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

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.)

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.”

Processed with VSCO with e6 preset

“No One is Alone” A Note from the Grace Theatre Company

As school is closed in response to the Coronavirus, the Grace Theatre Company wasted little time in experimenting with what actors and musicians can create together, even when they are forced to be in separate places. The company, which was preparing to put on “Into the Woods” as this year’s spring musical, has been looking forward, thinking of ways to produce the musical in some sort of digital context given the uncertainty of when school will open again. What’s resulted, thus far, is this experimental rendition of “No One is Alone” from the famed show.

Ms. Washburn said, “It took 6 laptops, 6 phones, 5 locations, 5 sets of AirPods, several drafts, and a whole lot of patience to produce. We learned a lot and have some good ideas about how to do it better next time.” Teachers and students in all of the arts have been looking for ways to continue the work students have been engaged in this year while the physical school buildings are closed. This is just the first of what we expect to be many creative endeavors.

Teachers want students to continue honing their craft with the same hard work and determination they have shown all year, but they are also attuned to the anxieties that so much uncertainty can bring for students and families. In describing the spirit of the choice of number Ms. Washburn said, “Since the sentiment of the song seems pertinent to our times, we hope that this little bit of sweetness will brighten your day. Most of all, we want everyone to take the meaning of the attached video to heart: no one is alone. We are all going through this together. We do indeed have a Giant in our midst. Let’s commit to being with and for each other as we figure out what to do next.”

Ms. Washburn says this is just a teaser and, truly, an experiment as they explore ways of keeping the theater company together despite the distance between them. Check back here often to see other great work happening in the arts and other disciplines while school continues remotely.

Shakespeare, Zoom, and the Faculty

By Robbie Pennoyer, Assistant Head of School, Director of Studies

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

                                        –from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65

My last class before Spring Break wrapped up a few hours ago.  By some measures, it was like every other class in “Poetry and Faith,” the elective I teach each spring to juniors and seniors in the high school division.  We greeted one another; I took attendance; we read and discussed a poem; students shared insightful analysis, asked poignant questions, and provoked bursts of laughter.  But one thing made the class different from every other: my students were all at home, and our class was meeting, through Zoom, in a virtual classroom.

With the spread of the coronavirus adding uncertainty about what lies beyond Spring Break—and with Grace wanting to do its part to flatten the curve and slow the virus’s spread—we canceled classes yesterday so that the faculty could spend a day preparing for the possibility of a prolonged period of school closure.  I sat in on several team meetings, as teachers strategized and traded tips for “distance learning.”  How I wish our students could have joined us—not, as I’ll forgive you for assuming, dear reader, because we needed digital natives to teach old dogs new tricks; we have experts enough in our midst for that.  No, I wish they could have joined us to see my brilliant, creative, inspiring colleagues exhibiting exactly the sort of can-do attitude we seek to nurture in our students. 

I read once that the best predictor of student success and flourishing in schools isn’t their average class size, the number of books in the library, the student-teacher ratio, or the standardized test scores of incoming students.  According to the researchers at Independent School Management, Inc., the best predictors for student achievement have nothing directly to do with the students at all but with their teachers.  It’s the presence of a growth-oriented faculty culture.  It’s teacher effectiveness and a healthy sense of community among a school’s adults that drive student success and satisfaction.  Yesterday, Grace’s faculty culture was on glorious display.  With its mix of collaboration, dedication, humor, and kindness and with my colleagues’ balance of humility and expertise, it was extraordinary to witness.  Today, with every child from JK–12 participating in Zoom classes, students have tasted the first fruits of the faculty’s efforts to prepare for the unknown that awaits us on the other side of Spring Break. 

No distance learning plan will feel like a fair substitute for school.  So much of the magic of Grace depends upon the alchemy that arises from talented teachers and motivated students being present together:  the casual friction of interactions in the halls; the crowds that gather to cheer on friends; the learning that can’t take place while seated before a laptop.  But for as long as we need to we will find a way to make this work—to be Grace and to do school, even if we’re doing so from home.  Today’s experiments in Zoom were a promising start.

The poem we read in class today was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65.  In it, the speaker looks around at everything he’s taken for granted, everything he’s assumed will stay just the way it always has, and he sees with no small measure of fear and anxiety that it’s all more fragile than he might typically care to realize: “[R]ocks impregnable are not so stout, / Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays.”  The first dozen lines of the sonnet are questions about how, when faced with a threatening future, something as fragile as beauty or love can survive.  The final couplet offers the sonnet itself as a tentative answer—“that in black ink my love may still shine bright”—familiar from similar poems about the ravages of time.  What makes the couplet credible is the sonnet as a whole, its sonic beauty, its profound and tender questions.  The poem asks: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?”  And in its asking, the gorgeous question provides its own answer:  that something about love grows sturdier, immortal even, when it’s translated into perfect art.   

The love that the Grace faculty brings each day to their classrooms—which they then translate into creative, effective, and supportive teaching—lodges in the lives of our students and shapes them in small but sturdy ways.  That love is on vibrant display every day here at school.  And it will be there when we gather with our students in online classrooms.  And it will be there when we get the word that it’s time to come back to school.

In the meantime, I send my prayers and best wishes for a safe Spring Break.  

Design Thinking in Grade 8 Art

By Philip Robinson, Art

The question posed to the eighth grade art students was straightforward: once a ‘need’ is identified, what are the steps needed to bring about change? Students learned how design thinking and problem solving can be used to answer that question.

The current ‘need’ at Grace is a gallery space where students can curate and display artwork. The hallways and front display case where current artwork is displayed is only a short-term solution. And even these spaces have multiple drawbacks: students running or leaning on the art, not enough space for large scale, three-dimensional sculptures in the glass display case. So I asked students, if money was not an issue and you could design a gallery for either campus what would it look like? Where would it be? What would your first exhibition look like?

Students had to learn how to accurately draw a two-dimensional floor plan and then erect that structure using the given materials: balsa wood, plexiglass, and foam core.  Once the gallery was built the students had to think about how they were going to curate their space with original artwork: photographs, sculpture, landscapes, etc. The final results were 46 proposals for a new gallery space for Grace Church School, a few of which can be seen in the pictures here. The public display of these proposals helps to start a larger conversation and validates the students’ work. When they return to Grace in 2, 3, or 5 years from now and see a new Gallery Space that they had a hand in bringing about change.

Goodbye Rhinos

Guest Post by Kim Chaloner, Dean of Community Life & Science Teacher

While focused on marching with our inspiring student leaders to oppose gun violence yesterday, and contemplating the awful costs of gun culture, I and some of the Grace community noticed an unusual site in Astor Place. Stacked in a solid and imposing 17 foot triplet, three bronze Northern White Rhinos arrived Wednesday, composing the largest rhino statue in the world. Their realistic forms, both delicately detailed and full of heavy meaning, told yet another story about gun violence and the need for our community’s attention to fight for a safe, sustainable and peaceful world.

“The Last Three” is a sculpture created by Gillie and Marc Art, public artists who have gained a reputation for making public sculpture a tool for conservation. As their website details, “Gillie and Marc’s coveted public artworks can be found all over the world including major cities such as Shanghai, New York and Sydney.” On Thursday morning, the couple, along with the Village Alliance, introduced the statue to the public. Having had the opportunity to meet the rhinos themselves, they created this piece to bring their story to the world.   

As the current Environmental Science teacher, I am all too well aware of the the gravity of these beautiful creatures’ personal stories, and this memorial to their waning existence. I was lucky enough to visit threatened Southern White Rhinos at Lake Nakuru Kenya in 2011 thanks to a Grace Faculty Travel Grant. These rhinos were brought back from the brink of extinction after hunting almost wiped them out, but the Northern White Rhinos will most likely be lost.  The Northern White Rhino, despite desperate efforts by the global community of conservation biologists, has only these three members left. Under armed guard at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya are Sudan, the last male, and his daughter and granddaughter, Najin and Fatu. These last three members of the subspecies represent the final victims of the brutal trade in rhino horns for mythical medicinal purposes, as well as hunting, poaching and habitat loss. As beacons of a global loss in species, said to be the sixth extinction as we see species going extinct at what is estimated to be 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural rates scientists have estimated.

I will certainly be bringing my students to Astor Place to, as the artists encouraged the public, feel and experience Sudan, Najin and Fatu. Speaking with INDE creators at the opening ceremonies, I learned that there is an iPhone app that allows kids traveling through Astor Place and walk with the rhinos to learn more about their plight, called INDE. Also, everyone is encouraged to write a goodbye message to the rhinos on the goodbye rhinos website, where notes to the species will be used to petition for better conservation practices.

Kim Chaloner is the Dean of Community Life at Grace and Environmental Science Teacher. One of the many roles she fills at Grace is coordinator of the school’s sustainability programming. Ms. Chaloner is in her nineteenth year at Grace Church School. Prior to working at Grace, Ms. Chaloner worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society.