Monthly Archives: March 2012

Room For Change

I glance up and notice the little plastic clasp screwed into the underside of the shelf of our TV stand. The pointy part, that stuck into the clasp and prevented the door from being opened without extreme intellectual and physical effort, has long since been removed. Not so the memories of putting it on in the first place, which my wife and I did around the same time we added the gadgets to every cabinet door in our apartment above the library, plugged plastic shields into all the outlets, stuck soft protectors on every furniture corner we owned, and generally ensured everything was as safe as possible for the imminent arrival of the child that turned out to be our son. Long before he thought or even knew about crawling, we had done everything we could think of to protect him from any dangers we could imagine.

As our children grow up, of course, we continually and deliberately work to ensure they can eventually take care of themselves. It may be bittersweet at times, but if our true goal is that our kids grow up to be happy and confident, balancing self-reliance and connectedness, we really have no choice. Yet, the same instinct that leads us to prepare our apartments months ahead of when we really need to is never far from the surface, as my parents periodically remind me whenever my brothers, my sisters, or I are going through hard times in one way or another.

As parents of Seniors are all too well aware, this is the week when all colleges that have not already announced their decision send out notifications. Peter Gow, the college counselor at Beaver Country Day School, captures the feeling perfectly in a blog entry entitled “College Admissions: Agony, Ecstasy, Reality” when he writes, “For the students… the moment of opening the letter, popping open the email, or logging into the decision site is probably as charged an event as they have experienced: a moment of truth. (…) Many see their entire futures, as well as their self-concepts, riding on the decision made by the admission committee at some beloved college, and some will take “bad news”—denial or waitlist or even January admission—as a personal blow.” You see your kids grow up into these amazing people, and suddenly a decision taken by total strangers hundreds of miles away, often made of necessity on the basis of about five minutes’ worth of discussion, has the potential to devastate them with just a single word. As we envision such a moment, little plastic clasps, shields, and corner protectors are utterly pointless. All we have is our intense love for and faith in our kids to try and help them pull through the week. Peter keeps tissue boxes close at hand during this week, and no doubt day parents do too. But as boarding parents, you can’t even offer a Kleenex, never mind wrap your kid in a hug.

On the other hand, what stronger ally than our love for and faith in our kids? Whether communicated in a glance, a quick squeeze of the shoulder, a back rub, or via words spoken softly between longer pauses or thumbed with a sort of desperate urgency into a text window, our ability to reaffirm all those wonderful qualities we see in our kids and to let them know we love them can at least lay the groundwork for the decisions that will eventually settle out. Peter captures this well, too, when he notes that “college counselors, like teachers, administrators, parents, friends, and the world at large spend this week above all other weeks in the year helping kids understand that it’s not about rejection or acceptance but about making the most of the opportunities life gives us.”

In talking to students and parents, to Andy Patt in years past, to Lauren in more recent years, as well as to my brother-in-law who is a college counselor at Thayer, I knowhow deeply important the role of a school is in providing their own support. As a seventh grader once said, “Tell me what you really think about my story. My parents liked it… but they have to!” In our own knowledge of kids, with that peculiar blend of love and objectivity that a teacher brings a student, we can and do perform our part in helping kids work through the agony and the ecstasy of this week. Here, too, I feel lucky as my son’s house counselor (his school’s word for “houseparent”) wrote all of us parents early in the week to gently prepare us for what we thought we knew was coming, and to tell us she would be always open to the kids telling whatever news they chose to share and seeking whatever support they felt they needed but that she would not be forcing the issue. And though he may not have written us, I trust my son’s college counselor to do the same.

I know my son well. He has a long history of making the most of the opportunities that life has brought him – and our family has been extraordinarily blessed with opportunities. We will get through this week together, he, my wife, and I. He will find the college where he was meant to be, work hard, learn, and be subtly shaped as he continues to set the direction of his life. And then one day, perhaps, his own child will await the decisions of colleges. He may talk through his feelings with us, whatever he chooses to share. And a brief glance of understanding will pass between us as we remember this week and draw on lessons learned. “The point is that the lives of eighteen-year-olds have plenty of room for change, a lesson that only experience can teach us and that I have been surprised and generally pleased to discover is taught to us recurringly over many decades.” (Gow) The same, of course, is true of twelve-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds – and yes, even fifty-two-year-olds.

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Filed under Admissions, College Prep, Graduation, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Change Is Inevitable; Shaping It Is Optional.

We need to stop telling young people what they shouldn’t say or do and start teaching them — and ourselves — the social and emotional literacies they need to challenge the way they see themselves and each other. (…) Only then can we hope to turn homophobia from an easy insult to a powerful analytic tool for mining our own fears, insecurities, and discomforts with difference. – Mary L. Gray (“Stop Blaming Dharun Ravi: Why We Need to Share Responsibility for the Loss of Tyler Clementi”)

The good news: Teachers can play a critical role in the move towards racial consciousness and, yes, harmony. – José Vilson (“Trayvon Martin and the Implications for Teacher Perceptions of Students”)

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As my son pulled out of the parking space in the center of Amherst, my wife and I waved goodbye. I knew it was not his first time driving alone, but it was the first time I’d seen him do so. I had spent many hours sitting next to him, silently communicating my faith in his driving – and in the Commonwealth’s judgment in recently granting him his license – by periodically reading articles and blogs on my iPhone. I trusted that he was well prepared and knew he used good judgment. Nonetheless, I had a totally unexpected moment of panic as I watched him go. I struggled to keep my facial expression undisturbed and continued waving; he turned and very briefly waved back before refocusing on traffic.

Soon after, I was off on a run. I grew up in Amherst, and once a year or so visit the neighborhood where I used to live, circling back to my parent-in-law’s house via my old elementary school and UMass. On the way, I decided to check out the next neighborhood over and see what new streets and houses had been put in. A short ways up the road, I came upon a father carrying an iced coffee walking with his young daughter who was pedaling along on a bike with tassels that nearly dragged on the pavement. I smiled at them; the father looked straight through me and kept walking.

I thought about how much more than just a street or two and several dozen houses had changed through the years, and not always for the better. And not just in my hometown. The gender wage gap has been increasing for the past decade, and over a thousand pieces of legislation have been filed in the past 18 months to seize control over women’s bodies. Racism is more out in the open than it has been in years, whether the blatant profiling in the Trayvon Martin case or the more subtle colonial attitude of the Kony2012 video. The latest findings that merit pay (one of the centerpieces of the so-called “reform movement”) favors white men disproportionally just add to the impression that those of us working for equity and a society truly respectful of all are losing ground.

As these thoughts and others swirled through my mind, I passed the house where one night I hid in the bushes while a bunch of us neighborhood kids attempted to scare one of our friends who was babysitting. I knew it was wrong, but preferred to quietly opt out rather than confront the others. That house is nearly opposite the house where the principal of the Junior High School used to live. When I was a senior in high school, and working after school for credit as an aide to a Junior High French teacher, I was early one afternoon when a younger kid set off a cherry bomb up the corridor. Another teacher emerged from her classroom, grabbed me by the shoulder, and marched me down to the principal’s office. I will always remember how the principal took one look at me, trembling and on the verge of tears, accepted my version of what happened without question, and told me to go on up to the French classroom.

I continued my run; as I passed my childhood home, a young woman out with her child smiled at me and we exchanged a greeting. Maybe – well, certainly – I had been reading too much into that first encounter. Assumptions can be dangerous.

To get from my old house to my old elementary school by the shortest route, you cut through another neighborhood and then walk next to a field for a while. As I approached the end of the road, I hesitated. It’s one thing for a ten-year-old to cut through someone’s yard to access the path, it’s another thing for a grown adult. In my uncertainty, I simply kept running. At the end of the road was an unfamiliar but well-worn path leading over to the field.

Sometimes, if you just keep going, the way becomes clear.

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Filed under Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Looking After Each Other

“And finding each other, then looking after each other, is well worth doing.” – Bud Hunt

Even with 140 characters or less, you can tell on Twitter when people have been moved. Sunday, March 4 was such a moment as teacher after teacher retweeted Bud Hunt’s extraordinary blog, “On Love and Infrastructure,” often adding short comments such as @AndreaZellner’s “<3 this One to favorite and return to.” Mr. Hunt closes with five fundamentally important questions: “So how do you build love and care into your systems and infrastructures and learning environments and experiences? How are you doing so in a way that doesn’t over simplify the complex backgrounds of the people and communities you’re learning from and with? How are you looking for ways to increase the love and care in your systems? What are you loving in front of your students and colleagues? What would they say gets loved in your spaces?”

These questions go so much deeper than simply “What do you love?” It’s communicating love, fostering love, spreading love, ensuring love – not just between you and those around you but between others in your sphere of influence, along of course with a love of learning. I think back to an early year in the middle school when parents, asked to define what goals they had for their daughters, listed “happiness” as the #1 goal. Try and achieve that without love. It simply can’t be done.

I think one way to build love in your systems, learning environments, and experiences is simply to keep it ever in the forefront of your mind. Those young people sitting on the floor around me? While I’m with them, the rest of the world simply ceases to exist. For those 50-145 minutes, nothing in the world is more important than helping them create a context where they can be themselves, saying what’s on their mind, listening to others, learning with and from each other not just about whatever we are studying but also about each individual person in our community, including ourselves. After all, Humanities, I tell my students, is at its most fundamental about what it means to be Human. What more important curriculum could there be?

Images settle in my brain. A student’s proud parents hovering in my mind as I watch their daughter’s hand shoot up in the air with hesitation or reservation. One of last year’s students watching me approach and mock-sighing, “You’re going to ask me a question, aren’t you?” One of this year’s students reminding me, “We’re your favorite 2011-2012 Humanities 7 class, right?!” (note – as they well know, they are the only one. It’s an ongoing joke I have with them.) A drawing, with text, on the white board by another student recounting “A Philosophical Discussion by (some of) the great minds of Stoneleigh.” Me trying to figure out how often to allow myself to say “I love you all” so it becomes a given and yet continues to have impact. Several students in MOCA making announcements asking for help keeping corridor spaces clean, for older students to give as well as demand respect, for quiet on the corridor as their RA’s try to study for finals. “It all comes down to respect,” I said on that occasion, “which, being human, everyone simply deserves and everyone must give.” Behind that respect, of course, is love.

Building love into your infrastructure is a much more difficult proposition. Certainly, we build love into our schedule – we are on our 9th schedule in eight years precisely because we work hard to be aware of how the schedule supports students and what additional needs they might have. Each year, we think in particular about what could strengthen our advisory program for subsequent years. Our community service program is certainly a chance to give and receive love, whether working at the after-school program, the animal shelter, or the nursing home. Could there be more? I’m sure there could. But it’s at least a start.

So at Stoneleigh-Burnham, as I reflect on what I’ve just written, I do think we are constantly looking for ways to increase the love and care in our systems. We may or may not phrase it that way, and output can certainly distract us on occasion, but at root we are acutely aware that our school is built and relies on relationships. When former students look around at the physical changes of the school and tell me how different it is, I let them know that were they to spend enough time on campus, they would realize that it still feels the same, even if it might not look the same. You can see the realization wash through them as they start to smile.

“All we can ask,” I often tell my colleagues and my students, “is your best.” That which is done with genuine love is, far more often than not, your best. Our learning. Our friendships. Our school relationships. And reaching out beyond our school. It’s about voice and being your own best self.

Ultimately, it’s about happiness.

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

99% Perspiration

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. – Thomas Edison [wikiquote.org]

I should probably be writing comments… but my coffee is brewing, my toast is toasting, and my eggs are… wait, I’ll be right back! (…) The point is, when I’m cooking (breakfast or otherwise), that’s one of my times to think and reflect. And I just realized that important discussions in several different parts of my personal learning network (PLN) have converged. Innovation, the theme both of this year’s National Association of Independent Schools conference and of two recent discussions on Twitter, was also woven into a discussion on MiddleTalk (the listserv of the Association of Middle Level Education).

Peter Gow of Beaver Country Day School, in a blog entitled “Now, About Those Men in Their Gray Flannel Suits…,” reminds us that it’s not enough just to think of innovation as a buzzword, we need to do the hard and intentional background work to prepare for it properly. Beyond that, he states, “‘Innovation’ was the theme of the [NAIS] conference, not ‘Innovation except for anyone who wants to opt out.’” With those foundational thoughts in mind, we can turn to an even more foundational question… what the heck is ‘innovation’ anyway?

That was exactly the topic of one recent exchange I had on Twitter when Elizabeth Helfant asked, in the context of a discussion about how to assess innovation, how innovation could be defined in the first place. My response was, “A unique and new way of thinking about and/or doing something that is not simply evolutionary.” That seemed to fit with her working definition at the time, quoting Peter Drucker’s summary of his work: “Change that creates a new dimension of performance.”

Of course, one could back up and ask, why and how would we assess innovation in the first place? Are we even teaching it? More importantly, should we be teaching it? And even more importantly, how? These questions ran through another recent Twitter exchange. Everyone seemed to agree that to find success in our ever-changing world that is ever-changing more and more rapidly, we must be ready not just to adapt and change but also to lead the way, to innovate. So if we are preparing our students for the world, it would seem teaching them to innovate is a necessary part of our curriculum. Which returns us to the stickiest question, how?

On this topic, Mike Muir, a former middle school teacher (and a former member of the AMLE Board of Trustees) currently consulting on the Kindergarten-level iPad program being implemented in Auburn, Maine, has some insight. In a discussion on MiddleTalk about the risks and possible benefits of the Common Core State Standards, he explained how hard and intentional work at the school and district levels was leading to “a viable curriculum, based on the Common Core, that will lend itself to an individualized, customized, standards-based, performance-based approach.” So you’ve got an example of innovative-style thinking producing a framework in which innovation could occur, all the while tying that framework to a national-level common experience.

I don’t – yet! – see how we can guarantee that students will come up with something truly innovative as part of their standard work in  school. But I can easily see how we can set them up to be able to innovate. If we give them (and, even better – as Karen is currently doing in her Humanities 8 class – allow them to generate) knotty real-world problems to solve, even if their solutions may have been tried before, they are nonetheless likely to be new and exciting to them.

There are no doubt many ways to create a culture that will do as much as possible to ensure our students are learning to innovate. The Marin Country Day School has recently created a new position, that of Director of Innovative Teaching and Learning (embedded in their job description is an innovative concept on its own – “STEAM,” or “Science-Technology-Engineering-Art-Math.”). Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, in her new book The Connected Educator, writes of taking the concept of a PLN to the next level and thinking of a “Connected Teacher Network” that includes the local Professional Learning Community of students, parents, faculty and staff, and administrators, the larger Communities of Practice that includes special interest groups and other teachers, and the even larger Personal Learning Networks, “the whole world” as she reframes it.

So… when do we start?! Or… have we already?

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

Real World Issues

The 2012 National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference has begun, with Sally in attendance representing our school. On Thursday on Twitter, someone named Bo Adams commented on remarks by Pat Bassett, the President of NAIS: “Pat Bassett shows exemplars of innovative school practice. What is common denom? Stus working on REAL WORLD ISSUES! #naisac12”

My mind immediately flew to an email I received this afternoon from Humanities 8 teacher Karen Suchenski. One of her students, in researching a project on slavery, had come across an abhorrent, racist website that was essentially built around “creative” and constant use of the n-word. The class was properly outraged and wanted to do something about it. She was wondering what I thought.

What I thought was that there were probably a ton of websites out there that were just as objectionable. I did a search on “white supremacist” (ignoring for the moment that the above-mentioned website claims they are not white supremacists, noting that they accept all races, creeds, and colors – with the obvious exception also noted) and got several million hits. I learned of another website no less objectionable but far more trafficked. And I pondered what the kids might do in the face of such virulent racism.

I suggested to Karen that one of the strongest possible approaches might be to develop and implement an anti-racist campaign. One presumes that unreconstructed racists will be hard to reach, and equally committed anti-racists will of course need no convincing. It’s the middle ground we would need to reach – well-meaning people who might not understand all the forms racism might take or be aware of the pervasiveness of its continuing influence on our society, people who are ready for growth but just might not know yet that they need to grow, or how.

Karen will be taking our ideas back to the kids to see what they think. It absolutely is, as she notes, a teachable moment, and what has to come next is figuring out what they want to learn, how deeply committed they continue to want to do something about it, and what (if any) next steps make the most sense.

Meanwhile, the Humanities 7 class has been dealing with a different kind of real world issue. In collaborating on their plays, all three groups have had moments when they have hit a wall and become convinced that they won’t be able to finish their work effectively. They are deeply committed to maintaining relationships, and indeed what seems to scare them even more than the spectre of not finishing their plays is the thought of damaging their relationships with their peers. They understand compromise can solve many problems, but are insightful enough to recognize that sometimes, compromise doesn’t lead to a good solution, and sometimes it isn’t even possible. As one might expect of students at strong risk for the Curse of the Good Girl, many of them want to walk away from the problems and not deal with them. I told them that, unless they live as hermits, they will have to deal with such conflicts throughout their lives, noting that even people in strong marriages (or other long-term committed relationships) may be incredibly annoyed by each other from time to time but that doesn’t mean the relationship is being weakened – indeed, how they handle such conflict can even strengthen their relationship in the long term. Ellen and I have given the students strategies for identifying and discussing conflict, and for laying down guidelines for group work that will help them get along and achieve their goals. As much progress as they have made, it seems as though the February blahs may have been clouding their vision. Hopefully, when they return bright-eyed and rested after spring break, they will see what they have accomplished.

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

Living in Their World

Every so often, we middle school teachers will note something happening around us and quietly comment to each other how it’s crazy and sad that more people don’t get how wonderful this age group is. Today was the kind of day where I could have said that so often that even the most understanding of my colleagues would have ended up screaming, “I know, I know!” The seventh grade homeroom was bursting with off-the-cuff, humorous remarks and announcements. The Humanities class gave a collective gasp during morning reading. One of the play-writing groups exulted in reaching the stage where they could print out scripts to read to the class for input. Another group had clearly moved past yesterday’s setback and was working steadily to revise their own script. My advisees begged convincingly for Dunkin’ Munchkins (a surprise) and homemade ice cream (not a surprise) for our last advisory of the term. The Wednesday guitar class focused in on “Sweet Home Alabama” and showed how far they had come from the fall when they were still asking me several times a class how to finger chords, and they played so much and so hard that I had to end class a few minutes early to give their fingers a rest. Life Skills students who were ready for their presentations enjoyed a study hall while the others worked on their own and I consulted with the kids to set up a schedule for the presentations to happen. One of the 8th graders came back upstairs after lunch and asked special permission to use her laptop and do some work, which I allowed for as long as I was going to be up there myself. A French student proudly told me how hard she was worked last night making index cards to study for the final. And all this is just a sample of moments

Of course, like all of our worlds, theirs is not always smooth. One of the students in one of the play-writing groups was having an off day and feeling discouraged about how well the play was turning out; I sympathized with her and asked her to rejoin her group, telling her we could process it in more detail tomorrow. Another girl was still home sick, and countless other ups and downs undoubtedly escaped me.

Chris Toy, who consulted with us in the first two years of the middle school program to ensure we were getting off on the right foot, once commented that to be effective in working with middle schoolers, you have to love living in their world. And I do.

Last night, as I usually do when I first get home, I was checking email, Facebook and Twitter while getting something to eat when I stopped short. My friend José Vilson, who teaches middle school math in New York City, had shared a link to an article headlined “13-Yr-Old Allegedly Persecuted by Teachers for ‘Radical’ Essay on Frederick Douglass.” The radical part of the essay, a position paper assigned by the school, was summarized by her concluding sentence, “… so again I encourage the white teachers to instruct and I encourage my people to not just be a student but become a learner.” This led to teachers calling her out, a sudden dip in the grades she was receiving and she was kicked out of class and threatened with suspension. Her parents decided they had to pull her from the school and the school they chose to transfer her to refused to allow her to attend. As a result she was eventually placed in a school where she witnessed four fights on the first day and was asked by other students if she had been put there because she fought too much. Meanwhile, her mother had to quit her job to take care of her.

When I finished reading, I felt sick to my stomach. Sick that it happened. Sick at my feeling of helplessness to do anything about the seemingly intractable and yet utterly insane racism that persists in our society. And sick that this, too, is the world in which middle schoolers live.

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