Writing reports inspired by The Voyage of the Mimi

Some of the stages of the Mimi report process are invisible to parents, and some are invisible to me.

I get to watch students dive into the Skimathon. They take quick looks at many of the books I’ve collected for that year’s set of topics, either animal behavior, for The Voyage of the Mimi, or archaeology and technology, for The Second Voyage of the Mimi. The Skimathon process helps students make newer and wider topic choices than they would otherwise have made. I get to watch them decide that they’re fascinated by giant stick insects, or by the ancient Inca girl found frozen at the top of a Peruvian mountain, or by the earliest history of musical instruments.

Parents get glimpses of this process as books are carried home to be skimmed or quickly read at home. Especially interested parents have sometimes read every one of the books that came home! Still, I’m the one watching books fly in and out of the box, watching little fads for particular books spread through the class, watching the collective horizon widen.

On the other hand, once each student finds out which of her four or five choices will be her topic, it’s parents who get to visit the Aquarium or Roger Williams Zoo (or other places where kids can observe animals first hand), to be research assistants. Parents help count how many times each sea turtle breathes in an hour, or keep track of how the elephants use the space of their enclosure. Parents get to help interview the man at the rehab hospital who’s learning to use a prosthetic leg; parents help explore the Roman artifacts at the Worcester Art Museum. All these direct experiences depend on parents, and give families a chance to share some learning. I’m always hugely grateful for reports about what that’s been like.

Students this age are proud to produce a long and complicated written report without depending on their parents–but they still need lots of support. I’m so glad to be the one who sits with students, again and again through the report process, watching so many good things blooming:

  • their non-fiction reading and note-taking skills;
  • their writing and keyboarding skills;
  • their self-confidence approaching completely new ideas and experiences;
  • their ability to fold together what they’re learned from reading and what they’ve learned from more direct experience, into an overall understanding of their topics;
  • their sense of the particular flavors of their understanding as gifts they can give, to each other, to the readers they will have among the assembled parents and grandparents and friends at Mimi Night, and to the readers the second copies of their reports will have in classes to come.

Sitting with kids one-on-one, I feel so lucky to watch them stretch: stretch to sense the difference between a concept and a detail, stretch to hold large new meanings, stretch to hand those back to the communities around them.

The day after Mimi Night, we share the projects with the other classes, in something called the Mimi Museum. Each student is one of just a few tour guides for a particular visiting class, and, as such, is responsible for sharing not just his own report and 3D object and poster, but also those of his partners or small group.

This is an amazing thing to watch. Building on all our conversation, and their readings of each other’s reports as they came off the binding machine, kids take ownership of each other’s topics. Students who are shy, who are nervous about speaking to groups, nevertheless step forward: point out the way the sandal was braided, or the animal slinking back from a fire at the mouth of a cave in the diorama, or the ways a snake can move itself through its landscape.

Every year, I try to make sure that a few volunteer parents have a chance to see this stage. Don Grace, observing, has said that this seems to him to be one of the most impressive things about the report process at Touchstone. I’m aware of some crucial ingredients: the time we give to what we do, for one thing, but also our refusal to use graded assessments.

In conversations with teachers at other schools, I am repeatedly made aware of the way graded assessments throw students back into their own individual achievements. With lots of feedback and guidance, but no graded assessment, it’s more possible for students to stretch into those impressive individual accomplishments, and then keep on stretching, into this remarkable collective achievement: a comprehensive sense of some view of the world. We’ve all woven that together, by paying attention both to the content and to each other.

There it is, in some way: the Touchstone magic: paying attention to both the content, the wonder of the world, and to each other. In portfolio conferences, when a student and her parents and I are all looking at work together, students often hold up their Mimi reports. Their parents have seen the reports already, of course; kids know that. Still they want to focus our attention on that work again. I’m always delighted as kids point to things they’ve gotten help with from others: “Emily helped me make the drum again a different way,” or “When we made the timeline with Kate, I realized how long ago this was,” or “Joe (a partner) helped me figure out a way to draw a harbor seal.” The physical copy of the report has become, itself, an artifact: a vessel that holds the memory of shared meanings. No teacher could ask for more.

— Polly Brown, Touchstone Community School, Head Teacher for 10, 11 and 12 year olds