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Grey Matters, November 21, 2016; Volume 5, Number 12

posted Nov 20, 2016, 7:17 AM by Andrew Shen   [ updated Jul 18, 2017, 11:11 AM by James Marcotte ]
Hi Everyone,

Pre-Warning: This edition of Grey Matters is going to be on the longer side. Given where I typically land on the wordiness index, that should tell you something about what you will experience below.  I felt compelled to include three distinct parts: some comments about post-election activities, weekly reminders, and my annual note to families about Thanksgiving.  As always, I appreciate the time many of you take to read what is included in this newsletter.  

It’s been about three weeks since the election.  Our school has of course not been immune to the intensity of feelings and debate that has settled over our country.  As a middle school we find ourselves in the position of being asked to support our students and families as they make sense of the current landscape, one which feels quite new and unclear to many. Since the election I’ve had a number of conversations with parents and staff members about the role of our school (or any school) at this particular moment in time.  I’ve talked to parents about how we need to keep in mind the experiences of students who are pleased with the election results.  Other conversations with parents were focused on the worry their kids have about the election and what comes next.  Students have and continue to come to school with a mile-wide range of questions and wanting to talk with peers and teachers about election-related topics.  This is unsurprising given their age and their awareness of what has transpired over the last eighteen months. Because I don’t see that changing in the near future I wanted to acknowledge and elaborate a bit on this challenge that you and we share as the adults who support your children.

Following the election, our social studies teachers took on a good deal of heavy lifting and provided some different exercises that allowed for students to reflect on and/or share their initial reactions to the election.  It was additionally an opportunity to try and explain technical things such as the electoral college.  Teachers also worked hard to provide opportunities for students to practice the skills associated with listening to opposing viewpoints, making well-informed arguments and wrestling with areas of disagreement.  Before and separate from the election, these have been and continue to be skills that we seek to cultivate in our students.  To achieve this, we know that a space must be created where all of our students feel that they can safely enter these conversations with appropriate support and guidance.  We’re asking adolescents to develop habits and skills that are at the heart of being decent people and engaged citizens. Some of our attempts will resonate well with students on the first try, others may require a bit of adjustment.  It’s not easy work but is nevertheless an endeavor worth pursuing.  

We are also aware that the events of recent weeks, and certainly the charged language of the last several months, have left many in our community feeling quite vulnerable.  I want to emphasize that our efforts to create vibrant spaces for discussion do not need to come at the expense of our school’s commitment to inclusion, human dignity, and respect for every member of our community.  There is a broad landscape where lively disagreement is acceptable and healthy, and there exists clear boundaries in our school when it comes to certain types of words and actions. Acton-Boxborough has explicit policies regarding harassment and bullying behavior that all schools must uphold, including an obligation to address incidents that may violate those guidelines.  This includes, but is certainly not limited to, harassment towards others based on race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, disability, or religious affiliation.  There is a level of basic acceptance and safety that we need all families to feel when they send their children to RJ Grey each day.  We also need to ensure that all staff at RJ Grey are able to feel this way. We commit to this not only because it’s a policy, but because it’s central to our work as educators and members of this diverse community.  

Parents and educators alike have the important ongoing task of modeling for our children the behaviors that we hope they adopt and practice.  Many students will benefit from exposure to actions by individuals of all leanings and viewpoints that will serve as models of civility.  It is clear that they’ll also readily find via social media (and other sources) recent examples of behaviors that run counter to our school’s values and norms.  From the temptation to repost dehumanizing slogans or punchlines on an Instagram account to repeating provocative statements on a bus or playing field, adolescents might be tempted to mimic words and actions they come across.  They may or may not fully understand the meaning and impact of those actions.  I would strongly encourage all parents and guardians to be proactive on this front and not hesitate to participate in some appropriate monitoring of their children's’ social media activities and connections.  

I want to thank the parents and teachers who took the time to connect with me over the past few weeks about this topic, all of which helped me shape the message I just shared.  I hope that regardless of where you may land on the issues that have dominated the national conversation, the goals I have articulated above are ones that you accept and endorse as important for the benefit of each student individually, and for our school as a whole.  Thank you for the steps that you might have already initiated, and for the ones that you will take moving forward in support of this work.   

Ok - Now for Parts II and III of this week’s Grey Matters (a little less heavy, and I get to write about food).  

I wanted to offer a quick nod to two service-oriented efforts that took place at RJ Grey these past few weeks.  First, our Take Action club organized a fall food drive to collect items that would support our local Acton Food Pantry, which provides food and clothing to residents in need, and continues to be an important, and much needed, resource in our community.  7 Red has also continued to play a leadership role in our annual coat drive.  Thank you to the Take Action students, the students on 7 Red, and Mr. Lewis and Ms. Doiron, for their efforts and stewardship of these important activities.  We’re grateful to our families for your continued support as we continue to encourage in our students a sense of connection to our broader community.  

A couple of updates and reminders before we head into the Thanksgiving Break:

  • Tryouts for Winter Sports start immediately, or soon after, we return from break.  Please see the RJ Grey Athletics page for more information.  Remember that Green Forms must be on file in the Nurse’s office in order for a student to participate (even in the actual tryout).  We’re still working on Cheerleading, so stay tuned on that.  

  • Our RJ Grey Yearbook will go on sale soon after we return from Thanksgiving.  I’ll be sending specific ordering information in the next edition of Grey Matters.  

  • Remember that Michelle Icard, author of Middle School Makeover, will be visiting Acton-Boxborough on Thursday, December 1 (the week after Thanksgiving Break).  Her presentation will be at 7pm in the High School auditorium.  Click here for a downloadable flyer. I’ll be there, I hope many of you can join me at this event.  

  • Families interested in scheduling parent-teacher conferences during our December 15, December 20 and January 5 conference dates should do so ASAP.  Click here for the link to the request form.  

Have you purchased tickets to Once Upon a Mattress yet?! Performances of the annual RJ Grey musical takes place the week we return from Thanksgiving Break, so I strongly suggest getting your tickets now.  Five performances are scheduled for Thursday, December 1 (7pm), Friday, December 2 (7pm), Saturday, December 3 (2pm and 7pm), and Sunday, December 4 (2pm).  Tickets are $15 and are now available in the Junior High Main Office.  ABSAF holders are entitled to two free tickets and must pick up their tickets from the Main Office.  Tickets are also available at Donelan’s in Acton, and Red, White and Brew in West Acton.  This is always a great family-friendly event and we hope to see many A-B families there.

Finally, this is a shortened week, with an early release on Wednesday (dismissal is at 10:40am).  On that day, we will have our annual Thanksgiving Assembly.  This assembly traditionally includes a few speeches by students, and performances by the school band and chorus.  When I prepared for this assembly in my first year as Principal (five years ago), it brought back all sorts of memories of my own Thanksgiving experiences as a middle school-aged student and I shared some of those memories in that year’s pre-Thanksgiving edition of Grey Matters.  I have since re-posted it every year because Thanksgiving is, after all, a time for creating and maintaining certain traditions.  Given the continuing and ever-growing diversity that has evolved in our two communities, I hope some of what I share resonates with many of you in one way or another.    

When I was younger, Thanksgiving had very little to do with extended family, as most of our relatives were a few thousand miles away.  For my sister and I, Thanksgiving dinner was an event celebrated with just our parents, so it often felt like a lot of work for just another Thursday night dinner.  Having grown up in Taiwan, my parents didn’t experience Thanksgiving until they moved here for graduate school, and along with preparing the “traditional” turkey and sides, my parents wanted to include items more familiar to them.  As a result, we had many a Thanksgiving where, next to the mashed potatoes, sat a plate full of pork dumplings; and next to the canned cranberry sauce, there was a bowl filled with a rice dish prepared by my dad.

When I was thirteen, having soy sauce and turkey gravy on the same table bothered me, mostly because it was different from what I understood and assumed to be the proper and traditional way to celebrate this holiday.  For me, it meant we weren’t fitting in and continued to make us different at a time when I wanted to be anything but. This narrow obsession of mine also probably contributed to an inexplicable lifelong craving for Stouffer’s Stove Top stuffing and a preference for canned cranberry sauce.  Once that adolescent desire to fit in faded, I began to appreciate those dinners through a different lens - one that focused on the reality  that the food my parents made was really good, that we had much for which to be thankful, and that every family has different twists on how celebrate Thanksgiving- and it’s those unique variations that are at the heart of any tradition.

As I got older, I also came to discover that our approach to Thanksgiving was definitely more manageable than some of the other family “traditions” I have now heard about from friends and colleagues, and have myself witnessed when spending time with my wife’s extended family (most of whom live near or around Rt. 128).  Little did I realize how fortunate the Shen family was to not have to wrestle with deciding which relative slept in what room during the holiday, who was in charge of making sure the loose cannon uncle didn’t upset guests with his boorish political commentary, and preparing for however much criticism advice one was to receive from his or her in-laws for the entire day.  

Whatever twist you and your family have planned for your Thanksgiving Break (remember, there’s NO HOMEWORK), and whatever you plan to eat, I hope you all find some opportunity for a little rest and some good company.  We look forward to seeing everyone back next Monday.  

Have a great week, everyone.