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CAG Blog: Powered by Optimism

"Powered by Optimism" captures my reflections of life in and around an all-girls' school and highlights the values of C.A.G.: leadership, global citizenship, wellness, and teaching and learning. Underscoring it all is a deeply ingrained sense of optimism that we are preparing a generation of boldly creative women who will help change the world. 

designing the girls' classroom-4.27.17

Every year, a few academic departments at Agnes Irwin participate in a retreat, led by CAG, that focuses on one central question: How do we best teach our subject to girls? What does the research tell us?

In preparation for each department's retreat, I engage in a focused observation of the content area, visiting classes throughout our Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools. I seek evidence of research-based pedagogy and find it in abundance.

What follows is an adaptation of the introduction I used to kick off our recent English and Language Arts retreat.

It is easy to see why, for many decades now, popular belief has been that English and Language Arts are the purview of girls.

If we believe the premise that girls are relational and that their capacity for empathy comes naturally, we can see how that plays into the learning that happens in the English and Language Arts classrooms.

From the time we read our youngest girls a story, to when they are reciting Macbeth, or creating their own tale, we are asking girls to put themselves in the shoes of another.

When you teach girls to make text-to-self connections in first grade, and you expand upon that in 5th grade, and then, in 11th grade, you ask them to cast those connections through the lens of the author and the author’s intended impact on the reader, you have amplified their ability to empathize and by extension, to be in relationship with others.

At the same time, you are building skills. I have been amazed how carefully lower school teachers build the skills that blossom into the analytical prowess of an upper school girl.

I have been blown away by the scaffolding that is carefully built over the years in our English/Language Arts program — then thoughtfully dismantled as students learn to evaluate, research, form and defend their own well-reasoned conclusions.

In Kindergarten, for example, girls write their “true facts” books and are urged to add pictures with an abundance of detail. These details, later on in their development, turn into descriptive vocabulary that helps them become compelling writers.

In third grade, girls are engaging in “reader’s theater” and talk about why it helps to understand text by acting it out. In tenth grade, girls are memorizing Macbeth and their ability to act out the scene shows, in fundamental ways, how this aids in their understanding.

But, in the English and Language Arts classroom, there is more. There is a drive to understand humanity, to push our collective thinking — but to do so in expansive, heart-felt ways. One English teacher told me recently that she wishes for all of our students to understand why English class is relevant to their lives. I wish for them to know that in order to become the ethical decision makers we want them to be — to be value-driven leaders — they need to understand the human condition. They need to understand the experiences of the boy who harnessed the wind in Malawi*, and the blinding hunger for power that drives Lady Macbeth. They need to be able to make connections from text to self, from text to text, and from text to world.

Recently, I heard the head of the conference of Sacred Heart Schools speak about spirituality in children. She told us about the premise of the Sacred Heart schools — that the energy in a classroom, founded in relationship (she said, love) — was the force we need to educate children so they become the ethical adults we need in our world.

It struck me how this happens in the English and Language Arts classroom in a most natural way. I am profoundly grateful to our teachers for creating this love, this relationship, for our girls every day.

*The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, by William Kamkwamba

Posted by alison on Thursday April 27, 2017 at 08:06AM
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a global conversation- 6.2.16

I was privileged to travel to Australia this past week as a trustee of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. NCGS is a leading advocate for all-girls’ education in North America, but is becoming increasingly known and connected on a global scale. Along with Megan Murphy, NCGS executive director, I traveled to Brisbane in Queensland, where I joined like-minded girls’ school colleagues from Australia and New Zealand.

Trips like this one (where we also attended the Alliance for Girls’ Schools Australasia’s conference) allow us to learn and listen, and to contribute to the international conversation about all-girls’ education. And what a conversation it is! I was struck by our similar approaches, by our hopes for our girls, and the shared concerns we all tackle in our individual corners of the world.

In particular, conversations that resonated for me were the need to increase the numbers of girls and women in STEM fields and the need to develop leadership identities and skills in girls.

When, during the AGSA conference, speaker Claire Madden talked about Gen Z and the key factors of this generation, she could have been speaking anywhere in the United States to any audience. While her locale is a world away from mine, her words resonated with my American experience in such a way that I realized the truth of them: our kids are part of a generation that is so globally connected that they share even their sense of humor. How exciting it is to think about how that influences what happens in our classrooms. In her words, this interconnected generation is “global, social, mobile and digital.”

There was much conversation about how to help girls tap into their capacity as leaders. If you are familiar with the work of The Agnes Irwin School’s Center for the Advancement of Girls, you know that this is a topic around which we have created robust programming. Like our Australian colleagues, we believe that if a girl understands her leadership capacity from the inside out, she is more likely to exercise it throughout her life.

I also loved learning about efforts to attract more girls into STEM fields. I found it heartening to know that all-girls schools in the Eastern Hemisphere are approaching this issue in similar ways: by highlighting these fields as being “for girls,” by showing how other women have successfully gone before in these fields, by allowing girls to create solutions to the grand challenges our world faces - and for which we need the STEM fields.

Here is what my hope is - that these global conversations (of which I was only a tiny part), our global connectedness, will help us achieve parity between men and women, in STEM and in leadership, more quickly. I hope that with this flow of ideas and the sharing of solutions between farflung continents, we will create a world in which all girls can thrive, can lead and can create, and so fulfill their true potential.
Posted by alison on Thursday June 2, 2016 at 03:11PM
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sharing solutions- 4.4.16

It has been a little over a year since we hosted our first Sharing Solutions: Advancing Girls in STEM conference, and we are busily preparing for a follow-up symposium, which promises to be as engaging as the one we hosted in 2015. I wish I could say that in this past year, as a society, we have made great strides toward our goal of “fixing the leaky pipeline,” an analogy that has become the predominant one for the advancement of girls and women in STEM.

We left last year’s conference excited and hopeful, many of us energized to do more. And we did, in our corners of the world.  A connection between our Agnes Irwin STEM club and a group of girls at a local public school sprung up from our endeavors; many of our girls in the Lower and Middle Schools have benefited from the wonderful resources available through nearby Villanova University, and, of course, we are tremendously grateful for our partnership with the august Franklin Institute, where we are hosting this year’s conference.

But despite this and, I hope, many other wonderful connections made through the networking opportunities available at our event, there is still work to be done. And it is our hope that in a few weeks, we will make additional strides toward the outcome that we all seek: to attract and maintain robust numbers of women in STEM fields.

An in-depth survey of last year’s participants brought to the forefront the desire, on the part of the overwhelming majority, to grapple with the question of sustainable culture change. It is an unfortunate reality that in schools, in higher education and in the workforce, institutional cultures and society at large still push girls and women to the margins of STEM fields, resulting in a gender gap that is closing only very slowly.

Last year’s participants wanted to know how to create pervasive and lasting cultural change. Throughout the 2015 conference, we discussed three themes that we understood to make a significant positive difference in the advancement of girls and women in STEM: teacher training and curriculum design, role models and mentors, and partnerships. These themes still hold true today; what we are setting out to do in a few weeks is to bring these themes together to move closer to creating lasting change.

This is the reason that at our upcoming conference, we will heed the call from last year’s participants and discuss sustainable culture change. Research has shown that there are many “islands of change” that have had positive effects in schools, but that these islands are not easily turned into “continents.” For true and sustainable cultural change to occur, we must move beyond what happens in a single classroom, department, school or corporation and scale the change so it becomes part of a new culture in which we close the STEM gender gap (Hargreaves & Goodson, 2006).

So let’s come together in a few weeks and do just that: let’s learn about the effective measures that have been implemented in K-12 schools, higher education, out-of-school programs, and the corporate world. Armed with this inspiration, let’s work together, across the silos of our professions, to change culture in sustainable ways. Let’s not just plug the pipeline that leaks girls and women out of STEM fields, let’s build a better one.

If you are up for the challenge, please do join us.

Posted by alison on Monday April 4, 2016 at 10:25AM
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nashville to blog- 11.30.15

It has been a while since I last wrote for this blog. This fall has been filled with lots of travel, new professional challenges, and the busy-ness that is life in a girls’ school.

Among my travel adventures was a trip to Nashville, TN, where I had the great fortune to speak at Vision 2020’s National Congress. CAG is a national ally of Vision 2020, and its chair, Lynn Yeakel, is a CAG advisory board member.

Vision 2020 is a project that works to achieve parity between men and women by the year 2020. One way in which the organization does that, is by focusing on education.

I, and two esteemed colleagues, shared the stage as we informed the attending delegates about the current stage of education and the possible ways in which we can ensure that the next generation of women will enjoy the parity they deserve.

What follows is a version of my talk. It serves as a good reminder about the work we, at CAG, do every day, and why that work continues to be so important. I hope you enjoy it. And please, do be in touch - I love to hear from those who happen upon this blog.

A year ago I was in the thick of planning our first STEM conference. One beautiful fall day, three of our juniors walked into my office and said: “We understand that you are planning a STEM conference. We love STEM. We started a STEM club for upper school girls a year ago and we already have 40 members. And we volunteer weekly in the lower school to get girls excited about math. We want to be a part of your conference. “

Their confidence and their enthusiasm was simply awesome. So after I took a moment to recover from this unexpected interaction,  I said gently - “You do know that this will be just for adults and by adults? And you know this is happening during your spring break ?”

“Sure,” they told me. Not a problem on either front.

So I took a deep breath and I thought - well, what the heck. This is what it is about. This is why you come to work. You want girls to go for it. Have gumption. Be leaders. Love things not because society says they should love them but because they just do. Like science, technology, engineering, and math.

As a person who directs a research and programming center within an all girls’ independent school, I have the flexibility to do a lot of blue sky thinking and developing.

The focus of CAG is to identify through research those areas where the playing field is not yet level for girls, and to create programs and partnerships that will address and hopefully rectify those situations.

A big part of this work is centered around leadership development, as well as STEM programming. There is an obvious intersectionality between these two areas, of course, and I would like to explain a little of what we have learned in the past few years.

In my experience, here are the areas where we need to focus our efforts in order to move forward:


  • Help girls see that STEM fields are for them, too. This is done through curriculum development, but also through the messages we send girls outside of classrooms. It is buying toys that promote tinkering, and it is moms refraining from saying things like: “I was never good at math.”

  • It is giving girls access to role models and mentors. Ainissa Ramirez, who describes herself as a science evangelist,  promotes the idea that we all need to “see our reflection” in those professions to which we aspire. For girls and especially, girls of color, we need to make sure these women are in place - and consistently share with girls the journey they traveled to get to where they are now.

  • Creating partnerships. We are all in this together, and together, we are greater than the sum of our parts. One partnership, for example, that we were able to forge is with the UPenn School of Nursing. This has resulted in the creation of a seminar course for our seniors, called Global Health and the Girl Child.  Penn professors have resources and connections at their fingertips that a K-12 school simply does not.


  • And what about leading outside of STEM fields? What does it mean to be a girl who is also a leader?

  • Our philosophy has been to tackle this from the earliest ages. If you don’t believe you can, you won’t. And so our girls, starting in Kindergarten, learn to take on the identity of a leader. Leadership is not just action, it is also attribute. We teach girls as young as 5 that a leader is resilient, for example, and show them a bouncy ball in order to make the abstract, concrete. We tell them leaders need this resilience in order to face inevitable challenges. And when girls display resilient behavior, we point it out and celebrate it.

Let’s fast forward through the developmental pipeline to this past spring, when those three juniors came to see me to ask me if I would allow them to be a part of the STEM conference.

Here is the challenge I put forth to them: yes, they could talk about their passion. But I also wanted them to show the audience what they loved. So, the girls came up with the idea of building a geometric sculpture, with the audience, while they talked about their love of STEM.  They built an icosahedron - but before they were audience-ready, they needed to figure it out for themselves.

They spent hours figuring out the best materials to use for the challenge. Their first few attempts failed.  They had to cut the pieces of this icosahedron with a laser cutter in our Innovation Lab - a job that took them past midnight a few days before the conference. I admit to feeling quite guilty when I found this part out. But they smiled, told me it was ok, in that way that only girls do, and they forged on.

Resilience and determination were key ingredients of those days in preparation for their presentation.  And when I say they blew the audience away, I am not exaggerating.

They showed us what is possible, given the right environment and the right resources. And that is where we need to go as educators. Create the most advantageous environment and get out of girls’ way. It is as simple and as complicated as that.
Posted by alison on Monday November 30, 2015 at 10:35AM
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in praise of mothers- 5.8.15

This is it, the time of year when Hallmark pulls out all the stops and urges even the most curmudgeonly among us to honor and celebrate our moms. Never one to gravitate toward the preprinted sentiments that populate these cards, I must nevertheless recognize that the hyperbole (“You are my rock; you have always been there for me,” among others) is rooted in something real, an authentic manifestation of this primary (and often primal) relationship: the relationship between mother and child.

I am a mother. And I am lucky enough to still have my own mother around, too.  Based on those two facts, and based on the countless conversations I have had throughout my personal and professional lives with other mothers, here is what I have come to know:

·  Mothers really do fiercely, overwhelmingly love their children. For a mother, the pain her child experiences is greater than any pain she experiences herself. Her children’s moments of triumph make her heart swell with such pride it hurts.

·  Mothers drive their children crazy. Moms worry so much about their kids that they try to navigate, well in advance of nothing, every eventuality that may occur in their offspring’s lives. This drives children crazy, but when they become parents themselves, they understand why their moms did so in the first place.

·  Mothers are sometimes mean. Or, at least, that is how it appears. They make their children handle a tough situation on their own and refuse to intervene when it would be so much easier to do so. What their children don’t know is that that meanness is a gift. The strength built  in a young person who has handled her own challenges is of incalculable value.

·  Mothers always have their children’s backs. Even if those children are making poor decisions. They won’t excuse poor decisions, but they will be cheering their kids on when they are busy digging themselves out of their mess.

·  I don’t care how old you are, you are still a baby in your mother’s eyes.

One day, even when you cannot find the words and you are afraid you will sound just like a Hallmark card, you will know. You will realize the totality of her love, her commitment to your wellbeing, and her unadulterated pride in your accomplishments, big and small. And no matter how old you are, it will fill your heart.

This one is for you, mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

Posted by alison on Friday May 8, 2015 at 07:31AM
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on courage- 4.22.15

For a few months now, a nagging thought has been simmering in the back of my mind. I am not sure what started them. Perhaps it was the remark by someone for whom I have great respect that I appear “cautious” in the face of difficult situations. I would argue that such caution has served me well in my career and in my personal life. There are times when taking a cautious, careful approach speaks to thinking ahead and keeping the end result in mind.

However, caution can be interpreted as lack of courage, as my colleague’s remark attests. And so, I have been for a while now reflecting on what courage really, truly means.

One of the great pleasures of my job is connecting with young people, mostly young girls and women, who inspire me with their commitment, their energy, and their courage. One such young woman is Katlyn Grasso, an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, who has already founded GenHERation, an online leadership development platform for girls. The first time Katlyn and I talked was when she was merely a sophomore at Penn. This year, she is ready to graduate, and I cannot wait to see what her future holds.

One day, Katlyn and I talked about what motivated her - what gave her the gumption to set herself up as the founder and creator of her own organization before she was even 21 years old. Until you really push yourself, she told me, really push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you don’t know your own capacity for courage.

So what is courage? Courage is doing that which is uncomfortable and does not ensure a safe and happy outcome. Courage is speaking up on the playground when you see a classmate being mistreated. It is packing your bags and moving to a different country without knowing anyone there or speaking that country’s language. Courage is putting on a military uniform and following orders that put your life on the line. Courage is going to school, despite threats on your life, as did Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai. Courage is imagining what should be deemed impossible given the circumstances, but going for it anyway.

It seems to me that without courage, there will not be significant change; indeed, without courage we embrace the status quo. It takes courage to create a vision for a better future and to lead others to make that vision a reality.

But courage is not recklessness. It is not going into battle (whatever that battle may be) unarmed. Courage is thoughtfulness and instinct combined - it is the following of your heart that is informed by your head.

I hope that my tendency to be cautious is only thoughtfulness. I hope that when the chips are down, I display the courage I so admire in people like Katlyn Grasso.

Posted by alison on Wednesday April 22, 2015 at 11:18AM
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start early to have girls consider STEM careers-3.9.15

This post was also featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer as an Op-Ed:

The United States is in dire need of more workers for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as well-paying jobs in those areas are growing at a faster rate than in other fields. And as STEM opportunities grow, we should ensure that women and minorities are fairly represented.

Data provided by the National Science Foundation paint a stark picture of how few women and other underrepresented groups enter and persist in STEM careers. A recent report by researchers at the University of California, Columbia, and Emory details the pervasive bias women (and especially women of color) encounter in STEM workplaces.

While, based on these studies, the forecast for women in STEM careers may appear gloomy, there are many of us who are committed to upending the status quo and combining our resources to address this pernicious problem. A conference scheduled for March 19 and 20 at the Agnes Irwin School will examine some proven ways to improve the engagement and retention of girls and women in STEM.

One aspect that will be examined is curriculum design and the preparation of teachers at all levels of the educational pipeline. We know that teachers are the number-one factor in encouraging the persistence of girls in STEM subjects. Yes, teacher bias can have a negative impact on a girl's belief in herself as a scientist or mathematician, but that same powerful influence can be used to ensure that girls remain curious about science and math.

Girls often respond positively to the idea that they can contribute to the greater good with their actions; making sure they understand how STEM subjects improve the world can help persuade them to persist in these fields. Therefore, we must educate our teachers in effective curriculum design, but also help them understand how their own biases might affect students.

Another way to increase the number of girls and women in STEM fields is by exposing them to role models and mentors. The expression "You can't be what you can't see" perfectly captures the concept. Girls and women need exposure to female scientists, mathematicians, technology workers, and engineers who can help them envision themselves in these careers and show them how to access opportunities for advancement.

Those pathways to success start in the elementary years, with bulletin boards that highlight the accomplishments of women in science. From there, a combination of curriculum, teachers, and mentors can support and help guide young girls and women as they embark on their careers.

I recently heard a STEM expert say that we know what we have to do; we just have to figure out a way to do it. He might be right. Indeed, a lot has been written about this. For example, the American Association of University Women is scheduled to publish a report on March 26 on how to increase the number of women in engineering and technology.

And yes, a lot has been done that has been successful. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one example of a program that has made a real difference in increasing the participation of women and minorities in STEM fields.

However, as the STEM expert explained, we have not consistently marshaled our resources. We have not, across the silos of our industries, effectively and consistently combined our collective wisdom and shared our solutions. We, together, can be greater than the sum of our parts.

We must commit to truly becoming the transformative force that girls and women need to gain the equality we seek and from which our entire society will benefit.


Posted by alison on Monday March 9, 2015 at 01:42PM
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global citizenship- 12.2.14

I wrote this blog during my recent visit to South America to visit my mother.

I am visiting my mother this week, in the hot, casually nonchalant nation that is my country of birth.  My childhood was spent in the tropics, adolescence in Western Europe, and adulthood was (and is) the mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

I have only been here for three days, and this is only my second visit since my mother moved back here two years ago from Europe, right after my father passed away.  While this is the country in which I spent my formative years, it is also an alien place for me after decades of absence.

The country feels like less of a shock to me this time, and I know that next year, when I return again, it will feel more familiar still. And so, I want to capture my current observations, knowing that familiarity will dull the edges and smooth away the jarring differences of my initial re-introduction to my native land.

When you first arrive here from the Philadelphia area, you see the world through the lens of the Northeast United States. The infrastructure appears haphazard. Roads are narrow and overcrowded. Traffic feels harrowingly unregulated.

There is no appreciable enforcement of zoning laws. Maybe they don’t exist. Commerce happens anywhere. Garages are converted to retail spaces; doctors’ offices are tucked away behind kitchens, where fragrantly simmering meals are reminders to patients that the doctor will have to break for her much-deserved lunch. Large stuccoed homes neighbor crumbling wooden shacks that look barely habitable, and abandoned construction projects litter streets like so many broken dreams.

When you first get here and you look through your mid-Atlantic lens, shock gives way to incomprehension – and probably, for most of us, a vague notion of “how could they?” How could anyone live this way, so casually uncaring about the rules and regulations that make up a society, such as we have constructed?

It is upon further reflection, upon truly placing oneself in the shoes of those around you, that one starts to understand – the heart of this nation, its story, cannot be evaluated only through my US-sharpened lens.  There is another truth, another story at play that I am soaking up – and appreciating for its unique rhythm, its beautiful cadence and, indeed, its humorous surprises.

My mother and I have been making the rounds, visiting family members scattered about. At each home, I am welcomed with broad smiles and tight hugs. At each home, someone, at some point, walks through the yard and picks fruit off trees for us to take home. And everywhere, we laugh. We laugh at the ineptitude of government officials, the moral turpitude of members of Parliament. No one shakes with moralistic fervor. No one calls for anyone’s resignation.  Everyone laughs. They laugh because, at the end of the day, these are  not issues that matter so much. 

What matters is how to get an employee some help, because for sure her bruises are not caused by accidental falls. What matters is showing one’s family and one’s friends love and loyalty. It means honoring the generations that came before, it means delighting with pride in the escapades of the young.

We talk a lot in independent school education about teaching our children to be global citizens. In our privileged world, we often send students on international explorations because of our deeply held belief that we learn best by doing and experiencing.

I am here to say that, done thoughtfully, this premise is worthy and its truth unshakeable.  Experiencing and living in a culture that is not one’s own will bring at first shock, maybe even a measure of disdain. But stay long enough and a different story emerges. Be open enough and a second truth appears. Relax enough and admit there is joy in other ways of being.  And then, judge less, appreciate more, and start to imagine a more tolerant world.

Posted by alison on Tuesday December 2, 2014 at 03:37PM
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in appreciation of leaders- 10.21.14

If you are at all familiar with this blog, or with the work of the Center, you know that we focus much of our energy on the development of leadership in girls. Ultimately, the Center generates programs and tools for girls and young women that will help them create a world that will be more equitable and fair in its opportunities and its conditions.

And in a world in which there are still too few women leaders, the Center will continue to parse out the reasons for this lack of female representation – and will fashion the tools that will best address those reasons.

In my professional life, I am surrounded by girls and women. I see, each day, the power of girl leadership and the exemplary strength of women leaders.  I can, in the span of a few hours, watch the developmental arc of leadership play out before my very eyes.

In Michael Fullan’s book Leading in a Culture of Change (2001), the author writes eloquently about the styles of leading that combine to make the most effective leader when navigating change. I would argue that when working with and on behalf of the young, change is the operative concept upon which we build and expand our programming.

Fullan writes that the effective leader combines three styles: an affiliative leadership style (in which “people come first” p. 35); a coaching leadership style (“Try this.”), and an authoritative style with which “the leader mobilizes people toward a vision.” (Ibid.)

The logic is obvious: we are all more motivated to work toward a common goal when we understand it, buy into it, and feel valued as contributing members of the team. We bask in the attention of the leader who understands our strengths and challenges – and helps us expand on the former and overcome the latter.

In my experience, girls and women typically gravitate to the more relational leadership styles that Fullan mentions. We are conditioned to “put people first” and, through that relational lens, more easily identify the value each person on a team brings to the table.

It is, of course, the more authoritative style that girls (and women) often struggle with. Authoritative behavior flies in the face of feminine ideals of niceness, of not being seen as bossy. The Girls Scouts research institute found that two thirds of girls avoid leading because they don’t want to be labeled as bossy – or risk losing friends.

So how do we tackle this complex issue?

We can start by helping young girls define how they see themselves as leaders. We can help them discover that they have the capacity to lead because they possess (or can develop) the traits of a good leader (resiliency, independent-mindedness, being a good listener, just to name a few.)

We can develop the middle school girl’s perception of leadership by expanding her world and giving her opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others.

We can help upper school girls by teaching them skills all good leaders need: financial, fundraising and negotiation skills are just three examples. We can push them to run for office, risking defeat and failure. We can help them bounce back and practice the resiliency we taught them when they were just little girls.

I love watching our girls try on their own mantle of leadership. Like any hand-sewn garment, it fits who they are exquisitely.  I see girls step up with enthusiasm and with bold, loud statements. These girls plunge into the deep end, the only indication of nervousness the high color on their cheeks. These girls have spun mantles with vibrant colors – easily noticed, not easily dismissed.  They are our live wires – and we are, without fail, drawn to their charisma.

And then I see girls who consider more carefully.  They lead because they believe deeply in issues that warrant their attention. Their smiles are not meant to garner votes, but they come from deep within – from a place of contented knowledge that what they are doing, what they are passionate about, matters.  Their mantle may be more muted in color, but it is durable and lasting in quality.

How girls lead and identify themselves as leaders might change over time. As they should, girls will try on different mantles, different styles of leading, over time. They will practice being affiliative, or authoritative, or they may practice being a coach.

No matter – the development of their leadership selves is the epic narrative of which I love to be a part.


Posted by alison on Tuesday October 21, 2014 at 09:32AM
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anchoring adult- 9.3.14

I have been plowing, recently, through a book called Reaching Teens and the myriad accompanying videos available. The book is published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Ken Ginsburg, editor of the book and the more than 400  supplemental videos, is someone for whom I have tremendous respect and from whom I draw great inspiration.

The reason I am so drawn to Ken’s work (and to this book) is the notion of unconditional love that sits at its core and is its simple premise. Perhaps it seems naïve to think that we can motivate teens to make healthy choices and lead successful lives if we listen openly enough, respect deeply enough, and speak authentically enough. If that is the case, I plead guilty – I will admit to being naïve.

I have watched a dozen or so videos today, and I am struck by this overriding message: giving kids the gift of truly listening and doing so with genuine awe for who they are, is the greatest gift we can give our youth.  It means that each of us can be an adult who anchors the young people with whom we work or live. We can, in Ken’s words, be “the radical calmness in a chaotic reality.” We can hold kids to high standards, yet when they struggle, we can continue to believe in them and in the person they want to be.  

A long time ago, I was the single mother of two very young kids – and there were many days and nights I really did feel I was going it alone. Sure, my parents were extraordinarily supportive of me, but they lived across the Atlantic. Most of the time, I was parenting on my own.

This period of my life lasted for only four years, but in those four years I learned that there are few jobs as challenging as being a single parent. There were days when I was tired enough that putting a five year old to bed felt like an impossible feat. There were the daily routines, such as helping with homework that, at times, felt like the very last thing I could manage to accomplish after a day of counseling students.

Don’t get me wrong – I was one of the very lucky ones. I had a decent job, with an understanding boss who got that I was the one to deal with the inevitable phone calls from the school nurse. I had a mom who visited as often as she could, and friends who loved hanging out with my kids.

And then once in a while, a miracle would happen. My kids would find the anchoring adult that would love them and believe in them along with me.  I would see my children react with unadulterated joy when that adult paid attention, attended a performance or game, took them out for ice cream, and yes, listened to them, really listened to them when they were struggling. Sometimes, I knew, it was that other adult who would make the day have a happy ending for my kids – even when I could not.

I married a wonderful man 16 years ago – and he and I had a daughter, who is about to start ninth grade. I am not sure where the time went, but there you have it.

I remember when she first started to talk. She spent her days at an in-home day care with a wonderful woman. I remember walking in once and my daughter calling her caregiver “mommy” while she hugged her tight.

The caregiver looked at me, worried I would be hurt.

I just smiled. A long time before that moment, thanks to the wonderful anchoring adults in my older children’s lives, I learned that there is never too much love in the world for our children. There are never too many times a child is told she is heard, understood and truly known. I learned that children deserve an abundance of support.

Thank you, Ken Ginsburg, for reminding me so powerfully.


Posted by alison on Wednesday September 3, 2014 at 10:10AM
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