This article first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Harker Magazine.
The words, scrawled neatly in reddish-brown, rest solemnly on a rectangular piece of construction paper: “How dreadful is the dawn.” “I walk burdened and irritated,” reads the line on the next piece. Two additional pieces complete the grim stanza: “My heart beats as though with hammers/Everything around me begins to weep.”
They are not the words of students in a creative writing course, but the echoes of long silenced voices, pieced together from the discovered writings of Holocaust victims. Many of the sources were not old enough to attend high school at the time they composed these writings.
It’s an example of a “found poetry” exercise conducted by upper school teacher Roxana Pianko’s world history students. The exercise is based on one she participated in during a weeklong conference held by Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit educational organization based in Los Angeles.
Pianko attended the conference as part of her work in the Raju and Bala Vegesna Foundation’s Teacher Excellence Program, a grant program that funds professional development opportunities for Harker teachers.
“[The Vegesnas] so value the importance of a good teacher,” said JenniferGargano, assistant head of school for academic affairs. “They know the difference a good teacher can make.”
Raju Vegesna said the program was started largely due to the continuously evolving nature of education and the increasing integration of technology into teaching methods. “In my mind, education is a continuous thing,” he said. “Technology is evolving and the tools are changing. The ways and methods of teaching have to be different.”
Pianko was among the first round of Harker teachers to be selected for the grants in 2015. “I knew coming into this community that I wanted to figure out a way to bring in the things that I was very passionate about, and I was already getting to kind of scratch the surface with the Holocaust and genocide just because I teach World History 2,” Pianko said. “I had this hope that at some point it would eventually be a little bit more than just two days in my classes.”
In addition to the LA conference, the grant also enabled Pianko to travel to Europe to expand her expertise, visiting the sites of several concentration camps, as well as museums and institutions located in Germany, Poland and the Netherlands. The many people she met at various institutions were very accommodating, she recalled: “They were just throwing resources at me. They were giving me things that were not yet published, but that they wanted to share with me to build my understanding of the work that was being done.”
Pianko’s research fed into other areas of teaching as well. In her World History 2 Honors class, students are given assignments that combine biographical writing and research with visual media. They are tasked with selecting a figure from the Holocaust based on their role (survivor, victim, resister or collaborator) and writing a profile of the person, as well as creating a photo collage spanning the person’s life. One of Pianko’s hopes is that students will absorb the lessons of the Holocaust and develop a keener sense of the warning signs that led up to it.
“There is a social justice component to it, and I want them to have these experiences inside my classroom, to get to learn about genocide, to get to learn about the Holocaust,” she said. “I wanted to do [this project] because I wanted to gain the necessary knowledge in order to create something that could potentially be transformative.”
Her research also led to the formation of an elective class focused on the Holocaust and other examples of genocide throughout history, which is set to start in the fall. The class will culminate in a collaborative project to be presented as a historical lesson to the greater Harker community. “These 17-year-old kids are no longer seeing themselves as voiceless or powerless or incapable of changing things,” Pianko said.
Elsewhere in Europe that same summer, upper school music teacher Susan Nace was honing her skills as a conductor. Nace traveled to Oxford, England, to study at the Choral Conducting Institute at St. Stephen’s College, under the direction of Grammy-nominated conductor James Jordan and James Whitbourn, formerly of the BBC and co-director of the Choral Institute at Oxford.
The intensive course consisted of master classes, lectures and private tutoring intended to help conductors master their craft. In the process, Nace was introduced to the work of Rudolf von Laban, a German dance artist notable for the dance notation system he published in 1928. This notation developed further over time, and incorporated what are known as “efforts,” or actions that change the dynamics of movement. Words such as “glide,” “slash,” “punch” and “dab” (not to be confused with the popular dance move) “are descriptions of a movement that is in dance, and it has to do with the time, the space and the weight,” said Nace. “So, for example, dab is a very specific time, it has a light weight, and the space is very small,” she explained. “Something like a glide has an indeterminate time, and it’s sort of an indeterminate space too, and it has a little more weight.”
Using efforts based on the Laban method has opened up a range of conducting techniques that allow Nace and her students to interpret and perform music in unique and interesting ways. “When I’m talking to my students and we’re working on a choral piece, I will say, ‘OK, what kind of gesture does this need?’ and they’ll say, ‘This feels like a dab to me, we’re just tapping. This one feels like we need to punch it, it needs some more weight.’”
Talking through interpretations in this way also opens up more possibilities for analyzing the music itself, as it may provide clues to the kinds of efforts that may enhance the performance of the material. “Notation is not the music. It’s only a representation of what music can be, but it’s not the actual music. And there are so many things that cannot be placed into a score,” Nace said.
Laban efforts, she added, are another way to “take what is represented on that page to make it come alive.” It has also provided another way for Nace to connect with her students, which she considers crucial. “The more you incorporate students’ input, the more you ask them to draw out of themselves, I think then you have more buy-in in what goes on in performing a piece.”
Back in California, Scott Kley Contini , middle school learning, innovation and design director, initially planned to use his grant to attend a design thinking workshop held by Stanford University’s d.school. Unfortunately, the course was in such high demand that Kley Contini likely would have been waitlisted several times before he was able to take the course.
He met with Jennifer Gargano to discuss how to move forward with the project, and they agreed to use the funds to bring a d.school instructor to Harker to hold a design thinking workshop for Harker teachers. “Every single person who came would be expected to implement and report on how they’re using design thinking, and that went off so well,” Kley Contini said.
Design thinking, Kley Contini explained, is “a user-centered design process” for creating products that incorporate knowledge of users’ needs as the main guideline. “If you are going to make this product, who is the end user? Who is the person who’s actually going to experience this product? Design thinking says you need to spend some significant time upfront getting to know who that user is, just as a person,” said Kley Contini.
“Product,” he added, can also be loosely defined. “This could be a physical product that you’re trying to sell. Or from a school standpoint, this could be products like a project or an essay or some kind of end assessment.”
In the workshop, teachers from all four campuses learned principles of design thinking that they could apply to their classroom instruction. Andy Gersh, middle school math teacher, began asking his students how they best learn the concepts he was teaching in class. He then had them create posters and infographics to explain to their classmates how they absorbed the lessons. Middle school science teacher Kathy Peng ’05 used design thinking to create lab exercises that were tailored to different student needs.
“It kind of opens students’ minds to the big of, why are we learning this? What does it apply to? Do I need this outside of the four walls of this classroom? What’s the real application?” Kley Contini said. “I think that gets answered when you make kids think about who the end users are and their wants and needs.”
Although Harker offers many professional development opportunities, the Vegesna Teacher Excellence Program is unique in that it requires grant applicants to delineate how their proposed project will benefit students as well as the wider Harker community. To this end, grant awardees are frequently asked to speak at events such as all-faculty meetings. “We’ll create time for them to talk to other teachers and do other things so that it can have an effect beyond them,” Gargano said.
Teachers also are required to prepare presentations for the Vegesnas to show the results of their work. So far, they have been quite pleased with the work coming out of the program. “I see great progress made,” said Raju Vegesna. “I see the best results are coming out. I think we still have a long way to go, since we just started, but I’m very pleased with the progress Harker made with respect to this.”
For a complete list of Vegesna grant recipients, visit www.harker.org/teacher-professional-development