As part of the Year at Mission Hill project, I’ll be blogging over at IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America). This piece was originally posted there.
“This little light of mine/ I’m gonna let it shine…”
Chapter 2 of A Year at Mission Hill School ended with kids singing these words, I was struck by the similarities between this moment and one I’ve observed often at Symonds School in Keene, New Hampshire. The simple act of sharing a song may seem insignificant in the big picture of schools and student achievement, but in this case it represents a common culture built on community and relationships that is the foundation of both schools.
A neighborhood school founded in 1881, Symonds is a k-5 public school of fewer than 400 students. The Symonds community shares Mission Hill’s commitment to “forming relationships, building trust, and discovering what makes each person unique,” but in a more traditional school context. The ways in which they pursue that goal also share a simple, elegant intentionality. They take the time to know their students well and help their students know each other well through meaningful work and shared experiences. They model the behaviors they want their students to learn, intentionally creating situations in which the social curriculum surfaces naturally. They agree with Kathy Clunis D’Andrea that, “Students here are citizens in their own community. They have voice,” and like as Mission Hill students, they “generate ideas about what classroom rules should be… about what kind of classroom we want, what a good classroom would look like.”
I spoke with two teachers from Symonds – PE teacher Beth Corwin and Gretchen Hoefer, 5th grade teacher – about the ways they and their colleagues build relationships with and between students and one another. For Beth, an 18-year veteran, it all begins with the school’s long-term commitment to the Responsive Classroom model. “The whole school has always gotten together to have common shared experiences – sharing what we’re doing in the classroom as presenters, being an interested and engaged audience, singing and moving together in one place to celebrate learning and our school.”
“Everyone shares,” added Gretchen, a newer addition to they Symonds faculty. “In my old school the Student Council or older students might present at an assembly, but here there’s an expectation that everyone share what they’re learning and doing – adults and kids.”
Relationships are supported by structures like morning meeting and a school-wide schedule that guards time for collaboration and sharing. “Everyone has common planning time – grade level teams, the specialists – and we are always collaborating informally and formally. Our faculty meetings are very much an extension of the culture we try to build in the classroom. There’s a great deal of respect, we laugh a lot, but we get a lot done. Dick (Cate, long-time principal) is the facilitator but different folks step up to lead conversations. The mood is always positive, even when the work is hard.” As a newer teacher, Gretchen found that teachers reached out to give her explanations of Symonds traditions and rituals. “Our culture is such that no one – student or teacher – has to feel that they’re on their own,” concludes Beth.
Like Mission Hill, there is intentionality in the way that new adults are invited into the Symonds community. Just as Jenerra Williams was partially attracted to Mission Hill by the opportunity to build relationships with students, new teachers at Symonds must share a commitment to community. As Beth says, “Dick has filled the building with people who get it. In the hiring process there’s an intentionality – any new hire has to understand and believe that this culture is the foundation for everything we do in this building.” Gretchen adds, “We also have a greater degree of autonomy than you might expect because there’s a greater degree of trust.”
Learning is at the center of everything. “When we have these solid relationships,” Beth says, “we accomplish our primary mission: kids learn. Without that connection, without that trust, kids don’t learn.” Or as Jenerra says, “when you know them, you just naturally become their advocate. You just want to protect them and you want them to have the best of whatever it is.”
So while there are lots of similarities in their goals and the experiences of their kids and teachers, it was the singing that got me. Last year music teacher Peter Seigel and the kids of Symonds used song as a vehicle to both build and explore their understanding of community. In the resulting CD, “Peace Place,” he explains, “our school is cooperative and collaborative on many levels. At our all school assemblies we gather to share what we have done in our classrooms and we sing the songs that bind us together. We believe in the power of song, movement, and togetherness.”
See what I mean? They may be very different in some ways, but these two schools are singing the same song..