Monthly Archives: September 2012

Political Base

You never really know how students are going to handle an election year. My first-ever Humanities class revelled in it, joining Walter McKenzie’s Surfaquarium project linking classrooms nationally, researching and presenting different candidates, refining and strengthening their views on different issues, and debating, debating, debating. With three students supporting George W. Bush, five students supporting John Kerry, one student leaning toward the Green party, and one student resolutely keeping her preferences to herself, discussions were lively indeed and my primary role was that of moderator. So I was ready for a replay four years ago – and the students’ attitude seemed to be, no thanks, we hear enough about the election as it is, could we study something else please? With those two extreme experiences behind me, I am definitely ready for anything this year.

Nancy Flanagan, a former middle school music teacher and now a blogger for EducationWeek, recently republished a posting on teachers and politics. In it, she argues that while teachers clearly need to avoid trying to influence students’ views, elections offer schools a wonderful chance to teach about not only the political process but also skills of critical thinking, civic engagement, respectful listening, and how to form and shape one’s own personal views. Some teachers may prefer to avoid any mention of their own political leanings, others may prefer to state their personal views in a way that is respectful to other perspectives, and still others may prefer to avoid politics altogether. The latter approach, Nancy argues, is the only one of three that is indefensible. Politics are inherently part of teaching, after all, even in as basic a sense as defining school rules and norms.

I happen to believe that what one decides in the privacy of an election booth is entirely one’s own business, to share or not as one sees fit, and I have never shared my specific votes with anyone, even my wife. I am resolutely independent (or “Unenrolled” as we call it in Massachusetts), work to keep an open mind until as close to voting day as possible, and since turning 18 have voted for members of not only both major parties but also independents and members of smaller parties. If students ask, I will share this information with them. I will welcome any conversations they wish to have, and if Humanities 7 wants to do a unit on the election, will work with them to make it a positive experience.

But whatever happens specifically in regard to the election, I can promise I will be political in this sense: I will continue to fight for not just equality but also equity in the world for all my students regardless of gender, gender expression, race, sexuality, or any number of axes of diversity. I have a quote up in my classroom from Gloria Steinem: “[The message I would most want to instill in young girls is] that each of them is already a unique and valuable person when she is born; every human being is.” To my mind, starting with the basis that we are all unique human beings equally worthy of respect is a great foundation. Everything else can build on that.

– Bill Ivey, Dean of the Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

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You Are What You Read.

Don’t tell my students, but we’re two days from the start of school and I just finished my last summer reading book for IB English. It’s not that I’ve been lazy— in fact, the only thing I have accomplished this summer is reading books. All my usual ambitious projects— cleaning the attic, weeding through the outgrown baby toys and clothes, painting the fence— remain unfinished. I spent the summer chasing my kids, and reading. Usually I grabbed my chance for focused quiet during naptime and nighttime, but I have also become a master at reading over the sound of screeching or the “Dora” theme song (I figure if I’m going to ignore my kids at least they will see me reading a book, which sort of counteracts the television they’re watching, right?).

I grew up in a household of readers. Downtime on family vacations was spent in separate corners of rented houses, everyone getting lost in their own books, together. As a mother, among the things I frequently feel grateful for (My kids ate a green vegetable today! They are healthy and happy! No one snuck into my bed tonight!) is the fact that my children love books. At four and two, neither of them can read yet, but they each recite their favorite books, word for word, from memory. This is the earliest version of the intimate ways we absorb the books we love.

There’s a lot of research and writing about the effects on young people over the course of a summer spent reading or not reading. The simplified finding is that reading, like many other things, is a practice that students should continually cultivate, both in and out of school. I mean, it doesn’t take a PhD and a research lab to understand this concept: don’t exercise for three months and it will be really hard to run three miles on the first day of soccer practice; don’t practice math or French or reading over a long period of time and…you get the picture. And even more research is being done about the ways that on-line reading is affecting and changing students’ learning. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, was my faculty summer reading book. Much of his research and discussion focuses on the in-depth learning that happens when you read a printed book from cover to cover. Reading an on-line text, he argues, often leads to shallow and distracted learning, largely due to our personal habits when sitting in front of a screen, and to the hyper-links that invite us further and further down the rabbit-hole and away from our original task.

One of the books I re-read this summer is Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I hadn’t read it since high school, and I was thinking about teaching it in my senior IB English class this spring. Now, I last read this book twenty years ago. I could have told you it was a good book; I could even have told you, at the most basic level, what it’s about: a former slave and her ghost baby. But that’s all I remembered. I still had my book from high school, so that’s the copy I began to read. Here’s what happened: as soon as I entered the book, I realized that I did remember it. But not remember it like I could recite the plot to you— not that kind of remember. Remember like a world I had once inhabited; a world that I used to know very well— from a distance it seems fuzzy, but once you step in, you realize, “I’ve been here before.” Morrison’s language— her descriptions of the forest and river and haunted house and the shed where her baby died (Dear God, the shed!)— it all felt like it was mine again. Of course it helped that all my underlining and margin notes and vocabulary definitions were still there (and my notes were good! No wonder I became an English teacher!). I don’t remember the class, I don’t remember the teacher, I don’t remember if I was forced to do all that notation, or if I did it on my own; but I do remember the book. This is what happens when you really read and absorb a book that you love: it becomes a part of you, forever.

I don’t need any amount of published research validating my work as an English teacher. You won’t find ebooks or hyper-linked texts in my classroom. All my students need is a book, a pencil, and an engaged brain. When they read a text from start to finish they learn how to follow a sustained argument or narrative; they learn how to find threads and make connections across 300 pages; they learn syntax and grammar and vocabulary; they learn, with in-depth study, that less truly is more; they learn to quiet their brains in this world that clatters so loudly around us. Not every student loves to read; but every student will learn from reading, whether she likes the books or not. My hope for all of them is that they discover those books— whether in or out of class—  that truly catch them; books that they don’t just read, but absorb, as I did, so many years ago with Beloved.

As I walk the long halls of our school, sometimes I catch myself marching in rhythm with my two-year-old daughter Willa’s voice in my head. “Each peach, pear, plum,” she chants. “…I spy Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb in the cupboard, I spy Mother Hubbard. Mother Hubbard on the stairs, I spy…”

I am a grateful mother indeed.

-Shawn Durrett, English Department Chair

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The Best Day

“You’re dripping.” I looked down to see a few drops of coffee on my shorts, not a complete surprise since I had to take a few sips off the drip guard of my Joe Bean’s coffee cup when I picked it up. Before I could act, my son took the cup from me, gently wiped my hand off, wiped down the cup as well, and handed it back to me. I thanked him, and we resumed our conversation as we continued heading north to Charlottesville where my son was moving in as a first year student at the University of Virginia.

Moving in was quick and smooth – after three years of boarding school, we have this down to a science, and the friendly student greeters waiting to help bring stuff upstairs, the multiple chalked welcomes, and the welcome banner hanging from the dorm made for a warm atmosphere. Once he was moved in, my wife and I let him set the rhythm for the rest of day, including when we would leave, and we moved unhurriedly from lunch at Bodo’s Bagels to picking up a few items nearby to checking out the university bookstore to the parking lot near his dorm. There, we said our goodbyes which, while certainly tinged with wistfulness, showed the confidence we all had in my son’s readiness for college and in the closeness of our relationship.

There were certainly contrasts with the day we first moved my son into a dorm room as a high school sophomore. While my wife and I were determinedly cheerful, and my son simply determined, there was an unquestionable undercurrent of nervousness. We were confident in our decision for him to attend Andover, and confident that we would be able to work through the inevitable bumps along the way. But we didn’t yet know the exact routines we would find and exactly what help and support would be needed. Of course, college brings new routines, and just as our son had been growing in independence through his last three years of high school, so too college would bring increasing independence. But we now have a track record of handling those gradual, almost imperceptible shifts, and we still have a strong and deep love that we know we can count on.

The next day, I returned to Charlottesville to hear President Sullivan’s talk with new parents. After acknowledging the standing ovation that welcomed her, she focused on the relationship between parents and their children at this time of transition. How the summer might have seen a new testiness, due in all probability to separation anxiety. How this is a time for parents to support but back off and let their kids come into their own. How their views will continue to evolve, both away from and back towards our own as they continue to grow into themselves. How our children will stumble, and how part of our job is to find the courage to let them learn from their own mistakes. What to tell them to support them in making good choices. Thinking of how many parents were going through this same transition, I found myself wondering what the experience was like for parents of Stoneleigh-Burnham’s Class of 2012, many of whom I’ve known for six years and who have always brought smiles to my face. Myself, I just felt lucky. Rather than pushing us away, if anything, my son seemed to be making a special effort this summer to spend time with us. Time and time again, whatever we were doing and whomever we were with, my son showed kindness, strength, intelligence, empathy, humour, and thoughtfulness. It was one of the best summers I’ve ever had, and I am so grateful for the time we had together and for what he brings to my life. We met up for another couple of hours after the talk, and I took him to C’ville Coffee for a sandwich and then to the university store to get his last few books, eventually dropping off a bag of various items he had requested the night before.

Driving home, I pulled up the “Charlottesville 8-25” playlist I had put together especially for this trip. From “Love is Strange” that took me back to when he played Buddy Holly in an elementary school history fair to “Give Your Heart a Break,” the latest “best song ever” he had shared with me, each selection brought back memories of our time together. I had hesitated over only one song, “The Best Day” by Taylor Swift. A mix of reminiscence and thanks expressed to her mother, accompanied by home movies of Ms. Swift growing up in the video version, the song had brought me to tears the first time I had heard/seen it. Indeed, when it played on the drive north to Charlottesville, my eyes did get misty. But on this trip, I found myself smiling quietly when the song came back up. My son’s warm hug at the end of the afternoon and the confident set to his shoulders as he walked back to his dorm to meet up with his roommate and suitemates to go to dinner had told me all I needed to know. His childhood was a gift and a joy, but there are unquestionably many more best days to come.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Nesting Instinct

Lately, my Twitter feed and Facebook timelines have been filling with the ritual “Going in to set up my classroom,” “Did y’all know today is Teacher Appreciation Day at Staples?” and other such comments that show we teachers are hard at work preparing for the imminent arrival of our new students (bearing in mind some schools have already been in classes for some time). Of course, the ritual behind those postings dates back many hundreds if not thousands of years, before social media was even conceived of. By stretching your imagination, you can even picture early cave people checking the firewood or examining weapons as they prepared to teach their children the art of survival.

As the middle school has grown in numbers, it has outgrown its original space and expanded to include a classroom in the back of the library. Last year, Karen Suchenski used the room for Humanities 8, and worked diligently to fill it with furniture, artwork, decorations, and books all of which left the impression that it was less a classroom and more a room in someone’s home that had been devoted to comfort and learning. Indeed, Karen referred to the middle school as “a learning home” in a recent email to me.

This year, she and I are trading places, and as she works on moving her belongings upstairs and redoing the Jesser 3 classroom to support her work, I have been consumed with the need to remake the library classroom into the best possible learning space for my students. With the help and patience of Mark Pelis, our Head of Maintenance, out went every stick of furniture. Away with the SmartBoard on a cart. Bye bye, extra bulletin boards and ancient yellowing map of Africa. Hello, beanbag chairs, cubbies filled with scissors, markers, and all manner of supplies, and wall-mounted SmartBoard. Tod Pleasant, our Director of Technology, has been hard at work creating an access point so that the girls will continue to have 1:1 netbooks for use at a moment’s notice. I want my kids, when they first see the room, to shout with joy and run to plop themselves down in one of the beanbag chairs, artfully arranged in a circle with just enough space for me to sit on the floor among them, ready for the first Morning Reading of the year.

It occurs to me, though, that you can move out the physical trappings of a classroom, but you can not move out the love. Karen poured herself into her work, into understanding and supporting and challenging last year’s eighth graders, and in that peculiar way that rooms seem to have memories, you can still sense her presence as well as that of other caring teachers who preceded her in the room. It is my fervent hope and expectation that by the end of the year, the room will have added another layer of love and care and excitement and (sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, but always present) growth.

Meanwhile, the room sits ready. And so do I.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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