Nicole Vanasse '20 leads Big Blue to another impressive showing.
First, there was the influence of her mother, a lifelong elementary school educator. Then, there was her natural love for teaching. Dr. D’Ausilio had always enjoyed the instructional requirements of her graduate and postdoctoral work, but knew she didn’t want to run a lab, so university teaching out. Finally, at a hiring conference in Boston in 2012, Pingry presented her with a singular opportunity: design a class, however you wish, that introduces students to the process of scientific research.
“I didn’t even realize such a class was possible in a high school. I interviewed at other schools and they didn’t have anything like this, or the resources to support it,” she says. “With Introduction to Scientific Research, I have the freedom to teach whatever and however I want. I feel like I get to teach kids everything I wish I had learned before grad school.”
And so she does. Far from a traditional exam-based course, the class is open-ended, by her design, so students are forced to figure out a lot on their own. At the start of the semester, she assigns them a pool of proteins, whose functions are all unknown, and asks them to work together to identify what they do. “This is novel research,” she explains. “My students really learn that science is a process and you fail a lot. The ability to be a good scientist is the ability to bounce back from your failures. That’s something many of my kids are exposed to for the first time in this class. They have to trouble shoot and repeat the experiment, that’s not typically something you see in a high school.”By all appearances, her students are equally enthusiastic about their own freedom to investigate. Her first year at Pingry, when she had to defend her dissertation, one of her students drove all the way up to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire to watch. “Their genuine excitement for learning is so impressive and motivating,” she says. “From the beginning, I knew if I taught them cool and interesting things, they would be just as excited as about them as me.”
So, after college, he headed West, where he earned a master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona while serving as editor-in-chief of their literary review. He then worked for a year at Johnson & Johnson, where he served as Quality & Compliance Communications Specialist. In 2015, Pingry’s Office of Institutional Advancement was looking for a writer to help wordsmith its many communications, from donor impact stories to Campaign appeals. He landed the job, and delighted in working in an educational environment. Not a year later, when the Middle School was looking to fill a vacancy, the “front lines,” as Headmaster Nat Conard has called it, beckoned. In the fall of 2016, he had his own classroom, as a Grade 6 and Form I English teacher.
“When I transitioned from Advancement to teaching, it was an opportunity to go from writing about Pingry's best qualities—its emphasis on community, inquiry, and collaboration—to actually rolling up my sleeves and doing the work of engaging students,” he says. He was on the front lines indeed, and he was loving it.
Just one year in, Mr. Coakley has become Form I Team Leader, overseeing Form I programming and faculty. He is also a member of the Middle School Multicultural Team and teaches a section of Emotional Intelligence & Cultural Competency. What does he enjoy most about being a Pingry teacher?
“Pingry provides not only an education—any school can do that—but also a space for teaching students how to be stewards of that education,” he replies. “It’s not just, ‘Here are the tools to succeed in the world,’ but also, 'How are you going to brandish those tools to better your community?' As an English teacher, you get to push students to step outside themselves and imagine the lived experience of others. You get to remind them, and yourself, that before we are students and teachers, we are world citizens and human beings.”
Growing up with an older brother who often recruited her as his wrestling partner, Kaley learned a few things about the sport and wanted to give the team a try. Mr. Sullivan’s response? Join us! Being the only girl on the Middle School’s team didn't bother her a bit. “I kind of liked that I was different from everyone else,” she says. “In the end, I was part of a team, so, boy or girl, it didn't really matter; we were all in it together. And all the boys are my friends.”
Also a ballerina since the age of two (she recently had to give up dance due to a full schedule), Latin class with Mrs. Kelleher—the fun discussions and her crazy homework assignments—and science class are among her favorite academic subjects. For the cheerful, rising Upper Schooler, it’s hard to pinpoint what she loves most about Pingry.
“There are so many things,” she says. “It's diversity, the teachers, all the activities. I just love it here.”
A mechanical engineering student in China, she relocated to the U.S. for a banking job after college, and moved on to a position in computer programming. She then pursued a master’s in computer science from NYU, and joined a start-up, where she did project management work. Juggling family life and career demands, she decided to change her course. With both of her daughters enrolled at Pingry at the time, she became increasingly involved in campus life, substitute teaching for one of the Chinese teachers on a number of occasions. When Pingry was in search of a second full-time Chinese faculty member, they immediately turned to Mrs. Hao.
“I never imagined I would be a teacher, but I have no regret at all,” she recalled. “Pingry is a very uncomplicated environment in that all hurdles are stripped away; teachers can really focus on being productive.”
After five years teaching at Pingry, the eagerness and interest level of the students still impress her: “They ask questions that even I, as the native speaker, don’t know the answer to!”
Mrs. Hao has also become a cultural ambassador for the school, leading faculty and student trips to China, organizing Pingry’s annual Chinese New Year celebration, and rallying Pingry’s Asian community to share their perspective. She treasures this sort of human interaction and impact, which she doesn’t feel the computer science field would have afforded her to the same degree.
“Helping students to acquire language skills is the critical part of my job, but being able to influence them in other ways is so meaningful,” she says. “Helping them to understand another culture—how another human being experiences life differently—really helps them to learn about themselves.”
Fittingly, Ms. Sullivan is co-director of the Green Group and Outing Club, and she teaches Pingry’s first Environmental Art class, one of the only K-12 schools in the country to offer such a course. Her task? Attuning students to the wonders of nature, and the ways in which their campus—and all its 200 rural acres of natural materials—can serve as their palette. Last year, Pingry supported her participation in a summer residency in Italy on “best practices” for environmental artists. Not long after, she spearheaded the construction of Pingry’s first outdoor classroom, and worked with other members of the faculty and students to create a multi-purpose campsite in the woods, complete with 5 tent platforms, which can sleep up to 20 people, and a hiking trail, four-tenths of a mile long.
This summer, she will travel with a group of Pingry faculty to Santa Fe for the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) conference, exploring additional techniques for applying experiential teaching and and learning to the classroom. The conference will also advance her ability—and the school’s overall initiative—to incorporate STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) initiatives into the classroom. (She already teaches technology—digital filmmaking, Adobe Design programs, and 3D printing—in many of her arts classes.) This support of professional growth, and the school’s flexibility in allowing for cross-disciplinary collaboration and experimentation with curriculum, fuels her passion as a teacher, and as an artist.
“Pingry is a ‘yes’ school,” she notes. “If you have a good idea that you’re passionate about, you are given the tools you need to realize it.”
“I’ve been teaching for 40 years and I’ve never seen a Kindergartner tackle a 1,500-piece puzzle,” said Mrs. Previti. “They begged us to let them do puzzles instead of go out for Recess. They were like ants!” (As a point of comparison, she adds, 100- to 200-piece puzzles are more the norm for this age.) Every day after lunch, during activity time, the boys worked, calmly, cooperatively. First they sorted the pieces into containers by color, each student took a color, and they got to work assembling the borders. The brain-bending interior soon followed. At one point, without uttering a word, Colton and Max switched places so they could better access their parts of the puzzle. Pieces were readily exchanged, as needed. Arguments never broke out. When a comrade expressed interest in joining the group, he was quickly absorbed, and made a “puzzlemaster-in-training.”
A longtime puzzler herself, Mrs. Previti related easily to her students’ passion. When her grandson received a holographic puzzle as a gift and found it too challenging, she spent days staying up past midnight to finish it, and surprise him.Each year brings a new crop of Kindergartners with new interests and infatuations. Mrs. Previti won’t soon forget her Puzzlemasters. “It all started with a single puzzle, but it evolved into an enrichment class,” she mused. “It was just an activity, and then it became so much more.”
For this very reason, and because he feels that it represents the best of Pingry, he was inspired to apply to Pingry’s Honor Board his sophomore year. (Too timid to apply his freshman year, he earned the only open spot on the Board the following year.) “We communicate with the student body to build a community of trust; it’s a really interesting process. And the Board is a very diverse group. I like talking to people in different grades and being a part of those conversations. It’s a chance to work with students at the school I might not otherwise know.”
Academic pursuits aside (his English and French classes are among his favorites), he is unequivocal when asked to name his favorite spot on campus: the couches downstairs by the cafeteria. “It’s such a great spot to relax, kick back, and laugh with friends, and forget about school for a few minutes. Those are the moments to remember, the moments that build relationships even more than what happens in the classroom.”
He wanted to wrap up a project on conflict dialogue that he was working on for Dana Sherman’s writing class (banter with his older brother Daniel ’22 provided ideal fodder). Then there was an expository essay on character traits that he was ready to dive into, also for Mrs. Sherman’s class. When those assignments were complete, he could settle in to Jon Krakauer’s 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air, the gripping account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster. He had begun the 400-page book three days earlier, and only 150 pages remained.
Thomas, who began Pingry last year as a fourth-grade student, has always enjoyed reading and writing. But, he admits, if it weren’t for Mrs. Sherman’s writing class—a new offering in the Lower School, and part of the students’ comprehensive language arts curriculum—he probably wouldn’t write on his own.
It also helps that Pingry teachers collaborate, with intention. So, when Dr. Pearlman began reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH with Thomas’s class and discussing the concept of character traits, Mrs. Sherman segued into a related creative writing assignment, asking Thomas and his classmates to describe, in detail, a character of their own imagining.
“Every year, with every teacher, my writing improves,” he remarks. “Every teacher is different, and I learn so much.”
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!”