Category Archives: On Education

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

Preventing Bullying

“You’re not wearing a blue shirt.” The comment, coming from a Junior in her own blue shirt, was something of a test, and I got partial credit by cringing and saying, “Oh, no! I totally forgot!” At least my response showed I knew that wearing a blue shirt on that particular Monday was meant to draw attention to National Bullying Prevention Month. I did manage to wear purple on GLAAD Spirit Day to take “a stand against bullying and show [my] support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth” (GLAAD), and kept a blue pinky for a week in response to a tweet by @beinggirl; my photo even earned a retweet from the “Secret Mean Stinks” campaign, among others.

For the Humanities 7 unit on “Why do people judge other people and themselves?” one of my students did her individual Focus Question work on bullying. She designed her presentation as much to stimulate conversation as to present information, and she succeeded admirably: the discussion lasted over 45 minutes and might have continued even longer if class hadn’t ended. The students were not without empathy for bullies, coming quickly to general agreement that often, they simply didn’t know better because that was how they were treated, or perhaps they had deep-seated issues of their own and the bullying had nothing to do with the actual victims.

That said, victims of bullying definitely got the most sympathy, all the more so because, as it turned out, some of the students in my class had been bullied at their old schools. Those who chose to tell their stories were met with respectful, rapt, sympathetic attention, and some of them showed tremendous courage and trust in sharing details of what had been said and done to them. Empathy for what the bullies may have been through took a definite back seat to empathy for their classmates, and I’m sure many of them were thinking what one student said out loud: “I’m just so glad I don’t have to worry about bullying at Stoneleigh-Burnham.”

I’m not pretending our school is perfect. As human beings, we all succumb at times to moments of weakness, or trip up on highly inelegant phrasing, and feelings can at times be hurt. But if such moments happen in a relationship that has already put down some roots, it’s easier to work through those moments. Flipping through my Twitter feed today, I stumbled on research that suggested the more a teacher can create an environment where students feel genuinely safe, the more those students will learn and grow. That makes intuitive sense, and I always view creating that level of safety as a moral imperative.

The stopbullying.gov webpage offers some great ideas for preventing bullying before it even starts, and handling it should it happen. These range from media guidelines to specific ideas for parents, educators, the community, teens, and kids. With respect as the basis behind all these suggestions, the more we work to keep our kids safe, the more we’ll be working for a better world.

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Filed under On Education, On Parenting, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

#WriteMyCommunity (National Day on Writing 2014)

Last night, Ben Kuhlman and José Vilson co-facilitated a Twitter chat on the National Day on Writing for the National Council of Teachers of English. You can search for it using the hashtag #NCTEchat and looking back in time to Sunday night, Oct. 19, from 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET. They very kindly shared their questions ahead of time. Here, then, in somewhat more than 140 characters (!) are my own answers to their questions.

Q1 – Do you write outside your job? What? Why? Does your writing contribute to explaining/defining a specific community? #NCTEChat

As most of you here know, I am lucky enough to be able to write extensively as part of my job. Blogging for the school automatically means tying everything I do to the school’s mission one way or another – global community, girls voices, being one’s own best self – ultimately, intersectional feminism. My Twitter work is itself intersectional, as I maintain the school’s account and inevitably share information there I’ve gathered in my personal account. Similarly, I have networked with enough educators and teachers on Facebook that my personal and professional worlds overlap seriously there, as well. That said, I have also had written pieces published in other locations, including two introductions for books, and various essays and articles published online and in professional journals – you can see a full list in my electronic portfolio.

Why? Well, for one, I love to write! It’s one of my main ways of understanding the world (talking to my family, friends, and colleagues, and running are among the others).

Q2 – Where do you think people look to understand what’s going on in their communities? #NCTEChat

I think that depends on the community. Where people can still spend time face to face, I think that’s still the most important means of communication, and for good reason. There’s a time and place for electronic communication, of course, but when one school that I know of has explicitly set an 8:00 curfew for faculty email and another has created what is essentially an “Email is overwhelming!” committee, clearly, electronic communication can be overdone. Of course, for larger communities that are more diverse geographically, electronic communication is really the way to go. If I want to know what’s on AMLE’s mind, for example, I might sit on on their Thursday night #mschat on Twitter.

Q3 – Give an example of a person who plays an important role in your local community. How do they do that? #NCTEChat

Susanna Thompson, our Director of Communications, has done some wonderful work both writing on her own and helping shape and focus the writing the rest of us do. She is sensitive to the primary importance of student voice as a fundamentally important part of our mission, and understands that authentic adult voices can both serve as role models and help the school grow in striving to meet our mission. She works to understand where each of us is coming from, where we want to go, and how we can get there while simultaneously integrating into a whole. Plus, she herself is a strong intersectional feminist, and that helps shape my own thinking in deeply important ways.

Q4 – Is social media the loudest voice in defining/writing communities today? Is that good? What else contributes? #NCTEChat

I think social media are not necessarily the loudest voice, but they certainly are the most accessible and among the largest. I think the potential for good is unquestionably there, and having the ability to self-define whom we follow and why contributes to the likelihood of that potential being realized.

That said, I’m actually on a self-imposed break from my personal Twitter account right now, primarily because it’s gotten to the point where I tense up inside when I sign on and generally get pretty deeply upset if I stay online for more than a few minutes – partly because of the news in the world, partly because of how I see other people being treated, and partly because I see how quickly one (me included) can offend and hurt other people despite the very best of intentions. The worst part is the feeling of always being on my guard and suspecting I could be tripping up at any moment; I have to find a positive way to deal with that. When I do, I’ll be back – I feel too connected to too many people to stay away too long!

Q5 – In an ideal world, who would have the most powerful voice in your community? Why? #NCTEChat

In general, I’m not much for hierarchies and discussions of who’s more powerful. In my own ideal world, then, we would all share power pretty much equally, though of course we would each have our own personal areas of responsibility. Furthermore, we would all respect each other’s differences and what we each have to contribute. As far as this school community goes, Head of School Sally Mixsell does a good job, in my opinion, of respecting what all of us bring to the table and trusting us to make decisions without micromanaging us along the way.

Q6 – Do you think writing will play an important part in defining the futures of our communities? Why or why not? #NCTEChat

I think it will. Our world is increasingly text-based (including, of course, actual texting!), and I don’t see any signs that trend is slowing. Plus, text (in certain formats, anyway) can be read any time, allowing for smooth asynchronous conversations or sharing of information in a way no other form of communication that I know can manage. Yes, you could exchange voicemails, and YouTube and podcasts are also increasingly frequently used to communicate. But listening to text takes more time than reading it, for most of us, and I don’t see that dynamic shifting drastically any time soon.

Q7 – How do current events play a role in the writing you or your students do? Please share any examples and/or links. #NCTEChat

Current events, as many of you know, play a huge role in my own writing. Much of what I write is based on what’s going on the world, be important events, social justice themes and milestones, educational discourse in various segments of my PLN, and of course my own classroom – all areas that often intersect in ways hard to untangle.

Q8 – Please share links to your blog/site, sites that are an important voice in your community, or any relevant resources. #NCTEChat

You’re on the space where I do most of my blogging now! 🙂 Most of my remaining writing (and sites important to my colleagues and me as middle school people) has been for MiddleWeb, Education Week, the Association of Middle Level Education, and the New England League of Middle Schools.
* * * * *
NCTE’s closing tweet was: “Don’t forget to join us tomorrow for our #NDoW Twitter Party. Use the #WriteMyCommunity hashtag all day long! #nctechat” I hope to see you online!

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One Mind at a Time

I try to be on the lookout for chances to react to blogs, knowing (as Bill Ferriter has pointed out on more than one occasion) that one of the highest compliments I can pay a blogger is to leave a comment or even write a whole new blog in reaction, thus showing how much of an impression they’ve left on me. So when Brianna Crowley opened one of her blogs at the Center for Teaching Quality with a writing prompt from a 30-day blogging challenge for teachers, the temptation to write my own blog based on the same prompt was strong.

Until I really absorbed the prompt: “Write about one of your biggest accomplishments in your teaching that no one knows about (or may not care).”

You see, it creates not one but several problems for me. First, I have difficulty committing to submitting my accomplishments to any sort of hierarchical ranking. I hate hierarchies to the point where, earlier this year, when I said in an all-school meeting that my orientation group was “the best,” Sally looked at me with shock and surprise and said, “Bill Ivey, did you really say that?” Somewhat taken aback myself, I joked that Sharon Weyers, who was sitting behind me, must have performed some sort of ventriloquism.

Second, I don’t like talking about my accomplishments in teaching. I don’t even like using the word “teaching,” to tell the truth, preferring to focus on the word “learning” since there is quite literally no teaching without learning and I prefer the focus to be on the students anyway.

And third, as a fairly frequent blogger and someone who loves to tell stories about my students, trying to come up with something that no one really knows about is tougher than one might think. And something that no one really cares about? Well, if no one cares… why even bother mentioning it?

So that all left me at loose ends. I decided maybe I should sleep on it. So I did. For several nights. Until finally, inevitably, a moment gradually came into focus.

It was one of those times when the seventh graders, fascinated as they are with their emerging adulthood and open as they are about the continuing role their parents play in shaping that transition, begin talking about how that’s happening in each of their families for specific issues. In this case, the topic was make-up and how their parents were handling questions of when, and what, and how. Some of them were still waiting for their parents to give the green light in the not-too-distant future. Others were allowed to use certain products only, and still others were free to find their own path. And one girl spoke up to tell about how her mother had actively encouraged her to start using make-up, to highlight her best features.

Only, this class had seen the documentary “Miss Representation” earlier in the year. So this particular girl reacted to her mother’s suggestion by saying she wasn’t sure she even wanted to use make-up. Her mother asked why, so she told her about what she had learned from the film. Laughing, she explained that by the end of the conversation, her mother had completely reversed her position, saying, “You’re never going to use make-up!”

As a gender activist who supports feminist ideals, I always work hard to walk a fine line between ensuring my students are aware of gender-based stereotyping and inequalities in our society and giving them space to form individual opinions, developing their voices and becoming their own best selves. You hope some of that sticks and has an effect that goes beyond the walls of your classroom and the months of the school year during which you’re actively working with these kids. Here, then, was proof of at least one time that it had happened just as I would hope. At least one of my students had thought for herself, come to her own conclusions, spoken up for herself, and ended up changing someone else’s mind.

I want nothing more in life than to leave the world better than I found it. I feel that most acutely with my family, that if I can’t build a strong and loving relationship with them, then nothing else even matters. But once that’s in place (and it is), building a better world for my students and, at least equally importantly, empowering them to build a better world becomes the top priority.

The poet Taylor Mali, himself a middle school teacher at one point in his life, once wrote, “So I finally taught somebody something, / namely, how to change her mind. / And learned in the process that if I ever change the world / it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.” (from “Like Lilly Like Wilson”)

I know just how he felt.

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

NENTS 2.0

by Charlotte Hogan, EL Teacher
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After a successful but often hectic first year of teaching and a month of intensive work with Beginning-level English Learners, I, thankfully, did not experience the burnout that some new teachers feel (or, that my college professors warned us about). I did not feel frustrated, or defeated, despite the many episodes of my first year that hadn’t gone as gracefully as I hoped. My friends and family have asked me since the end of the school year how it went, and I often reply, “I’m excited to get a chance to do everything over.” One problem. How do I know what to change about my teaching?

Two fellow SBS teachers, Rebecca DeMott (math) and Timothy McCall (history), and I (English language) made the trip on August 8th down to The Pomfret School for a weekend that would hopefully help us find the answer to that very question. The New England New Teachers 2.0 (NENTS 2.0) conference is geared toward teachers with just a few years of experience. We know the basics–we’ve handled the awkward, the distressing, and the heartwarming. We’ve navigated living alongside our colleagues and students, and we have big ideas about schools and education. Group us in a mass of about 30 participants from various boarding and day schools in New England, and we’ve collectively seen it all.

To prepare for the conference, each participant had to videotape a class, upload it to a private YouTube channel (for PD purposes, only), and read a book called Brain Rules, by brain scientist John Medina (which I highly recommend to any person with a brain). Since I am interested in making my classes more interactive to encourage students to practice their English, I chose to record a class period with some whole-class instruction and discussion, paired work, and individual practice. Watching it on my own made me a bit uncomfortable, as any person who’s ever seen herself on video can imagine (do I really say “right” that much? Apparently.).

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During the conference, we each played our taped classes on a big screen in front of experienced master teachers, and a group of participants from varying subject areas. We observed specific behaviors from the teacher and the students using the CLASS system, and brainstormed how the teacher could better meet her goals. Sharing video is beneficial for all who watch, in the same way that visiting other classrooms can give teachers fresh ideas. However, the class on film can be paused to allow observers to give even more specific feedback, and discussing the classroom environment from behind a camera lens removes the distractions of live visits. The forum for teacher talk that ensued was respectful, yet participants were unafraid to point out how each class could be better. All parties understood the importance of growth as a professional teacher, and that far outweighs the embarrassment of a lesson that goes awry. Learning to offer and receive constructive feedback on something as personal as our teaching practices was a growing experience in itself.

During my sharing time, the cohort was able to make significant changes to my lesson and help me think differently about my teaching. My original lesson’s goal was to help students write effective introductions to their essays. However, it lacked a certain level of student engagement and ownership. Instead of merely presenting what an effective introduction should look like, my colleagues suggested that students decide for themselves. So, in the new lesson, I would provide two examples of introductions and make the students determine which was better and why. They would then participate in group writing at the chalkboard, to engage different learning styles and create movement in the classroom. By placing all of the cognitive work on the students, my lesson would become more engaging, and ultimately would help students develop their English skills in a deeper, more meaningful way. This improved lesson would not exist if I did not seek the feedback of teachers and experienced professionals in my content area. I was eventually able to mold my cohort’s suggestions to fit my students’ needs and my personal teaching style.

The question that my colleagues and I had, “How do I know what to change about my teaching?” has no simple answer. Actually, the answer is that there are an infinite number of answers. There are endless possibilities for improvement, even for teachers who have been practicing their art for 50 or more years. The NENTS 2.0 conference inspired me, not to use a magic-bullet curriculum or class format (although I have some exciting ideas to try this coming year), but to open my mind to the limitless creative power that I have as a teacher, and that we have, as the entire SBS faculty in collaboration with one another.

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A very. good. year.

It’s already happened. I bumped into a random person, in this case one of my neighbours, who asked about what my students were studying. “They do have a theme question already,” I said. “It’s, ‘Why do people judge other people and themselves?’” After a short pause during which his eyes first widened and then went slightly unfocused while his jaw dropped slightly, he said, “Seventh graders came up with that question?” “Yup,” I responded. His eyes came alive again and his hand went to his chin as he began to see the possibilities in the question, and to talk excitedly about his thoughts.

I love these moments, and I especially love that it happened after only two full days of classes this year. And yet, the second full day was in some ways even more extraordinary than the first.

With a theme question in place, the next step in designing units is always coming up with a list (usually quite long) of related questions. As students select Focus Questions or individual research, essay-writing, and presentations, they may use this list for specific ideas or for inspiration for brand new questions. I use the list too, to generate ideas for full class activities to add breadth and depth to the unit.

As I do every year, I asked the students to check through the questions they had written and categorized that are posted around the room and will remain there for the rest of the year to see which ones might fit the unit. As they moved out, one of them asked me a question, and as we talked through to the answer, I became aware the students had formed a group around one of the tables and were talking animatedly. I turned around to refocus them – and discovered that they were busy thinking up even more questions as one of them typed them in to my iPad which was projected on the large TV screen. I couldn’t have been more delighted.

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And check out this sampling of what they want to study for this first unit:

      Why do girls feel like they need to be skinny to be beautiful?
      Why do people consider being gay bad?
      What is perfection?
      Why are people judged by their skin color?
      Why does bullying happen?
      Why is saying “like a girl” considered a bad comment?
      What is “ugly”?
      Why are people judged by the things about themselves they can’t change?
      Why do people judge?
      Why do people think it’s bad if another person is different from them?
      What is a “normal” girl?

While I know all their names and faces, and I have already begun to learn about who these girls are deep down, we are still very much in the initial stages of forming a community. Yet, their comfort with each other and their passion to learn together is already off the charts.

Seems like its going to be a very. good. year.

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

Out of the Margins

“So how do your students look this year?” The question was asked not, as many people might expect, by a colleague or even a parent but by three of my former students who are now juniors as we found a chance to talk at the annual Local Family Picnic. “They look great,” I said. “Of course. You know! Given the emails they’ve been writing me about the books they’ve been reading.” One of them laughed and said, “Your favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015?” I laughed in return, responding “Absolutely!” knowing she was secure in the knowledge they were all part of my favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2010-2011. (For the record, I only teach one section of Humanities 7 each year, so the “favourite Humanities 7 class of…” line is something of a running joke.)

As I prepare for the imminent arrival on campus of my brand new students, as the middle school team prepares to bring together and start building this year’s community, I find myself focused not just on what the kids might be thinking and feeling but also on the parents. My son attended boarding school for three years and is about to start his junior year at college, so I know firsthand what parents are going through. The level of trust we parents place in a school when dropping off our children is powerfully and deeply touching, and part of what motivates me to do my absolute best each and every day is working to meet that trust (not that I need any more motivation than looking out at my students looking back at me!).

So it stopped me short when one of my virtual colleagues on Twitter, another teacher who is also a parent, wrote, “My son had nightmares of police killing him….when he walks in your classroom how will you comfort him? #Ferguson” That I would do something is unquestionable. The harder part is the what. I wrote back, “I keep searching for the answer to that. Empathy and a hug only go so far. Think of concrete actions we can take to fight racism?” I believe that kids, perhaps even more so than adults, want to feel they have some degree of control over the world around them. While we will never live in a perfect world, we can certainly work to move society towards greater understanding, inclusiveness, and acceptance. And including my friend’s child in coming up with ways to do so would hopefully help him feel more empowered.

My imminent students may or may not have had such nightmares, but certainly they must have some level of awareness of and concern over what has been going on in Ferguson. And every year I’ve ever taught Humanities 7, whatever might have been going on in the world, stereotypes have always been a hot topic at some point in the year, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and more or less any other type of ism of which you could think. With 7th graders’ heightened sense of fairness and drive to bring justice about, we always end up brainstorming and discussing what people can actually do. Knowing concrete actions to take can be comforting.

Another of my virtual teacher-parent colleagues is expecting her first child, and she found herself in need of comforting post-Ferguson as well. Among the links and resources we shared in reaching out to her was a video made by Glenn Singleton, “Courageous Conversations About Race.” It offers both some background information not everyone may know and a protocol to frame these conversations. The video, which takes about 22 minutes to watch, is an incredible resource for schools, other organizations, and people in general who want to help undermine the systemic racism that feeds stereotypes both deliberate and unwitting, people who want to move forward.

And really, moving forward is not an option but a necessity. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – besides systemic racism, we all have to deal with the effects of patriarchy on attitudes toward gender and sexuality, of classism on attitudes toward socioeconomic status, and so on. The intersections of all the various axes of privilege and oppression play out differently in different people, making each individual story matter deeply. So listening, learning, affirming, and acting are all important parts of the process. Moreover, as a global community wherein each of us is working to become our own best self, they are quite literally part of our school’s mission.

My friend who asked about her son wrote me, “thank you for the response. I appreciate it greatly. #village” It does indeed take a village. And that village is us.

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

Summer Reading, part two: This is Not a Test by José Vilson

I don’t ordinarily make a habit of ordering books before their release date, but I made an exception for This is Not a Test by José Vilson. I knew the strength, power, and scope of his writing through various publications in forums such as Huffington Post, his blog, and Twitter. Mr. Vilson can put a book’s worth of thinking into 140 characters, so I couldn’t wait to see what he could say in 220 pages. The subtitle, “A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education” is apt. In the book, José has woven together memories, commentary, and calls to action in a way that compels readers to think honestly about the educational landscape in our country, the cultural context that helps create it, and what our own role is and should be in shaping it in the future.

When the book came, I decided to set it aside until the summer came so that I could savor it with little else to distract me. When I finally opened it, I fairly flew through “Part One” which takes us through his childhood and ends with his decision to become a teacher as his college graduation date approached. One moment particularly stuck out to me, when he describes giving a correct answer (“D”) in class only to have the teacher respond, “What?” He gave the answer again, and again the teacher responded, “What? I didn’t hear that.” He startled the class by shouting the answer, at which point the teacher dismissed him with a “Well, you don’t know anything, so I’ll move on.” The teacher called on another student, who gave the exact same answer and earned the teacher’s praise. (p.47) “How could this happen?” I asked myself, feeling sick and knowing the answer in my heart, knowing the same general dynamic plays itself out over and over, if not always that overtly, when people of privilege have power over the historically oppressed.

For the rest of the book, then, I slowed way down. I’d read a page and stare out into space, or finish a section and put the book down altogether for several days. What he was saying was too important to risk missing part of it, and as someone who identifies as anti-racist and yet who knows I still (and probably will always) have work to do to uncover and eradicate the ways that systemic racism unconsciously influences me, I knew I needed to listen carefully to everything he had to say. Some stories, I already knew, such as the influence of Renee Moore “who spoke about her teaching as rooted in the histories of black people across generations, not as a solitary act of kindness,” (p.180) or how Chris Lehmann was willing to force EduCon participants to confront their privilege by explicitly noting the importance of race, class, and gender, and how he worked rapidly and effectively to have the conference become progressively more inclusive to a diversity of voices (pp.143-150). I mentally highlighted Mr. Vilson’s assertion that “Inquiry-based education only for the ones society felt could handle it wasn’t good enough.” (p.146) and I thought long and hard on themes Mr. Vilson continues to develop on the challenge and necessity of deeply and truly understanding and embracing diversity, most recently in the blog piece “Teachers of Color Caught on the Windmill (On Real Equity).”

In the penultimate essay of his book, “Why Teach,” (pp.209-215), Mr. Vilson talks about how “When we teach, we don’t just teach them the subjects, we implicitly teach them customs, rituals, and character traits that they either emulate or admire in their own right.” (p.212) He notes, “Teaching and learning are amorphous, but when they’re happening the symbiosis is undeniable.” (p.213) In his powerful Afterword, Dr. Pedro Noguera adds “This book and José Vilson’s ongoing work remind us that, just as education can be used to dominate, control, and oppress, it can also be used to provoke and liberate.” (p.223)

As someone who believes deeply in the importance of working for social justice, I feel it is long past time for those of us who live in this country to move past the illusion that we are living in a post-racial society. As a teacher who came through an exemplary M.A.T. program but who hears of many programs that fall far short of my own experience, I feel we as a country need carefully examine what is working and what needs improvement in our system of teacher preparation. To my thinking, This Is Not a Test should be required reading for all future teachers, and can and should be a spark to the kinds of hard, honest conversations all those of us within and who care about education need to be having.

Mr. Noguera ends his “Afterword” with the “hope that other educators are able to see the power and potential of their voices and join in the struggle to save our schools and our fragile democracy.” (p.223) Mr. Vilson ends his “Why Teach” essay with the charge, “Go hard or go home.” (p.215)

I’m all over that.

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