Monthly Archives: February 2014

Hopes

Every Wednesday, the middle school holds “Morning Meeting,” which is a flexible time set aside for us all to be able to come together as a whole community. Possible activities run the gamut from bonding games to announcements to game days to make-up MOCA meetings to… whatever is needed! Today, we began by going over next week’s schedule and taking questions, going over check-out procedures for spring break and taking questions, going over remaining community service for the term and taking questions, and looking at and applauding the winning t-shirt design for our 10-year anniversary celebration. And taking questions. At that point, we still had just over five minutes left, and so I asked everyone to stand up and form a circle.

[insert groans and cries of “but I’m so comfortable!” here]

When the circle was formed, I pointed out that we were almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the year and that we had just over three months left until graduation. Several of them said, “Whose graduation?” and I laughed and answered, “The Seniors. You all have a few more years to go.” I said that we had done a lot, grown a lot, and already had much to be proud of, and that the remaining three months still gave us a lot more time together. I asked them to quietly think of hopes they had for the rest of the year, either for the community or for themselves. Clara, to my right, whispered, “Can I go last?” “Sure,” I whispered back.

After a bit, I checked in to see if everyone was ready to go, and they were. Jewels, to my left, whispered, “Can we go around that way?,” pointing to Clara. “Sorry, she asked first,” I whispered back.

I started by saying, “I hope we all continue to learn how each one of us is special, and we are able to celebrate that.” Jewels’s eyes widened as we all turned to her, and she said, “Sleep. Lots of rest for all of us.” and we continued on around. As always happens on these occasions, themes began to form, weaving through and underneath different people’s thoughts. Friendship, connectedness, and permanence were among the most commonly mentioned – having fun with friends, making new friends, making sure the seventh and eighth graders had time together, getting to know other people, ensuring we all had contact information for the summer and beyond, staying in touch. Many students mentioned getting along well and growing closer. They mentioned learning, too, of course, and Andrea, one of the math/science teachers, said, “I hope you all come to see yourselves as mathematicians.” And they mentioned specific personal goals ranging from “improving my English” to “trying New England seafood.”

When the circle came around to finish up with Clara’s words, she said, “I hope that when we all see each other in 50 years, we all recognize each other.”

As the students started to break for G period, I called out, “Before you go, one question. Who makes this happen?” They yelled back, “Us! We do!”

I love these kids.

Leave a comment

Filed under Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Torn Apart

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Usually, at the end of a show, especially on Opening Night, the cast either cheers and wanders off stage after the bows or simply wanders off stage. But as Meg Reilly, the music director, and Josh Carnes, the drummer, went into the exit music, these kids clearly did not want to leave, and it only took a few moments for the first one to turn to the girl standing next to her and wrap her in a long, warm hug which spread like, well, AIDS in the early 1990s, to choose a show-appropriate metaphor. Only, of course, on a much, much more positive note.

Before the show, Kim Mancuso, the stage director of the play, had gathered us all together on stage for an Opening Night ritual that marked and acknowledged the importance of each and every possible relationship among us in pulling off this incredibly complex and powerful show. When Tom Geha, the lighting technician, and I returned to the tech table, he said, “You know, you probably don’t even think about it because you see them every day, but I was looking around and it really hits you how young they are.” Rent is an ambitious show for people of any age, but it is an exceptional challenge for teenagers and pre-teens (three cast members were seventh graders) to immerse themselves for three months in the world of New York City’s East Village in the early 1990s, when many of the starving young artists were HIV-positive and/or had come down with full-blown AIDS. In that context, it was perhaps even more of a challenge for these kids to put themselves out there on stage for all to see.

Yet, every single audience member I talked to said the same thing, that part of what made this show exceptional was the absolutely universal commitment to the show and to each other that was clear from the first entrance to the last onstage hug before they finally wandered off stage.

The other part of what made this show exceptional is the show itself. The script is raw and intense, fueled by the tension that comes from the uncertainty of not knowing which one of your friends might be the next to die, of trying to find happiness and live day by day as best we can. With the funeral of one of the most beloved of the main characters as the centerpiece of the second act, and the subsequent destruction or near-destruction of a number of the relationships, the second act is harrowing. I turned to Tom after the Saturday night performance, and commented, “That second act just destroys me every time, and more and more each time I see it.” I could see in his eyes even before he answered that he felt the same way.

Near the end of the show, the character Tom Collins sings, “I can’t believe you’re going / I can’t believe this family must die / Angel helped us believe in love / I can’t believe you disagree.” One of my seventh grade Humanities students wrote an independent writing piece after the final show that essentially echoed this sentiment. I wrote her in response, “This is beautiful – raw and honest and in the moment. It’s not polished, and quite honestly it probably shouldn’t be. / I will share this with you in reaction, something I sent out on Twitter a few hours after the show: ‘Hard to mix the 2nd act of #Rent with tears flooding my eyes but I did my best. @sbschoolorg kids did an awesome job with a powerful show.’ I think this one will stick with many, perhaps most, of us for a lifetime.”

“Rent,” of course, not only refers to the money the characters in this musical state in the title song that they are not going to pay – not last year’s, not this year’s, not next year’s. “Rent” also refers to the concept of being, literally, torn apart. In this case, fortunately, though perhaps emotionally shredded, the cast and crew of this musical were not torn apart.

This family, at least, will never die.

Leave a comment

Filed under Performing Arts, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Other People’s Kids

Last fall, when one of my advisees was given the chance to write about what she liked about this school, she focused on growing up with a bunch of annoying brothers and how great it was to be in the dorm and feeling sisterhood. When shared with other people, the line always draws a laugh, but it can also cause a moment of introspection.

This isn’t to say my advisee doesn’t love her brothers deeply, of course. When her mom came for Family Weekend, even in occasional moments of exasperation at their unquenchable energy, she was clearly proud of them, and when she came back from winter break, she spent a while in my office showing me pictures and telling me about all they did together.

She and her family have been on my mind nonstop lately, ever since the moment I first heard that the jury in the trial of Michael Dunn had somehow, inexplicably, found him guilty of attempted murder but had been unable to reach a verdict on the actual charge of murder. Now, I’m smart enough to know the difference between what seems obvious and what is provable beyond reasonable doubt in a courtroom. But I still don’t get the logic here. He tried to kill people, and should go to jail for that. Moreover, he actually killed someone. But the jury couldn’t agree whether or not he should go to jail for that.

Some people say the Florida prosecutor overcharged; even there, my understanding is the jury could have found him guilty of a lesser charge. But they didn’t. Jordan Davis is dead, Michael Dunn killed him after initiating the confrontation, the only real justification offered is he became scared, and that is somehow enough to get him off on the charge of murder. In Florida, someone who commits an act of crime on a black person is three times as likely to be acquitted as they would be if the victim was white. And you can’t blame just Florida, either – the general principle behind those statistics holds up nationwide.

My advisee, her mom, and her brothers are all black, as of course are others of my students. And the notion that the same thing could happen to their families one day sickens and terrifies me and leaves me feeling helpless. Yet, being white, in the immediate aftermath of the learning the news, I found myself at a loss for what to say and do. Experience told me that some people in my timeline would want white people to shut up and listen while others would be calling on us to speak out. You want to be a good ally, you don’t see your way clear to what to do, and it just adds to the feeling of being overwhelmed and sad.

Well, poor, poor, me. José Vilson put it perfectly when he said, “The temporary sadness of understanding white privilege as a white person is nothing compared to the existential melancholy of understanding racial oppression as a person of color.”

Often, people who write on situations like this (and they do seem to recur, don’t they?) refer to the notion of “other people’s kids.” The implication is that non-black people feel some sort of distance from the victim because, well, they’re not black. Far, far too often, that is the case. But when it’s true, it’s because people focus in on them being “other”. They don’t focus on the “people” or, God save us, on the “kids.” That’s got to change. It’s only in understanding our common humanity that we can hope to rebuild our society.

Embracing our common humanity doesn’t mean pretending we’re all the same, of course. Differences exist, some surface, some deeper down. Embracing our common humanity also means acknowledging, understanding, and embracing those differences. That requires looking honestly not just at our culture but also at ourselves. And furthermore, as Mike Thayer noted in last night’s #PubPriBridge Twitter chat, it “[requires] seeing the other in yourself.”

And in so doing, finally be able to embrace not only the “people” and the “kids” in “other people’s kids” but also the “other.”

P.S. While she is not quoted directly, I need to acknowledge and express my thanks for the caring and thoughtful conversations @teachermrw has been holding with me. Her thoughts are deeply infused into this blog.

1 Comment

Filed under Current Events

Building the Future

To enter the toy section of virtually any major store these days, you’d almost think boys and girls were two different species, one of which apparently falls head-over-heels in love with anything pink. Or possibly purple. Yet, whatever sex-based differences may be present at birth and whatever gender-based differences may be acquired from birth on, such extreme gender segregation of toys is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, this iconic 1981 Lego ad makes it clear that 33 years ago, girls were perfectly happy to build with traditional Legos, and Lego was willing to advertise that fact.

To be fair, as was noted in an article in the Huffington Post, Judy Lotas, the creative director in charge of Lego’s ad campaign, had to fight to have Rachel Giordano (then age four) included. The mother of two daughters, she knew better when others argued that only boys like to build, and successfully stood her ground (further proof, by the way, that we need more women involved in advertising!). Ms. Giordano and other child models were given about an hour to play with Lego sets, and were then photographed holding their own creations. As it happens, those are also her own clothes (blue jeans and blue t-shirt) she wore in off the street. Maybe it’s that genuine quality that has helped this ad endure.

In her own article on the original ad and follow-ups, Lori Day references an article by Michele Yulo comparing Lego’s update of the 1981 ad to her own reworking. In Lego’s update, the girl is wearing blue and holding a Lego model and the caption is “It’s as one-of-a-kind as she is.” But the text for this ad, for the Lego Friends series, refers only to girls, whereas the original 1981 ad simply refers to children. The issues here go beyond how Lego envisions girls’ toys – they are also implicitly excluding boys who might otherwise enjoy Lego Friends. As Ms. Yulo notes, “When we separate girls and boys in this way, we are telling both sexes that girls can’t be interested in things like science unless they are color-coded or include things like puppies and cupcakes.”

In Ms. Day’s article, Ms. Giordano gives her own take on the issue: “Gender segmenting toys interferes with a child’s own creative expression. I know that how I played as a girl shaped who I am today. It contributed to me becoming a physician and inspired me to want to help others achieve health and wellness. I co-own two medical centers in Seattle. Doctor kits used to be for all children, but now they are on the boys’ aisle. I simply believe that they should be marketed to all children again, and the same with LEGOs and other toys.”

This week, our school is celebrating National Engineering Week. As part of the celebration, on Thursday, we are cancelling classes to hold an “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” event. You can bet we are not colour-coding the projects each grade will be carrying out, and you can bet we will do our best to let their own creativity and ideas rise to the surface.

“Gender-segmented toys may double corporate profits, but always seem to result in for-girls versions that are somehow just a little bit less.” (Day) As a girls school, we refuse to settle for a little bit less. Indeed, we are doing what we can to undo what has been done to them so far, and to help those who would always have been scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, embrace and pursue that aspect of their own best selves.

P.S. Interested in girl-positive and gender neutral toys and clothing? Entrepreneur Inês Almeida’s website Toward the Stars can help.

1 Comment

Filed under Current Events, Gender, The Girls School Advantage

No Makeup Policy

As I pulled into the parking lot of Target in attempt to find a yellow T-shirt for our Spirit Week Colour Wars skit, my phone beeped to tell me I had a text. It was Jeff Conlon, our Athletic Director, asking me if I was watching the Olympics and quoting one of the announcers. It turned out they were talking about the women’s downhill race and the tough course, and focusing on how strong and skilled and athletic the racers were…

Just kidding. The actual quote Jeff texted me was “Maybe a bit of makeup” and it turned out the announcers were, surprise of surprises, focusing on how the women looked and what they were wearing. I couldn’t disagree with his comment, “horrible,” even if I had wanted to. Which I didn’t. As he added later in our text-conversation, “Talk about taking the focus off the amazing athletic accomplishments and making them into ‘girls.’”

Though I was certainly angry to hear of this blatant discrimination, I wasn’t particularly surprised. Indeed, shortly after my texting chat with Jeff, my Twitter feed brought up a tweet stating an official complaint was being lodged with the BBC about their treatment of silver medalist Torah Bright, as they had commented that she is “nice looking,” “feminine,” and “the full package.” (quoted by Diedrichs) In addition, on the day the Olympics were beginning, NBC posted this image on Facebook.
NBC_Olympics
I originally took the figure skater’s costume to be an evening gown, but in my defense, while the three men look serious and confident, she is smiling and is standing in a somewhat sexualized posture. Plus, as my mother-in-law pointed out, she presumably also owns a winter jacket.

Earlier in the day, I had come across an article entitled “Medals Aren’t Enough: Female Olympians Still Have to Sell Sexiness.” “Have to?” I thought to myself. And clicked on the link.

With a sense of inevitability, I read, “For male athletes, it’s primarily about their performance. And for female athletes it’s definitely as much about their looks as it is about their performance.” (Adler, quoted in Dockterman) I was saddened to learn that the WNBA offers makeup seminars to rookies, and that “women who compete in sports that require helmets are spending 30 minutes in front of the mirror putting on makeup before competition preparing for their HD close-up when that helmet comes off at the finish line.” (Dockterman) And of course, whatever their sport and uniform, female athletes far too often end up posing in bikinis or other revealing clothing. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, Ashley Wagner was accused of having only made the figure skating team because of her looks. Women, it seems, have to hit a fairly precise target in terms of appearance, a task that almost makes biathlon look easy.

As Jeff said near the end of our chat, “The system is skewed.” I am well aware, of course, that this isn’t just the sports world – indeed, as I was writing this blog, the New York Times tweeted a link to a desperately important article on a major issue of our time, “A new kind of cleavage ideal on display at the awards shows.” But that doesn’t excuse sports announcers and reporters, nor does it excuse advertisers. It really shouldn’t be that hard to focus on female athletes’ accomplishments.

Because they’re good. Better than good. They’re quite literally world class. They deserve to be treated as such. And my students who love sports and are perpetually frustrated as they repeatedly bump up against the reality that, outside of the Olympics, only 4% of sports programming is devoted to female athletes, they deserve more as well.

The #NotBuyingIt campaign has proved remarkably successful in causing Super Bowl advertisers to cut back sharply on the level of sexism in their ads in just the past two years. They have shown that grassroots activism can be incredibly powerful. Perhaps we need a similar effort to reshape TV programmers’ thinking. Perhaps, too, it would help to get more women involved in advertising (where only 3% of creative directors are women) and journalism (where only 6% of sports editors are women).

Ideally, sooner rather than later.

2 Comments

Filed under Current Events, Gender, Uncategorized, Women in media

Sleeves Rolled Up

On Tuesday, Feb. 25, the Center for Teaching Quality is holding a book chat on Why Gender Matters by Dr. Leonard Sax, the founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. (NASSPE) His work is centered on the notion that understanding gender differences enables us better to help our students learn.

Yesterday, Annie Murphy Paul, author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The new science of smart, shared a link to a new article published about Dr. Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin – Madison and her newest publication, a major meta-analysis of 184 studies on single-sex schooling. Put simply, the primary conclusion is that there is “scant evidence that [single-sex schools] offer educational or social benefits.” (Tenenbaum)

Fresh from my experience refuting Lise Eliot’s misrepresentation of Dr. Linda Sax’s landmark 2009 study at UCLA, I wrote “Check the 2009 Linda Sax study. It shows some positive effects for girls schools.” Scott MacClintic, the Director of the Kravis Center for Excellence in Teaching, through whom I had learned of Ms. Murphy Paul’s link, wrote back to say that Dr. Hyde’s meta-analysis had in fact included the UCLA study. Ms. Murphy Paul thanked him, and added a note to me that “as a girls’ school graduate [she is] sympathetic to the idea that there are benefits that research can’t capture.” I, of course, share that sympathy!

But I was also curious about Dr. Hyde’s study. Not without trepidation, I followed the links through to the publication, co-authored with students of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Erin Pahlke (now teaching at Whitman College) and Carlie M. Allison. As I skimmed the work, it became increasingly clear that many of the findings I remembered from the UCLA study were not able to be confirmed in the meta-analysis due to an insufficient number of controlled studies. In other words, the meta-analysis might have been unable to prove a number of positive effects in single-sex schools (which, it should be noted, would include both boys and girls schools), but neither did it disprove those effects. One may yet hope other sufficiently controlled studies will be done that would confirm more of Dr. Linda Sax’s findings about girls schools using these meta-analytical techniques.

This led me to think about the notion that studying girls schools in the aggregate and comparing them to multi-gender schools would automatically mean grouping together girls schools that fight stereotypes and those that live by them. I would love to see research some day that looks closely at girls schools and attempts to determine what separates those that get the best results from those that don’t. Early this morning, I asked that question of Ms. Murphy Paul and Mr. MacClintic, and he responded by linking me to a wonderful study on what teaching techniques and other school practices can best be used to encourage girls in STEM (Scutt et al).

I know that many advocates of coed schools point to the potential for stereotyping in single-gender schools, and as I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, I completely agree that we need to be looking as carefully and honestly as possible for that problem. But what I believe many advocates of coed schools overlook is that the potential for stereotyping also exists in coed schools. Indeed, as I understand it, research supports the idea that stereotyping can take place regardless of the gender make-up of a school. That makes intuitive sense; gender-based stereotyping is embedded in our patriarchal society, and it would be surprising if you didn’t see the effects in our schools.

So, I shall roll up the pink sleeves of my sweatshirt (it’s Character Day here, and I am playing Hermione Granger at age 13) and continue my day-to-day work with my students doing what I can to raise their awareness of, and break down, gender stereotypes. I shall continue to keep my eye out for what research can tell me about how best to do my job. And I shall continue to listen – not just to wonderful people like Ms. Murphy Paul and Mr. MacClintic, but also to my students. I know I can trust them to help keep my eyes on the prize.

1 Comment

Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, The Girls School Advantage

Cringe-Worthy

Three years ago, when working on my annual Martin Luther King Day piece, I wanted to connect his dream that children in the U.S. might “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” to similar dreams for social justice for other axes of diversity. As it happened, once we had published the piece and I had spoken in housemeeting, a discussion emerged on Twitter about whether or not these very kinds of connection were appropriate or appropriation. Concerned, I wanted to seek out opinions, and seized on an interchange between two of my friends, John Spencer and José Vilson, to bring up the question. I emerged from that short discussion believing that I needed to focus more specifically on racism in any future Martin Luther King Day speeches, and I believe I have done so for the most part (20122013 (less so) – 2014). But in the process of reacting to that 2011 post, I added another cringe-worthy moment to a long and ever-growing list.

However much I might have tried to disguise it to myself at the time, what I did was unfair to José and John, and perhaps especially to José as a person of colour. Through my actions, I was making them responsible for teaching me rather than going out and educating myself. In the process, in other words, I was not being an effective ally in the anti-racist fight for social justice, however well-intentioned I may have been. I’ve tried never to do that again – which is not to say there haven’t been other cringe-worthy moments since. Hopefully, though, they are at least becoming fewer and further between.

Recently, Piers Morgan invited Janet Mock, a trans woman of colour, onto his CNN program to talk about her book Redefining Realness: My path to womanhood, identity, love, & so much more. The Tuesday night interview, in his mind, went well, but when Ms. Mock saw the final version (they had pre-taped the interview four days previously), she went on Buzzfeed to air her concerns. This ignited a brief but intense Twitter war which ended up with her agreeing to come back on the program Wednesday. On that program, Mr. Morgan asked her the following question:

Here’s what I want to learn. I don’t want this to be an ongoing issue that I have with the community of which you’re such a great spokesman and advocate. I want to learn why it is so offensive to actually just say that you grew up as a boy and you then, because you’ve always felt that you were female, you had surgery to become a woman, to become a real woman, as you say in the book. Why is it offensive?

“Why is it offensive?” Well, Mr. Morgan. Let’s break down your question. First, you refer to Ms. Mock as a “spokesman.” Then, you state she grew up as a boy. Then, you characterize her surgery as the moment she became a woman. Finally, you rephrase and say “a real woman.” In other words, first you misgendered her, then you misgendered her again, then you characterized her surgery as a “becoming” rather than a stage along her life path, in the process focusing attention on her genitals rather than her personal sense of identity, and finally you implied that everything she did and felt before her surgery was somehow fake.

Beyond all that… Mr. Morgan could have avoided every single mistake in that question simply by consulting the readily available GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender Glossary of Terms. That, too, is part of the problem. It only would have taken him a few minutes, and could have changed the entire tone and direction of the interview. But – as I had done with José – when someone who professes to be an ally places the onus for their education on the oppressed person, that is not being an effective ally. When someone who is trying to be supportive of an oppressed person focuses on their personal hurt at being accused of having been (however unintentionally) insensitive, that is not being an effective ally. When someone who is trying to be supportive of an oppressed person repeatedly interrupts and talks over that person, not really seeing or hearing them, that is not being an effective ally. When one repeatedly states – during and following the interview – that the oppressed person should be grateful for being allowed a forum for her voice, that is not being an effective ally. And when one tweets, “As for all the enraged transgender supporters, look at how STUPID you’re being. I’m on your side, you dimwits,” well, that too is not being an effective ally.

One of the moments when Piers Morgan talks over Janet Mock without really hearing her is when he brought up an article that appeared in Marie-Claire about her life’s journey entitled “When I Was a Boy.” His point was that he should not be blamed for using a similar phrase when those were her own words. Her point, which he never once acknowledged, was that those weren’t actually her own words as she didn’t write that title. Furthermore, when I Googled “Janet Mock” and “Marie-Claire,” I quickly found an article written by Ms. Mock reacting to the piece and stating in part, “But I do wish I could change one thing in the piece: the term “boy” which is used a few times. Overall I’m fine with it because I was born in what doctor’s [sic] proclaim is a boy’s body. I had no choice in the assignment of my sex at birth. I take issue with the two instances in the piece: The first instance proclaims, “Until she was 18, Janet was a boy,’ and then it goes on to say, ‘I even found other boys like me there…’ My genital reconstructive surgery did not make me a girl. I was always a girl.” Had Mr. Morgan taken the time to type four words into a search engine, he would have been able to avoid that egregious mistake.

Or, again, had he actually listened to her saying “Those were not my words.” rather than repeating back at her “Those were your words.”

What could have been a learning opportunity for Mr. Morgan appears to have been thoroughly squandered through his focus on his own feelings, his sense of being personally wronged, his sense of being in the right regardless of what anyone else says. Whether or not he likes it, that is his privilege speaking. Male privilege. White privilege. Class privilege. I don’t entirely blame him – our culture incorporates and inculcates an embedded sexism, racism, and classism, and he can’t help but have been shaped by it.

But he can help how he chooses to react to it.

That’s something we all can help. As we work together, each of us absolutely unique individuals, to build a better world, examining our reactions to our culture needs to become part of our work.

Even – perhaps especially – including the cringe-worthy moments.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Events, Gender, Women in media