Tag Archives: Beautifully different

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!

Leave a comment

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

Student Driven Classrooms: Keeping the Faith

Thanks to John Norton and MiddleWeb for granting us permission to repost and link to this piece originally published on their website!

Twice a year, our independent school invites the families of boarding and day students to Family Weekend – a busy, enjoyable time when visitors can attend classes as well as various talks, performances, presentations and athletic events. This year the spring weekend came along just as my Humanities 7 course was finishing up their self-designed unit on “judging” and was not quite ready to dive fully into the next (poetry).

This left me somewhat at a loss for what to do during our special weekend class – on precisely one of those days where you want the students (and yourself) to be at their best.

I eventually decided to hold an official poetry unit kickoff. Olivia asked me right before we started if she could read one of her poems. Her beautiful and powerful reading opened the class perfectly. I then told the kids I was about to give them their one writing prompt for the entire unit, and asked them to take out their iPads and write a poem entitled “Poetry Is.”

Read more here

Leave a comment

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

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.
photo 2-5
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.

photo 1-4
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.

Leave a comment

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

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.

Leave a comment

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.

2 Comments

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!

Leave a comment

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

Torn Apart

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Usually, at the end of a show, especially on Opening Night, the cast either cheers and wanders off stage after the bows or simply wanders off stage. But as Meg Reilly, the music director, and Josh Carnes, the drummer, went into the exit music, these kids clearly did not want to leave, and it only took a few moments for the first one to turn to the girl standing next to her and wrap her in a long, warm hug which spread like, well, AIDS in the early 1990s, to choose a show-appropriate metaphor. Only, of course, on a much, much more positive note.

Before the show, Kim Mancuso, the stage director of the play, had gathered us all together on stage for an Opening Night ritual that marked and acknowledged the importance of each and every possible relationship among us in pulling off this incredibly complex and powerful show. When Tom Geha, the lighting technician, and I returned to the tech table, he said, “You know, you probably don’t even think about it because you see them every day, but I was looking around and it really hits you how young they are.” Rent is an ambitious show for people of any age, but it is an exceptional challenge for teenagers and pre-teens (three cast members were seventh graders) to immerse themselves for three months in the world of New York City’s East Village in the early 1990s, when many of the starving young artists were HIV-positive and/or had come down with full-blown AIDS. In that context, it was perhaps even more of a challenge for these kids to put themselves out there on stage for all to see.

Yet, every single audience member I talked to said the same thing, that part of what made this show exceptional was the absolutely universal commitment to the show and to each other that was clear from the first entrance to the last onstage hug before they finally wandered off stage.

The other part of what made this show exceptional is the show itself. The script is raw and intense, fueled by the tension that comes from the uncertainty of not knowing which one of your friends might be the next to die, of trying to find happiness and live day by day as best we can. With the funeral of one of the most beloved of the main characters as the centerpiece of the second act, and the subsequent destruction or near-destruction of a number of the relationships, the second act is harrowing. I turned to Tom after the Saturday night performance, and commented, “That second act just destroys me every time, and more and more each time I see it.” I could see in his eyes even before he answered that he felt the same way.

Near the end of the show, the character Tom Collins sings, “I can’t believe you’re going / I can’t believe this family must die / Angel helped us believe in love / I can’t believe you disagree.” One of my seventh grade Humanities students wrote an independent writing piece after the final show that essentially echoed this sentiment. I wrote her in response, “This is beautiful – raw and honest and in the moment. It’s not polished, and quite honestly it probably shouldn’t be. / I will share this with you in reaction, something I sent out on Twitter a few hours after the show: ‘Hard to mix the 2nd act of #Rent with tears flooding my eyes but I did my best. @sbschoolorg kids did an awesome job with a powerful show.’ I think this one will stick with many, perhaps most, of us for a lifetime.”

“Rent,” of course, not only refers to the money the characters in this musical state in the title song that they are not going to pay – not last year’s, not this year’s, not next year’s. “Rent” also refers to the concept of being, literally, torn apart. In this case, fortunately, though perhaps emotionally shredded, the cast and crew of this musical were not torn apart.

This family, at least, will never die.

Leave a comment

Filed under Performing Arts, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School