Today, we were filled with pride as our eighth graders took the stage to receive their diplomas – a joyous achievement not only for our graduating students but also for our entire community.
After such a challenging year, it was wonderful to have our graduates’ close family members and the teachers who have guided them throughout middle school be able to safely gather in person to honor the class of 2021. The full ceremony was livestreamed so that younger students, team members, and supporters could share in the celebration.
Throughout their entire journey, and particularly this year, each of our eighth graders has shown tremendous resilience, determination, and drive – always striving for excellence and demonstrating strength of character. Today, as our graduates prepare to matriculate at top secondary schools, we know these future leaders will continue to thrive and one day make their mark on the world.
Earlier this month, our eighth graders presented their experiments at Harlem Academy’s fourth annual science fair. While this year’s virtual event may have looked different, the quality of our students’ work met the same high standards.
“Generating science experiments in a virtual, socially-distanced format is difficult, and our eighth graders did an incredible job,” says middle school science teacher Dr. Eric James.
Students recorded digital presentations that were shown online and responded to questions submitted by our school community as part of their follow-up homework. Their topics ran the gamut from technology to wellbeing: Will using your phone in grayscale reduce screen time? Does following a structured morning routine increase productivity?
To find the answers to these and other questions, students applied the scientific method – a process they begin learning in first grade. Harlem Academy’s science program focuses on teaching students to understand and apply the scientific method with increasing independence. By the time they reach eighth grade, students form their own hypotheses and design experiments to test them.
Eighth grader Micaela, who tested the impact of grayscale on screen time, reflected on how much she gained from the process of designing and conducting her experiment independently. “Dr. James is there if we have questions, but he pushes us to take the lead. It was up to me to use what I’ve learned to figure things out on my own, and the scientific method was my guide,” she says. “That’s an important skill to have as I head to Riverdale this fall.”
Micaela came up with the idea for her experiment because of the pandemic. “Life has changed so much, and we’re on our phones constantly for entertainment and to connect with family and friends. Kids my age are used to seeing things in color, and I wanted to know if switching to grayscale would make us spend less time on our phones.” The answer? Yes.
Classmate Chaeli wanted to find out if practicing a morning routine would increase productivity throughout the day. “I was confident that it would, and it felt good to prove my hypothesis,” she says.
As Dr. James explains, “Science projects are an amazing opportunity for students to learn to think critically about science through hands-on inquiry. It also requires them to synthesize new information, develop and enhance their analytical, organizational, and time management skills, and gain better command of data.”
Chaeli agrees: “Conducting these science experiments and having the chance to present your work makes you a better student. We had real ownership of our projects. That gives you a sense of independence – a feeling of ‘I can do this!’”
Thank you to the Harry Winston Hope Foundation and Con Edison for sponsoring our middle school science program.
Each week, seventh grader Sofia, an avid reader, can’t wait for Thursdays to arrive. That’s when she gets to talk with her mentor Betsy Michel, a Harlem Academy trustee, about the book they’re both reading. The latest is “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah.
The two have formed their own book club of sorts, with Ms. Michel mailing Sofia copies of their upcoming picks. “One of the best things about mentoring is sharing our book recommendations, reading together, and talking about the books,” says Sofia. “I love to read, and it’s nice to know that another person loves it as much as I do.”
Harlem Academy’s mentoring program matches adult volunteers with students for conversation and fun activities. Pairs normally meet in person once a week throughout the school year, but the pandemic has forced the hour-long sessions to move online. Now students and mentors meet over Zoom.
Sofia is thrilled that the mentoring program has continued despite the pandemic and says it’s needed now more than ever. “We’re all kind of isolated due to COVID-19,” she says. “We can’t be around lots of people, so I think it’s good that the program continued virtually rather than stopping altogether. I know other students feel the same way. I wish I could see Betsy in person, but I’m glad I still get to spend time with her on Zoom.”
The connection Sofia and Ms. Michel share hasn’t changed with a switch to virtual mentoring – it’s only become stronger. “I’ve been Sofia’s mentor since she was in second grade,” says Ms. Michel. "She’s gotten to know my grandkids, and I’ve gotten to know her parents. I hope we’ll be friends forever. When I mentioned to Sofia that I’ll miss mentoring her after she graduates next year, she told me, ‘We’re not going to lose touch.’”
While Sofia and Ms. Michel have definitely bonded over books, it’s not the only reason their weekly mentoring sessions are so fulfilling. “We share our points of view on things happening in the news,” says Sofia. “Sometimes we talk about my future, about high school. Betsy is really easy to talk to. She treats me like a grown-up.”
One of their favorite in-person activities was chatting while playing chess, backgammon, or Scrabble. They still share their love of challenging games through the crosswords and mazes in The New York Times’s monthly kids’ section, which Ms. Michel also mails to Sofia. “I used to bring it with me when we met in person,” recalls Ms. Michel. “We’d do some of the puzzles together and talk about the articles. Sofia loves to do the crosswords first. Now, whenever she opens the mail, she knows that I’m thinking about her.”
For Sofia, getting mail is fun and exciting but what matters most, she says, is simply having a mentor like Ms. Michel. “She’s so encouraging,” says Sofia. “I’m kind of a quiet person, and talking to her helps me open up. It’s good to be friends with someone older. You learn a lot from them. I hope I get to be a mentor someday.”
Every year, after working closely with professional poets as part of Harlem Academy’s Visiting Poets Program, our sixth and eighth graders look forward to taking the stage and reciting their original pieces in front of a cheering audience. While they couldn’t step onto a physical stage this year because of the pandemic, they were still able to step up to the mic – virtually.
With insight beyond their years, our students rose to the challenge and delivered powerful original poems during a live virtual performance watched by more than 100 families and supporters. They tackled an array of issues from identity, mental health, and race to the small moments of everyday life.
“The strength, tenacity, and determination these students have shown has been nothing short of astounding,” says middle school English teacher Kia Turner. “During such a difficult time, they have not shied away from difficult topics. They have instead dug deep. Their poems are evidence that these young scholars, activists, and changemakers will make us think differently about the world.”
Adds poet Daniella Toosie-Watson: “I’ve been so moved by the students’ vulnerability, brilliance, and the care that they put into their pieces. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them and to share in their creative process.”
Ms. Toosie-Watson and fellow poet Jive Poetic spent four weeks working with our middle schoolers virtually as part of our Visiting Poets Program – a longstanding partnership between Harlem Academy and the Poetry Society of America. The program brings professional poets of color into our middle school classrooms to explore the craft of poetry and guide students through the writing and revision process, culminating in a live reading of original poems.
Here is a sampling of our students’ recent performance:
As first graders Carter and Nadia stepped in front of their classroom door, older students gathered around to hear what they had to say. "I love my peach skin, curly hair, and brown eyes," Carter said, pointing to a photo of himself on the door. "I love that I'm a tall girl with curly braids," Nadia said about her photo.
The two were presenting their class's door decorations as part of Harlem Academy's Black History Month Showcase. The door's theme? Unapologetically Black.
This all-school event enabled students to visit every classroom to see how each grade celebrated a Black Lives Matter principle through insightful presentations, artwork, and poems. It's one of the many ways Harlem Academy embraces and celebrates diversity in all parts of our program.
"From the books our students read to the lessons our educators teach, we bring a high level of intention, thought, and meaning to how we celebrate people of color," says Assistant Head of School LaShonda Davis. "We continue to forge those critical connections in our advisory program and community meetings not just during the month of February, but year round."
Adds Head of School Vinny Dotoli: "Our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness in the curriculum is not a complement to rigor and excellence – it is the foundation."
Reading and Representation
In the primary grades, students are exposed early and often to books by and about people of color, such as "Sulwe" by Lupita Nyong’o, "Hair Love" by Matthew A. Cherry, and "Alma and How She Got her Name" by Juana Martinez-Neal. "Read-aloud books like these are focused on self-love, appreciating our unique identities, and respecting our differences," explains Ms. Davis.
By fourth and fifth grade, students are reading books that grapple with weightier issues of race, class, privilege, intersectionality, and justice, including "Harbor Me" by Jacqueline Woodson, "Piecing Me Together" by Renée Watson, and "The Parker Inheritance" by Varian Johnson.
"Not only can students see themselves represented in these books and in even more advanced texts in middle school, but the topics covered are relevant and connected to their lived experiences," says Ms. Davis. "This leads to rich in-class discussions about colorism, how friendships begin to evolve and become more complicated, racism and how it affects where and how people live, and much more."
In-depth conversation and analysis is also driven by our middle school history curriculum, which now incorporates materials from the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine initiative that reexamines and reframes America's history.
"There is a huge, rich heritage among African Americans that began long before slavery, that began in Africa," says middle school history teacher Gwen Kingsberry. "Incorporating the 1619 Project encourages students to take a critical look at the African American experience throughout centuries, especially during Reconstruction, reframing history to include that experience because Black history is American history."
Giving Voice to Identity
Connecting with these topics in a meaningful way goes beyond the texts we read. Our students are challenged and encouraged to use what they learn to inform their own self-expression in their poetry and biographical writing.
Each year, during Harlem Academy's sixth and eighth grade poetry performances, audiences of family and friends are inspired by students' original pieces, which tackle topics as powerful as inequality and as poignant as a daughter’s love for her mother.
The performances not only showcase our students' writing after six weeks of working with visiting poets from the Poetry Society of America, they also give students agency to share their diverse experiences and perspectives. "I liked having the opportunity to express my ideas and insights in that way," says alumna Delali Lyons '18, a junior at Nightingale.
Similarly, eighth graders read the biography "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice" by Phillip Hoose. Then, modeling Hoose's impactful use of direct quotes to develop a narrative, students interview family members and craft powerful biographical essays.
"All of the final essays are deeply moving," says Head of School Vinny Dotoli. "I remember one in particular about the challenges a student's great-grandmother faced as a Panamanian immigrant in New York in the 1960s. As he so powerfully put it, 'My great-grandmother had expected a paradise, but that is not what she got.' This English unit pushes academic rigor and high-level skill development, and offers opportunities for genuine engagement and deeper understanding of students' real-life stories."
The City as a Resource
New York City offers our students a wealth of unique opportunities to celebrate and examine diversity and bring their explorations of these topics to life.
Last year, for example, middle school students dove deeper into Harlem Renaissance artists, writers, and poets that they study in class during a trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
While attending the National Book Awards Teen Press Conference at the 92nd Street Y, they had the chance to meet National Book Award finalist Randy Ribay, author of the Filipino-American coming-of-age story "The Patron Saints of Nothing."
On a visit to Hauser & Wirth gallery with Trustee Ann MacRae, students explored race and representation in an exhibit by artist Amy Sherald, whose portrait of Michelle Obama hangs in the Smithsonian. "I loved that Amy Sherald features African Americans in her artwork," says sixth grader Mariah. "To me, this means that African Americans are special."
Sharing Culture, Sharing Joy
Community Meetings are a 16-year tradition at Harlem Academy that bring together students, teachers, and families to reflect and engage in meaningful conversations each week, often around issues of culture and community.
At one meeting, several Latinx middle schoolers shared original poems inspired by their backgrounds and taught everyone in attendance how to dance merengue in a joyful celebration of their heritage.
During another meeting, three African American students talked about Black joy – the small, everyday ways happiness is woven into the fabric of the African American community – and led a discussion about what the phrase means to others. "Hearing how other people defined Black joy brought me joy," says alumnus Sen'ari Minnis '18, a sophomore at Peddie, who helped lead the meeting when he was in seventh grade.
Whether it's literature, community meetings, classroom lessons, field trips, or other components within our evolving program, the goal is the same: to incorporate a celebration of diversity.
"Harlem Academy's curriculum is built on the understanding that knowing people and their backgrounds and cultures is crucial to personal and community growth," explains Trustee Elizabeth McHenry, Ph.D., professor and chair of the English department at New York University.
"Not only do students become aware and respectful of other peoples' cultures, traditions, and practices," Dr. McHenry continues, "they also gain a sense of pride for the diversity of their own cultures. This, we believe, is key to preparing them to actively and thoughtfully engage in the world around them."
Amid the challenges of this year, it has been more important than ever to find ways to care for and support one another with compassion and love. Guided by April Frazier, Harlem Academy’s mindfulness specialist, we make time each day for meditation to decompress, release stress and anxiety, and refocus.
A brief meditation has become the norm for opening staff meetings, closing Community Meetings, and resetting focus in class. “My goal is to help our students and staff reconnect to their inner resources in order to navigate challenging times,” says April.
Click below to watch her lead two meditation practices – one for children, the other for adults – that offer a window into some of the strategies our students, families, and team are using to navigate this stressful moment and develop their resilience toolkit for the future.
Imaginative, colorful, and inspiring student projects that would normally line the walls of Harlem Academy continue to be reative and thoughtful as ever in our distance learning format. Whether crafting a traditional essay or building a campaign poster using graphic design software, our students are up to the task.
As schools in New York City grapple with reopening, and inequities in access to quality education deepen, Harlem Academy has taken the lead on both counts. Our mission to drive equity of opportunity is more critical than ever. Harlem Academy’s pandemic response is a fully virtual model, with most students learning from home and about 25 students accessing instruction on-site. We are taking every measure to ensure that our students continue to thrive at the highest academic levels.
Yesterday we celebrated our ninth commencement, and although we couldn’t be together physically, our virtual graduation was filled with boundless joy and pride for our students’ achievements.
The bond Harlem Academy eighth graders have built as a class was on display as they shared heartfelt introductions of one another, culminating in a presentation of diplomas to graduates by their families at home.
A highlight of the ceremony was theLower School Chorus' moving rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Congratulations, graduates! Today, more than ever, the world needs you. We can’t wait to see how you make your mark. Click on the image below to view our final slideshow and all the inspiring messages from students, families, teachers, and staff.
P.S. If you'd like to watch the whole graduation, you can view it here.
In cities and towns across this country, people are coming together to demand justice and accountability, even in the face of a pandemic. When each of us stands up and speaks out for Black lives, we demonstrate the love and care we have for one another and our resolve to never stop fighting for justice, equity, and basic humanity.
Perhaps no lines from Harlem Academy’s School Creed resonate more in this heartbreaking and critical moment than these two: “I care for my community” and “I don’t give up.” Click on the video below to hear a group of our students share the Creed’s powerful words.