RIGOROUS EDUCATION FOR DEEP THINKERS AND CREATIVE SPIRITS. PRESCHOOL-8TH GRADE. EST. 1981
February 27, 2018
A Consortium of Independent Schools of Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont
February 27, 2018
As the country reels from the recent tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (one of 18 school shootings in 2018) we, Heads of Schools at independent schools throughout Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont, join the voices calling for swift and permanent legislative action to keep our students and all students safe from gun violence. Our students, teachers, staff, and their families should count on that as a right.
To that end, we vow to support and empower the students, parents, teachers, and staff members who have joined the nationwide movement calling for stricter gun laws. Moreover, we join them in their outrage. The abject terror and grief that each of the recent shootings has caused, the loss of innocent lives, the levels of fear and frustration climbing in our own communities and in the country as a whole, cause us to boldly demand that our representatives take meaningful action to prevent further tragedies from occurring.
We call upon you to have the courage to step up and keep every single child, in every city, village and neighborhood school safe from being shot. We call upon you to be the moral compass by which we are able to continue to set the course for these children.We call upon you to take action toward stricter gun laws now.
Heads of School
Brian Bloomfield, Academy at Charlemont
Melissa Earls, Academy Hill School
Christopher Wilson, The Bement School
Isabel Spencer, The Center School
Christine Lindeman, The Common School
Nick Perry, The Grammar School
Caryl Frankenburger, The Greenwood School
Tamara Mount, Hilltop Montessori School
John Friends and Heather Leeds, Full Circle School
Ellen Frank and Deborah Bromberg Seltzer, Lander Grinspoon Academy
Sue Wells, Pine Cobble School
Margaret Bagge, Pioneer Valley Montessori School
Sally Mixsell, Stoneleigh-Burnham School
On this unique evening that brings together our adult Center School community each year, I like to take a moment to share something I’m thinking about, relating to the work of educating and raising our children.
Of course, with all that’s going on in the world right now, maybe creeping into our children’s lives: wildfires, hate, earthquakes, addiction, death, fake news, climate change, racism, cynicism, depression, anxiety… yikes! You get it… we feel this almost primal urge to just comfort and hunker on down.
Yet, when I really think about how we might shore our kids up, prepare them to cope, to manage, to be resilient in this sometimes brutal world, really, we need to make sure they are just plain STURDY.
As a progressive school we believe that kids learn best through experience and testing things out for themselves. So, the irony is that in order to shore them up, we need to simultaneously step back a bit. I will admit, that being needed, protecting my kids, by huddling up, while the world is in shambles is tempting, but Kahlil Gibran’s famous poem The Prophet suggests we consider, instead, that:
Your children are not your children…
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
Kids have mistakes to make, and fears to face, and we need to let them so that they can seize those tomorrows. They need practice solving problems. You know… like: “Mom’s busy, I’m hungry– I can make a piece of toast!” “The dog’s eating all the shoes— I’ll walk the dog!” “Dad’s lost his keys again: I can help him find them.”
Above all, as counter intuitive as it may sometimes feel to me, we must make sure our Center Schoolers are able to tolerate some discomfort in order to achieve a goal or to help someone else. Let’s face it, memorizing math facts is hard, waiting for a turn is hard, sharing a toy, practicing guitar or gymnastics, standing up to a bully, or doing homework can be downright painful. But they CAN do it! Trust me!
October 2, 2017
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
I am looking for the Fred Rogers piece on “looking for the helpers” (AGAIN) after the news begins to sink in this morning. At least 58 dead and over 400 injured, the largest mass shooting in recent US history. I realize I practically have Mr. Rogers’ advice memorized; we don’t have to dust off the directions on how to talk to kids about today’s atrocities, because these shootings just keep coming. On the heels of all the hurricanes too, we are just all too prepared to know what to say to our children. Except we don’t really. How many tears can we cry in front of them before they’ll feel terrified?
With our government in its alarmingly constant state of gridlock, distraction, and despicably infantile tweets, suggesting that a way to feel hopeful and to make change could be to write a letter to your elected official feels woefully inadequate.
In my feeling of helplessness, there is a spark of fierce protectiveness that is burning bright and it’s from that place this piece of advice emerges: because of the worrisome things Trump is saying and doing each day (especially with regard to North Korea, but really no subject or group is safe) I think it is essential to monitor what you let your children listen to or watch in terms of news coverage. Mr. T is just so unfiltered, which can make kids: 1) be afraid that something like a nuclear attack could happen in the blink of an eye, 2) think that snap judgments and nasty quips are acceptable forms of leadership, 3) decide that they think they “hate” Mr. Trump or others because that is the tone that’s being set.
By the time children are in middle school I believe they can, with adult support, read and listen to the news and make sense of it. In fact, having regular opportunities to analyze and discuss current events (in developmentally appropriate formats) is recommended for children beginning around age 11. Earlier than that, most kids don’t have the firm foundation of logical reasoning that enables them to parse and compartmentalize disturbing events, especially extreme violence. Of course, sometimes the news or event (such as today’s) is so pervasive that it may be unavoidable in which case calling on the Mr. Rogers in all of us is a great idea. The bottom line is, limit your child’s exposure to violent, disturbing news they have no control over.
May 1, 2017
Amusing Ourselves to Death?
Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes I want to pull the covers up over my head and avoid the daily grind. Sometimes I wish I could just watch Netflix or look at Facebook and leave the dishes in the sink.
I was reading an editorial in the Guardian the other day by the son of Neil Postman, media critic. Postman coined the phrase “amusing ourselves to death.” Here’s a quote from his book of the same title: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
Postman’s son knows his dad’s words have special relevance today. His editorial goes on to talk about the way in which the “lightning speed” of media can really inhibit the possibility of historical context, and our urge to use it. We are moving so fast, we don’t have to back up what we say, we can just say it forcefully and people will be impressed; they will misrecognize memes for discourse.
Sometimes I want to read only headlines. Sometimes I just want to just spout the party line. Sometimes I feel like if there was no Google I wouldn’t remember a G-D thing.
Postman Jr. writes, “For all the ways one can define fascism (and there are many), one essential trait is its allegiance to no idea of right but its own: it is, in short, ideological narcissism.” He suggests that in our current situation, where the average American adult has 74 hours of screen time, we are getting better and better at surrounding ourselves with amusements, and isolating our opinions and ideas. We do not look for common ground– we look for like minds.
His conclusion is that we need to make sure our young people are taught from a very young age to look for more than one source for their information, to make up their minds based on research and understanding; to learn to verify their information by using credible sources. I would argue that that also requires talking to people who may not agree with you. And in doing so, not policing their arguments but instead articulating eloquently your own position.
Sometimes I wish people could read my mind and I wouldn’t have to write things down. I wish I could play or bake cookies, and never have to face all the pain in the world or do what’s hard for me. Hard things are boring.
These days, I find myself talking a lot with parents and Center School teachers about how to make sure we are helping our kids confront what’s hard, tough it out, and be brave. I don’t mean simply when it comes to climbing a wall at the Rock Gym, performing on stage, or speaking up in class, although those are all very important. The Center School is, I believe, very good at encouraging “appropriate risk.” I’m more focused on the idea that kids should tough out the mundane or not so fun parts of their day. Even though we are a progressive school with child-led, play as learning, as our creed, children should be taught that there are aspects of the everyday that, (without applying practice and/or realism) are by their nature less appealing. And yet they must be done. Memorizing math facts, Spanish verbs, or play lines, come to mind. Writing thank you notes, topic sentences, research papers, writing down your homework, these things can feel like drudgery. How about (dun, dun, DUN!) unpacking your lunch box, putting away laundry, changing the cat tray? Even at the magical Center School or in the homes of magical Center School families, the less exciting, not-favorite things have to get done. Discomfort is a significant part of being human. Teaching kids this may be a radical move towards more nuanced, sturdy, competent kids. Do I sound like one of those Facebook articles? Do you already know all this? Feel free to write to me with your feedback. I love hearing from you. firstname.lastname@example.org
Wow! It feels so good when I finish something that wasn’t my first choice. This letter for the blog is done! That was hard. Now off to finish reading the New Yorker piece on Trump’s first 100 days. I need to have evidence to back up my sweeping statements that he is a liar. It will take some time to digest all those tiny words and not just read the cartoons, but I can do it!
March 29, 2017
Next Monday-Wednesday I will be away visiting an AISNE member school as the chair of their reaccreditation committee. The School is Cambridge Friends, which is a a little bigger than we are, but same grade span. I’m honored to have the opportunity to see their school in action. As a Quaker School their mission includes social justice and the celebration of each child, which is similar to ours. In reading their Self Study document I was particularly moved by the way that their spiritual practice makes its way into their pedagogy. According to Quaker beliefs, there is an inner light that resides in each of us and that represents truth, God, love, goodness. Cambridge Friends speaks of ‘holding its students and community members in the light’ which I interpret as steadfast belief in children and families. When we ‘hold children in the light’ we are seeing them through good times and bad, challenges and strengths, we are there for them when they are easy and when they are hard to manage. We never stop seeing their intrinsic worth and beauty; even when it’s really, really hard.
While I am away, Amanda, Jane, Mike, Sarah N-D, Veronica, and the rest of the staff will lovingly hold the fort. What a team we have! I feel so lucky.
Have a great week.
March 13, 2017
Back in the 90’s when my wife Becky and I began our committed relationship I was living in New York City and she was still living in London where we first met. We were a long distance couple. Then she decided to move to the States to be with me. It was quite romantic; we had a tiny studio apartment in Chelsea, and in the tiny studio we had a bed, a sofa, a small cafe table and two chairs, a view of a deliciously fragrant and diaphanous Mimosa tree, and two (not so deliciously fragrant) cats. What we didn’t have was a way for Becky to stay in the country. Though not the marrying kind, we would have considered it (despite our feminist spirits), except that marriage was SO not an option for us (in legal terms).
I won’t go into the private particulars of the struggle we embarked upon to stay together in the same country. I cannot tell you the stress and worry and expense we underwent. Let’s just say, miraculously, we managed to keep Becky here and finally, years later to even have children and, yes, get married. That said, international LGBTQ partnerships still struggle with immigration rights today. And of course, at this time, so many immigrants of all backgrounds are facing systematized discrimination in the US and abroad.
I read recently about teachers who are managing the day to day stress and tears of their students whose families face deportation, due to our government’s recent increase in that practice. It sounds so hard and definitely not what children should have to worry about in school.
Personally and politically I am galvanizing myself to dig deep for renewed energy to work on making an inclusive school, town, and country that welcomes, celebrates, and protects immigrants. I am so inspired by those of you already diving in and doing great work in this regard. Thank you.
February 27, 2017
I hope you had a glorious break with your kids. There were certainly some gorgeous spring days to revel in!
One of the highlights of my week was going to see Dr. Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, a Center School alumni parent and professor at Smith College speak on a panel as part of the the annual UMass W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture, this year on Kara Walker’s artwork (showing now at UMass Museum of Contemporary Art). The show was amazing and devastating: a display of huge silhouettes depicting scenes of slavery in subversive and powerful ways. This exhibit has a lot of content exposing the sexual violence of slavery and what it means to be an African American woman with that horrific, inherited ancestral narrative. Therefore, it is not for children, however the question came up in the discussion with the panel afterwards about at what age the despicable details of slavery and racism can and should be taught. There were some folks in the room who said, what choice do we have, racism comes to black children anyway, others said yes but, we have a responsibility to teach children, both black and white, about powerful African Americans of today and yesterday and not depict everyone as hopeless victims first.
Most of the students in the audience said that they felt that their schools should have done more on the history of slavery, but at what age could not really be decided upon. All agreed that stories like from the film Hidden Figures could be taught very young. All agreed that by college, students should have a solid understanding of the history of slavery and racism in this country in order to dig deeper and in a more nuanced way in college.
My own white son said recently, that he wonders if he’d be racist if he had never been taught anything about racial stereotypes and discrimination. He felt as if it was the learning of that that made him “see race” and therefore sometimes discriminate involuntarily. I said I thought there was no choice for anyone to avoid race and racism, and that it is what you do with the knowledge that’s important.
But it brought be back to something Liz Pryor had said at her lecture; that she wished her students could “have already seen, but not have to go through seeing the Kara Walker show.” In other words, the act of viewing it was so painful and so triggering that the art bordered on glorifying and eroticizing the slavery Walker was seeking to expose and denounce. In experiencing the critique you join in the violence.
I was challenged and moved by the grappling and the struggle that I experienced that night. White people must face the horrors of slavery and racism and be willing to make change happen– they need to see that slavery and race define America. This continued when I went to see I am Not Your Negro, the film based on James Baldwin’s writing. I recommend the film and Walker’s show, to people looking for ways to address systemic racism. I leave you with a quote from Baldwin:
“The question you have got to ask yourself — the white population of this country has got to ask itself — North and South, because it’s one country, and for a Negro, there’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a [n-word] here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
February 14, 2017
14 things I Love About You
Valentine’s Day 2017
You play and learn at the same time.
You’d rather jump down, than walk down, the stairs.
You hold my hand when I least expect it.
You make impossibly genius things out of a bit of paper.
You want every single thing to be fair.
You’ll ask the lonely kid to play.
You giggle with abandon.
When you listen, it’s important.
You have mud on your pants/skirt/face.
The world is your oyster.
You love to be barefoot.
Being read to makes your face light up.
You will change the world.
PS I am full of love today. So, I can’t resist giving you more than one thing. Here’s a love poem I love for you:
[love is more thicker than forget]
by e.e. cummings
January 17, 2017
First may I say, if you didn’t get to read the message we sent out on Martin Luther King Jr Day celebrating his legacy, please do have a look. It includes a video of our children’s march, which took place on Friday. It was a breathtaking and hopeful moment in our week. That march was hands-on education in action! It was pretty magical!
Second, I will just say that sometimes in order to face the future, we find ourselves searching for things in the past to get us through. Nostalgia can be a motivator, not simply a comfort, because it moves us. It allows us to feel. From there we can (maybe) face what’s ahead.
With that premise in mind I have this to share today. It means just as much now as is did eight years ago this Friday. Maybe it means a lot more.
By Elizabeth Alexander
PS All of our Center School children have only known this one president. And so they have begun with a progressive understanding of what “President” means. That’s huge. Just think! They have only known a Black American president! Praise song for that.
October 17, 2016
You may not want to read this. I know you are done. Finished. Over. But in case you are wondering and haven’t found a good answer to the problem, I don’t want to leave you hanging.
On Friday morning at All School, grandparent Martha, who used to teach wellness and sex education at The Putney School, asked me what I was doing to support kids trying to make sense of the Republican presidential candidate’s latest transgression; children would clearly have questions about what he did, if they heard about it. She suggested a dialogue with Uppers about consent. I thought to myself, we do that work every year in our Body Ed curriculum, but that’s not happening yet. We are only in our first six weeks of school! So, I brought it to the teachers and we agreed that we should give parents some helpful resources. We also agreed that we would put a question box in Uppers where students could put their worries or concerns regarding the election. Of course, there’s lots for kids to be concerned about. The sexual assault issue, the unbridled racism, the uptick in bullying nationally. On Wednesday, Dave Cole our school counselor and Jenn Cusworth, Uppers Teacher, will offer a voluntary lunch conversation to 6-8th grade students where they can talk about their concerns in a supportive and structured setting.
So, if you are looking for ways to talk to your children at home, here are a few resources: http://www.scarymommy.com/donald-trumps-vulgar-comments-to-kids/
Sorry to be a downer, but I want to make sure you are not alone with your own parent worries. This stuff is hard and so upsetting. We need to take care of each other and make sure our children have the answers they need.
With my best,
October 3, 2016
We just got more Black Lives Matter signs today. The one we had went missing over the summer. A group of willing students helped decide where the new ones would be placed. They were purposeful and proud of their work.
It can be challenging for some folks to see a school, even a progressive one, take what might be seen as a “political” stance. However, many churches, synagogues, and community centers are choosing to be vocal, visible supporters and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, because that’s what’s necessary: taking a powerful, noisy stand, because a signs-over-your-head-on-your-lawn-in-the-streets stand is what’s going to help us end a terrible cycle of violence and hatred.
One of the main reasons I’m at the Center School is that I believe the solution to systemic racism (and oppression in all its forms) begins with teaching kids what an important role they have in making the world a better place. Furthermore, the privilege of going to an independent school comes with responsibility and accountability.
If you are struggling to make sense of the Black Lives Matter message it could help to do some more research.
From The New York Times :
Judith Butler, a professor in the department of comparative literature and the program of critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an 2015 interview that “if we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, ‘all lives matter,’ then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of ‘all lives.'”
This is such an important concept, and a painful thing to really own and absorb. I appreciate that I work in a community where we can face this truth head on, not with buried heads in the sand. Thank you for being my community.
In despair/with hope, Charlie Spencer
Head of School
September 27, 2016
The school is brimming with passion and fervor about the election! But not the Trump and Clinton one… they’re jazzed about the Shellizabeth Warren and Jill Swine one! Each week their platforms get more and more detailed and complex. The most compelling issue so far seems to be sharing. Swine says you shouldn’t have to share if you don’t want to (if something is special to you or breakable for instance) and Warren is saying everyone should have to share always, it’s what we do.
What has been great is to watch this all school project unfold. Teachers have set it up so that each classroom has a role. Teachers help flesh out the issues each week at staff meeting.
Then at All School on Fridays the candidates (a turtle and a pig puppet operated and voiced by 8th graders), and the newscasters (Mups) and data analysts (Middles), let the students know the latest developments in the campaigns. Children get to ask the candidates questions.
Now posters and flyers made by kids during their free moments are cropping up everywhere around campus. I went to turn the light off on the attic stairs and there was a tiny photo/sticker of Jill Swine on the light switch. Are our students beginning to discover/develop the concept of subliminal marketing? Is that a good or a bad thing?
I have to say, that with the real election looming large in my life, this is a great antidote. I am learning so much from our students of every age, and I know they are feeling powerful and engaged in the political process right here in their very own school. This is hands-on critical thinking at it’s best!
March 21, 2016
Can you hear that? Peepers? Woodpeckers? Children giggling?…all of it music of a kind. When I was 8 we moved to Philadelphia and I went to a new school. I had a really hard time coming from a small town and adjusting to these more sophisticated kids with designer jeans and leather boots. I couldn’t read their cues, wasn’t popular, got mercilessly teased. It was hard on my mom, who was working full time and wanted– needed– me to be happy in my new school. One thing saved me that year, though, and both my mom and I knew that would make it all o.k. in the end. It was my music class with Mrs. Kazmira. My memory now doesn’t do her justice, because now I know she had a perm done up helmet style, and wore too much foundation. But at the time, her polyester-wool kilts, beige twin sets and radiant singing voice were sent to me from heaven. I loved (no adored) her and everything we sang. Sometimes, we would use cool wood blocks and xylophones; we sang songs about cats and cowboys and to me, the songs were so much more exciting than life itself. Mrs. Kazmira liked how I sang and she complimented me when I gave it my all. Many other kids wouldn’t give it theirs. They wanted to be playing dodge-ball or doing gymnastics– needless to say that to me, those were hell. Anyway, eventually I made friends and got happier outside of the music room, but for the first year, my music teacher saved me.
Music continues to be a huge part of my life– and it is one of my favorite parts of the Center School. From the day I went to my first All School and sang “Walk a Mile” to now, a week until the 6th Variety Show, I have felt this incredible connection to my colleagues and my students because we sing and play music together. Besides it being fun, as an educator I know that my feelings have deeper validity, because so much research shows us that music makes us smarter and, more importantly, happier!
In case you’ve not read about the Center School’s music program, here’s a description:
In leaving you I share a quote from the late, great Dr. Oliver Sacks; it gives a wonderful description of the frisson music can create in us all:
“At the end of our visit, Fleisher agreed to play something on my piano, a beautiful old 1894 Bechstein concert grand that I had grown up with, my father’s piano. Fleisher sat at the piano and carefully, tenderly, stretched each finger in turn, and then, with arms and hands almost flat, he started to play. He played a piano transcription of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” as arranged for piano by Egon Petri. Never in its 112 years, I thought, had this piano been played by such a master-I had the feeling that Fleisher has sized up the piano’s character and perhaps its idiosyncrasies within seconds, that he had matched his playing to the instrument, to bring out its greatest potential, its particularity. Fleisher seemed to distill the beauty, drop by drop, like an alchemist, into flowing notes of an almost unbearable beauty-and, after this, there was nothing more to be said.”
March 15, 2016
In all areas of the Center School at all times we actively, directly, powerfully live in opposition to Donald Trump’s hateful transgressions. Our school is designed to give hope and agency to children who in turn will go out and make the world better. From celebrating International Women’s Day, to Body Ed, to learning about immigration, and algebra, to singing songs and making art, we are giving our kids tools to navigate the wild world, including how to overcome hate with love, how to build robust communities, how to be resilient and brave.
The Parent-Child Discussion That So Many Dread: Donald Trump
Above, is an article that helped me. I hope it helps you. Essentially the message is– so many of us are trying to figure out what to say to our kids about Trump. What we DO and how we behave ourselves is what will create lasting change. It’s called taking the high ground. When we do that our kids feel powerful and safe, they see that we are managing, and we are NOT GIVING UP.
December 14, 2015
Thinking about Sandy Hook today, three years on… And sending love their way.
The Children’s Hour
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Today I interviewed Josie Dickson-Dulles, our 8th grade teacher, who is teaching a course in Uppers called World Religions. I was looking for some sort of balm to take the sting out of the totally hateful words Donald Trump spewed with the whole world watching last night. I was looking for ways to reassure myself and others that there are many things to be done in the face of such hatred. I was looking for a way to counteract what he is inciting. Luckily I found what I was looking for in talking to Josie who said,
I want to be a nag this week. So get ready. It comes from a place of love and respect. You know the deal…
All kids need it. They need more of it than they probably get. When they don’t get it things get dicey. They lie on the table instead of writing their story. They whine when they are asked to solve a math problem. They have floppy bodies and dark circles under their eyes. They drop popcorn all over the floor. They trip and fall more easily. They lose things. Like sweaters. I cannot even tell you how many sweaters are lost due to tiredness!
The CDC says:
|Age||Recommended Amount of Sleep|
|Newborns||16-18 hours a day|
|Preschool-aged children||11-12 hours a day|
|School-aged children||At least 10 hours a day|
|Teens||9-10 hours a day|
|Adults (including the elderly)||7-8 hours a day|
Also, when your child has not rested well, it takes a couple nights to catch up. So, after a crazy weekend, it is vital to put them to bed earlier than usual. I am serious. Sleep is so key. I promise it is. It is key for preschoolers, it is key for Uppers. It is key for everyone that goes to the Center School.
Parents who say, “Oh I just can’t get my kid to go to bed” need to call me and I will help you. I care that much. I will coach you. I will practically come to your house and read everyone a bedtime story. For reals. You can get your kid to go to bed at a healthy time, you can enforce the rules, and we will all see fabulous results if you do. It shows when kids are tired. And I feel so sorry for chronically tired kids. I want to create a little nest in my office and tuck them all into it. I care that much.
So, do call me if you want some support or advice about children and sleep. I will be there for you.
“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
October 5, 2015
I am afraid that despite the beautiful fall days we are experiencing, I am finding it hard to get past the terrible news of last week’s shooting at the school in Oregon or the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. I feel so helpless and distraught.
If your child has been exposed to the recent news, remember to help them process it in developmentally appropriate ways. I found this PBS site helpful– look at different ages and know what they can handle. http://www.pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news/
I also encourage you to help your child mitigate real-life violence by being aware of the desensitization that can happen, especially when playing “first person shooter” video games, or when being exposed to gratuitous violence in TV shows and movies. I am not opening a can of controversial worms here, I am simply asking that we all think hard about what our children are exposed to and whether it builds in them hope, agency, peace and strength. And let’s hope that by raising socially-conscious, loving people, they may be tomorrow’s Doctors Without Borders, first-responders, teachers, or policy makers.
That’s what might get us through times like these.
March 16, 2015
For those of you new to the school the 8th grade Ambitious Projects are not looming large in your minds yet. I am going to try to bring them into focus for you in this letter.
At the Center School there has long been a tradition of Ambitious Projects (AP‘s), which are designed to follow a unit called Self Class, where 8th graders prepare to fledge from our nest. They prepare by “coming of age” so to speak. In the Jewish religion they’d have a very special rite of passage called a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at the special, age of 13. In the Center School temple of learning, 8th graders take a Self Class, do AP‘s, write 8th grade plays, and, finally, go through a transformational graduation ceremony. Which is just to say, at the Center School there is a unique approach to celebrating and fostering our eldest students’ growth and maturation.
So, last week the 8th grade class under the tutelage of Bob Strachota (who has taught at the Center School for decades, and wrote a wonderful book called On Their Side*) and Josie Dickson-Dulles (who has loved working with Bob and learning about his passionate approach to the inner world of the 8th grader), spruced themselves up pulled their work together to share.
What were the assignments? Here they are in Bob’s words:
“The basic structure of the Self curriculum is that students create pieces using several modalities and then think and talk about what their work shows about them; what makes them happy, stressed, ambivalent, and so forth. Some examples of the kinds of projects they will do: photos of their room, a sculpture showing what they are like on the inside versus the outside, cartoons based on Lynda Barry’s book 100 Dragons, a reflection on what they were like when they were younger, abstract art based on their main emotions, and journal writing.The rationale behind this work is that self-esteem and self-knowledge are often enhanced through expression, reflection, and discussion. The Self class is an opportunity for building empathy and confidence, which are main tenets in the Center School’s overall pedagogy. Children bring to the table only as much as they feel comfortable sharing or exploring. Over the years my students have discovered important things about themselves, as learners, as friends, as sons and daughters, as people, during the Self class. At the end of the process there is an evening exposition for Uppers and their families during which an adult is selected (such as a Center School teacher, former teacher, or other community member) to offer each student feedback on their work, and a conversation between adult and student ensues.
Directly following the Self class, they undertake an AP, designed to build on the knowledge and acceptance the students have just explored. Emboldened by their new discoveries, students are now asked to stretch by taking on an extraordinary effort of their choosing. This is the Projects curriculum on steroids: bigger, lasting longer, done entirely out of school with only weekly teacher check-ins. At the conclusion, students each make a 5-minute presentation about the result of their efforts to an adult feedback panel.”
Well, this year’s results were breathtaking, all who were there that night will agree.
Edwin carved classical fruit sculptures out of soapstone. When he talked about the process that night he reflected, “I never got frustrated with my carving, I was peaceful with it.” His original idea was to make a marble sculpture! Ambitious alright… carving stone!
Sky learned how to play cello from her dad, and then on the night of the AP‘s they played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as a duet, her dad’s cello’s strains wrapping around Sky’s in a dialogue that sang, “I love you.” Sky said “I wanted to learn the cello, because normally I don’t stick with things, but the structure of the AP would make me!”
Tai designed and modified a school chair that he could rock back on (note: the school rules say, “4 feet on the floor.”) and be “legal.” “One of my edges is to ask for help when I need it. I learned to do that with this project.” Innovation loves company! Tai found a way to include others in his unique vision.
Margo learned contortionism, as part of her Circus arts background. She bent herself into new challenges, with amazingly accomplished results, feeling her way to her own limits. “I’m a teenager. I feel self conscious about my body. That’s why I’m glad I did this project. I could appreciate it more…. It made me feel better about myself in general.”
Andrew learned woodcarving and then made an exquisite wood sculpture of a penguin, “I found myself carving and carving and my mom came in and saw what I was doing [I was carving too much off the neck, maybe] and she said, “Is that really what you want to be doing?’ and I said ‘Yes.'” The result? The most penguin-ish penguin, ever.
Cassidy did a sort of “Humans of New York” photojournalism piece, taking pictures of interesting, sometimes unknown humans and asking them to tell a story from childhood. “I found myself taking advice from my subjects on how to do my interviews!” Of her work, a panelist said, “You strove to make connections with others.” And succeeded too!
Emma drew pictures to accompany interviews she did of people on the topic of what made them happy. While she was toiling away on her project she noted, “Creativity decided to take a quick vacation right when I needed it! I felt my project wasn’t ambitious enough for me and I’m still not completely done.” Ah, the process of knowing oneself and desiring to be better.
Recognize yourself in any of these kids?
I must say I almost didn’t recognize them! In a blink it seems, and they are poised and thoughtful young adults.
February 24, 2015
Those Wesleyan students. How absolutely awful. I’m of an age (mid-forties) where I can put myself in everyone’s shoes in that story. Except the dealer. I can’t bring myself to try to fathom what makes someone sell bad drugs to kids. But I can identify with the students, because is feels like just yesterday I was rollicking around Hampshire College. I felt so safe and so entitled to experiment and play. I believed it was what I was supposed to be doing. I can identify with the parents, big time. My heart goes out to them. How terrifying to get that call. To rush to the hospital and see your baby-adult in critical condition because they took bad ecstasy. Devastating. I can certainly imagine how exposed all of the people in this story feel. The administration of the school having to “field” all the criticism and rubber necking. Everyone having to take responsibility for their part in the crisis.
And, of course, it leads me to a sort of “there but for the grace of god” moment that propels me toward my job as an educator, as a mom, and as a fallible human. That job today is to be honest with children, mine and other people’s, to model empathy and also self reflection, self care, and how to look out for others.
As the Jewish proverb says, “If your neighbor’s house is on fire, water your own.” In other words, we are not to find relief in the fact that a neighbor’s in crisis is instead of us. I won’t use others’ tragedies to somehow make me feel better about my “blessed” life. Rather, I will find myself among the suffering and hope with them.
Sending healing thoughts to those kids and their families and friends,
January 13, 2015
On our way home tonight Jude and I were talking about free speech and hate speech and the way that satire can work in art and pop culture. He initiated this conversation. He was interested in the Beastie Boys and the fact that just because they believed they were making “tongue in cheek” raps, critiquing sexism and machismo, doesn’t mean that their audience knew they were deconstructing language. People might just think it’s what they are and it could seem like they’re condoning hate. Ok. He didn’t use the word deconstructing at first. I taught it to him. Jude was very intrigued by the whole idea that intention isn’t always transparent, that people can get hurt by language, and people can also delight in it’s humor. The tension between these truths to an 11 year old are really clear. For 11 year-olds dabble in transgression and in earnestness all the time. Jude is convinced that what you say and what you do are sometimes very different. Just because you are saying something doesn’t mean you are really believing it, you could be performing a role. You could be making a point. Timely or what?
Yes…Je suis Charlie. Literally, figuratively. In my conversations with my kid, our kids, I want to make sure they know that expression with intention and compassion can be tolerated, celebrated, imitated. It’s ok to be unapologetically scathing. Just not hateful. And lord knows, be ready to explain your thinking, without flippancy.
I’m so grateful that our Uppers have recently studied satire. They understand that concept, they feel empowered and they use it. What a great gift for preteens and teens to receive from their school. Satire makes so much sense to these awkward but brilliant creatures, who seriously make it their business to make fun at absolutely everything: a jiggly belly, a dented car door, folk songs, hippies, posers, healthy food, kids with bedtimes, joggers, people who kiss in public, zits, and Dora the Explorer come to mind.
Tonight NPR shared a description of the front page of tomorrow’s Charlie Hebdo as follows: A cartoon of Mohammed with a tear running down his cheek and the headline All is Forgiven. Now that’s class. Let’s teach that.
November 17, 2014
Last Monday, I left school in a whirlwind for New York City, to fete my mom, who was having a birthday. I left you with a poem in my stead. It’s her favorite one, an e.e. cummings piece about spring… She can recite it by heart.
Apropos of this (and here I was thinking I was being kind of random!), this week the Uppers kicked off their latest Lit unit, one on Poetry! Each teacher is leading a four day workshop on a poetry form or style. For example, Josie, the 8th grade homeroom teacher is covering environmental poetry. Here’s an example her class wrote together just today:
Rainy Day Poem
By Jude, Sovahn, Sierra, Amelie, Osvaldo, Sulli and Josie
A dead worm in a puddle is like
a child’s first scribble in a pink marker
someone trying to make dirt out of pink chemicals
a pink string splashed in a pond
the drag marks of the broken wing of a regal falcon
the gooey intestines of a chipmunk
pink frosting on a chocolate cake
a stream of blood from a belly button piercing gone wrong
I was so charmed by this poem! It was delivered to me by a rain-covered, beaming teacher who was psyched to brag about her budding poets.
I shared with her this wonderful article, which I will now share with you. Why? Because within it, some of the strategies for reading poetry it shares, seem to be insights we can apply to our kids. Here’s an excerpt (where it says “poem” read “child”:
“Try to meet a poem on its terms not yours. If you have to “relate” to a poem in order to understand it, you aren’t reading it sufficiently. In other words, don’t try to fit the poem into your life. Try to see what world the poem creates. Then, if you are lucky, its world will help you re-see your own.”
“A poem cannot be paraphrased. In fact, a poem’s greatest potential lies in the opposite of paraphrase: ambiguity. Ambiguity is at the center of what is it to be a human being. We really have no idea what’s going to happen from moment to moment, but we have to act as if we do.”
And so… in closing, I borrow from Shakespeare, “Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.”
May 19, 2014
I took a wander around school today. Everyone was on fire with their learning. Primes Blue were writing stories and illustrating them beautifully. Everyone was so happy and totally engrossed. Middles were blissfully reading the last chapter of their lit book. The room was dead silence and the expressions on all faces, including the teachers, was that of people getting to the climax of a great story– a mixture of intensity and wonder. Downstairs, and just as intently, Primes Green were reading too! Kathryn’s group was reading as a group from a story called Ben and the Dragon. Kathryn was beaming at her charges with pride. Oliver, AKA Dr Space Kitty, was giving the MUPS a lesson on red blood cells and how they travel single file through a capillary. The students were gripped, needless to say. Some Uppers were with Chris giving each other feedback on their flags, which they have painstakingly painted onto the All School room’s ceiling tiles. Each student got a turn giving and getting really astute and caring comments. Another room of Uppers were listening to Morgan give a presentation on the major causes of the Civil War. They were so attentive to him and supportive as he taught.
Whew! What a school.
February 24, 2014
I hope you managed to get some cozy time with your kids over the prolonged break– the two snow days at the beginning made the vacation seem particularly long. And I know I heard from MANY families and kids that they really, truly missed school. I felt so lucky hearing that.
During our time off my family and I enjoyed watching some of the Olympics. Yes, my queer family did that. I thought it was worth sharing our process– the one that got us to the point of watching, rather than boycotting or smearing or hating the Olympics in a year when they were held in a place that has some bad and scary politics that affect people like us.
Before the games began, I was pretty sure we’d have to skip the Sochi ’14 Olympics to make sure our kids knew that, without question, their moms were not down with homophobia or violence. I came home from school one day and Becky and the kids were talking about watching– in particular the skiing and snowboarding. You know, those sports felt so relevant after the Center School Winter Program! I flinched. The boys were aware of some of the issues in Russia; they had heard from friends and family. And they know what a boycott is– of course. They talked about that too. They were ready to be guided by us in either direction– to watch or not to watch. But something about the fact that the boys were boiling it down to Russia being so mean and bad and hateful of gays gave us pause– and Becky especially. When she was eight she had spent a summer vacation in the former Soviet Union with her mother. They were traveling with members of the British Communist Party and Sochi was one of their stops– Becky loved the Black Sea with its backdrop of majestic mountains; there were kind people, it was an interesting culture. Becky felt that portraying Russia to our children as a country of oppression and hate, without pointing our own country’s own issues/demons was wrongheaded. She wants our kids to know that Russia’s leadership is doing some hateful things. But that is true here too. We have anti-gay laws on our books in several states. Gay bashing occurs here too. Cruel things are said in our own media. Pointing fingers and being self-righteous is clearly not getting us anywhere.
This is just to say that grappling in front of the kids was a good thing. Sharing our thinking with the boys allowed us to get to the nuances of what makes Americans sometimes act like real snobs, and xenophobic, also superior. We told the boys that we don’t hate Russia.
A few days later, we sat down together in front of the box (that’s what Becky calls it) and watched and cheered. For the Russians. For the Germans. For the Slovakians. The Jamaicans. The Japanese. We cheered for athletes: ice dancers, snowboarders, bobsledders…
We did not boycott the Olympics. Oh, but we DID mute all the multinational corporate commercials.
January 27, 2014
This is essential reading for our school community. Please take a moment to educate yourself, if like many of us, you find yourself tongue-tied when talking with kids about Gender Identity. There are children and parents among us who will appreciate your effort. And thus, all of us will benefit.
The Center School will be hosting discussions on the book Raising My Rainbow (http://raisingmyrainbow.com/ ) on: Thursday, January 30th at 8:15am, Tuesday, February 11th at 7pm, and Wednesday, March 5th at 7pm.
“Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? There had been addition and subtraction in my life, but how much multiplication?”
This quote is from the novel I’m reading, The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. The book is unsettling me. It deals in memory and the tricks it plays, which is making me involuntarily search for my own lost moments. Barnes also covers, with gloves off, how life can be led, dare I say– badly, without direction or real intention. It can slip away as a series of days on a calendar that may add together, but don’t accumulate or build into anything worthwhile…if we aren’t careful. Or perhaps, more to the point, if we are too careful.
Even though the book is causing me some angst and weird turns of nostalgia, it’s also making me conscious and proud of the Center School approach. The way children are invited to help build their community and take responsibility for it gives them chances to try on different roles, different approaches to living and working. And each time our question is something like, “How did that go?” Or, “What did you bring to the situation?” Or, “What did you expect to get out of it? Were you present? Were you noticing?” Thus, as our Center Schoolers progress through life, they do it with what the English call “nous” (pronounced nouse– like mouse), which one can loosely translate as gumption or good sense.
This blog will often chronicle the nous of our students. May we all learn from them and let their way be an invitation for us to follow suit, multiplying our single days into the most meaningful lives.