An all-natural hair salon. A combination farmer’s market/restaurant. A pottery studio. None of these businesses exists in a certain section of Harlem – not yet anyway. They were just a few of the creative projects designed by our eighth-grade class and presented to a panel of professional architects at the renowned firm Rafael Viñoly Architects (RVA).
As part of their applied science class, Harlem Academy eighth graders spent the past six weeks working with RVA architects. Their goal was to develop a model of a business that would fill a need in the community. Over the course of the sessions, students explored architectural history, learned to make blueprints, and then set to work developing design concepts. After receiving feedback from the architects and making revisions, the students built 3-D models of their designs.
“This is when things got exciting,” said Jacob Douenias, team leader at RVA who led the workshops. “The students really started to think about the details of space, light, and circulation.”
The students worked within standard constraints faced by architects: the building must be no more than 1,000 square feet of floor space, a maximum height of 30 feet, and set back a minimum of 30 feet from the property line. “During my time working with the class, I saw tremendous skills development, especially in constructive geometry, spatial thinking, and conceiving and refining an idea,” noted Mr. Douenias. “Architecture is a great way to teach many skills.”
The time the eighth graders spent mulling over feedback and reassessing their designs illustrates the tenacity, active listening, and creativity expressed in our school creed. “The students really took advantage of the process,” said Meredith Philbin, lead middle school science teacher at Harlem Academy. “They sketched out and revised ideas that varied in function and aesthetics – just how professional architects complete the design process.”
The unit culminated with a visit to RVA, where students took turns presenting their designs and 3-D models to a “jury” of architects. One by one they fielded questions, listened to critiques, and defended their ideas.
“The jury process in architecture is a very important learning experience,” said Jay Bargmann, Harlem Academy trustee and Senior Vice President at RVA. “These students were very receptive to criticism and suggestions. I was impressed by their confidence and poise, and their verbal and visual communication skills.”
One of the most important things eighth grader Ti-Shauna Penny learned from her turn before the jury was the benefit of feedback. Although a bit nervous as she stood to make her presentation, Ti-Shauna embraced the experience. “You have to learn to accept feedback in order to make any project you’re working on better. I really listened to the constructive criticism because I knew it would help me grow.”
Her fellow classmate, Yealie Ulaba-Samura, felt the same way. “You can’t get defensive when someone gives you constructive criticism because in the long run it helps you. There’s always room for improvement in everything you do.”
Schools and media outlets, particularly during Black History Month, often focus on past struggles when talking about communities of color. At a recent community meeting, our seventh graders wanted to take a more inspiring approach and celebrate the joyful moments that uplift the African-American community. “Black Joy” – the theme of the meeting – was the brainchild of 12-year-old Madisyn Cunningham.
Harlem Academy’s weekly community meetings are inspired by the Quaker tradition and provide a time for students to gather, give thanks, and reflect. A thought-provoking message, typically delivered by a teacher, is an integral part of each meeting.
Showing the leadership, boldness, creativity, and care for community described in our school creed, Madisyn recognized our community meeting as a perfect opportunity to offer a new perspective on the stories we tell. “As a country, we often focus on the bad parts of black history, like slavery,” she said. “I wanted to show that there is also joy.”
She took her idea to English teacher Kia Turner. “She showed real initiative, and I wanted to encourage that,” said Ms. Turner. "Madisyn has always had strength of conviction. In approaching me she showed that she was willing to turn her conviction into reality.”
After getting the go-ahead, Madisyn asked her fellow classmates, Sen’ari Minnis and Nyah Williams, for help leading the meeting. They carefully planned their message, as well as how they would frame a reflective discussion with their fellow students.
The friends stood before their classmates and talked about the small, everyday ways happiness is woven into the fabric of the African-American community. They talked about ending every family barbeque with the electric slide and watching Lupita Nyong’o and Chadwick Boseman’s powerful and inspiring performances in Black Panther.
During the course of the meeting, the three also encouraged the rest of their class to reflect on what black joy means to them. One theme came up again and again – family. “A lot of the students talked about home-cooked meals and watching TV as a family,” said Nyah. “It’s the little things that matter most.”
As the meeting came to an end, Madisyn, Sen’ari and Nyah all felt that they had accomplished their goal. “I was happy to help spread awareness about something positive,” said Sen’ari. Madisyn couldn’t agree more, “After the meeting, I felt really good. It seemed like a lot of people were waiting for someone to talk about this.”
Imagine a group of gifted poets sitting on a stage. One by one, they walk to the microphone to recite poems about race, immigration, love of family—each poem more powerful, searing, heartbreaking, or poignant than the next. Now imagine these poets are just 11-, 12-, and 13-years old.
When our middle-schoolers joined professional poets for original readings earlier this month as part of Harlem Academy’s Visiting Poets Program, everyone in attendance knew they were witnessing something special. On February 15, sixth- and eighth-graders took the stage at Harlem School of the Arts with celebrated poets Ama Codjoe and Henry Mills. A week later, eighth-graders joined Pulitzer Prize-winner Tyehimba Jess at The National Black Theater. Our young poets impressed the crowd both nights.
“Together, our students and the master poets dug deep into the work of words,” said Harlem Academy English teacher Kia Turner. “These young scholars, activists, and changemakers will make the world listen to them.”
The Visiting Poets Program, a longstanding collaboration between Harlem Academy and the Poetry Society of America, connects our middle school students with professional poets who work alongside teachers for several weeks to explore the craft of poetry and guide students through the writing process.
The resulting collection of work not only showcased the diverse experiences and perspectives of our students, but also demonstrated their critical thinking, writing, and performance skills. “One of the super powers of these young poets is the range of their work,” said poet Ama Codjoe, a two-time Pushcart nominee who worked with the sixth-graders. “From political manifesto to lyrical contemplation, their writing is robust, vibrant, and fresh.”
As our students took center stage at both venues, eager to share the words they’d spent weeks polishing and revising, the audience experienced a palpable range of emotion – sadness, anger, hope, joy. Attendees were blinking back tears one minute, laughing out loud the next. As Ms. Turner put it, the performances included little moments that have big impact, like making tostones with your mom, the endless nights of studying that often go unnoticed, and what it feels like to walk down the street as a young, black male. Both evenings ended in standing ovations.
“I became emotional when I was writing my poem, but I knew I couldn’t stop,” said seventh-grader, Sofia, whose piece, I Need You Mama, was a moving ode to her mother, who was in the audience. “I had to put into words what she means to me, and something Mr. Jess said in class helped: “Every word is important.’”
Here is a snippet of Sofia’s moving poem:
I Need You Mama
You give me
Hope momma, me das esperanza xa
That one day
I would take us out of these brick walls
To glass halls
A person, Una persona
You expected me to be
I need your hope mama
I need you mama
To read more of our students’ work, click here.
One painting can evoke many interpretations. That was the lesson members of our visual arts elective learned on a recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum to view the One Basquiat exhibit.
“Our visual arts elective gives these budding young artists a chance to explore different mediums of art and channel their creativity,” said Mrs. Ashley Barnett, who leads the elective. “Art connects to our creed because it requires you to be bold and creative. We encourage our students to focus on self-expression, rather than on the end result.”
Students in the elective have visited the Brooklyn Museum twice recently. These trips provide inspiration and help to inform our middle-schoolers’ artistic choices, Mrs. Barnett added. “That’s especially true when they’re able to view the work of African-American artists born and raised in New York, like Basquiat.”
The One Basquiat exhibit pushed the students to examine every part of the canvas, delving beyond their first impressions. Initially, they were taken aback by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s landmark painting, Untitled. Some said it looked “scary,” while others saw rage.
However, upon observing the artwork more closely, they began to notice additional details that expanded their perceptions. “The white seems to be a symbol for hope, while the black is darkness,” said one student. “The x’s and o’s seem like a way to pass or count time,” observed another.
Although every student had a different take on what Basquiat’s piece meant, they all agreed on one thing: Basquiat’s artwork is open to interpretation. “The more I looked at the painting, the more new things I saw,” said Lia, an eighth-grader. “Basquiat showed me that art doesn’t have to be perfect. Imperfection can be beautiful.”
Eighth-grader Delali also liked Basquiat’s nonconformist approach. “The painting felt free, as if the artist was saying, ‘I’m not going to color inside the lines.’ That’s inspiring.”
After a few minutes sketching the painting, the students searched the museum for another “head” to sketch and then compared the two. It was perfect preparation for their next visual arts activity – creating Basquiat-inspired artwork that explores what is going on in their own heads.
Thank you to the Brooklyn Museum and to Tom Healy for helping to facilitate the trip.
Will plants grow if they are “watered” with coffee? Is the five-second rule true? Do snacks affect a
student’s memory? These were just a few of the questions answered at Harlem Academy’s very first
This week, our eighth-grade class presented their projects to proud parents and teachers. Harlem
Academy’s science program focuses on teaching children to think creatively and understand the
scientific method; our students’ projects showcased both. “We are putting an emphasis on independent science research,” says Meredith Philbin, middle school science teacher. “The fair is a celebration of that learning, as well as an opportunity to practice presentation skills.”
As guests walked from project to project, students described how they formed their hypotheses,
accounted for variables, and conducted their experiments. As they explained their results, they eagerly
fielded a variety of questions. Matthew, who tested how different drinks affect plant growth, smiled
when asked why coffee was second best after water. “My guess is that the other drinks all had sugar,
but I’d have to design another experiment to test that hypothesis!” Clearly, Matthew was ready to
respond to any question.
And in case you were wondering about the other questions, the five-second rule is more false than true and carrots appear to be a great snack for improving an eighth-grader’s memory.
Thank you to the Harry Winston Hope Foundation and Con Edison for sponsoring our middle school science program.
Every spring, Harlem Academy middle school students look forward to traveling upstate to spend a few days at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the nation’s oldest technological research university. Having a chance to conduct experiments, present their findings, work with professors, and stay in the dorms, is a big part of the lure. The other is Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of RPI.
As a trailblazer in the field of science and a longtime supporter of Harlem Academy, Dr. Jackson is a role model for our students. Not only does she host our middle-schoolers at RPI year after year, she also spends time with them at Harlem Academy, sharing inspiring details of her journey as the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT.
Harlem Academy’s partnership with Dr. Jackson and RPI gives fifth- through eighth-graders the opportunity to explore science in new ways and work one-on- one with some of the best scientific minds in the country. We’re proud that our partnership was recently recognized in MIT Technology Review :
For the past 15 years, Jackson has worked closely with an independent school in New York City
called Harlem Academy, which provides a rigorous education to low-income students from first
to eighth grade. Each year, the academy’s older students spend three days at RPI, exploring
science and university life.
The school’s leader, Vinny Dotoli, says that Jackson is not only an inspiration to his students but
also a dedicated mentor to him. “She always talks to me about pushing myself more and going
out on a limb more,” he says, “but she’ll do it in a way that feels encouraging, where I walk away
feeling excited to dive back into the work.”
We’d like to thank MIT for spotlighting Harlem Academy in the article and Dr. Jackson for her continued
support. We look forward to the next 15 years of collaboration and to generations of budding scientists
following in Dr. Jackson’s distinguished footsteps.
Seventh grader Delali is not your typical theater kid. In class and with friends, she is soft-spoken and shy. At the recent Shakespeare Smackdown, however, she commanded the audience, delivering her lines in a clear, emphatic voice and making the crowd laugh as she threw herself across the stage with two classmates.
This citywide competition with the Classic Stage Company underscores the transformation Harlem Academy students undergo.
“I get stage fright sometimes,” Delali says, “but I like pushing myself out of my comfort zone.”
Like all Harlem Academy middle schoolers, she has been studying a different Shakespeare play each year since sixth grade. Intimidated at first by the language, she watched older students embracing it – not just in the classroom, but in performances and at the annual competition that Harlem Academy students keep winning.
“Shakespeare is by far the most difficult text that they face at Harlem Academy,” explains Middle School English Teacher Whitney Wood, “and probably the most difficult literature they will face in high school and college. We read each line aloud as though it were a performance. The students act out key scenes – making choices for their characters, understanding their motivations. The close reading improves their comprehension, which strengthens their confidence in working with such difficult text.”
Delali agrees. “I think that Shakespeare has helped me find a deeper understanding of literature,” she says. “It’s difficult to read the language at first, but it all comes together when you act it out. You understand the characters and the story. It’s just fun.”
For the fifth consecutive year, Harlem Academy students received top honors at the competition, taking first and second place – higher than 19 other teams, most from high schools.
“The Harlem Academy student scenes were some of the strongest I have seen in my years overseeing the competition,” said Marcel Spears of the Classic Stage Company.
Shakespeare and the ShakeSmack competition have become so popular at Harlem Academy that it is now offered as an elective, giving students a chance to add an additional Shakespeare play to their curriculum. They learn their scenes for the competition, and then leverage these to produce a full play at the end of the school year.
“I coach them on basics of acting,” explains Ms. Wood, “but they are the ones who figure out their characters, their relationships, their blocking, and their physical reactions to one another. All of the creativity comes from them. The most joyful moment for me is hearing the audience genuinely responding to this. The students embody Harlem Academy’s creed, ‘I am bold and creative.’”
Eighth grader Herby pinned his blueprints to the wall of the conference room at Rafael Viñoly Architects and picked up his model. His classmates sat watching him as he presented the details of his design.
A jury of professional architects from the firm listened, and then peppered him with questions. “What community need is it filling? How will the design complement the existing buildings in the neighborhood? What flexibility does it have to adapt in the future?”
Herby responded to each question, unflustered by the rigorous critique. His answers demonstrated the depth of thinking that had gone into the project.
One by one, each student in the class traded places with him and took their turn with the jury. Designs were presented, models were passed around, ideas were challenged and defended.
Each student had designed a building for a vacant lot near the Harlem Academy campus to benefit the community. As part of the school’s applied sciences program, eighth-grade students participate in a four-week unit led by the world-renowned firm. “It’s very intense,” says science teacher Meredith Philbin. “It’s a college-level course.”
The students developed ideas, drew blueprints, and built scale models. This year’s designs included a bookstore, a yoga studio, restaurants, a laser tag facility, and a black box theater.
The unit culminates with the visit to RVA, where students present their designs to a panel of professionals. “They get critiqued like they’re real architects, presenting real design proposals,” says Ms. Philbin. “Some of the feedback was negative, but the students weren’t intimidated. It was constructive criticism, and they could see how it improved their ideas.”
“The student work was truly amazing,” says Jay Bargmann, managing partner of the firm. “I have seen first-year architecture students whose work was not as good as this. They should be congratulated for their ability to conceptualize and to communicate.”
“The students have a great work ethic,” says Elizabeth Geldres, project manager at RVA who led the workshops at the school. “They work on their individual designs, but they also work as a team. Students who were particularly good at the model-making also made time to help their peers. They all provided constructive feedback to each other to help make their projects better.”
Bargmann added, “I hope this experience has sparked an interest for some of them. The world could use a few more good architects.”