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.

Seventh Graders Consider What Defines America

By Topher Nichols, Chief Communications Officer & Director of Academic Systems; Seventh Grade Social Institutions Teacher

Social Institutions is an elective course for seventh graders in which we look at how and why society is shaped the way it is. We begin the year by looking at how culture is made and how specific institutions shape a country, like its form of government, economic system, religion, and more. Then we take an in-depth look at three countries that are not normally prominent in the American history curriculum. This year, as in the past few years, we are studying Saudi Arabia and Islam in particular, México with a focus on trade and immigration, and the pacific island Kiribati (pronouned Keer e baas) and its projection to be the first country to become uninhabitable from sea level rise due to climate change. In the final two months of the year, students choose their own country to research and present to their classmates.

We begin our study of institutions by exploring some basic ideas, like how a market economy differs from a command economy, the prominent forms of government in practice today, and how cultural bias shapes and skews our understanding of ourselves and others. As a wrap-up to this first unit, students write their first major essay of the year, which students just submitted four days ago. The prompt for the essay asks just one question but has no singularly correct answer: “What is the most important social institution in the U.S.?” 

I have assigned this essay for the past four years, and it is always interesting to read the answers, but this year in particular this question strikes a resounding chord. I will concede it is difficult to avoid partisanship during this heated election season, but setting personal politics aside, one can easily find examples of people from both parties accusing the “other side” of destroying those things that make America what it is. At its heart, this course gives students the tools to understand how our institutions, both formal and informal, shape America’s unique identity, so that they can form their own opinions about what is at stake in a moment like this.

When I assign this essay each year I emphasize for students that there is no single right answer. The goal is to make an argument using evidence to persuade the reader. A few examples of institutions that highlight what today’s seventh graders are thinking on the eve of the presidential election: schools, family, the intelligence community, the Pentagon, the executive branch and the presidency, and our democratic republican form of government.

And, unsurprisingly, given the recent Supreme Court appointment and talk of lawsuits around ballots, one student highlighted the judicial branch as the most important institution. The student wrote this in their conclusion, “All of us must follow the law. However, what the law says or means is not always clear.  There are certain to be situations in which we disagree with other people.  The judicial system helps resolve these situations. By providing us with a decision in these circumstances, the judicial system provides a way for people and organizations to correct things that are not right, get on with other parts of their lives and try to do the right thing in the future.  If we all agree to abide by the decisions of the judicial branch we can get over disagreements and still be part of the same country.”

Whether we know who the next president will be late tomorrow night or a few weeks from now, there is a good chance the judicial branch will play a decisive role in this election. Whoever the next president is will likely have a profound impact on our country’s institutions, but perhaps the biggest question that is to be determined is how a nation so divided can do like our astute seventh grader says and “get over our disagreements and still be part of the same country.”

A Día de los Muertos for the Digital Age

By Leslie Peña, Spanish Teacher

Growing up in México, I remember working on colorful altars adorned with picture frames, candles, incense, marigolds, food, and a flower petal path to lead the dead to their altar every early November in school. The best Day of the Dead celebrations and decorations I have encountered have been in México City. Women dress up as “Catrinas” with elaborate flower headbands, face paint and traditional Mexican dresses and there is always a beautiful parade. Every store, restaurant, hotel and coffee shop has their own altar, each one uniquely vivid and ornate.

The day of the dead celebration dates back to the Aztecs, when it was believed that the deceased embarked on a journey, the destination the place where they could finally rest in peace. On November 1st and 2nd in México, cemeteries are filled with music, food, candles and flowers. It is not a sad time, but rather a celebration of life! People gather around their loved ones’ tombs and bring them their favorite food.

Every year at Grace, we try to bring a bit of México into our Spanish class, learning about the traditional Day of the Dead. In the past, students have made their own altars at home. We have also visited New York-based cultural non-profit Mano a Mano to view their altar and participate in their celebration at St. Mark’s Church, where they would learn the history and try authentic Méxican food.

As this year is unprecedented, we could not celebrate in our usual ways. Luckily, on Monday October 26, El Museo del Barrio offered a day of the dead bread cooking class over zoom through their new bilingual digital initiative El Museo en Tu Casa. This class was offered by one of my favorite Méxican chefs, Fany Gerson, who the 8th graders had the opportunity of meeting in 6th grade when we visited her Méxican dessert shop “La Newyorkina” for a Spanish class field trip where she talked to them about traditional Mexican ingredients and desserts.

Fany Gerson, has been featured in the New York Times, Food and Wine, Fine Cooking, Saveur Magazine, Fine Cooking, Fast Company and New York magazines, among others. She is the owner of La Newyorkina Mexican dessert shop in West Village. She has written three books, My Sweet Mexico, which was nominated for a James beard award 2010 for Best baking and pastry cookbook Paletas and Mexican Ice Cream. She was a mentor in the WE NYC Women’s leadership program in 2016 and recognized as a Latin woman leader in 2017 by El Diario.

As a tasty supplement to our cultural lessons, we also celebrated in Spanish class by tasting traditional Day of the Dead bread from authentic Méxican NYC bakeries Panaderia 2D and La NewYorkina.

There are many different traditional sweet breads made for this celebration. Some are sculpted into shapes of flowers, the Virgin Mary, skulls or animals. Some are topped with sesame seeds and colorful head figurines. Most have a sugar topping and are infused with orange.

The students learned how to make this bread decorated with “sugar bones” and took a moment to remember the life of those who are no lo no longer with us.

!Feliz Día de Muertos!

This Year, JK-4 Math is All Fun and Games

By Leah Silver, JK-4 Math Coordinator

The vibrancy of our Early Childhood and Lower School math program can be felt both in the classroom and on Zoom screens this year. JK through Grade 4 students are questioning, constructing, noticing, playing and practicing in different ways. In a year of so much change, I’ve found it helpful to articulate guiding principles for our program this year: prioritizing the use of real materials, centering the use of games, and trusting in the resilience of our students. 

Guiding Principle 1: Prioritizing real materials 
This year presents new challenges for using materials, but we know that students learn new math while getting the opportunity to construct new understandings for themselves. While digital manipulatives exist and are very useful, when students first learn a new concept they need to hold the materials in their hands. Every student in Early Childhood and Lower School–whether learning remotely or in person–received an individual math manipulatives kit with the key materials they will use over the course of the year. Depending on the age, these kits include unifix cubes, pattern blocks, beaded number racks, base ten manipulatives, game spinners and dice. This way, we can make sure everyone has access to the same materials in a safe and sanitary way, and every kid can easily take these home, should we have to all learn remotely. 

Ms. Malik leads our remote JK students through a pattern activity. Students use their Unifix Cubes to construct their own two-color patterns.
Our remote Kindergarten students explore different combinations of the number ‘5’ with Ms. Moller and Ms. Silver using their Five Frames and Unifix Cubes.

Guiding Principle 2: Games are at the Center
Games have always been at the center of our math program, and this year is no different (in that regard!). With our ongoing adoption of the Bridges in Mathematics program, we have access to incredible digital versions of the games our students love to play. These games are a crucial piece of our math program, encouraging strategy development, logical thinking, and further building of math concepts. 

Grade 3 students in Mr. Schneider’s class play ‘Carrot Grab’ in a breakout room. One student shares their screen so they can both use the same game board. This game encourages students to hop to a ‘friendly number’ when adding. You can play Carrot Grab here!

Guiding Principle 3: Trust in the resilience and mathematical capabilities of our students, and keep moving forward.
While we had to make curricular adaptations to accommodate our remote learning schedule last spring, our work at the beginning of the year with students confirmed what we knew to be true: our students learned a ton of math last year and were ready to hit the ground running with their current grade level’s curriculum. We took guidance from the Bridges program not to rewind to the previous year’s content, even though some lessons may have been missed or altered. Instead, we assess as we go and identify any areas we need to re-engage with our students in real time. 

Grade 4 students in Mr. Wanyoike’s class work on building the ‘Wall of Base Ten’ to visualize numbers up to 10,000.

A Her-Story of the World

This past Wednesday, August 26 marked the 49th annual Women’s Equality Day, commemorating the 1920 adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibits governments from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex. The passage of this historic legislation was one of many topics covered in Georgina Wells’ ’04 Women in History class, which was offered as part of the first ever Open Grace Summer program. 

Each week, Ms. Wells met with her class to discuss prominent women in politics, science, literature, sports and the arts, including Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii, Marie Curie, Maya Angelou, Billie Jean King and Frida Kahlo, among others, as well as the many unsung figures in women’s history. Short video clips and digital exhibitions kicked off lively discussions, and students were invited to suggest themes of particular interest to them, helping to drive the direction of the course.

Queen Liliʻuokalani of the Hawaiian Kingdom

When deciding what to teach this summer, the choice was an obvious one for Ms. Wells, a seasoned history teacher. “I wanted to offer this class because of the passion I see every year in my students to learn about women’s contributions to the history I teach,” she noted. 

Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Ms. Wells also spoke with her students about intersectionality and examined the inherent relationship between women’s liberation and racial justice, acknowledging that the 1920 legislation, and those who fought to see it ratified, failed to recognize Black women. Ms. Wells pointed out, “Middle schoolers are quite attuned to who and what usually gets centered in the narratives, and they don’t want to be confined to that, just as I do not want to confine them to it. To that end, I also made sure to choose a diverse range of women for us to focus on this summer.”

Shirley Chisholm, first Black woman elected to the United States Congress

Becoming Strong Visual Storytellers

By Collin Todd, Visual Arts Teacher

As students adapt to the ever-changing world around them, the way they interact with information both educational and social is increasingly becoming more visual. It is important for students to have the tools and conceptual foundations for becoming strong visual storytellers. This can take the form of photographs and videos they share with their peers and family as well as visual reports, documentaries, and presentations as part of their education. My Open Grace Summer course offerings were geared to empower the students as storytellers by helping them gain the technical ability to be a successful visual storyteller in photography and video as well as understand the conceptual meanings behind what makes films engaging and important to our culture. 

In our Introduction to Photoshop class, we explored the foundational tools and concepts of digitally manipulating photographs, allowing students creatively express themselves beyond the idea of the snapshot. Students produced a range of photo collages and illustrations. 

Our Advanced Photoshop course centered around the idea of expanding illustration and design possibilities in the software while utilizing photographs as a starting point. The students produced several logos and designs. 

The Introduction to Final Cut Pro class gave students hands-on experience in creating a music video as they learned the ins and outs of the video editing software. 

Finally, the Introduction to Adobe Premiere class provided the students with a platform to create their own PSAs about life during a pandemic. 

You can view some of the students’ Photoshop work here and their video work here!

Video password is ” opengrace2020 “

Approaches to Teaching Coding in the Lower School

By Emily Cruz, Spanish/Technology and Brian Wanyoike, Lower School and Homeroom Teacher

While remote learning has its challenges, Open Grace this summer has allowed us to try out different approaches to teaching coding to Lower School students. During the summer, we have taught two introductory coding classes: one for students entering first and second grade and another for students entering third and fourth grade.

Beginner Coding for Grades 1-2 with Ms. Cruz
While remote learning may have brought new challenges, students in Coding 1 & 2 were excited for more. This summer they explored beginner coding through a collection of Hello Ruby excerpts and activities that creatively presented fundamental coding concepts. The warm-up exercises from each chapter allowed students to practice computational thinking and apply it to their coding puzzles. We used Code.org as our curriculum guide and Tynker for extra practice. The coding concepts included sequencing, loops, conditionals and events. With their newfound coding abilities, students excitedly engaged in creative projects that allowed them to program their very own game designs and stories. We’re having a fantastic time exploring the unimaginable possibilities of code. 

Beginner Coding for Grades 3-4 with Mr. Wanyoike
With students entering third and fourth grade, we connected the coding work from class with real world applications. Starting with the concept of an algorithm being “a series of directions to help complete a task,” students created algorithms to help me find my iPad. Discussions about algorithms, which varied from how to create PB&J sandwiches to how satellites orbit the Earth, allowed students an entryway into thinking about carefully creating their coding algorithms.

In each Code.org module, students learn key concepts in “Unplugged Activities” before jumping into creating code. Our discussions of those software engineering concepts helps to guide our thinking as we create algorithms for a sloth dance party or even to create individualized “Star Wars” games. Through it all, we remember that every software engineer, young and old alike, must get comfortable with debugging, which is when you find and fix errors in your code. We celebrate our mistakes knowing that by working through them, we are on our way to becoming even better programmers!

International Games for International Perspectives

Even though students were stuck at home, the First Grade spent the spring traveling across the globe, all without having to pack a bag. “The backbone of our First Grade Curriculum is the Seven Continents of the world.” said First Grade teacher, Ms. Tang. “Over the course of the school year, we journey around the world, specifically looking through the lens of children around the world — where they live, what they eat, how they go to school, how to live and play. This not only ties into our Social Studies curriculum — it is interdisciplinary.” 

Throughout the school year, First Graders get a chance to explore the seven continents of the world, using the lenses of art, science, music, social students, language arts, and even physical education to inform the curriculum. “How people play” has also been an integral part of the First Grade syllabus, manifesting in Games Around the World, which highlights games such as Parcheesi from India, Yut Nori from Korea, Fox and Geese from Norway, and Mancala from Western Africa as a way to help students identify and appreciate cultural and societal differences. The unit and its complementary event have been beloved by students and families for about 20 years.

But when the school announced that it would be closing its doors for the remainder of the school year, First Grade teachers “knew [they] needed to adapt in some way.” The solution? Have the student become the teacher. “As part of our weekend homework, we asked First Graders to teach their families how to play the games we learned this year.” Ms. Tang explained. “Though we sent instructions for one or two games a week, we asked our First Graders to “be the teacher” and show their families how to play. This gave them a level of responsibility and ownership over their homework.” 

The newly remixed curriculum also provided a platform for students to be even more creative than usual, with many students “creating their own game board and playing pieces…We had kids creating Mancala boards out of egg cartons, cups and other household containers!”

Despite the sudden changes teachers, students and families had to make, the heart of Games Around the World, and the entire First Grade curriculum, identifying and understanding our differences, remained intact. “In today’s world where we are struggling with similarities and differences and how they affect our everyday life, we want our students to identify with others who may live elsewhere, but have lives very similar to theirs.” started Ms. Tang. “We also wanted them to celebrate their differences. We want our students to become people who recognize, understand and appreciate similarities and differences. Teaching racial literacy is at the core of our curriculum, and the Games Around the World event is just a small manifestation of that. And in today’s climate, racial literacy is more important than ever.”

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An Adventure from Grace’s Youngest Authors

“Once upon a time three kids were in different places and they wanted to get together.” And so begins “The Long Haul to American Fun,” illustrated and dictated by Ms. Sarah Adler’s Early Childhood Language Group. 

The Language Group, which met twice weekly throughout the year, was designed to support the reading and writing skills of Grace’s Kindergarten students. This year, at the students’ prompting, they wrote a book to culminate the class. Ms. Adler has led the group for years, but this year presented unique challenges (and even an unexpected advantage) with the shift to distance learning in the spring. Ms. Adler noted, “Initially it was difficult to conduct the class remotely, but the children soon adapted. They even enjoyed being able to see my screen as they dictated the story while I typed it. They delighted each time I made a typo and were able to correct me. In the end, this gave them a great sense of pride and accomplishment.”

“The Long Haul to American Fun” follows three children who, after an unexpected hiccup, find themselves stranded in the Californian desert. They have to quickly find shelter, all while avoiding some very prickly cacti. They manage to travel by wing glider to American Fun, a glorious theme park in Coney Island, replete with water slides, swimming pools and games. After a short excursion to Alaska to view the Northern Lights, where they befriend a fluffy dove and a furry dog, the children return to American Fun for more water park hilarity before finally traveling safely back to their homes.