On the last of classes in the middle school, I made the following post to Facebook:
Filed Under: Teaching, All-Girls, On Education, Beautifully different, Girls Schools, community, All Girls Education, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, girls' school, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School, Education
Alfie Kohn is most definitely one of my educational heroes. Controversial as he may be, the controversy often stems from his relentless focus on what research tells us about what is best for students even when it flies in the face of common sense. And anyone who is all about figuring out what is best for students, and who has the courage to follow through on those principles (even if they differ from my own), earns my respect.
The other day at Open House, one of the attendees, a public school teacher, asked each of us present on a faculty panel to talk about how we ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham, and why we stay. Our stories were as individual as we are. My own begins the summer I was getting married…
It was the summer of 2004, and my fiancée and I had just graduated from the M.A.T. program in the French and Italian Department of the University of Massachusetts. Each of us had completed all the requirements for Massachusetts State certification except for the French proficiency exam. My fiancée called up to find out details, and was told that there was a non-refundable fee of $75 and it would be given on one of three possible Saturdays in August, one of which was to be our wedding day. The exact date, she was told, would not be given out until no more than three weeks ahead of time, “for security reasons.” We were about to spend a year living in France anyway, so we elected not to register for the exam. That meant, when it came time to apply for teaching positions, we had no choice but to apply at independent schools. And that’s how I ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham.
“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.
Last night, Ben Kuhlman and José Vilson co-facilitated a Twitter chat on the National Day on Writing for the National Council of Teachers of English. You can search for it using the hashtag #NCTEchat and looking back in time to Sunday night, Oct. 19, from 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET. They very kindly shared their questions ahead of time. Here, then, in somewhat more than 140 characters (!) are my own answers to their questions.
Q1 - Do you write outside your job? What? Why? Does your writing contribute to explaining/defining a specific community? #NCTEChat
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).”
It’s already happened. I bumped into a random person, in this case one of my neighbours, who asked about what my students were studying. “They do have a theme question already,” I said. “It’s, ‘Why do people judge other people and themselves?’” After a short pause during which his eyes first widened and then went slightly unfocused while his jaw dropped slightly, he said, “Seventh graders came up with that question?” “Yup,” I responded. His eyes came alive again and his hand went to his chin as he began to see the possibilities in the question, and to talk excitedly about his thoughts.
I love these moments, and I especially love that it happened after only two full days of classes this year. And yet, the second full day was in some ways even more extraordinary than the first.
“So how do your students look this year?” The question was asked not, as many people might expect, by a colleague or even a parent but by three of my former students who are now juniors as we found a chance to talk at the annual Local Family Picnic. “They look great,” I said. “Of course. You know! Given the emails they’ve been writing me about the books they’ve been reading.” One of them laughed and said, “Your favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015?” I laughed in return, responding “Absolutely!” knowing she was secure in the knowledge they were all part of my favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2010-2011. (For the record, I only teach one section of Humanities 7 each year, so the “favourite Humanities 7 class of...” line is something of a running joke.)
As I prepare for the imminent arrival on campus of my brand new students, as the middle school team prepares to bring together and start building this year’s community, I find myself focused not just on what the kids might be thinking and feeling but also on the parents. My son attended boarding school for three years and is about to start his junior year at college, so I know firsthand what parents are going through. The level of trust we parents place in a school when dropping off our children is powerfully and deeply touching, and part of what motivates me to do my absolute best each and every day is working to meet that trust (not that I need any more motivation than looking out at my students looking back at me!).
I don’t ordinarily make a habit of ordering books before their release date, but I made an exception for This is Not a Test by José Vilson. I knew the strength, power, and scope of his writing through various publications in forums such as Huffington Post, his blog, and Twitter. Mr. Vilson can put a book’s worth of thinking into 140 characters, so I couldn’t wait to see what he could say in 220 pages. The subtitle, “A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education” is apt. In the book, José has woven together memories, commentary, and calls to action in a way that compels readers to think honestly about the educational landscape in our country, the cultural context that helps create it, and what our own role is and should be in shaping it in the future.
When the book came, I decided to set it aside until the summer came so that I could savor it with little else to distract me. When I finally opened it, I fairly flew through “Part One” which takes us through his childhood and ends with his decision to become a teacher as his college graduation date approached. One moment particularly stuck out to me, when he describes giving a correct answer (“D”) in class only to have the teacher respond, “What?” He gave the answer again, and again the teacher responded, “What? I didn’t hear that.” He startled the class by shouting the answer, at which point the teacher dismissed him with a “Well, you don’t know anything, so I’ll move on.” The teacher called on another student, who gave the exact same answer and earned the teacher’s praise. (p.47) “How could this happen?” I asked myself, feeling sick and knowing the answer in my heart, knowing the same general dynamic plays itself out over and over, if not always that overtly, when people of privilege have power over the historically oppressed.