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A Rye Neck Counselor Takes on Education for a New Age

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Valerie Feit in her Rye Neck High School office.
Photos courtesy of Valerie Feit

Rye Neck High School K-12 administrator Valerie Feit has coauthored a new book that looks toward a future of hybrid, community-based education.

Online and hybrid education, remote coursework, creative and community-centered tutelage: This may sound like students’ post-COVID landscape, but Rye Neck High School counselor and coordinator Valerie Feit — along with civil rights attorney and Duke University research fellow William Tobin — foresaw this teaching climate as early as 2017. That’s when they began writing their new book, Student Research for Community Change, which was published in July 2020 by Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Press and covers the above topics in an easily accessible fashion. We caught up with Feit, who discussed the particulars of her and Tobin’s book, as well as the ways in which she believes education is changing for the better.

Please tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in South Africa, and my father wrote a political book that was banned, so my family moved under the aegis of an American professor to the United States. When I got here, I was very influenced by African dance, and so I became a professional dancer at the age of 16. I ended up dancing for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. I started and ran a dance and ballet studio for 20 years, which is still in Beacon, NY. Since, I have been involved in public education.

Tell me a bit about your work at Rye Neck High School.

I have two hats: One is codirector of school counseling and the other is as a K-12 enrichment coordinator. Another codirector is in charge of everything that has to do with data analysis of students in a contemporary public-school environment. So, we have the data piece; we have the social and emotional piece that I bring from the counseling; then we have this talent development end of it, which really capitalizes on the kids’ strengths and interests. We then try to build programs where students can really explore what they might actually be doing in their lives.

How did you first begin work on your book, Student Research for Community Change?

I met [William Tobin] about 11 years ago. He was running a program in conjunction with the League of Women Voters and the Town of Rye. It involved three high schools, one of which was Rye Neck, and the idea was that he would run a social-science program with these three high schools so that we could introduce the children to social issues and how society works, with each student looking through the lens of a child with a different perspective, from a different high school. I heard about it and was asked if I wanted to bring kids. I went over there, and we both instantly said that we want to work together. He brings a university perspective to his work, and I bring in the high school perspective.

Rye Neck High School students join Valerie Feit at a Chinese UN event.

How does the book aid in facilitating these new forms of education?

We have a country of kids right now who are in hybrid-teaching models and have a lot of time of their own. They’re facing existential issues in our society yet wanting to get involved. These kids are itching to do something because they are so informed, but they don’t feel they are able to be effective because they are young. The idea of the book was getting kids more involved in their communities in a way that earns respect. The virus has created a space for this kind of conversation and these kinds of activities. The book walks teachers through it [and offers] creative ways to really reach kids. The teacher’s role changes a bit, from the so-called “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.”

Feit at the TED organization’s office in New York City.

How did the coronavirus change the book’s trajectory?

We were building toward this more collaborative, real-world, problem-solving, message-based education for a long time. Then, the coronavirus was a kind of earthquake that pushed everything very suddenly forward. While the virus is of course terrible, it’s not necessarily going to be a terrible thing for education. In fact, I think that ultimately, education will move forward significantly as a result. This book departs from the traditional teach-and-test model of “Here’s what you need to do, and we’re going to test you on it.” We use a very different angle, which is, if students use problem-solving methods, the scientific method, and social-sciences methods, [their education] will be highly flexible and can be applied to many different situations.

How do you feel your book can be useful for students ahead?

The need for the deep engagement in community and the importance of community connection is something we have seen through this pandemic. For kids, civic participation can take so many different forms. Our intention with the book was to provide them with a road map. So, if somebody wants to take a leadership role in their community, they don’t need to be elected; they can just see and observe something that needs addressing and can use a book like this to figure out how to do it in a responsible and respectful way that will be listened to. It’s reassuring for students when they find that they can communicate, gain respect, and contribute.