A Dance Show for Unprecedented Times

By Jenny Pommiss, Dance

The 2021 Grace Dance Ensemble production, In These Unprecedented Times was an evening of digital dance featuring creations by students, faculty, and guest artist Alice Gosti. It was a celebration of a year’s worth of work, a communion, and an experiment! So much of our recent history has felt like just that – an experiment with no clear answers or directions. This project began as a continuation of that, as it asked our dancers to work over distance, collaborate, create and come together despite circumstances that encourage the opposite. 

The evening began with LIMINALE, a piece created by guest artist Alice Gosti in collaboration with the dancers. LIMINALE was born as a necessity to continue creating work and experimenting with virtual platforms during Covid-19. LIMINALE is a live performance created intentionally for Zoom in which each performer streams directly from their personal spaces, using environments, furniture and memory as inspiration for the movement material. This project challenges the condition of confinement, transforming living space into creative space. Activating memories and everyday objects, LIMINALE unveils surprising movements inspired by home. 

Still from LIMINALE
Still from LIMINALE

This year the students were not only challenged to step into the work of our guest artist, they were also invited to create dance works of their own. In doing so, they were forced to navigate new creative territory and ask questions of their creative process they had never had to ask before. “How do I rehearse over Zoom?” “What can I create that makes the most of this medium?” “How do I make my dancers feel a part of something?” “What are the positives and negatives of creating in separate spaces?” “How do I even teach movement over zoom?!” “Can dance continue to be the magical act it is, even in this altered context?” These are questions they asked of themselves and their dancers. The second half of the evening was devoted to a screening of these original works. It featured works by five student choreographers who directed their dancers over Zoom and in person on some outdoor film shoots.

Still from Daffodils by Josie Macdonald ‘22
Summer G, ‘21 in Painting in My Living Room by Charlotte R. ‘21

A special undertaking by senior Camryn D., included working with Ms. Pommiss’ Dance I class on, what was for most class members, their debut efforts at creating dance for the screen.

Matilda C. ‘24 in Isolating Chaos by Camryn D. ‘21

Ms. Pommiss’ Dance Rep class presented Traces Of You, which explored the technique of layering and superimpositions so that it appeared that the dancers were sharing space and dancing with each other.

Members of the Dance Rep class in Traces of You

The finale of the evening, we came together and we shook hands, was the result of a 7-hour film shoot at a beautiful empty space in The Brooklyn Navy Yard. Dance Ensemble co-director’s Ms. Pommiss and Mr. Thomas-Train conceptualized and directed this project, which required dancers to learn choreography and improvisational scores on site and make bold choices in their performance.

The Ensemble in we came together and we shook hands
The Ensemble in we came together and we shook hands

Being a member of Dance Ensemble has always been about more than Dance. It’s been about community, collaboration, expression and creativity, but this year, it has also been about resilience. It’s been about how to show up and keep going and stay grounded when the world around us has been undergoing seismic shifts. Sometimes, it’s also been about not showing up, and not feeling grounded, but still, we kept going, week after week, month after the month, and all of the time we spent over Zoom, moving, discussing, processing and experimenting, have brought us here. In These Unprecedented Times….is about meeting this moment, inhabiting it, looking at it from a range of perspectives, and from the point of view of the body.

Click here to view our beautiful digital program created by Liz P. ‘22.

World Writers

by Brian Platzer, World Writers

by Brian Platzer

I took World Writers as an 8th grade student at Grace in 1994-1995, and Dr. Kole’s iteration of the course — along with Rod Keating’s 7th and 8th grade English — was critical in launching me into a career writing and teaching literature. 

This is my 14th year teaching World Writers. From the beginning, my goals have been consistent: first, to encourage the students to think and write with more analytical precision; second, to spark in them an enthusiasm for reading and the varieties of human experience; and third, to expand their literary horizons in order to help them better be able to form and articulate their unique vision of the world. World Writers creates a community of readers for whom I can facilitate discussion of some of my favorite books, along the way helping students fall in love with reading, writing, and thinking just as I did when I was their age.

The only consistent text year after year is Night, by Elie Wiesel. Night is a masterpiece that chronicles Wiesel’s own experiences as a teenager during the Holocaust. The memoir sets the tone for the class, as it demands a brutal honesty that students build over the first few weeks and then apply to all the other works we read together. World Writers is a serious class, because regardless of the texts that follow Night, we inevitably confront a series of atrocities. In regular rotation are Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Paul Auster’s City of Glass, and Kazuo Ishiguoro’s Never Let Me Go. Over the years, we’ve also read Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto; Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe; Dreams of My Father, by Barack Obama; and a variety of stories (Franz Kafka, Eudora Welty, John Cheever) and poetry (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wisława Szymborska). These works detail all kinds of suffering and loss, and they demand to be confronted with respect for the writers and their subjects. That said, they also demand to be met with joy. That these books exist is a miracle, and it is as important that we laugh, question, argue, tease, demand, love, and hate, as it is that we empathize. And we give equal weight to authorial decisions as we do to their characters’ lives. We ask how the works are constructed. Which choices result in what effects on the reader. Why an author elected to include this instead of that, in this way instead of that one?

What all the above texts have in common is a perspective the students are unlikely to have encountered outside World Writers. Whether we are delving into the life of a Black girl-then-woman in 1930’s Chicago, a teenager enduring Chinese re-education, or a British clone mined for her internal organs, each text is very different from the next but manages to find the perfect words or phrases for emotions and feeling we’ve all had but have never been able to express. I feel lucky to revisit these works each year with a new set of students ready to think deeply, possibly for the first time, about issues they may have never confronted before. 

Ed. Note: World Writers is an elective literature course for students in Grade 8. Brian is an alum in the class of 1995 and a current Grace parent.

The Covid Classroom: Getting the Message Out

By Chrissy Dilley, High School Science Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator

When I first designed the Advanced Topics in Biology course four years ago I knew I wanted to create something that helped students see the connections between the topics in a textbook and the world of learned and lived science around them. This first began with a deep dive into the ethical, ecological and evolutionary impacts of CRISPR. That summer you could not open the New York Times without seeing a CRISPR-related headline. Students created a mock town hall to educate their peers about this new BioTechnology and wrote mock research proposals read by alums and parents who work in the medical and genetics fields.

Fast forward to 2020. Nary a moment went by that SARS CoV-2, aka the Coronavirus, did not creep into our minds. As aspects of public health became politicized, the public was asked to call upon their own understanding of science to determine what was safe, how the preventative measures protected us and how the vaccine could protect them and others. Never has a teachable moment presented itself so clearly.

This course has been teaching about bacterial infections and antibiotic resistance for a few years.  This year we needed to include viruses and more about our immune systems for students to be able to decipher the messages they were receiving about preventative behaviors and to learn about how the body responds not only to the illness but also to the vaccine. Grounding the science in their world has been a priority of this class from day one, so I asked students to complete a K/W/L chart on the first day of this unit. A K/W/L chart is a space for students to identify what they Know going into a unit or lesson, what they Want to know and to then later reflect on what they learned after a reading or discussion. We spent almost an hour just collecting and sorting through what we knew, or thought we knew and what more we still needed to understand. An eagerness to learn developed and students came to the following class sharing research they had done to try to address some of our questions. It became clear to them that understanding what was happening in the body during an infection was important and they again called upon their own experiences with infections, including Covid-19, to unpack the biochemistry involved in a systemic immune response.  

As we decided on topics to explore one thing became obvious, other people needed to know what we knew. Nearly everyone had a story to share about a neighbor, the kids they babysit, their grandparents, not knowing why to wear a mask or the importance of soap and long handwashing.  But the biggest news was around the vaccine. Headlines about the vaccine RNA incorporating itself into people’s genomes were based on a full misunderstanding of the science. So an outreach project was developed to allow students to identify a target audience and the messages or education this group would need to make an educated health decision.  


by Evelyn W. ’21

A coloring book for our youngest learners was produced, following Cleo the Covid Cat. Cleo learned about the importance of mask wearing, asymptomatic spreading and even covid variants!

Brochures were made for travel safety, proper hand washing, hotel expectations and for retirement communities highlighted the importance of getting vaccinated to our oldest community members.
by Isabella P. ’21

Podcasts and PSA commercials aimed at parents and  teens used humor and experts to espouse the importance of sticking to the “ rules” to keep those around us safe.

The cycle of creating a thirst for knowledge is at the heart of this course and it is why I love teaching it. Science by nature is a discipline that asks questions and searches for answers. The questions we ask keep changing and so does this course. But I hope that I do not need to facilitate the learning of another pandemic before I retire.

A Newly-Independent March Madness

By Colin Todd, Visual Arts

The Independent Projects 10 Class, affectionately known as March Madness, has had to transform quite a bit this year. With students learning in various types of environments (including some being fully remote) the idea of a student’s development around how to formulate and follow through with an independently driven passion project is more crucial than ever. This Spring, on a structural level, the IP10 program has moved to a more asynchronous model where students are working remotely with small-group supervisors. In the Fall, 10th Grade students met with their group supervisor as a class, once a week, where they developed the ideation of their year-long pursuit and driving questions around what their independent project would strive to answer. During this time they scheduled virtual meetings with experts or advisors in their field of interest and were given a chance to connect with our brilliant alumni for our Expert Evening event. The Fall semester culminated with their mid-year presentations acting as both a chance for them to practice their public speaking as well as preview their plans for a more asynchronous Spring semester. 

Due to the unique schedule and circumstances this year, the students were not able to actually have two consecutive weeks in March dedicated toward their projects as they have in years past. That’s where the March Madness name came from. Instead, they are dividing up that experience: with one week in February and one week in April providing time for their focused deep-dive exploration and completion of their projects. So far, students have seen unexpected benefits in this divided March Madness experience. As we wrapped up our first “March Madness” week during the final week in February, students expressed appreciation of being able to reflect on the work they accomplished that week and have time to tweak their plans before Spring Break and their second “March Madness” week in April. 

With these brief and intense times of focused work on their projects, students have been able to test out elements of their independent process and their development of how they self-learn, while still having time to adapt, re-work, or learn from mistakes along the way. This is invaluable as a teaching structure and a student’s learning experience. The students have about two more months of exploration and asynchronous work on their projects that will be truly independent. There are still weekly check-ins with supervisors throughout the Spring Semester, however, the students will have a lot of time over Spring Break and during the second “March Madness” week in April that will be completely independent. 

The other substantial adaptation the IP10 program has gone through is the fully online symposium which will include an online gallery and database of student projects as well as a live presentation event where students will publicly showcase the journey they took towards completing their independent projects. While this year has definitely been a challenge logistically and pedagogically, the Independent Projects 10 program really blossomed and developed new strengths that bolstered truly independent work that students pursued with joy and determination. 

Eli N. Working on his project

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:

Coming Together During Digital Community Week

By Class Deans MiChelle Carpenter, Kallan Wood, Daniel Rufer and Piya Kashyap

Connection is at the center of Community Week, a time set aside for High Schoolers this year that encourages community-building in a time in which we’re all mandated to stay apart. Below, class deans MiChelle Carpenter, Kallan Wood, Daniel Rufer and Piya Kashyap describe how they brought this most recent Community Week to life.


MiChelle Carpenter, Dean of the Class of 2024:
There have been several impactful moments in our Community Weeks, with the Circle Practice ranking at the top of the list. The Class and our Advisors have used this First Nations tradition as a means to start talking about the prickly, messy but unavoidable topic of race. Many members of the Class have already been having these conversations (some even attended protests during the summer of 2020), but others have never even thought about the impact that race and racism has on their lived experience. The Circle Practice is structured in a way that makes room for everyone. Because there is no dialogue, the only option is to listen to one another, which I regard as an inherently antiracist activity.

So far, the 2024 Advisory Team has been able to find a way to bring the Class (mostly) together, and the “10th Street Pavilion” and the 46 Gym have been instrumental and indispensable to this goal. Community Week is certainly about programming but it’s also about logistics; until the advent of the pandemic, the mechanisms for creating Class cohesion were “built-in” (ex. The Freshmen Retreat, the Philosophy/Religion trip, Class meetings, etc.) Now, Class bonding requires deliberate planning and Community Week has provided a really essential framework. Having lunch or playing HORSE all together were insurmountable hurdles but now, every few weeks (and weather permitting), the Freshmen can put names to (masked) faces. The value of this kind of connection cannot be overstated.

Kallan K. Wood, Dean of the Class of 2023
The words I continually return to this year, my lighthouse in this pandemic storm, is the epigraph from E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End; “Only connect…” These two words plus the ellipsis refocus and ground me when I find myself contending with the unimaginable, or perhaps more accurately, finding my way to what is yet to be realized.

The task of this year has been to make real the unimaginable. In July, it was not hard but impossible to imagine what hybrid teaching would be in practice, what “Deaning” from a distance for remote-only students would mean and what community building would entail given all of our variables. When I say it was impossible to imagine, I mean I had no reference point. The mechanisms I have now found a rhythm using in concert with one another, bluetooth speaker, iPad, laptop plugged into the smartboard/monitor, facilitating conversation between students in the room and students on a screen, I didn’t have a template for, however, I had goals and intentions, I had a lighthouse…Thus it has been with our Community Weeks.

Our struggle to connect, to find new relationships, to fortify the bonds that existed before our way of life was deleted and rewritten, has been a constant theme for our students but I think more broadly, for our school community. As a Dean, remembering that our Community Weeks are about creating opportunities and fostering moments of connection is what helps guide my programming. Additionally, learning to be ok with and find true value in the small, quieter moments of connection has become an important part of working in the unimaginable. Perhaps connection arrives in the form of 30 really engaged minutes of a Circle Practice on Zoom or the way I can see students’ faces fixed on a visiting speaker’s words, like they were when Caroline Randall Williams spoke to the high school in January.  

This year relentlessly asks us to get comfortable in the unimaginable, to draw the blueprints and carefully construct the house at the same time and trust that we have the tools, experience, expertise and team to pull it off. Moreover, this year has called on us to redefine our teaching practices, our classrooms and our support systems, as well as redefine how we create and experience connection. It goes without saying that none of this has or is easy and none of us want to continue to live this way. But as difficult, scary and uncomfortable living, working and breathing in the unimaginable is, it has given us a renewed faith in our ability to create and to be creators. It is all too easy to feel unmoored, adrift, the abyss awaits and it’s sounding pretty good. But that’s when we need to remember to look to the lighthouse, to work even harder to only connect.

Daniel Rufer, Dean of the Class of 2022
Mr. Davison likes to say “we are a community where a school breaks out,” so it seems only logical that community week would break out of a hybrid/pandemic school year. I think we are all missing the sense of community that comes from physically occupying the same space with our peers, colleagues, and loved ones. Community Week is one way that the high school has intentionally thought to create shared experiences for each of the grades. It’s not perfect and two of the four community weeks had to be completely remote for the 11th grade, but halting academics to promote the greater sense of community is never a bad thing.

One thing that surprised me is that even in the weeks where everyone was remote, the community was built because in the hybrid schedule everyone’s experience is different. I think it’s good that for a couple weeks out of the year, whether it’s at home or in-person, kids have a shared space to meet with their peers. Similarly, I was surprised at how well difficult conversations about race/racism could occur over Zoom. Certainly something is lost by not being in person, but I think it’s also fair to say that something is gained when your gaze is digitally forced to concentrate on the speaker. 

The second community week reminded me that no matter how much we adults try to plan meaningful events for kids, the most meaningful events in their lives will be spontaneous, such as the hour long hide-and-seek game that broke out at the end of our November on-campus day. Fun will find a way for us silly adults to just get out of the way every now and again.

Piya Kashyap, Dean of the Class of 2021
Community Week is a signature feature of our hybrid schedule, which was designed to make space for our co-curricular program, the value of which we think is as important as our academic program. It has been both an exercise in innovation, collaboration, creativity and grit, therefore, to design each of these Community Weeks from scratch and during a pandemic, to boot! We knew that we wanted to implement antiracist programming throughout the week in an effort to address the Black@Grace testimonies and the list of demands put together by the Grace leaders of Black Students Demand Change. We decided early on that the third Community Week would be devoted to the annual Martin Luther King Jr. symposium, which would offer the community a chance to focus exclusively on this crucial high school programming. We have also implemented a regular race-explicit circle practice while trying to also bring the grade together in order to strengthen relationships and reflect on school culture and grade identity. 

I have been working with the Senior Advisory Board, a group of seniors who applied to design and implement – alongside me and some other faculty – antiracist programming and other senior focused programming. The perspectives and input of these seniors has been invaluable to the success of the Community programming each week. I will continue to consult students when designing these weeks as the inclusion of their voices and their honest feedback is truly essential.

Ms. Kashyap and seniors ice skating

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.)

Thoughts On an Unusual Winter Sports Season

By Associate Director of Athletics, Tim Quinn

340 days and counting since a Grace Athletics team had a competitive game. An unthinkable amount of time during an unimaginable and unforgettable time period in all of our lives. The importance of being patient, yet persistent in getting athletic activity back was crucial to the social and emotional well being of our student-athletes. It was 315 days between athletic gatherings, and although it is hard to tell under the mask, I have been smiling a little bit more lately because we are back!

Safety has and will continue to be at the forefront of what we offer, but it is a wonderful feeling being able to offer our student-athletes an opportunity to gather with some of their teammates.  The modified winter season kicked off during our return to hybrid school on January 19th. It’s been important to limit capacity, so we’ve only gathered by cohort, masks have been mandatory (as is the norm, nowadays) and skills and drills are done in small groups with no body contact. We’ve also been creative in how we structured the schedule, utilizing before and after school time, to make sure we allowed every student athlete, fifth through twelfth grade, equal access to activities.  

Of course the natural craving for competition still remains. Student-athletes are wired to compete, making the lack of competition this year especially devastating. The sadness, anger, and other emotions that come along with not being able to play competitive games is not going away, but through this intramural basketball season, I think some of that sadness has dissipated. Ultimately, this is a new experience for us all, and while it’s taken some adjusting, we’re still happy to be hitting the court and keeping up with our practices.

The hiatus has given me an opportunity to put in perspective what I truly love about athletics.  The camaraderie, the social interaction with student-athletes and coaches, even officials and spectators. I certainly miss the competition, the process of trying to prepare my team to win games, but mostly I just miss our student-athletes enjoying their time together and that is why it has been so rewarding to see the teams start to practice again.  

In my opinion, there is nothing like being a part of an athletic team. I was fortunate enough to spend my high school and college years on a team and I could not imagine that being taken away from me. The patience that the Grace community has shown in regards to athletics is something I will always be grateful for. Furthermore, the trust and support in getting activity re-started has been tremendous. We will continue to work through the challenges and make the most of the remainder of the year.

With that being said, our second athletics season will begin on March 1st. We will first revisit the fall sports that were postponed, offering training sessions in soccer, cross country, girls tennis and volleyball. We will finish the year with a spring athletics season.

Celebrating Social Justice, Then and Now

By Dr. Akbar Herndon, Chief Technology Officer

Although we will be using a different platform for coming together this year, more than ever, we are committed to renewing our dedication to social justice during January, the month of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. For several months, we have been hard at work preparing classwork as well as school-wide programs commemorating the civil rights movement and our ongoing commitment to fairness and human rights. Grace’s Martin Luther King program for 2021 is on schedule.

Grace has a long history of equity activism. Thirty years ago, we were one of only two New York City schools to host a Multicultural Assessment Plan (MAP) visit from the National Association of Independent Schools – NAIS. (This was one of the reasons I chose to work at Grace). In 1997, Grace sponsored a two-day, city-wide diversity conference titled “ Getting Beneath the Surface of Racism in Education”. During each of these school years, we have used the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and his birthday as a rallying point for social action. While reaching for the ideal of trying to include anti-racist instruction in our curriculum throughout the school year, January 15th (MLK’s birthday) provided a special opportunity to highlight lessons related with justice, fairness, dreams and the triumph of the human spirit. At all grade levels, a focus on past and current struggles for fairness invited stories, discussions, analysis, artistic expression and other presentations about freedom and justice. Annual MLK assemblies continue to provide a framework for shared classwork, music, visual and spoken word, celebrating social justice then and now.

Students hold signs for the 2012 Peace March

In 2004, Grace began a tradition of conducting a silent peace march (around the block and to Union Square) as part of the MLK commemoration, honoring the actions of civil rights protesters in the 60’s as well as expressing beliefs about the issues of today’s human rights challenges. Large paper mache puppets depicting freedom fighters (e.g., Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Wangari Maathi and Bayard Rustin) created by fourth graders, often led the five block march. The Peace March culminated in an all school Peace Chapel, led by students. In 2015 a new dimension was added to the annual MLK program curriculum as high school students and teachers created and led a day of social justice symposiums attended by Grace high school students and middle school students, as well as occasional guests from public schools.

Two students participate in the 2020 annual Peace March

Today, faced with our newest challenge of hosting our MLK activities remotely, the Grace community has risen to the challenge. Although we will not be able to have our Peace March, we will gather (online) for an all-school Peace Chapel, and our usual assemblies and symposiums are bursting with current day topics including covid-19 inequities, Black Lives Matter movement, the 2020 presidential election and Being a True Ally. I believe Dr. King would be proud to see his legacy and its impact continued through a new dimension of technology. Most important, is our effort to help bring fairness, freedom and awareness of our interdependence into each other’s lives.

Check the eNews for a schedule of MLK 2021 program events.