Author Archives: Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

Summer Reading, part two: This is Not a Test by José Vilson

I don’t ordinarily make a habit of ordering books before their release date, but I made an exception for This is Not a Test by José Vilson. I knew the strength, power, and scope of his writing through various publications in forums such as Huffington Post, his blog, and Twitter. Mr. Vilson can put a book’s worth of thinking into 140 characters, so I couldn’t wait to see what he could say in 220 pages. The subtitle, “A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education” is apt. In the book, José has woven together memories, commentary, and calls to action in a way that compels readers to think honestly about the educational landscape in our country, the cultural context that helps create it, and what our own role is and should be in shaping it in the future.

When the book came, I decided to set it aside until the summer came so that I could savor it with little else to distract me. When I finally opened it, I fairly flew through “Part One” which takes us through his childhood and ends with his decision to become a teacher as his college graduation date approached. One moment particularly stuck out to me, when he describes giving a correct answer (“D”) in class only to have the teacher respond, “What?” He gave the answer again, and again the teacher responded, “What? I didn’t hear that.” He startled the class by shouting the answer, at which point the teacher dismissed him with a “Well, you don’t know anything, so I’ll move on.” The teacher called on another student, who gave the exact same answer and earned the teacher’s praise. (p.47) “How could this happen?” I asked myself, feeling sick and knowing the answer in my heart, knowing the same general dynamic plays itself out over and over, if not always that overtly, when people of privilege have power over the historically oppressed.

For the rest of the book, then, I slowed way down. I’d read a page and stare out into space, or finish a section and put the book down altogether for several days. What he was saying was too important to risk missing part of it, and as someone who identifies as anti-racist and yet who knows I still (and probably will always) have work to do to uncover and eradicate the ways that systemic racism unconsciously influences me, I knew I needed to listen carefully to everything he had to say. Some stories, I already knew, such as the influence of Renee Moore “who spoke about her teaching as rooted in the histories of black people across generations, not as a solitary act of kindness,” (p.180) or how Chris Lehmann was willing to force EduCon participants to confront their privilege by explicitly noting the importance of race, class, and gender, and how he worked rapidly and effectively to have the conference become progressively more inclusive to a diversity of voices (pp.143-150). I mentally highlighted Mr. Vilson’s assertion that “Inquiry-based education only for the ones society felt could handle it wasn’t good enough.” (p.146) and I thought long and hard on themes Mr. Vilson continues to develop on the challenge and necessity of deeply and truly understanding and embracing diversity, most recently in the blog piece “Teachers of Color Caught on the Windmill (On Real Equity).”

In the penultimate essay of his book, “Why Teach,” (pp.209-215), Mr. Vilson talks about how “When we teach, we don’t just teach them the subjects, we implicitly teach them customs, rituals, and character traits that they either emulate or admire in their own right.” (p.212) He notes, “Teaching and learning are amorphous, but when they’re happening the symbiosis is undeniable.” (p.213) In his powerful Afterword, Dr. Pedro Noguera adds “This book and José Vilson’s ongoing work remind us that, just as education can be used to dominate, control, and oppress, it can also be used to provoke and liberate.” (p.223)

As someone who believes deeply in the importance of working for social justice, I feel it is long past time for those of us who live in this country to move past the illusion that we are living in a post-racial society. As a teacher who came through an exemplary M.A.T. program but who hears of many programs that fall far short of my own experience, I feel we as a country need carefully examine what is working and what needs improvement in our system of teacher preparation. To my thinking, This Is Not a Test should be required reading for all future teachers, and can and should be a spark to the kinds of hard, honest conversations all those of us within and who care about education need to be having.

Mr. Noguera ends his “Afterword” with the “hope that other educators are able to see the power and potential of their voices and join in the struggle to save our schools and our fragile democracy.” (p.223) Mr. Vilson ends his “Why Teach” essay with the charge, “Go hard or go home.” (p.215)

I’m all over that.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education

Why I Support the ACLU’s Suit Against Single-Sex Schools

You know I love this school and deeply believe in what we are doing. So when I saw an article in Slate entitled “‘Busy Boys, Little Ladies’: This Is What Single-Sex Education Is Really Like,” my blood boiled. I really have completely and totally had it with the continually regenerated perspective that single-gender education (a term I prefer to “single-sex education” as it focuses on the social construct of gender rather than the biological concept of sex) only serves to perpetuate stereotypes and a feeling of inferiority and how research is often misapplied and misinterpreted to back up that point of view. Yet, for some reason, I read the article. As I predicted, I became even more appalled as I read. But not for the reasons I expected.

In the article, Amanda Marcotte describe some practices cited by the ACLU in their suit against the Hillsborough County school district in Florida and also discovered in reporting by Dana Liebelson in Mother Jones. Boys (i.e. not girls) are encouraged to exercise before class. As a reward for doing well, boys are allowed to play with electronics while girls are given perfume. Teachers of boys are encouraged to engage them in higher level debate and discourse while teachers of girls are encouraged to connect with them – as if kids of all genders wouldn’t profit from both practices.

In short, single gender education in HIllsborough County as presented in this article appears to build on and reinforce stereotypes, taking genuine tendencies and treating them as general truths for all, or even taking as truth attitudes and practices that have been (or should have been) thoroughly discredited years ago. At which point, I have to say, “You go, ACLU!”

However, the article goes on to say, “Proponents of single-sex education may claim to be all about maximizing children’s potential, but this ACLU complaint suggests the opposite—that the real result is stifling any children who dare buck gender stereotypes.” (Marcotte) And this is where I part company with Ms. Marcotte (the ACLU itself, in Ms. Liebelson’s words, “is worried that other schools will emulate the program in Hillsborough County,” implying they may not be condemning single-gender education entirely.) Unless I learn something radically new and totally unexpected, I’m not likely to ever support what Hillsborough County is doing. But to extend a condemnation of one district’s specific practices to condemning single-gender education in general is pushing it too far.

A friend recently asked what it even means to teach in a girls school these days. The 80-20 rule tells us that 20% of girls have brains wired the same way as 80% of boys (and vice versa). Moreover, brain research increasingly suggests that male-wired and female-wired brains aren’t all that different at birth. We now differentiate sex from gender. And the very concept of gender is being stretched and expanded, moving beyond a simple binary and adding in the potential element of fluidity. So – what does it mean to teach girls today? I told my friend that at this point in time, I no longer “teach girls” but rather teach the unique and individual students I have in front of me. But I do so in a girl-positive environment created within a school whose mission is built on feminist ideals.

Our students talk about the gender prejudice they’ve experienced in other contexts. And they say attending this school gives them a place to talk about what it means to be a girl in the world today in a way that they never could in their previous schools. My seventh graders affirm that being a girl simply means being yourself if you identify as a girl, and they see older students as role models promoting feminism as well as adults who are ready and willing to engage in these ideas and to work for a better world.

And research backs this up – graduates of girls schools and women’s colleges are more likely to speak up and more likely to actively work for social justice. Among other advantages.

So to my thinking, the fight should not be against single-gender education. The fight should be against patriarchy. I’m happy to call out single-gender schools whose practices are suspect. But I’m not happy about giving multi-gender schools a free pass. To my thinking, both single-gender and multi-gender schools are welcome to join the fight against patriarchy. Indeed, to my thinking, it’s imperative that they do so.

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Filed under Gender, On Education

Don’t Abolish Middle Schools – Reinvent Them

“You clearly have a passion for middle school.” I’ve heard this time and time again, often after one of the Open House presentations we give several times a year. And in point of fact, I do, and have ever since my very first month working with this age group. Their own passion and energy, excitement at discoveries and possibilities, outrage at injustice, and desire to be known and loved and understood endear them to me. And by understanding them and their needs, and learning how best to meet those needs, you can help make middle school an amazing experience. You can’t entirely do away with setbacks and heartaches, of course, because those are a given part of life, and the nature of early adolescence is that such moments loom large. But with proper support, students can learn to work through those moments, and the nature of early adolescence is also that each day is truly a fresh start.

So when a friend of mine on Facebook shared a link to the article “Why Middle School Should Be Abolished” by David C. Banks, it most decidedly caught my attention. My initial reaction was, essentially, “Oh, I don’t think so!” and as I began reading the article, I prepared myself for what our debate teams call “the clash.” It turns out that Mr. Banks begins with a very common misconception, and hopefully clearing that up will start us down the right path.

A popular myth has arisen that stand-alone middle schools are doomed to be wastelands, and should be fixed, in Mr. Banks’s words, “either by combining them with the guidance and nurturing that children find in elementary school, or with the focus on adult success that we expect from our high schools.” The only problem is that a wealth of research says building configuration has zero effect on results, that it’s what’s going on within the classroom that matters. And along with what the research says, that makes intuitive sense.

Mr. Banks does mention a counterexample, a 2012 study performed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In the article “Do Middle Schools Make Sense” by Mary Tamer, Assistant Professor Martin West states, “This suggests that it may be harder to create an effective middle school than an effective K–8 school, and that part of the challenge is simply that middle school grade configurations require an additional school transition.” That, I’ll concede, also makes intuitive sense. So how does one go about building an effective middle school program, whatever the building configuration?

Intriguingly, Ms. Tamer’s article was on the right track – but inadvertently veered off onto a siding. Ms. Tamer writes that “A 2001 article “Reinventing the Middle School,” published in the Middle School Journal, spoke of the “arrested development” of this once-promising educational model.” But far from indicting the middle school model itself, the author, Thomas Dickinson, was arguing that few schools were actually implementing the model in its entirety, for example cutting out advisory programs due to budget constraints, and that this persistently incomplete application is what inevitably led to arrested development. The problem, I believe, not only persists to this day but has actually been exacerbated by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and other perhaps well-intentioned but ill-conceived initiatives. This incomplete application, unfortunately, has also led to a muddying of what “the middle school model” even means.

When we designed our own new middle school program in 2004, we took Professor Dickinson’s article (and the book on which it was based) seriously; our intention was to “do it right, right from the start.” We applied the principles of This We Believe, the position paper of the Association of Middle Level Education, we worked with a consultant, Chris Toy, to help us reflect on how well we were doing in adhering to the holistic model, and we have continued to refer to those principles throughout the ten years we have been in existence. And what are the results?

Late last spring, I was driving Sophie, one of our rising 9th graders, to her last day of middle school service at the Food Bank in Hatfield. Immersed in that peculiar combination of nostalgia, a sense of achievement and completion, and nervous anticipation that characterizes that time of year for middle schoolers about to move up, she reflected thoughtfully on what her class had been like for these two years, what their time in the middle school had meant to them, and their feelings as they prepared to transition to the high school. At one point, she observed, “I think it was exactly what we needed. We felt cared for and supported, and we’re nervous about moving up to the high school but we also feel we’re ready.” Similarly, Jake Steward, who came in this past year as our new English Department Chair, told me last fall, shaking his head with appreciation, “Whatever you’re doing in that middle school, it’s working.”

So I sympathize with Mr. Bank’s notion that we need to take a look at our middle schools. But I also think the solution is right in front of our faces. Ask Sophie. She’ll tell you.

P.S. Todd Bloch has written an excellent response to Mr. Bank’s article which I highly recommend.

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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized

Summer Reading, part one

Ah, summer. That magical time when teachers get to sit by the pool sipping drinks in tall glasses filled to the brim with ice and muse on…

… all the things they want to do differently next year.

And in my case, that musing needs to start with an excellent book I finished months ago, Whole Novels for the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks. It’s the sort of book where your respect for the author deepens with every chapter, where you want to highlight far more than the 25% you know is recommended, where you want to run right out and start implementing what the author suggests – and where you know you and your students will be far better off if you wait and take your time and do it right. Late June and early July is the perfect time to read this book, when you can pause and reflect at will, pool or no pool, and so here I am returning to it.

At its simplest, the whole novel approach is a way of enabling students to optimally benefit from the books that they share together as a class in part by holding off on discussions until they have finished reading. Ms. Sacks recognizes the fundamentally important role that independent, self-selected reading can play in a good reading program, citing in particular the excellent work of Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer). She notes the additional importance of a shared experience both in building skllls and in building community. And she urges that we rethink how we approach teaching novels so that the experience no longer resembles being caught in stop and go traffic but rather feels like looking back and reflecting on a just-completed trip. Her methods, developed along with Madeleine Ray of Bank Street College of Education, are deeply grounded in research and experience.

Chapter by chapter, we see her make a case for the practice and then talk about selecting books, teaching note-taking, holding discussions, and connecting the book to writing. In the second part, she talks about how to prepare students for whole novel study and set expectations, develop their critical reading and comprehension skills, ensure you are accounting for the full range of diversity in your classroom, and analyzing the results to make changes in the future. As I read, I tried to imagine how my students would react to whole novel studies.

And I’ll be honest – I think their first reaction would be to resist the approach because they truly adore talking to each other. But I can envision myself telling them that they are already read to every day and so already get to talk about books every day. I can point out we would still be doing group activities as we build to the days we discuss the book. I can quote some of Ms. Sacks’s own ideas in making the case. And I am 99.999% sure I can get them excited about note-taking.

Yes, you read that right. Ms. Sacks works with her students to teach them about literal thinking vs. inferential thinking vs. critical thinking, and uses notetaking as a vehicle not just to help them think about the book itself and prepare for discussions but also to think about their own thinking. My kids love having their thinking stretched, understanding how their minds work, and being able to clearly see progress they are making; by following Ms. Sacks’s example, I would be able to facilitate all of this for them. I think they would also appreciate having additional lenses through which to self-reflect, as we frequently ask them to do.

When you consider this is just one short section of the book, you begin to get the sense of how comprehensive it is and why I see this as a resource that all secondary-level reading teachers should have. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my (non-existent) pool with my (also non-existent) (for the moment) drink to keep thinking about how I might integrate these ideas into my own students’ learning next year.

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Filed under On Education, The Faculty Perspective

Student Driven Classrooms: Keeping the Faith

Thanks to John Norton and MiddleWeb for granting us permission to repost and link to this piece originally published on their website!

Twice a year, our independent school invites the families of boarding and day students to Family Weekend – a busy, enjoyable time when visitors can attend classes as well as various talks, performances, presentations and athletic events. This year the spring weekend came along just as my Humanities 7 course was finishing up their self-designed unit on “judging” and was not quite ready to dive fully into the next (poetry).

This left me somewhat at a loss for what to do during our special weekend class – on precisely one of those days where you want the students (and yourself) to be at their best.

I eventually decided to hold an official poetry unit kickoff. Olivia asked me right before we started if she could read one of her poems. Her beautiful and powerful reading opened the class perfectly. I then told the kids I was about to give them their one writing prompt for the entire unit, and asked them to take out their iPads and write a poem entitled “Poetry Is.”

Read more here

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Filed under In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

This Beautiful Year

Each year, the students of Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School respond to writing prompts as they reflect on the year. Their words are assembled into a poem that closes the Eighth Grade Moving Up ceremony. This year, the poem was entitled:

This Beautiful Year

Last fall, I was

excited about the new year,
young and overwhelmed.
I didn’t know who I really was.

Now, I am
thoughtful and ready to take on a challenge.
I am a confident girl who knows where she is supposed to be.

Last fall, I was a student who was going to spend her first year away from home. Now, I am a student who doesn’t want to go back home.

Last fall, my English was really bad. Now, my English improved a lot and I got many good friends.

I was shy and worried about making new friends in a class that has already been bonded the year before. Now, I am confident and I have made some close friendships throughout all grades that I know will last forever.

I was worried I wouldn’t fit in. Now, I am happy. I learned anyone can fit in.

Last fall, I was different. I was scared to show my true self. I didn’t realize that people here would accept who I am. Now, I am brave. I have learned so many things here, especially friendship. I know the people who will be there for me and I know the people I will be there for.

Last fall, I was quiet, small, afraid. Now, I am proud and confident.

Last fall, I was a child who didn’t want to grow up. Now, I am ready to grow up and take the privileges and responsibilities that come with getting older.

My favorite part of the day was:
The part I spent at school.
Walking up the stairs to Jesser and seeing all my friends,
breakfast,
any class where I knew I had done the best I could and was satisfied with the outcome,
classes where we laughed together or all talked and thought about topics that are perhaps hard to wrap our heads around,
math class,
seeing Roger’s face,
break time,
when we all got to make the long line down to lunch,
lunch with my friends – particularly when they served tacos,
French class with Miriam,
music – I can feel my soul fly with music,
Select Chorus,
art,
drawing the little things that mean so much to me,
when I got to go back to my room or change for sports and be able to yell and laugh with my friends across the hall about the day,
going to the gym with my friend,
sports,
being with my teammates,
soccer,
softball,
dancing,
going riding with my friends,
community service,
free time,
hanging out and laughing with my friends,
being with my family,
chocolate,
and sleepovers.

Next year, I am looking forward to
Starting new.

Seeing how everyone changed,
Meeting new friends but keeping old;
Being with friends.

Making new memories.
Seeing the world in new ways.
New excitements, challenges, and friends.

Working hard on academics;
Developing my English.

Sports and remaking myself,

Being older and guiding and helping the people around me,
being a good role model for the new seventh graders.

Moving up to ninth grade.
I am looking forward to being an upper schooler,
Being able to fully explore and become involved in the community that I have been a part of for two years.
There are more responsibilities which I am looking forward to taking on.
More opportunities.
Dances.

I am looking forward to growing more, gaining confidence, and trying new things.
Maybe also letting confidence grow in myself.

Next year, I’m looking forward to an advanced me,
A me who can face to the challenges without fear,
A me who likes to try new things.

I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with all of the girls and teachers.

I will always remember,
The strong bonds built with friends and touching memories made this year;

My first day. I didn’t know anyone and figuring out the lunch line was the hardest thing I’ve ever done;
Registration and having people greet me with smiling faces welcoming me to the school;

Everyone in the class, all of my best friends;

The challenges I have overcome and what I have learned from them;
Riding for the first time;
That feeling you get during a game, or performance where you are just about ready to burst;

Going to the mall and laughing with my friends.

Secret roommate conversations.

My advisor, my advisees, the middle school, and my lifelong friends.

Bill reading to me.

Most importantly, I will remember my friends because they’re like family.

I will always remember the warmth this community has brought me,
the tears of our teachers at the end of the year,
the smiles on our faces,
the smell of the grass,
the taste of the food in the dining hall.

I will always remember that we will meet in the middle again.

I will always remember to enjoy my life and call my friends.

I will always remember this beautiful year.

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Filed under Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized

Threshold

Last Monday, my Humanities 7 class seemed tired. Many of them had gone on the Boston Harbor cruise the night before at the invitation of Cardigan Mountain School, and had gotten back late. Others seemed to be having a post-weekend drop in energy (to be fair, it was 8:00 in the morning). Others, I’m sure, were fine, but (ironically) they were quieter about it than those who were tired.

So, we spent extra time on Morning Announcements, taking all their questions about the upcoming three weeks and the many special events, ensuring they felt they had as good a sense as possible of what was coming up. We moved on to Morning Reading, with Olivia reading Julia’s short story for her and Emily reading her own poems. I had earlier decided to extend Morning Reading if need be by including an installment from Wonder, the book the students had chosen for their unit on “judging” and in which we had just read the climax. The next section of the book involved preparations for fifth and sixth grade graduation, and the resonance in the room with what these students were thinking and feeling was strong.

There was a point when Auggie, the protagonist in the book, was asked if he wanted to press charges following a certain event; he didn’t. Elizabeth’s hand shot up to protest his decision, arguing it was the only way for the bullies to learn a lesson and that what they’d done was extremely serious. Olivia responded that it’s Auggie’s right to decide what he wants to do about it, and Jewels made a noise of agreement. I pointed out it all depended on what principles you used to make your decision, that by the way we were naturally shifting gears toward our next unit on ethics, and that at any rate each person did in the end have every right to make their own decision based on the the values they had every right to hold. Everyone nodded and a few other students added further thoughts.

During this discussion, I secretly flipped through to the end of the book, so when I got to a natural stopping point in the story – the night before the graduation – I told the class there was about 15 minutes’ worth of reading until the end, and asked them to vote on whether they would like to finish the story right then or wait until tomorrow. By a vote of 7-4 with two abstentions, they voted to continue, and settled back into their beanbags.

Soon, I was reading a speech by Mr. Tushman, the Middle School Director, on the importance of kindness: “… but what I want you, my students, to take away from your middle school experience… is the sure knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person here in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place.” (Palacio) One of the students raised her hand. “That sounds like something you would say,” she said. “It does,” I agreed, “only… I promise to be much more brief than Mr. Tushman in the Eighth Grade Moving Up Ceremony.” “Oh, good,” said at least half the students, laughing.

As I read the final words of the book, thinking partly of the emotions the characters were feeling, partly of the emotions my students were feeling, and partly of myself speaking to this particular middle school community for the last time less than three weeks from now, I choked up (again) a little: “You really are a wonder, Auggie. You are a wonder.” and several of the students said, “Oh, Bill, you’re crying a little.” I smiled. “Yes. I am. Get used to it. Because I guarantee it will happen in Moving Up.” They smiled back, and one of them commented on my past writings about the end of the year in this school and whether there is “enough tissue in the world.” The room fell silent for a moment. I raised my voice and called out, “Okay, choice time, and meditation in my office is a choice.” The students stood and stretched and moved on.

But not away. Not yet, anyway.

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Filed under In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

The more things change…

The other day, I was walking through downtown Amherst and picked up a book of feminist writing I thought might be thought-provoking. I opened to a random page, and read about a steadily increasing gender wage gap. I opened to another random page, and read about those moments when women have had to deal with the assumption that they will have children and how this must inevitably affect their career. I opened to a third random page, and read an account about what it feels like to be sitting at a conference – yet again – listening to the people in a position of privilege and power talking about working for equity.

I was reading Sisterhood is Powerful, an iconic collection of feminist essays published in… 1970. Nearly half a century ago.

As one of my college friends commented on Jill Abramson’s firing, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I know, I know. Things have changed. Things are better. We have progress to make, but see how far we’ve come! And the optimist in me really wants to celebrate and focus on all the genuine progress that has been made.

Only, the realist in me can’t completely set aside how much genuine progress is yet to be made.

So often, progress toward equity is seen as taking away power from the historically privileged and giving it to the historically oppressed. And that view, not without reason, is hard to rally around.

But for many if not most feminists, feminism (and by extension most strands of gender activism, including my own) is actually not about privileging women over men but rather about dismantling a system of patriarchy that privileges the (traditionally) masculine over the (traditionally) feminine, thus allowing each individual authentic self to emerge, in order to achieve equity.

For her CAS project (Creativity-Action-Service, one of the requirements for the IB diploma and now an option for all students in IB schools) Mary Pura ‘13 created a feminist film festival. Her efforts, and the discussions that followed each showing both immediately and some time afterward, have resulted in what appears to be a deep cultural shift in this school to more openly reflect our feminist roots. It is cool to identify as feminist, both intersectionality and gender and sexuality diversity are increasingly being discussed, and even students who prefer not to identify as feminist tend to believe in the feminist ideal of working toward gender equity and the ability of all people to express their true authentic selves.

One of the films Mary showed that had the most profound impact on the school was the documentary Miss Representation, a well-researched and hard-hitting look at how the media in particular and society in general consciously and unconsciously reinforce patriarchy through their depictions of and commentary on women. The team that produced the movie has been hard at work on a new film, The Mask You Live In, which further explores restrictive gender norms, examining their effect on boys and men. Feminism, Gloria Steinem and many others have said, is ultimately about the liberation not just of women but also of all human beings, and we may hope that this new documentary will help drive that point home and help move our society forward.

My fervent hope for my students and for my son is that, should they stumble across a copy of Sisterhood is Powerful 45 years from now (nearly a century after its original publication), they will view it simply as a historical document depicting times long past. It will not happen by itself. But we are capable of making it happen.

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Village

In real time, it’s hard to be sure what’s sexism and what’s you.
- Ann Friedman

As you may have heard, Jill Abramson, the first-ever female executive editor of The New York Times has been fired. There’s no speculation on that point – the paper has been clear, and she has made no effort that I know of to deny it. What’s much harder to figure out is why, even with excellent analyses like “Jill Abramson Will Never Know Why She Got Fired” (Ann Friedman in New York magazine) and “Why Jill Abramson Got Fired” (Ken Auletta in The New Yorker).

If you haven’t already, please note in passing the extreme contrast between those two titles, and ask yourself to what extent the genders (as perceived by their names, anyway) of the authors may be a factor. Not because of who those actual people are. Because of patriarchy.

In his article, Mr. Auletta notes that Ms. Abramson recently found out that her pay and pension benefits were significantly less than her predecessor, who was male. “‘She confronted the top brass,’ one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.” (Auletta) (For the record, you may count me in that “for many” group.) Differences of opinion over editorial policy and personnel decisions may also have been contributing factors. Mr. Auletta concludes, “Even though she thought she was politely asking about the pay discrepancy and about the role of the business side, and that she had a green light from management to hire a deputy to Baquet, the decision to terminate her was made.” Emerging from the objective tone of Mr. Auletta’s article, that analysis points to the likelihood of the kind of gut-level decision which is exactly at the center of Ms. Friedman’s piece.

Ms. Friedman notes that not “all women necessarily have a deep personal need to be liked by their colleagues” but that nonetheless “those colleagues’ gut-level opinions matter greatly when it comes to evaluating a woman’s job performance.” And early in the piece, she writes, “A muddled combination of complicated interpersonal stuff, not a single action or failure or incident, isn’t just an explanation for Abramson’s exit. It’s a reality for women in almost any workplace.” As she notes, while the confidence gap between men and women may not actually be all that great, the degree to and manner in which men and women are “allowed” by our culture to express that confidence does in fact vary widely. However hard one works to remain objective and free of restrictive gender norms, they exist and may be applied to us at a moment’s notice. Ms. Abramson, notes Ms. Friedman, recognized there may have been some legitimacy to various complaints aired earlier in her tenure. She also recognized a double standard may have been applied. And she also cried.

“But for most women, and anyone else who faces scrutiny as the ‘only one’ in the room, not caring is not an option.” (Friedman) Note that one doesn’t have to literally be the only one in the room for this to be true. And note also that that spotlight might be due to any number of factors including the full range of gender, sexuality, class, abledness, age, religion/spirituality, or other factors. The commonality is difference from what is commonly (whether consciously or not) considered the norm, along with the real and perceived pressures that result.

Because of patriarchy, institutionalized racism, and privilege in general, the only way to solve the problem is ultimately to dismantle the societal constructs that inevitably lead to it. Along the way, those of us with different kinds of intersecting privileges can scrutinize our own actions to see how they are affecting others, listen to historically oppressed groups, understand it is inevitable we will feel discomfort, and in general work to make sure “not caring is not an option” for us as well.

It takes a village, the saying goes.

Sign me up.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, Uncategorized

Security Blanket

Founders’ Day is a middle school tradition originated by the 10 founding students of the program. In late spring of that first year, they proposed that beginning in the following year, the middle school have an annual holiday from classes in May, with all activities completely planned by students. Their goals were to honor the middle school, to have fun, and to remember the Founders. The seventh grade Founders, of course, were also able to participate in the first annual Founders’ Day as eighth graders, and so they helped set up a number of traditions including breakfast brought in from Dunkin’ Donuts.
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This year, then, was the 9th annual Founders’ Day. The students began with an overnight in the middle school building. Their first activity was tie-dying, followed by laser tag and other games and then by a movie (they voted for the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap). Sleep came… when sleep came.

The next morning, they all returned to the corridor to shower and change for the day – which turned out to be perfect, nice and warm and sunny. The wonderful and kind people at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Federal Street had labelled every drink and every bag of food, so it was incredibly easy for each student to find her own breakfast items. After eating, we all headed to the fields for a great game of kickball (another activity that dates to the first Founders’ Day). Next up, we returned to the middle school so that the students could sign each others’ t-shirts, freshly rinsed, laundered, and dried. They ended up spending nearly two hours on this activity, and the room filled with calls to “Sign my shirt?” amidst students gripping Sharpies and looking up thoughtfully at images unseen to anyone else but themselves before bending down and beginning to write. Ashley Chung, a six-year Senior, wandered in at this point, and awash in a swirl of emotions and nostalgia of her own, joined in the signing.

Lunch at Bonnie’s House, class and all-middle school pictures, and Capture the Flag continued nine years worth of traditions, at which point we attacked the special cake Mike Phelps had ordered for us and the watermelon. After snack, some students wanted to stay outside, and participated in three-legged and wheelbarrow races before organizing another game of kickball. Others chose to go inside, where they made their own fun.

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One day later, I was driving to service at the Food Bank with Sophie, an eighth grader, and we were talking about the day. She remarked on its importance as a marker that the year is starting to wind down, and how it can be tough to look ahead to the end of this year’s community. We talked about what her class is like, how last year they were really skilled at finding and learning about multiple perspectives without being judgmental, and how they were able to keep that going this year as they incorporated new eighth graders into their group and also welcomed the new seventh graders. She went on to reflect about what two years in the middle school had meant to them and how they were going to miss it. “It’s like a security blanket,” she said, “where you know everyone knows you and cares for you.” A few moments later she added, “But that allows us to develop our confidence. And we are confident. We’re wondering what exactly next year we’ll be like, but we can handle it.” I told her that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here, and how much it meant to know we had succeeded.

Not long after that, we pulled into the Food Bank parking lot for one last day of service – in this case, bagging apples that would go to their mobile distribution program. Inevitably, inexorably, the clock moved toward 2:30. We took one last look at the approximately 200 pounds of apples we had bagged and boxed. I shook Jared’s hand and said I was looking forward to next year, he smiled and said he was too, and Sophie and I turned and headed for the car and drove away together.

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Filed under School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School