Monthly Archives: November 2010

New Trimester…New Adventures

This week marks the start of a brand new trimester which will usher in a whole new atmosphere around the barn. While there will be many returning students, we are excited to welcome many new students as well. The lesson schedules will change and there will be new group dynamics formed with these new combinations of riders. I’m eager to see returning riders continue to progress and to meet all our new riders! I can’t say I’m looking forward to the coming cold of WINTER, but I’m thrilled so many riders are willing to brave the chilly temperatures this winter to come down to the barn (over 40 including both full time and part time riders!).

Before I embark upon this new trimester I want to take one last look at this past trimester. Even though I have only been at Stoneleigh-Burnham for four months, it feels like I have been here forever (and I mean that in a good way!). I have settled in so completely over the last few months and I love my life at SBS. The kids and horses are great to work with, the lessons a joy to teach, and even though there can be stressful times (when we are preparing to host a horse show for example) now four months after my first day at SBS, I still think daily, “I love my job!”

There are so many hard working, dedicated riders who come down to the barn every day, and so many kids who come even when they aren’t riding in order to support their friends and help out. It has been so great to watch these girls learn and progress over the last few months. I have become incredibly aware of the fact that teaching at SBS is more than simply “teaching.” SBS is a way of life and a little world in and of itself. I spend so much time around our student-athletes, both when they are on and off the horse, that they have become a huge part of my life. Whether I’m teaching a lesson, eating with them in the cafeteria, going to their haunted houses or school plays, they always bring a smile to my face. It’s like my family has ballooned and each day I am thrilled to be a part of my new, larger SBS family.

Speaking of our hard working and dedicated riders — they wrapped up the fall trimester with outstanding success. In my last post I mentioned our upcoming shows (both our home Hunter/Jumper show as well as our IEA show at Folly) and they turned out to be huge successes! At our home show, unlike the Fall Horse Trials, many of our girls competed (both on our horses and on their own) and they were extremely successful. In almost every class a SBS girl took first or second place and there were many who walked away that day with division championships or reserve championships. Folly Farm was no different — the IEA team was at the top of their game and made a phenomenal showing. The team brought home many blue ribbons, including the most important one: the blue for being the top team that day.

With more shows coming (an IEA show on December 4th and another SBS hosted Hunter/Jumper show on December 11th), I am excited to see the talented SBS girls continue to show their stuff.

Best,

Stef

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The Why and the Who of Teaching (reflections on Parker Palmer, part II)

My coffee finished, I return to the couch and my computer, and the cats show up momentarily. It’s time to turn my attention to Parker Palmer’s next two questions.

Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purpose and to what ends do we teach? My first thoughts here are both obvious and complex – at Stoneleigh-Burnham, we teach to the mission statement of the school. Developing each girl’s unique voice and supporting her as she discovers and works to be her own best self is behind everything we do. Of course, though, each girl lives in community, and so she is also learning how best to coexist with all the other “best selves” in her world. “Who am I, what is my world, and how do I fit in?” is one of the most fundamental questions of adolescence. To answer this question, one needs the ability to listen, express oneself, find, analyze, and synthesize ideas, and more. One needs most fundamentally to know how and have the desire to learn.

Heather Wolpert Gawron of Teacher Leaders Network, in a blog entry at the Huffington Post entitled “What is the Purpose of Public Education,” writes of the vast range of responses she received to this question when surveying over 300 people. In my conversations with parents over the seven years of our middle school program, I have heard every one of the 20 widely varying themes Ms. Gawron highlights. She asks if it is really fair to expect our schools to hit every one of those areas. I’m still working through that. Certainly no two of the 20 themes are mutually exclusive and many are different takes on the same general idea. I suspect it may be possible to hit them all in that the underlying skills for different themes are largely the same. I do not think, however, it would be possible to hit them all except in a school that truly elevates and respects student voice, which brings us back to our mission statement.

So how do these very broad “why” questions look in practice? Yesterday, several students in my “Foundations of Language and Culture” class asked for extra practice in learning French numbers, while others wanted to work on their textbook project. I took one group to the empty classroom next door and made up on the spot an exercise in completing number sequences in French. Afterwards, one student and I were walking back to our regular classroom. I had just commented that what they had done should have helped build some new neural networks and thickened some myelin sheaths. She gave me her “Aha, I know exactly what you’re doing here” look and said, “So that wasn’t really random at all, what you just did with us.” I responded, “I usually have several reasons for almost everything I do – including randomness.” Sometimes, I wish I could turn off that little metacognitive voice in my head that seems to be constantly probing, analyzing, evaluating, and counseling me on virtually every decision I make in the classroom, focusing me on what the goals are and how best to achieve them given the unique and special students who are in my classroom and what is happening right now. Ultimately, though, I know I’m better off with the little voice than without it. Look what happened to Pinocchio when he successfully ditched Jiminy Cricket!

But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches? Ah, I thought, here we go – because of course, if we place the focus squarely where it should be, on student learning, then the most important self that “teaches” is the student herself, with not only the “teacher” but also classmates, parents, friends, houseparents, and a host of others as resources. But the follow-up question brought me up short.

How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? This was a double shock. First, because it is such a strong instinct of mine to focus on students in the classroom as opposed to myself. This question forced me, at least for the moment, to turn the spotlight back on myself. My whole body tenses as I recall the moment. Second, because it’s easy to think, talk and write about my good intentions for my students as I develop myself as an educator – but way tougher to have to confront the notion that who I am may actually deform how I relate to people. One of the most fundamental aspects of my character is to listen to people, seek to understand, and try to find ways to build bridges. I try to listen to students and try to take their comments seriously and that helps. Parents, too, give me insights, and I know I can safely bounce ideas off Sally and middle school team members and they will also give me the reality check I need. Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with me to model what it means to be my own best self, and perhaps how I deal with my own imperfections has to be part of that modeling.

How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes? If I can feel safe in acknowledging my own concerns and if I can trust that I will receive honest input back to my questions, that already speaks volumes. And I certainly see other people willing to seek support when they need it. So I think my school has at a minimum created an atmosphere in which people can sustain and deepen themselves as human beings and as teachers. Is that enough? Maybe it is. Given that every single teacher here is working hard to do right by the students, maybe it is indeed.

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The What and the How of Teaching (reflections on Parker Palmer, part I)

The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question – what subjects shall we teach?

When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question – what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?

But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?

–  Parker Palmer, from The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life; quoted in the blog entry “Lessons from a master educator” by Kenneth Bernstein.

__________

It had been a busy week, so the weekend brought a welcome chance to kick back and… catch up on all the listserve messages, blog postings, and tweets I had marked as “Favorites” in order not to lose track of them.  There are amazing discussions going on all over the Internet, and I’m sure I’m only aware of a minuscule fraction of what is out there.  Ken Bernstein, whom I have gotten to know through Teacher Leaders Network, had posted a link to a blog article “Exploring Some Words of Parker Palmer.” I know Mr. Palmer to be a deep and progressive thinker about education, as is Mr. Bernstein for that matter, and with the high level of tension around educational policy issues that exists now, I really needed the chance to retreat and reflect on the roots of good teaching practice. So, with a coffee mug in hand and both cats on my lap, I called up the article on my phone and settled in for a good long read. Mr. Bernstein began the posting with the four questions listed above.

What subjects shall we teach? Ooh, me, me! I know this one because I’m always reading up on ideas for educational reform. English and math; they get tested all the time and we’ve been focusing on them since the 19th century. And… science, because we’re (supposedly) falling behind the rest of the world. Maybe history, because it helps you with English if you teach it right. And… language, perhaps, and if there’s still time, the arts. Voilà. Next question. <sarcasm mode off>

What methods and techniques are required to teach well? As a Teaching Assistant at UMass at the tender age of 21, I did what most beginning teachers do – I taught the ways I knew. I was lucky in that I was attending an outstanding M.A.T. program that was giving me a solid base of learning theory and practical ideas and techniques to supplement what I had observed through 16 years of schooling. But nonetheless, I began teaching with a one-size-fits-all approach. As I gained a toehold and acquired a larger and larger toolbox of techniques and methods, I allowed myself to confront the fact that different classes responded differently to identical activities. Eventually, as I continued to expand my knowledge about learning theory, I also faced up to the fact that different students within those classes respond differently to identical activities. My work as a teacher had been subtly and yet dramatically transformed – no longer was I trying to teach French, nor even to help each of my classes learn. Now, I was trying to help Ellen, Emma, Kendall, Madison, Margie, Maya, and each of the other students learn in a common classroom.

It is a given in our Middle School team meetings that, just as our students live very much in the moment, so must we. What worked last year, or for that matter last week, may have everything – or nothing – to do with what we need to be doing right now. It is a challenging approach to helping kids learn, but one that is ultimately much more rewarding as we see specific kids making progress in the ways that make the most sense for their needs.

In that context, we can return to Mr. Palmer’s first question about what we teach. Our various experiences throughout our careers along with research into what helps middle school students learn also informed the design of our school. We deliberately do not use words like “core curriculum, “co-curricular,” and worst of all, “extra-curricular.” Instead, we view Humanities and Math/Science (both double-blocked to facilitate interdisciplinary instruction), language, health and the arts, athletics, student government, advisory, and community service as all part and parcel of the same program, helping students develop artistically, athletically, intellectually and socially. So the answer to the “What subjects shall we teach?” question has shifted dramatically based on what we know our individual kids need in order to learn and develop effectively.

Through my online learning networks, I know a number of people who are suggesting a radical shift in how we conceive of education, thinking of our schools not as places where students learn reading, writing, math, and so on, but rather as places where students learn and develop creativity, logic, communication, and so on. Instinctively, I see tremendous power in this concept, and would not want that power to be lost by simply creating new departments that divide the work in different ways. How, I am wondering, can we create an integrated whole that still responds to the uniqueness of each child? (your ideas welcome below!)

I’m going to pause here for another nice cup of coffee (alright, decaf!) and continue reflecting on Parker Palmer’s four questions in my next entry.

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An Act of Hospitality

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest.
– Parker Palmer, quoted in Ken Bernstein’s blog entry “More thoughts on teachers, teaching and students.”
_____________
MOCA, the middle school student government, is currently working on four major projects through subcommittees. One group is brainstorming ideas for new traditions for the middle school, focusing especially on winter term as the Middle School Overnight and Founders’ Day are major events that occur in the fall and spring terms. One group is structuring a proposal to locate an all-boys school with which we might create a brother-sister school relationship, much as we had with Deerfield Academy until they went coed in 1989. One group is working on ideas to share with Student Council on the currently hot topic of whether or not 7th graders will gain the right to vote in this spring’s election for Student Council President. The fourth group is working on a proposal to alter the current dress code.

In reading over the minutes of the most recent Student Council meeting, I was struck by several statements made by various upper schoolers. Some spoke of Student Council as a primarily upper school group, while others focused on Student Council as a group making decisions and judgments that affect the whole school. Those who spoke of Student Council as a primarily upper school group were more likely to oppose it to MOCA, feeling that if 7th graders were allowed to vote for StuCo President, they would essentially be represented in two forums and that this would be unfair. Those who spoke of Student Council as a primarily all-school group were more likely to support 7th graders voting for StuCo President, reasoning that StuCo decisions affected them as well and so why shouldn’t they have a say?

Underscoring many comments made by some of the former middle schoolers was their own frustration at not having been allowed to participate in Student Council at all when they were younger (this right was won by the 2008-2009 MOCA students who succeeded in getting a proposal for middle school representation on Student Council passed by StuCo leaders). If these former middle schoolers focused on their frustration at having had to wait, they tended to oppose 7th graders getting the right to vote. If they focused on what they would have liked to have had, they tended to support 7th graders getting the right to vote.

These concepts were not explicitly stated in the minutes of the latest Student Council meeting, but they were there nonetheless, lurking behind almost every opinion that was expressed. I believed that the middle school students working on the issue needed to understand them if they were to make any headway in promoting their beliefs. So as MOCA broke up into groups, I followed this subcommittee’s members into the other classroom to talk with them.

As I was wrapping up my comments, a member of the dress code subcommittee came to the doorway and gave me an imploring gaze, so I finished what I had to say as quickly as possible and zipped into the next room. It developed that the group had split into two incompatible points of view, one that advocated requesting the school adopt a uniform, the other that advocated loosening the current rules. The uniform group had a slight majority, and was pressing their numerical advantage; assumptions and overgeneralizations were flying all over the place. I worked to help them all calm down and learn to back away from statements like “Everyone thinks…” or “We all want…” or “There’s no point in doing this because they will just…” As time ran out, I wrapped up by pointing out to them that they had unwittingly exposed an important underlying question about the dress code: how do we reconcile the range of opinions on how to balance the desire to express one’s individuality with the desire to express one’s belonging to a community? I told them there was no one right answer to this question, and that all their points of view were valid. I acknowledged they had some tough work ahead of them, suggesting that in the end, it was better this question got exposed and talked through as opposed to lying, unnoticed and unnamed, beneath all the discussions they were having.

Both groups, it would appear, have a hard road ahead of them. When one works to elevate and honor student voice, such moments are inevitable. If seen as learning opportunities, they can be incredibly productive. Conflict can be positive if handled well. Middle schoolers, who tend to be uniquely obsessed with fairness just when they are discovering the nature and power of their own voices and starting to define their own values as distinct from important adults in their lives, are well positioned to learn how to do so.

Later on in Mr. Bernstein’s blog entry, he quotes Mr. Palmer as saying, “Students are marginalized people in our society.” You don’t have to spend much time following the current debate on educational reform to affirm the truth of that statement. When one couples that truth with the historic marginalization of women, the fundamental importance of the work we do in the school to honor, respect and develop girls’ voices is greatly magnified. It is by no means easy work. But at the same time, it can be overwhelmingly rewarding.

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IEA, IEA, and more IEA!

It’s a very busy time of year for the IEA team, which not only has shows on three consecutive weekends, but hosted one of those shows this past Saturday.
On Saturday, October 30 the team traveled to Biscuit Hill Farm in Shelburne, Mass. for Hopkins Academy’s show. The team made a strong showing in all events, but key wins from Kelly in Open Flat and Leira in Beginner Flat allowed the team to cinch a second place victory. On the following Saturday, November 6, the team hosted their IEA show right here at SBS. Four other teams from Mount Holyoke, Hopkins Academy, King Oaks Farm, and Friendship Fields Farm travelled to our campus for the competition.
The show ran very smoothly despite the fact that home shows always seem tougher than away shows for many reasons. In the IEA, riders compete on strange horses provided by the hosting team. This means that the host team has the added stress of preparing and caring for all the horses needed for the day, as well as their normal focus on the classes in which they will be competing. Besides the horses, the team hosting is also responsible for running every aspect of the horse show, from in gate to jump crew to food. SBS’s IEA team is very fortunate to have all the full time riders who volunteer so much time to help run the show and care for the horses.
Another stress of hosting a show is the added pressure in regards to horse draw. At a rider’s home show she knows and has ridden the horses provided. This can benefit the rider because she is able to ride a horse that she will be at least somewhat familiar with, but at the same time it can add significant pressure. From my years riding in IHSA I know the types of worries that can plague a rider: “I’m riding my team’s own horses; I have no excuse not to ride well. Oh no! What if I do have a bad ride or miss a distance? I’m on my team’s own horses! There’s no reason for that! I’ll really let my team down. I’ll look foolish, etc. etc. etc.” When you have the opportunity to ride familiar horses at a show, there’s the benefit that you know them, but the challenge that sometimes you worry more about your performance with those horses than riding a strange horse at another team’s show.
Despite the inherent difficulties in hosting an IEA show, the team gave an amazing performance this past Saturday. Our riders dominated in the ring and most finished within the top three of their class. Tess in her Open Fences, Callan in her Open Flat, and Alissa in her Novice Flat all won blue ribbons and overall the team truly performed very well. SBS not only won the show, but they did so with a margin of 14 points, cinching their place to compete in regionals later this season!
And now, this coming Sunday, November 14, we go straight into our fourth show of the season, which is hosted by Folly Farm in Simsbury, Conn. We are heading into the show with excellent momentum and I know that the girls will continue work their hardest and put in great performances.
Also this weekend, SBS will be holding a Hunter/Jumper show on Saturday. Many of our girls will be competing at this show, as well as many other riders from the local area and I look forward to seeing both new and familiar faces.

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Notice the Sweetness

Although the chrysanthemums in my flower pots are looking rather past their prime and I now have to allow extra time in the morning in case I have to scrape my windshield, it wasn’t that long ago that we had a welcome respite from the steady march toward winter. During that warm and balmy spell, it seemed as if all of New England was trying to spend as much time outside as possible, absorbing as much warmth and sunlight as we could. On one of those afternoons, Andover’s Head of School Barbara Landis Chase was walking across campus, between commitments. Beautiful yellow and orange leaves were cascading down from a stand of trees, and barefoot students were dancing in the shower. Entranced, Mrs. Chase paused to let the image soak into her mind. In her Parents’ Weekend address, she recreated the moment for us, and suggested we, too, take time to “notice the sweetness.”
Of course, any given day at Stoneleigh-Burnham also provides countless opportunities to notice moments of insight, joy, and caring. The announcement during homeroom about the Rays of Hope walk. The cheers for announcements of a birthday and the loud, almost raucous singing that follows. The struggle to understand how to work a problem that ultimately ends in a bright smile of success. The ball stolen from an opponent and sent winging toward one of the players on the front line. The comment in Humanities class that, even though Atticus Finch may seem distant with his children, you can tell how much he loves them by the respect he shows them – never talking down to them, always taking them seriously, expecting the best of them while understanding there will be missteps. The realization that the teachers in the middle school have a lot in common with Atticus and I am lucky to be surrounded by such colleagues.
I always look forward to the Parents’ Meeting during our Fall Family Weekend. It’s a chance to review the founding principles of the school, the research-based characteristics of successful middle schools as outlined by the National Middle School Association in This We Believe. It’s a chance to ensure that we are continuing to truly base all we do on those founding principles, to share that work with parents, and also to talk with parents about our common and differing experiences living in the world of teenage girls. I shared the story of a mother whose daughter was now a six-year senior. She told me that she had never forgotten my assurance back in 7th grade that the daughter with whom she had been so close during the elementary school years would come back to her one day with a stronger relationship than ever before. She let me know how this prediction had, in fact, turned out to be true. I told parents that whatever their daughters might say to them in person as they work to become independent, deep down they know they need strong and caring adults in their lives, deep down they love their parents as much as ever, and in fact they are perfectly open with each other about the fundamentally important role their parents play in their lives. Relaxed worry lines, relieved expressions, and meaningful and grateful looks told me how much it meant to many of the parents to hear this.
Prior to Andover’s Parents’ Weekend, my son and I were texting one night, and he casually dropped one of those “Oh, by the way…” comments that carry much deeper meaning than the mere words. He asked when I was going to be able to get out to his school on Friday, mentioning that his cross country team was inviting parents and siblings to run the course at 3:15 as the team members prepared for their meet the next day. Realizing that the very casualness of the invitation spoke volumes about how much he wanted me to come, pulled as well by something deep within myself, I told him that of course I would be happy to be there. And so on Friday afternoon, I found myself attempting with a sense of futility to do the stretching routine of several dozen highly-fit high school athletes. Fortunately, when we began the actual run, I settled into a comfortable pace near the leaders, with my son by my side. He has just turned 17, spends most of his weekends at the school with his friends, plans to spend much of this coming summer working on his Arabic in a country such as Morocco, and will be off at college in less than two years. In my son’s baby book, I wrote of my wish that one day he would be happy, strong and independent and also deeply connected to those around him as he pursued his dreams. Though I had not yet heard Mrs. Chase’s speech, I needed no reminder to notice the sweetness, wistful though it might be.

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Nerves.

Every Admissions Counselor experiences nerves the morning of an Open House. You never know, regardless of registrations, how many families will really show up, whether or not your student tour guides might be out sick or whether at the last minute someone speaking on your panel will forget to show up.

The day starts though, and despite your nerves, you lose yourself in the excitement. The excitement of your tour guides as they meet and greet all the new families, the excitement of the prospective students as you send them off to classes, perhaps the first of many they will take at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, and the excitement of the dedicated faculty and administrators as they talk about their love for the school and its programs.

As the day continues most Admissions Counselors will find themselves thankful for the positive attitudes of the various members of the community that prospective families meet. Stoneleigh-Burnham is lucky to have a talented and dedicated group of teachers and administrators from diverse backgrounds. We are lucky to have students from 15 countries and across the United States who speak more than 17 languages among them. It isn’t every day that you get to meet and study with girls from Rwanda, Canada, Mexico, New York, New Jersey and Florida.

However, no matter how fantastic your students are or dedicated your faculty are, there are still a few nerves when the panel of students and faculty convene to answer the questions of all the prospective parents. This is it, the moment of truth when parents are truly able to learn about the school. The answers are candid and the students are honest. In theory, this might be every Admissions Counselors worst nightmare, but it’s not mine.

During our last Open House I had five of our students, representing both day and boarding students in middle and high school, come together to answer the questions of prospective parents. As they introduced themselves, told what sports they play and what grade they were in, I settled in to listen to their answers.

“What is your favorite part of the day?”

A chorus of answers followed: the time I spend at the barn, my athletic practice, lunch etc. Each of the girls offering her own perspective on why these parts of the day are so important.

“Ok, since you’ve told me your favorite thing, tell me what you don’t like.”

I’ll be honest, even my confidence faltered for a minute when this question was asked. I should never have doubted the love that our girls have for Stoneleigh-Burnham School though…

The most common response was “there really isn’t anything I don’t like.”  You could hear the sincerity in their voices and you could see the honesty on their faces. These girls meant every word they said.

Finally, one parent raised her hand and asked “Why do you think all girl’s education is better?”

One of our students piped up and said “You don’t have to worry about your hair or what you’re wearing. You don’t have to worry about asking a question and being laughed at. It’s very safe and it makes it easy to learn.”

I smiled as I listened. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

To ask some questions of your own, join us for our next Open House, Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 8:30am. Register by calling 413-774-2711 ext. 257 or online at http://www.sbschool.org

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