C&C began the Block Connection initiative 13 years ago, helping to fulfill founder Caroline Pratt’s vision of making a real change in how all children are taught, and bringing her approach to education to schools across the city. Partnering with public school teachers and administrators, C&C educators demonstrate how open-ended materials, unit blocks in particular, and a commitment to dramatic play, are crucial components of learning for young children. Through the initiative, C&C’s educators have extensively and successfully partnered with PS 38, PS 130, and PS 261 in Brooklyn, the Sicomac School in New Jersey, and with many other public schools on a smaller scale through Block Connection workshops.
This year, The Tietz Family Foundation funded an expansion of the Block Connection Initiative. Founded by Larry Tietz, The Tietz Family Foundation, is built on a rock-solid set of beliefs: that all kids can learn, and that all teachers and administrators can find a pathway, if they are given access to the right tools and resources. The Foundation is dedicated to bringing about real, lasting changes to the American educational system with a focus on what Tietz calls a “common-sense approach” to education.
You can learn more about the Block Connection Conference held at C&C in December 2018 in this piece by Jane Clarke, Director of Lower School, from C&C’s magazine, Works in Progress:
“It was clear that City and Country’s Blocks Program, even within just a few months of its introduction, had been transformative for students and teachers alike,” observed Nina Farrell, Lower School Floater and former Group Teacher. Nina’s exciting reflection followed a collaboration introducing C&C’s Blocks Program to second graders at PS 130. Now, many more NYC students and teachers will be able to have similar transformative experiences through Block Connection. It’s a reimagined and formalized program, championed by C&C teachers and offered free of charge to public school teachers through a Tietz Family Foundation grant, that is bringing the Blocks Program to schools across NYC.
C&C was founded on principles that reach beyond the walls of the School. It was always part of Caroline Pratt’s vision that our School serve as a model for change, both educational and societal. Through her vision she created a school that at its very core spoke of social consciousness, guiding children into experiencing the power of collective challenges and responsibilities. These principles are very much alive today as C&C educators actively create and embrace ways to reach outside our walls and exhibit the power of our program, simultaneously establishing themselves as emerging experts in the progressive education field and renewing their passion for our unique approach.
Mary Hauser emphasized this crucial part of Caroline Pratt’s vision in her book, Learning from Children: The Life and Legacy of Caroline Pratt: “Having her ideas about teachers and learning accepted into public school was a goal that Miss Pratt maintained throughout her career. She could easily have been satisfied by the success of City and Country School in effectively preparing students for high school and college work. But the students she originally set out to teach, the children of immigrant families, remained in her thinking. Working with public schools would enable her to once again serve these students.”
In the 1930s, C&C worked diligently to form relationships with Putnam Valley Central School and PS 33 in Chelsea. They were among the first public schools to embrace and implement our unique principles, introducing progressive work and play programs into their curricula. Leaders and educators of both schools quickly recognized the value of the C&C philosophy, and the partnerships proved the validity and longevity of Caroline Pratt’s belief that the C&C curriculum was: “good for children everywhere and of every kind, children who have apple trees to climb as well as children who carry the door key of a tenement flat around their necks.” In 1942, Caroline Pratt called the entrance of C&C into the public schools its “greatest excitement.”
Before returning to work at C&C 14 years ago as the Director of the Lower School, I worked for an arts education organization that placed visual artists in partnership with classroom teachers in underserved public schools. I observed committed administrators and teachers doing their utmost to support children and families in schools that were often overcrowded with rapidly diminishing resources. I left that position with opened eyes and a broader view, determined to build upon the relationships I had cultivated, and bring C&C experiences to a wider range of educators and children. To this end, Block Connection was born in 2005. Founded upon Caroline Pratt’s tenet that the C&C way is good for children in general, and the belief that teachers learn so much from each other, we constructed the framework of the program and have since partnered with Head Start, daycare, and public school teachers to introduce the C&C philosophy and belief in basic open-ended materials to educators around the city.
As a testimony to how C&C is actively furthering this work, we received a $10,000 grant from the Tietz Family Foundation to formalize and expand the program. The grant allowed us to create a two-part program: The Block Connection Principals’ Breakfast, a chance for school leaders to visit C&C and learn firsthand about Block Connection, followed by the Block Connection Conference, a day-long workshop that introduced public school teachers to our program.
At the Principals’ Breakfast in October 2018, visiting public school Principals were invited to “play” and work with blocks in one of our VIs’ Classrooms. They ventured into a mindful, creative interaction with open-ended materials, and, needing little encouragement, they happily engaged and then reflected together on the experience. We then looked at what this initiative may be able to offer their teachers. The administrators wholeheartedly saw value in bringing this training to members of their faculties, saying they wanted teachers at their schools to experience Block Connection to:
“. . . feel the joy that we can bring to our students.”
“. . . have more of an understanding of how they can use materials like this to integrate learning in more creative ways.”
“. . . learn how to get children to do more of the work and to allow things to get ‘messy.’”
“. . . have support to think creatively within the box.”
With this endorsement of the public school administrators, the second phase of the work, the Block Connection Conference, took place in December 2018. Eight dedicated C&C teachers created stimulating workshops for public school teachers with the goals of providing experiences that showed the value of open-ended materials, emphasizing the vitally important role of play in the early childhood curriculum, and demonstrating ways teachers can meet important curriculum goals creatively and impactfully. Workshops were driven by experiences with our unit blocks, with a few looking at how block builds can fuel dramatic play and math. One workshop included a trip to a nearby subway station to gather information, in the manner of our students. Teachers then looked closely at how the dramatic narrative that naturally unfurls for children through such experiences becomes a pathway to deeper understanding and learning. The workshops mirrored a central core of the work of the Vs, VIs, and VIIs at C&C.
With events like these, our goal is always that the public school teachers who join us, many supported by the desire of their administrators to see children engage in more creative and playful activities, will have eye-opening experiences, returning to their schools inspired and equipped with new ideas to incorporate into their classrooms. We hope that after observing the effect the new strategies have on their own students, teachers will return to C&C for additional Block Connection Workshops, learning more ways to integrate playful and creative activities into their lessons in ongoing and meaningful ways.
The testimonies of C&C teachers who have engaged in Block Connection work over these past years confirm that our philosophy is making a palpable difference in how teachers from all backgrounds approach their work, how students thrive by incorporating themes of the C&C curriculum into their learning, and how our own teachers deepen their mastery of Caroline Pratt’s concepts by teaching other teachers: “It was wonderful to develop a relationship with teachers at PS 130,” said Erin Teesdale, VIsE Group Teacher. “I worked closely with the first grade team; observing children working with blocks and collaborating with the teachers. The teachers were open and excited to develop ways to incorporate blocks into their current curriculum. It was rewarding to watch a group of six-year-olds accepting block challenges, working together, and having fun because of the enthusiasm and commitment of their teachers.”
“Participating in C&C’s Block Connection program was both educational and gratifying,” continued Nina. “The early-childhood and elementary educators at PS 130 felt so strongly about the importance of block work for their students that they raised enough money to buy a full set of blocks. I visited their new ‘block room’ a few months after the blocks had been set up and observed the students building collaboratively and sharing ideas as they added details, all the while fully immersed in dramatic play. Teachers shared with me that this was the one hour per week when they could count on every student being focused and engaged.”
The exciting expansion of work envisioned since our founding upholds our founder’s vision and greatly benefits our educators and children. We look forward to continuing that expansion in the coming years.