Monthly Archives: April 2014

Seriously? Seriously.

Maybe it’s because I was on vacation, but the news that “there’s even a gender wage gap in babysitting” (Maya) saddened me but didn’t outrage me. I suppose it’s also because it was simply too easy to assimilate it into my existing body of knowledge: how women right out of college earn less than men, how men earn more than women even in so-called “feminized” professions, how the gender wage gap exists not just at a national level but also within all racial groups (granting that white women earn more than men of some other racial groups), how… how? How? HOW?!

Today, at any rate, school is in session, and I was beyond outraged to learn there is a gender wage gap in allowances.

Yes, you read that right. Allowances.

As with many issues of social justice, what seems unfair on the surface – turns out to be unfair on multiple levels as well. Yes, the gender wage gap is now officially extended even further down into childhood, which is disturbing enough. Yes, it’s harder to blame society as a whole because individual parents are making these decisions (I know, all of us together make up society as a whole. But in general, parents of daughters tend to want the world to embrace them fully for who they are and not think of them as “less than” – you’d think they, if anyone, would be fair about this.). Beyond all that is the relationship of allowance to chores. Boys, it seems, are asked less often to do chores and see their allowances tied to those chores more often. And “asking girls to do more chores without paying them teaches both genders that women are meant to do unpaid work.” (Bryce Covert, quoted by Maya)

Gloria Steinem said that most social justice movements begin with consciousness-raising, and suggested that feminism has passed both that stage and the organizing stage and has arguably embarked on the final stage of transformation. However, it seems that a little additional consciousness-raising is in order.

Depressing as this news is, though, it is also an opportunity. Patriarchy operates in large part at a subconscious level, and when behaviors and attitudes such as these are made glaringly visible, one can consciously begin to work on them. Out of such work, we may hope, deeper and more permanent transformation will be possible.

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National Volunteer Month, 2014

  1. Why did you begin volunteering
  2. What impact do you feel your volunteer work has on your life?
  3. What do you enjoy most about volunteering?
  4. What would you say to encourage others who are considering volunteering?

(questions submitted by Jerod of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts as part of their celebration of National Volunteer Month)

When we first began designing the program for Stoneleigh-Burnham’s new middle school program, one of the first things I knew was that we needed to make time for students to go out and connect with their community. Service work seemed the best way to go about that, and so we agreed that I would sit down with the founding students quite early in the fall and take their ideas for what an off-campus service program might look like. The two most popular ideas that came out of that brainstorming session, helping with the after-school program at Federal Street School (where one of the Founders’ mothers taught) and working with Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society (back before the merger), continue to be among the sites where we serve. As the numbers of students grew over the years, we were delighted to be able to add additional sites, including the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and the Poet’s Seat Health Care Center.

I had always felt that volunteering was an important way to give of yourself and live your beliefs, to walk the talk as it were. So alongside my delight in seeing the service program come to life in the middle school and all the rewards it was bringing my students, I found personal reward in feeling that I was finally at least a small part of some of the excellent and important work being done in our area.

Volunteering, then, has impacted my life in two main ways. First, by supporting my students. Whether I see them selflessly throwing themselves into whatever needs to be done, or struggling to overcome initial hesitation before finally taking the plunge, they inspire me with their ability to ultimately focus on the needs of others and, without turning their work into a martyrdom and keeping a sense of fun, quietly step up and get the job done. Second, by connecting me to the people, mission and work of the sites where I work, Dakin and the Food Bank. When I see friends posting appeals to get involved in saving animals’ lives and finding them homes, when I think of the deep need in our region to support people trying to keep themselves and their families adequately fed, I know I’m already part of that work. I’m more aware of the complexity of the work, the issues involved, why these organizations are taking certain approaches to solving those issues. I can bring that awareness and knowledge with me out into the world. Those are the kinds of impacts that make the work easy to do and easy to enjoy, seeing my students at their best, knowing how valuable the work of which we’re a part really is.

Sometimes, whether in person or on Facebook, friends and family members will wonder whether they might step up and do some volunteering of their own. I always encourage them to do so. If they’ve expressed specific concerns, I can acknowledge them and explain how I deal with them, and of course I can speak and write about what I’ve gotten out of my own experience. That feeling that you are no longer on the sidelines, that you are actually out there trying to make a positive difference in the world, is one of the best reasons in the world to volunteer.

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Equalist Dress Code

Yesterday was “Bring a Friend to School Day” in the middle school, and rather than the usual tight circle of 14 students in Humanities 7, I found myself looking out at approximately double that number. They all seemed happy, as usual, and also higher energy than usual for 8:00 a.m. on Monday, which was absolutely to be expected! The first hour of class included three students sharing their independent writing work and three presentations of what students had learned about their Focus Questions. Despite the higher energy, reactions to each other’s work were a little shorter and more muted than usual, and I suspected shyness in front of other people’s friends and/or such a large group. So after the third presentation, I decided to implement an idea for an activity I had briefly considered and quickly rejected over the weekend, to provide a context for more of their voices to emerge more consistently and with greater strength.

I divided them up into smaller groups, each with a mix of my students and their friends. While they were moving around, I wrote a skeleton question on the board: “How does _____ relate to dress codes?” When they were settled, I wrote in “judging” (the theme of our current unit), read them the question, and said “Go.” Several themes emerged from our eventual large-group discussion. They felt that judging is a given in life, and that dress codes can provide a standard for judging. Brand names and other clothing-based commonalities can provoke judgment but can also serve to identify a sense of community with other people. Finally, they noted as a general given that choosing clothing is a matter of self-expression, and that your choices communicate something about you.

I then changed the question to “How should judging relate to dress codes?” They felt dress codes might serve to prevent judging by narrowing options, that some people’s clothing choices might “scare people” (in their words) but shouldn’t. However, they also noted that people shouldn’t really be judged by their clothes and that people should know what to wear anyway. Ultimately, they felt dress codes should be written so as to minimize or even eliminate judging.

Finally, I asked them to define their class-coined word “equalism” for their friends. Equalism is essentially the equivalent of the core ideals of feminism, explicitly valuing and targeting equality of all genders. (Should you be wondering, yes, there are in fact a number of students who see equalism as just another name for feminism itself.) Among their stipulations: the world isn’t perfect, hierarchies should not be applied to people, and people should have an equal opportunity to choose their clothes without being judged. Bearing that in mind, one of the groups felt that a dress code can promote a feeling of equality by narrowing guidelines.

The last time I wrote about my students’ discussions about dress codes in general, several people wrote me to note the kids’ use of the word “classy” and to ask if they had thought about issues of affordability and economic means. In fact, the word “classy” did not make an appearance today, and to my thinking would have seemed out of place. Their core ideals of everyone being able to choose their clothes without fear of judgment and of eliminating hierarchies point to inclusion of and respect for absolutely all people. I do, for the record, still think that we as a whole school need to explicitly consider the issue of affordability when discussing the next revision of our dress code.

I continue to believe that the seventh graders’ discussions are setting a positive direction for how larger all-school discussions might go. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and whether we do end up with a feminist (and/or equalist!) dress code.

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

Potential Lives

Some years, if it suits a specific unit the Humanities 7 students have designed, I’ll do an activity where I will show them an image of Rodin’s sculpture “Celle qui fût la belle Heaulmière” (“She Who Used to Be the Beautiful Heaulmière”) and ask them for their reactions. Most years, their reactions will generally begin with either a generic “Ick” or surprise that a sculptor would have wanted to create that image in the first place. I then tell them the title of the sculpture and ask them if and how that would change their reactions. Finally, I read them a quote from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land that gives one of the character’s perspectives on a great artists’ ability to simultaneously show people as they are, suggest how they used to be, and show how that contrast affects them, and why he thus views this particular sculpture as a masterwork. While the students may or may agree that the sculpture is in fact a masterwork, they generally do come to view the work from the perspective of the subject and in the process engage deeply with concepts of beauty and self-image.

I decided to try the activity with this year’s class, and from the very first comment, these students were thinking from the perspective of the subject of the sculpture, shifting smoothly into a discussion of beauty, feelings, and self-image. External judgment was completely lacking from the conversations, replaced by a predominant sense that the subject of the image had probably had a tough life. Giving them the title of the sculpture evoked some additional discussion, so by the time I read the quote, it served more as a commentary on one aspect of what they had already discussed than a stimulus to more discussion.

Usually when I do this activity, it’s in the middle of a unit on Aesthetics and so relative notions of beauty are very much on the students’ minds. This year, our theme question took a slightly different direction than usual, and connects explicitly to the notion of judgment as it relates to physical appearance. So there’s a possibility that the overall context of the unit shifted the thinking of this year’s class from how most groups react. That’s especially true since our current read-aloud book is Wonder, which is about Auggie, a boy with mandibulofacial dysotosis and other complicating factors that result in severe facial anomalies, tracing his first experience in a real school when he enters the fifth grade and how his appearance affects those around him. The book is written from the point of view of several different characters, going forward and backward in time, which makes it particularly easy for students to examine and integrate multiple perspectives. Still, these students have exemplified empathy from day one, and I was not surprised that they were one of the classes that had atypical reactions to the Rodin sculpture.

These days, a lot of people are putting forth a concern that middle school students are not as empathetic as they used to be, affirming that fiction can play a key role in helping them develop a sense of empathy. I know my students were caring and empathetic the moment they walked into my classroom, but I also feel that the books we have read this year have offered them moments to think deeply about what it takes to be genuinely supportive and not just put forward good intentions. The students also brought up the notion that adults are by no means perfect in their own ability to empathize with and support others, citing a moment in the story when one mother photoshops Auggie out of a school picture and distributes copies to the other parents. You should have seen the shock on my students’ faces when I read that passage! But this also gave us an opportunity to talk about being a grown-up, and I offered the notion that growing up wasn’t just about becoming our own best selves but also about developing skills to handle those inevitable moments when we fall short.

Humanities 7, I write my new students and their families over the summer, is at its root about what it means to be human. Today was one of those days that brings home how achingly complex that can be. But it was also one of those days that brings home how much potential lives within each one of us.

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Happy Dance

In the iPad era of the middle school, I no longer even blink when I see groups of Humanities 7 students dancing, arguing and shoving, theatrically hugging, or animatedly discussing seemingly random things to do next. And they no longer reflexively explain, “It’s okay, Bill, it’s Humanities.” Chances are, they are working on a video to support their independent writing or as part of a Focus Question presentation. And while I can imagine a scenario where I might have to talk with them about return on investment of time, so far, they have done a great job of maintaining an appropriate balance.

I did, however, blink at least once when Emily asked me to do a happy dance. Certainly, I had seen her taking kids off one by one (occasionally two by two) and shooting 10-second clips of dancing. And certainly, I have never flinched when asked to be part of any of their videos, which usually entail me pretending to be a mean teacher. However, dancing is something else altogether. I am incredibly shy about my dancing, in part because even kind and well-meaning people have begun to laugh when they see me dance. I *think* it’s because, as a musician, I pay too much attention to the subtle interplays of rhythm, melody, and harmonies, and end up trying to express way too much. That’s my excuse, anyway.

However, I deeply believe in the importance of all the arts in the middle school curriculum, and so had maintained we needed to include dance even though it’s also offered as a sport. Just as students learn from trying vocal and instrumental music, theatre, and the visual arts, so too do they learn from trying dance. Even if they end up concluding they don’t like it, at least they have a first-hand sense of what dancers do, and perhaps those kids who are skeptical will even surprise themselves and take to it. (The same, of course, is true of all arts courses.) So Emily, unbeknownst to her, was not just asking me to be part of her video; she was asking me to Walk the Talk.

So, I danced. The small group of students who were watching did in fact burst into laughter. But I danced.

Late Saturday night, I was taking a Twitter break from giving feedback to student writing when I stumbled on this tweet from Gayle Andrews to Rick Wormeli: ”check out Hilsman‘s Happy video. Get to work w/ these great people as prof-in-residence http://youtu.be/3c6PqO5R_S0” Rick responded, “This is terrific, Gayle! Any other faculties wanna get happy, dance, and give st’s freedom to be themselves?”

Well. I know an invitation when I see one, so I wrote in about Emily and my own happy dance. Gayle asked for video, I responded that Emily reported she had somehow lost it when trying to transfer it to the final cut, and Gayle suggested it was probably not lost from memory. I responded, “Nope! Not one bit. And I did recreate it for the kids when she read her essay. Much laughter.” Meanwhile, not just Rick and Gayle but numerous other people including whoever runs the account for the University of Georgia Middle Grades Education program were favoriting and retweeting like there was no tomorrow.

Gayle Andrews is the co-author of Turning Points 2000, one of the most important books on the middle school model. Rick Wormeli is a nationally known and respected consultant. And the University of Georgia has one of the pre-eminent middle grades education programs in the country (begging the question why more schools *don’t* have middle grades-specific programs, but I digress). Yet, my 10 seconds of happy dancing was genuinely a source of joy to them, and genuinely important. I smiled at my screen, astonished – and yet not – that my description of a happy dance was getting such attention from such eminent people.

I think the key as to why lay in Rick’s question, which wasn’t *just* about getting happy and dancing but also about giving students freedom to be themselves. And Stoneleigh-Burnham is indeed all about student voice, about supporting them in being their own best selves. And even when students are arguing (always respectfully) about specific aspects of our program, they are always careful to say they love how thoroughly they feel supported here and that they don’t want that to change. (For the record, I generally respond that’s exactly why we do whatever practice it is against which they are arguing!)

Sally, our Head of School, and I were talking the other day about how students in our middle school program do in the Upper School. She shook her head, and said, “They certainly are internally motivated to an *incredible* extent.” There are few things she could have said that would have pleased me more. It’s… almost enough to make me do another happy dance!

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

Revisiting Dress Codes

T-shirts that had seen better days. Heavily patched cutoff jean shorts. Sneakers or clogs. And a bandana. That’s how I dressed during high school, at least when the weather was warm. Luckily, my school had a pretty lax dress code, so no one ever stopped me – except for the day I was walking around barefoot, unaware until that point in time that the health code forbade it. Lindsay O’Brien of Ms. magazine was not quite so lucky; on the day she wore jeans with holes in the knees to school, she was made to cover the holes with duct tape and received her first detention ever. In her recent article “Are my pants lowering your test scores?” she terms the rule “ridiculous” and continues to detail a recent dress code conflict at a school in Illinois. (O’Brien)

Administrators at Haven Middle School in Evanston banned leggings, primarily worn by girls. The reason? They were seen as too distracting for boys. As Ms. O’Brien put it, “Instead of teaching boys, at a critical age, to treat women’s bodies with respect, they chose to eliminate the so-called distraction and place the blame on girls.” Sophie Hasty, a 13-year-old student at the school, understood this well, saying, “The reason was basically: ‘boys.’ It’s a lot like saying that if guys do something to harass us, it’s our fault for that. We’re the ones being punished for what guys do.” (quoted in O’Brien) Students swarmed the school wearing the banned item of clothing, and over 500 of them signed an online petition. The ensuing brouhaha made national headlines, and inspired a sort of “PointCounterpoint” debate in the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, as reported in the Daily Trojan, the principal sent a letter home to parents saying the school’s true goal was “an effort to maintain a respectful learning environment for all.” (quoted in Sayyah) Such situations, it may be added, play out far too often.

Ms. O’Brien praised the girls for their actions, concluding, “If Sophie Hasty and the girls at Haven Middle School are the future leaders of the feminist movement, we’ll be glad to share our torch.”

They might end up sharing that torch with my students, who recently had a discussion of their own as Student Council prepares to take a look at our current dress code. I asked them why a business or other organization might or might not want a dress code, and then narrowed the questions specifically to focus on schools. Their take on the issues was, as always, wise and insightful. They felt that dress codes relate to first impressions and a desire to be taken seriously by looking appropriate, classy, mature, and official. They felt that students in particular might show up feeling ready to learn in a school with a dress code. They also recognized, though, that culture and purpose play a role – that dress codes might and probably should be different if you are in fashion, sports, retail, construction, equestrian sports, dance, fast food, or fitness, if your organization just has a more casual culture, or even if you have a job where you don’t interact with people. Furthermore, they realized that trust is an important factor in instituting dress codes, pointing out that an organization might choose not to have one if they felt people know what’s respectable and appropriate, and explicitly saying a school might choose to have a dress code if they don’t trust students and not to have one if they felt kids know what they should wear and wanted to establish that trust. Finally, they felt that comfort, too, was a factor.

Morgan is the 7th grade representative to Student Council, and when they take up a discussion of our current dress code later this month, she will be able to carry this wealth of wisdom and insight to the meeting with her. I know, too, that some of the members of StuCo are strong feminists, and perhaps will have their own ideas on how our school might meet its mission by developing what might be called a feminist dress code. It will be interesting to see what the students come up with. In the end, though, discussions about our school’s mission and who we are as a community will be the most important part. Any dress code that reflects our common values will be a dress code that will work.

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Standing in Your Truth

As an option for weekend activities, I offered to take students to a GLSEN conference on April 5. (GLSEN is the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.) Unfortunately, two of them ended up with conflicts, but the third student cheerfully said she would still like to go, and so we headed east to Madison Park Vocational Technical High School in Roxbury. After passing through the metal detector for “males,” an extremely un-GLSEN moment all around (though I don’t think it was switched on), and stopping at the registration table, we walked up the stairs to the opening celebration, where we were enthusiastically welcomed by three cheerleaders of various genders.

Eliza Byard, the Executive Director of GLSEN, welcomed all of us and spoke movingly of the experience of speaking (for two minutes, precisely timed by the TelePrompter) at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Given that Bayard Rustin, one of the organizers of the March who also served as a speaker, had been excluded from a meeting with President Kennedy out of the fear that J. Edgar Hoover, the homophobic Director of the FBI, might be upset, Ms. Byard’s participation was all the more moving.

There were three workshop sessions at the conference, and my student and I both felt a session entitled “How Different Life Can Be,” led by three members of the North Shore Alliance of LGBT Youth was the best place to start. After a quick overview of the organization and their work, the co-presenters opened up the session to questions. A young student who looked and sounded no more than 10 led off, talking about his lack of understanding of why people wouldn’t simply let other people be people, oblivious to the looks of tenderness on the faces of many of the teenagers listening to him. A middle schooler who had stuck up for her friends when rumours were circulating about them only to have the rumours turned on her asked for advice, as did a high school student whose friend had recently come out to her parents who were refusing to believe and accept what she had said. The co-presenters listened with compassion and empathy, making suggestions while maintaining the kind of honest realism teenagers often seek, and skillfully leaving space for people in the room to respond. One girl said when her parents had trouble accepting her own coming out, she tried leaving little pamphlets around the house or webpages up on the computer. Over time, she said, as her parents understood better what was going on, they began to come around. It does sometimes take time. PFLAG was frequently cited as a wonderful resource, and I made a mental note to learn more about them.

That room had been packed, with people spilling through the doors and out to the corridor, a pattern which would repeat itself in both of the next two sessions I attended. My student and I agreed to attend different sessions throughout the afternoon, and to help shape my choices, I let her choose first and then asked her what needs she saw in the school. She thought carefully, and said she felt that students had a pretty solid knowledge of different sexualities and were open and welcoming, but that many of them did not have as solid a sense of different genders and how that plays out in real life. While there was a “Trans 101” type session coming up next, my instinct was that I would already know the majority of the information being presented, so I made a mental note to think further about what my student had said, and looked for other sessions to attend.

For my next session, I chose “Reversing the Erasure of LGBT HIstory,” presented by three teachers from Lowell High School. Through a skillfully organized grassroots effort, they succeeded in convincing their district to adopt the historic, inclusive curriculum being developed by the Los Angeles Unified School District following passage of the FAIR (Fair, Inclusive, Accurate, and Respectful) Act. They showed a moving video, “Through Gay Eyes,” which was produced by one of the teachers, Deb Fowler, and a student then attending Lowell High, Connor Crosby. They had shown this video to decision-makers in the District to help build support. While I greatly admired what they had accomplished, as well as their calls for similar advocacy across the state, I found myself thinking how lucky I was that we already have a desire at the administrative level to support LGBT students throughout their experience in our school and beyond. I did walk out with a number of ideas for links and other resources I can keep in mind to help my Humanities 7 students broaden their research so their Focus Question projects can be as inclusive as the conversations I have with them.

My final session was “Queering the Classroom: Providing a Safe Environment for All,” facilitated by Marie Caradonna of the West Suburban Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth. Her announced approach, to treat us all as though we were both cissexual and cisgender, resulted in a session that was as much demonstration as information-sharing, which I imagine was her goal. Students and teachers shared concerns, suggestions, and clarifying information, and an honest and supportive dialogue grew and flourished. Among other things I learned: the term “demisexual,” used for someone who experiences sexual attraction through romantic attraction. I also learned a new definition for the term “bisexual”: “someone who is sexually attracted to their own gender and to other genders.”

My student, who had a cold and also had had a rather short night of sleep between the late return from Rent and the early departure for the GLSEN conference, dozed much of the way back, giving me plenty of time to think through the day. I decided to spend the evening in Northampton, and upon arrival, sent out a series of tweets including this one, “Now eating a vegan sandwich in Northampton plotting to upend social norms and get everyone to ‘just be a decent person’ as my student said,” which garnered a number of favourites and retweets… and one virtual fist-bump.

The title of this blog quotes one of the participants in the first session word for word (unfortunately, I do not know her name). The split second I heard it, I thumbed it into the “Notes” app on my phone, knowing it would become the title for this blog. But a cool title for a blog, even if accompanied by a fist-bump-worthy tweet, is not remotely enough. For starters, I need to stand in my own truth. I think I’m actually doing a pretty good job, all things considered. But perhaps it’s time to kick it up to the next level.

And that word “perhaps” is starting to seriously grate on my nerves.

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