Tag Archives: Boarding and Day

You Are What You Read.

Don’t tell my students, but we’re two days from the start of school and I just finished my last summer reading book for IB English. It’s not that I’ve been lazy— in fact, the only thing I have accomplished this summer is reading books. All my usual ambitious projects— cleaning the attic, weeding through the outgrown baby toys and clothes, painting the fence— remain unfinished. I spent the summer chasing my kids, and reading. Usually I grabbed my chance for focused quiet during naptime and nighttime, but I have also become a master at reading over the sound of screeching or the “Dora” theme song (I figure if I’m going to ignore my kids at least they will see me reading a book, which sort of counteracts the television they’re watching, right?).

I grew up in a household of readers. Downtime on family vacations was spent in separate corners of rented houses, everyone getting lost in their own books, together. As a mother, among the things I frequently feel grateful for (My kids ate a green vegetable today! They are healthy and happy! No one snuck into my bed tonight!) is the fact that my children love books. At four and two, neither of them can read yet, but they each recite their favorite books, word for word, from memory. This is the earliest version of the intimate ways we absorb the books we love.

There’s a lot of research and writing about the effects on young people over the course of a summer spent reading or not reading. The simplified finding is that reading, like many other things, is a practice that students should continually cultivate, both in and out of school. I mean, it doesn’t take a PhD and a research lab to understand this concept: don’t exercise for three months and it will be really hard to run three miles on the first day of soccer practice; don’t practice math or French or reading over a long period of time and…you get the picture. And even more research is being done about the ways that on-line reading is affecting and changing students’ learning. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, was my faculty summer reading book. Much of his research and discussion focuses on the in-depth learning that happens when you read a printed book from cover to cover. Reading an on-line text, he argues, often leads to shallow and distracted learning, largely due to our personal habits when sitting in front of a screen, and to the hyper-links that invite us further and further down the rabbit-hole and away from our original task.

One of the books I re-read this summer is Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I hadn’t read it since high school, and I was thinking about teaching it in my senior IB English class this spring. Now, I last read this book twenty years ago. I could have told you it was a good book; I could even have told you, at the most basic level, what it’s about: a former slave and her ghost baby. But that’s all I remembered. I still had my book from high school, so that’s the copy I began to read. Here’s what happened: as soon as I entered the book, I realized that I did remember it. But not remember it like I could recite the plot to you— not that kind of remember. Remember like a world I had once inhabited; a world that I used to know very well— from a distance it seems fuzzy, but once you step in, you realize, “I’ve been here before.” Morrison’s language— her descriptions of the forest and river and haunted house and the shed where her baby died (Dear God, the shed!)— it all felt like it was mine again. Of course it helped that all my underlining and margin notes and vocabulary definitions were still there (and my notes were good! No wonder I became an English teacher!). I don’t remember the class, I don’t remember the teacher, I don’t remember if I was forced to do all that notation, or if I did it on my own; but I do remember the book. This is what happens when you really read and absorb a book that you love: it becomes a part of you, forever.

I don’t need any amount of published research validating my work as an English teacher. You won’t find ebooks or hyper-linked texts in my classroom. All my students need is a book, a pencil, and an engaged brain. When they read a text from start to finish they learn how to follow a sustained argument or narrative; they learn how to find threads and make connections across 300 pages; they learn syntax and grammar and vocabulary; they learn, with in-depth study, that less truly is more; they learn to quiet their brains in this world that clatters so loudly around us. Not every student loves to read; but every student will learn from reading, whether she likes the books or not. My hope for all of them is that they discover those books— whether in or out of class—  that truly catch them; books that they don’t just read, but absorb, as I did, so many years ago with Beloved.

As I walk the long halls of our school, sometimes I catch myself marching in rhythm with my two-year-old daughter Willa’s voice in my head. “Each peach, pear, plum,” she chants. “…I spy Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb in the cupboard, I spy Mother Hubbard. Mother Hubbard on the stairs, I spy…”

I am a grateful mother indeed.

-Shawn Durrett, English Department Chair

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, The Faculty Perspective

The Best Day

“You’re dripping.” I looked down to see a few drops of coffee on my shorts, not a complete surprise since I had to take a few sips off the drip guard of my Joe Bean’s coffee cup when I picked it up. Before I could act, my son took the cup from me, gently wiped my hand off, wiped down the cup as well, and handed it back to me. I thanked him, and we resumed our conversation as we continued heading north to Charlottesville where my son was moving in as a first year student at the University of Virginia.

Moving in was quick and smooth – after three years of boarding school, we have this down to a science, and the friendly student greeters waiting to help bring stuff upstairs, the multiple chalked welcomes, and the welcome banner hanging from the dorm made for a warm atmosphere. Once he was moved in, my wife and I let him set the rhythm for the rest of day, including when we would leave, and we moved unhurriedly from lunch at Bodo’s Bagels to picking up a few items nearby to checking out the university bookstore to the parking lot near his dorm. There, we said our goodbyes which, while certainly tinged with wistfulness, showed the confidence we all had in my son’s readiness for college and in the closeness of our relationship.

There were certainly contrasts with the day we first moved my son into a dorm room as a high school sophomore. While my wife and I were determinedly cheerful, and my son simply determined, there was an unquestionable undercurrent of nervousness. We were confident in our decision for him to attend Andover, and confident that we would be able to work through the inevitable bumps along the way. But we didn’t yet know the exact routines we would find and exactly what help and support would be needed. Of course, college brings new routines, and just as our son had been growing in independence through his last three years of high school, so too college would bring increasing independence. But we now have a track record of handling those gradual, almost imperceptible shifts, and we still have a strong and deep love that we know we can count on.

The next day, I returned to Charlottesville to hear President Sullivan’s talk with new parents. After acknowledging the standing ovation that welcomed her, she focused on the relationship between parents and their children at this time of transition. How the summer might have seen a new testiness, due in all probability to separation anxiety. How this is a time for parents to support but back off and let their kids come into their own. How their views will continue to evolve, both away from and back towards our own as they continue to grow into themselves. How our children will stumble, and how part of our job is to find the courage to let them learn from their own mistakes. What to tell them to support them in making good choices. Thinking of how many parents were going through this same transition, I found myself wondering what the experience was like for parents of Stoneleigh-Burnham’s Class of 2012, many of whom I’ve known for six years and who have always brought smiles to my face. Myself, I just felt lucky. Rather than pushing us away, if anything, my son seemed to be making a special effort this summer to spend time with us. Time and time again, whatever we were doing and whomever we were with, my son showed kindness, strength, intelligence, empathy, humour, and thoughtfulness. It was one of the best summers I’ve ever had, and I am so grateful for the time we had together and for what he brings to my life. We met up for another couple of hours after the talk, and I took him to C’ville Coffee for a sandwich and then to the university store to get his last few books, eventually dropping off a bag of various items he had requested the night before.

Driving home, I pulled up the “Charlottesville 8-25” playlist I had put together especially for this trip. From “Love is Strange” that took me back to when he played Buddy Holly in an elementary school history fair to “Give Your Heart a Break,” the latest “best song ever” he had shared with me, each selection brought back memories of our time together. I had hesitated over only one song, “The Best Day” by Taylor Swift. A mix of reminiscence and thanks expressed to her mother, accompanied by home movies of Ms. Swift growing up in the video version, the song had brought me to tears the first time I had heard/seen it. Indeed, when it played on the drive north to Charlottesville, my eyes did get misty. But on this trip, I found myself smiling quietly when the song came back up. My son’s warm hug at the end of the afternoon and the confident set to his shoulders as he walked back to his dorm to meet up with his roommate and suitemates to go to dinner had told me all I needed to know. His childhood was a gift and a joy, but there are unquestionably many more best days to come.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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

Nesting Instinct

Lately, my Twitter feed and Facebook timelines have been filling with the ritual “Going in to set up my classroom,” “Did y’all know today is Teacher Appreciation Day at Staples?” and other such comments that show we teachers are hard at work preparing for the imminent arrival of our new students (bearing in mind some schools have already been in classes for some time). Of course, the ritual behind those postings dates back many hundreds if not thousands of years, before social media was even conceived of. By stretching your imagination, you can even picture early cave people checking the firewood or examining weapons as they prepared to teach their children the art of survival.

As the middle school has grown in numbers, it has outgrown its original space and expanded to include a classroom in the back of the library. Last year, Karen Suchenski used the room for Humanities 8, and worked diligently to fill it with furniture, artwork, decorations, and books all of which left the impression that it was less a classroom and more a room in someone’s home that had been devoted to comfort and learning. Indeed, Karen referred to the middle school as “a learning home” in a recent email to me.

This year, she and I are trading places, and as she works on moving her belongings upstairs and redoing the Jesser 3 classroom to support her work, I have been consumed with the need to remake the library classroom into the best possible learning space for my students. With the help and patience of Mark Pelis, our Head of Maintenance, out went every stick of furniture. Away with the SmartBoard on a cart. Bye bye, extra bulletin boards and ancient yellowing map of Africa. Hello, beanbag chairs, cubbies filled with scissors, markers, and all manner of supplies, and wall-mounted SmartBoard. Tod Pleasant, our Director of Technology, has been hard at work creating an access point so that the girls will continue to have 1:1 netbooks for use at a moment’s notice. I want my kids, when they first see the room, to shout with joy and run to plop themselves down in one of the beanbag chairs, artfully arranged in a circle with just enough space for me to sit on the floor among them, ready for the first Morning Reading of the year.

It occurs to me, though, that you can move out the physical trappings of a classroom, but you can not move out the love. Karen poured herself into her work, into understanding and supporting and challenging last year’s eighth graders, and in that peculiar way that rooms seem to have memories, you can still sense her presence as well as that of other caring teachers who preceded her in the room. It is my fervent hope and expectation that by the end of the year, the room will have added another layer of love and care and excitement and (sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, but always present) growth.

Meanwhile, the room sits ready. And so do I.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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

To Infinity… and Beyond

Is algebra necessary?” Andrew Hacker, in a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, argued that it isn’t, provoking a storm of reaction from math teachers in particular and educators in general. To be fair, once you read past the attention-g rabbing headline, Hacker points out that his “… question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus.” His main points seemed to be that a misplaced focus on rigor leads to kids dropping out and that math taught in schools has little relation to skills needed for success in the workforce. (Hacker) He closes by stating “I want to end on a positive note” and calling for the creation of exciting new courses such as “Citizen Statistics.”

Dan Willingham, a well-known cognitive science professor at the University of Virginia, wrote an excellent response, “Yes, Algebra is necessary” which also quickly spread among online educators. He argues in part that the issue is less the math curriculum itself and more how it is taught. Given the impossibility of truly teaching every single skill that every single student will need for success in life, “The best bet for knowledge that can apply to new situations is an abstract understanding–seeing that apparently different problems have a similar underlying structure. And the best bet for students to gain this abstract understanding is to teach it explicitly… But the explicit teaching of abstractions is not enough. You also need practice in putting the abstractions into concrete situations.”

Many math teachers I know agree that we need to take a look at the standard mathematics sequence in this country. To the best of my knowledge, we are one of the only countries that doesn’t teach math in an integrated fashion, separating Geometry out into its own course. You can definitely argue students should graduate with certain “life skills” in math such as managing personal finances. And there is certainly reason for students to learn basic statistics and related critical thinking skills. But to proceed from a careful discussion of these and other ideas within a standard curriculum to running the risk of implicitly creating a two track system raises serious questions. As Willingham puts it, “Finally, there is the question of income distribution; countries with a better educated populace show smaller income disparity, and suggesting that not everyone needs to learn math raises the question of who will learn it.”

At Stoneleigh-Burnham, beyond doing the best possible job of teaching math, we also have the responsibility to encourage our students as girls and young women to overcome stereotypes. The percentage of women majoring and seeking careers in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields has remained consistently low over the last decade (see for example this government report). Yet, as Randie Benedict, Head of the all-girls Ellis School, observed in an excellent op-ed piece, “Girls can do just fine in math, thank you.” Her opinion piece echoes findings listed in a recent report in The Educated Reporter by Emily Richmond, “Girls and STEM Education: Still Waiting for Liftoff.” What do they recommend?

We can begin by fighting gender bias – all of us. That means not just encouraging the girls themselves but also, especially for women, avoiding statements like “I’m not good in math.” Teachers can connect STEM skills to careers in such a way that gender stereotypes are undermined. Providing role models and mentorship is a factor, but perhaps less significantly so than we thought several years ago. Perhaps most importantly, we can be teaching girls a growth model of intelligence wherein persevering and working to improve bring positive results.

Stoneleigh-Burnham is undertaking a new STEM initiative. As was shown in a 2009 study at UCLA, girls’ schools have strong track records increasing the self-confidence of their alumnae in a number of ways – for one, a graduate of a girls school is three times more likely to enter the field of engineering. The potential for this initiative is enormous. While the program will benefit greatly from the leadership of Upper School science/psychology teacher Taylor Williams and the expertise of her new colleague, Middle School math/science teacher Kayla Burke, as well as other returning math and science teachers, the participation and support of the entire community will be necessary.

And, of course, Algebra.


Filed under Admissions, College Prep, Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Don’t Walk, Mosey (lessons from the South)

So far, it’s been the kind of summer most people assume teachers spend. Mornings consist of waking up when my body tells me to, relaxing and reading over breakfast, eventually going out on a run, and finally getting ready for the rest of the day. My family is on roughly the same schedule, and the time together is beyond wonderful. The rest of the day? Well, most of our extended family live within a two-hour drive, so we have been seeing a lot of them. It’s a pace that agrees with me, and I feel more rested and refreshed than I have in several years.

At the same time, it’s been the kind of summer most teachers assume teachers spend. The middle school team has been in touch throughout. Andrea has written to share a link to information on e-portfolios, Karen to share her excitement over the upcoming Middle Level Education Institute conference she is attending and ask us for ideas she might bring up, Hank to share information about using Apple TV in the classroom, and our new math/science teacher Kayla to thank us for our ideas and support. Kayla has attended a conference on STEM and Andrea a workshop on learning skills, and they will be able to bring those ideas and expertise into the mix when we’re all back together. I’ve been online almost daily, reading articles, attending webinars, and participating in forums and discussions.

Most teachers I know value the summer not just for rest but also for having the necessary time to dig deeper into our professional development and growth than we often can in the swirl of a school year, and I am no exception. I’ve started multiple blog entries about what I’ve been learning and thinking, all of which I promise you will eventually see, either later on this summer or during the school year, not to mention in subtle shifts in my teaching and in how we use our middle school team meeting time.

My concept of time began to shift when my wife took a job in southern Virginia, almost from the moment I first stepped out of the car and heard the raucous chorus of night insects as the heat of the night air wrapped around me. Normally, I enjoy walking with a quick and purposeful stride, but I quickly learned that a leisurely stroll from our house to the school building left me feeling not only far less sweaty but also much more relaxed, focused, and generally open to what the world has to offer.

Back in the late 80s, one of the sessions of Bonnie Castle Riding Camp came up with the catchphrase “Don’t Walk, Mosey” and worked it into a t-shirt. After more than two decades, I think I am finally beginning to understand the wisdom of those long-ago campers. There is a time and a place for everything. Including moseying.

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Growing Out of Over-Thinking

The following post was originally published in our Spring 2012 Bulletin. It was written by Bryna Cofrin-Shaw, a graduate of the class of 2010. 

20 mph sustained winds and 40 mph gusts twisted the disc through the sky in every direction. With winds strong enough to pick my entire Ultimate Frisbee team off the field, the disc seemed to have a mind of its own, making catching, never mind any semblance of strategy or “flow,” a hard task. It was a difficult day of Ultimate, and even under the warm California sun, my team – Disco Inferno, was growing frustrated. Then, in our fourth and final game, I found myself flinging my body horizontally through the air and landing with the disc firmly in my hands. In Ultimate, we call this “laying out” and while I had slid or tumbled across many fields in the past year and a half to catch a disc, there was quite a difference between these scrappy grabs and a real layout. Laying out wasn’t just jumping or falling any which way; it was its own graceful species. My catch didn’t win us the game; it didn’t even lead to a point, but for the next few days, every time I felt the soreness in my shoulders, I felt a little pride from that moment.

A week before traveling to this windy tournament at Stanford University, my coach had been reviewing proper layout form with our team. He had told us that if we constantly think, “I want to layout,” it will never happen in a game. Instead, we must stop thinking and start feeling only the need to catch the disc, whatever way we can. This was how layouts occurred. I can’t really say that my first legitimate layout was a profound moment in my life; but I can say that the more I pondered my coach’s words, the more I saw how his advice applied to much of my life these days.

When I was asked to write an essay about my own “growth” since leaving SBS, I tried to think of significant moments in the last two years, but my mind kept coming back to the present, to this semester. As a second year student at Brown University, many of my friends are feeling the stress and limbo-lostness of the “sophomore slump,” but I’ve found it hard to relate to these sentiments lately. I believe the growth I’ve undergone is realizing that the reason I’m finally able to throw myself across the field for a disc is the same reason I finally feel completely happy about how I spend my time and energy at college; I’ve stopped over-thinking. I’ve stopped trying to be the “college Bryna” I imagined for myself when I was a student at SBS, and am going after what makes me happy and fits the person I want to be today, instead, while using everything I learned at SBS.

From what I’ve heard, Stoneleigh Burnham is growing in many ways itself these days. I was so excited to hear that SBS placed second in the Green Cup Challenge, and that the school will be represented by Jane Logan in Australia, for debate and public speaking. These are things that make me so proud to be an SBS alumna. The new International Baccalaureate program is a tremendous sign of growth, and along with growing enrollment and changes throughout the school, SBS is moving in an exciting direction. But all of these changes also mean that every time we, as alumnae, come back to visit, this little school may be a little different from the one we remember. A year ago that may have made me nostalgic; today it just makes me excited to see what comes next. Real growth can’t occur without tremendous change, and though I admit I’m a little jealous the IB program didn’t exist when I was a student, I am so excited to see Stoneleigh-Burnham expand and change shape.

As I said before, the person I am now is very different than the one I imagined for myself two years ago. I thought making a positive impact in the world required that I be a serious person involved in “serious” pursuits. While I am an Environmental Studies concentrator and hope to work in this field, this is the first semester that I’ve given up over-thinking whether I’m doing the “right” things with my time. Outside of class I play Ultimate Frisbee, and though we take the sport seriously, we also wear sparkly “flair” to tournaments, play Zip-Zap-Zop with the other team during halftime, and value the Spirit of the Game more than the score. And these days, when I’m not studying or playing Ultimate, I’m writing and performing sketch comedy in Brown’s troupe Out of Bounds, or writing satire for our all-female comedy blog on campus.

I suppose I’m doing sillier things with my time than I ever imagined. But I’m also happy to see myself becoming someone who can take risks and make leaps without over-thinking exactly where she’ll land. I know I have SBS to thank for much of this, and I can’t wait to be back on campus for graduation, proud to be witnessing all the ways SBS and my fellow alumnae have grown in ways different, and better, than I may have imagined.

Bryna Cofrin-Shaw graduated in 2010. She is a sophomore at Brown University where she is concentrating in Environmental Studies.

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Filed under Alumnae, College Prep, Graduation, On Education, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Vigorous Love and a Frenzy of Renaissance

Spring is often an intense time of transition in kids’ lives as the school year ends, and as such is frequently marked by rituals such as the 8th Grade Moving Up Ceremony, Upper School Awards Ceremony, Vespers, and Farewell to Seniors at Stoneleigh-Burnham, Baccalaureate in my son’s school, and of course Commencement in both schools plus thousands of others. Another important marker of transition for young people of the Christian faith is Confirmation, and my niece went through that ritual this morning in her church. The similarities to some of our school ceremonies are striking but unsurprising – identifying and celebrating what makes each kid special, marking the bond they created with other, marking the bond their advisors created with them, and always looking to the past as the crucible which formed us as well as the future which shines with such promise. As these young people, only one of whom I had ever met (my niece!), shared memories of their baptisms, their journey through the year in Confirmation classes, and personal perceptions of their special gifts and how they planned to use them in service, the sense of community was striking.

In the deeply moving Baccalaureate speech he gave at Phillips Academy, retiring Economics teacher Carroll Perry said, “Good people who become intelligent, reasoned, thinkers are the key to what most of us want for our world. Many such young adults will walk across the great lawn tomorrow… My generation did not do what it might have to put you more at ease, and for this I am deeply sorry… [But] there has been progress, and there will be a lot more. The cynics forget that people like you are coming on to the scene, and that you view today’s challenges not as insuperable problems, but as your stewardship.” Jeremy Deason, a former Athletic Director, echoed a similar theme in his graduation address to the SBS Class of 2012 when he focused not on what the students have learned but rather on what the students have taught him. And I told one of my advisees at the 8th Grade Moving Up Ceremony that just as we in the middle school profited from her thoughtful ideas, “the world would do well to listen” to her. There is undeniably incredible power in teenagers for those who choose to see it and enable them to use it.

Various speakers in my niece’s church today spoke of how vigorously we love these kids, and how one day they will lead a “frenzy of renaissance.” Karen Suchenski, the Humanities 8 teacher, pointed out to me this weekend the important role teachers play in building community – in helping our students not only find their voice but also be their own best selves – in helping them become “Good people who [are] intelligent, reasoned thinkers.” During their time at their school, Stoneleigh-Burnham’s Class of 2012 (as well as that of Phillips Academy) have been just that. So when I look around me and wish we were making much more rapid progress toward a truly respectful and equitable society, I take comfort in seeing these young people moving out into the world. Those of us who have nurtured them will miss their grace and presence in our daily lives, but know our loss is the world’s gain.

And yet we do want a sense of permanence to the community we have worked so hard to build. So we join with Obehi Utubor ’05 in her beautifully sung benediction to the graduating Seniors, hoping and trusting they will indeed both “Go forth… and return safely.”

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