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.

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- 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. 

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

Learning History Through Theater

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.