Monthly Archives: January 2011

Learning With My Students

Each week, the Humanities 7 students write blog entries on a protected website about the books they are reading. I always write back, and love the give and take that can ensue as well as the chance to learn a bit about each student’s taste in books as well as her thoughts, values, hopes, fears, and more. It’s especially fun when other students join in. Usually, of course, they choose to read fiction. Occasionally, however, they choose non-fiction. Right now, I am engaged in a deep and fascinating conversation with one student over the book The Society of the Mind.

In her first entry, this student wrote about a core metaphor of the brain as a society. It’s a metaphor at once simple and profound. We know of research showing that groups of people solve mazes faster and more efficiently than do individuals, just as the individual cells of the brain coordinate. Her second entry expanded on this theme, and I wrote back to her: “The bit about the whole being more than a set of its parts always makes me think of the Beatles, truly incomparable when together as a group, but never quite hitting those dizzying heights in their solo careers (though most all of them had some great songs, and John Lennon in particular assembled an amazing number of songs that also stand up well today). It also makes me think of our class – I think each of you is pretty amazing on your own, but when you put your heads together, it can be almost magical. On a good day, anyway, which is lots of them.”

The author of The Society of the Mind just happens to be this student’s grandfather, and so this work is making her more aware of what her grandfather has accomplished and, in the process, who he is. She has spoken about feeling even closer to him, and more appreciative of all he has accomplished. It reminds me of a similar experience I had with one of my students six years ago.

In their unit, “What is Music,” this particular Humanities 7 class had decided to explore the related question “What does my music say about me?” As I had predicted, several students struggled to come to terms with messages they hated in the lyrics of many of the songs that they loved. Beyond those insights, I had assumed that, as always, students would be talking to their parents about some of the ideas we were bringing up in class. One girl’s father told her that he did, in fact, believe that his choice of music helped define, or at least show, who he was. “So,” she told me slowly in a voice that was becoming gradually more animated as the idea formed, “maybe he’s always wanting to share his music with me because he wants me to understand him better.” With the prospect of deepening her relationship with her father safely tucked away for the future, she turned back to her essay. I was left to wonder whether she ever would have come to this profound realization if she hadn’t been free to explore her own questions in her own way, and it was in that moment that I realized the full extent of the power of the democratic way. I knew I would quite likely never again teach by any other method.

Often, when I describe my Humanities 7 course to people, they ask how I can teach something I don’t know. The question summons up for me the cartoon image depicted in “Waiting for Superman” of students’ heads literally opening up and knowledge being poured into them, a commonly-held vision of what teaching is all about. I see two major issues with that model. One, the focus is on the teacher as an agent, not on the student; shift the focus from teaching to learning and this makes a world of difference. Two, were I to teach using that model, given that in no way could I ever expect to successfully transmit everything I know, my students would end up less knowledgeable than me (unless of course, and one might hope and pray they would, they learned more on their own than from me). To use one of my most frequently given examples, they would never have learned the answer to “Why does anyone care about the island of Dokdo?” (a theme question for one of the units of the 2008 Humanities 7 class). By teaching democratically, however, I open up the entire realm of knowledge to students. At that point, I can learn alongside them, both modeling for them what it means to be a lifelong learner and guiding them along that path. In the process, I can help them master the core skills of typical middle level English and Social Studies courses. But more importantly, Humanities 7 becomes an ongoing intellectual conversation. And when that conversation extends to include families, that’s just one of any number of delightful bonuses.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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A Busy Start to the New Year!

The atmosphere at the Stoneleigh-Burnham School Equestrian Center has been lively during the last few weeks. On January 15th we held a Jumper show which was well attended despite the subzero temperatures outside. The SBS girls did particularly well and three girls took first place! Full results from the day can be found on our website.

Only a week later we transitioned from fast and furious jumping to elegant flat work by hosting a Dressage schooling show on January 22nd. Most of our riders prefer the excitement of jumping, but a few of our girls strutted their stuff in the dressage ring and competed against a great rider turn-out from surrounding barns. Many of the girls finished the day with top scores in their classes, proving that our riders shine both over fences and on the flat.

We will be ending the month of January with a hectic schedule. On Saturday, January 29th our IEA team will compete in their last regular season horse show for the year at Wildaire in Southbridge, MA. We wish them lots of luck, but I’m certain that they will finish the season strong!

All the best from the barn,

Stef

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Horns of a Dilemma

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes the main character Phaedrus as being caught in a dilemma. In discussing the idea of Quality which Phaedrus had been developing, the English Department at the college where he taught challenged him, “Does this undefined ‘quality’ of yours exist in the things we observe? Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?” (p.223) Phaedrus quickly realized that to accept either choice was to lose the challenge. If Quality was assumed to exist in the object but could not be scientifically measured, then it was nonsense. And if Quality was assumed to be subjective, then it was “just a fancy name for whatever you like.” (p.223) Neither choice was acceptable. What was he to do?

Eventually, he realized that this dilemma related to the mind-matter conundrum that had been frustrating philosophers for ages. And so he solved the problem neatly by rejecting both horns of the dilemma: “Quality is not objective. It doesn’t reside in the material world. Quality is not subjective. It doesn’t reside merely in the mind. Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two.” (p.231)

The 7th graders were recently caught in a similar, if less philosophical, dilemma. When the day off for Day of Awareness (morning workshops on diversity) and Winter Thaw (fun afternoon trips off campus) was rescheduled for January 27, a huge conflict arose. January 27 was the day toward which they had been working for months, collaborating with partners at The Children’s Storefront school in Harlem, to hold a joint debate via Skype. Steve Bergen, the collaborating teacher at Storefront, had invited the Head of School and the entire upper school to attend the debate in their assembly room. On the one horn of this dilemma, the 7th graders had a major commitment to another school that couldn’t be rescheduled. On the other, they had a sincere desire not to be left out of one of the three big days off from classes during the school year. What to do?

Our in-class discussion was caught in a vicious (if mostly polite) circle, when one of the 7th graders had a brainstorm. She chose an approach similar to that employed by Phaedrus – you want me to choose which large group of people to disappoint? I reject both horns of that dilemma. Why can’t we find another way? For example… why couldn’t we take videos of our parts of the debate and share them with Storefront, enabling them to hold the debate as planned with our participation even as, in real life, we would be participating in Thaw while they were debating?

The class quickly united behind that idea, and I phoned Steve to run it past him. Over the next three days, by phone and email, we developed the idea in greater detail, and by Sunday afternoon Steve and I agreed that, in his words, “Sometimes Plan B is even better than Plan A.”

This is exactly the kind of creative, out-of-the-box thinking so many people say they want our nation’s students to be able to develop. I believe it is a natural outgrowth of the democratic approach to learning that we take in Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School. When students become used to having to find creative ways to solve problems, negotiate differences of opinion, and resolve dilemmas, and when they are given the opportunity to think about a problem, the chances of their collective power finding a solution are greatly enhanced.

Moments like this, I really love my job.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Things that Matter

(a speech delivered in housemeeting on Martin Luther King day)

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Think quietly about that a moment. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (…)

Sharon Draper is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King award. In the Humanities 7 class last Friday, I read aloud the 4th chapter of her book Out of My Mind. The story is told from the perspective of Melody, a girl with cerebral palsy who can neither walk nor talk and who is amazingly intelligent. However, when she was five years old, she was examined by a doctor who had absolutely no clue how smart she was. While he asked her questions like “What is this colour?” in a loud, slow-paced, condescending voice, she was reading the titles of Spanish-language books she could see in his room. She was also wondering how, if he was so smart, he thought it made any sense whatsoever to ask questions of someone who couldn’t speak her answers.

Cries of outrage and suggestions of what should be done to the doctor filled our classroom again and again as the examination continued. And when the girl’s mother finally took control of the situation and told the doctor in no uncertain terms why exactly he should be ashamed of himself, the room erupted in applause.

Injustice is everywhere. Ask Melody. Ask anyone who is disabled in some way. Ask girls and women. Ask LGBT people. Ask people of colour. Or people of any number of religions. Or… most anyone. Many of you no doubt thought of your own examples while I was taking a breath to give mine. No doubt, we still have a long way to go before we can say with ringing confidence that we have realized Martin Luther King’s dream that children might “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” No doubt, we also have a long way to go to realize similar dreams concerning abledness, age, gender and gender expression, sexuality, race, religion, and any number of axes of diversity.

And those dreams do exist. If injustice is everywhere, so too is resistance to injustice. It is deep within the human psyche to cry out, “That’s not fair.” and seek out what may be done about it. We realize that, in Martin Luther King’s words, all people “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” We recognize and understand, again in Martin Luther King’s words, that “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.” And time and time again, we choose love. Progress, however slowly, is being made.

We must recognize that progress, for we have the need for hope. But we must also recognize the slowness of that progress, for we have the need for action. The focus of the school’s mission is to elevate girls’ and women’s voices. Use them. Speak out. Live every day of your lives. For as Martin Luther King wrote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Getting Past Partisanship

When I walked in to the Faculty Meeting room on the first Thursday after Winter Break, I noticed two of the middle school students hovering uncertainly and as inconspicuously as possible in a corner of the room. They were the Student Council Representatives, ready to make their presentation to the faculty on why 7th graders should henceforth be granted the right to vote for Student Council President (a right which all other currently enrolled students already had). I went up to them and asked how they were doing; they held out several pieces of paper with scribbled and periodically crossed-out notes alternating in pen and pencil and asked if I could look through what they planned to say. Curious as to what they had chosen to emphasize from the conversation we had had in MOCA (middle school student government) after Student Council had given preliminary approval to their proposal, I glanced through their notes for them and (maybe crossing my fingers a little bit on a couple of points) told them it was fine. They relaxed for a second and then asked me – implored me, really – if I would give their proposal support when the faculty discussed it. I smiled and told them they already knew where I stood on the issue.

The students were first on the agenda and, though clearly nervous, spoke well. There were a few questions from the faculty including at least one which they had not anticipated (nor had I). Their responses were, for the most part, clear and cogent, and even the one time they were clearly improvising as they went along, their initial soft-spoken meandering gradually gained focus and volume and finished strongly. After the students received applause and left, the faculty discussed the proposal. A number of people were commenting on the maturity and poise the students had shown, and Jeremy Deason, our Athletic Director, leaned over to me and whispered, “Every single day. If they visited the middle school, this is what they would see every single day.”

Today in housemeeting, the Student Council President called up both the current and the past middle school representatives to Student Council for a special announcement. Though they knew the content of the announcement, three of the four middle schoolers kept straight faces; the fourth would periodically notice she was smiling again, shake her head, shuffle her feet, look down and re-compose her face in studied neutrality. Meanwhile, the StuCo President described briefly what MOCA’s proposal had been and what had been necessary to get it approved. With a warm smile and to supportive applause, she congratulated them on having succeeded in winning the 7th graders the right to vote for all future StuCo Presidents.

We first created MOCA when the current Student Council President was in 7th grade. Originally, it was conceived to run in parallel with StuCo, which would continue to serve the Upper School while MOCA served the middle school. As they felt (correctly) that many of StuCo’s decisions affected the entire school, over time the middle schoolers successively argued for and won the right of 8th graders to vote for StuCo President and the right to have representatives attend StuCo meetings. But the right of franchise for 7th graders proved to be a three-year struggle. One major stumbling block was a number of upper schoolers who had moved up from the middle school and who felt that current middle schoolers should have no more privileges than they had had.  Among this group, at one stage in the process, was the StuCo President herself.

This made it extra meaningful that she was so inclusive in her announcement, calling up in front of the school not just the current MOCA representatives to StuCo who made the final, successful push but also the fall representatives who had originated the proposal and taken it through the early stages. Her warm and genuine smile offered to the middle schoolers and her graciousness in praising the middle school and identifying the decision as an important one in the life of the school went a long way toward both building bridges and healing any scars that may have possibly remained from earlier, often intense discussions.

With political partisanship so much on our minds these days, especially in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona, one can’t help but wish that many adult politicians and political pundits could have observed, and learned from, this young woman.

Once the applause died down, she went on to point out that this was a good example of how Student Council could take student ideas and work with them to make them happen, encouraging all students present to share their own ideas and help StuCo work to improve their school.

Little does she know that another group of middle schoolers has already been hard at work discussing possible changes to the dress code!

-Bill Ivey, Dean of the Middle School

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Community.

At Stoneleigh-Burnham School we talk about community all the time. In Admissions, we talk about how close knit our community is and how vital it is to the function of our school. We talk about the strong relationships we foster between our faculty and students, and about the fact that everyone, even the Head of School, will know you by name.

As a school, we talk about the importance of taking care of our community, of being careful with each others feelings and being respectful. The mission statement of Stoneleigh-Burnham School describes creating a community that “inspires girls to pursue meaningful lives based on honor, respect and intellectual curiosity.  Each student is challenged to discover her best self and graduate with the confidence to think independently and act ethically, secure in the knowledge that her voice will be heard.”  The Honor Code further encourages and expects our students to be guided by the following: “Respect for others in all my words, expressions and actions.  I will be kind and polite and will refrain from hurtful remarks about appearance, race, religion, family, intelligence and sexuality.”

During the opening of each school year every member of the community signs the SBS Honor Code which hangs in the Capen Room as a daily reminder of the commitment we have made to ourselves, our community and our school.

The mission statement and the honor code are part of the fabric of who we are as a school. They help to guide students, faculty and staff in the decisions they make each and every day. However, in light of the recent acts of bullying across the nation, Massachusetts has passed an anti-bullying law which requires schools to write and uphold a policy which specifically addresses bullying.

Yesterday, during Housemeeting, Head of School Sally Mixsell presented “Stoneleigh-Burnham School’s Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan” to the student body. The presentation detailed the steps which will be taken should someone report something that has occurred. The plan is intended to (1) prevent bullying and cyber-bullying among our community members, (2) to encourage community members to have confidence in the School’s procedures and to come forward promptly whenever a student is subject to conduct that is prohibited by this or any other School policy; and (3) to implement appropriate discipline and other corrective measures when they are found to be warranted.

So why would this prompt me to write about our community? What makes Stoneleigh-Burnham School different than other schools in Massachusetts? The policy itself is similar in nature to those policies being presented at public and private schools across Massachusetts. The difference for Stoneleigh-Burnham is in our community.

I see small acts of kindness and joy here every day.

The day our students left for break I walked down the hallway and found a basket of handmade treats with a note. I picked up the note, written in the early morning hours by Monica, a member of our facilities staff, and it read

“Thank you all for helping me keep UMB clean. Have a great vacation. Please enjoy a pop and candy cane.”

Not only did this bring a smile to my face, it reminded me why I love this school. The little things we do for each other that help to brighten each others day.

Things like John, our security guard who comes in a bit early each evening to shuttle our riders from the barn to the main building at the end of the day.

Or Elizabeth and Allie, two of our 9th grade students who diligently cut out snowflakes for each and every office, dorm room and classroom door one weekend and spent the better part of their free time writing notes on each one and hanging them up as a surprise for the students, faculty and staff on Monday morning.

Or the way each time I take a group of students ice skating they make sure no one is left behind. They link arms and hold hands and encourage those who are still learning to skate. I’ve yet to see a single girl left behind to skate on her own…even if she’s never been on the ice before.

It’s things like walking onto the middle school hallway to see “I love you” scrawled anonymously on the white boards of every room on the hall, or hearing the last two students arrive, at 9:35 on Monday evening from their winter break and having the entire hallway flood downstairs to help carry their bags and welcome them back.

These are the reasons our bullying prevention plan will be different than those at other schools. The written words, discussed in further detail in our Head of School’s post on the topic here, will be the same as those written at schools across the state. For us, it’s the community behind those words that makes the difference.

– Laura Lavallee, Associate Director of Admissions

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Bullying Prevention and Intervention Policy

As is now widely known, Governor Deval Patrick signed the Act Relative to Bullying in Schools in May 2010. This new law prohibits bullying and retaliation in all public and private schools in Massachusetts.  Each school has been required to develop its own Bullying Prevention and Intervention Policy by December 31, 2010.  The law mandates reporting of any incidence of bullying, cyber-bullying or retaliation witnessed or heard of by adult members of the school community; it encourages students and parents to report suspected cases as well. Further, schools are now required to hold students accountable for bullying situations that occur on OR OFF campus, thereby monitoring more closely the dangerous effects of cyber-bullying that affect a student’s educational experience.

At SBS we now have our plan in place, and on Tuesday, January 4th I presented it to the student body.  The following day all advisory groups talked about the plan and how it affects our community; a spokesperson from each group shared important ideas from her advisory’s discussion at this morning’s Housemeeting. Moving forward into the next steps we will continue in a town meeting format to come to some consensus about how we as a community want to move forward in response to the policy.

Several students approached me after Housemeeting to say how happy they are that we’re opening this broad-based conversation around the issues of mean behavior and bullying. I agree with them.  The advent of this law has afforded us a good teaching tool; helped us clarify language around bullying, cyber-bullying and retaliation; and encouraged our continuous efforts in tolerance, conflict management, cross-cultural understandings.

Our new policy has triggered some great conversation and a lot of soul-searching.  There is much we have to be thankful for in being a small school, not the least of which is the opportunity to know and trust one another enough to report events that are hurtful or mean — as well as take the time to note many random acts of kindness (for some great examples of this, see Laura Lavallee’s blog post).  And still, despite those reports and subsequent conversations, those hurtful and mean moments happen on occasion.  Putting them into the context of being the kinds of moments that, if repeated, can lead to bullying, we are all asked to think about how we can move closer to becoming a community that works even more deliberately together to hold each other accountable for our words and actions. Hopefully, we will come to consensus over the next few weeks and sensitize ourselves to the realization that our “throw-away” words or gestures are not always taken lightly by their recipients.  Hopefully, we will never deal with the kind of pain felt in South Hadley and other communities because of an unaware or insensitive school. At the least, we are doing everything we can think of to work against such a possibility, and the conversation is rich as a result.

– Sally Mixsell, Head of School

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