Category Archives: Uncategorized

At the Heart of It

Alfie Kohn is most definitely one of my educational heroes. Controversial as he may be, the controversy often stems from his relentless focus on what research tells us about what is best for students even when it flies in the face of common sense. And anyone who is all about figuring out what is best for students, and who has the courage to follow through on those principles (even if they differ from my own), earns my respect.

So when he wrote on Twitter, “Provocative essay about ‘the world of classroom management’: our need for control & for quick fixes: http://ow.ly/DTjfT,” it got my attention. The essay turned out to be excerpted from a chapter by Barbara McEwan Landau from the book Classroom Discipline in American Schools: Problems and Possibilities for Democratic Education, edited by Ronald E. Butchart and used with permission from SUNY Press. It’s well worth a read, as the following quotes suggest.

“I have never worked with any educators who desire to become ‘mean’ teachers. Yet the fear of losing control while experimenting with management practices new to them causes educators to believe that in a crunch they will revert to behavioral measures that, in their words, ‘work’ to end inappropriate conduct.”

This brought back memories of a long-ago class I had that was particularly troublesome to manage. To this day, I’m not remotely proud of some of the things I tried doing to regain control (and yes, I realize the use of the word “control” in the first place is telling). For a brief period in time, I was most definitely a “mean” teacher, the antithesis of who I want to be and who I believe I am deep down. What finally worked was simply sitting down and talking honestly with the kids about how it felt to be in class together, and what we all could do about creating the kind of environment they all wanted deep down. Maybe it was simply that the kids themselves had to grow tired of their own behavior before they cared to correct it. But treating them respectfully as people who instinctively wanted to the do right thing certainly couldn’t have hurt.

“Another curious paradox is trying to control student behaviors while making little or no attempt to determine the underlying cause of the behavior.”

This goes to the heart of how we now handle discipline in our middle school program. We certainly realize that sometimes, young adolescents will have moments so impulsive that they themselves may not be able to identify the underlying cause of the behavior. However, we also realize that without students having some sense of multiple perspectives on something that happened, and thus cause and effect, working our way through to a genuine desire to change behavior in the future is at best unlikely and at worst completely futile.

“Constantly quiet classrooms look as they do because the students are being controlled through fear, intimidation, frequent competitions, and public embarrassment.”

I actually take issue with this statement, which is particularly odd in light of the quote in the preceding paragraph. Of course, I wouldn’t advocate for a split second that we control students through external motivation of any sort, let alone such negative means. And maybe, to be fair, the key is in the word “constantly.” At any rate, I would simply suggest also looking at the underlying cause of the behavior when viewing a quiet classroom. For one example, in my experience, this year’s Humanities 7 class has been phenomenal from the start about being able to maintain focus and work quietly during “Choice Time.” They might be reading in the group novel, or in their independent reading book. They might be working on their independent writing, or researching and writing their Focus Question essay, or preparing for a presentation. But for them, the quiet comes from being thoroughly engaged with the work they are doing – internal motivation of the kind we’d hope to see.

“Unfortunately, when my pre-service students do enter the field experience classrooms to which they have been assigned, they are more likely to see modeled the very strategies that are least likely to promote classroom equity.”

Unless they visit our school – as one visitor from a teaching program at Antioch commented several years ago after observing my Humanities 7 class, “My class will be so excited to hear about this. We read about democratic classroom, but we didn’t know anyone who was actually making it work.”

“Building a democratic classroom climate requires an effective integration of pedagogical knowledge, educational psychology, patience, hard work, an unwavering dedication to equal educational opportunity for all students, and a passionate belief that everyone, including the teacher, can learn from mistakes.”

And now we’re at the heart of our mission as a school. I see every single one of these elements in every single one of my colleagues, along with a willingness and a desire to learn from each other. And I see the level of trust and connection students feel, along with the sense of gratitude they express. And I myself am grateful.

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

Preventing Bullying

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

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

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

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

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

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

#WriteMyCommunity (National Day on Writing 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Are you in or out?”

(title credit from a song in the Disney movie Aladdin and the King of Thieves)

It’s a question 90% of us or more never have to ask. People who are both heterosexual and cisgender (essentially, being comfortable in a gender identity that matches the sex written down on our original birth certificate) never have to go in the closet in the first place. For the rest of us, though, the question may be somewhat stickier. And on National Coming Out Day every year, while some people come out or reflect on and celebrate their earlier coming out, others contemplate it, and still others hold tight to the door’s handle to ensure it remains firmly closed.

It’s a given, of course, that absolutely no one has the right to force the door open for anyone else. And it’s equally a given that when a person comes out to selected people, they need to respect if that person wants to remain closeted in other places. Family dynamics, workplace atmosphere, local cultural attitudes, and more can all can make it more or less risky to come out, and none of those contexts is absolutely uniform across all members of a given community.

Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary founded National Coming Out Day on October 11, 1988, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. (Wikipedia) On that date in 2013, The Atlantic published an article by Preston Mitchum entitled “On National Coming Out Day, Don’t Disparage the Closet.” He observed, “The coming out experience can be a precarious time in a person’s life, particularly when one belongs to multiple marginalized communities.” He acknowledges that “Ultimately, coming out is important because it makes the LGBT community more visible, particularly for black LGBT individuals…” but adds that “… focusing so intensely on coming out places the burden on the individual to brave society rather than on society to secure the safety of the individual.”

So how do we secure the safety of the individual? In particular, how can that happen when some religious traditions believe homosexuality is a sin and we also want to respect each person’s individual freedom of religion and their personal beliefs? The question takes me back many years ago to when I was teaching elsewhere, and one of the teachers assigned a project in which kids were to make a poster showing their own personal nine circles of Hell. One student placed homosexuals in her fifth circle, and as several of the students had gay or lesbian parents (no student had, to my knowledge, come out at that point in time), the faculty were concerned. One teacher agreed to talk to her, and it turned out that, while she did indeed hold the religious belief that homosexuality was a sin, she also felt (again, for religious reasons) that every single person deserved to be treated with love and respect.

We have seen the benefits over time of gays and lesbians coming out, serving as examples, and clearing the way for others, and we are currently seeing what seems to be the beginning of such a pattern among the gender non-conforming. Yet, not all of us were cut out to play that role, and we each need to make the best possible decision for ourselves in our own personal circumstances. With that in mind, if our entire country can agree to hold the core values that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and everyone is also entitled to be treated respectfully, that can be the starting point as we move forward toward the ultimate goal that all of us act upon those core values to the very best of our ability.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, Uncategorized

Sick Day

(written Tuesday, September 23, 2014)

I’m not particularly good at being sick, especially when school’s in session. I really hate missing even a day with my students, and weekends are my chance to catch up, plan ahead, reflect and go deeper. So when I came down with a stomach bug that had me sleeping through Sunday and missing not only Monday but also Tuesday with my students, I was not at all happy. (My cat, on the other hand, was over the moon to have dozens of consecutive hours with captive and immobile company.)

When it became clear Monday evening that I was going to have to miss Tuesday too, I set about converting my Humanities 7 lesson plan so it could be done by subs. The first step was morning reading. I simply refused to completely give up the chance to read to the kids, so I took my iPad and iPhone and made two videos (due to time restrictions per individual video) of myself reading the book Wonder and posted them to YouTube. They were really more like radio at night than actual videos as the screen was entirely dark throughout – which, given this was my third day of illness, was probably for the best!

For a class discussion, I had found two videos on YouTube that related to their question, “Why is ‘like a girl’ considered an insult?,” one from the Always campaign where they showed the difference between young women and young girls doing various activities “like a girl” and one from Mythbusters where they scientifically tested whether there is such a thing as throwing like a girl in an attempt to debunk what they suspected was a culturally imposed stereotype. So the students could still have these discussions, I put all these links on a Google Doc along with space for teachers to sign up to cover each period of Humanities 7 for me, as well as my other commitments. I added some guiding questions, asked for an email report, and called it good. (Side note – on a whim, I posted about all my electronic sub planning to Facebook – and two nationally known consultants asked if they could quote me in their work!)

How did it work out? It appears to have gone better than well, and I credit my subs Meghan and Tim as well as the students themselves. In particular, they seem to have had a great discussion earlier this morning on the videos. Among other things, reading the notes, I learned that they felt “like a girl” was an insult because it’s what we’ve been taught, because when it’s used that way on boys it also affects girls. They believe the popular media plays a huge role in shaping these stereotypes, and extended the idea to ask why it matters whether one dresses “like a girl” or “like a boy.” Asked what could be done moving forward, they suggested publicizing the commercial, working to avoid stereotyping, and avoiding what they called “the Barbie-ization of the world.”

To my mind, these are unquestionably feminist notions, and given our school’s mission and culture, that is as I had expected. Yet, if past experience holds, not all of these girls will identify as feminists. I remember last year’s Humanities 7 class, divided about evenly into feminists and equalists (a term, by the way, they came up with on their own although I know it has been around for a while). Emma Watson recently gave a keynote speech at the UN kicking off the #HeForShe campaign, and in it she referred to “inadvertent feminists” – essentially, people working for the ideals of feminism but explicitly rejecting the negative associations which have, rightly or wrongly, become associated with the term. The speech is about 12 minutes long, so I will think about whether I might play the whole thing or just selected extracts as my students continue to develop and refine their thinking and go deeper on these and other related questions.

No, my students are not treading water on these days I am out sick. They are steadily moving forward. I can’t wait to see them again.

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Out of the Margins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Behind Every Avatar

Back in the early 2000’s, when I was a member of the old MiddleWeb listserve, one of the teachers on the list shared that she had been diagnosed with one of the more aggressive forms of cancer. The group rallied to her support, and she continued to share her journey with us as she could, from the classroom for as long as she was able to. Then her account went silent for a while, and eventually a listmember shared the sad news that she had quite recently died. Her funeral was the upcoming weekend, and listmembers travelled from up to several hours away to attend, share with her family what she had meant to us, and support each other.

Such is the power of social media. Few if any of us ever met her in person, yet unquestionably we cared deeply about her. Her family confirmed we, too, had been one of the joys in her life.

Recently, Bill Ferriter wrote a powerful blog post looking at the current social media landscape. In it, he observes, “Early on, the folks that used social spaces for networking seemed genuinely interested in learning WITH each other. Now, it seems like people are only interested in learning FROM each other.” It got me thinking as to why that might be true.

Although anybody could join listserves, they were something of a protected space in that you had to sign up to participate. Emails from listmembers appeared in your inbox, and you could respond as you saw fit. It’s something like having a private room in a restaurant. It helps create an atmosphere that facilitates honesty and trust.

Most modern social media spaces, on the other hand, are more like taking a table along the sidewalk. Random people can and do hear anything you say, and it’s just plain harder to build a close relationship in that context. Additionally, comments sections on many websites have become relentlessly vituperative, and trolling has proliferated to the point where I see Twitter users I follow telling people “What are you doing in my mentions? Blocked.” on a near-daily basis. That doesn’t make it any easier to join in conversations, both for fear of not hurting someone inadvertently and for fear of being subsequently targeted oneself.

So what are we going to do about it? Lamenting the “old” days will get us exactly nowhere. And, as Bill said, “There’s a person behind every avatar who deserves to be valued and recognized and appreciated and challenged.”

Actually, though, that’s the key. Keeping in mind the person behind the avatar. Note too, that Bill didn’t write “and with whom you should invariably and sycophantically agree.” It’s absolutely fair to challenge people, to stretch their thinking, as long as it’s done respectfully and with love. I would hope other people would do the same for me. Often, in fact, they do!

Earlier today, I ran into Cathy LaDuke, the Athletic Director at my wife’s school. As we were catching up on things, she said she had been meaning to thank me for getting her involved in Twitter chats. She talked about how much she enjoyed them, how much she got out of them – and about the connections she’d made. She loved the way #TABSchat moderator Scott MacClintic always noticed and commented on her photographs. She’s even presented on Twitter chats for the Chatham Hall faculty, and has good ideas to get even more people involved.

Myself, there was one morning this summer when I randomly got involved in #satchat to make a point that so many discussions focus on urban vs. suburban schools that often the needs of rural schools and districts get left out of the conversation altogether. Next thing I knew, I was being invited to participate in #RuralEdChat on Tuesday night, and not long after, I found myself connecting via my phone while my wife and I were travelling through rural Pennsylvania (and yes, she was at the wheel). It was a great chat, warm and welcoming and stimulating, and I’ve continued to come back.

So it really can be done. As Bill concluded, “Together is built one interaction at a time, y’all — and together is a lot more meaningful than the lonely places that our social spaces have become.”

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