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.

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.

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.

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.

The Power of Our Voices

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.

Works Cited

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.

 

Summer Reading List 2019

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.

Every Tool’s a Hammer by Adam Savage

81rv2mthYyLThis 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.

 

Participatory Culture in a Networked Error: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd

61NsmghlY2L._SX350_BO1204203200_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.

 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

51t862BXZO3L._SX327_BO1204203200_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.

 

Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher

51rW8gqCZXL._SX331_BO1204203200_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.

 

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

41ea1fBfXrL._SX329_BO1204203200_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…

City of Thieves by David Benioff

Bitcoin Billionares by Ben Mezrich

Outcasts United: Story of a Refugee Soccer Team that Changed a Town by Warren St. John

I am not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

Here is what the NY Times had to suggest for summer reading