The Magic of Popcorn Words

By Kate Patton, Early Childhood

What is a Popcorn Word? Any current or former Grace Kindergartener will know. Teaching reading readiness as we do in Kindergarten is all at once complex, exciting, and fun. Learning sight words is an important part of this process. We use the term Popcorn Word to mean frequently occurring sight words, those words you will likely read countless times as a reader.   

Imagine yourself as an Early Childhood student, trying your hardest to crack the code of the written words around you that almost everyone else seems to know but you! When children are 5 and 6, they can typically express themselves verbally in their own words and are learning new vocabulary at a quick pace. They love sitting down with a picture book and telling themselves the story using the illustrations. Maybe teachers or families read them a book and now they can retell it on their own. 

Although some children will be reading fluently before starting Kindergarten, most will need direct reading instruction. The process of learning to read is different for each child. Phonics is typically an essential part of this process but cannot paint the full picture. Young children begin to recognize and name individual letters learning that letters make sounds. Once they know their sounds, “sounding out” may then begin, blending individual sounds to read a word. Yet, as we all know, the English language is a quirky one, and a focus on sight words must be present to make children truly reading ready. 

Popcorn Words walls in different EC classrooms

Popcorn Words are taught to be so easily recognizable that they pop out from the page much like a freshly popped kernel of popcorn! The children know you need only your eyes to read these words.  No sounding out necessary. And, of course, when you spot a popcorn word, buttering it is a must.  We encourage children to look for popcorn words everywhere, and when appropriate, they can use a butter marker, aka a yellow highlighter, to mark any popcorn words they see. (In the absence of yellow, popcorn words can be highlighted with cheese or jelly!) In the classrooms, we create Popcorn Word walls as a reference to be used daily. Children learning remotely this year created their own Popcorn Word walls at home!

Popcorn Words also play an important role in the written expression of young children. In Kindergarten, students use “sound spelling” to express themselves in writing. Yet, proper spelling begins when they start to incorporate Popcorn Words either remembering them by sight or copying them from the Popcorn Word wall. Journal prompts will often feature the Popcorn Words  we have already introduced. There are probably countless ways to introduce sight words. Read a book and count how many times you hear the target word. Write the word three times and use it in a written sentence. Write it in the air. Do a cheer. Play Bingo. Solve a word search. Create art featuring a Popcorn Word. Most morning questions and messages feature a sight word or 2 or 10!  

The expression of empowerment and excitement is remarkable when a child looks at a word, is able to read it independently, and is able to tell teachers and family that you know what that word says. As Kindergarten teachers, these are moments of joy! In the K classrooms, you might hear children asking if I is spelled I and a is spelled “a” why is you spelled y-o-u? You will hear children noticing is hiding inside “this.” You will see them scanning for Popcorn Words that might be hiding in their own names. You will hear them call out, “You just said a Popcorn Word!” Ah…the magic of Popcorn Words.  

Students enjoy learning about Popcorn Words remotely

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

Black History is American History

The accomplishments, impact and influence of African Americans are at the foundation of many of our country’s pivotal historical moments. Though Black History Month provides a venue for us to highlight Black history, it’s crucial that we continue to learn about and celebrate it. Afterall, Black history is American history.

Below, read the perspectives of several Grace teachers on why it’s important to learn about and teach Black history year-round, and how they continue to integrate it into their courses:

Andrew Leonard, Performing Arts:
For the Vocal Music program, teaching Black History through music is essential. I make it a point to start off Beginning Vocals in the 9th grade every year explaining that pretty much all music we listen to today can be traced back to the influence of enslaved African-Americans. All American musical artforms- Jazz, Blues, Musical Theatre, Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop, R&B, Country, etc. are direct descendants of Black culture and music. While this may seem like a hefty and overarching statement, it’s the truth. If you look only at the scales and rhythms used you will find this to be true. 

Therefore, it’s imperative that our Vocal Music students are not only aware of this- but they must learn it, honor it, and practice it from the beginning of their vocal studies at Grace. This plays a part in GraceNotes directly. I have made it a priority to make sure that there is a diverse body of repertoire that we learn and perform in GraceNotes. Some choral programs only focus on what some refer to as “the dead white guys”- aka classical music. While these composers are important to learn, if you are to only stop there, then you will miss the mark of being a truly well rounded and successful musician. Singing music from cultures from all over the world is a way in which GraceNotes practices antiracism daily. Also, allowing GraceNotes to dive deep into the world of spirituals, gospel music, and other forms of choral music that are traditional specifically to America, forces the students to gain a level of respect and understanding that would not otherwise be achieved. This is but only one way in which the Vocal Music program teaches and uplifts Black History all days of year, not just in February. 

Enkay Iguh, Literature
A. As a person who deals in stories—telling them, writing them, and teaching them—I am always aware of the power of narrative. It is how we pass on our cultural values, it helps us define ourselves, and ultimately the stories we hear, especially as children, shape our imagination and what that imagination creates. 

B.As a Black woman, I am also aware of the narratives about blackness, and especially Black woman-ness. These narratives are often dehumanizing, and to encounter them as a student was painful and confusing. What’s more, I wasn’t presented with the framework, the language to understand all that was messaged to me. Yet those messages shaped me.  

If A and B are true, then it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to equip my students with the tools to dissect narratives and contextualize them. What’s more, I must combat the harmful narratives and encourage positive identity formation, especially for my Black students. I teach Black history and life affirming Black stories year round in order to give my students what I never received in high school: tools with which to think critically about the stories we tell, especially regarding race. It is a daily practice and it guides my methodology. Black history is American history, and that’s a truth every student deserves to learn.

Mark Weinsier, History:
I teach the students with whom I’m fortunate enough to work at Grace that they each have a valuable voice that deserves to be affirmed and centered. And I stress to them that they can learn to navigate power structures and be active agents of the change they wish to see in the world.  But it was my own unlearning and relearning of Black History that helped crystallize these truths for me.

Several years ago, in a moment of clarity – and to my great mortification and horror — I realized that my discussions of Reconstruction entirely lacked Black voices and agency. I honestly can’t remember what prompted this revelation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” which landed with this white teacher in a predominantly white institution, for one, like a thunderclap and has become the single-most revisited reference point for me in both my teaching and ongoing learning. 

The more I read, the more I learned – and, in retrospect, wanted to apologize to all of the students who went through my classes as I began teaching them at Grace 19 years ago to whom I may have unconsciously done harm. Because I realized that, for longer than I care to remember, I had inadvertently taught Black History as I had myself learned it growing up in my hometown of Plantation, Florida (incorporated in 1953, which only makes its naming differently execrable): a trauma-focused distortion of the human experience in which people were acted upon rather than having the agency to dream and laugh and love and act to shape the world into the one they wished to see for themselves, their families, and their loved ones. But now I know better. I will never go back.

Now, as GCS students hope for the promise of vaccines while navigating these turbulent times on computers and microphones, they can say they have the genius of Onesimus, Dr. Mark Dean, and Dr. James West to thank. Katherine Johnson and Dr. Mae Jemison show them how to reach for – and get to — the stars. The Divine Nine and Victor Hugo Green lead by example in teaching them how to have mutual networks of support and oases of peace and dignity. The True Reformers and Maggie Walker demonstrate how to create structures out of whole cloth when unjustly denied access. Mary McLeod Bethune and the organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott lead by example in how to wield economic power to fight injustice. The Pullman Porters, The Chicago Defender, and the Freedom Riders teach lessons in how to use media to bring about change. While Madam C.J. Walker and Jay-Z show how to start a business with two dollars and a dream and to build generational wealth, Kehinde Wiley and filmmaker Stanley Nelson mentor them in challenging representation. Fred Hampton’s First Rainbow Coalition and the recent #TimesUp Movement demonstrate by example how to build coalitions. And the allyship of Theodore Sedgwick to Elizabeth Freeman in suing for her freedom, of Catholic sisters of the Order of St. Joseph to Black students in desegregating independent schools in Florida, and of Brad Lomax and the Black Panthers to disability rights activists that helped bring about the Americans with Disabilities Act encourage the eighth graders – and us all – to get into what late Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” Because, in bending that arc of the moral universe towards justice, each of us has a role to play.

My unlearning and relearning of Black History prompted me to reexamine my entire curriculum through other lenses. I am now constantly looking out for and incorporating other stories and voices that were hidden to me in my own education – and, consequently, that I have inadvertently hidden from my students, from gender-binary-shattering Public Universal Friend to agricultural pioneer Ah Bing to Muslim founding father Yarrow Mamout to Sikh railroad builders in Oregon.

As James Baldwin once wrote in his “A Talk to Teachers,” “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”  I’m committed to continuing to learn and teach an ever broader range of histories that speaks to the full spectrum of the human experience and to the power of human agency. And I will continue to lift up and center Black voices – as well as the many others that were hidden to me growing up – every single month of the year.

From Chelsea Flores, Early Childhood:
In Early Childhood, one might call our “unofficial” overarching curriculum, “How to be The Best You.” This curriculum consists of daily lessons on how to listen to each other, ask questions when we’re uncertain, and stand up for those who need help. The opportunities for children to unconditionally celebrate both themselves and one another are numerous in Early Childhood. One such opportunity for students is through telling stories from both around the classroom and around the world.

In First Grade, the “Around the World” social studies curriculum serves as a medium to impart upon students how the similarities and differences of people, which are central elements of an enriching community, should be celebrated. First and foremost, we want our youngest learners to see themselves and their peers in a positive and affirming light. We want them to be able to pick up books and regularly see different aspects of themselves in the stories they read. We also want them to engage with experiences and identities that differ from their own, gaining new perspectives both in the classroom and their surrounding environment. We call these mirrors and windows.

One of our biggest goals is to encourage students to challenge stereotypes and misinformation, right from the start. If we are truly to love and understand ourselves and our neighbors, then we must first learn to listen and appreciate one another. This is why listening to and learning from Black voices and experiences is not just important in February, but all year-round. In many ways, de-centering the white narrative and spotlighting Black history is an opportunity to reflect, learn, appreciate, and uplift our communities to include the multiple, often untold stories. After all, Black history is world history.

From Toby Nathan, History
We teach and learn Black histories at Grace for the same reasons that Dr. Carter Woodson built the field of Black studies a century ago: because Black histories are an affirmation of Black life and identity, and the process of illuminating, teaching, and learning Black histories is a necessary and joyful act that is as much about our present as it is about the past.  

In conceiving of “Negro History Week,” Woodson identified a need to focus and fix our attention on the histories of Black people that had been, to employ the framing of Haitian scholar Michel-Rolphe Trouillot, “silenced” by generations of white historians. Indeed, Woodson feared that Black Americans had been rendered a people with “no history…no worthwhile traditions,” and that liberation would be found in unsilencing, illuminating, and amplifying Black histories.  

His aim was never to silo Black history to a week or a month; quite the opposite. Woodson’s work, and the work of generations of scholars since, was to center Black histories. In fact, Professor LaGarrett King points out that Carter Woodson intended “Negro History Week” to celebrate a year of learning Black histories. Woodson and his contemporaries in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance affirmed that scholarship and study were vital components of what Alain Locke called a “spiritual emancipation” for Black Americans. 

These ideas are at the forefront of my mind because students in my course, “African American History since 1920,” are currently working to understand the contours of the “New Negro Movement,” and many are also enrolled in Kallan Wood’s “The Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy” course in the literature department. Ms. Wood and I continue to work collaboratively on these courses, so that students can engage with Black stories and Black life across disciplines and without the limitations of any one method.  

Black histories are foundational to the 10th grade “History of the Americas” course, which I teach along with my colleagues, Jaliz Albanese and Jason McDonald. History of the Americas is organized around a decolonial framework, one that explores the interconnected histories of North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, and does so by deliberately centering the perspectives of African-descended and Indigenous peoples across the Americas. Our teaching and learning of Black histories is, and must be, diasporic in scope, both hemispheric and trans-Atlantic, and the “Americas” curriculum for History and Literature enables students to see African diasporic continuities fragmented by colonialism, and bring these to the present. In this course, we work to teach Black histories as histories of liberation and self-determination, Black histories that are joyful, powerful, and complex. 

Our work over the years to strengthen our teaching of Black histories at Grace has yielded significant and ongoing growth in our courses and pedagogy, but has been marked  by mistakes and missteps, including my own, that must be acknowledged. As a white teacher of Black histories, I have too often failed to recognize the ways that my identity and positionality – my relationship to these histories – were making it easy for me not to see the ways in which Black students and other students of color were experiencing materials we were reading or activities in the classroom. As a teacher, my work calls me to acknowledge these failures and to deliberately be a better educator and historian, to center and care for them in all aspects of my teaching life.  Departmentally, we continue to review and strengthen the skills we need to effectively teach Black histories and the histories of other historically marginalized people, because we know that our teaching must overturn and dismantle the power dynamics of the past.  

We learn and teach Black histories both because these stories are central to our shared history, and because Black histories are their own vital stories, which themselves demand our attention and scholarship as students and faculty.  

To adapt Arturo Schomburg’s framing of Black history, we must now all remake our past in order to make our future. We must teach Black histories all year, every year, because history is identity. It tells us who we are, and also shapes who we want to be. Bringing about a just future requires us to do justice to our past.  

Selected Texts for African American History Since 1920 (so far):

Selected Texts for History of the Americas 

Kallan K. Wood, Literature:
Black History Month, as Dr. Nathan has shared, was never about confinement. Black History Month and Black history is about amplifying, elevating and expanding, not restricting and contorting into small spaces. The idea of amplifying, expanding and working to take up space is at the heart of each literature course I teach.

This semester in Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy, a literature course for 11th and 12th grade students, I have focused on the idea of expansion and amplification of the individual voice, the individual writer and the individual character. Black Studies (no matter what the academic discipline), Black people and Black experiences are not a monolith, and much of what we do has to be to constantly push against that impulse. 

In the first half of the course we have studied an array of poets from a collection called Caroling Dusk, edited by Countee Cullen in 1927. In the foreword Cullen underscores this tension between the compulsion to see Black writers and Black Americans as one singular experience and the urgency to not erase the individual and their contributions. Cullen writes,  

“I have called this collection an anthology of verse by Negro poets rather than an anthology of Negro verse, since this latter designation would be more confusing than accutate. Negro poetry, it seems to me, in the sense that we speak of Russian, French, or Chinese poetry, must emanate from some country other than this in some language other than our own. Moreover, the attempt to corral the outbursts of the ebony muse into some definite mold to which all poetry by Negroes will conform seems altogether futile and aside from the facts.”

Towards the end of the foreword Cullen notes,

“The poet writes out of his experience, whether it be personal or vicarious, and as these experiences differ among other poets, so do they differ among Negro poets; for the double obligation of being both Negro and American is not so unified as we are often led to believe. A survey of work of Negro poets will show that the individual diversifying ego transcends the synthesizing hue.”

This text is not only a prolific anthology, it is also an exquisite primary source document. Cullen asked each poet to submit a short biography with their poems. Reading these biographies alongside each poet’s work allows us to further emphasize individuality and make thematic connections that consider and contend with racialized experiences and expression, but are not exclusively about racialized experiences and expressions. Some of the themes we have been exploring within the Harlem Renaissance and will continue to explore into the second half of the semester (our “legacy” bit) are dreams, self-actualization, love, power, elitism, womanhood, manhood, affirmation of humanity and Alain Locke’s notion of “spiritual empaciation”. 

Texts for Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy:

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.)

This Year, JK-4 Math is All Fun and Games

By Leah Silver, JK-4 Math Coordinator

The vibrancy of our Early Childhood and Lower School math program can be felt both in the classroom and on Zoom screens this year. JK through Grade 4 students are questioning, constructing, noticing, playing and practicing in different ways. In a year of so much change, I’ve found it helpful to articulate guiding principles for our program this year: prioritizing the use of real materials, centering the use of games, and trusting in the resilience of our students. 

Guiding Principle 1: Prioritizing real materials 
This year presents new challenges for using materials, but we know that students learn new math while getting the opportunity to construct new understandings for themselves. While digital manipulatives exist and are very useful, when students first learn a new concept they need to hold the materials in their hands. Every student in Early Childhood and Lower School–whether learning remotely or in person–received an individual math manipulatives kit with the key materials they will use over the course of the year. Depending on the age, these kits include unifix cubes, pattern blocks, beaded number racks, base ten manipulatives, game spinners and dice. This way, we can make sure everyone has access to the same materials in a safe and sanitary way, and every kid can easily take these home, should we have to all learn remotely. 

Ms. Malik leads our remote JK students through a pattern activity. Students use their Unifix Cubes to construct their own two-color patterns.
Our remote Kindergarten students explore different combinations of the number ‘5’ with Ms. Moller and Ms. Silver using their Five Frames and Unifix Cubes.

Guiding Principle 2: Games are at the Center
Games have always been at the center of our math program, and this year is no different (in that regard!). With our ongoing adoption of the Bridges in Mathematics program, we have access to incredible digital versions of the games our students love to play. These games are a crucial piece of our math program, encouraging strategy development, logical thinking, and further building of math concepts. 

Grade 3 students in Mr. Schneider’s class play ‘Carrot Grab’ in a breakout room. One student shares their screen so they can both use the same game board. This game encourages students to hop to a ‘friendly number’ when adding. You can play Carrot Grab here!

Guiding Principle 3: Trust in the resilience and mathematical capabilities of our students, and keep moving forward.
While we had to make curricular adaptations to accommodate our remote learning schedule last spring, our work at the beginning of the year with students confirmed what we knew to be true: our students learned a ton of math last year and were ready to hit the ground running with their current grade level’s curriculum. We took guidance from the Bridges program not to rewind to the previous year’s content, even though some lessons may have been missed or altered. Instead, we assess as we go and identify any areas we need to re-engage with our students in real time. 

Grade 4 students in Mr. Wanyoike’s class work on building the ‘Wall of Base Ten’ to visualize numbers up to 10,000.

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. 

The Three Most Important Math Questions for EC and LS Classrooms

By Leah Silver, Math Specialist (JK-4)

While so much has changed in our teaching in the last few months, the essence of the math classroom has remained the same. Planning, teaching and visiting math classes JK through Grade 5 in recent weeks has helped me sharpen my answers to the following questions: What can our digital tools do really well? And what can our teachers do that our digital tools never can? Our digital tools like DreamBox give our students immediate and targeted feedback on their operational and problem-solving work, and we’re learning how to let these tools help us make the best use of our teaching time. 

Our teachers do incredible work every day that our digital tools cannot—and will not—ever be able to do. Our teachers work masterfully to guide our students to better articulate their mathematical thinking, learn to ask excellent questions, make keen observations and get comfortable in solving complex problems, even when the answer isn’t immediately clear. We know that the ability to work collaboratively on complex problems and express ideas clearly will be two of the most valued qualities as this group of students continues to grow up. We also know that our students’ ability to make sense of data presented to them and reach logical conclusions is essential in a world where we receive information from an infinite number of sources. Our teachers prioritize these and many other concepts in their work with students each day — no matter the distance. 

While there are so many different strategies teachers use to help students come to new understandings, one is asking the right question at the right time. Whether in a kindergarten Number Corner session or a fourth grade multiplication strategy talk, these three key questions help our students build their computational fluency: solve problems accurately, use efficient strategies and show flexibility.

Students in Mrs. Patton and Ms. Ferdinand’s Kindergarten class (the Blue Room) proudly show their completed work after an exciting math game.

Question 1: What do you notice?

Teachers methodically ask this throughout their math classes. Asking younger students what they notice helps them to make connections and to sort and categorize — an essential early childhood skill. We ask our youngest students what they notice about a group of objects, about how many days we’ve been in school, about a graph or a chart that collects student answers to the daily question. And we ask our oldest students what they notice about a set of numbers or a particular strategy to help them formulate and articulate math strategies. Asking students what they notice encourages them to put together all the math and logic learning that is in their heads to try to put some order and sense into what’s in front of them. 

Mr. Haltom based his (beautiful!) calendar creation on the one from the Bridges curriculum, adding in important days for the Grace community. He asked our youngest learners in Junior Kindergarten what they notice about the emerging pattern, and what they thought might come next. What do you notice?

Question 2: What do you wonder?

Encouraging curiosity is one of the highest priorities in our math classes. Curiosity breeds hunger for more learning and also breeds an eagerness to make sense of what’s around us. Our second grade teachers recently led an activity which gave students the opportunity to come up with questions usually left to curriculum writers. With a given amount of information, what questions could you ask? For example, if you know that there are 124 red legos and half as many blue, what questions could you come up with? 

Our students might ask:

  • How many blue legos are there?
  • How many legos are there in total?
  • How many more red legos are there than blue legos?

When we ask students to generate questions, we dismantle the notion that questions only come from those who are ‘in charge’ or older. Giving children the opportunity to come up with their own questions is one way we can show that we value their thinking encourage their developing curiosity.

Question 3: How do you know?

Verbalizing thinking is useful both in and out of the math classroom, and our students spend a lot of time writing and thinking not only about the numbers of math but about the words, too. Teachers are often encouraging students to move beyond a common initial student response, “I just know,” and instead give a reason or strategy. “I know that is ten because I started with five and added two more, which got me to seven. And I know that seven and three more equals ten.” We want to teach students that intuition does have a place in the math classroom, and that there is value to articulating what and how you are thinking.

Mr. Wanyoike guides fourth graders through a problem set from Bridges. These problems lend themselves to certain strategies that the class has been focusing on, encouraging them to flexibly solve problems and justify their thinking along the way.
In a recent first grade class, associate teacher Ms. Alonso poses a task for students. There are 18 dots all together, and some are covered up. How many are under the ‘Splat’? How do you know?

I am really proud of all of the math learning and teaching at Grace in the last few months, and I can’t wait for the day we get to safely be together, hearing our students excitedly call out everything they notice and wonder.

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.  

Seeing Double

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.

On the Merits of Distraction

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.