Mission (Upon a) Hill

Here at the Mission Hill School, nestled amidst the labyrinthine side streets of Boston and alongside the usual din of sounds that fill a school’s hallways, an unusual revolution is taking place.

It’s happening in the 2nd and 3rd grade, where lead teacher Jenerra Williams doesn’t formally call her class to “order,” opting instead to spend the first 30 minutes of the day greeting children as they arrive, trusting them to begin their morning tasks without prodding, and checking in with each student to ensure everyone is ready to learn that day – intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

It’s happening in the main office, where principal Ayla Gavins’s desk sits in an open airy space that feels more welcoming than foreboding – the type of place you’d actually like to be sent.

It’s happening throughout the building, where no child asks if he can go to the bathroom and no student is forced to stay in her seat, because all such choices are understood by adults as learning opportunities for children to acquire the vital lifelong skills of self-awareness and self-regulation.

And it’s happening throughout the network of Boston’s public pilot schools, which receive greater freedom and flexibility to create more empowered, engaging, and independent learning environments in the hope that they can, over time, light an instructive path forward for all of the city’s schools. Add up those ingredients, and you’ll find Mission Hill’s particular “special sauce”, as well as a general recipe for transformational learning the rest of us can follow in our efforts to create more places like it.

Mission Hill’s path of transformation began in 1994, when Boston Mayor Thomas Menino joined forces with the city’s schools and teacher union to create a subset of “pilot schools” that were explicitly created to serve as useful catalysts of eventual district-wide urban reforms. Since its founding, the school has always seen its purpose as being far greater than merely guaranteeing academic growth, or ensuring that its graduates are “college and career-ready.” Instead, as school founder Deborah Meier put it, the task of Mission Hill mirrors the task of public education – “to help parents raise youngsters who will maintain and nurture the best habits of a democratic society.” And democracy, Meier says, “requires citizens with the capacity to step into the shoes of others, even those we most dislike, to sift and weigh alternatives, and to listen respectfully to different viewpoints with the possibility in mind that we each have something to learn from each other.”

Because of its broader orientation, Mission Hill is not organized primarily around what children will know, but who they will become. Its teachers are not just evaluated by how well their students perform in traditional academic subjects, but also by how skillfully their students can navigate “the interdisciplinary stuff of ordinary life.” And all members of the community are not allowed to sit back passively and criticize school decisions; they must actively participate in the ongoing co-creation of the school, its rules, and its path forward. “Everything I do is visible,” Gavins explained one recent afternoon, while two young boys played with toy dinosaurs on a green shag rug near her desk.  “So there are no secrets.  There is no hiding, and no backroom deals.  Everyone knows what my work is, and because that’s the expectation of everyone here that everyone’s work is public, everyone here is expected to defend their work, that’s also true for me.”

Williams, who has spent her entire professional career at Mission Hill, agrees. “The most wonderful aspect of our culture here is the freedom we all feel. We all share our curriculum.  We get feedback and support each other, and yet because we all have the freedom to do what we think is best means we all also have the freedom to fail.  So we learn as we go, just like the kids.”

All of these ingredients are on display each day in Mission Hill’s classrooms. The school’s student body is extremely diverse in every way imaginable – ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, learning style, etc. – a reflection of its commitment to create a fully inclusive learning environment. The physical spaces are designed to awaken individual interests and curiosities – an easel with paint and paintbrushes over here, an actual buzzing beehive over there. The curriculum integrates arts and academics and explores issues thematically, across all subjects. The school’s five habits of mind are prominently placed in each classroom to remind both young and old of what they are working toward each day. And throughout the school one finds explicit reminders of the things that link people to each other, such as the colorful CONNECTIONS wall in Jenerra’s classroom, where each student’s picture is framed alongside a list of his or her personal hopes and dreams – and where visible lines of green string connect portraits whenever one person’s answers match another’s.

Currently, the national climate for school reform is not aligned to reinforce Mission Hill’s emphasis on the democratic mission of public education, or on its efforts to explicitly identify the core habits – as opposed to the core knowledge – of the ideal graduate. But that may be changing. Indeed, recent insights and convergences in the fields of cognitive science and organizational behavior confirm that what schools like Mission Hill are doing isn’t just one community’s belief in the value of “soft” skills; it’s also a sound strategy based on the latest hard science about how people learn.

“When we get right down to it,” explains neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni in his 2008 book Mirroring People, “what do we human beings do all day long? We read the world, especially the people we encounter.” Until recently, scientists were at a loss to explain how, or even why, we do this. But now, scientists have located the process in a set of special cells in the brain called mirror neurons. These cells, Iacoboni reports, are what help us recognize and understand the deepest motives and needs of our fellow human beings. They are, in short, the source of our capacity to think and act as empathetic members of a democracy, and the most vital part of ourselves to be cultivated and nourished. And their discovery is why scientists like Iacoboni “believe this work will force us to rethink radically the deepest aspects of our social relations and our very selves.”

Amen, Dr. Iacoboni – and we may not be as far behind as you think. The next time you’re in Boston, spend a day at Mission Hill.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted March 6, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Great article on Mission Hill School. I think you’d find a higher percentage of elementary schools with this sense of freedom and inquiry than middle schools. And the factory model high school is the most bureaucratic and repressive of all. I’m amazed that there hasn’t been a national push to rid the U.S. of this obsolete model. Outfits like Big Picture Learning have figured it out, but 85% of high schoolers still attend these organizational dinosaurs.

  2. Posted March 7, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks Barry — and I think you’re right. The right learning spirit is much easier to find in elementary schools. As kids grow, and as you say, the tentacles of the factory model tighten their grip.

  3. jay featherstone
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Great piece on Mission Hill! jf

  4. Julie Sweetland
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Great piece, Sam. One of the many things I love about Mission Hill (and Deb Meier) is that this work exists within the traditional public school system. From all the rhetoric about charters being our only hope, you would never know that Mission Hill or Central Park East exist. I am not particularly anti-charter but I wish there were a healthier debate about how similar flexibility can be, and has been, accomplished in the traditional public sector.

    What occasioned the trip to Mission Hill?

  5. Joel
    Posted April 15, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    But, are they learning? You do a whole article about some school’s revolutionary approach… and don’t tell us whether the students are actually learning anything?

  6. Posted April 15, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Your question underscores why I wrote the article. For too long, we’ve defined “learning” via a purely academic lens, even though the way our brains work, and the skills we need to be successful in life, stretch far beyond merely what we “know.” So yes, they are learning (in the way you mean it), and acquiring an understanding of the major academic subjects that will prepare them for high school (see their website for the numbers that can back this up). And yes, they are learning (in the way I mean it), and understanding who they are, and what their strengths and weaknesses are (as students and as people), and starting to imagine what is most important to them. THAT’s the revolutionary approach I was concerned with — and you should be, too.

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