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

Ending Well, part 2

On the last of classes in the middle school, I made the following post to Facebook:

Scene: my Humanities 7 classroom, last class of the day and term (a double block lasting 1’55”). Thanksgiving vacation starts today at 3:00.

Students: We wanna do something fun. Can we do something fun?
Me: Everything we do in Humanities is fun.
Students: But…
Me: Here are the “must happens” of the day we talked about at the end of our last class: an opportunity for students to present, finishing up unit planning, discussing the book Gingersnap, and finishing up self-assessments. The “may happens” will come after the “must happens,” and are essentially “your ideas here.”
Four students: Can I present?

  • Four presentations follow, each strong on facts, thematically clear, with obvious deep personal connections to the topics. Supportive applause after each.
  • Discussion on ideas for a film-making unit. Ten kids still want to make a movie from the book Wonder. Two still don’t but are willing to work out their own idea. Ten kids offer to help the small group by playing any necessary additional roles. Two kids offer to help film the large group. They beg me to let them start planning. I acquiesce.
  • Soon, the small group excitedly calls me over to tell me their seed idea and that they are ready to start fleshing it out, while the large group has decided to hold auditions to see who gets to play which part. They beg me to let them keep going. I acquiesce.
  • Time flies like the wind. They will have to finish their self-assessments on their own (Google Forms). Gingersnap can wait until after break.
  • “Hey, everyone can have a donut!” one of them yells. They run to the boxes, and then down the stairs. The room is quiet.

This is my world. This is why I love middle schoolers.

A number of friends liked my post. One of them, Rebecca Lawson, went so far as to ask me if John Lounsbury was a Facebook friend of mine, telling me “He would LOVE this! Definitely no laminated lesson plans here!! GREAT!.” John Lounsbury, whom I have in fact met (and who once invited me to a symposium on the future of the middle school movement), is one of the godfathers of the middle school model. Well into his 90’s, he continues to advocate in his modest but clear fashion for practices that seem like basic common sense as you listen to him but prove, on closer examination, to be deeply innovative. To think he would love what my students were doing is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten.

What a great way to end the term!

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

Ending well

written Wednesday evening, Nov. 19, 2014, the night before the last day of Fall Trimester classes in the middle school.

“Let’s make it a really fun and special week for them,” Andrea said as we all nodded. We were in a Middle School team meeting, trying to plan out a week of special schedules for our students while the Upper School students were planning for and taking final exams. Monday and Tuesday, we would be following the same schedule as the Upper School while they were meeting to review, but Wednesday and Thursday were all our own.

Of course, part of this time would be given over to classes – we believe in making good use of our time together right up to the last minute – so it was easy to decide Wednesday morning would be normal, and Thursday needed to include the three class periods that don’t meet on a Wednesday morning. This would also give an air of seriousness to those last two days, and moreover provide some degree of comfort through the familiar routine. Yet, changing things up where possible would definitely add an air of celebration.

So we decided to offer students a menu of fun activities Wednesday afternoon, settling on a bowling trip, a movie, open gym, and printmaking. Andrea, Karen, Ally, and Ben stepped up respectively to help facilitate those activities. Counterintuitive though it may seem, we thought it would make sense to also set aside some time that afternoon for students to clean up their rooms so they would be ready to check out with houseparents when vacation officially began.

Andrea, Ben, and Karen also stepped up to make Thursday special, Andrea by setting up a field trip to the Smith College Botanic Garden with the 7th graders, Ben by coming up with the idea of joining an art component in with Andrea’s science activities, and Karen by agreeing to take the 8th graders for the morning to do some fun activities related to their DC trip. Is it any wonder I love working with the middle school team?!

So after lunch today, I hustled over to the middle school corridors to help supervise room cleaning. I found almost a party atmosphere – I suppose an impending vacation helps create that mood whatever you are doing – as some students worked diligently to organize their rooms, others proudly showed me they were ready to go, and just about everyone scrambled to be next to use the vacuum. I burst out laughing when I went into one room to “Just take a look at my side, please” as every square inch of floor, bed, and desk was covered on one side while the other was spotless, a ruler-straight line dividing one side from the other. The first girl’s roommate hastened to assure me “I’m working on it! It’s actually better now!” And in point of fact, it was even better by the time the hour was out.

Andrea and I moved quickly from the dorms to grab the vehicle we used to shuttle the bowling trip students off to French King Bowling Center. The students quickly lined up to get shoes, formed groups of up to four per lane, and began to program in their and their friends’ names. Several groups clamored for the bumpers to be put up, and the owner good-naturedly teased them before complying. Randomly, I happened to witness one student toss a ball right over the bumper and straight into the gutter, where it wobbled all the way to the end as she doubled over laughing. Meanwhile, one lane over, another student was pumping her fist as she knocked all the pins down. On the way back, I learned that the students on the first bus trip *really* knew the line “make a wish” in the song “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson which was playing on WHAI as they sang it with at least twice the volume and energy of any other line in the song. Even, on occasion, when Kelly Clarkson herself was singing something else altogether.

Tomorrow, I’ll help transport the 7th graders to Smith College, and once we’ve finished at the Garden, enjoy a quick walk in town to the Starbucks. After lunch, I’ll meet Humanities 7 for a long double period. Three students will present their work from the last unit, we’ll discuss the ending of the novel Gingersnap, we’ll finish up planning the next unit, and I’ll be sure they have some “choice time” to finish up their self-assessments, turn in their “Works Consulted” pages, and simply enjoy some free reading time in each other’s company. It’s a great way to finish out the term.

No wonder I love my job.

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

No One: Reflections on Ferguson

It’s about an hour since the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson was announced, and I’m still feeling sucker punched despite being among the millions who had anticipated the decision and the millions more who could tell it was coming once prosecutor Robert McCulloch began his bizarre preamble to the announcement. Besides sharing their own anger, anguish, sadness, or frustration, teachers on my Twitter and Facebook timelines have also been wondering what on Earth they’re going to tell their students tomorrow.

We’re on Thanksgiving vacation, so I don’t have that immediate worry, but I do need to think about what we might do upon our return in December. As it happens, one of the six students in my Humanities 7 class who still has to present on her second Focus Question after break wrote her essay on racism and white supremacy. She had been unafraid to tackle difficult questions, including white privilege. And her essay included a powerful moment when the white resident of a predominantly black neighborhood, made the statement that “There’s no need to be careful if you treat people as human beings.” At that point, she saw a black woman emerge from a nearby house and added, loudly, “As long as you don’t have a gun in your hand, I’m okay with you.” (Huber)

Okaaaaaaay then.

That alone should generate a fair amount of discussion in this class!

Today, we are also mourning twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by Cleveland police officers while he was carrying a toy gun. Today, we are also reacting to the news that Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal under which she will serve out the remaining two months of a three-year sentence, all for having attempted to defend herself when she feared for her life.

I may be sickened and saddened by all of this, but I also hold in my head and my heavy heart the realities that our justice system would treat me very differently if I were a person of colour and that white privilege may be, in the words of my student, “an unfair thing as it is something that is decided by something you can’t control,” but it is no less real for all that.

Leslie Carole Taylor, one of my friends from high school is a UCC minister, and she was posting an incredible series of quotes and thoughts on Facebook through the evening. As a Black woman, she no doubt was experiencing today’s events differently than I was, yet everything she wrote resonated with me. Among her posts was this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” I wrote back, “I share that belief. And I share responsibility for bringing that final word about.”

In meeting that responsibility, I would simultaneously be working toward my student’s vision: “Your race shouldn’t affect how people treat you or see you. In the end, I feel that no one should be judged because of their race.”

No one. Not Marissa Alexander. Not Michael Brown. Not Tamir Rice. Not Eric Garner. Not John Crawford. Not Ezell Ford. Not Trayvon Martin. Not Jordan Davis. Not Renisha McBride. Not…

No one.

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Filed under Current Events, In the Classroom

At the Heart of It

Alfie Kohn is most definitely one of my educational heroes. Controversial as he may be, the controversy often stems from his relentless focus on what research tells us about what is best for students even when it flies in the face of common sense. And anyone who is all about figuring out what is best for students, and who has the courage to follow through on those principles (even if they differ from my own), earns my respect.

So when he wrote on Twitter, “Provocative essay about ‘the world of classroom management': our need for control & for quick fixes: http://ow.ly/DTjfT,” it got my attention. The essay turned out to be excerpted from a chapter by Barbara McEwan Landau from the book Classroom Discipline in American Schools: Problems and Possibilities for Democratic Education, edited by Ronald E. Butchart and used with permission from SUNY Press. It’s well worth a read, as the following quotes suggest.

“I have never worked with any educators who desire to become ‘mean’ teachers. Yet the fear of losing control while experimenting with management practices new to them causes educators to believe that in a crunch they will revert to behavioral measures that, in their words, ‘work’ to end inappropriate conduct.”

This brought back memories of a long-ago class I had that was particularly troublesome to manage. To this day, I’m not remotely proud of some of the things I tried doing to regain control (and yes, I realize the use of the word “control” in the first place is telling). For a brief period in time, I was most definitely a “mean” teacher, the antithesis of who I want to be and who I believe I am deep down. What finally worked was simply sitting down and talking honestly with the kids about how it felt to be in class together, and what we all could do about creating the kind of environment they all wanted deep down. Maybe it was simply that the kids themselves had to grow tired of their own behavior before they cared to correct it. But treating them respectfully as people who instinctively wanted to the do right thing certainly couldn’t have hurt.

“Another curious paradox is trying to control student behaviors while making little or no attempt to determine the underlying cause of the behavior.”

This goes to the heart of how we now handle discipline in our middle school program. We certainly realize that sometimes, young adolescents will have moments so impulsive that they themselves may not be able to identify the underlying cause of the behavior. However, we also realize that without students having some sense of multiple perspectives on something that happened, and thus cause and effect, working our way through to a genuine desire to change behavior in the future is at best unlikely and at worst completely futile.

“Constantly quiet classrooms look as they do because the students are being controlled through fear, intimidation, frequent competitions, and public embarrassment.”

I actually take issue with this statement, which is particularly odd in light of the quote in the preceding paragraph. Of course, I wouldn’t advocate for a split second that we control students through external motivation of any sort, let alone such negative means. And maybe, to be fair, the key is in the word “constantly.” At any rate, I would simply suggest also looking at the underlying cause of the behavior when viewing a quiet classroom. For one example, in my experience, this year’s Humanities 7 class has been phenomenal from the start about being able to maintain focus and work quietly during “Choice Time.” They might be reading in the group novel, or in their independent reading book. They might be working on their independent writing, or researching and writing their Focus Question essay, or preparing for a presentation. But for them, the quiet comes from being thoroughly engaged with the work they are doing – internal motivation of the kind we’d hope to see.

“Unfortunately, when my pre-service students do enter the field experience classrooms to which they have been assigned, they are more likely to see modeled the very strategies that are least likely to promote classroom equity.”

Unless they visit our school – as one visitor from a teaching program at Antioch commented several years ago after observing my Humanities 7 class, “My class will be so excited to hear about this. We read about democratic classroom, but we didn’t know anyone who was actually making it work.”

“Building a democratic classroom climate requires an effective integration of pedagogical knowledge, educational psychology, patience, hard work, an unwavering dedication to equal educational opportunity for all students, and a passionate belief that everyone, including the teacher, can learn from mistakes.”

And now we’re at the heart of our mission as a school. I see every single one of these elements in every single one of my colleagues, along with a willingness and a desire to learn from each other. And I see the level of trust and connection students feel, along with the sense of gratitude they express. And I myself am grateful.

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

Trans 101.5

Transgender Awareness Month comes right on the heels of National Bullying Prevention Month, and in many ways that makes sense, as transgender people are disproportionately affected by bullying (as with street violence). GLSEN reports that fully 82% of LGBT kids have had problems with bullying, 44% specifically due to gender identification (reported on the nobullying.com website). GLSEN’s 2013 National Climate survey is available by download for anyone who might be interested.

In an age where definitions of different genders are becoming as fluid as some people’s sense of gender itself, it can be hard to keep up with the latest terms. For starters, (biological) sex is not the same as (social) gender, and 1-2% of people are born neither female nor male but rather intersex. Additionally, even though “transgender” refers to someone whose gender identity differs from that assigned to them at birth, not everyone who might fit that definition automatically chooses to identify as transgender. Moreover, though some transgender people (such as noted teen activist Jazz Jennings, here in an interview with Katie Couric) feel they were always girls trapped in a boy’s body or boys trapped in a girl’s body, not all transgender people feel that way or even identify within the gender binary. Partially blurring the binary are bigender people and androgynes, and within the Native American tradition, two-spirit people. But other transgender people might identify as polygender, agender, genderqueer, or just plain nonbinary, and still others avoid terminology altogether. Some may have a stable gender identity while others might be more fluid. Facebook, as many people know by now, offers a menu of over 50 gender choices, and even then, it is not 100% comprehensive.

Currently, among the most common pronoun choices used by trangender people are he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and ze/hir/hirs. As with gender itself, though, there are a wealth of pronoun choices that exist. The only way to know what pronouns a transgender person uses is for them to tell you. It’s certainly okay to politely ask; many colleges routinely do so now during Orientation and in the day-to-day of their offices.

Because of the acronym “LGBT,” people often assume trans people are not heterosexual, but your gender actually has nothing to do with your sexuality. Transgender people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual (both romantic and aromantic), and any other variety of sexuality of which you can think.

In a recent talk at Mount Holyoke on her life as a trans woman, Jennifer Finney Boylan told listeners, “Let your story be known. It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” Ms. Boylan walks the talk, having published a number of beautifully written and at times painfully honest books on her life including the iconic She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and the sequels I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir and Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders. For people looking for books for younger readers, Luna by Julie Anne Peters is the fictional story of a transgender teen told from the point of view of her younger sister, and I am Jazz, written by Jazz Jennings along with Jessica Herthel and based on Jazz’s own life, is the story of a transgender girl written for elementary-age children. As transgender people are becoming more visible, so too are choices of good books about transgender people becoming more common.

Though I don’t personally identify as transgender, I do have a vague sense of what it might be like. My own gender expression, as I’ve written before, is essentially a projection of my authentic self, kept as free of gender typing as possible, into a heavily gendered world. In that world, some people see me and greet me with warm and genuine smiles. Others laugh out loud, cringe with discomfort, or look me over with disgust. Still others simply treat me as they would any other person. The result is that I sometimes feel both relaxed and on guard. Relaxed, because I’m comfortable both with the look and with the effect of shaking up gender norms. On guard, because I never know when things might suddenly and without warning turn ugly.

Those emotions should be incompatible.

Patriarchy is why they aren’t.

So in the end, as with so much in this world, it all comes down to respect. Respecting each other’s personal sense of our own gender identity and the associated gender expression we choose. Respecting the terminology we each choose to use. Respecting the possibility of good intentions behind the occasional slip-up. And ultimately, respecting our joint and fundamental humanity.

No matter what gender we might be.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, The Faculty Perspective

Why I Came, Why I Stay

The other day at Open House, one of the attendees, a public school teacher, asked each of us present on a faculty panel to talk about how we ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham, and why we stay. Our stories were as individual as we are. My own begins the summer I was getting married…

It was the summer of 2004, and my fiancée and I had just graduated from the M.A.T. program in the French and Italian Department of the University of Massachusetts. Each of us had completed all the requirements for Massachusetts State certification except for the French proficiency exam. My fiancée called up to find out details, and was told that there was a non-refundable fee of $75 and it would be given on one of three possible Saturdays in August, one of which was to be our wedding day. The exact date, she was told, would not be given out until no more than three weeks ahead of time, “for security reasons.” We were about to spend a year living in France anyway, so we elected not to register for the exam. That meant, when it came time to apply for teaching positions, we had no choice but to apply at independent schools. And that’s how I ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham.

As for why I stay, I gave two reasons. One is that I identify as a gender activist rooted in feminist ideals, and working in a girls school feeds that part of my life. A second is that we know what research and experience tells us works well for kids, and ironic as it may be given that many of the best teaching models were originally developing in and for public schools, at this point in our nation’s history, independent schools are actually freer to apply those models than many public schools. I may deplore that situation, but that makes it no less true.

The person who asked the question quietly mouthed a “thank you” to me, and we moved on to hear Miriam’s story as she was sitting to my immediate left.

Essentially, of course, I was saying that I stay in teaching and I stay at Stoneleigh-Burnham because I believe deeply that what we do matters. I’m acutely aware that not everyone can say that about their job. Just one more thing for which I am grateful this November.

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Filed under Admissions, Feminism, Gender, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

Preventing Bullying

“You’re not wearing a blue shirt.” The comment, coming from a Junior in her own blue shirt, was something of a test, and I got partial credit by cringing and saying, “Oh, no! I totally forgot!” At least my response showed I knew that wearing a blue shirt on that particular Monday was meant to draw attention to National Bullying Prevention Month. I did manage to wear purple on GLAAD Spirit Day to take “a stand against bullying and show [my] support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth” (GLAAD), and kept a blue pinky for a week in response to a tweet by @beinggirl; my photo even earned a retweet from the “Secret Mean Stinks” campaign, among others.

For the Humanities 7 unit on “Why do people judge other people and themselves?” one of my students did her individual Focus Question work on bullying. She designed her presentation as much to stimulate conversation as to present information, and she succeeded admirably: the discussion lasted over 45 minutes and might have continued even longer if class hadn’t ended. The students were not without empathy for bullies, coming quickly to general agreement that often, they simply didn’t know better because that was how they were treated, or perhaps they had deep-seated issues of their own and the bullying had nothing to do with the actual victims.

That said, victims of bullying definitely got the most sympathy, all the more so because, as it turned out, some of the students in my class had been bullied at their old schools. Those who chose to tell their stories were met with respectful, rapt, sympathetic attention, and some of them showed tremendous courage and trust in sharing details of what had been said and done to them. Empathy for what the bullies may have been through took a definite back seat to empathy for their classmates, and I’m sure many of them were thinking what one student said out loud: “I’m just so glad I don’t have to worry about bullying at Stoneleigh-Burnham.”

I’m not pretending our school is perfect. As human beings, we all succumb at times to moments of weakness, or trip up on highly inelegant phrasing, and feelings can at times be hurt. But if such moments happen in a relationship that has already put down some roots, it’s easier to work through those moments. Flipping through my Twitter feed today, I stumbled on research that suggested the more a teacher can create an environment where students feel genuinely safe, the more those students will learn and grow. That makes intuitive sense, and I always view creating that level of safety as a moral imperative.

The stopbullying.gov webpage offers some great ideas for preventing bullying before it even starts, and handling it should it happen. These range from media guidelines to specific ideas for parents, educators, the community, teens, and kids. With respect as the basis behind all these suggestions, the more we work to keep our kids safe, the more we’ll be working for a better world.

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Filed under On Education, On Parenting, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized