Reflections on a Difficult Week and Our Commitments for the Road Ahead

Dear Athenian Community Members:

Athenian began in 1965 as a school that was fully integrated and coeducational when parts of this country still had segregated schools. Though countless battles in service of equality have been fought and won, the prevalence of stories like those of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery remind us that brutality against Black Americans endures.

Athenian was a safe haven during those early years of extreme uncertainty and national violence, but it must be more than a safe haven now. It must rise to the challenge of training us to be leaders of the equity and justice we champion within our school.

Our COVID-19 response served as solid evidence of our ability to pivot quickly in the face of urgency. We recognize that the anti-racism work we have intended to do within our own community is overdue. To this end, we as a school will recommit to DEIC (diversity, equity, inclusion, cultural competence) with the urgency these issues deserve. The following steps will be our start:

  1. All faculty and staff will read White Fragility as professional development this summer.
  2. Key members of faculty and staff will participate in and support both student-facing and staff/faculty-facing affinity and DEIC work.
  3. We will create virtual affinity spaces to be held outside of the school year, beginning this summer.
  4. The administrative team will do professional development with consultants who specialize in issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competence. They will work to improve our systems.
  5. The school will mindfully plan and gear more events toward affinity groups throughout the year, while also framing the DEIC events calendar at Athenian to begin with an acknowledgment of our diversity in the fall, build towards inclusion week in both divisions in January, and culminate in a cultural competency seminar at the end of the school term.

I want to assure you all that Athenian stands with you in solidarity with justice and peace. 

With great respect,

Eric F. Niles

Head of School

The Athenian School

Three Class of ’11 Alumni Talk About Returning to Athenian as Faculty/Staff

The start of the 2020-21 school year will mark a happy event: three alumni from the same class, together as staff or faculty on campus. Lauren Dominguez ‘11, former Assistant Dorm Head and continuing Assistant Coach for the swimming and freshman/sophomore basketball teams, and Donald Sherwood ‘11, Swim Coach, will be joined by former classmate, Samantha Bishop ‘11, in the coming year. 

In sitting down to chat with them, the questions were obvious: why did they choose to come back to work at Athenian? And, what is behind the special relationship between the Class of 2011 and the School?

Samantha, who returned to Athenian as a Summer English Language Program (SELP) teacher in 2019, will teach Pre-Algebra in the Middle School in the coming year. “There are so many opportunities Athenian creates to build relationships with students,” she said. “I’ve taught in public schools, where the opportunities just aren’t the same. I’m really looking forward to Focus Days and field trips. This is why I teach. I love the relationships I form.”

A chance to make meaningful connections also tied to Lauren’s decision to come back. “Everything in my life, I can trace back to something I learned or something I did at Athenian. The idea of being part of that experience for a current student is so appealing…Living in the dorms is fun, because I get to know students outside of their academic environment. The multicultural aspect of the dorms was perfect for me.”

Love for Athenian culture also factored into what made Donald a great candidate. Associate Director of Athletics, Josie Chapman, talked about what impressed she and Athletics Director, Darek Cliff, during the hiring process. “Darek and I were immediately impressed by his approach to “being Athenian.” We knew that he would embody that as a coach.”

Though not an Athenian teacher, Aaron Wiener ‘11, also works in education and is a longtime moderator of the Class of 2011 Facebook Group and an organizer of numerous online events. Aaron shared sentiments about the cohesiveness of the class of ‘11 when we talked to him in late April. “Overall, people are excited to be in contact and are liking the events; internationally-based people want in on the action and we’re working around time zone logistics.” 

Other reflections centered on the exhilaration of bridging past and present. “I have loved watching the physical changes of Athenian,” Lauren said. “I also love that so many teachers from my time are still here,” Samantha remarked. “When I saw this during the application process, I figured it was a good sign.”

Finding the Silver Lining

Three of Stephanie McGraw’s Women’s Studies students created this
video to raise funds for women impacted by the pandemic.

By Stephanie McGraw

Like many people, I cycled through the stages of grief repeatedly as I adjusted to sheltering in place; sometimes I experienced denial, shock, anger, and sadness all in one day. I felt overwhelmed as I began navigating teaching my students remotely. How would I keep my students engaged via zoom lessons? Would students come to my virtual office hours? How would I help students who were struggling?

In true Athenian fashion, my students helped me answer these questions as we traversed through our new reality of distance learning. Through honest conversations (and many exit-ticket reflections), I slowly learned how to teach remotely. As the weeks progressed, I realized that the way I taught in the classroom, which favors extroverted students who process verbally, isn’t the best way to reach all students. With the asynchronous modules my students worked on outside of class, I suddenly saw my introverted students in a new light; while they might not necessarily participate in an in-person class, they were the stars of our online discussions. And since more of my student work was conducted in writing than in the past, I realized that these quieter students were engaging with my class on a much deeper level than I had realized. With distance learning, I was able to truly *see* these students in ways I hadn’t before, which has made me re-imagine how I’ll teach once we’re back in the classroom.

Some parts of my curriculum, however, seemed impossible to adapt to online learning. Three students in my Women’s Literature course, for example, were supposed to do a service-learning project with the Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) in SF for their honors project. But HPP closed due to the shelter in place order, so this project was no longer an option. Talking to my students, I tentatively suggested that they just read a book and write an additional paper for their honors project. What else could they do? Not surprisingly, my students rejected this option (though they also wanted to read the extra book—we’re now in a book club together, reading Chanel Miller’s Know My Name). Instead, they decided to still do community service (two volunteered at Monument Crisis Center, and one is going to lead writing workshops for children), and they wanted to raise awareness about the ways in which the Covid pandemic is disproportionately impacting women.  

These three students taught me that they can still do amazing work remotely: they collaborated together online to conduct research and plan their project; they collectively created an educational video about Covid’s impact on women; and they partnered with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s women’s shelter so they could raise money to help women in need. Watching these students engage in this project, and learning, daily, from all of my students about how to best teach them remotely, has been the Covid silver lining I’ve been searching for.

To learn more about how Covid-19 has impacted women please Alekhya Maram, Catherine Knierim and Amanda Kang’s campaign page.

Four Athenian Alumni Donate 10,000 Masks to Our Local Community

Pictured from left to right: Jim Lin ’07, father Ting-Fung Lin, Shannon Lin ’09

In an act of tremendous global philanthropy, four Athenian alumni joined forces to donate and coordinate the delivery of 10,000 surgical masks to our local community. The alumni, former boarding students from Taiwan, gave Athenian discretion around their distribution. Jim Lin ‘07 and Shannon Lin ‘09 were the original organizers. When friends Jamie Chang ‘08 and Wesley Yang ‘12 heard about the brothers’ idea, they quickly joined the effort.

“I checked in with Jim and Shannon when the pandemic hit,” said Michelle Park, Athenian’s International Student Coordinator, ESL teacher and longtime faculty member with the School. “I wanted to say hello and see if their family was well. They asked if we at Athenian needed anything in regards to supplies, as the U.S. was just entering the COVID-19 crisis. They wanted to make a donation and wanted Athenian to decide who should receive the masks.”

Pictured: Michelle Park and Eric Niles with Maeshah Shaw and Jelani Moses of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers

After a long and complicated shipping process, Athenian received its first delivery last week and has now received the remainder of the masks. Donations have already been made to the SEIU United Healthcare Worker’s Union, John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek, the Springhill Medical Group, and The Gubbio Project, a non-profit serving the homeless community in San Francisco.

On Video: Jelani Moses of Kaiser Permanente

SEIU United Healthcare Workers West members Jelani Moses of Kaiser Permanente and Maeshah Shaw of San Ramon Regional Medical Center visited campus today to receive their donation of 4,200 surgical masks. In the video below, Jelani expresses his thanks.

Apart from sending a huge thanks to Jim, Shannon, Jamie and Wesley for their extraordinary kindness, we also appreciate those who worked to coordinate efforts on the Athenian side: Michelle Park and Vivian Liao.

Athenian Alumni Teach in Virtual Classrooms as Part of Distance Learning

Athenian faculty found silver linings as they adjusted to distance learning, tapping our global network of alumni to lend live classroom expertise. Andrew Gerst ‘09, Lizzie Miskovetz ‘10, and Julian Binder ‘11 joined David Otten’s Applied Science and Engineering course last Wednesday as guest lecturers. Karen Hinh ‘19 and Baxter Eldridge ‘13 joined on Thursday and Friday, respectively, all by Zoom videoconference.

“It was so great to see how our fledgling engineers from a decade ago are making huge design waves at Tesla, Microsoft, and Virgin Galactic,” David said, speaking of his Wednesday guests. “They had wonderful advice for our current batch of students…most importantly, to stop caring so much about your GPA, and instead focus on doing what you love and making the world a better place.”

David wasn’t the only teacher to integrate community expertise into student curriculum last week: former board chair and alumni parent, Dave Welsh, joined Head of School, Eric Niles Constitutional Law class to present the stock market through the lens of current events. Scaling up to accommodate wider community participation is part of a longer-term plan:

“I look at this opportunity to have alumni visiting as an unexpected gift of COVID-19 and distance learning,” said Head of Upper School, Amy Wintermeyer. “We were supposed to have a career day on March 11th and it was disappointing for both students and alumni to miss out. I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to find ways to still connect alumni with many of our students and I’m hoping we can continue to do this in the weeks following spring break!”

If you are an alumnus or another member of our community with expertise you think might be great for our classroom, send us an email and let us know! 

Community Service in the Age of COVID-19: A Letter from Mark Friedman

Dear Athenian Community,

The coronavirus has disrupted many aspects of our lives, including ways that we work with people outside Athenian to create better communities. The needs haven’t gone away—and there are some new ones—so our challenge is to find new ways to work together. Given the circumstances, we are thinking creatively about how to take action in our local neighborhoods. Remember that the coronavirus isn’t the only thing that’s contagious. Kindness is also contagious. 

Below are some ideas for how to make a difference: 

  • Support an elderly neighbor who needs someone to shop for their food and medicine. (If you live in Oakland or Piedmont, there is an organization called Oakland at Risk that matches senior citizens and helpers. They currently need help getting the word out to the elderly. You can print out their flyer and distribute it, door-to-door, in your neighborhood. If you’re willing to support a senior, you can put your name and phone number on the flyer.)
  • Help an elderly neighbor care for their pet by walking their dog and/or getting pet food.
  • Provide online tutoring to an elementary or middle school student.
  • Pick-up trash or clean up a local park. Maybe you can do this with friends if you maintain 6+ feet distance between yourselves.
  • Organize a fundraiser to support an organization.
  • Volunteer at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties. The food bank is considered an essential service; they are still functioning and they need volunteers. You can sign-up online to help at their warehouse in Concord. Please step forward only if you’re asymptomatic and healthy.
  • There is a severe blood shortage because blood drives have been cancelled. To donate blood, you must be in good general health and feeling well, weigh 110+ pounds, and be at least 17 years old (or 16 years old with parental consent). Contact the blood donation arm of the Red Cross for more information. 
  • This link will take you to a variety of volunteer opportunities that happen completely online.
  • The Berkeley Mutual Aid Network matches people who have needs related to this crisis with people who can help. 
  • Finally, this list of organizations in the East Bay that provide essential services shows ones that still need volunteers, though some volunteer requirements may be age- or experience-specific.

People often respond to disaster with incredible compassion. This Is How You Live When The World Falls Apart is an article in last Sunday’s New York Times about the amazing ways people responded to the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964.  Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster is a longer work at  the same phenomena. Rebecca lives in San Francisco and the first part of her book describes how people here responded to the 1904 earthquake.

Let me know what you’re planning and we will write our own story of caring for each other.

Mark Friedman

Community Service and Round Square Director

Beloved Teacher Trainer Helps New Faculty

Bonnie Mennell has offered confidential training to new teachers for the last eight years.

Beloved teacher trainer Bonnie Mennell completed her final weeklong visit to campus last week, following eight years of meaningful work with new teachers at Athenian. The Vermont-based coach has helped faculty members hone their skills and find their paths, ultimately strengthening the student experience.

Bonnie Mennell exudes peacefulness, and teachers greet her with smiles or hugs as she makes her way across the Athenian campus. 

Over the last eight years, Bonnie has provided confidential training for new faculty. She works on a cycle of meeting the teacher, attending a class, and meeting again to discuss any observations. She focuses on the positive, asking “Who is this teacher, where are their skills? Where are they alive?”

Bonnie finds that most teachers know exactly what is happening in their classrooms, but still benefit from discussing it with a supportive person. 

“98 percent of what’s going on the teacher is already aware of so my work is to really validate their self awareness, their self reflections, and to continue that process,” she says.

Born in Topeka Kansas, Bonnie grew up in a military family, moving to different US cities and later living in England and Germany. Since 1975 she has worked at the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. Over the years she has visited California to work with teachers at Athenian and Sonoma Academy, but this week marked the end of her work with both schools as she moves onto other endeavors, including consulting for Snapchat. 

Even as she leaves our campus, Bonnie hopes the teachers she has worked with will be a source of support to their peers and bring into the culture any positive aspects of the work they have done together.  

“My wish would be that teachers who I’ve had the fortune to work with can think about carrying those ways of being with other teachers,” she says. “They can be an inquiring supportive peer to their peers, so can they observe each other and offer inquiring support.”

2020 Kindness Challenge

By. Ananya Goel

The Upper School community is currently participating in a 21-day Kindness Challenge through KindSpring. 

Ten days into the challenge, I have felt that our community has been more present, more grateful, and more generous. Beginning my day with an act of kindness certainly puts me in a happier, more positive frame of mind that stays with me through the day. I hope that everyone is experiencing something similar. Around two hundred members of our community are now participating in the challenge, and I hope others will continue to join.

All participants will receive a daily email with inspiration and ideas, as well as the opportunity to share their experiences with one another and support each other along the way. In the following weeks, there will be some time dedicated to group reflection during Advisory (Friday Feb. 14th and Friday Feb. 21st). The challenge will culminate with a joint reflection to gather feedback and discuss other ways to create community around positive values. 

The idea of the Kindness Challenge is grounded in the belief that when we commit ourselves to cultivating certain values, we unleash a ripple effect that has the power to transform our lives and the world for the better. When we consistently practice these values together, our efforts encourage and reinforce each other in remarkable ways. Thank you for creating the time for students to meaningfully participate in the challenge. I hope you will join and participate as well. Please let me know if you need further information.

A quick check-in with AWE Co-Director Phoebe Dameron

It’s almost time for the spring AWE trip and Co-Director Phoebe Dameron and her team are immersed in planning. Students are preparing as well – those who are not currently doing a sport are in PE classes twice a week and all are gathering clothing, boots and other personal items that they will need on the trail. Athenian provides things like backpacks, sleeping bags and group cooking equipment. And — of course — lots and lots of food.

“We are ordering hundreds of pounds of food and packing hundreds of pounds of food,” Phoebe says.

Meals for 50 students can get complicated with food allergies, but planning ahead makes it possible to meet dietary needs. 

A total of 14 instructors will lead 5 groups of 10 students as they follow previous routes in the Death Valley National Park. “Following the same routes allows us to know what kinds of elements we might encounter and how to manage those safely,” Phoebe says.

There is plenty of work to do in the office, but Phoebe can’t wait to get back outside. “The best part of our job is to be out there, so that’s what excites me every time.”

Athenian Parent Educates Students About Toxic Compound Group PFAS

Dr. Rula Deeb, an Athenian parent and environmental chemist, talked to environmental science students today about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals known to cause a variety of cancers, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol.

“I wanted students to know we had a person of this expertise in our community,” Upper School Science teacher Catherine Corey said.

Her students are studying both environmental health and human health and the presentation opened their eyes to a toxin in plain sight. PFAS is everywhere, and it’s not going away – the extremely stable compound is found in 99 percent of all American and Western Europeans’ blood. It latches onto proteins, so exposure can come from touching the chemicals but also from eating proteins like milk and eggs. Students were asked to do a PFAS count of items in their homes containing the toxin – clothing, carpets, food wrappings, and even the food they eat.

“So it was really both educational as well as alarming, because it’s so ubiquitous,” Ms. Corey said.