Spend an hour talking to any of our faculty and staff, and you’ll hear one word used constantly: process. At ECFS, what matters more than the final product our students deliver is the learning process — the practices and procedures they have mastered so they can repeat their achievements again and again. We want our students to leave our classrooms equipped with knowledge and theory, but also with a set of translatable skills they will use throughout their lives.
From the outset, we make sure our students know how to work with their hands. It’s a skill that’s easy to take for granted, but critically important nevertheless. Students in Pre-K at Ethical Culture tend to the honey locust trees on 64th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. Through collecting leaves and seeds, planting flowers, and clearing the area of litter, our budding gardeners learn to be stewards of the environment and of the neighborhood. In their math classes, second graders learn to measure liquids by pouring water into graduated cylinders of various shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, in shop class, they craft their own spoons from blocks of wood, handling the saws and files and vises themselves. Back at home, when students find older family members baking a cake, pruning the garden, or fixing a broken chair, they are ready to assist as helpers.
We watch our students continue to refine their skills as they mature. Every year fourth graders at Ethical Culture are commissioned by adults in the division to build something they need; projects have included a magazine rack, a foot stool, bookshelves, and tables; in the Middle School, seventh and eighth graders built and carved a storage box for the Admissions Office. If students crack the screen on their phone or blow out the speaker on their laptop, the student repair centers in the middle and upper schools can teach them how to take apart and patch up their electronic devices themselves. Our campus itself is filled with reminders of our students’ handiwork, from benches in the quad to a life-size and seaworthy canoe that hangs from the rafters in the Student Commons (yes — a canoe!). Should they go on to study architecture or engineering in college, our students know the calculus and the physics to ensure their designs are viable, but they’ve also experienced the physicality — and the joy — of constructing something from scratch.
Just as important as learning to work with one’s hands is learning to master “soft” skills like listening, leadership, and empathy. We aim to instill in all our students the habits of heart and mind that will enable them to interact with people of all backgrounds because we believe doing so is critical to being an engaged citizen, no matter what profession one may choose or where one may ultimately live. In seventh-grade English, students participate in “fishbowl” discussions in which half the class debates a topic in the center of the room while the other half surrounds them to observe. Through the process of providing feedback to others and being conscious of one’s own speech and behavior, seventh graders become more effective communicators.
Similarly, understanding how to be a team player is a skill with far-reaching ramifications. Through role-playing activities in which fourth graders must collectively make a choice that affects the entire group, they learn that voting isn’t the only way to move forward — and that when decisions are made by consensus, everyone shares in the outcome.
Many of our electives in the Upper School teach skills that are valuable in the workplace and beyond. Want to learn how to take professional photos, report for a newspaper, write code, or edit images and layouts in Photoshop and InDesign? There are classes for that. When it comes to the ethics classes that all students are required to take, our curriculum is committed to ensuring our students apply their learning to the world around them, and nowhere is that more salient than in our upper school classes. Juniors and seniors are required to take two electives that explore the ethical issues inherent across fields of study and in daily decision-making — from science and sports to technology and media consumption.
From their earliest days through graduation, our students practice empathy, work with their hands, mature as leaders and communicators, and learn enduring skills. They cultivate a mindset for growth, a capacity for self-awareness, and an ethical center that will sustain them in school and beyond.