Monthly Archives: March 2013

Every Single One

It was early in my second year at Pine Cobble School. Though all my students had arrived in the classroom, it wasn’t yet time for class to actually start and I was mentally going over my goals for the day while the students, all in eighth grade, talked among themselves. One of them was going on at some length about what a pain his mother was, and a second, whose parents were divorced, jumped in with “You think you’ve got it bad? I’ve got two mothers!” A third student, caught up in the moment, topped that with “Oh yeah? Well, I’ve got three mothers!” There was a brief pause and then the second student said scornfully, “What are you talking about? You can’t have three mothers!” The third student, whose parents were also divorced and whose mother was in a lesbian partnership, looked at me with a note of desperation on his face. “I think,” I stated unequivocally to the class, “the boy knows how many mothers he has.” My student’s face relaxed into gratefulness as two other students nodded approvingly and the second boy’s face struggled through confusion for a few agonizing moments before bursting with realization.

There’s no question that we set a tone in our classrooms, and that tone can make all our students feel welcomed. Or not. The choice is ours. Of course, if we really and truly love all our students there isn’t really a choice. And with each choice, one act at a time, we can build a welcoming classroom culture that endures from year to year. One keystone moment for me was the first day of my third year at Pine Cobble School. I was going over the usual course outline and classroom routines with my sixth grade French class when a student raised his hand and said, “I heard you don’t let people say ‘You’re so gay’ in your classroom.” “That’s right,” I responded warmly and with a smile. He nodded and smiled back, and I thought back to the first time someone had used that expression in my classroom and I had responded firmly but quietly, “Please don’t say that again.” “Why not?” the student asked and, taking this as a genuine question and not a challenge, I answered, “Because I have friends and relatives who are gay and the expression is insulting.” I didn’t have to have very many more conversations before the expression disappeared entirely from my classroom. And now, it was clear why.

Recently, AMLE was holding a special Twitter chat to celebrate Middle Level Education Month. During the course of it, Robert McGarry of GLSEN asked, “Wondering if your curriculum provides all students w/windows 2 see the world & mirrors 2 see themselves, including #LGBT students #MLEM13 ?” I answered, “Yes we do! Talked just today about asexuality, pansexuality, different flavours of transgender, intersex…” I’ll confess that I was, however, the only person in a busy chat to answer that question. There are so many possible reasons why. I’m hoping none of them are that schools are in fact entirely avoiding the acknowledgement of the full range of human sexuality and gender. Because those students are out there. 3-8% of the population are gay and about 1.7% bisexual. Approximately 1% of the population is intersex. Figures for the percentage of transgender people are less certain, with 1/300 a frequently cited figure. And while you can presume asexuality and pansexuality are even more rare, you never know for sure who exactly is in your classroom. Plus of course, in many cases, the kids themselves are still figuring it out (a full 34% of the students responded “don’t know yet” to an in-school survey question about their sexuality that was given by students in my 8th grade Life Skills class).

Besides, many students, even at the middle level, are already aware of the multiplicity of sexualities and genders that actually exist. One of my advisees approached me one day and said, “My father and I were trying to figure out who pansexuals are attracted to. Wouldn’t it basically be everybody?” When we were discussing intersex people in my 8th grade Life Skills class, I mentioned Caster Semenya, and several students called out, “Oh, I’ve heard about her. She’s that South African athlete who they thought might really be a guy.” And when, prior to a performance by Dar Williams, my 7th grade Humanities class was discussing her song “When I Was a Boy,” one of their various interpretations of the lyrics, said without a change in vocal tone or facial expression, was that she might be transgender (an alternate theory, that she might simply have been breaking gender stereotypes, was also given).

I’ll grant you that I work in an unusual place – an independent girls school, proud of its feminist streak, in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, undoubtedly one of the most liberal regions in the country. And of course, what each individual teacher does in the classroom depends on the culture of that school, in that district, in that town. That said, when we celebrate Middle Level Education Month, we need to be celebrating each and every one of our students. They are all special, unique, a gift to the world. They are all deserving of love and respect. And they all deserve to, as Robert McGarry put it, have windows to see the world and mirrors to see themselves. Whomever they may be.

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

Songs in the Key of Life

(title taken from the title of Stevie Wonder‘s masterwork album, released in 1976)

There’s a new maturity in the Rock Bands, and I’m not the only one to have noticed. This year, we are performing more than we have in ages, and the pressure of nonstop shows seems to be helping us trust each other to work to get our parts right, listen closely and work together in rehearsal, and use the adrenaline that comes with performing to bring out our best. Preparing for this most recent concert was especially challenging as a number of group members were also involved in the winter play and so had to miss two weeks of rehearsals shortly before our own performance. But that circumstance has given me several moments I’ll remember through the end of my career and beyond.

Charlotte, on her first rehearsal of the Beatles song “Hold Me Tight” less than two weeks before the performance, relaxing into the song and dancing along. Mailande, a few days later joining that same group, leaning in to the bridge and focusing on getting every single note precisely in tune. Ellie, finding out she was not only playing piano on “You Give Love a Bad Name” but also had a solo, quietly digging in, sight-reading what she could, learning the flow of the song when she got to the parts she would have to practice, calling me over as needed to talk her through the part so she could learn it for our next rehearsal. And Kate, again with “Hold Me Tight,” taking on possibly the hardest bass part anyone has attempted in the 16 years I’ve been teaching the group, insisting not on perfection every single time but perfection at least once before the performance, smiling on her way out of rehearsal one night as I said, “Awesome job, Kate. It sounds gorgeous.” And these are just four examples. Every single person in the groups had at least one moment that made me think, “I am so lucky to work with these kids.”

During the performance, with all four groups, there was no hesitation in taking the stage, no last minute nervous questions before we got set. They sailed through the songs with confidence, and left the stage not with the half-stunned feeling of “Hey, we did it!” of earlier performances but rather with a sense of quiet accomplishment. The audience noticed, too. Along with the usual warm thanks and congratulations, one of the parents came up to me and observed, “They’re really coming together.”

Music, and the arts in general, bring so much to kids’ lives. Yet music is disappearing from public schools, forced out by the focus on testing, on meeting rigorous standards, on (if you’re a teacher) keeping your job and on (if you have any job in K-12 education) keeping your school open in the first place. This makes it all the more mystifying when a famous musician lends his name to the corporatist reform movement. In his piece “John Legend and the Well-Meaning Corporatists,” José Vilson writes, “Sadly, John’s legend in education will show a man who supports kids using pencils to bubble in scan-ready sheets rather than notes for the keys to their own lives.” (Vilson)

“Notes for the keys to their own lives.” That’s exactly what I want for all my students. It’s what all good teachers want for all their students. So, while I am appreciative of my good fortune in being able to teach music in my own special world, I feel I owe it to the larger world of education to advocate for the arts. The benefits of the arts should be clear. Even research – which would technically be included in the mass of data with which so many corporatist reformers are in love – shows those benefits. These kids are developing and using their voices. So must I. So must we all.

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One Step Further

Rachel Simmons, the author of the ground-breaking Odd Girl Out and best-selling Curse of the Good Girl, has just co-authored along with Kate Farrar an article in the Huffington Post entitled “The Confidence Gap on Campus: Why College Women Need to Lean In.” Many readers will recognize the reference to Sheryl Sandberg‘s brand new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In the book, Ms. Sandberg argues among other things that women need to work to overcome “the stereotypes we internalize that hold us back,” (Sandberg, quoted in Adams) and “own their own ambition.” (Simmons and Farrar)

After presenting undeniable evidence that college women are not getting the leadership positions they have earned and deserve in as great a proportion as college men, Simmons and Farrar ask the women themselves what they need. Their answer? “Provide us the skills, supports and mentoring to build confidence to take risks and test our leadership on campus. College women want to be aware of and prepared for the barriers both on campus and as they enter the workplace.” (Simmons and Farrar) This sentiment echoes those expressed by many members of my 8th grade Life Skills class, namely that they are finding their voices, and they know they are being heard in our school. They want us to help them ensure they will be able to make their voices heard out in the world.

So both ensuring there is awareness of the inequity in the world and preparing girls and women to self-advocate is part of the solution. But we can’t place the entire weight of reform on women’s shoulders. True, only women can learn to self-advocate, and they must do so. At the same time, men and people of other genders need to join in as well. “This crisis of confidence in the face of unrelenting — and unfair — pressure is what Sandberg is shining a light on. Yet, she is being criticized for blaming women, when she is in fact indicting a culture that forces women to second-guess their own strengths.” (Simmons and Farrar)

Already, her book may be having some positive effects. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, has written of what he learned from the book: “I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven’t made in the last decade… After reading Lean In and listening to Sheryl, I realize that, while I believe I am relatively enlightened, I have not consistently walked the talk.” (Chambers, quoted in Upadhyaya) I’m sure others are out there, and with continued work, we can continue to change minds. The old boys network is real, and at some point in time, the old boys need to take the initiative to do the right thing.

That said, I would love to see us take these ideas one step farther. So often, it seems, we say we need to get more women into tech and into leadership positions at the highest level for two main reasons. One, to provide role models for younger women and girls. Two, to provide a viewpoint lacking in a male-dominated culture. We absolutely need positive female role models, and we absolutely need multiple viewpoints. However, knowing that the variance of ways of being within different genders is far greater than the variance of ways of being between men and women (usually, such statements are made within a binary concept of gender), we can also be aware that our real goal is not just including multiple genders in the workplace in truly equitable fashion, but also multiple viewpoints. In short, if our ultimate goal is to undermine and eventually do away with patriarchy and to claim equality and equity for absolutely all people, part of that goal may need to be acknowledging that gender is far more complicated than a simple binary system would lead us to believe – what we have traditionally called femininity and masculinity can be applied in differing ways not just to men and women but also to all people of all possible genders.

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Build Your Own House

I was all set to jump on the Sheryl Sandberg bandwagon – and I’m not normally the bandwagon type. But I was caught up in the perfect storm. Within less than 48 hours, I stumbled on the cover story in Time Magazine, found a link to a piece about her in Jezebel (standard warning about visiting this site if you mind strong language), and discovered her Twitter account as well as that of LeanIn.org, on online organization “committed to offering women the encouragement and support to lean in to their ambitions.” There was even an indirect connection to Toward the Stars, an organization I’ve supported since its inception, as they offer empowering alternatives to Gymboree‘s “Smart Like Dad” and “Pretty Like Mommy” line referred to by Ms. Sandberg when she said, “I would love to say that was 1951, but it was last year. As a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked, and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked, and that starts with those T-shirts.” And as an educator in a progressive girls school, how could I not love the fundamental message behind Ms. Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead?

And then, searching on my computer for the Jezebel article as I prepared to begin writing this blog, I found Tracy Moore’s thoughtful take on what Sheryl Sandberg has to teach us about the state of modern day feminism and I was reminded that few issues are ever as simple as they seem on first blush.

Let’s start with a few givens. Equity for all people, of all genders, should be a goal toward which we are working, however we do so and whatever we choose to call that work. And when Sheryl Sandberg calls attention not only to the resistance of far too many men to including women in the topmost reaches of power but also women’s own role in undermining their rise to power, she seems to be assigning responsibility for this undeniable inequality across the range of genders. In this perspective, she echoes the thoughts of Gloria Steinem who argues that rape culture is a result not only of the cult of masculinity but also of the unwittingly supportive cult of femininity. Patriarchy may be the problem, but men are not the only gender aiding and abetting its continuation. Speaking in generalities, of course, and not to every single member of every single gender.

But in taking what might be called a balanced approach to gender politics, Ms. Sandberg has certainly opened herself up to criticism. While some see her as a positive role model who is encouraging women to acknowledge and express their ambitions, others view her as undermining feminist goals. Is she encouraging women to empower themselves or blaming the victim? Is she calling out men for perpetuating gender stereotypes or encouraging women to submit to those stereotypes? And along with all that, is she aware of the role the privilege she’s had in her own life has played in her own rise to the top and how that may put her out of touch with the lives and realities of most women?

It reminds me of Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo! CEO who recently rescinded her company’s “work from home” policy. Having come to national attention for having won her new job while pregnant and for making the choice to return to work within several weeks of giving birth, Ms. Mayer shocked many of her supporters and was roundly criticized for instituting this new policy commonly perceived as “anti-family.” Earlier on, she had been roundly criticized for not taking a maternity leave.

But, you may be wondering, if it had been, say, Michael Mayer who took this job as he was about to become a new parent, would we even be talking about this?

Exactly.

My cousin and I were twitter-chatting about this one day. His point was that, without knowing everything that went into Ms. Mayer’s decision to rescind the “work at home” policy, there was no way we could fairly judge it. My point was that, on top of that, we as a society are far quicker to judge women in issues of work-family (please, don’t ever say “work-life”) balance than we are men.

And “we as a society” includes not just women but also men and people of other genders.

Ms. Sandberg, under criticism by a good number of feminists, expresses the sentiment that “The problem isn’t about fixing the women. The problem is about gender roles and dynamics and the expectations and norms that exist in the workplace. As long as we keep emphasizing how to fix the women, I don’t think we’re going to get very far.” (Sandberg, quoted on CNN) She is calling on women to lean in to their ambition and promote themselves. Sounds like feminism to me. And in a world where there are way too few women in the upper reaches of management and way too few women in the tech field, Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Mayer are undeniably living proof that women can find success in these fields, and both are advocating for the empowerment of women. Yet, in the eyes of some people, largely feminists, they don’t conform to some ideal of how they feel feminism should be and therefore are traitors to the cause.

And there is where Tracy Moore’s article comes in. She refers to a Slate article by Hanna Rosin in which Ms. Rosin writes, “Recently I was part of a panel on the 50th anniversary of the Feminine Mystique. A big part of the discussion centered on why young women today don’t want to call themselves feminists, which dismayed the other panelists. Afterward a high-school girl in the audience stood up to ask a question. She said that in her progressive school the girls were “creaming” the boys at virtually everything. She said they were better at sports and got better grades and ran all the extracurricular clubs. But the one thing she and her friends could not get anyone to do was join the feminist club. The answer to her particular predicament seemed obvious to me, the old feminist, although it felt impolite to say it at the time: My daughter, it’s time to kick you out of the house and then shut the house down. You need to build your own house now.” (Rosin, quoted in Moore)

As regular readers of this blog know, 15-year-old Lili Evans of England is organizing the #TwitterYouthFeministArmy and one of our school’s 9th graders, Charlotte ’16, became only the second guest blogger at the site, writing about how the Women’s Film Series organized by Mary ’13 helped her realize what it means to find, seize, and use your voice and how that relates to her self-defining as a feminist. I feel as though feminist ideals are being embraced more openly through our school than ever, and that it is suddenly more cool to call yourself a feminist than – well, at least in the 28 years I’ve worked here. But – as Ms. Moore would have it – they are not only embracing feminism but also creating their own individual paths. And, I would argue, that’s as it should be.

After all, our school is not about molding student voice to preconceived notions but rather about enabling girls to find, develop, and use their own individual voices. Not one of my students believes women should conform to stereotypes. But each of my students has a unique vision for her own life. Some of them are proud to call themselves feminists and others shy away from the term, but all are embracing feminist ideals. In short, they are building their own house.

Like most independent schools, we have just sent out another round of admissions packets inviting another round of applicants to join our community. As I think ahead to the new community already beginning to form that will populate my classroom next year, and other classes in years ahead, I can guarantee this: I will always work to open their eyes, if I see the need, to the sexism and inequities that surround them. And I will always work to encourage them to embrace the ideals of feminism, that all people of all genders achieve equal respect for themselves exactly as they are, and achieve true equity in the process. However, along with all that, I will always work to avoid pushing them to follow a certain path. My current students are building their own house, and they will be role models for my new students next year, and so on down the line. But each of those new students will also be an individual person, a wonderful and unique person. What house will each of them choose to build? Time will tell.

One feels Sheryl Sandberg would approve.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School, Women in media

Not One Dollar: Guest Post From Charlotte M. ’16

Charlotte M. ’16 recently guest blogged at Twitter Youth Feminist Army‘s Blog, JellyPop. She wrote about the Women’s Film Series here at SBS organized by Mary P. ’13 and her experience watching “Iron Jawed Angels.” In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we’d like to share it with you, and we hope you’ll want to find out more!

“My name is Charlotte and I am a freshman at S-B School. Part of my school’s goal is to help students find their voices, and I have wanted to find my voice since I was nine years old. I have wanted to find my voice since an exhibit taught me to fear death, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation. I have wanted to find my voice since I realized that I could use it to change my life. But I never thought of using it to change someone else’s, and I never realized that what I thought was a personal struggle was something women faced all around the world: not being heard. I knew that women were oppressed, but it seemed like a distant problem that I had no connection to. This year, a single film changed that for me, something I never thought a movie could do…”

Read the rest of Charlotte’s blog post here.

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Temporary Home

Earlier today, I moved the beanbags out of our classroom in the back of the library and into the Mac Lab. With Upper School exams taking place in the library, the sounds of happy, engaged 7th graders immersed in writing original plays were probably going to be less welcome than usual, so we were taking up a temporary home for the rest of the finals period. When I walked into class later in the day, the beanbags had been arranged in a tight oval between the rows of computers and everyone was curled up or sprawled out, backpacks and books and pencil cases and water bottles strewn wherever they had happened to land. “You all look so comfortable, ” I said. “Do we need to do an impromptu Morning Reading?” “Yes!” they all chorused, and I tiptoed through the library, past Ms. Nuno’s students bent over the exams, and grabbed my coffee-stained copy of “Ingathering” by Zenna Henderson so we could read further into the story “Wilderness.” I found a spot in the oval, opened the book, and began to read.

After approximately 15 minutes, we reached a stopping point and I asked the ritual, “Thoughts? Questions? Reactions?” – to absolute and total silence. “You want more, don’t you?” I asked, and several girls quickly answered with a heartfelt “Yes!” while one other student furrowed her brow. “I’m just worried that you all have enough time to get good work done on your plays,” I told the class, and her brow relaxed. After a bit of discussion, we agreed to continue with about seven more minutes of reading and then break into play-writing groups.

The reading completed, after a few last blissful moments of relaxation, all nine students stood up and grouped together in front of the computers. Within moments, they all had their plays pulled up, and each of the three groups began organizing themselves for the rest of the class. One group read through the latest additions to their play together they had done the night before, and then worked out a way for all three girls to be simultaneously writing at three different points in the play. Meanwhile, both of the other groups began discussing lines and plot points as all three groups neared the endings of their plays. Periodically, a sudden burst of laughter or specific request would float above the general, purposeful hubbub: “What would be a good name for a bank?” “Remember, we’ll have to act this out.” “I’m looking that up on Urban Dictionary.” “Hey, that’s my line!” “Guys, what would you think of an unexpected ending?”

At one point, Tod and Jason came to talk to me about some tech questions, and I joined them just outside the room in the corridor. Suddenly, the volume level from the room exploded, and I excused myself from Tod and Jason to stick my head in. The room instantly went silent and nine heads snapped around to look at me with these huge grins on their faces. “We weren’t doing anything!” several students offered, and with a familiar tightening at the corners of my mouth, I responded “Suuuuuure you weren’t!” as the corners tightened into a grin of my own. Then I walked around the room once, asking each group a question to help them refocus, and walked back outside, shaking my head gently.

Just before class, I had been sitting in one of the Jesser classrooms so I could be available to two of my French students who were checking their spelling of vocabulary words and verb conjugations. One of the other middle schoolers was going through her Chinese flash cards. At one point, they asked me what my next class was, and I said, “Humanities!” “Ohhhhh. We miss Humanities.” said the two 8th graders who were here last year, and I said, “Me too. I love all my Humanities classes. So I miss all my old Humanities classes. And every year, there are more to miss.” “That’s sad, “one of them said. “Not really,” I said. “They’re all cool, and after all, I realize that people grow up and that’s how things should be and if Humanities can be a part of that, so much the better.” She brightened, and asked, “Are we still your favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2011 to 2012?” “Yes.” I answered. “Of course. For always.”

While working on this blog, sitting on the floor in the lobby area of Jesser so I could keep an ear on all rooms where various levels of studying were taking place, I would periodically look up at the two 8th graders sitting across from me when they might say something particularly interesting or ask me a question. At one point, they said, “The year is going so fast! It’s too fast! Last year wasn’t this fast.” “Last year,” I noted, “you were in 7th grade and you knew you still had a whole 8th grade year between you and the upper school. This year – while you’ve still got a third of a year to go – you don’t have that cushion.” Their grateful faces longing for honesty and connection told me I had said the right thing, and we went on to discuss the ins and outs and ups and downs of growing up and of transitions, and how we would be supporting them and helping them make the transition as smooth as possible.

March, among other things, is National Middle Level Education Month. Young adolescents are all too aware that most people believe they are entering the time in their lives when they are at their most unlovable. But those of us who really know them, who actually spend time with them, know otherwise. With a series of video recordings of their production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” safe in my iPad, the prospect of hearing the penultimate drafts of all their plays in a couple of days, the memory of my French students working so hard to get all the spelling exceptions down, the prospect of a high energy rock band rehearsal this evening, and the sure knowledge that even with vacation so close you can taste it and there’s last-minute work to finish and packing to do and friends to see, the students assigned to go to the animal shelter today for community service will faithfully be at Reception after school ready to head out… with all this in my mind, how could I not love them?

How could anyone?!

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