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A Visit to Mission Hill

Five lessons from a leading Changemaker School

By Michael Zakaras

Michael is a writer and strategist who specializes in social entrepreneurship and public policy. He has worked for Ashoka in the United States, Ireland, and Central Europe and has a Master's from the Harvard Kennedy School. He's currently based in New York City.

November 19, 2012

Last week I had the chance to visit Mission Hill School in Boston – one of Start Empathy’s Changemaker Schools and a model of what transformative education can look like within the public school system. Sure, I’d seen our Mission Hill videos, but speaking to Principal Ayla Gavins in person and then spending over an hour in the classroom with teacher Kathy D’Andrea made it all come to life. Five lessons in particular stood out from my morning there:

1. Shared responsibility and communication are paramount. At Mission Hill, every teacher is responsible for every student. Yes, students are clustered into similar ages and grades, but the idea that those kids are “yours” and these kids are “mine” doesn’t exist. Teachers, administrators, staff, volunteers – they are all partners in the development of young human beings. This philosophy not only reduces blaming and finger pointing but also promotes a collaborative approach where teachers share and support one another in their professional development. The whole teaching team is in close and regular contact, meeting almost daily to resolve conflicts quickly, share ideas, discuss curriculum, and generally keep open lines of communication so that every step the school takes, it takes together.

2. Instruction is thematic and integrated. Each semester at Mission Hill is shaped by an overarching theme that colors the curriculum across all grade levels. This semester’s theme is “Who Counts?” and it’s about voice and power and powerlessness. History lessons, literature, art – they’ll all be connected in some way. And whereas 1st graders may start by drawing a map of Greece, older students will be learning about the origins of democracy and ancient Greece’s lasting political influence across the globe. It seems like such a natural way to learn: highlighting the interrelation of topics and disciplines, rather than looking at them in isolation, and using content and facts and figures as a means for deeper understanding of big issues. It also encourages students learning from one another across grades since everything they’re learning has something in common.

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3. The built environment matters. The physical space at Mission Hill is reflective of its teaching philosophy and community. There are no bells and loudspeakers, and you won’t find rows of desks either. Classrooms and hallways are colorful, and student work is displayed prominently throughout.  In fact, Principal Ayla noted that they make a deliberate effort to replace commercial products with homemade ones whenever possible – like pencil holders, for example. This way students will experience making something that has value for others and will take more responsibility and care for their environment.

4. Kids are treated more like adults. Kathy D’Andrea’s class of 4-6 year-olds starts off each day with ‘morning meeting,’ where a student takes attendance and others respond with “hello” in as many languages as they can remember (Kathy’s been teaching them). When Kathy proposed a future project where students could help make a book about recycling out of recycled materials, she put it to a vote: Who thinks we should do this? Who doesn’t? After the vote, she explained that a majority had voted for, but some against, so it was not a consensus (yes, the theme of voice even here!). Students then selected which activities they wanted to work on that morning – some choosing to write in their journals, some mapmaking, and others dramatic performance. The idea is that by taking some ownership over how they spend their time, students will be more engaged in what they’re doing and learn better. As opposed to master director, Kathy’s role is more that of coach.

5. Empathy and character development are omnipresent. When one 5-year old made fun of a 4-year-old’s block building, Kathy didn’t scold him. Rather, she asked the 4-year-old to express to his classmate how that made him feel. “It hurt my feelings when you made fun of me.” And rather than demanding an “I’m sorry” like so many teachers do, Kathy again asked the 4-year old what his classmate could do to make him feel better. He asked for a hug and got one. Issue resolved. You can tell that at Mission Hill, such moments are taken seriously. The reason is simple: relationships matter. Throughout our lives, we will have to interact with others at school, at home, at work, and having the skills and temperament to do so well will go a long way. From an early age, Kathy’s students are learning that they have a responsibility not only for themselves but for those whose lives intersect with their own. It may appear small, but the difference between saying “I’m sorry” because the teacher asked for it and genuinely considering how your actions affected another person is quite significant.

None of these five elements are rocket science. And yet you’d be hard pressed to find a public school doing any of them, let alone all. When you put them together it’s like moving from 2D to 3D – allowing you to see a whole new dimension and range of possibility in education. If you have a chance to see it, I imagine you’ll leave as inspired and stimulated as I was.