Maintaining Community During Remote Learning

As schools create curriculum for remote learning, they must spend an equal amount of time developing ways to keep students and teachers connected. While academic growth is the primary purpose of schools, teaching social-emotional skills and guiding students through relationship building is essential for their development. During these unprecedented times, cultivating community and focusing on health and wellness cannot take a back seat to academic learning.

How can we do this at Brimmer? Recorded videos, video conference calls, and emails are a good start to help teachers remain connected with students and help them learn. It is equally important to find ways to highlight the talents in our community to maintain and deepen connections. We have already started this process in the Upper School, and we have found that in some ways it is bringing about new ways to engage the community.

Morning meetings have transitioned into mini celebrations with birthday announcements and themed compilation videos, such as last week’s “Coronacation” video and this week’s Pets of Brimmer. In the coming weeks, morning meetings could include candidate speeches for Student Senate, GatorTalks, and mindfulness activities.

Student leaders are in the midst of planning a weekly trivia game during Monday lunches, a reimagined version of the US Camp Talent Show, and shared playlists on Fridays. In addition, department chairs are looking at ways to hold end-of-year assemblies in new, creative ways so that we can celebrate our students’ incredible talents and accomplishments.When speaking about her husband’s legacy, Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” I am humbled by how the our community has responded with compassion and care in the face of adversity. Whether it is the way students and teachers have come together to support each other or the motivation of students like Avery Alperin ’21 to organize a mask-making campaign, our school is working to ensure that we do not just make it through this time, but use it as an opportunity to rise.

 

GatorTalk

On Thursday, March 5, months of Senate President Stephen Moreno Jimenez ’20’s work came to fruition when students started arriving for the Upper School’s first GatorTalk, an optional “TED Talk” style presentation during their lunch period.
Moreno developed GatorTalk in order to help elevate student voice and empower students to share their passions. Without knowing what would happen, he asked students who were interested in presenting on a topic of interest to apply to speak.
A few weeks later, the School was ready to host the first GatorTalk; William Apostolica ’20 was chosen to speak about climate change and his hope to defend the planet through the law. On March 5, with uncertain expectations and hopes that ten to fifteen students would be attend, sixty students packed the classroom to hear Apostolica share information on climate change, talk about how the law could be used to help the planet, and answer questions. In doing so, a new student-led initiative was launched.
Creating an environment that supports student-led programing and emphasizes student initiative requires the commitment of our dedicated faculty to foster a love of learning and spark the desire to engage intellectually on a deep level. GatorTalk is the newest example of how Brimmer helps each individual student grow, which in turn strengthens our community.
Whether it is supporting the pursuit of passions through Diploma Programs, expanding students’ understanding of the world through Winterim and classes like International Relations and Global Diplomacy, or elevating student voice through work in the classroom, the online paper The Gator, and student groups, our goal is to encourage students to explore all of our School’s offerings during their high school years so they leave with the self-confidence they need to be successful.
It was no surprise that as students left the first GatorTalk, I overheard them encouraging one another to apply to present at one of the upcoming meetings. I am looking forward to learning more from our students in the coming months.

The Need to Listen More- MLK Day Reflection

As the next election cycle begins to intensify and while reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I was thinking about the way in which we engage in dialogue in areas of potential disagreement. It has been a shift away from the discourse about ideas to the volleying of tweets intended to criticize without the openness for dialogue.

I could not help recently thinking about the opportunity I had to meet Cory Booker just over eleven years ago when he was the Mayor of Newark. His commitment to improving the city took him off the path of “traditional” democratic ideas when he looked to improve the education of young people through Charter Schools. This work led Booker to an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a gala for a Boston area conservative think tank. Would this happen in today’s political climate- Booker, who was a registered Democrat, of one major city speaking to a room filled with Republicans from another major city? It is certainly hard to imagine today.

I, also a registered Democrat, was invited to attend the event last minute and was told that I should not miss the opportunity to hear Cory Booker speak. So, I found myself standing in the ballroom getting a chance to speak to Booker briefly. During his speech, I sat in awe of his presence and his skilled way of conveying his message of hope and his vision for the future. It was November, 2009 and a ballroom packed with some of the most conservative thinkers in Massachusetts were celebrating the vision of a Democrat. That night stands as a reminder to me of all that we can do when we enter into debate with the openness to be convinced and not to simply try to be heard.

In 1962, at Cornell College, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr shared, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”1

Dr. King’s words at Cornell College could not ring more true today. They are a message from the past that we need to embrace at schools and in our lives. Schools provide the possibility for young people to talk to each other, exchange ideas, and learn to embrace all their differences. These pedagogies exist in schools and allow us to guide students. Discussions about texts in English classes, debates in history, group discussions of data in science, and being globally focused as a school all can help answer the call of Dr. King.

Yet, we need more than just schools at the moment. Over the last few years, we have separated ourselves as a society based on our ideas. While social media platforms have connected us in unfathomable ways, their algorithms have also filled our feeds with homogenous ideas. This is compounding the separation and leading to the fear of the other that Dr. King referenced at Cornell. In Dr. Helen Riess’ book, The Empathy Effect, she shares that humans are drawn to those that are similar. Cognitive Science tells us that it requires effort to invite new people into your personal circle, because you have to look for similarities that may not be immediately obvious. Riess writes that humans make a decision about another person in a matter of moments based on the first impressions- how some looks, how they sound, and their interests. The connection can shift over time but requires people to continuously learn more about a person through shared experiences and deeper conversations.

We need more shared experiences. Moving forward, we need to be willing to listen to other people and engage in real dialogues that are meant to build relations and move us forward. We need to get better about being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We need to once again be willing to invite Cory Booker to speak to a room full of conservatives, as well as Governor Charlie Baker to a room of liberals. Dr. King’s message was clear, separateness leads to fear and the only way to combat fear is by engaging with each other instead of tuning each other out.

In the Classroom: Exploring Voice Through Music

It is common knowledge that music is a form of communication and can elicit different feelings and emotions based on the rhythms and notes played. As I stepped into our Upper School Ensemble class, I was thrilled to observe a lesson that encouraged students to broaden their understanding of student voice through the lens of music as they honed their improvisation skills.

I would venture to say that, before this class, most of the students in our Ensemble saw improv sets as an opportunity to highlight their own skills. However, their teacher explained the significance of improv in a more profound way. He told students to think about the notes that they string together as a speech or part of a dialogue with the audience. He encouraged students to start softer to draw the listener in and then to grow the sound to add emphasis; to use different rhythms to add cadence to the conversation and accentuate moments; and to provide space for members of the band to add notes which represents moments of affirmation in a conversation such as “I understand,” “Oh, I see,” and “Tell me more.”

Improv sets represent so much more than a moment to shine. Instead, they become a way to add personal voice and touch to a known piece of music and to elicit emotions from the audience. The lesson showed students yet another way that they can add their own voice to the community. Some students may not be able to stand in front of a room of people and deliver a speech, but when given a trumpet or keyboard, they are able to provide originality and deepen connections through music. There is a reason why you see people in jazz clubs nodding their heads and engaging with musicians as if in conversation, and I am glad that our students are getting an opportunity to explore dialogue through music at Brimmer. I am looking forward to the upcoming concerts, and I am eager to engage in a different type of dialogue with our Upper School Ensemble.

Student Voice Through Consumer Power

When we kicked off the school year with the theme Responsible Leadership and Student Voice, our Brimmer faculty immediately thought of how our students could bring it to life. We quickly saw a direct connection to outward-facing leadership opportunities such as club leaders, Student Senate, sports team captains, and many other programs. We began discussing what student voice would look like in classrooms and hallways. Opening Convocation speeches referenced the myriad ways that the theme exists in classes and the importance of voice in creating a classroom ecosystem. How students use their voice is a critical part of the Brimmer learning experience, and our faculty dove deeply into this theme to ensure that it stayed at the forefront of our conversations this fall. (To read more about how Brimmer faculty put student voice at the center of education, read Kenley Smith’s article, “A Community of Practice,” in the latest issue of Brimmer Magazine.)

In addition, Student Senate President Stephen Moreno Jimenez delivered a speech at the start of the year challenging students to think about their individual actions in the community and how they could use their voices to model positive leadership qualities in everyday activities, such as reaching out to a friend that may look down, inviting someone to sit with you at lunch, and standing up for a person that may feel voiceless. It has been an inspiring fall and it is clear that our students have been motivated and moved by the theme.

As with any focused work, the hope is that it will continue to evolve over time, and that the community will continue to work to deepen their conversations, allowing for new pathways and connections to emerge. At this point in the year, we have come to truly embrace the idea that the concept of student voice extends far past the literal interpretation of physical speech. We know that people lead through their actions, such as when an older student on a sports team or in the cast of a play models this behavior by consistently working hard to improve and maintaining a positive attitude.

We also see people use their voices through the choices they make as consumers, and our students are wrestling with the concept of how they should use this power. Perhaps it is the decision not to listen to music by a certain artist due to how they treat women or children, or maybe it is the choice to buy clothing from a company that has a social mission that resonates with them. More and more we are seeing people of all ages consider the source of their goods before purchasing, regardless of their political affiliation.

We can also see this play out in career planning. The article “Students raise ethical concerns about Harvey Mudd career fair” from The Student Life, an online newspaper for the Claremont Colleges, highlights how job-seeking students are looking deeply into the mission and practices of companies before they apply to jobs. Young people are making life-altering decisions based on their values and a desire to align themselves with organizations and companies that they will feel good about working for.

Whether it is through clubs, group work in class, little moments in the hallways, or the choices students make in their everyday lives, it is clear that being aware of one’s voice and understanding how to use it is a critical part of developing as a young person in today’s world. I am looking forward to seeing how our students continue to engage in our theme throughout the year and how they will leverage their voices to be ethical changemakers.

The Three Musketeers Multiverse

When I look back on the commentary from our U.S. Presidents, I have noticed that many shared similar thoughts on the powerful impact that art has on society. They’ve noted that while the arts provide aesthetic value by giving patrons an opportunity to disconnect and enjoy creative work, they can also also provide strong social commentary. The true power of the arts lies in the balance of creating a connection that is both emotional and thought provoking at the same time.
This week our students involved in the Upper School production, The Three Musketeers, take us on a journey that achieves both aims. While providing entertaining sword fights, a handcrafted set, and engaging dialogue, our students also present an alternative view into the landscape of a traditionally male dominated time period. Their performance provides a twist that forces the audience to grapple with issues of equality and societal norms. If you attended last night, you are likely to not only come away amazed by the physical performance put on by the cast and crew, but also in the way the actors challenge the norms of masculinity and femininity. It is a thought provoking production which marks the societal conversations currently happening against 17th century France. I would encourage you to read more about the show on The Gator.

In the Classroom- Modern World History

I recently had the opportunity to step into a Trench Warfare Simulation in a 10th grade Modern World History class. As I walked into the room, I found the tables turned on their sides and students throwing paper balls at each other. What started as an initial observation of student mutiny quickly turned into an observation of profound student learning. 
 
Students in Mr. Barker-Hook’s class were learning about trench warfare in World War I and its human cost. To help students grasp what happened, he turned his classroom into a mini battlefield with an attacking army trying to cross “No Man’s Land” to reach the opposing trench. Students were asked to move at a speed that would be the equivalent of running across the battlefield, yet no matter the rules put in place to help the attackers, they could not make it across.  
 
Through the simulation, students could feel the hopelessness that most soldiers felt as they charged across the battlefield. Students shared that even though it was a simulation and people were using paper balls, they still felt anxiety and fear when trying to cross “No Man’s Land.” They also began to question the purpose of the strategy and dove into the human impact, which is well documented by the History Channel in their series, Life in the Trenches of World War I
 
Simulations are a powerful learning tool. There has been an increase in the use of simulations by medical and nursing schools through multi-million dollar investments in specialized simulation classrooms because it gives students experience beyond the textbook. A 2016 National Institute of Health study showed that simulations were very useful in understanding how students will react in the face of stress, as well as to reinforce what they have learned in class. It is a particularly effective learning model for high school history classes because it allows students to build an emotional connection to historical events and to experience a small degree of what it may have felt like to live through those times. More importantly, it gives students the opportunity to practice taking the perspective of those who experienced these events. By experiencing events themselves “first-hand,” students are able to think about history in a more profound way. 

In the Classroom- Neuroscience

If you were walking around the halls last month, it would have been hard to miss what our Neuroscience students had been learning in class. After spending the previous week learning about how the brain functions, students were then tasked with identifying the different regions of the brain. Students assembled, colored, and identified these different regions by creating a “Brain Hat” and showed them off around campustaking advantage of an opportunity to share what they had learned with the community. 
 
Learning about how the brain works is interesting and critical to students’ understanding of how they learn. The topic of brain science has grown in popularity in schools as educators realize that understanding how the brain works can help inform best practices in teaching and learning. I’m excited that our students are exploring brain function as part of their Neuroscience class as it will help them more deeply understand their own strengths and areas of growth. 

Remembering September 11th

Each Wednesday morning, Brimmer’s Upper School comes together for a brief community gathering to start the day. During these meetings, after announcements have been made, for the past few years I have taken a few moments to talk with students and ask them to reflect on a topic. This year, as I prepared for the first Upper School gathering, I noticed it fell on September 11. While this year does not mark a major anniversary of the event, it was an important milestone to be aware of as high school educators.

Like most people who lived through September 11, 2001, I can still recall where I was when I heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I still have a vivid memory of sitting in large room with other students–huddled around a TV, watching the news coverage as the second plane made impact with the North Tower and the buildings collapsed.

In the first few years following 9/11, the power of the day was felt by everyone. Teachers and students were aware of what had happened, how the world was changing, and felt profoundly connected to the loss that came from that day. At the same time, I remember talking with colleagues about how this day would look in the future.

Would it become a national holiday?

Will people still feel deeply connected to the loss?

As time passes, will 9/11 become a day that loses its meaning for many people?

As I prepared to honor 9/11 in 2019, I realized only some of our students in the Class of 2020 were born before 9/11/2001. Others were born after that day, meaning that this is the last year that most high schools will have a class of students born before this tragedy reshaped our world. Even our eldest students do not have memories of the events or their aftermath. This feels significant.

Time is constantly moving forward, and it is easy to get lost in each day. However, we mark time by the pausing to honor moments and events that are meaningful and impactful. Eighteen years after 9/11, it is necessary to pause and mark the moment. It is important to honor the people who went to work or boarded a plane that morning and never returned home; to remember the first responders who rushed into the Twin Towers and never emerged; to empathize with those who are still suffering physical and emotional trauma from the losses of the day; to celebrate the way Americans came together; and to recognize the rise of Islamophobia that came as a result of this terrorist attack and the tragedies that has caused for many people.

Time will continue to move forward; however we can continue to draw meaning and power from 9/11. While our students are removed from that day and were likely born into a post-9/11 world, it is important that we continue to honor the lives lost by guiding our students to lead in a way that brings people together for the common good.