Leaving the Nest: Seven Faculty Members and Staffers Retiring in 2020

As three iconic faculty members and four trailblazing staffers leave the nest this year, their combined 172 years of service deserve a moment in the spotlight. They have taught and nurtured our students, helped build our community and culture, and their legacies will carry on.

Tina Nott, retiring Math teacher, was a founding member of the Middle School faculty, a co-founder of Middle School Focus Days, and the second woman to teach Math at Athenian. Joining Eleanor Dase, Munzer Afifi and Lester Henderson in a combined Middle School/Upper School Math department, she joined Athenian in 1982 and helped realize a vision to have more women teach STEM. 

Retiring French teacher Elisabeth Bertschi, who joined Athenian in 1986, brought with her “whole child” approaches to learning. Her rubrics for refreshing her curriculum were decades ahead of their time. Though she came to Athenian straight out of graduate school, she had a natural ability to connect with students. 

Retiring staffer Debbie Schafgans joined Athenian in 1987, initially in the Development (now Advancement) department. She was also a pioneer: the first staffer to use a personal computer for core elements of her role and one of the first to manage the digital integration of her department. 

As with Debbie Schafgans, retiring staffer Debra Ataman’s role evolved. She joined Athenian in 1997, working in Reception before becoming the Assistant to the Director of Special Programs in 2001. In the years following, Debra became heavily involved in community outreach and ultimately went on to be a key member of our Summer Programs, contributing to its significant growth over the years.

When asked about why Athenian staff and faculty are so well-equipped to play a variety of roles, former Head of School Eleanor Dase pointed to the many opportunities for faculty and staff to show leadership, such as chaperoning trips, organizing fundraisers, providing leadership in Round Square, Interim/March Term, and much more. If self-determination and grassroots organizing are part of Athenian’s DNA, it’s clear why retiring employees Lydia Guzman, Elise Jan and Barbara Carlino were so effective.

Lydia Guzman began her career at Athenian in 2000, serving for 20 years as the Attendance Officer. She also co-advised the Latino Club, raised more than $17,000 for the Monument Crisis Center over the years after co-founding the Tuesday Nacho Sale, organized the annual Athenian Pink Day to benefit breast cancer and served a run as Dean of Staff. Along with Debbie, she was an early regular attendee of the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference (POCC) and an early champion of equity and inclusion at Athenian.

Barbara Carlino, who joined in 2007 as Upper School Counselor, founded longstanding programs as well. She co-created ASAP (the Athenian Sexual Assault Prevention Program), started the school’s peer counseling program, and shaped curriculum and culture by carrying out Athenian’s health education program for many years.

Mandarin teacher Elise Jan, who came to Athenian in 2009, is yet another lauded language teacher. She developed an innovative method of instruction that helped students achieve a level of fluency that wasn’t obtainable through classic approaches. Along the lines of holistic participation, she also chaperoned several trips abroad. 

Beyond what these outgoing women contributed as trailblazers from a curriculum and culture perspective, they contributed greatly to our enjoyment of the school. They gave hugs. They played pranks (we’re looking at you, Tina). They performed in countless Staff and Faculty Talent Shows. They were treasured friends. We will miss them all. 

Presentations of Learning

Athenian’s ongoing efforts to focus on mastery as we define student success has led us to experiment with when and how students receive feedback on their learning. In addition to written grade reports, parents are invited to attend conferences with their students’ teachers at the end of the first quarter. Students receive feedback directly from their teachers and then self-reflect with their advisors. Depending on the grade level, students then prepare a presentation of their learning so far this year.

Middle School

Sixth graders don’t receive grades at all in the first quarter. We want students to focus on areas of strength and growth rather than letter grades as they transition into middle school. Instead, sixth graders get comprehensive rubrics with comments from each of their teachers that assess their development across the following learning areas:

  • empathy
  • readiness to learn
  • collaboration
  • quality of work
  • demonstration of learning
  • mindset

Students then reflect with their advisors on the rubrics and develop a Presentation of Learning for their parents. They share strengths and areas of growth for each class and conclude with three general goals: academic, social, and how they will contribute to the community.

Unlike former models in which each teacher would share something about the student, now students are at the helm of these presentations. Students are at the center of this process and have active ownership of their growth and development.

6th graders also have the opportunity to share coursework including their identity shields with their parents. Aa part of an introduction to the tools in the Carter Innovation Studio, students craft wooden shields that represent various parts of their identity. Guided through a number of reflective exercises, students choose areas of identity to focus on in each quadrant of their shield, such as family, social, academic, athletic, religious, physical, or community identity. They learn how to use the laser printer, 3-D printers, and hand tools to assemble their shield and they write a poem or short prose.

Upper School

The Upper School has a similar student-centered model for conferences. All Upper School students reflect with advisors to prepare a self-assessment of what is going well in each class, what they could do better, and what specific actions they can take to improve. In addition to assessing their classes, they examine co-curriculars, social life, health and wellness, time management, and their home life. During conferences, all students in 9th grade and many students in 10th-12th grades present their reflections to their parents and advisor.

By scaffolding the reflection process with written feedback from teachers, in-person meetings with advisors, and student-written reflections, students are central in the evaluation of their own learning. These models encourage students to think creatively about how they can improve with attentive support from the adults in our community.

Hacking Summer

A group of Middle School students worked with teacher Meng Liao to form a Hackathon team this summer. On August 18, 37 students from China and America joined the Code Quest Hackathon at Stanford University as part of the CodeCombat and Tarena International Coding Tournament.

The international tournament challenged students to build collaborative projects that were evaluated by professional judges and volunteers from Stanford, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Using Python, groups coded a CodeCombat game in a three-hour time limit. They then demomstrated their project and presented it in front of the panel of judges.

The Athenian students performed outstandingly and won a number of prizes. Click on the name of their team to play their Hackathon games!

Committee Grand Prize

Team Anti-Hackers (Neal Chohan ‘24)

Team Dream Chaser (Quynh-Anh Nguyen ‘24)

Champion in Creativity & Computational Thinking

Team Code Hack (Charlie Langendorf ‘25)

Silver in Creativity

Team Normal (Sabrina Chang ‘24)

Silver in Computational Thinking & Bronze in Best Collaboration

Team Kings (Owen Williams ‘25)

Silver in Best Collaboration & Bronze in Computational  Thinking

Team Joker (Kaustubh Pullea ‘24)

Bronze in Best Presentation

Team Little Yellow Crab (Adam Zhuang ‘25)

Bronze in Best Collaboration

Team The X-Men (Sebastian Vargas ‘24)

Traveling to Colombia and Coming Back “A Whole New Person”

by Lev Dufaux ’23

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts that highlight Athenian’s Pillars, the foundational values that we share with all Round Square schools. This installment is a speech about International and Multicultural Understanding delivered by 8th grader Lev at Morning Meeting to the Middle School.

We had hiked for about an hour or so, the air thinning more and more with each step up the mountain. Our conversations began to slow as we rose over 9,000 feet. Once we neared the top, gasps and yells of excitement broke out of our airless lungs. Our dewed faces lifted when we saw a big blue-green gleaming lagoon cradled by a bowl of jungle, like a potion being brewed in a witch’s pot. Last year, I went to Colombia for a Round Square conference that Athenian annually takes part in, along with three other Athenian Middle School students.

The Round Square trip was an opportunity to bond with people all around the globe, immerse myself in a culture very different from American culture, and develop leadership skills that will help me and others create a better home for everyone. South America was new to me, and I had no idea what to expect. Colombia led me through a whole other culture; it almost felt like a new world. Like a hug and kiss whenever you meet someone, or the smell of exotic food that lingers through the air. When I explored Colombia, I experienced new flavors, new landscapes, a new language, and a very loving community. Dancing was a very big part of my trip there. We had dance competitions to our favorite Reggaetón songs, laughing at how terrible we were at Cumbia. We tried all kinds of new wild Colombian flavors, my personal favorite being hot chocolate and cheese, which melts on your tongue like cotton candy. I met all kinds of new people, not just American and Colombian, but also Chilean, Peruvian, Mexican, Brazilian, Canadian, British, Argentinian, and Danish people.

One moment that changed who I am today was when we did a service project in a small school in the mountains. At the school, we created murals, made a new playground, took care of the children, and made the school a more enjoyable place. When we sat there in the worn down schoolhouse, I realized that the kids were not super young, but closer to my age. Later, our guides told us that they were so small because they didn’t have easy access to food. Keeping these children in mind keeps me grateful for my community, and it compels me to help others. Knowing that I made these children’s lives a little better keeps me focused on leading because it changed not only their lives but mine as well. I became inspired to stand up and lead, and I now feel comfortable sharing my opinions.

Never have I gone on a trip to a foreign place and come back as a whole new person. I met so many new people that I still talk to this day, and more often than not I find myself thinking about all the great experiences I had with all kinds of wonderful people. I miss the smell of freshly made ajiaco soup pouring out of small restaurants and the taste of homemade arepa that gives you a reason to step out of bed in the mornings. I miss the warm hugs and kisses when you meet someone. I miss my good friends that I made that I still talk to today. I haven’t forgotten about Colombia one bit, and still keep a part of it on my wrist every day, a bracelet the color of the Colombian flag. Special thanks to Esteban and Cynthia for organizing and supervising the trip, and to Kyle P., Kate L., and Maddie G. for coming along with me.

I Can Cook!

Our Athenian 8th graders were in for a delicious treat for the first ever I Can Cook Focus Day! The idea behind this Focus Day was to give our students practical life skills and an understanding of the work and effort that goes into preparing a meal.

Earlier in the week, students were asked to get into groups of three or four and pick two recipes to prepare. The recipes were chosen from a list curated by the faculty and included dishes such as guacamole, chicken nuggets, meatballs, pasta, and lasagna, all from scratch.

The Focus Day began with an enthusiastic field trip to our local Safeway. Students were each given $20 and copies of their recipes, and they had to determine what to buy. Pantry staples, such as spices, flour, and eggs were provided for them to help keep them under budget, but many still struggled with finding the items they needed while staying within their price range. Students made it work by exchanging brand name supplies for store generics as well as by collaborating with other groups to share items they both needed. While the groups did manage to stay on budget, many students were surprised at the price of groceries. One student was particularly scandalized that three avocados would cost more than a third of her group’s budget!

Once we were back on campus, half of the groups were given cooking stations to begin prepping their meals. Lanny Lee, our Middle School art teacher, gave the students a comprehensive safety lesson on how to properly use the burners, knives, and other kitchen essentials, and then the students were given one hour to make their dishes. There was much trial and error involved: one group realized that it helps the cooking process if you turn the burner on, while another learned that subbing out vegetable oil for olive oil will give your chicken nuggets a green tint. A general panic ensued when we gave students a fifteen-minute time warning, but all of them managed to have a plated appetizer and main course by the time the rotation was over.

While half of the students were cooking, the other half were filming them and creating cooking shows. This involved going to each group and filming them cooking, pulling the chefs aside and doing interviews about the cooking process, and having non-chefs weigh in as announcers, hosts, or food critics. The students were given free rein as to what style cooking show they wanted to create, and their products were as varied as the food that was prepared.

At the end of the rotation, each cooking group shared samples of their food with the filming crews, who then rated each group based on appetizer taste, main course taste, and food presentation. We collected all of these scores to determine a “top chef” group for the rotation. We took a break for lunch and then the cooking and filming groups swapped places for the afternoon.

The focus of the day was cooking and filming, but the skills that the students learned and practiced on Friday extended far past cooking a meal or using iMovie. Students had to create and stick to a food budget, using creative solutions if they ran into a problem. They had to work as a team, taking turns being chefs and sous chefs on their dishes, and supporting their team members throughout the cooking process. They had to manage their time effectively, making sure that they weren’t focusing too much of their time on their appetizer at the expense of their main course. And they had to hone their ability to stay on track in the face of distractions, specifically, a horde of their peers filming their every move.

Overall, it was inspiring to see how the 8th graders cooperated and encouraged each other through the process. During the afternoon rotation, many of the videographers were offering tips to the chefs by letting them know what worked for them or what obstacles they ran into while cooking similar recipes. There are few opportunities for the whole grade to spend the entire day together, and it was a great bonding experience for this cohort.

Book Expo: A Community Partnership

A few weeks ago, Athenian hosted its second annual Book Expo. While our Book Expo shares a lot in common with other book fairs at other schools, there is quite a bit that makes it uniquely Athenian. It was important to us that we make this Book Expo a community event, so we partnered with Orinda Books, a local independent bookstore and every title that was showcased at the Expo was hand chosen by one of our librarians or an Orinda bookseller.

While a major purpose of the Book Expo is to encourage recreational reading among students, it also catered to our adult community. We wanted to give parents an opportunity to come on campus, meet our librarians, and browse titles for their children as well as themselves. We stocked a variety of popular adult fiction and non-fiction titles, which were a big hit. Ten percent of all book sale proceeds went to support our library program and 10% of the proceeds went to Bella Vista, an underserved elementary school in Oakland that we have a longstanding partnership with. This year we raised nearly $400 for these causes, which will go towards purchasing books for both libraries.

With the money we raised from the Book Expo last year, we were able to purchase more than 50 new books for Bella Vista’s library. Because community service is a foundational pillar of the Athenian community, we wanted to do more than just donate books. Eight students from the Middle School and Upper School Library Advisory Boards got together in June to visit Bella Vista and read books to their K-5 classes. The students paired up, chose a few favorite picture books to read, and went to three different classrooms during their visit. The elementary students were so excited to have visitors—they enjoyed being read to, and the older grades had fun with Q & A sessions afterward, asking our students questions about middle and high school life. Our students ended the day feeling like they had made a positive difference and were excited about future partnerships. We look forward to our next trip to Bella Vista!

Middle School Focus Days: Kicking Off the Year with Fortune Cookies, Flowers, and Film

Focus Days are in full swing in the Middle School! Focus Days are designed for students to find relevance and deep meaning in what they are learning, connecting content with interpersonal skills while engaging in hands-on activities. Last week, we had three action-packed days that encouraged our students to get creative, get moving, and get out of their comfort zones:

The 8th graders had a field trip to Chinatown in San Francisco, where they got to explore the neighborhood and learn about its history. Their day started with a trip on BART, followed by a guided tour of Chinatown. In their English classes, students have been reading stories by Amy Tan. One of the highlights of their tour was the First Chinese Baptist Church at Waverly Place, featured prominently in The Joy Luck Club. Later in the day, students talked about the significance of Chinatown as an immigrant community and also had the chance to hear faculty tell their own family immigration stories. Sama G, ’23 said, “I very much enjoyed learning immigrant stories. I also loved having 30 minutes to roam around with friends. The boba was spectacular and the fortune cookie factory was interesting.”

The 7th graders also ventured out to San Francisco on Friday to visit the Botanical Gardens and the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. In small groups, they investigated different species suited to a variety of ecosystems, from the ferns that grace the Ancient Plant Garden to the towering trees in the California Native Redwood Grove. Students were asked to observe and draw the plants they saw, paying special attention to how they have adapted for survival in different environments. After a quick lunch break, the 7th graders hiked over to the Conservatory of Flowers to continue their adaptation reflections while marveling at carnivorous plants and tropical flowers.

Meanwhile, the 6th graders got the Middle School campus all to themselves. Their Focus Day, Tool Cool for School, showed them how to use a variety of physical and digital tools that will be relevant throughout their Athenian careers. The students spent half of their day in the new Carter Innovation Studio, learning “making” fundamentals in their creation of an art piece using hammers, nails, and string. The string art they created is integrated into the Identity Projects that they have been working on in their English classes. The second part of the day involved students using iMovie to create a film titled “The Hilarious Tale of a 6th Grader’s First Month at Athenian.” In groups of four or five, students had to write scripts, film, and edit their movies, which were shown at the end of the day to much laughter.

Let’s hope that the rest of the year is full of Focus Days that are as exciting and fulfilling as the ones we experienced on Friday!

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.

Faculty Play Pokémandala Go

Ever wonder how Athenian faculty get ready to dive back into the school year? This year, we played Athenian-themed Pokémon Go! Which really means we had an elaborate scavenger hunt on campus framed around the Mandala, our blueprint for quality education. Just as we ask our students to get out of their seats and/or put their hands and minds directly on the materials, our Deans of Faculty designed an opening game that would get us moving, talking, feeling, and thinking. Activities included writing a haiku about the Center for the Arts, singing a ditty about the Dase Center, calculating the number of people who could lie down in the Peanut (the grassy area in the Middle School), taking a selfie with the AWE Gate, and writing a poem about the School’s campus and land. We thought we’d share some of the creative thinking that came out of our talented Upper and Middle faculty in just one short hour. See how many types of thinking and learning you can count.

Haiku About the Center for the Arts

Shine paint into fire
Sway bodies cheek to moon
Here we mold desires

Hands oozing in clay
Bodies swirling to the dance
Creating magic

Metaphor made real
Heads hidden among the trees
Student legacies

Lights and camera
Songs, music of the ages
Dance sculpt create live

Sound Movement Beauty
All of you joined In this house
Alas, no parking

Building late at night
Dancing, singing, creating
Gather and reflect

art lives here always
reflecting what’s in our souls

Clay bust enigma
Dancing acting and building
Magic happening

Methods for Calculating How Many People Can Fit in the Peanut

17 Esteban leaps across the length of the peanut, 10 Esteban leaps across the wide part of the peanut, roughly 4 people per leap, we estimate 500 – 680 adults lying down with an average person height of 5 ft 5 inches.

333 adults will fit in the peanut lying down.
9 yd radius
5 yd radius
We calculated the approximate diameter of each of the two approximate circles of the peanut. We assumed a person takes up one square yard.

Our answer is 378 people. Lying on the ground, we figured that a person fit in a square yard. We paced off the two circles of the peanut and averaged the two to find roughly a rectangle of 27 yards by 14 yards. Since our yardage is easy…one person is one square yard…out 378 square yards means 378 people.

We used computational thinking to separate the problem into parts and then wrote an algorithm to compute the solution.
3.14 x 27 squared
= 2289.06
2289 + 594+157= 3040
Avg human height = 5 ft 6 inches
3040/7.15= 425 people

350 adults (average 5.5 ft grand 1.5 ft width) lying on their backs, minimum, adjusting for curves, tree and rocks.

We think 380 adults could lie down in the peanut. We added and averaged all our guesses.

340 people
Method: Took nut, made it into 2 circles. Found area of each. Added together. Estimate area of average person. Divide.

The Land

golden rolling sacred
ground squirrels

So many stories
What’s truth?

Monte mistranslated mountain, thanks invading Spanish.

Blessed abundance
Invaders besieged
Global redemption

Alluding Spaniards; Murrieta’s hideout; inspiring growth.

Devilish beauty; “nothing gold can stay”

Mountain breeze
Our Home

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?