Coming Together During Digital Community Week

By Class Deans MiChelle Carpenter, Kallan Wood, Daniel Rufer and Piya Kashyap

Connection is at the center of Community Week, a time set aside for High Schoolers this year that encourages community-building in a time in which we’re all mandated to stay apart. Below, class deans MiChelle Carpenter, Kallan Wood, Daniel Rufer and Piya Kashyap describe how they brought this most recent Community Week to life.


MiChelle Carpenter, Dean of the Class of 2024:
There have been several impactful moments in our Community Weeks, with the Circle Practice ranking at the top of the list. The Class and our Advisors have used this First Nations tradition as a means to start talking about the prickly, messy but unavoidable topic of race. Many members of the Class have already been having these conversations (some even attended protests during the summer of 2020), but others have never even thought about the impact that race and racism has on their lived experience. The Circle Practice is structured in a way that makes room for everyone. Because there is no dialogue, the only option is to listen to one another, which I regard as an inherently antiracist activity.

So far, the 2024 Advisory Team has been able to find a way to bring the Class (mostly) together, and the “10th Street Pavilion” and the 46 Gym have been instrumental and indispensable to this goal. Community Week is certainly about programming but it’s also about logistics; until the advent of the pandemic, the mechanisms for creating Class cohesion were “built-in” (ex. The Freshmen Retreat, the Philosophy/Religion trip, Class meetings, etc.) Now, Class bonding requires deliberate planning and Community Week has provided a really essential framework. Having lunch or playing HORSE all together were insurmountable hurdles but now, every few weeks (and weather permitting), the Freshmen can put names to (masked) faces. The value of this kind of connection cannot be overstated.

Kallan K. Wood, Dean of the Class of 2023
The words I continually return to this year, my lighthouse in this pandemic storm, is the epigraph from E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End; “Only connect…” These two words plus the ellipsis refocus and ground me when I find myself contending with the unimaginable, or perhaps more accurately, finding my way to what is yet to be realized.

The task of this year has been to make real the unimaginable. In July, it was not hard but impossible to imagine what hybrid teaching would be in practice, what “Deaning” from a distance for remote-only students would mean and what community building would entail given all of our variables. When I say it was impossible to imagine, I mean I had no reference point. The mechanisms I have now found a rhythm using in concert with one another, bluetooth speaker, iPad, laptop plugged into the smartboard/monitor, facilitating conversation between students in the room and students on a screen, I didn’t have a template for, however, I had goals and intentions, I had a lighthouse…Thus it has been with our Community Weeks.

Our struggle to connect, to find new relationships, to fortify the bonds that existed before our way of life was deleted and rewritten, has been a constant theme for our students but I think more broadly, for our school community. As a Dean, remembering that our Community Weeks are about creating opportunities and fostering moments of connection is what helps guide my programming. Additionally, learning to be ok with and find true value in the small, quieter moments of connection has become an important part of working in the unimaginable. Perhaps connection arrives in the form of 30 really engaged minutes of a Circle Practice on Zoom or the way I can see students’ faces fixed on a visiting speaker’s words, like they were when Caroline Randall Williams spoke to the high school in January.  

This year relentlessly asks us to get comfortable in the unimaginable, to draw the blueprints and carefully construct the house at the same time and trust that we have the tools, experience, expertise and team to pull it off. Moreover, this year has called on us to redefine our teaching practices, our classrooms and our support systems, as well as redefine how we create and experience connection. It goes without saying that none of this has or is easy and none of us want to continue to live this way. But as difficult, scary and uncomfortable living, working and breathing in the unimaginable is, it has given us a renewed faith in our ability to create and to be creators. It is all too easy to feel unmoored, adrift, the abyss awaits and it’s sounding pretty good. But that’s when we need to remember to look to the lighthouse, to work even harder to only connect.

Daniel Rufer, Dean of the Class of 2022
Mr. Davison likes to say “we are a community where a school breaks out,” so it seems only logical that community week would break out of a hybrid/pandemic school year. I think we are all missing the sense of community that comes from physically occupying the same space with our peers, colleagues, and loved ones. Community Week is one way that the high school has intentionally thought to create shared experiences for each of the grades. It’s not perfect and two of the four community weeks had to be completely remote for the 11th grade, but halting academics to promote the greater sense of community is never a bad thing.

One thing that surprised me is that even in the weeks where everyone was remote, the community was built because in the hybrid schedule everyone’s experience is different. I think it’s good that for a couple weeks out of the year, whether it’s at home or in-person, kids have a shared space to meet with their peers. Similarly, I was surprised at how well difficult conversations about race/racism could occur over Zoom. Certainly something is lost by not being in person, but I think it’s also fair to say that something is gained when your gaze is digitally forced to concentrate on the speaker. 

The second community week reminded me that no matter how much we adults try to plan meaningful events for kids, the most meaningful events in their lives will be spontaneous, such as the hour long hide-and-seek game that broke out at the end of our November on-campus day. Fun will find a way for us silly adults to just get out of the way every now and again.

Piya Kashyap, Dean of the Class of 2021
Community Week is a signature feature of our hybrid schedule, which was designed to make space for our co-curricular program, the value of which we think is as important as our academic program. It has been both an exercise in innovation, collaboration, creativity and grit, therefore, to design each of these Community Weeks from scratch and during a pandemic, to boot! We knew that we wanted to implement antiracist programming throughout the week in an effort to address the Black@Grace testimonies and the list of demands put together by the Grace leaders of Black Students Demand Change. We decided early on that the third Community Week would be devoted to the annual Martin Luther King Jr. symposium, which would offer the community a chance to focus exclusively on this crucial high school programming. We have also implemented a regular race-explicit circle practice while trying to also bring the grade together in order to strengthen relationships and reflect on school culture and grade identity. 

I have been working with the Senior Advisory Board, a group of seniors who applied to design and implement – alongside me and some other faculty – antiracist programming and other senior focused programming. The perspectives and input of these seniors has been invaluable to the success of the Community programming each week. I will continue to consult students when designing these weeks as the inclusion of their voices and their honest feedback is truly essential.

Ms. Kashyap and seniors ice skating

Wisely Positive

by Robbie Pennoyer, Assistant Head of School; Director of Studies

There’s a two-word phrase among the High School Division’s founding documents that has been much on my mind of late:  Grace seeks to graduate students who are wisely positive.  Wisely positive.  The words collide like flint and steel, and lately I’ve found them sparking reflections on life at Grace amid the challenges of the pandemic.

We are a school that celebrates the pedagogy of joy, and we’re dedicated to the belief that stress isn’t the fuel of academic achievement but that students learn best when motived by joy, wonder, curiosity, and their desire to make the world a better place.  Stress is an inescapable fact of life, of course, and one’s school years are guaranteed to have their fair share of it, change being both a reliable source of stress and an inescapable feature of growing up.  But I have geniuses for colleagues, teachers who can hook their students until interest and enthusiasm take them to realms of understanding they didn’t know existed, and it is a delight to work at Grace because of the joy that spills out of classrooms and echoes in the halls.

That joy is ringing at lower decibels this year.  Masks hide smiles and muffle laughter.  Social distancing keeps common spaces clear of classmates who, in other years, might carry that morning’s discussion from the classroom to the cafeteria and back.  Don’t get me wrong, every day there is extraordinary teaching and learning taking place throughout the school, and that’s true whether classes are gathering in person, online, or in a hybrid classroom.  But the pandemic makes almost everything different and harder. 

How is Grace encouraging students to be wisely positive amid this pandemic?  As with any virtue we seek to nurture in our students, the first thing we can do is ensure that, as teachers and leaders, we model it.  That means being honest about the challenges we face as individuals and as a community, resisting the sort of toxic positivity that gaslights one another into vapid optimism.  It means thinking about the range of stories we can tell ourselves to make sense of this moment, and choosing to tell those that are accurate and empowering, those that orient us towards gratitude, generosity, purpose, and hope.

Second, it means pairing high expectations for ourselves and our students with humility, humor, and (lowercase-g) grace.  High expectations are one way we love each other in a school environment:  I know you think you won’t ever be able to untangle this sort of knotty algebraic equation, but I believe in you more than you do yourself, and I’m going to help you get this.  But high expectations need to be balanced with empathy and understanding.  That’s always true, but it’s non-negotiable now.  The pandemic has impacted us unequally, with some enduring heartbreaking loss while others are “merely” facing a yearlong wallop of isolation and fear.  For students to develop wisely positive outlooks, the school must respond to the needs of individuals in the context of the group.  When we do so, students will have the space and support to work on whatever is in their control and to work around or through whatever isn’t, with Grace helping them to gain the wisdom to know the difference.

Lastly, Grace can cultivate wisely positive students by helping them to appreciate the ways that joy is made of sturdier stuff than mere happiness.  A pandemic makes clear how there can exist within our experiences of joy an element of defiance.  You can hear this in my colleagues—brave, dedicated, ready for this to be over—whenever they find or make cause to laugh.  (You can glimpse it too, as when, at the end of a long week, four STEM teachers struck a pose and sent around this smile-inducing testament of how Covid-19 can’t squelch our ability to feel and spread a bit of Friday cheer.) 

As grief shared is divided, so joy shared is multiplied, and many of the most joyful moments of the year have been when technology has bridged our isolated classrooms, allowing us to see and celebrate the good work our students have been doing.  Art has been a sort of ballast during these stormy times, the pandemic’s waves failing to sink the joy of our student artists:  whether fifth graders performing in December on instruments they only learned how to hold a few short months before; or drama students acting in original plays written for them (in the HS) or by them (in the MS), a Zoom window their stage and our auditorium; or dancers collaborating with singers on protest anthems they composed, inspiring reflections of our students’ resilience, drive, and inexhaustible goodness.  A pedagogy built around this sort of joy seeks not to entertain or distract but to engage and empower students till they see how capable they are of guarding and nurturing joy even amid these challenging circumstances, planting joy’s roots within themselves and beyond the reach of the turbulent forces of the pandemic.

The great artists of this sort of hard-won, defiant joy are African-American poets like Ross Gay (whose Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude reads like a blessing) and the incomparable Lucille Clifton (a national treasure, who would inscribe her books by writing “Joy!”).  They are part of a long tradition of Black artists who see how “joy is an act of resistance” (that’s poet Toi Derricotte’s phrase) and who can look without flinching at the trauma and pain of Black experience—at “its long history of having a long history with hurt” (that’s another poet, Danez Smith)—and who refuse to permit them, or the forces of White supremacy that is so often their source, to get the last word.  (I drafted the sentences above before attending the high school division’s Black History Month Chapel, which explored the theme of Black Excellence and Black Joy and was led by Grace students who embody both, their example of wise positivity and defiant joy an inspiration for the broader community.)

Our planning for next year has begun in earnest.  The Board approved a budget.  We’re at work on the calendar of events, full for now of the sort of in-person gatherings we’ve missed since last March.  By the end of Spring Break, most of the faculty and staff will be fully vaccinated.  All of this is cause for hope, for joy of a different order than what may feel available to us for now.  Till we get there, we’ll keep faith in the importance of the work before us and do it with as much wisdom and joy as we can muster.

“blessing the boats”

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back     may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

by Lucille Clifton

Postscript:  It was no great surprise to learn that Sam Wheeler was the source of the phrase, “wisely positive.”  A beloved and long-serving Latin Teacher, Sam is the perfect embodiment of wise positivity.  Thanks for giving us this evocative phrase, Sam!

Two Reading Recommendations

African American Poetry:  250 Years of Struggle & Song.  This new anthology from the Library of America is an extraordinary collection of poems, edited and introduced by Kevin Young.  A New York Times book review that Young wrote about a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay collection taught me the Derricotte quotation and the factoid about Clifton’s inscriptions and described (better than I have) the thread of joy running through the Black literary tradition.

Joy: 100 Poems, ed. Christian Wiman (Yale University Press, 2017).  Wiman writes of joy in his introduction:  “I took on this project because I realized that I was somewhat confused about the word myself, and I have found that, for me, the best way of thinking through any existential problem is with poetry, which does not ‘think through’ such a problem so much as undergo it.”  The poems in this collection will help readers experience and consider many facets of joy.  (At least, they did for me.)

Thoughts On an Unusual Winter Sports Season

By Associate Director of Athletics, Tim Quinn

340 days and counting since a Grace Athletics team had a competitive game. An unthinkable amount of time during an unimaginable and unforgettable time period in all of our lives. The importance of being patient, yet persistent in getting athletic activity back was crucial to the social and emotional well being of our student-athletes. It was 315 days between athletic gatherings, and although it is hard to tell under the mask, I have been smiling a little bit more lately because we are back!

Safety has and will continue to be at the forefront of what we offer, but it is a wonderful feeling being able to offer our student-athletes an opportunity to gather with some of their teammates.  The modified winter season kicked off during our return to hybrid school on January 19th. It’s been important to limit capacity, so we’ve only gathered by cohort, masks have been mandatory (as is the norm, nowadays) and skills and drills are done in small groups with no body contact. We’ve also been creative in how we structured the schedule, utilizing before and after school time, to make sure we allowed every student athlete, fifth through twelfth grade, equal access to activities.  

Of course the natural craving for competition still remains. Student-athletes are wired to compete, making the lack of competition this year especially devastating. The sadness, anger, and other emotions that come along with not being able to play competitive games is not going away, but through this intramural basketball season, I think some of that sadness has dissipated. Ultimately, this is a new experience for us all, and while it’s taken some adjusting, we’re still happy to be hitting the court and keeping up with our practices.

The hiatus has given me an opportunity to put in perspective what I truly love about athletics.  The camaraderie, the social interaction with student-athletes and coaches, even officials and spectators. I certainly miss the competition, the process of trying to prepare my team to win games, but mostly I just miss our student-athletes enjoying their time together and that is why it has been so rewarding to see the teams start to practice again.  

In my opinion, there is nothing like being a part of an athletic team. I was fortunate enough to spend my high school and college years on a team and I could not imagine that being taken away from me. The patience that the Grace community has shown in regards to athletics is something I will always be grateful for. Furthermore, the trust and support in getting activity re-started has been tremendous. We will continue to work through the challenges and make the most of the remainder of the year.

With that being said, our second athletics season will begin on March 1st. We will first revisit the fall sports that were postponed, offering training sessions in soccer, cross country, girls tennis and volleyball. We will finish the year with a spring athletics season.

Celebrating Social Justice, Then and Now

By Dr. Akbar Herndon, Chief Technology Officer

Although we will be using a different platform for coming together this year, more than ever, we are committed to renewing our dedication to social justice during January, the month of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. For several months, we have been hard at work preparing classwork as well as school-wide programs commemorating the civil rights movement and our ongoing commitment to fairness and human rights. Grace’s Martin Luther King program for 2021 is on schedule.

Grace has a long history of equity activism. Thirty years ago, we were one of only two New York City schools to host a Multicultural Assessment Plan (MAP) visit from the National Association of Independent Schools – NAIS. (This was one of the reasons I chose to work at Grace). In 1997, Grace sponsored a two-day, city-wide diversity conference titled “ Getting Beneath the Surface of Racism in Education”. During each of these school years, we have used the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and his birthday as a rallying point for social action. While reaching for the ideal of trying to include anti-racist instruction in our curriculum throughout the school year, January 15th (MLK’s birthday) provided a special opportunity to highlight lessons related with justice, fairness, dreams and the triumph of the human spirit. At all grade levels, a focus on past and current struggles for fairness invited stories, discussions, analysis, artistic expression and other presentations about freedom and justice. Annual MLK assemblies continue to provide a framework for shared classwork, music, visual and spoken word, celebrating social justice then and now.

Students hold signs for the 2012 Peace March

In 2004, Grace began a tradition of conducting a silent peace march (around the block and to Union Square) as part of the MLK commemoration, honoring the actions of civil rights protesters in the 60’s as well as expressing beliefs about the issues of today’s human rights challenges. Large paper mache puppets depicting freedom fighters (e.g., Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Wangari Maathi and Bayard Rustin) created by fourth graders, often led the five block march. The Peace March culminated in an all school Peace Chapel, led by students. In 2015 a new dimension was added to the annual MLK program curriculum as high school students and teachers created and led a day of social justice symposiums attended by Grace high school students and middle school students, as well as occasional guests from public schools.

Two students participate in the 2020 annual Peace March

Today, faced with our newest challenge of hosting our MLK activities remotely, the Grace community has risen to the challenge. Although we will not be able to have our Peace March, we will gather (online) for an all-school Peace Chapel, and our usual assemblies and symposiums are bursting with current day topics including covid-19 inequities, Black Lives Matter movement, the 2020 presidential election and Being a True Ally. I believe Dr. King would be proud to see his legacy and its impact continued through a new dimension of technology. Most important, is our effort to help bring fairness, freedom and awareness of our interdependence into each other’s lives.

Check the eNews for a schedule of MLK 2021 program events.

Having Fun in a Safe Way

by Ted Rohrs, Physical Education

“With great power, comes great responsibility.” This Spiderman quote is perfectly fitting for the Physical Education Department. Exercising, building and practicing social skills are the main lessons taught in our Physical Education program. Students need time and space to exercise both physically and mentally, and socialize amongst peers. The biggest challenge we are facing this year is to satisfy those needs in the safest and most comfortable way possible.  

At the beginning of the school year Ms. Stone, Head of JK-8 Physical Education, supplied all EC/LS  students a PE bag and packet with various workouts and activities to do at home. The at home students have the freedom to choose what activity they feel like doing that day. As a department we felt like this approach was important since exercise is not a “one size fits all” experience. Some like running, while some prefer long walks. Some enjoy the intensity of volleyball while some find solace in the slower pace of yoga. Overall, the importance is to be exercising and enjoying what you are doing.

The students at Grace, as well as the Physical Education Department, have been lucky to keep the “big gym,” available for class use for whole the school year. The Lower School P.E. program has been fortunate to be one of the school subjects permitted to use space outside of the students own classrooms. It is beneficial to all to provide a change of scenery as well as grant space for movement. With Tuttle hall being occupied, the Early Childhood grades have been having P.E classes on the roof, playground area, recess yard, or in the classroom. Ms. Quirk and Mr. G have been working hard and becoming quite creative with the limited space. The lower school grades have been lucky to be able to have all classes in the big gym!

Lower School Physical Education Program has required some adjustments as a result of this years’ challenges. Here are some ways I have approached this year. When a student walks into the gym they look at the weekly exercise board, targeting cardio and muscular strength and endurance. These 8-10 exercises at the floor spot which are spread out safely throughout the gym. After this 5-8-minute warm-up we move on to that day’s activities. For tag games we use a 6-foot pool noodle to tag one another or if it is sports lesson then each student has an individual piece of equipment. Equipment is wiped down after each class or recess as well as hands being sanitized as they leave the gym. 

Group games, cooperation and the classic P.E. games, except for dodgeball, have always been the cornerstone to the P.E. program. In games like 4 corners, Islands, Do You Want to Build a Snowman, and Blindfold Trust Walk; the students still can socialize while working on cooperation and trust. I have always incorporated yoga into my lessons to cool down and refocus before entering the classroom but this year seems more important than ever. Exercising with a mask is not an easy or comfortable task, yoga has been essential to calming and controlling the breathing of our students.

During our soccer and basketball units I have allowed some of 4th graders to be captains. They have been working so well together and captains have been leading the charge with group exercises, managing game-plans and giving feedback on skills and strategies. I can’t write a blog about the Physical Education Program without giving kudos to Ms. Toy and Mr. Pelz for filling in during Ms. Stone and Mr. Pazos’ absence. They have been a great addition, incredibly supportive and loved by the children.

The Secret to a Triumphant Winter Concert? Harmonious Collaboration.

by Performing Arts teachers Joseph Ancowitz, Yvonne Hicks, Nick Kadajski, Andrew Leonard, Jenny Pommiss, and Simon Thomas-Train

The winter concert always has some element of collaboration in it during a normal year. That was especially true in the year of 2020. The concert came together because of the contributions of the students and arts teachers working together like no other year. 

The jazz bands worked on music remotely and in person. The students in the jazz groups often just learned the technical parts of the music in person without making any sounds on their instruments. While they were at home they would zoom in to class and individually play back what they had learned. They recorded their parts into an online recording program called Soundtrap. Their parts were then downloaded and mixed using Logic. Each music teacher followed a similar method for creating their groups portion of the concert. It was a time consuming process, but well worth the effort. 

As the start of this school year approached, figuring out how the strings classes would be able to function effectively, what with some students being fully remote, and others attending classes on an alternating in-person/remote basis, became increasingly important. Technology would have to be heavily used, and that the glories of playing chamber music would likely just become “sterile” music making. Even with music being a “universal language”, one that draws people together, and connects persons of all types, we were tentatively embarking on a new and unfamiliar “adventure”.

Indeed as school opened, all of us, teachers and students alike, found ourselves feeling isolated in our new “environment”! We were now mostly on Zoom, unable to communicate musically in the chamber music ensemble settings we were accustomed to. And yet, as school progressed, we all learned new ways to work together, and to achieve good musical results. Our work took on a new form: we found ways to breathe together, to listen more intently, to take pride in our accomplishments — no matter how small, to scale new heights, to work harder than ever to attain our goals, and not to give in to the restrictive nature of working in a pandemic! We stopped taking “just playing our instruments” for granted! Every little detail now meant something special.

GraceNotes, like the other music ensembles, also had a different and much more challenging semester than usual. Instead of the ensemble being in LL6 all together singing in harmony, we had to create music while being isolated. This forced each singer to work on themselves individually as artists — really focusing on what they bring to the table. The hardest part for this was to keep the feeling of connection and love that GraceNotes has created over the course of the last few years. Our weekly zoom rehearsals aimed to keep this spirit of connection alive and I believe it is apparent in the outcome of the videos that we were able to pull this off. 

The Grace Dance Ensemble has continued to meet over Zoom to dance together. As individuals and an ensemble, we have explored the full range of possibilities available to us as a community of dancers and choreographers. Ensemble co-directors, Ms. Pommiss and Mr. Simon-Train jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with the vocal and instrumental ensembles once again. For the evening’s finale, Ms. Pommiss, Mr. Leonard and Mr. K decided early in the semester that they wanted to collaborate on a piece that would be an homage to New York City. What better song than “New York, New York”? For “An Ode to New York”, Dance Ensemble members learned choreography in their living rooms that was then brought outside onto city streets, and into parks, and backyards. This footage was then edited together with that of Jazz Ensemble and Gracenotes, along with the mastered tracks. 

Another main aspect of collaboration for this concert was the Protest Anthem Project, which was created by the Dance Ensemble and GraceNotes. This project began at the beginning of the school year, and was designed to give students the opportunity to make sense of what is going on in our world, and to find alternative, but no less powerful, ways of communicating, most notably through movement and song. Many of our Dance Ensemble and Gracenotes students use the arts as a vehicle for change, and as a place to be both seen and heard by the community. This is in part because these students stand on the shoulders of alumni, who came before them and paved the way by bridging activism and the performing arts.

During Dance Ensemble’s late August preseason, Dance Ensemble co-directors Ms. Pommiss and Mr. Thomas-Train invited Soleil Andrews ‘19, Stephanie Cox ‘19, Georgia Ossorguine ‘18 and Camille Segre-Lawrence ‘18 into the virtual studio. They zoomed in from dorm rooms and off-campus apartments to discuss their inspiration and teach excerpts of their pieces. From there, dancers and singers were placed into artistic teams to decide on issues that were important to them, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement, racial violence and police brutality, climate change and the environment. The resulting videos represent a collaboration where we navigated the realities of working over Zoom. GraceNotes used inspiration from recent and historical protest movements to create original songs that are designed to motivate, inspire, and lift up. Using these original songs, Dance Ensemble members created parallel works of dance as their own acts of protest. Despite the distance we are all facing, this project gave us all the opportunity to connect, process and heal. 

Despite its new format, the triumphant nature of the winter show remained unchanged, showcasing and celebrating a semester of hard work, dedication, and beautiful music.

You can view each performance below:

Want to Prompt Discussions on Equity in Science? Start by Drawing

by Jean-Robert Andre, Dean of Equity and Inclusion

Last year, at the People of Color Conference in Seattle, WA, I attended a workshop called “Incorporating Issues of Equity and Inclusion in Middle School Science.” There, two educators helped dispel the myth that science (and math) classes aren’t as amenable to incorporating antiracist and inclusive curricula as, say, a humanities class is. Through a number of activities and conversation prompts, they loaded our tool belts with things to take back to school. At the start of this year, I was contemplating how to weave our efforts towards anti-bias and antiracism more deliberately into my 5th grade curriculum, and I remembered one activity they suggested that has been reproduced in science classrooms across grade levels.  

The prompt is simple – “Draw a scientist doing science.” Let me venture a guess as to what you may have pictured: A scientist in a lab coat, perhaps with frizzy hair giving “mad” scientist vibes, most likely male, most likely white, working indoors at a table surrounded by colorful and bubbling chemicals in beakers. Was I right?

This prompt has been documented with upwards of 20,000 students, and more often than not, the above description is what usually takes shape on the page. As expected, this representation of scientists and their jobs was most prevalent in my classroom too, with a few exceptions. I appreciate this activity because, as a class, we can examine our drawings across any number of different identities and factors. How many students drew an adult? How many drew a woman? How many drew a person of color? Who didn’t draw “potions”? What else are your scientists doing? Why did you draw them this way? The conversations we had after students put their pencils down were fruitful, as we dug into where these “mad scientists doing chemistry” tropes came from, and how our actual experiences with science are quite different! We brainstormed all the different fields students have been exposed to in their academic careers thus far from human physiology to astronomy, entomology, botany, geology and physics. We landed on how systems of discrimination such as sexism, racism, and other ideologies throughout history have limited many people’s access to education, training, research, and jobs in STEM, and how this has led to a certain image of science that we associate with today. In the end, we looked around the room and affirmed that each person there was a scientist, and that science can be for anyone!   

Hearteningly, since this experiment was created several decades ago, there’s been a noticeable increase in a few areas of representation. In the 60’s and 70’s, roughly 1% of students drew women scientists. By the late 2010s that number rose to almost 30%, with 58% of young girls drawing women on the page. It became clear to researchers that stereotypes about the STEM fields were taking root at a very early age – all the more reason for increased representation, not only in the media, but in the classroom itself.  

Each year, Ilta Adler and I introduce the 5th graders to the Ada Lovelace Project as a joint technology and science class assignment. The project draws inspiration from Ada Lovelace Day, founded in Britain in 2009 to honor Ada, the first computer programmer, and women throughout history and the present working in STEM. The walls of South Hall are lined with depictions of Mae Jemison, the first Black astronaut; Hedy Lamarr, inventor of technology that opened the door for modern GPS (and world-famous actor); nuclear physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu; and Wanda Diaz Merced, who translated light energy from stars into sound so that visually impaired scientists like her could make breakthroughs in astronomy, too.  

With each intentional effort, we can further open the door for our students to see themselves in STEM fields, which in turn means more opportunities for future generations of young learners. The first step is recognizing our assumptions and blindspots and actively working to undermine them – in our case, one poster at a time. 

A Note on Thanksgiving

By Reverend Mark Hummell

“Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices,

who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;”

Lyrics from Now Thank We All Our God

Now Thank We All Our God is the hymn that has traditionally ended the All School Chapel right before Thanksgiving break. I recall this hymn because it is one that students and teachers sang a bit more robustly than others, maybe because our minds were already thinking about travel plans, time with family, and all that delicious food. This year, instead of doing a Thanksgiving chapel, we devoted that time to collecting food for City Harvest and serving our community.  

Grace Church School was founded 126 years ago in the Honor Room of the church. Sixteen boys who sang in the church choir on Sunday mornings were provided an education that prepared them for leadership in the community. As the neighbors heard of the excellent education provided, they asked to join the school, and we kept growing from sixteen to almost 800 students today.  

Although we are in exile from the church building right now because we can not all gather at once, it is impressive how chapel itself has remained an anchor of stability in a world of chaos. All School Chapels are generally held at the beginning of the school year, and the return from major breaks. 

The first All School Chapel on Zoom last Spring took on a greater significance because it was in early April, and as we were in lockdown since mid-March, and we wanted to see and hear Mr. Davison provide us with words of encouragement and hope. As the pandemic continued last Spring and into the Fall, we found ourselves isolated a bit on Zoom, and in various cohorts, however, chapel has been the one consistent time that we gathered as a community.  

The second hymn we sing every Thanksgiving is We Gather Together. That is different this year, as it is virtual gatherings on Zoom rather than in person in Grace Church. But what we have learned through chapel is that we must gather. Whether that is for an All School Chapel, a storytelling Early Childhood Chapel, a virtue learned in Lower School, or one of the key theme chapels in Middle and High School, we learn by being together. We observe major holidays like Christmas, Diwali, Easter, Hanukkah, Passover, Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We also hear from the various affinity groups that offer us their perspectives, like in the Asian Pacific Heritage, Black History Month, Hispanic/LatinX Heritage, and Pride (LGBTQ) month chapels. Sometimes we gather for personal, national or international events that shape our world, and we need some peaceful mindfulness to provide focus and perspective. And, we hear great music in chapel. Music provided by Dr. Allen, the GraceNotes, the Jazz and Strings ensembles, as well as individual students and teachers. Music lifts our spirits in ways that mere words strive to reach.

Now Thank We All Our God is our traditional closing hymn for Thanksgiving. May the peace of God which passes all understanding be with us this Thanksgiving. And may we be thankful for our health, our families and for gifts we are given this holiday season through our community at Grace Church School. 

Learning About Native American Traditions through Native American Movement

By Laurel Lesio, Dance Teacher

Around the world, both children and adults have been dancing and playing with hoops for thousands of years*. For over 20 years, third graders at Grace have learned about hoop dancing in a Native American form. This exciting, vigorous and meaningful style of dance inspires creativity and challenges both the body and the mind to work at their best. And most of all, it’s fun!

I first learned about Native American hoop dancing when I attended a festival in upstate New York in the 1990’s. There, I met Mr. Cliff Matias (Kichwa/Taino). I saw his hoop dance performance, and I learned about the Redhawk Arts Council, an arts and cultural organization he helped create in Brooklyn. That very same year, I invited Mr. Matias to visit Grace Church School to teach us about indigenous cultures and dance forms. He has worked with the third grade ever since, teaching technique, form, and the varied meanings behind hoop dancing. When the students have mastered his dance sequence, I guide them into choreographing a hoop dance sequence of their own. Because the third grade social studies curriculum includes the study of First Nations people, particularly those of the Northeast region, there is true cross-curricular study for every third grader.

This school year, the hoop dancing curriculum continued as usual as Mr. Matias visited each third grade classroom virtually at the end of October. He was joined by one of his fellow dancers; they sang and danced, taught us about the origins of the hoop dance, and then walked us through some really cool moves! The event highlighted how rhythmic expression is universal. In all of its forms, dance is exciting to both watch and do. The human body responds automatically when our brains are stimulated by the combination of rhythm, emotion, and intellect.

Mr. Matias was generous enough to answer a few questions concerning education and of course, hoop dancing. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Ms. Lesio: I know that you regularly bring your educational dance programs to schools like ours where there is a very small, if any, number of native students. Very often, your program is the first exposure these young children have to indigenous art forms. How then, do you see your role as an educator?

Mr. Matias: It is an important part of breaking the stereotypes that students may have of Native traditions.

Ms. Lesio: I know that in addition to being an expert hoop dancer, you sing and play both the drum and flute. I believe that you are also a visual artist. It seems to me that you have specifically chosen to employ the arts to educate children. Can you say more about this choice? Are the arts integral to you and your cultural heritage? And when learning about indigenous cultures, what advantage might the arts have over other mediums such as written texts?

Mr. Matias: I feel the arts allow students to engage in a very different way than just textbooks. They allow students to create a physical, emotional and mental connection to the traditions they are learning about.

Ms. Lesio: I have heard you say that the dance hoop can represent the “circle of life” and when throwing the hoop and expecting its return, you have used a metaphor about effort. Can you please tell us a little bit about those two things and leave us with a way to connect hoop dancing to our daily lives?

Mr. Matias: It is the understanding that what we do in our lives returns to us. Working hard at a specific subject or task will often bring about positive results, but if you do not apply yourself to a task, craft or discipline, you cannot be upset if you do not get the results you were hoping for.


*Notably, the popular American game commonly known as “hula hooping” uses a large plastic hoop. It is not a part of the traditional and often sacred Hula dancing of the indigenous people of Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands.

Using Participant Testimony in History Education

By Jason McDonald, History Teacher

In my 11/12 grade history elective, The World Wars, students are studying how World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust are all interrelated. This work culminates in December, when students present a short skit over Zoom, dramatizing the life of someone who participated in the World Wars in some way. While there were many more class events, here are some of the various ways students engaged with participant testimonies so far this semester. 

Key to understanding the events of the World Wars and the Holocaust is participant testimony. Students are engaged with testimony in a number of ways. We began with the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website. I was a visiting teacher fellow at IWM in the summer of 2015, and I have maintained connections with the museum staff since then. IWM has a rich and varied number of resources for students to access. 

People like Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross, are memorialized by IWM. Lives of the First World War provides multimedia, text, archival sources, and more about his life. Students wrote a short dramatic biography about someone from Lives of the First World War using the resources available.

Khan won the Victoria Cross for actions in October 1914 at the First Battle of Ypres. IWM provides a timeline of Khan’s life from his birth to his death and links to many sources for students to follow up. 

There are thousands of profiles. I picked out fifty of the most famous British soldiers of World War I for the students to consider. This project honed their writing skills and helped them think about how to translate research into dramatic writing. One of the students was so intrigued by Khudadad Khan that she is continuing to research his life for her semester-long project!

Students continued to read about World War I through the memoirs of Ernst Jünger, in his book “Storm of Steel. His public statements are widely regarded as “travelling with the Nazis” and an example of how World War I veterans supported the rise of Hitler. His experiences in the Somme in 1916 glorified war. Students contrasted this reading with critical texts and videos on the book as well as discussion about the actual brutal nature of trench warfare in Western Europe. 

After studying the rise of the Nazis, students visited the USC Shoah Foundation’s website to learn about Kristallnacht. USC Shoah Foundation has hours of video testimony from Holocaust survivors, recounting many events. They have survivor testimony from many people who were children during Kristallnacht. Students listened to survivor testimony and wrote a short reaction paper. This prepared them for a Zoom call with a living survivor. 

Holocaust Survivor Celia Kener Zooms with my class.

Through the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s education program, Grace was able to connect with Celia Kener and speak with her live during our regularly scheduled class time. Celia Kener was born in 1935 in Lvov, Poland. When the Germans invaded in 1941, life totally changed. Her father was drafted into the Russian army while the rest of her family moved into the ghetto. Celia’s mother was selected for a labor camp and was periodically brought in to visit the family on weekends. Her mother found a childless Catholic couple and promised her daughter to them because she didn’t think that she would survive. Celia was eventually reunited with her mother. The family was liberated by the Russians. Her father escaped the Russian army to an Uzbekistan Displaced Persons camp under an assumed name and survived. Celia and her parents came to the United States in 1949. 

Students, their parents, and faculty were invited to listen to her live testimony. It was heartbreaking at times, exceptionally powerful, and difficult to take in for some viewers. But as this is probably the last generation that will interact with living survivors of the Holocaust, it was an amazing opportunity to learn about her incredible will to survive and the luck she had in finding people to help her avoid the Nazis. 

The class is just transitioning into writing research papers based on the sources they have collected, and then, with the help of the Writing Center, will turn their research into dramatic skits. Students are excited about this project, and drama is a wonderful medium to learn and remember history. If you are interested in this event, please check your email for further updates.