Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Power of Students

Like many teachers, I tend to deflect credit away from myself and toward the people who are doing the actual learning. Working with middle schoolers, especially girls, I can make a strong argument for why I should do that. Middle schoolers are seeking to define and take their place in a grown-up world and have to feel they are agents of their own destiny to do so effectively. Girls in particular (or the “girl-brained” at any rate) are more likely to give credit elsewhere, building a stronger relationship in the process but diminishing their self-concept as strong people making their mark in the world. I want to work to counteract that effect. And besides, let’s be honest, as I once told the entire school, “There is no good teaching without the power of students.”

John Norton, the founder of the MiddleWeb listserve that would eventually be absorbed by NMSA and renamed “MiddleTalk,” and also one of the key forces in Teacher Leaders Network, once posed the question whether teachers might be hurting their cause through their relentless modesty. When I say, “Oh, it’s the kids. They’re amazing. They deserve the credit,” am I leaving out an important part of the story? If so, how does that reflect on me and, more importantly, the profession of teaching? Bearing in mind the kids are amazing and do deserve a good chunk of the credit.

The Upper School Rock Band has had an especially good run these past two years. A stable core of the drummer and bassist, both of whom sing well, has been augmented by a number of other talented players. With all the strong groups we have had through the years, and all the justified compliments they have received, this is the first group that ever won the compliment, “You guys rock!” I’ve always credited the drummer and bassist for their aggressive playing and singing, and talked about how they pull everyone else along. And they do. But as I think about it, maybe there’s a little bit more to the story than that.

The turning point for the group in going from being the Rock Band to a band that rocks was arguably the Green Day song “21 Guns,” which we performed in the spring of 2010. As loud as the drummer may always have been, it seemed like she was holding back something inside of her, and one night I suggested she hit the crash cymbal at least twice a measure throughout the last verse and on all four beats heading into transitions. “Are you kidding?!” she asked me and I responded, “Nope. Give it a try and see what you think.” She did, and while she may have felt a little silly at first, she stuck with it, and over the next few rehearsals, the song took on a raucous feel, like a quintessential garage band just banging the heck out of their instruments.

So how much of this transformation was teaching and how much was learning? In one sense, who cares – the end results speak for themselves, and the power of students was unleashed.

But in another sense, it does matter. After all, we all need support from time to time, and doesn’t it help students to know their teacher has succeeded in helping other kids before them? Doesn’t it help parents to know that their children are growing steadily and that their teachers have played a part in that process? For that matter, doesn’t it help me as a teacher to concede that I have an effect on my surroundings, that it’s not just the luck of the draw if the rock band sounds good, or Humanities 7 writes beautifully, or ESL students show tremendous growth in their English?

We live in a time when, arguably, the profession of teaching has never been held in lower esteem. Even the U.S. Secretary of Education applauded when the Central Falls High School in Rhode Island laid off every single teacher. And yet, whether in enviable conditions such as Stoneleigh-Burnham teachers enjoy, or in far more challenging conditions such as may be found in schools in some of the poorest areas of the country, there is a lot of wonderful teaching going on. That fact needs to be recognized and celebrated. At our school, to that end, the Stoneleigh-Burnham Trustees created an award for teaching in 1997. This year, I was honored and privileged to be the first teacher to win it a second time.

As I was walking back after accepting the award from our Head of School, I caught the eye of our drummer standing among the Seniors, cheering and applauding and giving me a fist pump. Perhaps I had indeed helped unleash the power of this student. And if so, then others as well? My smile curved up a little more and I returned to my seat, among the middle schoolers, where I belonged.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Performing Arts, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Tribute to Performing Arts Teacher Cyndee Meese

Way way back in 1987, my second year of the school, we decided to break with tradition  and close the year with a musical revue. A teacher who was going to be rejoining us the following year after a brief leave of absence was put in charge of it, and everyone told me to expect greatness from Cyndee Meese and from the kids. She asked me to help out by choosing, arranging, and selecting and rehearsing the performers for three medleys representing women in rock in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. After sitting in on auditions, we agreed that Jen C. would be Laura Nyro, Deanie A. would be Stevie Nicks, and Sabrina P. would be Cyndi Lauper. We put together a faculty band to accompany the students and began preparing for the show. Cyndee’s impact was felt immediately in two ways. One, that the kids were indeed headed for greatness and beyond Jen’s tear-inducing cry of “Eli’s a-comin’. Woah, you better hide your heart,” Deanie’s gorgeous lilt as she sang “Shattered with words impossible to follow,” and Sabrina’s gutsy and brassy affirmation that “Girls just wanna have fun,” there were many memorable performances.  Cyndee’s second impact was more literal; as I was accompanying another song on piano, I was having trouble getting just the right sound, so she slid onto the bench to show me what she wanted, bumping me in the process so I slid right off the end onto the floor.

Cyndee’s faith in the students’ and my ability to achieve high standards and her determination that we would in fact do so would animate countless shows and performances we would do through the years. The first time we did “Little Shop of Horrors,” now my all-time favourite musical, was truly magical. Every night before rehearsal, under guise of “warming up” or “just making sure we get it right,” the lead actors would sing through “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly Seymour” with the band. True, another music teacher at another school had thrown down the gauntlet by stating flatly you could not make the show sound good with a group consisting of three keyboardists and a drummer. “Oh, we can’t, can we?” said Janey S., the band leader. Indeed on opening night, that teacher came up to us and conceded we had, in fact, pulled it off. But at heart, we just loved the songs and wanted to hear them as much as we could. What more could a musician ask for?

By then, Cyndee and I had fallen into a pattern of hanging out after rehearsals and talking into the night, a pattern that would repeat for the many years we collaborated on shows and that would deepen our friendship and our respect for each other. This pattern would also repeat as Cyndee established a tradition of Senior Recitals and I would sit in on various songs when needed. Her renting me a cherry-red Yamaha electric guitar for Gigi K.’s recital led directly to my deciding I needed one of those and getting my black Strat. That Strat, whether borrowed by generations of student guitarists beginning with Lisa B. ’99 and continuing to Nhyira A. ’16 or played by me, has been in countless shows itself.

We were fortunate, when founding the middle school, that Cyndee knew, loved, and understood young adolescents, and she got the vocal music program off to a strong start, single-handedly building it to eventually include not just the general class for all middle schoolers but also a Select Chorus that was, and is, the equal of many high school groups. When she took over the middle school theatre program, she also took the risk with me of allowing the seventh graders to write and produce original plays every year; this has become a tradition and cornerstone of our program. Teaming up with Ann Sorvino (dance), Greg Snedeker (instrumental music), Kim Mancuso (theatre), and earlier David Killam (instrumental music), we pulled off a series of middle school productions that were jaw-droppingly good. Literally so, judging by Hank Mixsell’s reaction to the first show he ever heard.

Stoneleigh-Burnham is all about voice and all about strong women; both as a role model and through her work with the kids, Cyndee has exemplified our mission. I feel privileged to have been able to work with her, especially because it was so much fun it didn’t even feel like work. So thank you, Cyndee, and my very best wishes to you.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under Alumnae, In the Classroom, Performing Arts

Moving Forward After Tremendous Growth: 8th Graders Move Up

“Is it just me, or was that an especially emotional Moving Up Ceremony this morning?” I looked at my colleague Pete, who was himself moving on, to a school in New Jersey. I knew what he meant. Our 8th Grade Moving Up Ceremony is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt of the many rites and routines the school has developed to aid all of us in transitioning out of the year. The ceremony centers on tributes read to each 8th grader by her advisor, and they are all unique to each individual student, beautifully written and delivered as the soon-to-be high schooler stands beaming next to her advisor. Only this year, more students than ever before began to cry while they were up there. My voice usually catches a few times as I am reading, but I nearly lost it completely when I looked over and noticed twin streams trickling down one of my advisee’s cheeks.

Part of it was the tremendous growth these kids had shown while they were here. Part of it was the close relationships so unabashedly visible to all. Part of it was backstories about particular kids who had been or were still facing a tough road one way or another. But those elements are always there. No, I strongly suspect much of it was that four dearly beloved members of the middle school team were moving on, three of whom had been with us for five years (and who were in fact primarily responsible for my deciding to change the subject header for our minutes from “MS Faculty Meeting…” to “MS Team Meeting…”). Some of the kids had asked to have a chance to say goodbyes as part of the ceremony, and as they choked up one by one, taking turns relieving each other until everyone had said what she needed to, I can’t believe there were many dry eyes in the room.

Every year at this time, as I take stock of the year and look at my students’ learning, I also take stock of what I have learned. That we really need to cut back Humanities 7 to six units in order to be able to go as deep as the kids want to. That we really need three advisory periods per week. That the Class of 2016 is an extraordinary community of amazing writers and we need to nurture that going forward. That the Class of 2015 is going to have an instant and major impact on our Upper School’s music program. And that my toes look horrible with pink nail polish.

That last bit, of course, comes from Pink Toenail Day organized by the faculty and staff in support of breaking free of gender stereotypes and particularly of those of our students who most actively and deliberately broke them. Those students have graduated now and moved on, but just as they felt safe and comfortable to express their inner selves at our school, so too will there be future students who will need and appreciate the same atmosphere of support. Indeed, they may already be out there.

Pink Toenail Day was always about symbolic expression of a support that was already there, and I for one will be able to find other symbolic ways of expressing that support that don’t clash with my skin tone. First and foremost, though, the deep down support must be clear and unequivocal, for returning students and faculty and for new students and faculty. We are a team, individual voices rising in community. So we pause, take stock, honor where we’ve been. We say a heartfelt good-bye, hoping those moving on stay in touch. And we hunch our shoulders, look to the future, and begin the exciting work of creating next year’s community.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under Graduation, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School