Category Archives: Admissions

Why I Came, Why I Stay

The other day at Open House, one of the attendees, a public school teacher, asked each of us present on a faculty panel to talk about how we ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham, and why we stay. Our stories were as individual as we are. My own begins the summer I was getting married…

It was the summer of 2004, and my fiancée and I had just graduated from the M.A.T. program in the French and Italian Department of the University of Massachusetts. Each of us had completed all the requirements for Massachusetts State certification except for the French proficiency exam. My fiancée called up to find out details, and was told that there was a non-refundable fee of $75 and it would be given on one of three possible Saturdays in August, one of which was to be our wedding day. The exact date, she was told, would not be given out until no more than three weeks ahead of time, “for security reasons.” We were about to spend a year living in France anyway, so we elected not to register for the exam. That meant, when it came time to apply for teaching positions, we had no choice but to apply at independent schools. And that’s how I ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham.

As for why I stay, I gave two reasons. One is that I identify as a gender activist rooted in feminist ideals, and working in a girls school feeds that part of my life. A second is that we know what research and experience tells us works well for kids, and ironic as it may be given that many of the best teaching models were originally developing in and for public schools, at this point in our nation’s history, independent schools are actually freer to apply those models than many public schools. I may deplore that situation, but that makes it no less true.

The person who asked the question quietly mouthed a “thank you” to me, and we moved on to hear Miriam’s story as she was sitting to my immediate left.

Essentially, of course, I was saying that I stay in teaching and I stay at Stoneleigh-Burnham because I believe deeply that what we do matters. I’m acutely aware that not everyone can say that about their job. Just one more thing for which I am grateful this November.

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Filed under Admissions, Feminism, Gender, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

To Infinity… and Beyond

Is algebra necessary?” Andrew Hacker, in a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, argued that it isn’t, provoking a storm of reaction from math teachers in particular and educators in general. To be fair, once you read past the attention-g rabbing headline, Hacker points out that his “… question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus.” His main points seemed to be that a misplaced focus on rigor leads to kids dropping out and that math taught in schools has little relation to skills needed for success in the workforce. (Hacker) He closes by stating “I want to end on a positive note” and calling for the creation of exciting new courses such as “Citizen Statistics.”

Dan Willingham, a well-known cognitive science professor at the University of Virginia, wrote an excellent response, “Yes, Algebra is necessary” which also quickly spread among online educators. He argues in part that the issue is less the math curriculum itself and more how it is taught. Given the impossibility of truly teaching every single skill that every single student will need for success in life, “The best bet for knowledge that can apply to new situations is an abstract understanding–seeing that apparently different problems have a similar underlying structure. And the best bet for students to gain this abstract understanding is to teach it explicitly… But the explicit teaching of abstractions is not enough. You also need practice in putting the abstractions into concrete situations.”

Many math teachers I know agree that we need to take a look at the standard mathematics sequence in this country. To the best of my knowledge, we are one of the only countries that doesn’t teach math in an integrated fashion, separating Geometry out into its own course. You can definitely argue students should graduate with certain “life skills” in math such as managing personal finances. And there is certainly reason for students to learn basic statistics and related critical thinking skills. But to proceed from a careful discussion of these and other ideas within a standard curriculum to running the risk of implicitly creating a two track system raises serious questions. As Willingham puts it, “Finally, there is the question of income distribution; countries with a better educated populace show smaller income disparity, and suggesting that not everyone needs to learn math raises the question of who will learn it.”

At Stoneleigh-Burnham, beyond doing the best possible job of teaching math, we also have the responsibility to encourage our students as girls and young women to overcome stereotypes. The percentage of women majoring and seeking careers in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields has remained consistently low over the last decade (see for example this government report). Yet, as Randie Benedict, Head of the all-girls Ellis School, observed in an excellent op-ed piece, “Girls can do just fine in math, thank you.” Her opinion piece echoes findings listed in a recent report in The Educated Reporter by Emily Richmond, “Girls and STEM Education: Still Waiting for Liftoff.” What do they recommend?

We can begin by fighting gender bias – all of us. That means not just encouraging the girls themselves but also, especially for women, avoiding statements like “I’m not good in math.” Teachers can connect STEM skills to careers in such a way that gender stereotypes are undermined. Providing role models and mentorship is a factor, but perhaps less significantly so than we thought several years ago. Perhaps most importantly, we can be teaching girls a growth model of intelligence wherein persevering and working to improve bring positive results.

Stoneleigh-Burnham is undertaking a new STEM initiative. As was shown in a 2009 study at UCLA, girls’ schools have strong track records increasing the self-confidence of their alumnae in a number of ways – for one, a graduate of a girls school is three times more likely to enter the field of engineering. The potential for this initiative is enormous. While the program will benefit greatly from the leadership of Upper School science/psychology teacher Taylor Williams and the expertise of her new colleague, Middle School math/science teacher Kayla Burke, as well as other returning math and science teachers, the participation and support of the entire community will be necessary.

And, of course, Algebra.


Filed under Admissions, College Prep, Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Small School, Big World – One Mission

Family Weekend this year was inspiring in many ways. Developing student voice is a fundamentally important aspect of the core mission of our school, and there was evidence of that everywhere you looked. My Humanities 7 students took turns standing up and reading their poetry to probably the largest assembled group of parents and family members seen in any classroom over the weekend, perhaps a little softly on the first poem, but always more loudly and clearly on all the rest once the warm supportive applause of their peers and families washed over them. Each poem was absolutely unique to that student and yet, taken as a whole, they revealed truths about who the class is as a whole and for that matter what it is like to be a 7th grader in today’s world.

My French 2 class had asked to do “something fun” and so they played a game of Family Feud to practice the vocabulary in their newest unit. My Life Skills class had asked if they could cook for their families, and so they made crêpes. My Rock Band classes, well, rocked at the performing arts presentation. And my advisees…my advisees! We do student-led conferences in the middle school, and each conference was unique to that child. I saw courage, I saw honesty, I saw incredible self-awareness, I saw complex and insightful thinking, I saw a willingness to acknowledge and face sometimes painful challenges and I saw pride. And of course, I also saw the love parents feel for their children as they search for, find, and develop who they are. Knowing when to let go and when to support our children as they grow up is one of the toughest jobs in parenting, and for better or for worse, student-led conferences provide many opportunities to practice balancing those twin methods of expressing parental love.

My son, now a high school senior, was recently invited to a formal dance at my wife’s school. As it happened, this was for a weekend when she had to be off campus, which meant he would be down there on his own. With a brand new driver’s license. It was one of those crucible moments that tests your faith in your child’s judgment. We decided – and it was actually an easy decision – to trust him, and he had such an enjoyable evening with his date and other friends he made down through the years that he decided to attend his own school’s prom after all. We still share an iTunes account; yesterday, iCloud delivered three apps for buying flowers to my phone.

My own prom experience fit virtually every stereotype of more innocent times (three friends and I piled into an old VW Beetle, the girls wearing dresses they had sewn on their own, and I danced the night away in my date’s arms before dropping her off by midnight), and my son’s experiences, while different than mine of course, also seem to belong to a bygone era. For many, however, proms have become an elaborate evening of excess, sometimes costing over $2,000 per couple.

Nancy Flanagan recently wrote, in “Prom Queens and Ed Reform,” about how the changing nature of proms through the years reflects changing values of our society. Historically, she notes, education has been about building democratic equality, training for economic utility, and enabling social mobility. The first two goals serve the public good, while the third is more of a private good. Social mobility and credentialing, she argues, have become prioritized in order to preserve advantage for those who already have it. Prom, with its excessive costs – and its occasional and despicable exclusion of people of specific races, sexualities, and/or gender – reflects this preservation of privilege.

In our middle school parent meeting, one father pointed out that our mission statement includes the phrase “… confident that their voices will be heard.” He felt that society is not currently open to hearing girls’ and women’s voices, and wondered how we could work to meet that aspect of our mission. I spoke about the need to honor student voices even and especially when they are expressing uncomfortable truths, to build up a sense of expectation that they deserve to and will be taken seriously. If a girls school doesn’t honor girls’ voices, who will? I also talked about how I had spent two years coming to terms with the word “will” given the realities of today’s society and had decided the only way to truly honor the mission of our school as written was not just to work within the school in support of our students but also to work out in the world to fight gender-based prejudice and build a society that will genuinely honor all voices – in essence, to work for democratic equality. The room was quiet, but all around, heads were quietly and slowly nodding.

Working for social justice, I sometimes feel like I’m on “The Road Not Taken.” And then there are moments like this and I renew my hope. Family Weekend this year was inspiring indeed.

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Filed under Admissions, Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Room For Change

I glance up and notice the little plastic clasp screwed into the underside of the shelf of our TV stand. The pointy part, that stuck into the clasp and prevented the door from being opened without extreme intellectual and physical effort, has long since been removed. Not so the memories of putting it on in the first place, which my wife and I did around the same time we added the gadgets to every cabinet door in our apartment above the library, plugged plastic shields into all the outlets, stuck soft protectors on every furniture corner we owned, and generally ensured everything was as safe as possible for the imminent arrival of the child that turned out to be our son. Long before he thought or even knew about crawling, we had done everything we could think of to protect him from any dangers we could imagine.

As our children grow up, of course, we continually and deliberately work to ensure they can eventually take care of themselves. It may be bittersweet at times, but if our true goal is that our kids grow up to be happy and confident, balancing self-reliance and connectedness, we really have no choice. Yet, the same instinct that leads us to prepare our apartments months ahead of when we really need to is never far from the surface, as my parents periodically remind me whenever my brothers, my sisters, or I are going through hard times in one way or another.

As parents of Seniors are all too well aware, this is the week when all colleges that have not already announced their decision send out notifications. Peter Gow, the college counselor at Beaver Country Day School, captures the feeling perfectly in a blog entry entitled “College Admissions: Agony, Ecstasy, Reality” when he writes, “For the students… the moment of opening the letter, popping open the email, or logging into the decision site is probably as charged an event as they have experienced: a moment of truth. (…) Many see their entire futures, as well as their self-concepts, riding on the decision made by the admission committee at some beloved college, and some will take “bad news”—denial or waitlist or even January admission—as a personal blow.” You see your kids grow up into these amazing people, and suddenly a decision taken by total strangers hundreds of miles away, often made of necessity on the basis of about five minutes’ worth of discussion, has the potential to devastate them with just a single word. As we envision such a moment, little plastic clasps, shields, and corner protectors are utterly pointless. All we have is our intense love for and faith in our kids to try and help them pull through the week. Peter keeps tissue boxes close at hand during this week, and no doubt day parents do too. But as boarding parents, you can’t even offer a Kleenex, never mind wrap your kid in a hug.

On the other hand, what stronger ally than our love for and faith in our kids? Whether communicated in a glance, a quick squeeze of the shoulder, a back rub, or via words spoken softly between longer pauses or thumbed with a sort of desperate urgency into a text window, our ability to reaffirm all those wonderful qualities we see in our kids and to let them know we love them can at least lay the groundwork for the decisions that will eventually settle out. Peter captures this well, too, when he notes that “college counselors, like teachers, administrators, parents, friends, and the world at large spend this week above all other weeks in the year helping kids understand that it’s not about rejection or acceptance but about making the most of the opportunities life gives us.”

In talking to students and parents, to Andy Patt in years past, to Lauren in more recent years, as well as to my brother-in-law who is a college counselor at Thayer, I knowhow deeply important the role of a school is in providing their own support. As a seventh grader once said, “Tell me what you really think about my story. My parents liked it… but they have to!” In our own knowledge of kids, with that peculiar blend of love and objectivity that a teacher brings a student, we can and do perform our part in helping kids work through the agony and the ecstasy of this week. Here, too, I feel lucky as my son’s house counselor (his school’s word for “houseparent”) wrote all of us parents early in the week to gently prepare us for what we thought we knew was coming, and to tell us she would be always open to the kids telling whatever news they chose to share and seeking whatever support they felt they needed but that she would not be forcing the issue. And though he may not have written us, I trust my son’s college counselor to do the same.

I know my son well. He has a long history of making the most of the opportunities that life has brought him – and our family has been extraordinarily blessed with opportunities. We will get through this week together, he, my wife, and I. He will find the college where he was meant to be, work hard, learn, and be subtly shaped as he continues to set the direction of his life. And then one day, perhaps, his own child will await the decisions of colleges. He may talk through his feelings with us, whatever he chooses to share. And a brief glance of understanding will pass between us as we remember this week and draw on lessons learned. “The point is that the lives of eighteen-year-olds have plenty of room for change, a lesson that only experience can teach us and that I have been surprised and generally pleased to discover is taught to us recurringly over many decades.” (Gow) The same, of course, is true of twelve-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds – and yes, even fifty-two-year-olds.

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Filed under Admissions, College Prep, Graduation, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Pride in My Work

For a little while, it seemed as though the freak Halloween snowstorm was going to be the extent of winter in New England this year, but as January is progressing, winter seems to be asserting itself more and more strongly. Last Monday was a cold one even though only a few inches of snow had fallen overnight, but somehow it served to energize the middle schoolers. And so it was that I was surrounded at the beginning of advisory by swarms of students buzzing in random directions, all asking me if they could go outside. My advisory group, in fact, had asked just the previous Friday if we could have a middle school snowball fight some day, so after checking in quickly with the other advisors who were nearby, I told all our advisees to get their coats.

After sending Hank’s advisees off to ask permission to join the others and clearing the middle school of the one or two kids who were uncertain about the whole idea, I wrapped my scarf around my neck, zipped up my coat, and ran outside to see what was happening.Kids had continued to run in random directions, except now they were also leaning over long enough to scoop up some snow, fashion a quick snowball, and launch it at whoever happened to be in the vicinity. Hank, too, was periodically lobbing snowballs at semi-random kids, and I threw myself into the fray, dodging snowballs with mixed success and retaliating enthusiastically, if with limited accuracy.


During one of the interludes when I was warming up my hands, one of the students approached with an adorable eight-inch-high snow person; soon after, another student came up to the teachers to show us a little snow mouse she had made. Both posed happily for pictures.

As the end of advisory neared, a large group of students had gone down on the field and congregated on a jump. I ran down toward them to start the process of getting them to come inside and go to class, and soon realized I didn’t have to say a word as they all came after me throwing a frightening number of snowballs in my general direction. Everyone went inside in good spirits, ready for Humanities, ESL, or Math/Science depending on what they had during AB period.

While we were all taking a break, one of my colleagues remarked that she had been reading (as had I) about the fact that many kids today don’t really know how to engage in unstructured play. Beyond learning to entertain themselves, children also profit from unstructured play by learning how to make and agree on rules. “Our kids appear to have no problem with that,” someone said, and as we watched one group start to make a snow person, another work on a snow sculpture that would evolve into an owl, a third divide into two lines of students readying for battle, and a fourth continue to throw snowballs randomly, no one could have argued with her.

That night, I was corresponding with one of the seventh graders regarding some questions she had about Humanities. In one email, she mentioned that her mom wanted to thank me for throwing a snowball at her. That note will always be a source of pride, and a reminder that being an effective teacher may at times require an unexpectedly wide and varied skillset. Though he never worked snowball throwing into the curriculum of my M.A.T. program, I am quite sure my advisor (a former middle school teacher himself) would also be proud of me.

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Filed under Admissions, In the Classroom, On Education, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Biscuits and Gravy

I, like many of our students, left home as a young adolescent for a boarding school. I, like many of our students will, then continued this educational journey away from home as I went on to college. However, unlike many of our students, I never actually left home.

I grew up within the cozy confines of Rhode Island. My “leaving” for boarding school consisted of driving 40 minutes south of my hometown to Newport, Rhode Island. College took me just barely outside of New England for two years in upstate New York at Colgate University, a mere 5 hour drive from home. Yet, it was right back to New England (with a sigh of relief) for my final two undergrad years at Williams College, only 3 hours from a home-cooked meal.

So how, you might ask, did I end up in San Diego, California on the last day of our recent winter holiday? Well, I drove. I drove for four days. I drove from Greenfield, MA to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona to San Diego, California. I drove for approximately 50 hours through 13 different states.

I drove in awe, looking at the changing landscape, terrain and climate around me. I grew up sailing, so the idea of seeing without limit in one (even all) directions was not new to me, but experiencing this on land was completely foreign. The road ahead seemed to stretch  to infinity- where were the trees, the curves, the hills?

As it turned out, the road (I-40 to be exact) did not go on forever, only to New Mexico.Immediately after crossing into New Mexico, the terrain became dynamic, rising into countless mesas. Flat topped mountains! A novel concept for the eyes of this New Englander. Furthermore, there may not be snow in Greenfield, MA right now, but I can tell you there is snow in New Mexico and Arizona. Never before did I think of snow when I thought of the Grand Canyon. And the Grand Canyon- this is truly something you need to see to believe.

Not only was this trip eye-opening for me in shattering some of my misconceptions regarding the geography of my own country, but really for the first time in my life, I found myself somewhere other than home. I can go pretty much anywhere in New England and feel comfortable. But that first stop in Kentucky- I was out of my element. Not only was I suddenly unsure of what to expect from the people, but there was gravy at the breakfast table!

I had this experience on a 3,000 mile trip across my own country. Not only are many of the students at Stoneleigh-Burnham traveling to us from different states, many are traveling a lot farther than 3,000 miles!

This week at Stoneleigh-Burnham School is International Week. During International Week, we celebrate the diversity of cultures that comprise the Stoneleigh-Burnham community. Our international students have shared with us the dance, the traditional dress and the food of their home countries. We celebrate all that our international students bring to the Stoneleigh-Burnham community, and it is wonderful.

However, having completed my recent cross country voyage I ask that we recognize something else too. Let us also celebrate the sacrifice, courage and confidence our international students demonstrate when they make the decision to leave home in order to attend Stoneleigh-Burnham. They aren’t just continuing their educational journey a few hours from home but on the other side of the world.

Sara, road trip day 3, Texas.

Sara Plunkett, Intern, Admissions Associate and Coach

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Esprit de basket

I will never forget the look on Ramses Lonlack’s face when we first walked into the Mullins Center at UMass. Her jaw dropped, her eyes widened, her head tilted back, and as she gazed slowly around the arena, she said softly yet firmly, “Some day, I’m going to play in a place like this.” Along with several other fans from Stoneleigh-Burnham, we sat down near the small but enthusiastic cohort that seemed to be made up mostly of friends, roommates, and family members to cheer on the UMass women’s basketball team, Ramses’s voice rising with many others as she got caught up in her enthusiasm.

Women’s basketball fans are indeed enthusiastic about their sport, and many of us share a bond that goes far deeper than whatever team(s) we happen to support. Liz Feeley is a former women’s basketball coach in Divisions I and III, but although she undoubtedly sees more in five seconds than I see in five games, she loves to discuss the chances of UConn (a team I’ve followed since Rebecca Lobo went there out of Western Massachusetts) vs. Notre Dame (one of her former teams) with me, and a Diet Coke now rides on each match-up. Similarly, when I took Ramses and another girl from Africa to a professional Connecticut Sun game, they discovered the visiting Los Angeles Sparks had a player from Africa and began to root loudly for the opponents. Other fans turned around to gaze at them, but rather than incredulity or irritation, their faces showed a kind of bemused delight.

The following year, I learned a friend of mine (Melissa Sterry, a Sun fan and former WNBA blogger whom I had gotten to know simply by starting an email conversation in reaction to one of her blogs) kept six season tickets for the express purpose of bringing people to Sun games and getting them interested in women’s ball. She invited me to bring a cohort of students whom we took out to dinner after the game so she could talk to them a bit about basketball and about their lives. Ramses was originally supposed to go to that game too, but at the last minute had to cancel because a Division I school had offered her a tryout. She expressed profound disappointment at missing the Sun game, but knew this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

Historical Interlude

Women’s basketball began in 1892 when Sendra Berenson of Smith College adapted the rules of the year-old sport for women. Players could only bounce the ball once before passing, and the court was divided into three zones to minimize running. Three players per team were assigned to each zone – guard, center, or forward. The first known women’s basketball game opposed the classes of 1895 and 1896, with the freshmen winning 5-4.

In 1914, just two years after the college opened, West Tennessee State Normal School played their own first women’s basketball game, winning 24-0 over a local high school. The college would undergo a number of name changes through the years, settling on the University of Memphis in 1994. Despite their early advocacy of women’s sports, the college demoted all women’s athletics from varsity status in 1936. They would remain so until the passage of Title IX, and the women’s basketball team was reinstated for the 1972-1973 season.


Ramses did end up at the University of Memphis, the school she missed the Sun game for, and made her mark quickly. She won the “Rookie of the Week” award her first week in the league, and has won numerous defensive awards. More recently, she approached a major milestone, her 1000th point. She has also grabbed more than 500 rebounds and had over 250 steals, and is only the 6th player in U. Memphis history to achieve at this level. As Ramses approached the milestone, an excited buzz rose up on the Internet in the spirit both of women’s basketball and of Stoneleigh-Burnham, and when she finally made it, friends and fans from all over joined in congratulations. We could not be happier for her or prouder of her, and wish her all the best as she continues through her senior season.

Photo credit: Joe Murphy

-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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