Embracing Our Diversity

Date Posted:  Tuesday, February 16, 2021
First graders Carter and Nadia proudly present their class's Black History Month door decorations

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."

At the 2019 National Book Awards Teen Press Conference, students had the chance to speak with author Randy Ribay, whose novel they'd read in class.

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."

Sixth grader Sophie wrote a letter of appreciation to artist Amy Sherald after a class trip to see her exhibition.

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."

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Tags:  lower school middle school trips DEI

Lessons of a Leader

Date Posted:  Tuesday, October 16, 2018 Byline:  Malik Middleton ’18

Every spring, Harlem Academy’s eighth grade class visits Washington, D.C. to meet with some of our nation’s leaders. The four-day trip gives our students a tangible way to reflect on our country’s past and present – and to consider their role in its future. Here, one eighth grader shares his inspiring experience meeting Congressman John Lewis.

Even before my classmates and I arrived at Congressman John Lewis’ office, I knew it would be an experience I’d never forget. However, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the moment until he came out to greet us.

This is a man who embodies the civil rights movement. He has looked racism in the eye and has never averted his gaze. He has walked unflinchingly toward hate and terror to make life better for others. I shook his hand and instantly realized how fortunate I was to have this opportunity.

He led us into his office and the first thing I noticed was a poster of Nelson Mandela hanging on the wall. I remember thinking, “This is Black Excellence.” That feeling was amplified when Congressman Lewis brought us into an interior room so that we could all have a more intimate conversation. The room was filled with memories. There were pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil rights heroes, and meaningful items he’d collected throughout his life. I was overwhelmed by the realization that I was in the presence of an historical icon. I felt honored that he would take the time to talk to us.

“Are those your chickens?” I blurted out. Here I was, in the presence of a civil rights leader who changed the world and continues to do so today. And I asked him about chickens. The room went silent, waiting to see how Mr. Lewis would respond. He looked at me, and then turned to look at the painting of chickens behind him. “Yes, those are my chickens,” he said.

A few weeks before coming to Washington, D.C. I had read the first book in his series March, a retelling of his life story as a graphic novel. In it, he talks about how as a child growing up on a farm in segregated Alabama, he would care for and preach to the chickens. As he answered my question, he talked about those early childhood experiences, some of which I recognized from his book. The entire time he spoke he looked me in the eyes, and I felt a powerful connection that I can’t really explain. It felt like he was looking into my soul.

The rest of the conversation went by so quickly, and I was hooked on every word Mr. Lewis said. He spoke about the hardships he’s faced throughout his life and his experiences marching in Selma and fighting for social justice. Then he told us something that will stay with me forever: “You are the future and you have to be courageous enough to stand up for what you believe in. You have to lead.”

Before I knew it, it was time to go. Mr. Lewis shook our hands and gave each of us a hug. Shaking his hand was incredible in itself. But the hug made me happier than I can even describe. I had just hugged a living legend.

He also took the time to sign his business card for me and each of my classmates. That business card sits on my dresser. Every morning, I look at his autograph as a reminder of what was sacrificed to give me the opportunities that I have today and how I should make the most of them. I also keep it as a reminder of who I can become – a leader who can change the world, too.

Malik Middleton, pictured at far right, wrote this essay during his eighth grade year at Harlem Academy. He is now attending Trinity School.

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Tags:  leadership middle school trips

Out of the City, Into the Wilderness

Date Posted:  Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Whether rappelling down a dam, making their way through a ropes course high above the ground, or navigating a hike in the woods, Harlem Academy middle school students were up for every challenge during their three-day, overnight trip to the Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC) in New Jersey earlier this month.

Each October, our students travel with teachers and parent chaperones to PBC for team-building exercises, physical challenges, and outdoor educational activities in acres of wilderness. “The trip is a great opportunity to see the school pillars of initiative, integrity, compassion, and determination in action,” says Assistant Head of School LaShonda Davis.

Students are gaining exposure to a new, challenging environment. Because they participate for three years in a row, by eighth grade they feel at home at PBC. “The experience builds confidence and fosters a growth mindset in our students, which they’ll carry with them as they navigate other new environments at secondary school,” Ms. Davis explains.

 Seventh graders navigating a team challenge; don't touch the spider web!

During the course of their stay at PBC, students participate in adventure-based learning – fun yet challenging activities that enable them to work together as a team, lead and motivate others, push beyond their comfort zones, bond with classmates, and cheer each other on. “Despite being afraid or unsure, each student showed great determination as they rock climbed, completed obstacle courses, zip-lined, and walked through the woods with only the stars lighting their path,” says Ms. Davis.   

Eighth grader Jah’si Eyre was tentative about the high ropes course, but he went for it anyway. “Heights make me nervous, so climbing up was scary. After I completed the course I felt proud. I thought, ‘Yeah! I did that!’”

“Some students never thought they could climb so high or work so hard to reach their targets,” says Ms. Davis, who relished the look of pride and amazement on students’ faces as they accomplished goal after goal.

Many of the activities required cooperation and communication for success, and our students worked together to make it happen. “At one point, we had to walk across a line of blocks while also holding a block and not dropping it,” recalls eighth grader Lisa Lushtak. “At first it seemed easy, but as soon as we started we realized that it required more attention to detail than we thought. People went too fast or accidently dropped the block. We had to think and work as a team in order to finish.”

Every one of our sixth through eighth grade students challenged themselves on the adventure course.

Jah’si agrees as he thinks back on other activities that also required teamwork: “Most of the time, working as a team is great because you can lean on others. But it can also be difficult because everybody has different ideas. Listening to each other and making sure everyone is heard is how we became a successful team.”

Just as important as team building and confidence boosting, the PBC trips give kids a chance to get out of the city, stay overnight in rustic cabins, and simply have fun in the wilderness. "I really enjoyed PBC because it was a time for us to let loose and bond," says Lisa. “I got to stargaze at night, and I saw so many more stars in the sky compared to when I’m home in the city. It was beautiful.”


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Tags:  middle school trips

Understanding the Past, Giving Voice To the Future

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  Thursday, March 29, 2018

“I hugged a legend!” exclaimed eighth grader Malik Middleton. He was talking about Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who met with our eighth-grade class earlier this month during their trip to Washington, D.C. “It was so humbling to meet someone who actually did what we read about in history books and still contributes to the world we live in now,” said Malik. The excitement on his face and enthusiasm in his voice as he recalled the visit illustrates the impact of Harlem Academy’s eighth-grade trip to our nation’s capital.

Speaking with John Lewis about his life-long fight for justice and civil rights.

The four-day sojourn is not just about meeting with members of Congress (though students also met with Congressman Adriano Espaillat and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand). The trip is designed to introduce students to young staffers, particularly staffers of color, who are the engine behind much of the work that gets done on Capitol Hill.

These meetings led some of our students to envision a place for themselves on the Hill – and to see the pathway to get there. “After talking to the staffers, I imagined what it would be like if I worked in government,” said eighth grader Matthew Centeno. “This is where our nation’s laws are made and big issues are tackled. I’d be able to impact people’s lives in a positive way.”

Students pose after meeting with young staffers from the offices of Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal.

Delali Lyons, also in eighth grade, agreed. “It was interesting to hear what the staffers do every day, such as answering calls from constituents and passing along people’s concerns to the senators,” she said. “They talked to us about diversity in government and the problems facing America right now. And because they were young – mainly in their 20s – we could really relate.” 

Whether or not Malik, Matthew, Delali, or our other eighth graders end up pursuing a career in government, one thing is clear: These students know that they have the power to affect real change in the world.

Lead history teacher Sean Robertson echoes that sentiment. “The trip gives our young leaders a tangible way to reflect on our nation’s past and present – and to consider their role in its future,” he said. “This is not simply a field trip. It is a chance for a life experience for our students – a significant moment for personal growth – because of the emphasis on leadership and civil rights.”

To see photos of our eighth graders’ trip to Washington, D.C., click here.

Tags:  trips history U.S. history

Experiencing Basquiat

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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.

Untitled by Jean-Michel Basquiat

“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.

Students with their Basquiat-inspired artwork.

Thank you to the Brooklyn Museum and to Tom Healy for helping to facilitate the trip.

Tags:  trips

Bonding through Outdoor Adventures at Princeton-Blairstown Center

Date Posted:  Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Each October, Harlem Academy middle school students head to Princeton-Blairstown Center for a 3-day overnight trip filled with team-building exercises, physical challenges, and outdoor educational activities. It’s a chance for students to get out of the city they know so well and into the wilderness. For many students, it’s their first time doing something like this. But by eighth grade, they take pride in growing familiar with all that nature has in store. Through the experience, they strengthen bonds with classmates, build valuable leadership and teamwork skills, and explore new corners of their world.


zSixth graders kicked things off by working together to build a group marble run.
Sixth graders kicked things off by working together to build a group marble run.
Eighth graders were challenged to make it through the rope “spider web” without touching the ropes.
Eighth graders were challenged to make it through the rope “spider web” without touching the ropes.
Seventh graders found a shady spot to debrief after a morning activity.
Seventh graders found a shady spot to debrief after a morning activity.
Eighth graders prepared for another ropes course exercise.
Eighth graders prepared for another ropes course exercise.
Gathering around a campfire was a great end to the fifth graders’ first day at PBC.
Gathering around a campfire was a great end to the fifth graders’ first day at PBC.
On the tire swing section of the ropes course, students had to make it from one tire swing to the next without touching the ground. Eighth grader Miles took a shot at it here with spotters looking on.
On the tire swing section of the ropes course, students had to make it from one tire swing to the next without touching the ground. Eighth grader Miles took a shot at it here with spotters looking on.
Seventh graders worked on their wilderness orientation skills, using compasses on this hike.
Seventh graders worked on their wilderness orientation skills, using compasses on this hike
In this activity, sixth graders tried to stay connected while balancing on increasingly distant cords. The students below their arms acted as spotters.
In this activity, sixth graders tried to stay connected while balancing on increasingly distant cords. The students below their arms acted as spotters
The seventh grade class got their helmets on in preparation for rappelling down a tall dam.
The seventh grade class got their helmets on in preparation for rappelling down a tall dam.
Seventh grader Malik has a go at rappelling down the dam as a couple of friends look on.
Seventh grader Malik has a go at rappelling down the dam as a couple of friends look on
Students spent some time among the trees on the high ropes course.
Students spent some time among the trees on the high ropes course.
Tags:  middle school trips

A World Class Scientist and Role Model

Date Posted:  Monday, April 7, 2014
Harlem Academy fourth graders perform an experiment about surface tension on a penny for Dr. Jackson.
Harlem Academy fourth graders perform an experiment about surface tension on a penny for Dr. Jackson.

Time magazine dubbed Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson as, “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science.” She is the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT.

For Harlem Academy, Dr. Jackson has been a long-time supporter and a partner in the growth of our science program.

“Harlem Academy does a phenomenal job of helping these young people to grow, to realize their potential, and put them on a pathway that can lead to success,” she says.

Each spring, Dr. Jackson hosts our middle school students for three days on the Rensselaer campus. Students work with professors, perform experiments, present findings, and stay in dorms. The experience complements the Harlem Academy science curriculum, while providing students with a window into life at a top research university.

This past November, Dr. Jackson visited Harlem Academy, leading science experiments with our fourth graders and holding an intimate question and answer session with our eighth graders. Dr. Jackson explored a variety of topics with our older students, including her own role models, time management strategies, proudest accomplishments, and regrets.

“I really enjoyed having Dr. Jackson speak with our class,” said eighth grader Anais. “What she said motivated me to try my best at everything I do, because I could do something really meaningful if I keep trying.”

Eighth grader Zahir added, “The thing that pops into my head every time I think about Dr. Jackson is that she stayed at MIT to open the doors up for others. Dr. Jackson taught me to make opportunities for others and show compassion by helping.”

Special thanks to the Harry Winston Hope Foundation, lead sponsor of Harlem Academy’s middle school science program.

Thank you also to Con Edison and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for their ongoing support of our student's science and technology education.

Tags:  science trips STEM

Visiting a Top Research University

Date Posted:  Friday, June 12, 2015
Students work on building an automated watering system for plants out of discarded computer parts.
Students work on building an automated watering system
for plants out of discarded computer parts. 

The Harlem Academy middle school recently traveled to Troy, N.Y., to spend three days on campus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The annual visit, called Collaboration for Innovation, is intended to inspire students in the STEM disciplines.

Students have the opportunity to work with professors, visit the Hirsch Observatory, stay overnight in college dorms, and hear current Rensselaer students discuss why they choose to study STEM. Grades five and six learned about physics, manufacturing, and robotics, and the physics magic show is a highlight for them each year. Grades seven and eight were divided in to groups by topic: architecture, civil engineering, and science and technology studies. Students meet in these workshop groups over the course of the visit, working together to complete a hands-on project.

The science and technology studies workshop focused on e-waste and urban gardening. The groups were tasked with using discarded CD-ROM drives and programmable circuitry to build automated watering systems for plants.

The visit culminated with the seventh and eighth grade groups sharing what they had accomplished and learned during the three days by presenting their projects to their classmates, teachers, parents, and professors.

Many thanks to Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Cynthia Smith, and everyone at Rensselaer who made this visit possible. Thanks, also, to the  Harlem Academy parent volunteers who helped chaperone the trip. 

Additional thanks to Con Edison for their support of Harlem Academy's science program.

Tags:  middle school STEM college trips
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