Education Opinion

(Extra)Ordinary People

By Sam Chaltain — June 06, 2013 3 min read
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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, but 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 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.”

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.