In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with one of Blue School’s founding Middle School teachers, Corey Pickering, who has centered social justice, self and social awareness, and community engagement into the pedagogy of the Middle School curriculum and culture. Corey shares the intention and foundation of Blue School’s Integrated Studies program, a co-taught and fully cohesive science and history course. She reflects on the necessity of challenging common narratives, and why we must examine who, and what, has been left out.
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DAWN: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances finding balance can be a challenge, and now so many of us are finding that our work, home, school, and parenting lives are more tangled than ever. We see you, and we’re here to partner with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful and compassionate. I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever-changing landscape, and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler, or a teenager, or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we’ll find our way.
Today I am so happy to be talking with Corey Pickering. Corey taught and developed curriculum for Global Studies, AP World History, and a History of Islam course over ten years at Millennium High School in Lower Manhattan. She’s a founding teacher at Blue School’s Middle School, where she sent her social justice, self and social awareness, and community engagement in the integrated studies curriculum and the middle school culture. Corey, welcome to On Balance. It’s so good to be talking to you this morning.
COREY PICKERING: I’m so excited to be with you, Dawn.
DAWN: So you have taught history for many years. I’m wondering what brought you to Blue School to build this program.
COREY: I did. I taught for a decade in New York City public high schools, and I loved that experience. And after ten years, I was ready for a new experience. I really wanted to find out if some of the ways of teaching and learning were possible in another form. And when I found out that Blue School was building the middle school, and its mission was really to reimagine education, I thought what a great opportunity. There were also some family reasons I was ready to move on. I had two young children, and there was a lot of talk at Blue School about balance, and the work-life balance actually, which also drew me in. But the opportunity to build a middle school curriculum from the ground up was just so exciting as a veteran teacher. To see what other ways we could teach and learn.
DAWN: So why Integrated Studies? Can you tell us a little about Integrated Studies, and then share why — what that intertwining of science and history allows you to do, and allows students to do in their understanding.
COREY: So integrated studies — the idea of curriculum integration and discipline integration has been around for a long time in education. And it’s — we see it all the time in primary or elementary grades, right? But there’s lots of studies that came out in the late nineties about integrating subjects, and there’s lots of places where that happens around a particular project or a particular unit. But I have to say that the idea of Integrated Studies was Carrie Vaughn, Laurie Kardos, and Meredith Lorber’s idea before I joined the team, and their telling me that they had this idea of a fully integrated course between science and social studies was really the thing that drew me in.
So that idea was there when I joined the team. And then now — it’s a living curriculum. So Megan Milas, Dana Mara, and Emily Griffith all sort of add to and build — build out what that integration of disciplines really looks like. But you ask why integrated studies. So there’s several reasons really. I think one of the most important reasons to integrate subjects in school is because in our lived experience we do not experience science and social studies separately or differently. So the silos that we’ve created in education don’t actually exist in our minds. And we sort of have to — you know, I think children have to wrangle themselves into these disciplines, but then they very quickly can become wedded to them too.
So young people often — you know, I’ll hear them say, “Oh, I’m a math person,” or, “Oh, I’m not a math person,” or, “Oh, I’m a science kid,” or, “I’m not a science kid,” or, “Oh, I don’t like history.” And what’s beautiful about a fully integrated course is the kids who think of themselves or potentially think of themselves as a not science kid but love history, it provides all these entry points for them into the subject. So that’s a really important piece of it.
The other thing is that I teach history and social studies because I believe it is how we come to understand ourselves and who we are in the context of the modern world, right? And I think science does the same thing. Like studying science allows us to understand the natural world and systems that we live inside of. So both of these disciplines allow us to explore who we are and the world around us. The historical and scientific methods are really parallel. So both of them look at some material or some piece of evidence, pose questions about that piece of evidence, analyze it, and then draw conclusions from it. And so we’re able to do that sort of parallel analysis and synthesis of historical and scientific phenomenon in this course. The other thing I wanted to say about integrating social studies and science is that that — the siloing the subjects in school is very similar to the way that we create this sharp distinction between content and skills. Which makes sense I mean, when we’re talking about educating masses of people, we have to break things into categories and systems to make it manageable, and we talk about that a lot in class. Like historians create eras and we create categories of science because it’s the only way that we can manage such large amounts of information. But in the real world too, and in kid’s experience, content and skills are not separate. And so having such a rich experience of combining the science and the social studies allows us to practice and deepen the skills through the content in a much richer way.
DAWN: That’s so interesting. And I wonder if you can also share — so the idea of skill development or skill sort of expansion, or deepening feels like one thing. And then there’s something else about the context that the history work gives the science work, and that the science work gives the history work that seems to impact understanding in some way. Can you share what you’ve noticed in students’ understanding of these concepts, ideas?
COREY: Well yeah, again in their experience — and I think about my own kids, and my own family. You know, when we’re out for a hike, and we’re encountering people from other places, and we’re encountering the natural world, we’re having all of those experiences together. And you really can’t separate them. And what I find is that when kids — let’s say, you know, we’re studying simple machinery at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and we are looking at the ways the development of those textile machines transformed society. And to have the historical context of early urbanization in industrial America, it makes sense to them when they can look at these factories and see, oh this technology was developed and implemented and it caused people then to move to these urban centers to find jobs. So I think because the subjects can’t be separated in our lived experience, it just serves to deepen their understanding of both in the context of the course.
You know, another powerful aspect of integrated studies is that it’s co-taught. And the collaborative nature of both the development of the course and the teaching of the course I think is such a beautiful model for kids. I personally have had — I’ve grown so much as an educator being in constant conversation with my science co-teacher. Whether that’s been Carrie or Emily, you know? And the kids get to watch that. They get to watch in realtime what grown-ups collaborating and — and discussing, and sometimes disagreeing, and what that looks like and feels like. And modeling real deep collaboration in realtime in front of the kids I think is another aspect of this course that — that really reflects what it means to be a learner in this world.
DAWN: Can you talk us through the three year arc of integrated studies?
COREY: So as I said, when I came to Blue School, you know, Laurie, Carrie, and Meredith had this idea of a full integration. And other than that it was really a blank slate. It was, what are we going to teach these children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade? And so, you know, it took a while. It was weeks of Carrie Vaughn and I poring over national standards, New York State Regent standards, other schools’ curricula and curriculum maps, and really trying to understand what — what are sixth, seventh and eighth graders learning in other schools in New York and across the country.
Because we want our kids to, yes, have a unique experience at Blue School, but we also want them to be prepared to join their peers after eighth grade. So it was a lot of sort of taking in this vast breadth of material, and what it is that kids typically learn at this stage of development. And it started to become clear that we needed sort of a framing. We needed a frame to hang the three years on. And because both Carrie and I really believe that it is through studying science and history that we come to understand ourselves and the world around us, that we needed to walk kids through how we came to be here in this moment. And at that time this was, you know, six years ago. Climate change was really at the fore.
And we wanted to get students to a place where they could understand how we got here. The other piece of the three year arc is that Carrie and I both have a deep commitment to anti-racism. So Carrie and I both really believe that studying history and science were — are the way for young people to understand — come to understand themselves and the world around them. And Laurie had created this framework of the six ways of thinking that all middle school teachers were reflecting on. And one of them is looking at multiple perspectives. And in both science and social studies disciplines, there are so many voices that have been left out. And we have this mainstream narrative that we often are all familiar with, which is necessary for nation building, right?
But one of our central goals for integrated studies was to really examine, what’s been left out of the mainstream narrative, both historical and scientific. And the voices of and stories of indigenous people, Black people, women, and immigrants has been left out of that story. And dismantling some of the systems and the white supremacy culture, the racist systems that we live inside now, meant that we needed to bring in these other voices and stories. So in sixth grade, we look at both the advent of the modern anatomical human as a way to dispel any thoughts that race is biological or real.
And it also allows us to take a deep dive in sixth grade into a study of genetics, which is really exciting for them. And they also get to think about who they are, and why they look the way they look, and — it’s a great opportunity for the kids to do some sort of self-reflecting and scientific investigation at the same time. The advent of agricultural societies and what we call first civilizations is another major turning point in history, where historians all agree, this was the moment that our modern world sort of came into being, around 3000 B.C.E.
And looking at those early civilizations gives us an opportunity to think about where our political, economic, social systems were created. And also that there’s more than one way to have those systems operate.
In seventh grade we look at what we traditionally call the Industrial Revolution. So if we go from the agricultural revolution to the Industrial Revolution, to our current moment, we can see that each of these three turning points in the human experience happen in conjunction with technological changes, major technological changes. So whether that is the advent of agriculture and farming technologies, or machinery and combustion steam engines in the Industrial Revolution, to microchip processing and internet in our modern era, those technological shifts contribute to and are also the result of major shifts in human society, systems of power. So we’re able to trace those three major turning points in the human experience through both the science lens and the social studies lens.
DAWN: And so when students leave middle school and go on to high schools, what are you hoping that they leave their time in Integrated Studies with?
COREY: Critical thinking skills. And that’s one of those terms in education that we all want kids to have critical education skills. But as I tell my kids, they laugh because I tell them, you’re not going to remember this when you’re my age, you know? I mean, I’m 42 and I have flashes of what we did in sixth grade history, but I can’t tell you what the actual content was about. And I hope that they remember some of the content, and I think they will because at Blue School we have such rich experiential inquiry-based learning. We have kids doing things with their hands, we have kids going out in the world — or we used to before COVID. But you know, that — the kind of experiential learning that we provide I think will allow the content to stick. And students will remember the content in a way that maybe you or I don’t.
DAWN: Totally. I mean, also I feel like I’ve heard from students that there is a difference from the way that I was taught sixth grade history and what students sort of jokingly call Annotation and Reflection sometimes, instead of Integrated Studies. That they are reading pieces and they are really dissecting those pieces that they’re reading. Like they’re really analyzing and annotating, and learning how to analyze and annotate. And that then they’re reflecting and reflecting and reflecting, which I’m sure pushes those thoughts a little deeper than my sixth grade class, which was like you read a chapter, you take a quiz, you read a chapter, you take a quiz.
COREY: And it really is about bringing that critical lens and asking ourselves what — whose voices am I hearing? How does this connect to me and my experience in the world? How does this connect to what we’re studying in novels, or that book I read for independent reading? And I think because we’re centering critical thinking and analysis, that — that, you know, there are specific skills that contribute to strong analysis and critical thinking. And that annotation, which we talk about being a way to talk with the text, or be in dialogue with the text.
And you know, anyone can just read something, and we talk a lot about you could — your eyes could move over the page, and you could decode the words, but whether you’re really taking that information in and wrestling with it and asking questions about it, that’s where — you know, teaching those skills of annotations or making one connection and asking one question for every paragraph, it builds these habits for children to be in dialogue with the media that they’re consuming.
DAWN: Yeah, it feels like it is such a takeaway. I mean, I feel like, full disclosure, having had a child go through your course, who I still live with, and now am watching grapple with texts in high school history, where definitely the skills that they learned with you are the skills that they’re using to grapple with those texts now is really — sort of pushes that point home for me. It feels really visceral in my house. I actually hear a lot of, “We did this in eighth grade.” So —
COREY: I love it. Oh, that makes me so happy.
DAWN: Yep. So I — the way you were talking about how what’s happening in Integrated Studies sort of talks to what’s happening in novels and nonfiction, or talks to what’s happening in the STEAM lab, makes me think about Collective. So you are an advisor, you were instrumental in building Collective, which is our version of advisory. And I’m wondering how Collective and Integrated Studies talk to each other.
COREY: I mean, it’s a work in progress, and it changes. And we are such a collaborative team in the middle school that every year we assemble a different group of advisors. And it shifts, and it grows, and it deepens, and it changes through that collaborative work with my — with the folks on my team and my colleagues. But you know, advisory or collective is really the place where social, emotional learning, and self-reflection is centered. That’s the purpose of advisory programs everywhere. But Collective at Blue School is really intended to be the place where we — we hold those things at the heart, and at the center, is the social, emotional learning, and the self-reflection.
So you know, as much as I believe that teaching and learning is really a holistic endeavor, you don’t just bring part of your brain to a class or to school. The whole kid comes into that classroom and is having an experience with the scientific inquiry or with the text. And I think we really honor that in our academic work at Blue School. But there’s also a need for explicitly talking about what we feel like, what’s happening in our community, what’s happening with our friend group, what’s happening developmentally with other kids our age. And so collective in the way that it talks with integrated studies, you know, if we’re talking about whose voices are being heard throughout history, if we’re looking at ways to engage in the scientifical world around us, and citizen science, then we’ve got to teach our kids how to really meaningfully engage with community.
And Collective allows us to delve deeply into talking about identity and who we are. Who we are as community members. How can we be good community members? And then how can we use our voices as change agents in community. So we’re really building off of a lot of the experiences that we have, and discussions that we’re having in novels or studies. And bringing that awareness and wisdom about the world around us to the community in seventh grade, or in eighth grade, or bringing it to the broader Blue School community.
DAWN: So I’m moved over and over watching the way you support students and scaffold students’ work. It feels like you’re encouraging boldness, and encouraging them to be critical, and to be activistic. And then you’re there to support them and catch them when they’re working on how to enter the world this way. I wonder if you can talk about the balance you hold when working with adolescents.
COREY: Well, thank you for characterizing our work that way. I love being a teacher. I love it. It’s my — it is my calling, and I feel really fortunate to have found my calling. And you know, at the very heart of teaching and learning is human relationship. Human relationship is what is at the center of school. And part of how I hold that balance of skills and academic mastery and reflection and all of it with young people is that we — we are two humans who are trying to grow together, you know? And I think that it’s changing quite a bit, but traditionally there is this sense of teacher as knower or information giver, and students as passive receivers of that information.
And Blue School was really created I think to challenge that model of education, that banking model that Paulo Freire talks about. But we’re two people. And I know a lot about what it’s like to be an adolescent because I was one, but — but you know, our kids now are having a really different experience than what we had when we were their age. I mean, this is -- the world is — they have information coming at them at a rate and a volume that I can’t even imagine. And so so much of our work with adolescents is really about paying attention, and listening, and noticing what is it that they’re having to wrestle with, what is it that they’re — that they’re just being exposed to, and taking in at any given time.
And then we also — you know, we talk a lot on our middle school team about developmental stages and — you know, what are kids capable of wrestling with? What are kids capable of taking in? And understanding, you know, child development and youth development. And my job is to really listen and notice and nurture these children so that they can learn how to learn safely. That’s what we want for them, is that it’s exciting for them to be on their growing edge. And that we can support them in developing the tools to feel comfortable on that growing edge.
DAWN: That’s so well said. So I have to ask you about this current moment that we’re living in. You have built an actively anti-racist curriculum. Students spend their years with you seeing and naming injustices, and working to understand the history of systems and their role in perpetuating those systems or not. As I listen to Trump and sort of what’s out there in the media right now that’s focusing on history curriculum, it feels very personal. It feels like it’s — your history — our history curriculum that is being attacked. I wonder if you can share your thinking about the intention and the necessity of this curriculum.
COREY: So, you know, from the beginning Carrie Vaughn and I did want to create a three year middle school curriculum that dismantled many of the racist, misogynist assumptions that are built into our traditional curricula. I also am very fortunate that I have been working with the People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond from — for many years, and try to live my life according to the anti-racist principles put forth by the People’s Institute. And so to your question, this moment isn’t unexpected. And the — you know, Trump’s — Trump’s attempt to ban critical race theory curriculum, or to ban anti-racist training for federal workers — you know, this is not new. And that’s what we explore with our students, is the history of this ideology. And that this ideology is strategic, and part of the strategy is to shut down voices, stories, groups of people.
And so I think one of the best ways we can resist these attempts to narrow the avenues to opportunity and power is to be honest, truthful, and open about those histories. And so teaching the truth about systems of slavery, teaching the truth about labor exploitation, and solidarity in the early 20th century, or teaching the truth about the post-colonial world that we live in, and the ways that we have taxed our natural resources, that is the way to answer something like Trump’s ban. And we know this because people have been organizing against this ideology for hundreds of years.
And looking at the histories of that organizing with kids is really empowering for them. And they — they notice, you know? It’s scary, the language that’s being used. Like what does that mean, we’re not allowed to talk about critical race theory, or we’re not allowed to talk about the history of race and racism in America? Like the kids are aware of — of how limiting and how toxic this language is. But when we can look at the history of anti-racist organizing, and movements of liberation, that empowers them then to access those skills that we are working to develop. The critical thinking, the analysis skills, the social and emotional community building that we do in collective.
And to see that they’re standing on the shoulders of — of organizers and resisters and revolutionaries before them, that came before them. And that this is really — it’s not a new moment. And that we have examples that we can learn from about how to answer that kind of hateful policy and speech.
DAWN: Thank you so much, Corey. I’m wondering if there are any resources you have in your mind that you can share with the parents or educators who might be listening and might want to know more about your class or this work.
COREY: Well, as I said, you know, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and they put on the Undoing Racism workshops, the anti-racist principles of knowing our history and gatekeeping, checking out their approach to anti-racist work is something that really grounds me. There is Lee & Low Books, which is a great resource for finding books for young people who — part of their mission is to — to publish books that center and lift up marginalized voices. So Lee & Low Books is a great one.
And then, you know, Stamped From the Beginning, or the kids version, Stamped, we have a lot of kids read that for our book club this year, and they’re so excited to talk about it. We’re also looking at the Indigenous People’s History. There is a youth text from Dunbar-Ortiz is a great thing to — to orient kids to these alternative understandings of history. These are some really good — but I’ll send you more too.
DAWN: That’s so helpful, and we’ll have an attachment on our website to any other links that you provide. Corey, I can’t thank you enough for spending this time and sharing your thinking with us.
COREY: It’s such a pleasure, Dawn. Thanks for having these conversations.
DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to living and learning so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook at BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.
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