Every once in awhile I visit a school that reminds me of what public education can be at its best, a place where I'd like to be, as a child or a teacher, a place that elicits the best in me as an educator. And so it was with my recent introduction to the world of the Mission Hill School, a Boston area public pilot school, as captured by the filmmaking team of Tom and Amy Valens.
This is the same team that produced and directed August to June, Bringing Life to School, one of my favorite education films of the past year. Their film on Mission Hill is still in the editing process, but they've produced ten episodes that will be shown on a range of educational sites in the next months. One of those sites is Edutopia.
In the opening chapter, as the images of engaged students and committed teachers begin to unfold on the screen, the narrator says:
Almost none of us understand what it takes to make a school great, and how to sustain that greatness over time. What would happen if more people knew how to create such places for children? What would they teach us? And how would our understanding of public education change?
These episodes suggest why that should happen, and show us how it could.
The noted educator and author Deborah Meier founded the K-8 school in 1997 in Roxbury, Massachusetts (the school has since moved to Jamaica Plain). It has a small learning community of approximately 200 students, a primarily project-based collaborative curriculum that is tailored for all learning abilities, and is modeled on democratic principles. The principal and the faculty council make all the major staffing, curriculum and fiscal decisions conjointly.
The Valens team spent much of the 2011-12 year filming the life of the entire school community.
Many things captured both my head and my heart as I watched these episodes: the open and committed teachers, the warm and perceptive principal, the inviting physical environment, the enthusiasm of the students, and most of all, how they all treat each other with openness and affection.
Unlike many schools, the mission statement here is a living document. It states a commitment to helping parents raise youngsters who will maintain the best habits of a democratic society. More specifically, it states a commitment to developing kids who can step into the shoes of others, who listen respectfully to other viewpoints, who keep the possibility in mind that we each have something to learn from others. Importantly, what we see taking place in the school fulfills that mission.
Learning While Teaching
The way in which children and teachers interact at Mission Hill has an intimacy that I often see in the best classrooms but rarely see pervading a total school environment as it does here. We watch how the teachers continually pay close attention to the interactions between the children, guiding them to resolve conflicts and solve problems together. There is an unusually high focus on emotional learning, developing responsibility, and fostering communication between children. The kids join in the process of creating the classroom environment through dialogue and through the obvious combination of teacher care and facilitation skills.
And, as a teacher remarks in the second chapter:
Children as young as five can have meaningful conversations that bring in . . . viewpoint, evidence, relevance . . . all of those things are really relevant in the classroom. The students here are citizens in their own community. They have voice. They're a part of their own learning. It's about everybody being part of it.
Teachers consider it a gift to be teaching at Mission Hill. A young teacher says, "One of the things that really hooked me and makes me stay is the autonomy I have as a teacher, really establishing relationships and encouraging student voice." This autonomy opens doors to meaningful involvement and engagement by teachers as well as students.
The school also follows through on its stated commitment to shared decision making. As we watch, we see this process in action on the part of this multi-racial staff, focusing on what is most meaningful for both students and teachers. And as the staff shares curriculum ideas and offers serious peer feedback, we see what professional development and collegiality can look like at their best.
In another scene, a teacher who's been there for ten years tells the kids that he's a learner and a teacher just as they are.
There aren't a lot of places that are staff-run, and you get to have the same kind of voice in what you say and do. You get more out of your kids . . . when you're really transparent with them and allowing them to be part of a decision-making process and having them be really integral in that. You get more investment as a result.
At the end of the second episode the narrator says, "Can something as non-academic as the social-emotional well being of children have an effect on something as academic as the study of science or math?" The answer is, "Of course" -- and Mission Hill demonstrates that.
Amy and Tom Valens' lovely capturing of this school will capture each of you. So check out the first episode. You'll want to see the others and then, like me, will look forward to the full film when it's released.
Editor's Note: To find related resources from more than 40 partner organizations, visit the A Year At Mission Hill website.