Mission High and the Full Beauty of the World

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose13 Comments

Let me first recommend everyone read Kristina Rizga’s Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried To Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph (Nation Books, 2015). I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you how many education books I’ve read in the last few years that namedrop the infamous A Nation At Risk report as the catalyst for the current status quo of public schooling, and how the mere mention of T.H. Bell or David Gardner usually knocks me out.

What sets this book apart from those books is its fascination and attention to the voices of the students, teachers, and principal. The reader is pulled into the lives of the inhabitants of Mission High School in San Francisco, CA, rooting for their uplift, drowning in their frustrations. At some points, the reader forgets that Rizga’s narrating the book, letting the understandings of the people she interviews take over her writing. She also comes from a sect of white education journalists who can deftly write about race with a three-dimensional nuance, sans platitude, stereotype, or self-indulgence.

But I don’t really do book reviews. I write essays.

As such, I’d like to key in on one of the students she interviewed, George, and the spark he left in my mind here:

George used to think that people who think slowly are not smart, but close work with his classmates made him realize that rushing to answers is not always the best way to solve problems. It was often the slower thinkers who forced everyone to deliberate on the relative advantages of various ways to get to the answer. ‘Human brains are too weak to appreciate the full beauty of the world, and rushing through any process makes you miss out on important parts,” he says.

Even without context, you can tell this student keyed in on something that few policy wonks tap into, and that’s the idea of what an education is.

The more we attempt to formulate and extrapolate the milieu of a good classroom, we get these nuggets of evidence that perhaps we’re focused on all the wrong things. It’s not enough to simply critique the standardized testing element because, even without that, pundits can standardize everything else, from the number of books our students must read to the lesson plans educators use in classrooms. So when I ask us to opt out of the whole status quo, I’m asking everyone to reconsider what deserves standardization and why.

Take George’s reasoning as an example. Would we rather demand that all students think exactly the way the teacher does about the math problem in front of them or would we want to have a larger framework for what “the right answer” looks like? Nine out of ten times, I opt for the latter. While not a fan of multiple learning styles, I do recognize that everyone has their own approach to learning that allows them to get the “answer” more readily than someone else.

Now, if I see that as a teacher, doesn’t this get multiplied as the systems the more macro we go? Shouldn’t administrators of all stripes have similar approaches to schooling for all of our students? Do we necessarily need one approach for all or do we prefer a set of principles that allows us to vote for schools in confidence?

I’ve never been to Mission High, though, from folks I’m cool with, it seems like a lovely place. Some teacher activists I know abide by it. Yet, I’m closer to trusting Mission High not because an author told me, but because the adults in this book let the students tell it. I’ve visited schools where the principal wants to tell us what we saw rather than letting the work speak for itself.

And I might not have replied on the spot to said adults, but every time the adult tells me about what I should think instead of letting me digest and process the experience in front of me, I can’t trust it. Mission High seems to be a place where, once the doors open, students get a taste of the full beauty of the world.


photo c/o

Comments 13

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  1. Jose, I’ve been reading your blog for a little under a year and it is such an honor that you are the first teacher to review Mission High! It’s so interesting how immediately obvious it is from your take on the book that you are an educator and that you are a great teacher, because you actually heard the voices of the students in the book. Reviewers who are not teachers tend to focus on the threads of policy—Common Core, testing, standardization. And that’s there, but that’s not the main reason I wrote the book. I wanted to highlight how students talk about the value of education and what they focus on in these conversations–their intellects, interests, teachers who see them, their yearnings, struggles and race. It was quotes like that from George and hundreds of other students that made me want to stay at Mission for four years. Students more than anyone can articulate with such clarity all of the invisible and hard-to-quantify values of a great school. Thank you so much for reading Mission High with such care and thoughtfulness. Look forward to building together in the coming years!

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      I appreciate you dropping by my blog and for sending me the book, Kristina. It’s a good read, and surely more people will read. Hoping this review plays a small part in that.

      1. It already is in so many ways making a difference, Jose. Thank you, again, for your support, such overly generous praise and careful reading (how many other reviewers will know that detail about E. Guthertz! No more than 2). And if you ever do have an excuse to come out to the Bay, I’ve got a place for you to stay covered!

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve been an educator in SF for roughly 20 years and have seen Mission HS go through tremendous changes. When I first began teaching our superintendent at the time had “reconstituted” it by firing all the teachers. What little culture was there was destroyed. It has taken a long time and I am so proud of the students, staff and families that have made it the AMAZING school it is today.

    I agree with you that it is wonderful to hear the voice of students and teachers so long absent from conversations about our public schools.

    Even though my girls’ are only in the fifth grade, I am greatful for the teachers there who are not only making a great impact in the lives of students, but leading our district. I know of several teachers at Mission HS, specifically in the math department, who are responsible for helping to design the district wide math curriculum the excerpt describes. Teachers and librarians there were also responsible for co-creating Black Lives Matter curriculum and making it available throughout the district.

    This is just another example of how “high-performing” many teachers in “low-performing schools” can be. Test scores can’t measure good instruction or the profound impact a caring and skillful teacher can have on a student’s life.

    Every day teachers in urban public schools go above and beyond, despite so many challenges. One only wonders what we could accomplish in our country if we really treated teachers with the professional respect they deserved, paid them properly, and and gave them the resources and support they need to thrive.

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    2. Ali, thank you so much for your kind words! And for writing. It’s actually been so hard for me to find folks who were there during reconstitution. I’d so love to meet with you one day and talk about it and your work in San Francisco schools. Send me a note when you get a chance: Kristina at rizga dot com. Thank you JLV for helping me connect with my own folks in San Francisco!

  3. Thank you for the beautiful piece here. If you ever get a chance to vist I’d be happy to show you around and I promise I won’t tell you what you saw but will let the work speak for itself.

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      Eric, not only was I not talking about you, I was happy that you told Kristina that your father used to work in PR. And you were so selfless about it too, mentioning the previous principal. Much success and I hope I get to visit. I love the Bay.

  4. Wonderful. I truly did not mean to sound sarcastic. I actually agree with you very much. Great blogsite, by the way.

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