Monthly Archives: December 2013


The other day, the hashtag #myfeminismlookslike (originally begun by the Twitter user @prisonculture) was trending on Twitter, and I added my take on it: “#myfeminismlookslike my students.” They were asked, for the culmination of the Humanities 7 unit on “What makes girls and women feel more or less powerful?”, to write on their current definition of feminism. With their permission, here are extracts from what they came up with:

I feel that feminism is wanting women to have equal rights, opportunities and voices in this world as men do. I don’t necessarily feel that it is wanting to completely switch the roles that men and women have right now to put the women on top over men, but I think it is to want equality. I feel that women should have equal rights as men but not more rights than men. Women should be paid the same, get the same jobs, and just overall be given the same amount of power that men have.
– Bekah

Today women don’t have the same rights as men. They are the dominant gender and feminism is when we try to even out the balance. I believe that everyone male or female needs to have the same rights. We all deserve to be equal. This is my definition of feminism.
– Julia

[Feminism] is how we perceive ourselves as women in a world of men, where we are not always considered equal, and how we attempt to change that. (…) I have learned that each gender, race and sex, has an impact upon feminism. I am also reasonably sure that it is the title, not the ideals of the movement that receives the discrimination.
– Elizabeth

I would consider myself as a feminist because I believe that all humans are created equal. Women are always held lower than men and they can never rise higher than them. But I think one day we should try. Being a feminist means that you believe in women.
– Morgan

Feminism: The feeling that men and women are not equal. The idea that women should be just as powerful as men, even in some cases that women should be more powerful than men.
– Mia

I think a feminist is a whole different thing. A feminist is a person, girl or boy, that believes everyone should be equal. I would consider myself a feminist.
– Emily

I think the definition of feminism is the want of equal rights for all genders but it varies person to person. I think this because every person will interpret it different but all feminists at least want equal rights for all genders. I think that some people think feminism is wanting women to be in the dominant role but each person will think of it differently which is what makes feminism what it is today.
– Olivia

My definition of feminism is… complicated. I think that it’s one of those words that has been changed over time. (…) My definition of feminism isn’t based on whether you put on makeup or who you love. I believe that feminism is about being empowered and knowing who you are and that you deserve all the chances that anybody else has. I also think that feminism has many different definitions.
– Juliana

The 7th grade class at Stoneleigh likes to think of equalists as a better idea. Equalists would be women AND men who would fight for the world to be equal. (…) I wouldn’t say I am a complete feminist because I think the world should be equal. Men shouldn’t be above women but women shouldn’t be above men.
– Renée

My definition of feminism is when boys and girls believe in woman’s rights. When they believe that women should be able to choose their life and the way they think. In the old days when the women did the cooking, child care, cleaning, etc. they weren’t able to do things boys did like go to school, do the lifting and heavy work. they weren’t able to choose their own medicine. But now they have been fighting for their rights and it not all about putting down men its about standing up for what we believe and having equal rights.
– Siobhan

I’ve developed a strong opinion about feminism. Women and men do differ in some ways, but we shouldn’t be discriminated over that. It’s disgusted me that we women would have to make a rights movement in the first place, rather than being equal already. Many women have spoken up about unfair equality between men and women, and some ended up shot, murdered, and killed by others that don’t agree with being equal. My opinion, women should and always should have had equal rights, in opportunities through life, with pay, everything!
– Ella

I now believe that feminism isn’t the fight for women to have certain privileges; it is, or should be, the fight to live and let live. Men have good ideas too; we need to respect that just as much as they need to respect us and our ideas. It shouldn’t be hard, it shouldn’t have to be fought for, but it is a fight, as disagreeable as that may sound. But I am no longer sure if it is a fight of anger and unfairness. I am now beginning to see that it is, at its most basic level, a fight for greater understanding. It is a fight, in both parties, to respect.
– Erin

My opinion really of feminism is that women and men should have the same rights like exactly the same, but if we don’t work it out now, it will never be like this.
– Cynthia

Its an interesting when you compare the concept of feminism to Entwined. Something that’s talked about much in this book is “the warm flickering bit inside.” This sort of reminds me of feminism, a wish and a will that’s sort of like magic. Feminism is powerful like magic, a magic that rests within you, but that you beckon to come to life.
– Isabela

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Rousing Boldness and Courage

What do I need this morning, I asked myself as I surveyed the choices at Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters. Should I engender zest and alacrity? That would be First Light. Invite goodwill? Hazelnut. Inspire deep reflection? French Vanilla. In the end, I chose to rouse boldness and courage, and pressed the top of the air pot to fill my cup with French Roast.

I ran-shuffled my way back to my car through the coldest morning of the year, trying to avoid being touched by clothing that had chilled instantly, and relaxed as the heater began to warm me from the outside in and the coffee from the inside out. As I drove on to school, I pondered my need for boldness and courage. To do what exactly? The kids were on vacation, and my only required tasks for day (my progress reports having already been entered) were to read through and edit my advisees’ progress reports and then make any necessary changes to my own. So…

Yesterday on Twitter, I had a brief interchange with Rafranz Davis, and Christina Quattrocchi, both educators advocating for social justice. Ms. Quattrocchi began the conversation by asking, “What role does power and privilege play in keeping teachers on a lower professional rung?” We went on to discuss the underlying roles of gender and race, and Ms. Davis noted the need for “More conversations…more often with actions to follow,” adding “Change requires action.” I responded, “And it’s in moving from discussions to actions that I find myself seeking – not the destination, but the path.”

Educational discourse these days, as is true of political discourse in general, is far too often fraught with peril. There is a lot of shouting, not as much listening, and even less genuine effort to find common ground. I see references to “straw-man arguments” with increasing frequency, perhaps because I feel like I am seeing actual straw-man arguments increasing frequency. One example would be a Sacramento Bee article supporting John Deasy and Jonathan Raymond, two embattled superintendents in California schools: “They have refused to accept the popular premise that poor kids can’t learn and that pushing for systemic change is pointless because poverty is insurmountable.” Where exactly do they find this premise? Not by any means from the vast majority of educators I know. But you see it over and over in the media, to the point where even people I consider to be well-informed educators have come to believe it. The editorial continues on to conclude, “Pro-student leaders – despite their obvious commitment to students and despite their demonstrated successes – will face implacable opposition from groups who care more about protecting their entrenched power and the interests of adults than fighting for the rights of students.” Despite the fact that the much of the opposition to the policies that I have encountered comes from people who are also fighting for the rights of students, according to their own differing beliefs, many of which (I hasten to add) are rooted in research and experience.

I’ll concede that there are teachers out there who are far too willing to lower their expectations of kids based on race, class, or gender, and I’ll happily join forces with anyone working to fight that attitude, take kids seriously, and do all we can to help every single student in the country become both well educated and their own best self. But I refuse to allow anyone whose beliefs and proposed methods conflict with those for which I and others are advocating to judge us based on a group of outliers with whom we don’t even agree.

José Vilson argues convincingly, simply by his way of being and also directly, that (quoting his colleague Michael Doyle), “Searching for ‘the middle’ is pointless – search for truth and let it fall where it will,” and that we need to search for nuance in the process. Sometimes, that may mean being bold enough to stand up to the shouters and refuse to allow our beliefs to be mischaracterized. And sometimes, often, it may mean having the courage to honestly monitor our own thinking and ensure we are not falling into the same logical traps of which we are accusing other people.

And in modeling that boldness and courage, we might even invite good will, inspire deep reflection, and engender zest and alacrity. And thus help move from conversations to action.

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Teaching to Love

The first voice you hear on the trailer for the Dark Girls documentary is a young woman saying, “I can remember being in the bathtub asking my mom to put bleach in the water so that my skin would be lighter and so that I could escape the feelings that I had about not being as beautiful, as acceptable, as lovable.” She never completes the comparison. She doesn’t have to.

The movie’s website asks “Has anything really changed since the days of American slavery when dark-skinned Blacks were made to suffer even greater indignities than their lighter skinned counterparts?” and by way of response, states “Ask today’s dark Black woman.” Of the women’s interviews, co-producer D. Channsin Berry noted, “These ladies broke it down to the degree that dark-skinned ‘sistas’ with ‘good’ hair vs. dark-skinned women with ‘kinky’ hair were given edges when it came time for coveted promotions.”

Apparently, hair matters deeply to many people. Recently, 12-year-old Vanessa Van Dyke, who is black, was threatened with expulsion from her school because her natural hair style did not meet the dress code. While the school has since rescinded their mandate that she straighten or cut her hair, they are continuing to insist that she “style her hair within the guidelines according to the school handbook.”

And in South Africa, under the regime of apartheid, hair was a major factor in classifying the race of a specific person, via the so-called “pencil test.” Authorities would place a pencil in the hair of a given person whose race was in doubt. If it fell out, that person was classified as white; if it remained, that person was classified as coloured. Black people could use a variation of the pencil test to request reclassification: if the pencil fell out of their hair when they shook their heads, they would be reclassified as coloured; if it remained, no change would occur.

As I write this, the world is mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, who won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to dismantle apartheid. That same year, he was elected as South Africa’s first Black president. Along with his inspirational work as an anti-racist, he also championed gender equity, once stating, “Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression,” (tweet from @MikePrysner) and today South Africa is ranked eighth in world in terms of the percentage of women in government, with 42.3% in the lower house and 32.1% in the upper house.

Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” On Friday night, the Students of Colour affinity group will be showing Dark Girls and holding a discussion. Hopefully, it will be a start to more conversation for, as Mr. Berry concluded, “The skin issue is a discussion we all need to have once and for all…so we can eradicate it.”

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No Retreat, No Surrender

We need to make sure we’re making it possible for people of all genders to feel acknowledged for their contributions and not feel held back by something as arbitrary as their genetics or appearance.
– Emily Graslie

Chief Curiosity Coordinator has to be one of the most awesome job titles ever. The position, created by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, is held by Emily Graslie, who is STEAM (Science – Technology – Engineering – Art – Mathematics) personified. A studio art major, she interned at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum, where she was tapped to host her own show on YouTube, “The Brain Scoop,” to show and discuss the behind-the-scenes workings of a major natural history museum. She also manages a tumblr by the same name.

Ms. Graslie’s path to success is one which may have been impossible a decade ago; certainly, YouTube didn’t begin service until 2005. In 2012, successful vlogger Hank Green, who lives in Missoula, Montana, met Ms. Graslie when she was tapped to guide him around the university’s Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum for one of his shows. She did so well on camera, and provoked so many positive comments, that Mr. Green offered her her own YouTube channel within his science-focused Nerdfighters community. Some of the staffers at the Field Museum of Natural History had seen and liked her show, so when she called and asked permission to film there, they not only gave her permission to do so but also set up three day’s worth of tours, invited her to “after-hours get-togethers,” and eventually offered her her dream job. (Graslie) She was just two years out of college and had not yet even earned her Masters (currently on hold due to work obligations).

Yet, as a woman in science, Ms. Graslie’s career path has not been all sunshine and roses. As NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich noted in the piece Science Reporter Emily Graslie Reads Her Mail – And It’s Not So Nice, “It turns out her mail is, well, troubling.” Much of it focuses on her looks, often in crude terms. On her blog, Ms. Graslie notes, “The remarks are enough to make me want to throw my hands up and retreat to a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere. (…) Let’s not create that kind of environment for our peers. Let’s be supportive, encouraging. Focus on the content, not the presenter. Ignoring the fact that these comments are uncomfortable is dismissive and counter-productive: let’s have less tolerance for both those comments, and the apathetic attitude attached to how they affect our community.” The video lasts about six minutes, and is well worth watching.

This week is Computer Science Education Week, and our school is participating in the Hour of Code. As experience and comfort with computers becomes increasingly important in our society (as reflected in the growing numbers of college students of all majors who are taking at least a few courses in Computer Science), it will be wonderful for all the kids to join the 4,000,000 students worldwide who are participating. And beyond that, perhaps the experience will awaken, or confirm, or deepen some of the students’ interest in and commitment to STEAM fields.

I am quite certain there is not one member of our community who wants any of our students to be subjected to the kind of harassment and abuse which is a daily part of Ms. Graslie’s life. Yet, she is after all only a few years older than our oldest students. Even the most hopeful of optimists has to concede our future STEAM majors will undoubtedly be facing a certain sexism. Fortunately, they will carry with them the benefits of having attended a girls school – a greater sense of agency, self-esteem derived from within, experience in an environment 100% comfortable with the concept of women loving and being skilled at STEAM. Fortunately, they know that those of us who support them now – parents, friends, faculty – are also working towards a world where they will be unquestioningly accepted for who they are regardless of gender.

My mother, a Physics major and college professor, was subjected throughout her career to the same kind of overt harassment as Ms. Graslie has experienced, and more subtle sexism as well. She has said things are better now than they were, but not as good as they could have been, and not remotely as good as they need to be. It’s time to step up the pace of change. Ms. Graslie’s words provide the direction. It’s up to all of us to join her in taking the lead.

(note: the title of this post was taken from the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s song “No Surrender.”)

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Meeting of Minds

One day in Humanities 7, class, we were talking about different ideas of what is feminism and what is feminine when suddenly their voices began to get louder and more urgent. There was an edge, and I could tell there was something below the surface I hadn’t quite deciphered yet when one of the girls told another, “You’re a dudist!” Before I’d recovered laughing from the inventive spontaneity of the word “dudist,” I knew I had finally figured out what was going on: some kids in the class viewed feminism as inherently anti-men, while others didn’t. I explained that, while there is indeed a small and often vocal group of feminists who are anti-men and who perhaps get disproportionate coverage in the media, by no means do they speak for all feminists. One could, I told the kids, in fact argue there are as many kinds of feminism as there are feminists. And that led to an inspiration.

“Some of the strongest feminists in this school,” I told the students, “are in Ms. Durrett’s Sophomore Honors English class. Would you like to invite them to join us one day to talk about all this?” They loved the idea, as did Ms. Durrett and her students. Both classes wrote questions to help frame the discussion, and on the appointed day, the sophomores came streaming into our room, the eyes of former Humanities 7 students lighting up as their faces softened with memories. The kids all settled into every beanbag chair in the middle school, some doubling up, with a look of anticipation on their faces.

Though not all the questions dealt directly with feminism, that’s where we began the discussion. There was remarkable agreement, actually, over what I think of as the core ideals of feminism: equal rights for all people, including girls and women. There was, however, a much more extended discussion of the word itself. Few students were comfortable with it, for a host of reasons including, for some, its reinforcement of a binary view of gender. The seventh graders had come up with the term “equalist” the day before, and many of the sophomores nodded slowly as they considered it. “I like it,” one said, and a sophomore who followed up after the discussion with ideas for this blog identified that as one of three specific stand-out moments for her “because [the term “equalism”] offers a wider acceptance and understanding of what feminism stands for.”

Whether and how we will be able to achieve the ideals of equalism is another question altogether, of course. Students felt firmly that the concept that we all should be seeking equality should become the norm and not the ideal, but they were deeply skeptical we would ever be able to truly achieve equality. Humans, they felt, seem to have a natural need for hierarchies, and of course different people have different aptitudes and affinities. However, they hastened to point out, that need not automatically lead to assigning gender to those roles, and hierarchies don’t necessarily have to be attached to them either.

When the topic turned to girls schools, most of the students, though definitely not all, said they came here looking to get away from the behaviors and influences of boys. They love our academic way of being and the way students listen to each other’s ideas, hear them out, and build on them. One sophomore told a story of attending a debate where a girl from another school had a long name, and shocked our student by apologizing for it to the teacher serving as a judge who had to write it down. This led another another sophomore to say, “It’s one thing to apologize for being rude, it’s another to apologize for your existence.”

One of the seventh graders observed a similar gap in confidence between students at our school and girls in coed schools, noting that some of her friends have changed a ton in just the three short months we’ve been here while she has basically stayed true to herself. It stunned and scared her how quickly that gap had opened up, but it also made her grateful for what she had. Another sophomore noted, in another high point of the discussion, that Stoneleigh-Burnham “has taught us to be more than girls and women. It has taught us to be individuals.”

Though we had not specifically planned on discussing sports culture, we segued pretty naturally to that topic while discussing girls schools. Deeply saddening was the near universality of the girls’ experiences in athletics and with their coaches before coming to our school, where they felt they weren’t taken seriously, were actively discouraged from doing sports (by their own coaches!), and were in some cases outright belittled and even bullied (by their own coaches!). The students acknowledged the differences between women and men in terms of muscle mass, upper body strength, and center of gravity, but at the same time several students also affirmed that women’s legs were stronger than men’s (it is worth noting here that, from what I’ve read, the general consensus seems to be that if a woman ever holds a non-gender-specific world record in any event, it is most likely to be the marathon). This discussion led naturally to pointing out inequities in men’s and women’s sports, and most especially media coverage of male and female athletes (both the frequency and the nature of that coverage), to general agreement and outrage.

We kept talking right up to and even a little bit beyond the bell, and as the students jumped up and hoisted their backpacks to their shoulders, many of them, sophomores and seventh graders alike, asked if we could do it again. Of course they would want to do so – throughout the period, they were uniformly respectful and listened actively to everyone. Many voices of all ages were heard, and they had created an atmosphere of equals. We had left untouched their questions about gender identity, and had only just begun to touch on issues with the media. No doubt, they have many more questions they still want to ask. No doubt, we will be doing this again.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uncategorized, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School, Women in media