Teaching girls to change the world

After a year in the role of principal of The Linden School—and what a year it’s been—we spoke with Tara Silver about what girls need, how girls learn, and how the Linden School has pioneered in all of that.

In 2014 Tara joined The Linden School in a senior student advising and teaching role before serving as interim co-principal and, as of last year, principal. In her time at the school she has expanded the career and academic advising program, led the curriculum development and ministry approval process, and contributed to research projects in the PhD program at OISE/University of Toronto’s Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education. In addition to teaching and administrating, Silver has held management-level positions at Harvard School of Public Health and the Boston Center for Adult Education. 
 

GH: You’re new to the role, but you’re not new to the work of the school. When did you first start hearing about Linden?

TS: I heard about the school, actually, when I was still in graduate school in the late 1990s. I heard about this new school that was very progressive, that was very pro-feminist. And I thought, well, this is kind of different! You know, just because you’re a girls’ school doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily progressive, LGBT friendly, to students who are trans. And that’s something Linden has always been.

The founders were part of that story, and rightly so. Eleanor Moore has said that girls need to be prepared to be change-makers, to take a role in redesigning their world. So, lots of really big thoughts, to be sure. Were they part of why the school was turning heads, even in those early days?

Yes, I think that they were incredibly brave. When you think about the year when they started the school, 1993, feminism was still kind of an “f” word. A feminist pedagogy was only being talked about in academic circles. Now, many schools are adopting those principles and placing a value on girls’ voices. But I really believe that the founders were extremely unique. They spent a lot of time researching single-sex schools, girls’ schools … and what they really wanted to do was take Carol Gilligan’s early work on the silencing of girls and to put that into practice by creating a school that valued girls and young women’s voices.

That was ground breaking. And because at the time I was in graduate school, I heard about it through my professors. And my professors were sending their daughters to this school. For me, at the age of 25, I thought that if I ever have a daughter, I would want to try this school. It was just such a different approach.

Why do you feel that remains important? To be a feminist school, in all that that means?

Well, there are any number of examples. We still have women not making the kinds of salaries that they should, there’s still a wage gap, there’s still a lack of women at the senior levels of boards, in the corporate world in the so-called c-suite. So there’s still quite a bit of work to be done. The Me Too movement. These are all reminders that there is still work to be done. And historically it really has been feminism, as a social movement, that has advocated most vocally for equality for women.
 


“ … for me ‘thriving’ means having a supportive group of friends. It means knowing that the adults in your life are there to support you as well.”


 

So it’s important. But just to be clear, we’re not talking about it constantly, you know, all day in every classroom. [chuckles] On one level, it’s just the value system of the particular school. And in the single sex classroom, you can talk, even in grades 4, 5, 6, more openly about what it means to be a girl in the culture, and the pressure that, say, Instagram places on kids to show a certain kind of life.

But for the younger girls, when you have a coed school, boys can take up quite a bit of time for teachers in terms of behaviour management, classroom management. We’re talking here in generalizations of course—all boys aren’t going to be lacking in impulse control—but we do see some differences. From quite an early age boys and girls show differences in language acquisition, their willingness to learn collaboratively. Again, it’s not that boys don’t do those things, but they sometimes will hit those developmental milestones differently. In things like science and technology, we want to make sure that the girls feel as confident as possible in those subject areas.

You’ve talked about Linden as being a place where girls can thrive. What does it mean to thrive in a school? How do you think of that term?

One of the things that we emphasise is that we want a holistic approach to children’s development. What we do see at times in more academically focussed schools is that there is a pressure to apply to Ivy-League schools, or there’s a pressure to be on elite sports teams. We certainly can support students in all those kinds of goals, but we downplay the pressure to do those things. So there’s that.

But for me “thriving” means having a supportive group of friends. It means knowing that the adults in your life are there to support you as well. It’s friendships. It’s strong intergenerational learning. You know, in terms of physical education, we have a ‘no-tryouts’ policy, which means that if you want to try a sport, if you want to be on a team, you can be on the team. As long as you’re coachable, and you have a good attitude—you’re willing to learn the teamwork and all of the other good things that come out of being in sports—you can play.
 


“What we’re ultimately trying to do is to have a more expansive view of learning.”



So, thriving is all those things. There’s the social, the physical, the emotional, and of course there’s the intellectual. We go beyond the Ontario curriculum in terms of allowing students a level of depth of investigation and inquiry, making connections across subject areas. What we’re ultimately trying to do is to have a more expansive view of learning. So, if you’re taking a Grade 12 data management course, your teacher may be working collaboratively with a social sciences teacher where you might be studying something like epidemiology … part of “thriving” is understanding the interconnectedness of knowledge and learning.

You’ve mentioned that the first thing your daughter said when she came home after the first day at Linden was “I never knew school could be so much fun!” What do you think she was reacting to?

Well, as much as we are strong supporters of a  strong, publicly funded education system, the reality is that for many kids a class of 25 students is extremely challenging to learn in. And that’s not a critique of any teachers or anything like that, within the public system. It’s a systemic problem. So, one of the things I think she was reacting to was “wow, I get to be myself in this class. My teacher really knows who I am.”  When she was younger, I think that was a big part of her love of this school.

And she was having fun.

Yeah. And the reason kids need to have fun is the same reason that adults need to have fun and feel engaged in the work that we do. Honestly, it’s just part of human wellbeing and mental health. To smile during the course of your day. To laugh as you work on a project. To form those friendships. That’s another part of the research that’s going on now, given the disruption [due to the pandemic] is motivation in students. And I think if you know that you’re going to spend the better part of your day having a good time with your friends, feeling cared for by your teachers, things are interesting to you … of course it’s not going to be every single minute of every day—just like for anyone—but I think the enjoyment, the fun, the laugher, is absolutely key to human motivation, and certainly key to children’s motivation. So we really value that. And as a principal I will regularly interject humour into my day with the teachers. We all need to have those moments when we laugh together.

I hear you have a dog named Hairy Potter. Which itself is kind of funny.

Yes! My daughter named him. She was a big Harry Potter fan at that time. He’s actually a Grade 12 therapy dog at times. During the peak of university application season I bring Potter in once in a while and he just helps to kind of bring down the Grade 12 stress level. Assuming there’s no allergies or anything like that, he sits in my office and students come in and work on their applications.

Your daughter is now a computer science student at Queen’s. How much of that decision, both in terms of what she’s studying and where she’s studying it, do  you think is a product of having been a student at Linden?

She just wanted a school that felt like a balanced experience. She said, ‘I want the social as well as the academic.’ She said, ‘I want to be at a school where I’ll get a well-rounded experience.’ That emphasis on overall wellbeing … and the fact that they had hybrid programs, like at Linden where we do a lot of cross-curricular learning. That I think was a huge factor in her choice [and that ability to] think laterally across subject areas. We try not to silo them. And it’s very common in high school, where teachers are their subject matter experts, it can be challenging as a principal to get teachers to collaborate across subject areas. But, again, Linden has a track record of doing that really well. So I think her choice of university major was very much informed and shaped by that. You know, ‘I don’t want to be just a computer scientist. I want to understand what I am using computer science for.’

Do you think the fact that she came from a setting where her peers were women played a role? In coed settings, STEM programs still tend to be male dominated, which maybe isn’t a barrier, but for many kids is certainly an obstacle to entry.  

Absolutely. I think you’re absolutely right. And what we know from educational research is that you’ve got to get the girls engaged before Grade 10. They really need to be supported, because Grade 10 is that turning point where you start picking the courses that are going to give you the right prerequisites for university. So there’s a window of time where you can lose girls in two areas—one is math and science and the other is sports—and the middle school years, I would say from Grade 6 to Grade 10, are really, really key. In some other jurisdictions—I think they’ve experimented with this in New York City—they’ve experimented in coed schools with STEM classes that have girls on their own, single-sex STEM classes within a broader coed school.

So girls not only have voices, but they also don’t have to push themselves forward through the boys in order to be heard.  

Yeah, and I think one of the things that’s been fascinating is that we’ve made a huge push for girls in STEM … but technology is so pervasive that, even if you’re in say, journalism, you’re impacted by technology. If you’re in fine arts, digital arts is an important movement within the broader arts curriculum. There are so many jobs within creative industries, and it’s important for us to support girls in whatever they want to do.

What do you hope to bring to the school as principal?

First, I guess I just really want to support the students and the families through the pandemic. It has changed so many things quite profoundly. There’s the immediate need to get through COVID,  understanding what we learned and what has shifted in education as a result of the crisis.
 


 ” it’s just part of human wellbeing and mental health. To smile during the course of your day.”


 

But I think that one of the things that we really want to do in the years ahead is to really create a school where civic engagement is a defining feature. We still need women in politics, in the highest levels of business … I think we’ve always had a strong community presence, but I do absolutely believe that the kind of teaching and learning that happens in this school lays a strong foundation for those kinds of contributions.

And what I really want to bring to the school is the recognition that there’s really no better time for the kind of message that Linden has had for decades. We’ve been around for close to thirty years, and what I’d like to do is really raise the profile of this school as one that, historically, has always had equity, diversity, and inclusion as part of its vision and its practice. And that includes being a queer positive school, one that welcomes racialized students, a school that is following through on its commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And to make sure that the school is recognised nationally for its contribution to the community.

 

 


But for me “thriving” means having a supportive group of friends. It means knowing that the adults in your life are there to support you as well.

 

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