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!”

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 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

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. 

Senior Directors Compelled to Take Films in New Direction

Film and Media Majors spent this year preparing to shoot their final film over spring break. After months of planning, and with spring break about to begin, Seniors Sasha Q., Otto L., Lucinda L. and Charlotte G. found their planned shoot and production completely shut down. Recognizing the less-than-favorable hand his students had been dealt, photography and film teacher Mr. Todd gave them the option of adapting their existing scripts or creating new films. Without exception, the students accepted the challenge of crafting entirely new films before graduation, even though they had already been working on their final projects for months. 

As the students began writing their new scripts, Mr. Todd shifted the focus of his class to delve deeper into the study of the avant-garde films and the pioneers of alternative cinema. The curriculum clearly inspired his pupils, whose films, either by design or necessity (or, more likely, a bit of both), began moving in a more surrealist direction, exploring the streets of New York City; a lofty apartment; even a kitchen sink. 

The uncharted territory lent itself to a somewhat surprising result. Said Mr. Todd, “While the students did not have the chance to experience building a production crew and filming with all the resources Grace has to offer, they were given the conceptual freedom to explore improvisation and a taste of auteurship on a level they probably wouldn’t have had prior to this crisis.”

View all films here using password “films2020.”

Dancing Across the Globe

By Pam Vlach, Dance Specialist, Lower & Middle School; Director, Middle School Dance Ensemble

The past few weeks, the middle school dance ensemble has been working with Aphiwe Mpahleni, who’s zooming in from Cape Town, South Africa to share the history and technique of Gumboot. The first week of her residency, the students learned about the emergence of Gumboot in the gold mines of South Africa as a tool for communication and protest in poor working conditions. The racial inequities in South Africa as related to the origins of Gumboot were particularly poignant for students. The second week, the seventh and eighth graders practiced the technique of Gumboot and learned a combination that we’ll likely incorporate into the middle school dance concert next spring.

In planning this unit, Aphiwe and I met several times to discuss content and strategy for online teaching because it was important to address both the possibility of unreliable technology and specifics of pedagogy that are culturally informed. We wanted to create a process where the middle schoolers could learn successfully while experiencing the cultural intricacies of Gumboot in an authentic way. Although there are certainly challenges in teaching dance remotely, it’s also an excellent opportunity to think outside the box and make the world a little smaller for the kids. 

Technologically, nothing is perfect. During one class, my speaker stopped working and I didn’t realize it. There were a few minutes of Aphiwe communicating with the kids and I couldn’t hear any of them (but thought the problem was on their end). When I realized what had happened, I was incredibly embarrassed and apologized, and the kids laughed, then we continued on with class. I share this because in teaching remotely, connecting with the students has sometimes meant showing some vulnerability in learning these new online tools and platforms. We’re all in it together, and we’re learning as we go. 

A Silver Anniversary’s Silver Lining

This month marks the 25th annual National Poetry Month, first introduced in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to celebrate poetry in the United States. Normally, budding and seasoned poets alike mark the occasion in New York with percussion-punctuated readings, festivals and workshops. 

This year’s event looks just a little different, but Woody Loverude, Writing Center Director, and Christina Olivares, Director of College Counseling and Poetry Liaison to the Writing Center, are honoring the silver anniversary in a special way. Each day during the month of April, they email a poem to Grace faculty, staff and High School students, accompanied by a recording of themselves reading the selection and an explanation of why they chose it.

The idea of coming upon the unexpected

as something carefully arranged

by a prior hand that linked

all its forms aesthetically

to explain a disordered garden

at the height of its disorder,

a gesture not yet carried out, gently stirring

with no way of knowing what will become of it.

From Cecilia Vecuña’s Chance Encounter 
And one of Ms. Olivares’s selected poems

With each poem they share, Mr. Loverude and Ms. Olivares are creating a sense of community during this time of extreme isolation. And the responses have been overwhelming, suggesting that the poems are perhaps resonating with people in a way that they might not have were we not in such an unusual time. This outcome has been one of the highlights for them. 

Mr. Loverude noted, “While I don’t think emailing the poems out has reached more people, it does seem that because of these emails and because of the virus, more people are emailing us back to share their appreciation of the poems in general or a specific poem in particular. And my favorite emails to get are ones from unexpected corners, those people who I didn’t expect to be actually reading/listening to our daily poems. It’s been a gift and a joy to hear from all corners of our community.”

A Renaissance Day for a New Age

When Grace moved to distance learning, Grade 5 teacher Margaret Meyer was faced with a decision: interrupt the more-than-20-year tradition of Renaissance Day, or proceed with a virtual event that even Leanardo da Vinci himself could not have imagined. For Ms. Meyer, the choice was an obvious one. 

“It never entered my mind not to proceed with Renaissance Day. I knew my students would make it work on the small screen just as well as if we were all sitting in our classroom together. This has proven to be the case. It’s not every day 11-year olds produce research papers on international topics. Our fabulous fifth graders came to value the experience of having written their research papers by virtue of having worked long and hard to make them happen. My confidence that the Renaissance Day experience would be even better via distance learning this year was richly rewarded,” Ms. Meyer stated proudly. 

She also knew that conducting the presentations online offered an unexpected advantage: family members and friends who might have been unable to attend a live event could now partake in the fun of watching the student presentations, which began on Tuesday and will continue for several weeks. 

Preparations for Renaissance Day began months ago, before the new normal, as Grade 5 students started the process of writing their first serious research paper and creating accompanying projects. First came the prompt from Ms. Meyer, who asked students to consider the time between 1200 C.E. and 1600 C.E. and identify two events that occurred in regions throughout the world, including Asia, Africa and the Middle East, in addition to Europe. Students then shared their findings with one another, engaging in lively discussions, following which they narrowed in on their topic of choice. Everything from Chinese architecture circa 1500 C.E. to the advent of the printing press in Europe to the contributions from the Muslim world to the fields of science, math and literature. 

It is crucial to Ms. Meyer that she avoid the Euro-centric narrative of the Renaissance. Instead, she teaches students to view the world through an international lense, helping them to understand the vast contributions made by all peoples. Equally important to her is to instill in students a desire to think critically, even if that sometimes (occasionally) means that she’s proven wrong. In fact, she delights in receiving emails from students who, after fact-checking on their own, are eager to contradict something she said in class. “It’s all part of teaching them to be independent thinkers,” she says. “I’m pretty much right. But I’m not pretty much perfect.”

When asked what it was like to write their first research paper, responses from students were, well, mixed. Many students echoed the sentiment of Hudson A. ’27, who said, “It’s a fun process because you made the paper, it’s your creation and you get to share it with everyone who reads it.” 

Still most agreed that the task was not without its challenges. No surprise as Ms. Meyer evaluates her students’ work as both their history and English teacher; that means papers must not only be rich in content but also well-constructed and, of course, properly cited. This includes an official acknowledgement form thanking the family members or friends who provided assistance throughout the process. After all, writing a research paper, like so much else in life, is a collaborative effort. 

Ellie R. ’27 presents her project about Nicolaus Copernicus