When Schools Overlook Introverts in “The Atlantic”

Girl Reading by Tjook
Photo by Tjook/Flickr


A recent article in The Atlantic, When Schools Overlook Introverts, argues that schools are overlooking introverts with the education trend towards project-based learning and group projects.

“As the focus on group work and collaboration increases, classrooms are neglecting the needs of students who work better in quiet settings.”–The Atlantic

In progressive schools, group projects are a key part of the curriculum. My kids attended The Willows, a progressive school in Culver City, before moving to Viewpoint, a traditional school in Calabasas. I intentionally chose the Willows for my daughter, who is a quiet introvert like me. During her time at The Willows, K-6th, I thought the school’s focus on project-based learning would benefit her tremendously by championing the traits and qualities she was born with, while helping her learn skills that might not come naturally. That turned out to be true. After all, as adults we work in groups in the workplace, when we volunteer and even at home. The ability to learn to work successfully in groups is an important skill, but one that doesn’t always come naturally to young kids.

I learned that introverts play an important role in group projects. My daughter took on roles in group projects that fit her personality. She’d often be asked by her peers or the teacher to lead a project, based on her strong organizational skills, her focus and her ability to listen to input from all group members. She’d edit other kids’ work at their request or quietly help decide which project the group would choose, after the group discussion concluded. The extroverts in the group had skills she didn’t possess. They’d brainstorm project ideas, ask the teacher questions, lead class discussions, use their artistic talents to draw project ideas and debate the merits of a project.

With skilled teachers and just enough structure, progressive schools that incorporate project-based learning in their curriculum can help both introverts and extroverts flourish. Of course, quiet time should be part of the daily schedule. “But cooperative learning doesn’t have to entail excessively social or overstimulating mandates; it can easily involve quiet components that facilitate internal contemplation,” says The Atlantic article. I never felt that there was a lack of quiet time or time for individual work because of the project-based learning. Neither did my daughter. Sometimes, the quiet time occurred in the library, as she and the librarian quietly searched for the right book for her to curl up with at home.

Ultimately, when my daughter started 7th grade at Viewpoint, she was able to apply the skills she’d learned working in groups to the classroom environment at her new school, where group projects are less frequent. Currently, she’s in charge of organizing all the components of a group project for one of her classes.


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PS1’s Point of View: Purposeful, Progressive, Pluralism (co-authored by Matt Steiner)

PS 1 outside


There’s something captivating about PS1 (Pluralistic School One). Of course, the immediate impact of the award-winning sustainable campus, built from the ground up on an acre in Santa Monica, is remarkable. It’s a series of buildings where the architecture encourages exploration into every inch of the creatively constructed school. Modern classrooms surround a central outdoor space, perfect for gathering and playing. There’s plenty of shade in just the right places, provided in part by a 100-year-old oak tree. There’s an easy indoor-outdoor feel that makes this urban school instantly welcoming. It’s a place you’ll want to stay a while, like the parents I observed, who’d dropped off their kids and stayed to chat with each other.


PS1 1


PS1 asks, encourages, requests parents to be a part of the school community, modeling an inclusive school community for the students. We absolutely love the philosophy at PS1, where the school is part of an extended community in which parents raise their kids. Trust us when we say this doesn’t happen accidentally at private schools. It takes unwavering school leadership to set the tone for an inclusive, connected community and encourage even the most reluctant cynics to help foster these relationships through events and volunteerism.


PS1 2


The outdoor courtyard is where I ran into Lisa Perttula, a PS1 mom and herself an educator. Before the prospective parent tour started, Lisa and I spent a few minutes talking about the school. Lisa loves this place where her family feels so immersed in its activities. The Perttulas have strong ties to the school (her mom is on the board) and her kids are thriving and happy there. We talked mostly about the school’s remarkable ability to educate a wide array of kids from different backgrounds.


PS 1 3


The tour began with remarks from Joel Pelcyger, the head of school. He co-founded the school in 1971, when he was just 24 years old! A bold, ambitious task that was no small feat, Joel has stayed true to his mission and thus the school has too. PS1’s unique brand of progressive education is the result of Joel’s vision and work, along with his co-founder and team. The place Joel occupies as a leader in the forefront of progressive education has remained powerful for more than three decades. This experience gives PS1 the confidence to teach what it believes, to incorporate the latest in educational best practices and to resist pressure to conform to ideas it doesn’t believe serve children well (i.e. teaching to the test). The result is a fabulous mélange of big ideas that come together inside the classroom and extend to the school community. “Pluralism is the belief that a community is enriched when individual differences are respected and welcomed.” A founding value of PS1, this concept is woven into all aspects of the school.


PS 1 8


Joel opened the tour by welcoming the packed room of about 80 prospective parents. He is bright and engaging, candid and committed, reminding me of one of my favorite college professors at UC Berkeley. He imparts strong, well-honed beliefs about the state of education in 2014. Overall, he sees the U.S. educational system as one which creates a “high-pressure environment where the focus in on success at any cost.” The result, he says, is “kids cheating on standardized tests and trying desperately to get ahead.” Astutely, he observed, this approach is “unbalanced and lacks engagement…we need engagement and performance, not just performance.” The essence of his brand of progressive education the belief that creativity, innovation, storytelling and critical thinking get young people jobs, creates entrepreneurs and leads to lifelong success. Learning, he believes, should be for life not just for the sake of learning to get through school. “Start with fitting in by being yourself,” Joel believes. That is the essence of pluralism.


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Pluralism, Learning, and ‘Self-Making’

In order to fully appreciate PS1’s program, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of pluralism. We can then use this understanding to analyze the school’s curriculum and how it upholds pluralistic virtues.


At the root of pluralism is the notion that individuals espouse different beliefs about ‘truth, goodness, and beauty.’ These divergent belief systems, although occasionally in conflict with one another, are honored for the complexity and richness that they bring to a community. Put another way, pluralism recognizes that there is not a singular framework through which every person should construct a meaningful life. For example, a collectivist society that values collaboration, solidarity, and the well-being of the group is not more or less important than a society that highlights individual success, autonomy, and independent leadership. Pluralism allows space for multiple ways of being.  


PS 1 10


At PS1, students are celebrated for the unique histories, heritage, and life experience that they bring to the school. Simultaneously, they are offered the opportunity to explore who they are and to shape their identities through the numerous creative and academic pursuits offered on-campus. Essays on family histories, learning style and personality inventories, and a vast number of visual arts and music projects allow children – even as early as kindergarten – to think about who they are and tinker with their evolving identities. Unlike some of PS1’s more traditional peer schools – which may emphasize the cultivation of an ‘academic’ self above all things – PS1 empowers its students to steer the process of self-making, to be introspective, and to see themselves reflected in schoolwork. Academics are incredibly important, but they are not the sole focal point of an education at PS1.


PS 1 7


A clear example of PS1’s commitment to ‘plural self-making’ is its recent launch of the STEAM Studio program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math). The Studio is, quite literally, an intellectual and creative playground filled with art supplies, gadgets, and building materials (I’m reminded of the ‘black box’ experimental theaters that are popular in college). Under the supervision of the Studio’s director, Abbie Perttula, a veteran PS1 teacher with 43 years of experience, children engage in collaborative and experiential projects connected to what they are doing in their respective classes. The Studio is an ideal space for the early self-expression and reflection mentioned above. In addition to simply being a ‘fun’ place, the Studio grants students a sense of self-possession that is atypical of elementary learners.


PS1 uses a developmental approach. Every kid learns in different ways, at different rates and at different times. The school’s teaching techniques help each child reach his/her maximum potential. There is, says Joel, “an element of genius in every one of us.”


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The size of PS1 is intentionally small. It is a K-6 with 220 students. All classes are multi-age, called “clusters” with a 2-year age range. There are two lead teachers for every class and 5 full-time specialists for music, PE, art, drama and library.


There’s a happy adrenaline that flows through PS1. As the tour visited classrooms, we stopped in at one of the two K-1 classes where were working on a writing workshop. Every classroom has a shared outdoor space to connect it to its neighboring classroom. In the 2-3 grade class, kids were talking about their social justice study unit. There is a lot collaborative group work among the students. The science unit focused on energy was using computers to research wind, solar and geothermal energy. The kids were articulate and engaged, willing to explain their work to us as we stopped into their classrooms. The classrooms are big and bright, humming with the kids’ sense of fun, exuberance and creativity. PS1 uses traditional teacher-directed lessons in combination with students working in groups and individually.


PS1 is a plastic-free, nut-free school, with an emphasis on eco-friendly practices and sustainability. Financial aid based on need is available at PS1. The school allocates nearly 15 percent of its tuition to financial assistance. This is about $900,000 annual in financial aid.


PS 1 4


Students graduation from PS1 and go on to Crossroads, Marlborough, Harvard-Westlake, Brentwood, Windward, Viewpoint, Archer, New Roads, Chadwick, Paul Revere and Lincoln Middle School, among others. PS1 admits students from over 50 preschools and zip codes in the greater L.A. area.


At PS1, the equation is clear: instead of knowledge acquisition with a singular focus on performance outcomes, students are taught, inspired and encouraged to be engaged learners who embrace differences.  These are tools and skills that will be acquired during students’ formative years at PS1. These are the same skills that will empower kids and easily translate into the real world. A powerful notion exists here: there is immense value in fitting in by being yourself. Community, acceptance, self-expression, non-tradition, engagement, diversity, learning, gratitude, future, community service. In a word, PLURALISM.


For more information, visit www.psone.org 


I enjoyed collaborating with my friend and colleague Matt Steiner on this piece!–Christina

Matt Steiner has worked in the fields of elementary and secondary education for nearly 10 years. His nuanced knowledge of elementary schools is informed by his relationships with admission directors, school placement consultants, and his many visits to private schools in Los Angeles. He is currently the Director of Marketing at Compass Education Group, a test preparation firm that specializes in private SAT, ACT, and ISEE tutoring. 


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Children’s Community School: Progressive Instruction In Matters of the Heart and Mind

CCS Front entrance

Children’s Community School (CCS) is a remarkable progressive school located on a residential street in Van Nuys. It is differentiated from other progressive schools in part by its mission to create a school where neighborhood kids are an integral part of the student body. CCS’s significant outreach program to local residents, many of them immigrant families, offers financial aid for their kids to attend the school. With one-third of its students receiving financial aid and of these families, one-third living below the poverty line, it is truly a community school.


CCS LibraryFounded 34 years ago, CCS’s 118 students (K-6) occupy a compact urban campus that blends seamlessly into the predominately working class neighborhood that surrounds it. CCS’s architecture is an important aspect of a serious community-building endeavor. Its buildings are two-story and revolve around a multi-purpose outdoor space. The school’s façade is equal parts secure and welcoming.


CCS Classroom 4

A focus on the community is exemplified by the school’s annual health fair for the neighborhood, now in its 18th year, offering free heath and dental care in partnership with 30 local non-profits. The fair is attended by thousands of locals.


CCS Outdoor Space

As I entered the school on a quiet weekday morning, the ethnically diverse teaching staff immediately impressed me. I know firsthand how important it is for families and students of color to see diverse teachers like themselves. Yet, diversity like this doesn’t happen at private schools without a concerted effort to recruit, train and retain staff. This is just one of CCS’s many unique qualities.


CCS Classroom Window

CCS Printing Press


CCS hums with a vibrant energy. Some spaces are quiet, while others are bustling with kids running, playing, eating lunch or learning. Heather McPherson, the director of advancement, greeted me at the gate and we began a tour, starting in the library, a well-stocked, expansive open space, with several parent volunteers preparing it for Halloween. We walked through classrooms, into an art room containing a very cool letter press printer (above) and into the outdoor space, filled with kids of various ages all using the space in different ways, but co-existing harmoniously.


CCS Garden 2

CCS Garden 3


An eco-friendly campus has been the domain of the Green, Clean and Healthy Committee working with the Playground Committee. From procuring untreated wood chips for the playground to painting classrooms with non-toxic, zero VOC paint, the list of sustainable improvements is long.


CCS is progressivism personified. Sitting down to chat with Neil Wrightson, the head of school and co-founder, I noted his commitment to diversity and his adherence to progressive education. Neil is experienced and friendly, with an easy demeanor and an obvious affection for his school. He’s cerebral and thoughtful, with an unwavering commitment to ethnic and socio-economic diversity to benefit all students.


Legendary education reformer John Dewey has always been Neil’s inspiration for CCS. “Learning happens all the time, not just at a specific time of day,” Neil told me. “Preparing kids to be powerful and effective learners involves a whole community,” he continued.


CCS Music


Dewey believed that children’s interests should be a driving force in their education, rather than a teacher-centric approach where all ideas flow from the teacher. As we talked, Neil discussed how progressive aspects of the school are apparent both inside the classrooms and in the outdoor spaces.  In true progressive fashion, kids are learning by doing. They are creating, building, questioning, analyzing and shaping their own education in partnership with their teachers and peers.


CCS Corridor

As Heather explained, in math, for example, big ideas and number sense are emphasized over rote memorization. Math is taught using practical applications…using cooking, measuring, woodworking and other hands-on instruction techniques. Frequent fieldtrips—including walk trips to the local fire station for the youngest kids–expand and enhance the learning environment, with students returning to school with knowledge that will be used discuss and work on a variety of writing, math, and art projects related to what they’ve seen. The curriculum is intimate and individualized due to the small size of the school. Kids at CCS are learning by doing, using real-world tools.


CCS Classroom

CS does not give grades or traditional report cards. Instead, narrative reports are given twice a year and throughout the year, informal teacher assessments are provided by teachers. There are no tests and textbooks are not used. The school does give standardized tests for students to practice in the grades 5 and 6. Homework is non-traditional and age-appropriate. For example, for upper grades, 60 minutes of reading focused on deepening a student’s understanding of their current arer of study. Or, for younger kids, real-world, hands on learning at home that might involve observing their family structure and home life. Worksheets and workbooks are not used.


CCS getting creative


In the CCS brochure, the curriculum is explained as follows: “Reading, writing, math, science, as well as geography, grammar, creative and extemporaneous writing, interpreting literature, poetry, storytelling and measurement are all taught independently, but with their relationship to each other and to the core unit of study always on the surface.”


CCS Playtime


The school is non-traditional in the way it groups kids by age. Kindergarten is not a mixed age grade. Grades 1-6 are mixed age.  Every year, the class formations will change depending on the mix of students in the grade. Class formations typically consist of two 1st/2nd grade classes, one 3rd/4th grade and two 5th/6th grade classes. Each class has two teachers.


CCS Multipurpose auditorium


CCS is encouraging the student’s inherent sense of wonderment and awe. It strives to create fiercely independent thinkers who have an exuberant love of learning that will last throughout their lives.


Students from CCS go to both private and public schools upon graduation. About 50 percent of students attend public school for 7th grade by choice. The other half attend Oakwood, Campbell Hall, New Roads, Harvard-Westlake, Crossroads, Wildwood, Archer and Buckley, among others. Neil helps families extensively with the admissions process for secondary school.


CCS chatting on the yard


I left this wonderful school with the impression that CCS will be educating the next generation of writers, teachers, world leaders, mathematicians, artists, scientists, architects and Nobel Peace Prize recipients. Aspiring Wall Street tycoons may need to look elsewhere.


The application deadline is January 23, 2015. For more information go to: www.ccsteaches.org


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