This is a tale of two Girls Leaderships. You may know that ours began in 2009 and is a national organization headquartered in Oakland, CA, but another was born—or rather, re-born—just outside of Worcester, MA only a few years ago.
Isabella Gentleman took a job at Eagle Hill in 2019. Eagle Hill is a co-ed boarding school that provides an individualized education for students with diverse learning profiles, including those who have dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and ADHD. Many have experienced difficulty and even trauma from previous educational experiences where their needs were not met. When the pandemic began in 2020, the school went on lockdown, a source of additional stress for students—and for teachers, who not only oversee classrooms but also provide residential support.
Around the time she started, Isabella also took over leadership of an affinity club for girls, who make up only about 37% of the Eagle Hill School population. Previously, the club met weekly to provide activities and support for any girl who wanted to attend, but Isabella wanted to do more. In addition to offering a safe space, she wanted girls to be able to focus on building confidence and leadership skills. She began expanding the club’s content, and as part of the reimagining process, she also reverted it back to its original name: Girls Leadership.
Though the serendipity initially drew her eye to Girls Leadership’s professional development workshops, it was the content that ultimately inspired Isabella to attend the Collective Belonging training. She wanted to meet other educators who shared her passion for student-centered teaching, all while learning how to better support students in classrooms and clubs. “I usually hate PD conferences. So I was a little nervous going into it,” she laughed. “But I learned so much more than I ever could have hoped. I still consistently refer to what I learned in that training, both in my own personal work and conversations with colleagues,” Isabella said, going on to describe how she was able to adapt the lessons and curriculum to her classes.
One of the lessons that stuck out for her was “Cross the Room,” an empathy-building classroom activity. Rather than creating exclusionary groups or singling out any particular students, students criss-cross the space in response to prompts, connecting with their classmates while sharing their own experiences. The exercise is also for all students, not just girls. “If you design for girls, everybody benefits, even the boys.”
Designing spaces as well as activities for girls was also something that helped Isabella and her students. Isabella reflected that safe spaces are often encouraged but infrequently defined, making it hard for teachers to know how to actually create a feeling of safety in the classroom. And if teachers don’t know, they can’t help students understand, either. A key moment for Isabella in the Collective Belonging training was in defining what safe spaces actually are, and then comparing them with brave spaces. Both kinds of spaces are important for social-emotional learning: safe spaces provide relief from stressors, and brave spaces build resilience as kids learn to confront challenges.
Resilience and bravery were key as students endured COVID isolation, changing protocols, and anxiety. But they were also essential for addressing underlying issues, like how to cope with being one of only a few girls in a classroom, or how to have tough conversations with peers.
The Eagle Hill Girls Leadership club now meets Monday through Thursday after school, and has also expanded to offer weekend activities, which include service projects and other community-building events. Some meetings and outings are open to students of all genders, while others are a space for girls. The girls themselves help to govern access, exercising their leadership skills as they work out how to be welcoming and inclusive while also ensuring they have time and space to focus on their own needs. This kind of negotiation can be difficult for students to navigate, but “because of what I learned in the Girls Leadership training, it was easier for me to help facilitate conversations around boundaries,” Isabella observed.
Students and staff continue to have these kinds of conversations, both in and out of the classroom. “The girls I see most regularly are definitely more comfortable and confident,” she reported. But Isabella isn’t content to rest on her laurels. She wants to expand the impact of her learning to other educators and other communities, including a children’s choir where she also works. “I think that educators in general could benefit from the Girls Leadership training to have a better understanding of why social-emotional learning is important for all students, and particularly this generation of students that we’re working with now. You’re building a brave learning environment where the kids can both learn the content and become resilient, productive citizens.”
Images courtesy of Eagle Hill School.