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.

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.”