Led by three senior captains this year, Big Blue is ready to hit the ice and improve upon their record.
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!"
Dr. Mecartty, who spent her childhood in both Trinidad and Venezuela, came to the United States in 1984 to pursue a master's and doctorate degree. She has lived in the U.S., her adopted country, she says, for as long as she lived in her native country Venezuela. Prior to coming to Pingry, she was an Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics and Spanish Teacher Education at The College of New Jersey for five years; college politics left her wanting. What's more, while she didn't mind the onus to publish, it wasn't her passion. "I love to teach, and I love to teach teachers how to impart knowledge to students," she says. Considering a transition to high school education, she came to Pingry to teach a demo class of Spanish 3. Impressed to find energized, attentive, and interactive students, she never looked back.
"I have a lot of flexibility in course design, and I'm able to apply my training in second language acquisition to the courses I teach here. My colleagues and I are very much open to injecting new ideas into the curriculum," she says. "And Pingry has allowed me to do professional training workshops with other faculty on various aspects of teaching, learning, and diversity and inclusion. My ongoing goals are to be an impactful, engaging, teacher and a lifelong learner. Professional development at Pingry allows me to grow in these areas. It's a tremendous blessing."
A turning point in Leo's love of math came in the Lower School, when Math Specialist Verna Lange encouraged him to join the school's Math Team. "That's when I really saw more of math, more than just what's taught in classrooms," he recalls. "The problems really interested me. They were problems I never saw before, and it really showed me different ways of solving them."
A Pingry lifer, he helped co-found, with three friends, the Middle School Math Center, a place where he can tutor peers in the subject he's so passionate about. "I remember teaching a student how to expand x plus y squared. They were making the same mistake I used to make, so I told them to use the FOIL method—first, outer, inner, and last. I learned that trick in sixth-grade algebra. It felt good to be able to share it."
Leo plans to continue playing tennis and basketball for Big Blue when he transitions to the Upper School, and looks forward to competing in the Upper School Math League (he has competed with them three times already, as an eighth-grade student). "I think Pingry offers a lot of opportunity to do different things," he says. "I doubt that a lot of other lower and middle schools would have a Math Team. If I didn't join that team, I don't know where I would be."
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."
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."
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.”
“I’ve been teaching for over 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.”
It’s a strategy he spent several years perfecting, even before he arrived at Pingry. Mr. Poprik’s first career was on Wall Street, as an early trader of credit derivatives. Their arrival on the financial markets scene coincided with Mr. Poprik’s. As a recent business school graduate, he was called upon to explain them—to graduate students at NYU, Columbia, and Wharton (his own alma mater) as well as to new hires in the firm he worked at. “I liked being able to break down a complex subject to the level of the people I was speaking to, so that they wanted to learn about it and could understand and relate to it. That’s what you do when you’re a teacher.”
Naturally, it wasn’t long before Mr. Poprik found his way into the classroom. By emphasizing applicability and logic over straight mathematical theory, he prefers to start with the problem, only then layering in the math and leading his students to the answer. So, it’s not surprising that many of them find connections to math in their other courses. Take, for example, the boy who passionately explained to Mr. Poprik a conceptual framework he designed to apply calculus to history, and analyze troop movement during wartime.
“I feel unbelievably fortunate for the kids we teach at Pingry. They have such an innate intellectual curiosity that is so refreshing to be able to engage with on a daily basis. You never know what kinds of questions they will ask or observations they will make,” he remarks. “It can make your day because the next thing you know, you want to know the answer!”
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 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.”
Make no mistake, Ms. Mahida, who also teaches Grade 9 English, still cherishes her time in the classroom. During her first year with freshmen, she recalls feeling thrilled by how much they grew between September and June. “When I read their final exams I got emotional thinking of who they had become at the end of year,” she recalls. “Holy cow! In two hours you just wrote an essay on Othello that we only took three weeks to cover. I was so proud of them.”
English is a second language for Ms. Mahida’s Korean mother, and, having grown up in rural Oklahoma, her father didn’t finish college. During a childhood spent in South Carolina, she witnessed them struggle to fully express themselves. Now, she harnesses the memory so that her own “kids” won’t have to struggle with self-expression. “I really love being an English teacher because being able to write and express yourself gives you freedom that you wouldn’t otherwise have,” she says. “I want my students to feel free. Effective self-expression is a tool they can use to advance whatever cause they choose to be a part of."
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!”
A two-time all-state selection and Central Jersey Player of the Year in high school, Mr. Murdock would go on to a successful collegiate career at Providence College, including an appearance in the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, followed by six years of professional play overseas. When he broke his foot on Yao Ming’s size 22 shoe during a game in China, which required three surgeries over the course of a year to correct, he was forced to rethink his future.
“It was the end of my professional career, but it was an opportunity to pursue a different career in education,” he remembers.
Now a Middle School history teacher, Admission Counselor, and Head Coach of the Boys’ Varsity Basketball Team, Mr. Murdock has been making an impact on Pingry students, in various capacities, for a decade.
“I’ve always viewed education and coaching in terms of developing young students or athletes, providing them with a set of life skills that will take them beyond the walls of Pingry—how to be part of a team, how to work hard through adversity and demonstrate resilience, how to be proud of accomplishments and appreciate those moments. It’s gratifying to see young people develop into their full potential,” he says.
Indeed, he shares the story of a prospective Middle School student he met with in the Admission Office many years ago, who, along with his family, voiced concern that Pingry would be too difficult for him. Sitting with the student, allowing him to share his strengths and weaknesses and discover that he had more to give than he thought, is what Mr. Murdock cherishes most in his work.“Six years later, seeing that same student walk across the stage at graduation, knowing that he had challenged himself and grown every day, that was special.”
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 then-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.
What does he enjoy most about being a Pingry teacher and dean?
“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.”
Fittingly, Ms. Sullivan is co-director of the Green Group and Outing Club, and she teaches Pingry’s 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 nearly 200-acre campus can serve as their palette. A few years ago, 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 five tent platforms, which can sleep up to 20 people, and a hiking trail, four-tenths of a mile long.
More recently, she traveled 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 learning to the classroom. The conference advanced her ability 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.”
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.
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.
It’s that same collaborative, interdisciplinary focus that allows her to engage her Kindergarten class in STEAM projects (STEAM projects are routine in later grades, but she wants to see them trickle down to her youngsters as well). As an example, 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 Mrs. Udeshi. “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.”
During an “open house classroom” for prospective families recently, a parent asked, "Would you still teach if you won the lottery?" Without hesitation, she answered yes.
*Mrs. Udeshi is currently on paid family leave.