And We’re Back!

Other than the persistent and depressing cold, which I’ll concede has the virtue of bringing people together united in the strong desire for spring to just come already tinged with a sense of pride that we seem to have survived winter, it’s been a relatively normal return from spring break. The faculty began with an excellent in-service day. We spent the morning thinking about gender and sexual identities and how they relate to adolescent development, and how best to support our students. In the afternoon, we learned about Korean culture and spent time thinking about ways to best support all the English learners in our school. Kids greeted each other with the usual screams and hugs. Classes got back to work with a general good will and air of curiosity, although I’ll admit here that my Humanities 7 class was openly (and occasionally successfully) trying to distract me from starting the brand new unit. They would eventually agree that the unit’s theme would be judging, with the discussion underlining that we were especially looking at how ideals get set, why some ideals end up so superficial, and the sources and effects of judgment on people in general and 7th grade girls in particular.

Wednesday morning, while looking for interesting articles and comments to share on the school’s Twitter stream, I stumbled across an article at edweek.org entitled “Single-Sex Classrooms Making a Comeback for All the Wrong Reasons.” That certainly caught my attention! Reading through it, I felt as though I were in an alternate reality. The concluding sentence, “It seems that there must be a better way to encourage young women, and men, in their academic studies without implementing the archaic practice of total separation in classrooms.” summed up the general drift of the article, and was followed by a question that, in the context of the article, I hope and trust was sincere: “Are you in favor of, or against, single-sex schooling models?”

Well. I am strongly in favour of schooling models that work toward social justice, and unsurprisingly, I believe (based on both experience and on research) that girls schools can provide a unique, valuable, and rich context for that work. I don’t always comment on edweek.org articles, but I was definitely riled up, and before I knew it, I had worked up the following comment that began with quotes from the article:

“This idea that young women are dropping non-feminine topics at an impressionable age because of the opposite sex is flawed.” “One of the arguments for single-sex schooling is that it takes away the tingly, budding attraction emotions in young people” I work in the middle school program of a girls independent school, and believe me, these are not fundamental rationales for our being a girls school. I would run away screaming if that were true.

In sharp contrast to those rationales, our school’s mission implies feminist ideals as it is not just about honoring and developing girls’ and women’s voices but also about working to build a world that is genuinely willing to listen. Year after year, kids in my class say they can talk about gender issues in a way that was never possible in their old schools. They’ll talk about coaches – coaches! – that discouraged them from developing athletic ability. They’ll talk about how much they appreciate being taken seriously and valued as girls. One alumna wrote of how grateful she was to have learned how to live as a feminist in a patriarchal society. And there is research supporting these sorts of benefits of living and learning in a girl-positive environment.

As for the “T” in LGBT – we have in fact had students and alums come out as transgender (by the way, I would argue that the implication here is that gender, unlike sex, isn’t necessarily predetermined), and I do in fact try to be very clear with my students that I’m well aware that not every person at my school whom I’ve ever taught, or will ever teach, will necessarily self-identify as female their whole life.

So yes, I support my school’s model. But I don’t view it as archaic in the slightest. And in no way do I believe I am “teaching stereotypes” – other than to identify them and the forces creating them, the better to work to undermine and do away with them.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Truly Blessed

Before Spring Break, Sophie, one of the 8th graders asked me if I had liked the play she had helped write in 7th grade. “Refresh my memory,” I said, and she responded with a twinkle in her eye, “Cross-dressing old man?” It all came rushing back to me. “Oh, yes,” I said. I remember your play was really solid when you took it from my class to the Theatre 7 class, and then it still went through several revisions. In fact, I knew about a lot of the revisions, and I was still surprised during the performance! But it was solid all the way through. People loved it.” And then, with a sideways glance at the 7th grader who was sitting right there, “People always look forward to the 7th grade plays.” Sophie said, “That’s right! All the former 7th graders come,” and I added, “And not just former 7th graders. People who were never in the middle school tell me they look forward to the 7th grade plays.” “It’s a rite of passage for 7th grade,” Sophie commented as the younger girl took it all in.

It takes an incredible amount of courage to put your voice out there not only as the performer of a play but also as the author, especially when you are actually a co-author with up to four other people who are just as creative and passionate as you are and have equally strong opinions about every word. That day was going to be the first time the Humanities 7 class read their scripts to Julia and Kim, who will be co-directing the plays this spring, and that, too, takes a great deal of courage. Julia and Kim were both excited to learn about all the possibilities that the plays provided, and they also both had a number of insightful suggestions.

I was worried how the students might have taken the suggestions, whether they would show up in class that morning nervous and upset. I worried, as so often happens, for nothing. They clearly had taken the advice to heart as valuable and helpful and something that would ultimately strengthen their scripts.

I was never worried about the first part of class. As we were wrapping up the script-writing unit, it was time to agree on our final two student-designed units of the year. The girls had looked over the multitudes of questions they had written on eight large sheets of paper back in the fall, and emailed me the questions from those sheets that they might be interested in studying, along with any new questions that may have occurred to them in the process. That final list of 61 questions would somehow have to be shaped into two units that enabled every girl in the class to be able to find a topic about which she felt passionate for each unit. I decided to ask them to write their top two questions from the list on the white board, search for themes uniting those questions, and bring those themes together. It worked marvelously. They found seven themes running through their 28 questions, and almost instantly connected five of those themes together before quickly agreeing that the other two also fit together. Almost like magic, the themes for our units had appeared.

“Before I send you off to work on your scripts,” I told them, “I just have to let you know what I’m thinking. I hope you can imagine what it’s like to be a teacher and be faced with a task that you aren’t sure you could ever do, and know that you work with students who are capable of (I pointed to the white board) all this, of coming together to find, all on your own, the solution to how to organize all of this into something meaningful. That I am able to trust in you all to accomplish that is an absolutely phenomenal thing, and I hope you all know it.” One of the girls said, “You just made me cry. (Other girls nodded, and I interjected, “Me too.”) I hope when I graduate, that’s what someone says about me.” I am sure someone will.

I know, I know, all my classes are special, once and for always. They all inspire me. They all move me deeply. Today, though, it was these kids.

I am truly blessed.

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

To ban or not to ban: “Bossy”

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’” So begins the website at http://banbossy.com/, a new organization co-founded by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In Foundation and the Girl Scouts of America. The website points out that girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boy’s from elementary to high school, that girls are twice as likely as boys to worry about being called “bossy,” and girls are still called on less and interrupted more in class. (Ban Bossy) There’s no question that we need to do something about that, and there’s no question we know some of the things that work.

On the Girl Scouts’ website, for example, they share the results of a study done in 2008 that showed the following (Girl Scouts):

  • Girls, even at a very young age, have definite ideas about what it means and takes to be a leader.
  • Promoting leadership in girls is primarily a matter of fostering their self-confidence and providing supportive environments in which to acquire leadership experience.
  • To be relevant to and successful with girls, a leadership program must address their aspirational or preferred definition of leadership, their need for emotional safety, and their desire for social and personal development.
  • Girls have a range of “leadership identities,” from strong aspiration to outright rejection of the leadership role.

Of course, girls schools and other girl-positive organizations epitomize supportive environments. However, these environments need not necessarily be all girls organizations (to whatever extent one can ever say with confidence that one’s organization is in fact “all girls”), though that does facilitate the process. In helping create supportive environments, these principles suggest that we need to – following principles of best practice – engage with the individual girls in front of us, helping them figure out how they now view leadership, how they came to hold that view, where they see themselves going, and ultimately how they see themselves able to help move a given group of people forward (the goal behind all good leadership and all good membership).

In that context, the “Ban Bossy” campaign can be, and is, seen by different people as anywhere from an essential component of doing this good work to a needless distraction. A recent chat on the Feministing website brought out several important points:

  • Rather than bringing attention to women’s exclusion from leadership, [it] distracts from these realities by making the issue semantic and easily dismissed. (Jos Truitt)
  • Also I honestly don’t feel like “banning” words like this ever really works, and I actually find it a lot more effective to find power in that word vs. a bland attempt to get rid of it. (Jos Truitt)
  • I do appreciate the goal of starting a conversation about the negative feedback we give to girls who show leadership qualities and how that particular double-standard has real consequences for how kids are socialized. (Maya Dusenbery)
  • This campaign exists without analysis of how “bossiness” is perceived when women and girls of color are bossy, which I think is a really important point. (Verónica Bayetti Flores)

One of the people in my Twitter family is a member of the Tea Party, and she certainly had a vehement and visceral reaction to the campaign and what she saw as thought police. As we discussed the issue, it developed that we agreed that the conditions that led to girls with leadership qualities being more likely to be called “bossy” are something we as a society absolutely must discuss but that we both were uneasy about outright “banning” use of some words. Also, I do believe that gender activism in general and feminism in particular strongly need to continually listen to the full range of voices in the movements, work on intersectionality, and strive to bring out nuance in service to the greater goal of true equality for all humanity. Towards that end…

When posting a link to the “Ban Bossy” campaign in its earliest days, my Twitter and Facebook friend Kenzo Shibata added a comment that caused me to respond, “Like to the power of like.” He said, “I got a better idea. How about we teach children of all gender identities to be collaborative and stop making authoritarianism the ideal?” (Kenzo Shibata)

That, I can absolutely support. Anyone else with us?

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage, Women in media

Circle of Uniqueness

The end does not actually justify the means; the means create the end.
- Gloria Steinem

If there isn’t trouble the day after a feminist speaks, they haven’t done their job. So noted Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, early on in her speech given at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as part of their Public Policy Lecture Series. As I thumbed a paraphrase of her words into my phone, I thought, “Well, perhaps it’s my job to help ensure there’s trouble.” And indeed, Ms. Steinem referred on multiple occasions to the accumulated power in the room, never mind the other auditorium where overflow was watching and listening via a video feed.

Her listed topic was, “Feminism: Where are we going?” It would appear that where we are going (as a gender activist, I strongly sympathize with and work alongside feminists) is both exciting and dangerous. Most social justice movements, she said, go through three distinct stages: raising consciousness, organizing, effecting transformation. The phase of consciousness-raising most pertinent to modern feminism may have reached its peak with the groups of the 1970’s I remember so well in my home town and at my college. Ms. Steinem would note later on, in response to a question, that if done right and through face-to-face communication, consciousness-raising groups can permit an easy, smooth, and seamless shift to organizing – part of the work is already done.

So at this point in time, Ms. Steinem argued, the organizing phase is also largely done. Attitudes have sharply shifted, and there are signs that the process of transformation has started. As Ms. Steinem put it, “Hierarchy is based on patriarchy and patriarchy isn’t based on anything any more.” However, to completely break free of gender boxes and open up the full range of human potential, it’s going to take a whole lot more transformation including men developing their full humanity as well. She also noted, both in response to a question about intersectionality and elsewhere in her talk, the intimate relationship of of feminism and anti-racism, affirming that “It’s not possible to be a feminist without being anti-racist.”

To break free of gender and other restricting boxes, we can think in terms of a circle of human qualities rather than a hierarchy. To further challenge and put an end to hierarchy, we can also work to understand individuals on their own terms rather than by identifying them as part of a group. This does not mean denying connections; quite the contrary. Ms. Steinem noted that “We are linked, we are not ranked,” and affirmed that hierarchies are a self-perpetuating lie that we increasingly disbelieve. Ultimately, the goal would be to ensure that “We are each completing our own circle of uniqueness.”

Ms. Steinem also talked about domestic violence, pointing out that countries with the highest rates of domestic violence also tend to have the highest rates of other kinds of violence. Normalizing violence in the home normalizes violence in the world. Furthermore, domestic violence is about control, and the most dangerous time for a potential victim of domestic violence is immediately before or after they escape that control.

As we work to free humanity from the control of patriarchy, the metaphor of escaping from domestic violence holds true. One questioner from the audience noted the strength of the backlash in the form of both various proposed pieces of legislation and rhetoric, expressing the fear that things were actually getting worse rather than better. Ms. Steinem acknowledged the strength and force of the backlash, noting that legislators, especially in state legislatures which fly somewhat more under the radar than Congress, disproportionately represent a minority view that seeks to restrict the rights of women, LGBT people, and people of colour. She pointed out that the majority, even when they are right, does not always win.

Among audience members asking questions were a student who had come down from Burlington, VT, a worker with a group fighting domestic violence in Cambridge, MA, and an alumna of MCLA who had heard Gloria Steinem before but had driven six hours from Philadelphia with a friend so the friend could see her as well. A number of questions were preceded with sometimes tearful statements that, “You are one of my heroes,” “You kept me sane,” and “You have no idea what you meant to me.” The speakers seemed to be expressing not only a longing for connection but also a longing for affirmation for their true selves in a world that does not always value them. Ms. Steinem noted the fundamental importance and power of networking, of creating spaces where people can talk about what they are seeing, feeling, and thinking, and of knowing wherever you go, you can find such a space. Such groups work best face to face; “A revolution doesn’t happen by pressing ‘Send’.”

I hope and pray that this school is one such space, and I know I work nonstop in the hope that it may be. I also work nonstop to spread the notion that people of all genders need to be freed of the roles and boxes and rankings that have hobbled them for hundreds of years. But, as Ms. Steinem noted, the period of human history dominated by patriarchy has been relatively short. We are in fact the majority. And if we want to go forth and cause a little trouble, so to speak, we are not alone. Therein lies hope. That circle of uniqueness need not just be each individual person; it can also be also all of us together. And all of us together are a force. All of us together can win.

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#NAISAC14, Day One

The National Association of Independent Schools is holding its annual conference right now, and as I have in some past years, I’ve resolved to try and read up on at least a portion of the many wonderful things happening there and reflect on them here. This installment follows the first full day.

Bo Adams caught my attention early by tweeting, “Now that would make a great course! ‘Our relationship with water.’” I wrote back to say that’s exactly a topic we in the middle school have been brainstorming about for a possible month-long interdisciplinary project one day. He sent an encouraging note asking me to keep him informed, and I linked him to our blog.

Bo also asked one of the most provocative questions I ran across today, “If school is supposed to prepare students for real life, then why doesn’t it look more like real life?” (I highly recommend you read his entire article!) As I think on this question, my mind jumps to my Humanities 7 classroom, where students right now are finishing up the scripts they will produce and stage in the Theatre 7 class this spring. They set “breaking stereotypes” as a common theme to tie the three different plays together, and agreed as a class that they wanted each play to be a modern take on a well-known story or fairy tale. Working in groups of five, they have set characters, developed plotlines, and worked daily to create each script line by painstaking line. Essentially, they are doing what teams of writers do for TV shows, except on a different scale and for the stage.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the students said, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” and this is certainly not the first year I’ve heard someone say that. Each student is brimful of wonderful, creative ideas, and is passionate about her vision. Yet, unlike during class discussions of literature and various issues, there is no agreeing to disagree here. In the end, choices must be made all along the way, and at any given point in time, only one specific word may be written. The challenge becomes how to genuinely value each member of the group and her contributions yet maintain a unified and logical vision for the play. They all desperately want to be included, and desperately want to be inclusive. Each group has hit the wall at least once. Each group has eventually found a way to work through their differences, sometimes on their own, sometimes with my assistance. If that’s not real life, I don’t know what is!

And I’m happy to add that, along whatever the students may be learning about collaboration, they are creating solid and enjoyable scripts and I know the community will love the spring production when it goes up on May 30.

Later on in the morning, as a teacher in a girls school, I was delighted to hear from Online School for Girls Executive Director Brad Rathgeber that John Chubb, the President of NAIS, had said some kind things about great innovations in girls schools. The NAISAC14 Community Daily expanded on that general theme by including a link to the President’s blog originally shared by the National Coalition for Girls Schools. In the blog, Dr. Chubb describes a visit to Roland Park Country School, a school in Maryland that has a coed pre-school and is all girls for grades K-12. When he writes “I was also struck by the strength of leadership among the students, the high level of engagement in the arts and athletics, and the sheer joy in the school culture,” I saw our own school, as I’m sure many girls school teachers did as well.

Roland Park is currently working on starting up a charter middle school for girls. Dr. Chubb notes, “In the end, Roland Park believes it understands how to do something very well — educate girls and young women — and wants to see if it can extend its service, and learn new lessons in the process.” I wish them all the best; in my mind, anything good girls schools can do to promote girl-positive environments for all students everywhere can only benefit all of us. Similarly, Dr. Chubb writes, “What I have found… is that the schools that see themselves as part of the larger community of schools and are willing to learn from ‘the competition’ tend to gain strength from the experience.” Those goals echo those of the recently formed #PubPriBridge group to which I belong.

In the end, I believe deeply, we need for all students at all schools, public and private, to benefit from the best possible education, and toward that end, we need for us all to pull together and learn from each other.

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

Hopes

Every Wednesday, the middle school holds “Morning Meeting,” which is a flexible time set aside for us all to be able to come together as a whole community. Possible activities run the gamut from bonding games to announcements to game days to make-up MOCA meetings to… whatever is needed! Today, we began by going over next week’s schedule and taking questions, going over check-out procedures for spring break and taking questions, going over remaining community service for the term and taking questions, and looking at and applauding the winning t-shirt design for our 10-year anniversary celebration. And taking questions. At that point, we still had just over five minutes left, and so I asked everyone to stand up and form a circle.

[insert groans and cries of “but I’m so comfortable!” here]

When the circle was formed, I pointed out that we were almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the year and that we had just over three months left until graduation. Several of them said, “Whose graduation?” and I laughed and answered, “The Seniors. You all have a few more years to go.” I said that we had done a lot, grown a lot, and already had much to be proud of, and that the remaining three months still gave us a lot more time together. I asked them to quietly think of hopes they had for the rest of the year, either for the community or for themselves. Clara, to my right, whispered, “Can I go last?” “Sure,” I whispered back.

After a bit, I checked in to see if everyone was ready to go, and they were. Jewels, to my left, whispered, “Can we go around that way?,” pointing to Clara. “Sorry, she asked first,” I whispered back.

I started by saying, “I hope we all continue to learn how each one of us is special, and we are able to celebrate that.” Jewels’s eyes widened as we all turned to her, and she said, “Sleep. Lots of rest for all of us.” and we continued on around. As always happens on these occasions, themes began to form, weaving through and underneath different people’s thoughts. Friendship, connectedness, and permanence were among the most commonly mentioned – having fun with friends, making new friends, making sure the seventh and eighth graders had time together, getting to know other people, ensuring we all had contact information for the summer and beyond, staying in touch. Many students mentioned getting along well and growing closer. They mentioned learning, too, of course, and Andrea, one of the math/science teachers, said, “I hope you all come to see yourselves as mathematicians.” And they mentioned specific personal goals ranging from “improving my English” to “trying New England seafood.”

When the circle came around to finish up with Clara’s words, she said, “I hope that when we all see each other in 50 years, we all recognize each other.”

As the students started to break for G period, I called out, “Before you go, one question. Who makes this happen?” They yelled back, “Us! We do!”

I love these kids.

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Torn Apart

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Usually, at the end of a show, especially on Opening Night, the cast either cheers and wanders off stage after the bows or simply wanders off stage. But as Meg Reilly, the music director, and Josh Carnes, the drummer, went into the exit music, these kids clearly did not want to leave, and it only took a few moments for the first one to turn to the girl standing next to her and wrap her in a long, warm hug which spread like, well, AIDS in the early 1990s, to choose a show-appropriate metaphor. Only, of course, on a much, much more positive note.

Before the show, Kim Mancuso, the stage director of the play, had gathered us all together on stage for an Opening Night ritual that marked and acknowledged the importance of each and every possible relationship among us in pulling off this incredibly complex and powerful show. When Tom Geha, the lighting technician, and I returned to the tech table, he said, “You know, you probably don’t even think about it because you see them every day, but I was looking around and it really hits you how young they are.” Rent is an ambitious show for people of any age, but it is an exceptional challenge for teenagers and pre-teens (three cast members were seventh graders) to immerse themselves for three months in the world of New York City’s East Village in the early 1990s, when many of the starving young artists were HIV-positive and/or had come down with full-blown AIDS. In that context, it was perhaps even more of a challenge for these kids to put themselves out there on stage for all to see.

Yet, every single audience member I talked to said the same thing, that part of what made this show exceptional was the absolutely universal commitment to the show and to each other that was clear from the first entrance to the last onstage hug before they finally wandered off stage.

The other part of what made this show exceptional is the show itself. The script is raw and intense, fueled by the tension that comes from the uncertainty of not knowing which one of your friends might be the next to die, of trying to find happiness and live day by day as best we can. With the funeral of one of the most beloved of the main characters as the centerpiece of the second act, and the subsequent destruction or near-destruction of a number of the relationships, the second act is harrowing. I turned to Tom after the Saturday night performance, and commented, “That second act just destroys me every time, and more and more each time I see it.” I could see in his eyes even before he answered that he felt the same way.

Near the end of the show, the character Tom Collins sings, “I can’t believe you’re going / I can’t believe this family must die / Angel helped us believe in love / I can’t believe you disagree.” One of my seventh grade Humanities students wrote an independent writing piece after the final show that essentially echoed this sentiment. I wrote her in response, “This is beautiful – raw and honest and in the moment. It’s not polished, and quite honestly it probably shouldn’t be. / I will share this with you in reaction, something I sent out on Twitter a few hours after the show: ‘Hard to mix the 2nd act of #Rent with tears flooding my eyes but I did my best. @sbschoolorg kids did an awesome job with a powerful show.’ I think this one will stick with many, perhaps most, of us for a lifetime.”

“Rent,” of course, not only refers to the money the characters in this musical state in the title song that they are not going to pay – not last year’s, not this year’s, not next year’s. “Rent” also refers to the concept of being, literally, torn apart. In this case, fortunately, though perhaps emotionally shredded, the cast and crew of this musical were not torn apart.

This family, at least, will never die.

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Filed under Performing Arts, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School