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.