Posted by Dana Bennis on Apr 02, 2013 - 10:49 AM
This is a guest post by Matthew Knoester, a National Board Certified Teacher and former teacher at the Mission Hill School, and currently Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Evansville. Matthew recently wrote a book about the Mission Hill School, entitled Democratic Education in Practice: Inside the Mission Hill School (Teachers College Press, 2012) and edited a book, with a chapter about Mission Hill School, entitled International Struggles for Critical Democratic Education (Peter Lang, 2012).
The most recent chapter of the film series A Year at Mission Hill captures a small school’s use of a school-wide thematic unit to create an immersion experience for children. Focusing on ancient China, the 6-minute video depicts intellectually stimulated and cheerful children painting Chinese characters and water color designs, researching Chinese artifacts, expressively dancing with Chinese fans, cooking and eating Chinese food, and much more.
Interested to know what she thought, I asked a close friend of mine from China what she thought of the video. She genuinely liked it, but also said that if her child went to this school, she would certainly supplement knowledge of China with what her children were learning. In other words, although children were immersed in explorations of Chinese culture and knowledge, they were doing so at a beginner’s level, with little prior knowledge (except for the older students, who had studied ancient China four years previous).
The standard for knowledge of China from a Chinese national is understandably high, but I would argue that the introductory nature of the cultural explorations depicted in the short film also vividly portray students as their curiosity of deep and rich ancient history and Chinese culture is aroused. I have had the experience of teaching ancient China through a three month-long theme at Mission Hill, and teaching ancient history to students for a much shorter time from a textbook, and the difference in experience is almost incomparable. In the video, students are treated to a performance by a Chinese musician on an erhu, a type of traditional stringed instrument. This demonstrates how when an entire school explores a particular subject in depth, they can share and appreciate resources that might not be available if only one teacher were focusing on a theme for a short period. The whole school can be seen enjoying the music of this highly skilled musician.
In-depth thematic units also make possible moments where students begin to see connections between one discipline and another, as opposed to the “silo” effect of having separate math, science, and history periods. Short of actually traveling to (ancient) China, the immersion experience depicted in the film allows students to see meaning and history in otherwise meaningless objects.
Although not depicted in the film, I am certain that these students also experienced the immersion of traveling to Boston’s Chinatown, and seeing it in a new light. When I taught at Mission Hill, this was one of the highlights of the thematic unit—taking one or more class trips to this neighborhood just a few stops down on the “T,” and noticing aspects of what we had read and learned about in school—the food and products displayed in shop windows, the ornate features of the Chinese stone gateway arch, the statue of Confucius, and so much more. Although the school’s unit is officially called “Long Ago and Far Away,” the study of ancient knowledge and artifacts help students to see the present, including members of our own community, with greater understanding.
As we see in the video, students’ faces are covered with gauze and plaster to make masks, and it becomes clear that this school values experiential learning. Students of all abilities are seen expressing new ideas through their art and storybook making, and Jeanne Rachko, the art teacher, emphasizes that her goal is not to control students’ work, but to help students find who they are as artists. Even when inspired by an ancient civilization, students are seen experimenting with new ideas, and learning from others, as one scene particularly illustrates: when Jeanne reassures a proud but concerned student that it is a compliment when others look at his artwork and even try to imitate it.
Why study ancient China together as an entire school? The collaboration among the grades and classes is clearly visible, but the connections students make between their reading and history, and art and science are powerful. The video clip ends with a Family Night, an evening celebration at the school, involving students, staff, and parents. The theme is ancient China, of course, and hugs and laughter punctuate the footage, as Chinese artwork, food, and music are seen and heard throughout. With experiences like these, students will likely never look at Chinese culture and influence, or, indeed, Boston’s Chinatown, the same again. This delicious and positive taste of China feeds deeper curiosity, which is perhaps why it should be no surprise that many of Mission Hill’s teachers have traveled to China themselves, and one former teacher, Alicia Carroll, has even written and published a well-researched children’s book about China. Life-long learning is the goal. Students at Mission Hill may never know as much about China as my Chinese friend, or her children, do. But enriching experiences like those found in the video are powerful steps on a fascinating journey of inquiry about China, as well as about historical research, artistic expression, cultural understanding, and self-discovery.
[Side note: It is worth noting that a wonderful non-profit organization exists in Watertown, MA, just outside of Boston, called Primary Source. This organization collects resources and leads workshops specifically for educators, with a special emphasis on China. They have been an invaluable resource for Mission Hill School over the years. I wish every community had access to resources for teachers as rich as that of Primary Source.]
Have a comment? Join the conversation on Facebook!