Tag Archives: Celebrating Holidays

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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.
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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.

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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.

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Not Long Enough

Spearth Day was born of a series of compromises, but has become one of the key dates in the waning weeks of our school year. Many years ago, the students asked for a special day to celebrate the mailman who played such an important role in their lives (today’s students, for whom email is old-fashioned and texting is routine, would probably find this odd). We called it “M and M Day” for “Mail Man Day,” and besides presenting him with a card and gifts when he finally showed, we played an all-school game of Capture the Flag and found other ways to celebrate. Over time, M and M Day evolved and became more organized – for one thing, the tradition of the talent show was begun. Meanwhile, earlier in the spring, Earth Day remained a day off for service – cleaning up local parks and rivers, clearing trails, and so on. The two days were eventually combined into one, and the name “Spearth Day” comes from “Spring-Earth Day.” We spend the morning doing various service projects on- and off-campus, have the Talent Show after lunch, follow that with games and booths organized by classes and clubs, dedicate the yearbook and pass out copies, and end with a barbecue. This year, for a special treat, there will be a dance performance by the Senior IB dancers.

Excitement always run high right before Spearth Day, especially when Wednesday immediately precedes it as that is our half-day of classes. The 7th graders spent Morning Meeting somewhat nervously tying up the few remaining loose ends in the preparation for their booth while the 8th graders set up a coverage schedule and worked hard to ensure they would have everything they needed. Early morning notes on the white board suggested the Community Service Club had done much the same the night before.

Sports are winding down (another reason for excitement as this is a major marker the year is actually starting to come to a close), and so Sophie and Clara, two of the 7th graders, were available and eager to accompany me to the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society. They laughed and sang and talked all the way there, assuring me they had to be the loudest group I’d ever taken (they weren’t far wrong, actually!). There wasn’t much to do on site, but they were cheerful and positive even when just folding laundry, and took the time to make friends with some of the cats. The ride back was just about as high energy as the ride out.

When we returned at 5:30, the school was sheltering in the basement as a tornado warning had been issued. So when the Wednesday night group of the Middle School Rock Bands showed up 20-25 minutes late for rehearsal (dinner had opened half an hour late and hey, they had to eat!), energy was even higher than usual – if possible! – for a Spearth Day Eve.

For the Spearth Day Talent Show, the group is performing “Microphone” by Martha, a second-year 8th grader. The song has rather whimsical lyrics (sample “Microphone, / You have a big head. / You have a cord. / And it is long.”) and a melody to match. At our first rehearsal of the song, I suggested a series of chords to which everyone agreed, and Aliana (who had played drums before during this year) taught Subin (who hadn’t) an appropriately whimsical drum part (Meredith on bass, Molly sharing vocals with Martha, and Ellie on marimba round out the group; Aliana is covering the piano part). The song is a little bit short, so at our previous rehearsal, we had rearranged it so the final chorus was repeated three times – once with instruments, once a cappella, and once more with instruments.

We ran the song twice – the second time because I had forgotten to time it, just to be on the safe side as we are limited to three minutes (lots of acts in this Talent Show!) before sailing into “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, which we are doing next Thursday for the annual Middle School Music Performance. It is a beautiful piece with subtly shifting block chords in the piano anchored by a relatively straightforward backbeat. Subin was drumming again, Martha had shifted to the marimba, and though I normally play bass on this piece, I had to cover Molly’s piano part since her team was late back from a game. Somehow, Ellie, Aliana, and Martha had contrived to cover Meredith’s vocal since her Team Night had begun way late due to the tornado warning and so was going way late. Still, even with me faking the chord shifts that Molly alone knew by heart, and even with one less voice on the harmonies (which the girls themselves wrote), the song sounded gorgeous and as it sunk in that I had only two more nights with this group before they were done for the year, tears sprang to my eyes which I tried (successfully) to cover up because the girls were having so much fun.

In the 1991 remake of “Father of the Bride,” Steve Martin in the title role tells his daughter on the night before her wedding, “Well, that’s the thing about life, is the surprises, the little things that sneak up on you and grab hold of you.” (IMDb) I know tonight is only the first of many such moments we’ll experience over the next two and a half weeks. It’s a way to mark how much these kids come to mean to us, and to each other. Of course, even those who are graduating and moving on will live on in my memory and in my heart. And they will have good company there, kids both past and future.

And meanwhile, I will savor every moment of the rest of the year. I know how lucky I am. And I am determined not to take it for granted. As, I am quite sure, are they.

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Filed under Graduation, In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, Performing Arts, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School


Annual discussions of whether making New Year’s resolutions serves any purpose, and if so how best to make them, are by now as much a part of New Year’s traditions as the resolutions themselves. But for those of us who teach, the chance to make mid-course adjustments is often irresistible. That tug may be especially strong in a year when many teachers report a more subdued holiday season than usual with the events of Sandy Hook so fresh in our minds.

The last day of school in December is usually a festive day, with the morning spent in classes, a holiday lunch with advisory groups, housemeeting with the faculty skit, an afternoon of athletics, packing, and relaxing, and the evening Winter Solstice Concert. This year was no exception, with perhaps one of the more touching examples being my French II class, which had voted to take their Unit 3 test the day before vacation rather than waiting until January and also decided to postpone the final day of in-class Secret Snowflake to add a special element of fun to the last class of 2012. They were all done by about 25 minutes into class, and one by one (or rather two by two) took off to their rooms, the school store, and other destinations so they could reconvene and take turns beaming at each other as they read cards and opened gifts.

Yet Sandy Hook was never far from our minds. On this, the third day of classes after the shootings, my seventh-grade Humanities class was suddenly ready to discuss it. In most cases, other students knew the answers to each others’ questions, and I filled in details as needed. They did a great job of distinguishing verified facts from what was possibly true, and processed their emotions together as well. My eight-grade Life Skills class made snowflakes, as requested by the Sandy Hook PTA, to send to decorate the children’s new school. And one of the middle school bands prepared to provide what would be one of the highlights of the day.

They had worked on an arrangement of the song “Titanium” by David Guetta et al. The arrangement was quieter and more contemplative than the hit version sung by Sia Furler, and the song’s theme of resilience against overwhelming odds gained depth and resonance. However, the lyrics refer explicitly to gun violence, and a mere five days after Sandy Hook, emotions were still too raw and the sense of shock too strong for us to be able to do it, even this arrangement, even sung by children. They were deeply disappointed, but understood and accepted graciously the decision to strike the song from the evening’s program.

Several hours later, one of the band members came up to me and asked if they could still perform that evening if they could find a song they all already knew. I said yes, provided I could learn the music in time and we could find time to practice. And so, at 3:30 that afternoon, we gathered in the gym with newly printed lyrics sheets for “Mistletoe,” performed and co-written by Justin Bieber, and began rehearsing. Greg Snedeker, the instrumental music teacher, joined us partway through to add a bass line, and after an hour’s work, we felt ready to go.

That evening, as the students and Greg set themselves on stage, I explained to the audience about the program change, our reasons why, and what the new piece would be. I won’t pretend the performance was flawless – for starters, I missed the second chord of the piece. But we hung together, the kids sounded great, and by halfway through the piece the audience, caught up in the spirit, began to clap along. They stayed with us through the end of the piece, and their applause was warm. Several people said they would keep a memory of the evening, one describing it as “a Christmas miracle.”

Sorting out facts, processing emotions, dealing with the need to do something, and affirming our common humanity are all common responses to tragedy. But, as countless people have written over the past few weeks, if that is once again where it all ends, then all the sound and fury will truly signify nothing. And, as countless people have also written, this will be a marathon and not a sprint. There are convincing arguments that we need a national conversation leading to action in the areas of gun control, the treatment and coverage of mental health issues, the cult of masculinity (and the supporting cult of femininity), and how best to protect our children. I also read a proposal for a new national War on Poverty as part of our response.

In short, we need to address the root causes of such horrific events in the long term as well as figure out the best course of action in the short term while we are working to better our world. It’s work that can quickly become overwhelming – how can each of us, as just one person, hope to accomplish all this? But at the same time, it’s work none of us need do all alone and all by ourselves. Each of us can find our own ways of addressing various issues which will intersect, overlap, and reinforce each other.

And so, as 2013 begins with that feeling of hope and promise that accompanies all new beginnings, let us rededicate ourselves, each in our own way, toward bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

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The Fierce Urgency of… Whenever?

As I do every Monday, I walked into my Humanities 7 class and asked, “Who wants to read their independent writing today?” Several people did, but a greater number said they weren’t sure and asked for me to write their name on the white board in parentheses, our special code for “I’ll decide at the last minute.” The last few weeks, there had been increasing numbers of parentheses, a trend I had decided needed to stop in its tracks.

So while the students who were reading were starting up their laptops and pulling up the documents, I decided to whip open my iPad and search online for Taylor Mali’s poem, “Totally like whatever, you know?” The poem begins, “In case you hadn’t noticed / it has somehow become uncool / to sound like you know what you’re talking about?” and ends with these lines: “Because contrary to the bumper sticker, / it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY. / You have to speak with it, too.” We had a great discussion about the poem, and they totally like, you know… got it that I am working to teach them to “speak with conviction.” Our discussion ended with the following dialogue:

Me: I’m also teaching you to question authority.

Them: How?

Me: Well, are you comfortable questioning me?

Them: (genuine laughter)

Them: Why?

Me: Because sometimes authority needs to be questioned.

Them: (thoughtful silence)

Coincidence or not, two seventh graders came to me that day to talk over some concerns they had about middle school representation on Student Council given our ever-increasing numbers. They offered several suggestions as to what changes might be made to the system next year, and while they were genuinely open-minded and listened to my thoughts in a true spirit of dialogue, they did not simply bend to my way of thinking. They did indeed speak with conviction in a spirit true to their own best selves.

Meanwhile, the Upper School Rock Band has been working on “Know Your Enemy” by Green Day, and frankly, I need never have worried about how they would sound screaming “Gimme gimme revolution!” toward the end. Indeed, from the very first snare hit that begins the piece to the final powerful “Yeah!!!” held over the sustained distortion of two screaming guitars, the heart-rattling thunk of the bass, and the combined crash-bang of drums and piano, they are thoroughly convincing that “silence is the enemy / against your urgency / So rally up the demons of your soul!”

Martin Luther King spoke about “the fierce urgency of now,” and of course two groups that sense that urgency most strongly are oppressed people and adolescents. I would add that people who work with and care about both groups often share that feeling. Indeed, I find myself feeling it ever more strongly these days (as regular readers of this blog may have guessed!).

John Steinbeck captured it well in Travels With Charley, written in 1960 (three years before Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech) and published in 1962, which describes a conversation with a young, Black student who lived near New Orleans during a time of horrific protests against school integration. “Finally,” writes Steinbeck, “we spoke of Martin Luther King and his teaching of passive but unrelenting resistance. ‘ It’s too slow,’ he said. “It will take too long’” Steinbeck responded, “’There’s improvement, there’s constant improvement. Gandhi proved it’s the only weapon that can win against violence.’ ‘I know all that. I’ve studied it. The gains are drops of water and time is passing. I want it faster, I want action – action now.’” Later, Steinbeck describes the final scene of their conversation as the young student said, “’I’m ashamed. It’s just selfishness. But I want to see it – me – not dead. Here! Me! I want to see it – soon.’ And then he swung around and wiped his eyes with his hand and he walked quickly away.”

Unsurprisingly, I have had more conversations than I can count with students here who want to make this world a better place. Six-year seniors might be surprised – or not! – how many of our conversations I still remember. And it only adds to my own feeling that for all the drops of water I am working to contribute to bettering our world, It. Is. Not. Enough. Many of our students will be voting in the next presidential election, and all of them in the one after that. It is my hope, conviction, and comfort that, as their generation grows up, they’ll continue to hold true to their vision of how the world ought to be and work to make that vision come true. Not in some vague “whenever” time. In the now.

That is my own dream today.

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

A Healthy Community

The signs were there for anyone to see, so on Thursday evening, when I passed a large group of middle schoolers standing out on the oval talking in hushed tones, I was no more suspicious than I already had been – even when several kids called out in falsely hearty voices, “Hi, Bill” and they all laughed. It seemed this would be an April Fools’ Day to remember.

So I was more disappointed than surprised when I ran into one of my advisees, a day student, at about 6:20 in the morning; I felt sorry more for her than for myself. Fortunately, despite my presence, she was able to execute a fair number of her plans, taping some coins down to the floor of the stairwell, putting bubble wrap under the toilet seat, and partially blocking off the doorway to the Humanities classroom with masking tape.

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When I went to breakfast at 7:00, I discovered exactly one chair at every table. A bit of investigation revealed they were stacked in the TV Room, the legs, rungs, and backs of the chairs forming a beautiful lattice pattern that glowed in the morning light. A few students, the usual earlybirds, had dragged chairs together to one of the tables near the bay window. On my way back up to the middle school, I checked out the door to the Dean of Students office, where post-its highlighting some real and imagined favorite sayings of Mr. Larson covered the door.  This effectively hid the fact that everything in his office had been turned upside down. Not just chairs and the computer keyboard, but every piece of artwork, every book – everything.

My ESL class, just two international students with whom I work one on one, passed relatively uneventfully, as did the Upper School French III class in which I subbed. But I was still on my guard. So when a brawl broke out in MOCA (the all-middle-school student government), it wasn’t just these huge grins the kids had that tipped me off that kept me from worrying.

This was just the beginning. As I went in to my Humanities class, every student yelled “Beep!” every time I did… something. (I would later learn there were dots placed strategically around the room; when I passed one, they beeped.) Periodically, I would deliberately jump around, leading them in rhythm. At about 11:15, they burst into song, singing “Dynamite” at the tops of their lungs. About ten minutes later, they all dove under the table. I think that was supposed to make me think the ceiling was collapsing.

Then Sally came in, looking somewhat grim. “Girls,” she said, “I have something rather serious to tell you. There has been a sprinkler system malfunction in the dorm. I need you to go there and see which of your belongings might be damaged, and help clean up a bit. Bill, could you go with them?” They took off running as Sally went to tell the eighth graders.

April Fool!

I sent the kids straight to lunch, and returned to the middle school where I high-fived Sally. She was a little out of breath because, according to our plan, she and Catherine had hidden all the laptops in the Middle School kitchen and replaced them with an ancient typewriter.

There’s a lot more to tell (remember, it was only lunchtime when we pulled the sprinkler-computer prank), but by now, you get the drift. As I was going through all this at lunch and catching up on various Upper School pranks, we were commenting that we’d never seen anything like this before, or at least not in a while. One of the faculty members observed, “I think it’s the sign of a healthy community.” Certainly, you can never underestimate the importance of fun in building relationships.

Or, as a student stuck at home due to the April Fools storm emailed me, “Beep!”

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

P.S. It is somehow fitting that I wrote this blog while chaperoning a trip to the Salisbury Carnival. With Cee-Lo Green, Lady Gaga, et al pumping up the volume and kids running around to different rides and food stands, it would be hard to write anything too serious. 😉

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The Roots of Pride

December is always an odd month for schools with boarding programs. We have less than three weeks of classes, not even enough time to complete a full unit, and it seems that students are filling out travel forms for the next vacation before they’ve even completely transitioned in from the last. The month is especially difficult for many middle school students, as young adolescents tend to thrive on routine, and the feeling of unceasing change can unsettle them even more than older teenagers.

Yet it is also a festive time. Several students announced the first day of Hanukah, and one of them passed around bags of chocolate coins. A student turned 13 and became a teenager, sharing chocolate chip cookies and receiving congratulations. Another student announced Saint Nicholas Day and described her family’s traditions for that occasion which include putting out shoes the night before in the hope they will be filled in the morning (they were). And as one student who was Christian began a countdown to Christmas in the “Non Sequitur” folder for semi-random email announcements, another student who was Jewish began to post messages explaining which night of “(C)HAN(N)UK(K)A(H)” it was in a friendly point-counterpoint.

Students have been signing up for Secret Snowflake, and will shortly draw names to see for whom they will anonymously be making cards, getting little gifts, and generally doing acts of kindness all through the next week. On the way to volunteer at the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society on Thursday, one of the 8th graders reminisced about every single present she’d received last year – and every single present she had given. I myself still display a beautiful origami bird mobile by my desk, a present from a Snowflake many years ago. In less than one week, perhaps still laughing from the annual holiday faculty/staff skit, students, faculty and staff will mingle together in the Capen Room craning their necks to find the person to whom they will have been giving presents while wondering if the person shyly approaching them is their own Snowflake. That evening, we will sit in awe at the dancing, acting and musical skills in the Winter Solstice presentation, which this year will include middle school music groups for the first time ever.

One of the annual rituals of the school is for Student Council to “Adopt-a-Family,” which is often a single mother with young children; the students raise money to purchase both holiday presents and food for a special dinner. This year, we decided to extend fundraising by a week, which was fortunate since the middle school had only raised a minimal amount as of last Friday. Knowing these kids, and knowing the age group, I was pretty sure this was not how it would end up. Most years, in fact, fund-raising in the middle school for Adopt-a-Family starts slowly and rapidly builds as the week progresses. This year was no exception, and yet this year will stay in my heart for always.
As of Monday, the middle school had donated $1.75. On Tuesday, I announced a challenge grant, offering to match up to $30 in middle school donations. This called attention to the $1.75, and several students felt so embarrassed for the school and so badly for the family that they went scrounging in their pockets for whatever small change they could find, assuring me they would be back with more when they could. By the end of the day on Tuesday, they were up to $4.25 (not including my matching grant). On Wednesday, they more than doubled their total again, reaching a somewhat more respectable $8.90.

After lunch on Thursday, one of the middle school Student Council representatives told me, “This is pathetic. Can I make an announcement?” I told her she could, and she began to write a message on the white board. But while she was writing, three students came up to me with huge smiles on their faces. “Here, take this,” one of them said, and handed over $15. All three of them had taken out a significant portion of their weekly allowances in order to be able to make a donation. They started a sort of run on the bank, and before the end of study hall, our total donations had far exceeded $100; by the end of the day, we had accumulated nearly $160 (not counting my challenge grant nor Catherine’s own willingness to add a contribution). This is more money than the middle school had raised in the six previous years combined. The students happily erased my own messages from the past three days and filled the portable white board we use for announcements with updated figures with multiple exclamation marks after them and with multiple messages expressing their pride and delight.

I had the chance to speak to a former middle school parent tonight at the Community Holiday Party. Her daughter is now a sophomore, and frequently seen in front of Housemeeting either making announcements or, in her role as a Class Officer and member of Student Council, running the meeting and/or participating in various skits about topics such as recycling. She told me her daughter, along with several other members of her class who began as 7th graders, takes a fierce pride in her status as a future six-year Senior; the girls are already planning to walk in to graduation all together, arm in arm. When introduced to a pair of 7th grade parents, she said nostalgically, “Oh, seventh grade.” and for a quick moment both of us were lost in memories.

Each class year has its own formative moments that help define the character of that group. For the Class of 2013, one of them was an attempt to set a world record for the longest Duck-Duck-Goose game, and we spent a long Sunday afternoon that spring with two video cameras running constantly as students circled the group tapping heads, signing out and back in on a sheet of paper meant to serve as proof that not one of them took a break for more than five minutes per hour. Near the end, they turned so that they could be giving each other back rubs while waiting to see if they would be the next “Goose!” and as we all counted down “10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1!!!” they began a wild and happy dance I can still see clearly in my mind’s eye. While they never did receive formal recognition for the feat as some of them never did return the parental permission form (an important lesson for me for the future), they did learn something about perseverance, taking a strong pride in their accomplishment.
I predict that as the Classes of 2015 and 2016 progress through the school toward the day when they will walk down the aisle for their own graduation, this year’s Adopt-a-Family drive will be serving as a similar defining moment. Both groups, each in their own unique way, have always shown a generosity of spirit and a fierce insistence that everyone deserves to be treated with respect, and this year’s Adopt-a-Family drive will always be there for them as a reminder that, when push comes to shove, their big hearts and generosity of spirit can make magic happen.

Happy Holidays!

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