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About Town

They’re making the most of middle school

See what’s been happening at Stoneleigh-Burnham for years

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Bill Ivey works with middle school students at the Stoneleigh Burnham School.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Bill Ivey works with middle school students at the Stoneleigh Burnham School.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Bill Ivey works with middle school students at the Stoneleigh Burnham School.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Bill Ivey works with middle school students at the Stoneleigh Burnham School.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Bill Ivey works with middle school students at the Stoneleigh Burnham School.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Bill Ivey works with middle school students at the Stoneleigh Burnham School.

Toward the back of a Stoneleigh-Burnham School classroom one October afternoon, they sat in a circle on the ground: 13 seventh-grade girls, many reclining on bean bag chairs, and 53-year-old teacher Bill Ivey whose long brown hair rested on his shoulders.

“How much time do you think you’re going to need?” he asked. In this humanities class, the girls call the shots on when to chip away at assignments and individual projects. They even chose the exploratory question — which is written on a large poster hanging on a classroom wall — that’s driving this month-long unit: “What makes girls and women feel more or less powerful?”

It’s part of the vision that Ivey and other school leaders had 10 years ago when they dreamed up a middle school program for the then-134-year-old private college preparatory school.

“It was a time (when) there was a lot of excitement in the middle school world,” said Ivey, a Shelburne Falls resident, who has served as the middle school dean for nine years.

It opened in fall 2004 with the goals of building self-esteem and self-empowerment in girls and bridging the gap between elementary and high school. Today, 34 students, about half of them boarders, attend the school’s seventh and eighth grades.

Ivey believes the school has succeeded. School leaders quickly realized that abandoning the traditional grading system allowed the girls more freedom to grow as people, he said. As the students began to move into the high school grades, they were more prepared for programs like the school’s new International Baccalaureate Program, which uses a global curriculum to prepare girls for college, both as learners and as thinkers.

And a mandatory community service requirement has forged strong bonds between the school and service organizations in western Massachusetts. Girls travel in small groups to volunteer twice a month at places like Greenfield’s Federal Street School after-school program and the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society, where Ivey says the girls are “a bundle of animal-loving energy.”

“It enables them to know that they’re doing some genuine good out in the community, that they matter to people,” he said.

Changing teaching style

Nearly two decades before the middle school opened, a 24-year-old Ivey, fresh off a year teaching English in France, joined the Stoneleigh-Burnham staff. He taught both French and English as a second language.

Education had always surrounded him. He grew up in an Amherst neighborhood during a major University of Massachusetts expansion. One of his parents taught at UMass, the other at Smith College.

But it was right around the time when he helped create the middle school that Ivey said his teaching style changed. He found himself doing less time standing and directing and more time sitting and listening to his students.

“I think my first 15 years I was more student-centered in concept than in practice,” he said. “Moving back into middle school teaching … all of sudden we really were learning together.”

And Ivey hasn’t looked back, letting his students drive the learning. He knows the skills he wants them to learn and the general areas of inquiry he wants to explore, but the journey itself is always new and organic.

That’s not to say it always goes smoothly. There are times when the group hits a wall and struggles to know where to turn next.

“The challenge is only getting through that moment of stuckness and trying to teach them that stuckness can be an opportunity,” he said. “But you have to be able to step out of the frustration of the moment.”

New technology

Ivey and the 14 other middle school faculty and staff, many of whom also work at the high school level, have been helped by a boom in online learning tools and technology.

Stoneleigh-Burnham required all middle school students to purchase iPads this year. Ivey has been fascinated by how quickly the girls adapted to the devices and what apps they choose to use to complete their projects.

In one recent humanities class, a student stood in front of her peers using her iPad to read an essay she’d written. Others have created presentations on their tablets, said Ivey, and one student used it to record an interview with a neighbor.

During an orientation session in September, Ivey was about to teach students about a note-taking app when he was stopped by a “sudden flash of inspiration.” He asked for volunteers and two students stepped up to teach their peers.

“They covered everything I was going to, they covered two other really interesting points, and they did it in such a natural way,” he said. “There were a few questions but really they knew what kids … might want do with them. It was really a wonderful moment.”

Growth of a program

Stoneleigh-Burnham announced plans to expand into middle school in the late fall months of 2003. The initial plan was to enroll 25 students in fall 2005, but interest was so high that school officials decided to start the program one year early.

Donations and grants allowed the school to bring in a consultant to analyze leaders’ visions for the school, said Ivey.

Everyone wanted to “do it right, right from the start so we wouldn’t have to reinvent it” going forward, he said.

All of the students can transition seamlessly into the high school program and most do, he said. And while classes are divided, many other things — including athletics, clubs, meals, all-school meetings and “big band” — feature seventh-graders through high school seniors.

Ivey, who today teaches humanities and does social media work for the school, also leads the school’s two rock bands. The small groups require (and often feature) no prior experience playing the instruments and take on everything from Lady Gaga to The Beatles.

Ivey will occasionally join the group to play piano, bass, guitar or drums. But most of the time he’d prefer to sit back and watch the students make music on their own. When the band played “Stairway to Heaven,” the group worked hard to find musical parts for 11 students.

And somehow, he said, “it actually worked.”

You can reach Chris Shores at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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