Monthly Archives: December 2012

Lost Forever

Like most of the country, I spent most of the weekend feeling devastated and overwhelmed. I was fortunate in that our annual girls basketball tournament took up most of my time on Friday and Saturday and insulated me somewhat from the pain and anguish of thinking about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Except between games. And during half-time. And during time-outs. And sometimes in between time-outs. There’s a comfortable and safe feeling in a gym anyway, especially at our school, and as a long-time fan of girls and women’s basketball, watching a level of aggressiveness and intensity, a quality of competition, and an evenness of talent I did not remember from some of our earlier tournaments did my heart good. But a dull ache was there and, sooner or later, I was going to have to face up to what had happened in Connecticut, as a teacher and as a parent.

A young teacher named Erin had written the MiddleTalk listserve run by the Association of Middle Level Education asking for advice on how to talk about the tragedy with our children and how best to support her students. My friend Rebecca Lawson had written back with an impressive list of resources from Fred Rogers’s video, soothing in its sensibility and sensitivity, to an article in the Washington Post. That seemed a good place to start, and I worked my way through the resources, periodically staring out into space before shaking my head and refocusing on my computer screen.

I also knew I wanted to stop through my office before classes on Monday and read through our school’s Crisis Plan. I knew right where it was, but felt I could not live with myself until I had read through it again. And again. In my mind’s eye was the vision of my Humanities 7 students sprawled in their beanbag chairs, so comfortable and so safe in so many ways, brimming with the confidence and happiness that comes so much more easily with such a feeling of security. Nothing, I vowed, nothing would take that away from them. Not if I had anything to do with it.

And I can’t even bring myself to write about my son. Suffice it to say in an earlier draft of this blog, it took me five minutes to even bring myself to type the letter “s” as tears streamed down my cheeks. I picture him walking from his dorm to class, sweet and kind and smart and talented and with so much still before him…

On the way home from school Sunday night with the Crisis Plan on the seat beside me, I felt a deep surge of emotional anguish and needed to do something to calm myself down. I reached for my phone, and asked Siri to play me some Taylor Swift. “Long Live” celebrates Ms. Swift’s relationship with her band and the notion that what they built together will endure, and the song resonates deeply with me as I think of my own Rock Band students (as readers of “Moving Mountains” may remember). The song “The Best Day” (about which I’ve also written here before) celebrates her relationship with her family in general and her mother in particular. The sounds of the home video of her at age three talking with her mom about her pigtails got to me, and by the time she got to the line “I know you’re not scared of anything at all” (Swift) I was a wreck.

Because of course parents are scared, sometimes. Parents are human. Parents love their children so much it almost physically hurts at times.

And teachers feel much the same way about our students. My friend Jose Vilson wrote a beautiful blog on the need to put children first, truly listen to their voices, to let them shine. Taylor Swift echoed those thoughts in “The Best Day,” writing “And I love you for giving me your eyes / Staying back and watching me shine.” (Swift) But Jose also wrote about the unbearable loss of children’s voices at Sandy Hook: “Their hopes, dreams, and visions for the future in a world in dire need of real change, not just a shuffling around of things for compliance, all gone.” (Vilson)

What might we do to support real change? How can we find the will and the way to actually take action this time and reduce the likelihood any other children’s voices will ever again be silenced before their time? In a discussion I had with friends and relatives on my Facebook page, we touched on the need to acknowledge and address a variety of issues. Arguably, the availability of guns, the stigma attached to mental health issues, the unwillingness of insurance companies to provide the same level of coverage for mental health as they do for physical health, our consumption of graphic violence and the provision of same by the media, and the cult of masculinity are all contributing factors we need to address, urgently and by whatever means possible.

In “The Best Day,” Taylor Swift also writes about being bullied at school and her mom’s efforts to help her handle it. As she thanks her mom for having started her on the path to healing, Ms. Swift acknowledges “Don’t know how long it’s gonna take to feel okay,” and certainly tonight I can relate. But I can also guess where it is likely to start. Tonight, I will text with my son before bedtime, wish him well on exams, tell him I love him. And tomorrow, I will walk into my Humanities classroom, sit down on the floor, and ask for any student announcements. The chances are high are least one of them will refer to the Sandy Hook tragedy, and I will handle their questions as best I can, honestly and with compassion. If they express a need to do something, we can talk about that and I can share what I am planning to do. And when the time is right, we will turn back to our normal routines. My students will read the newest installments in their ongoing independent writing stories, applaud after each reading, and offer helpful comments. We will finish casting Act V of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the play which we are producing in collaboration with other classes around the country, and we will start reading through the script to ensure they understand what each individual line means. Gradually, a sense of normalcy will return.

Some of our collective innocence is lost forever. But our hope for the future need not be.

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Filed under On Education, On Parenting

That All Students Might Like School

Bill Ivey’s review of Why Don’t Students Like School? by Dan Willingham was recently published on MiddleWeb. Here is the beginning of the review, and a link to the full article for those who are interested.

I’ll happily admit to being a lucky teacher. I think more of my students than not honestly do like school, and I’ve had any number of conversations with kids who look forward more to the ends than to the beginnings of vacations. That said, I want all my students to like school as much as possible, learn as much as possible, and (perhaps most importantly) think as deeply as possible.

I’ve also learned to respect Dan Willingham’s work by following him on Twitter. So it’s no surprise that, for all intents and purposes, I read Willingham’s 2009 book Why Don’t Students Like School? (subtitled A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom) straight through in one go.

(click here to continue reading)

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Mission Critical

Bullied Teen Amanda Todd Uploads Chilling Video Before Being Found Dead Another sad case.
@JudyArzt, Twitter posting, October 13, 2012

The video to which Judy is referring is harrowing to watch. You can’t see Amanda’s face, you can’t hear her voice, you can only see – right up to just before the end of the video – her holding and showing us pieces of paper on which she has written her story. Some of the most painful are pushed up closer to the camera. Only once does her hand move away from this task, to briefly wipe her eyes as she holds up the paper reading “I thought he liked me.” She attempted to kill herself twice, and her death, still under investigation, is currently being presumed a suicide.

Here in Western Massachusetts, as I suppose is sadly true of many parts of the country, we are no strangers to bullied children being driven to suicide. In 2009, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker Hoover hung himself following repeated taunts of being gay, and in 2010, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince also hung herself following relentless in-person and cyber-bullying. In Ms. Prince’s case, even her suicide didn’t cause the bullies to cease and desist; they posted taunts on a memorial Facebook page, though those were eventually removed. At the time, Massachusetts had no anti-bullying law on the books, but the horrific details of Ms. Prince’s case along with the efforts of Sirdeaner Hoover, Carl’s mom, led finally to the passage of “An Act Relative to Bullying” on May 3, 2010.

In a recent posting, “Don’t Let Me Down [On Opening Up When Things Go Down]” José Vilson wrote on the difficult topic of what to do when you as a teacher suspect one of your students may be at risk of harming herself or himself. With the post coming so close to the recent tragic loss of 17-year-old Emily “Milly” Blosdale-Dionne, who attended Stoneleigh-Burnham for part of her seventh grade year, it moved me deeply. I wrote a comment telling my memories of Emily and how shaken I was to learn of her suicide.

Another cyber-friend of mine, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, followed up with a story of when she happened to overhear a student telling her friend that she was considering killing herself. Having overheard the comment rather than having someone come directly to her, Heather struggled with what to do, eventually settling on sending a note to the student through her school’s network messaging system. There was no response, but several days later, the girl approached her to thank her for caring and to say she had talked to her parents about how she was feeling and they were getting her some help.

A third person, using the pseudonym “No name for now,” added in another story of a suicide, the third in five years at her/his school. S/he continued to speak of teaching an advisory class, and rhetorically asking, “‘What’s the worst thing that can happen if you do tell a counselor? Your friend gets mad, right? What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t tell?’ Silence.” “No name for now” pointed out that, for all the attention given to bullying, not one of those suicides was associated with bullying. Neither was Milly’s, and Heather makes no mention of bullying in her own comment. “No name for now” has a teenager who wishes schools would speak more openly of depression, how to recognize the symptoms, and what to do if you see your friend falling into the abyss.

One of my advisees recently spoke to me about feeling that deaths were piling up in her life. She had connections with Milly, and then knew about the student in our community who had recently experienced a death in her family. We ended up having a discussion in advisory about grief, how it varies from person to person, and how best to react to and support friends and other people who are grieving. The girls were most worried that they not say the wrong thing and make the situation worse, and we talked about how simply expressing sorrow, acknowledging that words seem inadequate, and being there for the person however they might need you would be deeply meaningful.

Ellen Carter, our school counselor, recently announced the annual formation of the faculty group “SOS – Support Our Students,” designed to identify faculty members to whom students can turn in confidence if they have deep concerns for their own health or for that of their friends. Though often connected to substance abuse and eating disorders, the program can expand to handle any concern. Someone turning to SOS would not be subjected to school discipline, but would be connected to various support systems, one of which would necessarily be her parents. The goal is to facilitate calls for help that might otherwise go unvoiced, and get kids the help and support they need to lead the long, healthy, happy and successful lives we wish for them. Of course, all adults at SBS are ready and willing to support kids at a moment’s notice, whether or not they are in the SOS group.

On the day of Emily Blosdale-Dionne’s memorial service, I was talking to my colleague Karen Suchenski, who lives and has taught in the district in which Emily was attending school. We were both hurting, for her and her family specifically but also for kids in general, what they go through, how much you care for them, and how much you want to protect them. Of course, kids need our protection less and less as they grow older, and need to learn increasingly to protect themselves. Still, the only way Karen and I could begin to think to respond to this tragedy was to work ever harder to support and care for kids, strengthen their intrinsic sense of self-worth, and identify anyone who may need extra support before things reach a critical stage. Whatever else we do works best when it springs from a healthy self-image. This is a large part of the mission of our school, one which we always feel and always serve, but one which never feels more critical than at times like these.

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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

Where the Next Hour Takes Me

It’s been a productive day, and I’ve only just finished breakfast.

A member of the foreign language teachers listserve group (FLTeach) responded to an emailed post I’d made last week, giving me a chance to clarify my ideas and questions about the dual roles of cognitive learning and subconscious acquisition in learning languages.

I had recently locked in on the fact that information about language is stored in a different part of the brain than the part that enables us to interact using language. There is a long-standing schism among foreign language teachers over the proper roles of subconscious acquisition and conscious learning of languages for our students. I was attempting both to clarify the discussion by adding in this new information about the roles of different parts of the brain and to suggest that the question then becomes how best to ensure the information learned about a language gets connected to the part of a brain that enables a student to put that knowledge to work in automatic, instinctive language use.

After posting my listserve comments, I checked my MiddleWeb SmartBrief app and found a great article on a new school in Los Angeles that is using gaming to facilitate and individualize student learning. The notion that group interaction creates a shared context within which students acquire content through personalized learning paths fit well with the design of my Humanities 7 course, and I shared the article and that thought on Twitter. My friend, middle school teacher and math coach @theJLV [note: his postings may include strong language] shortly retweeted it. He has (for good reason) over 3500 followers, so that should be very helpful in spreading the word.

Meanwhile on Twitter, @teacherMRW and I continued our discussion about a recent poll showing that 4% of the country would never vote for a black person. I remembered the figure was 7% four years ago, and we discussed the implications of those figures not only for Black people but also for women (for whom 12% of the country would not have voted four years ago). (…) I would not be surprised if that conversation echoes in my Humanities 7 class one day soon.

Scanning my Twitter reader, I see that @FredBartels, a friend from Rye Country Day School, was tweeting about his macro-organism theory and one of the roles of individual people as neurons, giving me an aha! moment as I realized that just as people are part of multiple communities, they are part of multiple macro-organisms. Implications of that realization are still settling out.

All this happened in less than an hour. It provides a glimpse of how technology is enriching and deepening my life as a teacher. Yet the book I chose for faculty summer reading, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, argues persuasively and provocatively that the Internet, like it or not, is rewiring our brains and reorienting us away from deep, linear thought and more towards shallow thinking characterized by quick jumps from topic to topic.

In our discussion group during opening faculty meetings this fall, we acknowledged Mr. Carr’s points and talked about the need to support and develop in ourselves and our students the abilities to be fully in the present and to maintain focus for extended periods of time. We discussed the importance of non-linear thought and of developing creativity.

We talked about the need to support and develop in ourselves and our students the abilities to be fully in the present and to maintain focus for extended periods of time.

We also talked about the undeniable benefits of the Internet (which Mr. Carr acknowledges) and concluded that ultimately our goal is to help students use technology productively, recognizing both benefits and risks. Part of that, we agreed, would need to be helping them understand the additional stress that Internet use places on active working memory and the importance of following up properly to get information stored in long-term memory.

I am trying to apply those principles to my own life, and hope that this morning shows I’m on the right track. Meanwhile, I will quickly check my email to see if any students, parents, or colleagues have any questions for me, and then get dressed for a run. For me, running is a great way not just to stay fit and relieve stress but also to let my mind go and see what ideas percolate to the surface.

We’ll see where the next hour takes me.

(originally published at MiddleWeb. Republished with thanks to John Norton, editor.)

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

Fight Club

After a morning chat with my wife, I decided to check in on my various social media accounts before heading out to the Wash ‘n Wire, giving my cat a few extra minutes of post-breakfast lap time. My first, and as it turned out only, stop was Facebook, where the first post was from “Toward the Stars” referencing “Fight Club,” an article in “The Telegraph” about the Asgarda tribe in Ukraine. Composed entirely of women and led by Katerina Tarnouska, the tribe follows the traditions of the ancient Amazons, training in the martial arts and “[learning] life skills and sciences in order to become ideal women.”
Most years, at some point in time, my students ask whether female-dominated cultures exist, and I file this away should the question arise this year. Ukraine is a country where women are subject to sexual trafficking and gender oppression, and that is a contributing factor to the existence of this tribe. So does their existence serve to demonstrate the power of women taking control of their lives or is it sad commentary on the depth of damage that can be done by institutionalized sexism? Or both? Well… my students can wrestle with those questions should the topic come up.

Scrolling down, I came almost immediately on another “Toward the Stars” posting referencing a new law in Israel that requires models to have a BMI of at least 18.5, the borderline between being healthy and being underweight. Inês Almeida, the founder of the organization, was asking for reactions, so I commented, “Mixed feelings, actually. A positive first step but one that still keeps the focus on how women look and the locus of control external to women themselves. Maybe it’s an essential first step. But ultimately, I believe, we want women’s self-esteem to come from within and for physical appearance to be more connected to general health than specific and arbitrary external standards.”
Of course, one of the main aspects of our school’s mission is to develop that internal resilience and sense of self that feeds and supports the individual voices of our students and alumni/ae. Again, I can be all but guaranteed that this topic will come up at some point in time this year in my Humanities 7 class (I’ve already seen questions that connect to it as they have begun the work of designing units), and this article could provide a great point of discussion.

The morning leaves me feeling simultaneously saddened and hopeful. There is so much work to do and such a long journey ahead. And at the same time, the work is being done and the journey is progressing. What strategies will be the most successful in advancing this work? What role will my students play in it? How will they connect, network, support each other – for one thing, when Facebook, Twitter, and iPhones seem quaint, as is bound to happen, what tools will they have and what possibilities will those open up? Sometimes, I have almost as many questions as my students. And that’s a good thing.

Meanwhile, the fight continues. And that’s a good thing too.

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Filed under Alumnae, Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Why I am no longer a feminist

When I was in college, I heard about a women’s consciousness-raising group forming. Women’s issues being important to me, and having a sincere desire to learn more about them, I asked if I could join. I was told calmly but firmly and with a bit of an edge that I was not welcome as I was “part of the problem.” Not yet really understanding the concepts of male privilege or systemic sexism, I took the statement rather more personally than it was probably (hopefully) intended, keeping my hurt to myself and resolving to remain open to the idea that at some point in time I might be invited back in to the circle and would be able to, as I then saw it, work more openly with women toward achieving equality between the sexes.

Ever since that day, I have been rather uncertain about whether or not I have the right to call myself a feminist. Women have variously encouraged me to do so and forbidden me to do so. Over time, I had evolved to a position where I thought of myself as a feminist, but avoided using the label. I knew and respected that some women felt only women and girls could truly call themselves feminists. I also knew and understood that people who benefit from privilege, however unearned and undesired, don’t get to exert that privilege to impose their views, however well meaning, on an oppressed group. Accordingly, I would express my views but avoid labeling myself unless and until I was reasonably certain that it would be accepted.

However, over the past four or five years, as I have become more aware of the existence of transgender people, how transgender people self-define, and how that relates to feminism, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the word “feminist” itself. For starters, I’ve become aware that some feminist events deliberately and explicitly exclude transwomen, on the grounds that only someone born female, raised as a girl, and grown into a woman has the right to consider herself feminist. That many transwomen consider they were in fact born female, albeit without XX chromosomes, and self-define as women does not matter. It seems wrong to me that one group of people can sit in judgment of another group and overrule their own feelings as to who they were born to be. At the same time, it is undeniably true in our culture that someone raised as male and thought of as such has a different experience in childhood (and eventually adulthood) from someone raised as female and thought of as such, whatever their true gender is and however they self-define. How best, then, to resolve that issue? How does it relate to the feminist movement?

Additionally, I have become aware that there are a number of people who fall under the transgender umbrella – and some who don’t – who self-identify as having no gender, having multiple genders, or being gender fluid. Such people, sometimes openly and deliberately, sometimes more quietly, sometimes only by their very existence, challenge gender norms at a deep level. Using the term “feminist” not only risks excluding them but also, in reinforcing the concept of a gender binary, undermines their politics and/or their very identity. This, too, seems wrong.

Yet the core ideals of feminism as I understand it – achieving equity (I’ve learned equity and equality are not always the same thing) across gender lines and valuing and respecting all human beings – continue to appeal to me. Indeed, these ideals and the fight to achieve them are at the core of who I am. So I was left in the position of believing in the ideals of feminism, knowing that some people – for reasons it was not my place to judge – would not permit me to self-identify as feminist, and moreover feeling uncomfortable with the word itself. What to do?!

Earlier this month, I read a tweet posted by Kelley Temple: “Men who want to be feminists do not need a space in feminism. They need 2 take the space they have in society & make it feminist.” The statement both appealed to me and rubbed me the wrong way. Who was she to determine who could and who could not have a space in feminism? On the other hand, who better to make that determination? And in the end, whether I call myself feminist or not, if I’m not working to make society respect feminist ideals, I’m not doing my job in the struggle for social justice. Something inside me both cracked and fell into place. I was finally ready to give up the battle over whether or not I was allowed to and/or should call myself a feminist and focus only on the deeper goal.

And so, I am no longer a feminist. But my ideals are unchanged. I am now… a gender activist. And proud of it.


Filed under Gender