Monthly Archives: October 2012

Costume Party

Wanting to get home before the worst of Sandy hit Western Massachusetts, not knowing at the time how lucky we would be that the worst of Sandy would never hit Western Massachusetts, I zipped out of the school on Monday the moment my last class finished. Having passed up a potential trip to the YMCA, and with going outside on a run clearly out of the question, I decided to watch a movie while doing some Penn exercises. “Mean Girls” popped up as a suggestion on Netflix and, with the Humanities 7 media unit very much on my mind, I decided to watch it.

In the movie, as she prepares her costume for a Halloween party, Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady Heron comments, “In the regular world, Halloween is when children dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” (script-o-rama.com) The movie was made in 2004, and of course teenage trends come and go, but in some ways things haven’t changed all that much.

In Humanities 7 yesterday, as we were discussing images and themes in the media and how they affect girls, one student lowered her voice as she described a shopping trip with her mom to find a Halloween costume. Rejecting the adult costumes they were initially being shown as too inappropriate, they turned to costumes for young teen girls only to discover one of the first costumes they looked at was exactly the same as an adult costume. Another student commented on how she was worried that some of her friends had been considering costumes she felt were inappropriate, and a third student jumped in to say, “Have some self-respect. If you’re going to wear one of those things, wear something underneath it.”

The conversation had started by looking the covers of four magazines: “Fitness,” “Girls Life,” “Ms.,” and “Seventeen.” The students felt three of the magazines were oriented toward insecure people who wanted to look better, and the fourth toward women who believe in women’s rights. Three of the magazines were dominated by words and phrases like “amazing clothes,” “beauty,” “slim down,” and “compliments,” while the fourth (okay, it was “Ms.”; I can’t keep the secret any longer!) stressed themes like standing up for yourself and being successful. The photograph on the cover of “Ms.,” a woman in a black blazer calmly and confidently looking right at the camera, was described as “atypical.” We went on to discuss how the magazines (three of them, anyway) ended up creating three separate perspectives – who you are, how others are looking at you, how you can get pulled out of yourself to look at yourself – and in the process creating a situation where judgment was all but inevitable.

Not satisfied merely to describe the situation, nor even to passively resist the media pressure by refusing to give in, the students wanted to do something about it. Ideas began to accumulate faster than I could write them down. Running a special day (one suggestion was “Come As You Are Day”) where we could deliberately dress as we really were and not as we thought other people wanted to see us. Using the day as a fundraiser to make a donation to a body-positive organization. Creating a skit for Housemeeting in support of the day, to raise awareness, build body-positive feelings, and help the girls of SBS learn how to stay within and express their true selves. We will begin narrowing in on and developing these ideas today, on regular world Halloween (SBS Halloween will be on Friday, November 2).

I regret that I will not be able to be around this Friday (though I will be around on the 31st, bringing in vegan pumpkin cookies for Morning Meeting). Something tells me my students will not all be showing up in ridiculously short skirts, tank tops, and animal ears. Something tells me they are going to go as something creative, something fun, something they can feel good about. We all know by now that the research on girls’ schools shows that their alumnae are more inclined to draw their self-esteem from within and to work toward social justice than the average woman. These girls are showing the way – not so much by acquiring that urge, but more by preserving and developing it. Perhaps, unlike far too many women, their adult lives will not be one long costume party. Yet again – as they do pretty much on a daily basis – they make me proud.

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Special Treatment

I subscribe to Twitter feeds for all four presidential candidates who are on enough ballots to mathematically be able to accumulate enough electoral votes to win the election. Twitter being what it is, that means I also get a zillion retweets supporting any one of those given candidates. Such a retweet popped up this morning from @Women_For_Obama: “PBO established the White House Council on Women & Girls, to ensure all cabinet-level agencies know how their work impacts women & families.”

My first instinct was, “Well, it’s about darn time.” My second instinct was to wonder about what the other three candidates I’m following would think about the Council. My third instinct was to wonder what I really thought when looking more closely at the situation.

Let’s start with the mission of the Council: “to ensure all cabinet-level agencies know how their work impacts women & families.” First off, this implies there are cabinet-level agencies (presumably most if not all of them) who don’t have what would seem to be basic knowledge about the lives of a strong majority of U.S. citizens. Another implication is that most people staffing these agencies, at least at the highest levels, are probably men. A third implication is that most of these presumed men either don’t have families or aren’t in particularly close touch with them. In other words, the mission of the Council ends up either promoting or reflecting, or both, the stereotype that family is women’s work and work is men’s work.

This tweet comes in the context of an article I recently read by Pasi Sahlberg, a Finn devoted to the cause of promoting understanding of how and why his country’s educational system has come to be seen as a model for success. He states that gender equality is a necessary pre-condition, noting that Finland not only gave women the right to vote in the early 20th century (14 years before the U.S.) but also has worked to ensure true equality. Currently, “43% of the members of Parliament and 47% of the government ministers are female in Finland” whereas a mere 17% of Congress is female in the U.S., a level below average for the world as a whole. (Sahlberg). This level of gender equality has helped bring about four fundamental policies Mr. Sahlberg considers essential to the success of the Finnish education system. One is governmental support for women and children in the form of free health care and a 12-month fully paid parental leave. Parents are also guaranteed the right to return to their jobs if they take a leave of up to three years. The second is a comprehensive system of early childhood development and care. The third is a strong focus on supporting children holistically in the schools. A fourth is special education and remedial assistance and support offered readily and as early as possible when needed. With all this, Sahlberg doesn’t need to mention another critical factor, that the child poverty rate in Finland is only about 2.5% while ours is nearly ten times that level.

Sahlberg suggests that the presence of women in Finnish government has helped create such a strong and child-friendly system. I was struck that once again, the underlying assumption was that children and family are much more part of a woman’s world than a man’s. I can’t help but wonder how we move away from these kinds of gender-based assumptions, especially as they are rooted in the predominant binary view that oversimplifies the concept of gender in the first place. And I can’t help but wonder how, with some of the same errors in assumptions you see in the U.S., Finland has nonetheless achieved a level of equity far beyond our own.

Last week, a Humanities 7 student shared her notes with me on research into media perspective on gender. She began by researching the word “stereotype” and pushing well beyond a surface definition, in the process learning that “automatic and implicit stereotyping is what everyone does all the time without realizing.” (Annalie) Somehow, I think, Finland has been better able to move further past subconscious stereotyping than the U.S., whether by raising awareness of its existence, building knowledge that allows people (consciously or subconsciously) to process those initial impressions and move past them, and/or creating an expectation of gender equity that both fights and co-exists with other assumptions about gender. Once again, there is a lesson we can learn. We will know we have done our job when there is no longer any need for a White House Council for Women & Girls. And when that happens, it will benefit not just women and children, not just our education system, but more profoundly every single citizen and every aspect of our society.

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The Center of It All

It’s all about the beanbags. The nine students in my Humanities 7 class had been adamant that we would able to fit the 22-27 relatives they were expecting for Family Weekend into our relatively small classroom, and when I demurred, they insisted that wherever we go, their beloved beanbag chairs should follow “because our parents should see what our class really looks like.” So it was that I greeted Barbara, who was responsible this morning both for cleaning my regular classroom and for cleaning the Meeting Room where we would be moving for the day, at a bright and early 6:15 A.M. I had my temporary classroom set up, and chairs set out for visitors in the Jesser 3 classrooms, by 7:00, and zipped to the dining room to fill my travel mug with decaf (a special treat for a special day) and soy milk.

Students, parents, and other visiting family members began filtering in by 7:45, cries of, “You brought the beanbags!” filling the air accompanied by knowing parental smiles. We began class by continuing a previous lesson on lying, the better to inaugurate our newest student-designed unit developed from the seed question “Does the media lie?” around the eventual theme question,”How does the media alter perspectives of the truth to change what you think and feel?” Students did a think-pair-share activity around different kinds of lies, thinking on their own, in groups of two or three, and then in the full class about their thoughts and reactions. They eventually combined to write their own definition of lying, “Lying is an untruth, possibly ongoing, being told that brings a consequence that may or may not be desired, yet is always bad.” That will serve as a working definition as we go through the unit, both with group activities on topics like news coverage of the elections and photoshopping of models, and with individual research on personally-chosen questions.

Housemeeting was impressive, all the more so because it wasn’t really any different from how it would normally be. Certainly a highlight, however, was the introduction of the brand new Middle School Interscholastic Equestrian Team, complete with a visit from the school mascot Athena the Owl, with Academic Dean Alex Bogel’s booming voice announcing each student as she strode down the center aisle waving her hand much as Queen Elizabeth II does.

Sometimes, a class can get disturbingly quiet on Family Weekend, but if anything, the presence of parents and siblings brought out the best in my French II class as they worked to understand the ins and outs of the just-introduced tense, the passé composé. They all raised their hands and tested out their new knowledge, never hesitated to ask questions, and achieved a much deeper understanding of the tense in our short 20-minute class.

I was about the third person to go through the lunch line, the better to scoot to the gym and prepare for the performing arts show. I tuned up the girls’ bass and guitars, checked the sound for the keyboards, played a quick fill on the drums just for the fun of it, and did mic checks. All seemed ready, and after an eternity of waiting, the rock bands took the stage. Judging from the tone of respect in the congratulations I received after the show, the bands succeeded in connecting with their audience and imparting a spirit of fun. Certainly Heather’s decision to grab her mic and abandon the stage, striding around the gym as she belted out the vocals to “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” helped set the tone, and the explosion of applause complete with shouts and whooping showed how much the audience loved it. That noted, all three groups got sincere and heartfelt, and well-deserved, compliments.

Immediately following the show, we had a Middle School parents’ meeting to discuss the institution of what we expect will be a new tradition, the eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., go over the developmental stages and needs of young adolescent girls and how our program is explicitly designed around research to meet those needs, and determine parental goals for the year. Partway through, I asked for questions, thoughts, and concerns, and wasn’t quite sure what to think when a long silence ensued. Years of practice leaving space for my students to talk caused me to wait patiently, and then one mother raised her hand and commented, “I’m overwhelmed, and I just feel so lucky that my daughter is here with all you are doing for her, the knowledge and passion you bring to your work.” A number of other parents nodded and murmured their agreement. The parents (and a few grandparents – as I commented, “If you care enough about the kids to attend this meeting, you get to have a say here.”) then came up with a solid list of goals for the year, and used a system of placing stickers to set priorities.

My advisees did a wonderful job with their student-led conferences, speaking about their work thus far with touching honesty, pride, and a willingness to identify areas where they need to grow and develop genuinely practical plans to bring about that growth. Several parents commented on how much they preferred the format, as students became agents of their own destiny, not the passive subjects of adult discussions and judgments.

Saturday afternoon, as my part in the weekend was winding down (being neither a houseparent nor an on-duty chaperone), I found myself standing at the soccer game with Academic Dean Alex Bogel. I filled him in on my experiences of the weekend, and he jumped in to let me know how delighted he was to have been asked the question of how our institution of the IB program has affected the middle school and other younger grades. Pointing to the hexagon that symbolizes the IB program, he noted the student at the center of it all. “And that,” he said, “is why we didn’t have to change a thing about the rest of our program.”

Student voice. Her best self. This is the mission of the school, and when you stay aware of and true to it, amazing things can happen. You couldn’t have asked for a better Family Weekend. I wrote the Middle School faculty earlier today, “As Middle School Dean, in particular at the Friday Parents’ Meeting, I get the heartwarming experience on Family Weekend of watching parents come in curious about why their kids are so happy here, and becoming increasingly, almost overwhelmingly for some, touched to see all we do and all that goes into it. So thank you all for making that happen, both over the last five weeks and then in particular the last two days. It’s a ton of work, I know, and it brings amazing results.” So it is, and so it does.
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Truth to Power

Gender is the fundamental construct for how a society understands difference.
Women Under Siege

As international outrage continues to grow over the Pakistani Taliban’s assassination attempt of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for her advocacy of girls’ education, calls to mark the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child – declared by the United Nations to be October 11, 2012 – are also multiplying. The announced theme of this year’s Day is child marriage, and top world figures such as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu are working to shed light on and end the epidemic problem. Archbishop Tutu met on Wednesday, October 10 with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who announced initiatives both “to prevent child marriage and to promote the education of girls.” (Lisa Rein) Still, in our current state of shock and with Ms. Yousafzai’s life still hanging by a thread, one can’t help but focus attention on the continued need for and benefits of girls’ education.

In the movie “Steel Magnolias,” Julia Roberts’ character Shelby says of her husband, “He’s so excited. He says he doesn’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl, but I know he really wants a son so bad he can taste it.” (IMDb) Such a preference for boys, undeniably present in our society if not universal, can bring frightening results elsewhere: the organization “All Girls Allowed” estimates that there are over 100 million missing girls today, over half of whom should have been born in China. The natural ratio of men to women should be 10.5:10, but in China it is projected to be 11:10 next year and 12.5:10 by the late 2020s. As Chinese parents contemplate sex selective abortion, they view a first-born son as having 4.3 times the value of a girl. (All Girls Allowed) Similarly, the United States apparently values the work of women less than that of men, as women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, all other things being equal.

As my seventh grade students are starting the transition from girlhood to womanhood, such issues are never far from their minds. One of them recently initiated a conversation with me about the extent of the gender wage gap, and later shared her free topic independent writing with me and a number of her classmates, under the subject header “READ READ READ…” In it, she shared a link to unemployment statistics and added, “As you can plainly see, there is an obvious difference and constant fluctuation between racial unemployment rates, which to me is an imbalance of power in a disguise that is no longer fooling anyone.” (Julia) At the age of 12, she has clearly understood the deeper issues behind a variety of imbalances in society: power, who has it, and how it is used.

One of the most important tools in maintaining those power imbalances is a fundamental gender construct in which men are often seen as “aggressive, rational, dominant, and objective” and as valuing “power, competency, efficiency, and achievement”. Women, meanwhile, are often seen as “passive, intuitive, submissive, and subjective” and as valuing “love, communication, beauty, and relationships.” (Trigiani) In her essay “Masculinity-Femininity: Society’s Difference Dividend,” Kathleen Trigiani goes on to explain that “Scientists have discovered that sexuality has both biological and sociological aspects, thus, they often speak in terms of sex and gender. Sex refers to immutable biological traits while gender is the social meaning given to sex differences.” (Trigiani) By definition, then, society alone determines gender: we as a culture then act in ways that exaggerate perceived differences between men and women and assign arbitrarily-determined value to those differences.

My students appear to have an intuitive understanding of this as well. Recently, I subbed for Ann Sorvino in her Dance 7 course. When this came up during Morning Announcements, somehow the seventh graders became obsessed with my wearing one of their white dance skirts while I taught. I demurred, and we focused instead on the main goal of the class: their performing the dance and working to learn it more fully. But later, in looking back on the afternoon, one of them asked why men couldn’t wear skirts. “I have no idea,” I said, pointing out that girls won the right to wear pants nearly 50 years ago. They looked thoughtful for a while, perhaps considering how “masculine” traits may be more readily adopted by girls than “feminine” traits by boys, and in the end left the conversation there… for the moment.

Of course, it must be added, assuming that gender is binary in the first place marginalizes and renders invisible an entire subset of our population.

In such a context, the value of girls’ education should be undeniable. In an ideal world, there would be no need for girls’ education, but our world is far from ideal. We know from research such as a 2009 study performed by UCLA that graduates of girls’ schools show higher levels of academic engagement, greater self-confidence, an increased likelihood of continuing their study of science and math in college, and a greater likelihood of being politically engaged and involved in social activism. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has also written and spoken of research that shows “One of the most cost-effective ways to bring about change, no matter the issue, is to educate girls. (…) To bring them into the workforce, to bring them into the economy so they can truly benefit themselves, their families and their communities.” (Kristof, quoted in an article by Morgan Jarema)

The need to speak truth to power is clear. The potential power of girls in speaking that truth is also clear; as Kristof points out: “The greatest risk for violent extremists in Pakistan isn’t American drones. It’s educated girls.” (Kristof) But it should not and must not only be girls speaking these truths. Nor is the necessity for speaking up restricted to women and girls both. All of us, of all genders, need to speak up and work to redefine the gender constructs in our society. For if they are indeed the lens through which difference is understood, only by achieving equality for all genders will we ever achieve true equality for all people.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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“Read if you are so inclined”

The subject header, “Read if you are so inclined,” telegraphed that the student who had sent this “All School” email had something important on her mind. She wrote, “Below is a link to a New York Times article. I believe that is important to keep track of what happens outside of our SBS community, and this article in particular moved me beyond words. Reading it I found myself analyzing my role as a student and as a woman growing up in western society.” She was referring to an article by Declan Walsh about the Taliban attack on Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani activist who had won her country’s peace prize a year ago for her advocacy of girls’ education. According to the article, the Taliban put her on an assassination list last spring for “openly propagating [Western Culture],” calling her human rights campaigning an “obscenity” and vowing to return and finish the job if she survives. (Walsh) As I write, reports are mixed, some stating she will be okay and that the bullet did not pass through her brain, others stating that she will need to be flown out of the country to receive complicated surgery if she is to live.

Assuming most of us here agree that the attempted assassination of a 14-year-old girl for affirming her gender’s right to education is the true obscenity, what can we do besides raise our voices in what feels like a fairly futile protest? The student who shared this article with the school wrote of “analyzing [her] role as a student and as a woman growing up in western society” and of course Stoneleigh-Burnham’s mission is fundamentally to empower girls to develop and use their voices and be their own best selves in a global community. That is, of course, exactly the mission of Ms. Yousafzai as well. Students here are encouraged by a larger community of adults including faculty, staff, parents, and alumnae. Those who object to what we are doing mostly leave us alone, perhaps writing an occasional article decrying single-gender education for perpetuating stereotypes despite research to the contrary. Ms. Yousafzai has also found encouragement, from her parents, from her government, from friends, from progressives throughout her country. But those who object aren’t just writing articles; they have sworn to bring about her death, and have come close to doing so.

It seems incomprehensible, all the more so because research is clear that educating girls is one of the surest ways to bring about a peaceful and more humane society, and supporting women one of the surest ways to elevate everyone. Organizations such as Women to Women International (supporting survivors of war), Kiva (a microloan service which lends to men as well) and the Half the Sky Movement (inspired by the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn) are doing important, amazing, positive work to support women and girls. Two years ago, we welcomed Sally and Don Goodrich to the school to talk about the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation, established following their son’s death in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the work they had done building a girls school in Afghanistan.

With all this good work going on, though, and living as we do in a comfortable and safe world devoted to the feminist ideal that all people should be treated equally regardless of gender, here in the so-called “Happy Valley,” it’s easy to lose sight of the larger context. The Women Under Seige Project, originated by Gloria Steinem, works to highlight that very context, spreading the word through everything from blogging to tweeting to facebooking to creating a live crowdmap of sexualized violence in Syria.

On October 4, Women Under Seige tweeted “#Gender is the fundamental construct for how a society understands difference,” linking to the blog posting “Why everyday gender inequality could lead to our next war.” Given this truth, promoting a deeper, broader, more thorough understanding of gender becomes necessary to understanding difference and, eventually, moving past stereotypes to truly allow people to be their own true selves. Today’s attack on Malala Yousafzai is a stark reminder of that necessity, and a chance to recommit to the mission.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Thinking Globally, Acting Ethically

It was October 1970 and the date of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam – a general strike to protest our involvement in the Vietnam War – was fast approaching. My friends and I in the fifth grade at Marks Meadow Elementary School in Amherst would huddle together during our free time and try to figure out what was the best course of action to take. We all agreed it would be wrong to join the general strike and take a day off simply to get out of going to school. It was tougher to decide whether joining the general strike would produce any positive effect, and thus whether it might actually be more valuable to attend school and squeeze every last bit of education out of the year that we could. In the end, we simply agreed that whatever any of us chose, the others needed to respect that choice.

I was able to draw on that experience when I first learned of the existence of Columbus Day protests and the creation of alternative commemorations such as Anti-Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day or, in South America, Día de la Raza. I didn’t immediately understand why these protests existed – more on that in a moment – but I was able to imagine that some number of people engaged in those protests must have sincerely believed in their cause even if I personally didn’t fully understand their perspective.

I loved Marks Meadow, and it certainly served me well in preparing me to understand and respect a diversity of political opinions, but unfortunately, it served me poorly in understanding Christopher Columbus. When I moved on to what was then called Amherst Regional Junior High School, I thought of Columbus as an unalloyed hero. After all, I thought, he had sailed bravely forth across the ocean blue in 1492 to prove the world was round, in the process discovering America and winning the gratitude of a previously skeptical King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for his efforts. I knew the natives he met upon reaching land were friendly, and imagined that they got along famously. I had eventually learned that relations between European settlers and the native population were not all turkey and cranberry sauce, but I didn’t see how it was fair to blame Columbus for that.

Oops.

Of course, alongside the numerous untruths I believed as fact, all people are complicated, neither all good nor all bad, and Columbus was no exception. When I taught an ESL U.S. History course here 20 or so years ago, I learned in much more detail from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of the patronizing colonialist attitudes Columbus held about the Arawaks, and about the cruelty that ensued. My students were somewhat nonplussed that I was deliberately including ideas not found in their textbooks, perspectives that were not entirely complimentary to my country’s history. They were certainly not alone. Mr. Zinn has written that, of all the chapters of that book, none inspired more reaction and controversy than the chapter on Columbus. As one example, a high school student wrote, “According to you, it seems he [Columbus] came for women, slaves, and gold. You say that Columbus physically abused the Indians that didn’t help him find gold. You’ve said you have gained a lot of this information from Columbus’ own journal. I am wondering if there is such a journal, and if so, why isn’t it part of our history. Why isn’t any of what you say in my history book, or in history books people have access to every day.”

However the question was meant, it brings up several important points. For one thing, it illuminates both the value and the necessity of primary documents when studying history. For another, it raises the question – one around which another SBS teacher structured her own ESL history course – of who gets to write history, and based on what principles. What is included – what is left out – and how and why are these decisions made?

In my current Humanities 7 class, we have had a number of discussions about the importance of perspective (both cultural and chronological) when looking at the past. Similarly, one of my former students, now a ninth grader, recently asked her mom with genuine hurt and confusion in her voice how on earth the Europeans who arrived on the shores of North America could even conceive it would be okay to take the land of the people who already lived there. Whatever lessons may in fact be applied to modern society from examining that conundrum, the mere fact that this student raised the question is encouraging. She is examining, analyzing, and thinking critically about evidence. She is reacting with a deep down sense of justice and empathy. She is asking her own questions, and preparing to draw her own conclusions. In so doing, she is also setting a strong example for others.

Who knows what Columbus would have been like had he been born in modern times, or for that matter what my student and I would have been like had we been born 520 years ago? In some ways, it really doesn’t matter. He was who he was, my student is who she is, and I am who I am. What does matter is the necessity of understanding the complexity of oneself, of other people, of our own and other cultures. And on that point, I would hope those who commemorate today – by whatever name – would agree.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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The Best Job in the World

They all believe that school has a purpose and they have a place in it. They just don’t seem to understand how they relate to the methods used in school. – Heather Wolpert-Gawron, writing in her blog about her students

Twelve weeks of testing. Approximately one-third of the school year. That is what a friend of mine who teaches in Michigan was told to expect. Even for those who believe testing has its place in education, that moves past excessive and past inhumane right into the territory of the outright insane. When are those kids even going to learn the stuff on which they’re going to be tested? And beyond that, when are they going to have time to kick back and have conversations like my Humanities 7 students have been having?

Because we have been having some amazing conversations. They love to discuss books, and can easily spend up to an hour or more talking about a single chapter in our morning reading book, Anahita’s Woven Riddle by Meghan Nuttall Sayres. Thoughts on arranged and love marriages. Questions about Islam. Reflecting on the importance of seeing the world from multiple perspectives. Comparing early 20th century Iran with both the Arab world and the United States of today. Noting, questioning, admiring the author’s style. And innumerable predictions about what is coming next in the book. After a short break to go over their homework assignment for the next day, they are ready and eager to jump in to another literary discussion about the group novel The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry. We could probably spend the entire 1 hour 45 minute double-block doing nothing but talking about reading and be sorry the period ended. I’ve learned to limit them to one literary discussion a day, knowing if I don’t, there won’t be remotely enough time for them to work on and complete their individual research projects.

I thrive on these interactions, but of course it’s about them, not about me. So yesterday, I just had to know what they were thinking. What was and wasn’t working well for them in class discussions. What responsibilities belonged to students and to the teacher. They put deep thought and care into their responses, and as expected, pointed out some things I had overlooked. Overall, the emails they sent me showed they loved their discussions, thriving both on being able to express their ideas and on being able to hear what everything else was thinking. They felt they were doing a great job of being respectful of differing opinions and being able to agree to disagree. However, they felt sometimes people might stretch their answers out longer than necessary, and that ideas were getting lost and threads of conversation broken in the process. They felt their responsibilities were to stay on topic and be concise, and mine were to continue to encourage them and leave space for their voices to emerge. There was not a single point made with which I might (respectfully!) disagree.

Earlier in the week, I received an email from one of my older students, now in the Upper School. She was sharing an article with me which her father had shared with her, about students evaluating teachers. I had written her back to thank her for the article and to react to it, and now I decided I had to write her again and let her know what had happened in my Humanities 7 class and how, perhaps, her email had been working subconsciously on me to cause me to seek my students’ input in writing rather than through conversations as I often do. She responded, “I remember those 65-minute discussions! Specifically the one on stereotypes. Perhaps the article did tweak your subconscious mind? I wonder what you call cross-lexical priming that’s not cross-lexical.” This, by the way, is why I have always loved talking with this student about anything and everything.

In one of my online professional groups, a teacher shared a link to this Daniel Pink video about answering the question, “What’s your sentence?” and invited us to answer. My own contribution was “empowering students to find and use their voices respectfully.” I hope and trust that, with that as a foundation, the methods I use in school enable my students to see both the purpose of school and their own place in it. And I will be able to echo Cossondra George, who also teaches middle school in Michigan, when she writes, “But all in all, when the last chair is upside down on the tables, the last grade recorded, I realize I still have the best job in the world. And for that, I am thankful….”

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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