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In American Schools, What Is Quality Work?

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For years now, I've been asking everybody I meet the same question: "When and where were you when you learned best?"

I've asked this question because so many of our national school reform efforts are not about learning at all; they're about achievement, which has come to mean something quite apart from the stories people tell when you ask them to recall one of the most powerful experiences of their lives.

And here's the thing: if you stitch everyone's stories together, a clear pattern emerges. I know because I've done it (see for yourself). And what emerged was that we all need, to differing degrees, learning opportunities that are challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive, and experiential.

I was reminded of that work - and of the importance of relevance - when watching Chapter 8 in the 10-part video series about Mission Hill, a public elementary and middle school in Boston. It begins with a young boy holding an alligator. It continues with young children organizing and opening a bakery in their classroom. And it concludes with a group of teenagers eagerly ripping open a package that contains fresh copies of the book they have all worked to co-create.

What we learn is that the children have been asked to imagine a possible future profession for themselves, and to interview someone who does that work so they can better understand if it might really be for them. One child envisions a life as an animal tamer. Another thinks he might become a martial artist. And two other students have each set their eyes on becoming the future Mayor of Boston.

"It's so important that the ideas come from the kids," says teacher Kathy Klunis D'Andrea, "and that they get to see them actualized. There's so much that they can learn about those real-life experiences that make true connections that they don't forget. They are locked into learning."

Of course, what we see at Mission Hill is more than just relevant projects. There's a culture in place, an ethic, that demands the best of its teachers and students. As longtime educator Ron Berger puts it in his wonderful book An Ethic of Excellence, "Weighing yourself constantly doesn't make you lighter and testing children constantly doesn't make them smarter. The only way to really lose weight and keep it off, it seems, is to establish a new ethic - exercise more and eat more sensibly. It's a long-term commitment. It's a way of life.

"I have a hard time thinking about a quick fix for education," Berger continues, "because I don't think education is broken. Some schools are very good; some are not. Those that are good have an ethic, a culture, which supports and compels students to try and to succeed. Those schools that are not need a lot more than new tests and new mandates. They need to build a new culture and a new ethic."

To build a new ethic at a school, one must begin somewhere. Berger believes student work is the logical place to start. "Work of excellence is transformational," he writes. "Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. We can't first build the students' self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow."

This ethic of excellence Berger describes is at the center of schools like Mission Hill. It's also present in organizations like Expeditionary Learning, a national network of more than 150 K-12 schools. And the EL network isn't only filled with established, stable schools; it's expanding to include the places where a school-wide ethic of excellence is being cultivated for the very first time.

One such place is the Mundo Verde Public Charter School in Washington, DC. Now in its second year, Mundo Verde decided to document one of its expeditions - multiweek explorations of a topic that involve not just original research, but also a culminating project that is presented to the public - in its first year of operation. The film of that experience, La Expedición, highlights the same qualities we see at work in Mission Hill - and the same core characteristics we see in our own personal learning memories.

La Expedición from Meridian Hill Pictures on Vimeo.

As you watch both videos, consider the quality of the work Mission Hill's 8th graders and Mundo Verde's Kindergartners are able to produce. In schools like these, there's no doubt about what matters most - nor is there any confusion over what high-quality student work actually looks like, and requires. But if there was any doubt remaining about why that's the right goal to have, Mission Hill's 8th graders are there to remind us, courtesy of the title they chose for their book: A Place for Me In The World.

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