Using Participant Testimony in History Education

By Jason McDonald, History Teacher

In my 11/12 grade history elective, The World Wars, students are studying how World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust are all interrelated. This work culminates in December, when students present a short skit over Zoom, dramatizing the life of someone who participated in the World Wars in some way. While there were many more class events, here are some of the various ways students engaged with participant testimonies so far this semester. 

Key to understanding the events of the World Wars and the Holocaust is participant testimony. Students are engaged with testimony in a number of ways. We began with the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website. I was a visiting teacher fellow at IWM in the summer of 2015, and I have maintained connections with the museum staff since then. IWM has a rich and varied number of resources for students to access. 

People like Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross, are memorialized by IWM. Lives of the First World War provides multimedia, text, archival sources, and more about his life. Students wrote a short dramatic biography about someone from Lives of the First World War using the resources available.

Khan won the Victoria Cross for actions in October 1914 at the First Battle of Ypres. IWM provides a timeline of Khan’s life from his birth to his death and links to many sources for students to follow up. 

There are thousands of profiles. I picked out fifty of the most famous British soldiers of World War I for the students to consider. This project honed their writing skills and helped them think about how to translate research into dramatic writing. One of the students was so intrigued by Khudadad Khan that she is continuing to research his life for her semester-long project!

Students continued to read about World War I through the memoirs of Ernst Jünger, in his book “Storm of Steel. His public statements are widely regarded as “travelling with the Nazis” and an example of how World War I veterans supported the rise of Hitler. His experiences in the Somme in 1916 glorified war. Students contrasted this reading with critical texts and videos on the book as well as discussion about the actual brutal nature of trench warfare in Western Europe. 

After studying the rise of the Nazis, students visited the USC Shoah Foundation’s website to learn about Kristallnacht. USC Shoah Foundation has hours of video testimony from Holocaust survivors, recounting many events. They have survivor testimony from many people who were children during Kristallnacht. Students listened to survivor testimony and wrote a short reaction paper. This prepared them for a Zoom call with a living survivor. 

Holocaust Survivor Celia Kener Zooms with my class.

Through the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s education program, Grace was able to connect with Celia Kener and speak with her live during our regularly scheduled class time. Celia Kener was born in 1935 in Lvov, Poland. When the Germans invaded in 1941, life totally changed. Her father was drafted into the Russian army while the rest of her family moved into the ghetto. Celia’s mother was selected for a labor camp and was periodically brought in to visit the family on weekends. Her mother found a childless Catholic couple and promised her daughter to them because she didn’t think that she would survive. Celia was eventually reunited with her mother. The family was liberated by the Russians. Her father escaped the Russian army to an Uzbekistan Displaced Persons camp under an assumed name and survived. Celia and her parents came to the United States in 1949. 

Students, their parents, and faculty were invited to listen to her live testimony. It was heartbreaking at times, exceptionally powerful, and difficult to take in for some viewers. But as this is probably the last generation that will interact with living survivors of the Holocaust, it was an amazing opportunity to learn about her incredible will to survive and the luck she had in finding people to help her avoid the Nazis. 

The class is just transitioning into writing research papers based on the sources they have collected, and then, with the help of the Writing Center, will turn their research into dramatic skits. Students are excited about this project, and drama is a wonderful medium to learn and remember history. If you are interested in this event, please check your email for further updates.

Becoming Strong Visual Storytellers

By Collin Todd, Visual Arts Teacher

As students adapt to the ever-changing world around them, the way they interact with information both educational and social is increasingly becoming more visual. It is important for students to have the tools and conceptual foundations for becoming strong visual storytellers. This can take the form of photographs and videos they share with their peers and family as well as visual reports, documentaries, and presentations as part of their education. My Open Grace Summer course offerings were geared to empower the students as storytellers by helping them gain the technical ability to be a successful visual storyteller in photography and video as well as understand the conceptual meanings behind what makes films engaging and important to our culture. 

In our Introduction to Photoshop class, we explored the foundational tools and concepts of digitally manipulating photographs, allowing students creatively express themselves beyond the idea of the snapshot. Students produced a range of photo collages and illustrations. 

Our Advanced Photoshop course centered around the idea of expanding illustration and design possibilities in the software while utilizing photographs as a starting point. The students produced several logos and designs. 

The Introduction to Final Cut Pro class gave students hands-on experience in creating a music video as they learned the ins and outs of the video editing software. 

Finally, the Introduction to Adobe Premiere class provided the students with a platform to create their own PSAs about life during a pandemic. 

You can view some of the students’ Photoshop work here and their video work here!

Video password is ” opengrace2020 “

Dances for Very Small Spaces

By Jenny Pommiss, Dance

When Grace was forced to shut its doors, the advanced, senior-only Dance Repertory Class began a project I called, “Dances for Very Small Spaces.” The project was born out of quarantine and the desire, in fact, the need, to keep moving. It was inspired by “52 Portraits” (2016), which was a digital collaboration between British choreographer Jonathan Burrows, composer Matteo Fargion, and video maker Hugo Glendinning. In class, students were asked to look at their homes, the places where they may have lived all their lives, in a completely new way. They scouted locations for a dance that would not only use their bedroom or living room as a backdrop, but as a dance partner. Students were encouraged to have the location drive their choreographic explorations. They were then asked to film themselves from a variety of different perspectives, add music, and edit that footage together. At the same time, the students were asked to take time to reflect on what Dance has meant to them at Grace, how the pandemic has affected them, and how it may continue to affect Dance as a discipline moving forward. At the end, I whittled their final projects down to a minute each and layered their interviews over their chosen sound so that they could be strung together. The result was a collection of deeply personal movement portraits that represented four years of growth in the Dance Program at Grace. 

Check our Website in the coming days to see the students’ full final projects. In the meantime, please hear their voices and watch their dancing in a beautiful compilation. You can watch Dancing With Big Hearts in Small Spaces: Senior Edition, using the password: Seniors.

This project then became a component of a larger, full Ensemble piece called “Dancing with Big Hearts in Small Spaces.” This was a digital reimagining of the Ensemble’s canceled live performance, which was set to go up on April 17 and 18 in Tuttle Hall. As Devon M. ‘20 says in the piece, “Honestly, when I first heard that schools were going to be shut down, I did not think that Dance was going to continue”. To his surprise, the Ensemble continued to meet twice weekly to move together and explore what it means to dance alone and in place. Visiting teacher Simon Thomas-Train and I collaborated on the concept and direction. Josie M. ‘22 offers, “We have kept going….we are finding other ways to keep moving…and to keep the spirit of dance and the amazing gift of dance alive.” Each week, after a physical warm-up, students were given prompts, such as “make a dance in a doorway” or “use today’s headlines as an inspiration for a dance”. They were then asked to film themselves using a variety of different camera angles. The dancers also interviewed themselves, which gave their virtual audience the opportunity to delve deeper into the dancers’ creative process. You can view the full performance here, using the password: Bighearts.

For the virtual finale, I was inspired by the choreography and editing techniques used in a music video by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down that was produced in the early days of the quarantine and choreographed specifically for Zoom. I loved how it utilized the video medium to make dancers appear connected in new and exciting ways. You can view the Finale here, using the password: Finale.

Senior Directors Compelled to Take Films in New Direction

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

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

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

View all films here using password “films2020.”

I Got You (I Feel Good)

Social distancing hasn’t stopped the GCS Jazz Ensemble from (digitally) jamming together. In an effort to get everyone’s week off to a bright start, the high school troupe put together a spirited cover of James Brown’s iconic song, “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, which Mr. Kadajski, High School Instrumental Music Teacher, sent to all students, faculty and staff.

Mr. Kadajski described for us the students’ experience of creating this piece, as well as his process for putting it all together:

We’ve been having zoom classes in a way that is similar to how we have in-person classes during school.  We start by tuning, followed by a warm-up on a scale and rhythm. Usually I play my sax while the students play along with me, but they are muted. I then put on the backing track to a piece we’re working on and we play through that together, again while they’re muted. We go into breakout rooms in zoom, and I ask each section to work on a particular set of measures with section leaders leading the sectional. I hop into each breakout room and help each group.

In terms of the video, I had students send me an audio take of them playing their part along to a backing track using headphones. I then imported and mixed their audio files together using Logic Pro X. I then had them send me a video take of them playing along to the backing track. I used Final Cut Pro to compile all the videos and added the mixed audio from Logic into the compilation. That was the process in a nutshell.

A Silver Anniversary’s Silver Lining

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

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

The idea of coming upon the unexpected

as something carefully arranged

by a prior hand that linked

all its forms aesthetically

to explain a disordered garden

at the height of its disorder,

a gesture not yet carried out, gently stirring

with no way of knowing what will become of it.

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

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

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

The Adaptability of Scientific Collaboration in times of Crisis

By Kim Chaloner, Dean of Community Life & Science Teacher

Neuroscientists and Education Researchers Join our Environmental Science Elective to Develop a Scientific Study of COVID-19

Before our distance learning adventure began this month, members of NYU’s Neuroscience team, including members of their Teaching and Learning research group, teamed up with our Environmental Science class to explore and develop the team’s new student-scientist collaboration platform, MINDHIVE. As they describe, “MINDHIVE is a web-based citizen science platform that supports real-world brain and behavior research. It is “designed for students & teachers who seek authentic STEM research experience, and for neuroscientists & cognitive/social psychologists who seek to address their research questions outside of the lab.” MINDHIVE  will eventually develop a large platform to pair students with neuroscientists who will develop research study proposals together. An earlier collaboration with my class and the same team, carried out in 2016 and 2017, was featured in a New York Times piece. We’ve continued the collaboration since then, and for this year, our original idea was to study young people and climate anxiety, developing a research project that looks at how students respond to information about the global crisis of climate disruption.   

The closing of both schools, as well as the unprecedented circumstances of responding to a global pandemic, may have thrown off many learning experiences, but this collaboration was custom built for this particular brand of scientific work. Students at Grace focus on collaboration, real-world learning, and cross-curricular exploration. In these circumstances, our program was ready to keep moving forward.  

Students began their online collaboration this week, studying how scientists balance the need for fast results with the need for solid and reliable data. Like in the climate crisis, the public is weighing the value of acting early and relying on scientific consensus with what seems like more immediate concerns like keeping the economy on track or waiting for completely unanimous conclusions. Our students, with depth and subtly, talked about the most recent studies neuroscientists and social scientists have published and carried out regarding responding to this pandemic, one fantastic example can be found here. They proposed their own study topics of study and discussed them with our team including Suzanne Dikker (pictured in our Zoom chat below). Students asked excellent behavioral research questions like, “If you have family members living overseas, do you worry if their countries aren’t doing enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus and do you see the risk differently?” and “If you are an introvert and normally don’t see people, has the fact that you are now prohibited from seeing anyone strengthened your desire to see people?”  Students talked about how teenagers are reacting to information and how they evaluate what to trust in the media.

As we continue to develop our research project with MINDHIVE, including the input of scientists working on the ground to understand the social nature of the crisis, we are grateful to have this collaboration in place, ready to enter the online learning world.

Scientists and Education Researchers Present on Our Call:

Dr. Suzanne Dikker (Amsterdam)

Veena Vasudevan 

Sushmita Sadhukha 

Rebecca Martin 

Kim Burgas 

Engin Bumbacher 

Ido Davidesco (in spirit!)

Mandarin Students Learn in New Environment: The Kitchen

Before Spring break, students in Ms. Chien’s Mandarin V class were busy discussing their favorite fast and comfort foods as a way of practicing the culinary-centric vocabulary they had been studying. Once Grace’s Distance Learning plan commenced on March 30, the conversations they were having, and the way Ms. Chien was teaching, suddenly shifted.

So far, distance teaching, in Ms. Chien’s case, has provided its own set of challenges; Ms. Chien noted that she often finds herself “hopping around the breakout rooms.” More importantly, teaching via Zoom has provided her with plenty of new teaching opportunities, such as introducing a new setting to her students: her kitchen.

In this new environment, Ms. Chien is not only able to teach them new vocabulary, but is able to use it in actual conversation, talking them through the preparation of some of her favorite noodle dishes. Of teaching from home, Ms. Chien said, “It’s actually a luxury to have all the props within a step. I can show them everything easily. They get to see the authentic materials. I think it’s a benefit of online learning.”

Using her cooking demonstrations as inspiration, students have been tasked to make cooking shows of their own. Each student will have to film a segment of them cooking the very comfort foods they discussed before Distance Learning began. And they will have to narrate it entirely in Mandarin. “I look forward to having them put their various language skills in one project: writing/ typing while writing their plots and scripts, speaking, reading, and listening while we did a rehearsal on Zoom.” Ms. Chien said.

She also noted that, while the project would center around the practice of a foreign language, it will, overall, be a holistic learning experience. “Students will integrate their skills in theater such as staging, public speaking, acting, and looking at camera, and in technology by editing the movie and making sure the subtitles match what they are saying.” Ms. Chien added, “The language component does not have to be 100% perfect, as long as it conveys the meaning and shows their passion of the language and the dishes they make.”

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare, Zoom, and the Faculty

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

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

                                        –from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65

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

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

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

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

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

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

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