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Turning Points and Tipping Points

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The theme of the Upper School this year is “turning points and tipping points.” We introduced the theme with our new math teacher, Ava, leading a game with all 84 students on the first day of school. Every student started as an egg. When they encountered another egg, they played rock, paper, scissors, and the winner became a chicken.

The process of evolution continued with students playing people at the same level to see who would move further up the evolutionary ladder. Chickens became dinosaurs, dinosaurs became superheroes, and superheroes became teachers-in-training. Teachers-in-training had to play rock, paper, scissors with three different adults, and if they beat the grown-ups all three times, they became one with the universe. Anyone who lost a game of rock, paper, scissors along the way went back to being an egg, no matter how far up the ladder they had climbed.

After the game, Alaina led a discussion to help the students think about turning and tipping points and the differences between them. They identified that each time they won or lost rock, paper, scissors was a turning point for the individual. They also observed how difficult it would be for everyone to become one with the universe. Each time the group got close to a tipping point where more people had evolved than not, more people would go back to being eggs again. We could come back to this metaphor throughout the year. The game was filled with the boisterous energy and laughter of reconnecting with friends after a long summer, but the underlying concepts of change and the challenge of rising upward speak to other conversations about justice and equity. The teachers chose the theme because it applies easily to lessons – the 5th and 6th grades recently discussed turning points and tipping points in their shared summer reading book, The Wild Robot – but also because we are thinking about turning and tipping points in our nation, how they come about and what causes them.

The new school year also brings a new set of 17, soon to be 22, Chromebooks to add to our current laptop program. The students are increasingly using technology as part of their daily work in the classroom, and we’re looking forward to having more devices to keep up with the demand. Student Council elections will be happening soon, and I’m hoping that the Council will tackle some meaningful topics this year, alongside planning for Spirit Week and evening events. Dress codes are an issue frequently featured in the news because they can lead to gender or race discrimination. Student Council will take a look at our dress code in the Upper School to ensure that it is equitable. Another topic on the table is restorative justice. My staff summer reading book this year was The 57 Bus, a true story about the complexities of a case where a young black man lights an agender person’s skirt on fire on the bus on the way home from school. The book tells the story from both sides, bearing witness to the horror of the event and denouncing transphobia, while also critiquing the inequities and inadequacies of the criminal justice system. Restorative justice, where the focus is on repairing the community as opposed to punishment, was presented as a possible approach in the case. While we have elements of a restorative justice philosophy at MCS, starting an actual program would empower students to have a greater role in problem solving, conflict resolution, and the community’s response.

We welcomed two new teachers to the Upper School this year. Ava joins us as the new sixth through eighth grade math teacher and Tiffani as the new sixth grade teacher. One of Tiffani’s first writing assignments for the sixth graders was designed to help her get to know them better. They each wrote a poem modeled after one by George Ella Lyon. The format invites them to share their individuality and culture:

I am from Bobby Pins
From Chapstick and face masks with my mom
I am from the smell of delicious food always in my house from my mom’s cooking.
Yummy. Cozy. Home.
I am from the jasmine flowers we used to have in honor of nano/dado.
Sweet. Smelling. Aroma.
I am from Eid and loud voices.
From a big feast of food on special holidays and playing cricket with a tennis ball.
I’m from Ramadan parties we have and slobbery kisses from my family members
From “be yourself” and “don’t let anyone put you down”
I’m from Allah Akbar, family traditions.
I am from Harlem
From biriyani and samosas
From the stories that I was told of my grandfather and how strict he was, but everyone loved him.
I am from aunties that always tell me how clear my Urdu has gotten
From old pictures of my family members in Pakistan
From the time I spend with my family.

I am from cotton balls
From cinnamon and caramel
I am from yellow walls
Soft Cuddle Pillows
I am from mint leaves
     In the windowsill
From fish and hardo bread
     And creativity
I’m from talking too much
     And
Singing too loud
     I’m from night
          Prayers
And going to church
          I’m from
     NYC and Jamaica
     Curry chicken, ackee and saltfish
          And
     The stories of home

The fifth graders spent the second week of school at the farm. Shani’s letter home to the parents shared some of their experiences:

The fifth graders had a lot of time to play outside. Many of them enjoyed catching crawfish in the stream or playing Cornhole, which was built during Farm Camp this past summer. In nature class, the fifth graders experienced a long-standing MCS tradition of getting "lost" in the woods and safely finding their way back to the farm house (all of this happened under the watchful eye of Annie, our nature teacher). They began their back strap weaving with Donna, made delicious meals with Gaby, and learned about the ways we care for our animals during farming with Cathy. 

In our evening academic classes, we developed our fifth grade classroom contract and named concrete ways to show respect to one another. Tonight, we played a game to help us think about and discuss systems. 

Back in the classroom, the group discussed the meaning of systems and made a chart of their definition: “[A system is] many ‘things’ working together to do one ‘thing.’ A system does not work well if it does not do what it needs to do. A system works well if it is efficient.” They will continue to discuss systems in their study of sustainability this year, as they examine the role natural resources play in the ecosystem, as well as in our social systems.

In the seventh and eighth grades, students are thinking critically across a departmentalized curriculum. When I visited algebra the other day, the 8th graders were solving problems to build an understanding of slope and how it is represented in equations and graphs. Ava, noticing that they were solving the problems but not necessarily understanding the concept, asked them to think about how they would build two different ramps, one steep and one not steep. With ten feet of plywood to work with in their drawings, they had to think about where they would cut the wood to build the two different ramps, thus pushing them to think about the relationship of “rise over run” in each context. Yesterday they graphed the weight and volume of sugar vs. flour, and again she asked them to think about which would have a steeper line and why. When students can explain what will happen in real-world contexts, algebra becomes a tangible representation of our surroundings rather than a collection of numbers and variables.

In Spanish, Carolina’s new unit combines language study with an opportunity for students to reflect on their identity: ¿Qué hay en un nombre? What’s in a name? After reading “Mi Nombre” from La Casa en Mango Street, they will answer questions about their names: ¿Te gusta tu nombre? ¿Tiene un significado especial en tu familia? Their answers will provide a foundation to discuss the main character’s relationship with her name: “En inglés mi nombre quiere decir Hope. En español tiene muchas letras. Quiere decir tristeza, decir espera.” “In English, my name means Hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting.”

Nassim opened history class with a series of prompts; for each one the students had to choose their corner – strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Then they wrote historical arguments to represent their point of view about one statement of their choice. The prompts included statements such as, “The news is always biased so people just choose what to believe. Nobody’s version of the truth is more right than anyone else’s.”

In response to the prompt, “Taking down historical monuments is wrong because it is erasing history, even if the history isn’t very good,” one student wrote the following:

I think that history should be preserved, but not in that way. Having Confederate statues, monuments, memorials, etc. is celebrating the people who fought for slavery during the Civil War.  If the monuments are moved to a museum, it’s acknowledging that they existed or what happened but not in a positive way…. Keeping monuments of Confederate soldiers only promotes white supremacy…. Overall, it is better that Confederate monuments be taken down and moved to places such as museums for people to learn about history, even if it wasn’t something to be proud of.

Current events classes kicked off by discussing the presentation of truth in the media. One student brought up the example of the dispute over the number of people killed by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Nassim pushed the class to explain how they could know who was telling the truth, particularly when one of the people arguing over the facts is the President of the United States.

The seventh grade science seminar class also spent time considering the meaning of truth and fact in preparation for their social justice mapping study, where they will map data to explore the connections between various environmental statistics. They debated whether or not “science is a way to look at the world in an unbiased fashion.”

“I’m in the middle. Science is less biased than a lot of other things. It’s not unbiased but it’s better than other things.”

“Science is unbiased, but it doesn’t mean that you’re unbiased.”

“Whatever you’re using those facts for can be misinterpreted. You can manipulate the facts or the science. They can only show certain parts of the whole.”

Then Alaina asked them if facts can be unbiased. One student led with, “Facts are straight facts.”

“Sometimes there are lies that are similar to facts.”

“A real fact would always be true but sometimes what people believe is a fact can be not true.”

“You always get your facts from someone – the people who provide the facts could be biased, but at the time people think it is a fact.”

Tom’s English class begins with shorter pieces. They read the poem "On Turning Ten" by Billy Collins in connection with the short story “Flyboys” by Tobias Wolff:

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself…

 

Tom asked them about the images in the poem that stood out to them, and they highlighted the author’s colorful description of his youth and the bicycle leaning against the house as a symbol of his lost childhood. One student commented, “In his youth he had creativity and imagination,” but explained that he lost those qualities as he got older. Another added, “He had a life of fantasy but now he feels the pressure of age.” As adolescents, they understand the fragility of turning ten because, even as seventh and eighth graders, they are already moving on from being children. As they examined the poem, it was clear that they understood the sense of loss the author described. They themselves exist between the whimsy of childhood and the maturity of adulthood, constantly choosing between two different kinds of freedom. It is our work in the Upper School to challenge our students’ opinions and to push them to think and reason and write, but the magic of young people solving the world’s problems and working toward justice happens when we also hold firm to the joy of play and the sense of possibility that only children can embrace.

Delivered at the September 20, 2018 Opening Parents' Association Meeting.