By the time I got to our usual table for Monday’s Middle School Advisory Lunch, three of my advisees had already sat down and were deeply engaged in conversation. As new advisees arrived, they joined in, and as I listened in, smiled, and nodded, I couldn’t help but think that everyone was in a good mood today and also that through the year everyone had become really, wonderfully, comfortable with each other.
In the MiddleTalk educators’ group, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School has become inseparably entwined with the question “What would you do if you were brave?” since my answer to that question when asked by group member Brenda Dyck more than a decade ago was “I would start a middle school.” One year later, of course, I became part of the committee that helped found SBMS.
Check “starting a middle school” off my to-do list!
In light of my recent post on North Branch School, here's the letter to the editor I wrote to Middlebury Magazine back in Spring 2010 (just before we graduated our first-ever six-year Seniors). Enjoy!
To the editors:
I very much enjoyed reading the description of North Branch School and its dynamic head teacher, Tal Birdsey in the article “School Building” (Spring 2010). In his quest to create “a house where wisdom would flourish,” where “mistakes [could] become part of the discussion,” where students were acutely aware that “the only thing of lasting value was what they created in the liminal zone between who they were and who they were becoming?”, Mr. Birdsey is clearly meeting his fundamentally important goals. I would love to visit his school some day.
“The key is to make sure that whatever was the best in those early years, when we were in formation, stays. Because that part of things, the creation, has got to be what they feel.” (Birdsey, quoted in Mandel)
Visiting North Branch School was almost a pilgrimage. Five years ago, Middlebury Magazine had profiled the school and its founder Tal Birdsey. I loved the description of the school, which was beautifully done, but was put off, to say the least, by the opening lines of the article: “Middle school is a terrifying place. Students revile it. Parents endure it.” My reaction can be best summarized as, “Oh, yeah?!” and I wrote a letter to the editors in support of North Branch School in particular and middle schools and middle schoolers in general. Tal and I connected afterwards, and we made plans for me to visit one day.
My Humanities 7 class is studying education now. We're continuing with Firegirl by Tony Abbott as a read-aloud book, since much of the action takes place in a school, and the students voted for I Am Malala as a group read. As always, they are researching individually chosen questions as they prepare to write essays and make a presentation, and the questions range from comparing and contrasting different groups or systems of schools (public vs. private, U.K. vs. U.S., mixed gender vs. single gender, etc.) to tracing the evolution of education over time to looking at the relative benefits and importance of a spiritual vs. a traditional education, and more.
It was ten years ago this month that a group of faculty, staff, and administrators first gathered in the office of former Head of School Martha Shepardson-Killam to discuss the possibility of starting up a middle school program at Stoneleigh-Burnham School and begin to work through how best to proceed. Many of us in the room had worked with middle school students in the past, and enthusiasm for the idea was high. Once we secured Trustee approval, we agreed to announce the new middle school in January of 2004 and open in September of 2005. However, upon learning what we were doing, many local parents asked if we couldn't find it in our hearts to open earlier, and we responded by deciding to open a Founders' Program for day students only in September, 2004, and then expand to include a boarding component in September, 2005.