Category Archives: Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

Posts on the news and activities of our 7th and 8th graders.

This Beautiful Year

Each year, the students of Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School respond to writing prompts as they reflect on the year. Their words are assembled into a poem that closes the Eighth Grade Moving Up ceremony. This year, the poem was entitled:

This Beautiful Year

Last fall, I was

excited about the new year,
young and overwhelmed.
I didn’t know who I really was.

Now, I am
thoughtful and ready to take on a challenge.
I am a confident girl who knows where she is supposed to be.

Last fall, I was a student who was going to spend her first year away from home. Now, I am a student who doesn’t want to go back home.

Last fall, my English was really bad. Now, my English improved a lot and I got many good friends.

I was shy and worried about making new friends in a class that has already been bonded the year before. Now, I am confident and I have made some close friendships throughout all grades that I know will last forever.

I was worried I wouldn’t fit in. Now, I am happy. I learned anyone can fit in.

Last fall, I was different. I was scared to show my true self. I didn’t realize that people here would accept who I am. Now, I am brave. I have learned so many things here, especially friendship. I know the people who will be there for me and I know the people I will be there for.

Last fall, I was quiet, small, afraid. Now, I am proud and confident.

Last fall, I was a child who didn’t want to grow up. Now, I am ready to grow up and take the privileges and responsibilities that come with getting older.

My favorite part of the day was:
The part I spent at school.
Walking up the stairs to Jesser and seeing all my friends,
breakfast,
any class where I knew I had done the best I could and was satisfied with the outcome,
classes where we laughed together or all talked and thought about topics that are perhaps hard to wrap our heads around,
math class,
seeing Roger’s face,
break time,
when we all got to make the long line down to lunch,
lunch with my friends – particularly when they served tacos,
French class with Miriam,
music – I can feel my soul fly with music,
Select Chorus,
art,
drawing the little things that mean so much to me,
when I got to go back to my room or change for sports and be able to yell and laugh with my friends across the hall about the day,
going to the gym with my friend,
sports,
being with my teammates,
soccer,
softball,
dancing,
going riding with my friends,
community service,
free time,
hanging out and laughing with my friends,
being with my family,
chocolate,
and sleepovers.

Next year, I am looking forward to
Starting new.

Seeing how everyone changed,
Meeting new friends but keeping old;
Being with friends.

Making new memories.
Seeing the world in new ways.
New excitements, challenges, and friends.

Working hard on academics;
Developing my English.

Sports and remaking myself,

Being older and guiding and helping the people around me,
being a good role model for the new seventh graders.

Moving up to ninth grade.
I am looking forward to being an upper schooler,
Being able to fully explore and become involved in the community that I have been a part of for two years.
There are more responsibilities which I am looking forward to taking on.
More opportunities.
Dances.

I am looking forward to growing more, gaining confidence, and trying new things.
Maybe also letting confidence grow in myself.

Next year, I’m looking forward to an advanced me,
A me who can face to the challenges without fear,
A me who likes to try new things.

I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with all of the girls and teachers.

I will always remember,
The strong bonds built with friends and touching memories made this year;

My first day. I didn’t know anyone and figuring out the lunch line was the hardest thing I’ve ever done;
Registration and having people greet me with smiling faces welcoming me to the school;

Everyone in the class, all of my best friends;

The challenges I have overcome and what I have learned from them;
Riding for the first time;
That feeling you get during a game, or performance where you are just about ready to burst;

Going to the mall and laughing with my friends.

Secret roommate conversations.

My advisor, my advisees, the middle school, and my lifelong friends.

Bill reading to me.

Most importantly, I will remember my friends because they’re like family.

I will always remember the warmth this community has brought me,
the tears of our teachers at the end of the year,
the smiles on our faces,
the smell of the grass,
the taste of the food in the dining hall.

I will always remember that we will meet in the middle again.

I will always remember to enjoy my life and call my friends.

I will always remember this beautiful year.

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Threshold

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not away. Not yet, anyway.

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

Security Blanket

Founders’ Day is a middle school tradition originated by the 10 founding students of the program. In late spring of that first year, they proposed that beginning in the following year, the middle school have an annual holiday from classes in May, with all activities completely planned by students. Their goals were to honor the middle school, to have fun, and to remember the Founders. The seventh grade Founders, of course, were also able to participate in the first annual Founders’ Day as eighth graders, and so they helped set up a number of traditions including breakfast brought in from Dunkin’ Donuts.
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This year, then, was the 9th annual Founders’ Day. The students began with an overnight in the middle school building. Their first activity was tie-dying, followed by laser tag and other games and then by a movie (they voted for the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap). Sleep came… when sleep came.

The next morning, they all returned to the corridor to shower and change for the day – which turned out to be perfect, nice and warm and sunny. The wonderful and kind people at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Federal Street had labelled every drink and every bag of food, so it was incredibly easy for each student to find her own breakfast items. After eating, we all headed to the fields for a great game of kickball (another activity that dates to the first Founders’ Day). Next up, we returned to the middle school so that the students could sign each others’ t-shirts, freshly rinsed, laundered, and dried. They ended up spending nearly two hours on this activity, and the room filled with calls to “Sign my shirt?” amidst students gripping Sharpies and looking up thoughtfully at images unseen to anyone else but themselves before bending down and beginning to write. Ashley Chung, a six-year Senior, wandered in at this point, and awash in a swirl of emotions and nostalgia of her own, joined in the signing.

Lunch at Bonnie’s House, class and all-middle school pictures, and Capture the Flag continued nine years worth of traditions, at which point we attacked the special cake Mike Phelps had ordered for us and the watermelon. After snack, some students wanted to stay outside, and participated in three-legged and wheelbarrow races before organizing another game of kickball. Others chose to go inside, where they made their own fun.

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One day later, I was driving to service at the Food Bank with Sophie, an eighth grader, and we were talking about the day. She remarked on its importance as a marker that the year is starting to wind down, and how it can be tough to look ahead to the end of this year’s community. We talked about what her class is like, how last year they were really skilled at finding and learning about multiple perspectives without being judgmental, and how they were able to keep that going this year as they incorporated new eighth graders into their group and also welcomed the new seventh graders. She went on to reflect about what two years in the middle school had meant to them and how they were going to miss it. “It’s like a security blanket,” she said, “where you know everyone knows you and cares for you.” A few moments later she added, “But that allows us to develop our confidence. And we are confident. We’re wondering what exactly next year we’ll be like, but we can handle it.” I told her that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here, and how much it meant to know we had succeeded.

Not long after that, we pulled into the Food Bank parking lot for one last day of service – in this case, bagging apples that would go to their mobile distribution program. Inevitably, inexorably, the clock moved toward 2:30. We took one last look at the approximately 200 pounds of apples we had bagged and boxed. I shook Jared’s hand and said I was looking forward to next year, he smiled and said he was too, and Sophie and I turned and headed for the car and drove away together.

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Filed under School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

National Volunteer Month, 2014

  1. Why did you begin volunteering
  2. What impact do you feel your volunteer work has on your life?
  3. What do you enjoy most about volunteering?
  4. What would you say to encourage others who are considering volunteering?

(questions submitted by Jerod of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts as part of their celebration of National Volunteer Month)

When we first began designing the program for Stoneleigh-Burnham’s new middle school program, one of the first things I knew was that we needed to make time for students to go out and connect with their community. Service work seemed the best way to go about that, and so we agreed that I would sit down with the founding students quite early in the fall and take their ideas for what an off-campus service program might look like. The two most popular ideas that came out of that brainstorming session, helping with the after-school program at Federal Street School (where one of the Founders’ mothers taught) and working with Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society (back before the merger), continue to be among the sites where we serve. As the numbers of students grew over the years, we were delighted to be able to add additional sites, including the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and the Poet’s Seat Health Care Center.

I had always felt that volunteering was an important way to give of yourself and live your beliefs, to walk the talk as it were. So alongside my delight in seeing the service program come to life in the middle school and all the rewards it was bringing my students, I found personal reward in feeling that I was finally at least a small part of some of the excellent and important work being done in our area.

Volunteering, then, has impacted my life in two main ways. First, by supporting my students. Whether I see them selflessly throwing themselves into whatever needs to be done, or struggling to overcome initial hesitation before finally taking the plunge, they inspire me with their ability to ultimately focus on the needs of others and, without turning their work into a martyrdom and keeping a sense of fun, quietly step up and get the job done. Second, by connecting me to the people, mission and work of the sites where I work, Dakin and the Food Bank. When I see friends posting appeals to get involved in saving animals’ lives and finding them homes, when I think of the deep need in our region to support people trying to keep themselves and their families adequately fed, I know I’m already part of that work. I’m more aware of the complexity of the work, the issues involved, why these organizations are taking certain approaches to solving those issues. I can bring that awareness and knowledge with me out into the world. Those are the kinds of impacts that make the work easy to do and easy to enjoy, seeing my students at their best, knowing how valuable the work of which we’re a part really is.

Sometimes, whether in person or on Facebook, friends and family members will wonder whether they might step up and do some volunteering of their own. I always encourage them to do so. If they’ve expressed specific concerns, I can acknowledge them and explain how I deal with them, and of course I can speak and write about what I’ve gotten out of my own experience. That feeling that you are no longer on the sidelines, that you are actually out there trying to make a positive difference in the world, is one of the best reasons in the world to volunteer.

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Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Equalist Dress Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potential Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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