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My coffee finished, I return to the couch and my computer, and the cats show up momentarily. It’s time to turn my attention to Parker Palmer’s next two questions.

Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purpose and to what ends do we teach? My first thoughts here are both obvious and complex – at Stoneleigh-Burnham, we teach to the mission statement of the school. Developing each girl’s unique voice and supporting her as she discovers and works to be her own best self is behind everything we do. Of course, though, each girl lives in community, and so she is also learning how best to coexist with all the other “best selves” in her world. “Who am I, what is my world, and how do I fit in?” is one of the most fundamental questions of adolescence. To answer this question, one needs the ability to listen, express oneself, find, analyze, and synthesize ideas, and more. One needs most fundamentally to know how and have the desire to learn.

Heather Wolpert Gawron of Teacher Leaders Network, in a blog entry at the Huffington Post entitled “What is the Purpose of Public Education,” writes of the vast range of responses she received to this question when surveying over 300 people. In my conversations with parents over the seven years of our middle school program, I have heard every one of the 20 widely varying themes Ms. Gawron highlights. She asks if it is really fair to expect our schools to hit every one of those areas. I’m still working through that. Certainly no two of the 20 themes are mutually exclusive and many are different takes on the same general idea. I suspect it may be possible to hit them all in that the underlying skills for different themes are largely the same. I do not think, however, it would be possible to hit them all except in a school that truly elevates and respects student voice, which brings us back to our mission statement.

So how do these very broad “why” questions look in practice? Yesterday, several students in my “Foundations of Language and Culture” class asked for extra practice in learning French numbers, while others wanted to work on their textbook project. I took one group to the empty classroom next door and made up on the spot an exercise in completing number sequences in French. Afterwards, one student and I were walking back to our regular classroom. I had just commented that what they had done should have helped build some new neural networks and thickened some myelin sheaths. She gave me her “Aha, I know exactly what you’re doing here” look and said, “So that wasn’t really random at all, what you just did with us.” I responded, “I usually have several reasons for almost everything I do – including randomness.” Sometimes, I wish I could turn off that little metacognitive voice in my head that seems to be constantly probing, analyzing, evaluating, and counseling me on virtually every decision I make in the classroom, focusing me on what the goals are and how best to achieve them given the unique and special students who are in my classroom and what is happening right now. Ultimately, though, I know I’m better off with the little voice than without it. Look what happened to Pinocchio when he successfully ditched Jiminy Cricket!

But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches? Ah, I thought, here we go – because of course, if we place the focus squarely where it should be, on student learning, then the most important self that “teaches” is the student herself, with not only the “teacher” but also classmates, parents, friends, houseparents, and a host of others as resources. But the follow-up question brought me up short.

How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? This was a double shock. First, because it is such a strong instinct of mine to focus on students in the classroom as opposed to myself. This question forced me, at least for the moment, to turn the spotlight back on myself. My whole body tenses as I recall the moment. Second, because it’s easy to think, talk and write about my good intentions for my students as I develop myself as an educator – but way tougher to have to confront the notion that who I am may actually deform how I relate to people. One of the most fundamental aspects of my character is to listen to people, seek to understand, and try to find ways to build bridges. I try to listen to students and try to take their comments seriously and that helps. Parents, too, give me insights, and I know I can safely bounce ideas off Sally and middle school team members and they will also give me the reality check I need. Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with me to model what it means to be my own best self, and perhaps how I deal with my own imperfections has to be part of that modeling.

How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes? If I can feel safe in acknowledging my own concerns and if I can trust that I will receive honest input back to my questions, that already speaks volumes. And I certainly see other people willing to seek support when they need it. So I think my school has at a minimum created an atmosphere in which people can sustain and deepen themselves as human beings and as teachers. Is that enough? Maybe it is. Given that every single teacher here is working hard to do right by the students, maybe it is indeed.

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The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question – what subjects shall we teach?

When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question – what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?

But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?

–  Parker Palmer, from The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life; quoted in the blog entry “Lessons from a master educator” by Kenneth Bernstein.

__________

It had been a busy week, so the weekend brought a welcome chance to kick back and… catch up on all the listserve messages, blog postings, and tweets I had marked as “Favorites” in order not to lose track of them.  There are amazing discussions going on all over the Internet, and I’m sure I’m only aware of a minuscule fraction of what is out there.  Ken Bernstein, whom I have gotten to know through Teacher Leaders Network, had posted a link to a blog article “Exploring Some Words of Parker Palmer.” I know Mr. Palmer to be a deep and progressive thinker about education, as is Mr. Bernstein for that matter, and with the high level of tension around educational policy issues that exists now, I really needed the chance to retreat and reflect on the roots of good teaching practice. So, with a coffee mug in hand and both cats on my lap, I called up the article on my phone and settled in for a good long read. Mr. Bernstein began the posting with the four questions listed above.

What subjects shall we teach? Ooh, me, me! I know this one because I’m always reading up on ideas for educational reform. English and math; they get tested all the time and we’ve been focusing on them since the 19th century. And… science, because we’re (supposedly) falling behind the rest of the world. Maybe history, because it helps you with English if you teach it right. And… language, perhaps, and if there’s still time, the arts. Voilà. Next question. <sarcasm mode off>

What methods and techniques are required to teach well? As a Teaching Assistant at UMass at the tender age of 21, I did what most beginning teachers do – I taught the ways I knew. I was lucky in that I was attending an outstanding M.A.T. program that was giving me a solid base of learning theory and practical ideas and techniques to supplement what I had observed through 16 years of schooling. But nonetheless, I began teaching with a one-size-fits-all approach. As I gained a toehold and acquired a larger and larger toolbox of techniques and methods, I allowed myself to confront the fact that different classes responded differently to identical activities. Eventually, as I continued to expand my knowledge about learning theory, I also faced up to the fact that different students within those classes respond differently to identical activities. My work as a teacher had been subtly and yet dramatically transformed – no longer was I trying to teach French, nor even to help each of my classes learn. Now, I was trying to help Ellen, Emma, Kendall, Madison, Margie, Maya, and each of the other students learn in a common classroom.

It is a given in our Middle School team meetings that, just as our students live very much in the moment, so must we. What worked last year, or for that matter last week, may have everything – or nothing – to do with what we need to be doing right now. It is a challenging approach to helping kids learn, but one that is ultimately much more rewarding as we see specific kids making progress in the ways that make the most sense for their needs.

In that context, we can return to Mr. Palmer’s first question about what we teach. Our various experiences throughout our careers along with research into what helps middle school students learn also informed the design of our school. We deliberately do not use words like “core curriculum, “co-curricular,” and worst of all, “extra-curricular.” Instead, we view Humanities and Math/Science (both double-blocked to facilitate interdisciplinary instruction), language, health and the arts, athletics, student government, advisory, and community service as all part and parcel of the same program, helping students develop artistically, athletically, intellectually and socially. So the answer to the “What subjects shall we teach?” question has shifted dramatically based on what we know our individual kids need in order to learn and develop effectively.

Through my online learning networks, I know a number of people who are suggesting a radical shift in how we conceive of education, thinking of our schools not as places where students learn reading, writing, math, and so on, but rather as places where students learn and develop creativity, logic, communication, and so on. Instinctively, I see tremendous power in this concept, and would not want that power to be lost by simply creating new departments that divide the work in different ways. How, I am wondering, can we create an integrated whole that still responds to the uniqueness of each child? (your ideas welcome below!)

I’m going to pause here for another nice cup of coffee (alright, decaf!) and continue reflecting on Parker Palmer’s four questions in my next entry.

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest.
– Parker Palmer, quoted in Ken Bernstein’s blog entry “More thoughts on teachers, teaching and students.”
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MOCA, the middle school student government, is currently working on four major projects through subcommittees. One group is brainstorming ideas for new traditions for the middle school, focusing especially on winter term as the Middle School Overnight and Founders’ Day are major events that occur in the fall and spring terms. One group is structuring a proposal to locate an all-boys school with which we might create a brother-sister school relationship, much as we had with Deerfield Academy until they went coed in 1989. One group is working on ideas to share with Student Council on the currently hot topic of whether or not 7th graders will gain the right to vote in this spring’s election for Student Council President. The fourth group is working on a proposal to alter the current dress code.

In reading over the minutes of the most recent Student Council meeting, I was struck by several statements made by various upper schoolers. Some spoke of Student Council as a primarily upper school group, while others focused on Student Council as a group making decisions and judgments that affect the whole school. Those who spoke of Student Council as a primarily upper school group were more likely to oppose it to MOCA, feeling that if 7th graders were allowed to vote for StuCo President, they would essentially be represented in two forums and that this would be unfair. Those who spoke of Student Council as a primarily all-school group were more likely to support 7th graders voting for StuCo President, reasoning that StuCo decisions affected them as well and so why shouldn’t they have a say?

Underscoring many comments made by some of the former middle schoolers was their own frustration at not having been allowed to participate in Student Council at all when they were younger (this right was won by the 2008-2009 MOCA students who succeeded in getting a proposal for middle school representation on Student Council passed by StuCo leaders). If these former middle schoolers focused on their frustration at having had to wait, they tended to oppose 7th graders getting the right to vote. If they focused on what they would have liked to have had, they tended to support 7th graders getting the right to vote.

These concepts were not explicitly stated in the minutes of the latest Student Council meeting, but they were there nonetheless, lurking behind almost every opinion that was expressed. I believed that the middle school students working on the issue needed to understand them if they were to make any headway in promoting their beliefs. So as MOCA broke up into groups, I followed this subcommittee’s members into the other classroom to talk with them.

As I was wrapping up my comments, a member of the dress code subcommittee came to the doorway and gave me an imploring gaze, so I finished what I had to say as quickly as possible and zipped into the next room. It developed that the group had split into two incompatible points of view, one that advocated requesting the school adopt a uniform, the other that advocated loosening the current rules. The uniform group had a slight majority, and was pressing their numerical advantage; assumptions and overgeneralizations were flying all over the place. I worked to help them all calm down and learn to back away from statements like “Everyone thinks…” or “We all want…” or “There’s no point in doing this because they will just…” As time ran out, I wrapped up by pointing out to them that they had unwittingly exposed an important underlying question about the dress code: how do we reconcile the range of opinions on how to balance the desire to express one’s individuality with the desire to express one’s belonging to a community? I told them there was no one right answer to this question, and that all their points of view were valid. I acknowledged they had some tough work ahead of them, suggesting that in the end, it was better this question got exposed and talked through as opposed to lying, unnoticed and unnamed, beneath all the discussions they were having.

Both groups, it would appear, have a hard road ahead of them. When one works to elevate and honor student voice, such moments are inevitable. If seen as learning opportunities, they can be incredibly productive. Conflict can be positive if handled well. Middle schoolers, who tend to be uniquely obsessed with fairness just when they are discovering the nature and power of their own voices and starting to define their own values as distinct from important adults in their lives, are well positioned to learn how to do so.

Later on in Mr. Bernstein’s blog entry, he quotes Mr. Palmer as saying, “Students are marginalized people in our society.” You don’t have to spend much time following the current debate on educational reform to affirm the truth of that statement. When one couples that truth with the historic marginalization of women, the fundamental importance of the work we do in the school to honor, respect and develop girls’ voices is greatly magnified. It is by no means easy work. But at the same time, it can be overwhelmingly rewarding.

Although the chrysanthemums in my flower pots are looking rather past their prime and I now have to allow extra time in the morning in case I have to scrape my windshield, it wasn’t that long ago that we had a welcome respite from the steady march toward winter. During that warm and balmy spell, it seemed as if all of New England was trying to spend as much time outside as possible, absorbing as much warmth and sunlight as we could. On one of those afternoons, Andover’s Head of School Barbara Landis Chase was walking across campus, between commitments. Beautiful yellow and orange leaves were cascading down from a stand of trees, and barefoot students were dancing in the shower. Entranced, Mrs. Chase paused to let the image soak into her mind. In her Parents’ Weekend address, she recreated the moment for us, and suggested we, too, take time to “notice the sweetness.”
Of course, any given day at Stoneleigh-Burnham also provides countless opportunities to notice moments of insight, joy, and caring. The announcement during homeroom about the Rays of Hope walk. The cheers for announcements of a birthday and the loud, almost raucous singing that follows. The struggle to understand how to work a problem that ultimately ends in a bright smile of success. The ball stolen from an opponent and sent winging toward one of the players on the front line. The comment in Humanities class that, even though Atticus Finch may seem distant with his children, you can tell how much he loves them by the respect he shows them – never talking down to them, always taking them seriously, expecting the best of them while understanding there will be missteps. The realization that the teachers in the middle school have a lot in common with Atticus and I am lucky to be surrounded by such colleagues.
I always look forward to the Parents’ Meeting during our Fall Family Weekend. It’s a chance to review the founding principles of the school, the research-based characteristics of successful middle schools as outlined by the National Middle School Association in This We Believe. It’s a chance to ensure that we are continuing to truly base all we do on those founding principles, to share that work with parents, and also to talk with parents about our common and differing experiences living in the world of teenage girls. I shared the story of a mother whose daughter was now a six-year senior. She told me that she had never forgotten my assurance back in 7th grade that the daughter with whom she had been so close during the elementary school years would come back to her one day with a stronger relationship than ever before. She let me know how this prediction had, in fact, turned out to be true. I told parents that whatever their daughters might say to them in person as they work to become independent, deep down they know they need strong and caring adults in their lives, deep down they love their parents as much as ever, and in fact they are perfectly open with each other about the fundamentally important role their parents play in their lives. Relaxed worry lines, relieved expressions, and meaningful and grateful looks told me how much it meant to many of the parents to hear this.
Prior to Andover’s Parents’ Weekend, my son and I were texting one night, and he casually dropped one of those “Oh, by the way…” comments that carry much deeper meaning than the mere words. He asked when I was going to be able to get out to his school on Friday, mentioning that his cross country team was inviting parents and siblings to run the course at 3:15 as the team members prepared for their meet the next day. Realizing that the very casualness of the invitation spoke volumes about how much he wanted me to come, pulled as well by something deep within myself, I told him that of course I would be happy to be there. And so on Friday afternoon, I found myself attempting with a sense of futility to do the stretching routine of several dozen highly-fit high school athletes. Fortunately, when we began the actual run, I settled into a comfortable pace near the leaders, with my son by my side. He has just turned 17, spends most of his weekends at the school with his friends, plans to spend much of this coming summer working on his Arabic in a country such as Morocco, and will be off at college in less than two years. In my son’s baby book, I wrote of my wish that one day he would be happy, strong and independent and also deeply connected to those around him as he pursued his dreams. Though I had not yet heard Mrs. Chase’s speech, I needed no reminder to notice the sweetness, wistful though it might be.

“Has Stoneleigh-Burnham ever had a transgender student?”

The question, asked in the middle of study hall, caught me momentarily by surprise but I recovered quickly and answered, “Yes, at least one that I know of, actually a former advisee of mine.”

“Did she…. or he or whatever… know it at the time?”

I weighed my answer carefully. “I don’t know for sure, but I think that he didn’t know it when she enrolled, if you see what I mean.”

“What would the school do if a transgender student wanted to apply?”

Several other girls looked over at me expectantly, awaiting the answers I would give in words and wordlessly. The simple directness of the question and tone of voice suggested they were primarily looking for a factual answer, if suspecting that the question of necessity opens up a can of worms for a single-gender school. Well aware that for these kids such topics are fresh and exciting, I wanted as always to respond directly and honestly, in a way that would allow them to form their own opinions, and in a way that would support anyone in the room who might happen to be or know anyone who is transgender. Trying to convey the warmth and openness I felt, I responded, “It’s a great question, and I honestly don’t know the answer.” Not quite the ringing words I was hoping for, but at least they were true. They asked how they could find out the answer, and I suggested they talk to Mr. Swartzentruber. Of course, I sent him an email right away letting him know the question might be coming up.

Three years ago, this conversation would probably never have occurred. Three years ago, the middle school team decided to invite the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) to do a series of workshops with the 7th and 8th graders following a number of instances of obliviously homophobic remarks. While we had addressed the remarks at the time, we thought that the students needed some information, and that learning about heterosexism from older students would be more effective than learning from us. The high school students responded beautifully, answering the usual deluge of questions that middle schoolers raise with grace and empathy, helping set a new tone wherein whatever anyone felt personally about homosexuality, those being personal beliefs which they had every right to have, conversations around the school needed to bear in mind that all people deserve to be treated with respect.

During the course of this workshop, the GSA members also defined the word transgender. As this was right around the time my former advisee came out to the school, I was moved to do some research into transgender people. I learned that not all transgender people feel they were born into the wrong body, that “transgender” is actually a huge umbrella term for many different ways of being. For example, some transgender people simply prefer to dress differently, and still others prefer to reject the gender binary altogether. I realized that when we talk about LGBT people, we often focus on the “LG” and/or the “B” and not quite so often on the “T.” It is, to be fair, a complex acronym in that sexuality is distinct from gender.

So when last year’s Humanities 7 class began to occasionally include transphobia in their discussions about prejudice and heterosexism, I was much more prepared than I would have been just two years previously, and we had a number of great discussions about how gender is defined and how that relates to gender expression, both for girls and for transgender people.

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) is celebrating Ally Week from October 18-22. I think back to my years in junior high and the one student who had come out as being gay. I only heard fragments of conversations about him, but enough to know he must have felt just as absolutely miserable as he often looked as he strode through the corridors with a faint air of challenge as if he was continually expecting a fight. I look back on those years and wonder, had I known then what I know now, if I would have been able to stick up for him. I hope I would have. I hope even more that someone did.

So often at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, when there’s something that needs working out, we’ll talk about the importance of having a conversation, of leaving assumptions at the door and listening with an open mind, responding with a core of respect. Understanding and accepting all people, in all their uniqueness, is a necessary base, and one that is often easy for middle schoolers to achieve, obsessed as they are with understanding and accepting themselves, hyper-focused as they are on fairness. As we enter Ally Week, and as we at Stoneleigh-Burnham School continue to outline our anti-bullying policy, I can’t help but think that conversations like the one above, if handled well, can serve to normalize and destigmatize ways of being which can too often lead to bullying such as that long-ago student in Amherst Regional Junior High School experienced. Though they don’t always admit it, middle school kids still take many of their cues from the adults around them. It’s vital work, exciting work, necessary work – and work that must and will continue far beyond Ally Week.

I walk into my “Foundations of Language and Culture” class eagerly anticipating the last two student presentations on the brain and learning. The groups who spoke about brain structures and the male brain two days ago set the bar high, and the buzz of focused activity in the “female brain” group and the contrastingly calm demeanor of the “how the brain changes as you learn” group both suggest they feel they will be up to the task of meeting that standard.

It turns out the the group speaking about the female brain has only just solved the issue of how to merge four separate PowerPoints together (we had agreed each student could hook up her own netbook to the projector in turn if need be), and they ask for just a few more moments to double-check that the animations still work properly. While we are waiting, I pass out the evaluation forms the class designed and answer random student questions as they arise. Finally, nearly everything is ready – “Could you please turn out the lights?” calls out a student – and the audience looks expectantly toward the Smart Board around which the female brain group has gathered. By the end of the presentation, according to the evaluation forms, members of the class will have learned “about how females use more of their emotional sides and are more prone to depression,” that “girls are more likely to focus on facial expressions as infants,” that “empathizing tendencies means they’re [women] better at communicating with each other,” that “women are better at language and understanding emotions,” women have more white matter in their brain and “more balance,” and many other things including the fact that “women are at more risk for Alzheimer’s,” the vocabulary term “mentalistic tendencies” and “the importance of connectedness.”

Once the last assessment form is turned in, the next group begins to speak. Like the other groups, they speak with a confidence they may or may not feel, judging from their self-assessment sheets, about how the brain changes as you learn. They begin by acknowledging that their research suggests there are differing opinions on whether or not the brain can grow neurons after you are born, give and explain their personal opinion, and continue on to make a remarkable presentation on the plasticity of the brain. Assessment sheets tell the story of what the other students learned: that “the brain has white and grey matter,” that “when you learn, neurons… come together to share information and make a pathway,” that “learning takes place when neurons connect to each other,” that “you MIGHT be born without all your neurons,” and more. Although the group mentioned the role of myelin in learning, in “smoothing the path for learning to occur” as they put it, I am not 100% certain the importance sank in with other students, so I make a mental note to come back to that point sometime very soon. In general, as skillful as these presentations were and as clear as it was that the students understood the importance of what they were doing, I know that we will need to revisit much of this information if the students are to retain it over the longer term. Those new neural connections and thickened myelin sheaths will return to their former states if I don’t!

To start that process, and to tie the presentations back to our year-long textbook project, I ask the students what they have learned that will help them write a good textbook together. They come up with the following principles:
1. We can review things to help create a strong pathway with a thick myelin sheath.
2. We can fully immerse people in a language, such as having a chapter entirely in the language.
3. Make information clear so that it can be processed and stored in an organized way in the brain.
4. We could explain how the brain works – so they know how they learn (and because it’s interesting).
5. Include pictures and visuals.
6. Create a movie, perhaps a skit for each language, a mini-documentary for each culture.
7. Include appropriate background information.
8. Keep in mind that different people learn different ways – there are multiple ways of communicating such as information, text, visuals, more.
9. Add links for follow up and clarification.
10. Compare our culture to other cultures (relates them…. connects new information to an existing neural network).
11. Speak from multiple perspectives.
12. [a content-related comment: explore stereotypes and where they come from.]
13. Make it appealing and fun – connect emotionally.
14. Pace it appropriately… not too much too fast, but not too slow either.

Of course, as I’d imagined they would, their ideas apply to good learning/teaching techniques in general. If I am explicit with them about not only what they are learning but also how I am setting up the course to help in that process, it should help create a number of connections, not just within neural networks and not just from areas of the brain most closely associated with emotion to other areas of the brain used for learning, but also between the students and me as well as among the students themselves. This group of students is already among the most metacognitive with whom I have worked, and they have strong potential to become even more self-aware about their learning. What an amazing year this promises to be!

As middle school teachers, you are inherently mavericks… Do what is right for your kids… Be the mavericks you are. – Antonio Viva, Head of Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in his keynote address at “Teaching for the Future: A Conference for Middle School Faculty”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person sitting in the audience with an open mind, high hopes, and a soupçon of skepticism. We were, after all, approximately 100 middle school teachers, waiting for the opening keynote for the first-ever middle school conference run by AISNE (the Association of Independent Schools of New England). An underlying optimism characterizes most middle school teachers, but on the other hand once you’ve attended enough conferences, you know that all keynote speakers are not created equal. The topic, 21st Century Learning, offered few clues as we in the education community have been debating what exactly that means for, well, a decade now, as Mr. Viva reminded us in his opening words.

Time and time again, you hear the call that our country needs, in the words of Daniel Pink, “design thinkers and problem-solvers.” Time and time again, the rapidly increasing pace of change is used to drive home the point that we are preparing our kids for an uncertain future. Literacies are changing, and the skillset required for success is also evolving. The abilities to communicate and collaborate, among others, continue to be vital, but the tools we use and the skills those tools require are radically different from those of the past.

Tuesday night, I move my cat away from the computer monitor and log in to the Elluminate session being hosted by the Facebook group “Teachers’ Letters to Obama.” The by-now familiar screen pops up with the list of participants, chat room, virtual white board, and, in the lower-left-hand corner, the microphone icon which I have never personally seized, though I test my levels just in case. Soon, nationally known advocates for research-based educational reform are speaking on what they have been doing to “Stop Griping, Start Organizing.” I click to save several PowerPoints so that I can reference them later, and listen to ideas on what actions have been and could be taken. At one point, I open another browser window, do a Google search, and go back to the chat room to post a link to a helpful website. 90 minutes later, I log out having saved a screen shot linking me to a website where those interested in taking further action can network.

In examining the common characteristics of the top ten businesses, you see not only collaboration (which implies communication) but also creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and real world problem solving. Toward that end, Google has suggested a “major in learning.” The company, certainly one of the most creative, innovative and dominant in the world, views non-routine problems as opportunities, and asks employees to set aside a full 25% of their time to “do something creative.” Google’s headquarters include a Lego room, where the only activity in which you are allowed to engage is… playing with Legos.

In such a world, literacies are also evolving. Students of today need new skills related to multitasking, simulation, appropriation, transmedia navigation, judgment, play, performance, and more.  They are in many ways well-equipped to acquire these skills as they are plugged in, interconnected and social, unique, able to be involved in global classrooms to a degree never-before possible, networked with people with common interests, always on, and seeking authentic roles. Rather than sitting passively absorbing what we tell them to, they seek to be critical consumers of their learning experiences.

What an opportunity!

What, then, should teachers be doing to take advantage of this opportunity? We need to be networking if we want to be able to lead the next generation of educators. We need to reimagine ourselves as “educational Sherpas” (Viva), modelers, concierges, incubators, synthesizers, and facilitators (a word I’ve personally been increasingly stressing as of late).. Our spaces need to change, with art classrooms as a model, we need to examine the resources we provide, and we need to rethink how students can demonstrate what they know and understand. We need to be asking the really big, profound questions (which our students are already doing!), reflect on the relevance of our practice and evolve as needed, and be willing to make mistakes along the way. In the process, we can be modeling tenacity, a desperately-needed quality in today’s world and one which is increasingly difficult to teach.

And we can support our public school colleagues, Mr. Viva (a former teacher at Amherst Regional High School) added, by showing what can happen when we teach in the absence of the mandates and ineffective external motivators being imposed on the profession without adequate research backing up these practices.

With all these ideas safely written down for future reflection in the “Notes” app of my iPhone, I applauded Mr. Viva warmly, and then stood up to move on to the first of three break-out sessions. If he had succeeded in setting the tone for the conference, it promised to be a very good day. He had, and it was.

Sitting with the 8th graders during a recent study hall, I looked up from my computer to see one of my students from last year’s Humanities 7 class approaching. Imagining she had a question about her homework or perhaps wanted to run to the library, I set my face in what I hoped was a welcoming, open, perhaps slightly quizzical expression. As she sat down on the floor with me, she began to tell me about books she had read through the summer and to ask me about what I had been reading. As the conversation lengthened and took us to more and more places, I realized she wasn’t just talking about books. She was also talking about her awareness, and her family’s awareness, of how she was growing up, able to think about and learn from an ever-greater variety of experiences, in the process exploring aspects of human nature she had thus far been fortunate enough never to have encountered. And she was perhaps also testing me to see if, now that she wasn’t in my class any more, I would still be open to talking at length with her about what she thought and what she was learning. I hope and trust I passed the test. I do know she promised to hand her current book over to me when she finished it, convinced I would love it as she did.

We are certainly a community of readers at Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School. The girls are read to in Humanities 7, Humanities 8 and ESL Reading/Writing Workshop, and moreover the houseparents have also begun reading aloud to the boarding students at night. Through our independent reading programs and group novels chosen in support of different units, students have ample opportunity to just curl up with a good book and lose themselves in the story. Often when one student makes a “text-to-text connection” and explains how one book makes her think of another (one of the strategies used by good readers to help their comprehension), she will provoke an outpouring of similar connections until I eventually decide it’s time to redirect the class back to the original, central discussion.

So it was recently when I was reading Rabbit-Proof Fence to the Humanities 7 class. As they returned to the discussion, a girl from Africa raised her hand. Beginning to make a text-self connection (another of the strategies of good readers), she spoke with a touch of hesitation about how she believed it possible that the white settlers believed the Australian aboriginals were inferior to them because of the color of their skin. I held her gaze and nodded slightly, and she continued with a firmer, louder voice to talk incredulously and with a hint of anger about the time when someone asked her if when she was home she wore grass skirts and lived in trees, looking around the class as she spoke to see the other students’ reactions. A girl from Mexico threw up her hand to tell about the time someone asked her why, if she was Mexican, she wasn’t wearing her sombrero. Murmurs of outrage coalesced into analyses of how people sometimes act and why, and declarations of how they should be acting and why. Almost unnoticed, I sat and absorbed it all, ready to act quickly if need be but hoping they would continue to manage the conversation all on their own. They did so, and as the conversation began to wind down one of the youngest 7th graders commented with excitement and pride, “Who would ever have believed that little middle schoolers could have this kind of conversation?” Knowing the question was rhetorical, I nonetheless answered it: “I would.”

I would never call this group of 7th graders “little middle schoolers” any more than I would have described previous classes in the same way. At the same time, I am well aware that, for all their brilliance and insight, all their well-developed and uninhibited voices, they are still quite new to this school and less than four months ago, many of them were still going out to the playground for recess. Just this morning in homeroom, I asked them if they were ready for me to stop going over the sequence of the upcoming day period by period. Four shouted “No!”s and six sets of terrified eyes (and not a single “Yes”) told me they still wanted and needed this support. Fortunately, they were comfortable enough to let me know this, and as I began “From here, you’ll go to math and then science…” I watched relief and a sense of well-being replace terror.

These moments form a microcosm of what it means to be a middle schooler – on the one hand, bringing increasing sophistication and insight to their growing awareness of the world around them, and on the other hand, remaining achingly in touch with the child within. This may look and feel different to parents than it does to teachers and advisors – after all, you are the ones who protected them from birth, and preparing to leave that protection may be just as scary for them as it may be for you (perhaps even more so). They are trying to prove they can make it on their own, yet all too aware that sometimes they need to reach out for help, and not always certain as to what the best balance is. As we work together to help them maintain and develop their voices as they transition from childhood to adulthood, part of our job will be to track and help them navigate this transition. For us adults, too, it is a delicate balance and one that will require continual adjustment. But if we care for and support them and trust them to do their best, they will respond in kind.

And perhaps next year, I will once again look up from my computer to see a former student heading my way, and I will know that the cycle continues…

“Displace one note and there would be diminishment.” – Antonio Salieri, in “Amadeus” by Peter Shaffer

It is the eve of the first Rock Band rehearsal of the year. With the direction for the group necessarily uncertain until we all actually gather in a room to discuss music selections, I often find myself reminiscing at this time of year about bands from years past. The first year of the group’s existence, they did a number of informal shows in the Red Room. For one of them, one of the lead singers had suggested we do the song “Love to Love You” by The Corrs. Remembering that night and wondering if I would still find it as beautiful now as I did then, listening to my students perform it with the lights down low and the audience relaxing in easy chairs and sofas or sitting on the floor, I downloaded it onto my phone and called it up. The wistfulness of the opening line, “I would love to love you like you do me,” somehow caught me by surprise and I was instantly one with the song, the dialogue between lead singer Andrea Corr and her sisters Caroline and Sharon with their brother Jim’s gently distorted guitar as punctuation leading to the gorgeous harmonies of the chorus with Andrea’s overdubbed tin whistle line winding in and out. Perhaps it wasn’t quite Mozart, but on the other hand it’s hard to imagine how the song could have been more beautifully arranged.

While such moments of perfection bring beauty to our lives, consistent perfection is of course illusory. And the more we focus outside ourselves and look to others for approval, the more difficult it becomes even to be satisfied. For middle school girls, the problem is especially acute as our society, both consciously and unconsciously, places enormous pressure on women to preserve and strengthen relationships, to “be nice” at all costs. As they struggle to define the women they are becoming, many girls bury their inner voice deep inside and, tragically, for some it never re-emerges.

Even in this early stage of the year, you can already get a sense of which girls are externally focused, and to what degree. From the simple and direct “I want to…” (which always makes me want to pump my fist “Yes!”) through “Is there a way I could…” to “Would it be okay…” and “Do you think it would be okay…” there is a continuum of strength of voice, and I have already heard the dreaded “Is this good?” more than once. Seeking advice and guidance, learning and growing by examining oneself as reflected in other people’s eyes, makes sense, especially for girls who so often learn best in relationships. However, when girls seek ultimate judgment outside themselves, they place their voices at risk.

Earlier today, I read an article by Alfie Kohn in the”Washington Post” blog “The Answer Sheet” by Valerie Strauss. He speaks of the “critical difference between intrinsic motivation, which refers to interest in the task itself, and extrinsic motivation, in which people’s actions are driven by an inducement outside of the task, a reward or punishment,” adding that “The key point is that extrinsic motivators tend to undermine intrinsic motivation.” One of the central goals of Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School is to minimize external motivators in order to maximize the development of internal motivation. Through student choice, reflection and self-assessment, as well as listening carefully and respectfully to what they are trying to tell us, we encourage students to listen to, value, express and develop their inner voice, to find their motivation from within rather than without. It is often delicate work, with continuously shifting priorities, best carried out not only in conversation with each student but also with the support of her parents.

Last year, one of the seventh graders was one of the smallest students I have ever taught. Though you could tell she had a strong sense of self deep within, as well as a gift for athletics, she was also soft-spoken, contributing relatively rarely to class discussion in the first few weeks of the year. Now a returning eighth grader, she radiates self-confidence. At the campfire on the Middle School Overnight, she unhesitatingly took the stage to join with her friends in the B.o.B. song “Airplanes pt.2,” rapping the verse “Now let’s pretend like I’m on the stage and when my beat drops everybody goes insane…” as a solo in between the beautifully sung choruses performed by the whole group while the spectators shouted “Yeah!” and yelled her name. Walking back to the lodge later on, I noticed an airplane in the night sky and imagined, as B.o.B. does in the chorus of his song, it was a shooting star.

Change one moment of that vignette and there would be diminishment. I’ve got my wish right now.

As last year drew to a close, the 7th graders spent a lot of time talking about how they wanted this year to go. Their highest priority was on making new students feel both welcome to and included in the school right from the start. They had zillions of ideas, including extra time in Orientation and a number of changes to the Middle School Overnight bonding trip designed to facilitate making as many connections as possible. We were able to implement most of these ideas and are now nearing the end of our first week together. How are things going?

Rewind to Tuesday night in Gibson Lodge in Camp Becket. After a delicious dinner of Mexican Lasagne, our wonderful counselors Jordan and Allison led a number of games to help everyone get to know each other better. In one, we all took off one shoe and stood next to it in a big circle. Allison removed her shoe from the circle, and stood in the center. She called out, “I’m Allison. The wind is blowing for everyone who has siblings.” Everyone with siblings left their shoe behind and scrambled to stand by another shoe while the only children watched. The one person who was left without a shoe ran to the center of the circle, introduced herself, and came up with another “The wind is blowing…” statement. The room was filled with laughter and the occasional scream during frantic races to the last shoe. Later, we paired off and learned four facts about each other and then introduced our partners to the group. At the end, everyone agreed we had all learned something new about people, even people we knew well. In several cases, this involved being able to do odd things with ears, eyes, eyebrows and/or tongues. The talents of the middle schoolers are indeed many and varied!

After the last game, we walked to the campfire area (with a pause to enjoy looking up at the stars from the soccer field) only to find… no fire, and worse, no ingredients for s’mores. Oblivious to this unexpected turn of events, trusting things would work out, or both, the students began to sing camp songs, taking turns taking the lead. While Jordan and Allison worked quickly to get a blazing fire going, students discovered the stage and turned the evening into a combination sing-along and impromptu talent show. Caught up in the moment, no one broke the flow of the show when the marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate finally arrived – the first time ever on a middle school overnight when we weren’t instantly swamped by hungry girls. Near 10:30, one of the girls led the group in singing Rihanna’s “Take a Bow” (which happened to have been performed by last year’s middle school rock band), and by the end of the song a quiet, mellow, peaceful atmosphere had fallen and we all sat quietly for a moment before Laura announced it was time to go back to the lodge.

Last year’s students had asked if they could stay in one big building instead of cabins this year, and so, with the camp’s blessing, nearly all the students dragged their mattresses out of dorm rooms and into the big central room of the lodge; two girls preferred to remain in a dorm room together. Although there were inevitably smatterings of giggles for a little while past bedtime, all in all everyone was tired enough that they managed to get a good night’s sleep.

The following day began with the high ropes course where, depending on their choices, students were challenged either to find a way to climb up various elements, or to walk across a tightrope or telephone pole 40 feet off the ground. Adrenaline flowed despite the knowledge that you were hooked safely in to your harness and friends were belaying you and cheering you on. After lunch, the girls played “Zingers” in which teams worked to earn points at different stations through accomplishing such tasks as having everyone simultaneously jump rope, model clay into identifiable animals, arrange pre-selected letters into as many five-letter words as possible, pass a coffee can filled with tennis balls from feet to feet, build the highest free-standing structure possible out of Duplos, or (the loudest and most photogenic) run between two cones using as many themes (such as “penguins!”) as possible. While the morning was a chance to reach within yourself, supported by your peers, to see what you could accomplish, the afternoon was more about meeting the challenge of working together to solve problems in a positive atmosphere.

At the end of the trip, Jordan and Allison asked the students to share highlights of the Overnight, and the first answer definitely set the theme: “My favorite part was when I did the double ladder with my friend and we made it to the top.” The returning students said they had even more fun than last year, and the new students seemed equally happy.

Both Jordan and Allison were impressed with the girls’ attentiveness to what they were doing and to each other, and went out of their way to tell me so. Especially considering we had been all together for less than 24 hours when we left for Camp Becket, the middle schoolers definitely look happy together, and many of the new students are already acting as though they’ve always gone to school here. Certainly there have been, and will continue to be, bumps in the road from time to time. But with the initial bonds we’ve formed, and the deeper bonds yet to come, we will continue to search out ways to reach within ourselves and reach out to others in scaling new heights. It does indeed promise to be an excellent year.