Early in the A Year at Mission Hill series (can you believe the ninth chapter was released already?), filmmakers Amy and Tom Valens and narrator Sam Chaltain drew our attention to five “Habits of Mind” that are the central focus of the Mission Hill School curriculum. These “habits” are really questions that thoughtful people regularly pose to themselves. They are about being skeptical and evaluating the worth of arguments and tasks. They are:
1. Evidence - asking, “how do you know?”
2. Connections - asking, “how is this connected to something else I already know or care about?”
3. Perspective or Viewpoint - asking, “from whose perspective is this story being told?”
4. Conjecture - asking, “how can I imagine a different outcome?”, and
5. Relevance - asking, “why is this important?”
These Habits of Mind are intentionally interwoven into much of what takes place at Mission Hill, from 8th grade portfolio defenses, to mediating schoolyard disputes. These particular habits were chosen because they are central questions that professionals in many sectors of the economy regularly use, and they are central questions ordinary citizens ought to ask as they evaluate and deliberate on issues while taking part in civic duties, such as serving on the board of a community organization, judging pieces of legislation, serving on jury duty, or deciding on a candidate for election.
What struck me about the 8th and 9th chapters of the film series was that the filmmakers beautifully captured both students and adults putting these habits of mind to work. The 8th chapter, named after the third 3-month whole-school thematic unit, “The World of Work,” focuses on the habits of Viewpoint and Relevance. As we view children passionately engaged in their curricular units - creating a bakery in Kathy Clunis D’Andrea’s class, for example - we witness students who have had engagement with being a customer in a store such as a bakery. And we then see them stepping into the shoes of professional bakers and creating a bakery of their own inside of the classroom. They have reversed their viewpoint and are now answering questions of their own customers and playing the roles of bakers and cashiers. But this theme is about the habit of relevance as well, because when students are figuring out the change that needs to be given to a customer at their bakery they do not even need imagination - they feel the authentic pressure to do the math.
Fast forward to the middle schoolers, who are the focus of the second half of the 8th chapter. Acting as young Studs Terkels, these students are tasked with choosing and interviewing adults they imagine they might become. Required to put their interviewing and other literacy skills to work, these students are shown meeting, interviewing, writing and eventually publishing a book of stories about people in various professions. Here again students step into the shoes of the professionals they interview, imagine their experiences, and then become professional writers. Hardly can literacy skills be shown to children to be more relevant and more gratifying than to put them to use in this powerful demonstration of transforming conversations into beautifully bound books, which receive glowing reviews, including from the Boston Globe.
In the 9th chapter of the film series, “Seeing the Learning,” the filmmakers focus on assessing student work. Narrator Sam Chaltain intones at the beginning, “How do we know what children are learning?” Ah…the crucial question that lies at the heart of so many debates about educational reform. This chapter is an exploration of the habit of Evidence, showing teachers grappling with and using a variety of alternative approaches in answering that question. James McGovern is shown arguing that looking at student work is the best way to know what children are learning, and by the time students reach the 7th grade they are asked to create and defend their work before a panel of evaluators (their teachers, parents, outside community member, and a peer). Dani Coleman, the Director of External Affairs, compares the portfolio defense to a thesis - and it is. I have defended my doctoral dissertation before a panel of professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and been on evaluation committees for Mission Hill middle schoolers, and there are indeed remarkable similarities. The film does not mention the critique the school founder, Deborah Meier, and teachers have about high-stakes standardized tests. But suffice it to say that in Meier’s writings, and in many others who have critiqued standardized testing, the question of evidence is paramount.
Mission Hill School teachers are keenly aware that assessment takes time, and that this time should be of good use to students. So students are assessed as they design various projects that are in themselves worth doing and presentable before the whole school, not only for their teacher. Their portfolios include a large accumulation of their work, including a centerpiece project chosen by the student. This element of choice is crucial. Just as the previous chapter focused on students choosing who to interview, choosing portfolio projects allows students to identify with the subject of inquiry - to never stray too far from the relevance of why they are asked to dig as deeply into the material, and into themselves, as they are at Mission Hill School.
Now this film series serves as evidence that an alternative to a narrow focus on high-stakes standardized testing is possible and valuable. I challenge all who read this to use the five habits of mind to question whether schools like Mission Hill are possible on a broader scale, and to imagine - Conjecture - how more schools like this might be created: What would have to change to allow more schools like Mission Hill to exist? How can we imagine a richer experience for children more broadly?