I just attended a phenomenal session at the NAIS Conference presented by white privilege thought leader Tim Wise in conjunction with Head of School Gregory Blackburn from the Caedmon School in NY. Mr. Blackburn opened the discussion by saying that all independent school heads need to become comfortable looking at their schools through the lens of white privilege so that they can begin to address it. (…) We are fortunate to have a head of school here who really gets it and is willing to address it, but such a workshop [for independent school Heads] would work wonders for other schools that may be facing resistance even acknowledging it exists.
– Shani Barrax Moore, from an email to the nais-diversity listserve.

The New York Times calls Irshad Manji “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare.” Oprah Winfrey gave her the first annual Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness, and conviction.” Manji, director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, accepts both as compliments. The project develops young leaders who will challenge conformity and champion creativity, including reform-minded Muslims.
– Sarah Hanawald, posting at http://gdsmstech.blogspot.com/

Death of education as we know it may be prelude to birth of learning as we need it.
– Pat Bassett, as tweeted by @MichaelEbeling and retweeted by @vvrotny

One more reason to wish I were in San Francisco: Friday brought another nasty day of weather in Western Mass. and a brief power outage that wiped out my original blog posting for the day after several hours’ work. Anyway…

It was a fiesty day in the middle school. MOCA is our middle school student government, named by the 2005-2006 middle school students in the year it began (MOCA stands for “Middle school Office Caring for All”). Since we are so small (only 24 students), all SBMS students are members of MOCA. MOCA meets every Friday, and usually starts with a report from the Student Council (“StuCo”) representatives. This week’s report was essentially, “We complained a lot but didn’t really take any action,” which may have set an unfortunate tone for today’s MOCA meeting. We did manage to plan some weekend activities for after vacation, and I readily agreed to contact selected schools and invite them to join us for ice skating and go carting trips. Then things started to get out of hand.

It began simply enough, with the returning 8th graders proposing we instruct the StuCo reps to ask if the entire middle school could vote for the StuCo president this May, unlike last year when only the rising 9th graders were allowed to vote. Last year’s policy, though designed and approved by students, rankled, and I had been confidently expecting last year’s 7th graders to make this proposal sooner or later. Very quickly, though, students were talking to nearby friends about this or that complaint – no doubt, some of them were legitimate, and I might have been moved to do something about them, but I couldn’t really hear any of them. The 8th grade MOCA leader looked over at me with a “What now?!” look on her face, and I moved quickly to her and asked if she thought it would be a good idea to ask them to list some specific reasons why they wanted the entire middle school to be able to vote for StuCo President. She did, and after I got them quieted down, they came up with two solid reasons. In their words, “This year, the middle school is a lot more involved in StuCo because they have representatives. Also, what StuCo and the StuCo president does affects the middle school as well as the upper school.”

Looking at the quotes I picked out today from blogs and my Twitter feed, it seems as though some of MOCA’s fiestiness may have rubbed off on me. Certainly I have struggled at times with the concept of white privilege and, like Shani Barrax Moore, appreciate that my Head of School “gets” white privilege and supports diversity work, challenging though it may be at times. With my students, I have found that If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson, a book I read to the Humanities 7 class most winters, often provides an opening to bring up the concept. Ellie and Miah, White and Black respectively, are high school sophomores in love with each other. Near the end of the book, Ellie asks Miah if he ever forgets he’s Black. He tells her no, and asks her the same question. She says yes, and adds she feels like she’s “No color.” on those occasions. Miah turns away and says, “We’re different that way.” The students are generally taken aback by this. Why “different”? Why doesn’t he forget? What’s “no color”? Why does it even matter? I respond by telling them of some African-American students at our school some years back who noticed that, when they went into certain stores in town, clerks would follow them around. This year, when I mentioned this, one of the students challenged the statement, responding with some heat, “That never happens to me!” “Exactly,” I said. “You’re white.” The room fell silent.

Young adolescents are sometimes consumed by empathy, and with their heightened sense of fairness they can easily be overcome with outrage and cry out in protest. Particularly as the filtering system in their brain is still maturing, boldness and audacity come easily to them (sometimes even more easily than they bargained for). All this is happening as they are trying to navigate competing concepts of what it means to be an adult. For girls, this can be exceptionally tricky as large parts of our culture still place a premium on the idea of women as healers, collaborators, and resolvers of conflict. Additionally, their biological inclination is in fact to focus on and preserve relationships, especially the 90-95% of them with brains “wired female.” Helping them figure out when and how to challenge conformity, to speak with “audacity, boldness, courage and conviction” in the swirl of often-conflicting messages about what it means to be a woman, is a daunting task indeed. But it connects directly with the mission of our school to develop and elevate women’s voices, and it undergirds much of what we try to make happen in the middle school program.

And so the NAIS Annual Conference 2010 is winding down. Normally, when I attend big conferences with thousands of educators, I grow sad and wistful as I contemplate leaving behind the stunning energy and synergy that is created at such gatherings. Intriguingly, I feel more so this year even though I am not on site – partially because people did such a good job of sharing the experience, partially because I never separated from my family, students and colleagues, and so don’t even have happy reunions to look forward to. Nonetheless, the conference has given me much to think about and will continue to play a role in shaping my practice. In commenting on Demetri Orlando’s featured blog at ISENET, I observed, “”A school is like a shark (ideally, a really friendly vegetarian shark that gives lots of hugs) in that it has to keep moving forward or it just sinks to the bottom.” And as I said to my colleagues earlier today, I give thanks almost daily for the incredibly smart, caring committed faculty with whom I work. I think our middle school is swimming strongly and in the right direction, and will continue to do so. It’s been a great conference!”