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

Happy Dance

In the iPad era of the middle school, I no longer even blink when I see groups of Humanities 7 students dancing, arguing and shoving, theatrically hugging, or animatedly discussing seemingly random things to do next. And they no longer reflexively explain, “It’s okay, Bill, it’s Humanities.” Chances are, they are working on a video to support their independent writing or as part of a Focus Question presentation. And while I can imagine a scenario where I might have to talk with them about return on investment of time, so far, they have done a great job of maintaining an appropriate balance.

I did, however, blink at least once when Emily asked me to do a happy dance. Certainly, I had seen her taking kids off one by one (occasionally two by two) and shooting 10-second clips of dancing. And certainly, I have never flinched when asked to be part of any of their videos, which usually entail me pretending to be a mean teacher. However, dancing is something else altogether. I am incredibly shy about my dancing, in part because even kind and well-meaning people have begun to laugh when they see me dance. I *think* it’s because, as a musician, I pay too much attention to the subtle interplays of rhythm, melody, and harmonies, and end up trying to express way too much. That’s my excuse, anyway.

However, I deeply believe in the importance of all the arts in the middle school curriculum, and so had maintained we needed to include dance even though it’s also offered as a sport. Just as students learn from trying vocal and instrumental music, theatre, and the visual arts, so too do they learn from trying dance. Even if they end up concluding they don’t like it, at least they have a first-hand sense of what dancers do, and perhaps those kids who are skeptical will even surprise themselves and take to it. (The same, of course, is true of all arts courses.) So Emily, unbeknownst to her, was not just asking me to be part of her video; she was asking me to Walk the Talk.

So, I danced. The small group of students who were watching did in fact burst into laughter. But I danced.

Late Saturday night, I was taking a Twitter break from giving feedback to student writing when I stumbled on this tweet from Gayle Andrews to Rick Wormeli: ”check out Hilsman‘s Happy video. Get to work w/ these great people as prof-in-residence http://youtu.be/3c6PqO5R_S0” Rick responded, “This is terrific, Gayle! Any other faculties wanna get happy, dance, and give st’s freedom to be themselves?”

Well. I know an invitation when I see one, so I wrote in about Emily and my own happy dance. Gayle asked for video, I responded that Emily reported she had somehow lost it when trying to transfer it to the final cut, and Gayle suggested it was probably not lost from memory. I responded, “Nope! Not one bit. And I did recreate it for the kids when she read her essay. Much laughter.” Meanwhile, not just Rick and Gayle but numerous other people including whoever runs the account for the University of Georgia Middle Grades Education program were favoriting and retweeting like there was no tomorrow.

Gayle Andrews is the co-author of Turning Points 2000, one of the most important books on the middle school model. Rick Wormeli is a nationally known and respected consultant. And the University of Georgia has one of the pre-eminent middle grades education programs in the country (begging the question why more schools *don’t* have middle grades-specific programs, but I digress). Yet, my 10 seconds of happy dancing was genuinely a source of joy to them, and genuinely important. I smiled at my screen, astonished – and yet not – that my description of a happy dance was getting such attention from such eminent people.

I think the key as to why lay in Rick’s question, which wasn’t *just* about getting happy and dancing but also about giving students freedom to be themselves. And Stoneleigh-Burnham is indeed all about student voice, about supporting them in being their own best selves. And even when students are arguing (always respectfully) about specific aspects of our program, they are always careful to say they love how thoroughly they feel supported here and that they don’t want that to change. (For the record, I generally respond that’s exactly why we do whatever practice it is against which they are arguing!)

Sally, our Head of School, and I were talking the other day about how students in our middle school program do in the Upper School. She shook her head, and said, “They certainly are internally motivated to an *incredible* extent.” There are few things she could have said that would have pleased me more. It’s… almost enough to make me do another happy dance!

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

Revisiting Dress Codes

T-shirts that had seen better days. Heavily patched cutoff jean shorts. Sneakers or clogs. And a bandana. That’s how I dressed during high school, at least when the weather was warm. Luckily, my school had a pretty lax dress code, so no one ever stopped me – except for the day I was walking around barefoot, unaware until that point in time that the health code forbade it. Lindsay O’Brien of Ms. magazine was not quite so lucky; on the day she wore jeans with holes in the knees to school, she was made to cover the holes with duct tape and received her first detention ever. In her recent article “Are my pants lowering your test scores?” she terms the rule “ridiculous” and continues to detail a recent dress code conflict at a school in Illinois. (O’Brien)

Administrators at Haven Middle School in Evanston banned leggings, primarily worn by girls. The reason? They were seen as too distracting for boys. As Ms. O’Brien put it, “Instead of teaching boys, at a critical age, to treat women’s bodies with respect, they chose to eliminate the so-called distraction and place the blame on girls.” Sophie Hasty, a 13-year-old student at the school, understood this well, saying, “The reason was basically: ‘boys.’ It’s a lot like saying that if guys do something to harass us, it’s our fault for that. We’re the ones being punished for what guys do.” (quoted in O’Brien) Students swarmed the school wearing the banned item of clothing, and over 500 of them signed an online petition. The ensuing brouhaha made national headlines, and inspired a sort of “Point-Counterpoint” debate in the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, as reported in the Daily Trojan, the principal sent a letter home to parents saying the school’s true goal was “an effort to maintain a respectful learning environment for all.” (quoted in Sayyah) Such situations, it may be added, play out far too often.

Ms. O’Brien praised the girls for their actions, concluding, “If Sophie Hasty and the girls at Haven Middle School are the future leaders of the feminist movement, we’ll be glad to share our torch.”

They might end up sharing that torch with my students, who recently had a discussion of their own as Student Council prepares to take a look at our current dress code. I asked them why a business or other organization might or might not want a dress code, and then narrowed the questions specifically to focus on schools. Their take on the issues was, as always, wise and insightful. They felt that dress codes relate to first impressions and a desire to be taken seriously by looking appropriate, classy, mature, and official. They felt that students in particular might show up feeling ready to learn in a school with a dress code. They also recognized, though, that culture and purpose play a role – that dress codes might and probably should be different if you are in fashion, sports, retail, construction, equestrian sports, dance, fast food, or fitness, if your organization just has a more casual culture, or even if you have a job where you don’t interact with people. Furthermore, they realized that trust is an important factor in instituting dress codes, pointing out that an organization might choose not to have one if they felt people know what’s respectable and appropriate, and explicitly saying a school might choose to have a dress code if they don’t trust students and not to have one if they felt kids know what they should wear and wanted to establish that trust. Finally, they felt that comfort, too, was a factor.

Morgan is the 7th grade representative to Student Council, and when they take up a discussion of our current dress code later this month, she will be able to carry this wealth of wisdom and insight to the meeting with her. I know, too, that some of the members of StuCo are strong feminists, and perhaps will have their own ideas on how our school might meet its mission by developing what might be called a feminist dress code. It will be interesting to see what the students come up with. In the end, though, discussions about our school’s mission and who we are as a community will be the most important part. Any dress code that reflects our common values will be a dress code that will work.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized

Standing in Your Truth

As an option for weekend activities, I offered to take students to a GLSEN conference on April 5. (GLSEN is the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.) Unfortunately, two of them ended up with conflicts, but the third student cheerfully said she would still like to go, and so we headed east to Madison Park Vocational Technical High School in Roxbury. After passing through the metal detector for “males,” an extremely un-GLSEN moment all around (though I don’t think it was switched on), and stopping at the registration table, we walked up the stairs to the opening celebration, where we were enthusiastically welcomed by three cheerleaders of various genders.

Eliza Byard, the Executive Director of GLSEN, welcomed all of us and spoke movingly of the experience of speaking (for two minutes, precisely timed by the TelePrompter) at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Given that Bayard Rustin, one of the organizers of the March who also served as a speaker, had been excluded from a meeting with President Kennedy out of the fear that J. Edgar Hoover, the homophobic Director of the FBI, might be upset, Ms. Byard’s participation was all the more moving.

There were three workshop sessions at the conference, and my student and I both felt a session entitled “How Different Life Can Be,” led by three members of the North Shore Alliance of LGBT Youth was the best place to start. After a quick overview of the organization and their work, the co-presenters opened up the session to questions. A young student who looked and sounded no more than 10 led off, talking about his lack of understanding of why people wouldn’t simply let other people be people, oblivious to the looks of tenderness on the faces of many of the teenagers listening to him. A middle schooler who had stuck up for her friends when rumours were circulating about them only to have the rumours turned on her asked for advice, as did a high school student whose friend had recently come out to her parents who were refusing to believe and accept what she had said. The co-presenters listened with compassion and empathy, making suggestions while maintaining the kind of honest realism teenagers often seek, and skillfully leaving space for people in the room to respond. One girl said when her parents had trouble accepting her own coming out, she tried leaving little pamphlets around the house or webpages up on the computer. Over time, she said, as her parents understood better what was going on, they began to come around. It does sometimes take time. PFLAG was frequently cited as a wonderful resource, and I made a mental note to learn more about them.

That room had been packed, with people spilling through the doors and out to the corridor, a pattern which would repeat itself in both of the next two sessions I attended. My student and I agreed to attend different sessions throughout the afternoon, and to help shape my choices, I let her choose first and then asked her what needs she saw in the school. She thought carefully, and said she felt that students had a pretty solid knowledge of different sexualities and were open and welcoming, but that many of them did not have as solid a sense of different genders and how that plays out in real life. While there was a “Trans 101” type session coming up next, my instinct was that I would already know the majority of the information being presented, so I made a mental note to think further about what my student had said, and looked for other sessions to attend.

For my next session, I chose “Reversing the Erasure of LGBT HIstory,” presented by three teachers from Lowell High School. Through a skillfully organized grassroots effort, they succeeded in convincing their district to adopt the historic, inclusive curriculum being developed by the Los Angeles Unified School District following passage of the FAIR (Fair, Inclusive, Accurate, and Respectful) Act. They showed a moving video, “Through Gay Eyes,” which was produced by one of the teachers, Deb Fowler, and a student then attending Lowell High, Connor Crosby. They had shown this video to decision-makers in the District to help build support. While I greatly admired what they had accomplished, as well as their calls for similar advocacy across the state, I found myself thinking how lucky I was that we already have a desire at the administrative level to support LGBT students throughout their experience in our school and beyond. I did walk out with a number of ideas for links and other resources I can keep in mind to help my Humanities 7 students broaden their research so their Focus Question projects can be as inclusive as the conversations I have with them.

My final session was “Queering the Classroom: Providing a Safe Environment for All,” facilitated by Marie Caradonna of the West Suburban Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth. Her announced approach, to treat us all as though we were both cissexual and cisgender, resulted in a session that was as much demonstration as information-sharing, which I imagine was her goal. Students and teachers shared concerns, suggestions, and clarifying information, and an honest and supportive dialogue grew and flourished. Among other things I learned: the term “demisexual,” used for someone who experiences sexual attraction through romantic attraction. I also learned a new definition for the term “bisexual”: “someone who is sexually attracted to their own gender and to other genders.”

My student, who had a cold and also had had a rather short night of sleep between the late return from Rent and the early departure for the GLSEN conference, dozed much of the way back, giving me plenty of time to think through the day. I decided to spend the evening in Northampton, and upon arrival, sent out a series of tweets including this one, “Now eating a vegan sandwich in Northampton plotting to upend social norms and get everyone to ‘just be a decent person’ as my student said,” which garnered a number of favourites and retweets… and one virtual fist-bump.

The title of this blog quotes one of the participants in the first session word for word (unfortunately, I do not know her name). The split second I heard it, I thumbed it into the “Notes” app on my phone, knowing it would become the title for this blog. But a cool title for a blog, even if accompanied by a fist-bump-worthy tweet, is not remotely enough. For starters, I need to stand in my own truth. I think I’m actually doing a pretty good job, all things considered. But perhaps it’s time to kick it up to the next level.

And that word “perhaps” is starting to seriously grate on my nerves.

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Filed under Gender, On Education

Hashtag Bracketology

Editor’s note: This was written on April 3rd before this past weekend’s Final Four games.

Even non-fans probably have a hard time escaping the annual college basketball Madness that begins in March and inevitably, inexorably, continues on into April. Being most decidedly a fan, I love this time of year, and now that we’re down to the Final Four, I am fervently hoping both that UConn does indeed meet Notre Dame for the championship on the women’s side and that they reduce the number of Diet Cokes I owe Liz Feeley (our Director of Development and a former assistant coach at Notre Dame) from four to three.

Bill Ferriter, who blogs for the Center for Teaching Quality as “The Tempered Radical,” recently proposed a different kind of bracketology: hashtag bracketology. As he explained it, the idea is to pick your “Sweet Sixteen” hashtags that you as an educator find useful on Twitter and then match them up and role play a series of matches until your champion hashtag reigns supreme. As people playing along share their brackets, we could all learn from each other.

Of course, I am the sort of person who would have a hard time gradually eliminating my favourite hashtags one by one, especially since several of them are run by people I consider friends. So I’ve created four regions, each with four related hashtags I use and/or look for regularly, and we’ll just pretend this Sweet Sixteen is suspended in the present.

East: #isedchat, #mschat, #PubPriBridge, #t2030
West: #satchat, #sblchat, #sunchat, #TABSchat
Midwest: #educolor, #feminism, #girlslikeus, #LGBT
South: #d3hoops, #ncaaw, #RedSox, #WNBA

East: These are the four educational chats that take place when I am relatively easily able to join in, and in which I participate with some regularity. Each one brings together forward-thinking, cutting edge educators who want to share what they do, learn from each other, and find ways both to improve their schools and, more deeply, work toward a better world. #isedchat, moderated by Lorri Carroll from 9:00-10:00 ET on Thursday nights, targets independent school people. #mschat, moderated by Todd Bloch from 8:00-9:00 ET on Thursday nights and often joined by Dru Tomlin of the Association of Middle Level Education, focuses on middle school practice. #PubPriBridge is short for “Public-Private Bridge” and seeks specifically to build connections between public and private school educators. It takes place Monday nights from 8:30-9:30 ET and is co-led by Peter Gow, Laura Robertson, and Chris Thinnes. Finally, #t2030 is used by the Center for Teaching Quality for the monthly Thursday night chats we hold on a variety of different topics.

West: These are the four educational chats that take place at times when, for one reason or another, I often find it difficult to join in, yet when I do, I am always glad I did. #satchat and #sunchat, which take place Saturday and Sunday mornings respectively, are huge and often borderline overwhelming. Yet they are well worth the level of intellectual effort and focus they require to follow them closely. #sblchat takes place Wednesday nights and originally focused on standards-based grading but is now expanded to look at standards-based learning. Nationally known and respected educational consultant and thought-leader Rick Wormeli often drops by when he can. Finally, #TABSchat, often small and intimate, is the one with which I feel the strongest connection because several of my friends, respected educators all, hang out there every Wednesday night from 8:00-9:00. TABS stands for The Association of Boarding Schools, and the organization sends a representative when they can.

Midwest: Social Justice hashtags are sometimes short-lived, arising out of the moment, cresting, and then subsiding. However, the four hashtags listed here are more permanent. Many thoughtful and influential educators of colour hang out at the #educolor hashtag, including Melinda D. Anderson, Sabrina Stevens, José Vilson, and MRW. #girlslikeus was started by Janet Mock and is a rallying point for transwomen and allies. And #feminism and #LGBT need no explanation!

South: I love sports, and while women’s basketball is certainly my #1 passion (hence #d3hoops, #ncaaw, and #WNBA), I do still and for always love the #RedSox too. :-)

So there you have it! This Sixteen is Sweet indeed, and my life would be less rich without any of them. I hope to meet some of you there!

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Filed under On Education, The Faculty Perspective

And We’re Back!

Other than the persistent and depressing cold, which I’ll concede has the virtue of bringing people together united in the strong desire for spring to just come already tinged with a sense of pride that we seem to have survived winter, it’s been a relatively normal return from spring break. The faculty began with an excellent in-service day. We spent the morning thinking about gender and sexual identities and how they relate to adolescent development, and how best to support our students. In the afternoon, we learned about Korean culture and spent time thinking about ways to best support all the English learners in our school. Kids greeted each other with the usual screams and hugs. Classes got back to work with a general good will and air of curiosity, although I’ll admit here that my Humanities 7 class was openly (and occasionally successfully) trying to distract me from starting the brand new unit. They would eventually agree that the unit’s theme would be judging, with the discussion underlining that we were especially looking at how ideals get set, why some ideals end up so superficial, and the sources and effects of judgment on people in general and 7th grade girls in particular.

Wednesday morning, while looking for interesting articles and comments to share on the school’s Twitter stream, I stumbled across an article at edweek.org entitled “Single-Sex Classrooms Making a Comeback for All the Wrong Reasons.” That certainly caught my attention! Reading through it, I felt as though I were in an alternate reality. The concluding sentence, “It seems that there must be a better way to encourage young women, and men, in their academic studies without implementing the archaic practice of total separation in classrooms.” summed up the general drift of the article, and was followed by a question that, in the context of the article, I hope and trust was sincere: “Are you in favor of, or against, single-sex schooling models?”

Well. I am strongly in favour of schooling models that work toward social justice, and unsurprisingly, I believe (based on both experience and on research) that girls schools can provide a unique, valuable, and rich context for that work. I don’t always comment on edweek.org articles, but I was definitely riled up, and before I knew it, I had worked up the following comment that began with quotes from the article:

“This idea that young women are dropping non-feminine topics at an impressionable age because of the opposite sex is flawed.” “One of the arguments for single-sex schooling is that it takes away the tingly, budding attraction emotions in young people” I work in the middle school program of a girls independent school, and believe me, these are not fundamental rationales for our being a girls school. I would run away screaming if that were true.

In sharp contrast to those rationales, our school’s mission implies feminist ideals as it is not just about honoring and developing girls’ and women’s voices but also about working to build a world that is genuinely willing to listen. Year after year, kids in my class say they can talk about gender issues in a way that was never possible in their old schools. They’ll talk about coaches – coaches! – that discouraged them from developing athletic ability. They’ll talk about how much they appreciate being taken seriously and valued as girls. One alumna wrote of how grateful she was to have learned how to live as a feminist in a patriarchal society. And there is research supporting these sorts of benefits of living and learning in a girl-positive environment.

As for the “T” in LGBT – we have in fact had students and alums come out as transgender (by the way, I would argue that the implication here is that gender, unlike sex, isn’t necessarily predetermined), and I do in fact try to be very clear with my students that I’m well aware that not every person at my school whom I’ve ever taught, or will ever teach, will necessarily self-identify as female their whole life.

So yes, I support my school’s model. But I don’t view it as archaic in the slightest. And in no way do I believe I am “teaching stereotypes” – other than to identify them and the forces creating them, the better to work to undermine and do away with them.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Truly Blessed

Before Spring Break, Sophie, one of the 8th graders asked me if I had liked the play she had helped write in 7th grade. “Refresh my memory,” I said, and she responded with a twinkle in her eye, “Cross-dressing old man?” It all came rushing back to me. “Oh, yes,” I said. I remember your play was really solid when you took it from my class to the Theatre 7 class, and then it still went through several revisions. In fact, I knew about a lot of the revisions, and I was still surprised during the performance! But it was solid all the way through. People loved it.” And then, with a sideways glance at the 7th grader who was sitting right there, “People always look forward to the 7th grade plays.” Sophie said, “That’s right! All the former 7th graders come,” and I added, “And not just former 7th graders. People who were never in the middle school tell me they look forward to the 7th grade plays.” “It’s a rite of passage for 7th grade,” Sophie commented as the younger girl took it all in.

It takes an incredible amount of courage to put your voice out there not only as the performer of a play but also as the author, especially when you are actually a co-author with up to four other people who are just as creative and passionate as you are and have equally strong opinions about every word. That day was going to be the first time the Humanities 7 class read their scripts to Julia and Kim, who will be co-directing the plays this spring, and that, too, takes a great deal of courage. Julia and Kim were both excited to learn about all the possibilities that the plays provided, and they also both had a number of insightful suggestions.

I was worried how the students might have taken the suggestions, whether they would show up in class that morning nervous and upset. I worried, as so often happens, for nothing. They clearly had taken the advice to heart as valuable and helpful and something that would ultimately strengthen their scripts.

I was never worried about the first part of class. As we were wrapping up the script-writing unit, it was time to agree on our final two student-designed units of the year. The girls had looked over the multitudes of questions they had written on eight large sheets of paper back in the fall, and emailed me the questions from those sheets that they might be interested in studying, along with any new questions that may have occurred to them in the process. That final list of 61 questions would somehow have to be shaped into two units that enabled every girl in the class to be able to find a topic about which she felt passionate for each unit. I decided to ask them to write their top two questions from the list on the white board, search for themes uniting those questions, and bring those themes together. It worked marvelously. They found seven themes running through their 28 questions, and almost instantly connected five of those themes together before quickly agreeing that the other two also fit together. Almost like magic, the themes for our units had appeared.

“Before I send you off to work on your scripts,” I told them, “I just have to let you know what I’m thinking. I hope you can imagine what it’s like to be a teacher and be faced with a task that you aren’t sure you could ever do, and know that you work with students who are capable of (I pointed to the white board) all this, of coming together to find, all on your own, the solution to how to organize all of this into something meaningful. That I am able to trust in you all to accomplish that is an absolutely phenomenal thing, and I hope you all know it.” One of the girls said, “You just made me cry. (Other girls nodded, and I interjected, “Me too.”) I hope when I graduate, that’s what someone says about me.” I am sure someone will.

I know, I know, all my classes are special, once and for always. They all inspire me. They all move me deeply. Today, though, it was these kids.

I am truly blessed.

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

To ban or not to ban: “Bossy”

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’” So begins the website at http://banbossy.com/, a new organization co-founded by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In Foundation and the Girl Scouts of America. The website points out that girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boy’s from elementary to high school, that girls are twice as likely as boys to worry about being called “bossy,” and girls are still called on less and interrupted more in class. (Ban Bossy) There’s no question that we need to do something about that, and there’s no question we know some of the things that work.

On the Girl Scouts’ website, for example, they share the results of a study done in 2008 that showed the following (Girl Scouts):

  • Girls, even at a very young age, have definite ideas about what it means and takes to be a leader.
  • Promoting leadership in girls is primarily a matter of fostering their self-confidence and providing supportive environments in which to acquire leadership experience.
  • To be relevant to and successful with girls, a leadership program must address their aspirational or preferred definition of leadership, their need for emotional safety, and their desire for social and personal development.
  • Girls have a range of “leadership identities,” from strong aspiration to outright rejection of the leadership role.

Of course, girls schools and other girl-positive organizations epitomize supportive environments. However, these environments need not necessarily be all girls organizations (to whatever extent one can ever say with confidence that one’s organization is in fact “all girls”), though that does facilitate the process. In helping create supportive environments, these principles suggest that we need to – following principles of best practice – engage with the individual girls in front of us, helping them figure out how they now view leadership, how they came to hold that view, where they see themselves going, and ultimately how they see themselves able to help move a given group of people forward (the goal behind all good leadership and all good membership).

In that context, the “Ban Bossy” campaign can be, and is, seen by different people as anywhere from an essential component of doing this good work to a needless distraction. A recent chat on the Feministing website brought out several important points:

  • Rather than bringing attention to women’s exclusion from leadership, [it] distracts from these realities by making the issue semantic and easily dismissed. (Jos Truitt)
  • Also I honestly don’t feel like “banning” words like this ever really works, and I actually find it a lot more effective to find power in that word vs. a bland attempt to get rid of it. (Jos Truitt)
  • I do appreciate the goal of starting a conversation about the negative feedback we give to girls who show leadership qualities and how that particular double-standard has real consequences for how kids are socialized. (Maya Dusenbery)
  • This campaign exists without analysis of how “bossiness” is perceived when women and girls of color are bossy, which I think is a really important point. (Verónica Bayetti Flores)

One of the people in my Twitter family is a member of the Tea Party, and she certainly had a vehement and visceral reaction to the campaign and what she saw as thought police. As we discussed the issue, it developed that we agreed that the conditions that led to girls with leadership qualities being more likely to be called “bossy” are something we as a society absolutely must discuss but that we both were uneasy about outright “banning” use of some words. Also, I do believe that gender activism in general and feminism in particular strongly need to continually listen to the full range of voices in the movements, work on intersectionality, and strive to bring out nuance in service to the greater goal of true equality for all humanity. Towards that end…

When posting a link to the “Ban Bossy” campaign in its earliest days, my Twitter and Facebook friend Kenzo Shibata added a comment that caused me to respond, “Like to the power of like.” He said, “I got a better idea. How about we teach children of all gender identities to be collaborative and stop making authoritarianism the ideal?” (Kenzo Shibata)

That, I can absolutely support. Anyone else with us?

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage, Women in media

Circle of Uniqueness

The end does not actually justify the means; the means create the end.
- Gloria Steinem

If there isn’t trouble the day after a feminist speaks, they haven’t done their job. So noted Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, early on in her speech given at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as part of their Public Policy Lecture Series. As I thumbed a paraphrase of her words into my phone, I thought, “Well, perhaps it’s my job to help ensure there’s trouble.” And indeed, Ms. Steinem referred on multiple occasions to the accumulated power in the room, never mind the other auditorium where overflow was watching and listening via a video feed.

Her listed topic was, “Feminism: Where are we going?” It would appear that where we are going (as a gender activist, I strongly sympathize with and work alongside feminists) is both exciting and dangerous. Most social justice movements, she said, go through three distinct stages: raising consciousness, organizing, effecting transformation. The phase of consciousness-raising most pertinent to modern feminism may have reached its peak with the groups of the 1970’s I remember so well in my home town and at my college. Ms. Steinem would note later on, in response to a question, that if done right and through face-to-face communication, consciousness-raising groups can permit an easy, smooth, and seamless shift to organizing – part of the work is already done.

So at this point in time, Ms. Steinem argued, the organizing phase is also largely done. Attitudes have sharply shifted, and there are signs that the process of transformation has started. As Ms. Steinem put it, “Hierarchy is based on patriarchy and patriarchy isn’t based on anything any more.” However, to completely break free of gender boxes and open up the full range of human potential, it’s going to take a whole lot more transformation including men developing their full humanity as well. She also noted, both in response to a question about intersectionality and elsewhere in her talk, the intimate relationship of of feminism and anti-racism, affirming that “It’s not possible to be a feminist without being anti-racist.”

To break free of gender and other restricting boxes, we can think in terms of a circle of human qualities rather than a hierarchy. To further challenge and put an end to hierarchy, we can also work to understand individuals on their own terms rather than by identifying them as part of a group. This does not mean denying connections; quite the contrary. Ms. Steinem noted that “We are linked, we are not ranked,” and affirmed that hierarchies are a self-perpetuating lie that we increasingly disbelieve. Ultimately, the goal would be to ensure that “We are each completing our own circle of uniqueness.”

Ms. Steinem also talked about domestic violence, pointing out that countries with the highest rates of domestic violence also tend to have the highest rates of other kinds of violence. Normalizing violence in the home normalizes violence in the world. Furthermore, domestic violence is about control, and the most dangerous time for a potential victim of domestic violence is immediately before or after they escape that control.

As we work to free humanity from the control of patriarchy, the metaphor of escaping from domestic violence holds true. One questioner from the audience noted the strength of the backlash in the form of both various proposed pieces of legislation and rhetoric, expressing the fear that things were actually getting worse rather than better. Ms. Steinem acknowledged the strength and force of the backlash, noting that legislators, especially in state legislatures which fly somewhat more under the radar than Congress, disproportionately represent a minority view that seeks to restrict the rights of women, LGBT people, and people of colour. She pointed out that the majority, even when they are right, does not always win.

Among audience members asking questions were a student who had come down from Burlington, VT, a worker with a group fighting domestic violence in Cambridge, MA, and an alumna of MCLA who had heard Gloria Steinem before but had driven six hours from Philadelphia with a friend so the friend could see her as well. A number of questions were preceded with sometimes tearful statements that, “You are one of my heroes,” “You kept me sane,” and “You have no idea what you meant to me.” The speakers seemed to be expressing not only a longing for connection but also a longing for affirmation for their true selves in a world that does not always value them. Ms. Steinem noted the fundamental importance and power of networking, of creating spaces where people can talk about what they are seeing, feeling, and thinking, and of knowing wherever you go, you can find such a space. Such groups work best face to face; “A revolution doesn’t happen by pressing ‘Send’.”

I hope and pray that this school is one such space, and I know I work nonstop in the hope that it may be. I also work nonstop to spread the notion that people of all genders need to be freed of the roles and boxes and rankings that have hobbled them for hundreds of years. But, as Ms. Steinem noted, the period of human history dominated by patriarchy has been relatively short. We are in fact the majority. And if we want to go forth and cause a little trouble, so to speak, we are not alone. Therein lies hope. That circle of uniqueness need not just be each individual person; it can also be also all of us together. And all of us together are a force. All of us together can win.

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#NAISAC14, Day One

The National Association of Independent Schools is holding its annual conference right now, and as I have in some past years, I’ve resolved to try and read up on at least a portion of the many wonderful things happening there and reflect on them here. This installment follows the first full day.

Bo Adams caught my attention early by tweeting, “Now that would make a great course! ‘Our relationship with water.’” I wrote back to say that’s exactly a topic we in the middle school have been brainstorming about for a possible month-long interdisciplinary project one day. He sent an encouraging note asking me to keep him informed, and I linked him to our blog.

Bo also asked one of the most provocative questions I ran across today, “If school is supposed to prepare students for real life, then why doesn’t it look more like real life?” (I highly recommend you read his entire article!) As I think on this question, my mind jumps to my Humanities 7 classroom, where students right now are finishing up the scripts they will produce and stage in the Theatre 7 class this spring. They set “breaking stereotypes” as a common theme to tie the three different plays together, and agreed as a class that they wanted each play to be a modern take on a well-known story or fairy tale. Working in groups of five, they have set characters, developed plotlines, and worked daily to create each script line by painstaking line. Essentially, they are doing what teams of writers do for TV shows, except on a different scale and for the stage.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the students said, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” and this is certainly not the first year I’ve heard someone say that. Each student is brimful of wonderful, creative ideas, and is passionate about her vision. Yet, unlike during class discussions of literature and various issues, there is no agreeing to disagree here. In the end, choices must be made all along the way, and at any given point in time, only one specific word may be written. The challenge becomes how to genuinely value each member of the group and her contributions yet maintain a unified and logical vision for the play. They all desperately want to be included, and desperately want to be inclusive. Each group has hit the wall at least once. Each group has eventually found a way to work through their differences, sometimes on their own, sometimes with my assistance. If that’s not real life, I don’t know what is!

And I’m happy to add that, along whatever the students may be learning about collaboration, they are creating solid and enjoyable scripts and I know the community will love the spring production when it goes up on May 30.

Later on in the morning, as a teacher in a girls school, I was delighted to hear from Online School for Girls Executive Director Brad Rathgeber that John Chubb, the President of NAIS, had said some kind things about great innovations in girls schools. The NAISAC14 Community Daily expanded on that general theme by including a link to the President’s blog originally shared by the National Coalition for Girls Schools. In the blog, Dr. Chubb describes a visit to Roland Park Country School, a school in Maryland that has a coed pre-school and is all girls for grades K-12. When he writes “I was also struck by the strength of leadership among the students, the high level of engagement in the arts and athletics, and the sheer joy in the school culture,” I saw our own school, as I’m sure many girls school teachers did as well.

Roland Park is currently working on starting up a charter middle school for girls. Dr. Chubb notes, “In the end, Roland Park believes it understands how to do something very well — educate girls and young women — and wants to see if it can extend its service, and learn new lessons in the process.” I wish them all the best; in my mind, anything good girls schools can do to promote girl-positive environments for all students everywhere can only benefit all of us. Similarly, Dr. Chubb writes, “What I have found… is that the schools that see themselves as part of the larger community of schools and are willing to learn from ‘the competition’ tend to gain strength from the experience.” Those goals echo those of the recently formed #PubPriBridge group to which I belong.

In the end, I believe deeply, we need for all students at all schools, public and private, to benefit from the best possible education, and toward that end, we need for us all to pull together and learn from each other.

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

Hopes

Every Wednesday, the middle school holds “Morning Meeting,” which is a flexible time set aside for us all to be able to come together as a whole community. Possible activities run the gamut from bonding games to announcements to game days to make-up MOCA meetings to… whatever is needed! Today, we began by going over next week’s schedule and taking questions, going over check-out procedures for spring break and taking questions, going over remaining community service for the term and taking questions, and looking at and applauding the winning t-shirt design for our 10-year anniversary celebration. And taking questions. At that point, we still had just over five minutes left, and so I asked everyone to stand up and form a circle.

[insert groans and cries of “but I’m so comfortable!” here]

When the circle was formed, I pointed out that we were almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the year and that we had just over three months left until graduation. Several of them said, “Whose graduation?” and I laughed and answered, “The Seniors. You all have a few more years to go.” I said that we had done a lot, grown a lot, and already had much to be proud of, and that the remaining three months still gave us a lot more time together. I asked them to quietly think of hopes they had for the rest of the year, either for the community or for themselves. Clara, to my right, whispered, “Can I go last?” “Sure,” I whispered back.

After a bit, I checked in to see if everyone was ready to go, and they were. Jewels, to my left, whispered, “Can we go around that way?,” pointing to Clara. “Sorry, she asked first,” I whispered back.

I started by saying, “I hope we all continue to learn how each one of us is special, and we are able to celebrate that.” Jewels’s eyes widened as we all turned to her, and she said, “Sleep. Lots of rest for all of us.” and we continued on around. As always happens on these occasions, themes began to form, weaving through and underneath different people’s thoughts. Friendship, connectedness, and permanence were among the most commonly mentioned – having fun with friends, making new friends, making sure the seventh and eighth graders had time together, getting to know other people, ensuring we all had contact information for the summer and beyond, staying in touch. Many students mentioned getting along well and growing closer. They mentioned learning, too, of course, and Andrea, one of the math/science teachers, said, “I hope you all come to see yourselves as mathematicians.” And they mentioned specific personal goals ranging from “improving my English” to “trying New England seafood.”

When the circle came around to finish up with Clara’s words, she said, “I hope that when we all see each other in 50 years, we all recognize each other.”

As the students started to break for G period, I called out, “Before you go, one question. Who makes this happen?” They yelled back, “Us! We do!”

I love these kids.

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