Monthly Archives: October 2013

Expanding the Possible

“You might want to have someone go with you, so you don’t walk into a wall,” I said. Erin was just pages away from the ending of To Kill a Mockingbird and had stood up and started walking to her next class without ever taking her eyes off the open book. Erin asked, “Isabela, will you go with me so I don’t walk into a wall?” Isabela smiled and said, “Okay,” and they drifted off together.

Erin was not alone in having become utterly immersed and captivated by the book – several other seventh graders had also read ahead, moaning at the end of study hall and refusing to put the book down. Bekah had just finished reading Atticus’s summation at Tom Robinson’s trial, and marveled at how captivating and compelling the two-page speech was. Juliana looked over at me and said, “Oh my God, this book is so good! It makes me want to be a lawyer!” I paused and thought for a second. “Interesting. It makes me want to be a writer. And yet, we’d be doing the same kinds of things and for the same reasons.” Juliana smiled back, told me, “I’m so glad I’m in Debate,” shouldered her backpack, and headed off to Art and Culture.

Earlier in the day, a group of Humanities 7 students had presented their completed video of an original script they had written for independent writing. Shot on the fly during class, study halls, and whenever opportunities presented themselves, the video was a tightly edited (okay, they accidentally showed the ending twice – but that aside!), well-paced, both funny and moving work, and the students looked justifiably proud of their efforts as the class applauded at the (real) ending.

It feels like we are officially in the iPad era of the school now. Never before had students done a script together for independent writing, and that may well be in part because never before have they been able to shoot and edit a video so quickly and instinctively. My prediction and hope had been that having iPads would enable us to greatly expand how we communicate with each other, and we seem to be started along that path now. Some students are rushing headlong down the path, others treading it more slowly and deliberately, but all are headed in the same direction. Yet, for many of us, there is also something timeless about books, real, books with covers and artwork and the smell and touch of paper. There’s a place, we realize, for every technology, from different ways of physically marking on surfaces (paint on cave walls, pen on paper, purple dry-erase markers on white boards, etc.) to books to cameras to computers and more. Different tools for different tasks.

Several weeks ago, I had planned to present the note-taking app “Notability” to my class, but on a hunch, I asked when we got to that point in my lesson plan, “Have any of you already tried Notability?” About six out of 14 had. “Do any of you feel confident enough to come up and show the rest of the class about it?” Several did, and we agreed Juliana and Elizabeth would come up. They borrowed my iPad and stood next to the TV, and systematically and thoroughly showed the students everything Notability could do and how to do it. There were some questions along the way, but the students had such a strong intuitive sense of what their classmates would understand that most of the questions that might have arisen were answered simply in how well the presentation went.

Dr. JoAnn Deak says the core elements of self-esteem in girls are confidence, competence, and connectedness. Our school’s mission statement is all about voice and being one’s own best self. That learning moment crystallized how we go about meeting our mission, and why we are so effective in doing so. Technology is a part of that – but as a means to an end. Never an end in itself.

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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Technology, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Quite a Way to Go

“That Rock Band,” a parent said, shaking his head. Clearly searching for words, he added, “Wow.” It was not an uncommon reaction, and when I emailed my usual post-concert congratulations to the group, I told them about the moment and noted, “Yes, you performed that well; you literally left people speechless.” It’s true, from the first notes pounded out on the piano as they slammed through “Yoü and I” by Lady Gaga, through the last, sweet harmonies held over a cymbal roll and an echoing piano chord as they ended “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars et al, they were amazing, all of them: Bonnie, Charlotte, Heather, Jin, Joy, Joyce, McKim, Molly, Natalie, Olivia, and Susan. And when I pointed out that the vocalists wrote all the harmonies themselves, the speechless factor among audience members rose even higher.

This is just our first performance, just a few weeks into the year. While six members of last year’s group returned and one moved up from the middle school band, four were brand new, and one of those was a complete beginner to her instrument. Yet, they came together so thoroughly and so rapidly that we chose and began working on our next two songs even before the first performance, something we have only rarely been able to do in the past.

As I looked back on the performance with pride, my mind jumped to an evening at the beginning of this past summer. I was at a coffee house in Amherst, and two baristas were working the counter. While one of them was preparing my drink, he commented to the other, “I don’t like it when chicks cover songs.” So many responses sprang to my mind, of which one of the more polite was, “Even songs written by, umm, women?” but I was technically not involved in the conversation and stayed quiet. The other barista was clearly taken aback; after a moment, she said what seemed to be the only thing she could think of in response: “Really? Why?” He paused, far longer than anyone who had just made such a flat declaration had any right to, and came up with, “There’s just something wrong about it.”

Well. There it is, then. That clears that up! The other barista paused a while and went back to wiping down the countertop.

Earlier today, a friend shared on Facebook a link to a video of Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart performing “Stairway to Heaven” at a concert honoring the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. In her posting, she noted that the performance was so good it made Robert Plant cry, and indeed part of what makes the video so moving, beyond the incredible performance itself, is the interspersing of shots of the group members’ reactions to the song with shots of the performers themselves.

I don’t know what that one barista would think of this performance, if he came across it – whether it would simply confuse him and he would think Robert Plant a wimp, or whether it might actually penetrate his male privilege-addled brain deeply enough to make him rethink some of his beliefs. One hopes for the second, of course, but he had quite a way to go.

Family Weekend at our school is in many ways about elevating and honoring girls’ voices as we share what we get to see every day with families who get to see the effects of what we do every day. While the Rock Band performances exemplify what the school is all about, in no way are they the only example. Far from it, in fact – which is part of what makes our school so special.

Which makes it all the more sad that there are still people so deaf to women’s voices that they are literally missing half of what the world has to offer, and have no clue. And so, as we support these girls in bringing their voices to the world, we also work to support the world in shutting up long enough to open their ears and truly listen.

Because sometimes, speechlessness is good.


Filed under Gender, Performing Arts, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Through Peace, Through Dialogue, Through Education

“Education is a power for women.”
Malala Yousafzai

“This question is hard!” a student good-naturedly pointed out to me. “You always ask such broad questions.” “Of course it’s hard,” I said. “I want you all to think, to think deeply, to – how do I put this? – learn things.” I gave her my “Call me crazy” shrug and she turned back to her discussion partner to figure out “What is a girl?”

As we were discussing everyone’s answers to the question, Mia asked, “What is ‘feminine?’” Everyone laughed, and several students jumped to try to look it up on their iPads. “Nope,” I said, halting them. “Dictionaries don’t always tell the whole story. It’s a really important question, and we’ll come back to it when we’ve finished with the main line of thought in the discussion.” About five minutes later, I wrote “Traditional ideas of feminine” and “Our ideas of feminine” on two panels of the white board. Olivia transcribed the students’ thoughts on traditional ideas, and Siobhan transcribed the girls’ original thoughts. Traditional ideas included “how to be proper,” “stay-at-home wife,” “long hair” and “meek and obedient,” among others. Asked to determine what threads ran through these ideas, the students came up with “keep contained,” “be ruled over,” “ideal (not reality),” “how you look,” “no voice,” and “housewife (specific role).” They noted that with every single trait listed, outside forces were trying to control and judge women.

Their ideas on ‘feminine” could not have contrasted more: powerful, strong, confident, being who you are, persistent, independent, awesome, rising… The connecting threads between these ideas which the students identified included positive, actions, having a voice, empowerment, breaking ties/breaking chains/freeing. With every single trait listed, they noted, girls and women were in control of their identities and their lives.

We held this discussion on Wednesday, October 9, coincidentally one year to the day after Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban on her way to school for having advocated for girls’ education. Also on the anniversary of the shooting, the Taliban renewed threats to kill her if she continues to remain outspoken on the policies and practices in Pakistan. Yet, Malala, frequently seen as one of the leading candidates for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (which would make her, at 16, the youngest recipient ever), remains firm in her convictions: “I will be a politician in my future,” she said. “I want to change the future of my country, and I want to make education compulsory.” (Craig and Mehsud)

So as we celebrate the International Day of the Girl on October 11, reflecting on Malala’s courageous example of my students’ feminine ideal, I leave you with her words when Jon Stewart asked her if she had been afraid the Taliban would target her:
I started thinking about it, and I started thinking the Talib would come and he would just kill me. But then I said, if he comes, what would you do, Malala? Then I would reply to myself, Malala, just take a shoe and hit him. But then I said, if you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace, and through dialogue, and through education.
For those interested in learning more, Malala has released her memoir, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.


Filed under Current Events, Gender, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Women in media

SBMS 10th Anniversary: Blast From The Past – “A Sense of the Possible”

It was ten years ago this month that a group of faculty, staff, and administrators first gathered in the office of former Head of School Martha Shepardson-Killam to discuss the possibility of starting up a middle school program at Stoneleigh-Burnham School and begin to work through how best to proceed. Many of us in the room had worked with middle school students in the past, and enthusiasm for the idea was high. Once we secured Trustee approval, we agreed to announce the new middle school in January of 2004 and open in September of 2005. However, upon learning what we were doing, many local parents asked if we couldn’t find it in our hearts to open earlier, and we responded by deciding to open a Founders’ Program for day students only in September, 2004, and then expand to include a boarding component in September, 2005.

As part of our 10th anniversary celebration, we will periodically be re-publishing blogs from earlier years. To start out the series, here is an anticipatory posting from March, 2004 celebrating all that middle schools can and should be: “A Sense of the Possible.”


Today at lunch, some of my colleagues and I were reminiscing about our middle school years. Our laughter was often rueful as we recounted stories of trying to remain out of sight of the gym teachers surveying the showers from their offices on high, or running headlong down corridors trying to avoid the kids who wanted to dump you in another garbage can. But as each of us spoke, you could almost see the young adolescent within peering out, still asking to be noticed, to be taken seriously, to fit in. Had our stories continued, perhaps we would have moved on to talk about the other side of middle school, about those teachers who cared, about our friends and how important they were back then. On MiddleWeb, a listserv for middle level educators, one of the teachers recently asked if our old schools had felt like jails to us. Upon reflection, I wrote that while Amherst Regional Junior High School may have looked large and forbidding from the outside, “It’s where my friends and I played bridge each morning before homeroom, where I wrote a 1500-word short story, where I first learned to play French horn, where Mr. DiRaffaele opened up my mind to the world and Mr. Luippold inspired a lifetime love of French.”

“They’re just so endearing” one of my friends exclaimed as she fairly flew into the faculty room after 40 minutes of teaching literature to a group of lively 7th graders. I knew exactly what she meant – this was one of those classes where everyone threw themselves wholeheartedly into whatever they were doing, and if you caught their attention and got them engaged in a project, there was no holding them back. I remember asking them to work in groups to build websites presenting their detailed proposals for an extended trip to France, and spending hours in the computer room as they threw every minute of free time they had into adding to the information they had discovered, looking for just the right images to illustrate their points, finding a new coding trick that would make the webpage itself more interesting to look at. I presented their work to other secondary school language teachers at a summer technology workshop sponsored by the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools, who were just as delighted with the kids’ work as was I.

It’s nice to have these experiences to draw on, because when people find out we spend our days with teenagers, their reaction is often one of pity, horror, or both. While I would never pretend there aren’t moments of frustration, those moments pale in comparison to the times when teachers and students are so caught up in learning that time stops, when they plan and carry off an evening coffeehouse to raise money for Children’s Hospital, or when they say “We know, you love us.” and let you know how much that means to them. As David Killam, who will be teaching instrumental music in Stoneleigh-Burnham’s new middle school program, once observed, “Get them on your side, and they will walk through walls for you.”

March is National Middle Level Education Month. Different organizations and communities will be celebrating in different ways. For members of the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS), the month will wrap up with the annual conference, a gathering of many hundreds of committed middle school teachers who are often just as lively as their students. We attend workshops, look for new teaching materials, and listen to speakers praise our commitment and dedication. But we are ever mindful that middle level education must begin and end with those young adolescents peering out and asking us to believe in them. After all, they are the ones who give our schools a sense of being, as another one of my friends put it, “Alive with a sense of the possible.”

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

Not Giving Up So Easily

co-authored with Charlotte M. ’16

Bill: When you see a new email from Charlotte with the subject header “Psychology: Smart Girls Give Up too Easily,” you know you are in for a treat. For starters, Charlotte is the sort of strong girl who does not often give up, never mind easily. And then, she is the sort of person with whom conversations are always both enjoyable and stimulating as she sees layers of complexity and connects them in profound, surprising, ways while remaining ever-open to other perspectives and any revisions to her thinking that might result. In this case, her father had sent her an article from Psychology Today on how “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” (Heidi Grant Halvorson). As Charlotte self-defines as a feminist and I as a gender activist, let’s just say that neither of us were jumping with joy over this statement.

My own mind quickly focused on the word “believe.” After all, I can believe the world is flat (especially after having been to Kansas), but that doesn’t mean it genuinely is flat. Does each girl have innate abilities? Of course (and so, for the record, does every single person). Are those abilities unchangeable? I don’t think so, and current theory on the brain and learning absolutely supports that. Do bright boys believe that they can develop innate ability through effort and practice? I’m willing to believe they do, or else the article would not have been published. But that would then raise the question – why don’t bright girls (on average, or as often) develop this belief? Because I am certain some of them do, and believe we have to raise the question why more of them don’t.

Charlotte: When you see a reply from Bill to your email about psychology, you… well, you’re not exactly surprised. He’s the sort of teacher with a passion for not just his subject, but his society. So you’re also not surprised when he self-identifies as a “gender activist” instead of a “feminist” because of the latter word’s association with gender binarism and exclusivity. For me, my ideals and goals lie more with those of gender activists, but I still call myself a feminist because that’s the word our society recognizes (although not necessarily in a good way, hence “feminazi”). Bill put it well when he wrote about generalizations about “boys” and “girls”: “I guess it’s useful in terms of understanding the function of a dominant culture feat. clear gender binary boxes.”

The question becomes, “To what extent should the terminology we use be dictated by social norms?” My beliefs err on the side of lexical accuracy, but I still find myself conforming in practice; I identify as a feminist despite being against a gender binarism, don’t I? Then again, social norms can’t change without mutual understanding and communication. My father once told me that if two people are both rational, have the same information, and have the same value system, they can’t disagree. Not all of society is rational, and it would be practically impossible for everyone to have the same value system, but we can at least start by trying to share the same information, i.e. the language we use when describing views and issues. Then again (again), maybe those who have found terminology that more accurately expresses their beliefs should be the ones to change the language we use to describe those beliefs, instead of the other way around.

Bill: And here we are in one of my favourite places: the world of semiotics! How are thoughts and feelings translated into symbols, communicated, and translated back into thoughts and feelings? Values systems definitely colour those thoughts and feelings, both for the transmitter and the receiver. So even if we think we have a common understanding of what the word “bright” means (or for that matter “girl” and “boy”), the phrases “bright girl” and “bright boy” may actually mean different things to different people. But we can’t stop and define every single word in every single sentence we utter, pausing to double-check how our values systems intersect and interact! What can we safely guess to be the common understanding in our society of “bright girl,” “bright boy,” “innate ability,” and – I’ll introduce this term – “growth mindset”? That will lead us back to our original questions as to whether boys are more likely to develop a growth mindset than girls, why this might be so, and what can be done to foster a growth mindset in girls.

I’ll posit these definitions; feel free to engage with any one of them if you’d like!
bright: intelligent (commonly thought of as “school smarts” but conceivably extending to any form of human intelligence)
girl or boy: female or male child or teenager (commonly thought of as immutable and accurately assigned at birth but increasingly thought to be a matter of self-definition, bearing in mind that not all people self-identify according to a gender binary)
innate abilities: the full range of your different potentials at birth
growth mindset: a sense that, as agent of one’s own destiny, one can develop skills and abilities, and hence what is commonly thought of as intelligence, to different degrees (borne out by research into the mutual influences of nature on nurture and vice versa in actually rewiring the brain)

How do those sound? Ready to tackle our questions?!

Charlotte: Now that we have, as Parliamentary Extemporaneous debaters will say, “redefined the bill,” we turn back to our questions.

Are boys more likely to develop a growth mindset than girls? Why might this be so?

While I disagree with Heidi Grant Halvorson’s assertion that “Girls… develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions… boys, on the other hand, are a handful.”, I also acknowledge that people’s actions and characters can be largely shaped by expectations of them. I heard an interview with Meryl Streep in which she said that most of her ability to portray widely varying characters was in the costume and makeup; she couldn’t see her own appearance, but when others in the room reacted to her presence in a certain way, she would naturally react to their responses by acting more like the character they expected. The same can be said for young boys and girls; even if they are not innately more self-controlled or “a handful,” if their teachers and parents treat them as if they are, it seems likely that they could respond by acting more like the way they were treated. And even if they aren’t shaped by expectations, children and teens could still respond differently to different types of feedback, whether or not those different types of feedback are justified.

What can be done to foster a growth mindset in girls?

As a high school student who is passionate about social issues and considers herself a citizen of the global community, my immediate response is that giving girls growth and effort-minded feedback (such as the examples Halvorson gives of feedback commonly given to boys) would foster a growth mindset in girls. As someone who has no experience in education, however, I don’t know what the best way to counteract praising only innate qualities is, in what situations that occurs, or whether it occurs at all (as a student at a single-sex educational institution, I’ve never witnessed the kind of disparity that Halvorson writes about).

Bill: Well – you have 10-odd years of experience in education! But I know what you mean. And as someone with 50-odd years of experience in education, including pre-school, an M.A.T. and all sorts of professional development, my own immediate response… is exactly the same as yours.

I’m probably better at doing this now than when you were in my Humanities 7 class, oh so long ago (back in 2009-2010), but I work pretty hard to keep my feedback focused on what students have done compared to what they need to be doing. So if a student is working on varying her sentence length in order to keep her audience’s attention through an essay, I’ll comment on that. It’s a skill that can be developed. I also, and I’m quite sure I did this with your class, work very hard to put Humanities 7 learning in the context of the sweep of a lifetime of learning. Don’t have that skill down now? Try again next time. Thinking you won’t be 100% the writer you want to be by the end of the year? There’s always Humanities 8 – and four years here after that – and college, and the rest of your life. Meanwhile, I work very hard to simply not mention innate qualities. I might refer to you all as “smart” once during the entire year, if that. Once. And all of you together.

As for the best way to counteract the praise of innate qualities – my instincts are this needs at least three approaches. One is for people who understand the negative effects of praising innate qualities (especially on any girl who has internalized society’s expectations that she “be good”- and, I suppose, non-girl children who happen to have internalized the same expectations) to just plain stop doing it. This helps build up each student’s personal sense of herself as an agent of her own destiny, despite what others may say. A second is for these people (teachers and parents alike) also to say straight out that they have stopped praising innate qualities, and why. In spreading the word to others, this makes it less likely that children will be inadvertently praised by anyone in a way that undermines a growth mindset. And a third – and this is one of the things I think about the most often as a teacher in a girls school – is to help students develop a personal and internal resistance to praise of innate qualities. That… is one of the things I’m still working on. I hope and pray that what we did last year in the Life Skills 8 class will have that effect. I suspect that an inherently feminist atmosphere such as we have at Stoneleigh-Burnham doesn’t hurt, either!


Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage

Aware of One’s Gender

“Can I ask a question?” Julia, a returning 8th grader, asked toward the end of our first all-middle school meeting. “Sure,” I said as 33 pairs of curious eyes turned to look at her. “Well, it’s really more of a statement (laugh). I just want to say that I love this meeting tonight. It’s the best part of the whole year.” It is indeed a wonderful tradition – after an all-school dinner, everyone gathers in the Capen Room where faculty introduce themselves, Big Sisters introduce themselves and their Littles, a few announcements are made, and everyone races off to begin focusing seriously on the finally imminent first day of classes. “I don’t know if I’m ready to say it’s all downhill from here, but I do love this night,” I said softly to Andrea as kids streamed past us. She laughed and nodded. “I know,” she said.

Part of the tradition is faculty members letting students know how they would like to be addressed. About halfway around the room, one of the first-year teachers, Jake Steward (the new Chair of the English Department), said: “You may call me Steward. You don’t have to use the ‘Mr.’ I’m aware of my gender.” Everyone laughed. Eric Swartzentruber was next and, after introducing himself as the Admissions Director, added, “While I am also aware of my gender, you may call me Mr. S.” Everyone laughed again. I laughed too, but it all got me to thinking – what does it actually mean to be aware of your gender?

I suppose the first step is to figure out what you mean by “gender” in the first place. By no means does everyone share the same definition. For some people, of course, it simply means how you were identified at birth based on anatomy. End of story.

However, for others, it’s a little more complicated. I remember one person this summer, commenting on the birth of the royal baby: “Well, the royal baby has been born and, apparently having something resembling a penis, has been identified as a boy. We’ll see.” One’s genetic heritage is, of course, relatively fixed (as I understand it, the developing science of epigenetics continues to call even this into question). But you can’t always tell who is intersex at birth, and you certainly can’t always tell what that new baby’s personal sense of gender will be when they grow up. Masculine? Feminine? Somewhere on a continuum? Both equally? Some other sort of blend? Neither? Fluid? We’re getting to the point where it’s hard to keep track of all possible senses of gender a person can have. Some colleges are starting to incorporate asking students about pronoun choice during orientation and their offices now routinely ask visitors, “And what pronouns are you using today?”

Recently, I was actually asked the “what pronouns” question. And I have to say, it felt entirely respectful and dignified. No assumptions. No inferences. No judgments. Just quietly asking what worked for me, a human being. (For the record, my answer was, “‘He’ is fine, and thank you very much for asking.”)

Of course, in a girls school, it’s a little trickier to avoid making assumptions about gender altogether. It’s right there, three times, in our mission: “… We inspire girls… discover her best self… her voice will be heard.” And I do think, for most of my students, being aware of their gender is indeed becoming aware for themselves of what it means to be a girl growing into a woman. For most of them. But not necessarily for all of them. Sometimes, one’s own best self turns out to be… not female. Just the other day, Mrs. Logan-Tyson mentioned how nice it was to spend time with one of our alums at Reunion and find him to be so happy in life. And that is one of our most important core goals for all of our graduates.

So, for many of us anyway, perhaps being aware of one’s gender is a personal journey that works differently for different people. The tangle of society’s beliefs, assumptions, and stereotypes provides a context for that journey, either supportive netting or a steel trap depending on who you are and whom you are with. Fortunately, if you can remain fully open to experiencing the person with whom you find yourself, you will be giving them the space and freedom to be their own best self, simultaneously regardless and fully aware of gender.

Recently, some grandparents who were worried about whether their granddaughter might be confused about her gender given her short haircut, propensity for “only boys’ sports, such as martial arts”, and love of boys’ clothing, asked advice columnist Carolyn Hax, “Please point us in the right direction.” Ms. Hax began her response with this line: “The ‘right direction’? Love her.”

It really is that simple.

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Filed under Alumnae, Gender, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School