Opening Remarks: Honors Convocation 2020

The following speech was given at the Honors Convocation ceremony on June 5, 2020. Due to COVID-19 the ceremony was held over Zoom. Honors Convocation traditionally is a time to celebrate the academic achievements of the community. In addition to the academic focus, this year’s opening remarks also addressed anti-black racism.

 

Last week, we celebrated the graduation of the Class of 2020. Those students lived out our theme for the year Student Voice and Responsible Leadership and they were particularly good at using their voices to bring about change and enhance the intellectual conversations that occur in classes. For those that watched our Commencement program, you heard in detail the deep impact they had on Brimmer. They, and many others in our community, have been the voices and leaders who have helped guide us throughout the year.

In this room today, we also have tremendous leadership. We have people who are already making an impact in the community and others who are ready to take on new leadership roles.

Sixth grader Thatcher Purdy, organized a yearlong focus in the middle school to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that creates life changing wishes for children with a critical illness.

The Middle School Senate, led by Jonas Peña, shared inspiring quotes and reflections at virtual MS Meetings during the difficult times these past few months.

11th grader Kyrell Luc showed how to lead through action on the basketball court. His dedication led him to his 1000th point and NEPSAC Player of the Year, but his true character and leadership was captured in moments like when he checked on the safety of an opponent who had fallen to the ground, even though he was on a fast break, as shared by Spanish Teacher Mirna Goldberger.

Students on the Gator staff opened about their personal experiences in Op-Ed pieces such as Zoe Kaplan’s article, “My Diagnosis Five Years Later” and Nico Jaffer’s How it Feels with Parents on the Front Line.

However, we cannot talk about student voice without recognizing the symbiotic relationship voice has with the ability to listen, hear, and internalize what others are saying through words and actions. Voice is important. It empowers us to speak up and to share our thoughts, but in order to be a responsible leader, we must learn to hear and respond to the voices of other by becoming an active, empathic listeners. This can be difficult, especially when we run into an idea we may not agree with or stretches us beyond our comfort zones. I challenge you all to allow yourselves to truly consider ideas that may not feel comfortable. We grow from the discomfort.

Over the last few weeks, we have seen what happens when issues of racial injustice are not heard and changes are not made. In 2016, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the first time during the national anthem, the country did not listen to his message. Instead many people focused solely on his action. I wonder where we would be today if instead of villainizing Kaepernick, the NFL and more of our country had been able to truly hear, understand, and take to heart what Kaepernick was saying about racial injustice.

George Floyd was the not the first black man to utter the three words “I can’t breathe” while being arrested. I wonder what the world would look like for black and brown people if we had worked harder to bring about change. What if we did not just outlaw choke holds in New York after Eric Garner’s death, but addressed the underlying issue of anti-Black racism and excessive use of force by the police, particularly against the Black community.

What can we take from the recent protests that stem from the frustration and anger of unjust treatment based on racial identity? We can focus on listening. Each of our voices hold the potential to make a difference in the daily lives of our friends, our family, our community, and to make a change in the world. Sometimes the most powerful way to use your voice to make a difference is by elevating the voices of those who are not always heard and by listening carefully to what they are saying.

Today’s program is one where we celebrate the voices of our community. It is to honor the incredible work that has happened in the classroom throughout the year, to recognize the ways students engaged intellectually with each other and the work they completed. We begin to look towards the future and the possibility it brings, welcoming the 8th grade to the Upper School, opening new opportunities for student leadership, and shifting the Class of 2021 into their new role as eldest students in the School. I want to congratulate each of you for completing the school year and coming together in spite of the circumstances this spring. I think that our learning community will emerge stronger.

Class of 2020 Commencement Speech

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The following speech was given to the Class of 2020 during the Brimmer and May School Commencement. The speech was recorded in advance on May 19, 2020 prior to the May 29, 2020 event due to COVID-19.

Class of 2020, I want to you to close your eyes for a moment.

Take a deep breath and remember back to September 7th, 2016. You arrived at Upper School Camp a few hours ago and now you are sitting in a circle in the Pearl B at Wingate*Kirkland. If you can, try to channel some of the feelings you had that day. There was a sense of excitement about starting high school, some fear and nervousness about the unknown, and a myriad of mixed emotions. During that meeting, I asked you to think about what you want to accomplish during your time at Brimmer and what your goals were for your first year of high school.

With your eyes still closed, let’s jump ahead to September 4th, 2020. We are all gathered in the Leoj at Wingate*Kirkland. Once again, we are sitting in a circle about to start our discussion. This time, you are deeply connected to each other. You are hanging on every word that is said as your friends talk about how much being at Brimmer has meant to them and the legacy they hope to leave, both individually and as a grade. This time there are tears- tears that come from the depth of your connection and general love for each other as a grade. Even though there is excitement about the potential that lay ahead for your last year of high school, you are already thinking about the end of your Brimmer journey, not yet ready to let go of each other. This powerful moment in the Leoj, where you opened up about the profound way you have influenced each other was a testament to who you are as a grade. A group that has achieved so much and is committed to one another. While we may not be able to sit with each other on stage today, to hug one another and experience this momentous milestone together, I want you to remember that moment in the Leoj and keep it as a lasting image of who you are – and what you mean to one another – and this school.

You have grown so much from that September day in 2016. At today’s commencement you are standing in the doorway between two worlds. The first being Brimmer, the place that you have called home from anywhere between 1 year and 14 years. Here you have experienced so many firsts and created the foundation for your futures.

You are not the same people you were when you arrived. Yet you owe so much to your pasts. In 2016 you spoke about being more organized and getting good grades. In 2019, your focus was on your impact on the community. Your 9th grade self was focused on self-improvement, while your 12th grade self is about legacy.

Just like who you were earlier in high school was critical to who you became today, who you are today, will lay the groundwork for tomorrow.

You are pointing in a new direction that is the start of a new journey. Nothing is set, just the possibility for growth. For this reason, I want you to think about the following phrase that was shared with my by Rabbi Becky Silverstein.

Another world is possible. You are authorized to enact its vision

Here you are. You are ready. You have the tools and the knowledge to go forth. We live in a world with problems. This moment is a testament to that. Having arrived at Brimmer’s Upper School at the same time as most of you, I have looked forward to your graduation for the past few years. We never could have imagined that we would gather in front of screens to participate in Commencement. If this time has tought us anything, it’s that some of the problems and challenges we encounter can be anticipated and others will be unexpected. You have learned through your time at Brimmer that we are not judged by the mistakes that we make, but instead how we respond to the challenges that we face.

Your high school career is bookended by the themes Building the Future and Student Voice and Responsible Leadership. We, quite literally, are asking you to use your voice and to create a better future.

Another world is possible. You are authorized to enact its vision.

You have learned while here, how to draw new meaning from a text, how to stand up for those who need a voice, the ways that art can inspire, and how to use data to draw conclusions.  We have empowered you to use your voice to lead.

As you prepare to go forward, we need you to focus on the solutions and not be paralyzed by the problems. We will overcome our current crisis, because there are people working on solutions. Solutions that help individuals, communities, and the world – solutions that you will undoubtedly be a part of.

My dear Class of 2020, there is no doubt that this is a scary time filled with uncertainty. However, do not forget another world is possible. You have been the leaders at Brimmer and will be leaders in your colleges and beyond. You are or are authorized to enact its vision…You are ready to take what you have learned and what you have experienced at Brimmer and bring it with you. Our school is a better because of the impact you had on it. The School, your parents, and I could not be prouder of each of you.

Close your eyes, one last time. Feel the energy of this moment. You have grown so much and have the ability to have a tremendous impact on our world, to use your voice to solve problems big and small. I hope that when you find yourself facing a new challenge and are faced with uncertainty or doubt, that you remember how you felt on this day- the joy, the sadness, and the pride that we are all feeling today.

Class of 2020. Thank you. It has been an honor to have gone through my first four years at Brimmer with you. We love you, we miss you, and we cannot wait to be gathered in person again.

 

 

A Unique Opportunity for Upper School Students

While we are all missing being physically on campus, remote learning has opened some incredible opportunities that can sometimes be more difficult to coordinate during the school year. One of these has been the opportunity to invite guest speakers into our classrooms. Like the rest of us, many world renown authors and academics now find themselves temporarily teaching and working from home, and several Upper School faculty members have taken the initiative to reach out to experts in their respective fields to invite them into their classrooms through Zoom.
David Cutler has invited guests into his classes weekly. Mark Waid, one of the most popular and sought-after authors in the superhero comic book industry and author of two books read in our Popular Culture in American History elective, joined class to discuss the use of superheroes to tell historical stories. Popular Culture students were also able to speak with Josh Elder, a DC Comics writer and founder of Reading With Pictures as well as a United Nations diplomat for comics in education, about his work with Superman. 
In United States History, Kenneth C. Davis, historian and author of More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War visited to talk with students about the 1918 epidemic. Last week, Professor Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project and Cuba Documentation Project, spoke to students in our Latin American History elective. Kornbluh’s work has been nothing short of revolutionary for historians, politicians, and world government. He has played a leading role in shedding light on covert US policy to undermine Latin American elections throughout the Cold War. Next week, Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner will speak to Brimmer students about his work as an American historian. 
In Paul Brauchle’s chemistry classes, Eric Arsenault spoke with students about why he chose to pursue a PhD in Chemistry, the research he is doing, and what drew him to science. Arsenault graduated from Wesleyan University (CT) in 2017 with a dual degree in Chemistry and Physics and is currently pursuing his PhD in Physical Chemistry at UC Berkeley, studying photosynthesis using ultrafast spectroscopy.
Bill Jacob, Creative Arts Chair, and the students in our Creative Arts Diploma Program, organized a Coffee House for the Brimmer community inviting some of our own “experts”—current students, alumni, and community members—to perform. Brimmer’s version of the virtual concerts that are popping up on social media, it helped spread good spirit.
These special guests and events are just one example of the innovative and exciting ways that Brimmer’s Upper School teachers are taking advantage of the current learning environment to provide unique opportunities for our students. Whether it be the opportunity to learn from a top-level expert or a chance to share our expertise with others, our emerging virtual environment has enabled us to reach far beyond the walls of our school in a way that has enhanced our students’ learning experience during this unprecedented time.

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.