We nurture the child's sense of self-determination – to help them grow to become a creative, courageous, civically-engaged thinker and doer.  We write about the bright spots (i.e., share our data + research + insights = positive results) in our work.

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Can we effectively integrate our NYC public schools?

Over half of the population in the US right now is of color. This new majority minority is showing up in Pre K and Kindergarten, all around the country. And nowhere is this reflected better than in New York City public schools in which one point one million students are enrolled, 176 languages are spoken and only 15 percent of children are white.

Our public schools are a wonderful blend of America’s vast cultural tapestry, but factor in that the income levels of many families in New York are at the poverty level, and our public school system also doesn’t just represent the most racially segregated but also the most economically segregated in the country.

Kids are straight shooters

I’ve been working with dozens of 8–11 year olds for over two years in a high poverty segregated elementary school in Brooklyn. Its humbling to work with kids who are much more straightforward than adults. These generous, creative, eager children are the future. They are, like all children, pure potential. But they are segregated. Together with the school I’ve been co-creating, with two adult counselors and about 80 kids, Kids’ Councils in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades which primarily take place after school and are democratically run by the kids themselves with as little adult involvement as possible, in their own classrooms.

I’ve also immersed myself in the life of the school to understand the rules, challenges and opportunities that are typical so I can better relate to the concerns that affect the children in all public schools in New York City.

Parents of means are now able to maneuver the system to get their kids into ‘better’ public or private or charter schools whereas typical New York City families may not be able to do this, and are simply left to whatever schools may be readily available. And choice education options get harder to navigate in middle and high school. Since the promise of the public schools is to provide a good, free education for every child, under-resourced schools struggle to stack up in terms of excellence, performance.

We do better when we integrate

Research shows clearly and undisputedly that we all do better when we integrate. Corporations strive to bring in employees from different backgrounds as do institutes of higher learning. This integration is considered valuable. Yet we maintain racially and economically segregated public schools which do not always graduate students who have the experience and relationships that provide this enrichment in the workforce and society in general.

We need to raise the bar of excellence and increase resources for all. By integrating our public schools all kids will learn to work together therefore we need to get all parents interested in integrating our public schools.

New York City’s Mayor de Blasio has called for public schools to bring their enrollment up to include 40% students of high poverty. This is courageous and necessary but I am filled with trepidation. How will this be accomplished to have the best results — to nurture confident, spontaneous, savvy and innovative children ready to tackle the opportunities and challenges of a crazy quilt world?

Educator Dr. Patricia Crain de Galarce says,

“We need cultural competencies and responsiveness in our public schools if we are to create inclusive environments where all children succeed. Without understanding and valuing differences, we are setting up kids and communities to fail.”

In the over two years that I’ve been working pro bono in a public school in District 13, Brooklyn, New York. I’ve fundraised to keep Kids’ Council free to all — to not add to the financial burden of the school or the parents. Neither could afford it. As a white woman, home-owner and neighbor, I have had a stake in District 13 for 33 years. I’ve been engaged in many ways as my beloved north Brooklyn — a community historically of black families which has recently evolved to include many young white families.

Here are some of the questions that arise for me, working with educational professionals in New York City public schools, regarding challenges high poverty children face:

        What happens when a student comes into a school system where the faculty and administration doesn’t reflect them culturally?

        What about that child’s parents who work two jobs and suddenly face the call to engage in the PTA, not to mention teacher/parent meetings and all the attendant extracurricular activities of a school?

        What about the child who comes hungry to school every day? The child who sleeps on the couch, has no privacy at home?

        What about the child who has just been ‘counseled out’ of a charter school because they can’t deal with his disabilities? How is that child accepted into this new public school as a peer?

        What if that child just wants to be heard but cannot find any ‘way in’?

        What if that child has trouble at home? Or the child whose parents don’t speak English so have never been able to read to this child in the language of the land?

We must integrate our schools but in the process we cannot shove fragile round pegs into rigid square holes. We need to nurture what we love about each and every one of these kids; that they are unique, valuable and capable human beings, each in their own way. Each child, ultimately finds his/her own way. Each child (of poverty or means) comes with a back story and that child will either thrive or whither in the public school environment. We need all to thrive.

Yet largely due to safety concerns, many public elementary schools can feel like prisons into which children must enter and leave every week day. School administrators may be unable to make changes — because, let’s face it, bureaucracy is necessary in a school system the size of New York City’s. But there are solutions, even within this rigidity.

Allow kids agency in their classroom

I’ve found giving the children some say in their learning in elementary school clearly makes a huge difference in their attitude and perspective. Schools in which educators listen to the kids about how to improve their environment are poised to evolve.

This is exactly what I’ve been doing in Kids’ Councils for two years: The kids hold elections in their classroom, set agendas, take minutes and run meetings. They call for votes. Take action. And, of course, they have fun. They enrich their entire cohort by relating empathetically peer-to-peer and, in the process, they are motivated to mature. Overall, they improve their classroom (and help take the pressure off their teachers) by adopting a learner-centered attitude. They talk in a new way to the educators in their school. And to do this in a school population of students that reflects the real, diverse world is ideal.

The delight is the kids

The biggest delight for me (and I think all the smart, passionate educators I’ve been honored to work with these last two years) has been each and every individual child: they are natural egalitarians. They can be solutions-oriented — even in third grade — just with an exaggerated sense of fairness and equity. So if you put them in a situation, even in the early grades, where they have to make and articulate their own decisions, you see them rapidly develop confident, independent and nuanced thinking processes.

Ages 8 and up are the ages when children start to understand the concept of ‘future’ and start to imagine themselves in it. I’ve found even the most challenged child may have big dreams. If they change their trajectory by even a few degrees, this is a huge advance for them longterm.

Kids and parents have much to gain from being in a racially and economically diverse school — one that reflects the real world. We need to look for commonalities — ways for kids to imagine making these shared dreams come true.

Kids can come together face-to-face on their own terms — kids who are different from themselves economically and/or racially – to develop a sense of inclusion — a community in which they each have a self-defined place. Done well, in Kids’ Councils, the children will create dynamic dialogues that bode well for all their futures. Our future. The world’s future.



AuthorMonica Snellings

DK Holland

“This meeting will come to order!” 10 year old Kids’ Council Co Captain Nyle shouts and slams the mallet on the desk with glee to signify the start of Kids’ Council. A dozen kids together sitting on stools or cross-legged on the rug in the gathering space chattering. Slowly they come to focus on the meeting. Snack Monitor Deidre has set up the snack table and filled bowls and cups which she is in the process of passing out to everyone. A gentle presence is the adult facilitator. 

Nyle with her beloved mallet.

Nyle with her beloved mallet.

The printed agendas are handed out for approval and then Co Secretary Brad reads the minutes from the previous meeting for approval. Jewel, the Microphone monitor, hands our soft spoken Co Secretary a microphone to ensure all can hear him.

“This meeting will come to order!”  Nyle, Co Captain 

This is a somewhat idealized view of how each Kids’ Council meeting starts. But because the kids are in charge for these once a week 80 minute sessions they are free to go off script. It’s this ‘wiggle room’ that causes the kids to seek their own unique balance so, by and large, this new found freedom is a good thing.

The Backstory

So even though Ms. Morrison had offered class time for Kids’ Council, the students all wanted time to just relax and class time would be over in a snap of the fingers anyhow. So we asked the kids if we could meet after school in the classroom. 

This meant, though, that some kids would not be able to be part of the weekly Kids’ Council meetings. But all the officers agreed they could meet after school and about dozen students were eager to attend. And they promised the class we’d figure out a way to include everyone in decision-making. Fairness is a keyword in Kids' Council.

One of the kids raised the question, “Can kids from ‘the other 5th grade class’ come in?” This was a teachable moment where the adult facilitator simply turned it back to the kids asking them "What do you think?" The kids discussed the pros and cons and voted that that would be okay as long as they were ‘good kids’ but that they could not vote. So the main prerequisite was that kids had to come in with the right attitude: They had to be cooperative and want to improve the learning experience of the classroom.

This Must be Fun

Kids’ Council is optional. It’s a free program at PS 20. Kids have options; they can attend the general after school program held in the cafeteria where 90 kids grab a slice of pizza, hang out, do homework, play games till their parents can come get them. Or they can come be part of something they create for themselves - Kids' Council. The newness of having their opinions sought; the excitement of forming their own deeply held opinions and articulating them in a trusted group in which they have a modicum of control seems to provide excellent motivation. And we have great snacks.

AuthorDK Holland

DK Holland and Dr. Patricia Crain de Galarce

Creating the Learning Wall

In order to understand from kids how their learning may be improved, Inquiring Minds spent a year embedded in a 5th grade classroom, in PS 20, a title 1 school in Brooklyn. It struck us immediately that many of the students were aching for responsibility, curious about the world around them, and full of ideas of how they might learn best. And, when the students were asked to sit and listen they became increasingly placid and disengaged. 

Teachers often feel a great urgency to create learning environments where all students can find success. They struggle to shift to a more constructivist approach, integrating curriculum and inquiry. The pressures of testing often cause panic and teachers revert to a lecture style in attempts to pour in the information and cover standards. This can be, of course, a placebo: It may create the illusion of learning while deep understanding may not be happening at all. 

Together we wanted to reverse the downward trend in this classroom so that students would be actively engaging in accountable talk 80% of the learning time rather than passive listening. Using design thinking, we came up with an interactive Learning Wall.

Creating the Western Hemisphere

We asked the students in Kids’ Council* if they wanted to come to school on a Saturday to help create the wall. Pizza was the enticement (irresistible to 10 year olds). Several Kids’ Council members were eager to help. The design team also included adults: Inquiring Minds (Monica Snellings, Patricia Crain de Galarce and DK Holland); the Principal (Ms Lena. Barbera); the teacher (Ms. Opal Morrison) and custodian (Nate) and a parent (Frank’s mom). The students were Jade, Jasmine, Frank, and Viva. It was this team that got our first interactive Learning Wall up – so we could start a new way to document and guide dynamic learning. 

The whole back wall was covered with foam core and topped with black Rubber Tak. This new surface absorbed sound (a big complaint of the kids was that the room was too noisy) as it helped frame the students’ work. We hung a banner high on the wall that included the 5 disciplines - Social Studies, Reading, Writing, Math and Science as well as a bold statement declaring that all the students were ‘awesome and effective.' We explored ways to interconnect the current disciplinary learning (based on the Common Core) and to tie together the learning through asking an integrated essential question. 

“How do we relate to our neighbors?”

The Fifth grade teacher Ms. Morrison explained that the next unit this 5th grade class would tackle was the Western Hemisphere - specifically Mexico, the USA and Canada. We needed a focus that engaged 10 year olds and provided opportunities for deep learning, academic skill building, and that met the Common Core standards so we developed the essential provocative question, “How do we relate to our neighbors?” 

Frank traces 3 interlocking circles to make an illustration for the Learning Wall that shows interdependence.  

Frank traces 3 interlocking circles to make an illustration for the Learning Wall that shows interdependence.


The Learning Wall centered around this question which we made big and bold. We used the student chosen typeface and printed out “How do we relate to our neighbors?” in giant black outlined letters on white paper. The kids cut out each of the letters right on the black outline. Jade asked "Can we could color them." We said, “Only if it has a purpose.” My favorite moment of the day was when she declared, “We’ll use the colors of each of the 5 subjects to show integrated learning.” Yes, she really said this.

"We’ll use the colors of each of the 5 subjects to show integrated learning.” Jade declared.

The Learning Wall is much richer because of its hands on, handmade quality. The kids take pride in the researching, and developing of the wall. We wanted to engage the kids in getting images and ephemera onto the wall in every way we could that best reflected their learning. Principal Barbera suggested that we use a document camera which each classroom has. Students selected a map of the Western Hemisphere from the Internet and Ms. Morrison projected it onto a 4 foot long sheet of white paper and the kids traced it with gusto. Then they decided to color in each country intentionally selecting colors that added meaning. When they went to put in the names of all the countries they surprised each other at their geographical knowledge. “This is Bolivia!” Frank said with astonishment, “How did I know that?” Jasmine and Viva will never forget the length and placement of Argentina as they almost accidentally cut it off near Antarctica. 


Dr. Galarce puts up a question card under the Reading section of the wall. Students were encouraged to write questions that related to the 3 countries of the USA, Mexico and Canada.

Dr. Galarce puts up a question card under the Reading section of the wall. Students were encouraged to write questions that related to the 3 countries of the USA, Mexico and Canada.

The trick of the Learning Wall is to start with a huge blank canvas and a question that inspires more questions and can be built upon as the students increase their knowledge resulting in a giant assemblage. The wall not only captures students’ learning but evolves and inspires more exploration. We posted the Common Core standards on index cards to display learning goals. And we used “I can” speech bubbles to support student metacognition. Students in this 5th grade dove into an exploration of how we relate to our neighbors through geology, climate, culture and the resulting international trade that our interdependent continent depends on. 

Monica Snellings and Nate the custodian completed the installation of the banner. This was no mean feat.

Monica Snellings and Nate the custodian completed the installation of the banner. This was no mean feat.

We thought about how to tie the disciplines together. How could we give this essential question  some tension, relevance. How could we make it come alive?

It's alive!

Equal Exchange, a cooperative dedicated to promoting commerce based on fair trade, was eager to connect and shipped us many copies of a graphic novel they had published that explains how small farmers are often unjustly compensated for their hard work - and the remedy - was to create a fair trade system. The book’s content inspired mathematic thinking around meaningful questions like the difference in the payment a small farmer might get for a crop vs what it sells for at market. “What’s the ratio?” asked Ms. Roberts, the math teacher. The science of the landscape for growing coffee beans led to rich discussions about how much we count on natural resources in our neighbors’ countries as well as the social justice issues of children working the fields. The students grappled with the startling reality for our neighbors to the south and went home asking their moms and dads about their favorite coffee. “where does it come from?”,  “How much did it cost?” “How much did the coffee grower make?”

The beauty of the topic “How do we relate to our neighbors?” is that it capitalizes on the passionate (and often exaggerated) sense of fairness 10 year olds often have. And we are all neighbors: the people sitting next to you are your neighbors. The people who live down the street are too. So are the businesses that you frequent. And so is Mexico. Ms. Nixon, the science teacher made this point quite eloquently. The more the students researched, the more questions they had. This encouraged them to investigate further and develop a sense of nuance. 

Each of the 5 disciplines of Social Studies, Reading, Writing, Math, and Science became more meaningful through integrated learning. The outcomes not only filled their Learning Wall but engaged the students to inquire and tease through discussions rich with inherent contradictions and conundrums. Students were drawn to the wall, at times adding more color, placing additional pins, yarn and labels to the map, and displaying new findings. The wall was theirs to learn from and to change because they knew it was their very own creation. It was the roadmap they had made on their way to new knowledge.

the Learning Wall is up and being added to.  

the Learning Wall is up and being added to.



*You may find articles about Kids’ Council – its purpose, development and results when you search the key words Kids' Council. Also look for additional posts in the future on the Learning Wall.

AuthorDK Holland