Monthly Archives: September 2011

Making History

Well-behaved women seldom make history. – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

My 7th grade Humanities class has been investigating the theme question, “How does government affect girls’ lives?” We are using Deborah Ellis’s novel The Breadwinner as a starting point. The book is about a young girl in the Afghanistan of the 1990’s who has to dress as a boy to earn a living and buy food for her family when her father is arrested by the Taliban. Their first questions arising out of our discussions had to do with choosing and/or being forced to wear a burqa, and to what extent wearing either a burqa or niqab would have a deep effect on how girls and women felt about themselves. In pursuing those questions and viewing an Al Jazeera video about women’s rights in Afghanistan, we ended up identifying several directions for further discussion, including the nature of the Taliban, what is being and can be done about educating girls and women in Afghanistan, and more broadly the interrelationships of education and power on the one hand, and government and culture on another.

It’s still quite early in the year, and hard to tell exactly where this class is going to go as we dig deeper into the emerging ideas and themes of this unit. However, this is quite clear: they are asking all the right questions, they have a good sense of the role and importance of power in people’s lives and their intuition is to work to build a fairer and more equal world.

All of this, of course, comes back to our mission as a girls’ school. Developing, promoting, and supporting girls’ and women’s voices is at the core of what we do. As Leonard Sax once wrote, “a girls’ school can foster subversive girls who rebel against the narrow social roles prescribed for them.” The word “subversive” may shock here – it is not a word often associated with girls; but in point of fact, immersed as our students are in a constant stream of negative messages about girls, women and femininity, perhaps a little subversion is exactly what is needed.

It takes a major leap of faith to nourish subversion. You have to be willing to allow yourself to be challenged on occasion. It can be painful to acknowledge when that challenge might have some basis in fact; but imagine yourself looking at a girl struggling against everything she has absorbed about how it is her job to “be nice” and preserve relationships, working up the courage to let you know she sees something that she thinks is wrong and what needs to be done about it. How could you not listen to her? The alternative is to watch her retreat inside herself and know she is likely to have an even harder time speaking out in the future, if indeed she does. I, for one, could not live with that any more than I could live with squelching the girl who already has a sense of her own power and how to speak it.

So, trying my best to help nourish subversion, expressed of course with appropriate respect for feelings and human dignity, is in a very real sense part of my curriculum. I know that research shows girls’ schools have the potential to help girls and women derive their self-esteem from within rather than from external sources such as their appearance or what others think of them. At some level, everything I do here is oriented toward making that outcome a reality for our students.

In 2009, the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, wishing to avoid the trap of confirmation bias, commissioned a study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute into the effects of single-gender education. Entitled “Women Graduates of Single-Sex and Coeducational High Schools: Differences in their Characteristics and the Transition to College,” the study examined over 20,000 alumnae of both girls’ and coeducational schools. In the executive summary, the authors noted several benefits to alumnae of girls’ schools including greater academic engagement and confidence, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Particularly pertinent to my Humanities 7 class, they also note that alumnae of girls’ schools have “greater political engagement.”

I hope and trust that this year’s 7th grade class will only deepen their sense of political engagement as they continue to grow up and eventually go out into the world. I am still getting to know them, but already, I have a sense of their potential to help make history.

-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Bookends: Volume 2: Allow Me to Burst Your Bubble

By the time students enroll in the IB Diploma Programme they have amassed a great deal of knowledge.  My job, as their Theory of Knowledge teacher, is to make them forget it.

Alec Peterson, the first Director General of the IB and a TOK teacher, wrote that the aim of this course, and the reason it rests at the heart of the IB, is to address two weaknesses common to most upper secondary schools: the failure to make explicit in the minds of the students the different forms that academic learning and knowledge take; and the tendency for students to study their different subjects in discrete, insular compartments.

In other words, I need to help these girls recognize their developing powers of the mind and the ways these methods of thinking can be applied to new situations in any context.

Their powers of scientific deduction can reveal much about the structure of a concerto. The implication of a word problem in calculus demands the close reading skills learned in studying poetry.  All of this makes sense, indeed its value to the invested, active participant in life and learning is undeniable. But how to teach this?  I thought the girls would probably do a better job than I could.

I asked them first to do some talking and writing about what they mean when they say “I know.”  They took this in some wonderful directions, with answers ranging from investigations of empirical knowledge versus faith, to dismissive appeasements of parents and siblings.  No need to worry about honest self-assessment with this group.  What I did not expect was how quickly this metacognition would pervade their lives.

The heart of their homework for the week was to identify a moment in another class that required them to decode connotation.  By lunch the next day, reports were coming in from other teachers of TOK students’ demands and accusations.  Higher Level IB Math became a discussion of ways that we decode.  In Spanish, a simple request to translate a word brought talk of everything that “what does it mean” can mean. Students began to suspect (correctly, I might add) that their other teachers were in on this plot.

And that’s another part of what I get to do: help these girls forge and map the connections between their disciplines.  One of the great strengths of SBS, one that makes the IB a natural fit, is the faculty’s eagerness to make connections.  There is an infectious enthusiasm for understanding and synthesis, and as these girls and I work to integrate their tools of learning we find that everywhere we look this approach is being modeled.  The bubbles around disciplines are bursting.  But that’s how this conversation with Bill started.

-Alex Bogel, TOK and IB English Teacher

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Love At, No, Before First Sight

In my senior year of high school I joined the Drama Club, and was quickly fascinated by the strength, self-possession and worldliness of veterans of many productions. One of our favorite games to play while nonchalantly waiting to put on make-up, was to do lateral thinking puzzles, where someone gives you a seemingly illogical situation (e.g. “She went into the bar and asked for a glass of water. The bartender took out a gun. She thanked him, and left.”) and, by asking yes-no questions, figure out what really happened and why it all makes sense. I knew, and trusted, that sooner or later one of us would latch onto the seed question that would magically crystallize our thinking and make the solution clear.

Some years, I have played lateral thinking puzzles with my advisory group as a way for them to collaborate and build the kind of trust I had felt for my Drama Club friends. One group in particular (I’m thinking of you, sophomore and junior ex-advisees) kept begging for new ones, and finally I let them invent one for me. For the record, I got it in three advisory meetings, and they were impressed with how quickly I got from the seed question to the full solution.

I’ve never done lateral thinking puzzles with a Humanities 7 class before, but if I were to do so, it would be with this year’s group. Their first long discussion of the year, on the second or third “morning reading” of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue, was an extended riff blending inferences of the present, predictions of the future, and suggestions for a backstory of the past. Nearly all of them jumped in at some point, and as the raised hands multiplied and I went from using my hands to subtly point to people on whom I needed to remember to call, to using my fingers to indicate nearly half the class, there was a growing excitement about the ideas they were sharing that magically stayed on topic. It was one of my first major insights into the gifts and character of this class. That was also the first day I said out loud,

“I’m still just getting to know you and already I love this class.”

That’s one of the things that fascinates me about teaching, that you fall in love with a class before you ever meet them. Of course, receiving and reacting to summer work starts the process, but still, meeting a class on the first day is much like holding your child for the first time. Though it was nearly 18 years ago, I well remember (of course!) holding my newborn son on my 34th birthday, the amazement at how natural it felt to feel this much love for a person I had technically just met, along with a paradoxical certainty that I would be able to take care of him, love him, and help him grow into the person he was meant to be even as I knew I really had no clue at that moment who that person was. It’s like that with this class, as it is with all of them.

At a school that’s all about student voice, it’s imperative to help the new students open up as quickly as possible. People ask me what our secret is, but there it is. As with all human interactions, it’s hard to untangle. But that combination of openness to who they are meant to be, love and a deep respect for their individual and collective strengths may be a start.

-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Listening through the Wall: Middle School Select Chorus Auditions and the Spirit of Our School

I can’t see the students on the other side of the wall from my office, but I can imagine the scene that I’m hearing as I listen.  The girls sit in a loosely formed circle, some perched on stools, some sliding out of a chair, others with feet firmly planted on the ground.  One student is silently shaking her head, refusing to take her turn.  Her fellow students, some who have already auditioned and others anxiously waiting for their chance, cheer her on.  They offer words of support, chant her name and talk about how their experiences weren’t so bad.  “Once you do it you’ll be glad you did!”  “It’s not that bad!” “You can do it! Really!”

This could be any class, in any subject. But I am sitting in my classroom next door, eavesdropping on one of Tony Lechner’s vocal classes.  It is Middle School Select Chorus auditions, and each girl has come prepared to share a snippet of a song with the group.  The returning eighth grade students have done this before.  I can hear familiar works by Adele and Rihanna through the wall, and can pick out some voices that I know well.  After all, some of these shortened songs I’m hearing today shocked us last year when performed in their entirety (I still brag to my non-teaching friends about witnessing Charlotte’s Spearth Day performance in May).  Now I am hearing unfamiliar voices coming through with unfamiliar songs and I assume they belong to the new seventh graders hoping to join the group.

After two more girls sing I can hear the reluctant student again being encouraged by her classmates.  She replies to her peers’ words with silence (again, I imagine the shaking of her head) and someone else begins with “Amazing Grace.”

I am not musically inclined, and even with multiple years of teaching under my belt I still have an unhealthy fear of speaking in groups.  Never would I have set foot in a vocal music classroom as a middle school student, or tried to muster the courage to sing in front of others.  I completely understand this student’s reluctance to share her song with her classmates.  She’s vulnerable. She could forget the words, her voice might waver, she might be embarrassed in front of her peers.

The end of the class period is nearing and the attention returns to the silent student.  I can hear a few classmates say something to her, but not as loudly as before.  There is a pause, and then a voice comes through.  As with the other songs I have heard over the last 40 minutes I try to recognize the student to whom it belongs, but it isn’t familiar.  Then I realize it’s her – the reluctant voice that everyone was encouraging. She’s singing!  Her voice pours through the wall, sending shivers down my spine.  I don’t know if the song is being sung well, but it sounds amazing in this moment.  I am so proud of her.  She goes quiet, the silence is suspended, and then the classroom erupts in cheers. “That was amazing!” “Wow!” “You were great!” While I can’t see her face, I imagine it beaming with a smile stretched ear to ear.

– Sara Gibbons, Senior Class Dean & Visual Arts Faculty

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“Bookends: Volume 1”

“Bookends” is the ongoing conversation between Alex Bogel, “Theory of Knowledge” and standard-level IB English teacher and Bill Ivey, Humanities 7 teacher. It is an exploration of metacognition and their students’ developing skills in critical thinking, reflective learning and more.

During orientation they took a few moments to interview each other.

Bill: Alex, what is the “Theory of Knowledge” (TOK) class?

Alex: TOK is such a dangerous course to sum up, in some ways. It invites us to examine the nature of knowledge and all the different ways in which we know, the inadvertent and determined ways with which we as knowers shape and define our knowledge and that of others. It’s an opportunity to understand not what we know, but how and why we believe that we know.

If I’m getting to work with these girls in the final two years of their time at Stoneleigh-Burnham, how does that tie in to their middle school formation as learners?

B: Since Humanities 7 does not have standard content but rather is created by the students out of their questions and passions each year, what unifies it from year to year is precisely how you go about learning and expressing what you’ve learned, on your own and in the community. In that sense, it mirrors TOK although we get so immersed in learning sometimes we don’t even notice it happening. That might be a difference.

A: It’s certainly true that TOK is determinedly reflective.  That said, these courses mirror one another in their student-driven approach to content.  As quickly as possible, TOK students will be providing the course’s texts: moments of knowledge drawn from their other courses, their lives, their cultures, and their questions.  In this way the content of the course is largely irrelevant; it is the approach to the knowledge issues that arise that is vital.  As I’ve seen in your class, this approach leads students to a natural and profound investment in their learning.  

B: Thank you. And I do think, when my students look back on their work, they generally have internalized a clear (and growingly sophisticated) sense of what they have accomplished. I also think my own metacognition, whether or not it is always visible to them, plays a role in that process, if only by role modeling. That’s one of my hopes and expectations here (and it’s already happening!), that as I learn directly from you and indirectly from your students, my own metacognitive skills will rise as will, in turn, those of my students.

A: Absolutely–I realized as soon as you proposed this project that my not taking this opportunity to reflect (determinedly) would be disingenuous.  As you say, so much of what we teach, we model: process, results, and joy and investment in both.  Just think how much we’ll have to say once we start teaching.

B: I am! So, until next time…

-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean & Alex Bogel, TOK and IB English Teacher

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Just Go: Lessons from the First Day of School

This morning I dropped my three-year-old daughter off for her first day of preschool. She had been impatiently waiting for this day for months. In the parking lot she grabbed her ladybug lunch bag and whooshed away from me and my husband who trailed along behind her with the baby like her own little entourage. In the classroom, we helped her find her cubby and her nametag, put her Cat in the Hat stuffed animal in her sleep sack for naptime, and then watched her run off with another little girl tugging at her sleeve. I turned to the teacher and asked, “So…what do we do now? Hang out for a while?” She smiled gently and replied, “or…just go. Looks like she’s ready to play.” That was it, huh? Just go. There were no teary goodbyes, no hysterics, no peeling-of-the-child off the leg of my pants; just a quick hug and we were out the door, past the boy wailing for his mama and the little girl already in the arms of the assistant teacher, getting her back patted while she quietly sniffled into his shirt.

But it wasn’t that simple. Outside the classroom we peeked through the glass window and watched Macy settle herself at the craft table. Other parents hovered around us, some looking anxiously through the window, others gripping their child tightly by the hand as they walked into the classroom. I could have stood there all day, just watching, but I knew in my gut that Macy would be fine, and that, as Miss Cindy said, we had to just go. In the parking lot I passed another family snapping pictures of their child in his bright backpack and new sneakers, and a mom visibly crying as she drove away in her minivan. It struck me in that moment what an incredible feat it is to leave your child in the hands of another, and it made me realize how much I have in common with the parents of the students I teach at Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

Now that I have my own children I understand what great trust families give to us when their daughters enter our blue doors for the first time. Whether your child is four miles away or four thousand miles away, three years old or thirteen years old, that kind of trust is the reason you can leave her and walk away with ease. I didn’t cry as I drove away from her preschool and off into my own day without her. When my daughter wants something she doesn’t just walk, she marches: hunched forward with her elbows out like she’s jabbing her way down a crowded city street. This is her own journey, and she’s ready for it. I know many of my students come to SBS in this same way; determined and ready, while others need to be taken gently by the hand, reassured as they adjust in their own time. Next week some of both will be sitting in my classroom. As a teacher and an advisor, it’s not my job to dictate their journey for them; it’s my job to help them navigate it.

I realize that dropping Macy off at preschool today was just the first of many beginnings for her and for me. I know the parents of new SBS students share many of the same feelings as they drive up the oval to drop their daughters off. I know the parents of my seniors share many of the same feelings as they prep themselves for college, and know that I will feel this again and again throughout Macy’s life. This week the students of SBS, new and returning, will once again enter the blue doors and fill our hallways and classrooms with laughter and chatter. Some will cry and cling, but we’ll be there to guide them and cheer them on, every step of the way. I am so excited for Macy to discover the new world waiting beyond her school doors. Nothing will change how tightly I want to hold on to my daughter, but I will remember Miss Cindy’s words as I drop her off each day: Just go. Oh, and parents- I told you I didn’t cry when I drove away, but I’ll meet you in the parking lot by your minivan if you want. I’ll bring the Kleenex.

– Shawn Durrett, English Department Chair


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