Sick Day

(written Tuesday, September 23, 2014)

I’m not particularly good at being sick, especially when school’s in session. I really hate missing even a day with my students, and weekends are my chance to catch up, plan ahead, reflect and go deeper. So when I came down with a stomach bug that had me sleeping through Sunday and missing not only Monday but also Tuesday with my students, I was not at all happy. (My cat, on the other hand, was over the moon to have dozens of consecutive hours with captive and immobile company.)

When it became clear Monday evening that I was going to have to miss Tuesday too, I set about converting my Humanities 7 lesson plan so it could be done by subs. The first step was morning reading. I simply refused to completely give up the chance to read to the kids, so I took my iPad and iPhone and made two videos (due to time restrictions per individual video) of myself reading the book Wonder and posted them to YouTube. They were really more like radio at night than actual videos as the screen was entirely dark throughout – which, given this was my third day of illness, was probably for the best!

For a class discussion, I had found two videos on YouTube that related to their question, “Why is ‘like a girl’ considered an insult?,” one from the Always campaign where they showed the difference between young women and young girls doing various activities “like a girl” and one from Mythbusters where they scientifically tested whether there is such a thing as throwing like a girl in an attempt to debunk what they suspected was a culturally imposed stereotype. So the students could still have these discussions, I put all these links on a Google Doc along with space for teachers to sign up to cover each period of Humanities 7 for me, as well as my other commitments. I added some guiding questions, asked for an email report, and called it good. (Side note – on a whim, I posted about all my electronic sub planning to Facebook – and two nationally known consultants asked if they could quote me in their work!)

How did it work out? It appears to have gone better than well, and I credit my subs Meghan and Tim as well as the students themselves. In particular, they seem to have had a great discussion earlier this morning on the videos. Among other things, reading the notes, I learned that they felt “like a girl” was an insult because it’s what we’ve been taught, because when it’s used that way on boys it also affects girls. They believe the popular media plays a huge role in shaping these stereotypes, and extended the idea to ask why it matters whether one dresses “like a girl” or “like a boy.” Asked what could be done moving forward, they suggested publicizing the commercial, working to avoid stereotyping, and avoiding what they called “the Barbie-ization of the world.”

To my mind, these are unquestionably feminist notions, and given our school’s mission and culture, that is as I had expected. Yet, if past experience holds, not all of these girls will identify as feminists. I remember last year’s Humanities 7 class, divided about evenly into feminists and equalists (a term, by the way, they came up with on their own although I know it has been around for a while). Emma Watson recently gave a keynote speech at the UN kicking off the #HeForShe campaign, and in it she referred to “inadvertent feminists” – essentially, people working for the ideals of feminism but explicitly rejecting the negative associations which have, rightly or wrongly, become associated with the term. The speech is about 12 minutes long, so I will think about whether I might play the whole thing or just selected extracts as my students continue to develop and refine their thinking and go deeper on these and other related questions.

No, my students are not treading water on these days I am out sick. They are steadily moving forward. I can’t wait to see them again.

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Filed under In the Classroom, The Girls School Advantage, Uncategorized

A Conversation with Spanish Teacher Jess Durfey

(A conversation between Shawn Durrett, Dean of Faculty, and Spanish teacher Jessica Durfey)

You’re starting your 10th year at SBS. What has kept you here for so long?

jkC5Jp0QLPfCDSIP-y6X09QDfJhfbYnu-9LZKU0B-mklNm6h7FxJwhsNzyxMWk2FXwaT7ZV2VuVn1YRd_dhywBGbeYo=s190The community is so tight-knit and because of that there’s such a comfort… it makes teaching a lot easier and more rewarding.

What do you like about being a house parent?

I like having the opportunity to see the students outside of the classroom – it doesn’t necessarily have to be Spanish-related things, but it’s definitely a perk to be able to do Spanish activities and Spanish night with them. I like to get to know them as people. I think they also respect me more knowing me as a person.

Tell me how and when you first got seriously interested in Spanish.

I became interested in Spanish myself as a high school student, which is nice, because I can relate to students. I remember I had this really quirky teacher and it was the first time that it wasn’t just a class – it was people, it was a culture – to me it was more manageable than math, than problems out of a book. I actually don’t remember many of my other teachers, but for Spanish I remember every teacher. I loved Spanish so much that I applied to college as a Spanish major and started right away. I had some amazing teachers at the University of New Hampshire. I lived in Granada, Spain while I was studying. I ended up staying for another two years after college for grad school, and lived in Costa Rica during grad school.

What’s it like teaching Middle School beginning Spanish students?

In one word, it’s fun. They are sponges. They grasp it and go with it. Their energy makes it easy to do fun things. They’re creative.

On the other end of the spectrum, what’s exciting about teaching the highest level of Spanish in the IB program?

I love teaching IB because at that level, they do a great job communicating with the language. I love getting papers from them where they’re able to be critical and express their opinions. We can dive into some pretty cool topics. We just watched a movie called “The Mexican Suitcase,” about some negatives found in Mexico. The photos were taken during the Spanish Civil War, which was a very difficult time for the country and still remains a sensitive topic. My students did an amazing job reflecting on what this movie meant and it was great to see them take something away from it.

In your opinion, what makes SBS girls unique?

They’re not afraid to talk and say their opinions. It makes classes more genuine. People aren’t saying what they think others want them to say. They’re also very open-minded to seeing more sides of an argument, like when studying history or culture.

Tell us more about the trip to Costa Rica that you’re offering to students in March.

K-wSLRPVx5nrNWucIVlAJhIe_n_dEdb49XE7yQgP1iwV_TGGPYr2OhpO2g7NYJ0PawT81FF8oZIGmVXrS3Px8uGWCis=w1266-h547We did a trip to Costa Rica a couple years ago and it was so amazing that we wanted to do it again. We’re going to small town, Puerto Viejo, and we’ll try to immerse ourselves in the town. Girls will get to see how other people live. We’re going to go to a school and work with kids. Depending on what the SBS students want to do, we’ll do some sort of service project or work with animals. There’s a sloth sanctuary and a jaguar rescue center there. We’ll also go to the beach.

How have your international experiences impacted you personally and influenced your work as a teacher?

Living with families abroad was pretty intense. I put myself in a difficult situation and then saw myself through it. I basically became fluent there. I definitely realize that living abroad isn’t easy, and that it’s different for everyone. It’s helped me in my work with the International Program at SBS. I always try not to assume anything about the students.

What are some things you like to do when you’re not working?

I love to run, and we have a nice group of teachers who run together. And thanks to living abroad, I love to travel, and luckily my husband Dave does too. My biggest dream is to go to Chile and Argentina. That’s always on the list. Domestically, I’d love to go out to the West Coast to Oregon – check out the beaches and the forest, and go camping.

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One Mind at a Time

I try to be on the lookout for chances to react to blogs, knowing (as Bill Ferriter has pointed out on more than one occasion) that one of the highest compliments I can pay a blogger is to leave a comment or even write a whole new blog in reaction, thus showing how much of an impression they’ve left on me. So when Brianna Crowley opened one of her blogs at the Center for Teaching Quality with a writing prompt from a 30-day blogging challenge for teachers, the temptation to write my own blog based on the same prompt was strong.

Until I really absorbed the prompt: “Write about one of your biggest accomplishments in your teaching that no one knows about (or may not care).”

You see, it creates not one but several problems for me. First, I have difficulty committing to submitting my accomplishments to any sort of hierarchical ranking. I hate hierarchies to the point where, earlier this year, when I said in an all-school meeting that my orientation group was “the best,” Sally looked at me with shock and surprise and said, “Bill Ivey, did you really say that?” Somewhat taken aback myself, I joked that Sharon Weyers, who was sitting behind me, must have performed some sort of ventriloquism.

Second, I don’t like talking about my accomplishments in teaching. I don’t even like using the word “teaching,” to tell the truth, preferring to focus on the word “learning” since there is quite literally no teaching without learning and I prefer the focus to be on the students anyway.

And third, as a fairly frequent blogger and someone who loves to tell stories about my students, trying to come up with something that no one really knows about is tougher than one might think. And something that no one really cares about? Well, if no one cares… why even bother mentioning it?

So that all left me at loose ends. I decided maybe I should sleep on it. So I did. For several nights. Until finally, inevitably, a moment gradually came into focus.

It was one of those times when the seventh graders, fascinated as they are with their emerging adulthood and open as they are about the continuing role their parents play in shaping that transition, begin talking about how that’s happening in each of their families for specific issues. In this case, the topic was make-up and how their parents were handling questions of when, and what, and how. Some of them were still waiting for their parents to give the green light in the not-too-distant future. Others were allowed to use certain products only, and still others were free to find their own path. And one girl spoke up to tell about how her mother had actively encouraged her to start using make-up, to highlight her best features.

Only, this class had seen the documentary “Miss Representation” earlier in the year. So this particular girl reacted to her mother’s suggestion by saying she wasn’t sure she even wanted to use make-up. Her mother asked why, so she told her about what she had learned from the film. Laughing, she explained that by the end of the conversation, her mother had completely reversed her position, saying, “You’re never going to use make-up!”

As a gender activist who supports feminist ideals, I always work hard to walk a fine line between ensuring my students are aware of gender-based stereotyping and inequalities in our society and giving them space to form individual opinions, developing their voices and becoming their own best selves. You hope some of that sticks and has an effect that goes beyond the walls of your classroom and the months of the school year during which you’re actively working with these kids. Here, then, was proof of at least one time that it had happened just as I would hope. At least one of my students had thought for herself, come to her own conclusions, spoken up for herself, and ended up changing someone else’s mind.

I want nothing more in life than to leave the world better than I found it. I feel that most acutely with my family, that if I can’t build a strong and loving relationship with them, then nothing else even matters. But once that’s in place (and it is), building a better world for my students and, at least equally importantly, empowering them to build a better world becomes the top priority.

The poet Taylor Mali, himself a middle school teacher at one point in his life, once wrote, “So I finally taught somebody something, / namely, how to change her mind. / And learned in the process that if I ever change the world / it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.” (from “Like Lilly Like Wilson”)

I know just how he felt.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

NENTS 2.0

by Charlotte Hogan, EL Teacher
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After a successful but often hectic first year of teaching and a month of intensive work with Beginning-level English Learners, I, thankfully, did not experience the burnout that some new teachers feel (or, that my college professors warned us about). I did not feel frustrated, or defeated, despite the many episodes of my first year that hadn’t gone as gracefully as I hoped. My friends and family have asked me since the end of the school year how it went, and I often reply, “I’m excited to get a chance to do everything over.” One problem. How do I know what to change about my teaching?

Two fellow SBS teachers, Rebecca DeMott (math) and Timothy McCall (history), and I (English language) made the trip on August 8th down to The Pomfret School for a weekend that would hopefully help us find the answer to that very question. The New England New Teachers 2.0 (NENTS 2.0) conference is geared toward teachers with just a few years of experience. We know the basics–we’ve handled the awkward, the distressing, and the heartwarming. We’ve navigated living alongside our colleagues and students, and we have big ideas about schools and education. Group us in a mass of about 30 participants from various boarding and day schools in New England, and we’ve collectively seen it all.

To prepare for the conference, each participant had to videotape a class, upload it to a private YouTube channel (for PD purposes, only), and read a book called Brain Rules, by brain scientist John Medina (which I highly recommend to any person with a brain). Since I am interested in making my classes more interactive to encourage students to practice their English, I chose to record a class period with some whole-class instruction and discussion, paired work, and individual practice. Watching it on my own made me a bit uncomfortable, as any person who’s ever seen herself on video can imagine (do I really say “right” that much? Apparently.).

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During the conference, we each played our taped classes on a big screen in front of experienced master teachers, and a group of participants from varying subject areas. We observed specific behaviors from the teacher and the students using the CLASS system, and brainstormed how the teacher could better meet her goals. Sharing video is beneficial for all who watch, in the same way that visiting other classrooms can give teachers fresh ideas. However, the class on film can be paused to allow observers to give even more specific feedback, and discussing the classroom environment from behind a camera lens removes the distractions of live visits. The forum for teacher talk that ensued was respectful, yet participants were unafraid to point out how each class could be better. All parties understood the importance of growth as a professional teacher, and that far outweighs the embarrassment of a lesson that goes awry. Learning to offer and receive constructive feedback on something as personal as our teaching practices was a growing experience in itself.

During my sharing time, the cohort was able to make significant changes to my lesson and help me think differently about my teaching. My original lesson’s goal was to help students write effective introductions to their essays. However, it lacked a certain level of student engagement and ownership. Instead of merely presenting what an effective introduction should look like, my colleagues suggested that students decide for themselves. So, in the new lesson, I would provide two examples of introductions and make the students determine which was better and why. They would then participate in group writing at the chalkboard, to engage different learning styles and create movement in the classroom. By placing all of the cognitive work on the students, my lesson would become more engaging, and ultimately would help students develop their English skills in a deeper, more meaningful way. This improved lesson would not exist if I did not seek the feedback of teachers and experienced professionals in my content area. I was eventually able to mold my cohort’s suggestions to fit my students’ needs and my personal teaching style.

The question that my colleagues and I had, “How do I know what to change about my teaching?” has no simple answer. Actually, the answer is that there are an infinite number of answers. There are endless possibilities for improvement, even for teachers who have been practicing their art for 50 or more years. The NENTS 2.0 conference inspired me, not to use a magic-bullet curriculum or class format (although I have some exciting ideas to try this coming year), but to open my mind to the limitless creative power that I have as a teacher, and that we have, as the entire SBS faculty in collaboration with one another.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

A very. good. year.

It’s already happened. I bumped into a random person, in this case one of my neighbours, who asked about what my students were studying. “They do have a theme question already,” I said. “It’s, ‘Why do people judge other people and themselves?’” After a short pause during which his eyes first widened and then went slightly unfocused while his jaw dropped slightly, he said, “Seventh graders came up with that question?” “Yup,” I responded. His eyes came alive again and his hand went to his chin as he began to see the possibilities in the question, and to talk excitedly about his thoughts.

I love these moments, and I especially love that it happened after only two full days of classes this year. And yet, the second full day was in some ways even more extraordinary than the first.

With a theme question in place, the next step in designing units is always coming up with a list (usually quite long) of related questions. As students select Focus Questions or individual research, essay-writing, and presentations, they may use this list for specific ideas or for inspiration for brand new questions. I use the list too, to generate ideas for full class activities to add breadth and depth to the unit.

As I do every year, I asked the students to check through the questions they had written and categorized that are posted around the room and will remain there for the rest of the year to see which ones might fit the unit. As they moved out, one of them asked me a question, and as we talked through to the answer, I became aware the students had formed a group around one of the tables and were talking animatedly. I turned around to refocus them – and discovered that they were busy thinking up even more questions as one of them typed them in to my iPad which was projected on the large TV screen. I couldn’t have been more delighted.

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And check out this sampling of what they want to study for this first unit:

      Why do girls feel like they need to be skinny to be beautiful?
      Why do people consider being gay bad?
      What is perfection?
      Why are people judged by their skin color?
      Why does bullying happen?
      Why is saying “like a girl” considered a bad comment?
      What is “ugly”?
      Why are people judged by the things about themselves they can’t change?
      Why do people judge?
      Why do people think it’s bad if another person is different from them?
      What is a “normal” girl?

While I know all their names and faces, and I have already begun to learn about who these girls are deep down, we are still very much in the initial stages of forming a community. Yet, their comfort with each other and their passion to learn together is already off the charts.

Seems like its going to be a very. good. year.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

Out of the Margins

“So how do your students look this year?” The question was asked not, as many people might expect, by a colleague or even a parent but by three of my former students who are now juniors as we found a chance to talk at the annual Local Family Picnic. “They look great,” I said. “Of course. You know! Given the emails they’ve been writing me about the books they’ve been reading.” One of them laughed and said, “Your favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015?” I laughed in return, responding “Absolutely!” knowing she was secure in the knowledge they were all part of my favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2010-2011. (For the record, I only teach one section of Humanities 7 each year, so the “favourite Humanities 7 class of…” line is something of a running joke.)

As I prepare for the imminent arrival on campus of my brand new students, as the middle school team prepares to bring together and start building this year’s community, I find myself focused not just on what the kids might be thinking and feeling but also on the parents. My son attended boarding school for three years and is about to start his junior year at college, so I know firsthand what parents are going through. The level of trust we parents place in a school when dropping off our children is powerfully and deeply touching, and part of what motivates me to do my absolute best each and every day is working to meet that trust (not that I need any more motivation than looking out at my students looking back at me!).

So it stopped me short when one of my virtual colleagues on Twitter, another teacher who is also a parent, wrote, “My son had nightmares of police killing him….when he walks in your classroom how will you comfort him? #Ferguson” That I would do something is unquestionable. The harder part is the what. I wrote back, “I keep searching for the answer to that. Empathy and a hug only go so far. Think of concrete actions we can take to fight racism?” I believe that kids, perhaps even more so than adults, want to feel they have some degree of control over the world around them. While we will never live in a perfect world, we can certainly work to move society towards greater understanding, inclusiveness, and acceptance. And including my friend’s child in coming up with ways to do so would hopefully help him feel more empowered.

My imminent students may or may not have had such nightmares, but certainly they must have some level of awareness of and concern over what has been going on in Ferguson. And every year I’ve ever taught Humanities 7, whatever might have been going on in the world, stereotypes have always been a hot topic at some point in the year, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and more or less any other type of ism of which you could think. With 7th graders’ heightened sense of fairness and drive to bring justice about, we always end up brainstorming and discussing what people can actually do. Knowing concrete actions to take can be comforting.

Another of my virtual teacher-parent colleagues is expecting her first child, and she found herself in need of comforting post-Ferguson as well. Among the links and resources we shared in reaching out to her was a video made by Glenn Singleton, “Courageous Conversations About Race.” It offers both some background information not everyone may know and a protocol to frame these conversations. The video, which takes about 22 minutes to watch, is an incredible resource for schools, other organizations, and people in general who want to help undermine the systemic racism that feeds stereotypes both deliberate and unwitting, people who want to move forward.

And really, moving forward is not an option but a necessity. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – besides systemic racism, we all have to deal with the effects of patriarchy on attitudes toward gender and sexuality, of classism on attitudes toward socioeconomic status, and so on. The intersections of all the various axes of privilege and oppression play out differently in different people, making each individual story matter deeply. So listening, learning, affirming, and acting are all important parts of the process. Moreover, as a global community wherein each of us is working to become our own best self, they are quite literally part of our school’s mission.

My friend who asked about her son wrote me, “thank you for the response. I appreciate it greatly. #village” It does indeed take a village. And that village is us.

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Filed under Current Events, On Education, On Parenting, Uncategorized

Behind Every Avatar

Back in the early 2000’s, when I was a member of the old MiddleWeb listserve, one of the teachers on the list shared that she had been diagnosed with one of the more aggressive forms of cancer. The group rallied to her support, and she continued to share her journey with us as she could, from the classroom for as long as she was able to. Then her account went silent for a while, and eventually a listmember shared the sad news that she had quite recently died. Her funeral was the upcoming weekend, and listmembers travelled from up to several hours away to attend, share with her family what she had meant to us, and support each other.

Such is the power of social media. Few if any of us ever met her in person, yet unquestionably we cared deeply about her. Her family confirmed we, too, had been one of the joys in her life.

Recently, Bill Ferriter wrote a powerful blog post looking at the current social media landscape. In it, he observes, “Early on, the folks that used social spaces for networking seemed genuinely interested in learning WITH each other. Now, it seems like people are only interested in learning FROM each other.” It got me thinking as to why that might be true.

Although anybody could join listserves, they were something of a protected space in that you had to sign up to participate. Emails from listmembers appeared in your inbox, and you could respond as you saw fit. It’s something like having a private room in a restaurant. It helps create an atmosphere that facilitates honesty and trust.

Most modern social media spaces, on the other hand, are more like taking a table along the sidewalk. Random people can and do hear anything you say, and it’s just plain harder to build a close relationship in that context. Additionally, comments sections on many websites have become relentlessly vituperative, and trolling has proliferated to the point where I see Twitter users I follow telling people “What are you doing in my mentions? Blocked.” on a near-daily basis. That doesn’t make it any easier to join in conversations, both for fear of not hurting someone inadvertently and for fear of being subsequently targeted oneself.

So what are we going to do about it? Lamenting the “old” days will get us exactly nowhere. And, as Bill said, “There’s a person behind every avatar who deserves to be valued and recognized and appreciated and challenged.”

Actually, though, that’s the key. Keeping in mind the person behind the avatar. Note too, that Bill didn’t write “and with whom you should invariably and sycophantically agree.” It’s absolutely fair to challenge people, to stretch their thinking, as long as it’s done respectfully and with love. I would hope other people would do the same for me. Often, in fact, they do!

Earlier today, I ran into Cathy LaDuke, the Athletic Director at my wife’s school. As we were catching up on things, she said she had been meaning to thank me for getting her involved in Twitter chats. She talked about how much she enjoyed them, how much she got out of them – and about the connections she’d made. She loved the way #TABSchat moderator Scott MacClintic always noticed and commented on her photographs. She’s even presented on Twitter chats for the Chatham Hall faculty, and has good ideas to get even more people involved.

Myself, there was one morning this summer when I randomly got involved in #satchat to make a point that so many discussions focus on urban vs. suburban schools that often the needs of rural schools and districts get left out of the conversation altogether. Next thing I knew, I was being invited to participate in #RuralEdChat on Tuesday night, and not long after, I found myself connecting via my phone while my wife and I were travelling through rural Pennsylvania (and yes, she was at the wheel). It was a great chat, warm and welcoming and stimulating, and I’ve continued to come back.

So it really can be done. As Bill concluded, “Together is built one interaction at a time, y’all — and together is a lot more meaningful than the lonely places that our social spaces have become.”

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