A Guide to Getting Through (and making it safely to the other side)

By Sabrina Jacob Washburn, Drama

The return of live theater is just around the corner. I read this morning that “Pass Over,” a modern riff on “Waiting for Godot” that explores race and class written by Antoinette Nwandu, will open on Broadway as early as August 4. The Public Theater is set to open its Shakespeare in the Park program soon, and many of my friends and family members are eagerly buying up tickets to shows slated to re-open throughout the fall. And, hallelujah! Many of my out-of-work actor friends are being called back to their jobs with renewed hope. New York is thirsty (dehydrated!) for live performance, and I predict its return will be as thrilling as we all imagine.

Nothing can beat the feeling of sitting in a dark space with other people, all focused on one electric moment together. It is said that audience members’ heartbeats synchronize when watching a live performance. Certainly, the experience of an ensemble of performers, technicians, and creative leaders coming together under one goal can be life-changing and long-lasting, no matter how brief or liminal the process. The high school theater company is all-too familiar with this notion, having found deep bonds and emotional connections to one another through shows like “Rent” and “As You Like It.” When the prospect of giving up this process to the pandemic for the second school year, a process that is found in the long and dark hours backstage during tech week and while covered in sawdust during strike, I wondered how Grace Theatre Company would survive. How can we continue to build these relationships and strengthen our identity as a company through the tedious and choppy nature of Zoom?

“We can’t do another Zoomsical,” I remember telling Andrew Leonard, our musical director. As successful as our Into the Woods pivot was last year, I could not envision asking our students to embark on yet another Zoom-reimagined project. They were ready for something else, something more personal and connected. So, we set out to make a movie musical, one we could rehearse on Zoom for safety purposes, but then film live on set together (with proper protocols) in order to gain a sense of that “normal” production experience everyone so desired. After some deliberation, we created A Guide to Getting Through, a musical revue featuring scenes and songs from various contemporary musicals that showcase characters finding their way through difficult moments. I also wanted to feature New York City as a symbol of our greater community’s ability to pull through the last year of sadness and uncertainty with the classic “New York tough” resiliency that I also see in so many of my students. So, we set the scenes in various locations all around Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey.

This project was certainly ambitious. None of us on the leadership team are experienced filmmakers and there was a steep learning curve as we prepared to launch into a fast and furious shoot week in April. The universe wasn’t necessarily giving us a generous helping hand most days, either. Between rain, COVID cases in the cast, forgotten props, dying batteries, dealing with crowds in Washington Square Park, and general exhaustion, we sometimes wondered how we would pull through. Additionally, I am currently living in Los Angeles and was unable to travel to NYC for the film shoot. This resulted in “Sab-on-a-stick,” a cheeky name for the device set-up that allowed me to direct the shoot over FaceTime. Needless to say, we fought our way through some significant challenges and the show became our own guide to getting through that week.

It is these challenges, however, that actually gave us exactly what we were looking for. Cast and crew members leaning on one another and troubleshooting together brought us back to those intimate backstage moments we were craving. Long production days meant sharing meals outdoors in between calls. Last minute issues meant people had to pitch in and take on tasks they didn’t know they were capable of. In addition to making a show we were all very proud of, students and faculty alike found new aspects of themselves and their relationships that will remain strong after the show closes and the world opens up.

We wrapped up the process with a pajama-themed premiere for the cast and crew in the high school gym, followed by a closing cast party in a sunny backyard. It was clear from the cheers and tears that Grace Theatre Company has endured the many shake-ups of the last year with the same passion and adventurous spirit that has defined us in years past. Here’s to moving forward knowing that, together, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.

¡Felíz día de la Batalla de Puebla!

By Leslie Peña, Spanish

Growing up in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo was something we learned about in history class…the day when the Mexican army, against all odds, defeated the French in the city of Puebla in 1862.

In the early 1860s, Mexico owed a significant debt to France. Napoleon III, sent troops to overtake Mexico City. On their way to Mexico City, they had to go through the city of Puebla. 

When General Charles Latrille de Lorencez’s 6,000 troops of French soldiers met General Ignacio Zaragoza’s Mexican troops, Zaragoza’s smaller and less equipped Mexican army held off French troops in the Battle of Puebla.

I do not remember it being a special celebration or festive day. We did not even get to miss school and all businesses were open, since it is not an official holiday.

This holiday is mainly celebrated in the city Puebla, and only in a few other places in the country where military parades take place but not parties or festivities.

Often in the U.S. I have encountered people wishing me Happy Independence Day on Cinco de Mayo. Mexican Independence is on September 16th and that is indeed a huge celebration!

What I have learned since moving to the U.S. is that the hispanics and Mexican Americans adopted Cinco de Mayo as their own holiday instead of Mexican Independence. This goes back to when the news of the Battle of Puebla reached California Latinos, especially residents of Hispanic origin, who were glad for the failure of the French plan to help the Confederacy.

Nowadays, it has still become a fun thing to do to get together with my Mexican friends and enjoy our favorite treats on this day since it is such a huge celebration in the U.S.

In my Spanish classes, I have been using this opportunity every year to explain the difference between Cinco de Mayo, or as we call it in Mexico: “The Day of the Battle of Puebla” and Mexican Independence day on September 16th when Mexico became independent from Spain.

On Mexican Independence in September we get to see in class when the Mexican president relives the chant for Independence (el grito de Dolores) from the presidential balcony facing the crowd.

This year at Grace, we went over all of these historic facts and cleared some of the common misconceptions. We had a competitive game of accurately labeling the historic facts and main historic figures as well as a puzzle. The winners who completed this correctly got to take home a “make your own conchas” kit by La Newyorkina’s Mexico city born Chef Fany Gerson. 

The winners of the make your own conchas kit were eighth graders Nate B., Estelle V. and Clara T. and sixth graders Ava C. (remote) and Nina F.

Nate B. Holding his Prize

Everyone in my Spanish class got to taste three different traditional Mexican pastries: orejas, garibaldis and conchas. Due to covid some of our traditional celebrations, such as a “papel picado” workshop and a conchas baking class have been postponed but are still in the works for later this month.

¡Felíz día de la Batalla de Puebla!

Links:

Fany Gerson’s Concha Baking Class Video

La Newyorkina’s Concha Recipe

Papel Picado How to Video

IBM’s Women in Math

By Elsa Hepner, Head of Middle School

In March of 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck became the first woman to receive the Abel Prize, which is often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Math.” With her win, Uhlenbeck further substantiated what educators have long known to be true: women have a prominent and promising role in the field of mathematics. 

Earlier this month, as part of Community Week, fifth grade students were visited by women mathematicians from IBM. Organized by fifth grade teacher Margaret Meyer and Grace parent Michelle Peluso, the event promoted the important role  of women in math. The presenters spoke of their love for mathematics and how it led them to where they are today. The passion with which they described the field was contagious. 

Rose K. ’28 remarked, “It was really cool! I loved that we heard from women specifically talking about math since you so often hear about men and what they’re doing. They made me realize that math is everywhere.”

To illustrate that patterns and numbers are all around us, the speakers led the students in a variety of games and activities. One such activity involved an example with which the students were very familiar, TikTok. The mathematicians described the elegant algorithms that work “behind the scenes,” determining what content viewers will see as they click and scroll.

Math teacher Amber Leung particularly enjoyed this activity,  in which students’ knowledge of equivalency and proportion were put to the test. “The students were social media data analysts who had to decide which videos they should advertise more heavily so that their viewers would keep watching and in turn the company could keep making more money. It was so wonderful for the students to put their fifth grade math skills in action and in cleverly relevant scenarios!”

The Magic of Popcorn Words

By Kate Patton, Early Childhood

What is a Popcorn Word? Any current or former Grace Kindergartener will know. Teaching reading readiness as we do in Kindergarten is all at once complex, exciting, and fun. Learning sight words is an important part of this process. We use the term Popcorn Word to mean frequently occurring sight words, those words you will likely read countless times as a reader.   

Imagine yourself as an Early Childhood student, trying your hardest to crack the code of the written words around you that almost everyone else seems to know but you! When children are 5 and 6, they can typically express themselves verbally in their own words and are learning new vocabulary at a quick pace. They love sitting down with a picture book and telling themselves the story using the illustrations. Maybe teachers or families read them a book and now they can retell it on their own. 

Although some children will be reading fluently before starting Kindergarten, most will need direct reading instruction. The process of learning to read is different for each child. Phonics is typically an essential part of this process but cannot paint the full picture. Young children begin to recognize and name individual letters learning that letters make sounds. Once they know their sounds, “sounding out” may then begin, blending individual sounds to read a word. Yet, as we all know, the English language is a quirky one, and a focus on sight words must be present to make children truly reading ready. 

Popcorn Words walls in different EC classrooms

Popcorn Words are taught to be so easily recognizable that they pop out from the page much like a freshly popped kernel of popcorn! The children know you need only your eyes to read these words.  No sounding out necessary. And, of course, when you spot a popcorn word, buttering it is a must.  We encourage children to look for popcorn words everywhere, and when appropriate, they can use a butter marker, aka a yellow highlighter, to mark any popcorn words they see. (In the absence of yellow, popcorn words can be highlighted with cheese or jelly!) In the classrooms, we create Popcorn Word walls as a reference to be used daily. Children learning remotely this year created their own Popcorn Word walls at home!

Popcorn Words also play an important role in the written expression of young children. In Kindergarten, students use “sound spelling” to express themselves in writing. Yet, proper spelling begins when they start to incorporate Popcorn Words either remembering them by sight or copying them from the Popcorn Word wall. Journal prompts will often feature the Popcorn Words  we have already introduced. There are probably countless ways to introduce sight words. Read a book and count how many times you hear the target word. Write the word three times and use it in a written sentence. Write it in the air. Do a cheer. Play Bingo. Solve a word search. Create art featuring a Popcorn Word. Most morning questions and messages feature a sight word or 2 or 10!  

The expression of empowerment and excitement is remarkable when a child looks at a word, is able to read it independently, and is able to tell teachers and family that you know what that word says. As Kindergarten teachers, these are moments of joy! In the K classrooms, you might hear children asking if I is spelled I and a is spelled “a” why is you spelled y-o-u? You will hear children noticing is hiding inside “this.” You will see them scanning for Popcorn Words that might be hiding in their own names. You will hear them call out, “You just said a Popcorn Word!” Ah…the magic of Popcorn Words.  

Students enjoy learning about Popcorn Words remotely

A Dance Show for Unprecedented Times

By Jenny Pommiss, Dance

The 2021 Grace Dance Ensemble production, In These Unprecedented Times was an evening of digital dance featuring creations by students, faculty, and guest artist Alice Gosti. It was a celebration of a year’s worth of work, a communion, and an experiment! So much of our recent history has felt like just that – an experiment with no clear answers or directions. This project began as a continuation of that, as it asked our dancers to work over distance, collaborate, create and come together despite circumstances that encourage the opposite. 

The evening began with LIMINALE, a piece created by guest artist Alice Gosti in collaboration with the dancers. LIMINALE was born as a necessity to continue creating work and experimenting with virtual platforms during Covid-19. LIMINALE is a live performance created intentionally for Zoom in which each performer streams directly from their personal spaces, using environments, furniture and memory as inspiration for the movement material. This project challenges the condition of confinement, transforming living space into creative space. Activating memories and everyday objects, LIMINALE unveils surprising movements inspired by home. 

Still from LIMINALE
Still from LIMINALE

This year the students were not only challenged to step into the work of our guest artist, they were also invited to create dance works of their own. In doing so, they were forced to navigate new creative territory and ask questions of their creative process they had never had to ask before. “How do I rehearse over Zoom?” “What can I create that makes the most of this medium?” “How do I make my dancers feel a part of something?” “What are the positives and negatives of creating in separate spaces?” “How do I even teach movement over zoom?!” “Can dance continue to be the magical act it is, even in this altered context?” These are questions they asked of themselves and their dancers. The second half of the evening was devoted to a screening of these original works. It featured works by five student choreographers who directed their dancers over Zoom and in person on some outdoor film shoots.

Still from Daffodils by Josie Macdonald ‘22
Summer G, ‘21 in Painting in My Living Room by Charlotte R. ‘21

A special undertaking by senior Camryn D., included working with Ms. Pommiss’ Dance I class on, what was for most class members, their debut efforts at creating dance for the screen.

Matilda C. ‘24 in Isolating Chaos by Camryn D. ‘21

Ms. Pommiss’ Dance Rep class presented Traces Of You, which explored the technique of layering and superimpositions so that it appeared that the dancers were sharing space and dancing with each other.

Members of the Dance Rep class in Traces of You

The finale of the evening, we came together and we shook hands, was the result of a 7-hour film shoot at a beautiful empty space in The Brooklyn Navy Yard. Dance Ensemble co-director’s Ms. Pommiss and Mr. Thomas-Train conceptualized and directed this project, which required dancers to learn choreography and improvisational scores on site and make bold choices in their performance.

The Ensemble in we came together and we shook hands
The Ensemble in we came together and we shook hands

Being a member of Dance Ensemble has always been about more than Dance. It’s been about community, collaboration, expression and creativity, but this year, it has also been about resilience. It’s been about how to show up and keep going and stay grounded when the world around us has been undergoing seismic shifts. Sometimes, it’s also been about not showing up, and not feeling grounded, but still, we kept going, week after week, month after the month, and all of the time we spent over Zoom, moving, discussing, processing and experimenting, have brought us here. In These Unprecedented Times….is about meeting this moment, inhabiting it, looking at it from a range of perspectives, and from the point of view of the body.

Click here to view our beautiful digital program created by Liz P. ‘22.

World Writers

by Brian Platzer, World Writers

by Brian Platzer

I took World Writers as an 8th grade student at Grace in 1994-1995, and Dr. Kole’s iteration of the course — along with Rod Keating’s 7th and 8th grade English — was critical in launching me into a career writing and teaching literature. 

This is my 14th year teaching World Writers. From the beginning, my goals have been consistent: first, to encourage the students to think and write with more analytical precision; second, to spark in them an enthusiasm for reading and the varieties of human experience; and third, to expand their literary horizons in order to help them better be able to form and articulate their unique vision of the world. World Writers creates a community of readers for whom I can facilitate discussion of some of my favorite books, along the way helping students fall in love with reading, writing, and thinking just as I did when I was their age.

The only consistent text year after year is Night, by Elie Wiesel. Night is a masterpiece that chronicles Wiesel’s own experiences as a teenager during the Holocaust. The memoir sets the tone for the class, as it demands a brutal honesty that students build over the first few weeks and then apply to all the other works we read together. World Writers is a serious class, because regardless of the texts that follow Night, we inevitably confront a series of atrocities. In regular rotation are Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Paul Auster’s City of Glass, and Kazuo Ishiguoro’s Never Let Me Go. Over the years, we’ve also read Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto; Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe; Dreams of My Father, by Barack Obama; and a variety of stories (Franz Kafka, Eudora Welty, John Cheever) and poetry (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wisława Szymborska). These works detail all kinds of suffering and loss, and they demand to be confronted with respect for the writers and their subjects. That said, they also demand to be met with joy. That these books exist is a miracle, and it is as important that we laugh, question, argue, tease, demand, love, and hate, as it is that we empathize. And we give equal weight to authorial decisions as we do to their characters’ lives. We ask how the works are constructed. Which choices result in what effects on the reader. Why an author elected to include this instead of that, in this way instead of that one?

What all the above texts have in common is a perspective the students are unlikely to have encountered outside World Writers. Whether we are delving into the life of a Black girl-then-woman in 1930’s Chicago, a teenager enduring Chinese re-education, or a British clone mined for her internal organs, each text is very different from the next but manages to find the perfect words or phrases for emotions and feeling we’ve all had but have never been able to express. I feel lucky to revisit these works each year with a new set of students ready to think deeply, possibly for the first time, about issues they may have never confronted before. 

Ed. Note: World Writers is an elective literature course for students in Grade 8. Brian is an alum in the class of 1995 and a current Grace parent.

The Covid Classroom: Getting the Message Out

By Chrissy Dilley, High School Science Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator

When I first designed the Advanced Topics in Biology course four years ago I knew I wanted to create something that helped students see the connections between the topics in a textbook and the world of learned and lived science around them. This first began with a deep dive into the ethical, ecological and evolutionary impacts of CRISPR. That summer you could not open the New York Times without seeing a CRISPR-related headline. Students created a mock town hall to educate their peers about this new BioTechnology and wrote mock research proposals read by alums and parents who work in the medical and genetics fields.

Fast forward to 2020. Nary a moment went by that SARS CoV-2, aka the Coronavirus, did not creep into our minds. As aspects of public health became politicized, the public was asked to call upon their own understanding of science to determine what was safe, how the preventative measures protected us and how the vaccine could protect them and others. Never has a teachable moment presented itself so clearly.

This course has been teaching about bacterial infections and antibiotic resistance for a few years.  This year we needed to include viruses and more about our immune systems for students to be able to decipher the messages they were receiving about preventative behaviors and to learn about how the body responds not only to the illness but also to the vaccine. Grounding the science in their world has been a priority of this class from day one, so I asked students to complete a K/W/L chart on the first day of this unit. A K/W/L chart is a space for students to identify what they Know going into a unit or lesson, what they Want to know and to then later reflect on what they learned after a reading or discussion. We spent almost an hour just collecting and sorting through what we knew, or thought we knew and what more we still needed to understand. An eagerness to learn developed and students came to the following class sharing research they had done to try to address some of our questions. It became clear to them that understanding what was happening in the body during an infection was important and they again called upon their own experiences with infections, including Covid-19, to unpack the biochemistry involved in a systemic immune response.  

As we decided on topics to explore one thing became obvious, other people needed to know what we knew. Nearly everyone had a story to share about a neighbor, the kids they babysit, their grandparents, not knowing why to wear a mask or the importance of soap and long handwashing.  But the biggest news was around the vaccine. Headlines about the vaccine RNA incorporating itself into people’s genomes were based on a full misunderstanding of the science. So an outreach project was developed to allow students to identify a target audience and the messages or education this group would need to make an educated health decision.  


by Evelyn W. ’21

A coloring book for our youngest learners was produced, following Cleo the Covid Cat. Cleo learned about the importance of mask wearing, asymptomatic spreading and even covid variants!

Brochures were made for travel safety, proper hand washing, hotel expectations and for retirement communities highlighted the importance of getting vaccinated to our oldest community members.
by Isabella P. ’21

Podcasts and PSA commercials aimed at parents and  teens used humor and experts to espouse the importance of sticking to the “ rules” to keep those around us safe.

The cycle of creating a thirst for knowledge is at the heart of this course and it is why I love teaching it. Science by nature is a discipline that asks questions and searches for answers. The questions we ask keep changing and so does this course. But I hope that I do not need to facilitate the learning of another pandemic before I retire.

A Newly-Independent March Madness

By Colin Todd, Visual Arts

The Independent Projects 10 Class, affectionately known as March Madness, has had to transform quite a bit this year. With students learning in various types of environments (including some being fully remote) the idea of a student’s development around how to formulate and follow through with an independently driven passion project is more crucial than ever. This Spring, on a structural level, the IP10 program has moved to a more asynchronous model where students are working remotely with small-group supervisors. In the Fall, 10th Grade students met with their group supervisor as a class, once a week, where they developed the ideation of their year-long pursuit and driving questions around what their independent project would strive to answer. During this time they scheduled virtual meetings with experts or advisors in their field of interest and were given a chance to connect with our brilliant alumni for our Expert Evening event. The Fall semester culminated with their mid-year presentations acting as both a chance for them to practice their public speaking as well as preview their plans for a more asynchronous Spring semester. 

Due to the unique schedule and circumstances this year, the students were not able to actually have two consecutive weeks in March dedicated toward their projects as they have in years past. That’s where the March Madness name came from. Instead, they are dividing up that experience: with one week in February and one week in April providing time for their focused deep-dive exploration and completion of their projects. So far, students have seen unexpected benefits in this divided March Madness experience. As we wrapped up our first “March Madness” week during the final week in February, students expressed appreciation of being able to reflect on the work they accomplished that week and have time to tweak their plans before Spring Break and their second “March Madness” week in April. 

With these brief and intense times of focused work on their projects, students have been able to test out elements of their independent process and their development of how they self-learn, while still having time to adapt, re-work, or learn from mistakes along the way. This is invaluable as a teaching structure and a student’s learning experience. The students have about two more months of exploration and asynchronous work on their projects that will be truly independent. There are still weekly check-ins with supervisors throughout the Spring Semester, however, the students will have a lot of time over Spring Break and during the second “March Madness” week in April that will be completely independent. 

The other substantial adaptation the IP10 program has gone through is the fully online symposium which will include an online gallery and database of student projects as well as a live presentation event where students will publicly showcase the journey they took towards completing their independent projects. While this year has definitely been a challenge logistically and pedagogically, the Independent Projects 10 program really blossomed and developed new strengths that bolstered truly independent work that students pursued with joy and determination. 

Eli N. Working on his project

Lesson Plans on a Controversy

This letter was sent to Grace parents on March 13, 2021.

Dear Parents,

Good teachers look for real-world examples to make lessons come alive for students, to frame what we want to teach them in stories that will help important ideas stick and feel relevant. There’s a lot one can learn from the recent controversy over Grace’s Inclusive Language Guide, and we wanted to highlight some of the lessons we think parents might find helpful to discuss with their children and teachers with their students—especially those asking questions about why their school is in the news.

Lesson #1

Be a critical reader, especially of controversial news stories. Students might benefit from noticing how quickly a true story (Grace has a long language guide!) turned into a false one (Grace bans kids from calling moms “mom”!). The skills we teach in English and history classrooms—the habits of looking beyond the surface of a text to consider its form and reliability, the ways it asks to be read, the strength of its arguments, the impact of its diction and tone—will serve students beyond what they read for class.  Indeed, these skills should prove essential when they turn to the day’s news to sort out good-faith criticism from alarmist bunk.
 

Lesson #2

Hatred is often rooted in misunderstanding. Many strangers phoned Grace or commented online to express anger and outrage about something that wasn’t true. We may not appreciate how they chose to express themselves, but we don’t blame them for their concern. Banning the words “mom” and “dad” from a child’s vocabulary would be outrageous for any school to do! There’s a larger lesson here: we can have compassion for those who are angry with us, and sometimes it’s as simple as recognizing that their anger comes from a regrettable misunderstanding.
 

Lesson #3

Try to write clearly. Good, clear writing requires good, clear thinking. When writing isn’t clear—when it leans on jargon or invites misinterpretation—it may be a sign that there’s more work to be done to refine the ideas you are trying to express. It is no contradiction for the school to stand by the intentions of the Inclusive Language Guide and to celebrate its usefulness as a resource while also taking responsibility for some of its unintended impact. We could have expressed ourselves more clearly and better articulated its purpose. (We could have caught a few typos as well!)
 

Lesson #4

Diversity makes us stronger and smarter. The Language Guide emerged from an opt-in summer project about fostering a culture of equity and belonging. The faculty and staff who participated in its creation were in many ways a diverse cross-section of the school. But the opt-in nature of the project likely meant that we shared certain blind spots. Ideas can be honed and strengthened when they meet credible challenges from those who view them differently. That’s one reason Grace celebrates diversity as a crucial component of an excellent education, one that allows individuals to benefit from perspectives and experiences different from their own.
 

These are timeless lessons, ones that we at Grace strive to teach our students every year. They reflect core values of our mission: our belief in the importance of an excellent education and our desire to cultivate a deep and abiding sense of belonging for every member of our community. And while Grace didn’t go looking to become a case study in why these are valuable lessons to absorb, we owe it to our students and ourselves to consider them anew; we may even gain some wisdom as we do.

In the meantime, please know how grateful we are for the privilege of being partners in the nurturing and education of your children. They inspire us every day to become better teachers and to do all that we can to make Grace a better school and community. 

The Rev. Robert M. Pennoyer II
Assistant Head of School; Director of Studies

Black History is American History

The accomplishments, impact and influence of African Americans are at the foundation of many of our country’s pivotal historical moments. Though Black History Month provides a venue for us to highlight Black history, it’s crucial that we continue to learn about and celebrate it. Afterall, Black history is American history.

Below, read the perspectives of several Grace teachers on why it’s important to learn about and teach Black history year-round, and how they continue to integrate it into their courses:

Andrew Leonard, Performing Arts:
For the Vocal Music program, teaching Black History through music is essential. I make it a point to start off Beginning Vocals in the 9th grade every year explaining that pretty much all music we listen to today can be traced back to the influence of enslaved African-Americans. All American musical artforms- Jazz, Blues, Musical Theatre, Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop, R&B, Country, etc. are direct descendants of Black culture and music. While this may seem like a hefty and overarching statement, it’s the truth. If you look only at the scales and rhythms used you will find this to be true. 

Therefore, it’s imperative that our Vocal Music students are not only aware of this- but they must learn it, honor it, and practice it from the beginning of their vocal studies at Grace. This plays a part in GraceNotes directly. I have made it a priority to make sure that there is a diverse body of repertoire that we learn and perform in GraceNotes. Some choral programs only focus on what some refer to as “the dead white guys”- aka classical music. While these composers are important to learn, if you are to only stop there, then you will miss the mark of being a truly well rounded and successful musician. Singing music from cultures from all over the world is a way in which GraceNotes practices antiracism daily. Also, allowing GraceNotes to dive deep into the world of spirituals, gospel music, and other forms of choral music that are traditional specifically to America, forces the students to gain a level of respect and understanding that would not otherwise be achieved. This is but only one way in which the Vocal Music program teaches and uplifts Black History all days of year, not just in February. 

Enkay Iguh, Literature
A. As a person who deals in stories—telling them, writing them, and teaching them—I am always aware of the power of narrative. It is how we pass on our cultural values, it helps us define ourselves, and ultimately the stories we hear, especially as children, shape our imagination and what that imagination creates. 

B.As a Black woman, I am also aware of the narratives about blackness, and especially Black woman-ness. These narratives are often dehumanizing, and to encounter them as a student was painful and confusing. What’s more, I wasn’t presented with the framework, the language to understand all that was messaged to me. Yet those messages shaped me.  

If A and B are true, then it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to equip my students with the tools to dissect narratives and contextualize them. What’s more, I must combat the harmful narratives and encourage positive identity formation, especially for my Black students. I teach Black history and life affirming Black stories year round in order to give my students what I never received in high school: tools with which to think critically about the stories we tell, especially regarding race. It is a daily practice and it guides my methodology. Black history is American history, and that’s a truth every student deserves to learn.

Mark Weinsier, History:
I teach the students with whom I’m fortunate enough to work at Grace that they each have a valuable voice that deserves to be affirmed and centered. And I stress to them that they can learn to navigate power structures and be active agents of the change they wish to see in the world.  But it was my own unlearning and relearning of Black History that helped crystallize these truths for me.

Several years ago, in a moment of clarity – and to my great mortification and horror — I realized that my discussions of Reconstruction entirely lacked Black voices and agency. I honestly can’t remember what prompted this revelation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” which landed with this white teacher in a predominantly white institution, for one, like a thunderclap and has become the single-most revisited reference point for me in both my teaching and ongoing learning. 

The more I read, the more I learned – and, in retrospect, wanted to apologize to all of the students who went through my classes as I began teaching them at Grace 19 years ago to whom I may have unconsciously done harm. Because I realized that, for longer than I care to remember, I had inadvertently taught Black History as I had myself learned it growing up in my hometown of Plantation, Florida (incorporated in 1953, which only makes its naming differently execrable): a trauma-focused distortion of the human experience in which people were acted upon rather than having the agency to dream and laugh and love and act to shape the world into the one they wished to see for themselves, their families, and their loved ones. But now I know better. I will never go back.

Now, as GCS students hope for the promise of vaccines while navigating these turbulent times on computers and microphones, they can say they have the genius of Onesimus, Dr. Mark Dean, and Dr. James West to thank. Katherine Johnson and Dr. Mae Jemison show them how to reach for – and get to — the stars. The Divine Nine and Victor Hugo Green lead by example in teaching them how to have mutual networks of support and oases of peace and dignity. The True Reformers and Maggie Walker demonstrate how to create structures out of whole cloth when unjustly denied access. Mary McLeod Bethune and the organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott lead by example in how to wield economic power to fight injustice. The Pullman Porters, The Chicago Defender, and the Freedom Riders teach lessons in how to use media to bring about change. While Madam C.J. Walker and Jay-Z show how to start a business with two dollars and a dream and to build generational wealth, Kehinde Wiley and filmmaker Stanley Nelson mentor them in challenging representation. Fred Hampton’s First Rainbow Coalition and the recent #TimesUp Movement demonstrate by example how to build coalitions. And the allyship of Theodore Sedgwick to Elizabeth Freeman in suing for her freedom, of Catholic sisters of the Order of St. Joseph to Black students in desegregating independent schools in Florida, and of Brad Lomax and the Black Panthers to disability rights activists that helped bring about the Americans with Disabilities Act encourage the eighth graders – and us all – to get into what late Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” Because, in bending that arc of the moral universe towards justice, each of us has a role to play.

My unlearning and relearning of Black History prompted me to reexamine my entire curriculum through other lenses. I am now constantly looking out for and incorporating other stories and voices that were hidden to me in my own education – and, consequently, that I have inadvertently hidden from my students, from gender-binary-shattering Public Universal Friend to agricultural pioneer Ah Bing to Muslim founding father Yarrow Mamout to Sikh railroad builders in Oregon.

As James Baldwin once wrote in his “A Talk to Teachers,” “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”  I’m committed to continuing to learn and teach an ever broader range of histories that speaks to the full spectrum of the human experience and to the power of human agency. And I will continue to lift up and center Black voices – as well as the many others that were hidden to me growing up – every single month of the year.

From Chelsea Flores, Early Childhood:
In Early Childhood, one might call our “unofficial” overarching curriculum, “How to be The Best You.” This curriculum consists of daily lessons on how to listen to each other, ask questions when we’re uncertain, and stand up for those who need help. The opportunities for children to unconditionally celebrate both themselves and one another are numerous in Early Childhood. One such opportunity for students is through telling stories from both around the classroom and around the world.

In First Grade, the “Around the World” social studies curriculum serves as a medium to impart upon students how the similarities and differences of people, which are central elements of an enriching community, should be celebrated. First and foremost, we want our youngest learners to see themselves and their peers in a positive and affirming light. We want them to be able to pick up books and regularly see different aspects of themselves in the stories they read. We also want them to engage with experiences and identities that differ from their own, gaining new perspectives both in the classroom and their surrounding environment. We call these mirrors and windows.

One of our biggest goals is to encourage students to challenge stereotypes and misinformation, right from the start. If we are truly to love and understand ourselves and our neighbors, then we must first learn to listen and appreciate one another. This is why listening to and learning from Black voices and experiences is not just important in February, but all year-round. In many ways, de-centering the white narrative and spotlighting Black history is an opportunity to reflect, learn, appreciate, and uplift our communities to include the multiple, often untold stories. After all, Black history is world history.

From Toby Nathan, History
We teach and learn Black histories at Grace for the same reasons that Dr. Carter Woodson built the field of Black studies a century ago: because Black histories are an affirmation of Black life and identity, and the process of illuminating, teaching, and learning Black histories is a necessary and joyful act that is as much about our present as it is about the past.  

In conceiving of “Negro History Week,” Woodson identified a need to focus and fix our attention on the histories of Black people that had been, to employ the framing of Haitian scholar Michel-Rolphe Trouillot, “silenced” by generations of white historians. Indeed, Woodson feared that Black Americans had been rendered a people with “no history…no worthwhile traditions,” and that liberation would be found in unsilencing, illuminating, and amplifying Black histories.  

His aim was never to silo Black history to a week or a month; quite the opposite. Woodson’s work, and the work of generations of scholars since, was to center Black histories. In fact, Professor LaGarrett King points out that Carter Woodson intended “Negro History Week” to celebrate a year of learning Black histories. Woodson and his contemporaries in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance affirmed that scholarship and study were vital components of what Alain Locke called a “spiritual emancipation” for Black Americans. 

These ideas are at the forefront of my mind because students in my course, “African American History since 1920,” are currently working to understand the contours of the “New Negro Movement,” and many are also enrolled in Kallan Wood’s “The Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy” course in the literature department. Ms. Wood and I continue to work collaboratively on these courses, so that students can engage with Black stories and Black life across disciplines and without the limitations of any one method.  

Black histories are foundational to the 10th grade “History of the Americas” course, which I teach along with my colleagues, Jaliz Albanese and Jason McDonald. History of the Americas is organized around a decolonial framework, one that explores the interconnected histories of North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, and does so by deliberately centering the perspectives of African-descended and Indigenous peoples across the Americas. Our teaching and learning of Black histories is, and must be, diasporic in scope, both hemispheric and trans-Atlantic, and the “Americas” curriculum for History and Literature enables students to see African diasporic continuities fragmented by colonialism, and bring these to the present. In this course, we work to teach Black histories as histories of liberation and self-determination, Black histories that are joyful, powerful, and complex. 

Our work over the years to strengthen our teaching of Black histories at Grace has yielded significant and ongoing growth in our courses and pedagogy, but has been marked  by mistakes and missteps, including my own, that must be acknowledged. As a white teacher of Black histories, I have too often failed to recognize the ways that my identity and positionality – my relationship to these histories – were making it easy for me not to see the ways in which Black students and other students of color were experiencing materials we were reading or activities in the classroom. As a teacher, my work calls me to acknowledge these failures and to deliberately be a better educator and historian, to center and care for them in all aspects of my teaching life.  Departmentally, we continue to review and strengthen the skills we need to effectively teach Black histories and the histories of other historically marginalized people, because we know that our teaching must overturn and dismantle the power dynamics of the past.  

We learn and teach Black histories both because these stories are central to our shared history, and because Black histories are their own vital stories, which themselves demand our attention and scholarship as students and faculty.  

To adapt Arturo Schomburg’s framing of Black history, we must now all remake our past in order to make our future. We must teach Black histories all year, every year, because history is identity. It tells us who we are, and also shapes who we want to be. Bringing about a just future requires us to do justice to our past.  

Selected Texts for African American History Since 1920 (so far):

Selected Texts for History of the Americas 

Kallan K. Wood, Literature:
Black History Month, as Dr. Nathan has shared, was never about confinement. Black History Month and Black history is about amplifying, elevating and expanding, not restricting and contorting into small spaces. The idea of amplifying, expanding and working to take up space is at the heart of each literature course I teach.

This semester in Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy, a literature course for 11th and 12th grade students, I have focused on the idea of expansion and amplification of the individual voice, the individual writer and the individual character. Black Studies (no matter what the academic discipline), Black people and Black experiences are not a monolith, and much of what we do has to be to constantly push against that impulse. 

In the first half of the course we have studied an array of poets from a collection called Caroling Dusk, edited by Countee Cullen in 1927. In the foreword Cullen underscores this tension between the compulsion to see Black writers and Black Americans as one singular experience and the urgency to not erase the individual and their contributions. Cullen writes,  

“I have called this collection an anthology of verse by Negro poets rather than an anthology of Negro verse, since this latter designation would be more confusing than accutate. Negro poetry, it seems to me, in the sense that we speak of Russian, French, or Chinese poetry, must emanate from some country other than this in some language other than our own. Moreover, the attempt to corral the outbursts of the ebony muse into some definite mold to which all poetry by Negroes will conform seems altogether futile and aside from the facts.”

Towards the end of the foreword Cullen notes,

“The poet writes out of his experience, whether it be personal or vicarious, and as these experiences differ among other poets, so do they differ among Negro poets; for the double obligation of being both Negro and American is not so unified as we are often led to believe. A survey of work of Negro poets will show that the individual diversifying ego transcends the synthesizing hue.”

This text is not only a prolific anthology, it is also an exquisite primary source document. Cullen asked each poet to submit a short biography with their poems. Reading these biographies alongside each poet’s work allows us to further emphasize individuality and make thematic connections that consider and contend with racialized experiences and expression, but are not exclusively about racialized experiences and expressions. Some of the themes we have been exploring within the Harlem Renaissance and will continue to explore into the second half of the semester (our “legacy” bit) are dreams, self-actualization, love, power, elitism, womanhood, manhood, affirmation of humanity and Alain Locke’s notion of “spiritual empaciation”. 

Texts for Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy: