Coming Together During Digital Community Week

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Kashyap and seniors ice skating

Wisely Positive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“blessing the boats”

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

by Lucille Clifton

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

Two Reading Recommendations

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

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

Thoughts On an Unusual Winter Sports Season

By Associate Director of Athletics, Tim Quinn

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

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

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

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

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

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