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.

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!

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 “

Approaches to Teaching Coding in the Lower School

By Emily Cruz, Spanish/Technology and Brian Wanyoike, Lower School and Homeroom Teacher

While remote learning has its challenges, Open Grace this summer has allowed us to try out different approaches to teaching coding to Lower School students. During the summer, we have taught two introductory coding classes: one for students entering first and second grade and another for students entering third and fourth grade.

Beginner Coding for Grades 1-2 with Ms. Cruz
While remote learning may have brought new challenges, students in Coding 1 & 2 were excited for more. This summer they explored beginner coding through a collection of Hello Ruby excerpts and activities that creatively presented fundamental coding concepts. The warm-up exercises from each chapter allowed students to practice computational thinking and apply it to their coding puzzles. We used Code.org as our curriculum guide and Tynker for extra practice. The coding concepts included sequencing, loops, conditionals and events. With their newfound coding abilities, students excitedly engaged in creative projects that allowed them to program their very own game designs and stories. We’re having a fantastic time exploring the unimaginable possibilities of code. 

Beginner Coding for Grades 3-4 with Mr. Wanyoike
With students entering third and fourth grade, we connected the coding work from class with real world applications. Starting with the concept of an algorithm being “a series of directions to help complete a task,” students created algorithms to help me find my iPad. Discussions about algorithms, which varied from how to create PB&J sandwiches to how satellites orbit the Earth, allowed students an entryway into thinking about carefully creating their coding algorithms.

In each Code.org module, students learn key concepts in “Unplugged Activities” before jumping into creating code. Our discussions of those software engineering concepts helps to guide our thinking as we create algorithms for a sloth dance party or even to create individualized “Star Wars” games. Through it all, we remember that every software engineer, young and old alike, must get comfortable with debugging, which is when you find and fix errors in your code. We celebrate our mistakes knowing that by working through them, we are on our way to becoming even better programmers!

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

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.”

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.