Monthly Archives: October 2011

Bookends: Volume 3: Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s not necessarily the easiest!

Dear Alex,

So much time has passed since you posted, and it seems that my thinking is evolving every day – not just in response to the posting itself, but also in response to real-life, face-to-face conversations we’ve had since then. The time is long past to try to crystallize this thinking into something to share with others – as you said at lunch on Family Weekend, sometimes you just have to sit down, write and see what comes out.

What you are doing with your “Theory of Knowledge” students, helping them make their thinking so intuitively transparent to themselves that they can’t help but take charge of their own learning, is impressive. Furthermore, you are doing it in such a way that it infuses the intellectual life of the school, bursting the bubbles inside which it can be too easy to retreat and which serve only to impose artificial divisions. (More on that, perhaps, in my next post!)

That is, of course, pretty much the same thing we have been trying to do in the middle school. One of our primary tools is the student-led conference. This consists of a half-hour presentation by each student to her parents and advisor about not only what she is learning and doing in all aspects of her school life (even community service!), but also what she thinks about her accomplishments and further needs.

Beginning one to two weeks before Family Weekend, we distribute a series of self-reflection sheets to our classes. These require the students to think very specifically about what they have accomplished and what else they need to be focusing on. Through prompts such as, “What are three of your strengths in this course?” or “What did you find to be the hardest part of doing research for your paper?” or “What are two things you’re doing to improve your work in this course?,” students can access fairly abstract thoughts through concrete thinking about specific actions. I won’t pretend there aren’t occasional groans when we first start passing the sheets out, and certainly some students do respond better than others. At the same time, it’s often rewarding and just plain fun to track an advisee over two years and see how much deeper and more sophisticated their thinking can become. By now, ninth grade teachers know they can count on our middle school graduates to be quite self-aware of how they learn, what they do well and where they need support.

Part of what we teach the students is to be honest with themselves. Giving themselves praise is often the hardest part. As my Humanities 7 students pored over their forms last week, several worried, “I don’t want to say what I really think because it will sound like…” and I completed, “bragging?” Their faces relaxed, perhaps because I had made it okay to name the problem, and they agreed. I told them that being honest about what they do well isn’t putting anyone else down for their own accomplishments; they thought about it for a moment and said, “Yes, but it’s still hard.” On the flip side, they sometimes have a hard time thinking about where they need to improve, at least at this early stage of the year. Several were inspired to write that self-reflection itself is what they most need to work on. Fair enough, although I suspect the student who wrote, “self-confidence” had really hit the nail on the head. It’s tough to be a girl growing up in our society, feeling pressure both to be perfect and not to be better than anyone else.

Most parents love these conferences. In our first year, one of the Founders’ moms told me, “This is so much more useful, and enjoyable, than when you sit alone with the teacher and they tell you everything your daughter is doing wrong.” This weekend, one of my advisees absolutely nailed her conference. She spoke with authority and in great detail about what she was doing, where she was going, and how she could know she was going to get there. At the end, thinking about the first 7th grade conference a year ago, her mother teared up from a combination of deep pride in her daughter and the reminder of how fast she is growing up. She got a long, warm hug from her beaming daughter. It was an image I will always remember.

With things like this, we have begun our journey which will lead these girls, five years down the line, into your “Theory of Knowledge” class. They will know so much more then than they do now, about themselves and about the world. Their brains will be more developed, with parts that aren’t currently pulling their share of the load having fully kicked into action around the age of 15 or 16. And, just as I knew with absolute certainty five years ago that the six-year Seniors would be an extraordinary group this year, so too can I tell that this crop of 7th graders will be amazing in five years.

But then, they are already. As is true every year!

Sincerely,

Bill

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Filed under Admissions, In the Classroom, International Baccalaureate, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Just a Color

Dance life deep into the dark night with the stars the keepers of your fate. No, you take its keeping. And the music of the peepers is the keeper of our salvation… In the end, there is one dance you do alone. – Millie Sutton (from an inscription in my high school yearbook)

It was the evening following Stoneleigh-Burnham’s graduation, a time normally given over to celebrations and parties. And indeed, part of our group was planning on stopping through on the way to or from one of those parties. But a solid core of us had decided to spend the entire night at the Greenfield Relay for Life, which happened to fall on the same date as our graduation that year. When I arrived around dinnertime with my tent and sleeping bag, I found a festive atmosphere. There was music, food, decorations, and a fire (s’mores!) around which many of us were sitting and talking. Several members of our team were out on the track at the Franklin County Fairgrounds, including Jess, the newly-minted alumna who (along with her parents Cyndee and Bill) was the driving force behind our presence. We had spent months holding bake sales, tag sales, car washes and more, raising money in every way we could think of. We had succeeded in meeting Jess’s goal of every single participant raising at least $100 to fight cancer. And now it was time to celebrate the newest SBS graduates, our group’s fund-raising success, and even more importantly, the progress that was and is being made in the fight against cancer.

One of the traditions of the Relays for Life is to line up luminaria alongside the track, their soft glow both lighting the way for participants and illuminating the names of both survivors and those lost to cancer. Although I prefer to run my laps during the Relay, I always take at least one very slow lap to read the names and honor the spirits of those who were and are loved so well. This year, I chose to do so during my 3:00 A.M. shift on the track while some of the students/alumnae were catching short naps. About three-quarters of the way around, I stopped short and my eyes filled with tears. I saw a sack with the name “Amelia Sutton” taped to it, written in simple block letters. I closed my eyes and envisioned my old high school friend, her smile, her laugh, the night before she left for college when she ordered “Superior” pizzas so I could stop by her “off to college” party as I made the delivery, the way her long skirts twirled as she spun her way through a too-short life. She was just 44 when she died.

I grew up thinking of cancer as something that could be serious but that could also be beaten. Though my grandmother was first diagnosed with breast cancer when my father was in college (and medical treatments, of course, were not remotely as advanced in the early 1950’s as they are now), she fought hard and achieved remission no less than six times before her eventual death at 74, nearly 30 years after her initial diagnosis. She was, and is, an inspiration. And I have many other relatives who have successfully beaten back cancer. When I hear that someone has been diagnosed with cancer, my first instinct is to think, “Okay, time to gear up yet again and win this fight.” So that night on the track, I was not just grieving for Millie, I was also forced to confront the fact that sometimes the fight is lost.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During faculty meeting when Jeff Conlon, our Athletic Director, shared the idea of getting pink uniforms for our athletic teams in support, there was a buzz of affirmation around the room. Already, Linda Beaudoin was planning to organize our community service club to help with the Greenfield Rays of Hope walk for the third straight year. Last week, on the top of Mt. Holyoke on Mountain Day, a number of faculty members were knitting pink scarves as part of the Rays of Hope tradition. When Sandy Thomas P’99 and Michelle Shattuck came to housemeeting to represent the Rays of Hope walk, they asked for a show of hands of how many people had had breast cancer or knew someone who had. Nearly every hand in the room went up. With that sobering image in mind, Stoneleigh-Burnham is proud to join with so many others to do our part and look to the day, as in the title of Kal Hourd’s beautiful song, “When Pink is Just a Color Again.”

-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under Admissions, Alumnae, On Athletics, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

Making a New Home

Lately, I’ve been a little more irritable than I would normally be, or want to be. Like many teachers who care deeply about their craft, I can be hard on myself if a class doesn’t go well, but over these past couple of days, I’ve been carrying that to an extreme. I know why. It’s no secret. But sometimes you just have to let things take their course, doing everything you can to stay on an even keel so that the kids continue to have a good experience.

And they are! At our last middle school team meeting, I had put on the agenda some happy news a parent had shared with me. Her daughter could not be happier, and comes home each night raving about how much she loves it here. When I shared this news, it turned out other teachers had heard the same thing from this family, and we added other names to the list. Indeed, the kids seem relaxed, comfortable, happy, and (within the norms of young adolescence) focused on what they are learning.

At this point in time, if I were reading this blog aloud to my Humanities 7 class, they would be bursting with impatience, wondering why an author would say “It’s no secret” if they weren’t about to actually reveal the secret. So I will end their, and your, suspense. One of our two cats, Moki, while sweet and loving and affectionate with us, never bonded nor even accommodated to the other, and the situation had deteriorated to the point where it was clear that she really needed a home where she could be an only cat. I found such a home for her, with an alumna of our school (a newly-minted kindergarten teacher looking for an older cat that needed to stay indoors), and last night dropped her off there. It’s one of those things. I know she’s better off and will be happier, and I love her enough to want that for her. But I also love her enough to miss her terribly. The house feels empty, even as my other cat somewhat nervously works to make sure I know she belongs here and wants to stay.

As I woke up groggy this morning to my radio alarm, the first lyric I could clearly understand was, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. I know who I want to take me home…” It was eerie how perfect the song was for the moment. Beyond the lyrical coincidence, this song, “Closing Time” by Semisonic, was chosen by the class of 2003 to sing at Vespers as their farewell song to the school. I worked with them to prepare it, strumming along on my beloved black Strat set to its sweetest sound. They sounded beautiful, simultaneously wistful and brave as they reflected on their past here and turned toward their future elsewhere. One of the lyrics, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” has become a touchstone in my life.

Normally, I’ll think about this song at the end of the year, when our school is approaching that “some other beginning’s end” and somewhere else is soon to be the new beginning. But of course, it is the same in reverse for the start of our year. As we come together joyfully and build this year’s community, last year’s communities and ways of doing things are still engraved in our students’ minds.  In that same meeting, where we were talking about how happy our new students are here, we also talked about the sea change in culture some of them were nonetheless experiencing, and how to guide them through it. The girl who comes home every night raving about how much she loves her life also looked up at me quite frankly yesterday and said that in her old school, she had never had to present original research in a paragraph quite the way we do it here. I worked with her to pull ideas out of her existing paragraph, combine them, add to them, and figure out what the main idea was and how best to phrase it. Then we talked about how to test how closely each line of the paragraph related to the newly-written topic sentence, keeping some ideas but setting others aside for hopeful inclusion elsewhere in the paper. She had the sense it wouldn’t be easy and it might take a few more drafts to get it right. I told her that was possible, but that I also had the sense she would get it right. She nodded as if to confirm that she trusted my judgment on that point, and bent to her work as I moved on to confer with the next student.

And so it goes. We keep the best of the places where we have been, and move on to welcome the best of the places where we are. We continue our journeys to become our best selves, not without bumps but not without joys either. Part of the coming together must be to honor where we’ve been. It becomes natural once we recognize it as such.

Nearly two years ago, Moki made a cameo appearance in our school’s blog, in a piece called “Moki was right.”  In it, I wrote, “My little cat Moki has crawled into my lap. Perched on her haunches, she has one paw on my right shoulder and the other against my chest; her head is nestled under my chin and she is purring deeply. For her, there’s nothing all that complicated about love.” Sometimes, of course love can be complicated. But sometimes it’s not. As Moki moves on to her own new beginning, those thoughts remain.

-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under Admissions, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective