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

A Conversation with Spanish Teacher Jess Durfey

(A conversation between Shawn Durrett, Dean of Faculty, and Spanish teacher Jessica Durfey)

You’re starting your 10th year at SBS. What has kept you here for so long?

jkC5Jp0QLPfCDSIP-y6X09QDfJhfbYnu-9LZKU0B-mklNm6h7FxJwhsNzyxMWk2FXwaT7ZV2VuVn1YRd_dhywBGbeYo=s190The community is so tight-knit and because of that there’s such a comfort… it makes teaching a lot easier and more rewarding.

What do you like about being a house parent?

I like having the opportunity to see the students outside of the classroom – it doesn’t necessarily have to be Spanish-related things, but it’s definitely a perk to be able to do Spanish activities and Spanish night with them. I like to get to know them as people. I think they also respect me more knowing me as a person.

Tell me how and when you first got seriously interested in Spanish.

I became interested in Spanish myself as a high school student, which is nice, because I can relate to students. I remember I had this really quirky teacher and it was the first time that it wasn’t just a class – it was people, it was a culture – to me it was more manageable than math, than problems out of a book. I actually don’t remember many of my other teachers, but for Spanish I remember every teacher. I loved Spanish so much that I applied to college as a Spanish major and started right away. I had some amazing teachers at the University of New Hampshire. I lived in Granada, Spain while I was studying. I ended up staying for another two years after college for grad school, and lived in Costa Rica during grad school.

What’s it like teaching Middle School beginning Spanish students?

In one word, it’s fun. They are sponges. They grasp it and go with it. Their energy makes it easy to do fun things. They’re creative.

On the other end of the spectrum, what’s exciting about teaching the highest level of Spanish in the IB program?

I love teaching IB because at that level, they do a great job communicating with the language. I love getting papers from them where they’re able to be critical and express their opinions. We can dive into some pretty cool topics. We just watched a movie called “The Mexican Suitcase,” about some negatives found in Mexico. The photos were taken during the Spanish Civil War, which was a very difficult time for the country and still remains a sensitive topic. My students did an amazing job reflecting on what this movie meant and it was great to see them take something away from it.

In your opinion, what makes SBS girls unique?

They’re not afraid to talk and say their opinions. It makes classes more genuine. People aren’t saying what they think others want them to say. They’re also very open-minded to seeing more sides of an argument, like when studying history or culture.

Tell us more about the trip to Costa Rica that you’re offering to students in March.

K-wSLRPVx5nrNWucIVlAJhIe_n_dEdb49XE7yQgP1iwV_TGGPYr2OhpO2g7NYJ0PawT81FF8oZIGmVXrS3Px8uGWCis=w1266-h547We did a trip to Costa Rica a couple years ago and it was so amazing that we wanted to do it again. We’re going to small town, Puerto Viejo, and we’ll try to immerse ourselves in the town. Girls will get to see how other people live. We’re going to go to a school and work with kids. Depending on what the SBS students want to do, we’ll do some sort of service project or work with animals. There’s a sloth sanctuary and a jaguar rescue center there. We’ll also go to the beach.

How have your international experiences impacted you personally and influenced your work as a teacher?

Living with families abroad was pretty intense. I put myself in a difficult situation and then saw myself through it. I basically became fluent there. I definitely realize that living abroad isn’t easy, and that it’s different for everyone. It’s helped me in my work with the International Program at SBS. I always try not to assume anything about the students.

What are some things you like to do when you’re not working?

I love to run, and we have a nice group of teachers who run together. And thanks to living abroad, I love to travel, and luckily my husband Dave does too. My biggest dream is to go to Chile and Argentina. That’s always on the list. Domestically, I’d love to go out to the West Coast to Oregon – check out the beaches and the forest, and go camping.

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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

NENTS 2.0

by Charlotte Hogan, EL Teacher
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After a successful but often hectic first year of teaching and a month of intensive work with Beginning-level English Learners, I, thankfully, did not experience the burnout that some new teachers feel (or, that my college professors warned us about). I did not feel frustrated, or defeated, despite the many episodes of my first year that hadn’t gone as gracefully as I hoped. My friends and family have asked me since the end of the school year how it went, and I often reply, “I’m excited to get a chance to do everything over.” One problem. How do I know what to change about my teaching?

Two fellow SBS teachers, Rebecca DeMott (math) and Timothy McCall (history), and I (English language) made the trip on August 8th down to The Pomfret School for a weekend that would hopefully help us find the answer to that very question. The New England New Teachers 2.0 (NENTS 2.0) conference is geared toward teachers with just a few years of experience. We know the basics–we’ve handled the awkward, the distressing, and the heartwarming. We’ve navigated living alongside our colleagues and students, and we have big ideas about schools and education. Group us in a mass of about 30 participants from various boarding and day schools in New England, and we’ve collectively seen it all.

To prepare for the conference, each participant had to videotape a class, upload it to a private YouTube channel (for PD purposes, only), and read a book called Brain Rules, by brain scientist John Medina (which I highly recommend to any person with a brain). Since I am interested in making my classes more interactive to encourage students to practice their English, I chose to record a class period with some whole-class instruction and discussion, paired work, and individual practice. Watching it on my own made me a bit uncomfortable, as any person who’s ever seen herself on video can imagine (do I really say “right” that much? Apparently.).

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During the conference, we each played our taped classes on a big screen in front of experienced master teachers, and a group of participants from varying subject areas. We observed specific behaviors from the teacher and the students using the CLASS system, and brainstormed how the teacher could better meet her goals. Sharing video is beneficial for all who watch, in the same way that visiting other classrooms can give teachers fresh ideas. However, the class on film can be paused to allow observers to give even more specific feedback, and discussing the classroom environment from behind a camera lens removes the distractions of live visits. The forum for teacher talk that ensued was respectful, yet participants were unafraid to point out how each class could be better. All parties understood the importance of growth as a professional teacher, and that far outweighs the embarrassment of a lesson that goes awry. Learning to offer and receive constructive feedback on something as personal as our teaching practices was a growing experience in itself.

During my sharing time, the cohort was able to make significant changes to my lesson and help me think differently about my teaching. My original lesson’s goal was to help students write effective introductions to their essays. However, it lacked a certain level of student engagement and ownership. Instead of merely presenting what an effective introduction should look like, my colleagues suggested that students decide for themselves. So, in the new lesson, I would provide two examples of introductions and make the students determine which was better and why. They would then participate in group writing at the chalkboard, to engage different learning styles and create movement in the classroom. By placing all of the cognitive work on the students, my lesson would become more engaging, and ultimately would help students develop their English skills in a deeper, more meaningful way. This improved lesson would not exist if I did not seek the feedback of teachers and experienced professionals in my content area. I was eventually able to mold my cohort’s suggestions to fit my students’ needs and my personal teaching style.

The question that my colleagues and I had, “How do I know what to change about my teaching?” has no simple answer. Actually, the answer is that there are an infinite number of answers. There are endless possibilities for improvement, even for teachers who have been practicing their art for 50 or more years. The NENTS 2.0 conference inspired me, not to use a magic-bullet curriculum or class format (although I have some exciting ideas to try this coming year), but to open my mind to the limitless creative power that I have as a teacher, and that we have, as the entire SBS faculty in collaboration with one another.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

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.

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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