Category Archives: In the Classroom

Student Driven Classrooms: Keeping the Faith

Thanks to John Norton and MiddleWeb for granting us permission to repost and link to this piece originally published on their website!

Twice a year, our independent school invites the families of boarding and day students to Family Weekend – a busy, enjoyable time when visitors can attend classes as well as various talks, performances, presentations and athletic events. This year the spring weekend came along just as my Humanities 7 course was finishing up their self-designed unit on “judging” and was not quite ready to dive fully into the next (poetry).

This left me somewhat at a loss for what to do during our special weekend class – on precisely one of those days where you want the students (and yourself) to be at their best.

I eventually decided to hold an official poetry unit kickoff. Olivia asked me right before we started if she could read one of her poems. Her beautiful and powerful reading opened the class perfectly. I then told the kids I was about to give them their one writing prompt for the entire unit, and asked them to take out their iPads and write a poem entitled “Poetry Is.”

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

Threshold

Last Monday, my Humanities 7 class seemed tired. Many of them had gone on the Boston Harbor cruise the night before at the invitation of Cardigan Mountain School, and had gotten back late. Others seemed to be having a post-weekend drop in energy (to be fair, it was 8:00 in the morning). Others, I’m sure, were fine, but (ironically) they were quieter about it than those who were tired.

So, we spent extra time on Morning Announcements, taking all their questions about the upcoming three weeks and the many special events, ensuring they felt they had as good a sense as possible of what was coming up. We moved on to Morning Reading, with Olivia reading Julia’s short story for her and Emily reading her own poems. I had earlier decided to extend Morning Reading if need be by including an installment from Wonder, the book the students had chosen for their unit on “judging” and in which we had just read the climax. The next section of the book involved preparations for fifth and sixth grade graduation, and the resonance in the room with what these students were thinking and feeling was strong.

There was a point when Auggie, the protagonist in the book, was asked if he wanted to press charges following a certain event; he didn’t. Elizabeth’s hand shot up to protest his decision, arguing it was the only way for the bullies to learn a lesson and that what they’d done was extremely serious. Olivia responded that it’s Auggie’s right to decide what he wants to do about it, and Jewels made a noise of agreement. I pointed out it all depended on what principles you used to make your decision, that by the way we were naturally shifting gears toward our next unit on ethics, and that at any rate each person did in the end have every right to make their own decision based on the the values they had every right to hold. Everyone nodded and a few other students added further thoughts.

During this discussion, I secretly flipped through to the end of the book, so when I got to a natural stopping point in the story – the night before the graduation – I told the class there was about 15 minutes’ worth of reading until the end, and asked them to vote on whether they would like to finish the story right then or wait until tomorrow. By a vote of 7-4 with two abstentions, they voted to continue, and settled back into their beanbags.

Soon, I was reading a speech by Mr. Tushman, the Middle School Director, on the importance of kindness: “… but what I want you, my students, to take away from your middle school experience… is the sure knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person here in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place.” (Palacio) One of the students raised her hand. “That sounds like something you would say,” she said. “It does,” I agreed, “only… I promise to be much more brief than Mr. Tushman in the Eighth Grade Moving Up Ceremony.” “Oh, good,” said at least half the students, laughing.

As I read the final words of the book, thinking partly of the emotions the characters were feeling, partly of the emotions my students were feeling, and partly of myself speaking to this particular middle school community for the last time less than three weeks from now, I choked up (again) a little: “You really are a wonder, Auggie. You are a wonder.” and several of the students said, “Oh, Bill, you’re crying a little.” I smiled. “Yes. I am. Get used to it. Because I guarantee it will happen in Moving Up.” They smiled back, and one of them commented on my past writings about the end of the year in this school and whether there is “enough tissue in the world.” The room fell silent for a moment. I raised my voice and called out, “Okay, choice time, and meditation in my office is a choice.” The students stood and stretched and moved on.

But not away. Not yet, anyway.

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

The Politics of Nail Polish

“Can I ask why you’re wearing black nail polish?” I turned to see one of my advisees, a member of the Middle School Rock Band, walking toward me as we prepared for dress rehearsal for a show. “Sure, I said, “In order to make people think about why I’m doing it.” She burst into laughter, and said, “You’re the only person I know who would answer that question in that way.”

There are other reasons too, of course, several of which I’ve written about here before. Solidarity with my students in showing that I value the feminine. Breaking gender stereotypes and supporting other people who do the same. Ensuring my nail polish does not clash with my skin tone (granted, that’s mostly about the colour). And, as I have noted to those of my students who share a love of black nail polish, because I just like the way it looks on me. It took me quite a while to realize that, as I had to break a few internal gender stereotypes of my own. But I do.

I remember five years ago, sitting with a group of students and female faculty members having a “Day of Awareness” discussion on a gender-related issue, when one of the women turned to me and said, “Well, Bill’s here. Bill, what is the male perspective on that?” After a moment, I said, with maybe just a slight wavering of my voice, “I have no idea what ‘the male perspective’ is, but I can tell you what I think.” In so doing, I anticipated my current Humanities 7 students’ personal definitions in response to the question “What is a girl?” Ultimately, the majority (if not all!) of them felt that anyone who identifies as a girl gets to decide for herself what that means for her. My own sense of self was similarly unique to who I am and had (and still has) nothing to do with how anyone else identifies.

Six or seven years back, when my hair began thinning on the back of my head, my stepfather remarked on it and asked me if I’d have to cut off my ponytail one day and, if so, if I’d have to change my personality. The question struck me as both odd and insightful, and took me back several years before then when I’d told a colleague I had made an appointment to get a haircut. She said, genuinely alarmed, “But you’re not cutting off your ponytail!” No, I told her, just a trim, wondering why she’d care that much. I can only guess that, for both my stepfather and my colleague, there was something about my long hair that symbolized my way of being. Many of my virtual friends have told me that my online persona seems feminine to them. I’ve even had people tell me face to face, “Sometimes, I forget you’re a man.” And I can happily live with that, with people looking beyond gender to who other people really are deep down. In fact, my own search for identity has been largely shaped by my continual efforts to look past gender to my true authentic self, and my gender expression has reflected that ongoing search in the context of a heavily gendered culture.

To me, then, the whole concept of gender is ambiguous, individual, and personal. For some, a fixed, binary vision works perfectly well, and more power to them. For others, not so much, and more power to them as well. So what if we all were granted the sole power to determine our own gender identity, and other people simply respected that? It’s crazy, but it just might work.

If my own personality is a blend of what society currently calls feminine and masculine, along with other traits that don’t necessarily fall specifically into either gender box, so be it. And if my appearance – hair, nail polish, and the occasional skirt included – reflects that blurring of traditional concepts of gender, so be it. I am not female, though I am (conventionally) feminine in many ways. So I’m not (conventionally) masculine either. Except when I am. Which makes me… just… me. Husband, father, son, brother, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, nephew. Cousin, friend. Teacher, adviser, colleague. Person.

Those who see me around but don’t know me may nonetheless find their conceptions about gender stretched, and as a gender activist, I’m all over that. And those who do know me may take the combination of my appearance and my way of being as a means of reflecting on not just what gender means in our society and what they think about that but also on how we each ultimately determine our own gender identities and gender expressions. And I’m all over that as well.

How we conceive of the idea of gender identity was one of the questions Ms. Durrett’s sophomore English class wanted to discuss with my Humanities 7 students when we met near the end of Fall Term. While we didn’t quite get to it, not directly anyway, having gotten deeply involved in the topics of feminism, girls schools, and sports culture, both classes wanted to get back together for more discussion. When we do, I’ll be fascinated to see what they have to say.

And maybe, as my own contribution to the discussion… I’ll wear black nail polish.

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Equalist Dress Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potential Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And We’re Back!

Other than the persistent and depressing cold, which I’ll concede has the virtue of bringing people together united in the strong desire for spring to just come already tinged with a sense of pride that we seem to have survived winter, it’s been a relatively normal return from spring break. The faculty began with an excellent in-service day. We spent the morning thinking about gender and sexual identities and how they relate to adolescent development, and how best to support our students. In the afternoon, we learned about Korean culture and spent time thinking about ways to best support all the English learners in our school. Kids greeted each other with the usual screams and hugs. Classes got back to work with a general good will and air of curiosity, although I’ll admit here that my Humanities 7 class was openly (and occasionally successfully) trying to distract me from starting the brand new unit. They would eventually agree that the unit’s theme would be judging, with the discussion underlining that we were especially looking at how ideals get set, why some ideals end up so superficial, and the sources and effects of judgment on people in general and 7th grade girls in particular.

Wednesday morning, while looking for interesting articles and comments to share on the school’s Twitter stream, I stumbled across an article at edweek.org entitled “Single-Sex Classrooms Making a Comeback for All the Wrong Reasons.” That certainly caught my attention! Reading through it, I felt as though I were in an alternate reality. The concluding sentence, “It seems that there must be a better way to encourage young women, and men, in their academic studies without implementing the archaic practice of total separation in classrooms.” summed up the general drift of the article, and was followed by a question that, in the context of the article, I hope and trust was sincere: “Are you in favor of, or against, single-sex schooling models?”

Well. I am strongly in favour of schooling models that work toward social justice, and unsurprisingly, I believe (based on both experience and on research) that girls schools can provide a unique, valuable, and rich context for that work. I don’t always comment on edweek.org articles, but I was definitely riled up, and before I knew it, I had worked up the following comment that began with quotes from the article:

“This idea that young women are dropping non-feminine topics at an impressionable age because of the opposite sex is flawed.” “One of the arguments for single-sex schooling is that it takes away the tingly, budding attraction emotions in young people” I work in the middle school program of a girls independent school, and believe me, these are not fundamental rationales for our being a girls school. I would run away screaming if that were true.

In sharp contrast to those rationales, our school’s mission implies feminist ideals as it is not just about honoring and developing girls’ and women’s voices but also about working to build a world that is genuinely willing to listen. Year after year, kids in my class say they can talk about gender issues in a way that was never possible in their old schools. They’ll talk about coaches – coaches! – that discouraged them from developing athletic ability. They’ll talk about how much they appreciate being taken seriously and valued as girls. One alumna wrote of how grateful she was to have learned how to live as a feminist in a patriarchal society. And there is research supporting these sorts of benefits of living and learning in a girl-positive environment.

As for the “T” in LGBT – we have in fact had students and alums come out as transgender (by the way, I would argue that the implication here is that gender, unlike sex, isn’t necessarily predetermined), and I do in fact try to be very clear with my students that I’m well aware that not every person at my school whom I’ve ever taught, or will ever teach, will necessarily self-identify as female their whole life.

So yes, I support my school’s model. But I don’t view it as archaic in the slightest. And in no way do I believe I am “teaching stereotypes” – other than to identify them and the forces creating them, the better to work to undermine and do away with them.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School