Speakers in the Lower School
May, 2017
Barbara Shea, Lower School Principal 

When the Lower School is able to bring in a speaker to enhance the curriculum, the students benefit tremendously. Emotional connections to topics create richer memories, and the learning becomes more meaningful and more solidified. In the last few weeks, the Lower School has been fortunate to host a variety of guests in the classrooms. Some of the speakers came from outside the school, but it is just as valuable when we use the talents of those within our own divisions. Here are a few examples.

As part of their study of the farm and as a precursor to the hatching of chicks in the classroom, the kindergartners hosted Farmer Patrick from the Five Acre Farm. Kindergartners will visit a farm later this month, but Farmer Patrick prepped them with stories and photos of farm animals and crops that he grows in upstate New York. He also talked about the challenges farmers face and the need for raising animals in a way that is sustainable and humane. Students learned the difference between pasture raised chickens that have access to both indoor and outside areas where they can eat worms and insects vs. caged free chickens that do not have an outside area in which to graze and must be fed by the farmer.  Farmer Patrick also taught them the importance of buying local products, which are fresher and better tasting, and which allows farmers to keep their farms in the family. They also learned that Five Acre Farm plays a key role in helping all the local farmers in their area market their goods.

Samantha Hirschberg is a student advocate, teaching about life-threatening allergies in schools. A current tenth grader, Samantha was in the fourth grade when she first spoke to Lower School students about allergies. When I asked her if she still did these presentations, there was a hesitant pause followed by, “I’d be happy to do it…after exams!”  Samantha created an age-appropriate presentation that engaged students in a discussion about what they should do to keep their friends with allergies safe. Samantha gave the presentation to grades one, two, and three. At each grade level, there were a lot of wonderful responses and spirited discussions. Being a spokesperson for students with allergies, she particularly connected with many of our youngest students who face the same challenges, and she gave voice to many of their concerns as well as suggestions to address those concerns.

Last week, third-grade students and Upper Schoolers gathered together to share their respective work in studying the Blind Brook Stream. Last fall, third graders made observations and conducted investigations on the health of the stream. More recently, the AP Environmental Science students also studied the stream and conducted experiments. When they came to share their research with the Lower Schoolers, the third grade students were very interested in these results and their implications. They were full of questions!  Their combined research will be sent to the Rye City Manager and the Save the Sound Organization.

The Character Ethics and Leadership Committee invites speakers to talk to Middle and Upper Schoolers  about real-life connections with what they are learning in school. This year, the fourth graders have equally benefited from this initiative by having both Josh Bennett and Chiamaka Nwakeze share their time and their thoughts with the fourth graders.  As alumni of RCDS, both speakers had a great deal in common with our students and had many anecdotes about their time at RCDS that they shared. Coincidentally, within the same year, both guests spoke at their respective college graduations: Josh at the University of Pennsylvania and Chiamaka at Harvard University.

Last fall, Josh Bennett shared some of his poetry readings with the Middle and Upper School. However, when he came to the fourth-grade classroom, the students had a very different opportunity to interact with him. Having seen tapes of Josh performing his poetry at the White House, the fourth graders couldn’t wait to ask about his various poems, the craft of writing, and the importance of being an authentic author. They were anxious to know when he started writing poetry, what made him decide on that particular form of writing, where did he get his ideas, and what was it like to be at RCDS and developing his talents. The students were thoroughly engaged in the discussion, and their questions were thoughtful and showed how deeply his poetry resonated with them. Josh’s everyday world was his inspiration, and he reinforced the importance of being present and aware of what happens around us. Josh responded to the students’ questions with replies that were genuine and honest. He encouraged them to keep a journal and jot ideas down regularly so they have them when they want to draw up stories and imagery. Josh’s talk fed the students’ creativity and this was apparent in their subsequent writings.

On April 21, Chiamaka Nwakeze came to RCDS. Having graduated from RCDS, she earned her A.B. from Harvard and went on to Harvard Medical School. Since 2010, Chiamaka has been at Columbia University Medical Center studying disease mechanisms of depression and ALS using genetic mouse models. In the Upper School, she spoke about the importance of  empathy in leadership. Following the fourth grade’s study of inspirational figures, this was a perfect topic for the fourth graders to hear, and they were enthralled. She gave anecdotes of working for a man who lacked empathy and how this impacted the work that was done in the lab. People didn’t feel good about themselves or their environment and the work didn’t get done. As a result, she did research on the importance of empathy in leadership. Feeling empowered and nurtured within a working environment creates productivity. People want to feel connected to one another and respected for the work that they do. The importance of creating positive relationships within a working environment cannot be over-emphasized. Chiamaka described how RCDS remains so special to her because her teachers provided the support to further her interests in science, and she felt enveloped in an encouraging environment. The importance of being supportive of one another so that all students can be fully engaged in their learning points to the roots of Responsive Classroom!  But the questions quickly moved into a very different area.

The fourth graders wanted to know when her interest in science began, had she done research about dreaming, and when had she become fascinated with the brain?  When asked when she first knew that she wanted this career, she responded, “When I was 12 years old, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the brain.”  The students responded with both surprise and interest, and quickly capitalized on more science-specific areas. They touched on topics such as the challenge of fighting cancer when it has such diversity that one cure does not fit all cancers, to how to develop perseverance when the challenge of fighting cancer seem so overwhelming, to how to combat disappointment when your trials aren’t successful. In each case her answers were frank and heartfelt. She ended by telling them that their brains have tremendous plasticity – they can change the way their brains work by learning and taking advantage of all that RCDS has to offer them. She encouraged them to learn as much as they possibly can. The students were so captivated by her talk that before leaving, they wanted her autograph!

Lastly, just last week, the fourth graders welcomed a group of seven Upper School students who participated in a panel on friendship. The fourth-grade students wrote questions, such as, "How do you handle it if your best friend is not being nice to you or others?"; "How do you know when a person is truly your friend?"; "Are your friends the same as they were in the Lower School?"; How can I speak up when I am a little shy?"; and "What makes a leader in the Upper School?" The Upper School students were genuine, open, and insightful in their responses. They shared personal anecdotes to elaborate on a point. The Upper School students explained that friendships evolve over time and having a broad circle of friends is important. They expressed the idea that a good leader is a good listener and someone with good communication skills. In order to be a good friend, you need to stand up for one another, and when that is too difficult, it is important to ask an adult either at home or at school to offer guidance. The goal is to have friends who support you and with whom you can share your feelings in an open and honest way.

We will continue to invite guest speakers into our classrooms, and there will be other guests before the year is out. However, the success of each program relies on student engagement. In order for that to happen, teachers prepare their students so that the interchange is rich. Students come primed, ready to participate in the conversation.  How fortunate we are to have so many of our guests as current students and alumni who are willing to share their time, their energy, and their expertise with the Lower School students. We have benefited enormously!