Monthly Archives: December 2011

10,000 Hours.

The following was originally delivered to students, faculty and staff at the opening of Stoneleigh-Burnham School’s fall Honor Roll Assembly. 

Thank you for allowing me to speak about why we are celebrating certain members of our community today. Honor roll is clearly about grades: certain grades either do or do not put your name on a list of academic achievement. That list, in turn, lands you at this ceremony receiving a certificate and applause by your peers.

Thinking about the nature of a grade is very confusing. How many of you have said one of the following: “I got a B on that last history paper”, “I got a C- on my chemistry exam”, “I got an A on my English oral presentation.”

As we have begun to police ourselves on the proper use of English grammar, I would like you to think about what I just said. I “got” an A, B, or C. “Got,” as if you were a submissive recipient of the grade.  I “got” an A, in grammatical terms, signifies that the “A” passively happened to you. As if you woke up on Christmas morning, ran downstairs, grabbed a present from under the tree, opened the box and exclaimed, “Look! I got an A,” as if it was a puppy or sweater or some other gift that someone had given you.

If we are exercising proper grammar usage, we should not say, “I got an A,” but rather I “earned” an A. That, I, as an individual, actively participated in my achievement. That little designation makes you think about that grade in a different way. So, with that in mind, what does it mean to earn a grade?

In 2008, Malcom Gladwell published a book called, Outliers: The Story of Success. In his book, he tried to explain why some people attain astonishing success, recognition and achievement. The book was fascinating to read and since I finished reading it, I have been thinking a great deal about Chapter 2: The 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell argued that a person, any person, could succeed if he or she had the time, resources and dedication to doing so. Gladwell argued that by dedicating 10,000 hours, or 20 hours a week for 10 years, to a single pursuit you could achieve success.

Think about that. 10,000 hours. It may seem like a life time, but it’s not. Since finishing the book I have begun to look at my own life in terms of 10,000 hours. For those of you who know me well, you know that I am successful in a lot of things. I am a competent, knowledgeable career historian, I am a professional cook, an elite nationally recognized athlete, a fairly competent photographer and I speak a second language, Spanish, more or less fluently. I know that none of these things were a gift. I had to dedicate years of time to all of my skills and interests in order to get to achieve the success that I have today.

I started studying history when I was in 7th grade. I remember that class vividly. It was mostly a civics class where we learned about the 3 branches of government and famous Americans. I loved it. There has not been a day since where I haven’t been studying, teaching or reading about history. Even getting up on a Sunday morning and reading the newspaper, listening to NPR on the car radio or turning on the TV news when I get home from work is an act of studying history. So when I think about whether I have spent 10,000 hours immersed in history, I think, yes, I probably have invested that much time. I agree with Gladwell that in 10 years of dedicated study I have achieved success as a history teacher. I have also realized that if there is anything in my life that I hope to master, that I can be successful in a new venture, as long as I am willing to put in the time and the effort of 10,000 hours.

Gladwell cites some interesting examples in his book. One that struck me was Bill Gates. Did you know that Gates started programming computers when he was in 8th grade? He was fascinated by the new technology and what it could do. He went on to graduate high school and matriculate at Harvard. In college, he really didn’t have a direction, but spent all of his time in the computer lab. Part way through his college career, he took a leave of absence to start a computer company, Microsoft. He never returned to Harvard. Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest and most innovative people, wasn’t given his success. He earned it through hours of dedication to his passion.

Clearly, I cannot fully apply Gladwell’s theory to all of you. You do not have 20 hours a week for each one of your classes, nor have you had the time to take all of your subjects for 10 years, although in some disciplines, you might be close. I cite the “10,000 hour rule” to illustrate to you that you can be a success in everything and anything you set your mind to, as long as you make a concerted effort and give sufficient time to your courses. You may not, for example, be doing particularly well in your 7th grade French class, but if you want to and you are willing to put the effort into your studies, by the time you graduate from college you could be headed for a career in the United Nations as a translator. Here in high school, you are in the process of achieving success.

So, what does all of this have to do with earning grades and being here at the honor roll assembly? Everything. The people we are recognizing today have put in the time and dedication to achieve high grades across the board. Although everyone may  have had an “easy A” class, in which earning a high grade was not a challenge, every one of the students honored here today also had a number of classes in which they had to work extremely hard and put in extra effort in order to earn success.

To be on the honor roll, each person who is going to come up here today has put herself on the path of the 10,000 hour rule and that is something that truly deserves recognition.

-Karen Levitt, Chair of the History Department

1 Comment

Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

Your Identity is Not Decided by the Sticker on Your Car’s Rear Window: Advice for Parents during the College Admissions Process

Last Tuesday night, the Parents’ Association was treated to an evening with Deb Shaver, Director of Admissions at Smith College. As the parent of a son who is in the throes of the college application process, I had a personal interest in this event I was organizing for Stoneleigh-Burnham parents. This is the second year we have hosted Deb and each time we ask her to provide the inside story on admissions and then give advice on how to guide their daughters through the process without nagging, controlling, or being too anxious.

With humor and diplomacy, Deb jumped right in, anticipating our questions and yes, some of our pathologies. Telling her own story of trying to help her son with this process when he wanted no help and only wanted to play in a rock band, she regaled us with her frustrations knowing we would feel more open to expressing our own. She articulated six points we were to commit to memory for the sake of our daughters – and I feel like her advice is worth repeating:

1. Remember the process belongs to your child and not to you. Your role is as an administrative assistant or secretary. Help by keeping charts or spreadsheets if you want, but the choice to go to college and if so, to which college, needs to come from your daughter.

2. Because it is your daughter who is going to college, and not you, remember she is the one who will be accepted or denied. Never use “we” when discussing acceptance or denial with your daughter. In other words, understand what issues you as a parent are bringing to the process. Where she goes to college will not become her identity or yours. Your identity is not decided by the sticker you place on the rear window of your car.

3. The indices on best colleges are all created to sell books and magazines; they differ on what colleges they think are best and their criteria are skewed. With all the wonderful colleges and universities in the U.S. your daughter will have a good choice, so “go for fit and not fame.”

4. College choice will never have the last word in your daughter’s future; so don’t act like it will. Your daughter is under enough pressure.

5. When a rejection letter comes, and it most likely will, keep your own grief under control while you praise your daughter for having the courage to try and acknowledging her disappointment. Encourage her to keep her chin up and remember that other letters will arrive and among them will be one or more acceptances. Then go into your own bedroom and have that good cry you’ve been bravely holding off.

6. Work closely with your daughter’s college counselor, in Stoneleigh-Burnham’s case, Lauren Cunniffe, who really is an expert at helping our girls select appropriate colleges, apply to them and make sure they have all the necessary paperwork together to send off. (Deb had high praise for Lauren.)

As the conversation was coming to an end, a parent asked about the nuts and bolts of how a college makes its decisions. Rearranging herself in her chair and taking care to be as exact as she could, Deb described the Smith College process which she indicated was pretty typical of most small selective colleges. As she explained the mechanics of having two readers for every application, deciding those who would be admitted at the top and who would be rejected at the bottom, arguing in committee over most applicants, I deepened my appreciation for the difficulty of the decisions. She summed it up by saying the process is one part science, one part art and one part “crap shoot.” “Fair? Is it fair?” she asked rhetorically. “No! from a parent or applicant perspective it isn’t all fair. But, as she went on to reflect, “it is as fair as we can make it.” She went on to let everyone know that in committee, there are always tears from her admissions staff. “They, too, fall in love with these applicants and have a hard time accepting the decisions on some of their favorite candidates. So I make sure I have a lot of tissues in my office on any decision day.”

– Regina Mooney, Director of Development & Alumnae Relations

Leave a comment

Filed under College Prep, On Parenting

Solidarity Forever

As Dar Williams was introducing her song “Iowa” during her Friday afternoon concert last week, she mentioned that many people took the song as proof that she was lesbian because of the line “I’ve never had a way with women, but the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could.” She added that the song “When I Was a Boy” was often taken as further proof, when in fact the song has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with gender. She was, I hasten to add, reacting more to people’s insistence on supporting unfounded assumptions in the face of reality than the assumption itself. She is noted and respected for her deep thinking on gender roles and gender typing, and as such and despite being straight, she has won praise from the LGBT community.

One of the things I love about working with 7th graders is their largely undimmed sense of justice and their willingness to keep an open mind. When I played my current Humanities 7 class the song “When I Was a Boy,” I asked them what they thought the title meant. Their first thoughts were that maybe it was about a transgender person, or perhaps about a friend of the songwriter, and then possibly about a woman who acted more like a boy is supposed to act while she was growing up (this student spoke with very heavy quotes around the word “supposed”). None of these possibilities roused any strong reactions other than agreement or jumping in to expand on the idea. Similarly, in listening to me read from If I Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson, when one of them asked if one of the main characters’ sisters was lesbian and I responded yes, they simply nodded and we moved on. Their first instincts may not necessarily be that a given person is transgender or lesbian, but nonetheless, LGBT people seem to be just a normal part of their world.

At the same time, in these early stages of discussing the book, which describes the relationship between a white girl and an African-American boy, the majority of them seem to be anchored in the belief that we live in a post-racial society. While I ache with hope that this is true for them, there is no question that our larger culture is anything but post-racial. When Latinas earn 51% of white men and 7% of the country is willing to state in a national poll that they would “never” vote for an African-American, we have a very long way to go indeed.

One of my good friends at the Teacher Leaders Network and on Twitter, José Vilson, is only days away from becoming a father. He has been tweeting and  blogging his joy and anticipation for months, and it takes me back to the time that I was in that peculiar state of suspended animation you achieve when your baby’s due date has just passed, and the phrase “any day now” takes on a whole new meaning. As with the birth of any child, I find myself looking around me and thinking about the world as it is and the world as I would prefer to pass it on to the care of the next generation. Just because José is a person of color should not mean he alone is responsible for noting and fighting racism and building a better world for his son. But I wonder, am I being a good ally? Am I doing all the right things? At least equally importantly, am I doing enough?

Earlier tonight, I was sitting in Panera and taking a break from class preps to catch up on my various online communities. I came across a posting by a transgender police officer, one who is out only to selected family members and friends. She expressed her great admiration for a number of openly trans people, and her great regret that she was not brave enough to come out herself and help normalize the existence of people like herself. Of course, fear of losing her job and not being able to support her family played a major role in that decision. Responses to her post were uniformly supportive, but no doubt of little solace. If you feel certain you are not doing enough, no amount of comfort, however well meaning and true, will change your mind.

And moreover, as we work to move our society past dehumanizing stereotypes and prejudice and enable people to truly and fearlessly be their own best, authentic selves, we need to be thinking also about the world itself. Each year, as Humanities 7 students brainstorm what to study, some variation of the question “What will climate change do to the world by the time I grow up?” will be raised. This video of a 13-year-old Canadian girl speaking at a U.N. conference has recently been shared by a number of members of my Personal Learning Network, yet it was filmed back in 2008. Its timelessness shames us. More recently, Abigail Borah made the news for her own protest at the Durban climate change conference. I am no big fan of rudeness, but at the same time I do find myself wondering how else to get the attention of our and other nations’ governments. Quiet advocacy has gotten us precisely nowhere. At such moments (among others), I too feel certain I am not doing enough.

What would be enough? Equally importantly, what are the right things to do? If we want to support our children in building a better, more equitable, and more sustainable world, we need to be asking ourselves these questions. For me, it is one of the most important things I do as a teacher. And now, as I watch the six-year Seniors take their place leading the school and joining my son in reaching their 18th birthdays and registering to vote, as I think back to their 7th grade year and the questions they explored, I am happy and proud to have them take their place alongside me as adults and contribute their own efforts to building a better world. We need more people like them in our society. On this Human Rights Day 2011 (Saturday, December 10), they give me hope.

Leave a comment

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

The Magical World of Musician

I used to think making music was magic. I guess, after doing it, I still do. – Lisa Bastarache. ’99 (from her yearbook page)

I will never forget the first time I saw Dar Williams in concert. She opened for the Indigo Girls at the Mullins Center at UMass way back in the mid-90’s, and they invited her to play one of the encores. Alone on stage with her guitar, she transfixed the approximately 8,000 people in attendance with heartbreaking images of a relationship entering and eventually, tentatively, emerging from a “February” period. The song instantly became one of my all-time favorites, and I bought her CD “Mortal City” the very next day.

So when she came to our school on Friday to play a short concert, it was a dream come true, especially as she chose “February” as her last song of the set.  Even more importantly, though, she agreed to host a Q and A session with interested students afterward. I tipped off one of the middle school band members about the Q and A, and she said “THAT WOULD BE ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!” as she too is a Dar Williams fan, and has already written a number of songs (some of which we are eventually going to be performing). Four of the students in my French II class are in Select Chorus and, predictably, they too wanted to attend.

The questions – “How do you know if a song is good?” “How do you get from scribbling songs on index cards with broken pencils to knowing you’ve made it, to having a recording contract?” “Have you ever written anything so personal you’d never share it with anyone?” “Did you always know you were going to be a musician?” – both showed where the kids were coming from and inspired thoughtful answers. Ms. Williams’s thoughts on the last question not only brought me this blog title, but also took me back to the 90’s…to the early days of the school’s student rock band.

Lisa Bastarache, who is quoted above, was a founding member, alternating in the earliest concerts between playing guitar and singing because she wasn’t quite ready yet to do both at once. By fall of her senior year, though, she was commanding the stage, from the sass and in-your-face attitude of “not a pretty girl” by Ani DiFranco (“I am not a pretty girl. That is not what I… do. I ain’t no damsel in distress, and I don’t need to be rescued. So put me down, punk…”) to the clear, sweet longing of R.E.M.’s “Fall on Me” that contrasted with the growl of her black Strat as it intertwined with the harmony vocal of our drummer, Leah Freeman and the flute countermelody of Cassie Bohnett while Becca Engle anchored us on bass. The song still rests on my iPod, and when it comes up I generally drop what I’m doing to listen to it.

Under the watchful eye of Frog, Becca’s stuffed sheep that she willed to the group in Vespers, a generation (in middle school terms!) of bands have now taken the stage, and we’ve played witness to that mysterious alchemy time and time again. Kate Keiser’s gorgeous interpretation of “Hands” one winter, as her Christmas gift of an autographed picture of Jewel from our bassist Nicole Brennan graced the stage. Cass Panuska’s unforgettable “Zombie.” Mary Dooley’s recording of “Walking in Memphis” which was so dead-on perfect I’ve never seen a version that matches it  (though I’ll grant you this version by Marc Cohn himself is pretty awesome). Julie Stevenson’s rendition of “Don’t Know Why” that made me cry at least once each rehearsal. Michaela Sandhoff’s wistful “How’s It Going To Be?” And so many more. Cass and Mary, for sure, continue to work in, and with music, but most of the others have gone in other directions. No matter. Traces of their legacy remain forever in our music program. And similarly, each of them can draw forever on their experience in the magical world of Musician.

P.S. In one of those intriguing coincidences, “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls just came on the radio here at Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters – a song from that evening at the Mullins Center, and one which alumnae from the 90’s may remember from many Farewells to Seniors: “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper and I was FREE!”

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumnae, On Education, Performing Arts, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Empowering Domesticity

During the week before break, as the Humanities 7 class and I were reading and discussing Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons, they asked if they could use their hand looms and work on their last “Art and Culture” project. I’ve always felt, and I know that research shows, that some people actually concentrate better on discussions when they are engaged in some task that does not require their full attention (doodling, squeezing a rubber ball, listening to music, knitting, etc.), so I readily granted their request. It led to a heightened sense of calm and community even as we had some of the longest and deepest conversations of the term. They asked Sara (their art teacher) and I whether they could continue the practice once art class was over, and Sara not only agreed but also quite generously offered to provide supplies. I of course was only too happy to grant their request.

One by-product of our school’s involvement in the Rays of Hope walk for breast cancer has been an increased interest in knitting as students work to help create pink scarves to be donated to cancer survivors, and some of the 7th graders had already been bringing knitting projects to class to work on during discussions. Meanwhile, a student survey showed that one of the top-rated topics in our new “Life Skills” course was cooking. As someone who enjoys cooking and used to enjoy knitting, I know firsthand the usefulness of these skills. Moreover, I’ve long felt that one can be feminist and still advocate for schools offering units and topics associated with Home Economics as long as one doesn’t associate those skills with only one gender. So I have been secretly glad to see these interests building, and I am quite happy to support them.

The day before we returned from break, Rachel Simmons posted a tweet linking to an article by Emily Matchar at “The Washington Post” entitled “The New Domesticity: Fun, empowering, or a step back for American women?” I clicked on the link and found the account of a young woman in the midst of canning, musing why she and “half [her] female friends… were heading back to jam-canning and knitting needles, both for fun and for a greater sense of control over what we eat and wear.” Fair enough, I thought to myself. It would be hard to argue with any of those goals. And in recent years I have read a good many articles noting, with one degree or another of bemusement, how there’s something about the holidays – perhaps nostalgia or a sense of tradition – that leads people (often women) to devote much more time and attention to cooking than they do at any other time of year.

However, Ms. Matchar continues to ask, “But in an era when women still do the majority of the housework and earn far less of the money, ‘reclaiming’ domesticity is about more than homemade holiday treats. Could this ‘new domesticity’ start to look like old-fashioned obligation?” She muses on whether this trend is a reaction to or an evolution of feminism, steadfastly refusing to settle on a single answer but rather presenting different perspectives on the question all the while leaving it open-ended.

I want all my students to be able to take care of themselves and to value caring for others. For those who marry or settle into partnerships, whether or not they start families, I would hope their life partners would share those attributes. I also want them to grow into their own authentic selves. So where does all this leave us? I find myself wondering if I taught at an all-boys’ school whether we would even be having this conversation. Merely to raise that question, of course, puts us instantly in familiar territory of the intersection of biology, culture, and our own individual values. Ultimately, as Ms. Matchar implies, there is no easy answer.

Or is there? When we get caught up in questions of what it means to be female and male, we entangle ourselves so deeply in a web of conflicting evidence and opinions that it is almost hopeless to unravel it and sort it out. If, on the other hand, we look at domestic skills simply as “life skills” that can serve all of us, then perhaps it becomes less complicated. I would have the same goals for my students wherever I taught – all-girls, all-boys, or coed. I have the same goals for my son. I would imagine a great many teachers and parents feel the same way. So why must it become so complicated?

In the end, as with so much we do in our school, it comes down to the culture in which we live. It’s one thing to ensure our students have the skills they need to be successful in life and that they know and can act as their own best selves. It’s quite another to ensure that our culture is ready to receive them on those terms.

Leave a comment

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