Tag Archives: student voice

Not a Slogan, but a Lifestyle

Faced with recent events around the country in Ferguson, on Staten Island, and elsewhere, Stoneleigh-Burnham students are raising their voices in protest and in solidarity. During lunch yesterday, a group of students stood in the center area and suddenly yelled “I can’t breathe!” and then clearly and firmly shared their thoughts on racism and the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases as they held “Black Lives Matter” signs. Several faculty made a point of telling them they were proud, and Shawn Durrett, Dean of Faculty, added a note on the school’s Facebook page.

Last night, Seniors emailed their Little Sisters to ask them to wear black today to signify that black lives matter. Those faculty who happened to have been aware of the event joined in. One senior followed up with an email to the whole school community in which she spoke of the power of that sea of black and the importance of choosing to stand up to racism and inequality.

HandsUp_sm

As it happens, I was at the March in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 13 (the title for this article is a quote from one of the speakers). I woke up at 4:00 the next morning unable to sleep, picked up my phone, and wrote the following reaction to the experience:

The man about ten feet away from me bent his head and laughed as he put up his hand. He was not alone in laughing, and certainly far from alone in putting his hand up. All black men present at the March on Washington had just been asked to raise their hands if they had ever felt nervous when stopped by the police, and in a crowd where it could safely be assumed most everyone present if not every single one of us knew in advance that every single hand would go up, it was possible to laugh at that question.

My wife and I had arrived at the March early in the afternoon, when the podium was being shared by member after member of families whose husbands, fathers, sons had been shot to death, taken too soon. And while I felt some of the same crushing weight I’ve been feeling ever since the accumulation of news about Marissa Alexander, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, there was also a sense of healing. These families were grief-stricken, and they were equally determined that we could not rest until no one else, ever, had to go through what they did. Many opened by saying “No justice,” and the crowd responded, “No peace.” And maybe it’s just because I’m a pacifist, but to me it came across as a feeling our souls could not be at peace until true justice was achieved for all in this country.

Meanwhile, on my Facebook timeline (as I would discover afterwards), some of my friends and family were posting messages in a sort of counterpoint. Two guns aimed at the viewer with a caption asking which one is the cap gun and which one is real, noting that making the wrong choice could lead to your death. A picture of a police officer captioned “Police Lives Matter.”

The thing is, I don’t think most if any of the people in attendance at that March would argue that police lives don’t matter. Of course there were signs all over that Black Lives Matter. But to say that is not to minimize the value of other lives (any more than saying Police Lives Matter). It is simply to affirm that when black people are many more times likely than white people to be shot during a tense situation, that is wrong. That is not justice as it should be. That is not how our country should and can be. Indeed, several speakers followed “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter,” and that seemed to be what our collective soul was feeling.

One speaker noted our goals have to extend beyond working with police departments to learn about community policing and building relationships. They have to extend beyond reforming our justice system so that people can expect police misconduct, should it occur, will be handled fairly. They have to extend beyond the elimination of racial profiling (all of these goals, it should be noted, held by many police officers as well). They also have to include equal pay, equal job opportunities, equal schooling, and more. Regardless of race.

My Twitter timeline spoke of the immense numbers present in New York and elsewhere, of signs people were holding seeking peace through unity, of arrests and people being beaten up. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the media’s version of the day, fearing it would focus on the negative, on anything that would create and exacerbate tension.

I am writing this at 4:00 in the morning on Sunday, and I know I will have to dive in to media reports later today in case my students bring up events of the weekend, tomorrow or later on. I don’t believe for a second teachers should be telling students what to think, but I do believe we owe it to our students to be able to guide them in thinking critically. And if what I saw and felt can contribute to that, I will not hold back. I won’t pretend for a second it’s the whole story. I won’t pretend for a second that my voice matters more than anyone else’s. I know and recognize this can not and must not be about privileging white voices yet again. But if using my voice helps students see nuance and layers of complexity, I will not hesitate to do so.

As the final speakers were coming to the podium, a black woman near us turned to my wife and asked if we were from around here. My wife shook her head and said, “No.” A few moments later, a blonde white woman stepped up and asked if she could help, and gave directions to 7th and Independence. The black woman gave the blonde women a hug and thanked her for coming, and then did the same for my wife, and me.

Somebody on Twitter wrote that evening that for them, the day was about a movement finding its soul, and my own experience mirrored that.

Black lives matter.
All lives matter.
No justice, no peace.

Not yet.

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Filed under Current Events, The Faculty Perspective, The Girls School Advantage

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!

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

“Please join the faculty…” (part 1)

This was the title of a post in the Senior IB candidates’ blog for their Theory of Knowledge class. Their teacher, Alex Bogel, linked them to an article by Marc Prensky entitled “Our Brains Extended” which the faculty was reading over the summer. In the article, Mr. Prensky makes the point that “Technology… is an extension of our brains; it’s a new way of thinking.” He then poses the question, “Now that kids are routinely exposed to increasingly sophisticated information online, what’s an ‘age-appropriate’ curriculum? What subject matter from the past is still relevant, and for whom?” Finally, he suggests a vision for completely revamping the curriculum in our nation’s schools. He proposes organizing learning around four themes: effective thinking, effective action, effective relationships, and effective accomplishment. (Interestingly, these four themes integrate well with the fundamental philosophy of the IB curriculum, for example through the Creativity-Action-Service, or CAS, requirement.)

The students brought a wealth of knowledge and insight in their responses to Mr. Bogel’s posting. Here are six extracts from their work that, when juxtaposed, tell an interesting story of the students’ own visions for the role and potential influence of technology in their education.

I agree with the article about how [technology] is an extension of our lives it almost makes us super human. I also agree that we need to teach older and younger people that technology is great, but I don’t know if it is the BEST way because even though I may not love to read it is important to teach and be able to use. [Technology] is not the number one skill students need to take from school in order to succeed. Reading is the root of everything. – Jillian

I agreed with certain parts of the “Rethinking the Curriculum” section and linked the mathematics section with something my dad always told me. My dad always tells that real math is what goes on before we put our pencils on the paper. Real math is when you look at a problem and you figure out exactly what to do in order to solve it. Determining the numbers and values is just arithmetic. Math isn’t beautiful because we can add and subtract numbers; the numbers are just the tools we use to express mathematical ideas. – Karen

I really like the Effective Thinking, Acting and Relationships. In many ways this is what is happening at SBS, especially the effective thinking. I think that there is opportunity for the action and relationship aspects but they are not as out right or obvious to someone who is not aware of them. I think that these would enhance the SBS curriculum because they would make SBS an even more culturally aware and active school. Setting up programs with other schools around the world would make way for a new type of communication and connects for students and knowledge. – Elizabeth

I think our school should consider combining classes with teachers from around the world. I believe we need to move forward and make the future generations feel as though they are people of the world and not separated by distinctions. To create more global citizens, transnational cooperation is necessary. – Dorjee

I agree that the curriculum needs to be changed fundamentally, but I do not think that Marc Prensky’s emphasis on technology is as important as he made it seem. Technology definitely touches every aspect of our lives, but I think there must also be emphasis on learning through other outlets like music, art and nature. I have seen and experienced firsthand how technology can consume our thoughts and actually disconnect us from the people around us; so to put more emphasis on technology in schools we must first change the ways we use technology. The powerful connections that technology permits students like global communication must be treated more seriously if integrated into the curriculum. – Jane

Prensky’s curriculum suggestion seems like the most hard-to-apply concept in the article, mainly because it would involve an overhaul of the education system, and the agreement of town councilors everywhere on the fact that this is where our society is headed. If it’s a hard concept for me, a technology-addicted 17 year old to swallow, then you can bet that our current traditional education model isn’t going anywhere any time soon. – Caroline

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Filed under In the Classroom, International Baccalaureate

The Center of It All

It’s all about the beanbags. The nine students in my Humanities 7 class had been adamant that we would able to fit the 22-27 relatives they were expecting for Family Weekend into our relatively small classroom, and when I demurred, they insisted that wherever we go, their beloved beanbag chairs should follow “because our parents should see what our class really looks like.” So it was that I greeted Barbara, who was responsible this morning both for cleaning my regular classroom and for cleaning the Meeting Room where we would be moving for the day, at a bright and early 6:15 A.M. I had my temporary classroom set up, and chairs set out for visitors in the Jesser 3 classrooms, by 7:00, and zipped to the dining room to fill my travel mug with decaf (a special treat for a special day) and soy milk.

Students, parents, and other visiting family members began filtering in by 7:45, cries of, “You brought the beanbags!” filling the air accompanied by knowing parental smiles. We began class by continuing a previous lesson on lying, the better to inaugurate our newest student-designed unit developed from the seed question “Does the media lie?” around the eventual theme question,”How does the media alter perspectives of the truth to change what you think and feel?” Students did a think-pair-share activity around different kinds of lies, thinking on their own, in groups of two or three, and then in the full class about their thoughts and reactions. They eventually combined to write their own definition of lying, “Lying is an untruth, possibly ongoing, being told that brings a consequence that may or may not be desired, yet is always bad.” That will serve as a working definition as we go through the unit, both with group activities on topics like news coverage of the elections and photoshopping of models, and with individual research on personally-chosen questions.

Housemeeting was impressive, all the more so because it wasn’t really any different from how it would normally be. Certainly a highlight, however, was the introduction of the brand new Middle School Interscholastic Equestrian Team, complete with a visit from the school mascot Athena the Owl, with Academic Dean Alex Bogel’s booming voice announcing each student as she strode down the center aisle waving her hand much as Queen Elizabeth II does.

Sometimes, a class can get disturbingly quiet on Family Weekend, but if anything, the presence of parents and siblings brought out the best in my French II class as they worked to understand the ins and outs of the just-introduced tense, the passé composé. They all raised their hands and tested out their new knowledge, never hesitated to ask questions, and achieved a much deeper understanding of the tense in our short 20-minute class.

I was about the third person to go through the lunch line, the better to scoot to the gym and prepare for the performing arts show. I tuned up the girls’ bass and guitars, checked the sound for the keyboards, played a quick fill on the drums just for the fun of it, and did mic checks. All seemed ready, and after an eternity of waiting, the rock bands took the stage. Judging from the tone of respect in the congratulations I received after the show, the bands succeeded in connecting with their audience and imparting a spirit of fun. Certainly Heather’s decision to grab her mic and abandon the stage, striding around the gym as she belted out the vocals to “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” helped set the tone, and the explosion of applause complete with shouts and whooping showed how much the audience loved it. That noted, all three groups got sincere and heartfelt, and well-deserved, compliments.

Immediately following the show, we had a Middle School parents’ meeting to discuss the institution of what we expect will be a new tradition, the eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., go over the developmental stages and needs of young adolescent girls and how our program is explicitly designed around research to meet those needs, and determine parental goals for the year. Partway through, I asked for questions, thoughts, and concerns, and wasn’t quite sure what to think when a long silence ensued. Years of practice leaving space for my students to talk caused me to wait patiently, and then one mother raised her hand and commented, “I’m overwhelmed, and I just feel so lucky that my daughter is here with all you are doing for her, the knowledge and passion you bring to your work.” A number of other parents nodded and murmured their agreement. The parents (and a few grandparents – as I commented, “If you care enough about the kids to attend this meeting, you get to have a say here.”) then came up with a solid list of goals for the year, and used a system of placing stickers to set priorities.

My advisees did a wonderful job with their student-led conferences, speaking about their work thus far with touching honesty, pride, and a willingness to identify areas where they need to grow and develop genuinely practical plans to bring about that growth. Several parents commented on how much they preferred the format, as students became agents of their own destiny, not the passive subjects of adult discussions and judgments.

Saturday afternoon, as my part in the weekend was winding down (being neither a houseparent nor an on-duty chaperone), I found myself standing at the soccer game with Academic Dean Alex Bogel. I filled him in on my experiences of the weekend, and he jumped in to let me know how delighted he was to have been asked the question of how our institution of the IB program has affected the middle school and other younger grades. Pointing to the hexagon that symbolizes the IB program, he noted the student at the center of it all. “And that,” he said, “is why we didn’t have to change a thing about the rest of our program.”

Student voice. Her best self. This is the mission of the school, and when you stay aware of and true to it, amazing things can happen. You couldn’t have asked for a better Family Weekend. I wrote the Middle School faculty earlier today, “As Middle School Dean, in particular at the Friday Parents’ Meeting, I get the heartwarming experience on Family Weekend of watching parents come in curious about why their kids are so happy here, and becoming increasingly, almost overwhelmingly for some, touched to see all we do and all that goes into it. So thank you all for making that happen, both over the last five weeks and then in particular the last two days. It’s a ton of work, I know, and it brings amazing results.” So it is, and so it does.
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under Equestrian Program, In the Classroom, International Baccalaureate, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School