“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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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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No One: Reflections on Ferguson

It’s about an hour since the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson was announced, and I’m still feeling sucker punched despite being among the millions who had anticipated the decision and the millions more who could tell it was coming once prosecutor Robert McCulloch began his bizarre preamble to the announcement. Besides sharing their own anger, anguish, sadness, or frustration, teachers on my Twitter and Facebook timelines have also been wondering what on Earth they’re going to tell their students tomorrow.

We’re on Thanksgiving vacation, so I don’t have that immediate worry, but I do need to think about what we might do upon our return in December. As it happens, one of the six students in my Humanities 7 class who still has to present on her second Focus Question after break wrote her essay on racism and white supremacy. She had been unafraid to tackle difficult questions, including white privilege. And her essay included a powerful moment when the white resident of a predominantly black neighborhood, made the statement that “There’s no need to be careful if you treat people as human beings.” At that point, she saw a black woman emerge from a nearby house and added, loudly, “As long as you don’t have a gun in your hand, I’m okay with you.” (Huber)

Okaaaaaaay then.

That alone should generate a fair amount of discussion in this class!

Today, we are also mourning twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by Cleveland police officers while he was carrying a toy gun. Today, we are also reacting to the news that Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal under which she will serve out the remaining two months of a three-year sentence, all for having attempted to defend herself when she feared for her life.

I may be sickened and saddened by all of this, but I also hold in my head and my heavy heart the realities that our justice system would treat me very differently if I were a person of colour and that white privilege may be, in the words of my student, “an unfair thing as it is something that is decided by something you can’t control,” but it is no less real for all that.

Leslie Carole Taylor, one of my friends from high school is a UCC minister, and she was posting an incredible series of quotes and thoughts on Facebook through the evening. As a Black woman, she no doubt was experiencing today’s events differently than I was, yet everything she wrote resonated with me. Among her posts was this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” I wrote back, “I share that belief. And I share responsibility for bringing that final word about.”

In meeting that responsibility, I would simultaneously be working toward my student’s vision: “Your race shouldn’t affect how people treat you or see you. In the end, I feel that no one should be judged because of their race.”

No one. Not Marissa Alexander. Not Michael Brown. Not Tamir Rice. Not Eric Garner. Not John Crawford. Not Ezell Ford. Not Trayvon Martin. Not Jordan Davis. Not Renisha McBride. Not…

No one.

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Filed under Current Events, In the Classroom

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

Trans 101.5

Transgender Awareness Month comes right on the heels of National Bullying Prevention Month, and in many ways that makes sense, as transgender people are disproportionately affected by bullying (as with street violence). GLSEN reports that fully 82% of LGBT kids have had problems with bullying, 44% specifically due to gender identification (reported on the nobullying.com website). GLSEN’s 2013 National Climate survey is available by download for anyone who might be interested.

In an age where definitions of different genders are becoming as fluid as some people’s sense of gender itself, it can be hard to keep up with the latest terms. For starters, (biological) sex is not the same as (social) gender, and 1-2% of people are born neither female nor male but rather intersex. Additionally, even though “transgender” refers to someone whose gender identity differs from that assigned to them at birth, not everyone who might fit that definition automatically chooses to identify as transgender. Moreover, though some transgender people (such as noted teen activist Jazz Jennings, here in an interview with Katie Couric) feel they were always girls trapped in a boy’s body or boys trapped in a girl’s body, not all transgender people feel that way or even identify within the gender binary. Partially blurring the binary are bigender people and androgynes, and within the Native American tradition, two-spirit people. But other transgender people might identify as polygender, agender, genderqueer, or just plain nonbinary, and still others avoid terminology altogether. Some may have a stable gender identity while others might be more fluid. Facebook, as many people know by now, offers a menu of over 50 gender choices, and even then, it is not 100% comprehensive.

Currently, among the most common pronoun choices used by trangender people are he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and ze/hir/hirs. As with gender itself, though, there are a wealth of pronoun choices that exist. The only way to know what pronouns a transgender person uses is for them to tell you. It’s certainly okay to politely ask; many colleges routinely do so now during Orientation and in the day-to-day of their offices.

Because of the acronym “LGBT,” people often assume trans people are not heterosexual, but your gender actually has nothing to do with your sexuality. Transgender people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual (both romantic and aromantic), and any other variety of sexuality of which you can think.

In a recent talk at Mount Holyoke on her life as a trans woman, Jennifer Finney Boylan told listeners, “Let your story be known. It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” Ms. Boylan walks the talk, having published a number of beautifully written and at times painfully honest books on her life including the iconic She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and the sequels I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir and Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders. For people looking for books for younger readers, Luna by Julie Anne Peters is the fictional story of a transgender teen told from the point of view of her younger sister, and I am Jazz, written by Jazz Jennings along with Jessica Herthel and based on Jazz’s own life, is the story of a transgender girl written for elementary-age children. As transgender people are becoming more visible, so too are choices of good books about transgender people becoming more common.

Though I don’t personally identify as transgender, I do have a vague sense of what it might be like. My own gender expression, as I’ve written before, is essentially a projection of my authentic self, kept as free of gender typing as possible, into a heavily gendered world. In that world, some people see me and greet me with warm and genuine smiles. Others laugh out loud, cringe with discomfort, or look me over with disgust. Still others simply treat me as they would any other person. The result is that I sometimes feel both relaxed and on guard. Relaxed, because I’m comfortable both with the look and with the effect of shaking up gender norms. On guard, because I never know when things might suddenly and without warning turn ugly.

Those emotions should be incompatible.

Patriarchy is why they aren’t.

So in the end, as with so much in this world, it all comes down to respect. Respecting each other’s personal sense of our own gender identity and the associated gender expression we choose. Respecting the terminology we each choose to use. Respecting the possibility of good intentions behind the occasional slip-up. And ultimately, respecting our joint and fundamental humanity.

No matter what gender we might be.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, The Faculty Perspective