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Keeping School: Letters to Families from Principals of Two Small Schools

reviewed by Anne Wescott Dodd - 2005

coverTitle: Keeping School: Letters to Families from Principals of Two Small Schools
Author(s): Deborah Meier, Theodore R. Sizer, and Nancy Faust Sizer
Publisher: Beacon Press, Boston
ISBN: 0807032646, Pages: 187, Year: 2004
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This book is a collection of letters to families of the students in two schools these authors led. Deborah Meier, probably most well known for her work at Central Park East High School in New York, is now the co-director of the Mission Hill School, a public elementary school in Roxbury, Massachusetts.  Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, an organization that is changing high-school education in the U.S., and his wife, Nancy, an experienced high-school teacher, were co-principals of the Francis Parker Charter High School (Massachusetts) for one year.  

In the book’s introduction, Ted Sizer argues that “keeping school” is a better metaphor than principals “running” a school or districts “providing” schools because of its many positive connotations, for instance: “It means taking in (in the sense of watching out for)….management (as in keeping house)…and persistence (as in keeping at something).…holding fast (keeping faith)” (p. x).  

The book begins with descriptions of the two schools: “A History of the Mission Hill School” by Meier and “On Keeping School at Parker” by Nancy Sizer.  Letters from both schools appear under four topic headings following an introduction for each written by one of the authors: “Learning: Turning Less into More,” “Authority and Power,” “Community,” and “Standards.”  Brief explanatory notes (in italics) precede the letters to establish a context.  That’s how the book is organized, but what the reader really gets is a well-written collection of mini-essays on educational reform.

Since the purpose of the letters was to explain the schools’ non-traditional philosophies and practices to parents, they are jargon-free explanations about keeping schools where students’ learning and well-being are the first priority.  

Both schools reject the idea of teaching as transferring information from teacher to student and scope-and-sequence curricula in favor of teaching knowledge, skills, and habits of mind thematically, experientially, and connected to students’ interests and needs.  Nancy Sizer explains, “Much of the “less is more” philosophy rests on our belief that doing something thoroughly and well is more likely to lead to mastery and enjoyment. Thus, the number of topics…in a given year is fewer” (p. 8).  

At Meier’s school students have a four-year cycle of themes that repeat. In one letter Meier recalls telling a reporter that students were studying snails; in another, to encourage parents to read aloud to their children, she writes about the miracle that occurs when they learn to read for pleasure.  Children learn to look for patterns: “We study four different ancient civilizations…. What’s similar and what’s very different about the Maya, Egyptians, and Greeks? We’ll do the same in science” (pp. 28-29).

At Parker students not only learn strategies for doing well on the S.A.T., they travel to museums in Boston and New York, Ellis Island, and Costa Rica. In January the “Parker Museum of World Cultures,” the capstone project for the fall curriculum emphasizing ancient civilizations, ceramics, and research skills, allows students “to display the fruits of their own research and to learn from each other” (p. 46). Exhibiting one’s work is important for everyone at Parker: teachers as well as students create portfolios at “gateway” or transition times.

In the second section the authors tackle everything from decision making to discipline. Meier notes that “[b]ehind issues of power and authority are issues of mutual respect” (p. 69). Mission Hill’s rules are simple: “do nothing that interferes with teaching or learning, and do nothing that hurts or demeans others” (p. 74).  Of course, the devil is in the details, and Meier admits that is a constant struggle, but the process is something that should be out in the open because “[h]ow we interpret rights and wrongs…is the central stuff of education” (p. 74). Parker letters on this topic range from one on PDA (“public displays of affection”) to others on how drug issues are handled and the need for time outs as a strategy to help make the school safe and orderly.  Students helped Nancy Sizer create a student handbook from “all the statements about behavior that had been generated by the Community Congress” in 4 years.

Building community in a school is important because children learn how to work and play with others beyond their immediate families. Mission Hill letters addressed bullying, democracy and difference, “who gets to play,” and helping kids bloom. Parker letters describe the importance of conversation as students work with adults to create their “personal learning plans,” celebrating student leadership, and finding a balance between work and family. Nancy writes: “Doing our civic duty is also taking care of things at home” (p. 127). Ted Sizer ends this part noting the faculty consensus was that the most important aspect of Parker to keep in mind when making decisions about budget and programs was “the need for each of us ‘to know our students well’’’ (p. 136).  The reverse also seems true: Ted writes in this newsletter that Nancy has been away from Parker to help their daughter and husband “with their newly born twin boys and five-year-old son” (p. 135).

Ted Sizer points out that the standards at both schools do not conflict with those imposed by the state, but “they go further and deeper” and students “understand them and the level of performance required….[and they] are part and parcel of every day’s work…” (p. 142).  Nonetheless, the “gap between state regulations and the committed practice of our schools has caused awkwardness” (p. 142).  Despite a focus on authentic and personal assessment, students in both schools take standardized tests, although Mission Hill parents can choose for their children not to take the MCAS or Stanford 9.  Meier says her teachers “teach to the test,” but the “big test” at Mission Hill is a graduation performance when students present portfolios.  Family conferences and narratives replace report cards here. Parker’s assessment is standards based: instead of A’s and B’s, a student’s work might be described as “Approaching” or “Exceeding” the standard.  Twice a year students can publicly present “gateway portfolios” to move from junior-high level to high school or to graduate.  All of these letters attempt to explain these very different ways of assessing students’ learning, best described by Meier in a subhead, “Standards Yes, Standardization No” (p. 146).

These letters no doubt helped parents whose own educational experience was likely very traditional to understand what Mission Hill and Parker are doing and why.  There seems to be a high degree of parent involvement in both schools, but parents’ voices are missing—as they too often are. While the reviewer should not review the book she wishes the authors had written, many readers would probably welcome a little more information about parents’ responses to the letters and the strategies used to involve them with the schools.  That said, those wishing to know more about schools where students engage in learning in personal and powerful ways will find this book inspiring.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2427-2429
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11843, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:01:24 AM

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About the Author
  • Anne Dodd
    Bates College
    E-mail Author
    ANNE DODD a Senior Lecturer in Education, Bates College, Lewiston, ME, and the co-author (with Jean L. Konzal) of How Communities Build Stronger Schools (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002) and Making Our High Schools Better: How Parents and Teachers Can Work Together (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). One of her earlier books, A Parent’s Guide to Innovative Education (Noble Press, 1992), was named one of Child Magazine's 10 best books for parents in 1992. In addition to parents’ involvement with schools, her research interests include teacher education and educational reform.
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