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.
At the beginning of each school year, we welcome students and introduce the School’s theme. Below are remarks delivered on the 2019-2020 theme “Student Voice and Responsible Leadership”. They can also be seen on The Gator, Brimmer’s online newspaper at the 32:45 minute mark.
One of the few regrets I have from college is not taking a class with Elie Wiesel. Many of you have read his book Night. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was a renowned Holocaust survivor, writer, philosopher, and transformational teacher at Boston University where I went school.
To get into Wiesel’s class you had to apply through his secretary and make a strong argument as to why you should be considered for the course. I never spoke up to make my case. I did not have enough confidence in myself and I certainly did not understand the rare opportunity I was giving up. Instead I settled for hearing Elie Wiesel speak a number of times during large and small lectures thinking it was enough. But it wasn’t. Missing out on the opportunity to learn with Professor Wiesel’s is one of my biggest regrets.
So, when I learned of a book written by one of his former students and teaching assistants, I could not wait to read it. The book [Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger] transported me into the classroom I never had a chance to enter. I was so struck by the words Wiesel shared about teaching and the way they resonated with this year’s theme.
The book’s author shared that Elie Wiesel would begin each semester by telling his students with the deepest authenticity, “As much as you will learn from me, I will learn from you”(Burger, 2018). He continued to explain that Wiesel believed that students, like you, should be contributors and not passive recipients of information. That, together, teachers and students form a living ecosystem.
At Brimmer, your voices are important and help create our ecosystem. Whether it is the oceans or our school, we know that every ecosystem needs balance. In class we need you to participate to your fullest, bringing your understanding and experiences to discussions. In the hallways, you have the ability to create the community we strive to be through the ways you interact and hold each other accountable.
How do we learn from each other and attain what Wiesel strived for in his classes? To do it, we must bring people together with different perspectives and listen as we disagree. danah boyd, author and researcher, shares that as much as Social Media brings people together, it also creates segregated online micro-communities. We become closed off to the ideas of those who we disagree with, because we tend to follow people who have similar values and ideas as our own, thus shutting us off to alternative view points(Jenkins, Ito, and boyd, 2015). Both danah boyd and Elie Wiesel understood the dangers of only hearing one perspective.
What I learned from Elie Wiesel is that developing your voice is just as important as learning to use your voice to make a positive change on your community and the world. There are so many places that you hone your leadership skills at Brimmer- through sports, in Student Senate, in Clubs, and through performance groups. We talk about the skills you learn through these programs often, but right now, I want to focus on the little moments that go unnoticed. It is in these moments that Wiesel believes you have the most potential to build community. Being a leader does not require a title like captain or president. We are too often focused on the big and flashy moments that come from leadership. However, every day, each of you has the opportunity to lead this community through your choices. What does responsible leadership look like to me?
It’s when you see another person looking down, and check in with them to see how they are feeling;
it’s when you invite someone who is sitting by themselves at break or lunch to eat with you;
it’s choosing to clean up a mess you did not make;
it’s being willing to call out a friend when they are not speaking kindly about another person.
Elie Wiesel understood that he was given an incredible opportunity to use his voice and experiences to guide the moral leadership of many world leaders. He also believed that our collective success in responding to world changing events is measured by the small moments and encounters we have as humans. He believed that if we can act with greater sensitivity to others, if we act with courage and choose humanity over inhumanity, we can have a larger effect on trajectory of history. (Burger, 2018)
My hope for you this year is that you will carry out the legacy of Elie Wiesel and continue to develop the power of your voice and learn to use it to be a positive force in our community and world. Whether it is through official positions of leadership or small, meaningful acts, you have the ability shape our community and world.
Burger, A. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Jenkins, H., Ito, M., and boyd, d. (2015). Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. New York, NY: Polity.
In the weeks and months leading up to a vacation, I start to revisit the books that have been on my reading list. I take a look at books that are currently in process, those that I purchased but have been sitting on a shelf(real and virtual), and the ones that I have heard people talking about recently.
Like most, my interests ebb and flow. I also tend to read more than one book at a time, usually balancing a more heavily researched based book with a biography, historical fiction, or more guilty pleasure, murder-mystery books.
So as we head into the Summer 2019, I thought I would share how my reading list is shaping up for this summer. I am sure that some new books will find their way on to the list and others may get bumped, but the best place to start is at the beginning.
This is a book in progress that I am in the final stages of reading. It started as a preview for a potential option for a faculty summer read and since that time was added as one of two options for faculty to choose from. Savage’s book focus on his journey as a Maker and the lessons he has learned over time. The book goes well beyond the ideas of physical making. His experiences creating are simply the way he introduces thought provoking ideas. I also really enjoy the way Savage defines Maker Culture and does not believe it is simply about building physical projects, but instead is rooted in the process that anyone takes to create something new.
I was excited to find this book. It is based on a significant amount of research on the impact of virtual networks. I’m looking forward to this book, because it has a forward-looking approach, where as some other writings about technology look at the impact of technology solely from a place of deficit.
Radium Girls is one of the books that has been sitting in my Kindle app for a while. As a science teacher, I am a bit embarrassed that it has taken me this long to get to the book. However, I am committed to reading this story about the girls that were known as “shining girls” because of the work they did at the radium-dial factories for watchmakers. To ensure that it does not get bumped, I started reading it last night and it hits my interests of science and history.
I happened across this book from a Twitter recommendation by Rachel Frankil(@srtafrenkil). NeuroTeach comes out of the Center for Transformative Teaching. The book, which includes pages for the reader to complete, discusses the importance of teachers understanding how of “the brain receives, filters, consolidates, and applies learning for both the short and long term.” The underpinnings are that teachers have an impact on how a child’s brain develops simply by the nature of their work, so teachers should have a better understanding of how the brain works. This books has a textbook feel to it, so it should be like self-paced professional development.
This book came highly recommended from a friend that has never missed on his book recommendations. 21 Lessons is Harari’s third book and completes the “trilogy” of Sapiens and Homo Deus. In his first two books he examines humankind’s history and writes about the future. In his newest book, Harari looks the issues we are facing at the present and will face in the near future. It has also been sitting in my Kindle App since December and it’s time dig into it!
A few other books that may make the summer list…
Here is what the NY Times had to suggest for summer reading
One of the greatest honors I have as an administrator at a School, is the responsibility of overseeing high school commencement. In life, time is marked by moments where we push pause and can later recall the impact of the day. High school graduation is one of those moments. It is such a privilege to be able to be a part of such an occasion and be able to celebrate and reflect on those that you have seen grow during their time at your school.
At Brimmer we begin celebrating with families the evening before with a dinner for graduating class and their immediate family. It is a time to connect as a final time as a community and to celebrate.
Below are the remarks that were shared at both the Brimmer and May Senior Dinner and Commencement for the Class of 2019. Commencement may also be seen here through Brimmer’s online paper, The Gator.
SENIOR DINNER- May 29, 2019
It is so nice to see everyone here tonight in celebration of the Class of 2019. A few weeks ago I was sitting down to watch an episode of Madam Secretary, but because of a late running sporting event a good portion of 60 Minutes was captured on the DVR. Usually when this happens I fast forward past the segments, but a story caught my eye on this particular evening. Anderson Cooper was interviewing an abstract artist by the name of Mark Bradford and something about this particular interview peaked my interest.
If I am being honest, as much as I enjoy looking at works of art, I do not always get their deeper meaning. I am more likely to revel in the beauty of a soccer match or a breathtaking sky, than a painting. I remember a trip to MOMA in New York City a few years back, struck by the beauty of the installations, but feeling at a loss about the deeper meaning the pieces were supposed to represent. Yet here I was sitting on my couch ready to watch Tea Leoni save the world through diplomacy-living out Brimmer’s mission I might add-and something clicked when I heard Mark Bradford describe the way he built his pieces.
Bradford starts with imagery of a meaningful historical event, sometimes a textured map or a photo, and then carefully puts down layers of painted colored paper on top or around the images building up the canvas. Effectively covering up portions of history. After creating these dense layers of materials, he begins to cut into them and pull back the paper, revealing portions of what is underneath- vibrant colors and new textures which had just been hidden. I found myself captivated by the levels of meaning he created through the work.
Bradford creates windows into histories that have been covered by the layers, revealing segmented views the same way an archaeologist learns about a society through the artifacts that are dug up. There were two ideas that resonated with me as I watched Bradford’s 60 Minutes segment. First was the way in which we are constantly applying new layers from experiences to our lives. The new layers cover up what came before, but at the same time, each new layer depends on what was laid prior to it.
During your time at Brimmer you have been creating your own layers. Each of your classes have built upon each other helping you develop more complex ideas, and these have been enriched by athletic contests, performances, Winterim travels, Model UN trips, and time spent talking with people in the community.
The second meaning I pulled from the Bradford art is the way in which the tears in the canvas create imperfections – imperfections that are beautiful and reveal what is not always visible and may easily be forgotten.
Our failures and mistakes are like the tears in the Bradford canvas. They help us reflect on what is exposed and how to grow from the experience. They reveal truths that we were unable to see before and help us look at a problem from a new perspective. Whether it was at Brimmer or will be in the future, if you view your imperfections and mistakes as a way to grow you will unlock new perspectives and opportunities.
One of the iconic figures from my early twenties was Mia Hamm. Hamm said, “You may get skinned knees or elbows, but it’s worth it if you score a spectacular goal.”
To the Class of 2019, I hope that in the coming years you continue to work hard, building up layers upon layers of experiences, but that you also get skinned knees, exposing what is underneath and giving you fresh perspectives, so you can reach your spectacular goals.
COMMENCEMENT- May 31, 2019
I present to you the Brimmer and May Class of 2019!
As we near the end of commencement, I want to take one last moment to address this year’s graduates.
Earlier this year at the Bissell Grogan Humanities Symposium, Keynote Speaker, Dr. Raj Panjabi, spoke to the school, sharing his message “no condition is permanent.” Bringing his light, optimism, hope, and expertise to the global health crisis that is threatening the world. Dr. Panjabi is using his message to produce a light that is piercing through that darkness and creating hope.
That phrase, “No condition is permanent” can be explained in a number of different ways. Here you sit in front of us, gathered together for the final time. Whether it was fourteen years or two, each of you have changed tremendously during your time at Brimmer. Some of you have literally grown up.
All of you have each changed your own condition, whether it was stretching yourself to play a new sport, performing on stage for the first time, taking on a leadership role, or enrolling in classes that would stretch you intellectually. Not one of you is the same person as when you entered the school. Nor are you the same as a grade as you were at this time last year.
I remember so vividly sitting in the Rec Hall at Camp Wingate*Kirkland this past August listening to you describe the ways you wanted to be better individuals and as a group how you wanted to lead the school with kindness and optimism.
But you did not stop there. You took it a step further, visualizing your leadership and creating a plan. You immediately put into action what you hoped to accomplish. Yes, there were bumps in the road and moments you veered off course, but each time you found your way back. You defined your legacy as a class. You created something new at your School. You have left an indelible mark on our School.
Dr. Panjabi uses his father’s mantra, “no condition is permanent” to motivate his work to solve a global issue. While we do not expect you to follow in his footsteps, we do hope that you take this mantra to heart. You are in control of your own path. You do not need to accept anything as permanent.
As you move forward, I hope that no matter the circumstance, how dark it may appear around you, how unsure you are of your path, you always remember that you carry a light that is powered by the kindling of what you have learned during your time here at Brimmer.
Today you take the first steps towards taking your light from Brimmer and shedding it on the darkness you encounter. Each of you possess the tools you need to be successful. Each of you have your own unique light that you will use to illuminate the world.
You have left your mark on our community and we cannot wait to see how you change conditions in the future. Congratulations to each of you and your families.
In just a few weeks, the Ruth Corkin Theatre will be filled with students, parents, and alumni as we are transported back to New York City in 1899. While we will most certainly tap our feet and clap our hands to the music and feel amazed by the intricate set design and incredible choreography, it is also important to note that this year’s U.S. Musical,Newsies, offers an important history lesson to the cast and crew and those who watch the show.
Much like Hamilton: An American Musical helped to tell a historical story through song and dance, Newsies provides an opportunity to learn more about a segment of American History. Through its retelling of the 1899 Newsboys Strike, Newsies focuses on how society treated low-income children during this time period. Through dialogue and lyrics, we are given a glimpse of what it was like to be a child before protective labor laws. While early 20th-century America would shift its view on child labor laws, the United States did not ratify a change until 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Newsies is just one example of the importance that the arts and humanities hold in education. Theater engages audiences through storytelling and song, draws people into the story, and creates a connection to the characters. Angela Modany describes the process in a February 2012 Smithsonian article as “embodying empathy.” By creating connections to characters, either as an actor or observer, you empathize with their experience, gaining a deeper understanding of the historical context. The concept of embodying empathy is not a foreign one to Brimmer classrooms. Whether it is through special programming like Model UN, the Chinese Temple Fair, Winterim, and community service days, or in-classroom mock trials, debates, skits, and Harkness discussions, the Humanities and Creative Arts departments create experiences for students to build connections with people, characters, or events.
This year we have discussed the meaning of empathy and its etymology in detail. To be empathic means to be “in suffering” or to feel the feelings of another. In Dr. Helen Riess’ book, The Empathy Effect, she shares that we naturally connect to those with whom we share common experiences or traits. The concept of embodying empathy works seamlessly with Riess’ research. When students share experiences, they are both learning important topics and developing a profound connection that creates stronger empathic responses.
I look forward to seeing you at one of the performances of Newsies in March, and if you would like to learn more about the 1899 News Boys Strike in New York City, here is a link to resources produced by the New York City Public Library.
The idea that no condition is permanent resonates as we head into Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Next week we will take time to recognize and honor the work of Dr. King and those who followed him. King also believed that no condition is permanent. He worked tirelessly as a non-violent civil rights activist in the fight for racial equity, a cause which ultimately cost him his life. In his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he whole-heartedly embraced this mantra when he famously said, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
It has not been due to a lack of effort, but I have never been able to get into yoga. Hearing about all the positives that are associated with it, both of mind and body, I was eager to try it. After a 10-week session a number of years ago, I enjoyed the physical aspect of yoga, but was never able to connect effectively with the mindfulness piece.
Over the last 5-7 years, the efforts to improve wellness programs and include mindfulness exercises has been a national trend in schools. At Brimmer, we continue to evaluate our programming, tweak existing options, and provide new opportunities. This has included inviting Will Slotnick from the Wellness Collaborative to talk with students about managing stress and anxiety and the risks involved in using alcohol, drugs, and, more recently, e-cigarettes. Slotnick addresses the subject from the perspective of managing stress and incorporates meditation and mindfulness into the program. After sessions, students report feeling more connected to their thoughts and feeling more relaxed. In addition to being armed with important information, they can physically be seen carrying their shoulders lower as much of the stress has melted away during the sessions.
In a 2011 article (full publication can be found here)from the American Psychological Association journal, Psychotherapy, Dr. Daphne Davis and Dr. Jeffrey Hayes share “empirically supported benefits of mindfulness.” The list of benefits is one that we would all want for our students and children: stress reduction, boosts to working memory, improved focus, and more flexibility in challenging situations. In 2013, in an article published by the National Institute of Health in Social Cognative and Affective Neuroscience, research on the use of meditation was reported to improve emotional stability, supporting and building upon the documented research of its benefits. This was further supported by neuroscience research that showed increased serotonin levels in those that practiced meditation. So, while incorporating mindfulness as skill has been a trend, it is also very much supported by nationally recognized research.
Knowing this, I have continued to listen and research what experts are saying, often trying out techniques to improve my own mindfulness. Slotnick has recommended phone apps like Meditation Studio to our students. Dr. Helen Riess, who spoke recently at Brimmer about her book, The Empathy Effect, suggested HeadSpace, and those with an Apple Watch or Fitbit are likely familiar with the built in mindfulness activities focused on controlled breathing and reducing one’s heartrate. I know that I have found these to be useful from time to time, but more importantly, many students have incorporated them into their daily routines to help manage stress.
I fear that when we talk about meditation and mindfulness we often lose people once we use those terms. For some people, meditation and breathing exercises do not work. What do we tell those who cannot connect in this way? During Thanksgiving preparation last week, while I was preparing my apple pie, peeling apples, slicing them, and rolling out the dough, I found myself experiencing a heightened awareness of my own senses. During that process, I recognized that I was experiencing what I was missing during those yoga exercises. It turns out that baking, and also sports activity, that requires intense focus and mimics the effects of meditation.
Pyschology Today writes that mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present. When we are mindful we carefully observe our thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.” As we continue to venture into a world that moves quickly and we encounter incredible amounts of information at unprecedented speeds, we are going to find mindfulness activities will grow in importance. Whether it be through meditation, breathing exercises, baking, or shooting free throws on the basketball court, it is important that we help our students and children develop these skills.