Monthly Archives: April 2011

Nail Polish, Barbies, and the Circle of Life

So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.
– Taylor Mali, from “Like Lilly Like Wilson

Recently, Susanna Thompson sent me an email asking if I had heard about the controversy being generated by a J. Crew ad, adding “Twitter is all a-flutter.” I responded that I had heard about it, and in fact had been a-flutterin’ myself. The ad is for nail polish, and it shows the company’s president playing with her five-year-old son, whose toenails have been painted pink. Amid the firestorm of comments admonishing the mother to set aside lots of money for the massive psychotherapy her son would no doubt need eventually, or analyzing the history of colour as a symbol for masculinity and femininity (did you know pink was once thought of as being masculine and blue feminine?), was one small voice asking if anyone else had noticed the happy and loving looks being shared by the two of them.

When my niece was five years old, she too loved pink. She took dance lessons and loved wearing her tutu around the house. She also loved Barbies and was already building up a good size collection. One day, I was talking to my father, and he observed, “It must be driving you crazy.” “Not really,” I said, “as long as that’s who she really is. I just don’t want her feeling she has to like Barbies because she’s a girl and people expect that of her.”

People’s expectations, of course, do inexorably shape who we are. Thus, when a new study comes out documenting learning style differences between boys and girls (thanks to 7Wonderlicious for this link!), or wiring differences in female and male brains, very often there are two competing reactions. One is essentially, “See? Boys and girls are different. It should have been obvious. Now that that’s settled, can we move on and figure out how best to help boys and/or girls?” Another is essentially, “Nooooooo! That reinforces stereotypes. Can we kind of keep this on the down low?”

Suppressing truth, of course, is not the answer. Neither, however, is using truth selectively to reinforce stereotypes, whether they are gender-based or not.

Several months ago, an alumna returned to share her autobiographical one-woman show with the school (see the YouTube version of that housemeeting here). She talked about how one week into her first year, the name “Janice” just wasn’t doing it for her, and so she decided to use the name “Obehi” to reflect and honor her African heritage. She launched into a rendition of “The Circle of Life,” and as the song built to its climax and her voice soared with power, you could sense how thoroughly she had energized the room. “Brace yourselves,” I thought, “because if I’m right about where this is leading, you are in for such a shock.” Shortly after the song ended to thunderous applause, Obehi suddenly crumbled.  “That Africa, to me…” she shuddered. “God, what’s wrong with me?” she wailed.

Our school’s mission statement says that each student will graduate “secure in the knowledge that her voice will be heard” (italics mine). The implications of that part of our mission are profound. Secure in the knowledge that she has found her voice, secure in the knowledge that her voice deserves to be heard, sure. No problem. Hundreds and hundreds of SBS alumnae (and at least one alumnus that I know of) can attest to our success there. But our mission is also that her voice will be heard. That implies a world that will listen. It also implies a world that is willing to set aside stereotypes and fully engage with the person standing before it. To my mind, then, our mission is not just to educate our students, but also to help build that world.

Mr. Bogel also received the email about the J. Crew ad. He asked me what I thought about the male faculty getting together and wearing pink nail polish one day. I told him I’d been wondering the exact same thing, and brought it up with Mr. Deason and Pete at the middle school team meeting that afternoon. In one sense, of course, it would be a small gesture, all but meaningless in the flood of images and stereotypes and assumptions in which our students live every day. But on the other hand, if it carries meaning for just one student, or if it makes just one person stop and think about gender expectations, then why not?!

And I’m pretty sure Mr. Bogel and I were thinking about the same student, one who would probably appreciate the gesture.

Besides, little gestures add up, and you never know when the chance to make a big gesture might come along. I stopped through the “cosmetics” section of Target that very night. And I do believe that if some day our world really and truly can say we have put stereotypes behind us, I will have contributed to that moment. One toenail at a time.


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

Do Teachers Have Regrets?

On Fridays, my 7th grade “Foundations of Language and Culture class” meets during the second-to-last period of the day. Some days, I don’t really notice how close the weekend is. Yesterday was not one of those days. We got off to a late start, and some students took longer to get focused than others. Near the end of the class, attention was beginning to wander. This was also true of the students.

Sometimes, though, those moments of wandering attention are the moments that stay with you. I’m not talking about deliberate attempts to distract a teacher, but those times when attention wanders to an idea that genuinely and deeply takes hold. One of the students looked over at me and inquired, “Do teachers have regrets?”

I wasn’t about to go with my first instinct, which was to think about the massive amount of teacher bashing going on these days. Fire bad teachers! Did you know half of teachers are below average?! Half of them! Cut the salaries and especially the benefits of those lazy, greedy feeders at the public trough! No more tenure! No more due process! No more collective bargaining! Old teachers, bad; young teachers, good! And for goodness sake, don’t listen to those charlatans when determining national educational policy! You really want someone stupid enough they couldn’t get a better job than ”teacher” trying to tell politicians, business owners, and testing company executives what they think kids need in school?!

I wasn’t about to go with my second instinct either, which was to think about how many teachers I know are telling their kids to choose any other profession. Any other.

I know I’m lucky. As an independent school educator, I am insulated from the worst of it. In fact, I’m insulated from most of it. I love my students, and they seem to have a good relationship with me. I feel supported by parents and by my colleagues. But teaching is still my profession. These are still my friends. This is still my country. And so it still frustrates and saddens me.

While all this flashed through my head, one of the other students looked up and smiled and said, “No. They’re not human. They don’t have any regrets.” Of course, the first student knew that, and she made a face and said as much. Then she asked me, “What is your biggest regret?” It is a great question.

Susan Allen Toth, in her memoir, Ivy Days, about her four years at Smith College, wrote that she doesn’t really know how to respond when people ask if she is happy she went there. Of course, but…  Yes, and then… Fundamentally, she reasons, if she’s happy with where she is now, no matter how she got there, can she regret the choices she made? Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” which one of the Humanities 7 students had recently brought in for “morning poetry,” also came to mind. Listening to it this year, I felt forced as never before to confront the notion that it is unlikely Frost (or any of us) will ever return to the original fork in the road and give the other path a try.

When I gave the Humanities 7 class an interim evaluation, one of my favorite responses for a question about what they had learned this year was the single word, “perspective.” With perspective, of necessity, comes regret. It’s part of growing up, whatever age you might be. You can’t truly regret hurting someone’s feelings without having the perspective to see the world through their eyes. Ideally, my students are coming to understand that regret is an integral part of the human condition, something to accept, something to learn from, but nothing to let ruin your life forever.

So. To return to the original question, what is my biggest regret ever? If I ever do figure it out, I will probably keep it to myself. But I am not shy on this one point, at least. At a time when respect for my profession is lower than I can ever remember, do I personally regret becoming a teacher? No. Ask any of my students. They’ve all heard me say, repeatedly, “I love my job. I love this class.” They can tell you.

P.S. After writing this, I did figure out what my biggest regret ever is, and sent this response to my student: “Look for your “Do teachers have any regrets?” question to eventually make it onto our blog. I have an answer for you about my biggest regret, too – one I actually am willing to share. In short, nearly all my regrets have to do with having hurt someone somehow, even if (and mostly) unintentionally. So my biggest regrets would of necessity be the times I hurt someone the most deeply. Does that make sense?” She responded, “It does.”
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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My Inner Middle Schooler (part 2)

8th grade
Eighth grade for me was, more than anything else, standing in the yard with my best friend and next-door neighbor playing catch with a Frisbee for hours on end while we talked about anything and everything. Years later, when I would watch the movie “Stand by Me” and listen to the closing line, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” I would think of Phil.

School was okay. I was terrified to attempt my first 1500-word paper, and thrilled when I finished it and thought it was really pretty good. Algebra I stretched me like no course before and few since; while I kept saying I hated it, I did feel deep down that it was doing me some good. Somehow. And my science teacher let some friends and I retake “Television” as a mini-unit. Having already mastered how to run the studio and write TV scripts, we were able to focus all month on producing an extended-length satirical newscast. Differentiated, project-based learning well before they were (to my knowledge) buzz words. Yeah ARJHS.

Gym remained a low point, however. I still loved sports, but I had barely grown from the 4’7″ 70-pound 7th-grade version of me. So, for example, the volleyball unit was spent hoping no one would ever hit it to me, not just out of the fear (and near certainty) of hitting it wrong but also from knowing if they did send the ball my way, my captain would hip-check me out of the way so he could hit it himself, reminding me (as if I could forget), “Ivey, you suck at volleyball.” I’m still not sure why the gym teacher let that happen every day. I know that while he felt free to look down his nose at me and comment, “Bill. Try again and take it seriously this time.” after I had just about killed my arm muscle doing the softball throw for the President’s Physical Fitness Award; he said nothing when I ran the third-fastest 600m in the class despite my short legs. It would be nearly 20 years before anyone would tell me I had any talent for running at all, and on that occasion I immediately thought of my eighth grade gym teacher.

Randy came after me again, though this time with a different big kid to do his dirty work. At least this time I knew the drill, and it wasn’t long before he had again given up. I still have no clue why he singled me out.

By the end of all this, I was so ready for ninth grade. ARJHS (now ARMS) is just a five minute walk away from ARHS, so while my homeroom would still be in the Junior High, I would be in the High School for some of my classes. I couldn’t wait.

9th grade
Of course, by the time I got about halfway to ARHS for my very first class there, I could definitely wait. The memory of my first day in Junior High was still fresh, not to mention a mental image of garbage cans in the bathroom, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that some percentage of the high school kids might not love the fact that a little junior high kid would dare to walk into the building. Fortunately, my math and English teachers were really supportive, reminiscent of my 7th grade social studies teacher, and if some kids did in fact look at me funny, no one actually beat me up. I decided I was too small for them to be bothered by me. Whatever. As long as I remained in one piece, I was happy. Caught between two worlds, but happy.

French became my favorite subject. Monsieur Luippold really understood kids, and allowed his own playful side to come out at least as often as our own. I liked him so much I joined the bike club, and along with him and a dozen or so other kids, would explore the Pioneer Valley nearly every weekend. I saw my friends’ older brothers and sisters preparing to go on the annual trip to France  and resolved to go myself when I was a Junior. As this trip  introduced me to my future wife, caused me to fall in love with France and decide to become a French teacher, and led eventually to my getting a job working with adolescents where I taught French, led a bike group, and organized a school trip to France, you could say that no single teacher had more influence on my life than Jim (which I was allowed to call him once I was in high school) Luippold. I hung out in his room after school every day, and along with my future wife, would successfully apply to do an ALPS (Alternative Learning Something or Other) course in French tutoring as a senior.

At the end of 9th grade, I was set on the path to my very first teaching gig. When I started at ARJHS, I could barely swim, but did learn to swim a reasonable distance (if with poor form) through my three years there. I was stunned when I was selected to be one of the first cohorts of the “Hurricane Guard” (the high school’s teams were and are called the “Hurricanes”), high school students who would work with junior high students in swim classes as the teacher lifeguarded. They told me they thought that, since I had successfully overcome my fear of the water to learn to swim while in Junior High, I would be able to empathize with other kids in my position and perhaps help them learn to swim where others might not. I spent the final two-week mini course of my Junior High career taking (and passing) the Red Cross Water Safety Instruction course. I did help a number of kids over the next two years, but asked to stay in regular gym classes as a senior because walking back from the Junior High pool in mid-winter with frozen hair was starting to wear thin. Besides, I had my French tutoring ALPS set up, so I would be able to teach through that venue.

Meanwhile, Dick and Mo Conville, the Junior High Sunday School teachers, worked for hours on end to help us perform a dramatic reading on Children’s Day in place of the usual sermon. It was a play essentially of equal roles, except for one part which had been deliberately written to echo the life of Jesus. I was given the honor of playing that role, and with Dick and Mo’s support and coaching, brought tears to the eyes of several members in the congregation.

Epilogue: Legacy
Heather Wolpert-Gawron asked to what extent the student we used to be still exists, and I have to say in my case the answer is to a very great extent. I am still short and not as athletic as I would wish to be, I still love music but fall short of my potential, I still love to think and be stretched and am occasionally pleased with what I can come up with, I still live kind of on the fringes but get along with most people and have a few close friends, I still love dramatic reading, and I still stand up in favor of respecting the dignity of every human being. I remember how overwhelming things can feel to a middle school kid, and I know how much potential you can unlock simply by caring about them.

And of course, I still teach.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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An Update from the Barn

Things have been quite busy the last few months. On top of hosting the normal array of horse shows at home, we also held a big Wall of Fame Induction ceremony in February and hosted the Interscholastic Equestrian Association Zone 1 Region 3 Regional Finals in March.

The Wall of Fame ceremony was a very special occasion for us. Five SBS equestrian alums (Joannah Glass ‘59, Abby Fuller ‘77, Libby Cowperthwaite Schmittdiel ‘84, Kimberly Cartier Dome ‘94, and our own Mina Payne Williams ‘78) were inducted to the Wall of Fame. To celebrate the event we organized a full day of activities around both the Equestrian Center and the School. The morning started out with a clinic for the girls held by Kim Cartier Dome which focused on improving riders’ eye and ride to the jumps. Following this clinic there was an informal Q&A session with the inductees that was open to all students, faculty and any others who wished to meet them. Inductees were formally honored at an elegant dinner that evening, where they, their guests, parents and faculty enjoyed the company of one another. From someone so new to SBS, it was gratifying to see how the School comes together to honor the accomplishments of alumnae riders.

Hosting IEA Regionals was another event that the SBS riding community put together, and like the Wall of Fame, it was another successful day! Almost a hundred high school and middle school riders attended the event to compete for their chance to move onto Zones. Only the top two riders in each class and the top two out of five competing teams qualified to move on from Regionals. Our girls worked hard to help host the show, and they rode fabulously. We placed a respectable third, which was unfortunately not enough to place SBS onto Zones. However, one of our riders, Hannah, was able to qualify for Zones as an individual rider where she placed 10th in Intermediate Individual Fences.  We are extremely proud of our riders – how they rode and came together as a team this past season.

Among the many amazing things that have happened during the last several months there is one experience in particular that I’d like to mention: During the Q&A session at the Wall of Fame ceremony, Mina discussed how her role in the SBS equestrian community had changed over the years. She described how the program and her involvement in the horse industry in general had shifted from being about the horses and her own personal riding to the girls she teaches. She explained that the bond she creates with the girls as an instructor and seeing her students’ progression and growth is more important than her bond with the horse itself. While horses are and will always be important to her, it’s the girls and teaching that provide her with the most pride and joy. As Mina discussed her feelings I realized that I feel the same shift happening for me. While I love horses and riding, being an instructor is becoming less and less about the horse and more about the girls. The joy of teaching and watching my students learn is a very unique and special thing.

~Stef, Stoneleigh-Burnham School Riding Instructor

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My Inner Middle Schooler (part 1)

With thanks and gratitude to Mrs. Carey, Mrs. Conboy, Dick and Mo Conville, Mr. DiRaffaele,  Mrs. Fitzpatrick, Mr. Hammerstein, Mr.Hastings, Mr. Luippold, Rev. Mand, Mr. Phillips, and the other adults of the Amherst regional schools and the First Baptist Church of Amherst who noticed me and made me feel like I was an actual person. And extra special thanks to my parents, who loved me through it all.

Prologue: The First Day
You’d think room C-32 would be easy to find. Probably between C-30 and C-34, or near C-33. But nooooooooo. It doesn’t seem to be anywhere. There’s C-20 again. Again! Okay, that’s C-18. Is anyone watching? Turn around. Oh, no, there’s the bell! I’m late! And probably no closer to C-32 than I was four minutes ago. Any moment, some teacher is going to come up behind me, put their hand on my shoulder, and quietly but firmly tell me it was all a gigantic mistake and I have to go back to Marks Meadow Elementary. Is anyone there? No. No one in sight. Good. I guess. Okay, what if I take this turn? And…. Whew. There it is. But the door is closed. Everyone’s going to stare at me. The teacher’s going to yell at me. But I can’t stay here forever. Okay, here we go… “Hi, have a seat! There’s one over there.” the teacher smiles. And no one laughs! Maybe I can do this after all.

7th grade
Once I had found C-32, I settled pretty quickly into Mr. DiRaffaele’s Russian History course, which I loved. It took me places no other course ever had, assuming I could think deeply about complex questions. Astonishingly, I found that I could. This was where I first read The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. Her memoir tells the story of when she was deported, along with countless other Polish Jews, to Siberia. Following her through the years there, attending school, and making friends and lamenting her family’s poverty when compared to her Russian friends, taught me a lot about what people have in common as well as what separates us, even when it shouldn’t be so.

Although I thought of myself as a pretty decent musician, I was surprisingly unfazed by being relegated to the back row of Concert Band with the other 3rd clarinets. Perhaps this was in part because Bill Tyler, Bill McLaughlin and I would cheerfully greet each other – “Hi, Bill!” – every single day as we assembled our instruments. Also, I loved the chance to do any music at all in school,  having given up singing (and all unnecessary talking) when a waiter, with all good intentions, reacted with surprise and shock to my prematurely low voice, totally unexpected given my size.

Indeed, I was short enough that I was able to convince my parents to take me to Boston and see if I would grow bigger than 5’3″, the adult height predicted for me according to the Wonder Bread commercials of the time. The doctors (accurately) predicted I would reach 5’7″, which was fine with me – “7” was my favourite number.

My size may have been one factor for an older little kid named Randy somehow singling me out for special attention, getting his friend Richard to help him chase me daily into a bathroom, roughing me up, and dumping me in a garbage can. Eventually, my parents persuaded me to let them call the principal’s office, and while he didn’t agree to my plan of letting me leave class a minute early, he did allow me to walk through a connecting door to the empty classroom next door, the better to get a good solid running head start when the bell did ring. After a week of this, I figured Randy and Richard had given up. They had.

Meanwhile, at church, Rev. Mand came one Sunday morning to see us 7th graders. We were more than a little awed that the minister himself had come to talk to us, and felt almost honored when he invited us to attend Pastor’s Classes with him during Lent in preparation for Believer’s Baptism, according to my church’s tradition. I attended classes and enjoyed learning about the history of the Baptist Church, our beliefs and traditions. But I became increasingly nervous as Easter drew near. I knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know if I had the courage. Finally, I decided if my parents would support me, I could do it. “Mom, Dad,” I said, “I’m not sure I’m ready to be baptized.” They asked me why, and I explained that I had always felt all religions were equal and I didn’t want to favour one religion over another. They said that made sense, and I could keep thinking about it in the year to come. As my parents had predicted, people in my church were nice about it, telling me it would mean even more to me next year. I wasn’t so sure. What if I was actually meant to be an agnostic? (I’m not sure I even had the word for it at the time, which certainly didn’t help.) As it turned out, I did get baptized in 8th grade, reasoning that my choosing to follow the path of Christianity didn’t preclude my respecting or supporting anyone else in their own chosen path.

(to be continued…)

-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Guest Post: Carolyn Flower

Anyone who has called or visited SBS during the daytime hours has spoken to our wonderful receptionist, Carolyn Flower. Last week we put out a call for blog submissions from the community and Carolyn was the first to answer. Among Carolyn’s many talents and interests is her passion for gardening. Her blog submission focuses on her garden, with a specific Stoneleigh-Burnham School spin.

Carolyn's Garden

Many amazing educators have graced the Stoneleigh-Burnham School halls. They have left their mark on our school, but their influence has spread, like seeds in the wind, to Carolyn’s garden. Her words are timely as the weather in Greenfield has us all hoping for spring!

From Carolyn:

Working outside in the garden is a long awaited event especially after a winter as hard and punishing as this past one. The arrival of anything green poking up through the soil has the power to remind me of the way my garden has filled up over the years with so many cultivars. As I walk through the garden, I am able to remember all of those who have contributed to the beauty, so many of whom have also contributed so significantly to Stoneleigh-Burnham in their own way.

Hosta and a beautiful early yellow rose were given to me by Edie Lipp, a former ESL teacher who always had such a patient interest in sharing knowledge with her students.

Janice Hanley, a former English/Shakespeare teacher,  has contributed roses and salvia that have thrived in my garden. It is hard to imagine a more engaging and enthusiastic teacher or a more energetic gardener.

Beth Stinchfield is a current science teacher who inspires stewardship within her students. She has a wonderful garden that includes plenty of vegetables to sustain her table.  She donated to my own garden a stately and towering hosta that greets anyone who finds their way into my shade garden.

Linda Mahoney is our art teacher and her garden reflects the principles that are taught in her classroom. Color theory, repetition, proportion, perspective are all evident in her beautiful, harmonious, floriferous garden. It is both visual and painterly.  Thanks to Linda, June is rose month in my garden.

Carolyn's Garden

Math teacher Linda Beaudoin has an interesting approach to her garden where one can see her mathematical mind at work – the careful placement of her plants reflects harmony and balance.

Andrea Patt, Director of  International Programs, has been dedicated to working on international programming at SBS.  Her garden contains shrubs, roses and plants that have braved and survived many New England winters. I am reminded of her contributions with one of my favorite plants, betony, an ornamental herb with scallop-edge leaves.

Dan Verdery was an English teacher at SBS who passed away a few years ago. He was a demanding teacher in the classroom and an adventurous gardener at his home in Northfield. He gave me many gorgeous plants, perhaps the loveliest of which is a Chinese Buddleia. When it blooms in the spring and impresses all who come by I can’t help but be reminded of Dan’s big personality and grand contributions to School.

Spring is always a busy time at SBS. We will host events for alumnae, for our graduating seniors, and for all the families who are part of our community. When my special plants emerge from the thawing earth I will be thinking of each teacher who has  shared so generously, ever mindful of the considerable amount of time and energy they have contributed to the School.

Carolyn's Garden

– Carolyn Flower, Stoneleigh-Burnham School receptionist

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In Touch With Your Inner Student

I remember vividly, when I was teaching at Pine Cobble School, the first day of rehearsal for “Oklahoma,” our winter musical. John McCormick, the Latin teacher, and I were assisting Harlan Levey, the music teacher with the production. Mr. Levey threw himself into the task of quieting down several dozen lively middle school kids who were anxious about what part they would be assigned, and finally got everyone standing around quietly in small groups, awaiting instructions. Mr. McCormick was standing with a group of the livelier eighth-grade boys, and suddenly I saw him get a wicked grin on his face, nudge the kid standing next to him, and whisper something that brought forth loud guffaws from everyone around him, many dancing around in various contortions. My jaw dropped open, and I caught his eye. He smiled and shrugged. Later on, he told me, “I guess my inner middle schooler just came out.”

It occurred to me, in thinking back on this incident, that perhaps many if not all good middle school teachers are in touch with their inner middle schooler. In the Teacher Leaders Network blog on “Education Week Teacher,” Heather Wolpert-Gawron supports this idea (extended to all grades) in her entry, “Teaching Secrets: Get Back in Touch with your Inner Student” (register for free access). She urges teachers to look back on their years as a student, and includes 20 questions as optional prompts to get the thought process started:

1. Did you have a nickname?
2. What were the names of your 5 closest friends? Did you even have friends?
3. How did you choose to spend your lunch or recess?
4. What music were you listening to?
5. Did you play a sport?
6. Were you involved in an after-school activity?
7. At what age did you see alcohol or drugs for the first time?
8. What was the name of the person or persons that you liked more than as a friend?
9. What did you gossip about?
10. Had you ever passed notes in class?
11. Did you have a favorite teacher? What was his or her name? Why was that person your favorite?
12. Were you in a clique?
13. Were you a bully? A protector? A victim? A bystander?
14. How did you get to school?
15. What movies came out during that year?
16. Do you still own anything that you made at school during this particular grade?
17. Do you still have any friends that you’ve had since that year?
18. Did you have a favorite expression during this time?
19. Did you ever do something during those years that makes you wince?
20. Is there a direct line between who you were then and who you are now, or are there only faint traces of that student in the person you’ve become?

I decided to take on her challenge, and in upcoming blog entries will share my rather mixed memories of those years. I have also invited other Stoneleigh-Burnham teachers to participate in the project. And of course, any parents (or other readers) who wish to add their own memories in a comment are more than welcome to do so.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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