Monthly Archives: July 2011

It All Came Together

For teachers, the end of the year is always a time for reflection. My students and I talk through how we can continue to improve the middle school experience for next year’s kids. Ghosts of former students that occasionally materialize throughout the year, looking over my shoulder while I’m teaching and reminding me of a basic truth they taught me, begin to gather together as if for Reunion. The AP French class that made a music video of the reggae song “Femme Libérée.” The 9th graders who raised money for a special doll that Franklin Medical Center could use with little kids to help them understand what was happening with them. The French 3 student who caught fire when she learned to use the tenacity she brought to being a superb soccer goalkeeper to improve her schoolwork. The girl who could laugh at the four-year senior dinner as she looked back on her 9th grade year when she would knock softly on my apartment door nearly every night at 11:00 or so and say, “Bill, I can’t sleep.” The rock band that pulled off “Stairway to Heaven” with three different groups of kids playing each of the three sections, Emily the guitarist holding things together through each transition. Literally hundreds more students hover above me, asking if I remember them, smiling to learn that I do.

Ghosts of current students, too, fill my mind – ghosts of who they used to be. When you teach middle school, incredible growth almost, but not quite, ceases to amaze you because it happens every single year. During the first week, I used to have to turn my right ear toward one student and stand within six inches of her to hear what she was saying; now, I can look back to April and remember her reading poetry to a room full of friends and their families with a voice audible in every corner. The Humanities 7 class, from being a roomful of relative strangers, has coalesced into a model community of writers with extraordinary talent and a high level of honest supportiveness. The drummer in the rock band used to need me to write her parts for her; now, I just give her the basic beat and off she goes! There are stories all of us could (and do) tell about every single student. Those of you who can attend our 8th Grade Moving Up Ceremony will hear many of those stories, and you will understand why our eyes fill up at this time every year.

This morning, I read a reflective essay an international student had written on her year. She wrote simply and with aching honesty about how scared she was on the first day, how truly alien everything seemed. Even the aspect of school she thought would be the most stable, her teachers (reasoning that people who choose to go into teaching would have a lot in common regardless of what their nationality is), seemed strange and new and different. As she fell asleep sharing a room with a total stranger for the first time ever in her life, she felt sad, lost and alone, and wondered if coming to this school in this country had been one of the worst mistakes of her life.

Today, she is grateful to have had her world opened up. She’s learned how different people can be, how she can herself be seen as different by other people, and how those differences are what makes the world special and interesting. She wants to travel a lot and learn about other countries. She thinks coming here is one of the best things to have happened to her.

Earlier this morning, I ran to the dining room to fill my coffee mug back up, and passed a group of parents setting up for the annual “Make a Muffin” breakfast they prepare for faculty, staff and students. The tables were overflowing not just with muffins but also with pastries, coffee rings, and lots of other yummy things. I saw two moms hugging each other as one told the other, “It all came together.”

So it did.

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized

Talib Kweli and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

“Teach them the game, so they know they position, so they can grow and make decisions that change the world, and break old tradition.” – Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (as in the title of Judith Viorst’s book). Or at least, he could have. Saturday night, as he flew into Grand Rapids, a flight attendant began to whistle the Carmina Burana. A portent of sorts? Sunday morning, he encountered a number of rude personnel at the airport. Sitting waiting for his flight, he wrote, “… this Grand Rapids airport experience is the worst get me out of here!” It was in this context, about an hour later, that he wrote, “Ever haves convo with someone who don’t know they racist? That’s happening to me right now…”

His interlocutor was a white woman who “apparently used to teach in the inner city and has all types of opinions [about] why young black men drop out…” Among these was the theory that black mothers love their daughters more because they were scared their sons would turn on them “cuz ain’t no fathers in the hood.” When he told her he was a rapper, she told him she hoped he didn’t degrade women and said she had “[thrown] her sons vulgar CDs out the window.”

Kweli could well be forgiven for simply thinking, “whatever,” and moving on. Rather, he observed, “Interesting convo. Nice Lady. Still racist tho lol.” One of his Twitter followers pressed him on the observation, and he responded she had every right to her opinions, but the opinions themselves were nonetheless racist. He added that “Racism often partners with evil, but one can be racist without evil intentions. They don’t know any better.” Twitter obviously precludes a lengthy analysis, but he did say that after hearing the woman out, he “explained that the pathology of slavery has horrible affects on black families & provided her with an alternative to her opinion.”

We don’t know, of course, how or even whether this interchange affected the woman. Kweli clearly respected her humanity and her good-if-misguided intentions, and perhaps that climate of respect opened her ears to something which she might not otherwise have been able to hear. Certainly he would not have sounded like someone who degraded women. At a minimum, if this woman encounters other people down the line who respectfully challenge her racist views by simply providing additional information and perspectives, she may think back to her encounter with that nice young man in the airport and begin to question her own thinking.

As it happened, at the end of Sunday’s flight, Talib Kweli discovered that someone had taken his carry-on bag. He had been using his computer, so he still had that, but his other stuff, much of it important, was gone. He was certainly upset, especially right after making the discovery, but did recognize the possibility that someone took it by mistake and would return it “but if not, sigh and oh well.” With that, he wrote “someone tell me a joke I need to laugh lol” and shortly after “Ok, now someone tell me a funny joke lol.” There followed a series of retweets of some of the jokes his followers sent him.

By showing grace in trying circumstances, acknowledging the truth of what was happening, holding to his core beliefs, being willing to look beneath the surface and see the human being behind the comments and actions, and using a sense of humour, Talib Kweli may well have turned what could have been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day into one that at a minimum had some redeeming qualities and some good moments. Those of us who are doing social justice work, not just anti-racist but also anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-heterosexist and more, regularly  encounter people like the nice lady in the Grand Rapids airport. It’s up to us to decide how to react, and in so doing, it’s up to us whether or not we (and to some extent they as well) will have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

Leave a comment

Filed under Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized

Lessons from Hermione

I will confess that it wasn’t until I read the third volume of the Harry Potter series that I fell head over heels in love with the books. But it is indeed love, and one that is inextricably tied up with the people in my life. My family was one among countless others that went to midnight book release parties in local bookstores, and we took it in turns to read each of the last four books aloud together. After driving home cradling each new volume, we would stay up until we had read at least one chapter, and would wake up to more new chapters, curled up together in the living room through the subsequent days until we finished the last word , the warm, sunny weather outside in the “real world” notwithstanding. And of course, I have been involved in countless discussions with my students about the books – revisiting plot twists, analyzing characters and their thoughts and feelings, sharing what connects each of us so deeply to the books.

I think I connected so strongly to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for three main reasons. One was undeniably the sheer inventiveness of J.K. Rowling and the riveting plot; I believe about five seconds went by between the moment I finished it and the moment I began to reread it. A second was Harry Potter discovering his godfather, who not only provided a direct connection to his parents but also joined Dumbledore in loving and caring for Harry. Helpless as a reader to serve that role for Harry, but wanting everything to work out for him, I was both touched and relieved at this new development. And the third was watching Harry, Hermione and Ron coming of age, taking bold and firm steps toward adulthood as they ably met the challenge with which Dumbledore had entrusted them. As a middle school teacher, I see this happen every year with my students, admittedly in somewhat less intense, dangerous and dramatic fashion. As a teacher in an all-girls school and someone who felt there was even more to Hermione than we glimpsed in the first two books, I was especially moved to see her own growth and success.

Originally, as I was preparing with mixed excitement and nostalgia to see the final installment of the Harry Potter film series, I was envisioning writing a piece for the school’s blog with a dual focus on Hermione and feminism. It seemed the perfect topic for a girls’ school. But I found myself encountering far more difficulty than I anticipated. Searching for inspiration, I followed a Twitter link from Ms. Magazine to a blog article, “Will the New Hermione Please Stand Up?” calling for more literary heroes along the lines of Hermione as well as Katniss of “The Hunger Games” series . I readily agreed with the premise, but was still stuck.

Then I discovered an outstanding newspaper article written by Erica Moulton, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, entitled “Women of the Wizarding World: Harry Potter and his Feminist Friends.”  She confronts head on accusations that J.K. Rowling has played into stereotypes of women, affirming in contrast that “We hold these female characters close to our hearts not because they are perfect beacons of feminism, but because they are genuine and believable women.” There it was. I had been trying to make Hermione more than she really was, in the process trying to make her more than she needed to be. Without that clarity of vision, nothing I was writing rang true.

The world does not need any of us to be perfect, and certainly does not need us to conform to anyone else’s ideal. The world, rather, needs each of us to be perfectly ourselves. That is Hermione’s achievement, and that is the mission of our school. As I open up envelopes (one of which had “Hi Bill!” and a smiley face drawn on it) and email and learn my new students’ ideas on what book to read in our first unit, peruse parents’ thoughts about and dreams for their daughters, and make plans with members of the middle school team, I can see the beginnings of this year’s community forming. As we come together, learn together, and love and support each other in both our strengths and our imperfections, we will be well on the way to having met the school’s mission. I can only hope Hermione, too, would be proud.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

1 Comment

Filed under Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

An Attitude of Wonder

Although I have not taught French very often since Stoneleigh-Burnham opened its middle school program, it was my major in college and the focus for my M.A.T. From my first night in France at age 16, when I enjoyed a delicious meal of couscous with my high school exchange group, was fascinated to see the waiter calculate our bill by writing on the (paper) tablecloth, and then took a short walk toward the Seine where I was riveted by the sight of Notre Dame glowing against the night sky, it was pure love. Forming a long-term friendship with my “French sister” on the homestay extended that love to an entire culture, a love that only deepened through a junior year abroad in Paris and a year-long exchange position as a “lecteur” (essentially a teaching assistant) at the Université de Bordeaux – III. For the first few years I worked at Stoneleigh-Burnham, I returned every summer, and some of my oldest and dearest friends live in France.

In one of her short stories about The People, Zenna Henderson describes a young teacher arriving in the town where she has just accepted a job: “I paused on the splintery old bridge and took a good look. I’d never see Bendo like this again. Familiarity would blur some outlines and sharpen others, and I’d never again see it, free from the knowledge of who lived behind which blank front door.” Having lived in France, I understand only too well the advantages and disadvantages of acquiring that kind of familiarity. And as much as I appreciate the added layers of feelings and depths of understanding my time in the country has brought me, I sometimes miss that sense of freshness, of surprise, of pure, unexpected, love at first sight.

I co-led a trip to France for SBS students in the late 1990’s. With an eye both to making the most of our trip and to keeping everyone awake as long as possible on the first day, moments after checking in, we took the students on a walking tour from our hotel in the Marais over to Notre Dame. I happened to glance over at Nicole D. just as she gazed upward with a look of wonder, and said, “I can’t believe I’m really in the real Paris.” I smiled to myself, thinking “I know just how you feel” and taking delight in experiencing that feeling vicariously through my student.

This fall, I will begin teaching a section of French for the first time in a number of years. As coincidence would have it, my father offered to bring my brother and me on a special trip to Paris this summer. Driving into Paris, surrounded for the first time in over a decade by the sights, sounds, and smells of the city, that sense of wonder washed over me once again as if for the first time. It will animate me in the classroom, even as I search to awaken a similar sense of wonder in each student in whatever way works best for her.

Paraphrasing Aristotle, Michael Muir-Harmony, the co-lead teacher of Full Circle School (and father to one of my former advisees) once observed, “All learning begins in wonder.” In this context, the word can have at least two meanings. One is simply wondering about things, seeking answers to one’s own questions – the basis for so much of what our middle school students learn, especially in Humanities 7 where they design their own units. But the other meaning is magical in a different way, that sense of wonder and astonishment at the world around us, the connection and love to where we are and what we are doing. This, too, must be cultivated in Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School students if they are, as is one of our goals, to move on as committed, internally motivated, lifelong learners.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

Leave a comment

Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective