Tag Archives: Parenting

Please and thank you

(Trigger Warning: discussion of suicide)

Although I didn’t grow up watching It’s a Wonderful Life, once I first saw the film as an adult, I could see why it’s become a Christmastime tradition for many people (including some who don’t personally celebrate Christmas). However dark the movie may be in spots, its ultimate affirmation of the notion that each life matters deeply is moving and appealing. As Clarence Oddbody put it, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (wikiquote)

In the middle of holiday festivities, family gatherings, and time to relax, just as 2015 was fast approaching with the promise of a fresh new year, the untimely death of Leelah Alcorn at only 17 years of age left an awful hole even in the lives of people who never knew her. No angel was able to prevent this tragedy, and so at 2:30 in the morning, she set out from home, walked down the Interstate, and walked in front of a truck. Her grieving parents called for prayers and support, for them and for Leelah’s siblings left behind.

However, that sympathy has not been uniformly forthcoming. In fact, some people are calling for them to be prosecuted. Leelah was transgender and left behind a note indicting her parents for refusing to recognize her true gender and allow her to medically transition, furthermore progressively isolating her from friends and other potential sources of support. Statistics are clear that trans youth who have unsupportive parents are half as likely to be satisfied with their lives as those with supportive parents; only 13% report high self esteem (vs. 65%), while 75% suffer depression (vs. 23%) and 57% have attempted suicide (vs. just 4%). (transstudent.org; link shared by Sophia Banks) Leelah’s parents were conservative Christians, and her mom said in an interview that “We don’t support that, religiously.” (quoted by WCPO)

In no way, of course, do I think that Leelah’s parents represent the entire body of Christianity. Among the families in the Stoneleigh-Burnham community I know to have been most supportive of LGBT people are a good number of Christians. Both of my parents belong to open and accepting Christian churches. One of my friends from high school, a lesbian, is ordained by the United Church of Christ, a denomination that successfully won a suit in North Carolina arguing that same-gender marriage bans were an unconstitutional infringement of freedom of religion.

Neither do I believe Leelah’s parents deserve no sympathy whatsoever. Her mother has stated they loved her unconditionally, and there is no question they are in deep pain. As a parent myself, I can’t help but feel for them. Her father has asked that they be left to grieve in private, and I would never ever think of contacting them directly at such a difficult time in their life, never mind doing so to call them out as some have apparently done.

But the language Leelah’s parents have been using is telling. “We told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. (…) I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.” (Carla Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) “We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death.” (Doug Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) They have continued to misgender her, calling her a boy and their son, using male pronouns and her male name. In our society, your name and your gender are among the most fundamental parts of your identity – and Leelah’s parents continually denied and continue to deny her the basic human right to express that identity as she saw herself.

While suicide is clearly a deep concern specifically within the transgender community, it is also the third most frequent cause of death for all teenagers of all genders. It’s important to know the warning signs, and to be aware of resources on which we can draw, including suicide hotlines and trans support hotlines. Moreover, we need to be aware of the intersections between a given person’s gender, sexuality, race, class, age, and abledness, the better to clearly see them as they are and be able to listen to their story and give them the support they need.

Leelah’s note ended: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. (…) Fix society. Please.”

And thank you.

photo(25)

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, Uncategorized

Preventing Bullying

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Mind at a Time

I try to be on the lookout for chances to react to blogs, knowing (as Bill Ferriter has pointed out on more than one occasion) that one of the highest compliments I can pay a blogger is to leave a comment or even write a whole new blog in reaction, thus showing how much of an impression they’ve left on me. So when Brianna Crowley opened one of her blogs at the Center for Teaching Quality with a writing prompt from a 30-day blogging challenge for teachers, the temptation to write my own blog based on the same prompt was strong.

Until I really absorbed the prompt: “Write about one of your biggest accomplishments in your teaching that no one knows about (or may not care).”

You see, it creates not one but several problems for me. First, I have difficulty committing to submitting my accomplishments to any sort of hierarchical ranking. I hate hierarchies to the point where, earlier this year, when I said in an all-school meeting that my orientation group was “the best,” Sally looked at me with shock and surprise and said, “Bill Ivey, did you really say that?” Somewhat taken aback myself, I joked that Sharon Weyers, who was sitting behind me, must have performed some sort of ventriloquism.

Second, I don’t like talking about my accomplishments in teaching. I don’t even like using the word “teaching,” to tell the truth, preferring to focus on the word “learning” since there is quite literally no teaching without learning and I prefer the focus to be on the students anyway.

And third, as a fairly frequent blogger and someone who loves to tell stories about my students, trying to come up with something that no one really knows about is tougher than one might think. And something that no one really cares about? Well, if no one cares… why even bother mentioning it?

So that all left me at loose ends. I decided maybe I should sleep on it. So I did. For several nights. Until finally, inevitably, a moment gradually came into focus.

It was one of those times when the seventh graders, fascinated as they are with their emerging adulthood and open as they are about the continuing role their parents play in shaping that transition, begin talking about how that’s happening in each of their families for specific issues. In this case, the topic was make-up and how their parents were handling questions of when, and what, and how. Some of them were still waiting for their parents to give the green light in the not-too-distant future. Others were allowed to use certain products only, and still others were free to find their own path. And one girl spoke up to tell about how her mother had actively encouraged her to start using make-up, to highlight her best features.

Only, this class had seen the documentary “Miss Representation” earlier in the year. So this particular girl reacted to her mother’s suggestion by saying she wasn’t sure she even wanted to use make-up. Her mother asked why, so she told her about what she had learned from the film. Laughing, she explained that by the end of the conversation, her mother had completely reversed her position, saying, “You’re never going to use make-up!”

As a gender activist who supports feminist ideals, I always work hard to walk a fine line between ensuring my students are aware of gender-based stereotyping and inequalities in our society and giving them space to form individual opinions, developing their voices and becoming their own best selves. You hope some of that sticks and has an effect that goes beyond the walls of your classroom and the months of the school year during which you’re actively working with these kids. Here, then, was proof of at least one time that it had happened just as I would hope. At least one of my students had thought for herself, come to her own conclusions, spoken up for herself, and ended up changing someone else’s mind.

I want nothing more in life than to leave the world better than I found it. I feel that most acutely with my family, that if I can’t build a strong and loving relationship with them, then nothing else even matters. But once that’s in place (and it is), building a better world for my students and, at least equally importantly, empowering them to build a better world becomes the top priority.

The poet Taylor Mali, himself a middle school teacher at one point in his life, once wrote, “So I finally taught somebody something, / namely, how to change her mind. / And learned in the process that if I ever change the world / it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.” (from “Like Lilly Like Wilson”)

I know just how he felt.

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

Seriously? Seriously.

Maybe it’s because I was on vacation, but the news that “there’s even a gender wage gap in babysitting” (Maya) saddened me but didn’t outrage me. I suppose it’s also because it was simply too easy to assimilate it into my existing body of knowledge: how women right out of college earn less than men, how men earn more than women even in so-called “feminized” professions, how the gender wage gap exists not just at a national level but also within all racial groups (granting that white women earn more than men of some other racial groups), how… how? How? HOW?!

Today, at any rate, school is in session, and I was beyond outraged to learn there is a gender wage gap in allowances.

Yes, you read that right. Allowances.

As with many issues of social justice, what seems unfair on the surface – turns out to be unfair on multiple levels as well. Yes, the gender wage gap is now officially extended even further down into childhood, which is disturbing enough. Yes, it’s harder to blame society as a whole because individual parents are making these decisions (I know, all of us together make up society as a whole. But in general, parents of daughters tend to want the world to embrace them fully for who they are and not think of them as “less than” – you’d think they, if anyone, would be fair about this.). Beyond all that is the relationship of allowance to chores. Boys, it seems, are asked less often to do chores and see their allowances tied to those chores more often. And “asking girls to do more chores without paying them teaches both genders that women are meant to do unpaid work.” (Bryce Covert, quoted by Maya)

Gloria Steinem said that most social justice movements begin with consciousness-raising, and suggested that feminism has passed both that stage and the organizing stage and has arguably embarked on the final stage of transformation. However, it seems that a little additional consciousness-raising is in order.

Depressing as this news is, though, it is also an opportunity. Patriarchy operates in large part at a subconscious level, and when behaviors and attitudes such as these are made glaringly visible, one can consciously begin to work on them. Out of such work, we may hope, deeper and more permanent transformation will be possible.

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Standing in Your Truth

As an option for weekend activities, I offered to take students to a GLSEN conference on April 5. (GLSEN is the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.) Unfortunately, two of them ended up with conflicts, but the third student cheerfully said she would still like to go, and so we headed east to Madison Park Vocational Technical High School in Roxbury. After passing through the metal detector for “males,” an extremely un-GLSEN moment all around (though I don’t think it was switched on), and stopping at the registration table, we walked up the stairs to the opening celebration, where we were enthusiastically welcomed by three cheerleaders of various genders.

Eliza Byard, the Executive Director of GLSEN, welcomed all of us and spoke movingly of the experience of speaking (for two minutes, precisely timed by the TelePrompter) at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. Given that Bayard Rustin, one of the organizers of the March who also served as a speaker, had been excluded from a meeting with President Kennedy out of the fear that J. Edgar Hoover, the homophobic Director of the FBI, might be upset, Ms. Byard’s participation was all the more moving.

There were three workshop sessions at the conference, and my student and I both felt a session entitled “How Different Life Can Be,” led by three members of the North Shore Alliance of LGBT Youth was the best place to start. After a quick overview of the organization and their work, the co-presenters opened up the session to questions. A young student who looked and sounded no more than 10 led off, talking about his lack of understanding of why people wouldn’t simply let other people be people, oblivious to the looks of tenderness on the faces of many of the teenagers listening to him. A middle schooler who had stuck up for her friends when rumours were circulating about them only to have the rumours turned on her asked for advice, as did a high school student whose friend had recently come out to her parents who were refusing to believe and accept what she had said. The co-presenters listened with compassion and empathy, making suggestions while maintaining the kind of honest realism teenagers often seek, and skillfully leaving space for people in the room to respond. One girl said when her parents had trouble accepting her own coming out, she tried leaving little pamphlets around the house or webpages up on the computer. Over time, she said, as her parents understood better what was going on, they began to come around. It does sometimes take time. PFLAG was frequently cited as a wonderful resource, and I made a mental note to learn more about them.

That room had been packed, with people spilling through the doors and out to the corridor, a pattern which would repeat itself in both of the next two sessions I attended. My student and I agreed to attend different sessions throughout the afternoon, and to help shape my choices, I let her choose first and then asked her what needs she saw in the school. She thought carefully, and said she felt that students had a pretty solid knowledge of different sexualities and were open and welcoming, but that many of them did not have as solid a sense of different genders and how that plays out in real life. While there was a “Trans 101” type session coming up next, my instinct was that I would already know the majority of the information being presented, so I made a mental note to think further about what my student had said, and looked for other sessions to attend.

For my next session, I chose “Reversing the Erasure of LGBT HIstory,” presented by three teachers from Lowell High School. Through a skillfully organized grassroots effort, they succeeded in convincing their district to adopt the historic, inclusive curriculum being developed by the Los Angeles Unified School District following passage of the FAIR (Fair, Inclusive, Accurate, and Respectful) Act. They showed a moving video, “Through Gay Eyes,” which was produced by one of the teachers, Deb Fowler, and a student then attending Lowell High, Connor Crosby. They had shown this video to decision-makers in the District to help build support. While I greatly admired what they had accomplished, as well as their calls for similar advocacy across the state, I found myself thinking how lucky I was that we already have a desire at the administrative level to support LGBT students throughout their experience in our school and beyond. I did walk out with a number of ideas for links and other resources I can keep in mind to help my Humanities 7 students broaden their research so their Focus Question projects can be as inclusive as the conversations I have with them.

My final session was “Queering the Classroom: Providing a Safe Environment for All,” facilitated by Marie Caradonna of the West Suburban Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth. Her announced approach, to treat us all as though we were both cissexual and cisgender, resulted in a session that was as much demonstration as information-sharing, which I imagine was her goal. Students and teachers shared concerns, suggestions, and clarifying information, and an honest and supportive dialogue grew and flourished. Among other things I learned: the term “demisexual,” used for someone who experiences sexual attraction through romantic attraction. I also learned a new definition for the term “bisexual”: “someone who is sexually attracted to their own gender and to other genders.”

My student, who had a cold and also had had a rather short night of sleep between the late return from Rent and the early departure for the GLSEN conference, dozed much of the way back, giving me plenty of time to think through the day. I decided to spend the evening in Northampton, and upon arrival, sent out a series of tweets including this one, “Now eating a vegan sandwich in Northampton plotting to upend social norms and get everyone to ‘just be a decent person’ as my student said,” which garnered a number of favourites and retweets… and one virtual fist-bump.

The title of this blog quotes one of the participants in the first session word for word (unfortunately, I do not know her name). The split second I heard it, I thumbed it into the “Notes” app on my phone, knowing it would become the title for this blog. But a cool title for a blog, even if accompanied by a fist-bump-worthy tweet, is not remotely enough. For starters, I need to stand in my own truth. I think I’m actually doing a pretty good job, all things considered. But perhaps it’s time to kick it up to the next level.

And that word “perhaps” is starting to seriously grate on my nerves.

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Filed under Gender, On Education

To ban or not to ban: “Bossy”

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’” So begins the website at http://banbossy.com/, a new organization co-founded by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In Foundation and the Girl Scouts of America. The website points out that girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boy’s from elementary to high school, that girls are twice as likely as boys to worry about being called “bossy,” and girls are still called on less and interrupted more in class. (Ban Bossy) There’s no question that we need to do something about that, and there’s no question we know some of the things that work.

On the Girl Scouts’ website, for example, they share the results of a study done in 2008 that showed the following (Girl Scouts):

  • Girls, even at a very young age, have definite ideas about what it means and takes to be a leader.
  • Promoting leadership in girls is primarily a matter of fostering their self-confidence and providing supportive environments in which to acquire leadership experience.
  • To be relevant to and successful with girls, a leadership program must address their aspirational or preferred definition of leadership, their need for emotional safety, and their desire for social and personal development.
  • Girls have a range of “leadership identities,” from strong aspiration to outright rejection of the leadership role.

Of course, girls schools and other girl-positive organizations epitomize supportive environments. However, these environments need not necessarily be all girls organizations (to whatever extent one can ever say with confidence that one’s organization is in fact “all girls”), though that does facilitate the process. In helping create supportive environments, these principles suggest that we need to – following principles of best practice – engage with the individual girls in front of us, helping them figure out how they now view leadership, how they came to hold that view, where they see themselves going, and ultimately how they see themselves able to help move a given group of people forward (the goal behind all good leadership and all good membership).

In that context, the “Ban Bossy” campaign can be, and is, seen by different people as anywhere from an essential component of doing this good work to a needless distraction. A recent chat on the Feministing website brought out several important points:

  • Rather than bringing attention to women’s exclusion from leadership, [it] distracts from these realities by making the issue semantic and easily dismissed. (Jos Truitt)
  • Also I honestly don’t feel like “banning” words like this ever really works, and I actually find it a lot more effective to find power in that word vs. a bland attempt to get rid of it. (Jos Truitt)
  • I do appreciate the goal of starting a conversation about the negative feedback we give to girls who show leadership qualities and how that particular double-standard has real consequences for how kids are socialized. (Maya Dusenbery)
  • This campaign exists without analysis of how “bossiness” is perceived when women and girls of color are bossy, which I think is a really important point. (Verónica Bayetti Flores)

One of the people in my Twitter family is a member of the Tea Party, and she certainly had a vehement and visceral reaction to the campaign and what she saw as thought police. As we discussed the issue, it developed that we agreed that the conditions that led to girls with leadership qualities being more likely to be called “bossy” are something we as a society absolutely must discuss but that we both were uneasy about outright “banning” use of some words. Also, I do believe that gender activism in general and feminism in particular strongly need to continually listen to the full range of voices in the movements, work on intersectionality, and strive to bring out nuance in service to the greater goal of true equality for all humanity. Towards that end…

When posting a link to the “Ban Bossy” campaign in its earliest days, my Twitter and Facebook friend Kenzo Shibata added a comment that caused me to respond, “Like to the power of like.” He said, “I got a better idea. How about we teach children of all gender identities to be collaborative and stop making authoritarianism the ideal?” (Kenzo Shibata)

That, I can absolutely support. Anyone else with us?

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage, Women in media

Building the Future

To enter the toy section of virtually any major store these days, you’d almost think boys and girls were two different species, one of which apparently falls head-over-heels in love with anything pink. Or possibly purple. Yet, whatever sex-based differences may be present at birth and whatever gender-based differences may be acquired from birth on, such extreme gender segregation of toys is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, this iconic 1981 Lego ad makes it clear that 33 years ago, girls were perfectly happy to build with traditional Legos, and Lego was willing to advertise that fact.

To be fair, as was noted in an article in the Huffington Post, Judy Lotas, the creative director in charge of Lego’s ad campaign, had to fight to have Rachel Giordano (then age four) included. The mother of two daughters, she knew better when others argued that only boys like to build, and successfully stood her ground (further proof, by the way, that we need more women involved in advertising!). Ms. Giordano and other child models were given about an hour to play with Lego sets, and were then photographed holding their own creations. As it happens, those are also her own clothes (blue jeans and blue t-shirt) she wore in off the street. Maybe it’s that genuine quality that has helped this ad endure.

In her own article on the original ad and follow-ups, Lori Day references an article by Michele Yulo comparing Lego’s update of the 1981 ad to her own reworking. In Lego’s update, the girl is wearing blue and holding a Lego model and the caption is “It’s as one-of-a-kind as she is.” But the text for this ad, for the Lego Friends series, refers only to girls, whereas the original 1981 ad simply refers to children. The issues here go beyond how Lego envisions girls’ toys – they are also implicitly excluding boys who might otherwise enjoy Lego Friends. As Ms. Yulo notes, “When we separate girls and boys in this way, we are telling both sexes that girls can’t be interested in things like science unless they are color-coded or include things like puppies and cupcakes.”

In Ms. Day’s article, Ms. Giordano gives her own take on the issue: “Gender segmenting toys interferes with a child’s own creative expression. I know that how I played as a girl shaped who I am today. It contributed to me becoming a physician and inspired me to want to help others achieve health and wellness. I co-own two medical centers in Seattle. Doctor kits used to be for all children, but now they are on the boys’ aisle. I simply believe that they should be marketed to all children again, and the same with LEGOs and other toys.”

This week, our school is celebrating National Engineering Week. As part of the celebration, on Thursday, we are cancelling classes to hold an “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” event. You can bet we are not colour-coding the projects each grade will be carrying out, and you can bet we will do our best to let their own creativity and ideas rise to the surface.

“Gender-segmented toys may double corporate profits, but always seem to result in for-girls versions that are somehow just a little bit less.” (Day) As a girls school, we refuse to settle for a little bit less. Indeed, we are doing what we can to undo what has been done to them so far, and to help those who would always have been scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, embrace and pursue that aspect of their own best selves.

P.S. Interested in girl-positive and gender neutral toys and clothing? Entrepreneur Inês Almeida’s website Toward the Stars can help.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, The Girls School Advantage