Category Archives: On Parenting

Not Giving Up So Easily

co-authored with Charlotte M. ’16

Bill: When you see a new email from Charlotte with the subject header “Psychology: Smart Girls Give Up too Easily,” you know you are in for a treat. For starters, Charlotte is the sort of strong girl who does not often give up, never mind easily. And then, she is the sort of person with whom conversations are always both enjoyable and stimulating as she sees layers of complexity and connects them in profound, surprising, ways while remaining ever-open to other perspectives and any revisions to her thinking that might result. In this case, her father had sent her an article from Psychology Today on how “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” (Heidi Grant Halvorson). As Charlotte self-defines as a feminist and I as a gender activist, let’s just say that neither of us were jumping with joy over this statement.

My own mind quickly focused on the word “believe.” After all, I can believe the world is flat (especially after having been to Kansas), but that doesn’t mean it genuinely is flat. Does each girl have innate abilities? Of course (and so, for the record, does every single person). Are those abilities unchangeable? I don’t think so, and current theory on the brain and learning absolutely supports that. Do bright boys believe that they can develop innate ability through effort and practice? I’m willing to believe they do, or else the article would not have been published. But that would then raise the question – why don’t bright girls (on average, or as often) develop this belief? Because I am certain some of them do, and believe we have to raise the question why more of them don’t.

Charlotte: When you see a reply from Bill to your email about psychology, you… well, you’re not exactly surprised. He’s the sort of teacher with a passion for not just his subject, but his society. So you’re also not surprised when he self-identifies as a “gender activist” instead of a “feminist” because of the latter word’s association with gender binarism and exclusivity. For me, my ideals and goals lie more with those of gender activists, but I still call myself a feminist because that’s the word our society recognizes (although not necessarily in a good way, hence “feminazi”). Bill put it well when he wrote about generalizations about “boys” and “girls”: “I guess it’s useful in terms of understanding the function of a dominant culture feat. clear gender binary boxes.”

The question becomes, “To what extent should the terminology we use be dictated by social norms?” My beliefs err on the side of lexical accuracy, but I still find myself conforming in practice; I identify as a feminist despite being against a gender binarism, don’t I? Then again, social norms can’t change without mutual understanding and communication. My father once told me that if two people are both rational, have the same information, and have the same value system, they can’t disagree. Not all of society is rational, and it would be practically impossible for everyone to have the same value system, but we can at least start by trying to share the same information, i.e. the language we use when describing views and issues. Then again (again), maybe those who have found terminology that more accurately expresses their beliefs should be the ones to change the language we use to describe those beliefs, instead of the other way around.

Bill: And here we are in one of my favourite places: the world of semiotics! How are thoughts and feelings translated into symbols, communicated, and translated back into thoughts and feelings? Values systems definitely colour those thoughts and feelings, both for the transmitter and the receiver. So even if we think we have a common understanding of what the word “bright” means (or for that matter “girl” and “boy”), the phrases “bright girl” and “bright boy” may actually mean different things to different people. But we can’t stop and define every single word in every single sentence we utter, pausing to double-check how our values systems intersect and interact! What can we safely guess to be the common understanding in our society of “bright girl,” “bright boy,” “innate ability,” and – I’ll introduce this term – “growth mindset”? That will lead us back to our original questions as to whether boys are more likely to develop a growth mindset than girls, why this might be so, and what can be done to foster a growth mindset in girls.

I’ll posit these definitions; feel free to engage with any one of them if you’d like!
bright: intelligent (commonly thought of as “school smarts” but conceivably extending to any form of human intelligence)
girl or boy: female or male child or teenager (commonly thought of as immutable and accurately assigned at birth but increasingly thought to be a matter of self-definition, bearing in mind that not all people self-identify according to a gender binary)
innate abilities: the full range of your different potentials at birth
growth mindset: a sense that, as agent of one’s own destiny, one can develop skills and abilities, and hence what is commonly thought of as intelligence, to different degrees (borne out by research into the mutual influences of nature on nurture and vice versa in actually rewiring the brain)

How do those sound? Ready to tackle our questions?!

Charlotte: Now that we have, as Parliamentary Extemporaneous debaters will say, “redefined the bill,” we turn back to our questions.

Are boys more likely to develop a growth mindset than girls? Why might this be so?

While I disagree with Heidi Grant Halvorson’s assertion that “Girls… develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions… boys, on the other hand, are a handful.”, I also acknowledge that people’s actions and characters can be largely shaped by expectations of them. I heard an interview with Meryl Streep in which she said that most of her ability to portray widely varying characters was in the costume and makeup; she couldn’t see her own appearance, but when others in the room reacted to her presence in a certain way, she would naturally react to their responses by acting more like the character they expected. The same can be said for young boys and girls; even if they are not innately more self-controlled or “a handful,” if their teachers and parents treat them as if they are, it seems likely that they could respond by acting more like the way they were treated. And even if they aren’t shaped by expectations, children and teens could still respond differently to different types of feedback, whether or not those different types of feedback are justified.

What can be done to foster a growth mindset in girls?

As a high school student who is passionate about social issues and considers herself a citizen of the global community, my immediate response is that giving girls growth and effort-minded feedback (such as the examples Halvorson gives of feedback commonly given to boys) would foster a growth mindset in girls. As someone who has no experience in education, however, I don’t know what the best way to counteract praising only innate qualities is, in what situations that occurs, or whether it occurs at all (as a student at a single-sex educational institution, I’ve never witnessed the kind of disparity that Halvorson writes about).

Bill: Well – you have 10-odd years of experience in education! But I know what you mean. And as someone with 50-odd years of experience in education, including pre-school, an M.A.T. and all sorts of professional development, my own immediate response… is exactly the same as yours.

I’m probably better at doing this now than when you were in my Humanities 7 class, oh so long ago (back in 2009-2010), but I work pretty hard to keep my feedback focused on what students have done compared to what they need to be doing. So if a student is working on varying her sentence length in order to keep her audience’s attention through an essay, I’ll comment on that. It’s a skill that can be developed. I also, and I’m quite sure I did this with your class, work very hard to put Humanities 7 learning in the context of the sweep of a lifetime of learning. Don’t have that skill down now? Try again next time. Thinking you won’t be 100% the writer you want to be by the end of the year? There’s always Humanities 8 – and four years here after that – and college, and the rest of your life. Meanwhile, I work very hard to simply not mention innate qualities. I might refer to you all as “smart” once during the entire year, if that. Once. And all of you together.

As for the best way to counteract the praise of innate qualities – my instincts are this needs at least three approaches. One is for people who understand the negative effects of praising innate qualities (especially on any girl who has internalized society’s expectations that she “be good”- and, I suppose, non-girl children who happen to have internalized the same expectations) to just plain stop doing it. This helps build up each student’s personal sense of herself as an agent of her own destiny, despite what others may say. A second is for these people (teachers and parents alike) also to say straight out that they have stopped praising innate qualities, and why. In spreading the word to others, this makes it less likely that children will be inadvertently praised by anyone in a way that undermines a growth mindset. And a third – and this is one of the things I think about the most often as a teacher in a girls school – is to help students develop a personal and internal resistance to praise of innate qualities. That… is one of the things I’m still working on. I hope and pray that what we did last year in the Life Skills 8 class will have that effect. I suspect that an inherently feminist atmosphere such as we have at Stoneleigh-Burnham doesn’t hurt, either!

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage

Our Own Greatest Teachers

Several years ago, a friend of mine who had just had her first child asked me what I had done to help my son grow up to be as strong, kind, grounded, and self-confident as he is. Her concerned look told me how desperately she wanted the same for her own son. My quick response, that my secret to raising my son so well had been for my wife to be his mother, was not given entirely out of modesty or humility (for one thing, my wife is truly one of the most extraordinary parents I’ve ever known). By, in a sense, deliberately avoiding the question, I meant to create space for her to discover the mother she was meant to be. We did have a longer, more heartfelt conversation later on, but ultimately she found the secret on her own: her child was not my child, her family was not my family, and she had to find her own way as a parent to this unique human being and as a member of her own unique family.

Part of our school’s mission is to enable all our students to be their own best selves. As obvious as this goal might be, and as fundamentally important, it is not easily achieved. Recently, Erin L., a seventh grader, wrote the following in an essay:

Is my personality a chance, or am I who I was meant to be?

I am shy and quiet. I have always been… I found that I was comfortable in my routine of school and home, in a small circle of people I knew, but in sixth grade, my shell of comfort was shattered, like a broken snow globe. Facing interviews, and new teachers, I tried to embrace my final year of comfort, and then began work on one of the hardest things I will ever have to do… I began working on banishing shyness. Timidity and innocence are strong protective walls, but as well as walls keep out, they also block in…

As I struggle to break the walls, I am learning more than self-confidence. I am learning how to learn from mistakes, I am learning how to embrace change. I am learning what it feels like to step into a spotlight, and glow underneath the light. So perhaps I was given my personality to teach me, because, I think perhaps we are our own greatest teachers, if we simply have the patience to learn.

No, my personality was not a chance. Something thought me out very well, or maybe it was an unconscious decision on my part. To be who I am to become, may not be easy. But it is my choice.

I suspect I am not alone in wishing I had been that wise at her age. For that matter, even now, at 53, I feel I am still discovering myself – making conscious and unconscious decisions, trying to have the patience to learn and to be my own greatest teacher, shaping my presence in the world so that people might perceive me as I perceive myself. Even after 40 or more years of trying to be who I am to become, I’m not 100% certain I’ve entirely achieved that. But I still have time. We all do.

As the Upper School Rock Band was gathering the other night, several of the students were spinning and bouncing around the room and talking about the character of our school: “We’re all quirky.” “We’re all different.” “We’re all… artistic.” “Everybody accepts everybody else.” “There wasn’t really a place for people like me at my old school.” “It’s almost,” I said with a hint of laughter in my voice as I feigned surprise and a sudden discovery, “as if this school was all about finding out who you were meant to be and becoming that person – becoming your own best self. And that it’s working.” The girls all smiled, and one danced a little half step to her right. “Exactly.” one of them said with a confident nod of her head as she took a firm step forward.

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

Not Long Enough

Spearth Day was born of a series of compromises, but has become one of the key dates in the waning weeks of our school year. Many years ago, the students asked for a special day to celebrate the mailman who played such an important role in their lives (today’s students, for whom email is old-fashioned and texting is routine, would probably find this odd). We called it “M and M Day” for “Mail Man Day,” and besides presenting him with a card and gifts when he finally showed, we played an all-school game of Capture the Flag and found other ways to celebrate. Over time, M and M Day evolved and became more organized – for one thing, the tradition of the talent show was begun. Meanwhile, earlier in the spring, Earth Day remained a day off for service – cleaning up local parks and rivers, clearing trails, and so on. The two days were eventually combined into one, and the name “Spearth Day” comes from “Spring-Earth Day.” We spend the morning doing various service projects on- and off-campus, have the Talent Show after lunch, follow that with games and booths organized by classes and clubs, dedicate the yearbook and pass out copies, and end with a barbecue. This year, for a special treat, there will be a dance performance by the Senior IB dancers.

Excitement always run high right before Spearth Day, especially when Wednesday immediately precedes it as that is our half-day of classes. The 7th graders spent Morning Meeting somewhat nervously tying up the few remaining loose ends in the preparation for their booth while the 8th graders set up a coverage schedule and worked hard to ensure they would have everything they needed. Early morning notes on the white board suggested the Community Service Club had done much the same the night before.

Sports are winding down (another reason for excitement as this is a major marker the year is actually starting to come to a close), and so Sophie and Clara, two of the 7th graders, were available and eager to accompany me to the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society. They laughed and sang and talked all the way there, assuring me they had to be the loudest group I’d ever taken (they weren’t far wrong, actually!). There wasn’t much to do on site, but they were cheerful and positive even when just folding laundry, and took the time to make friends with some of the cats. The ride back was just about as high energy as the ride out.

When we returned at 5:30, the school was sheltering in the basement as a tornado warning had been issued. So when the Wednesday night group of the Middle School Rock Bands showed up 20-25 minutes late for rehearsal (dinner had opened half an hour late and hey, they had to eat!), energy was even higher than usual – if possible! – for a Spearth Day Eve.

For the Spearth Day Talent Show, the group is performing “Microphone” by Martha, a second-year 8th grader. The song has rather whimsical lyrics (sample “Microphone, / You have a big head. / You have a cord. / And it is long.”) and a melody to match. At our first rehearsal of the song, I suggested a series of chords to which everyone agreed, and Aliana (who had played drums before during this year) taught Subin (who hadn’t) an appropriately whimsical drum part (Meredith on bass, Molly sharing vocals with Martha, and Ellie on marimba round out the group; Aliana is covering the piano part). The song is a little bit short, so at our previous rehearsal, we had rearranged it so the final chorus was repeated three times – once with instruments, once a cappella, and once more with instruments.

We ran the song twice – the second time because I had forgotten to time it, just to be on the safe side as we are limited to three minutes (lots of acts in this Talent Show!) before sailing into “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, which we are doing next Thursday for the annual Middle School Music Performance. It is a beautiful piece with subtly shifting block chords in the piano anchored by a relatively straightforward backbeat. Subin was drumming again, Martha had shifted to the marimba, and though I normally play bass on this piece, I had to cover Molly’s piano part since her team was late back from a game. Somehow, Ellie, Aliana, and Martha had contrived to cover Meredith’s vocal since her Team Night had begun way late due to the tornado warning and so was going way late. Still, even with me faking the chord shifts that Molly alone knew by heart, and even with one less voice on the harmonies (which the girls themselves wrote), the song sounded gorgeous and as it sunk in that I had only two more nights with this group before they were done for the year, tears sprang to my eyes which I tried (successfully) to cover up because the girls were having so much fun.

In the 1991 remake of “Father of the Bride,” Steve Martin in the title role tells his daughter on the night before her wedding, “Well, that’s the thing about life, is the surprises, the little things that sneak up on you and grab hold of you.” (IMDb) I know tonight is only the first of many such moments we’ll experience over the next two and a half weeks. It’s a way to mark how much these kids come to mean to us, and to each other. Of course, even those who are graduating and moving on will live on in my memory and in my heart. And they will have good company there, kids both past and future.

And meanwhile, I will savor every moment of the rest of the year. I know how lucky I am. And I am determined not to take it for granted. As, I am quite sure, are they.

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Filed under Graduation, In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, Performing Arts, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

The Necessity of Maladjustment

My shoulder grew progressively numb as my friend, convinced that everyone who claimed to be a pacifist had a breaking point, kept hitting it over and over. His face began to contort, and through gritted teeth he hissed, “I’m going to make you hit me.” But I didn’t hit back, and eventually he walked away in disgust. I’ve always wondered what he took away from the incident. Me, I took pride in having successfully maintained my principles of non-violence, though as it turned out I couldn’t have moved my arm if I had wanted, and it hung uselessly at my side for at least five minutes as I walked to my next class and took my seat.

Several years beforehand, when I was in eighth grade, I first read Daybreak by Joan Baez. In a series of poems, dreams, vignettes, and essays, she explored her own pacifism and the principles by which she unflinchingly led her own life. It was one of the most influential books of my childhood.

As I grew in adulthood, though, I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t always as simple as Ms. Baez made it out to be. One evening, not long after I began teaching here, we invited Andrea LaSonde Anastos, then co-minister of First Church in Deerfield with her husband George, to talk about her life and work. Among other subjects, she touched on her own pacifism, inspiring a question from one of the students as to whether she could ever conceive of a situation where she might choose to use violence. She said before she had children, she would have said absolutely not, but that she now realized that if someone went after her kids and she had the chance, she wasn’t sure but what she would take them out without hesitation. Oddly, I was comforted by her admission. I believed (and still do) there was a big difference between personally suffering for one’s principles and watching others suffer, perhaps even die, for the same reason, and I myself wasn’t sure what I would do in the same situation. She made it safe for me to feel that ambivalence.

One month ago today, a gunman broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School, and you know the rest. This country has a history of mass killings, and so often the initial shock and outcry subsides after a few days or maybe weeks and nothing ever changes. But there is some evidence that things may be different this time. Here at Stoneleigh-Burnham, our Student Council has written all students “[inviting] you all to wear GREEN and WHITE to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT.” (Claire L.) No doubt, we will be just one of countless schools doing so.

And this doesn’t even take into account the many individual actions private citizens may be taking, such as writing their Representative or Senators, or engaging people in conversations both face to face and through social media. In a country far too often divided along partisan lines, I feel like I’ve seen more sincere effort to reach across those lines and find common ground than with any other issue in months if not years.

As many people are saying, this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. Meanwhile, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, an average of eight children die each day due to gunfire. That’s 56 kids each week, and nearly 250 since Sandy Hook. This lends a certain sense of urgency to the marathon.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has written, “There are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.” (King)

I hold out hope that our country has finally become permanently maladjusted to events like Sandy Hook. I hold out that hope not only because I see Dr. King’s ideals in my students but also because I know so many people across the political spectrum who have been deeply moved by Sandy Hook and who sincerely want to leave a better world to our children. It will not happen on its own and it will not be easy. But the alternative is simply unthinkable.

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Filed under On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

Lost Forever

Like most of the country, I spent most of the weekend feeling devastated and overwhelmed. I was fortunate in that our annual girls basketball tournament took up most of my time on Friday and Saturday and insulated me somewhat from the pain and anguish of thinking about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Except between games. And during half-time. And during time-outs. And sometimes in between time-outs. There’s a comfortable and safe feeling in a gym anyway, especially at our school, and as a long-time fan of girls and women’s basketball, watching a level of aggressiveness and intensity, a quality of competition, and an evenness of talent I did not remember from some of our earlier tournaments did my heart good. But a dull ache was there and, sooner or later, I was going to have to face up to what had happened in Connecticut, as a teacher and as a parent.

A young teacher named Erin had written the MiddleTalk listserve run by the Association of Middle Level Education asking for advice on how to talk about the tragedy with our children and how best to support her students. My friend Rebecca Lawson had written back with an impressive list of resources from Fred Rogers’s video, soothing in its sensibility and sensitivity, to an article in the Washington Post. That seemed a good place to start, and I worked my way through the resources, periodically staring out into space before shaking my head and refocusing on my computer screen.

I also knew I wanted to stop through my office before classes on Monday and read through our school’s Crisis Plan. I knew right where it was, but felt I could not live with myself until I had read through it again. And again. In my mind’s eye was the vision of my Humanities 7 students sprawled in their beanbag chairs, so comfortable and so safe in so many ways, brimming with the confidence and happiness that comes so much more easily with such a feeling of security. Nothing, I vowed, nothing would take that away from them. Not if I had anything to do with it.

And I can’t even bring myself to write about my son. Suffice it to say in an earlier draft of this blog, it took me five minutes to even bring myself to type the letter “s” as tears streamed down my cheeks. I picture him walking from his dorm to class, sweet and kind and smart and talented and with so much still before him…

On the way home from school Sunday night with the Crisis Plan on the seat beside me, I felt a deep surge of emotional anguish and needed to do something to calm myself down. I reached for my phone, and asked Siri to play me some Taylor Swift. “Long Live” celebrates Ms. Swift’s relationship with her band and the notion that what they built together will endure, and the song resonates deeply with me as I think of my own Rock Band students (as readers of “Moving Mountains” may remember). The song “The Best Day” (about which I’ve also written here before) celebrates her relationship with her family in general and her mother in particular. The sounds of the home video of her at age three talking with her mom about her pigtails got to me, and by the time she got to the line “I know you’re not scared of anything at all” (Swift) I was a wreck.

Because of course parents are scared, sometimes. Parents are human. Parents love their children so much it almost physically hurts at times.

And teachers feel much the same way about our students. My friend Jose Vilson wrote a beautiful blog on the need to put children first, truly listen to their voices, to let them shine. Taylor Swift echoed those thoughts in “The Best Day,” writing “And I love you for giving me your eyes / Staying back and watching me shine.” (Swift) But Jose also wrote about the unbearable loss of children’s voices at Sandy Hook: “Their hopes, dreams, and visions for the future in a world in dire need of real change, not just a shuffling around of things for compliance, all gone.” (Vilson)

What might we do to support real change? How can we find the will and the way to actually take action this time and reduce the likelihood any other children’s voices will ever again be silenced before their time? In a discussion I had with friends and relatives on my Facebook page, we touched on the need to acknowledge and address a variety of issues. Arguably, the availability of guns, the stigma attached to mental health issues, the unwillingness of insurance companies to provide the same level of coverage for mental health as they do for physical health, our consumption of graphic violence and the provision of same by the media, and the cult of masculinity are all contributing factors we need to address, urgently and by whatever means possible.

In “The Best Day,” Taylor Swift also writes about being bullied at school and her mom’s efforts to help her handle it. As she thanks her mom for having started her on the path to healing, Ms. Swift acknowledges “Don’t know how long it’s gonna take to feel okay,” and certainly tonight I can relate. But I can also guess where it is likely to start. Tonight, I will text with my son before bedtime, wish him well on exams, tell him I love him. And tomorrow, I will walk into my Humanities classroom, sit down on the floor, and ask for any student announcements. The chances are high are least one of them will refer to the Sandy Hook tragedy, and I will handle their questions as best I can, honestly and with compassion. If they express a need to do something, we can talk about that and I can share what I am planning to do. And when the time is right, we will turn back to our normal routines. My students will read the newest installments in their ongoing independent writing stories, applaud after each reading, and offer helpful comments. We will finish casting Act V of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the play which we are producing in collaboration with other classes around the country, and we will start reading through the script to ensure they understand what each individual line means. Gradually, a sense of normalcy will return.

Some of our collective innocence is lost forever. But our hope for the future need not be.

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Closing the Gap

I was staying overnight with my brother and his family so I wouldn’t have to get quite so early a start to attend a conference at Simmons College entitled “Dreaming Big: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?” The conference would present a study on middle schoolers and career aspirations and provide opportunities to discuss implications and ideas for follow-up. My brother and sister-in-law enjoy the TV program “Modern Family” (as do I), and after we caught up on our lives for a bit, we settled in to enjoy the evening’s episode. In retrospect, it turned out to be a good way to warm into the conference, as the show, progressive as it is in some ways, does in other ways reflect the kind of stereotyping about work that is too often seen in the media. For one example, neither of the two moms in the show have a salaried job.

Luckily for middle school girls, the media is only the third strongest influence on their career aspirations. As you might expect, schools and parents are the two most dominant influences. And as you might also expect, single-gender environments can have a positive effect. The study being presented used Girls Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts as a proxy for girl-centered organizations, and looked at the views, opinions, and attitudes of 1200 middle schoolers including 487 Girl Scouts, 299 girls who were not in the organization, and 414 boys.

The study painted a picture of middle school girls who, in envisioning their lives as adults, are confident, ambitious, want to enjoy what they do, desire financial security, and value time with family friends. It also showed that girls are more likely than boys to stop work and care for children, more relationship focused, and more wiling to consider jobs historically dominated by women. Such jobs (for example, teaching) continue to be less attractive generally. All the kids believed boys had more career options than girls, and three-quarters of the boys and over half the girls believed boys were better at some jobs than girls. Interestingly, when girls were asked to consider what they would do if they were boys, they were much more likely to choose STEM or athletics. And girls who express an interest in STEM by eighth grade are two to three times more likely to choose that direction that those who do not. Along with these more general findings, the study also showed a measurable, positive effect of girl-centered organizations in helping girls resist the pressures of the culture in which they live and remain true to themselves and what they want out of life. As one of my 8th grade advisees said the other day, “I know what I learned last year. I learned to speak up and to speak with conviction.”

Of course, as long as our culture continues to push back against confident, ambitious girls, our work will not be done. For one thing, those girls who do not have the benefit of the support of girls schools and girl-centered organizations will continue to eclipse themselves to a greater degree than their more fortunate sisters. But even girls who have that additional support have to deal with the notion that significant parts of society may not want them to be all that they can be, and that fact does continue to shape their lives. And realistically, society also puts boys in little boxes that do not necessarily fit them. So really, as we teach girls – and indeed all children – to empower themselves in the face of resistance, we also need to work together to eliminate that resistance.

During a morning session at the conference, noted author and speaker Rachel Simmons was asked, essentially, if she could envision a future where true gender equity will have been achieved. “Not in my lifetime,” she responded. The words hung in the air. And maybe she is right. But if during our lifetimes we have not, to paraphrase Peter Sellars, closed the gap between dream and reality, we will not have done our job. The big dreamers who populate our school and who will join us one day are depending on us. They speak with conviction. Will we?

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Filed under Gender, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage

The Center of It All

It’s all about the beanbags. The nine students in my Humanities 7 class had been adamant that we would able to fit the 22-27 relatives they were expecting for Family Weekend into our relatively small classroom, and when I demurred, they insisted that wherever we go, their beloved beanbag chairs should follow “because our parents should see what our class really looks like.” So it was that I greeted Barbara, who was responsible this morning both for cleaning my regular classroom and for cleaning the Meeting Room where we would be moving for the day, at a bright and early 6:15 A.M. I had my temporary classroom set up, and chairs set out for visitors in the Jesser 3 classrooms, by 7:00, and zipped to the dining room to fill my travel mug with decaf (a special treat for a special day) and soy milk.

Students, parents, and other visiting family members began filtering in by 7:45, cries of, “You brought the beanbags!” filling the air accompanied by knowing parental smiles. We began class by continuing a previous lesson on lying, the better to inaugurate our newest student-designed unit developed from the seed question “Does the media lie?” around the eventual theme question,”How does the media alter perspectives of the truth to change what you think and feel?” Students did a think-pair-share activity around different kinds of lies, thinking on their own, in groups of two or three, and then in the full class about their thoughts and reactions. They eventually combined to write their own definition of lying, “Lying is an untruth, possibly ongoing, being told that brings a consequence that may or may not be desired, yet is always bad.” That will serve as a working definition as we go through the unit, both with group activities on topics like news coverage of the elections and photoshopping of models, and with individual research on personally-chosen questions.

Housemeeting was impressive, all the more so because it wasn’t really any different from how it would normally be. Certainly a highlight, however, was the introduction of the brand new Middle School Interscholastic Equestrian Team, complete with a visit from the school mascot Athena the Owl, with Academic Dean Alex Bogel’s booming voice announcing each student as she strode down the center aisle waving her hand much as Queen Elizabeth II does.

Sometimes, a class can get disturbingly quiet on Family Weekend, but if anything, the presence of parents and siblings brought out the best in my French II class as they worked to understand the ins and outs of the just-introduced tense, the passé composé. They all raised their hands and tested out their new knowledge, never hesitated to ask questions, and achieved a much deeper understanding of the tense in our short 20-minute class.

I was about the third person to go through the lunch line, the better to scoot to the gym and prepare for the performing arts show. I tuned up the girls’ bass and guitars, checked the sound for the keyboards, played a quick fill on the drums just for the fun of it, and did mic checks. All seemed ready, and after an eternity of waiting, the rock bands took the stage. Judging from the tone of respect in the congratulations I received after the show, the bands succeeded in connecting with their audience and imparting a spirit of fun. Certainly Heather’s decision to grab her mic and abandon the stage, striding around the gym as she belted out the vocals to “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” helped set the tone, and the explosion of applause complete with shouts and whooping showed how much the audience loved it. That noted, all three groups got sincere and heartfelt, and well-deserved, compliments.

Immediately following the show, we had a Middle School parents’ meeting to discuss the institution of what we expect will be a new tradition, the eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., go over the developmental stages and needs of young adolescent girls and how our program is explicitly designed around research to meet those needs, and determine parental goals for the year. Partway through, I asked for questions, thoughts, and concerns, and wasn’t quite sure what to think when a long silence ensued. Years of practice leaving space for my students to talk caused me to wait patiently, and then one mother raised her hand and commented, “I’m overwhelmed, and I just feel so lucky that my daughter is here with all you are doing for her, the knowledge and passion you bring to your work.” A number of other parents nodded and murmured their agreement. The parents (and a few grandparents – as I commented, “If you care enough about the kids to attend this meeting, you get to have a say here.”) then came up with a solid list of goals for the year, and used a system of placing stickers to set priorities.

My advisees did a wonderful job with their student-led conferences, speaking about their work thus far with touching honesty, pride, and a willingness to identify areas where they need to grow and develop genuinely practical plans to bring about that growth. Several parents commented on how much they preferred the format, as students became agents of their own destiny, not the passive subjects of adult discussions and judgments.

Saturday afternoon, as my part in the weekend was winding down (being neither a houseparent nor an on-duty chaperone), I found myself standing at the soccer game with Academic Dean Alex Bogel. I filled him in on my experiences of the weekend, and he jumped in to let me know how delighted he was to have been asked the question of how our institution of the IB program has affected the middle school and other younger grades. Pointing to the hexagon that symbolizes the IB program, he noted the student at the center of it all. “And that,” he said, “is why we didn’t have to change a thing about the rest of our program.”

Student voice. Her best self. This is the mission of the school, and when you stay aware of and true to it, amazing things can happen. You couldn’t have asked for a better Family Weekend. I wrote the Middle School faculty earlier today, “As Middle School Dean, in particular at the Friday Parents’ Meeting, I get the heartwarming experience on Family Weekend of watching parents come in curious about why their kids are so happy here, and becoming increasingly, almost overwhelmingly for some, touched to see all we do and all that goes into it. So thank you all for making that happen, both over the last five weeks and then in particular the last two days. It’s a ton of work, I know, and it brings amazing results.” So it is, and so it does.
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under Equestrian Program, In the Classroom, International Baccalaureate, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School