Monthly Archives: February 2011

Swinging for the Fences

Teaching is not an easy feat.  As a new teacher, I’ve realized teaching is a whole new ballgame.  Like a rookie on a baseball team, I’ve benefited from the time on the sidelines: receiving support and encouragement from the veterans and mindfully observing the game as it’s played in real time.

The whole process leading up to the batter’s box has had me waiting on the bench – eager, but nervous.  After participating in many classroom observations and receiving strong support from the staff and faculty here at SBS, my initial trepidation has diminished immensely. My colleagues and mentors have offered sound advice and a wealth of knowledge that has provided me with the much needed courage and confidence to stand up and teach.

Since stepping foot on campus I have experienced many challenges here at Stoneleigh-Burnham. Having encountered many unfamiliar territories, I’ve matured a lot since the opening of school. I have coached the past two seasons, taken over the 8th grade Algebra class for the past four weeks and will soon conduct my own Economics class in the spring semester. Whether it’s in the classroom or on the playing field, I continue to pursue excellence as I learn what it takes to be an effective teacher.

I’ve learned that a teacher needs to cultivate a sound game plan before stepping foot into the classroom or on the field. As a student and an athlete, I did not fully grasp the rigor that is involved in the preparation before one teaches until I was actually handed the bat. Countless hours and many scrap pieces of paper are used trying to compile the perfect game plan. For somebody that strives for perfection, designing this plan can be an exhausting task. The fierce competitor inside me didn’t want to settle for anything less. It took a while to remind myself that there is no perfect formula when devising such a plan. I think that realization was the hardest thing to grasp when prepping for my first 8th grade Algebra class.

It’s always nice to fantasize about the ideal situation. Leading up to that first class, in my mind, my game plan was solid gold and I was determined it was going to work. I was going to go in there with all the information I obtained from the observations and the mentor meetings and absolutely hit it out of the park. The kids were going to soak up the information like sponges and that was that, no question about it.

Wow, I needed to pump my brakes… For one thing, there’s only so much one person can anticipate or forecast. As a teacher you almost have to think like a student or player when preparing your game plan. You have to anticipate which problems or obstacles or questions might arise when designing the plan. It’s very hard to be good at something right from the start. Just like in any other field, it takes repetition and time to hone your skills and become experienced…and good.

I wanted my students to succeed and be able to comprehend the information right off the bat. I thought that I would have to implement the perfect game plan to achieve my goal, but I’ve since learned that nothing can be absolutely perfect.

Recently I saw the film “Lombardi” about Vince Lombardi and gained a lot of insight from his inspirational life that I’m trying to implement in my teaching. One quote really stuck with me: “Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we won’t catch it because nothing is perfect, but we are going to relentlessly chase it because in the process we will catch excellence.” Referencing that, I knew that if I worked my tail off and applied that to my teaching preparation philosophy, my students would catch excellence in the classroom and on the playing field in the process.

So far my entrance into teaching has been an enriching learning experience.  If I continue to put my best foot forward, I know good things will happen.

Carpe Diem.

– Mark Pohlman

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Filed under In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective

Would you still be my friend?

This post was written on Thursday, February 17th during Spirit Week.

One of the 7th graders looked up at me this morning and asked, “Do I look like a hippie?” I thought for a moment, looking at all the bright colors of her wildly mismatched t-shirt, skirt, leggings and heels, the big plastic sunglasses, and the feathers in her hair and around her neck, and responded, “You look like a hippie on her way back from Las Vegas.” She smiled and laughed, along with the other students in the room, themselves dressed in various odd combinations of clothes. Well, it was “Would you still be my friend if I dressed like this?!” day.

Usually, the third week in February is the toughest of the entire school year. Energy is low, all the negative effects of winter seem to be piling up without any visible reminders of the upsides, and people’s natural good will is often stretched beyond recognition. This year, however, it feels more like mid-December. With each passing day of Spirit Week, most people seem increasingly relaxed, happier, cheerier. It doesn’t hurt that we start with Pajama Day (“OMG! My favorite day of the year!”), but I’ve also never seen quite so many middle schoolers involved in Twin Day (including several students who spontaneously decided their clothing might not match but that they were fraternal twins), it seemed like nearly everybody on campus was in SBS clothing (or at least blue and white) on Wednesday and now…well, it’s today.

Today, I’ve chosen to be Goth, and decided after some deliberation to just go for it and include the black eyeliner and fingernail polish. Yesterday, I came as a very spirited SBS field hockey player, one of what I had thought were going to be “the kilted hordes” (according to an emailed Faculty and Staff Announcement) but which turned out to be Rebecca, Mr. Bogel, and me. People’s reactions have been fascinating, from fist-pumping and high fives to smiles and laughter to indifference to momentary confusion and/or arched eyebrows. When I spoke to one of my students during a class, she started to laugh. “Is it what I said or what I’m wearing?” I asked. She laughed harder and rested her forehead on one hand, shaking it. “I don’t know!” she said. This during a week when dressing outrageously is the expectation. It all made me think.

Would you still be my friend if I dressed like this?” translates from the original teenager into “Would you still like me if I showed who I really was?” Today, for me and for most kids, it’s only a temporary question. Here, we do our best to support each student in becoming her own, true best self. It is who we are. The middle school team spends countless hours looking out for the students and how each one is meshing with the community, making plans where we see need. The students look out for each other as well, and are often willing to come to us if they have concerns. So kids here tend to feel secure and well cared for.

But some kids, at some times, in some places, feel as though they are on their guard every moment of every day. Life is full of unexpected opportunities to learn, and for several split-seconds, I had walked in the footsteps of people for whom the question never really goes away.

In ten minutes, the middle schoolers are going to flood upstairs with their wonderful, overwhelming energy and throw themselves into rehearsal for tomorrow’s Color Wars skit. Joining them, I will once again immerse myself in the positive, playful spirit of the week. But somewhere back there, now and forever, will be this moment of reflection and a renewed sense of mission to work for the day when no one, anywhere, has to wonder who will be their friend if they show who they truly are.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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View from the International Baccalaureate Nest

I had the opportunity this week to sit down with two girls enrolling in the IB Diploma Programme, a chance to talk about how they view their strengths and challenges as students, about where they see themselves in relation to the IB learner profile, and about why they’ve chosen to pursue the IB diploma. We took as our starting point the written reflections each diploma candidate submitted as part of her enrollment process.

As their current English teacher, I know both girls well as readers and writers, but this was an exciting chance to talk about learning free of content.  Indeed, this is one way to describe the Theory of Knowledge seminar that is at the heart of the Diploma Programme: an investigation not of what we know, but what it means to know and learn.  Our individual conversations underscored the exciting differences in perspective that Stoneleigh-Burnham students bring to our moments together.

Tillula sees the IB Diploma as an opportunity; one, in fact, in life’s string of opportunities that can either be met as productive challenges or wasted.  In light of her high standards for herself, she has “the determination to challenge [her]self” in this and “other things in life along the way.”  I was most impressed, though not at all surprised, by her self-awareness in assessing her weaknesses.  Tillula spoke and wrote about how hard it has been for her to speak up, and how hard she has worked to find her voice.  We talked about how far she has come just this year, both in joining the classroom conversation and in advocating for herself as a learner, seeking out help and clarification.  In one moment, she and I each saw the same light bulb go on above the other’s head: this was all the same conversation.  She was rising to meet this challenge every day, taking the opportunity to speak and be heard.

Anna surprised me when she identified the IB learner’s characteristic that posed the greatest challenge to her: risk-taker.  Here is a thinker who delights in making surprising connections and unearthing subtle meanings for all to share.  She is a powerful presence in every setting, and I struggled to imagine her reticent.  Anna, of course, knew herself better than I: she explained her “tendency to hang back and assess” rather than “leap in and try.”  She spoke of the importance to her, both socially and in the classroom, of using opportunities to understand and synthesize before venturing forth.  And suddenly here we were again, seeing the lines between strength and weakness blur before our eyes.  She was describing her remarkable aptitude for comprehensive critical thinking!

It is indeed special to be in a position every day to teach and learn with these outstanding young women.  This particular shift in context afforded us the opportunity to join in brain work, thinking about thinking, talking about learning, and experiencing the academic synthesis that defines the IB program and in truth all that we do in this powerful learning community.  It was heady stuff.  Not bad for a Wednesday.

– Alex Bogel, Stoneleigh-Burnham School English Department

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Same as it Ever Was, pt. ii

My son looked up at me from across the table at the Amherst College Library, stood up, and asked, “Can we go?” As we packed up, he commented, ‘It’s later than I meant to leave,” and I knew he was hoping to get back for the start of the Grammys. So, to tell the truth, was I.

We pulled in to the driveway at 8:05 and turned on the TV to find the big opening production number was still going on. I took out a saucepan to start heating wine for cheese fondue (his choice for his last dinner of his Long Weekend), and began shuttling back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, to keep dinner going and to keep in touch with what was going on with the show. As the Rock Band teacher and someone who works with teenagers, not to mention someone who is a parent to a teenager, I spend a lot of time listening to the radio, so I was familiar with a lot of the music. My son and I discussed what we thought of many of the different arrangements for the live performances and who we thought should win in different categories. Though we didn’t root for Lady Antebellum in all the categories where they won, we did appreciate their apparently genuine surprise and delight on the occasion, how overwhelmed they were and what a magical night it must have been for them.

When Cee Lo Green came on stage with some of the Muppets to peform, umm, “‘Forget’ You,” I decided this was perhaps the most fun I had ever had watching the Grammys, and tweeted “Best. Grammy Show. Ever.” Of course, it deepened the effect to be watching it with my son while eating cheese fondue, knowing that my brother and my 13-year-old niece were actually there in person, her no doubt starry eyed.

Then came the part where they flashed brief clips of artists to whom they were paying tribute. When Solomon Burke came on screen, I commented to my son, “Now there’s someone I wish I had been able to see perform live.” “Oh, did you know him?” my son asked. “No,” I confessed. “But that’s part of it, that I never even heard of his music, but from the clip, I’m sure I would have loved it.” After doing a little research, I learned that Solomon Burke was an early soul singer (he claimed to have coined the word as he was uncomfortable with the sexual overtones of the blues) from Philadelphia who was once mentioned in the same breath as Ray Charles but for some reason never achieved the same level of success.

It was somewhere around then that my friend José Vilson, an incredible, gifted, thoughtful and creative poet-teacher-blogger,  posted an article  on the show. José’s title, “Same As It Ever Was,” recalled to me memories of watching the Talking Heads on “Saturday Night Live” back when I was a teenager, absolutely riveted by their quirkiness, energy, and pure creativity. “Creativity” is the key word here, as José argues: “When does the artist get a chance to create with disregard for “best practices” and when should they try and follow a formula? Every artist struggles with this. Some of us stick to a particular formula and it works. After a while, once we’ve learned the basics of the genre, shouldn’t artists push for the intriguing, the provocative, the illuminating?” Courtney Love, in her song “Awful,” ponders the interplay between the need of recording companies to turn a profit and musicians to be true to themselves:

(…) It was punk. Yeah, it was perfect; now it’s awful.

They know how to break all the girls like you
and they rob the souls of the girls like you
and they break the hearts of the girls (…)

And they royalty rate all the girls like you
and they sell it out to the girls like you
to incorporate little girls (…)

Oh just shut up you’re only 16.

If the world is so wrong,
yeah, you can break them all with one song.
If the world is so wrong,
yeah, you can take it all with one song.

Swing low, sweet cherry make it awful.
They bought it all. Just build a new one; make it beautiful.
– Courtney Love

Redemption, Ms. Love seems to be saying, can be found through the music itself. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the School’s original rock band introduced me to her music. Time and time again, someone will come up to me a few days after a performance and tell me they bought a CD or MP3, but were disappointed because it didn’t seem to measure up to the experience of hearing the school’s rock bands perform the piece live. I love working with these kids more than you can imagine, but I’m also realistic. They are most assuredly talented, but few of them are at the level of the original artists whose work we are covering. So what is it that is present in their performance that is too often missing from the higher quality professional versions? I think it’s that same spirit of fun, of pure energy, of connecting deep down with the music, that riveted me to the Talking Heads back in 1979. David Byrne’s style of singing, it has been said, is so over the top simply because he is having so much fun he can’t control himself. “Rock and roll,” I once commented at a school dinner celebrating the performing arts, “will always belong to teenagers.” Like the Grammys, these kids show us ourselves at our best. They show us what is possible; they make us believe in the future (a future, I might add, where Solomon Burke would not toil in relative obscurity). Does that obviate the need for work to achieve that future? Of course not. But it does help keep the work fun.

And as José Vilson concluded in his blog, “Education analogies here? Absolutely. Same as it ever was.”

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Last Act

“This is your last act of parenting.” – Michael Thompson

The mother two seats down from me was the picture of nervous tension, with hunched shoulders and lips pressed together, an open spiral notebook and pen resting on her left leg which was tightly crossed over her right. Like many if not all of the 250-300 parents sitting on the edge of pews in the chapel of my son’s school, I could sympathize. We were there for the opening session of “Upper Parent Kickoff” (“Upper” being Andover’s nomenclature for “Junior”), the formal beginning of the college counseling process. I figured my experience with admissions committees at Stoneleigh-Burnham and with my college’s Alumni Admission Program gave me a major advantage, and in some ways they do. But I badly (and inexplicably) underestimated how strongly I wanted everything to work out for my son in the end, and to my surprise kept having to stop my right foot from jiggling up and down.

Michael Thompson, a noted expert in adolescent psychology, internationally respected consultant, and author of multiple books, was there to speak to us about what it’s like to navigate the process from the twin perspectives of parents and students. Most students, Mr. Thompson declared, want three things: connection, recognition, and mastery. The process of applying to colleges and choosing which one to attend is very much intertwined with these three basic needs, and as such can be seen more as a process of self-definition than a process of simply figuring out where you’re going to spend your next four years. This is particularly true since “finding the right fit” is far more than just a catch-phrase. The role of gut instinct in choosing a college is genuinely important, since the number one factor in determining success in college is how well a student feels they fit in and what friendships they make. Listening and nodding, I felt a little better about the mental image I carry around of myself at 17, visiting Middlebury and thinking, “The students are so nice! I think I’ll go here!”

Of course, at Stoneleigh-Burnham, as at all good schools, this process of seeking connection, recognition and mastery begins long before January of one’s Junior year. Indeed, one could argue persuasively that it begins even before students arrive to register for 7th grade. Do they connect with our school while visiting? Do we realize what they have to offer? Are we perspicacious enough to recognize their skills and talents and willing to push them beyond where they are now? One Friday, one of the 7th graders confessed to me that when she came here, she was incredibly nervous that there wouldn’t be anyone here like her. “But now,” she said, “I can relax, because I’ve found those people.” Just a few days before, those students who had been in class on a “snow day” and had worked on skits had asked me if they could perform them. The first group sparkled, with uncanny timing, subtle shifts in tone and mood, and genuine interplay that brought out the best in each actor. I smiled to myself, thinking of the wonderful surprise that awaits the audience for this May’s Theatre 7 play, and how many sincere and heartfelt compliments they will receive. Meanwhile, one student who looked me square in the eye in the first week of classes and said, “Don’t just tell me I’m good. Tell me how to get better.” now regularly eyes me as I cross the room to check on her work and sighs with mock despair, “You’re going to ask me more questions, aren’t you?!” Connection, competence and confidence, the three main elements of self-esteem in girls according to JoAnn Deak, relate quite strongly to Michael Thompson’s trio of connection, recognition, and mastery, and these themes are woven through all we do.

As high school students prepare to set out on their own – and, as Michael Thompson emphasized, even for kids who are boarding students, college represents a new level of independence and autonomy – one of their biggest hopes is that the right college will make that connection, give them that recognition, and help them develop that mastery. As parents, our role – honed through years of practice – is primarily to love them and believe in them. The major theme of Upper Parent Kickoff, mentioned first by Michael Thompson, reinforced by a student panel, and re-reinforced during group sessions with college counselors, was “Trust your children. Give them the support they need – but on their terms. Let them drive the process.” Equally important, we need to keep in mind the words of one college-bound girl attending one of Mr. Thompson’s workshops: “At the end of this process, I will still be me.”

I remember congratulating my sister-in-law on the high school graduation of her younger son. “It doesn’t feel like a time for congratulations,” she said. “Now he’s going to leave us.” I responded, “I know. It’s totally different from when we left our parents and went off to college. We were grown up and ready to be independent.” “Exactly,” she said, with the same twinkle in her eye I had. “It was right for us, but they’re ripping our hearts out.” There is nothing like the sheer, stunning, uncomplicated depth and power we experience through our unconditional and life-transforming love for our children. Realistically, college does mark the formal break between childhood and adulthood. For parents then, even boarding parents, watching their children apply to and enroll in college is in many ways the last act of parenting. For students, on the other hand, it is in many ways the first act of adulthood. The give and take of these dynamics can complicate the process tremendously if we don’t keep an eye on what really matters – that we want our kids to be happy, independent, and truly who they were meant to be.

By the end of Mr. Thompson’s talk, the mom two seats down from me had unclenched herself and relaxed, smiling and nodding at different stories and ideas. Her notebook still lay on her lap, blank, the pen untouched. Soaring highs and gut-wrenching lows may well await us through the next year and a half. But if we love our children and they love us, if we trust our children and they trust in us, we will definitely get through it together.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Anticipating the IB Diploma Program

As we near the end of February – months since my last entry (I note with chagrin…) – we are waiting impatiently to receive our official authorization to open as an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School next fall.  This is without doubt the biggest initiative in my three years of headship, and we have worked hard to establish this status.  What will it mean to Stoneleigh-Burnham when all is said and done?  A lot, including:

1) SBS will be the first girls’ school in New England to go IB.  We will be the third private school in New England and the third girls’ school in the country to incorporate this program.

2) As a small school, we afford ourselves connection to a worldwide network of other schools and educators with whom we may share ideas about curriculum and experience with the IB Organization.

3)  We will allow any motivated student to shoot for the IB diploma, not just those who have been highly successful beforehand.  [This is a particular favorite of mine.  Young people come into their own as students at various times in their development, and it is gratifying to offer an inclusive opportunity for those who are just picking up steam halfway through high school.]

4)  Our teachers will share a common professional development experience, having been trained to teach in the IB Diploma Program.  To date, all those who will teach an IB course next year have been trained; our goal is to train everyone in the school so we are all conversant in its philosophy and goals.

5)  Our students will be exposed to a solid, multicultural curriculum that has room for differentiated challenges. What we have understood from IB students interviewed at other schools is that they would never change their choice to challenge themselves to complete the requirements for the IB Diploma.  According to them, it is meaningful work that is worth pursuing.

6)  Our students will feel proud of the level of commitment they make and rigorous challenges they work to meet. The Diploma Program  offers a much more integrated, and therefore potentially more meaningful, way for students to understand the world than the AP Program.

7)  Our Senior Project Program will be enhanced by the IB Extended Essay; our Community Service Program will develop more depth by virtue of the IB CAS (Creativity, Action and Service) requirement.

8)  We are continuing our own commitment to internationalism and multiculturalism, creating a clearer vision for the future and securing this perspective in all disciplines.

9)  We will establish a smoother segue from our Middle School to our Upper School as our program for older students necessarily becomes more student-centered (like our Middle School already is).

10) While not all students will strive to complete the diploma requirements, all students will be necessarily affected by the IB as a part of SBS.  We will be changing the way we teach, asking students to write more, think more critically, and process their learning along the way.

 

– Sally Mixsell, Head of School

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Filed under In the Classroom, International Baccalaureate, Thoughts from the Head of School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Who We Are

Two 9th graders walked into the Geissler Gallery, saw me, and stopped short. Barely restraining their laughter, they asked me “Where are you sitting?” “Nowhere near you,” I responded as teachers and students around us looked momentarily shocked and then burst into laughter. They couldn’t have known my former students and I had laughed our way through dinner together earlier in the evening and jokingly decided we dare not sit near each other at Elayne Clift’s talk about women’s activism lest we inadvertently catch each other’s eyes and set each other off again. However, they did sense it was all in good fun, and joined in. In reality, there would have been little risk of a fit of giggles as Ms. Clift quickly commanded all of our attention, beginning her talk by asking her audience of students, faculty, parents and other community members how many of us considered ourselves to be feminists. I raised my hand, only to find myself even more in the minority than I had predicted.

Hot and dangerous If you’re one of us then roll with us
‘Cause we make the hipsters fall in love When we got our hot pants on and up

Ms. Clift proceeded to paint a history of American feminism, weaving familiar names and places like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Seneca Falls together with the less familiar, such as Matilda Joslyn Gage, a Native American activist who published Women, Church and State, arguing that women deserved the vote as a natural right but that patriarchal systems oppressed women and denied these rights. As Ms. Clift continued to point out that in the 1800s, it was commonly believed  that if women developed their brains, their uteruses would atrophy, I couldn’t help but think of Bessie Capen and Mary A. Burnham, who founded the Classical School for Girls (later renamed the Mary A. Burnham School) in 1877. Miss Capen was one of the first women to take courses at M.I.T., simply planting herself in classrooms and taking notes, eventually graduating and becoming an (unpaid) instructor in chemistry. I took notes on my iPhone, on a few occasions daring to engage in a surreptitious Google search to learn more about a specific person or event.

And yes of course we does We runnin’ this town just like a club
And no you don’t wanna mess with us Got Jesus on my necklace (lace-ace)

As Ms. Clift progressed through her talk, describing Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and other key figures in the second wave of feminism, I began to insert side notes of various ideas that I might want to explore later on. The more I did this, the more aware I became again of the students. So few of their hands had gone up identifying themselves as feminists. Though they periodically gasped in shock at some of the stories being shared, I had to wonder what they were thinking deep down. Horrific as things used to be for women in the not-so-distant past, much of the fight seems to many teenagers to have been won even before they were born. While they may well have appreciated how much they benefit today from what women had accomplished in the past, did they see themselves in this talk? I wasn’t sure.

Got that glitter on my eyes Stockings ripped all up the side
Looking sick and sexy-fied So let’s go-o-o, Let’s go!

As Ms. Clift continued to talk about the third wave of feminism and a series of international conferences on women beginning with the 1975 “World Conference on International Women’s Year,” held in Mexico City, my mind drifted to one of Ke$ha’s songs that I have frequently heard on the radio, “We R who we R.” Ke$ha, to my mind, represents that peculiar branch of modern feminism that wants to turn away from all the doom and gloom and serious talk and simply have fun enjoying the hard-won gains young women have inherited. The thought didn’t necessarily reassure me very much about what the students might be thinking, but when Ms. Clift opened the floor up for questions, one of my own advisees was one of the first to speak. She asked what actions girls could take to promote a pro-women political agenda, and her request was mirrored in a subsequent question by one of the Rock Band singers about how a girl might go about attending one of these international conferences. Ms. Clift recommended Googling “UN youth movement,” which led me to the International Youth and Student Movement for the United Nations.

Tonight we’re going har-har-h-h-h hard
Just like the world is our-our-ah-ah-ah ours!
We’re tearing it apar-par-par-pa-pa-pa part  You know we’re superstars
We R who we R

Before sending us on our way (most of us detouring past the plates of cookies Dining Services had kindly provided), Ms. Clift asked us all who now considered themselves to be feminists. Her talk had certainly gotten across her earlier point that feminism may be thought of as the “belief that no one should be denied their civil and human rights because of their gender.” (Clift) It’s hard for me to believe that any of the students would disagree strongly with that simple truth. And yet, to be honest, it did not seem to me that many more people raised their hands the second time around.

We’re dancing like we’re dumb-dum-duh-duh-duh dumb
Our bodies going numb-num-nuh-nuh-nuh numb
We’ll be forever young-yun-y-y-y young

I suspect that Ms. Clift planted a seed tonight. Students are no doubt more aware of the history of feminism than they had been, and equally aware that there is still work to be done (when questioned on this topic, the first example they gave was trafficking, absolutely one of the more serious problems facing girls and women in today’s world). A few of them were no doubt compelled to further action. But in order for this talk to have maximum impact, we on the Stoneleigh-Burnham faculty will need to pick up on the threads, engage the students in conversation, meet them where they are and help them see the need to help build a path to a brighter future, one in which there will truly be no obstacles to their being their own best selves.

You know we’re superstars
We R who we R
– Ke$ha

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Filed under Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School