Category Archives: College Prep

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.

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

Growing Out of Over-Thinking

The following post was originally published in our Spring 2012 Bulletin. It was written by Bryna Cofrin-Shaw, a graduate of the class of 2010. 

20 mph sustained winds and 40 mph gusts twisted the disc through the sky in every direction. With winds strong enough to pick my entire Ultimate Frisbee team off the field, the disc seemed to have a mind of its own, making catching, never mind any semblance of strategy or “flow,” a hard task. It was a difficult day of Ultimate, and even under the warm California sun, my team – Disco Inferno, was growing frustrated. Then, in our fourth and final game, I found myself flinging my body horizontally through the air and landing with the disc firmly in my hands. In Ultimate, we call this “laying out” and while I had slid or tumbled across many fields in the past year and a half to catch a disc, there was quite a difference between these scrappy grabs and a real layout. Laying out wasn’t just jumping or falling any which way; it was its own graceful species. My catch didn’t win us the game; it didn’t even lead to a point, but for the next few days, every time I felt the soreness in my shoulders, I felt a little pride from that moment.

A week before traveling to this windy tournament at Stanford University, my coach had been reviewing proper layout form with our team. He had told us that if we constantly think, “I want to layout,” it will never happen in a game. Instead, we must stop thinking and start feeling only the need to catch the disc, whatever way we can. This was how layouts occurred. I can’t really say that my first legitimate layout was a profound moment in my life; but I can say that the more I pondered my coach’s words, the more I saw how his advice applied to much of my life these days.

When I was asked to write an essay about my own “growth” since leaving SBS, I tried to think of significant moments in the last two years, but my mind kept coming back to the present, to this semester. As a second year student at Brown University, many of my friends are feeling the stress and limbo-lostness of the “sophomore slump,” but I’ve found it hard to relate to these sentiments lately. I believe the growth I’ve undergone is realizing that the reason I’m finally able to throw myself across the field for a disc is the same reason I finally feel completely happy about how I spend my time and energy at college; I’ve stopped over-thinking. I’ve stopped trying to be the “college Bryna” I imagined for myself when I was a student at SBS, and am going after what makes me happy and fits the person I want to be today, instead, while using everything I learned at SBS.

From what I’ve heard, Stoneleigh Burnham is growing in many ways itself these days. I was so excited to hear that SBS placed second in the Green Cup Challenge, and that the school will be represented by Jane Logan in Australia, for debate and public speaking. These are things that make me so proud to be an SBS alumna. The new International Baccalaureate program is a tremendous sign of growth, and along with growing enrollment and changes throughout the school, SBS is moving in an exciting direction. But all of these changes also mean that every time we, as alumnae, come back to visit, this little school may be a little different from the one we remember. A year ago that may have made me nostalgic; today it just makes me excited to see what comes next. Real growth can’t occur without tremendous change, and though I admit I’m a little jealous the IB program didn’t exist when I was a student, I am so excited to see Stoneleigh-Burnham expand and change shape.

As I said before, the person I am now is very different than the one I imagined for myself two years ago. I thought making a positive impact in the world required that I be a serious person involved in “serious” pursuits. While I am an Environmental Studies concentrator and hope to work in this field, this is the first semester that I’ve given up over-thinking whether I’m doing the “right” things with my time. Outside of class I play Ultimate Frisbee, and though we take the sport seriously, we also wear sparkly “flair” to tournaments, play Zip-Zap-Zop with the other team during halftime, and value the Spirit of the Game more than the score. And these days, when I’m not studying or playing Ultimate, I’m writing and performing sketch comedy in Brown’s troupe Out of Bounds, or writing satire for our all-female comedy blog on campus.

I suppose I’m doing sillier things with my time than I ever imagined. But I’m also happy to see myself becoming someone who can take risks and make leaps without over-thinking exactly where she’ll land. I know I have SBS to thank for much of this, and I can’t wait to be back on campus for graduation, proud to be witnessing all the ways SBS and my fellow alumnae have grown in ways different, and better, than I may have imagined.

Bryna Cofrin-Shaw graduated in 2010. She is a sophomore at Brown University where she is concentrating in Environmental Studies.

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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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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.

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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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Your Identity is Not Decided by the Sticker on Your Car’s Rear Window: Advice for Parents during the College Admissions Process

Last Tuesday night, the Parents’ Association was treated to an evening with Deb Shaver, Director of Admissions at Smith College. As the parent of a son who is in the throes of the college application process, I had a personal interest in this event I was organizing for Stoneleigh-Burnham parents. This is the second year we have hosted Deb and each time we ask her to provide the inside story on admissions and then give advice on how to guide their daughters through the process without nagging, controlling, or being too anxious.

With humor and diplomacy, Deb jumped right in, anticipating our questions and yes, some of our pathologies. Telling her own story of trying to help her son with this process when he wanted no help and only wanted to play in a rock band, she regaled us with her frustrations knowing we would feel more open to expressing our own. She articulated six points we were to commit to memory for the sake of our daughters – and I feel like her advice is worth repeating:

1. Remember the process belongs to your child and not to you. Your role is as an administrative assistant or secretary. Help by keeping charts or spreadsheets if you want, but the choice to go to college and if so, to which college, needs to come from your daughter.

2. Because it is your daughter who is going to college, and not you, remember she is the one who will be accepted or denied. Never use “we” when discussing acceptance or denial with your daughter. In other words, understand what issues you as a parent are bringing to the process. Where she goes to college will not become her identity or yours. Your identity is not decided by the sticker you place on the rear window of your car.

3. The indices on best colleges are all created to sell books and magazines; they differ on what colleges they think are best and their criteria are skewed. With all the wonderful colleges and universities in the U.S. your daughter will have a good choice, so “go for fit and not fame.”

4. College choice will never have the last word in your daughter’s future; so don’t act like it will. Your daughter is under enough pressure.

5. When a rejection letter comes, and it most likely will, keep your own grief under control while you praise your daughter for having the courage to try and acknowledging her disappointment. Encourage her to keep her chin up and remember that other letters will arrive and among them will be one or more acceptances. Then go into your own bedroom and have that good cry you’ve been bravely holding off.

6. Work closely with your daughter’s college counselor, in Stoneleigh-Burnham’s case, Lauren Cunniffe, who really is an expert at helping our girls select appropriate colleges, apply to them and make sure they have all the necessary paperwork together to send off. (Deb had high praise for Lauren.)

As the conversation was coming to an end, a parent asked about the nuts and bolts of how a college makes its decisions. Rearranging herself in her chair and taking care to be as exact as she could, Deb described the Smith College process which she indicated was pretty typical of most small selective colleges. As she explained the mechanics of having two readers for every application, deciding those who would be admitted at the top and who would be rejected at the bottom, arguing in committee over most applicants, I deepened my appreciation for the difficulty of the decisions. She summed it up by saying the process is one part science, one part art and one part “crap shoot.” “Fair? Is it fair?” she asked rhetorically. “No! from a parent or applicant perspective it isn’t all fair. But, as she went on to reflect, “it is as fair as we can make it.” She went on to let everyone know that in committee, there are always tears from her admissions staff. “They, too, fall in love with these applicants and have a hard time accepting the decisions on some of their favorite candidates. So I make sure I have a lot of tissues in my office on any decision day.”

– Regina Mooney, Director of Development & Alumnae Relations

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Bookends: Volume 2: Allow Me to Burst Your Bubble

By the time students enroll in the IB Diploma Programme they have amassed a great deal of knowledge.  My job, as their Theory of Knowledge teacher, is to make them forget it.

Alec Peterson, the first Director General of the IB and a TOK teacher, wrote that the aim of this course, and the reason it rests at the heart of the IB, is to address two weaknesses common to most upper secondary schools: the failure to make explicit in the minds of the students the different forms that academic learning and knowledge take; and the tendency for students to study their different subjects in discrete, insular compartments.

In other words, I need to help these girls recognize their developing powers of the mind and the ways these methods of thinking can be applied to new situations in any context.

Their powers of scientific deduction can reveal much about the structure of a concerto. The implication of a word problem in calculus demands the close reading skills learned in studying poetry.  All of this makes sense, indeed its value to the invested, active participant in life and learning is undeniable. But how to teach this?  I thought the girls would probably do a better job than I could.

I asked them first to do some talking and writing about what they mean when they say “I know.”  They took this in some wonderful directions, with answers ranging from investigations of empirical knowledge versus faith, to dismissive appeasements of parents and siblings.  No need to worry about honest self-assessment with this group.  What I did not expect was how quickly this metacognition would pervade their lives.

The heart of their homework for the week was to identify a moment in another class that required them to decode connotation.  By lunch the next day, reports were coming in from other teachers of TOK students’ demands and accusations.  Higher Level IB Math became a discussion of ways that we decode.  In Spanish, a simple request to translate a word brought talk of everything that “what does it mean” can mean. Students began to suspect (correctly, I might add) that their other teachers were in on this plot.

And that’s another part of what I get to do: help these girls forge and map the connections between their disciplines.  One of the great strengths of SBS, one that makes the IB a natural fit, is the faculty’s eagerness to make connections.  There is an infectious enthusiasm for understanding and synthesis, and as these girls and I work to integrate their tools of learning we find that everywhere we look this approach is being modeled.  The bubbles around disciplines are bursting.  But that’s how this conversation with Bill started.

-Alex Bogel, TOK and IB English Teacher

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Last Act

“This is your last act of parenting.” – Michael Thompson

The mother two seats down from me was the picture of nervous tension, with hunched shoulders and lips pressed together, an open spiral notebook and pen resting on her left leg which was tightly crossed over her right. Like many if not all of the 250-300 parents sitting on the edge of pews in the chapel of my son’s school, I could sympathize. We were there for the opening session of “Upper Parent Kickoff” (“Upper” being Andover’s nomenclature for “Junior”), the formal beginning of the college counseling process. I figured my experience with admissions committees at Stoneleigh-Burnham and with my college’s Alumni Admission Program gave me a major advantage, and in some ways they do. But I badly (and inexplicably) underestimated how strongly I wanted everything to work out for my son in the end, and to my surprise kept having to stop my right foot from jiggling up and down.

Michael Thompson, a noted expert in adolescent psychology, internationally respected consultant, and author of multiple books, was there to speak to us about what it’s like to navigate the process from the twin perspectives of parents and students. Most students, Mr. Thompson declared, want three things: connection, recognition, and mastery. The process of applying to colleges and choosing which one to attend is very much intertwined with these three basic needs, and as such can be seen more as a process of self-definition than a process of simply figuring out where you’re going to spend your next four years. This is particularly true since “finding the right fit” is far more than just a catch-phrase. The role of gut instinct in choosing a college is genuinely important, since the number one factor in determining success in college is how well a student feels they fit in and what friendships they make. Listening and nodding, I felt a little better about the mental image I carry around of myself at 17, visiting Middlebury and thinking, “The students are so nice! I think I’ll go here!”

Of course, at Stoneleigh-Burnham, as at all good schools, this process of seeking connection, recognition and mastery begins long before January of one’s Junior year. Indeed, one could argue persuasively that it begins even before students arrive to register for 7th grade. Do they connect with our school while visiting? Do we realize what they have to offer? Are we perspicacious enough to recognize their skills and talents and willing to push them beyond where they are now? One Friday, one of the 7th graders confessed to me that when she came here, she was incredibly nervous that there wouldn’t be anyone here like her. “But now,” she said, “I can relax, because I’ve found those people.” Just a few days before, those students who had been in class on a “snow day” and had worked on skits had asked me if they could perform them. The first group sparkled, with uncanny timing, subtle shifts in tone and mood, and genuine interplay that brought out the best in each actor. I smiled to myself, thinking of the wonderful surprise that awaits the audience for this May’s Theatre 7 play, and how many sincere and heartfelt compliments they will receive. Meanwhile, one student who looked me square in the eye in the first week of classes and said, “Don’t just tell me I’m good. Tell me how to get better.” now regularly eyes me as I cross the room to check on her work and sighs with mock despair, “You’re going to ask me more questions, aren’t you?!” Connection, competence and confidence, the three main elements of self-esteem in girls according to JoAnn Deak, relate quite strongly to Michael Thompson’s trio of connection, recognition, and mastery, and these themes are woven through all we do.

As high school students prepare to set out on their own – and, as Michael Thompson emphasized, even for kids who are boarding students, college represents a new level of independence and autonomy – one of their biggest hopes is that the right college will make that connection, give them that recognition, and help them develop that mastery. As parents, our role – honed through years of practice – is primarily to love them and believe in them. The major theme of Upper Parent Kickoff, mentioned first by Michael Thompson, reinforced by a student panel, and re-reinforced during group sessions with college counselors, was “Trust your children. Give them the support they need – but on their terms. Let them drive the process.” Equally important, we need to keep in mind the words of one college-bound girl attending one of Mr. Thompson’s workshops: “At the end of this process, I will still be me.”

I remember congratulating my sister-in-law on the high school graduation of her younger son. “It doesn’t feel like a time for congratulations,” she said. “Now he’s going to leave us.” I responded, “I know. It’s totally different from when we left our parents and went off to college. We were grown up and ready to be independent.” “Exactly,” she said, with the same twinkle in her eye I had. “It was right for us, but they’re ripping our hearts out.” There is nothing like the sheer, stunning, uncomplicated depth and power we experience through our unconditional and life-transforming love for our children. Realistically, college does mark the formal break between childhood and adulthood. For parents then, even boarding parents, watching their children apply to and enroll in college is in many ways the last act of parenting. For students, on the other hand, it is in many ways the first act of adulthood. The give and take of these dynamics can complicate the process tremendously if we don’t keep an eye on what really matters – that we want our kids to be happy, independent, and truly who they were meant to be.

By the end of Mr. Thompson’s talk, the mom two seats down from me had unclenched herself and relaxed, smiling and nodding at different stories and ideas. Her notebook still lay on her lap, blank, the pen untouched. Soaring highs and gut-wrenching lows may well await us through the next year and a half. But if we love our children and they love us, if we trust our children and they trust in us, we will definitely get through it together.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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