(Extra)Ordinary People

There’s an anecdote the Calhoun School’s Steve Nelson likes to share when he speaks to teachers and parents about the purpose of education. “We should think of our children as wildflower seeds in an unmarked package,” he says. “We can’t know what will emerge. All we can do is plant them in fertile soil, give them plenty of water and sunlight, and wait patiently to see the uniqueness of their beauty.”

At a time when too many students are still being planted in highly cultivated gardens – trimmed and pruned to resemble each other closely – it is incumbent upon all of us to stand on the side of the unmarked package. And at a time when we stray further and further from our democratic roots – from Chicago to DC – it is essential we heed the words of Mission Hill founder Deborah Meier, who reminds us that “democracy rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people.”

These two visions – of a school filled with unmarked seeds, and a democracy fueled by ordinary citizens – come together in the tenth and final chapter of A Year at Mission Hill. We see a montage of children in various states of joy. We hear teachers sing the words of poet Kahlil Gibran at their school’s graduation ceremony (“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”). And we watch principal Ayla Gavins tell her staff she will refuse to administer new testing requirements under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program.

As Mission Hill plans for the challenges of a new school year, we should pay attention to the principles its principal is willing to risk her career to protect: Trust and transparency. Experience. Variation. Autonomy. And, as she puts it, “celebrating the humanness in all of us, and trying to build on human potential and not stifle it.”

Some will have watched this series and concluded that schools like Mission Hill are little more than inspiring one-offs, with a singular vision of schooling that can never be scaled. Yet there are already hundreds of schools – from the Expeditionary Learning network to the New York Performance Standards Consortium – that assess their students similarly (and a handful of states that are following suit). There are already thousands of teachers with the ability, given the right supports and surroundings, to be just as masterful as the ones we’ve observed at Mission Hill. And there are already streamlined structures in place, from the pilot school model in Boston to the statewide funding system in Vermont, that are empowering public schools to be more innovative, inclusive, and effective.

To be fair, it makes sense that people are searching for the best way to scale the ideas in a school like Mission Hill. After all, the more children that can have experiences like the ones we’ve watched over the course of this series, the better off our society will be. But the best way to spread ideas in a democracy is not by scaling up, like McDonald’s, buy by scaling across, like farmers markets. In the first example, the goal is to make everything so uniform that walking into any store anywhere in the world should feel – and taste – exactly the same. In the second, the goal is to create a forum for people to access what will make them healthier, and to come together in a spirit of community. As a result, every farmers market shares certain common design principles. And each one also demonstrates the myriad variations in how those principles can get applied.

A Year at Mission Hill is a visual testament to the pedagogical power of the second approach. It’s a place that treats the learning process the same way a skilled gardener would nurture a package of wildflowers: by preparing the soil, planting the seeds, and waiting for the unique beauty to emerge. And it’s a place that reminds us that when you invest deeply in the capacity of ordinary adults to do their jobs well, they are capable of extraordinary things.

“The freedom of teachers to make decisions about their classrooms and their lives is essential, “ Meier adds. “The whole point of an education is to help you learn how to exercise judgment – and you can’t do that if the expert adults in your school are not allowed to exercise theirs.”

(This article originally appeared in Education Week.)

A Part of Us is Dying in Chicago

I can’t reconcile the deep sense of community that filmmakers Amy and Tom Valens have captured in their 10-part video series about a year in the life of a public school in Boston, with the painful public clashes we’re witnessing in Chicago – where 54 of the city’s schools will soon be shuttered.

Indeed, although the nation’s attention is fixed on the historic fight for marriage equality in the U.S. Supreme Court, a part of us is dying in the Windy City – and no one in the mainstream media seems to care.

No one disputes the fact that Chicago, like so many American cities, has real problems to solve. Population is down. Money is tight. School choice is growing. Tough decisions must be made.

By the same token, can anyone dispute that we have reason to worry about the state of our civic discourse when Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, allows the announcement of something as contentious as 54 school closings while he is on a ski trip in Utah? And can anyone blame local community leaders who wonder what to think of the Mayor’s plan to hold additional hearings on the issue? “If nobody is going to be heard at the hearings, what’s the use of having the hearings?” said Marshall Hatch, a local pastor. “If it’s a done deal, then stop wasting everybody’s time.”

A part of us is dying in Chicago because so many of us are so increasingly convinced that on the most important issues of the day, we are voiceless. We know changes need to be made – and we are increasingly abandoning, or giving little more than lip service to, our historic commitment to make those changes democratically, deliberately, and delicately. The issues in Chicago are complicated, from tax policies to population declines to legacies of race-based oppression, but the willingness of elected officials to confront those challenges in a spirit of co-construction with their constituents has become as laughable as, well, the Cubs winning the World Series.

Which takes me back to A Year at Mission Hill, and the ways in which this series is quietly and consistently demonstrating the generative power of a community in which everyone’s voice is valued and actively solicited. Mission Hill is a public school with charter-like autonomy. Its teachers are all unionized, and everything the district requires of its other schools, it requires of Mission Hill. Yet this is a school where, as teacher Jenerra Williams puts it, “We take the state test, we prepare for the state test, and we don’t get consumed by the state test.” This is a school where we see teachers repeatedly working together to diagnose, support, and engage kids. And this is a school where we see highly committed and skilled adults in an ongoing dialogue with each other about the only question that matters: “Of all the things we can do together, what must we do?”

Watching what’s happening in Chicago makes we worry about the extent to which we remain committed to the “we” in that question – We the people. What’s happening there is a national tragedy, and an example of what happens when powerful people recall the first half of the famous quote by Winston Churchill – “Democracy is the worst form of government” – and conveniently forget the second half – “except all the others that have been tried.”

As Mission Hill demonstrates, democracy is messy, it is inefficient, and it is slow. But as I watch its students practice calligraphy and study honeybees, as I listen to its teachers share strategies and struggle to improve – and as I ride my bike past the throngs of demonstrators for and against marriage equality outside the Supreme Court – I’m reminded that examples of our inextinguishable commitment to the spirit of individual liberty and equality are all around us.

Mayor Emanuel, are you watching?

(This article originally appeared in Education Week.)

A Tale of Two Schools

(This article originally appeared in Education Week.)

There are two current storytelling efforts about two different schools that, if you’re not careful, might feel like the American version of a tale of two cities.

In the first, a 10-part video narrative about a year in the life of the Mission Hill School in Boston, we’re treated to the best of times: a place where every children is known and cared for, where learning is experiential and engaging, and where the adults are both extremely skilled and highly collaborative.

In the second, a two-part This American Life series about a high school in Chicago, we’re given a glimpse of the worst of times: a place where 29 current or former students were shot the previous school year, where some students spend their entire high school careers avoiding social relationships out of safety, and where every member of the football team has dodged gunfire at least once in their young lives.

On one level, these two stories do provide some stark, uncomfortable contrasts: at Mission Hill, there are good days and bad days, but on balance the school is steady, secure, and consistently supportive of its students. And at Harper High School, there are moments of personal transformation, but on balance its students are forced to survive in a Sisyphean environment filled with fear and uncertainty.

On another level, however, the stories of Mission Hill and Harper High provide the rest of us with a clear message about the state of public education as it is – and as it ought to be. In fact, it’s impossible to hear these two schools’ stories and not see three clear implications for school reform going forward:

1. Our nation’s schools need to do a lot more than improve reading and math. It’s fitting that Harper High School is a “turnaround school.” That means the U.S. Department of Education has given it an additional $1.6 million annually “in order to raise substantially the achievement of students.”

If you haven’t been paying attention, anytime you see the word “achievement” you can just replace it with “standardized reading and math scores.” In other words, the only explicitly stated goal of our federal turnaround funds is to raise student performance on tests. That’s not just myopic – it’s tragic, particularly when you hear the story of Harper High and you meet young people like Thomas, a young man who had witnessed multiple murders, and who already worried he would hurt a lot of people soon.

Not surprisingly, the story’s reporters met Thomas in the school’s social work office, where he was usually found. “Sometimes I just need to talk to somebody,” he tells them, avoiding all eye contact, “and that’s why I come here.”

Don’t get me wrong – every school in America should set high academic standards for their students. But let’s be equally honest about something else: in communities like Thomas’s, young people often have just two places to escape to – the streets or the school. And when we threaten the ongoing existence of safe havens like a social worker’s office – as Harper will be forced to do when its looming budget cuts take effect – we increase the likelihood that Thomas will take a wrong, perhaps deadly, turn.

2. Our nation’s children all need the same things. It’s impossible to watch the Mission Hill series and not see the value of ensuring that every child feels known, loved and supported by at least one adult in the school. Once again, this is a foundational element of the schooling experience that transcends academic content. As Mission Hill 3rd grade teacher Jenerra Williams puts it, “You have to know them to teach them well. And once you do, you just naturally become their advocate.”

We see the same lesson at Harper High, where social worker Anita Stewart says goodbye to a young person running off to class with these words: “You are a person. You are valuable and you matter.” Indeed both of these remarkable educators understand something the bulk of our education policies chooses to ignore: that unmet social needs become unmet academic needs.

This observation should inform everything from how schools are evaluated to how teachers are prepared. Once again, however, our desire to engender measurable school reform on a political timetable (as opposed to one that actually reflects what we know about how organizations can implement lasting changes) has left us with empty discussions of schools that “boost performance” and teacher preparation programs that act as if a deep understanding of child development is a luxury, not a necessity. And once again, we can do better.

3. Our nation’s teachers need and deserve our support. There’s no escaping the fact that in the last several years, we’ve painted a general picture of America’s teachers as lazy, protected, and inferior. But the stories about Mission Hill and Harper High reveal a different picture: of adults who are highly skilled, highly committed, and highly valuable to the communities they serve.

To be sure, there are teachers out there whose unions have protected them from sanction, and whose ability to impact the lives of their students has long since passed. I had some of these characters as colleagues, and in my experiences working with schools around the country for the past decade, I would say they account for no more than 5% of the profession.

By contrast, the educators we see and hear at Mission Hill and Harper are masters of their craft, and models for us all. They are more than heroic; they are ambassadors of a profession tasked with the most important goal of a democratic society: to help children learn how to use their minds well, and how to harness the power and uniqueness of their own voice.

For these reasons, A Year at Mission Hill and This American Life are exactly the sorts of stories about public education we need. In Boston, we see a school in which both old and young are struggling to actualize a Dewey-esque reflection of the ideal learning environment; in Chicago, we see a school in which both old and young are struggling to escape a Dystopian reflection of our national culture of violence. And in both schools, we see personal stories of hope and transformation, and a real-life reflection of the social and emotional foundations of a healthy school.

The rest is up to us.

How Do You Design a Healthy School?

(This article originally appeared in Education Week.)

What if every school used our founding principles as a nation as its design principles for learning? How would schools need to change? And what would we unleash as a result?

This is one of the riddles at the center of the 10-part video series, A Year at Mission Hill. And although we’re just two chapters in, I’m starting to see an early pattern – and a dialectical pair of design principles at the center of it all.

First, it’s clear that just as the United States sprang from a shared vision of liberty, schools like Mission Hill spring from a shared commitment to individual freedom and autonomy. As a “pilot school” nestled within the larger structure of Boston Public Schools, Mission Hill has the institutional freedom to chart its own course around key issues like governance, curriculum, staffing, hiring, and budget. Its teachers (who are unionized) have great individual latitude in how they plan their lessons and assess their students. Its students are constantly placed in positions to exercise self-regulation and self-control (no hall passes here). And its aspirational habits of mind (which the school believes characterize a well-educated person) are designed to help young people develop the skills and self-confidence required to ask tough questions, discover meaningful patterns, develop empathy and compassion, imagine useful alternatives, and set appropriate priorities – both in school and in life.

What might this design principle look like elsewhere? Site-based autonomy seems important. So does the school having a clear vision of its ideal graduate – and not just in terms of what that person knows how to do, but how that person habitually lives his or her life. Giving children opportunities to practice decision-making is a must. And finally, there is the straw that stirs the drink – assembling a staff of highly skilled, highly collaborative educators, whose heightened expertise can justify a heightened level of autonomy, and whose understanding of learning and growth runs much deeper than academics alone.

But there’s an equally pressing, seemingly contradictory design principle that’s also at work, one that relates to an equally pressing human desire – for structure, safety and a sense of order to the world.  

These two universal needs – for freedom on one hand, and structure on the other – are what we must balance in order to create healthy, high-functioning learning environments of the sort we see at Mission Hill. And it won’t work if we forget a basic truism about organizations: that simple structures lead to complex thoughts, whereas complex structures lead to simple thoughts.

At Mission Hill, the simple structures in place are precisely (and ironically) the ones that help people develop the fullest sense of individual autonomy: the habits of mind that provide a North Star for everything the school does; the clearly defined expectations among staff and students about how people are treated and what is expected of them; the explicit rules about how decisions get made, and who gets to make them, and when, and why; and the individual-classroom and whole-school rituals that keep bringing people together to, as Mission Hill’s mission statement puts it, spend time with each other “even when it might seem wasteful hearing each other out.”

In my years as an educator, I have witnessed scores of schools that choose, consciously or unconsciously, to value one of these needs at the expense of the other. But what schools like Mission Hill remind us is that we do not need to choose. It is possible – indeed, essential – to find the right organizational balance between individual freedom and group structure. The challenge comes in finding the right mix of ingredients. And the opportunity before us is to find a way to get many more chefs in the kitchen – teachers, organizations, communities – each in search of a recipe they can call their own.

A Different Story About Public Education

I know we’re already one month into 2013, but think back to last year for a second:

What were the most talked about education stories of 2012?

I’m guessing your list looks something like this – Common Core. The Chicago Teacher Strike. Newtown. And what worries me is that no matter what other stories you recalled – from Michelle Rhee to the Dropout Crisis to Race to the Top – they’re all likely to fit into one of the following categories: content, conflict, or catastrophe.

Continue reading . . .

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.