Don’t Abolish Middle Schools – Reinvent Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Reading, part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under On Education, The Faculty Perspective

Student Driven Classrooms: Keeping the Faith

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

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

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

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

Read more here

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

Guest Post: “Believe the Bird” Commencement Address by Anna Schuleit Haber

This year’s Commencement speaker, chosen by the graduating class of 2014, was visual artist and MacArthur Felllow Anna Schuleit Haber. Ms. Haber has graciously given us permission to post her full speech here. “Believe the Bird” was delivered at Stoneleigh-Burnham School’s 2014 Commencement Ceremony on Friday, June 6th in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

 

BELIEVE THE BIRD

Anna Schuleit Haber delivers the 2014 Stoneleigh-Burnham Commencement Address.A squirrel appears on a lawn and sees a nut lying out in the open. Carefully, it looks around and assesses its surroundings. When it feels ready and safe, it moves into the open, aiming for the nut. It reaches it, scoops it up and hurries back to safety. In his book on the brain, “The Master and His Emissary”, Ian McGilchrist describes the kind of attention the squirrel uses here as “open attention”.

Later, when the squirrel sits down with the nut, to crack and break it down, it uses an entirely different attention, a kind of attention that can be understood as “narrow attention”. Both are needed to navigate through this world; both are indicators of the interactions between the two hemispheres of our brains: left and right. The right brain hemisphere is connected to open attention: our skill of taking in an entire scene and making sense of it. The left brain hemisphere is responsible for breaking things down and categorizing everything.

Dear graduating seniors, dear parents, trustees, faculty members, families, and friends — I am honored to be here with you today and to celebrate your graduation. For the past few days, I was sitting in the garden of a friend, thinking about this special day and about you, and I decided that I would speak to you about attention, and types of attention, intuition, about the time during and after high school, and—most generally—about happiness in life.

Walking across a campus like this reminds me of being a student like you. When I was in boarding school, an ocean away from my family and childhood friends, my days seemed to be made of nothing but school matters: assignments, books, late night studies, basketball practice, bakery duty, stacks of vocabulary cards, so many words that I didn’t know. High school in a boarding school, away from home, equaled more than high school had ever meant to me up to that point: it was a sense of school as pure possibility. An opening of the self. It was, to me, the highest version of high school: higher than any place I’d known before, a place of higher learning, higher knowledge, and high growth.

In boarding school I finally became a curious student. And you, too, might have been feeling this same progression in you: that over time you have become, in fact, the kind of student for whom this place was originally created, for whom it had been made ideal. For whom all these buildings had been built and for whom the curriculum had been developed. Each of you is a young woman with a full-fledged story from where you come, who your people are. A story with details, and details with facets of humanity, each one of you different from the next. This place was created for bringing life stories like yours together and making more layered, more evolved, more deliberate stories out of each of you, stories of conscious growth. A place for a community of girls, a place for you who graduate today.

When I was here last October and met so many of you, I felt that this was a special place. I loved your energy. It made me think that high school is truly a place that puts the student at the center of the universe and surrounds him or her with the possibilities of life and knowledge, a place for you to learn to embody the personal and to then to head out to touch the world with and through your life —your lives.

After today most of you will go on to college, and you might think it’s similar, but it’s not. College is bigger, less intimate, more speedy, more layered, crowded, and complicated. Somehow, as you move from high school towards the next step in your journey, you become a more public person. Your career starts. High school is the necessity on which everything gets built, but it isn’t your outward career yet. It is your private career, your chance to learn who you are. You’ve had a most exquisite chance here on this campus, of learning more than the basics. Now things will speed up, and speed you into the lanes of adulthood, which are speedier, riskier, and less neat.

And so I want you to pause here for just a moment longer, pause and celebrate inwardly and with each other, and then take the best of what you’ve been building and making here at this school, during this time, as an investment into the self that you are poised to become: take all these treasures with you as you start your career as an adult student, an adult woman, and a citizen of this world. Once you’re out there in the world, with your treasures of high school under your skin, all the details of your education thus far, I encourage you to make passionate choices that honor this foundation that you have created for yourselves. Choices of schools, friends, majors, direction, and — style. Why do I mention style? I don’t mean the way you dress, I mean the style of self: what kind of woman are you evolving into, what kind of mind are you cultivating, what type of personality are you beginning to be? Whatever the answer, whatever your style and your direction, your very own arc of a journey, I am happy to say that ALL of you will be needed.

That there is a place for each and every one of you out there in the world.

As you graduate here today, you are freer than you have ever been in your life before. More free to make your own choices. After today, you will be seen as adults in almost every sense. You will be expected to be responsible and mature, as people will rely on you. Strangers might ask for your help when you don’t expect it, more than before. The world will simply assume that you have gained the basic tools to navigate through this life, which is not basic at all, but complex.

As graduating seniors, your schedules had already became as full as you thought they could possibly be, and you made it through, and here we are. you have all been “big sisters” to younger students at the same time, you have been mature and responsible for and with others around you, as you grew to be the oldest. Now you will leave here and feel young all over again, in college, or in whichever job you pursue. You might realize that you’re the youngest again, actually. And life might suddenly appear quite large and vast and disorganized around you.

And it is.

So—when you find yourself in a tight spot or crisis, which sooner or later you will, I would like you to try something: try to practice a sense of open calmness before zooming in. Try to first collect and balance your mind and body for a moment, like the squirrel taking in the wider context. Locate yourself within yourself. Then step forth.

When, on the other hand, you find yourself hungry or tired, too tired to be glowing or helpful, don’t be ashamed to withdraw and recuperate. And to do so, you will have to learn to be clear: first with yourself, then with others around you. Clear about your needs, and then kindly straightforward. Learn to take efficient, simple care of yourself. Nobody will be better at this task than you.

And when, perhaps, you find yourself feeling lonely, try this: reach out to someone without expectation, rather than waiting to be reached for. Sit down and write a letter by hand. Go for a walk along a babbling creek, off the beaten path, without your phone. Notice your loneliness with that same open attention, and treasure it. That sounds very hard and strange, but it’s the truth: it, too, is one of your treasures.

When you find yourself bored, ever, try this: be curious about something outside of yourself. Pick something beyond your usual horizon and marvel at it. Divert your attention and let something unlikely into your mind, something to re-arrange your thought patterns and your mind’s habits. The writer Samuel Beckett pushed the boundaries of language, concept, composition in his writings. And he did so by positioning himself in a beginner’s spot: he wrote many of his works in French, rather than in his native English — and he attributed this to his “need to be ill-equipped.” Having been ill-quipped many times in my life as an artist, I can tell you that this is true: if you’re not quite certain of how to do something, but if you commit yourself to the process of it, you will, wonderfully inevitably, make discoveries. And making discoveries is a fundamental ingredient of creativity.

When I was a painting student at RISD I discovered that I enjoy the stretch of time that passes between having an idea, a plan, and realizing it. That the uncertainty of the journey of creating something, the lag between first motivation and later outcome, can be enjoyable, even thrilling. If you are on the path to becoming an artist, too, or any other creative job, I invite you to watch how other artists and makers, older than you, manage to stay true to themselves through that creative uncertainty, i.e. the interaction between right brain open attention and left brain focus and analysis. Look for smart people who know more than you, watch them and see how they work, how they move through the world.

And when something you’re witnessing is great, truly great, when the hair on your neck stands up in admiration for something or someone, make sure to take notice. Learning to pay compliments if inspired, is as important as learning to give honest feedback if asked. Try to become an athlete in your own field, however un-athletic it may be, and by that I mean dedicate yourself to practicing your stuff, over and over and over. When you need help, look around—ASK. Then offer your help back to others who cross your path needing help. They will. There will undoubtedly be times to give back, and it’s rarely to those who once gave to you, but usually to others, in other ways.

Three and four generations ago, our women ancestors in this country, and many countries around the world, began to fight for their right to vote and didn’t give up, a struggle that is hard for us to imagine today. We take for granted their then newly-won right to participate as equals in governments and society, and our natural inheritance of it. As women we all have been given the fruits of women’s struggles of the past, so I would like to ask you graduating girls particularly, to never miss an election: to go out and vote for what you believe in, who you root for, who represents you. Like so many other female writers and artists, Virginia Woolf struggled to shake off her sense of the confinement of her imagination, her creativity, asking herself: “What IS a woman? I do not know… I do not believe anybody knows until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill.”

Along those lines I want to invite you, in your lives, too—to go, if necessary, against the tide. The women who fought for our rights in the past, for us to vote and to be equals in the arts and all other professions, went against the tide. Conditions would never have changed if they had waited for someone powerful to make the changes for them. So don’t miss a chance to engage in dialogue about difficult things — and that’s usually not when difficult things are easy, but when they are difficult to discuss. Point out and pause for injustice whenever you come across it in your lives.

If necessary, go against the tide.

But truly, and most of all, and in all of this: I would like to invite you to be infectious with a good, open attitude. Having a good attitude is not a minor secret skill, something hidden under the surface of your personality, but it is completely and utterly visible to anyone who comes anywhere near you. If you don’t know how to do it, watch those who have mastered this art, and then practice it like the French Horn, or third level dressage. You can actually, really truly learn how to light up a room, and not miss a chance to be genuinely curious. A good attitude goes hand in hand with curiosity, with openness, and with a flexibility of one’s ego.

And even if you’re as considerate and humble and kind a person as you can possibly be—for as long as you can—you might still encounter incredible obstacles for long inexplicable stretches. Then I want you to trust: to trust that none of what you invest your heart and energies in will be in vain. The trick is to shape your destiny with your intentions but to expect nothing directly back—except to be surprised. In Buddhism this is called “the light of the world”: that the karmic fruits of your being will keep arising. But it is your responsibility to see the world with your best, open attention, as the squirrel does before it narrows its focus on the outcome of the nut. To learn to see the choices that you will make.

What lies ahead for you is a road of gains and losses, between which you will make your home. This making of a home will most likely be the most creative and individual act of your lives. Why creative? Because there is not realIy any kind of guidance for it other than your own, so you must use your intuition, intention, and practice. John J. Audubon, in the preface to his guide to birds in America, reminds us that “If the bird and the book disagree, believe the bird.” Use your own inner light to shine your way, to stand straight, to stand right up, and stand light and firm on the ground you’re claiming for yourself, the self you are becoming. Take IN the whole scene of your life, as it unfolds. And, “I urge you” said the writer Kurt Vonnegut, “to please notice when you are happy.” Which means, to actually notice when all is well for the moment, when the air is clear.

It is my honor to remind you today, and to remind you to remind yourselves in the weeks and years to come, wherever you may be, that each and every instant is, in fact, a rare moment of creation. That sense of your journey can be, and I hope that it will be, your very own sense of happiness. As if he had known about the squirrel, and maybe he did, wonderful E. E. Cummings put it best:

“(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)”

Congratulations, dear Seniors.

- Anna Schuleit Haber
June 6, 2014

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

This Beautiful Year

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

This Beautiful Year

Last fall, I was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next year, I am looking forward to
Starting new.

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

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

Working hard on academics;
Developing my English.

Sports and remaking myself,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone in the class, all of my best friends;

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

Going to the mall and laughing with my friends.

Secret roommate conversations.

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

Bill reading to me.

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

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

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

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

I will always remember this beautiful year.

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Guest Post: Reflections for the Class of 2014

Today we feature a guest blogger, parent Christina Lord. Christina has written a reflection for her daughter Caroline Lord and Caroline’s peers who will be graduating tomorrow morning, June 6th.

‘We were all to be queens
of four kingdoms on the sea:
Efigenia with Soledad,
and Lucila with Rosalie.

In the Valley of Elqui, encircled
by a hundred mountains or more
that blaze red like burnished offerings
or tributes of saffron ore,

We said it, enraptured,
and believed it perfectly,
that we would all be queens
and would one day reach the sea.

With our braids of seven-year-olds
and bright aprons of percale,
chasing flights of thrushes
among the shadows of vine and grape.

And our four kingdoms, we said,
so vast and great would be,
that as certain as the Koran
they would all reach the sea.

We would wed four husbands
at the time when we should wed,
and they would all be kings and poets
like King David of Judea.’

“We Were All To Be Queens” by Gabriela Mistral, Chile (1889-1957)

Today begins another chapter of your life. We rejoice with you as you stand at this summit looking into a new dawn, full of unseen perspectives and unchartered roads that await you. Looking back, while twelve or more years of school have gone in a blink, each day has prepared you to take the steps that lie ahead.  Challenged by teachers, family and peers, you have become whole women, ready to play your part as members of this global village.  From cells to equations; from Shakespeare to Middle Eastern peace efforts, Shostakovich, Balanchine and Van Gogh, from the theory of knowledge to the values of community service, Stoneleigh-Burnham empowered you to pursue excellence and to find your own voice. This home has also allowed you to experience firsthand the fellowship of girls from all around the world and, in doing so, you have expanded your horizons as ambassadors of peace.

Looking ahead, in the words of Gabriela Mistral, your kingdoms, so vast and great will be, ‘that as certain as the Koran they’ will all reach the sea. The journey you begin today will test your character, your beliefs and your self-knowledge, as you come to realize that change is the only constant and that your decisions will have ever greater consequences for yourselves and others. Embrace every moment. Trust yourselves, for you are resourceful women. Listen with your heart, not only to the voices around you, but especially to the one inside you. Respect yourselves. Recognize your limits. Mind yourselves. Through it all, remember to be grateful for your strengths, your resources and your heritage. For it is your inner strength and humility that will fuel and guide your steps in the world.

A Chinese proverb says that women hold up half of the sky. Some do so by cooking meals for their families in refugee camps while other rule nations. Wherever your roads take you, whether in joyfulness or suffering, remember that we, your parents, have your back, and that we are committed to you through the unbreakable bond of our unconditional, unwavering and everlasting love.

- Christina Lord

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Threshold

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not away. Not yet, anyway.

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