Category Archives: On Education

Short essays and in-depth analysis from our teachers and administrators on the state of education today.

Honoring MLK: A 2 Month Discussion on Social Justice and Teacher Activism

I am a member (and former Virtual Community Organizer) of the Collaboratory forum at the Center for Teaching Quality. Recently, Brianna Crowley, a teacherpreneur at CTQ, led a discussion on social justice, teacher activism, and how best to truly honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his Day. The discussion, in which I was honored to participate, led her to post a blog that, as it considers these questions, also provides a window into a vital online professional community. She has given me permission to reprint and link to her blog here, for which I thank her. 

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I’m lucky to be a part of the CTQ Collaboratory, a community of over 8,000 talented, passionate educators who use their precious time away from their classrooms and families to engage in meaningful dialogue about what it means to be a teacher and a leader.

Recently, as a CTQ Teacherpreneur, I’ve been working to foster Collaboratory discussions around themes. In observance of Human Rights Day on December 10, 2014 and MLK day on January 19, 2015, we have been discussing the theme of social justice and the role of teachers as social justice advocates.

Teachers have been not only sharing their reflections and experience, but also their deeply personal questions.

I would like to share some of that conversation and ask you to join. Leading into MLK day, we want to honestly discuss the best ways honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in our classrooms and beyond. To open the discussion, I shared two resources that help educators adopt a social justice lens in their curriculum: TeachUNICEF and Facing History and Ourselves. I challenged our community to focus on how teacher leadership promotes social justice in our education system. (…)

(read more here!)

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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

Please and thank you

(Trigger Warning: discussion of suicide)

Although I didn’t grow up watching It’s a Wonderful Life, once I first saw the film as an adult, I could see why it’s become a Christmastime tradition for many people (including some who don’t personally celebrate Christmas). However dark the movie may be in spots, its ultimate affirmation of the notion that each life matters deeply is moving and appealing. As Clarence Oddbody put it, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (wikiquote)

In the middle of holiday festivities, family gatherings, and time to relax, just as 2015 was fast approaching with the promise of a fresh new year, the untimely death of Leelah Alcorn at only 17 years of age left an awful hole even in the lives of people who never knew her. No angel was able to prevent this tragedy, and so at 2:30 in the morning, she set out from home, walked down the Interstate, and walked in front of a truck. Her grieving parents called for prayers and support, for them and for Leelah’s siblings left behind.

However, that sympathy has not been uniformly forthcoming. In fact, some people are calling for them to be prosecuted. Leelah was transgender and left behind a note indicting her parents for refusing to recognize her true gender and allow her to medically transition, furthermore progressively isolating her from friends and other potential sources of support. Statistics are clear that trans youth who have unsupportive parents are half as likely to be satisfied with their lives as those with supportive parents; only 13% report high self esteem (vs. 65%), while 75% suffer depression (vs. 23%) and 57% have attempted suicide (vs. just 4%). (transstudent.org; link shared by Sophia Banks) Leelah’s parents were conservative Christians, and her mom said in an interview that “We don’t support that, religiously.” (quoted by WCPO)

In no way, of course, do I think that Leelah’s parents represent the entire body of Christianity. Among the families in the Stoneleigh-Burnham community I know to have been most supportive of LGBT people are a good number of Christians. Both of my parents belong to open and accepting Christian churches. One of my friends from high school, a lesbian, is ordained by the United Church of Christ, a denomination that successfully won a suit in North Carolina arguing that same-gender marriage bans were an unconstitutional infringement of freedom of religion.

Neither do I believe Leelah’s parents deserve no sympathy whatsoever. Her mother has stated they loved her unconditionally, and there is no question they are in deep pain. As a parent myself, I can’t help but feel for them. Her father has asked that they be left to grieve in private, and I would never ever think of contacting them directly at such a difficult time in their life, never mind doing so to call them out as some have apparently done.

But the language Leelah’s parents have been using is telling. “We told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. (…) I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.” (Carla Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) “We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death.” (Doug Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) They have continued to misgender her, calling her a boy and their son, using male pronouns and her male name. In our society, your name and your gender are among the most fundamental parts of your identity – and Leelah’s parents continually denied and continue to deny her the basic human right to express that identity as she saw herself.

While suicide is clearly a deep concern specifically within the transgender community, it is also the third most frequent cause of death for all teenagers of all genders. It’s important to know the warning signs, and to be aware of resources on which we can draw, including suicide hotlines and trans support hotlines. Moreover, we need to be aware of the intersections between a given person’s gender, sexuality, race, class, age, and abledness, the better to clearly see them as they are and be able to listen to their story and give them the support they need.

Leelah’s note ended: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. (…) Fix society. Please.”

And thank you.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, Uncategorized

“This Very Interesting Article on Buzzfeed”

“I have found this very interesting article on Buzzfeed that I thought you may be interested in.” McKim, one of my former students, now a junior, was writing ten faculty members to share a link to “Austin Thinks It Can Save Poor Kids By Separating Boys And Girls” by Katie J. M. Baker. After summarizing what it was about, she went on to write, “At one point in the article, an organization states that ‘Single-sex schools are illegal.’ Which sounds preposterous. On the other hand, the all boys section of this school district is teaching the boys to always walk behind a lady during formal events because she is wearing heels, and if she falls a boy should be there to catch her. Although, at the same time the all girls school is teaching the girls to use their voice and not be afraid to be leaders.” I finished her email and clicked on the link, quickly glancing through the piece and then writing her back: “Thanks, McKim! I skimmed the article and will come back to it in more detail soon. There are a lot of layers to it, and I want to look deeply at it and see how they handle all the complicated intersections of race and gender and class as they pertain to education. It seems fascinating.”

The schools, Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy, do indeed appear to include a fascinating mix of best practices that occasionally succumb to unfortunate stereotyping, all underscored with good intentions, exactly as McKim had told us. And there is no question that the learning environment is much improved from the dreadful schools that preceded these. “Dozens of students said they were happy with the switch. (…) ‘Last year, the teachers didn’t care about us,’ said an eighth-grader named Daryl. “They just cared about their paycheck.’” (Baker) And a former district Trustee, Cheryl Bradley, was definitely on the right track when she affirmed: “It’s not about boys learning this way and girls learning this way. What we did is we change the learning environment. Because it just wasn’t working the way it was. We cannot continue to do the same thing and fail at it and not try to do something new to be successful.” (quoted in Baker)

Yet practices such as the advice to boys that McKim cited, or advice given by one of the so-called experts that “teachers should allow girls to take their shoes off to decrease stress.” (Baker), suggest that the schools do not always reach in practice the ideals that they set. This applies to educating children of colour as well, as “Officials at the schools, composed of 97.4% and 94.1% Latino and black schoolchildren, respectively, learned that black boys in particular are more likely to be ‘aggressive’ and ‘not as neat.’” (Baker) And when we read that “Girls read on cozy couches in the library and bounce on green exercise balls during math class,” (Baker) it’s hard not to wonder, “But wouldn’t that work for boys too?”

Of course, single-gender public schools aren’t illegal per se, merely some of the policies they might carry out. According to Ms. Baker, “the Department of Education issued new clarifying guidelines for K–12 schools. Those that choose to offer single-sex classes must be clear about their goals (“improving academic achievement” counts), ensure that enrollment is completely voluntary, and conduct periodic evaluations every two years, among other mandates. Clearest of all: Schools must “avoid relying on gender stereotypes.” The ACLU built on that theme, stating that “generalizations about boys’ and girls’ interests and learning styles cannot be used to justify the use of different teaching methods for male and female students.” (quoted in Baker)

In presenting research, the article mentions, among others, a study undertaken by Dr. Janet Hyde at the University of Wisconsin, a 2011 article in Science magazine, and work by both Dr. Lise Eliot and Dr. Leonard Sax. These were all familiar to me, and I wrote McKim about some of my concerns, asking rhetorically why the landmark 2009 study led by Dr. Linda Sax which affirmed several positive effects of girls education is not more often mentioned. Among my earlier blog entries, “Why [a rigid binary view of] Gender Matters,” and “Sleeves Rolled Up” summarize my feelings well, and “Making History” was my immediate (if indirect) response to the Science article.

“‘What’s happening in the public school system looks nothing like single-sex education at private schools and colleges,’ said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.” (Baker) While that might be an overgeneralization, I know that what I see going on around me in this school bears little resemblance to descriptions of what is happening in some of the public schools against which the ACLU has brought lawsuits. I might continually examine what we are doing, as we all should – but in the end, that leads to an ever-stronger commitment to our mission. As I once wrote, “So – what does it mean to teach girls today? I told my friend that at this point in time, I no longer “teach girls” but rather teach the unique and individual students I have in front of me. But I do so in a girl-positive environment created within a school whose mission is built on feminist ideals.” (“Why I Support the ACLU’s Suit Against Single-Sex Schools”)

McKim concluded, “As a student at a single-sex school I found this article very interesting because I was able to see how some organizations viewed public single sex schools, what they thought the guidelines on how it should work was, and how this school district in Texas organized their schools.” I would agree, and add that the article reconfirmed for me how important it is to keep an open mind, listen, consider all perspectives, and ultimately recognize that there probably is no one single model of education that’s right for every single student.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, On Education, The Girls School Advantage, 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

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

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