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

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

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.

photo

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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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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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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Not a Four-Letter Word

The recent controversy around the Science magazine cover objectifying and dehumanizing trans women highlights not only how trans women may be treated within the scientific community but also how women in general may be treated within the field. The short answer: not well.

In her blog, eastsidekate tells us that when she was 14, she made the decision to go into biology because she read that the percentage of women was much higher in that field than in chemistry or physics. She came out as trans while still in grad school, and found little support and understanding. A long and difficult journey led her to give up her dream of university-level teaching (the full story is well worth reading, though please be warned there is strong language). She’s honest with herself, writing, “I’m not saying that transphobia forced me out of the academia or that I deserved a specific job or any job at all, to be quite blunt.” However, it’s also important to pay attention to how she frames this: “I will say, and I’ll say it until it doesn’t need saying: I don’t regret leaving. I regret feeling the need to make that decision, but I simply don’t think academy is a safe place for people like me.”

Of course, that concept of academia not being safe for transwomen may be extended to women in general. As civil engineer Patricia Valoy points out, when women fail at STEM, it’s “because they’re socialized to believe they don’t belong there and then experience discrimination and lack of mentorship—pushing them into quitting when they do get there.” And as if that wasn’t bad enough, a recent NPR piece by Kara Manke highlighted research by biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy showing among other things a high incidence of sexual harassment (64%, significantly higher than the 50% found across all professions) among scientists out in the field, the bulk of which is experienced by women. Dr. Clancy observed, “”As horrifying as this data is, I’m really excited to have it out there. Every person who has had this experience will be validated and know there are others out there who have their back. If this keeps just one more woman in science, it is absolutely worth it.”

Science itself, then, can be part of the solution – if we use it correctly. Simple observations can help; as eastsidekate said, “People are watching you, science. They’re not just keeping track of who’s doing the dehumanizing [stuff], but also who (and it’s a lot of you) is sitting on their hands while it goes down. Remember this the next time some administrator wonders aloud about why efforts to summon diversity out of thin air just aren’t working.” And right now, research shows, girls schools and women’s colleges are playing an important part in equipping their graduates to stand firm in the context of this systemic discouragement; Carissa Tudryn Weber ‘96, the recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Alumna Award, is a shining example.

Ultimately, though, “If science (and the academy writ large) is serious about improving the quality and diversity of research, teaching, service, and faculty (and I have no real reason to believe this is the case), folks have got to dismantle the systems that allow this [stuff] to keep happening.” (eastsidekate) As a school whose mission is not only to empower girls and women but also to help shape our culture to welcome their full participation as their authentic selves, Stoneleigh-Burnham is well positioned to be a leader in this fight to ensure that STEM, as Ms. Valoy says, “is not a four-letter word for women.”

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The Humanity of People

“When we said we wanted more women in Science this is not what we meant.” The author of this tweet was reacting to Science magazine’s most recent cover, designed for an issue on AIDS and HIV prevention, which featured a picture of sex workers in short, tight dresses and heels, cutting their heads out of the picture and thus objectifying and dehumanizing them.

The response of Jim Austin, one of the editors of the magazine was, “You realize they are transgender? Does it matter? That at least colors things, no?” to which the rejoinder was, “It’s not clear from the cover image. I don’t think it’s ok to sexually objectify transwomen, either.” Later on in the conversation, Mr. Austin responded to the comment “To me it’s just another dehumanizing male gazey image.“ by writing, “Interesting to consider how those gazey males will feel when they find out.” He also wrote, “Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?” to which the response came, “If you were, the world would be a much better place.”

Indeed it would.

To the partial credit of the Science editorial staff, they did eventually realize and make some attempt to apologize for their mistake, with Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt tweeting, “From us at Science, we apologize to those offended by recent cover. Intent was to highlight solutions to HIV, and it badly missed the mark.” and making a longer, unfortunately more ambiguous and less, how do I put this, apologetic statement on her blog. Mr. Austin, however, rather than personally apologizing for his own outrageous statements, merely retweeted Ms. McNutt’s own “apology.” Speaking of badly missing the mark.

Science notwithstanding, transgender people are increasingly visible in our society and in an increasingly positive way. The recent TIME magazine cover and article on Laverne Cox is a great example, and Katy Steinmetz’s interview was both insightful and humane. She asked Ms. Cox what she thought people should know about being transgender, and Ms. Cox’s reply was: “There’s not just one trans story. There’s not just one trans experience. And I think what they need to understand is that not everybody who is born feels that their gender identity is in alignment with what they’re assigned at birth, based on their genitalia. If someone needs to express their gender in a way that is different, that is okay, and they should not be denied healthcare. They should not be bullied. They don’t deserve to be victims of violence. … That’s what people need to understand, that it’s okay and that if you are uncomfortable with it, then you need to look at yourself.”

Perhaps it’s the communities where I hang out, but I do see progress toward the vision Ms. Cox laid out so eloquently. Jazz Jennings, whom we first met at age seven in a 20/20 report with Barbara Walters and who, at age eleven, filmed a follow-up show (part one here) as well as a message to President Obama, has co-written a children’s book entitled I am Jazz and maintains a Facebook page called “Jazz A Corner for Transgender Kids.” Coy Mathis’s parents supported her and successfully fought for her right to use the girls’ bathroom in her public school. Just as many young people today, unlike in the past, were raised in families where parents understood and respected the possibility that they might be any of a variety of sexualities and made it clear they would support their children no matter what, you’re increasingly seeing families raising their children to resist gender boxes and adopt the gender expression of their choice, respecting the possibility that their kids might in fact not actually be the gender assigned to them at birth. The community Inês Almeida has built at Toward the Stars is one shining example.

There’s no question we have a ways to go. Transgender people are still disproportionately subjected to prejudice, objectification, bullying, and violence, especially transwomen of colour. Still, with all that, Ms. Cox has also said, “I do believe in the humanity of people and in people’s capacity to love and to change.”

Me too.

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Summer Reading, part three: Quiet by Susan Cain

Last year at registration, as I met my new students and their families, I heard over and over, “She’ll be quiet in class but don’t let that fool you – she’s a deep thinker.” As someone who had myself been quiet in class as a student, I completely understood that silence does not mean absence of thought. However, by lunchtime, I’ll confess I was beginning to wonder just who would speak up in class – or, more to the point, how I would manage the class so that everyone was contributing if introversion was such a dominant dynamic. I ended up using a greater percentage of small group work for certain kinds of discussions than I might in a typical year, and things went well – indeed, this class achieved an extraordinary and deeply moving level of trust and honesty by the end of the year, and also helped cement and expand our reputation as a feminist school.

So when Sally, our Head of School, announced that this year’s summer reading book would be Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, I had high hopes. Yet, beginning right from page one where I highlighted the question, “How could you be shy and courageous?” and noted, “These are not mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination,” I developed a complicated relationship with the book. Nonetheless, I definitely found take-aways that can help me in my work, and of course I look forward to discussing it when teachers return in August.

One of the themes Ms. Cain develops is the concept of finding your sweet spot, a way of being where you find the best possible balance of introversion and extroversion for yourself and work to spend as much time there as you can. However, she recognizes that sometimes we are all called on to leave our sweet spot, raising the question, “When should you act more extroverted than you really are?” (p.205) The corollary, of course, would be “When should you act more introverted than you really are?” and as a school where we work to support each student in becoming her own best self, part of our mission could indeed be helping our students learn where their sweet spots are, how to recognize when it might be best if they acted more introverted or extroverted than they normally would, and techniques to help them handle the discomfort caused by leaving their sweet spot. I would love to know what my colleagues think about that and discuss how we might best go about supporting our students in this way.

Ms. Cain also writes about the effects of different cultures, looking in particular at the Asian-American community in Cupertino, CA. While one might argue that she overlooks the effects of economic privilege (Cupertino’s median household income was $128,487 in 2012, vs. $51,371 nationally), she does make a sincere effort to avoid what she calls “rigid national or ethnic typecasting.” She notes, “Though Eastern relationship-honoring is admirable and beautiful, so is Western respect for individual freedom, self-expression, and personal destiny. The point is not that one is superior to the other, but that a profound difference in cultural values has a powerful impact on the personality styles favored by each culture.” (p.190) If we are to be a true global community, I believe, we need to ensure we recognize and embrace the different ways of being our students bring with them, supporting and learning from each other and becoming comfortable with navigating within these different frames of reference.

That is not to play down the importance of our mission to help girls and women develop and use their unique voices, of course. Voice may spring from within oneself but it is also shaped by and emerges into specific cultural influences. There are risks there, of course, but possibilities too. As my 2012-2013 Humanities 7 class once observed, “But even if we are being shaped by our families and the world around us without our knowing it, is that necessarily a bad thing if we are comfortable with who we are now?”

With that in mind, I continue to believe that Quiet suffers to some degree from the influence of patriarchy. For one example, a friend of the author’s, Alex, is noted for having learned pretend-extroversion as a seventh grader by studying social dynamics “especially male dominance poses” and by leveraging his strengths. “I learned,” he says, “that boys basically do only one thing: they chase girls. They get them, they lose them, they talk about them. I was like, ‘That’s completely circuitous. I really like girls.’ That’s where intimacy comes from. So rather than sitting around and talking about girls, I got to know them. I used having relationships with girls, plus being good at sports, to have the guys in my pocket.” And when that wasn’t enough, “Every once in a while, you have to punch people. I did that too.” (p.210) Far from viewing Alex as an exemplar of learning how to live outside one’s sweet spot, I viewed him as someone who was fundamentally manipulative and who both bought into and exploited stereotypes to further his own ends. As a gender activist and girls school educator, I was appalled by such behavior. I do recognize, though, that if I got to know Alex better as the multidimensional person he is today, it would probably shift my thinking from where it stands now.

At any rate, I do have the ability to filter the book through my own lens, and pull out from it the parts I find genuinely useful. And there’s no question that there are many important lessons here, especially for introverts of course but also for extroverts. I can even see how valuing and empowering introversion, as Ms. Cain advocates, could help undermine patriarchy. Ms. Cain herself notes, “Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world.” (p.4) So I’m looking forward to our discussion of the book in August and finding out where it takes us next.

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