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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. 

identity- 4.10.18

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”  

- Maya Angelou

I am back in Suriname, land of my birth, for just a week (glorious spring break) to connect again with family and soak up the heat that brings healing to my winter-weary heart. I have written before about the love and warmth of family I enjoy when I make the trip down, and so it has been this time, too.

Today, my mother and I drove to the market to pick up the spices and hot sauces with which I must return back to the Philadelphia area -- for the cooking I do in the US depends on it! I love driving through the dusty, bustling city where too many cars share narrow roads with surprising civility, despite the occasional burst of car horns that pollute the air. (Let me be clear, however: I believe it takes a special kind of courage to be a driver in Suriname. I am merely suggesting that those who understand the country’s particular unwritten rules can navigate through the streets without too much danger.)

Once in awhile, a beautifully restored wooden house catches my attention and I wonder who so lovingly trimmed the shutters the traditional dark green of yore while the rest of the house gleams white.  And there, around the bend, is a large institutional building with peeling paint and broken windows that our taxi driver reveals as a high school. Incredulous, I shake my head and I think of the gorgeous school in which I work and I wonder about what the teaching and learning in this school is like. This is Suriname: a nation in which the juxtaposition of these realities -- the beautiful home and the dilapidated school -- raises nary an eyebrow and never represses the indomitable pride that permeates its citizenry.  

While the official language of the country is Dutch, upon establishment after establishment, I see languages that for the most part I don’t understand: aside from the globally ubiquitous English slogans, Portuguese phrases announce the Brazilian owner, and Chinese and Hindu lettering proudly display a heritage that is deeply ingrained, despite the fact that the families of those who ordered the lettering have been in this country for generations.

At night, we visit my aunt and cousin -- others stop by too -- and food items appear in steady succession: samosas, warm, crusty bread with nuts, pineapple, and cheese, deviled eggs with hot sauce- and curry-laced filling, and of course, cake. We talk, this group of women across generations, about our relationships, shake our heads at the escapades of children and grandchildren, and reminisce about times gone by. And that is when it strikes me: this gorgeous land is made all the more so because of the great diversity of its people.

Sources describe Suriname as one of the most ethnically and racially diverse nations on the South American continent. It is not hard to see why. With a population of slightly more than a half million people and, geographically, the size of Ohio, in Suriname live, side by side, those of African, Indian, Chinese, European White, Indonesian, and, of course, indigenous descent. Each of these groups have strong, dual identities; the one that reflects their origin, and the other that is undeniably Surinamese.  One does not usurp the other; in fact, they appear to strengthen each other.

That night, with women in my extended family gathered around food and connected by stories, it strikes me: each of us, even in this family,  has a different history of which we are proud. My mother, as the eldest of the group, tells stories that revive characters that have long since passed. My aunt tells the story of her “Boeroe” heritage, but proudly claims her loyalty to and love for Suriname, too.

This complexity of identity, this celebration of different backgrounds is not unique to Suriname, but I believe that because of its small population, it is always at the forefront of consciousness. For me, as a citizen of two countries, with a mix of races and ethnicities coursing through my veins,  it simply underscores that we can be more than one thing, and we can be so with pride.

While I was away, basking in heat and humidity, a group of AIS students and a group of Nightingale Bamford students were enjoying a much colder time during the inaugural trip of the Girls Schools Traveling Consortium to a school in the Pine Ridge reservation of the Lakota tribe.

The brainchild of head of school Paul Burke of Nightingale, this trip to the Pine Ridge Girls School in South Dakota highlighted the powerful connection of intersecting, yet individual identities: the travelers were all girls, attending girls schools (and yet how different these schools are), all American, but with different cultural histories, all learning from and celebrating with one another their unique journeys.

In reading the blog the girls maintained on their trip, I am struck by one powerful notion, explained to the travelers by a Lakota eductor, the notion of wotakuye, described as the foundation of Lakota life. Loosely translated as “kinship,” this principle connects the Lakota people through the generations and sustains their hope even in times of challenge and heartache.

While I am by no means an expert in the history of culture of the Lakota people, I find myself connecting this idea to my evening conversation in Suriname. Kinship, in this context, can simultaneously transcend and sustain our individuality, our identities.

We should not fear the diversity of identities in our communities. We should embrace them, claim our own, and delight in others claiming theirs. Nothing else will enrich us in quite the same way.

Posted by alison on Tuesday April 10
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listening across the aisle- 3.7.18

Every Friday since the fall, a few minutes after 12:00 p.m., upper school girls file into our STEAM Studio, many of them with lunches in hand. Most Fridays, with furniture pushed aside, the room fills to capacity; a tell tale sign that on this day, we will be discussing a topic near and dear to students’ hearts. These Friday Forums, our designated Making Caring Common Project in partnership with Harvard University, were established to strengthen the fabric of our upper school community.

Like any community, we are comprised of girls and teachers who represent many voices and perspectives. It makes us vibrant, and real, and joyful, and sometimes, contrarian. We are, collectively, after all, a direct reflection of the passionate and intelligent people that learn and grow together in our school. Within the bonds of this sisterhood, our small community is not immune to the increasingly polarizing diatribes that fill our news feeds. It seems that with each passing day, screaming headlines overwhelm our ears and eyes to the point of saturation -- making it harder still to see and to hear what should really be noticed and heard.

That is why Making Caring Common issued its international call to action — and why we joined this important initiative. In our Friday Forums, our girls submit topics they want to discuss and teachers facilitate the conversations. The discussions have been wide-ranging: we have addressed sexual harassment, taking a knee during the national anthem, gun violence, race, and net neutrality, to name a few. A teacher kicks off each discussion with a relevant quote, or some data points, and asks each participant to reflect on her own point of view. We are very good, in girls’ schools, at helping girls find their voices. Our girls are not shrinking violets, and their convictions are often deeply and strongly held. But what we all have to get better at, students and certainly also adults, is listening to one another. Often, it seems, we listen to help ourselves strengthen the counter argument we will make as soon as the speaker rests. Much less often, we listen to understand another perspective.

Ironically, on this day that Making Caring Common is launching its initiative world-wide, I sat in a workshop, facilitated by author and speaker Margaret Seidler, in which we explored the notion that “values are best held in pairs.” Ms. Seidler’s point is that for each truth there is an equally valid and equally incomplete polar opposite. Breathing, she explained, is not just inhaling; it is exhaling in equal measure. The focus of the workshop was on leadership styles; we were asked to identify for ourselves those modes of operating that were our most preferred. I, for example, see myself as valuing creativity, which means that its polar opposite, logic, might be a trait I avoid using in my work.

This notion that, in order to perform at our most productive, we must consider both sides or both poles resonated deeply with me. What if, in addition to valuing creativity, I applied a logical framework to a problem I was solving? My work would be more fully realized and I would avoid the blind spots that may limit the outcome of my task.

Applied to our Friday Forums, I would argue that these facilitated conversations create opportunities for each girl to listen to and truly hear an opposing viewpoint. There is no shouting over one another, only respectful dialogue. Our skilled facilitators honor and value each girl who courageously speaks her truth, just as they honor and value anyone who expresses an opposing truth. When the facilitator reflects back the thinking of each girl, he or she allows for the argument to sink in more fully, helping each person in the room listen “across the aisle.”

Our upper school community has, in just a few short months, come to rely on these conversations as a place where what lies on hearts and minds can be authentically expressed and is guaranteed to be truly heard.

While our girls represent different backgrounds, religions, and experiences, these discussions have only deepened respect for one another and strengthened the bonds of sisterhood that make our school unique.

Posted by alison on Wednesday March 7 at 09:16AM
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this one is for my athlete friends- 2.12.18


Let me come right out and say it: I have never participated in organized sports. Honestly, from a genetic perspective, grace and coordination were not granted to me in abundant supply. Not that I am complaining; I am an able-bodied woman who enjoys long walks and short runs.

Another reason for never having ventured into athletics is my upbringing in parts of the world where, unlike in the U.S., participation in sports was not a foregone conclusion. In Belgium, where I attended middle and upper schools, for example, my academic day did not end until close to 4:30 p.m., and no schools had sports teams. This worked for me; I was always more comfortable reading a book or writing an essay than kicking a ball or swinging a racket.

But, perhaps ironically, I have a deep appreciation for the power of athletics in the lives of young (and old!) people. The commitment, resilience, and the loyalty to teammates that are required to be a student athlete are all traits that anyone would appreciate in friends and colleagues.

In fact, I find myself surrounded by athletes and former athletes on a daily basis. These are the colleagues and friends who are most collaborative. They are strong and determined women (and men) who seek excellence in all endeavors. They love the lessons of athletics that transcend the physical: fair play, honor, and determination are values that guide their interactions and inform their decision-making. A committed athlete is one who must be willing to seek and accept feedback — for a steadfast belief that this and continued hard work will lead to excellence and victory is a hallmark principle of the sports contender.

There are obvious reasons for participation in sports: the physical and mental health benefits to the athlete are clear and well-documented. A big contest harbingers excitement and pride in one’s school or city or country — depending on the venue — and can bring together a community in a way no intellectual endeavor ever has.

For girls, especially, there is robust evidence that participation in team sports increases their confidence and their willingness to take necessary risks. Sports help girls build their resiliency, and their ability to problem-solve. These, and more, are all skills and traits that good leaders need, and sports are one proven way to develop these in girls and women. For example, a recent survey showed that 96% of C-level women were athletes. That is an astounding statistic and one we should not ignore. Women who participated in athletics when they were younger were 25% more likely to be interested in running for elective office. It is clear that the benefits of participation in sports go well beyond the physical.

One of the most interesting initiatives I have had the pleasure to work on this year is one that answers the following question: How might we harness the engagement of our students in athletics in order to further develop their leadership capacity? In collaboration with our Athletics Department, we, at CAG, have set out to design a program that provides for our student athletes a unique, girl-centered leadership development experience. Discussions with various stakeholders, such as the athletes themselves and the coaches that work with them, have shown us where the opportunities lie that will infuse this program with the skill building that our girls, and our future women leaders crave.

For me, the time spent brainstorming and discussing the possible ways in which to develop this new program is energizing and fun; while I may be the least coordinated person in the room, I still get the opportunity to work with athletes. And it doesn’t get any better than that.

Posted by alison on Monday February 12 at 10:30AM
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how to get strong female leaders in the boardroom and beyond- 1.9.18

This post is an Op-Ed that was featured the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was co-authored by Dr. Wendy Hill, Head of School, and Mariandl Hufford, Assistant Head of School and Director of the Center for the Advancement of Girls.

At a recent event in Paris, former President Barack Obama was asked about essential leadership skills for the future. He responded that more women should be put into positions of power.

“Not to generalize,” he said, “but they seem to have better capacity than men do.”

As educators at the Agnes Irwin School, an institution that cultivates the leadership identities of girls, we agree that the world needs more women in leadership. However, despite a recent surge in women’s interest in running for office, and a raising of women’s voices that is unprecedented, we currently live in a world dominated by male leaders. At Fortune 500 companies, only 6.4 percent of the CEOs are women. In Congress, they represent slightly less than 20 percent of the total. If parity is the goal, there is clearly work to be done.

Girls still grow up in a society that reinforces gender stereotypes. Subtly, or not so subtly, girls and boys are presented with messages that delineate old-fashioned roles and abilities in ways that are deeply limiting.

A recent report on gender bias in advertising by the J. Walter Thompson Intelligence Group and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media highlights that in ads, women are “48 percent more likely to be pictured in the kitchen, while men are 50 percent more likely to be shown attending a sporting event.” When it comes to intelligence, in the portrayal of characters for whom this quality is integral — such as doctors — “men are 62 percent more likely to be shown as smart.”

One might argue that children can separate fact from fiction and that they understand that girls and boys are equally capable of holding positions of leadership.

Alas, a recent report, based on a survey of almost 20,000 teenage girls and boys by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, shows that gender bias is alive and well among today’s teens. The results suggest “that teen girls both hold biases and suffer from biases that may corrode their relationships and sense of justice, sap their confidence in their leadership potential, and dampen their desire to seek leadership positions, especially in high-power fields.”

So what are we to do?

Organizations, such as Philadelphia’s own Vision 2020, continue to work on bringing parity in leadership between men and women through their myriad efforts. Parents can empower their sons and daughters to step up and have their voices heard. And those of us who work specifically with girls can work intentionally to foster their leadership identity from an early age and instill in them the knowledge and confidence that they have the capacity to lead.

Recently, a group of researchers from the Department of Social Cognition Laboratory at Cornell University visited with elementary students at the Agnes Irwin School to explore, in part, how perceptions of leadership are developed in young children. At our Center for the Advancement of Girls, we have collaborated with the Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research to create a highly successful program where our youngest girls (from pre-K to fourth grade) learn to develop and identify leadership skills.

Researchers commented that specific traits we emphasize in our model (such as empathy, collaboration, self-reflection, and independence) surfaced repeatedly during their interactions with our students.

When asked to draw a leader, for example, numerous girls eagerly drew themselves, in addition to friends, their mothers, and other trusted adults. They overwhelmingly valued confident decision-making as an important trait in leaders and were quite willing to endorse themselves as such.

It is important for girls to see themselves as leaders, because that leadership identity is more likely to carry into adulthood when it is ingrained in how a female defines herself from the beginning. When parents and teachers focus on girls’ capacity to lead, as President Obama suggested, we know that they will grow into confident, independent women who will thrive in leading businesses, laboratories, classrooms, governments, and families.

Posted by alison on Tuesday January 9 at 12:46PM
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fail gloriously, lead well*- 10.31.17

One of the highlights of my year has been meeting with a group of upper school girls (recipients of the inaugural Moulton Grant) on fleshing out their idea for creating a middle school leadership program that is developmentally suited to this older age group.

The girls’ commitment has been commendable — they never miss our weekly meetings — and their energy, creativity, and enthusiasm have fueled my own. There are other adults in the room, too, and together, we are slowly but surely driving toward our goal. The girls’ ideas are taking shape, and with the input of students and teachers in our middle school, will surely impact their younger sisters’ leadership identity.

In our earliest conversations, we talked about what we know about girls in middle school, and their possibly reluctant stance toward claiming their leadership voice. We talked about the awkwardness that is so often a part of those middle years. We discussed how girls can worry about being seen as bossy by their peers, or about losing friends when a decision is unpopular.

We also talked about the fact that running for elected office (one form of leadership) is a highly vulnerable endeavor that opens oneself up to the sting of failure. We talked about how failure is an inherent part of stepping into a space that, because we are not clairvoyant, is unknown and unknowable to us. And we talked about how for girls, in particular, that risk of failure is a very hard concept to embrace. The pressure placed on girls to be “practically perfect in every way,” as Mary Poppins so famously said, has been discussed in a variety of outlets and I will not detail it here. It is important to note, however, that this pressure can make girls risk-averse, which, we know, will, in turn, rob them of the opportunity to discover in themselves what they are truly capable of. Brene Brown speaks eloquently about how vulnerability is “our greatest measure of courage,” and each of us, in girls’ schools, hopes just that for our students — the uncovering of courage to risk, fail, and try again.

I pointed out to my group of intrepid upper school girls that I once read about a girls’ school in the UK that celebrated “failure week” in order to help its students become comfortable with the idea of failing for all of the reasons I listed above. One girl, smart, bold, insightful, and honest, grabbed the arms of the chair in which she was seated. She sat up straight, caught her breath, and exclaimed: “I think we are going to have to incorporate something like that. The thought of it alone makes me anxious — I guess I really need it.” We all chuckled — because of her disarming honesty, but also because we could all relate. Failure can be excruciating; the (temporary) loss of confidence alone is enough to make us shrink back to doing what is safe and predictable. But here is the irony: the more we risk and the greater the potential for failure, the harder it becomes to retreat, permanently, to safe ground. Good leaders know this; once you have imagined greater possibilities for yourself and others, it is hard to remain satisfied with the status quo.

And because we have seen what is possible, we dust ourselves off and reach for the next opportunity to make our vision reality.

At one of the more recent planning meetings we held as a group, this same girl and a collaborator proposed that we create our own version of the Game of Life for our middle schoolers to play in which risk and decision making will inevitably lead to moments of failure, but also moments of triumph. The point of the game: becoming comfortable with the fact that life is not just smooth sailing, and that to grow, and to lead, we need to make ourselves vulnerable and take bold risks that may, indeed, lead to failing gloriously.

*The first part of title of this blog “fail gloriously,” is attributed to actress Cate Blanchett, who said: “If you know you are going to fail, then fail gloriously.”

Posted by alison on Tuesday October 31, 2017 at 10:20AM
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change leadership- 10.3.17

I am on my way to Washington D.C. for a workshop on leading change in independent schools, hosted by EAB.  In the accelerated pace of life (all aspects of it), this is a topic that all of us are paying close attention to. Ironically, even in these harried times, where the rate of change can create a culture of urgency that demands immediate action, I believe that meaningful change happens, not overnight, but through careful planning, thoughtful consideration of culture and readiness, and bottom-up, collaborative action.

Maybe it is because our article on the leadership programming we created in our lower school was just published in the Journal for Research in Childhood Education , but I have been reflecting a lot recently about how our thoughtful approach to that initiative was a foundational component of its ultimate success. Living Leadership in the Lower School, or L3, was not the result of one person’s vision or creativity, but an exemplar of a powerful collaboration between faculty, staff, and administrators to build a program that, five years later, has become an integral part of our lower school’s culture.

When my colleague, Lower School Director Donna Lindner, and I present on the topic of L3, we often remark that one way we could have approached the development of a leadership program is by the two of us spending our summer writing a curriculum. This would have been an efficient use of time, and change would have been ready-made for faculty upon their return to school in August. However, Donna and I both argue that this approach would  have resulted in understandably uneven teacher buy-in.

And so, we went to the faculty and staff in our lower school with the kernel of an idea; we wanted to explore what leadership in young girls looks like and how a school like ours, which is built around what is best for girls, can harness this leadership potential and ingrain in each girl the knowledge that she has the capacity to lead. A small group of teachers and staff members signed on with us. Our work together, with guidance from the Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, took an entire academic year. It also took an unwavering commitment to the process, which was by no means smooth. There were times when we felt we were spinning our wheels, and that real progress was elusive.

It was the sharing of one story by a PreK teacher that helped us to become unstuck in our process. The leadership story of Lilly helped us reflect on how we, as a school, understand leadership. We believe that every girl has the capacity to lead, and that it is our job to develop her identity as a leader so she can exercise it when she so chooses. This was a galvanizing a-ha moment for all of us and, from there, the components of L3 fell into place almost without effort.

In the five years since we have launched the program, it has become a defining characteristic of our lower school, but, more importantly, an ever-growing  group of teachers have expanded its application throughout the division.  For example, teachers have  linked it to our wellness curriculum, and our librarian has collected a bibliography of children’s books that highlight the leadership traits we emphasize.  

Fundamental change, as I mentioned before, takes careful, deliberate planning, and consideration of culture and readiness. Our idea to explore leadership development in young girls was not accidental, but grounded in the knowledge that leadership development is an essential value our school holds dear.  Fundamental, meaningful change also takes collaborative, bottom-up action, which was on full display in our L3 work. It was a teacher who told the story that got us unstuck, and a different teacher who imagined the quintessential part of L3, the leadership toolkit. And if there is one essential take-away from this project that has influenced my own leadership and my approach to change, it is exactly this: the collaboration with our teachers and staff members is a most powerful ingredient in forging transformational practice.

Posted by alison on Tuesday October 3, 2017 at 11:10AM
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when kitchens are anchors- 8.2.17

When I was a little girl in the tiny, equatorially hot country of my birth, celebrations of birthdays and holidays brought with them a host of preparations that, looking back now, fell squarely on the shoulders of women — at least, as far as my memory serves.

Some of those memories are of me hovering silently around the edges of the hub of preparations, the kitchen, where aunts came and went to aid in the hot and seemingly unending process of peeling, grating, kneading, beating, stirring, frying, and baking. To my very young ears, their conversations were oracles of insight and wisdom. In my memory, these conversations consisted almost entirely of talk about children, spouses, parents, and siblings. I was transfixed; as long as I remained silent, my presence non-intrusive, I could imagine myself a future part of this cabal, which had formed itself around the routine of creating delicacies, savory and sweet, in this anchoring place, the kitchen, for the celebration ahead.

There were many gatherings of which I was a part during these early, formative years. There were Sundays by a man-made lake where, under the benign gaze of my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, we got together to swim, and eat, and chat. There were the almost daily check-ins before evening supper, where the women caught up on their days, while we, children, played barefoot in the dust around them. But none of these gatherings drew me in as much as those times, in my aunts’ kitchens, when the women prepared for a feast. No hands were ever idle, and to me, the seeming ease with which they created their delicacies was nothing short of magical, and I could not wait to be initiated into this craft that was the purview of women only. I was entranced by this power to convene groups of happy party-goers with the promise of a meal well-cooked.

It should come as no surprise then that, even though I was thousands of miles away from these aunts, I stood for the first time, in my own kitchen, and tried to become a cook. A real cook, in the vein of these women, who produce food, the enjoyment of which is directly correlated to the time and care it took to prepare. I have fed family, friends, and my children’s college friends with enthusiasm, a healthy dose of creativity, and, most of all, love.

This past month, I spent almost three weeks in Suriname to visit my mother and my extended family. Traditions change over time, and the food for celebrations is now most often provided by a caterer or ordered from a restaurant. However, getting together is still a major pastime in my family, and my aunts are still baking and cooking. Perhaps it was because I was around longer than I usually am, but at some point during my sojourn, I asked various members of the family for recipes of flavors never forgotten. Before I knew it, I learned how to clean dozens of hot peppers efficiently so as to make delicious green papaya hot sauce. I deep-fried the Surinamese take on an Indian snack that involves yellow lentils, cumin, garlic, and hot oil, and I baked a deliciously smooth and moist breakfast cake. Under the tutelage of aunts (and a cousin), I made chutneys, copied down recipes, and listened to insider advice on how you take your dish from good to great.

I know that I am describing scenarios that may appear to reinforce gender stereotypes. The reality is that the ascribed gender roles of my youth were most definitely traditional. For example, my mother worked outside of the home, along with my father, but in our house, it was she who shouldered the responsibilities of the household. The work of women like my aunts and my mother should not be dismissed because of their traditional nature. What these women did (and continue to do) is the work of nurture, of celebration, and of love.

It has also struck me that while the setting I describe is a traditional one — the kitchen — what lies beneath these culinary gatherings is the strength of women’s relationships. This relational nature provided the backdrop for the collaborative and creative spirit that infused these special days, during which I found myself mesmerized by my aunts’ skill and wisdom. Women’s relational strength is evident, I would argue, in all spaces created for girls and women, in which shared purpose and values drive outcomes that are good for all.

There was a moment, this past month, while wiping beads of sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand, that all the old memories came flooding back. My aunt was regaling my mom with stories, while keeping an eagle eye on my hot pepper progress. She was, in that moment, as I always remembered; a master in the kitchen, but this time, she was passing along her skill to me, who had finally, in middle age, become part of the cabal.

Posted by alison on Wednesday August 2, 2017 at 11:44AM
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mentorship- 7.10.17

I just finished reading a great interview in the Atlantic with Nannerl Keohane and Catherine Ettman about their work at Princeton University, which, to its credit, realized that the dearth of women leaders among their student body needed to be addressed. The statistics quoted in the article are concerning, to say the least. In the past 29 years, according to The Atlantic, only six women were chair of the honor committee, nine were editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, and four were student-body president.

The committee tasked with recommending a way forward that would address this lack of women leaders urged the university, in its 2011 report, to create a formal mentorship program for women. The Atlantic article is well worth reading, and I will not repeat its content here. But what was most interesting to me is the idea of mentorship for women — and the central role it plays in their academic and professional success. The reasons for mentorship of girls and women in STEM fields, for example, have been much discussed. Whole organizations have been founded to provide mentors in order to strengthen the pipeline for girls and women in STEM. And in 2011, with this report, Princeton has emphasized the importance for this fundamentally relational approach to encourage women to step into leadership positions.

I will not debate the pros and cons of mentoring here. The Atlantic’s article was actually part of a larger series that addresses the nuances and pitfalls of mentorship. I want to highlight the deeply relational part of mentoring, something which appears naturally aligned with women’s and girls’ ways of being, and how this is a basic component of all-girls’ educational settings.

If we accept the premise that relationships are the fourth “R” for girls, as author Rachel Simmons says, the unique spaces in which only girls learn and grow are also the spaces in which these relationships thrive. While one might argue that I have veered away from discussing traditional mentoring relationships, I would posit that girls in girls’ schools, for example, find their opinions more respected and rate themselves as more motivated to succeed than their peers in co-ed independent and public schools — which, I would argue, is similar to the result of a strong mentoring relationship.

I would also argue that the strength of the relationships in girls’ schools, between peers and between teachers and girls, knit together an experience that strengthens girls’ aspirations, their willingness to take risks, and yes, their willingness to lead, in fundamental ways. I remember asking an alumna of my school, who had served as student body president, to describe her experience at the school, which she attended from kindergarten on. She told me that it was the sisterhood of which she was a part that has stayed with her, even a decade later. She told me that her peers cheered her on in moments of triumph and dried her tears in times of sorrow in equal measure.

Other alumnae have told me about the surprise they felt in college when their female classmates, unlike themselves, yielded the floor — all too easily — to the men in their classes. It never occurred to them to follow suit. It is my deeply held belief that these stories (and I could go on and on with examples) are the result of the strength of relationships in all-girls spaces. It is no surprise that organizations like the Girl Scouts, Girls on the Run, Black Girls Code, and many others, use this same strength of relationships and sisterhood to bolster the motivation and confidence of young girls with positive results.

One more anecdotal piece of evidence before I end: at Princeton, this young alumna was class president all four years that she attended the university.
Posted by alison on Monday July 10, 2017 at 10:48AM
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may is the longest month- 5.23.17

For all of us who work in schools, May is, indisputably, the longest month. Days and evenings are jam-packed with special events; there are papers and final exams to be graded, comments to be written, and concerts and championship games to attend. As celebratory and joyful as these events are, students and teachers alike peer bleary-eyed, toward what appears to be the elusive final day of school — convinced, like they are every year, that the end will never come.

This is also the time of year when we realize that, despite our best intentions, we did not get to every single item on our to-do list. This is the list we adults made last August and called our “annual goals” or our “success plan.” At the time, we were brimming with optimism and energy that our goals were more than manageable to achieve. Then life set in, of course, and snow days, and flu season, and, despite our best efforts, we did not get to check off each of our goals as having been accomplished. For many of us, what we did not accomplish weighs heavily and we are disappointed by this perceived lack of progress.


Let me argue for all the teachers out there, the following: even if you did not achieve every last item you set out to do, even if you feel like there was still so much work to be done, reflect on what is, and let what isn’t go.

Each year, when I speak to our new cohort of colleagues as part of their orientation, I share Peter Gow’s Letter to New Teachers with them. There is a permanence and truth about his words that is worth revisiting now, at this time of year, when we are a lot more tired than we were in September. Peter writes:

...teaching isn’t about content and it’s not about technology. It’s about kids, about building relationships with them, about believing in them, about finding out what they can do and then providing opportunities for them to do it. And it’s about seeing them goof up and giving them chances to try again. 

Just ask yourself if you accomplished this core part of what it means to be a teacher this year. Ask yourself whether you believed in your students, and gave them the opportunity to reach high, and whether you gave them the chances they needed to try again.

Another quote from the same letter speaks to the responsibility we have as educators to grow — and grow continually.

Think of doctors, who spend their lives learning even as they practice. The best teachers do the same, and you should try to emulate that—if for no other reason than to stay on the right side of all the disruptive change that’s coming along.

 Ask yourself how open you were to new ideas. Did you try a new technology, a different approach to an old assignment? Did you read about your educational practice or visit a colleague’s class? 

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, feel satisfied that you have been true to the core commitments of teaching. You have, by default, touched the lives of children and made their experience better, or more interesting. You have figured out how to cajole, support, push, and inspire. You have instilled, ingrained, and motivated. That is a lot to accomplish.

Everything else is icing on the cake. And of course, there will always be next  year.

Posted by alison on Tuesday May 23, 2017 at 03:25PM
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verdant walks- 5.10.17

It’s Saturday morning and I am enjoying the quiet: no one else in my family is up yet and my dogs are happily snoring beside me. The sun is fighting its way past the clouds, and I reflect on how, not too long ago, I would have, on a day like this, laced up my sneakers and gone for a hike in nearby Valley Forge Park. But a little over a year ago, I injured my ankle, and the road back (no pun intended) has been slower than I anticipated. I can go for my walks, but they are shorter now, which regularly leads me to think they are not worth the trouble.

We spend much time, at Agnes Irwin and at other girls’ schools, thinking about how to help our girls be well. The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools even produced a recent podcast on innovations in health and wellness programming for girls. It is imperative, we know, that our schools provide opportunities for girls to develop the habits of mind and body that allow them to live full and joyous lives.

Earlier this year, through the Global Girls Inspiration Network, I had the great opportunity to facilitate an online conversation with educators from girls’ schools around the world about how they themselves stay well. The conversation was wide-ranging and included discussions ranging from how small changes in daily routine can have a beneficial impact on our frame of mind, to how institutional ideas can promote, loud and clear, the priority placed on wellness for all.

I imagine there are few out there who would argue with the research that shows the physical and emotional benefits of exercise. Exercise enhances cognitive function, improves muscle tone, and staves off a host of ailments. And so, whatever your preferred method of exercise is, the most important part is to just do it, as the slogan says. However, I would like to make a pitch for my preferred method: walking in the woods.

For me, at this time of year, when trees have fully burst into their spring finery, a verdant walk in the woods is all the salve my soul needs. Upon merely seeing the park in front of me, when I round that final curve to the parking lot, my shoulders relax. Re-tying my shoelaces before the hike up the hillside, I wonder which flowers might be in bloom this time, and I cannot wait to see.

I never listen to music when I walk in our park, because I do not want to be distracted from the beauty that surrounds me or from my own thinking. I find my mind drifting to a challenge I am facing and allow myself to imagine different ways to tackle it. Invariably, I find a resolution that I can work with and feel relieved, my park once again proving its therapeutic prowess.

Research on the benefits of walking is well-documented. Organizations like GirlTrek and Girls On The Run have created whole social movements based on the powerful benefits that occur when we, yes, get moving. Other research has shown that exposure to nature, even if just in a photograph, improves brain function. Is it any wonder, then, that my walks through the park, even when short, are a powerful component of my (healthy) life?

The sun has not yet given up doing battle with the clouds this morning. It is dry out there and the woods are beckoning. Short or not, time to lace up my sneakers.

Posted by alison on Wednesday May 10, 2017 at 11:37AM
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AN ALL-GIRLS' INDEPENDENT COLLEGE PREPARATORY SCHOOL FOR PREK-GRADE 12  •  Ithan Avenue & Conestoga Road, Rosemont, PA 19010  •  Tel 610.525.8400

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