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

#WriteMyCommunity (National Day on Writing 2014)

Last night, Ben Kuhlman and José Vilson co-facilitated a Twitter chat on the National Day on Writing for the National Council of Teachers of English. You can search for it using the hashtag #NCTEchat and looking back in time to Sunday night, Oct. 19, from 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET. They very kindly shared their questions ahead of time. Here, then, in somewhat more than 140 characters (!) are my own answers to their questions.

Q1 – Do you write outside your job? What? Why? Does your writing contribute to explaining/defining a specific community? #NCTEChat

As most of you here know, I am lucky enough to be able to write extensively as part of my job. Blogging for the school automatically means tying everything I do to the school’s mission one way or another – global community, girls voices, being one’s own best self – ultimately, intersectional feminism. My Twitter work is itself intersectional, as I maintain the school’s account and inevitably share information there I’ve gathered in my personal account. Similarly, I have networked with enough educators and teachers on Facebook that my personal and professional worlds overlap seriously there, as well. That said, I have also had written pieces published in other locations, including two introductions for books, and various essays and articles published online and in professional journals – you can see a full list in my electronic portfolio.

Why? Well, for one, I love to write! It’s one of my main ways of understanding the world (talking to my family, friends, and colleagues, and running are among the others).

Q2 – Where do you think people look to understand what’s going on in their communities? #NCTEChat

I think that depends on the community. Where people can still spend time face to face, I think that’s still the most important means of communication, and for good reason. There’s a time and place for electronic communication, of course, but when one school that I know of has explicitly set an 8:00 curfew for faculty email and another has created what is essentially an “Email is overwhelming!” committee, clearly, electronic communication can be overdone. Of course, for larger communities that are more diverse geographically, electronic communication is really the way to go. If I want to know what’s on AMLE’s mind, for example, I might sit on on their Thursday night #mschat on Twitter.

Q3 – Give an example of a person who plays an important role in your local community. How do they do that? #NCTEChat

Susanna Thompson, our Director of Communications, has done some wonderful work both writing on her own and helping shape and focus the writing the rest of us do. She is sensitive to the primary importance of student voice as a fundamentally important part of our mission, and understands that authentic adult voices can both serve as role models and help the school grow in striving to meet our mission. She works to understand where each of us is coming from, where we want to go, and how we can get there while simultaneously integrating into a whole. Plus, she herself is a strong intersectional feminist, and that helps shape my own thinking in deeply important ways.

Q4 – Is social media the loudest voice in defining/writing communities today? Is that good? What else contributes? #NCTEChat

I think social media are not necessarily the loudest voice, but they certainly are the most accessible and among the largest. I think the potential for good is unquestionably there, and having the ability to self-define whom we follow and why contributes to the likelihood of that potential being realized.

That said, I’m actually on a self-imposed break from my personal Twitter account right now, primarily because it’s gotten to the point where I tense up inside when I sign on and generally get pretty deeply upset if I stay online for more than a few minutes – partly because of the news in the world, partly because of how I see other people being treated, and partly because I see how quickly one (me included) can offend and hurt other people despite the very best of intentions. The worst part is the feeling of always being on my guard and suspecting I could be tripping up at any moment; I have to find a positive way to deal with that. When I do, I’ll be back – I feel too connected to too many people to stay away too long!

Q5 – In an ideal world, who would have the most powerful voice in your community? Why? #NCTEChat

In general, I’m not much for hierarchies and discussions of who’s more powerful. In my own ideal world, then, we would all share power pretty much equally, though of course we would each have our own personal areas of responsibility. Furthermore, we would all respect each other’s differences and what we each have to contribute. As far as this school community goes, Head of School Sally Mixsell does a good job, in my opinion, of respecting what all of us bring to the table and trusting us to make decisions without micromanaging us along the way.

Q6 – Do you think writing will play an important part in defining the futures of our communities? Why or why not? #NCTEChat

I think it will. Our world is increasingly text-based (including, of course, actual texting!), and I don’t see any signs that trend is slowing. Plus, text (in certain formats, anyway) can be read any time, allowing for smooth asynchronous conversations or sharing of information in a way no other form of communication that I know can manage. Yes, you could exchange voicemails, and YouTube and podcasts are also increasingly frequently used to communicate. But listening to text takes more time than reading it, for most of us, and I don’t see that dynamic shifting drastically any time soon.

Q7 – How do current events play a role in the writing you or your students do? Please share any examples and/or links. #NCTEChat

Current events, as many of you know, play a huge role in my own writing. Much of what I write is based on what’s going on the world, be important events, social justice themes and milestones, educational discourse in various segments of my PLN, and of course my own classroom – all areas that often intersect in ways hard to untangle.

Q8 – Please share links to your blog/site, sites that are an important voice in your community, or any relevant resources. #NCTEChat

You’re on the space where I do most of my blogging now! :-) Most of my remaining writing (and sites important to my colleagues and me as middle school people) has been for MiddleWeb, Education Week, the Association of Middle Level Education, and the New England League of Middle Schools.
* * * * *
NCTE’s closing tweet was: “Don’t forget to join us tomorrow for our #NDoW Twitter Party. Use the #WriteMyCommunity hashtag all day long! #nctechat” I hope to see you online!

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Filed under On Education, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

“Are you in or out?”

(title credit from a song in the Disney movie Aladdin and the King of Thieves)

It’s a question 90% of us or more never have to ask. People who are both heterosexual and cisgender (essentially, being comfortable in a gender identity that matches the sex written down on our original birth certificate) never have to go in the closet in the first place. For the rest of us, though, the question may be somewhat stickier. And on National Coming Out Day every year, while some people come out or reflect on and celebrate their earlier coming out, others contemplate it, and still others hold tight to the door’s handle to ensure it remains firmly closed.

It’s a given, of course, that absolutely no one has the right to force the door open for anyone else. And it’s equally a given that when a person comes out to selected people, they need to respect if that person wants to remain closeted in other places. Family dynamics, workplace atmosphere, local cultural attitudes, and more can all can make it more or less risky to come out, and none of those contexts is absolutely uniform across all members of a given community.

Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary founded National Coming Out Day on October 11, 1988, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. (Wikipedia) On that date in 2013, The Atlantic published an article by Preston Mitchum entitled “On National Coming Out Day, Don’t Disparage the Closet.” He observed, “The coming out experience can be a precarious time in a person’s life, particularly when one belongs to multiple marginalized communities.” He acknowledges that “Ultimately, coming out is important because it makes the LGBT community more visible, particularly for black LGBT individuals…” but adds that “… focusing so intensely on coming out places the burden on the individual to brave society rather than on society to secure the safety of the individual.”

So how do we secure the safety of the individual? In particular, how can that happen when some religious traditions believe homosexuality is a sin and we also want to respect each person’s individual freedom of religion and their personal beliefs? The question takes me back many years ago to when I was teaching elsewhere, and one of the teachers assigned a project in which kids were to make a poster showing their own personal nine circles of Hell. One student placed homosexuals in her fifth circle, and as several of the students had gay or lesbian parents (no student had, to my knowledge, come out at that point in time), the faculty were concerned. One teacher agreed to talk to her, and it turned out that, while she did indeed hold the religious belief that homosexuality was a sin, she also felt (again, for religious reasons) that every single person deserved to be treated with love and respect.

We have seen the benefits over time of gays and lesbians coming out, serving as examples, and clearing the way for others, and we are currently seeing what seems to be the beginning of such a pattern among the gender non-conforming. Yet, not all of us were cut out to play that role, and we each need to make the best possible decision for ourselves in our own personal circumstances. With that in mind, if our entire country can agree to hold the core values that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and everyone is also entitled to be treated respectfully, that can be the starting point as we move forward toward the ultimate goal that all of us act upon those core values to the very best of our ability.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, Uncategorized

Nuance Matters

(an address to the school on Columbus Day)

“Why do we celebrate Columbus Day anyway? Weren’t there already people here when he arrived?” One of my Humanities 7 students several years ago looked up at me expectantly, but as I took a breath to answer, someone else jumped in and said, “Yes, and he was really cruel to them.” Someone else quickly said, “And he didn’t even come here.” A brief but passionate discussion ensued, following which I said, “I can just add that all the facts you’ve brought up are absolutely true, and they are nothing at all like what I and many thousands of people my age and older were taught when we were in school. And maybe if the full story was more widely known long ago, whenever Columbus Day was declared a national holiday, it wouldn’t have been.”

Which raises the question – how did Columbus Day get to be a national holiday? According to History.com, Tammany Hall, an influential (and, to some, notorious) political organization in New York, organized the first known celebration of Columbus in 1792, to honor the 300th anniversary of his voyage. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation that said “On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.” (History.com) Fifteen years later, Colorado became the first state to make it an official holiday, and in 1937, 445 years after Columbus’s voyage and only 77 years ago, within the lifetimes of many of your grandparents, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, “largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus.” (History.com)

Recently, the city of Seattle took an important step in the opposite direction, officially declaring the second Monday in October to be “Indigenous Peoples Day.” David Bean of the Puyallup Tribal Council felt it affirms the city values tribal members’ culture and history, and Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, echoed his sentiments, stating, “This action will allow us to bring into current present day our valuable and rich history, and it’s there for future generations to learn.” (quoted in The Guardian) On the other hand, many Italian-American residents of the city felt that the day should not have been scheduled opposite what they see as a day to celebrate Italian heritage. In the face of the controversy represented by these perspectives, one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, Bruce Harrell, said that that while he understands the concerns of members of the Italian-American community, he feels that the city won’t be successful in its social programs and outreach efforts unless and until it recognizes the past. (The Guardian)

Our past does inform our present and thus influences our future. City Council member Nick Licata, himself Italian-American, captured this sentiment in expressing the hope Indigenous Peoples Day would become a tradition in which “Everyone’s strength is recognized.” (The Guardian)

In that Humanities 7 discussion, one of the students asked, “But wasn’t Columbus still brave to set out on that trip? Couldn’t they all have died?” I responded that of course they could all have died, and that arguably that meant Columbus was in fact brave to set out on that trip. And I pointed out that just as Columbus wasn’t necessarily the paragon of virtue that had been presented to me in school, neither was he all bad. He was, in the end, an imperfect human, sharing that trait with all of us.

Nuance matters. Perspectives matter. Respect matters. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of the moral universe is indeed bending toward justice.

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Filed under Current Events, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective

Making Feminism Cool

“Bra-burning. Man-hating. Angry and unattractive. Such stereotypes have shadowed the women’s movement over the past few decades — and a slew of young, fashionable celebs are working to clarify feminism’s true definition.” (Fairchild) Setting aside for another day the question of why such a stereotype may have come to life and remained, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, so persistent, Caroline Fairchild raises a good question in her article “Will young celebrities make feminism ‘cool’?” Besides noting Emma Watson’s epic speech at the UN launching the “He for She” campaign, Ms. Fairchild mentions Taylor Swift’s recent realization that she has been a feminist all along and Beyoncé’s performance at the VMAs backed by the word “feminist” in huge block letters.

Feminism, many analysts note, has been waging an uphill battle for years to define itself as being in general far more inclusive than it is typically portrayed. I’ve certainly seen many students over my three decades here echo Ms. Swift’s sentiment when she said, “As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means.” (Swift, quoted in Thomas)

Certainly, many of my students admire Emma Watson (both for who she is and for having played feminist icon Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” movies), and certainly students in rock groups down through the years have proposed Taylor Swift songs. But more and more every year, my students have also been raised with a healthy skepticism for the media. I wonder to what extent that will limit the effect that these, in effect, celebrity endorsements will have on them – granting, too, that I want them to be individual, critical, free-thinkers in the first place. Time will tell on that point. But if Ms. Watson’s speech, Ms. Swift’s declaration, Beyoncé’s performance, and other such examples of celebrities embracing feminism can lead to further conversations, that’s a great place to start.

Themes of equality, equity, and justice will of necessity run through those conversations. Statistically, equality is of course the easiest to measure: when females and males each make up approximately 49% of any profession where size and physical strength do not matter (intersex people making up the remaining 1-2%), when people of all genders receive the same pay for the same job (assuming the same experience), and so on, we will have statistical equality. Whether that’s achievable without working explicitly for equity (fair not necessarily being equal) is another question. And given historical oppressions, working toward equity must go hand in hand with working for justice (see Rutgers Professor Brittney Cooper’s outstanding article in Salon for a thought-provoking examination of this). Through that lens, it’s easy to see that not just diversity of genders but also diversity of race, sexuality, class, age, abledness, and more come into play, along with the continuums of support and oppression, privilege and marginalization that come with each of those axes of diversity.

In short, as I wrote the other night during a Twitter chat, we have to fight relentless hierarchies (and associated binaries).

All are welcome.


n.b. Thanks to Jane Mellow, Director of our Learning Center, for introducing me to the “Crafty Girls” font, which adds an extra layer of fun to drafting blogs on feminism!

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, Women in media

Sick Day

(written Tuesday, September 23, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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