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Mission Hill Is What Theory Looks Like in Practice

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One of the great joys of A Year at Mission Hill is the glimpse it provides of the entirety of the teaching and learning experience. In Chapter 5, we are provided continued access to both the planning and implementation sides of teaching as we see and hear teachers planning lessons around a school-wide investigation of Chinese culture.

We find 2nd/3rd Grade Teacher Jenerra Williams (1:40) discussing the needs of her students in a planning meeting that draws a connection between both her professional expertise and the place of educational theory in the classroom, as she explains to her colleagues that they must take into consideration the cognitive development of their students while planning the introduction of new concepts.

There is beauty in Williams' informal connection to Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development and its application to the "concrete" thinking Williams and her colleagues notice as prominent in their group of students.

While this episode is primarily concerned with the artistry and learning of the students, it's worth pausing to appreciate the artistry and learning of the teachers as well. Williams weaves formal and informal assessments of students into her knowledge of cognitive theory to make sure the team is pacing the learning in such a way as to provide access for everyone.

So too, is there beauty in Kindergarten and 1st Grade Teacher Kathy Clunis D'Andrea's interaction with a student (3:09) who has a "great idea." Not only has D'Andrea created a space where her students continue to feel the safety and freedom to share such ideas, but her response shows a dedication to letting students play such ideas out in their own heads. D'Andrea's reaction to the student is not to judge, criticize, or question the idea, but merely to repeat it back to him as a literal sounding board and then keep the space open for him to build on it publicly from there.

Such moments are excellent embodiments of Eleanor Duckworth's ideas of "messing about" as described in her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas. They are also spoken to in Art Teacher Jeanne Rachko's description of how she sees her role in the classroom.

Rachko's dedication to letting students "discover who they are as artists," and "empowering them in their own choices," is revealed not as some soft bohemian philosophy, but one borne out in research and educational theory.

In a sense, Rachko is co-discovering who her students are alongside them. Such practice answers the call made by Dave Rose in his book Why School?, when he wrote that "teaching carries with it the obligation to understand the people in one's charge, to teach subject matter and skills, but also to inquire, to nurture, to have a sense of who a student is."

Such an obligation is fulfilled in each of the considerations Mission Hill makes because the school attends to both the needs and the curiosities of its students. It motivates by creating situations that invite students to play and include the four key tenets of situated motivation as described by Scott Paris and Julianne Turner: choice, challenge, collaboration, and control.

Making room for each of these components, co-discovering who their students are, and applying educational theory to what they discover allows Mission Hill's teachers, and others like them, to make practical decisions that are artfully executed.

Zac Chase is an education consultant and doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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