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'A Year at Mission Hill' Highlights Collective Leadership at a Boston Public School

What does collective leadership look like in a public school setting?

We can envision and discuss what it could look like. We can even read about schools that do it successfully. But there’s nothing like seeing it happen with our own two eyes.

That’s exactly what filmmakers Amy and Tom Valens have made possible through the 10-part web series “A Year at Mission Hill,” which documents a school year at Mission Hill School in Boston. They’ve captured a year of self-discovery, exploration, and challenges in a school built on trusted relationships and shared decision-making. As a viewer of the webisodes, you see right away that Mission Hill is a place full of learning and love.

A school where everyone has value

“Everyone has value,” says Principal Ayla Gavins of the K-8 school community at Mission Hill. “That's reflected in the physical environment, and how people treat one another.”

The footage of daily life at Mission Hill confirms what Gavins says about the school. Teachers sit around tables together, coordinating their activity plans and seeking feedback on student challenges. In their classrooms, the teachers sit on the floor in circles with their students, asking them open discussion questions such as, "Do you have any advice for other kids who are trying to work things out with someone they don't like?"

Teachers at Mission Hill understand that the academic learning and social-emotional learning are deeply intertwined. In addition to teaching skills like reading and math, they’re also committed to fostering empathy and helping their students become active, responsible members of a learning community. Teachers have the autonomy to work closely with individual students, responding to their own unique needs. As a full-inclusion school, Mission Hill enrolls some students who would otherwise be placed in special education programs, and teachers have the flexibility to give them extra attention.

What makes a mind come alive?

The teachers are at the heart of the collective leadership at Mission Hill. They meet for weeks before school starts to plan out the year collaboratively. At the heart of their discussions is this question: What makes a mind come alive?

The inquiry-based projects that the teachers design are carried out in themes that the whole school explores during the year. The first theme is “The natural sciences,” which is highlighted in Chapter 4 (above). Instead of poring over textbooks and completing worksheets, older students engage in hands-on experiments, identifying problems and figuring out how to solve them. Younger students construct a living, thriving terrarium and observe the activity and anatomy of honeybees.

Everyone at Mission Hill, whether child or adult, is on an active learning journey. The second school-wide theme of the year is “Long ago and far away,” in which the whole school studies ancient China. In Chapter 5: The Eye of the Dragon (above), viewers see teachers learning alongside their students, encouraging them to find the answers to their own questions and locate the evidence that supports their beliefs. The teachers act as facilitators of learning and don’t pretend that they have all the answers as the students make kites and study their symbology, experience traditional Chinese music and dance, and even parade through the classroom inside a colorful paper dragon. The school-wide study culminates in a community gathering, in which parents, teachers, and students of all ages and backgrounds share a meal and talk with each other.

Nurturing habits of a democratic society

Words like “achievement” and “global competitiveness,” which are so common to hear in the national education debate, are absent from the school’s mission statement. Instead, it begins like this: “The task of public education is to help parents raise youngsters who will maintain and nurture the best habits of a democratic society... it aims at producing youngsters who can live productive, socially useful and personally satisfying lives, while also respecting the rights of all others."

“A Year at Mission Hill” launched in January and will run through June, thanks to a leadership team that includes CLE members Scott Nine and Dana Bennis of IDEA. Each episode has inspired national conversations through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and news media about the state of public education as it is, and as it ought to be. A diverse coalition of education organizations, schools, and nonprofits have signed on as partners who are sharing resources related to the themes of each episode. Anyone is invited to participate in the rich Twitter conversation happening at #YearatMH.

"It’s fitting that a school rooted in collective leadership would have its story told collectively, and that it would set thousands of people around the country on their own learning journeys," says Nine.

Seeing for ourselves that this kind of powerful, engaged education can happen at Mission Hill, a diverse, full-inclusion public school, quashes any kind of dismissive reaction, such as “It’s a shame that this could never happen at my school.” The series is evidence that it can happen.

The story of public education in our country doesn’t belong to any of us; it belongs to all of us. And it’s up to us to make it a good story.

Follow the series and find related resources at www.ayearatmissionhill.com.

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