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Mar 24, 2005
Integrative Curriculum

The New England League of Middle Schools held its annual conference on March 20-22, 2005, and although Sunday was the last day of my spring break, I happily made the round trip drive to Providence in order to be able to attend. I had the privilege of attending a session facilitated by John Lounsbury, godfather of the middle school movement, one component of which was a provocative discussion of what skills adults need to succeed in the world and how middle schools can help prepare our students for this world. Fortune 500 companies, he said, list the following top ten skills as being most desirable (in order of importance):

1. Teamwork
2. Problem Solving
3. Interpersonal skills
4. Oral communication
5. Listening
6. Personal/Career Development
7. Creative thinking
8. Leadership
9. Goal-setting/motivation
10. Writing

These skills apply to a wide variety of jobs far beyond those typically found in Fortune 500 companies, and indeed can be viewed as fundamentally important life skills quite apart from one's professional life. Yet, when one looks at how people use these skills in real life, it is easy to see that they are not separated out but rather are integrated almost unconsciously to respond to different situations in appropriate ways. You cannot work effectively as a team without interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate and listen effectively, and appropriate leadership. Creative thinking is indispensable to problem solving, as are the abilities to set goals and motivate oneself to personal and career development. That these, and other life skills, are so interrelated is one of the core principles of the middle school model.

In This We Believe, the National Middle School Association calls for successful schools for young adolescents to provide "curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative and exploratory." We are lucky at Stoneleigh-Burnham that our structures facilitate integrating disciplines, for example in Humanities, which features English and Social Studies skills, including elements of media and technology literacy, but also integrates the performing and visual arts as appropriate. This supports the mission and vision of the School. The course also reflects the great deal of crossover that exists between standards delineated by the National Council of Teachers of English and those outlined by the National Council for the Social Studies, from writing skills through media literacy to critical thinking and more. Additionally, our teachers have the chance to talk regularly about students and about curriculum. Research tells us that schools with teams and common planning time are 50% more likely to be high-performing schools than institutions without these features. When teachers visit each other's classes, share and discuss student work and rubrics, and meet to discuss connections within grade years and transitions from grade to grade, it is not surprising that students benefit. There can be much less duplication of effort, or even contradictions from class to class such as might be found in schools where teachers labor alone in isolated disciplines. It is thus much more likely that students will have the necessary skills in place for success at the next level.

Like many teachers, I have often had to endure listening to the truism the "schools don't prepare people for the real world." In point of fact, though, schools exist in the real world and are populated with real people living real lives. If we are able to collaborate and coordinate with each other in support of the girls who attend our school, integrating our curricula and helping students develop their skills in appropriate contexts, we will be able to go beyond preparing people for the real world or even mimicking the real world. We will be able to allow our schools - and most importantly, our students - to reach their potential.

Posted at 10:38 pm by bill01370
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Feb 12, 2005
This We Believe - 2

Successful schools for young adolescents are characterized by a culture that includes courageous, collaborative leadership.
- "This We Believe," National Middle School Association

"Courageous, collaborative leadership" is one of the most obvious elements of the middle school model. At the same time, it is an elusive concept, hard to pin down. Jim Paterson says in his featured online article from NMSA's publication "Middle Ground" (which can be read at http://www.nmsa.org/services/middle_ground/mg_feb2005.htm), "There isn't a single shining example that defines it, exemplifies it, or provides the perfect model." Perhaps, just as one's life is ultimately defined by the sum of one's actions, courageous, collaborative leadership can best be defined by a series of examples.

On the MiddleWeb listserv recently, listmembers have been sharing "points of joy" - small but significant moments from each of our days. Two dominant themes have been running through these postings: times when they see their students taking control of their own learning and pushing forward out of a sense of internal motivation, and times when former students they never knew they touched return to let them know what a difference they made. Such teachers are almost invariably the ones who have the courage to reflect on their own practices and make changes where needed, and ultimately to live by their convictions, even in the face of criticism. They truly reflect what Jim Paterson calls "the essence of educators."

At Stoneleigh-Burnham, the fact that we are a girls school by design infuses every aspect of the school. The importance of connectedness to girls and woman can lead to a different leadership style than the traditional model, one that values a wealth of voices and input. This may happen at an administrative level, as when Martha Shepardson-Killam created an "Enrollment Committee" of over a dozen people to plan for the new middle school program, or at the classroom level, when a teacher asks a class what is the significance of a passage with genuine interest in the students' responses and not as a tool to bring students to a pre-determined answer. Of course, there needs to be some check, for collaboration without direction can lead to chaos, as in the wry observation that "A platypus is a duck designed by a committee." Leadership does require keeping a school and all its members on track, true to the mission of the community. In the case of Stoneleigh-Burnham's middle school program, it means remaining true to all 14 principles of "This We Believe," especially as they lead to the development of confidence, competence, and connectedness.

Posted at 10:45 pm by bill01370
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Feb 6, 2005
This We Believe - 1

Beginning this week, in connection with the National Middle School Association grant, we will be including weekly reflections in our parent newsletters on the 14 principles of "This We Believe," which are of course also the purposes and objectives of the middle school at Stoneleigh-Burnham. We will be considering them in the order in which they are presented, beginning with the characteristic aspects of school culture and continuing with what schools need to be providing according to the middle school model.

Successful middle schools are characterized by a culture that includes educators who value working with this age group and are prepared to do so.
- "This We Believe," National Middle School Association

One day, while I was in grad school studying for my M.A.T., I decided to return to my old junior high school in Amherst. One of my all-time favourite teachers still worked there, and I wanted to stop by and say "hi" and let him know I was going into the profession; I still wanted to make him proud and couldn't imagine a better way to do so. While I was waiting for him to get out of class, I was talking to one of the other teachers, and mentioned I was getting my teaching degree. To my horror, rather than smiling and congratulating me, his whole demeanor changed, and he snarled, "You think you want to go into teaching, just wait a few minutes. You'll change your mind." I didn't have to wonder long what he meant, for a moment later the bell rang and the volume level instantly became deafening as many hundreds of 7th, 8th and 9th graders filled the corridor, pushing past each other and running in every direction for their lockers so they could grab their things and go home. It was utter chaos. It also cemented my desire to go into teaching. I wasn't so far removed from being one of those kids who couldn't wait to get on with the next part of my life; my sympathies were all with them. The profession, I thought to myself, needs people who actually like kids.

Research shows, and for most teachers experience confirms, that early adolescents, perhaps more than any other age group, need to feel emotional connections in order to be able to learn effectively. They need to feel those connections with their teachers, and with their peers. That tendency, as JoAnn Deak's research shows, is especially strong with girls. But the NMSA goes deeper than just "liking" kids; educators must "value" them. That means not only liking them, but also believing in them, in their intrinsic self-worth, in their myriad possibilities, in their ability to set and achieve high standards. It also means holding them to those standards, caring enough about them not to let them fall short of their potential. Too often, middle schools are staffed by displaced high school teachers who complain that "these kids are just too immature" or by displaced elementary school teachers who complain about occasional natural adolescent self-absorption. Other displaced teachers, however, are able to focus on wh o these kids really are and what they really need. These teachers will be successful. One of the keys to working with middle school kids, as Chris Toy communicated to you all earlier in the year, is to enjoy living in their world.

The National Middle School Association also speaks of teachers being "prepared" to value this age group. One function of this statement, no doubt, is to convince national, state and local legislators to treat young adolescents as an important and distinct group. Too many states still offer the choice of K-8 or 7-12 licensure, lumping young adolescents either with the elementary school kids they no longer are, or with the high school kids they are not yet. Another function is to make a similar appeal to colleges and universities to train middle school teachers to work specifically with that age group. However, once teachers are trained and licensed, they have a moral obligation to the profession not to become a living time capsule of educational theories. They need to seek, accept and evaluate feedback on their own teaching. They need to keep up with the field by attending conferences, reading professional journals, and joining educational listservs. In this way, the high quality middle school teacher is prep ared to meet the relatively constant needs of young adolescents with an ever-growing base of knowledge and an understanding of the ever-changing context in which these people are growing up. That is each individual teacher's responsibility, to themselves and to their students.

Posted at 11:39 pm by bill01370
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Jan 19, 2005
School is supposed to be fun, isn't it?

"School is supposed to be fun, isn't it?"
– Ed Garcia, Principal

In Juli Kendall's latest entry in her MiddleWeb diary, she describes life under her new principal, Ed Garcia. When he took the position, he got on the phone and made a personal phone call to everyone in the school. The teachers found handmade bookmarks and personal, handwritten notes in their boxes before the opening of school. Staff meetings have been renamed "Staff Development Meetings," and Mr. Garcia models mini-lessons about teaching Writers' Workshop. He also provides bottles of water and chocolate. He reads to students over the PA system, he makes sure to visit classes when the kids are making presentations and he writes comments to them, he's wearing shirts and jackets with the school logo, and school morale has never been higher. It's even more exciting to read in Juli's words: http://www.middleweb.com/mw/workshop/jkjournal/jk13.html

This is where – once again! – I feel tremendously lucky. When Martha Shepardson-Killam took the position of Head of Stoneleigh-Burnham School, she scheduled time to sit with absolutely every employee of the school and talk about our perceptions of the school. She also met with students and parents, and continues to do so on a regular basis. Just today, her assistant emailed all the kids in the middle school setting appointments for them to come sit and talk with her over the next few weeks. She, along with many of our administrators, regularly takes the time to send handwritten notes, sometimes even flowers, after special events. She, along with many of our administrators, recognizes the importance of food (especially chocolate) to meetings. She, along with many of our administrators, goes out of her way to see what the kids are doing, in the classroom, on teams, at the barn, in performance... you name it. And, yes, many of our administrators wear clothing with our school logo! In other words, I have the privilege of working with a great many people who have a lot in common with Ed Garcia.

And of course, in this atmosphere, it's not just the teachers who benefit. Kids get into the spirit too. Yesterday, we had visitors for an Admissions Open House, and my Humanities class presented short scenes from Act 2 of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that showed enthusiasm, emotion, creativity, spontaneity, and energy. (They also showed that these kids really understand the characters and really understand the mood of the play, not just a random by-product.) Today, when I was trying to present to them their next major class project (creating a movie trailer for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with the kids playing the roles of Casting Director, Scenery and Costume Designer, Historian, Publicist and Director), they were so excited to get started they kept interrupting me during my presentation to ask if they could start NOW! PLEASE! that I finally had to, smilingly but firmly, point out that I would never get through my presentation if they kept interrupting me. Once they got going, they worked - once again! - past the formal end of class without anyone noticing or complaining. No one has to tell them learning can be fun!

Juli ends her diary entry by stating:
"It's a revolutionary thought, this idea that school is supposed to be fun, but it seems to be working. Teachers are more excited than ever about teaching and students are fully engaged in the learning process. And what's Ed saying to all of this? "I love these kids. They're the best!" Now that's an Instructional Leader!"
To which I say: hear hear.

Posted at 10:15 pm by bill01370
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Jan 11, 2005
"The People Whisperers"

The other day on MiddleWeb, Alayne Armstrong submitted the following posting:


From an interesting article on Slate's website about an aspect of teaching that isn't often discussed: how well do you "read" your students, and then, how do you act on this:

"We often have the notion in our culture that the Great Teacher is a Great Communicator: the enthralling evangelist, the mesmerizing orator. Of course, being able to communicate powerfully is vital to effective teaching. But it is still secondary. What separates good from great, across professions and domains, is the ability to receive before you transmit."

"The People Whisperers. What a Hollywood acting coach taught me about teaching."


What do you think?


First, a little personal background. My father has done extensive work in "Basic Attending Skills" (that's the title of his second book), so I have long been interested in the idea of how best to listen and more generally how best to receive messages of all sorts. Furthermore, since taking two Semiotics courses on a Junior Year Abroad at the Universite de Paris X - Nanterre, I have been fascinated by the idea that when a message exists in some undefinable form in some being's brain, that being may choose various means by which to communicate the idea, following which these attempts at communication are received and interpreted by a second being and translated back into a message which now exists in some undefinable form in a second brain. To my 19-year-old mind, it seemed a miracle that anyone communicated at all under these circumstances. The importance of my Dad's idea of periodically checking one's comprehension now took on added significance.

With these ideas floating around in my brain, and (I confess, it's true) hooked by the title of the article, I went to the website to read it through start to finish. To my surprise, the parts of the article which most intrigued me didn't have to do with communication per se, but more with motivations behind communication. Here is the quote which stuck out in my mind:

"Teachers like Ivana Chubbuck are not just picking up a student's vibes and following them blindly; they have a distinct point of view to impart, a method to pass on and a goal to achieve. They manipulate. And that's not inherently a bad thing. When you think about it, every act of teaching is a kind of manipulation. We hope—we trust —that the manipulation is well-meant, guiding us to discovery and to a clearer sense of our own voice. But ultimately, we can be sure of that only by trying, by entering into the apprenticeship."

This idea of teaching as manipulation has always fascinated me. My school is built on the ideal that girls should be absolutely true to themselves and find/develop their own unique voice, so we tend to attract girls who come from families that value that ideal and/or who value that ideal themselves. Along with that, our school advocates firmly for tolerance and respect - one may believe what one wishes, but one may not act on those beliefs in a way that diminishes the humanity of anybody else. That perspective could be considered well-meant manipulation. (It could also be considered a necessity and a bedrock principle of civilized society.) Even the act of reading through a draft of a student's work and offering suggestions could be seen as well-meant manipulation. Once the suggestions are offered, the student will no longer look at this specific work as she did before, and perhaps will even have permanently changed her views on some aspect of the writing process. Is that bad? Of course not? As teachers, we have to begin by recognizing there's no way around this idea of teaching as manipulation, and always be on our guard that we are acting in our students' best interests.

Not surprisingly, I think my students understand this idea of teaching as manipulation at some intuitive level - two of the kids, during the presidential campaign, were convinced I was voting Republican (I think this is because I kept intervening whenever the six strong-voiced Democrats in the class were starting to overwhelm the two vocal Republicans) and asked me if I would be offended if they went and found some other adult "who agrees with us" to offer suggestions for revision. I asked them to trust me to be fair-minded in my suggestions, and they were willing to take that leap of faith. Hopefully, they felt their trust was well-placed. Certainly they seemed to feel that my suggestions were honestly useful, and confined to logic and organization rather than pure content. They did make the changes, and it did make their point stronger.

I'll be interested to see where this discussion goes on MiddleWeb - if the thread just sort of trails out, or if it sparks a longer, deeper, more philosophical discussion. In the meantime, it has given me the chance to renew my commitment to always act in the knowledge that teaching other people's children is a sacred trust. I never really did get around to writing a "New Year's Resolution" posting. This will serve for the time being!

Posted at 10:20 am by bill01370
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Jan 10, 2005
Philsophical Reflection

It is around midterm, and I've been working on developing a curriculum map for the rest of the year, to be sure I touch on all the necessary standards by June. In the process, I was moved to think about the research and philosophies behind my teaching, and found myself writing a fairly detailed description as if I were trying to explain them to someone who may be unfamiliar with these kinds of teaching practices. I have decided to share it here.
The fundamental philosophy of my course is based on the work of Dr. Stephen Krashen. His writings point very strongly to one simple yet counterintuitive conclusion: in order to build reading skills, vocabulary, spelling, grammar and even writing skills, there is no better method than what he calls "FVR" for Free Voluntary Reading. This point of view is based on an extensive review and analysis of all available research, and as his body of work goes back more than twenty years we are looking at the net result of a great many studies. This is why my students have free reading not only as a part of the overall middle school program, but also as a specific part of Humanities. Following the Readers Workshop model, the Readers Response Journals are in important part of this program, and serve as a check on how much the kids are reading on their own and what they are reading, how they are thinking about what they are reading, and also a way to get them to get each other excited about specific books. I have written responses back to the kids on each of their RRJ entries, and am succeeding in getting most all of them to think at a deeper level than just plot summaries. One of the 8th graders, for example, has begun looking at specific writing techniques, and wrote in her most recent RRJ entry "I like how Lemony Snicket writes using lots of analogies and using exotic words to explain things. I love how his books make kids want to read and how in each of his new books something new happens each time. I’ll keep you updated on the chapters to come and the whereabouts of The Sugar Bowl."

The kids told me directly in the early weeks of the year that they also wanted to spend more time discussing books "out loud," and this desire of theirs is also in fact supported by research. Beyond advocating for the reading of a wide diversity of texts in print, visual and electronic media, the National Council of Teachers of English also recommends that students have a chance for conversations and discussions. Moreover, the work of Dr. JoAnn Deak suggests that girls learn best when interacting with other people. Therefore, I stepped up the pace of discussions when the students began their second book. However, in order to achieve peak student interest and motivation and approximate Dr. Krashen's "FVR" concept even when holding whole-class discussions, I wanted the girls to have a say in what they read. This is why I took a series of surveys looking for common interests and choices, and when I passed out the sheet of paper announcing book groups through the end of the year, there was not a single complaint. There were, however, pumped fists, leaping for joy, shouts of "Yes! I get to read ****!" and the like. That is the kind of motivation I expect from all the girls, not just those who entered my classroom excited about reading, and I was delighted to feel I had achieved it.

A few more thoughts about reading. Through much of the fall term, students would bring in poetry to share with the class, and I would always offer them the opportunity to react to each poem (if it was one the girl herself had written, I would make sure she was comfortable before asking for reactions). Again, motivation was high - most of the girls brought in extra poems over the minimum required, and indeed would often beg to read additional poems on days which had not been assigned to them. However, my secret agenda in these discussions was to evaluate what reading strategies the girls were already able to use. One of the landmark texts in the profession, cited by the NCTE on their website as fundamental to the development of adolescent literacy, is Mosaic of Thought, a book whose authors carried out a comprehensive review of research to determine the common strategies used by all good readers. There are eight such strategies, and I was delighted to see that each strategy emerged spontaneously in the girls' discussions. As I discussed with Jennifer Chylack, who is the English Department Chair at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, my next step is to ensure that all the girls know how to use all these strategies. We are addressing five of them in our discussions on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," both in class and through the online bulletin Board we are sharing with two other classes: text-self connections, text-text connections, text-world connections, questioning and predicting. All of this will be reinforced and expanded as we go through the winter and spring terms in the hopes of achieving the goal of having all 10 girls be fully aware of how they think and how they use these strategies.

I'd now like to turn my attention to writing skills. Here, I am taking as my touchstone text In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, often cited as the number one reference text for teachers of writing. Ms. Atwell advocates a "Writer's Workshop" approach wherein students are encouraged to write in a variety of genres. Students work on the process of writing (drafting, revising, editing and publishing) through self-initiated pieces of writing, sharing their work with each other, having conferences with the teacher, and ultimately determining that a piece has reached final draft status. Thus far, the girls have written in the genres of poetry, letters to the editor, a choice of persuasive speech or persuasive essay, poetry criticism, and informational brochures. Over the rest of the year, I will also be assigning writing topics in the genres of essay, research article/memoir, and script. Beyond these assignments, each girl may use "free writing time" to accomplish additional work in any of these genres, or alternatively to broaden the range of genres in which she has written.

I want to touch on another concept which is also woven into my Humanities course. In several of the professional journals which I receive, notably from the National Middle School Association and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, I have learned that these organizations (among others) are acutely aware that the world in which these young people are living is very different from our own, and that the concept of literacy needs to be extended beyond just traditional reading and writing literacy. Students now need to be a home with a wide variety of forms of communication, and that is why the list of standards I compiled during the four months I spent researching the topic includes not just the printed word, but also speeches and debates, webpages, power points, the visual arts, and theater. I deeply believe it is in the best interest of our students to develop these multiple literacies, based on my own instincts as well as what I am reading in the field.
It continues to fascinate me to what degree reflective writing can help my teaching - keep my focused, give me a reality check, help me move forward. The next entry here is going to touch on a recent conversation on MiddleWeb about teaching as manipulation, and my reflections on that topic.

Posted at 11:13 pm by bill01370
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Dec 13, 2004
A Time and a Place for a Jackson Pollock Approach

It was a tough day, one of those days where you ask your Spanish class “Como estas?” and they all respond at best “Asi asi” (so-so) and more commonly “Mal” or “Muy mal.” The student who was supposed to bring in the game that the afternoon’s community service group would play with the 3rd to 5th graders at Federal Street Elementary School forgot, and we had to scramble to get together a backup plan. That afternoon, driving to the school, everyone was a little fed up. One of the girls asked if she could get out of community service altogether for the remainder of the term (through March), and all the others said they wanted to drop this activity and do something else. Frazzled and tired, I was maybe a little snippier than usual in replying that no, under no circumstances would we waive the community service requirement, but on the other hand I was inclined to agree that it was getting to be time to find another site at which we could work. When we arrived at the school, the girls went and hid in front of the bus, and I wondered for a fleeting moment how hard I would have to work to get them physically in the building.

As we walked down the hall toward the classroom where the older children had their after-school program, we saw them streaming in from some outside activity. Often, kids coming in from recess tend to drag their heels somewhat, but these kids were moving unusually rapidly. As they saw us walking down the hall, their eyes lit up, and they whipped off their coats and sat down promptly at the hexagonal tables in the classroom to see what we had planned for them today.

We introduced the unfamiliar girls (who had been upstairs working with the younger children up until today), and explained that we were going to help them fabric paint their own t-shirt. Their teacher suggested we move to the art room, where they were soon running back and forth from t-shirt to t-shirt, checking each other’s progress, getting new ideas, sharing squeeze bottles of paint, while my students and I circulated to offer encouragement and help find the ever-elusive yellow neon glow-in-the-dark paint bottle. One of the parents, arriving to pick up her son, stayed to watch for a bit, and softly thanked us for coming, saying “This is so great,” and Kirsten, the teacher, was positively beaming. One of the younger girls had taken a Jackson Pollock approach to her t-shirt, and impulsively folded it over on itself and pressed it together, producing an amazing and unexpected work of art, and all the kids were pleased and happy with their results. Once all the t-shirts were finished, we headed to the gym for the now-ritual game of capture the flag, and rather than moving excruciating slowly as they sometimes do, the hands of the clock flew around to 5:15 before we knew it.

As we raced each other back to the bus, the girls looked back and, touched, told me that all the kids were staring out the window watching us leave. After a quick game of “hide from the teacher” in the parking lot that probably wasn’t, in retrospect, the best role-modeling we could have done, we got on the bus and headed back to SBS. The girls rocked with laughter as I, yet again, cut the corner too tightly and the right rear tire bounced on the curb. “Did you want me to hit that pedestrian?” I asked. “There was no pedestrian” they teased. A few moments later, the bus became silent, and I observed “You know, if ever we were looking for a sign that we really are making a difference in these kids’ lives and that it matters very deeply that we come every week, today was that sign.” No one argued the point.

I’m sure there will be other discouraging days, just as there will be other fun days. But next time, we will have the lesson of today to draw on to help get ourselves through the discouragement and focus on what service is supposed to be all about.

Posted at 11:27 pm by bill01370
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Dec 10, 2004
article from a parent newsletter

This week, as we near the figurative midpoint of the year, it seems appropriate to present the results of the priorities set by those parents in attendance at the "This We Believe" meeting last October. We have tried to bundle together specific statements which share a common theme, and have grouped all the statements into six more general topics.

Self-Esteem (18)
Challenge and support her belief in her own abilities; For her to be sure of herself and able to believe she is special; Continue to trust her uniqueness (13) Give her what she needs and encourage her to see her power; Knowledge of her own empowerment (3) To not be fearful (2)

Academics and Academic Skills (14)
Academic level that is challenging and interesting (6) To develop her writing abilities -> putting what's in her mind on the page; Teach her to review, edit and revise her writing (5) Stimulate both a creative and analytical approach (3)

Social Skills (7)
For the girls to work together and accept each other (4) Social/global awareness (1) Encourage her sense of community and value in "social justice" work (1) Enjoy the life-long learning experience and enjoy life (1)

Passion for Learning (6)
Remain passionate and excited about learning; Engage and prompt her love of learning; Continued enthusiasm about acquiring knowledge and process of learning (6)

Preparation for the Future (3)
Prepare for more rigorous academics (2) Be prepared to handle 9th grade anywhere - communication, organization, logic (1)

Multiple Categories (1)
To challenge her intellectually, imaginatively and soulfully (1)

One is struck, in looking through these opinions, with how thoroughly they are interrelated. With girls in particular, self-esteem and a sense of community are equally important to their academic success as a program which is challenging intellectually, imaginatively and soulfully; when these factors are combined, girls thrive and develop their inborn passion for learning and in so doing prepare for the future. Similarly, the different aspects and programs of our middle school must work together and build on each other in a holistic fashion. The middle school model developed by the National Middle School Association and adopted by Stoneleigh-Burnham is uniquely suited to this holistic approach to working with young adolescents. We thank you parents for sharing this vision for your daughters, and for your own energy, enthusiasm, and faith in the school, and we look forward to continuing to work together in partnership for the benefit of these wonderful girls.

Posted at 11:36 pm by bill01370
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Nov 19, 2004
Not an Almost

Thus far, poetry has been a part of nearly every day of Humanities class. Even when the presidential campaign and our discussions thereof were at their most heated, we would take turns at the beginning of the day to share poetry with each other. Sometimes the girls would read their own work, sometimes that of published poets. As often as not, someone would say “I brought in some poems too – can I read them?” and on such occasions, unless there was other pressing business, we would sometimes read and talk for a half-hour or more. There was delightful variety, from Shel Silverstein to Emily Dickinson to Robert Frost to Sylvia Plath, and many more.

In this atmosphere, it was easy for the girls to be excited about writing poetry. On an almost daily basis, at least one student would ask me to be sure to leave class time for “free writing” as they came to call it. Some days, the room would be silent but for the soft sounds of tapping fingers; other days, it would be alive with activity as students ran to print out their latest creations and share them with friends, went looking for inspiration to classmates, books, or the view out over the school grounds to Poet’s Seat Tower, or called me over to check out their progress. On more than one occasion, more than one student asked if she could work into break, or stop break early to get back to work. They were writing for the pure thrill of writing, of having an idea worth sharing and people to share it with, and they were loving it. For me, one afternoon in Reading period crystallizes the experience. On this day, Alicia interrupted to say with some urgency that a poem had just formed itself in her head and she needed to write it down immediately before she forgot. I said that was fine, and periodically over the next fifteen minutes, one student or another would lift her head to check Alicia’s progress. Finally, she said “I’m done!” and passed it around for all of us to read, and the “I love it”s and “That’s really good”s carried even more emphasis than usual.

So I was somewhat surprised when it came time for the girls to officially hand in their first poem, as there was far more than the usual level of angst and anxiety. As I tried to guide them through the design of a rubric with which to evaluate poetry, I encountered stubborn resistance to the idea that poetry should be graded. Through the class period, I came to believe that their pride of ownership was so strong, their poems so idiosyncratic and personal that they felt any attempt to grade them would be like taking apart some marvelous toy to see how it works and finding the magic gone. In an attempt to create some sort of objective standard yet retain each poet’s dignity and authority, the final poetry rubric they agreed on includes “Author’s intent” as a topic, and within other topics criteria like “Unity of ideas and purpose (if there is a purpose)” and “If a form is chosen, adheres well to form.” Even within the topic of “Mechanics,” they deferred to the individual poet’s ultimate authority, listing as the second criterion “Spelling, mechanics match author’s intent.” This rubric would allow for an unbelievable variety of form and voice, yet require each girl to have some sort of rational explanation for what she had written.

All their experience sharing, reading, writing, listening to and discussing poetry coalesced Monday night in the First Annual Poetry Slam. More of a traditional reading than a true Slam, the evening featured all ten girls reading from one to seven of their poems, with some choosing to supplement their own work with that of published poets. It had much of the feel of our morning read-alouds, where the enthusiasm of many girls caused them to read “just one more” poem. One student wrote a new poem that afternoon and included it that evening. The topics ranged from wanting to see a moose, to death, to friendship, to the impermanence of chalkboard writing, to standing up for yourself… almost as many topics as there were poems. The students’ voices rang out with strength and clarity and the same uncompromising pride of ownership they had brought to our poetry rubric design. One of the last two poems presented, written by Kate, ended with this line which sums up the evening, the poetry unit, and, in a way, our whole fall term:

“And this is not an almost.”

Posted at 05:41 am by bill01370
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Nov 11, 2004
Setting Literary Goals

When first asked to place book orders for the Humanities course last spring, I was not a little daunted. How, I wondered, can I pick out books until I’ve met the kids, until I know their reading tastes and interests and levels? But I knew it was really important to have a book chosen to start the year, and so after a great deal of thought I settled on Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry. Kira, the book’s main character, was roughly the age of my students, she was strong and self-sufficient, and there were plenty of opportunities to discuss what makes a community and what is each individual 's responsibility to contribute, perfect for a group of girls who would be founding a new community from scratch.

But things don’t always work out as planned, and there always seemed to be one or more pressing needs that kept pushing Gathering Blue discussions back a day. The girls, normally excited about this class, were becoming increasingly upset about this one issue. So, when they finally finished the book, I threw myself into generating questions that would stimulate a really fun, interesting, thought-provoking discussion that would set a good tone for the next book. And, in truth, they did enjoy themselves, with one group asking if they could continue their discussion longer than planned. A number of insights emerged from those discussions, including theories on what the "blue" of the title might symbolize.

However, before we got to that point, we had another one of those community discussions that are periodically needed in this "Founders Program" year to help shape the future direction of the middle school. Everyone, me included, readily agreed that I needed to commit the class to regular discussion of our next book regardless of distractions. From this point, two groups began to dominate the discussion. One group felt very strongly that school is about students doing what they’re told to do, that they needed to work hard this year to make sure they were ready for next year, and that my telling them what to do was the best way to be prepared. The other group felt equally strongly that school might well be about students doing what they’re told to do, usually, but if I was willing to "let them have fun," they might as well take the chance while it was offered. The first group felt all class discussions should be held with assigned books in one large group, basically a traditional classroom model, while the second group felt all class discussions should be held with student-choice books in a series of small groups, something like the Literature Circle model. When it came time to vote, three students voted for the traditional classroom model, six students voted for the Literature Circle model, and one lone student voted for a mix of the two. I had retained my teacher’s right to interpret their vote as I saw fit, and I decided that we would alternate one full-class book, with two small-group books, roughly reflecting the balance of opinions in the class. Everyone seemed comfortable with that decision.

So, following two days of surveys, student suggestions, and time spent choosing from the long, long booklists I had generated over the summer, it looks like the next books will be The Theban Mysteries by Amanda Cross, read by two small groups, and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, read by a third small group. Of course, the day after they completed the surveys, they walked into class asking if the books were in yet. I told them that I hadn’t even had a chance to order them yet, particularly as one student had been absent and hadn't had a chance yet to complete the survey, but what I really wanted to do was perform a celebratory dance. Their inquisitive spirits were still alive, and perhaps even more so than if everything had gone smoothly with the first book. Now, the goals and the method of reaching those goals were truly theirs.

Posted at 06:10 am by bill01370
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