Meet Our Alumni
Jonathan Silin, GSE '71, and longtime editor-in-chief of Bank Street's Occasional Paper Series

Jonathan Silin

Early Childhood General Education '71

When children talk about difficult experiences with us, we can be in the moment with them, but we can’t promise to fix the world. This is true when we care for and truly care about people of any age.

In honor of Jonathan Silin, who stepped down as the longtime editor-in-chief of the Bank Street Occasional Paper Series, his colleagues dedicated an issue of OPS to exploring and celebrating his writing and career—“Welcoming Narratives in Education: A Tribute to the Life Work of Jonathan Silin.” His work as an educator and, more specifically, commitment to a full range of narrative research strategies, laid the groundwork on which the series was built.

Here, Jonathan shares some of his thoughts about the tribute, the idea of “welcoming,” and some useful advice about handling crisis as an educator.

How does it feel to be recognized for your contributions to the field of education and as a treasured editor of the Occasional Paper Series?
I am filled with gratitude and a healthy measure of disbelief that I had the good fortune to become the accidental editor of the Occasional Paper Series 20 years ago. Beginning at the Fleishman’s yeast factory-turned-school at 69 Bank Street, I have lived a lifetime in and through an institution whose history I have tried to honor even as I challenged some of its most cherished assumptions about children and childhood. A half-century later, I am thrilled that my own work has sparked conversations between an inspiring group of younger scholars and my more well-recognized peers in the academy.

The tribute explores the idea of “welcoming.” Can you further reflect on this concept and on “education as hospitality”?
In the fall of 1968, when I entered the early childhood classroom as a young teacher, I was very much a stranger to its ways and the ways of young children. I was welcomed by a seasoned teacher and children whose questions spoke to my own existential searches for home and certainty, a life of ongoing learning, as well as trusting relationships with others. The classroom was a busy, noisy place always filled with the unexpected turn of events but, as often as not, the children’s questions turned my look inward. They seemed to be teaching me more about myself than I was teaching them about the world.

Hospitality is a deceptively simple yet complicated idea. We make an ethical commitment to the unconditional welcome of the stranger at the same time as our daily practices inevitably undercut that welcome. Even as we are committed to welcome and respect, our best intentions may offend.

Political theorist Hannah Arendt reminds us that communication is based on difference, not sameness, and living in community means living with unbridgeable difference, with not knowing and uncertainty. That said, we must continually try to span the distances among us with forgiveness and promise. In welcoming the stranger, we open the door to learning about how the strange and unknown lives within us.

In your 2018 book, Early Childhood, Aging, and the Life Cycle: Mapping Common Ground, you challenged us to look anew at the shape of our lives across time with a theoretical groundwork for understanding aging as it relates to progressive educational theory. This seems particularly relevant to our recent experiences as educators. How have the pandemic and 2020s social justice movements relate to your books ideas?
As someone in my 70s, I’m reflecting on what it meant to become a teacher of young children in my 20s. I was thinking about connections between those two periods of my own life to see if there were larger questions for children and adults. What I realized is that the same issues keep re-emerging across my lifetime—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Ten years ago, I was in Australia visiting a small school a four-drive from Melbourne. They had experienced  years of extreme weather—houses were destroyed by flooding, forest fires had endangered towns, and people had lost lives. When I spoke with teachers, I found out that their first response was to ignore the devastation around them while in the classroom. They believed they were providing a safe haven from the difficulties. We talked and they began to see that they were missing an opportunity for the children to learn about their interdependence with their families and the world around them. How did the community respond to this severe weather crisis? How did the school prepare itself? How did families take care of themselves?

Now, in 2021, the same kinds of questions hold true with respect to our reluctance to address the full range of issues raised by COVID-19, racial injustice, and political unrest. But we need to seize these moments, acknowledging our own fears and uncertainties even as we hold a safe space for children to express their thoughts and feelings.

In addressing adversity and in trying to unpack what’s actually happening, I think there’s a tendency for adults to want to make things better for children. Most of the time, we can’t really do that. What we can do, however, is provide the tools for children to tell their own stories with words, blocks, and art materials. We can bear witness to their stories. When children talk about difficult experiences with us, we can be in the moment with them, but we can’t promise to fix the world. This is true when we care for and truly care about people of any age.