Category Archives: In the Classroom

A Step Forward

Even at 12 or 13, many of my students are already thinking ahead to the kinds of careers they plan to have – enough, in fact, that I sometimes have to comfort and reassure those who aren’t that they are perfectly normal and have years and years to work it out. Driving back from the Dakin Animal Shelter where we volunteer just before vacation, two of my students began talking about what it would be like to spend their lives working with animals. Along with discussions about which specific aspects of a veterinarian’s job would be more or less difficult and why, they acknowledged that at root, it would be a profession where people who love animals get the chance to help them.

Sometimes, too, some of my students will start talking about what it will be like when they get married and have families. At such moments, in an effort to be inclusive, I’ll try to acknowledge the existence of different genders and sexualities, different ideas of marriage and life partnerships, different perspectives on having children. Those points made, the themes of whether and how to share one’s life with someone else, and what makes for good parents, make for great discussions.

I know that most if not all my students identify with feminist values of equality whether or not they might specifically identify as feminist, and – along with them – I often wonder how they will fare as they move forward from our girl-positive environment into the big, wide, not-quite-so-female-positive world. I know the research matches the experience of our alumnae that they are better positioned for success in a number of ways, and I take comfort in that knowledge. But still, I love my students and want the best for them, and so… I worry.

A recent article by J. Maureen Henderson in Forbes, “Will Millennials Be Trapped By Gender Roles?” illuminates the question through recent research from Harvard Business School. It turns out that millennials are indeed far more aware and inclusive of a wide range of genders than past generations, and value both work and family regardless of gender. However, it turns out that gender-based differences arise when millennials apply their generally progressive views to their own lives. Men were more likely than women to expect their careers would take precedence over their spouse’s (the study appears to have focused on heterosexual men and women), and that is the reality that prevailed. As Ms. Henderson put it, “Young women expect that their progressive values will be reflected in their own lives, while young men are much more likely to anticipate a more traditional pairing.”

I can start including information from this article when my students have those inevitable discussions about work and family. And I can guide them through the discussions that ensue, as inclusively and respectfully as possible. What do they want? What might their partners (those who seek marriage or other lifelong partnerships) want? How might they go about using their voices, listening, and helping craft a compromise if need be? And of course, some of the work we do on friendships and conflict can extend to these situations as well.

But it can’t fall entirely to girls’ schools to deal with this situation. That would just be furthering a patriarchal vision of society. Boys schools, too, need to address this reality, and of course coed schools as well. And schools can’t do it alone.

We in the U.S. like to think that anyone can accomplish anything they set out to. And our culture has done some foundational work to prepare to move in the direction of that ideal (to whatever extent it might in fact ever be achievable). The essential next step is to look honestly at how well we are enabling that ideal and begin systematically removing roadblocks. Patriarchy, and its effects on the diversity of genders and sexualities. Systemic racism. Classism. Ableism. It’s a long road we need to travel. All the more reason to ensure every day represents a step forward.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

Leading the Way

This year’s People of Color Conference (whose hashtag is #PoCC14), sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, comes at a critical juncture in our country’s history. I woke up on the morning of December 5 to read a tweet from @racialicious telling about what a good time they were having. Reading through their timeline, I discovered many powerful thoughts and ideas posted the previous day, and vowed to follow their live tweeting of the keynote address, to be given by Dr. Derald Wing Sue. Dr. Sue is a noted expert on multicultural counseling, and has written and edited several books including Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact.

As it happens, I have used Dr. Sue’s work in my own teaching. Two years ago, when I was teaching Life Skills 8, the students and I spent some time talking about prejudice of different types, how it operates in day-to-day life, and what can be done about it. We watched the video “Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” They learned that microaggressions typically happen when a well-intentioned person lacks knowledge of how specific expressions or behaviors might be experienced by a historically marginalized person. For example, if a girl likes math, telling her enthusiastically, “Wow, that’s great!” might actually be experienced by her as a microaggression, communicating the idea that it is surprising when a girl likes math. No offense was meant, but offense might still have been taken. Another approach might simply be to ask her what she likes best about it, which would still acknowledge and support her love of math without adding the element of surprise. Our class had some great discussions on the topic.

In reporting on Dr. Sue’s address to the #PoCC14, @racialicious wrote in part:

  • DWS: Master Narrative (White ppl talking); democratic society, post-racial, racism is thing of past, not responsible for past sins. #PoCC14
  • DWS: Master Narrative– Truth and justice will prevail, equal access is hallmark of society. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative (POC narrative): Meritocracy is a myth, system rigged against POCs, white privilege exists, #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative: we are taught that some groups are lesser beings, no one is immune from inheriting biases from society #PoCC14
  • Master narrative is rehearsed in society, and taught in schools. Counter narrative is not. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Master Narrative a) reassures whites they are good, b) prevents them from being conscious of biased conditioning. #PoCC14
  • DWS: c) Maintains their innocence and naivete, d) perpetuates the racial status quo. #PoCC14

All of this provides the context for microaggressions, which can lead students to question themselves under the daily assault (@racialicious).

So what should schools be doing? One obvious strategy is to present both the master and counter narratives. Whether we use that terminology or not, and of course maintaining respect for the full spectrum of political beliefs, we can certainly study and talk of varying visions of and for our country and how we self-define. We can also teach about microaggressions, how to respond to them, and how to respond if one has committed a microaggression and has it pointed out. In the videotape my students watched, Dr. Sue recommended people maintain constant vigilance, hold an awareness that different people may have different experiences of the same reality, not be defensive, remain open to discussion, and be an ally.

I have just begun reading If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson to my Humanities 7 class. As a multiracial high school couple falls more and more deeply into love, Ellie (who is white) learns more and more about how Miah (who is black) experiences the world and what that means for her view of our culture. I can not believe that students are not going to bring up the examples of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, though of course if they don’t, I can add questions into the mix that will at least get them thinking about the issues underlying those and countless other cases, in the process exploring their own thoughts on the master and counter narratives.

Chris Rock has observed that his daughters are “encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.” If I compare my students (of all races) to my friends and me (of all races) at their age, they are certainly more aware and more accepting of diversity, if – to be fair – no less well intentioned. We are definitely making steady progress as a culture. Slow, but steady.

But slow.

The thing is, as Dr. Sue said, the master narrative can be used to justify inaction on the part of white people (@racialicious). Time and time again, we have raised our collective voices in national outrage at what is commonly perceived as injustice (many people across the political spectrum were stunned at the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case), but time and time again, things eventually quiet down with no real change taking place.

That quite simply must not continue to happen.

Hopefully, my students will be among those leading the way. It would not surprise me one bit if they did.

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Filed under Current Events, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective

A Very Good Place to Start: On Teaching for Respect

“Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned to see a woman approaching me as I sat working at Rao’s coffee shop. “Yes?” I said. “Can you please give me directions to (we’ll say it was La Veracruzana)?” I did, and she thanked me, acknowledged my “You’re welcome,” and turned and left. Clearly, she was either open or oblivious to the contrast between whatever it was about my appearance (hair? clothing? something else?) that had caused her to “ma’am” me and my baritone voice. Myself, at this point in my life, I respond naturally to either “ma’am” or “sir,” reasoning that in either case, someone is addressing me respectfully.

Respect is the key word here. It’s what underlies most successful human interactions, and what is most often missing when dysfunction takes over. It’s a firm underlying principle in each of my classes. I expect respect not only for each other (which they almost invariably show anyway) but also for fictional characters, reasoning that if we are generally talking about them as if they were real, we might as well carry it to the logical extreme.

Of course, respect for people who are transgender or otherwise gender transgressive is not an automatic given in this world. Indeed, as of 2012, transgender people were 28% more likely than cisgender people to experience physical attacks, and the situation was even more dire for trans women of colour, who make up a wildly disproportionate and depressing 87% of the cases where those attacks escalate to murder. (Bolles) Many white people who are members of or allied with the transgender community recognize and deplore this fact.

International Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place on Nov. 20 and once again, I attended the Northampton service. In welcoming us, Yohah Ralph acknowledged the difficulty and weight of the accumulated tragedy of over 220 transgender people having been killed this year, some of whom were never identified, some of whose families never knew or cared. He asked that, to keep the atmosphere from weighing us down too much, each participant in the service speak about their dream for the future. Most said their dream was for everyone, regardless of gender, to be able to live freely and without fear as their authentic selves.

That shouldn’t be asking too much.

The Stonewall Center of the University of Massachusetts was a co-sponsoring organization of this year’s TDOR, and the Director, Genny Beemyn, said that their own dream was that we wouldn’t be gathering together next year. They acknowledged that was virtually certain not to be, nor was it likely to be for many decades to come.

You may have picked up on the use of the pronoun “they,” and that is indeed Genny’s preferred pronoun. In Humanities 7 class one day, the question of whether “they” could be singular came up. Some students were firmly advocating that it had to be plural, while one other was quietly if hesitantly demurring. Thinking that she might possibly know a trans person (here in the Valley, the odds are definitely higher than in many parts of the country) who preferred the pronoun “they,” I stepped in to support her, stating that while “they” had traditionally been plural (this to acknowledge the good intentions of students arguing that point), people of different genders were in fact increasingly choosing to use it as a singular pronoun. She smiled back at me as several other students paused to give me a curious look. I nodded to affirm my statement, everyone relaxed, and we all moved on.

If we are truly to work toward a world that embraces people of all genders, it will be built through the gradual accumulation of respectful calls for respect, respectfully received. Hopefully, my students will help lead the way as they grow into adulthood and find their place in the world. It would not surprise me for a second if they do.

After all, living life as your authentic self is at the core of our mission, and respect is at the heart of each element of our honor code.

That is a very good place to start.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Ending Well, part 2

On the last of classes in the middle school, I made the following post to Facebook:

Scene: my Humanities 7 classroom, last class of the day and term (a double block lasting 1’55”). Thanksgiving vacation starts today at 3:00.

Students: We wanna do something fun. Can we do something fun?
Me: Everything we do in Humanities is fun.
Students: But…
Me: Here are the “must happens” of the day we talked about at the end of our last class: an opportunity for students to present, finishing up unit planning, discussing the book Gingersnap, and finishing up self-assessments. The “may happens” will come after the “must happens,” and are essentially “your ideas here.”
Four students: Can I present?

  • Four presentations follow, each strong on facts, thematically clear, with obvious deep personal connections to the topics. Supportive applause after each.
  • Discussion on ideas for a film-making unit. Ten kids still want to make a movie from the book Wonder. Two still don’t but are willing to work out their own idea. Ten kids offer to help the small group by playing any necessary additional roles. Two kids offer to help film the large group. They beg me to let them start planning. I acquiesce.
  • Soon, the small group excitedly calls me over to tell me their seed idea and that they are ready to start fleshing it out, while the large group has decided to hold auditions to see who gets to play which part. They beg me to let them keep going. I acquiesce.
  • Time flies like the wind. They will have to finish their self-assessments on their own (Google Forms). Gingersnap can wait until after break.
  • “Hey, everyone can have a donut!” one of them yells. They run to the boxes, and then down the stairs. The room is quiet.

This is my world. This is why I love middle schoolers.

A number of friends liked my post. One of them, Rebecca Lawson, went so far as to ask me if John Lounsbury was a Facebook friend of mine, telling me “He would LOVE this! Definitely no laminated lesson plans here!! GREAT!.” John Lounsbury, whom I have in fact met (and who once invited me to a symposium on the future of the middle school movement), is one of the godfathers of the middle school model. Well into his 90’s, he continues to advocate in his modest but clear fashion for practices that seem like basic common sense as you listen to him but prove, on closer examination, to be deeply innovative. To think he would love what my students were doing is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten.

What a great way to end the term!

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

Ending well

written Wednesday evening, Nov. 19, 2014, the night before the last day of Fall Trimester classes in the middle school.

“Let’s make it a really fun and special week for them,” Andrea said as we all nodded. We were in a Middle School team meeting, trying to plan out a week of special schedules for our students while the Upper School students were planning for and taking final exams. Monday and Tuesday, we would be following the same schedule as the Upper School while they were meeting to review, but Wednesday and Thursday were all our own.

Of course, part of this time would be given over to classes – we believe in making good use of our time together right up to the last minute – so it was easy to decide Wednesday morning would be normal, and Thursday needed to include the three class periods that don’t meet on a Wednesday morning. This would also give an air of seriousness to those last two days, and moreover provide some degree of comfort through the familiar routine. Yet, changing things up where possible would definitely add an air of celebration.

So we decided to offer students a menu of fun activities Wednesday afternoon, settling on a bowling trip, a movie, open gym, and printmaking. Andrea, Karen, Ally, and Ben stepped up respectively to help facilitate those activities. Counterintuitive though it may seem, we thought it would make sense to also set aside some time that afternoon for students to clean up their rooms so they would be ready to check out with houseparents when vacation officially began.

Andrea, Ben, and Karen also stepped up to make Thursday special, Andrea by setting up a field trip to the Smith College Botanic Garden with the 7th graders, Ben by coming up with the idea of joining an art component in with Andrea’s science activities, and Karen by agreeing to take the 8th graders for the morning to do some fun activities related to their DC trip. Is it any wonder I love working with the middle school team?!

So after lunch today, I hustled over to the middle school corridors to help supervise room cleaning. I found almost a party atmosphere – I suppose an impending vacation helps create that mood whatever you are doing – as some students worked diligently to organize their rooms, others proudly showed me they were ready to go, and just about everyone scrambled to be next to use the vacuum. I burst out laughing when I went into one room to “Just take a look at my side, please” as every square inch of floor, bed, and desk was covered on one side while the other was spotless, a ruler-straight line dividing one side from the other. The first girl’s roommate hastened to assure me “I’m working on it! It’s actually better now!” And in point of fact, it was even better by the time the hour was out.

Andrea and I moved quickly from the dorms to grab the vehicle we used to shuttle the bowling trip students off to French King Bowling Center. The students quickly lined up to get shoes, formed groups of up to four per lane, and began to program in their and their friends’ names. Several groups clamored for the bumpers to be put up, and the owner good-naturedly teased them before complying. Randomly, I happened to witness one student toss a ball right over the bumper and straight into the gutter, where it wobbled all the way to the end as she doubled over laughing. Meanwhile, one lane over, another student was pumping her fist as she knocked all the pins down. On the way back, I learned that the students on the first bus trip *really* knew the line “make a wish” in the song “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson which was playing on WHAI as they sang it with at least twice the volume and energy of any other line in the song. Even, on occasion, when Kelly Clarkson herself was singing something else altogether.

Tomorrow, I’ll help transport the 7th graders to Smith College, and once we’ve finished at the Garden, enjoy a quick walk in town to the Starbucks. After lunch, I’ll meet Humanities 7 for a long double period. Three students will present their work from the last unit, we’ll discuss the ending of the novel Gingersnap, we’ll finish up planning the next unit, and I’ll be sure they have some “choice time” to finish up their self-assessments, turn in their “Works Consulted” pages, and simply enjoy some free reading time in each other’s company. It’s a great way to finish out the term.

No wonder I love my job.

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Filed under In the Classroom, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

No One: Reflections on Ferguson

It’s about an hour since the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson was announced, and I’m still feeling sucker punched despite being among the millions who had anticipated the decision and the millions more who could tell it was coming once prosecutor Robert McCulloch began his bizarre preamble to the announcement. Besides sharing their own anger, anguish, sadness, or frustration, teachers on my Twitter and Facebook timelines have also been wondering what on Earth they’re going to tell their students tomorrow.

We’re on Thanksgiving vacation, so I don’t have that immediate worry, but I do need to think about what we might do upon our return in December. As it happens, one of the six students in my Humanities 7 class who still has to present on her second Focus Question after break wrote her essay on racism and white supremacy. She had been unafraid to tackle difficult questions, including white privilege. And her essay included a powerful moment when the white resident of a predominantly black neighborhood, made the statement that “There’s no need to be careful if you treat people as human beings.” At that point, she saw a black woman emerge from a nearby house and added, loudly, “As long as you don’t have a gun in your hand, I’m okay with you.” (Huber)

Okaaaaaaay then.

That alone should generate a fair amount of discussion in this class!

Today, we are also mourning twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by Cleveland police officers while he was carrying a toy gun. Today, we are also reacting to the news that Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal under which she will serve out the remaining two months of a three-year sentence, all for having attempted to defend herself when she feared for her life.

I may be sickened and saddened by all of this, but I also hold in my head and my heavy heart the realities that our justice system would treat me very differently if I were a person of colour and that white privilege may be, in the words of my student, “an unfair thing as it is something that is decided by something you can’t control,” but it is no less real for all that.

Leslie Carole Taylor, one of my friends from high school is a UCC minister, and she was posting an incredible series of quotes and thoughts on Facebook through the evening. As a Black woman, she no doubt was experiencing today’s events differently than I was, yet everything she wrote resonated with me. Among her posts was this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” I wrote back, “I share that belief. And I share responsibility for bringing that final word about.”

In meeting that responsibility, I would simultaneously be working toward my student’s vision: “Your race shouldn’t affect how people treat you or see you. In the end, I feel that no one should be judged because of their race.”

No one. Not Marissa Alexander. Not Michael Brown. Not Tamir Rice. Not Eric Garner. Not John Crawford. Not Ezell Ford. Not Trayvon Martin. Not Jordan Davis. Not Renisha McBride. Not…

No one.

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Filed under Current Events, In the Classroom

At the Heart of It

Alfie Kohn is most definitely one of my educational heroes. Controversial as he may be, the controversy often stems from his relentless focus on what research tells us about what is best for students even when it flies in the face of common sense. And anyone who is all about figuring out what is best for students, and who has the courage to follow through on those principles (even if they differ from my own), earns my respect.

So when he wrote on Twitter, “Provocative essay about ‘the world of classroom management’: our need for control & for quick fixes: http://ow.ly/DTjfT,” it got my attention. The essay turned out to be excerpted from a chapter by Barbara McEwan Landau from the book Classroom Discipline in American Schools: Problems and Possibilities for Democratic Education, edited by Ronald E. Butchart and used with permission from SUNY Press. It’s well worth a read, as the following quotes suggest.

“I have never worked with any educators who desire to become ‘mean’ teachers. Yet the fear of losing control while experimenting with management practices new to them causes educators to believe that in a crunch they will revert to behavioral measures that, in their words, ‘work’ to end inappropriate conduct.”

This brought back memories of a long-ago class I had that was particularly troublesome to manage. To this day, I’m not remotely proud of some of the things I tried doing to regain control (and yes, I realize the use of the word “control” in the first place is telling). For a brief period in time, I was most definitely a “mean” teacher, the antithesis of who I want to be and who I believe I am deep down. What finally worked was simply sitting down and talking honestly with the kids about how it felt to be in class together, and what we all could do about creating the kind of environment they all wanted deep down. Maybe it was simply that the kids themselves had to grow tired of their own behavior before they cared to correct it. But treating them respectfully as people who instinctively wanted to the do right thing certainly couldn’t have hurt.

“Another curious paradox is trying to control student behaviors while making little or no attempt to determine the underlying cause of the behavior.”

This goes to the heart of how we now handle discipline in our middle school program. We certainly realize that sometimes, young adolescents will have moments so impulsive that they themselves may not be able to identify the underlying cause of the behavior. However, we also realize that without students having some sense of multiple perspectives on something that happened, and thus cause and effect, working our way through to a genuine desire to change behavior in the future is at best unlikely and at worst completely futile.

“Constantly quiet classrooms look as they do because the students are being controlled through fear, intimidation, frequent competitions, and public embarrassment.”

I actually take issue with this statement, which is particularly odd in light of the quote in the preceding paragraph. Of course, I wouldn’t advocate for a split second that we control students through external motivation of any sort, let alone such negative means. And maybe, to be fair, the key is in the word “constantly.” At any rate, I would simply suggest also looking at the underlying cause of the behavior when viewing a quiet classroom. For one example, in my experience, this year’s Humanities 7 class has been phenomenal from the start about being able to maintain focus and work quietly during “Choice Time.” They might be reading in the group novel, or in their independent reading book. They might be working on their independent writing, or researching and writing their Focus Question essay, or preparing for a presentation. But for them, the quiet comes from being thoroughly engaged with the work they are doing – internal motivation of the kind we’d hope to see.

“Unfortunately, when my pre-service students do enter the field experience classrooms to which they have been assigned, they are more likely to see modeled the very strategies that are least likely to promote classroom equity.”

Unless they visit our school – as one visitor from a teaching program at Antioch commented several years ago after observing my Humanities 7 class, “My class will be so excited to hear about this. We read about democratic classroom, but we didn’t know anyone who was actually making it work.”

“Building a democratic classroom climate requires an effective integration of pedagogical knowledge, educational psychology, patience, hard work, an unwavering dedication to equal educational opportunity for all students, and a passionate belief that everyone, including the teacher, can learn from mistakes.”

And now we’re at the heart of our mission as a school. I see every single one of these elements in every single one of my colleagues, along with a willingness and a desire to learn from each other. And I see the level of trust and connection students feel, along with the sense of gratitude they express. And I myself am grateful.

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