Monthly Archives: October 2010

NEHC and Family Weekend

This past weekend was such a jam-packed weekend for SBS Riding that Marilyn and I had to split up for the whole weekend just to get everything done. Marilyn took several of our riders (Tess and Kelly) to Springfield for the NEHC Junior Medal finals while I stayed at school to organize and run the little horse show we hold during family weekend to give parents the opportunity to see their kids ride. It’s Tuesday now, and Marilyn and I have been reunited. After comparing notes, we have decided that both equestrian events were a big success.

Though I was not at NEHC for the entire weekend, I did have the opportunity to go down with Marilyn to drop the horses off on Wednesday and then again on Friday to take Kelly and Tess there for a lesson. I have always loved the atmosphere of NEHC, the hush in the ring as some of the best riders and horses in the area show their stuff and the excitement and friendly atmosphere of the barns, the elaborate displays each barn places by their stalls (often featuring bowls of free candy in acknowledgment of the soon to arrive Halloween festivities 🙂 ). It’s also a great time and place to run into everybody and anybody in the local horse world who you might know. It’s horse world socializing at its best.

With hundreds of riders competing, NEHC is some of the toughest competition around. Kelly and Tess rode their best against these riders, and though they may not have won, they were still able to show what they can do, and most importantly, they were able to have fun and enjoy the NEHC atmosphere.

Back at home, the atmosphere of the Family Weekend show was a lot more relaxed than the tense show ring of NEHC (well, at least for the students and parents – there were times when I was a bit stressed getting things ready!). It was a lot of fun designing the class list, placing students in classes, and designing the flat tests which we decided to include this year. I really liked the idea of the flat tests because it gave our riders an opportunity to demonstrate just what they can do in the ring. In lessons we are always challenging them with half seats and to drop their stirrups, but they rarely get to show off just how well they can do these things in the show ring. I know I make some of my riders ride in a half seat without stirrups all the time (what can I say? I guess I like to torture them!) and I wanted to give them a chance to show just how strong their legs have become.

All the girls took advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned to do, how strong they have become, how softly they’ve learned to guide and manipulate their mounts, how skillful they’ve become at navigating a course, and how happy they are while at the barn and spending time with each another. We have some very talented girls and on Saturday we had the opportunity to see some of that talent. I was very proud of everyone.

I was also proud of myself for the show being a great success! I was thrilled that everyone seemed to have fun, that the snacks I picked out were enjoyed, that the atmosphere was so relaxed and friendly, and that I managed to keep everything within our time frame of three hours!

All in all it was a great weekend for SBS Riding.

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Filed under Equestrian Program

It Gets Better.

Today is October 20, 2010. No different than any other Wednesday here at SBS. Many girls are dressed in their soccer or volleyball jerseys, classes will end at noon and there will be a mad rush to the dining hall for lunch. It’s the same as every other Wednesday except for one very obvious difference.

There are a lot of people wearing purple.

Suicides among LGBT teens have been highlighted in the news lately and the “It Gets Better” project has received support from thousands of LGBT adults and celebrities who are urging teens not to give up, that the bullying ends and it will get better.

This morning as I arrived to see students, faculty and staff alike wearing purple to support the movement originally started on Facebook, I logged into Twitter and Facebook to see tons of tweets and status updates about the day.

One particular tweet from Admissions Quest caught my eye. This morning they tweeted “It Gets Better: Boarding Schools Work to Be Safe and Supportive of GLBT Students –“. I clicked on the link and it took me to a post by Sherri Bergman, the Director of Communications at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School.

While reading the post I was struck by one line in particular..

“Yes, it gets better, but there is no need to wait.”

Here at Stoneleigh-Burnham School we strive to be an open and supportive community. Our GSA is one of the largest student groups on campus and even girls who aren’t members showed up to school today with their purple tops, shoes, pants and leggings. Those who forgot were sporting purple ribbons pinned to their clothes, and still others wore purple ribbons on their wrists in support of their LGBT friends.

In a world that is struggling with teen suicides related to bullying it is comforting to live and work in a community like Stoneleigh-Burnham. Here, instead of allowing bullying or hate we promote an accepting community that encourages girls to be who they are…no matter who that may be. We help each girl to find her voice and follow her passions. We encourage respect and tolerance, understanding and compassion…and we see it every day, in the smiles on their faces and the laughter in their voices.

It’s true, it does get better…but if you can find a supportive and accepting school community, there is no need to wait.

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Filed under School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Having a Conversation

“Has Stoneleigh-Burnham ever had a transgender student?”

The question, asked in the middle of study hall, caught me momentarily by surprise but I recovered quickly and answered, “Yes, at least one that I know of, actually a former advisee of mine.”

“Did she…. or he or whatever… know it at the time?”

I weighed my answer carefully. “I don’t know for sure, but I think that he didn’t know it when she enrolled, if you see what I mean.”

“What would the school do if a transgender student wanted to apply?”

Several other girls looked over at me expectantly, awaiting the answers I would give in words and wordlessly. The simple directness of the question and tone of voice suggested they were primarily looking for a factual answer, if suspecting that the question of necessity opens up a can of worms for a single-gender school. Well aware that for these kids such topics are fresh and exciting, I wanted as always to respond directly and honestly, in a way that would allow them to form their own opinions, and in a way that would support anyone in the room who might happen to be or know anyone who is transgender. Trying to convey the warmth and openness I felt, I responded, “It’s a great question, and I honestly don’t know the answer.” Not quite the ringing words I was hoping for, but at least they were true. They asked how they could find out the answer, and I suggested they talk to Mr. Swartzentruber. Of course, I sent him an email right away letting him know the question might be coming up.

Three years ago, this conversation would probably never have occurred. Three years ago, the middle school team decided to invite the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) to do a series of workshops with the 7th and 8th graders following a number of instances of obliviously homophobic remarks. While we had addressed the remarks at the time, we thought that the students needed some information, and that learning about heterosexism from older students would be more effective than learning from us. The high school students responded beautifully, answering the usual deluge of questions that middle schoolers raise with grace and empathy, helping set a new tone wherein whatever anyone felt personally about homosexuality, those being personal beliefs which they had every right to have, conversations around the school needed to bear in mind that all people deserve to be treated with respect.

During the course of this workshop, the GSA members also defined the word transgender. As this was right around the time my former advisee came out to the school, I was moved to do some research into transgender people. I learned that not all transgender people feel they were born into the wrong body, that “transgender” is actually a huge umbrella term for many different ways of being. For example, some transgender people simply prefer to dress differently, and still others prefer to reject the gender binary altogether. I realized that when we talk about LGBT people, we often focus on the “LG” and/or the “B” and not quite so often on the “T.” It is, to be fair, a complex acronym in that sexuality is distinct from gender.

So when last year’s Humanities 7 class began to occasionally include transphobia in their discussions about prejudice and heterosexism, I was much more prepared than I would have been just two years previously, and we had a number of great discussions about how gender is defined and how that relates to gender expression, both for girls and for transgender people.

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) is celebrating Ally Week from October 18-22. I think back to my years in junior high and the one student who had come out as being gay. I only heard fragments of conversations about him, but enough to know he must have felt just as absolutely miserable as he often looked as he strode through the corridors with a faint air of challenge as if he was continually expecting a fight. I look back on those years and wonder, had I known then what I know now, if I would have been able to stick up for him. I hope I would have. I hope even more that someone did.

So often at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, when there’s something that needs working out, we’ll talk about the importance of having a conversation, of leaving assumptions at the door and listening with an open mind, responding with a core of respect. Understanding and accepting all people, in all their uniqueness, is a necessary base, and one that is often easy for middle schoolers to achieve, obsessed as they are with understanding and accepting themselves, hyper-focused as they are on fairness. As we enter Ally Week, and as we at Stoneleigh-Burnham School continue to outline our anti-bullying policy, I can’t help but think that conversations like the one above, if handled well, can serve to normalize and destigmatize ways of being which can too often lead to bullying such as that long-ago student in Amherst Regional Junior High School experienced. Though they don’t always admit it, middle school kids still take many of their cues from the adults around them. It’s vital work, exciting work, necessary work – and work that must and will continue far beyond Ally Week.

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Filed under On Education

Down the Road

I walk into my “Foundations of Language and Culture” class eagerly anticipating the last two student presentations on the brain and learning. The groups who spoke about brain structures and the male brain two days ago set the bar high, and the buzz of focused activity in the “female brain” group and the contrastingly calm demeanor of the “how the brain changes as you learn” group both suggest they feel they will be up to the task of meeting that standard.

It turns out the the group speaking about the female brain has only just solved the issue of how to merge four separate PowerPoints together (we had agreed each student could hook up her own netbook to the projector in turn if need be), and they ask for just a few more moments to double-check that the animations still work properly. While we are waiting, I pass out the evaluation forms the class designed and answer random student questions as they arise. Finally, nearly everything is ready – “Could you please turn out the lights?” calls out a student – and the audience looks expectantly toward the Smart Board around which the female brain group has gathered. By the end of the presentation, according to the evaluation forms, members of the class will have learned “about how females use more of their emotional sides and are more prone to depression,” that “girls are more likely to focus on facial expressions as infants,” that “empathizing tendencies means they’re [women] better at communicating with each other,” that “women are better at language and understanding emotions,” women have more white matter in their brain and “more balance,” and many other things including the fact that “women are at more risk for Alzheimer’s,” the vocabulary term “mentalistic tendencies” and “the importance of connectedness.”

Once the last assessment form is turned in, the next group begins to speak. Like the other groups, they speak with a confidence they may or may not feel, judging from their self-assessment sheets, about how the brain changes as you learn. They begin by acknowledging that their research suggests there are differing opinions on whether or not the brain can grow neurons after you are born, give and explain their personal opinion, and continue on to make a remarkable presentation on the plasticity of the brain. Assessment sheets tell the story of what the other students learned: that “the brain has white and grey matter,” that “when you learn, neurons… come together to share information and make a pathway,” that “learning takes place when neurons connect to each other,” that “you MIGHT be born without all your neurons,” and more. Although the group mentioned the role of myelin in learning, in “smoothing the path for learning to occur” as they put it, I am not 100% certain the importance sank in with other students, so I make a mental note to come back to that point sometime very soon. In general, as skillful as these presentations were and as clear as it was that the students understood the importance of what they were doing, I know that we will need to revisit much of this information if the students are to retain it over the longer term. Those new neural connections and thickened myelin sheaths will return to their former states if I don’t!

To start that process, and to tie the presentations back to our year-long textbook project, I ask the students what they have learned that will help them write a good textbook together. They come up with the following principles:
1. We can review things to help create a strong pathway with a thick myelin sheath.
2. We can fully immerse people in a language, such as having a chapter entirely in the language.
3. Make information clear so that it can be processed and stored in an organized way in the brain.
4. We could explain how the brain works – so they know how they learn (and because it’s interesting).
5. Include pictures and visuals.
6. Create a movie, perhaps a skit for each language, a mini-documentary for each culture.
7. Include appropriate background information.
8. Keep in mind that different people learn different ways – there are multiple ways of communicating such as information, text, visuals, more.
9. Add links for follow up and clarification.
10. Compare our culture to other cultures (relates them…. connects new information to an existing neural network).
11. Speak from multiple perspectives.
12. [a content-related comment: explore stereotypes and where they come from.]
13. Make it appealing and fun – connect emotionally.
14. Pace it appropriately… not too much too fast, but not too slow either.

Of course, as I’d imagined they would, their ideas apply to good learning/teaching techniques in general. If I am explicit with them about not only what they are learning but also how I am setting up the course to help in that process, it should help create a number of connections, not just within neural networks and not just from areas of the brain most closely associated with emotion to other areas of the brain used for learning, but also between the students and me as well as among the students themselves. This group of students is already among the most metacognitive with whom I have worked, and they have strong potential to become even more self-aware about their learning. What an amazing year this promises to be!

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education

Inherently Mavericks

As middle school teachers, you are inherently mavericks… Do what is right for your kids… Be the mavericks you are. – Antonio Viva, Head of Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in his keynote address at “Teaching for the Future: A Conference for Middle School Faculty”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person sitting in the audience with an open mind, high hopes, and a soupçon of skepticism. We were, after all, approximately 100 middle school teachers, waiting for the opening keynote for the first-ever middle school conference run by AISNE (the Association of Independent Schools of New England). An underlying optimism characterizes most middle school teachers, but on the other hand once you’ve attended enough conferences, you know that all keynote speakers are not created equal. The topic, 21st Century Learning, offered few clues as we in the education community have been debating what exactly that means for, well, a decade now, as Mr. Viva reminded us in his opening words.

Time and time again, you hear the call that our country needs, in the words of Daniel Pink, “design thinkers and problem-solvers.” Time and time again, the rapidly increasing pace of change is used to drive home the point that we are preparing our kids for an uncertain future. Literacies are changing, and the skillset required for success is also evolving. The abilities to communicate and collaborate, among others, continue to be vital, but the tools we use and the skills those tools require are radically different from those of the past.

Tuesday night, I move my cat away from the computer monitor and log in to the Elluminate session being hosted by the Facebook group “Teachers’ Letters to Obama.” The by-now familiar screen pops up with the list of participants, chat room, virtual white board, and, in the lower-left-hand corner, the microphone icon which I have never personally seized, though I test my levels just in case. Soon, nationally known advocates for research-based educational reform are speaking on what they have been doing to “Stop Griping, Start Organizing.” I click to save several PowerPoints so that I can reference them later, and listen to ideas on what actions have been and could be taken. At one point, I open another browser window, do a Google search, and go back to the chat room to post a link to a helpful website. 90 minutes later, I log out having saved a screen shot linking me to a website where those interested in taking further action can network.

In examining the common characteristics of the top ten businesses, you see not only collaboration (which implies communication) but also creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and real world problem solving. Toward that end, Google has suggested a “major in learning.” The company, certainly one of the most creative, innovative and dominant in the world, views non-routine problems as opportunities, and asks employees to set aside a full 25% of their time to “do something creative.” Google’s headquarters include a Lego room, where the only activity in which you are allowed to engage is… playing with Legos.

In such a world, literacies are also evolving. Students of today need new skills related to multitasking, simulation, appropriation, transmedia navigation, judgment, play, performance, and more.  They are in many ways well-equipped to acquire these skills as they are plugged in, interconnected and social, unique, able to be involved in global classrooms to a degree never-before possible, networked with people with common interests, always on, and seeking authentic roles. Rather than sitting passively absorbing what we tell them to, they seek to be critical consumers of their learning experiences.

What an opportunity!

What, then, should teachers be doing to take advantage of this opportunity? We need to be networking if we want to be able to lead the next generation of educators. We need to reimagine ourselves as “educational Sherpas” (Viva), modelers, concierges, incubators, synthesizers, and facilitators (a word I’ve personally been increasingly stressing as of late).. Our spaces need to change, with art classrooms as a model, we need to examine the resources we provide, and we need to rethink how students can demonstrate what they know and understand. We need to be asking the really big, profound questions (which our students are already doing!), reflect on the relevance of our practice and evolve as needed, and be willing to make mistakes along the way. In the process, we can be modeling tenacity, a desperately-needed quality in today’s world and one which is increasingly difficult to teach.

And we can support our public school colleagues, Mr. Viva (a former teacher at Amherst Regional High School) added, by showing what can happen when we teach in the absence of the mandates and ineffective external motivators being imposed on the profession without adequate research backing up these practices.

With all these ideas safely written down for future reflection in the “Notes” app of my iPhone, I applauded Mr. Viva warmly, and then stood up to move on to the first of three break-out sessions. If he had succeeded in setting the tone for the conference, it promised to be a very good day. He had, and it was.

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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School