Commuting Across the Ocean

by Eric Niles, Head of School

As we return to School after a long break, I have a better understanding for what it must be like for our international students to travel long distances to return to school.  In October, I spent three weeks in Asia.  When I arrived in my first stop, Shanghai, I found my way for the hour-long drive from the airport to my hotel.  That was about the same distance as SFO to Athenian.  It was exhilarating and a bit daunting to navigate a new language and culture.

I was in Asia to celebrate The Athenian School’s 50th Anniversary and to meet with alumni and parents of our boarding students. Athenian’s boarding program is such a rich part of our past and present and creates a global, dare I say cosmopolitan, community in our corner of the Bay Area. We are proud of that internationalism and so pleased by the education all our students get by meeting, learning from, and caring for one another. It is another way that Athenian’s education is unique from so many college preparatory schools. We are not just college prep, we are life-prep and engagement-prep and change-the-world-prep.

While I planned carefully to avoid any jet lag (a shout out to Trustee Josh Freeman for his tutorials), it was still a struggle to transition to a vastly different time clock.  Again, a lesson in empathy for me as I think about our students who make this journey numerous times per year.


Photo of Eric and Chris Beeson with the Kim family in their Seoul home.

The Politics of Disaster Seminar Visits the Butte Fire Disaster Area

by Abigail Eldridge ’17

“Shock and fear are no doubt the first stages. Then disbelief. That is different from shock in the sense that shock is the total unable to process the situation. Disbelief is trying to come to grips with the fact that it really did happen, it’s not a dream.” – Darcy Lambert

Butte1On September 9, 2015, a power line failure resulted in a massive fire that would destroy 475 residences and eventually burn over 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties. The rapid pace of the Butte Fire resulted in a quick evacuation for many and left little time for collecting valuables. Local residents continue to suffer a lasting emotional and financial toll as they work to recover from this disaster. Students from April Smock’s Politics of Disaster seminar, joined by Kathleen Huntington and Jim Sternberg, traveled to Calaveras County in November to gain first-hand experience studying the impact disasters have on impacted communities. The class participated in a field study of the area, touring the site of the fire, interviewing victims and helping the family of Kent and Darcy Lambert with their recovery efforts.

The class was welcomed to the area by the Lamberts who led them on a tour of the fire damage and to the site of their destroyed homestead. After hearing about the experience from the Lamberts, we spent the day laying straw down on a hillside spanning their property to prevent the erosion expected from the upcoming rainy season.  When asked about her experience, Nia Warren ’16 described the site:  “It felt like I was in a picture I would find on Google images. I could turn one way and see a flourishing garden and trees, and look in the opposite direction and see someone’s home completely destroyed. It was humbling to know that this could have happened to me or one of my family members. When you have a chance to see things first hand, you feel even more responsible for doing whatever you can to make a positive impact on victims’ lives.”

The experience brought a new perspective to the Athenian students. Instead of just reading about a disaster, the trip gave us the opportunity to get a closer look at the true impact of a disaster. We were also able to develop a stronger sense of empathy and understanding about the hardship victims experience in a tragedy.  When asked about her new understanding of how the victims feel in these disasters, Nia said, “It helped me to understand the struggle that it is to really move from a disaster. They can emotionally recover and still have to rebuild their homes, they can rebuild their homes but still never overcome the emotional trauma. Everyone heals in different ways, but regardless of how someone copes, life has to keep going.” By volunteering to work on the property, we felt we were able to give back in a way we had not anticipated.

In an interview conducted by Will McCurdy ’17, Redden Thompson ’16, and Natalie Knowles ‘16, Kent Lambert talked about the lasting effects of the fire and how his family is dealing with the tragedy and its aftermath.  He discussed how a community deals with this type of tragedy: “For the larger community, everyone’s got a different situation.  There’s quite a few people that I’m aware of that are not going to rebuild or they’re still trying to decide. For us there was a period we had to think about it but in short order decided this is what we’re going to do. Even though the landscape is going to change so drastically and that’s what brought us to that place, we’re going to do what we can to help change it to something different but in some ways better if we can, than it was before. For other people it’s too hard or too emotional, some people can’t even go back to their properties, it’s just too difficult.”

Butte3After the field trip, students in the class wrote journal reflections about their experience.  In his reflection, Will McCurdy wrote about what impacted him most: “Something I contemplated was how even other people’s possessions can have sentimental value and memories for us. I thought about all the times my family has gone over to our neighbor’s house and hung out and how I’ve grown up not just in my house, but in my neighborhood. Not only do you lose these places that hold so many memories, but like Kent and Darcy both said, many of the people don’t come back either.”  He also mentioned that hearing the stories from Kent and Darcy hit him the hardest. They impacted him in a way that was unexpected and made him think about what it would be like if his own home was destroyed in a fire:  “I would say all these stories I heard were the most valuable part of the day for me because I was able to reflect and connect them to my own life and by doing so, I think I got a really good understanding of what the Lambert family is going through. Obviously, one person can never fully comprehend a situation unless they live it, but each story and experience you hear about can give a deeper and deeper understanding.” Visiting the site of the fire gave all of us students a clearer perspective on how victims of natural disasters are impacted and even brought on a new sense of empathy for future victims of disaster.

Darcy Lambert was very grateful for our help and hopes that we will continue to offer support to others who suffer a loss in a disaster: “There are so many aspects to disaster. I am thrilled that your students chose this class. They will be better citizens for thinking about the concept. No doubt they will be the leaders in the future having taken the time to understand this very difficult concept. May they never suffer personally, but be in a position to support others when the time arises,” Darcy said. This trip was an important learning opportunity to grow not only as intellectuals but as more empathetic human beings that truly understand what happens when people go through such tragic events.

After losing their family home to the Butte Fire, the Lambert family is still facing the repercussions that come with a disaster of such magnitude.  Darcy Lambert described the way she is dealing with the disaster, saying “What I do know is that what is working for me is the positive outlook. By staying positive, it allows others to approach the situation and be willing to help. If they were faced with depression or anger I suspect they would help once and be gone. It’s hard to help in those situations. Also we learned that we must accept help in the way the giver needs to give it. People want to help, our job is to accept it graciously.”

Students in the Politics of Disaster class are showcasing their Honors Projects based on natural and environmental disasters they studied in the Commons through the end of January.

Intertribal Friendship House: An Urban Rez

By Hannah Meier, Jordon Dabney, and Charlotte Atkins ’17, students in Andrea Cartwright’s Native American Literature Seminar

On November 24th, the Native American Literature Seminar went to the Intertribal Friendship House. This community center is dedicated to preserving Native American culture and giving Native Americans in the Bay Area a place to interact with each other.

The original purpose of the Intertribal Friendship House was to aid the Native Americans that were relocated to the Bay Area by helping them build community ties and become a home for Native American activism. Now, it is mainly a place for the community to come together and help each other with whatever they need.

We were hosted by an Indian activist named Kris Longoria for the majority of the day. Our field trip started with an introduction to Native American tradition with a sage burning. After our blessing, we were given a tour of the Intertribal Friendship House. One of the most memorable parts of the house were the different murals, one of which was painted by a seventeen-year-old boy named Tido and another young man. We later met Tido and he told us about what the mural meant, and why they chose the images they used.

Throughout the day, Ms. Longoria talked to us about the occupation of Alcatraz, the myths and facts about Native Americans, and the cultural appropriation that Indians have to deal with today. She gave us a tour of the garden, and we each got a sample of one of their herbs. At the end of the day, we saw the elders in the community get free canned goods.

All in all learning, about the Intertribal Friendship House gave the class a better understanding of the urban Native American community, and a new outlet to enact change.

Photo credit: From the Intertribal Friendship House website.

Dia de Los Muertos, Rodan, Panathanaea, and Coding!

Pacific Worlds Exhibit copyby Lauren Railey, Head of School

Due to a long weekend mid-October followed by two weeks of conferences, Middle School students had not participated in a Focus Day since October 9. However, on Friday, November 6, students participated in exciting Focus Days that connected deeply to our curriculum in the Middle School.

Eighth graders enjoyed off-campus field trips based on their languages of study.  Spanish students toured the Dia de Los Muertos exhibit at the Oakland Museum. In addition, they had the opportunity to visit the Pacific Worlds collection, where they viewed artifacts and participated in hands-on activities that connected back to their sixth grade social studies unit on Polynesian Cultures.
Stanford 3 copyStanford 5 copyFrench and Chinese students traveled to Stanford to visit the Rodin exhibit and toured the French and Asian exhibits at the Cantor museum on the Stanford campus. The docent leading the French students spoke entirely in French!


Seventh graders participated Panathanaea, a culminating unit for Ancient Greece in which students broke into various city-states, dedicated altars to their patron gods or goddesses, competed in Athenian’s own version of the OlympiPanathanaea 3 copyc games, prepared Greek food, and were challenged by Plato’s ethical dilemma of the Ring of Gyges. Lastly, our thespians performed Aeschylus’ tragedy The Oresteia for friends and family. On to Rome: Carpe Diem, as they say!

Sixth graders spent part of the day learning Scratch programming (a first experience with coding for many of them) and created their own animation sequence. They also worked on pattern recognition skills and developed their own patterns to try to stump their classmates and teachers. Learning how to code helps students develop a different set of analytical reasoning skills that can be applied in both the classroom and the tech world. Students will have further opportunities for programming in various electives and future Focus Days.Scratch copy

International Relations Classes Go to Model UN

By Sanjev deSilva’s International Relations classes, Fall 2015

This past weekend, both sections of the International Relations course attended the Contra Costa County Model United Nations conference at Diablo Valley College. While there, we made friends, bonded with our fellow Athenians, and had fun acting as professional diplomats.

C-period was representing Saudi Arabia while E-period was from China. C-period said they were able to experience the work of the delegates within the United Nations and its various branches. C-period, aka the China delegation, also liked how we presented our country’s policies, debated possible solutions, and drafted resolutions to be passed throughout the two days.

E-period enjoyed communicating with other country’s delegations through note passing, debate and the dynamic process of passing resolutions. We all thought the conference was challenging and exciting. We also felt that the extensive research and writing of our “country books” we prepared in anticipation of the M.U.N. conference was incredibly useful. From the conference, we improved our public speaking skills and learned much about the procedure and style of debate in the M.U.N. and we see ourselves as global citizens. We are glad to have participated in this unique experience and we learned a lot about ourselves and our fellow delegates.

Nick and NiaChina is proud to say that our Security Council committee delegates Madelyn 6 and Dylan Ratner ’17 received a verbal commendation while the delegation of Saudi Arabia received two awards. Nick Armanino ’18 and Nia Warren ’16 won the “Exceptional Delegate” awards, which is the second highest honor. Congratulations to Nick, Nia, our UNSC members and the entire Athenian M.U.N. delegation.

Thanks for reading!

International Relations classes of 2015

“Beyond the Blackboard”: Kurt Hahn and Expeditionary Learning

by Eric Niles, Head of School

I write this blog post from Shanghai at the beginning of a six-country tour to celebrate Athenian’s 50th Anniversary and our identity as a global boarding school.  Shanghai is an amazing city and I have been warmly welcomed by our parents here.

As I landed, my email and texts were lighting up with notes about a radio documentary on KQED.  The piece isn’t literally about Athenian, but really, it is.  It is about Kurt Hahn, educator and founder of Outward Bound and the inspiration of our founder, Dyke Brown. It is about Hahn’s passion for character education and an emphasis on non-cognitive skills like persistence, leadership, and getting along with others as the means to prepare students to be compassionate citizens.  It is about education as it should be.  It is about Athenian.

The story is long, but I urge you to listen if you can find the time.  If you want to understand why we do Focus Friday’s, and AWE, and Round Square exchanges, and emphasize the Arts, and push so hard on core academic skills–this story is a great window into our mission and our thinking.  And if you want your child to visit the schools in Germany and Scotland started by Kurt Hahn, then just have them sign up for a Round Square exchange, for those two schools, like Athenian, were founders of that organization.

Part 2 of the story helps you understand why we are thinking so deeply about Athenian’s public purpose, the service we are supposed to do as an institution beyond the great education we provide every day to our students.

I know I often say “the world has come to Athenian.”  This story another indication of that.

Enjoy as I take Athenian to the world for the next few weeks.  See you soon.


Photo of students sitting for individual reflection during 9th-grade orientation at Pt. Reyes.  Photo by Mark Lukach.

Making Global Connections in Singapore

By Mark Friedman, Community Service & Round Square Director

Tomorrow is the final day of the Round Square International Conference.  The Athenian students all report that they’re having a great experience.  Singapore is sitting in thick haze caused by forest fires in Indonesia.  There was heavy rainfall today, which cleared the air somewhat.  We even caught a glimpse of the sun for the first time since our arrival.  The poor air quality has led to several changes in the conference schedule, but even Plan B has been of high quality.

Singapore1Today was service day at the conference.  We were supposed  to be off-campus, but because of the air quality the students did the service work at school.  Many delegates worked at the United World College of South East Asia’s (UNCSEA) elementary school, while some worked with senior citizens that visited the school.  The late afternoon brought an amazing collection of nonprofit leaders to campus.  I went to hear Janne Ritskes, who founded Tabitha Cambodia 20 years ago.  The organization has done amazing work to alleviate poverty in Cambodia, with its unique and painful history.  Signapore2The UWCSEA has been involved with Tabitha for 19 of its 20 years and sends 80 students to Cambodia each year to build houses with them.  Very inspiring!  I went down to meet Janne after her talk and to explore the possibility of bringing a group of Athenian students to Cambodia to work with her organization.  Then, in the evening, the conference hosted the world premiere of the film ‘Life is One.’  The film is a moving story about protecting sun bears in Indonesia.  The filmmaker, Patrick Rouxel, was on hand and he is a UWCSEA and Cal-Berkeley alum.  He just finished the film last week, rushing so that we could see it.

Singapore3As great as the program is, the best part of the conference is the friendships that are formed with people from around the world.  I know our students are doing wonderfully at this, but to give you deeper sense of this, let me tell you about two of my conversations today.  I spent an hour this morning talking with Prince Alexander of Germany, who has been involved with Round Square for several decades.  (Prince Alexander is the person on the far left in the photo.)  While I’ve seen him at many Round Square conferences, we had never really spoken.  I asked how he got involved with Round Square and he proceeded to tell the long and fascinating history of how his family, under the guidance of Kurt Hahn, started Louisenlund School in the devastating aftermath of World War II in Germany.  Prince Alexander talked about Dyke and Kate Brown.  And Louisenlund is hosting next October’s Round Square International Conference.  At dinner, I sat next to a teacher from the Amman Baccalaureate School in Jordan.  Having been to Jordan for last year’s conference, I know a little about refugees in Jordan (e.g. there are currently about 900,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan).  We had an interesting conversation about Jordan’s amazing hospitality to refugees and the situation in Europe.

Singapore4Yesterday was Explore Singapore Day at the conference.  The adults and students were on different programs; the students headed into town first thing in the morning while the adults had a morning full of meetings.  My group of adults visited the Asian Civilizations Museum, toured the Singapore River on a bum boat, and visited the Gardens by the Bay.  The Athenian students are looking forward to spending a couple of days exploring Singapore on our own after the conference ends.  They spent Sunday afternoon and evening with their host families, so some of them already have ideas for places they want to visit, such as a henna shop in Little India with good prices.

Learn more about the conference.

Martial Arts and Climbing Coconut Trees in Bali

by Mark Friedman, Community Service & Round Square Director

IMG_9598 (1024x768)Greetings from Singapore!  We arrived here safely this afternoon.  The theme of the conference and the pre-conference trip in Bali is environmental sustainability.  We arrived in Singapore in the midst of an air pollution crisis.  The air in Singapore is thick with gray haze, smoke really, from fires in Indonesia.  The pollution was so thick one day last week that they had to close all the schools.  Gratefully it’s not that bad right now.  The efficiency of Singapore was also on display.  It was a long ride to the airport in Denpasar this morning through a sea of motorbikes.  Despite the fact that the airport is on one side of Singapore and the Dover Campus of the United World College is on the other, the bus never had to slow on our long cross-town drive.

bali1Yesterday we toured a silk factory.  We were able to see each step of the silk-making process and then got to do batik, which is an Indonesian art form.

bali2First thing on Wednesday, we participated in a session on waste management.  After discussing how waste is managed in the different places represented by the schools present, we split up into small groups to walk the nearby dirt roads and pick up trash.  It was a great way to explore the neighborhood.  Bali is full of Hindu temples; there are two within feet of the school and we hadn’t seen them before.  There is no trash or recycling pick-up in the Green School’s neighborhood, so some families just toss their trash outside their compound.  Amazingly, the Green School has its own recycling center where people can bring items.  We brought our trash there and sorted it into one of the 20+ categories of items they recycle.  At the end, there was only a little that had to go to a landfill.
Then each student got to climb a coconut tree.  Almost every Athenian student made it to the top!  (And don’t worry, the students were belayed and wearing helmets.)

bali3Lunch was a special meal and we were served a traditional Balinese feast.  Bamboo mats covered the floor and large banana leaves were laid end-to-end.  On the banana leaves was spread lots of great food.  We sat on the mats and ate with our hands.  We were told that this is the style of dining for a feast where everyone is considered equal, a significant event in a society with a caste system.

bali4One of the highlights of our time in Bali was participating in the Balinese martial art of mepantingan that afternoon.  We heard we were ‘mud wrestling’ and dressed appropriately.  But we began with no mud in sight, standing in a circle on the field.  Two Balinese men led us in simple martial arts stances and movements, with some vigorous call-and-response chanting—and a healthy dose of laughter.  They taught us a couple of moves and had various members of our group come out and practice on them—or on each other.  Then we walked over to a little oval amphitheater nearby, whose floor was covered in six inches of muddy water.  And they led the group in a similar version of exercises there—except it meant getting wet and muddy and getting others wet and muddy.  Various students wrestled with the instructors or with each other.  What a blast!

The late afternoon and evening?  The students had been working in small groups discussing issues such as consumerism, overpopulation, and waste management.  In the late afternoon, each group wrote a shadow puppet show about their theme and cut out puppets to accompany their show.  And the evening activity was watching the ten puppet shows, which were both serious and funny.

IMG_9592 (1024x768)We ate breakfast at the airport in Bali this morning and reflected on our time there.  The students talked about how part of what made their week in Bali so great was that all the Athenian students tried their enthusiastic best at every activity—and they wanted to bring that spirit back to their daily lives in California.  They said that being around the delegations from the other schools made them appreciate even more the respectful relationships they have with their teachers at Athenian.  And they were excited to keep exploring environmental issues having already spent a week thinking about them.

We’re excited to begin the Conference now that we are in Singapore.  More to come!

Greetings from Bali!

by Mark Friedman, Community Service & Round Square Director

The singing and chanting we heard falling asleep the first night is from a nearby Hindu temple.  This has happened each evening.  There is also morning chanting, which I’ve used as an indicator that it’s time to get up.  I’m reminded of the Muslim call to prayer, which was such a significant feature of our experience in Jordan at last year’s Round Square conference.

Bali1As it turns out, the folks at the Green School weren’t able to organize meaningful service work for us all.  Instead, we have an action-packed program of experiential activities.  We’ve made paper from bamboo leaves, created traditional Balinese votives, learned how to do Balinese dance, had a laughter yoga class, and made chocolate sauce from scratch.  We’ve learned how some Green School students got a law passed banning plastic bags in Bai and discussed consumerism.

Bali2We got a tour of the Green School our first day here.  The Green School has amazing architecture.  The ‘heart of the school’ is the largest bamboo building in the world.  The computer lab is on the second floor, the library on the third floor, and there are many art classrooms scattered around its edges.  That night, we went on a ‘night safari’ on the campus.  Our leader was able to find a tree frog, toad, praying mantis, chameleon, and snake by shining his flashlight around in the trees and bushes.

Bali3Yesterday we went on a subac walk through a nearby village and rice fields.  The hike started at Bali’s largest banyan tree.  The Athenian student group insisted on a photo under the tree in honor of the book they read in 9th grade, Under the Banyan Tree.  For a good part of the walk, we hiked along an irrigation canal.  The canal has a few tunnels that we walked—or in my case, crawled—through.  The Balinese irrigation system was developed 500 years ago.  It still works without any machinery and distributes water to people throughout the island.  It’s so amazing that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site a few years ago.  Interestingly, our side of the valley was owned by the village and had corn and rice fields.  The other side of the river had high-end hotels and expensive homes.

Bali4This morning was spent learning about sustainable agriculture—and working at it. The Green School grows about 35% of the food it consumes. We worked in the compost shed—they have a couple of cows, whose manure helps enrich the compost—and the plant nursery and gardens.  In the afternoon, the students were split into five groups of five students and each group had to build a raft.  They were given inner tubes, bamboo poles, and lashing materials.  Afterward, we floated for 60 minutes down a wide irrigation canal.  It was great fun and a wonderful way to see some more of Bali.  Two of the other teachers and I drifted behind the students in inner tubes.  After the students’ rafts had all passed but before I’d arrived, a half-dozen boys ripped off their clothes and jumped into the canal to swim and then playfully followed us downstream.

In addition to Athenians, there are students on this preconference trip from South Africa, Australia, Peru and Canada.  The Athenian students are doing a great job of making friends and taking initiative.  The head of an Australian school commented on their comfort sharing their opinions and taking leadership in a group.  Yesterday, the 60 students were split into two teams for an afternoon activity and Brian Li was selected the leader of one of the teams.  The Athenian students are having a great experience and representing Athenian beautifully.

Using Student Funds for Plants and Earthquake Relief

Today’s last Town Meeting of the year involved a proposal asking for $100 of Town Meeting funds to purchase 12,000 native, drought-tolerant milkweed seeds that attract monarchs.

During the meeting, friendly amendments were added to include $450 for outdoor furniture and using the remaining $450 for Nepal earthquake relief. The resolution passed.

Thanks to this year’s Town Meeting officers–Dina, Tessa, Ryan, Lauren, and Ryan–and to those taking over next year–Anna, Cade, Madelyn, Eli, and Arman!

Milkweed Proposal
Submitted By: Ryan D. ’15 and the E and C period Environmental Science classes
Up for Decision

Whereas: Athenian takes pride in its environmental pillar and planting milkweed will provide our campus with more native plants that are drought tolerant.

Whereas: Milkweed would attract monarch butterflies, which would add a beautiful aspect to our campus.

Whereas: Monarch butterflies are soon to be endangered and Athenian can provide a sanctuary for these butterflies on their migration from Canada to Mexico.

Resolved: The E and C period Envi Sci classes request $100 of town meeting funds to purchase milkweed seeds for the purpose of planting these seeds in approved places on campus.