Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Humanity of People

“When we said we wanted more women in Science this is not what we meant.” The author of this tweet was reacting to Science magazine’s most recent cover, designed for an issue on AIDS and HIV prevention, which featured a picture of sex workers in short, tight dresses and heels, cutting their heads out of the picture and thus objectifying and dehumanizing them.

The response of Jim Austin, one of the editors of the magazine was, “You realize they are transgender? Does it matter? That at least colors things, no?” to which the rejoinder was, “It’s not clear from the cover image. I don’t think it’s ok to sexually objectify transwomen, either.” Later on in the conversation, Mr. Austin responded to the comment “To me it’s just another dehumanizing male gazey image.“ by writing, “Interesting to consider how those gazey males will feel when they find out.” He also wrote, “Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?” to which the response came, “If you were, the world would be a much better place.”

Indeed it would.

To the partial credit of the Science editorial staff, they did eventually realize and make some attempt to apologize for their mistake, with Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt tweeting, “From us at Science, we apologize to those offended by recent cover. Intent was to highlight solutions to HIV, and it badly missed the mark.” and making a longer, unfortunately more ambiguous and less, how do I put this, apologetic statement on her blog. Mr. Austin, however, rather than personally apologizing for his own outrageous statements, merely retweeted Ms. McNutt’s own “apology.” Speaking of badly missing the mark.

Science notwithstanding, transgender people are increasingly visible in our society and in an increasingly positive way. The recent TIME magazine cover and article on Laverne Cox is a great example, and Katy Steinmetz’s interview was both insightful and humane. She asked Ms. Cox what she thought people should know about being transgender, and Ms. Cox’s reply was: “There’s not just one trans story. There’s not just one trans experience. And I think what they need to understand is that not everybody who is born feels that their gender identity is in alignment with what they’re assigned at birth, based on their genitalia. If someone needs to express their gender in a way that is different, that is okay, and they should not be denied healthcare. They should not be bullied. They don’t deserve to be victims of violence. … That’s what people need to understand, that it’s okay and that if you are uncomfortable with it, then you need to look at yourself.”

Perhaps it’s the communities where I hang out, but I do see progress toward the vision Ms. Cox laid out so eloquently. Jazz Jennings, whom we first met at age seven in a 20/20 report with Barbara Walters and who, at age eleven, filmed a follow-up show (part one here) as well as a message to President Obama, has co-written a children’s book entitled I am Jazz and maintains a Facebook page called “Jazz A Corner for Transgender Kids.” Coy Mathis’s parents supported her and successfully fought for her right to use the girls’ bathroom in her public school. Just as many young people today, unlike in the past, were raised in families where parents understood and respected the possibility that they might be any of a variety of sexualities and made it clear they would support their children no matter what, you’re increasingly seeing families raising their children to resist gender boxes and adopt the gender expression of their choice, respecting the possibility that their kids might in fact not actually be the gender assigned to them at birth. The community Inês Almeida has built at Toward the Stars is one shining example.

There’s no question we have a ways to go. Transgender people are still disproportionately subjected to prejudice, objectification, bullying, and violence, especially transwomen of colour. Still, with all that, Ms. Cox has also said, “I do believe in the humanity of people and in people’s capacity to love and to change.”

Me too.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Parenting, Uncategorized

Summer Reading, part three: Quiet by Susan Cain

Last year at registration, as I met my new students and their families, I heard over and over, “She’ll be quiet in class but don’t let that fool you – she’s a deep thinker.” As someone who had myself been quiet in class as a student, I completely understood that silence does not mean absence of thought. However, by lunchtime, I’ll confess I was beginning to wonder just who would speak up in class – or, more to the point, how I would manage the class so that everyone was contributing if introversion was such a dominant dynamic. I ended up using a greater percentage of small group work for certain kinds of discussions than I might in a typical year, and things went well – indeed, this class achieved an extraordinary and deeply moving level of trust and honesty by the end of the year, and also helped cement and expand our reputation as a feminist school.

So when Sally, our Head of School, announced that this year’s summer reading book would be Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, I had high hopes. Yet, beginning right from page one where I highlighted the question, “How could you be shy and courageous?” and noted, “These are not mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination,” I developed a complicated relationship with the book. Nonetheless, I definitely found take-aways that can help me in my work, and of course I look forward to discussing it when teachers return in August.

One of the themes Ms. Cain develops is the concept of finding your sweet spot, a way of being where you find the best possible balance of introversion and extroversion for yourself and work to spend as much time there as you can. However, she recognizes that sometimes we are all called on to leave our sweet spot, raising the question, “When should you act more extroverted than you really are?” (p.205) The corollary, of course, would be “When should you act more introverted than you really are?” and as a school where we work to support each student in becoming her own best self, part of our mission could indeed be helping our students learn where their sweet spots are, how to recognize when it might be best if they acted more introverted or extroverted than they normally would, and techniques to help them handle the discomfort caused by leaving their sweet spot. I would love to know what my colleagues think about that and discuss how we might best go about supporting our students in this way.

Ms. Cain also writes about the effects of different cultures, looking in particular at the Asian-American community in Cupertino, CA. While one might argue that she overlooks the effects of economic privilege (Cupertino’s median household income was $128,487 in 2012, vs. $51,371 nationally), she does make a sincere effort to avoid what she calls “rigid national or ethnic typecasting.” She notes, “Though Eastern relationship-honoring is admirable and beautiful, so is Western respect for individual freedom, self-expression, and personal destiny. The point is not that one is superior to the other, but that a profound difference in cultural values has a powerful impact on the personality styles favored by each culture.” (p.190) If we are to be a true global community, I believe, we need to ensure we recognize and embrace the different ways of being our students bring with them, supporting and learning from each other and becoming comfortable with navigating within these different frames of reference.

That is not to play down the importance of our mission to help girls and women develop and use their unique voices, of course. Voice may spring from within oneself but it is also shaped by and emerges into specific cultural influences. There are risks there, of course, but possibilities too. As my 2012-2013 Humanities 7 class once observed, “But even if we are being shaped by our families and the world around us without our knowing it, is that necessarily a bad thing if we are comfortable with who we are now?”

With that in mind, I continue to believe that Quiet suffers to some degree from the influence of patriarchy. For one example, a friend of the author’s, Alex, is noted for having learned pretend-extroversion as a seventh grader by studying social dynamics “especially male dominance poses” and by leveraging his strengths. “I learned,” he says, “that boys basically do only one thing: they chase girls. They get them, they lose them, they talk about them. I was like, ‘That’s completely circuitous. I really like girls.’ That’s where intimacy comes from. So rather than sitting around and talking about girls, I got to know them. I used having relationships with girls, plus being good at sports, to have the guys in my pocket.” And when that wasn’t enough, “Every once in a while, you have to punch people. I did that too.” (p.210) Far from viewing Alex as an exemplar of learning how to live outside one’s sweet spot, I viewed him as someone who was fundamentally manipulative and who both bought into and exploited stereotypes to further his own ends. As a gender activist and girls school educator, I was appalled by such behavior. I do recognize, though, that if I got to know Alex better as the multidimensional person he is today, it would probably shift my thinking from where it stands now.

At any rate, I do have the ability to filter the book through my own lens, and pull out from it the parts I find genuinely useful. And there’s no question that there are many important lessons here, especially for introverts of course but also for extroverts. I can even see how valuing and empowering introversion, as Ms. Cain advocates, could help undermine patriarchy. Ms. Cain herself notes, “Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world.” (p.4) So I’m looking forward to our discussion of the book in August and finding out where it takes us next.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective

Summer Reading, part two: This is Not a Test by José Vilson

I don’t ordinarily make a habit of ordering books before their release date, but I made an exception for This is Not a Test by José Vilson. I knew the strength, power, and scope of his writing through various publications in forums such as Huffington Post, his blog, and Twitter. Mr. Vilson can put a book’s worth of thinking into 140 characters, so I couldn’t wait to see what he could say in 220 pages. The subtitle, “A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education” is apt. In the book, José has woven together memories, commentary, and calls to action in a way that compels readers to think honestly about the educational landscape in our country, the cultural context that helps create it, and what our own role is and should be in shaping it in the future.

When the book came, I decided to set it aside until the summer came so that I could savor it with little else to distract me. When I finally opened it, I fairly flew through “Part One” which takes us through his childhood and ends with his decision to become a teacher as his college graduation date approached. One moment particularly stuck out to me, when he describes giving a correct answer (“D”) in class only to have the teacher respond, “What?” He gave the answer again, and again the teacher responded, “What? I didn’t hear that.” He startled the class by shouting the answer, at which point the teacher dismissed him with a “Well, you don’t know anything, so I’ll move on.” The teacher called on another student, who gave the exact same answer and earned the teacher’s praise. (p.47) “How could this happen?” I asked myself, feeling sick and knowing the answer in my heart, knowing the same general dynamic plays itself out over and over, if not always that overtly, when people of privilege have power over the historically oppressed.

For the rest of the book, then, I slowed way down. I’d read a page and stare out into space, or finish a section and put the book down altogether for several days. What he was saying was too important to risk missing part of it, and as someone who identifies as anti-racist and yet who knows I still (and probably will always) have work to do to uncover and eradicate the ways that systemic racism unconsciously influences me, I knew I needed to listen carefully to everything he had to say. Some stories, I already knew, such as the influence of Renee Moore “who spoke about her teaching as rooted in the histories of black people across generations, not as a solitary act of kindness,” (p.180) or how Chris Lehmann was willing to force EduCon participants to confront their privilege by explicitly noting the importance of race, class, and gender, and how he worked rapidly and effectively to have the conference become progressively more inclusive to a diversity of voices (pp.143-150). I mentally highlighted Mr. Vilson’s assertion that “Inquiry-based education only for the ones society felt could handle it wasn’t good enough.” (p.146) and I thought long and hard on themes Mr. Vilson continues to develop on the challenge and necessity of deeply and truly understanding and embracing diversity, most recently in the blog piece “Teachers of Color Caught on the Windmill (On Real Equity).”

In the penultimate essay of his book, “Why Teach,” (pp.209-215), Mr. Vilson talks about how “When we teach, we don’t just teach them the subjects, we implicitly teach them customs, rituals, and character traits that they either emulate or admire in their own right.” (p.212) He notes, “Teaching and learning are amorphous, but when they’re happening the symbiosis is undeniable.” (p.213) In his powerful Afterword, Dr. Pedro Noguera adds “This book and José Vilson’s ongoing work remind us that, just as education can be used to dominate, control, and oppress, it can also be used to provoke and liberate.” (p.223)

As someone who believes deeply in the importance of working for social justice, I feel it is long past time for those of us who live in this country to move past the illusion that we are living in a post-racial society. As a teacher who came through an exemplary M.A.T. program but who hears of many programs that fall far short of my own experience, I feel we as a country need carefully examine what is working and what needs improvement in our system of teacher preparation. To my thinking, This Is Not a Test should be required reading for all future teachers, and can and should be a spark to the kinds of hard, honest conversations all those of us within and who care about education need to be having.

Mr. Noguera ends his “Afterword” with the “hope that other educators are able to see the power and potential of their voices and join in the struggle to save our schools and our fragile democracy.” (p.223) Mr. Vilson ends his “Why Teach” essay with the charge, “Go hard or go home.” (p.215)

I’m all over that.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education

Why I Support the ACLU’s Suit Against Single-Sex Schools

You know I love this school and deeply believe in what we are doing. So when I saw an article in Slate entitled “‘Busy Boys, Little Ladies’: This Is What Single-Sex Education Is Really Like,” my blood boiled. I really have completely and totally had it with the continually regenerated perspective that single-gender education (a term I prefer to “single-sex education” as it focuses on the social construct of gender rather than the biological concept of sex) only serves to perpetuate stereotypes and a feeling of inferiority and how research is often misapplied and misinterpreted to back up that point of view. Yet, for some reason, I read the article. As I predicted, I became even more appalled as I read. But not for the reasons I expected.

In the article, Amanda Marcotte describe some practices cited by the ACLU in their suit against the Hillsborough County school district in Florida and also discovered in reporting by Dana Liebelson in Mother Jones. Boys (i.e. not girls) are encouraged to exercise before class. As a reward for doing well, boys are allowed to play with electronics while girls are given perfume. Teachers of boys are encouraged to engage them in higher level debate and discourse while teachers of girls are encouraged to connect with them – as if kids of all genders wouldn’t profit from both practices.

In short, single gender education in HIllsborough County as presented in this article appears to build on and reinforce stereotypes, taking genuine tendencies and treating them as general truths for all, or even taking as truth attitudes and practices that have been (or should have been) thoroughly discredited years ago. At which point, I have to say, “You go, ACLU!”

However, the article goes on to say, “Proponents of single-sex education may claim to be all about maximizing children’s potential, but this ACLU complaint suggests the opposite—that the real result is stifling any children who dare buck gender stereotypes.” (Marcotte) And this is where I part company with Ms. Marcotte (the ACLU itself, in Ms. Liebelson’s words, “is worried that other schools will emulate the program in Hillsborough County,” implying they may not be condemning single-gender education entirely.) Unless I learn something radically new and totally unexpected, I’m not likely to ever support what Hillsborough County is doing. But to extend a condemnation of one district’s specific practices to condemning single-gender education in general is pushing it too far.

A friend recently asked what it even means to teach in a girls school these days. The 80-20 rule tells us that 20% of girls have brains wired the same way as 80% of boys (and vice versa). Moreover, brain research increasingly suggests that male-wired and female-wired brains aren’t all that different at birth. We now differentiate sex from gender. And the very concept of gender is being stretched and expanded, moving beyond a simple binary and adding in the potential element of fluidity. So – what does it mean to teach girls today? I told my friend that at this point in time, I no longer “teach girls” but rather teach the unique and individual students I have in front of me. But I do so in a girl-positive environment created within a school whose mission is built on feminist ideals.

Our students talk about the gender prejudice they’ve experienced in other contexts. And they say attending this school gives them a place to talk about what it means to be a girl in the world today in a way that they never could in their previous schools. My seventh graders affirm that being a girl simply means being yourself if you identify as a girl, and they see older students as role models promoting feminism as well as adults who are ready and willing to engage in these ideas and to work for a better world.

And research backs this up – graduates of girls schools and women’s colleges are more likely to speak up and more likely to actively work for social justice. Among other advantages.

So to my thinking, the fight should not be against single-gender education. The fight should be against patriarchy. I’m happy to call out single-gender schools whose practices are suspect. But I’m not happy about giving multi-gender schools a free pass. To my thinking, both single-gender and multi-gender schools are welcome to join the fight against patriarchy. Indeed, to my thinking, it’s imperative that they do so.

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Filed under Gender, On Education

Don’t Abolish Middle Schools – Reinvent Them

“You clearly have a passion for middle school.” I’ve heard this time and time again, often after one of the Open House presentations we give several times a year. And in point of fact, I do, and have ever since my very first month working with this age group. Their own passion and energy, excitement at discoveries and possibilities, outrage at injustice, and desire to be known and loved and understood endear them to me. And by understanding them and their needs, and learning how best to meet those needs, you can help make middle school an amazing experience. You can’t entirely do away with setbacks and heartaches, of course, because those are a given part of life, and the nature of early adolescence is that such moments loom large. But with proper support, students can learn to work through those moments, and the nature of early adolescence is also that each day is truly a fresh start.

So when a friend of mine on Facebook shared a link to the article “Why Middle School Should Be Abolished” by David C. Banks, it most decidedly caught my attention. My initial reaction was, essentially, “Oh, I don’t think so!” and as I began reading the article, I prepared myself for what our debate teams call “the clash.” It turns out that Mr. Banks begins with a very common misconception, and hopefully clearing that up will start us down the right path.

A popular myth has arisen that stand-alone middle schools are doomed to be wastelands, and should be fixed, in Mr. Banks’s words, “either by combining them with the guidance and nurturing that children find in elementary school, or with the focus on adult success that we expect from our high schools.” The only problem is that a wealth of research says building configuration has zero effect on results, that it’s what’s going on within the classroom that matters. And along with what the research says, that makes intuitive sense.

Mr. Banks does mention a counterexample, a 2012 study performed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In the article “Do Middle Schools Make Sense” by Mary Tamer, Assistant Professor Martin West states, “This suggests that it may be harder to create an effective middle school than an effective K–8 school, and that part of the challenge is simply that middle school grade configurations require an additional school transition.” That, I’ll concede, also makes intuitive sense. So how does one go about building an effective middle school program, whatever the building configuration?

Intriguingly, Ms. Tamer’s article was on the right track – but inadvertently veered off onto a siding. Ms. Tamer writes that “A 2001 article “Reinventing the Middle School,” published in the Middle School Journal, spoke of the “arrested development” of this once-promising educational model.” But far from indicting the middle school model itself, the author, Thomas Dickinson, was arguing that few schools were actually implementing the model in its entirety, for example cutting out advisory programs due to budget constraints, and that this persistently incomplete application is what inevitably led to arrested development. The problem, I believe, not only persists to this day but has actually been exacerbated by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and other perhaps well-intentioned but ill-conceived initiatives. This incomplete application, unfortunately, has also led to a muddying of what “the middle school model” even means.

When we designed our own new middle school program in 2004, we took Professor Dickinson’s article (and the book on which it was based) seriously; our intention was to “do it right, right from the start.” We applied the principles of This We Believe, the position paper of the Association of Middle Level Education, we worked with a consultant, Chris Toy, to help us reflect on how well we were doing in adhering to the holistic model, and we have continued to refer to those principles throughout the ten years we have been in existence. And what are the results?

Late last spring, I was driving Sophie, one of our rising 9th graders, to her last day of middle school service at the Food Bank in Hatfield. Immersed in that peculiar combination of nostalgia, a sense of achievement and completion, and nervous anticipation that characterizes that time of year for middle schoolers about to move up, she reflected thoughtfully on what her class had been like for these two years, what their time in the middle school had meant to them, and their feelings as they prepared to transition to the high school. At one point, she observed, “I think it was exactly what we needed. We felt cared for and supported, and we’re nervous about moving up to the high school but we also feel we’re ready.” Similarly, Jake Steward, who came in this past year as our new English Department Chair, told me last fall, shaking his head with appreciation, “Whatever you’re doing in that middle school, it’s working.”

So I sympathize with Mr. Bank’s notion that we need to take a look at our middle schools. But I also think the solution is right in front of our faces. Ask Sophie. She’ll tell you.

P.S. Todd Bloch has written an excellent response to Mr. Bank’s article which I highly recommend.

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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized