet another facet of progressive education: “modeling,” or demonstrating a quality or process kids are supposed to be enacting themselves—in this case, “to be courageous in their learning,” she says. “Learning is messy. It’s not always straightforward. As teachers, we have to be okay with uncertainty and perseverance and going down the wrong path and readjusting.” As one message gracing a classroom wall puts it: “We make lots of wonderful mistakes!”

A place where wonderful mistakes are bound to be made is Cold Spring’s brand-new Tinkering Lab, an expansive, sun-soaked room atop the school’s main building. Run by “innovation, math and science specialist” Katie Anderson, who handles one of what Cold Spring calls its “special areas” (such as Spanish, art and fitness), it’s “just an extension of the classroom,” Pandit, also a former teacher, says—a place where projects are devised in response to the unique path of learning any given class has taken at any given point.

To fulfill that mission, the room has to be versatile and adaptive, so, among other features, it’s got notched-jointed cubbies holding all kinds of materials; shelves holding glassware like beakers and mason jars; and extension cord hubs hanging above circular work tables for easy access to power. Those tables, by the way, will soon have whiteboard tops, so that kids can do abstract diagrams and figures on the very surfaces where they’re concocting hands-on designs and experiments.

“This school is based on problem-solving,” Pandit says, and, even as an educator of young children, she’s not kidding.

Cold Spring School
263 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
(203) 787-1584

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image 20 depicts, from left, Arati Pandit and Sara Armstrong.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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