Curriculum Opinion

What knowledge is of most worth?

By Deborah Meier — June 18, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

With that Spencer question—"What knowledge is of most worth?”—lingering in my mind I took a quick trip to Boston for the 8th grade graduation ceremonies at my old school—Mission Hill. Lots of old-timers were there—former students, families and staff. The place is a magnet—drawing us back together for renewal and inspiration. With us also for the week were visitors from a K-5th grade school in North Carolina that several of us had visited in May—a school in crisis over its history as a magnet school for “open” education. Their reactions to Mission Hill were intriguing to me, as they tried to sort out what it was that appealed to them despite the divisions within their staff about traditional vs. progressive schooling.

Mission Hill built itself around a version, and a revision, of Central Park East (CPE) in East Harlem. We kept their “five habits of mind”, alongside a new motto, “Be Kind and Work Hard”. The latter, which I abstained from voting for, in retrospect may be as important a statement of who we are as its CPE intellectual roots (those habits of mind). In part the place works, perhaps, because it’s a constant back and forth balance between the rituals and traditions that families and staff bring with them from their histories—traditions that do not always neatly go together but do not clash either. In the end, no one entirely “owns” it, but everyone does; its own culture is a constantly rewoven mix of many.

What we’ve struggled to fashion is a style which gives the adults extraordinary individual freedom within a context of mutual decision-making, and a commitment to treat each other and each other’s ideas “as if” we had no doubt that they were intended to further our common purposes. Plus a lot of mutual affection.

And, Diane, here’s another point: it even has a “set” curriculum, although one that is the creation of our faculty and our Board. From 5-year-olds to 13-year-olds everyone studies the same subject matter at the same time. (A few years ago the staff added a short “spring fling"—to enable teachers to spend a month on a topic of their own classes’ special interest, as well a Friday K-8th grade elective program that functions outside the set course of study.) The year is divided into trimesters; every winter it’s one of four Ancient Civilizations; in the fall and then spring everyone studies a common scientific theme and an American history theme. These themes repeat every four years—so that each child studies the same “topic” in K-3, and again in 4-7. We “do” American politics each presidential election year, and we rotate between the natural and physical sciences. The other three American studies themes include the African-American experience, the Peopling of the Americas, and How We Make a Living. In addition we teach math and literacy both separately and as part of our thematic studies. All but the 8th grade are multi-age (K-1, 2-3, 4-5, 6-7), and every student (with the help of his or her own faculty adviser) must complete six portfolios (bodies of work) to the satisfaction of their graduation committee before walking across that stage in mid-June.

Does that mean we agree ahead of time on what everyone “covers”, or have a common pre- and post-test in mind? No. But on the other hand all teachers present their plans to their colleagues for feedback each year, observe each other frequently, and discuss what we are learning about our kids and the subject matter. We bring in experts, share texts, and try to influence each other as co-citizens of the community at large. We ask, over and over, how we can tell whether what is going on in our classrooms supports the “habits” of heart, mind and work that we care about. We are required to take state tests, but the more critical data is the stuff (literally) we have accumulated year after year in our archive of student work, and our tracking of what happens to our kids after they leave us.

It’s based, as you noted, on Spencer’s question, “what knowledge is of most worth?”. Our answer to Spencer’s question is embedded in the discussions that go into inventing our school, its course of study, its pedagogy, its governance, and how we assess our work and hold each other accountable.


P.S. Diane, the Mike Rose book is “Lives On the Boundary”, not “Across”!

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