On the heels of winning the state relay championships last month, the girls take the overall state title as well, the program's first in eight years.
It’s that same collaborative, interdisciplinary focus that allowed her to engage her kindergarten class in a STEAM project last year (STEAM projects are routine in later grades, but she wanted to see them trickle down to her youngsters as well). Using the book, Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, she brainstormed with her kids how they could “save” a snowball; that is, prevent it from melting. After detailed discussion, experimenting, and prototype-building, the class presented their findings at an all-school meeting. “It really took a village,” remarked Ms. Mehta. “The art teachers, the tech teachers, and the kindergarten team were all involved, and to see kids who were non-readers at the beginning of the year competently read and present their work to the entire school was really remarkable.”
These types of creative, cross-disciplinary projects are what excite her, and keep her passionate about her work. “We, as Pingry teachers, get to choose what we think is best practice. We are constantly questioning, bouncing ideas off each other. It’s truly a talented group of faculty.”
And that is why, during an “open house classroom” for prospective families last year, when a parent asked if she won the lottery, would she still teach, she answered, without hesitation, yes.
The girl who never before thought of herself as a writer, suddenly did. “I felt the passion that Mrs. Singer had for English and it really inspired me,” she recalls. “She opened my eyes to writing, and now I’m gearing myself towards pursuing journalism. I completely flipped.”
Last summer she participated in the Pioneer Research Program, in which she was selected, along with two international students, to learn poetry through an online exchange with a professor from Washington & Lee University. At the end of it, she wrote a 20-page research paper linking Langston Hughes’s poetry with contemporary issues of racism. It—along with her own piece of poetry inspired from the class—earned her two regional writing awards. Her academic “flip,” it turns out, paid off.
What’s her favorite spot on Pingry’s campus? Mr. Keating’s “hallway desk,” which strategically positions him—front and center—among milling students. Yelena credits Mrs. Singer with opening her eyes to literature and writing, and English teacher Mr. Keating with helping her to find her voice. His hallway desk, and their regular exchanges, exemplify that discovery. “I can always stop by and talk to him, about everything and anything,” she says. “Pingry teachers really take the time to share their passions, and they make it hard not to feel inspired.”
The summer before he began at the Lower School he thought hard about his lesson plans and the curriculum, unsure of the ground he would be able to cover. But the moment he arrived it became clear to him that he would be able to do a lot; the possibilities excited him. “The focus on creative education and the student dedication here are to a level I hadn’t seen before.” What’s more, he says, relationship building—among teachers, students, administrators, and parents—is a priority. “Pingry gives me the freedom, support, and ability to explore my creativity as a teacher. I’m excited by the lessons I teach, and my energy is visible to the kids.”
His lessons of experiential learning are cases in point. One spring day, for their unit on Ellis Island, he asked students to arrive at school wearing the clothes of the country they’re “immigrating” from, and carrying an old pillowcase or suitcase filled with only essential belongings. As immigrants aboard a “ship” (Pingry’s outdoor loading dock), they were simulating the Atlantic crossing to New York. “Half an hour into the ‘ride’ there are always one or two kids who come up to me and ask, ‘Are we there yet?’’’ Mr. Haber recalls, chuckling. “’No,’” I answer. “’It’s another two weeks, actually.’ We had been discussing this period of history for several weeks, but it always amazes me that sitting on a piece of concrete for two hours can teach kids so much more than simply sitting in the classroom.”
Whether it’s teaching the immigrant story in this way, taking to the woods of the Lower School, charging his class with a shelter-building exercise for their Lenape Indian unit, or asking them to don wigs and role-play Revolutionary War-era debates in Independence Hall, at Pingry, Mr. Haber is the designer of his class’s best lessons.
Ravenous with ambition and motivation, in his words, he was the 2015 winner of the nationwide Warren Buffet Grow Your Own Business Challenge, all before graduating to the Upper School. Out of a field of 5,000 competitors across the country, he was one of five finalists flown to Omaha to present his business idea—“Beyond the Books,” an online haven for learners of all ages looking for extracurricular knowledge—to the Oracle of Omaha himself. (His classmate was also a finalist, and yet another Pingrian was a semifinalist.) To be sure, Miro is an independent, ambitious learner. Academic compromise is not in his vocabulary.
And at Pingry, the varsity water polo player and science lover—he was the only freshman selected to the school’s science-based, research-oriented Journal Club—has found his home, along with many kindred spirits. “The upperclassmen really inspire me,” he says. “I’m looking up to my sophomore and junior friends who are achieving so much, and I want to keep that cycle going for others at Pingry.”
Her period 6 freshman class last year was just such a class. It was the first or second day of the new school year, she recalled, and they were having an animated discussion about their summer reading. One girl raised her hand and asked if they could share books off the list. “That launched us into a big discussion about Go Set a Watchman, which had just come out; students began sharing off-the-list books and asking one another ‘Oh, did you read that? You should!’ They all wanted to be reading what their peers were reading,” she said. “It was a dream.”
Driven students aren’t the only highlight of Ms. Taylor’s Pingry teaching experience. The freedom to plan extracurricular activities—a particularly relevant play or performance, for example—is another. “At my previous school nobody really planned field trips because it was an insurmountable hurdle. Here, it’s easy to organize, and it’s supported.” Two years ago she started a creative writing class, and began leading an annual creative writing trip to Rutgers’ Zimmerli Art Museum. Here, students, guided by a faculty member from the National Writing Project, immerse themselves in a morning-long writing intensive, using the surrounding artwork as their point of reflection. Afterwards, the class has lunch in New Brunswick, giving them a chance to bond and discuss their writing.
Aided by small class sizes, classroom bonding is customary at Pingry. This is an important dynamic, especially when students are asked to share their poetry. (Establishing a Weebly website for students to post and share their work is another new initiative that Ms. Taylor recently launched.) It generated such a rich discussion, she spent two more weeks on the unit than intended, but, she says, it was well worth it. And, at Pingry, that’s all that matters.
In seventh grade, he and a friend wanted to launch a Middle School math club. He had worked hard to test out of his seventh and eighth grade math courses, and was one of six in his class to earn admittance to higher-level, more challenging ninth grade math with Ms. Thuzar. Proud of his accomplishment and brimming with excitement over complex geometry proofs, starting a math club seemed like the perfect outlet to his enthusiasm. While the two friends conceived of the idea too late in the school year, they were encouraged to try again the following year. Lower School math specialist, Verna Lange, even agreed to help them.
A piano player since the age of 4, he also grew curious about Pingry’s formidable organ, housed in Hauser Auditorium. No matter that no student had ever before played it (it was the sole instrument of Juilliard-trained Music Department Chair Dr. Andrew Moore). One day he approached Dr. Moore with his curiosity, which was warmly accepted, and now, every Thursday, he receives a private lesson from the teacher.
“I definitely know I wouldn’t get to do these things in another school,” he says. The math-minded musician who is also an athlete—he plays lacrosse, basketball, water polo, and squash at school—says Pingry inspires him. “I’m surrounded by a lot of people like me, or much better than me, and that drives me to work hard, and have fun!”