Looking More Deeply Into Our Mission at TCS
This is the transcript of an address given by Christina Martin, Director of Curriculum and Instruction here at The Children’s School to families at our annual Curriculum Night in the autum of 2022.
I want to start this evening by turning your attention to the mission statement of The Children’s School. There are some pocket sized versions for you there on the tables, but in case you’re more of an auditory learner here it is:
Our mission is to nurture students’ innate curiosity and love of learning through democratic practice, emergent curriculum, and hands-on projects, helping students become lifelong problem-solvers and engaged citizens.
That was written in 2015. It’s a great mission statement.
The question we have to ask about any mission statement is: how does it get implemented day-to-day? How do we take these lofty goals and ideals and turn them into everyday interactions and routines and conversations and emails?
One way to sum up our mission statement is to say that at TCS we are focused on nurturing good learners and also on nurturing good people. We are unapologetic about giving time and space for social-emotional learning. This is not to say that academic learning isn’t important at TCS — we are a school and academic learning is fundamental to what we do. But we do not divorce academic learning from the rest of learning about how to be a person in the world. The two go hand in hand and they support each other.
Tonight I want to talk about our mission statement and how TCS teachers and staff go about nurturing good learners and good people through our day-to-day practices.
I’m going to start with Community — how we help students practice and develop skills and qualities for becoming engaged citizens. This is something we’ve all been missing during these last three COVID years, with all the cohorting and distancing and isolation.
I’m going to quote from some of our esteemed teachers during Our Curriculum Week meetings in August. We were discussing Alfie Kohn’s article The Schools Our Children Deserve.
TCS teachers said the following:
The best learning is communal; it’s done with others.
Other people’s ideas and learning enrich our own.
Learning is fundamentally a communal act–we need each other to learn well.
This belief is reflected in many practices at the children’s School:
Group Gathering–sitting each morning in the gym, led by a student, to hear announcements, who’s absent, who are we welcoming back, who is visiting today–a daily check in for the whole school community.
Math instruction–the way teachers plan open-ended and inquiry-based tasks that are appropriate for all students; understanding that there are many ways to see or represent a mathematical idea; students learn by working and talking together as they make sense of a concept for themselves.
Shared reading–a time of day when students enjoy books together with friends, whether a friend is reading to you, you are taking turns, or you are looking at the pictures and laughing together.
Peer editing/writer’s workshop–peers help you improve your writing–whatever you bring, they offer compliments and also suggestions to make it better.
And, by the way, the cultivation of collaboration and community isn’t just for students, it extends to teachers and staff as well. We all benefit from this emphasis on community. After our Curriculum Week in August, one of our newer teachers said “I can’t believe how many things we talked about! And how many decisions we made!”
This is a really important part of the TCS community–that teachers and staff are valued and empowered to make decisions and implement ideas. This goes to something I learned about through Craig Kridel’s documentation of Progressive Education in Black High Schools in the 1940’s. One of the educators interviewed defined progressive schools as experimental schools. The idea is that teachers and administrators should be trusted and empowered to make decisions and implement plans to meet student needs. They should not be constrained by bureaucracy or tradition or “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “that’s how other schools do it” or “that’s what families expect.” This is a pretty radical idea–it’s not really the way education works in our country right now.
Teachers at another progressive high school described the collaboration of their faculty as “being in adventurous company.” I definitely feel that way at TCS. It’s invigorating and it’s also a lot of work, to remain truly open to ideas and changes, to not get stuck in old patterns, to keep on innovating and trying new things as we work towards our shared vision of what our school can be.
Some examples of powerful teacher collaboration and agency:
This summer’s Math camp: A teacher first mentioned this out loud in my presence in January 2022 — six months later in July it was a reality. Plans are underway to build on this year’s success for next year.
Internship program: Started in 2021 – on a teacher’s initiative, in partnership with Chicago State University – the internship program provides exposure to progressive philosophy for new teachers and helps us towards our goal of being thought leaders in the field of education. This fall we have hired our 3rd intern.
Science/outdoor ed program: We added a new position in 2021-22 for a full-time teacher devoted to science and outdoors. This grew out of our teachers’ commitment to regular woods trips for all students K-8 and an appreciation for all the learning and growing opportunities for students when they spend time in nature.
Pay raises for teachers enacted this summer: Proposed by the Teachers Equity Working Group, incorporated into 2022-23 budget, and approved by our Board of Directors just this past August.
These are instances of collaboration amongst teachers and staff in ways that better the school and better the learning environment for students.
And it’s also a nice segue into my next topic: “voice and choice,” our goal of wanting each person within the community to feel heard and valued.
Voice and Choice
Where do we see student voice and agency amplified at TCS?
Project Topics and Emergent Curriculum–it’s right there in the mission statement. The class together decides on a project topic and makes decisions about how to conduct research, what field trips to take, and what to build or do to embody the learning. This is a tremendous way of nurturing students’ curiosity and love of learning and their motivation to work hard at something that may be difficult.
Classroom Rights and Responsibilities: All the classes are having these conversations right now. As a member of the classroom community, each person has certain rights and certain responsibilities. Students are charged with helping articulate these and agreeing on them.
Democratic Decision Making–making decisions as a group. This could be a straight up or down vote, or could be something else like ranked choice voting or fist-to-five where people indicate their level of support for an idea. Instead of the majority winning all the time, the group can explore possibilities that have broader support and other ways of building consensus. Then, at the end of a voting process, when someone is on the losing side of a vote, the person leading the meeting asks “Can you live with it?” Not “do you like this decision” or “is it what you would have chosen,” but is there something important that the majority has failed to consider that would make us as a group want to go back and change the decision. This has happened on occasion and it’s very powerful when it does.
My final example of student voice and agency is “choice” or academic choice time. We have multiple times in the school day when students decide what they will play or do or work on.I don’t know if we at TCS really know how rare that is in a school setting. On the micro level, I hear teachers every day asking students questions “What do you want to work on next?” “What do you think we should do?” “How can I help you?” Honoring student voice is baked into our curriculum and it’s also enacted on a daily basis in conversations between teachers and students.
Joy, Fun, and Engagement
Why are these so important? Because it’s how we nurture children’s love of learning and curiosity. We know that students learn more and learn more deeply when they enjoy what they’re doing, when their curiosity and interests and talents are fully activated. We want our students to be eager to come in the door every morning.
Play and social times: these are not “extras” but rather hugely important parts of the day for children. Play is the work of children, and adults should not underestimate the amount of learning—both academic and social-emotional–—that is taking place when children are “just” playing.
Joy and engagement are also why we emphasize learning by doing. Moving, touching, experimenting, and exploring are more satisfying and engaging ways to learn, and more respectful of children’s physical and emotional needs, rather than having them sit in one place to listen and do seated work for extended periods.
Joy and engagement is also why we work hard to take young people seriously–to truly honor students’ questions and ideas. “What do you want to study? What do you want to play? What do you want to make? What are your goals for yourself? Where do you want to go to high school?”
From where I stand, in these first few days of the new school year, I think we’re nailing these parts of our mission– establishing community, nurturing collective and individual voice and agency, fostering joy and engagement. These are easy to see and easy to hear as I walk through the hallways and see each class in action.
But as we consider this mission of ours, and whether our day-to-day lives at TCS are aligned with that mission, it’s also important to consider what our mission is NOT about.
1. We are not about smoothing over problems for children or “fixing” them according to adult ideas.
There’s nothing in our mission about making sure children are happy all the time or never encounter difficult things. There’s nothing about avoiding conflict or hard feelings or challenging behaviors.
On the contrary I would argue that becoming an “engaged citizen” necessarily entails dealing with conflict and difficult conversations and behaviors–our own as well as those of other people.
At TCS we strongly believe that it is NOT the grown-ups’ job to erase or smooth over anger, conflict, frustration, or struggle. Children have to experience all of these things, and we want children to experience all of these things and we want to support them to work through these things. We want our students to be empowered to advocate for themselves — to talk to someone they’re having a problem with, to figure out what they want or need to resolve a conflict or improve a situation. And we want them to demonstrate compassion and empathy for others facing their own challenges–because as we often say, everybody’s working on something.
2. Our mission is NOT about controlling children.
Yes, teachers and staff are working hard every day to create structures and routines that support students and guide them towards good choices and rich experiences—but we are not in charge of controlling children’s words or actions.
This is such a hard one for most adults; it’s very countercutlural to give up control or the idea of control. As one teacher said during Curriculum Week: it’s a question of trust. What if we let them write whatever they want?
I want you to ponder that for a minute. What if we just let students write whatever they want? It’s a really good question.
But to get back to control– if we are able to stop seeking to control children, then we can maybe also get at the underlying myth of control–that by controlling kids we can control outcomes. If we just keep tight control over everything and everyone, we can guarantee that our kids will always be happy or successful or well-liked.
We can’t do that. Nobody can.
What we should be trying to guarantee is that our children can name and understand the full range of human emotions and experiences, happiness and joy as well as sadness, anger and fear. What we should be trying to guarantee is that our kids know it’s OK to make mistakes and to try something you’re not sure you will succeed at. And we should be trying to guarantee that they know where they can get help when they need it and how to advocate and care for themselves and others.
3. And finally, our mission is NOT about teachers/parents/guardians feeling stressed out about children being “behind.”
We’ve read and heard so much about children being “behind” since the pandemic. But honestly the pandemic just exacerbated an existing situation where it seems that many adults spend lots of time worrying that their child is “behind.” The question has to be: Behind what? Behind their own development? It doesn’t even make sense.
I would like to invite you, everyone in this room, to let go of rigid expectations about what children “should” be doing at any given moment and instead lean into letting them grow and develop at their own pace, without pressure from the outside, even if it’s meant lovingly.
Besides, even if you were convinced that your child was “behind” and should be somewhere else–what are you going to do about it? There’s literally no evidence that you can speed up development. A lot of the “fixes” people propose when they decide a child is behind are things like more rote memorization, more drill and practice. These things don’t actually work and can be harmful to a child’s self-concept, motivation, and engagement.
As Alfie Kohn says in his article: “Nobody ever got hooked on phonics” (just in case you're old enough like me to remember those commercials).
Learning phonics is a means to an end, the end of enjoying reading and using reading to gain access to a fascinating world of people and places and ideas. The same with spelling. At TCS we don’t really care if students can spell. We care if they can write, if they have something to say and that they have the confidence to say it. Same with procedural knowledge in math. Let’s take the standard algorithm for long division. It’s a means to an end, and the end is creative problem solving and using math to better understand the world.
But too often these things are treated as an end in themselves. Maybe you’ve had this experience as a student: you get your list of spelling words on Monday, and you study them all week, and write definitions for them and you write sentences using them. Then you take a test on Friday to see if you memorized them. And then, research shows, you most likely forget all about them.
For most people, spelling “learned” for a spelling test does not translate into correctly spelling that word each time you write it. That’s an example of spelling being treated as an end in itself, rather than as a means to the end. The real end is being able to clearly communicate your ideas to others in writing, and that end doesn’t depend on spelling.
The problem with treating the means as an end is that kids become unengaged. They disengage because it’s not purposeful or meaningful or connected to anything they care about. Students may memorize the thing but they won’t retain it over the long term, they won’t know how to use it or apply it in a new context, and they won’t enjoy it or understand what it’s for.
So to return to where I started, all of our day-to-day structures and decisions and interactions have the same end goal at TCS, and it’s related to our mission: We’re helping students become good learners and we’re helping them become good people.
At all times, teachers and staff are working hard to keep our eye on the big picture and to take a long-term view of development. The arc of development is long and we are not going to have a complete picture of a child’s growth and development, let alone the minutiae of their reading or math skills, for many years. So it behooves us to focus on the big picture goals–community, voice, and engagement–and try not to worry so much about all the small details.
In the long view it is not terribly important how many sight words your child knows in 1st grade. It is not important whether your child masters a specific math skill in 4th grade or 5th grade. It is not important whether your child spells words correctly because they have memorized them or because they have learned how to use spell check. Those things are all means to an end and the end is lifelong learning and problem solving and engaged citizenship.
Focusing on the big picture, our own years of experience with so many children and families tells us that if children feel that they are a valued part of a caring community, if they experience learning as meaningful and rich and engaging, and if they have practice developing their own voice while also listening to the voices of others, they will thrive.
So am I here to tell you that TCS is an amazing and wonderful and exceptional place? Yes and yes. But that’s not because TCS is perfect or because we’re better than everyone else or we have knowledge that no one else has. It’s because we are committed to our mission of nurturing academic and social-emotional growth, we are committed to advocating for the needs of children and defending childhood, we are committed to working hard, individually and as a community, and we are committed to caring for each other.
As a teacher said during Curriculum Week: “Whatever the situation is, I never doubt that any of us at TCS will be kind and care for a child.”
So before you go into classrooms and have the chance to hear from your children’s teachers– I want you to know a couple of things:
I want you to know that at TCS your kids might go to the woods and climb a tree and break their arm. They might get muddy and wet and cold and feel uncomfortable.
At TCS your kids might spend all morning on a math puzzle or all day on project work instead of breaking the day into 45 minute chunks so that we make sure every subject gets “covered.”
At TCS your kids might spend half the day gathering and writing items on the agenda for the class meeting, and then leading the class meeting, and then working on the block-sharing schedule that the class decided to implement during the class meeting.
Your kids might come home from TCS and, when you ask them about their day, may launch into a detailed report on recess and who they played with, and how the rules of their game worked, and who won or lost each time, and whether it was fair.
These are all important and worthwhile and rich pursuits, pursuits that support students’ development and growth in all realms, academic and non-academic.
By choosing TCS, you are choosing adventurous company for your children and for yourselves. We’re all taking calculated risks together. We’re daring to prioritize rich, messy, meaningful learning experiences over easy measurables like spelling tests, we’re daring to listen to children’s ideas and desires, we’re daring to give up on trying to control other human beings and instead we are inviting students and families into genuine collaboration and community. And we’re doing all this while seeing and loving your kids as the unique and wonderful individuals they are.
Kudos to you for taking these risks alongside us. We couldn’t do it without you, and thank you. Here’s to a great school year!