Seventh Graders Consider What Defines America

By Topher Nichols, Chief Communications Officer & Director of Academic Systems; Seventh Grade Social Institutions Teacher

Social Institutions is an elective course for seventh graders in which we look at how and why society is shaped the way it is. We begin the year by looking at how culture is made and how specific institutions shape a country, like its form of government, economic system, religion, and more. Then we take an in-depth look at three countries that are not normally prominent in the American history curriculum. This year, as in the past few years, we are studying Saudi Arabia and Islam in particular, México with a focus on trade and immigration, and the pacific island Kiribati (pronouned Keer e baas) and its projection to be the first country to become uninhabitable from sea level rise due to climate change. In the final two months of the year, students choose their own country to research and present to their classmates.

We begin our study of institutions by exploring some basic ideas, like how a market economy differs from a command economy, the prominent forms of government in practice today, and how cultural bias shapes and skews our understanding of ourselves and others. As a wrap-up to this first unit, students write their first major essay of the year, which students just submitted four days ago. The prompt for the essay asks just one question but has no singularly correct answer: “What is the most important social institution in the U.S.?” 

I have assigned this essay for the past four years, and it is always interesting to read the answers, but this year in particular this question strikes a resounding chord. I will concede it is difficult to avoid partisanship during this heated election season, but setting personal politics aside, one can easily find examples of people from both parties accusing the “other side” of destroying those things that make America what it is. At its heart, this course gives students the tools to understand how our institutions, both formal and informal, shape America’s unique identity, so that they can form their own opinions about what is at stake in a moment like this.

When I assign this essay each year I emphasize for students that there is no single right answer. The goal is to make an argument using evidence to persuade the reader. A few examples of institutions that highlight what today’s seventh graders are thinking on the eve of the presidential election: schools, family, the intelligence community, the Pentagon, the executive branch and the presidency, and our democratic republican form of government.

And, unsurprisingly, given the recent Supreme Court appointment and talk of lawsuits around ballots, one student highlighted the judicial branch as the most important institution. The student wrote this in their conclusion, “All of us must follow the law. However, what the law says or means is not always clear.  There are certain to be situations in which we disagree with other people.  The judicial system helps resolve these situations. By providing us with a decision in these circumstances, the judicial system provides a way for people and organizations to correct things that are not right, get on with other parts of their lives and try to do the right thing in the future.  If we all agree to abide by the decisions of the judicial branch we can get over disagreements and still be part of the same country.”

Whether we know who the next president will be late tomorrow night or a few weeks from now, there is a good chance the judicial branch will play a decisive role in this election. Whoever the next president is will likely have a profound impact on our country’s institutions, but perhaps the biggest question that is to be determined is how a nation so divided can do like our astute seventh grader says and “get over our disagreements and still be part of the same country.”

A Día de los Muertos for the Digital Age

By Leslie Peña, Spanish Teacher

Growing up in México, I remember working on colorful altars adorned with picture frames, candles, incense, marigolds, food, and a flower petal path to lead the dead to their altar every early November in school. The best Day of the Dead celebrations and decorations I have encountered have been in México City. Women dress up as “Catrinas” with elaborate flower headbands, face paint and traditional Mexican dresses and there is always a beautiful parade. Every store, restaurant, hotel and coffee shop has their own altar, each one uniquely vivid and ornate.

The day of the dead celebration dates back to the Aztecs, when it was believed that the deceased embarked on a journey, the destination the place where they could finally rest in peace. On November 1st and 2nd in México, cemeteries are filled with music, food, candles and flowers. It is not a sad time, but rather a celebration of life! People gather around their loved ones’ tombs and bring them their favorite food.

Every year at Grace, we try to bring a bit of México into our Spanish class, learning about the traditional Day of the Dead. In the past, students have made their own altars at home. We have also visited New York-based cultural non-profit Mano a Mano to view their altar and participate in their celebration at St. Mark’s Church, where they would learn the history and try authentic Méxican food.

As this year is unprecedented, we could not celebrate in our usual ways. Luckily, on Monday October 26, El Museo del Barrio offered a day of the dead bread cooking class over zoom through their new bilingual digital initiative El Museo en Tu Casa. This class was offered by one of my favorite Méxican chefs, Fany Gerson, who the 8th graders had the opportunity of meeting in 6th grade when we visited her Méxican dessert shop “La Newyorkina” for a Spanish class field trip where she talked to them about traditional Mexican ingredients and desserts.

Fany Gerson, has been featured in the New York Times, Food and Wine, Fine Cooking, Saveur Magazine, Fine Cooking, Fast Company and New York magazines, among others. She is the owner of La Newyorkina Mexican dessert shop in West Village. She has written three books, My Sweet Mexico, which was nominated for a James beard award 2010 for Best baking and pastry cookbook Paletas and Mexican Ice Cream. She was a mentor in the WE NYC Women’s leadership program in 2016 and recognized as a Latin woman leader in 2017 by El Diario.

As a tasty supplement to our cultural lessons, we also celebrated in Spanish class by tasting traditional Day of the Dead bread from authentic Méxican NYC bakeries Panaderia 2D and La NewYorkina.

There are many different traditional sweet breads made for this celebration. Some are sculpted into shapes of flowers, the Virgin Mary, skulls or animals. Some are topped with sesame seeds and colorful head figurines. Most have a sugar topping and are infused with orange.

The students learned how to make this bread decorated with “sugar bones” and took a moment to remember the life of those who are no lo no longer with us.

!Feliz Día de Muertos!

A Her-Story of the World

This past Wednesday, August 26 marked the 49th annual Women’s Equality Day, commemorating the 1920 adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibits governments from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex. The passage of this historic legislation was one of many topics covered in Georgina Wells’ ’04 Women in History class, which was offered as part of the first ever Open Grace Summer program. 

Each week, Ms. Wells met with her class to discuss prominent women in politics, science, literature, sports and the arts, including Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii, Marie Curie, Maya Angelou, Billie Jean King and Frida Kahlo, among others, as well as the many unsung figures in women’s history. Short video clips and digital exhibitions kicked off lively discussions, and students were invited to suggest themes of particular interest to them, helping to drive the direction of the course.

Queen Liliʻuokalani of the Hawaiian Kingdom

When deciding what to teach this summer, the choice was an obvious one for Ms. Wells, a seasoned history teacher. “I wanted to offer this class because of the passion I see every year in my students to learn about women’s contributions to the history I teach,” she noted. 

Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Ms. Wells also spoke with her students about intersectionality and examined the inherent relationship between women’s liberation and racial justice, acknowledging that the 1920 legislation, and those who fought to see it ratified, failed to recognize Black women. Ms. Wells pointed out, “Middle schoolers are quite attuned to who and what usually gets centered in the narratives, and they don’t want to be confined to that, just as I do not want to confine them to it. To that end, I also made sure to choose a diverse range of women for us to focus on this summer.”

Shirley Chisholm, first Black woman elected to the United States Congress

7th Grade History Research with Renewed Independence

By Georgina Wells, History

The culminating assignment of each year of middle school history is a research essay. This year, as the 7th grade approached theirs — on the Civil War — and it was clear a return to school was not happening, I worried about how the students would manage to write the essay without access to library resources, or to the same help from me and their classmates. So I gave them a choice: those who wanted to write an essay could, or they could come up with a research project either from a list of options, or of their own devising. The only requirements were that all projects must have written text thoroughly researched from a variety of sources, must be organized into sections, and must include citations, a primary quote, and a thesis statement. I wanted students to be able to embrace the independence that is baked right into distance learning, but also have the opportunity for a little bit of fun. Zoom school had sucked most of that out of class, and essays are not traditionally the assignment that elicit the most excitement. 

A few students did choose the essay, for a variety of good reasons, and did a fantastic job. Most took on the task of creating something new. There was some initial anxiety about the lack of strict parameters from the kids (“How will I know where to put my thesis?”), and from me (will these projects demand the same rigor as an essay?) but those quickly vanished. The students embraced the independence of the project, and I, once I began to receive their work, no longer worried about its rigor.

One student filmed a TV news segment from the imagined frontlines of the New York City Draft Riots, appearing as a variety of people in different costumes. Another wrote a series of letters between famous spies and President Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. I received articles about Ulysses S. Grant’s achievements, written from the perspective of different time periods. Medical newspapers and magazines. Documentaries on Frederick Douglass, Gettysburg, and Lincoln’s views on slavery. A digitally designed children’s book on Harriet Tubman and a hand-written one complete with beautifully drawn illustrations on the Emancipation Proclamation. A podcast interview about the blockade and a podcast about Clara Barton with impressive voice acting from parents. A Civil War photo album. A model of the battle of Gettysburg with full captions and a rewritten Gettysburg Address. 

We have been sharing the projects with one another in our Zoom classes, but I hoped the students’ work could be more widely recognized. I’m grateful to Mr. Nichols for his help in putting together this website as a showcase for their hard work, creativity, and initiative, and which the 7th graders were able to share with their friends and family.

Bon Appétit! French Baking Inspires French Students

By Sylvie Larue, Middle School French Teacher

 I knew long before Spring Break that I would teach 6th grade French and replace Ms. Antonio who had a beautiful baby girl in March. Before she left to take care of her family, she told me that I had to teach two units about food and the city of Paris. In front of my computer during the vacations, I wrote a curriculum about how to order food at a restaurant and eventually found a dialogue online. The students learned the vocabulary, listened to pronunciations and intonations, and practiced reading the dialogue in our Zoom class. I prepared a slideshow with all the delicious food that the “customer” in the dialogue was ordering: Salade au chèvre chaud (goat cheese salad), boeuf bourguignon and tarte Tatin

Tarte Tatin is a specialty from the Center-Val de Loire region of France. It was accidentally created by two sisters, Stephanie and Caroline Tatin. Students were challenged to find out what had happened. We laughed a lot imagining what could have happened in that kitchen in the 1880s. Finally, students got it: the pie became an upside down tart because the chef had placed the tart in the oven the wrong way! To finish the class, we watched a cooking video to learn how to make this fabulous desert. Nothing else was expected. It was about sharing a good time together on Zoom. I posted the video on Gracenet and to my surprise the next day, Charlie had baked. On the weekend, I received photos and emails from Chloe, Bo, Olivia, Thea, Felix, Lulu…it was truly a treat. The video and  the lesson had inspired them. They took charge of their learning experience, they were curious about the French gastronomy, some used their French writing skills to write a critic about the tart: They made a French teacher’s dream come true!

Check out this recipe from PBS to make your very own tarte tatin, and check out the slideshow below to see all of the students’ tasty tarts!

Dancing Across the Globe

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

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

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

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

A Renaissance Day for a New Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellie R. ’27 presents her project about Nicolaus Copernicus

Shakespeare, Zoom, and the Faculty

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

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

                                        –from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design Thinking in Grade 8 Art

By Philip Robinson, Art

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

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

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

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.