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We’ve moved!

Though it has been quiet here lately, we have been happily and busily blogging at our new site, blog.sbschool.org. We’d like to invite you to join us over there, and keep the conversation going. Thanks for your support, and take care!

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Finding Resolution

It’s been years since I’ve made New Year’s resolutions. Like many people, I found the process to be at first disheartening and then borderline hypocritical as I fell short time and time again of my goals, then set the bar so low as to be almost meaningless if at least achievable, then gave up the process altogether – without, of course, giving up on the idea of trying to keep learning and growing every year. But somehow, this year, I feel the need to make some sort of year-long commitment. The question is, to what?

With that question still hanging over my head, I settled in on the evening of December 30 for #RuralEdChat on Twitter (archive here). We all exchanged greetings as people continued to join in while noting the various face-to-face goings on around them, and I commented, “Modern Family marathon here (with my family!). I’ll try and multi-task. ;-)” I did a reasonably good job of it, periodically engaging in short bursts of conversation or catching my son’s eye to smile at a particularly good line, while shifting my attention back to the chat and re-engaging frequently enough to read every post and maintain the flow.

The first real question from Tammy Neil, the moderator of the chat, was, “As 2014 comes to a close, what was your most successful memory of this past year? What made it so successful?” I wrote, “Realizing that my Humanities 7 students have focused themselves on social justice nonstop since September.” Indeed, as I’ve written here before, each of our first three units has had a theme question that focuses in one way or another on taking a firmly realistic look at the world and considering what can be done to make it better.

I realize, of course, this isn’t strictly speaking my own success as the kids themselves came up with the starter questions, discussed what their priorities were, negotiated, compromised, and eventually settled on the final theme questions. But before I could get too hard on myself, another chat participant wrote that she didn’t feel personally successful but enjoyed seeing the smiles on her kindergartners. I responded, “You’ll notice my ‘success’ was really my kids’ success. But I helped create that context – as you did in your room!” I think I needed to acknowledge that to myself as much as I needed to share it with her.

Question two was the one I’d been fearing, and for which I was hoping I’d have more time to prepare. I stared at my screen and reread, “Are you a resolution making educator? If so, what resolutions are you making for 2015? Why?” The first part of the question gave me a possible out – and I ended up deciding not to take it. At least, not entirely. I wrote, “Mixed feelings a/b resolutions. But to #bendthearc toward justice is an unceasing and daily priority.” The work I do with my students is indeed a huge part of that – ensuring they know themselves, develop their voices, and work to understand and respect diverse people with diverse perspectives.

But another huge part of bending the arc is constantly working to build a better world for my students to enter as they grow up and graduate. The rest of my day on Twitter speaks to that. I retweeted posts from Melinda D. Anderson (about José Vilson’s blog “We Can Never Turn Our Backs”) and Reni Eddo-Lodge (on an interview with rap star Macklemore) on the vast difference between reactions to black people and white people speaking out against racism and the role white privilege plays in that. I retweeted a post from Tracy Clayton that said, “okay white folks this is important. some of you may already know this and if you do please pass it on to people who don’t.” so that anyone interested in knowing what she had to say could go to her timeline (as I did, encountering a take on white privilege and appropriation that was to the point, thoughtful, and nuanced).

Additionally, I shared Parker Marie Molloy’s tweet grieving the loss of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who had committed suicide and who wrote “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.” In response, I shared out the names of Jazz Jennings and her mom as great resources (her mom additionally pointing people to her daughter’s excellent Facebook page), and retweeted this posting which was simultaneously heartrending and hopeful: “thank you to all the trans folk posting in #RealLiveTransAdult tag, you guys mean the world to us scared & closeted kids.”

The final question of #RuralEdChat was, “What will you do to make 2015 better (more productive, more positive, etc.) than 2014?” After quite some thought, I responded, “Listen. Read. Listen. Seek to understand. Listen. Clarify. Listen. Share. Listen some more.”And maybe in the end, that’s the key to a workable New Year’s resolution. I have no idea what the year will bring, and thus I have no idea what I’ll need to say and do. But I do know the values I live by. I know my family’s values. I know my school’s values. If I can live every day according to those values, if I can do what I can (no more, but certainly no less) to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice (to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), I will – hopefully! – be able to view 2015 as a success on the next New Year’s Eve.

Happy new year to all, and may you all find what you are seeking.

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Filed under Current Events, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Please and thank you

(Trigger Warning: discussion of suicide)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thank you.

photo(25)

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

“This Very Interesting Article on Buzzfeed”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Very Good Place to Start: On Teaching for Respect

“Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned to see a woman approaching me as I sat working at Rao’s coffee shop. “Yes?” I said. “Can you please give me directions to (we’ll say it was La Veracruzana)?” I did, and she thanked me, acknowledged my “You’re welcome,” and turned and left. Clearly, she was either open or oblivious to the contrast between whatever it was about my appearance (hair? clothing? something else?) that had caused her to “ma’am” me and my baritone voice. Myself, at this point in my life, I respond naturally to either “ma’am” or “sir,” reasoning that in either case, someone is addressing me respectfully.

Respect is the key word here. It’s what underlies most successful human interactions, and what is most often missing when dysfunction takes over. It’s a firm underlying principle in each of my classes. I expect respect not only for each other (which they almost invariably show anyway) but also for fictional characters, reasoning that if we are generally talking about them as if they were real, we might as well carry it to the logical extreme.

Of course, respect for people who are transgender or otherwise gender transgressive is not an automatic given in this world. Indeed, as of 2012, transgender people were 28% more likely than cisgender people to experience physical attacks, and the situation was even more dire for trans women of colour, who make up a wildly disproportionate and depressing 87% of the cases where those attacks escalate to murder. (Bolles) Many white people who are members of or allied with the transgender community recognize and deplore this fact.

International Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place on Nov. 20 and once again, I attended the Northampton service. In welcoming us, Yohah Ralph acknowledged the difficulty and weight of the accumulated tragedy of over 220 transgender people having been killed this year, some of whom were never identified, some of whose families never knew or cared. He asked that, to keep the atmosphere from weighing us down too much, each participant in the service speak about their dream for the future. Most said their dream was for everyone, regardless of gender, to be able to live freely and without fear as their authentic selves.

That shouldn’t be asking too much.

The Stonewall Center of the University of Massachusetts was a co-sponsoring organization of this year’s TDOR, and the Director, Genny Beemyn, said that their own dream was that we wouldn’t be gathering together next year. They acknowledged that was virtually certain not to be, nor was it likely to be for many decades to come.

You may have picked up on the use of the pronoun “they,” and that is indeed Genny’s preferred pronoun. In Humanities 7 class one day, the question of whether “they” could be singular came up. Some students were firmly advocating that it had to be plural, while one other was quietly if hesitantly demurring. Thinking that she might possibly know a trans person (here in the Valley, the odds are definitely higher than in many parts of the country) who preferred the pronoun “they,” I stepped in to support her, stating that while “they” had traditionally been plural (this to acknowledge the good intentions of students arguing that point), people of different genders were in fact increasingly choosing to use it as a singular pronoun. She smiled back at me as several other students paused to give me a curious look. I nodded to affirm my statement, everyone relaxed, and we all moved on.

If we are truly to work toward a world that embraces people of all genders, it will be built through the gradual accumulation of respectful calls for respect, respectfully received. Hopefully, my students will help lead the way as they grow into adulthood and find their place in the world. It would not surprise me for a second if they do.

After all, living life as your authentic self is at the core of our mission, and respect is at the heart of each element of our honor code.

That is a very good place to start.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Ending Well, part 2

On the last of classes in the middle school, I made the following post to Facebook:

Scene: my Humanities 7 classroom, last class of the day and term (a double block lasting 1’55”). Thanksgiving vacation starts today at 3:00.

Students: We wanna do something fun. Can we do something fun?
Me: Everything we do in Humanities is fun.
Students: But…
Me: Here are the “must happens” of the day we talked about at the end of our last class: an opportunity for students to present, finishing up unit planning, discussing the book Gingersnap, and finishing up self-assessments. The “may happens” will come after the “must happens,” and are essentially “your ideas here.”
Four students: Can I present?

  • Four presentations follow, each strong on facts, thematically clear, with obvious deep personal connections to the topics. Supportive applause after each.
  • Discussion on ideas for a film-making unit. Ten kids still want to make a movie from the book Wonder. Two still don’t but are willing to work out their own idea. Ten kids offer to help the small group by playing any necessary additional roles. Two kids offer to help film the large group. They beg me to let them start planning. I acquiesce.
  • Soon, the small group excitedly calls me over to tell me their seed idea and that they are ready to start fleshing it out, while the large group has decided to hold auditions to see who gets to play which part. They beg me to let them keep going. I acquiesce.
  • Time flies like the wind. They will have to finish their self-assessments on their own (Google Forms). Gingersnap can wait until after break.
  • “Hey, everyone can have a donut!” one of them yells. They run to the boxes, and then down the stairs. The room is quiet.

This is my world. This is why I love middle schoolers.

A number of friends liked my post. One of them, Rebecca Lawson, went so far as to ask me if John Lounsbury was a Facebook friend of mine, telling me “He would LOVE this! Definitely no laminated lesson plans here!! GREAT!.” John Lounsbury, whom I have in fact met (and who once invited me to a symposium on the future of the middle school movement), is one of the godfathers of the middle school model. Well into his 90’s, he continues to advocate in his modest but clear fashion for practices that seem like basic common sense as you listen to him but prove, on closer examination, to be deeply innovative. To think he would love what my students were doing is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten.

What a great way to end the term!

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

Ending well

written Wednesday evening, Nov. 19, 2014, the night before the last day of Fall Trimester classes in the middle school.

“Let’s make it a really fun and special week for them,” Andrea said as we all nodded. We were in a Middle School team meeting, trying to plan out a week of special schedules for our students while the Upper School students were planning for and taking final exams. Monday and Tuesday, we would be following the same schedule as the Upper School while they were meeting to review, but Wednesday and Thursday were all our own.

Of course, part of this time would be given over to classes – we believe in making good use of our time together right up to the last minute – so it was easy to decide Wednesday morning would be normal, and Thursday needed to include the three class periods that don’t meet on a Wednesday morning. This would also give an air of seriousness to those last two days, and moreover provide some degree of comfort through the familiar routine. Yet, changing things up where possible would definitely add an air of celebration.

So we decided to offer students a menu of fun activities Wednesday afternoon, settling on a bowling trip, a movie, open gym, and printmaking. Andrea, Karen, Ally, and Ben stepped up respectively to help facilitate those activities. Counterintuitive though it may seem, we thought it would make sense to also set aside some time that afternoon for students to clean up their rooms so they would be ready to check out with houseparents when vacation officially began.

Andrea, Ben, and Karen also stepped up to make Thursday special, Andrea by setting up a field trip to the Smith College Botanic Garden with the 7th graders, Ben by coming up with the idea of joining an art component in with Andrea’s science activities, and Karen by agreeing to take the 8th graders for the morning to do some fun activities related to their DC trip. Is it any wonder I love working with the middle school team?!

So after lunch today, I hustled over to the middle school corridors to help supervise room cleaning. I found almost a party atmosphere – I suppose an impending vacation helps create that mood whatever you are doing – as some students worked diligently to organize their rooms, others proudly showed me they were ready to go, and just about everyone scrambled to be next to use the vacuum. I burst out laughing when I went into one room to “Just take a look at my side, please” as every square inch of floor, bed, and desk was covered on one side while the other was spotless, a ruler-straight line dividing one side from the other. The first girl’s roommate hastened to assure me “I’m working on it! It’s actually better now!” And in point of fact, it was even better by the time the hour was out.

Andrea and I moved quickly from the dorms to grab the vehicle we used to shuttle the bowling trip students off to French King Bowling Center. The students quickly lined up to get shoes, formed groups of up to four per lane, and began to program in their and their friends’ names. Several groups clamored for the bumpers to be put up, and the owner good-naturedly teased them before complying. Randomly, I happened to witness one student toss a ball right over the bumper and straight into the gutter, where it wobbled all the way to the end as she doubled over laughing. Meanwhile, one lane over, another student was pumping her fist as she knocked all the pins down. On the way back, I learned that the students on the first bus trip *really* knew the line “make a wish” in the song “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson which was playing on WHAI as they sang it with at least twice the volume and energy of any other line in the song. Even, on occasion, when Kelly Clarkson herself was singing something else altogether.

Tomorrow, I’ll help transport the 7th graders to Smith College, and once we’ve finished at the Garden, enjoy a quick walk in town to the Starbucks. After lunch, I’ll meet Humanities 7 for a long double period. Three students will present their work from the last unit, we’ll discuss the ending of the novel Gingersnap, we’ll finish up planning the next unit, and I’ll be sure they have some “choice time” to finish up their self-assessments, turn in their “Works Consulted” pages, and simply enjoy some free reading time in each other’s company. It’s a great way to finish out the term.

No wonder I love my job.

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