Since we started this fall, I’ve been popping into classrooms, especially in the Middle School. On my first visit to the 5th grade class, I walked in to find Ms. Nick asking, “Why do we not raise our hands while someone else is speaking?” As the girls made their way to the understanding that you cannot fully listen to someone else if you’re distracted by focusing on what you want to say, Ms. Nick circled back to the previous day’s Opening Convocation, and reminded the girls that listening is one of the areas I aspire to have us focus on this year. I was impressed with how carefully she rooted this in the 5th grade developmental experience. If our girls can focus on listening carefully and intentionally to others when they’re 10, and keep developing their listening skills through their school years, we will be able to count them among our influential leaders in the future.
I also was in Mr. D.’s 6th grade and watched girls writing paragraphs on their iPads about their summer reading. When each girl was ready, she could hand her iPad to Mr. D. and he would give her feedback. But the way he gave feedback is indicative of his extensive experience with middle-schoolers and his keeping an eye on the long game. First he prefaced each conversation with, “Remember, I’m going to be really mean here and pretend I haven’t read the book. So make sure what you’ve written is clear enough that I can understand it, even though I haven’t read the book.” The girls would immediately self-assess their work, and if they then felt ready, they would hand over the iPad. His feedback came only in the form of questions that helped the girls further self-correct, such as “There’s a word in here that could be more specific. Can you figure out which one I’m talking about?” or “This is a great quotation. What do you think might be missing after it?” In all cases, the girls could figure out for themselves how to improve their writing. The girls will eventually internalize the types of questions Mr. D. was asking, and they will become powerful writers – far more so than if he had circled a word and written “vague” next to it or commented after a quotation, “analysis needed.” Just as important, girls will understand that they have a sense of agency in their work, that they “own” their work, and, again, as the girls develop that sense of ownership and that sense of agency, they will take that with them throughout adulthood.
And one day I joined Mr. Elwell’s 8th grade English class and watched the girls engage in a Socratic discussion of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Using quotations from the book to support their answers, they had to answer questions. One posed was, “Are stereotypes helpful or harmful?” and another was, “Does Junior internalize stereotypes about Native Americans?” The girls discussed their ideas and referred to the book to support their thoughts, and kept returning to how Junior must have felt as he began attending a new, non-Indian school. Mr. Elwell guided them through this, and I was impressed with both the sophistication of the discussion, and the compassion that the questions inspired and that the girls demonstrated. Once again, if our girls can continue to develop their sense of compassion, they will someday as adults help to change the world.