This letter was sent to Grace parents on March 13, 2021.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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
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.
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.)
“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.
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.
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.
At schools like Grace, teachers develop a knack for seeing double—for viewing our students both as they are when they arrive in September and as we expect them to be come June. Each lens is crucial for coaching students through a successful, transformative year.
Great teachers have a well-tuned September lens. They understand the hopes and fears that young students carry to school with them on their first day, and they quickly gain a sense of the habits and expectations older students take with them into the classroom, lab, studio, or gym. They tease out what students already know, and they notice what sorts of questions leave them stumped, tickled, curious, or bored. Like chipmunks hoarding acorns ahead of the long winter, great teachers spend September greedily collecting scraps of information about their students—from favorite books to favorite baseball teams—knowing that any stray detail they remember might become a source and sign of trust and affection. Such teachers use a September lens to look at their students, getting to know them as they are.
Great teachers also have a finely developed June lens, a set of expectations and goals for the year and a picture of the results that their instruction and support will strive to foster. They use this June vision to plan backwards, thinking about the knowledge, habits, virtues, and skill they seek to develop in their students, and they craft their lessons with that vision in mind. When students catch a glimpse of themselves through a teacher’s June lens, their reactions can run the gamut from disbelief (There’s no way I’ll EVER be able to factor a polynomial like that!) to cautious optimism (Well, I trust you, and if you think my stage fright won’t be an insurmountable obstacle, then I guess I’ll audition for a part) to flattered surprise (She really thinks I’m capable of all that? Wow!). Great teachers use a June lens to speak to students’ aspirations, and they show how the school year can narrow the gap that divides the people they are from the people they hope to become.
One of the things I find so exciting about working at Grace is that the school is full of great teachers, the sort endowed with 20/20 vision whether they are eyeing students through a September lens and getting to know them as they are or whether they are squinting through a June lens to see the first traces of the students they’ll become by June. It’s impossible not to be inspired by colleagues whose faith in their students is so great and also so grounded in reality and not just wishful thinking.
When a faculty is adept at viewing students through a September lens, students feel known and loved for who they are. They feel listened to. They know that teachers care about what interests and inspires them.
When a faculty is talented at seeing students through a June lens, students feel as though their teachers believe in them more than they do themselves and trust them more than they themselves think they deserve. When teachers’ high expectations are also clear, consistent, and grounded in a strong relationship with students, a strange alchemy occurs, mingling the teachers’ hopes for the year with students’ own dreams and aspirations.
With the first weeks of school well underway here at Grace, I’m excited for the year ahead and inspired by the colleagues I get to work beside. May our double vision serve our students well and last right up until June when the present reality and our hopes for the future merge and mingle into something clear and bright.
There’s a shifting of gears taking place here at Grace. Months of planning for the year’s MLK program have wrapped up, and when we return from our long weekend, the whole school will dive into a series of special events.
It will be a week chock-full of meaningful activities, highlights of which are sure to include:
Our annual gathering at Union Square and the all-school chapel service that follows;
Our tenth graders’ trip to see the play Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom;
A panel of young alumni of color discussing their experiences in college and independent schools;
Our annual symposium of speakers and workshops, developed by a team of high school students and teachers;
A visit from Dr. Ali Michael, who will speak with parents, teachers, trustees, and a group of students about the roles each of us can play in the school’s anti-racism efforts;
A Middle School Assembly when students and teachers will hear about Colin Kaepernick, the poetry of Langston Hughes, letters classmates have written to their political representatives, and much, much more.
Those are just some of the high wattage events. In classrooms throughout the school, teachers will help students engage with the legacy of Dr. King. The heroic lives of civil rights champions and of other advocates for justice can speak through history, challenging us to name and resist hate, bias, fear, and oppression and to reflect on our own lives and on the ways we might use them to make the world a better, fairer, kinder place. And so that is what we’ll be doing.
But as these gears shift towards the week’s activities, I’m struck by how much of the vital work of this annual program lies in preparing for them: in the conversations among teachers, brainstorming with students, lesson-planning and schedule-making. The purpose of the event, in other words, seems as much for us to prepare for it as it is to have the events and activities themselves.
Take a look at the mission statement for the program, which a team of teachers and administrators drafted this fall with help from the school’s Diversity Council. Together, they came up with a statement whose convictions are clear and whose ambition for the program demand that we continually raise the bar.
The Purpose of Grace’s Annual MLK Program
Every year at Grace, we come together as a school to commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and to learn from his example and from the lives of other champions of justice and peace. We do so to acknowledge the debt we owe to those women, men, and children who fought for equal rights, to note how their work remains unfinished, and to seek the courage and conviction to march in the paths of righteousness they’ve blazed for us to follow.
The Martin Luther King program is a focal point for the work of inclusion, diversity, and anti-racism that the school’s mission calls us to do all year long. Every day we teach children to value kindness and fairness and to seek the common good, and we aim to graduate students who can not only recognize the scourge of racism, injustice, and oppression, but who have the skills and desire to do something about it. And so our celebration of Dr. King and of the many unseen champions of freedom past and present strives to do more than note their historical import. It seeks to inspire us to action: to attend to the dignity of every person; to challenge systems that seek to diminish others; and to fashion our lives that they may serve the cause of justice and do the work of peace.
If that statement’s ambition calls us to raise the bar continually, how have we done so this year? By the end of next week, our students will have no shortage of answers to draw upon: our first panel of young alumni of color; the Early Childhood’s work on making good decisions; the combined forces of the Middle School vocal ensembles and the High School Singers; and so on.
But to me, what stands out has been the process of preparing for these events, which has expanded the number and diversity of voices involved in doing the planning. And that started with our high school seniors, who discussed ways to ensure that this event would inspire action and not degrade into inert and congratulatory satisfaction, as well-intentioned diversity initiatives too frequently do in independent schools.
For those who have seen our MLK programs in recent years, one new aspect of this year’s program may seem noteworthy: we won’t be making or marching with puppets (with the exception of the one depicting Dr. King). For a decade or so, puppets have been a feature of the day. Why shelve them for this year? There are a number of reasons: e.g., the fact that this year’s theme focuses our attention inward rather than outwards to a pantheon of heroes; colleagues expressed thoughtful concerns about the difficulties of representing the likenesses of enslaved or oppressed people without whitewashing the tragic circumstances of their lives; the desire for new traditions to take root and to allow this program to grow in unexpected directions.
That last idea brings to mind a favorite scrap of poetry by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. He ends a sonnet with the striking image of a bird retracting its wings mid-flight. Birds in flight, of course, are known by their wings, which are their source of stability and safety, power and control. For some years now, puppets have been a central part of our MLK program. But like a bird that retracts its wings to achieve a greater distance at a faster speed, so have we, collectively, decided to pull back our puppets—for this year, at least—in hopes of allowing our MLK program to grow and to help all of us do so, too.
No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead,
But leaving straining thought and stammering word,
Across the barren azure pass to God:
Shooting the void in silence like a bird,
A bird that shuts his wings for better speed.
–from Sonnet XXVIII
Best wishes to everyone for a restful long weekend. I couldn’t be more excited for the activities that lie on the other side of it, nor more grateful for the thoughtful preparation that went into planning them.
When I finished the last page of Marina van Zuylen’s lovely little book, The Plenitude of Distraction, I immediately ordered a stack of extras. I’ve been giving them away as presents throughout this winter break, and if I have any copies left by the time we return on Monday, I’ll bring them with me to Grace. Stop by my office, if you want to check it out.
Why have I been pressing it into the hands of my befuddled friends and family with the zeal of a street-corner evangelist? It certainly helps that the book is relatively inexpensive, handsomely printed, whimsically illustrated, and—at just over fifty pages—short. But what turned me into a book pusher was van Zuylen’s refreshing take on our culture of distraction and on the guilt we feel when we succumb to it.
Not sure about you, but I spend a whole lot of time privately lambasting myself for lapses in productivity. Doing so, of course, only launches a foolish cycle, for sinking into a malaise about the undone items on my to-do list doesn’t help me get to them any faster.
Van Zuylen offers “a second look at distraction,” one intent on “extracting untold pleasures and insights from its alleged dangers, defending and celebrating the unfocused life for the small and great miracles it can deliver.” She asks us to stop flagellating ourselves long enough to consider whether certain daydreams and reveries ought to be indulged, celebrated even, and not condemned. Having taught seminars at Bard and Princeton on the philosophic virtues of idleness, she knows which thinkers to enlist to support her case and she has a well-tuned ear for quotable lines.
We live in a split-screen world, clamoring for us to pay attention to it. Van Zuylen is surely right when she writes: “Our handheld devices require absolute attention from us. Vampires of our concentration, they guard us jealously from self and solitude.” But they are easier to ignore when we’re absorbed in a book, especially one like this that invites you to stare out the window and think.
What a pleasure it is to read an essay that lays out its case in such unhurried, elegant prose. No book can unravel the challenges of our bustling lives—that to-do list still needs doing!—but this one has managed to reframe how I think about being distracted.
With the new year upon us and the school year about to resume, I’m following van Zuylen’s lead and resolving to cultivate a gentler approach to distraction both for myself and for my students. Unlike my previous new year’s resolutions, where my wandering attentions got in the way of new exercise regimes and low-carb diets, I think this year’s actually has a decent chance of sticking.
One of the blessings that fell into my lap last week was the chance to listen to our High School Singers at the first All-School Chapel of the year. What a gift their performance was to all of us there. Their sound was impressive—by any measure, but doubly so when you recall that they’d just returned to school and so barely had time to rehearse. But the gift was more than their sound. It was the reminder that Grace is a school where students take contagious delight in working, playing, and performing together. There’s a joyful spirit here, and this is one version of what that spirit sounds like:
Many thanks to Mr. Leonard and the High School Singers for their chapel debut. We look forward to hearing much more from you this year!