Alumni Wisdom: Life After Athenian

Today is Alumni Day at Athenian. Many of our young alums are still home on college winter break and are able to share with our students about their life after Athenian. Here is a collection of quotes from today’s Symposia on how Athenian prepares students for college.

“In terms of writing, Athenian does a great job…take your humanities classes seriously, take your history classes seriously, because the writing skills that you learn here will put you way ahead when you start college.”

“Athenian prepared me really well, or over-prepared me. I’ve been gliding through college.”

“Athenian prepares you to advocate for yourself and be comfortable with teachers, so it’s so much easier to get to know your teachers.”

“I felt well-prepared, especially in paper writing….You all are way more prepared than you think you are with writing exercises.”

“Athenian prepared me really well socially for college. I learned here how to be outgoing, and I think that’s really important when you’re trying to meet friends at college. If you’re outgoing, people will latch onto you really quickly. Academically, I talked to my roommate this year, and he said in high school, he was never really challenged. So he didn’t understand the idea of studying a really long time for a test, but that was just natural for me because here you’re challenged more than other places and that really helps.”

“The science department gives you a really solid base, a really solid foundation. The one thing that I wish I had practiced more when I was in high school was learning from a textbook.”

“Athenian also really taught me that is what is most important is what you actually learn and the person you are becoming. I think that we are prepared really well for a lot of the general education. We learn how to learn. We also learn how to work. If you can apply that same work ethic that you learn here, inevitably, as you get deeper into what you’re doing, there’s nothing that can prepare you for college, because hopefully, it’ll be a time when you’re pushing yourself, really trying to grow. So there’s no way to truly be prepared other than learning how to get through hard things. And Athenian is a hard thing, so that’s good.”

“I was actually a little worried coming out of Athenian that I didn’t do enough….and then I got into college classes, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m amazed at how much Athenian has taught me.’ All the writing rubrics were identical. I was writing 5-7 papers a week and I thought they were a breeze. I was in some of my classes and some of the students didn’t know how to make graphs in Excel, and I thanked Bruce and Will silently for teaching me how to do that….If you’ve taken advantage of what Athenian has to offer, I’ve found that I’m really ahead in college and having an easy time because I was prepared so well.”

“You’re really prepared. I remember something I heard when I was sitting on that side of the conversation. And that is, college is 30% academics and 70% social. I’d like to echo that, because, at the end of the day, I have class for 12 hours a week. Compared to high school, it’s nothing. Honestly, you have to put in a lot of work [to the social scene].”

“I came to Athenian junior year. I learned how to be nice in general, so that even if everyone has their own groups, you can still be friends….this goes a long way. Many engineering students at my school have jobs in the best industries in the United States. The ones that I talk to, if I ask them for a job, I might get one, so that is a helpful thing. It helps me to be social and be patient and that’s something that I got from here.”

“I was someone who didn’t do the best at Athenian, but at the same time, I weirdly found myself really well prepared when I went to college….It can be a little rigorous. It’s easy to complain….I really miss Athenian in the sense that I feel like I didn’t appreciate it enough when I was here….Definitely appreciate what you have here. You have teachers who will grab you outside of class and smack you into reality. You’re not going to get that in college. You’re not going to have teachers who actually care for you. [Athenian teachers] care for you, they really do. All the things you have done for me, it really means a lot. That C that you would give me, it really helped me grow into the person that I am today. And you’re not going to get that in college as much if you go to a big school. Teachers won’t necessarily do that for you. They’ll give you the grade but they won’t tell you why unless you go to them….Go to your teachers, go to your professors later in life.”

“Socially, you’re going to have to put yourselves out there more than you did here. Sign up for things and put your phones away.”

Involve Me and I Learn

by Lauren Railey, Head of the Middle School

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” -John Dewey

Dewey, a philosopher, educator and social reformer, was an early pioneer of progressive education and believed that students learn through experience.  The idea of “learning through doing” is a visible part of the Athenian experience, from our mission statement to AWE to Focus Days in the Middle School.  Students are highly engaged through experiential learning because they are active participants in the learning process rather than passive observers, which makes learning not only challenging, but fun.

Focus Fridays, often considered to be the hallmark of the Athenian Middle School experience, provide a chance for students to participate in their learning and connect together various strands of the curriculum while keeping students active in the learning process. Focus Days provide space in the schedule for enrichment or extension activities, interdisciplinary learning, or culminating events that conclude units of study. The flexible scheduling on these days allows for teachers from various disciplines to collaborate outside of the classroom as well as off campus, where they can take advantage of the educationally enriching resources of the Bay Area. These thematic, hands-on, daylong programs bring to life concepts and skills from the curriculum, where students learn by doing.

So what have our students been doing so far this year?

6th graders started off the year participating in a brand new Focus Day, Brain Olympics, which challenged them to explore how the human brain works by participating in a series of brain challenges related to memory, planning, and dexterity, all controlled by different parts of the brain. They also launched into our 1:1 iPad program on Digital Candy Day, traveled to San Francisco to see the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and participated in an Equity and Inclusion Day that included a community service component at the Food Bank.

7th graders traveled to San Francisco for their first three Focus Days; they toured the Asian Art Museum and the Conservatory of Flowers and then built sand sculptures at Crissy Field inspired by the work of Andy Goldsworthy during Environmental Sculpture Day. One seventh grader commented that this was her favorite Focus Day because it was really fun and interesting to see how different people used Goldsworthy’s art to inspire their use of the seven artistic elements.

8th graders, our Focus Day experts, dove right into some of our signature Focus Days. During Robinson Crusoe Day, students went through a series of survival skill challenges including communicating via telegraphs (that the students made) and rescuing a giant teddy bear from under a tractor tire. Students collaborated during Pool Volume Day and Archaeology Day when they participated in all-day science labs and simulations, and finally, they traveled to Chinatown for a field trip in conjunction with literature about immigration that they are reading in English.

The title of this article is part of a quote by Benjamin Franklin.

Athenian Teachers Are Learners, Too: Working with Master Teacher Bonnie Mennell

By Lisa Haney, Dean of Upper School Faculty and Humanities Teacher

img_6083Bonnie Mennell, in the midst of her fourth visit to Athenian as a teacher coach, had just observed an 85- minute period of Applied Calculus. As they walked across campus together, Lalitha Kameswaran, the Applied Calculus teacher asked: “Wasn’t that boring?  All that math?” Bonnie laughed, explaining: “The math is not what I am paying attention to. I don’t understand the complexities of calculus. What I am watching is the presentation of the material, students’ engagement with the material, how questions are asked about the material and how they are responded to by the teacher. I am watching the learning.”

Bonnie and Lalitha later sat down to go over the notes she had taken, focusing first on Lalitha’s own assessment of how the class had gone; then Bonnie offered her perspective on what had gone well, and what could have gone better.

img_6077In talking with Lalitha about the experience later, she reported being grateful for the opportunity to see her work through the eyes of another and exclaimed: “Bonnie is awesome!”

Indeed. Bonne Mennell has been a teacher, teacher coach, and educational consultant for over 40 years: she brings a wealth of wisdom and expertise about teaching and learning to her work with our faculty, staying on campus for a full week, and in the last two years has come in the fall and the spring.  While she spends the bulk of her time with first-year Athenian teachers, she also visits other teachers’ classes as time allows.  She is also happy to simply meet with individuals to talk over teaching conundrums or share her knowledge of practices in other schools. Her work with teachers is outside of the more formal professional development and evaluation process; her observations and conversations with teachers are completely confidential.

img_6068As one faculty member put it, “having someone from outside of Athenian with Bonnie’s experience is an amazing way to get valuable feedback. Bonnie’s awareness of the big picture and the concept that less is more is really refreshing. She is ultimately concerned with what serves the students but her feedback is so well tailored to the individual teacher.”


How to Talk Inclusively About Politics in the Classroom During an Unusual Election

by Kalyan Balaven, Dean of Equity and Inclusion

Many of us will tackle conversations about the upcoming elections in our classrooms as we have done in previous election cycles.  This year proves to be difficult especially for our community as a result of the ‘phobic, racist and sexist language used by candidates during this presidential campaign.  

What exacerbates the challenge further is that we pride ourselves on being an inclusive space and this also means being inclusive of different political views in and out of the classroom. 

There is a line between political arguments that are anti-immigration, anti-refugee, pro-gun, anti-same-sex rights, anti-abortion/pro-life, and language that is ‘phobic, racist, and sexist.  We should allow for the discourse of the former but the latter is unacceptable and is a safety issue for our students who would be impacted by such language.

The Southern Poverty Law Center came out with a compelling report earlier this year (“The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools“) around bullying and anxiety amongst minorities during this presidential campaign.  The study and report look at the specific impact on students and the teachers’ answers show “an increase in the bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates.”

This is disturbing and something we have a right to protect our students from, and at the same time Donald Trump (the focus of the article) and others during this campaign have used vitriolic language to put themselves in a position to be elected, and hence they are relevant components of the political viewshed facing our students.  If navigating this seems considerably difficult, I have included the following bullet points to help with the challenging conversations ahead.

1.  Do not allow any homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, misogynistic and/or sexist language in the classroom. 

a.  Just because candidates have used such language does not give license to our students to.

b.  This should be a norm set up prior to discussion and students should be given the reason why—to ensure the safety and inclusion of everyone in our community.

2.  Discuss conservative perspectives on issues at stake in the election from the 2nd Amendment to immigration, etc., but do so using the statements put out by the Republican or Libertarian parties and not necessarily by the candidates themselves. These are akin to the statements that show up in your voting booklet and are bereft of the offending language described above.

3.  Check in with minority students in class after discussions, making sure their emotional safety is being safeguarded. 

a.  Often times conversations that begin in the classroom do not end there and it’s important we check in to keep an eye on how students might feel, especially when the conversation continues outside the classroom and is no longer facilitated by a culturally-competent instructor.

b.  This check-in can be done via writing, so as to not single out or draw attention to students who may be feeling particularly affected.

4.  If a student wants to advocate for the positionality of Trump specifically in the classroom, allow the student to make political arguments for their positions, but remind them privately of point #1. 

a.  Trump does have talking points for his positions that do not include the language he has become infamous for.

b.   If you plan on having specific conversations with students about these elections, make sure you include those points.

5.   Finally, if in doubt, feel free to reach out to this office and let’s problem solve together so we can remain an inclusive space that also safeguards all our students at the same time.

Linda, Meg, and Bev: We Will Miss You!

We wish a fond farewell to Bev Gomer, Linda May, and Meg Freedman, who are retiring at the end of the school year.  Bev Gomer has served the Admission Office for 1 years, Linda May has been the Middle School Office Coordinator for 16 years, and Meg Freedman has taught Middle School English for 10 years.  These women have contributed in so many ways to Athenian, from serving as Dean to running Homework Club to performing in the Faculty/Staff Show, they will be missed as pillars of the community.

Meg Freedman

by Chris McCulloch

Unknown-2We in the Middle School would like to let the Athenian community know that beloved English teacher Meg Freedman will be retiring at the end of this school year.

Meg has been instrumental in facilitating the academic and social growth of our middle school students. As an encouraging teacher, she has helped our sixth graders begin the journey toward finding their voices. As a trusted advisor, Meg has been there for her advisees and their families to help tackle problems and celebrate successes.

Our faculty will miss Meg’s calm, steady demeanor and sage advice pertaining to our programs and our students. I had the good fortune to share the English 6 classes with Meg for several years. Meg has been an eager collaborator and patient listener. I thoroughly enjoyed working with her.

While we will miss Meg greatly, we are also very excited for her as she begins this new chapter in her life. She has given much to Athenian, and we are so grateful that she has personally touched so many of us.

Here’s to many exciting adventures, Meg! You are always welcome at Athenian.

Beverly Gomer

by Chris Beeson

DSC07632I want to acknowledge and thank Bev for her more than ten years of significant service to Athenian and the Admission Office.  

Many families have told me how helpful and warm their interaction with Bev has been. Her work with families and students has allowed them to understand and feel comfortable with Athenian’s mission and programs, as well as what the Athenian experience could do for them.  Her help and counsel has been invaluable to many.

In addition, Bev has supported the Admission program during a period of amazing growth. Nearly everything we do today in Admission is happening at a higher level than when Bev joined the office. From online registration and open houses  to visit programs and application systems, Bev has been a key player in the evolution of what we do.

Bev has also served as Dean of Staff and has been a warm and supportive colleague during her tenure at Athenian.

Bev will be missed.

Linda May

by Vicki Fleming

IMG_1521Linda, my partner in crime in the Middle School office, will be retiring at the end of the school year. I cannot begin to express my gratitude and appreciation for all that Linda has done during her 16 years at Athenian. For me personally, she has been a co-worker, a confidant, a mentor, and a true friend. I am deeply saddened to see her go and cannot begin to imagine how boring the office will be without her quick wit and cheerful personality. That being said, this is an exciting time in her life and I wish her nothing but the best in retirement! After 16 years at Athenian, she has earned it!

I cannot count the times that I have heard parents, students, and teachers comment on what a fabulous person she is and what an asset she is to the Middle School. Linda is the kind of person who immediately makes everyone feel welcome and at ease. She can crack a joke to make you smile when you’re sad or hurt, she can take charge in an emergency, and she can make sure you get your yellow sheets in on time!  Linda embodies what it means to be a part of the Athenian community through and through and the entire school will be forever better because of her contributions.

Real World Math Is Fun! Especially When It Involves Puppies

by Todd Miller, Middle School Faculty

Real World Math is a longstanding Focus Day that continues to evolve as students (and their faculty) come up with more creative ways to integrate math into the curriculum.  In the morning, the students worked in groups in a car insurance simulation.  They first studied a bit about how factors affect insurance costs, such as gender, age, car type, driving history, and grades.  Then, they set premiums for different groups through a blind auction.  We run a simulation, and they either make or lose money.  We had many rounds so that they had the chance to learn from the emerging patterns. They also filmed a 30-second insurance commercial.  The most successful students in the insurance simulation and those with the most creative commercials were rewarded with seed money for the afternoon market (see simulation money below).

In the afternoon, all the students joined the workforce.  First, they completed basic math handouts for little money (a la the first job out of college). Some kids were paid to be graders.  Then, they started their business by renting space.  They were given guidelines in advance about what they could sell–for example, food had to be somewhat handcrafted–and allowed to choose their own groups.  Then they proceeded to have an open market, buying and selling goods and services.  There were two tax collectors who collected money from all profiteers throughout the activity.  At the end, students measured success based on profit.

In addition to the usual junk-food bodegas, some of the new businesses on display this year included a petting zoo with several adorable puppies, video-game stations, a taco stand, and a slack line.  If you guessed that the most lucrative business was the petting zoo–you’re right!  Who can resist a pile of puppies?

From Texas to Athenian: What I’ve Learned from Four Years in the Dorms

by Garrett Vaughn ’16

IMG_3325The words ‘senior’ and ‘graduation’ still seem so foreign to me, but pausing for a moment to consider that it’s already April, and with every college letter that slowly trickles in, it should be hard to deny these two words. I’ve been boarding at Athenian for four years, and while watching the boarding community grow in both students and on-campus faculty has been great, I am also struck by the small, insular, and thoughtful community I joined three years ago.

Freshman year was a year of transitions: moving from a small, quiet town in Texas to Danville, California was quite a change in pace, and the world I knew expanded. As an only child for fourteen years, suddenly I had a roommate and seventeen other brothers all with their own patterns and routines. Communal living was challenging and required a different sort of patience then I was used to. I had to be patient with my roommate and came to the conclusion that sometimes when I wanted to go to bed, the lights might be left on for another hour as he completed his homework. Several years later, I considered that maybe I should have been more patient when talking to Dorm Assistants (Dorm Prefects as they are now called) and not have been so combative when I thought they were being unreasonable to make me work dish crew on my day off.

I also had to learn to be patient with myself. One of the hardest transitions was going from a public school to Athenian’s experiential academics. I had to give myself space to grow as a learner and to go easy on myself when I fell below my personal expectations. Likewise, I also learned to be proactive and to seek help when I needed it.

I’m thankful for that small community I found when I first came to Athenian. I am still struck by the friends that I’ve made these last four years. And while our relationships haven’t always been perfect, I don’t know who I would be without these people. I’ve lived with Paula now for four years at Athenian, and her room is still a place where I unwind and decompress, go through a thousand or more flashcards on Anatomy terms before a test, or go to watch movies on the weekends. These are the kinds of simple experiences that highlight my Athenian career.  Athenian has molded me into a critical thinker, a pursuer of truth, and a questioner of the world. But what I’m most thankful for is this wonderful community that has pushed me and given me support and the small family that has grown around me.

Monotheism Day: Visiting Houses of Worship

Bringing their Social Studies lessons to life, the 7th grade spent a recent Friday exploring houses of worship of the three major Monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  They met with religious leaders at each temple and church who shared with the students the basic tenants of the religion.

As 7th grade is the year many Jewish young people come of age with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service, it so happened that one student was going to have her Bat Mitzvah that weekend.  As the students were looking at the Torah (the holy scripture), the Rabbi invited Sydney B. ’21 to read her Torah portion.  With encouragement and a blessing from several boys–Ethan B., Matthew W., and Bernie B.–who had already completed their Bar Mitzvahs, Sydney read from the Torah in front of her class.  This bringing together of the personal and the educational in front of one’s classmates was a powerful experience for all the students.

2015 Year in Rap Entries from US History Classes

For the last four years, Athenian students have entered (and won!) the New York Times’ Year in Rap writing contest.  This year, the number of entrants increased and our entries didn’t place.  But they did a stellar job of capturing last years’ events.  In just one class period, each class outlined the previous years’ major events and then together crafted a rap in mostly rhyming couplets about 2015.  Check out their raps below.

Abant, Andrew, Genevieve, Abigail, Grace, Julius, Yegor, Julian, Jeremy, Caleb, Morgan, Molly, Elliot, Zarah, and Hannah

It’s the New Year, now reflect is what we do,

Starting with the world talkin’ ’bout CO2.

Technology advances with driverless cars,

We explored past Pluto and found water on Mars.

Adele’s hit music debuts at number one,

While the new Star Wars rakes in money by the ton.

Chipotle’s E. Coli plagued the nation,

Volkswagen’s lies brought defamation.

The Warriors were lit, they did it for the Bay,

Seattle should’ve run it, but New England made the play.

The nations unites to defend against ISIS,

While Europe becomes frantic with the refugee crisis.

Presidential candidates put up a good fight,

And at last we made history for gay marriage rights.

Natalie’s Everlasting Love made us stronger,

Spock’s legacy: live long and prosper.


Nathan, Sonya, Lexi, Isabella, Gianna, Ishaani, Ben, Ian, Nathaniel, Joey, Ishaan, Sally, Anson

Trump’s winning plan is to build a wall,

But at least love and marriage is legal for all.

Europe was burdened by a refugee crisis,

All of it was caused by extremists called ISIS.

Uber’s been stealing all that taxi business,

While Shkreli’s corporation was put out of existence.

Dub Nation won the Finals led by Chef Curry

And Marshawn should’ve grabbed the ball in a hurry.

Kim K and the dress they broke the Internet,

And Adele’s now 25; it’s her best album yet

Just when you thought Star Wars forsaken,

The Force awakened and was record breakin.

Sci-Fi masters Sir Lee and Nimoy are gone,

With them we lose Spock, Dracula, and Saruman.

 Back to the future is a blast from the past,

Because 2016 is here at last.

Poppy R., Ciara, Natalie, Saryan, Alexandra, Trang, Justine, Daniel, Max, Will, Eileen, Katie, Simona

Curry made it rain for the Golden State

But did Brady drop the ball with deflate-gate?

Steve Harvey couldn’t get Miss Universe right

And it turns out The Dress was just a trick of the light

The loss of Spock left the whole world shaken

But in the dead of winter, the Force Awakened

By (or in)  summer China’s stock market hit the floor

As Syrian refugees searched for an open door

The world rallied with Paris, attacked twice by Isis

Even Pope Francis agrees our climate’s in crisis

This year made it clear that Black Lives Matter

While the Woman of the Year caused quite some chatter

Same sex marriage was legalized this year

Went Back to the Future, now we outta here

Amidst fierce competition in the Presidential race,

NASA found some love on Pluto’s face


Camille, Maddy, Zarmeena, Lauren, Amanda, Sunny, Jennifer, Jackson, Sophie Y, Rahul, Anson, Zain, Devin, Will, Lucas, Poppy, Chloe, Sophie T

 Hello it’s me, 2015

The year JJ broke records with new Star Wars scenes

As ISIS reined terror in their Paris attacks

Brave civilians stood up to protect the lives of blacks

It’s about time-gay marriage is finally legal

Sorry Kim Davis, you don’t look so regal

Steve Harvey, John Travolta, you haven’t done well

It was actually Miss Philippines and Idina Menzel

 We got pictures of Pluto, and found water on Mars 

Technology advances and we made self-driving cars.  

We’ve got droughts, we’ve got floods, we’ve got refugees

fleeing from regimes that could bring us to our knees

 In deflate gate the Patriots wanted a jump

Andrew Luck should have brought in an air pump

Hillary, Donald, And Bernie Sanders

Who will prevail in the elections as the commander?

Olivia, Ellie, Phoebe, Serena, Florian, Ryan, Alex, Chloe, Victoria, Amanda, Skyler, David, Monty, Brian, Alexa and Christina 

 2015, the year love finally won

Also winning, US women’s soccer’s number one.

While some US states won’t aid the refugee crisis,

The world joins forces to fight the war on ISIS.

Donald Trump’s popularity was a curveball

Especially when he suggested we build a great wall.

The Golden State Warriors, champs of the NBA

Chef Curry and Klay Thompson got buckets all day.

Remember that kid who got arrested for a clock?

After the law suit, the courts are still in shock.

Freedom and equality, that’s what the US is for-

So why don’t black lives matter, as seen in Baltimore?

A lot has changed in the Kardashian-Jenner clan,

With Saint West joining and Caitlyn taking a stand.

 This December, Harvey really made a scene,

Crowning Miss Columbia, oh wait Miss Philippines.

Building Rome in a Day

by Lauren Railey, Head of Middle School

Rome5This fall, as part of their study of ancient Rome with Sven Miller and Matt Zahner, students investigated the impacts of the great ancient civilization on modern history: roads, sewer systems, the calendar system, central heating, and more.  This year, students had the opportunity to physically construct for themselves many of the city structures the Romans pioneered.  

In small groups, the students researched, designed, and created either a Roman shoe, an aqueduct system, an arch, or a model Roman city.  With the help of Maker Studio expert Lori Harsch and several Upper School students, the seventh graders spent a few days in the Maker Studio learning how to use tools they had never used before to recreate various aspects of Roman life.

FullSizeRenderSven Miller, one of the planners of the day, described three anecdotes of student groups applying their knowledge and solving problems in the course of their building.  One group who was working on building a model Roman city began by researching the types of structures a Roman city would have.  They quickly found many CAD files that they could print on the 3-D printer or laser cutter.  However, they encountered the issue of scale.  Some students, eager to see their city come to life, sent CAD files to the printer and saw enormous models of a coliseum being printed next to a tiny model of a library.  Realizing the problem, they had to decide as a group what a millimeter would equal in their model world and then use their math skills to scale the CAD files to print at the correct size.

An aqueduct group was given the task of crossing a culvert up on the hill by the baseball field.  They brainstormed in the classroom before they realized that they needed to go walk up the hill and look at the culvert directly to measure it in real life.  They created an inverted trapezoid and used their geometry skills to figure out the correct angles to build an aqueduct that could cross the culvert.

Finally, one of the arch groups realized that the central problem in building the arch was determining the correct angles for each piece of the arch.  They began by measuring a model of an arch and tried to copy it.  That led them to realize they would need to use geometry to figure out the supplementary and complementary angles.  Using trial and error, they determined that they needed to have an odd number of blocks with a central keystone for pressure.  They did calculations and determined that 9 blocks yielded the most workable numbers.  They then made the cuts in the blocks in the Maker Studio using the measurements they had calculated.

All in all, the students engaged in a challenging, hands-on variety of activities that engaged their minds and bodies as they “built Rome in a day.”