I had the immense pleasure of meeting and speaking with Ayla Gavins, principal of Mission Hill school, at IDEC just over a month ago. For those of you unfamiliar, Mission Hill is a public pilot school in Boston. Founded by Deborah Meier in 1997, Mission Hill is a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools and was the focus of a recent video series, A Year at Mission Hill. (In addition, there is a forthcoming school about Mission Hill entitled Good Morning Mission Hill by filmmakers Amy and Tom Valens.)
Warm and engaging, Ayla talked with me at length over lunch one day. While I didn’t take notes or record our conversation – I was too engaged to think of recording it! – Ayla generously agreed to answer some questions that I sent over email after the conference. What follows are my questions and her answers about some of the policies and practices of Mission Hill. For more information on Ayla, see here.
We met at the International Democratic Education Conference. How do you see Mission Hill’s role in democratic education?
Mission Hill is one of many schools that has a democratic governance structure and provides experiences for students that foster democratic habits. What makes our school unique is that it is a public school with a famous founder that connected us to a wide audience from the very start. Those factors make it possible for Mission Hill staff, students and families to share ideas about democratic education to our local, national and global audience. Our communicated messages have the potential to create the conditions for democratic practices in other places.
You had experience in a traditional classroom setting before working at Mission Hill. What are the key differences that you see between the two settings?
There are so many differences. I guess the key differences are 1. How intelligence is viewed. At the traditional school growth mindset, as described by Carol Dweck, was not present school wide. There were some teachers, a handful, that were progressive, but the majority taught students as though the children would get the material or they would not. Many teachers did not see the connection between how they taught or engaged with students and the student learning. Children were blamed for many mistakes, disruptions, and low performance. Students were passed onto the next grade level depending on their reading scores and often held back for behavior reasons. The opposite of these things is true at Mission Hill. The whole child is considered for any decision making, and teachers see student relationships with people and the world as central to learning. 2. How learning happens. Classrooms were teacher centered and packaged curricula were used with pacing guides at the more traditional school. There were very few project based learning opportunities. The majority of learning experiences at Mission Hill are project/experience based and/or require critical thinking. 3. The role of teachers as leaders. Decision making was top down at the other school. Decisions at Mission Hill involve those who will be impacted by the decision whenever possible.
In the traditional classroom setting there seems to be little emphasis on self-knowledge. With Mission Hill’s alternative approach to the classroom, how do you address this idea of self-knowledge?
Self-knowledge is addressed within the adult community as well as with students. Tending to the adult community is the first step. The Mission Hill habits of mind (connection, conjecture, evidence, relevance, and view point) and habits of work (plan, persevere, produce and reflection) help our community address this. There are also components of the day that help, such as journaling, student work critiques, reflection, and our process for conflict resolution.
Can you speak to Mission Hill’s decision to have an inclusion policy for special needs children in the classroom? What preparation went in to the this decision before the policy was enacted?
Mission Hill always had a policy of educating every child in a holistic way without separating children based on ability. Each child is seen as having natural talents and areas of growth needed that require effort. Each child is seen as a teacher and a learner. In 2006 our school was assigned a class of students with significant special needs. When those students were integrated into the school community, we realized that we, as MHS staff members, had a lot to learn about how to address such steep barriers to learning. We visited other schools, reached out to colleagues, adjusted our staffing, read about inclusion, took special education classes and kept up an ongoing dialog that kept us moving forward. We saw/see the added beauty and depth to the school community that comes from having students with a wide range of needs.
How much autonomy do students at Mission Hill have throughout their day?
The range of autonomy depends on the teacher and the age of the child. Autonomy also varies inside and outside of the classroom. For example, our youngest children probably have the most autonomy inside the classroom and the least outside of the classroom. I’d describe their outside the classroom experiences as guided autonomy if there is such a thing. Our older students also have curricular autonomy in the classroom, but to a lesser degree and have more options outside of the classroom, including the neighborhood where they learn with other adults.
To what extent is student input accepted and/or expected in the classroom? How about in the school’s governance?
Student input is expected and encouraged in the classroom. Teachers use morning meeting time, journals, class meetings through out the day, and one to one conversations to bring student voices forward. Students are members of the Mission Hill Governance Board and are often invited to participate in the planning of school wide efforts.
You recently refused to administer a district-mandated standardized test. What were your reasons for this? In general, how do you view evaluations and assessments and what role do you see them playing within the classroom?
I see assessment as a beautiful thing, an element of learning that brings a person closer to understanding him/herself and applying a skill, concept or body of information better. Assessment is relational, discussion about the past, present and future that includes ways to move forward. Testing is one form of assessment, and typically not a very good one. I refused to administer the test because I did not see it as a true assessment. It was not going bring students any closer to understanding themselves nor help them become better at applying anything worth while. In addition, our students are already taking the state test and another district test. All this competes with time to teach and to learn. It was just too much testing without benefit to students, teachers or families.
Anything else you’d like to share?
If I had more time… yes