Spread Kindness

The following was delivered to the Middle and Upper School student body on Monday, October 29, 2018.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to the Middle School students about Matthew Shepard on the anniversary of his death. For those of you who don’t know, Matthew was a college student at the University of Wyoming when he was killed in a hate crime for being gay. Shepard’s death became a rallying cry for the LGBT community and eventually inspired the federal anti-hate crime law that bears his name. On Friday, Matthew’s ashes were interred at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC among notable Americans such as Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, and George Dewey. Dennis Shepard said on Friday “Matt was blind…He did not see skin color. He did not see religion. He did not see sexual orientation. All he saw was a chance to have another friend.” And in his remarks on Friday, Rev. Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church concluded by saying “gently rest in this place, you are safe now. And Matt – welcome home.”

While we have come a long way since Matthew’s death in 1998, the events of this past week, including the shooting this weekend at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead and many others injured, show that we are still fighting a war against hate in this country.

The faculty and I take our roles of educating you all seriously. We know it is our job to teach you how to be writers, mathematicians, scientists, and readers. However, it also part of our job to teach you to be emphatic young people who will show kindness and respect to all you encounter on in life’s journey. This is why we have our Core Values. This is why we ask you to only use kindness toward each other at all times, because we know how we treat each other is the most important thing. Today, I ask that you go out of your way to do one kind thing for a classmate, a teacher, or a coach. As Aesop said “no act of kindness, however small, is wasted.” Do it for Matthew. Do it for the victims in Pittsburgh and for all of those who have suffered from hate, intolerance, and discrimination. I believe we can make the world a better place one kind act at a time. It can start today, and it can starts with you.

Remembering Matthew

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. As you may know, Matthew was a college student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming when he was killed in a hate crime for being gay. His murder brought national attention to hate crime legislation at both the state and national levels, and eventually led to the passing of the Matthew Shepard Act in 2009. Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, also began The Matthew Shepard Foundation (https://www.matthewshepard.org.) The foundation’s mission is to “empower individuals to embrace human dignity and diversity through outreach, advocacy and resource programs. We strive to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”

As part of my Monday Memo to the faculty last week, I shared an article entitled The Book of Matthew from Teaching Tolerance (https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/the-book-of-matthew). The piece outlines the lasting legacy that Matthew’s death had on our culture and society and suggests ways that schools can honor him and share his story. At our morning meeting today, I spoke to the Middle School students about Matthew and his lasting legacy.

I have a distinct memory of Matthew’s death, which occurred when I was in high school. However, it was not until college that I really had a full understanding of the effect his death had on our society. The Laramie Project, a play by Moises Kauffman and member of the Tectonic Theater Project that explores Matthew’s story and the reaction to his death, was the focus of my capstone projects as a double major in English and Theater during my undergraduate work. During that time, I was immersed in Matthew’s life and his death, and it has had a profound effect on me ever since. It has shaped who I am today as an educator, an administrator, and a father.

We highlight our core values of respect, honesty, kindness, and responsibility in all that we do at Brimmer, and I feel that the nation’s reaction to Matthew’s death in 1998 was one key element to the shift to emphasizing character education in schools. In a year where Brimmer’s theme is on empathy and ethical thinking, talking about Matthew is especially important and poignant. I hope today you will take a moment to talk with your student about Matthew so that his memory will live on, and so that we can prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again.

An Interdisciplinary Exploration of Africa in Grade 6

At Brimmer, an interdisciplinary, global approach to learning is a staple of the Middle School and part of the School’s mission of developing “lifelong learners who are informed, engaged, and ethical citizens and leaders in our diverse world.” This fall, the students in grade 6 are exploring Africa through the lens of several different disciplines.

In History 6, students are examining Africa both in the past and today. After an exploration of Africa’s geography, students explored the beginnings of African civilizations, including the empire of Ghana. Students are now being tasked with selecting a country on the continent and creating a travel brochure for that country. In Science, students will be exploring the wildlife that exists in their country and choosing one animal to research. They will then create a detailed fact sheet about the species. This work in History and Science will be presented at an exhibition on Friday, October 19 at 9:15a.m. in the Innovation Space.

Students are also exploring Africa in all of their Creative Arts classes. In Art, they will be exploring African tribal masks, and each student will construct a unique mask. The project will examine the historical and regional iconography of the mask, and the students will use this information to help construct their interpretation through collage. In Music, students will be learning West African percussion and Kpelle call and response songs. Finally, in Drama, students will be reading several Anansi stories as they explore story structure. Then, through improv and collaborative creation, the class will work in small groups to write adaptations of a story.

Exciting Program and Curricular Changes in the Middle School at Brimmer!

At Brimmer, we are always exploring ways to keep our programs and curriculum exciting and new. I wanted to share some program and curricular changes for the year. This year, every student was given a Middle School planner.  We have embedded the use of these planners into our instruction, and we hope that these tools, in addition to eBackpack, will help students stay organized and take ownership of their responsibilities.

This year, sixth graders will participate in the Max Warburg Courage Curriculum. Max passed away in 1991 at the age of 11 from leukemia. To honor Max’s story and to encourage empathy and other youths to reach their maximum potential and not take anything for granted, Max’s parents, Stephanie and Jonathan Warburg, founded the Max Warburg Courage Curriculum. Stephanie and Jonathan worked with the Boston Public Schools to develop and create the curriculum, written especially for 6th graders. After learning about Max’s story and reading a novel that focuses on courage and empathy, for the culminating activity of the program, each student writes an essay on the topic of “Courage in My Life.” The local students’ essays are entered into a contest, where a panel of judges reads each of the essays. The winning essays are published in an annual essay anthology. We felt in a year with a focus on empathy and ethical thinking, this curriculum would be an excellent addition to the 6th grade humanities, and Mr. Polstein is excited to dive into this new program in the coming weeks.

How will we meet food production challenges as the world population grows? Students will anchor themselves with this question as they delve into the study of plants in 7th grade science with Ms. Shannon.  Working collaboratively, students will design scientific experiments to compare traditional soil gardening to hydroponic gardening. With our new tower gardens purchased through our faculty innovation grant, this unit will literally come to life as they watch the seeds that they plant develop and mature into herbs and vegetables to share with our Brimmer community.

Finally, we are thrilled to announce that Brimmer has partnered with MediaGirls, an organization whose missions is to to teach middle-school girls &  young women to discover their self-worth, and harness the power of media for positive change. Michelle Cove, the founder, will be working with the 8th grade girls this fall for an 8-week curriculum, and the 7th graders will experience it in the spring. We are also entering our second year of 8th grade Innovation Hour, a new course that we created last year that is taught by Mr. Neudel. Students in this course are introduced to the endless possibilities of design, innovation, and creation available to them in our MakerSpace in the Hastings Center.

Teaching Empathy Through The Humanities

Max Warburg was a fairly typical 11 year old boy. He grew up in Boston and loved playing sports, swimming, biking, skiing, and especially sailing. Some of his family’s happiest memories involved being out on the water for hours together. One day while out riding his bike, Max fell, and he ended up in the ER. As it turned out, his life would never be the same. As they treated Max for a split spleen, they discovered that he had leukemia. Surgeries, treatments, and many ups and downs followed. Through his terrible ordeal, Max never gave up hope and tried his best to keep a positive attitude in the face of an awful disease. Although he fought as hard as he could, Max died in his mother’s arms and holding his father’s hand on March 5, 1991. One of his parents friends said at the time “Max amazed me. He was so brave. Children amaze me. I am amazed by the courage of children.”

Max’s determination, courage, and never-ending hope in the face of a terrible disease inspired all who knew him. To honor Max’s story and to encourage empathy and other youths to reach their maximum potential and not take anything for granted, Max’s parents, Stephanie and Jonathan Warburg, founded the Max Warburg Courage Curriculum. Stephanie and Jonathan worked with the Boston Public Schools to develop and create the curriculum, written especially for 6th graders. After learning about Max’s story and reading a novel that focuses on courage and empathy, for the culminating activity of the program, each student writes an essay on the topic of “Courage in My Life.” Though the students’ stories vary widely, the common theme of courage unites them all. The local students’ essays are entered into a contest, where a panel of judges reads each of the essays. The winning essays are published in an annual essay anthology. What started as something that happened only in the Boston Public Schools has spread, and now schools from all over the country and the world participate. And this year, for the first time, so will the 6th graders at Brimmer and May.

At Brimmer, we believe the study of the Humanities, which literally means the study of what it means to be human, is an important avenue to teach empathy. Last week during our opening meetings, Mrs. Guild told the faculty that when you explore literature and stories specifically, you have a key to teaching empathy. And during her keynote address at those meetings, Professor Kay Young, a former Brimmer and May teacher and Professor of Literature at UC Santa Barbara, told us “the basis of empathy is imagining other minds and placing yourself in their place, and, as you do so, reflecting on the meaning of life. It makes it real and tangible, and the study of literature trains our brain to do just that.”

So whether it is writing about courage after hearing Max’s story as our 6th graders will do, or walking in the footsteps of Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank as the 8th grade will do during their study of the Holocaust, or exploring the life of Prior Walter, a man suffering from AIDS in New York City during the height of the epidemic, as the 11th grade did last year when they read Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, our hope is that, through your studies here, you are not only making strides as writers and readers, but also as people. We hope that not only will you be able to analyze the literature, stories, and plays that you read, hear, and see, but that you will also take them to heart; place yourself in someone else’s shoes, and that those stories will be like seeds that will grow within you. Like Kushner, I too believe there are angels in America. I believe Max Warburg was one, and that this theater is full of them right now. Each and everyone of you has the potential to make an impact with kindness and empathy, and be the angel is someone’s life. I hope this year, you will do just that.

Social/Emotional and Wellness Programming in the Middle School

In the coming weeks and months, Middle School students will once again be participating in wellness programs geared to support their social, emotional, and physical well-being. As a school, we know there is much more to a student’s life than just academics. We strive to develop students who will go on to be successful in the world, and we also want to help educate students in areas that will allow them to be prepared to make informed decisions when faced with challenging situations and to reflect on how our actions have ramifications on those around us.

This week, the Middle School will be participating inThe Great Kindness Challenge. Every year, thousands of schools all over the world participate in this week to promote kindness in schools and in our culture. As Aesop said, “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” With this in mind, we are asking students to engage in one act of kindness each day. In addition, we will have special dress days on Thursday and Friday to celebrate this week. Thursday is “Hats Off to Kindness Day” when students can wear their favorite hat, and Friday is “Team Kindness” Day when students can wear apparel from their favorite sports team. On Friday, we will also hold a “Mix It Up” lunch.

This winter we will continue with wellness programming that we began last year in the Middle School. Will Slotnick, from The Wellness Collaborative, will be working with the 7th grade during the week of January 29th,. Mr. Slotnick will work with students through his Wellness-Based Alcohol and Drug Education Program. Students also learn about stress management and mindfulness. He has over twenty-five years of experience in this field, and we are excited to have this expert working closely with our students once again. Mr. Slotnick has worked at several other area independent schools. More information about this programming can be found on his website http://www.wellnesscollaborative.org.

During the week of April 2th, Partners in Sex Education will be working with our 6th and 8th grade students. Partners in Sex Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Greater Boston youth through comprehensive education about sexuality, sexual health, and relationships. The educators have extensive experience in both public and private school settings. The following values are integral to the curriculum: the importance of maintaining one’s health, the right to accurate information, respect for oneself and others, equality for everyone and open communication to ensure learning.

We are looking forward to the upcoming social-emotional and wellness programs, and we believe our students will greatly benefit from this work!

Remembering Dr. King’s Legacy of Service

This week, we celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King told an audience in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957 that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” At Brimmer, in all three divisions, community service is emphasized and is an integral part of the student experience.

The Middle and Upper Schools are currently participating in a drive for Pennies for Patients, organized by the Community Service Club. This program helps raise money to fund research for therapies that save the lives of people suffering from blood cancers. There is a box in each homeroom to collect change, and the winning grade will receive a pizza party sponsored by Upper School Head, Mr. Neudel, and me.

In the spring, the 8th grade will once again organize a drive for Birthday Wishes. This organization, based in Newton, organizes birthday parties for children experiencing homelessness. This will be the fourth year the 8th grade has sponsored this drive.

Finally, the Middle School is partnering with the Greater Boston Food Bank this year for our main community service initiative. Every student in the Middle School will spend a day at the Food Bank, helping them fulfill their mission to end hunger in Eastern Massachusetts. I am very excited about this work, and I would like to thank Mr. Van Atta, the 6th grade Dean, for overseeing this effort. Our first trip to the Bank will take place on Monday, January 22, and we are thrilled to get started.

During the sometimes challenging middle school years, emphasizing the importance of giving to others is vital. We hope that, even in a small way, the community service initiatives at our School will send out ripples of kindness that will extend far beyond the Brimmer community.