A Pre-Kindergarten - Grade 12 co-educational independent day school in Westchester, New York

Middle School Principal Column: Thanksgiving, Strengthening our Roots

By Ryan Song, Middle School Principal

Yesterday, the tree in my front yard was easily recognizable as a red maple. The gorgeous full body of its brightly colored red leaves filled the sky for anyone who gazed outward from my porch. Today is quite different. You can see the gray and the wispy clouds through the branches. The tree is bare.  

Imagine seeing the tree for the first time in its fall form, bare with just its trunk and branches waving in the wind. Could you see its leaves and its full bodied beauty? Would you remember the magnificent root system a foot below and 25 feet around that nourished this living treasure?  

Today, I want to introduce you to the Culture Tree. It is a model developed by Zaretta Hammond, an education lecturer at Saint Mary’s College of California. The Culture Tree helps us understand the different elements of one's culture.

The leaves and branches represent our most observable and concrete cultural elements such as food, music, dress, and holidays. The trunk represents our cultural elements that are sometimes overlooked, such as the unspoken rules around everyday social interactions and norms, nonverbal communication, attitudes towards others, personal space, and rules about eye contact. Finally, the roots envelop our core beliefs, our community values, and our view of community versus self. They contain our unconscious assumptions that govern our worldview.  

Joining RCDS during 2020, with both the pandemic and our self-examination prompted by voices in our community sharing difficult experiences, has very much been like meeting the tree in the fall when its most vital cultural elements are front and center, not obscured under the shadows of its usual “non-pandemic-era” canopy of in-person school events.  

Especially during this historic global pandemic, it is an important exercise to visualize the full tree while also acknowledging the reality of the tree’s “seasons,” even the unexpected ones! Every day, I center myself and I see it, the RCDS culture tree in full bloom, strong and healthy. The musicals, the pizza parties, the sports, and the joyous time we crave to just gather closely together will all return. In fact, the recent vaccine candidate announcements are a reminder that post a long winter, a fruitful season is due to follow. When you think of our school this way, you visualize its strength in this moment, as well as the past and future. Every season counts.

So, what is the opportunity of this moment or “season”? In what way is the glass half full? What lever is uniquely available at this time?

If you’ve ever asked gardeners when is the best time to plant trees, undoubtedly you’ll get a few recommending the fall. It is a time that the plant can focus its energy on developing its roots, not its leaves, and we know a robust root system is the foundation for vigorous growth in the spring. So perhaps the stars did align. Perhaps now is the ideal time to address core values and our DEI work as a community. 

Over the summer, many of our faculty read Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.” We also had the opportunity to read “How to Be an Antiracist” by #1 New York Times and National Book Award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi and “White Fragility” by academic, lecturer, and author Robin DiAngelo. This is not an attempt to tell you what to think, but I offer this to you so we as a larger community can intellectually wrestle with these ideas together. This is how we can strengthen our understanding of our community’s deep rooted beliefs.

As we head into Thanksgiving, please celebrate the time with your family. Even though it will likely be a smaller family gathering than we are used to, enjoy it and leverage the moment to celebrate beyond the surface level of food. Give thanks and acknowledge the core values that bind you as a family. Spend time nourishing the family roots.

These kids grow up fast. Cherish every moment.  

I wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.  


Ryan Song
Middle School Principal

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