Is it possible to simulate for students the eye-opening, transformative experience of international travel in a virtual format? Over Winter Break, Director of Global Education and Engagement Julia Dunbar and History Department Chair Dr. Megan Jones gave it a try.
Indeed, reading is a passion of Sophie's, and one she feels empowered to explore at the Lower School. "I love fantasy and mystery and novels and realistic fiction—really, any books, just not biographies," she explains, matter-of-factly. By extension, she also loves to write, and recalls a 24-page work of realistic fiction that she penned last year in Mrs. Sherman's writing class, of which she is particularly proud. "I just loved her class. I wrote this story about a girl, Natalie, who has a twin sister and moves to a new school. Her experience was awful, nothing like mine at Pingry. To build suspense, I had to break her leg, she got bullied, her sister was rude to her. But in the end, she survived," she says, smiling at the memory of the plot line she designed.
Sophie also loves to act, and was thrilled to perform in the school's staging of Seussical, Jr. last spring, in which she played a Wickersham brother ("a monkey that makes trouble," she explains). This year, as a fifth grader—her last on the Short Hills Campus—she can't wait to perform in A Year with Frog and Toad. And she is excited to dig in to the reading and writing projects in Dr. Pearlman's Language Arts class. What does she enjoy most about being a Pingry student? "I really like the community, how everyone helps each other out, and all the challenges," she says. "I also really like the new gym—it has a rock wall and cargo net!"
"I love tech and I knew I wanted it to be a part of my Yale experience. But, having done photography and filmmaking at Pingry, I also love the visual arts. I really felt like I'd be missing a liberal arts experience if I didn't get my hands on some of that, too," he explains.
In addition to his immersion in visual arts through his major, TanTan just finished his third and final year with the Yale Spizzwinks(?), the world’s oldest underclassman a cappella group, entirely student-run and self-funded. He recalls feeling somewhat star-struck when, during his sophomore year at Pingry, he watched Spizzwink Ryan Campbell '12 return to campus to perform for students (getting to perform on all six inhabited continents as well as in your own hometown/school during your tenure is one of the group's heralded traditions). "I didn't know a cappella was a thing in college until then," he says. "I didn't realize you could see the world and sing professionally in college!"
Then, he was accepted to Yale and "rushed" the university's a cappella scene, trying out for a whopping eight different groups. After a two-week long audition process, he earned a spot with the vaulted Spizzwinks(?). His freshman year, he redesigned their website; the following two years he served as a "rush manager" as well as the group's associate business manager. In the last three years, among many memorable road trips with the group, he has performed for John Kerry's final Statement Department lunch, bungee jumped in New Zealand, and introduced his fellow singers to the city where he spent many summers as a child, Beijing. It was the first time his grandparents heard him sing.
"A lot of what I did at Pingry really shaped what I did at Yale," he says. "You have a camp of people who go into college trying to reinvent themselves. For me, I didn't feel like I was doing anything different. The path I took at Pingry really helped to pave the way for me in college."
"I knew Ami [Gianchandani '18], Christine [Shao '19], and Ashley Lu '20 through summer tournaments and I'd heard so much about them—they were so good!" she remembers. "I was really intimidated at first, but it was great to play with better players. It was huge for the mental aspect of my game; they taught me so much. Before high school, I thought golf was just a hobby. When I joined the team in the Upper School, I knew it was a sport I wanted to play in college."
Speaking of which, Ami, who two years earlier was helping Zara with her chips and sand shot, is now helping her navigate the college admission process. "She taught me how to talk to college coaches, how often, and when. She even shared with me her inquiry emails to coaches from five years ago!" says Zara.
Most vivid among Zara's memories as a Pingry student athlete to date is when the team took gold at the 2018 Tournament of Champions, a sublime end to an undefeated season. Everyone played their best, she recalls, rattling off their scores: 70-70-79-80. "I remember Ami had said that if Ashley and I break 80 and Christine goes under par, she would jump in the course lake and yodle," Zara laughs. "She didn't end up doing it, but I remember that. We joked about her promise for two weeks leading up states! It's one thing to be a great player, like Ami, but it's another to inspire other people to become better."
Which is why, when he was hoping to redevelop the fourth-grade language arts curriculum to explore a more diverse canon, he was met with complete support by Lower School faculty and administrators alike. Among the many books students delve into now, two works of long-form poetry about a Sudanese girl who is struggling to gain literacy; and another, complementing it, about a young boy—an immigrant from Darfur—and his acclimation to life in Minnesota.
"Curriculum should be a living organism, it shouldn't be set," he says. "It needs to live and change as the time changes, and as kids need exposure to different things. It's great that we're having these conversations at Pingry and that we're given the flexibility to make these changes."
Make no mistake, with a background in theater—outside of school, he still works in community theater—Mr. Kellner is not all serious. He enjoys "doing the voices" when he reads to his classes, assuming the characters and bringing them to life. In particular, his students were hysterical over his rendition of The Secrets of Ms. Snickle's Class, in which her classroom transforms into her home, and her desk into a cat. "I think of every day as a performance," he says. "My students are my captive audience."
But when the inevitable conversations about "college stuff" do happen, she relies on Mr. Lear's feedback. "Being from Belgium, my family doesn't know a lot of colleges here. I've already learned about so many schools from him that I hadn't even considered. He has opened a lot of doors I didn't know about."
Last fall, he also suggested an ACT score to aim for. When she nailed it the following spring, she immediately wanted to share the exciting news with him. "I didn't get to see him during the day because I was so busy, so I emailed him. He wrote me right back and was so happy for me. It made me feel so nice. In some weird way, just the moral support of all the counselors makes you feel a lot better."
"I see them a lot at meets. . . We have our own group chat and are always comparing workouts, asking who’s running where on any given weekend, that sort of thing. They have been super helpful in telling me to trust myself and trust the workouts my coach gives me," he says.
At an indoor meet his freshman year, when Ben ran a 1:55 PR for the 800, Jamie Barker ’16, who happened to be there as a Haverford College runner, walked over to congratulate him. "I just love keeping in touch with the guys and seeing what they’re doing, rooting for them when we’re at the same meet," he adds.
Pingry's record-holder in the 600-meter run (1:24.57), the third-fastest male finisher in the 800 (1:54.70), and among its fastest milers, Ben is one of the school's best middle distance runners ever, according to Head Coach of the Boys' Varsity Cross Country Team, Matt Horesta. Qualifying for the Division III National Championships in cross country and track are goals of his at Connecticut College—and he's tapping into Pingry friendships and training history to get there.
Our trip leaders, Deirdre O’Mara P '17, '19, '21 and Graham Touhey, developed and planned an outstanding curriculum. The snorkeling excursions—four full days in the water at different sites—were expertly planned out to allow for a slow progression of skill level. By the end of our program, I found myself being challenged more and more and accomplishing swims I never thought I would, such as a night snorkel and snorkeling with sharks. Every step of the way our leaders provided support and encouragement and, at one point, literally held my hand in the water until I felt confident enough to go on my own.
The amount of information and learning that happened on this program was incredible. Director Dr. Ken Mattes and Maureen Gannon, our hosts at TREC, provided a plethora of information during each outing, teaching me so much about all the different species of plants and animals in the Belizean Barrier Reef. I truly enjoyed being immersed in Belizean culture, eating authentic Belizean food, and exploring the beautiful island of San Pedro.
Throughout my time there I kept a journal, writing down notes and using my mini watercolor kit to capture special moments. I look forward to sharing my journal with my students and encouraging them to use their own art journals in and out of the classroom.
He remembers, in particular, a lesson in Grade 4 on first-point perspective. "You draw a horizon line and a dot in the center and make everything connect to that dot," he explains. In colored pencil and marker, he drew mountains, buildings, and a sunset awash in reds, yellows, and oranges. When Mr. Christian observed that the perspective of two of his buildings was off, he studiously reformed his lines. Problem solved.
Nathan has also enjoyed learning how to make pottery. In Grade 3, as part of an interdisciplinary unit on state culture and history, he used clay to create Michigan's state flower, the apple blossom. His summer art assignment, as a rising fifth grader: inspired by the book, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, he sketched some of his favorite Michelangelo statues.
"I like learning new things, like a new technique for how to draw or paint. I also like that Mrs. Baydin and Mr. Christian give you the basic instructions of what to do, and then you can make it however you want, however you envision it."