As I had promised, I went to wake up my son at precisely 6:30, murmuring “Mom’s in the shower. Do you want me to grab you some breakfast?” My heart leapt at his mumbled “Sure.” before he turned over and went back to sleep – my last chance for a while to slice strawberries over yogurt and add a small serving of chocolate chips, his daily breakfast for most of the summer. I stepped over the Magic cards he had uncharacteristically left on the floor after the late-night game he had asked me to play (for the first time in many years – was he thinking, as I was, about the passage of time?), and walked to the kitchen. The car was already packed tightly with everything he’d need in his dorm room at Andover, and departure was set for 7:30. After breakfast and a shower, he ran around gathering up last minute items. “I love you, Dad.” he said and in our neo-Bill Cosby ritual, I responded, “I love you too. What do you need?” “Well,” he said with a wicked grin, “my computer isn’t going to put itself in my backpack.” I stood up to take care of it; a kiss and a hug later, he folded himself into the passenger seat. As my wife started the car, my eyes moistened but my smile remained determinedly bright. His own eyes were clear – as he’d said the night before, “I love you, but I’m glad the summer’s over.” Fun and friends were at the other end of the drive, and he couldn’t wait.

Driving to Stoneleigh-Burnham, I couldn’t help but think how many houses would be witness to similar scenes in the upcoming days. Caught up in my own thoughts and feelings, I had temporarily forgotten that RAs and Blue Key members were arriving today. Following our morning faculty meetings, shouts and squeals began to fill the corridors with increasing frequency, and the first of 50 billion “How was your summer?”s were heard. As overjoyed as they were to see their friends again, the students were also excited about seeing the faculty. After one returning 8th grader gave me a hug, grinning from ear to ear, her friends commented wrily, “Good job. You handled that well.” Apparently, she had nearly knocked over the previous teacher she had greeted, carried away by the force of her emotion.

We have had good faculty meetings – for one, we took extended time to think deeply about our school’s mission, how each of us is doing in fulfilling that mission, and what goals we each could set for the future. Those goals will be placed in a binder so we can begin to form support networks in helping each other remain focused and make progress, and there will be more conversations in the future. It is powerful work in many ways, and stimulating. However, as much as I love working with the middle school team, without the students, there quite literally is no point. And now, they are back.

Now, the fun – and work – really begins. Now, it’s a school again.

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I’ve written countless outlines in my head for a blog entry wrapping up the 2009-2010 school year, even thought up entire paragraphs while out running or driving to the store. But none of it has ever been typed up.

Sometimes you just don’t want the year to end.

After graduation, itself an emotional occasion as always (the peculiarly wistful nature of commencement as an ending as well as a beginning is especially strong in boarding schools where students often have lived together 24/7 for four or more years and where the family cars are waiting to pack up all their belongings and whisk them away in a few scant hours), I was talking to one of the seventh grade parents when his daughter, a member of my Humanities 7 class, came up to me in tears. “It’s over,” she said. I tried to comfort her by saying, “You know your whole class will be back next year, and there will be more people joining us.” “I know,” she said, “but seventh grade is over.” My mind raced. I know that words are sometimes beside the point in these situations, that sometimes listening and sympathizing is enough, but as I looked into her face, she seemed to be pleading for me to tell her something, and I was acutely conscious of her father looking up at both of us with concern.

One of my favourite books is In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle by Madeleine Blais, which tells the story of the 1992-1993 state champion Amherst High girls basketball team. Following the game, Coach Ron Moyer is stunned to discover his entire team not whooping it up in celebration but rather sobbing, choking out “last… final… never again…” He responded, “You’re wrong. This isn’t the last. There will be more basketball… I promise you. There will be lots more basketball.” As Madeleine Blais tells it, “They can’t decipher his real message, at least not at this moment. They can’t fathom how the word ‘basketball’ might have more than one meaning.”

I looked at my student, and told her, “The year might be over, but seventh grade is inside you now, and you can draw on it for the rest of your life.” She smiled, and her father murmured “Thank you” as both our eyes glistened.

(pause)

Every summer, I ask incoming Humanities 7 students to do two things. They each complete a survey to help me select the first group novel of the year, and they each choose any one of the books they read over the summer and write me about it. About a week ago, I decided to spend part of the morning going through the surveys to see what the first book would be. While I was emailing our bookstore manager to place my order, I heard the ding that tells me, “You’ve got mail.” It was my first summer reading email, from a student who had read The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis and who had, like me, fallen in love not just with the writer’s style and imagery, but also with Parvana, the protagonist who has to dress like a boy to support her family when the Taliban captures her father. I wrote my student back that same morning.

The new school year had officially begun.

“Now we’re up in the big leagues,/ Gettin’ our turn at bat. / As long as we live, it’s you and me baby, / There ain’t nothin wrong with that.” – from the theme song to “The Jeffersons”

For the first time in a very long time, I am hearing rumours of 8th graders sneaking online on their laptops in the middle of classes. However, there is a unique middle school flavour to these transgressions – the girls, it seems, are periodically checking their stocks as part of the coordinated Humanities 8 and Algebra 1 project in Economics. Fortunately, being already this engaged in their work, they are relatively easy to redirect back to whatever is happening in the classroom at the moment. Meanwhile, they are running into the office asking me what I know of Keynesian theories; fortunately, I can draw on information I just learned from Pete this very morning in attempting to answer their questions. The topics they are addressing would challenge many college students, and for that matter many adults. In fact, just by sitting in the office before homeroom and during study hall, I find myself deluged with questions to which I only wish I knew the answers – not just about economics, but also about science, literature and a wide range of other topics. In a quiet moment today, Catherine and I were talking about how extraordinary this 8th grade class is, how many kids have achieved such a high level of sophistication of thought and such a thirst for knowledge. While the 8th graders are definitely taking care to ensure they make the most of their short time left in the middle school, they are also quite clearly more than ready to move on to high school. Both individually and collectively, they inspire our pride.

Meanwhile, the 7th grade class has begun looking ahead to next year as well. They have frequently been asking me how many new 7th and 8th graders we have enrolled for next year and what I know about them, and how they can expect their class to grow in numbers in the years ahead. They care deeply for one another and for the identity of their class, and want to preserve that moving forward. On Friday, while the 8th graders are off on a field trip, I plan to talk with them about what makes their class special, where they started out, how they’ve gotten to where they are now, and what all that means for their role next year in leadership of the middle school. Catherine, Pete and I have frequently talked about how this class is unquestionably going to be a force as they continue to grow up, and without a doubt, we add, a force for truth and justice.

Today, out of the blue, they asked me in rapid-fire succession if I would cry at their graduation, their moving up ceremony, this year’s graduation and this year’s moving up ceremony. I answered in the affirmative on all counts. I never know exactly when it will happen, but each and every year at some point I am overwhelmed as I think about how far each individual girl has come and moments I have observed along the way, how this stage of her journey is over and so much more is yet to come. It is the goal, whether explicit or implicit, of any good teacher to become unnecessary. Meeting that goal is the essence of bittersweet. To the students, however, it is often enough simply to know they matter to us.

Earlier today in housemeeting, Pete stands up to give a Shining Star award to one of the Humanities 8 students. As he describes in loving detail and with great pride what she has done to earn the award, I can’t help but think back to the beginning of the year. Absolutely brilliant, this girl was somewhat used to being able to coast on her natural intelligence and initially resistant to being stretched. Eventually, however, she began to open her mind to what her teachers had to offer to help her discover and work toward all the vast potential she possessed; she has now become one of the most frequent visitors to the middle school office, with one of the most constant streams of insightful questions. Extraordinarily honest and self-aware, she knows and has talked openly about just how far she has come, and is not shy about expressing her strong connections to the teachers that helped her along the way. I wipe my eyes and start to applaud as she stands, smiles at Pete and walks up to accept the award.

Earlier this week, the Food Bank emailed us with a question. They had a special project and were wondering if the students would be capable of the precision needed to double-check written invoices against the printed versions. Thinking that the girls would enjoy a break from sorting through donated food in various states of dilapidation and feeling a quiet pride that we had earned their trust enough for them to even ask the question, I double-checked myself to be sure I wasn’t exaggerating the students’ capabilities and then wrote an email back accepting the job.

When we got to the Food Bank on Wednesday, the people with whom I had corresponded were nowhere to be found, and it took a bit of digging to figure out what we were supposed to be doing. We sat in the reception area for a while, chatting and occasionally picking up Spanish language pamphlets to see how well we could do with them as periodically one of the women who works in the front room would report back on the progress she was making and once again apologize for the delay. Eventually, a smiling man in a baseball cap emerged carrying several thick green folders each containing several manilla folders full of papers. “Oh, dear,” I thought and the students’ faces implied as we rose to follow him to the sorting room.

It was meticulous, painstaking, and quite honestly not particularly interesting work. Some of us seemed to fly through folders, perhaps since they had a higher proportion of the unstapled single-copy invoices we didn’t have to check. Other times, one single pair of invoices seemed to take hours. As we needed to concentrate carefully on small details, we didn’t have enough brain power left over for the conversation that usually flows through the afternoon. At one point, I commented, “You’d probably rather have been sorting salvage,” and the students rolled their eyes and agreed. Yet, at several points in time, one of the girls would say, “I feel so bad. They’re giving out so much food!” and the others would nod in agreement. At the volunteer appreciation lunch several weeks ago, we learned that 100,000 people use the Food Bank’s services at one time or another. That’s more than the population of Franklin County, where Stoneleigh-Burnham is located, and means approximately one in three people in Franklin and Hampshire Counties need assistance at some point in time. Volunteers help sort over 1.2 million pounds of food each year as their contribution to helping out. However boring sorting the invoices might have been, it did give us some perspective on how vitally important the work we do can be even though we never (knowingly) see the faces of the people we are helping.

Meanwhile, at the Dakin-Pioneer Valley Humane Society, when we showed up at our regular time one Thursday this spring, they looked surprised and a bit flustered. “We thought you were on vacation,” they said. I explained that the public schools were on break, but we went all the way through summer vacation. I asked if it was a problem we were there, and they said no, not at all. As we turned to go sign in, I overheard one of them saying, “I’ll start calling people and telling them they don’t need to come after all.”

It’s always nice to know you make a difference.

“Just wait and see. I remember those words and how they chided me, when patient was the hardest thing to be.”

“These are days we’ll remember. Never before and never since, I promise, will the whole world be warm as this.”

– Natalie Merchant, “How You’ve Grown” and “These Are Days”

The walk from housemeeting to my office takes rather longer than normal, and I definitely do not run up the stairs two at a time. Earlier this morning, this uncharacteristic stiffness was puzzling me. I had run the previous evening, but not an excessive distance nor at an excessive speed. One of the students solved my dilemma for me when she asked in homeroom if I was a little stiff. Immediately I recalled the vision of her sprinting past multiple members of the opposing team to return the captured flag to her side of the field and claim victory (which she did twice in three matches!), and my own stiffness suddenly made sense to me.

Although the middle school is only six years old, that is half a lifetime for our youngest students. In that context, it is easy to create traditions that feel as if they are long-standing, and Founders’ Day is one of their favourites. This makes perfect sense in a world where young adolescents can sometimes feel (and not always without reason) as if people are always telling them what they can and can not do. Being able to earn more and more privileges as they get older is cold comfort, so when we give them a day entirely off from classes to plan more or less however they see fit, it is paradise to them.

It has become something of an annual ritual for Founders’ Day to be mentioned in an early MOCA meeting by a returning 8th grader, provoking the question from a first-year student, “What is Founders’ Day?” and an explanation that it is a day off from classes where we can do whatever we want and we get Dunkin’ Donuts and watch a movie and tie-dye t-shirts and have a barbecue and play games all afternoon and it’s really fun and it’s the best day of the year and you’ll love it. Every year, the torrent of words breaks over the new students leaving them shaking their heads, slightly breathless and confused but at the same time aware that something cool is going to happen and they get to be part of it.

Just as from year to year the middle school takes on a different collective personality built from the interactions of the individual students who make up the program, so too does Founders’ Day take on its own personality each year. When I picked up this year’s Dunkin’ Donuts order and they had kindly and helpfully written each student’s name on her drink or food order, I had the feeling this one was going to be special. I zipped back to the restaurant to leave them an extra big tip, then joined “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” already in progress, right at the scene where Ben Stein is blithely plowing through history class, “Anyone? Anyone? Something -d-o-o economics. Voodoo economics,” as students’ eyes glaze over and they doze in a puddle of their own drool. It’s fascinating to watch the movie with a roomful of kids some of whom clearly have never seen it before – the sharp intakes of breath when Ferris’s mom returns home to check on him, the relieved laughter when his ruse works on her, the cries of “No! Don’t do it!” when they leave the Ferrari in the parking garage – and immediately afterwards, several of them run up to me and ask, “Does she marry Ferris?”and one other student, overhearing, comments, “No. I’m marrying Ferris. Not the actor. He’s old and that would be disgusting. The real Ferris.”

While I was guiding students through the process of tie-dying their t-shirts (which are currently in my car waiting to be rinsed out, washed and dried tonight – one of the rituals of Founders’ Day being my spectacularly multicolored hands for several days afterwards), Mr. Deason got a cart full of food from the kitchen and took it to Bonnie’s House to set up the grill for hamburgers, garden burgers and chicken. The students also asked for several salads, and helped assemble the Caesar salad themselves. Dishing up the fruit salad, one student pointed to something soft and bright orange and asked “What’s that?” Told it was mango, her head dipped and her eyes widened in delighted surprise and she shouted, “No way!” But they had asked if mango would be possible… and it was!

After lunch, some of them fetched softball mitts and others lacrosse sticks, still others starting jamming on various instruments in Bonnie’s House as Mr. Deason periodically stuck his head in and sang along, and the rest sat on the grass and talked, among then a one-year exchange student and a very close friend of hers. Was there a little voice in the back of their heads reminding them that it is not too long before they return to very different worlds? I heard it, whether or not they did.

After the traditional all-school photo, the 7th graders spontaneously arranged themselves for their class picture while the 8th graders were being photographed. Then, two students explained Capture the Flag for those who didn’t know the game, we counted off, placed the flags (which were actually shin guards) in the circles by the lacrosse goals, and started playing. Immediately, Mr. Deason’s team started shouting out the names of random cities in Russia. Equally immediately, my team figured out that they had no real strategies and the shouting was meaningless. Caught up in cries of “Leningrad! I mean, St. Petersburg!” my team almost didn’t notice an opponent walking stealthily toward the woods. Almost.

Most years, after 30-45 minutes, some of the students begin to tire of the game, but this year they were so caught up in the excitement that we played for over an hour. As we picked up the shin guards and the cones and returned toward Bonnie’s House, the first thick drops of the thunderstorm that had been threatening us all day began to fall. The next activity of the day, fortunately, was eating ice cream, and by the time we were done, the sun had come out again and we could go back outside for more games before the end of the day, break and athletics.

At lunch today, Mr. Deason came up to me and asked how stiff I was – not whether I was stiff, I noticed, but how stiff. The stiffness, however, will pass. The memories will remain.

[pictures on the School’s Facebook page]

“Okay,” I tell the middle school band as we are putting the final touches on their version of “I Wanna Rock and Roll all Night.” “So first Alyssa’s solo, then the drum solo which I still have to write, then Jordyn’s solo, then the a cappella chorus, finally one more chorus and the ending and we’re good to go.” One student’s face clouds over; another’s lights up. “I had an idea for the ending,” the bright-faced girl suggests. “What if we play F and G from ‘You keep on shouting..’ and end on the A?” We listen to the YouTube version, and as it turns out, that’s pretty much what Kiss does. “Perfect!” I say. “Let’s do it!” The cloudy girl calls me over and quietly says, “But we only have four more rehearsals.” Then as I start to answer, she brightens and I say, “Exactly. Four more weeks, but eight rehearsals. Plenty of time.”

“Plenty of time.” Well, it is… and it isn’t. Certainly, I can write that drum solo, we can smooth out the transitions between the different sections of the Kiss piece, maintain two other songs that are already in good shape, and hopefully polish up the middle of “Fireflies” well enough that we’re able to perform that song too. It’s an ambitious program. Listening to them now, it’s hard to believe that half this band had never played a rock instrument when we formed up last September. They still make mistakes, yes, but they have a good sense of what they’re supposed to be doing and how it fits into the whole. Sophia, playing much more quickly and smoothly now, still has the same look of joy she wore the first time she plugged in an electric guitar and played a loud, dirty G chord. Maah is moving beyond the drum parts Kyra first taught her last October and adding ever-more complicated beats. Kyra herself flits from drums to piano to lead vocals with ease, anchoring the group with her solid sense of timing. Jordyn and Franny hold down solid bass lines. And Alyssa, who joined in January, quickly integrated herself into the group and handles lead guitar parts with a quiet self-confidence. All of them sing, and sound beautiful together. Or spirited. Whatever a specific song needs. With all this talent, and eight rehearsals, we have plenty of time to finish preparing a solid show for late May.

But all the same, eight more rehearsals doesn’t feel like nearly enough time. Images pass before me of Franny playing her electric bass upright as a reminder to me she wants to learn acoustic bass next year, Sophia smiling as she finally masters the transition from the opening lead of “Dirty Little Secret” to the first power chord, Maah saying, “Oh, yeah. I got it.” as she masters a tricky rhythm, Kyra spontaneously leading the group through Rihanna’s “Take a Bow” which almost instantly became a signature song, Alyssa learning her first lead solo in just one week, or Jordyn suddenly stopping playing all together and when I stop too and ask her what’s up, saying with a certain awestruck pride in her voice, “We sound so good!” Most of the members of the group are 7th graders and will happily be back, but the number of times we will all play together are rapidly diminishing. Each run-through of each piece carries added significance, and the lingering notes of each last chord sound increasingly wistful.

Earlier today, as I walked through the math/science classroom, I noticed a little list on the white board with the note, “Olivia and Franny are so close to checking off one year out of six.” That means over five more years of smiling at them around the school and watching them grow. But it also means only a few more weeks of Humanities 7, of “Can we read today?” and “How did we get on that topic?!” and “Could we make a unit out of this?” Someone else has written “42 days!” on another white board. 42 days can fly by. And they will. But 42 days are also a gift.

Summer vacation is surely coming, and will be welcome. But for now, it can wait. We have an ending to work out.

A talk given at the Winter Honor Roll Assembly.

Sisyphus was one of those unfortunate mortals who displeased the Greek gods, different versions of the myth giving different explanations of his exact crime. At any rate, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a huge boulder up to the top of a hill, the catch being that whenever the boulder neared the summit, it would roll all the way back down again, meaning he would never ever complete the task throughout all eternity.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, really, does it? never mind honorable. Only that was not exactly Albert Camus’s take on the myth. Camus, one of the leaders of the French existentialist movement, wrote a famous essay entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus” which concluded, “The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In other words, Sisyphus was happy because he had a purpose to his life and was working relentlessly to fulfill it.

Relentless work alone, of course, is not the answer. In George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm, one of the principal characters is a horse named Boxer. Boxer’s refrain, heard especially often when things were going poorly, was “I will work harder.” While it is true that Boxer accomplished a great deal in his lifetime, in the end the constant work left him broken and unable to save himself when he was shipped off to the knacker’s. (This was, I add in passing, a scene which horrified me back in 8th grade and which left me feeling permanent sympathy both for the working class and for horses.) Hard work matters, yes. But so do other things. How efficiently you work. Making time for other things. And why you work.

Which brings me to Hip Cat, by Jonathan London, my all-time favourite book. I read the entire story, which is really more of an extended jazz poem than a children’s book strictly speaking, the last time I spoke at an honor roll assembly. I also read it as the very first activity in the very first class of the newborn middle school nearly six years ago, and it has opened the Humanities 7 class every year since then. In the book, Hip Cat travels to an unnamed town (which we know to be San Francisco) to try to make it as a professional sax player. His initial success was short-lived, and he soon found himself living under bridges, playing in the streets for whatever coins people would toss his way, working part-time in a diner. Through it all, he practiced whenever he could, and he kept the faith. More – he brought a new depth to his playing, something the proprietor of a nightclub named “Minnie’s Can-Do” instinctively realized, telling him one night when he wandered in, “Sing it. You can do.” So he went up on stage, and “He blew his horn | all bluesy and forlorn. | Then he started singing better than ever, | remembering the river | where he was born. (…) the crowds went hog wild.” And later on, “When he rode the cable cars over the hills, | his feet flew out in his shiny new shoes. | Oobie-do shouted, | “Do what you love to do, and do it well!”

I have no doubt that throughout the winter term each of you here in this room has faced boulders that need to be rolled uphill, worked to maintain the focus on what is important, been offered well-timed support from a friend, a teacher, a family member, and had the chance to do what you love to do and do it well. All this is part of the human condition, and honor lies in the choices you make and the dignity and grace you bring to these choices.

With all this in mind, and since we are on the verge of National Poetry Month, I want to close with four short poems written by Stoneleigh-Burnham alumnae.

sometimes poems just aren’t.
– Laura Jansen

Untitled
You’re the master of your
house, the key that opens
and closes, the shadow that
appears and disappears.
– Michelle Morgan

Untitled
eyes close
same thought
eyes open
– Emma Rose Short-Lee

Desire
Tired feet
Longing expectations
Pink ballet slippers
White chiffon skirts
A continuous line
Flowing in motion
Striving for perfection
Fulfilling a dream
– Kimberly Demetropoulos

I had been joking when I told friends and family that I would start Spring Break at precisely 11:37. But sure enough, that’s when (thanks to Catherine’s kind offer to make a final check of the middle school and lock up) I walked down the staircase from the kitchen and out the door by the maintenance office, crossing the parking lot to my car which was waiting to speed me down to Chatham, VA and the chance to spend a day with my wife before she left for a school service trip to South Africa. Four days after my wife’s departure, I would meet my son in Tampa and drive on down to Sarasota to spend the week with my father and stepmother. This meant for three solid days, I could do… exactly what I wanted.

In their excellent book Half the Sky, which our administrative team jointly read this year, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn describe Zainab Salbi and her work. Her father was Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot, and so she grew up in Iraq a somewhat uneasy child of privilege. She was inexplicably married off at age 20 to an Iraqi man living in the U.S. who proved to be abusive and distant, and would only learn some time later this was to save her from the likelihood of being chosen as Hussein’s mistress. Happily remarried some years later, Salbi was moved by the plight of Bosnian women in rape camps in Serbia to found a group called “Women for Women in Bosnia.” This group has expanded and renamed itself Women for Women International, working at the grassroots level to help female survivors of war around the world. (pp.216-219) My wife has met Ms. Salbi, who was the Leader-in-Residence at her school this year, and found her to be strong and personable and her story moving and compelling.

Monday, March 8 was International Women’s Day, and Zainab Salbi had called on people around the world to join her on the bridge in support of women and of peace. Bridge events were being organized worldwide, for example in New York City where participants filled the Brooklyn Bridge. Thinking to myself there must be something going on somewhere in Southside Virginia or northern North Carolina, I checked the website and found there was an event being held at noon at the Radford Memorial Bridge in Radford, VA. It turned out to be a small group comprised primarily of the Gender Studies Department of Radford University and a passing bicyclist who made a U-turn up the road and answered our invitation to “Come on up and join us!” The local authorities had been somewhat reticent to grant permits, so we weren’t technically allowed on the bridge itself. They had also stated they would not grant another permit next year. At least five patrol cars cruised past us in the first 10 minutes to check us out. However, despite this setting and even though we were somewhat quiet and few in number, we did attract a number of smiles, waves and friendly honks, and certainly felt part of something larger.

That night, I received a tweet from Ms. Salbi inviting people to read her blog at The Daily Beast. I clicked on the link, and found a well-written article detailing a plan of action to promote women’s rights in the world. Unfortunately, I also found a number of comments decrying Salbi as an obvious lesbian who hated men, asserting that men and boys are the true victims in this country today as the feminist myth has subverted national dialogue and repressed all differing views. Granting that I work in an all-girls school, it’s been a long time since I’ve come in contact with people who hold this belief. It was a sobering reminder of how much work there is yet to do to promote gender rights, and another example (as if we needed one) of the pointlessness of either-or thinking and competition to see who is the biggest victim.

The following morning, I woke up at 5:00 to drive south to the Raleigh-Durham area and observe Bill Ferriter, a friend of mine from Teacher Leaders Network, in his 6th grade classroom at Salem Middle School. I was listening to the radio all the way down, and was further sobered by a program that listed teachers as part of their daily outrages. The DJ’s first mentioned how a 4th grade girl (“Not a boy, but a girl!”) had tried to poison her teacher, then laughed over the supposed desperation of the 40ish teacher who sent nude pictures of herself to a 15-year-old student along with text messages offering sex. (Right. Whether she’s “hot” enough to attract men of her own age is the issue here.) Another radio program mocked a survey of teachers asking if they would like to have pay cuts, noting that 100% (“Imagine that!”) said “No.” despite the weak local economy. So teachers, it would appear, are insensitive, money-hungry child molesters who do such a poor job that their students want to poison them. I know these DJ’s probably don’t hold such a cynical and one-sided view of teachers, and for that matter they may well have a more nuanced and positive view of girls and women. But that is what they chose to bring out. There is indeed a lot of work yet to be done.

I wish these DJ’s could simply step into Bill’s classroom. My dominant image is of a room full of 6th graders literally on the edge of their seats, completely engaged in what they were doing for the entire 2’15” class period. It was a masterful lesson in every way, featuring Bill’s frequent exhortation to “Turn to the person next to you, beside you and around you and discuss…” followed by “Three… Two… One… Joey?” (Joey’s name, written on a popsicle stick, having been selected from the Skull of Doom to be the next student called upon.). Following group correction of a drawing they had been assigned comparing life in the West to life behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960’s, a “current event” on the pathetic state of the Latvian economy merged with a discussion of figurative vs. literal description, leading into a short video on the Cold War which provoked a discussion of main ideas, followed by Bill reading Dr. Suess’s The Butter Battle Book and asking them what Dr. Suess’s views were on the Cold War and how they knew it, after which they went to the library for book talks and silent reading… and so on. Inspirational work. Just before I left, Bill signed in to the website at http://www.kiva.org and sent my class a $25 gift certificate from his school’s Kiva Club to make a microloan to a woman in a developing country. We warmly shook hands goodbye, glad to have finally met in person after many months of developing friendship through Teacher Leaders Network and the work we do there.

As I write this entry, I am sitting in a Starbucks in Danville, VA, waiting for my car to be fixed before I continue on south toward Tampa and a wonderful return to family life. “Whatever I want to do” turned out to be pretty much what I normally do. How lucky am I?!

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!”

The bulk of the morning session was Pat’s [Pat Bassett, President of the National Association of Independent Schools] opening address and a keynote speech by Arianna Huffington, who talked about the importance of taking care of ourselves, and how this is a key to being able to deal with the challenges we all face. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and finding our “joy triggers” [hers: starbucks and music on her ipod that she loves] keep us healthy and ready to tackle the issues of our jobs. Using the conference superpower theme Pat also talked about how being playful is critical to our well being.
I think it’s also critical to the learning process and getting our kids to “perform” their best.

– Demetri Orlando, blogging about Thursday, February 25 at the NAIS Annual Conference
http://isenet.ning.com/profiles/blog/list?user=irtemed

Pat says bluntly that he fears that we have not done enough hard work to make our product truly exceptional.   What is your unique product at your school?
– Jonathan Martin, blogging about NAIS President Pat Bassett’s speech to the Annual Conference at
http://21k12blog.net/2010/02/25/nais-prez-bassett-signs-of-the-apocalpyse-naisac10/

[New Technology Network] President Dr. Monica Martinez is brilliant: she sees what is exactly most important, that we as schools and teachers unleash and empower and facilitate our students in their learning.
– Jonathan Martin, blogging about Dr. Martinez’s session “Thought Leaders Summit: Building Schools for a Digital Age”
http://21k12blog.net/2010/02/25/nais-thought-leaders-dig-age-schools-naisac10-awesome/

Innovation is nurturing energy, idealism, and enthusiasm to foster creativity & independence in students
– from a session given by Sarah Hanawald, tweeted by Peter Gow from the NAIS Annual Conference

Research-Based Pedagogy: Connection – Collaboration – Creativity – Application
– Brad Rathgeber, Karen Douse, Heather Manella, from a PowerPoint used in their presentation on the Online School for Girls
http://www.nais.org/files/PowerPoint/10AC%20Block%206%20TCE%20Online%20Girls.pdf

* * * * * * * *

The National Association of Independent Schools is doing an amazing job sharing what is going on at their Annual Conference. Chris Bigenho is maintaining a webpage at http://naisac10.wordpress.com/ which collates blogs from all interested NAIS members on- and off-site and highlights selected postings. Additionally, a number of people on-site are helping keep the rest of us involved through their Twitter feeds. There is a lot to think about as Thursday winds down…

Most middle school teachers I know understand quite well the importance of finding joy and allowing time for playfulness. Working with young adolescents, it comes with the territory. You see the playfulness when they create an original snow dance (see Wednesday’s blog posting), pull beanbag chairs and cushions over themselves in an awkward mound when I signal the end of morning reading (“Nope, I don’t see you.”), or spend the entire drive to service at the animal shelter laughing over exaggerated stories. You see the joy when they snap their heads up from their independent reading books when the bell rings (“Class is over? Already?!”), smile at every single player on the bench as they run past having just scored their first basket, or just plain stop playing the bass momentarily to marvel that “We sound so good!!!”

As for our own joy and playfulness as teachers? You see this when one of us runs into the office and says, “You have to come in and see these presentations,” or in the “random topics” item, such as “pigs in a blanket and glow-stick bracelets,” that always appears in minutes of middle school team meetings (Yes, we are middle school teachers, we are periodically random.). You see this when I drive nearly two hours east to see my son play his last basketball game of the season, texting non-stop updates from the gym to my wife and emailing her video clips of particularly good plays. You see it in the classroom pretty much every day.

Middle school students most readily experience joy when they have time not only for playfulness but also for tackling the many deep and meaningful questions they have. How *do* you tell whether the narrator of the book is a boy or a girl? What gives him the right to think he’s better than anyone else just because of the color of his skin? What are the best conditions for radishes to grow? The questions themselves may have a tinge of playfulness too, of course – witness the classic unit question from a few years back, “Why is the 7th grade at SBMS so awesome?” These are the same kids who asked tentatively way back on the first day of class, “So it’s really okay to ask questions here?” (“What on earth,” I asked myself that day, “was happening at some of their old schools?”) There’s nothing tentative about the questions these days. In fact, at this point, were I to try to cut them off without some overriding reason that clearly benefits their learning, I honestly don’t think they’d let me. Let me slip just a bit in how thoroughly I put them in charge of what they are learning, for example not offering them a choice for the next morning reading book, and they are on me in a flash. No need to figure out what engages these kids. They are making sure I know, and together we are making sure they learn it.

All this is, of course, no random occurrence. Stoneleigh-Burnham’s mission (as the 9th grade “Purple” group so memorably pointed out in their Color Wars skit) is to inspire girls “to pursue meaningful lives based on honor, respect and intellectual curiosity” and to encourage the development of girls’ and women’s voices. In the middle school, we also layer in the research-based principles of “This We Believe” by the National Middle School Association and use JoAnn Deak’s three core elements of self-esteem in girls – connectedness, competence, confidence – in designing, assessing and evolving our program. Our middle school program is seen by many as being innovative, as being different in feel and practice from programs at many other schools. While I have always maintained we are simply putting into practice what research has been telling educators to do for years, we certainly are working hard to nurture energy, idealism, enthusiasm, creativity and independence in our students as suggested by Sarah Hanawald in her conference session on innovation. And I know a large number of teachers who wish they had the freedom that we have to take our students exactly where they want – and need – to go.

Today is another full day of sessions out in San Francisco. I know the flow of my Twitter feed is going to periodically overwhelm me, and that I will have to check my “NAIS 1” and “NAIS 2” folders of accumulated blog feeds several times today in order to be sure not to miss anything. Just as I would if I were there, I look forward to another day rich with learning – with the added benefit of being able to learn with and from my students in between conference sessions. Just as I would be if I were there, I am tired and energized all at once. The tiredness, however, will pass. The energy will remain.