The Joys of Learning Chinese

Second grade teacher Renee Barber sat down with Greenhill’s new Lower School Chinese teacher, Ms. Nusrat, for an insightful look into how Chinese language and culture can teach us more than we think.

Last winter, in the cold, but beautiful city of Dalian, on China’s northeastern coast, Dean of Student Affairs Nusi Laoshi stood lecturing in her sparsely decorated classroom at the International University. This marked her twenty-third year of teaching Mandarin and Chinese history to Chinese minority students from across the country. She’d also spent a year teaching at an elementary school associated with the university’s vast education system. Nusi loved sharing her deep knowledge of China, not only with her native students, but also with visiting students from other countries. In 2006, her employer assigned Nusi to guide Chinese teacher Warren Frerichs and his band of Greenhill explorers through Xinjiang province, and the stage was set for an invitation that would beckon Nusi’s daring nature, along with her passion for “fresh experiences,” and call her halfway around the world to teach in America.

Today, with months of international red tape behind her, Nusi Laoshi, now known to her students as Ms. Nusrat, leans over a desk in her cozy, but vibrantly decorated classroom on the second floor of Greenhill’s lower school. A giant red dragon hugs the wall behind her as she rifles through files of student work, pulling out the best examples of Chinese maps which her second and fourth graders have carefully colored and labeled. “They are so smart!” she exclaims, remarking on how quickly and accurately her new pupils can identify the Chinese captions for Hunan or Shandong provinces. Her students’ enthusiasm and aptitude for learning clearly energize Ms. Nusrat as she lays a foundation for Greenhill’s new lower school Chinese program.

Only a few hours earlier, I too had a taste of the students’ excitement for Chinese while chatting with my second graders about their favorite activities in Ms. Nusrat’s class. Map-making topped their list, which also included “wacky things” like playing ping pong and eating noodles with chopsticks. “I like drawing tou fa, too,” chimed Ashley, describing how Ms. Nusrat calls out hair in Chinese and the students draw it on a whiteboard. She might call out ear or nose and they will draw those face parts as well, hoping that they’ve translated accurately.

Even writing Chinese characters is pure artistic pleasure for many. “The characters are really unique,” says Ashley, “It’s like art because you’re making lots of lines. It’s not like English letters.” But isn’t it daunting for these young second graders to learn one hundred Chinese characters – two hundred for fourth graders – within the first four months of school? If it is, students don’t complain, but rather they talk of the assignment as a challenge they are eager to master. “There are a lot of characters,” Grant says, “and sometimes they’re hard. But Ms. Nusrat turns on Chinese music while we work and it makes writing easier!”

The Fourth Grade presents Ms. Nusrat with a special welcome gift.

As the students continue describing their class, it becomes clear that Ms. Nusrat has other special skills for making the study of Chinese a pleasant experience for her young learners. “She’s never mean,” her students say. “She doesn’t argue or get too mad, even when we do things we’re not supposed to do in school.” It’s true that if you pass by her classroom on any given day, Ms. Nusrat will be smiling and waving her hand in the air like a conductor as her students shout out Chinese words at a decibel level not typical of an American classroom. This lively communication is expected in her country, notes Ms. Nusrat. And according to Mr. Frerichs, head of Greenhill’s Chinese program, “The Chinese are more open with behavior parameters in early childhood.”

Now in the fifth month of her new teaching position, and with the children responding positively to her elixir of patience and practice, Ms. Nusrat feels a “stronger and stronger” bond with them. “My students move me deeply,” she says, full of emotion. “The first time I heard them say hello to me in Chinese, I knew that I wanted to stay here. I felt satisfaction and joy.”

Perhaps as she imparts an appreciation of China to Greenhill lower schoolers, Ms. Nusrat can also cultivate a deeper reverence for the abundant resources we take for granted. Paper products, even simple toiletry items, came at a premium in the barren deserts of Xinjiang, where Ms. Nusrat grew up, so the waste she often sees here saddens her. “If we teach respect as a core principle,” claims Ms. Nusrat, “then we need to respect the things we use, including the effort and resources that go into making them.” To explain what she means, Ms. Nusrat opens her desk drawer and grabs a handful of well-used pencils, noting that while their erasers have been rubbed flat, the pencils still have plenty of lead inside. Too often she sees pencils like this thrown away, but she saves them. She drops several into a tin sitting on top of a student’s desk, pairing them with a large Magic Rub to extend their usefulness. Nusrat laments a similar waste of food in the cafeteria, and even, she says outspokenly, a lack of respect for the valuable resource of time.

Always eager for “learning new things,” Ms. Nusrat uses her spare moments for reading. Today, she’s engrossed in the spiritual writings of J. Krishnamurti. She journals daily, and you can often find her texting friends a couplet she’s created for their round robin of poetry-writing via i-phone. If you ask her what she misses about China, she’ll mention her large, happy family and a longing for handmade Chinese noodles. Thankfully, she’s developed a taste for Texas steak, which she now cooks for her host family.

Some might describe Ms. Nusrat’s encounter with Greenhill travelers a few years ago as a happy accident, fueled by kindred openness and interest in how people live in this world. Some might say it was destiny, waiting to happen. Either way, Ms. Nusrat brings a world of happiness to her current second and fourth grade students, who hope she stays for a very long visit. And if we are open to it, Ms. Nusrat may offer fresh perspectives and life lessons for the adults in her new school as well.

In Gratitude for Grandparents and Special Friends

Thank you to Emily Wilson for the following post:

What better way is there to prepare for Thanksgiving than to welcome our students’ grandparents and special friends to campus for a day in their honor? In essence, they are the foundations of our families who have made us who we are today. It seems only fitting that we celebrate our relationship with them so close to the most important day of gratitude of the year.

Whether that gives more meaning to Grandparents’ and Special Friends’ Day is a matter of opinion. But one thing is clear. Over 800 smiling, happy grandparents and friends—the largest crowd to date—arrived on Greenhill’s campus on Friday, November 18, 2011 to spend the afternoon with their cherished young ones. Previously held in the morning on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break, this year’s date accommodated for the week-long vacation and gave families the opportunity for more together time. The afternoon schedule allowed for students and grandparents to leave school together and kick off the vacation.

Spirits were high on this particular Friday, with the palpable buzz of excitement for vacation on the horizon. Cox Gym was transformed into an auditorium and art gallery thanks to the vibrant artwork of our lower school students. Grandparents and special friends were greeted with lunch and a music program featuring Old Time Rock ’n Roll and Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, sung and performed by the MS and US choirs. Head of School Scott Griggs introduced the Greenhill Fund Grandparent Chairs, Marilyn and Zeck Lieberman, who spoke about the importance of supporting the extraordinary school that their three children and four grandchildren have attended. Mr. Griggs followed Dr. Lieberman’s comments with his own examples of the multi-faceted, well-rounded student accomplishments that make Greenhill such a special place.

Our visitors were then dismissed to meet their young ones and accompany them to their classes. You couldn’t help but smile to see a child run at full speed across the Lower School playground to greet the open arms of their adoring grandparent. And you couldn’t help but overhear the excitement in their voices as students led them by the hand around their classroom, showing off their work or engaging them in an activity.

The support we receive from the Greenhill grandparent population is remarkable, noteworthy and often very touching. Their commitment and dedication to our families is evidenced in countless ways, through volunteer efforts and financial support. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in grandparent giving that continues to grow every year. Last year we had over 150 grandparent donors with an average gift of over $500. This proves that our grandparents have a vested interest in their grandchildren’s education. This year they also demonstrated their commitment to learning by donating 181 books to the Library ($3,620), the most books ever donated on a GP/SP day.

And so, in the spirit of Thanksgiving and Grandparents’ and Special Friends’ Day, we say thank you. Thank you to our grandparents and special friends who give so much, to over 60 parent volunteers who made the day run seamlessly, to our volunteer co-chairs, Janine Pitts and Alyssa Fiedelman and PA President Camille Owens, to our grandparent giving co-chairs Marilyn and Zeck Lieberman, to the Advancement Office for orchestrating all logistics, and to our teachers for graciously opening their classrooms. Let’s say a final thank you to each other, for our commitment to the Greenhill community, making it a richer experience and a better place to be every year.

Language Learning Leaps Ahead

Today we hear from Claudia Loewenstein, Middle School Spanish teacher, about the advances in technology she has incorporated into language learning and their enthusiastic use by teachers and students alike.

Validating Greenhill’s vision for our future, technology has changed the way we educate students in the Middle School Modern and Classical language department.
The multi-media e-portfolios are a cornerstone of the language department digital initiative, and excitement is building for all of us as the portfolios are taking off. I was especially eager this fall when my last year’s eighth grade Spanish portfolios followed our students to the Upper School. For the first time, every ninth grade Spanish teacher received the individual digital portfolio of each of their incoming students, containing eighth grade assessments, recorded interviews, and video clips documenting students in action, essays, projects, goal-setting and self-reflection components – all in one place with a click of the button. It was a thrill for me when I could sit down with the ninth grade teachers and, in a sense, digitally introduce them to their incoming students. Consuelo Buxton, Upper School Spanish teacher, commented that, “When I hear the interview, I know exactly, perfectly, what level they are … in one minute.” After viewing some of the portfolios of her students, Upper School Spanish teacher Mary Tapia summed up the beauty of the portfolio use: “This is great documentation –you simply couldn’t reproduce this with pencil and paper.”

The portfolios are being expanded this year by Pam Giraudon to include seventh grade Spanish and by Joan Romanosky who is developing the e-portfolios for Latin students.

Recently eighth graders had a lot of fun using the classroom web-cam to capture their glory moments as they led the class and presented their projects. My students loved the fact that these moments would be archived in their e-portfolios. When they exit the Upper School language program, they will have their language life captured forever. Ahh! Nothing like being an 18 year old and looking through his/her Middle School Wonder Years!

Another great hit is the eighth grade Spanish Community blog on the Portal. As their teacher, I can post study-tips, communicate with my students, and give frequent reminders on how to prepare for assessments, very much like an extra, at-home study hall. Also, for my students’ convenience, on-line practice links are posted with electronic flashcards, games, practice and tests so students can just click directly from the blog without having to search on-line for all these helpful features. It’s obvious to me that eighth grade students love thread communications as is evidenced by the unparallel participation in this blog. They can help one another with homework or study questions. Virginia Leopard’s comments reflect the opinions of her peers:

“I love the blog! I check it almost every day. The most useful thing I found on the blog was the wonderful study websites. Other students also create practice test and quizzes and may post them on the blog. Whenever I make/complete a practice test/quiz, I also do great on the assessment. When I started using the blog, it improved my overall score by at least two letters. I think it’s a great way to connect with other students and the teacher outside of class.”

Another technological innovation is the Avatars created by the seventh grade Spanish students. Pam Giraudon and Keith Nannie are teaming up to have their students create a fanciful character, one that best suits their personality. Through use of sound files and microphones, their Spanish speaking alter-egos will be used to send e-mail messages, work into language projects, chat with younger grades and follow them to the eighth grade. The avatars will create an engaging platform from which students will apply vocabulary and grammar concepts.

Trevor Worcester, Modern and Classical Languages Department Chair, has had a blast walking through Middle School to get “snapshots” of the students’ language life. “What I’ve come away with is that our department is using integrated technology more and more. This is what our kids know and want. I like the idea of how all this technology allows us to assess our students from level to level. We can virtually see what they can do, and this is as important, if not more so, than traditional assessment.”

Homecoming Spirit

Darryn Sandler, Greenhill alum, teacher, coach, advisor, and more, wrote the following words on the spirit of Greenhill and why Homecoming can be such a uniting force in the school community.

Two weeks ago, Seniors Devin Bullock and Mikey Stanley spoke to the student body at the Upper School assembly for about ninety seconds. In that short minute and a half, they demonstrated the class and leadership that has been displayed by the senior class and has had such a positive impact on the entire Upper School.

Devin and Mikey delivered two messages. First: “Thank you to the students and faculty who took the time to come out and support the football team on a Thursday night and at our previous games. It really means a lot to all of us on the team.”

We always hear the captains of their respective sport teams get up at our typical C-day assemblies and thank the students for coming out to support them after a big win. The only difference is that the football captains did not do this following a big win. I would argue, though, that these young men are winning. They go all out every week, giving everything they have with fewer people on their roster than any of their opponents. Coach Jeff Hollway is teaching these boys about leadership, work ethic, commitment, teamwork, and dedication. Members of the football team are not walking around with a defeated attitude or bringing down the morale of the Upper School. They are cherishing their time in football and with each other while trying to find ways to build the spirit and pride of the Greenhill student body.

The second message that Devin and Mikey delivered was to go out and support the other sports and events on campus. “If you can come out to a football game on a Thursday night, then there is no excuse not to go out and support our volleyball and field hockey teams during the week.”

This is a powerful message. This was the first time that I have ever heard the captains of one of our athletic teams ask the student body to support the other teams on campus. Mikey and Devin conveyed why Greenhill is such a special place to be a student, an employee, and alum: At Greenhill, we value the entire community. Mikey and Devin encouraged the students to have pride in all of our students and teams.

In the week following the message from Mikey and Devin, I attended two volleyball games. About half the football team and several other students came to support our volleyball teams. On Saturday, Holland Hall and Greenhill battled it out for the top seed in North Zone. Following a late night football game in Cedar Hill, about twenty football players showed up to cheer on their peers. It was exciting to see the pride these students felt when our athletes were playing and succeeding on the court. After trailing two games to zero, our girls fought hard to pull out a 16-14 comeback in the fifth and decisive game to earn the top seed heading into SPC. Many of the volleyball players said that the crowd helped them keep their heads up and focused during this great comeback!

With such great leadership from the senior class, we have reached a time in which school spirit is at the best I have witnessed during my 21 years at Greenhill as a student, alum, and faculty member. This is extremely exciting as we enter Homecoming Week. With school spirit and pride at a high, I am excited to see the students, faculty, parents and alums come even closer together during this exciting week for the community.

We Are Always Learning

First Grade teacher Valerie Reynolds takes us on a journey of adult learning that, of course, circles back to the children.

As a teacher, we are always making connections between life outside the classroom and time spent with students. Below is a story I wrote about the unexpected things that can happen when we put ourselves in the learner’s chair, and about how we as teachers and adults in a child’s life can cushion learning with compassion.

Tonight’s Lesson…
A story in two voices

Last summer, I rediscovered a love of tennis. I have since wondered, “Why did I ever quit playing?” But the most pondered question is, “WHEN will I play?” I have to get creative sometimes trying to fit it into our family schedule. I do have a couple of places that I like to go to for drills, but one week I decided to check out a new place.

I get to the unfamiliar tennis center and I meet the instructor. He has a friendly smile. Minutes later we are on the court, and he suddenly looks very serious. What happened to the friendly smile I wonder? There are only eight of us. The coach immediately breaks us into two groups and gives directions so quickly that I have no idea what he just said. I know I heard my name for what court to go on, but other than that, I am guessing. I had been playing it safe with lessons for 2.5 level players, but I quickly realized that this is not going to be the same kind of lesson. I now know I will get lots of practice tonight, but will it be what I need?

I started to make a connection between playing “out of my league” and readers reading “out of their league.” The instructor’s tennis vocabulary was a bit unfamiliar to me. He is talking so fast. I am trying to use context clues to fill in the missing pieces. Do I have enough experience to figure out what to do?

One drill seemed easy, but it was actually kind of hard because I wasn’t sure if I should hit the volley hard to win or soft to keep it in play. My teammate and I actually discussed, “…Not too hard, not too soft, but just right!” I immediately thought of my first graders and how we say that usually a book shouldn’t be too hard or too easy, but just right!

How many times have I had that discussion with a young child picking out a book? Each tennis move is like a child plugging away with the text. Sometimes I reach out and surprise myself with a good return. Other times I totally miss it. Readers do the same thing as they reach into their tool bags for a strategy to try.

We rotate courts to begin another drill. I know my partner is better than me. He is friendly and encouraging though. I am grateful. He asks me, “Do you need anything?” “What does that mean?” I wonder. I want to say, “I need to leave!” But instead I just say, “No, just trying to get some good practice. Oh, I might need patience from you though.” He laughs and says, “No problem.” He adds, “I’m a leftie. Can I start on this side?” I make many mistakes in this doubles game, but I am so glad that my serves are ok. When it was over, I thanked him for being a good sport. He said, “Your first serve went in every time.” Wow – he found something encouraging to say even though he knew I was in a little over my head.

When children get in over their heads with a book that is too hard, how do we respond? Do we encourage and support them to try? Or do we immediately tell them to try it another time? Do we scaffold them to succeed? Do we try to find at least one positive thing for that child to apply in other books that he will try? Do we leave our reading time together with an encouraging word?

When our lesson was over, I went to thank the coach. I said, “I think I was playing “up” tonight, but I sure appreciate the practice.” He smiled, and agreed that it was for 3.0 and up… yeah, slight detail I overlooked. He said, “You know, there is another class for 3.0 only on Mondays and Thursdays. That would be great for you.” I immediately thought, “Yes, that sounds JUST RIGHT!”

On my way home, other connections are swirling around in my head. I think of Regie Routman’s book Teaching Essentials and her advice about making time for doing things you love, and how it can enrich your teaching. I feel like I have just put myself in my kids’ shoes – tennis shoes – and have a strong feeling to write it all down. Those connections that we make between reading and writing and our life experiences are all coming together in my head. I feel a mini-lesson forming, and I am so glad I made time for tennis tonight – in more ways than one.

How Big Is Your Classroom?

Greg Krauss is an experienced kindergarten teacher who has fully embraced the early childhood discovery learning model. Read below to be transported back to a time when learning opportunities could be found in the most unlikely of settings.

After meeting with Kim Barnes, the Head of Early Childhood, to discuss writing a blog entry for the school website, I was determined to write a piece that would give everyone “a glimpse of a day in our classroom.” As I thought about all of the experiences that my classes have had over the last few years and the children I have had the pleasure of teaching, I realized that so much of what I wanted to share never happened in our “classroom,” or at least not in the roughly 800 square feet of room 803. Our “classroom” is where we explore, question, discover, experience and ultimately grow and learn; we do that all over campus and beyond.

One day might be highlighted by a discovery walk around campus to find the perfect stick for roasting marshmallows a lesson that included measuring and comparing lengths as well as a discussion about how close we could get to a fire before we “burned up.” Honest truth…I singed a few eyelashes at about two feet when we roasted the marshmallows, so we were actually able to have a great follow up discussion.

Some days are remembered because of the time spent on the playground. Children get together to coordinate the building of a river from the water table. Think about the social skills that are developed when seven six year olds are left to their own devices for that type of a project. Another favorite pastime from the playground is the age-old favorite monkey bars. I would need more toes to keep count of how many kindergartners have come to me to share an overwhelming sense of accomplishment because they finally made it out and back on the monkey bars. This, of course, was only accomplished after many attempts (all of which were notable failures necessary for future success).

We have planted and harvested our own garden to learn how responsible one must be to take care of even just a small plot. We measured the plants, discussed the essential “needs” of most growing things and even had to work through the challenges of keeping hungry peacocks away from all of our freshly planted (and sprouted) seeds. A fence and three versions of a scarecrow later, we are still on high-alert for the colorful intruders.

We have cooked fresh cut green beans to learn about fractions and angel hair pasta to discover the challenges of estimating. We have climbed trees to learn about risk-taking and learned a lesson or two about gravity by falling out of them (NOTE: no kindergartners were harmed during this activity). We have looked at a still creek on campus to learn about reflection and stuck large sticks into the same creek to witness refraction. We have read stories aloud under the shade of a tree to discover just how enjoyable books can be.

In kindergarten, our “classroom” is the world around us, indoors and especially outdoors. I can’t imagine how much less authentic and significant the lessons of our days would be if they were all taught in room 803.

Sixty-one Years Ago …

Today’s blog entry is written by Tom Perryman, ’81, Assistant Head of School. Tom brings last week’s Founders’ Day events to life and crystallizes the importance of us all taking a look back on September 11.

There is no day quite like the first day of school – the palpable energy and audible hum… the unbridled enthusiasm… the hope and anticipation of a new year of challenges and friends and fun. You’ve got to love the first day of school.

Homecoming, too, brings a vibe to the Hill that is unlike any other. The campus is awash in green and gold, the students – young and old – gush school spirit, and it is a blast to welcome back “old” friends to campus. Homecoming is a terrific day to be part of this school.

And Grandparents’ Day exudes warmth and love, linking generations and embodying the sense of gratitude that is so much a part of that season.

Still, Founders’ Day is my favorite day of the school year. It is the day that, to me, is so beautifully “Greenhill” in a nutshell. It’s the one day set aside to celebrate our roots, our birth from an idea and a mission that is as noble today as it was unique back in 1950. It is a day to tell our “family story” and remember the heroic deeds of those who have gone before us. And after 12 such days now, it feels to me as deeply ingrained and as much a part of the fiber of the school as any of our time-honored traditions.

I’ve been on the Hill for the better part of the last forty years, but I cannot recall a single celebration of our founding until the 50th anniversary committee came up with the idea for an all-school convocation in September 2000. What an occasion that was! The entire school community came together for a fabulous birthday party… and a new tradition was begun. I recall being deeply moved that day by the sight of all four of our heads of school – Bernard Fulton, Phillip Foote, Peter Briggs, and the newly installed Scott Griggs – on the stage together… a striking visual symbol of the long-tradition of strong leadership that has been a hallmark of this school.

Fortunately, we decided that this 50th anniversary ceremony should not be a one-time event, and so we gathered again on September 11, 2001, to continue a new tradition of remembering our founding. That day, of course, will forever be etched in the memories of those who were present as a day different from any other in our lifetime. I will never forget Elaine Velvin dashing to the stage just as we were about to begin to whisper to me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Alas, Founders’ Day would henceforth involve the odd, bittersweet taste of happy celebration and sad remembering as we recognize a birthday that we share with tragedy.

For those of you who have never attended a Founders’ Day assembly, each year the gathering allows the whole community to share virtually the entire range of human emotions and experiences:
* hospitality, as we welcome our newest students and employees;
* veneration, as we acknowledge the commitment of our Legends and the master craftsmanship of our Faculty Leaders;
* friendship, as we lock arms and join together to sing that oldie-but-goodie learned in first grade: “Best Friends;”
* sadness, as we remember the horrors of September 11, 2011;
* common purpose, as we sing “Hail to Greenhill;”
* pride, as we are led through the ceremony by the wisdom and gifts of students in Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools;
* and accountability, as we are charged before setting forth to find ways to bring peace to our world.

And this year’s ceremony took each of these components to new levels. The Singers, Band, and Orchestra kicked things off with a rousing national anthem, and later the Phillips Gym rocked to “Best Friends.” Mr. Griggs reminded us of the courage of our founders and poignantly placed our celebration in the context of the sobering events of 2001. Senior Eric Klein got the crowd fired up with his reporter-on-the-street trivia work, and senior Jordan Palefsky introduced the annual Estelle Dickens Service Drive on behalf of the GIVE service organization. We recognized our latest Faculty Leaders – Frank Lopez, Andy Mercurio, and Aaron Timmons. We welcomed two new Heart of the Hill Heroes – Lorene Richardson (our longest-tenured employee at 45 years) and Dr. George Birdsong ’75 (the first student of color at Greenhill in 1967). The Heroes were eloquently introduced by Francesca Riddick ’16 and Will Kraus ’12. And Griffin Rutherford ’20 may have stolen the show with his reminder that we would have the annual Ice Cream Social at lunch to honor Helen Fulton’s memory. Student Council President Myra Noshahi ’12 offered some moving reflections on the role that our school and its students can play in bringing peace to the world.

And perhaps my favorite moment each year is when we all sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” I can’t remember a year when more folks sang, and the effect was beautiful. The better part of sixteen hundred voices joined together to lift up the wish for peace – a wish shared by all of our myriad faiths, backgrounds, and perspectives – and the swelling sound was thrilling.

Founders’ Day is a celebration for the whole Greenhill community, and I hope that next year, even more parents and alumni will join us to remember and to dream… to honor our past and imagine our future… together… as the Greenhill Family. Get it on your calendar now: Tuesday, September 11, 2012!