The Freedom to Teach

Even after many viewings, Chapter 10 of A Year At Mission Hill gives me goosebumps. Tom’s images from the year combined with the staff chorus singing “On Children” captures the joy of teaching and learning with children so movingly. The fire in James McGovern’s voice, Ayla Gavins explaining what a “great school” means to her, and Deborah Meier, relating what we show to the broader picture of what is happening in America, also stir me deeply.

We drove up to Deb’s home in upstate New York on the day that the Boston Marathon manhunt was at its height. As we were trying to make sense of that terrible event, we were aware that it could easily lead to even more fear of those who are seen as “other.” How one deals with difference in a democracy was on our minds as we set up our equipment in her study.

Much of what Deb has endeavored to do as an educator is rooted in her thoughts on what it means to live in a democracy. It was all too appropriate a concern on this particular day. Editing down what she said to us about standardized testing for Chapter 10 was not easy. Here is more from what the short quote we used came from:

“I think what we are facing in American today and around the world is not a crisis in education, but a crisis in faith and respect for democracy, which rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people. And I think that this transfer of judgment from human beings to paper and pencil instrument is very disrespectful of what I mean by being well educated, and of how kids can begin to develop their love of learning and respect for learning, and respect for each other’s opinions. So everything is either right or wrong. And we’re trying very hard to help kids see that right and wrong are not always the only way to look at a situation, and that you have to hear the other side, to think about it…

“I think it distorts the meaning of being well educated, and above all, what it means to be well educated in a society that’s grappling with the problem of how to be a democracy. And I think we’re losing more and more of the institutions that are based upon ordinary people’s judgment.

“…I want to look in the eye of people who are making judgments about my children, and I want to be able to argue with them. I want to be able to explain, which is the process we now use for portfolios. I want to be able to defend my ideas and also be open to changing my mind. I think that’s what I’m looking for as a tool for assessment, and it’s what I think our approach does.”

“Starting in kindergarten, children learn to turn off the passions that they feel… They don’t expose the school to what they really think. They’re thinking over time, “What do they want me to say?”

“…to spend the day in school thinking about what’s on the teacher’s mind rather than what’s on your own mind is bad teaching! But that’s what we have asked American teachers to do…that testing regime reinforces the belief that you need to train your children to know what the test wants you to say, not what you want to say.”

We drove back to Boston once more wondering why it has been so difficult to turn the train of education reform onto a more meaningful track when there are people like Deborah Meier and Ayla Gavins to give examples. What could we do to express the urgency of a more respectful approach? A week later we started editing Chapter 10.


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