So much fun it’s scary

For years Liggett’s first-grade students have been paired up with seniors at the beginning of the year. The Senior/First-Grade Buddy program connects students from the different divisions for fun events and is a way for the first-graders to feel comfortable as they see the big kids in the hallways. And on Halloween, the first-graders choose the costumes they and their senior buddies will wear.

What’s so nice is how much the seniors buy into the whole idea. One first-grade boy dressed as a monkey had an entourage of a banana, a jungle explorer and The Man in the Yellow Hat. Batman was surrounded by the Joker and Robin. Little Orphan Annie had her dog, Sandy, Daddy Warbucks and evil orphanage matron Mrs. Hannigan. A young Ghostbuster had two senior cohorts and together they fought the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow guy. A young girl obsessed with birds wore a peacock costume that was imitated by her senior buddies. These all and many more paraded together through the Middle and Upper Schools, where students clapped and cheered, then through the Lobby and into the gym where parents, grandparents and others cheered the songs performed.

But it wasn’t just Lower School and seniors taking part in the festivities. Upper School sneaked in a pumpkin-carving contest during advisory; winners get a free dress day coming up.

Take a look at the pictures of both events and you’ll see a vision of a school that acts as one, even despite the range of student ages. It’s a school that looks for ways to connect everyone and bring them into the welcoming arms of family.

By Ron Bernas

A ruble for your thoughts (on post-Soviet rebuilding)

The post-Soviet economy is being created in a small room on the first floor of Liggett’s Upper School.

The game is called Privatization, but Post-Soviet Eurasia teacher Matt Van Meter says “it’s Monopoly for big kids.”  The students designed the rules of the game, but what Van Meter wants the students to contemplate is how, overnight, does a country move from a public-property-based command economy to a private-property-based free-market economy. He planned this two-week project for the end of the class’ study of the Soviet era and the beginning of its study of what happened when the Soviet Union fell. The stakes are heady: The students with the highest net worth at the end of this week receive a big bag of Russian candy.

First, students created the rules of the game. That took a week of discussion, with different political viewpoints being raised and debated. The rules were a group project on which the class was given one grade. One of the important rules: To level the playing field, the students decided the government would issue everyone a 1,000-ruble voucher. Their incomes were determined by choosing income brackets from a hat, following the historical pay scale at the time of the Soviet Union’s fall. Students could then buy factories, kiosks, offices, corporations, mines or shops for a price they set themselves. After a certain amount of time, the students get another distribution of their salary and Van Meter, using an algorithm, determines the worth of the properties students can purchase. It is up to them to decide whether to ride out the volatility of the unregulated market they created or sell and put their rubles into something else.

A few students created a mutual fund through a contractual agreement that was allowed under the rules. Some formed quieter alliances. One student brazenly counterfeited the bills Van Meter created and was caught early on, mostly because he bragged about what he was doing. One student is sitting on a pile of cash made from an investment she made early on, hoping that by holding on to currency, she’s going to have a more stable portfolio.

After this project is completed this week, he hopes the students will have a better understanding of what happened when Russia began its free-market economy. “I wanted them to reinvent the wheel,” he said, so he was pleased that the students didn’t simply look up what Russia did and model their game rules on that. In fact, the students unknowingly made some of the same mistakes Russian leaders did and there will be repercussions for that later in the game.

And the historical fact he is about to begin teaching will be presented to a group of students who have some practical understanding of what he’s talking about, giving them the ability to delve deeper into the topic and the discussions that are coming. All that from a little game.

By Ron Bernas

Walking the walk

A child learns what he lives, or so goes the old poem that was posted in almost every doctor’s office and elementary school room for years. Today, we say that in different ways, but the sentiment is the same: Model the behavior you want to see.

That’s part of what was happening recently when the volunteer students in our Academic  Research Project Skyped with educators at Harvard’s Project Zero about their experiences as the first group of students taking on the daunting task of spending their senior year working on an in-depth research project. Liggett faculty wasn’t allowed to hear what the students told the Harvard researchers who helped them set up what will be the culmination of four years of high school under our Curriculum for Understanding. The researchers will use the student’s data to help us evaluate the effectiveness of this groundbreaking concept and ensure that future students benefit from the work done this year by our ARP volunteers.

But Liggett’s faculty isn’t waiting for Harvard to evaluate the ARP. The students involved in it are keeping weekly journals of their successes, failures and eureka moments and reflecting on how they advanced their understanding of the topic they chose to study and their research into it.

Shernaz Minwalla, Director of Upper School Curriculum, said the journals are a great way to monitor the work without overseeing it. One of the biggest challenges students tell her, is that they are in complete control of their own time. It’s also one of the biggest benefits, they say.

The volunteer ARP students recently talked to the ninth-graders in Research and Discovery, a course designed to introduce the freshmen to the skills they will need to pull off their own advanced research project in just three years’ time. The ARP students spoke to all the ninth-graders in small groups and helped de-mystify the program. One spoke about her project, a study of the evolution of the Spanish language over time and another spoke of his plan to create an underwater inhabitable structure. The freshmen quizzed the seniors not just on their projects, but on their journeys and they had lots of questions.

One freshman told the ARP student “We’re supposed to study something we’re passionate about but I’m not passionate about anything right now.” Another said, “I’m freaking out about this project.” But, like anything, gathering information and seeing examples of how it can be done calmed some fears. It’s more than these volunteers had when they jumped feet-first into the project.

After they heard from the seniors, the freshmen came to realize that they will be capable of  pulling off a major project as required. They also learned that the R&D class they are taking is something they will draw on later as they embark on the project so they better be invested in the class. (That advice came from the seniors.) And they also came to understand that  for the next couple of years they should keep a watchful eye out for a topic that might inspire them, for their passion might come from anywhere.

By Ron Bernas

We’re All Behind Our Baseball Team

A school doesn’t live in a vacuum. Our teachers bring the world into their classrooms as ways to show their students what they’re learning is important outside the school’s walls. One Upper School class is even studying the presidential election, looking at issues and everything else that factors into the campaigns in a way they never get in a different kind of social studies class.

Which brings us to the Tigers. In 2006, the last time the Detroit Tigers were in the World Series, a good chunk of our Lower School population wasn’t even born or was too young to even understand. But this is 2012 and while our younger students still may not understand, they know something exciting is going on and it has to do with baseball.

Students were given a free dress day to wear Tigers T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts and anything else with orange and blue and a mean looking cat on it. Nearly every student had something on that fit the spirit of the day. Two recent transplants from San Francisco wore Giants gear with pride and took only a little ribbing.

But it was more than simply a shirt that showed our spirit. Jody DeVee, Food Service Manager, switched today’s planned menu (chicken pot pie) with Thursday’s and gave us a taste of the ballpark with coney dogs and popcorn. In the Lower School, the physical education team of Biffy Fowler and Joe LaMagno brought down the batting cage and students went from station to station practicing baseball skills. Even in choir, vocal music instructor Grace Fenton taught students a song Tigers fans of a certain age can sing by heart. And from the heart.

True, it doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things: It won’t help the team score or play better defense or hit one into the bay in the Giants’ stadium. But what the heck, it was a day of learning colored with a little orange and blue fun.

Go Tigers! With Liggett behind you, how can you lose?
By Ron Bernas

Keep your eyes peeled

University Liggett School has been making news for more than a century, so it’s no surprise that every now and then someone from our community finds some news about Liggett in the oddest places.

Dr. Michele Ondersma found this page from an old newspaper while walking down one of the halls at Partridge Creek Mall in Clinton Township.

The photo story shows archers and softball players from Liggett’s past. Our girl athletes are still going strong and making news, for more than 100 years.

If you come across some memorabilia from The Liggett School, Grosse Pointe University School, Grosse Pointe Country Day School or Detroit University School take a picture and send it with some information as to where you found it to Ron Bernas and we’ll publish it here. And thanks for looking.

By Ron Bernas

Eloquent Students are our Best Ambassadors

Harrison Wujek knocks on the front door around noon on a beautiful fall Sunday – arriving before the admissions staff had even unlocked the building for the fall open house. He is the first of many student volunteers to arrive for the event. (Technically speaking, Matthew Breen arrived two hours earlier, but he’s not really a volunteer because his dad has dragged him to open houses since he was 5 years old.)  Andrew Amine, Alec Josiatis, Andrew Zinkel and several other seniors are not far behind. Throughout the afternoon, they will lead student panels, present a scene from the fall play and discuss athletic participation with potential students and their families.

Before too long, dozens of other students fill the lobby – all in school dress, all ready to speak to a favorite aspect of our school. Meanwhile, admissions staffers stuff goody bags, peel the cellophane of the cookies and crackers and wheel carts of folding chairs through hall. Soon Nicholas Wu and Andrew Almasy have their robot in motion and Cherron Jackson is welcoming the first of 99 student visitors.

The goal of our information session is to put learning – and our Curriculum for Understanding – on display. To that end, 24 instructors set up presentations from one end of the campus to another. Connie O’Brien arrived early to display what her Pre-K students had learned in a recent unit on germs. That unit had our youngest learners partnering with Upper School biology students and peering through microscopes to see what germs really looked like. Similarly, throughout the Lower School, other teachers discuss Project Based Learning and display the students’ acquisition of knowledge on topics ranging from Monet to dolphins.

The new Middle School sparkles with technology as visitors play detective in Mr. Bandos’ crime scene unit, and learn how technology assists the writing process in Ms. Stevens’ class. Of course, the Upper School is again our busiest division with approximately 150 visitors roaming the halls and learning about the role of research and discovery in our curriculum.

By 3:30, the cookies and crackers are all gone and the teachers have packed up for the day. As the staff wheels the chairs back to the closets, they talk about the real stars of the day: the 50 or 60 student volunteers who gave up a Sunday afternoon to speak about the distinctive qualities of our school. These students are never scripted nor are they paid for their three hours of service – save for the Jimmy John’s sandwiches they will enjoy during lunch today. They are, however, sincere, enthusiastic and eloquent. There is no question they are the true ambassadors of the school. From here, they will head home to tackle homework that awaits.

For most of the visitors, one of the true takeaways from a day like today is a greater understanding of how busy and engaged our students are each and every day of the school year.

By 4 p.m., the last “volunteer” helps his dad lock up. For Matthew, the reward of a seven-hour work day is a prearranged trip to Gilbert’s for a burger and some extra quarters for the grabber machine. From there, it’s home to study for the big science test … all in a day’s work at Liggett.

By Kevin Breen, Director of Admissions

A Civil Political Discourse

On Thursday, a democrat and a republican sat on the stage of the auditorium in front of the entire Upper School student body. One was Clark Durant, a 1967 graduate of Grosse Pointe University School and — until he was beat in the primary by Pete Hoekstra — a republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. The other was Bill O’Neill, a former democratic state rep from Allen Park.

Students from Scott Pangrazzi’s American Government: Electoral Process class asked prepared questions of the two and they answered politely and informatively in what was essentially a forum on the political process of today. The two agreed on many issues and disagreed only by degrees on other issues. And that surprised the students.

“It was anything but crap politics,” said Elisha Sword, using a word Durant did during the forum. “It was informative and didn’t go into partisan views.”

They wondered why that was and, after discussion decided it was because the students asked the experts their personal views, not their party’s views. Other questions didn’t offer room for viewpoints: “How involved are candidates in the day-to-day details of their campaigns?” Durant said in his most recent bid, he spent 85 percent of his time raising money, so he had to have a staff of people he trusted doing the detail work. O’Neill said the lower down the food chain the office, the more work the candidate does for himself.

Pangrazzi told the students to base their questions on the prompt: What would you ask President Barack Obama or his challenger Mitt Romney if you could, and students asked about the influence of PACs and reforming schools and taxes.

Senior Alec Josaitis said he was surprised by how informative the two were. “It was a good real-world application of what we learn in this class,” he said. Ashley Rahi said the candidates put the information in simple terms that could be easily understood even by people who may not pay much attention to what’s going on in the news.

Student Andrew Amine said the forum was also a way to help inform students not in the class about election issues, though the class admits that there isn’t much discussion about the election among their peers. That may be because most of them aren’t eligible to vote yet.

Some of the students said this class has given them the knowledge and confidence to enter into political discussions. A few said they are trying to bridge the gap between parents of different political philosophies. And because our politics are first informed by our parents, these students are carving out a space in the middle. And that’s a step in the right direction toward more civil political discourse.

By Ron Bernas

What’s Not at the Book Fair

First off, let’s just get this out of the way: It has no connection to that “Shades of Grey.”

Ruta Sepetys’ teen novel “Between Shades of Gray” is about a 15-year-old girl in 1941 Russia who uses art to deal with the horrors of war. Sepetys’ book has earned rave reviews from critics and was expected to be a big seller at the Book Fair that took over the Lower School multi-purpose room last week. The other series that swept the world this summer isn’t for sale here. But just in case there was any confusion, some thoughtful volunteer put a Post-it note on the stack of Sepetys’ book. It read: “This is not what you think.” Or maybe it was meant as a warning to parents who might be disapopinted after buying it and finding good, quality literature between the covers. Who knows? Either way, the subject was the butt of many jokes over the past few days.

The book fair, run by the Lower and Middle School Parents Associations, closes Thursday, but it’s been notable for a few things, and not just the title of one book. In keeping with our year of unity, the two Parents Associations joined forces in one book fair and bake sale (in the past, the Middle School one was held in the spring).  Dozens of volunteers helped set up, bake and work both the fair and the bake sale. And hundreds of kids poured in, each Lower School class coming in turn to create wishlists. On Thursday, parents armed with the lists scoured the fair for the titles their children wanted. There was a lot of negotiating because, frankly, a collection of cheat codes, though in book format, is not in the spirit of a “book fair.” Neither, frankly, are make-your-own necklace kits, erasers shaped as toilets (with plungers for those extra big mistakes), sticker books or pens that make funny faces when squeezed, but that’s what Scholastic sends us to sell.

Big sellers this year are still the “Hunger Games” series by Suzanne Collins and one of her earlier books, “Gregor the Overlander.” Also a must have is “National Geographic Angry Birds,” a book by National Geographic that has an Angry Bird on the cover, but is filled with educational material about real birds from around the world. Among the picture books, the best seller is “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” by William Joyce. Also of note is a book called “How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous” by Georgia Bragg and Kevin O’Malley about how famous people have died. On the wishlist for many adults is Cooking Light’s Slow Cooker Cookbook. It’s flying off the shelves.

So if you’re interested in buying a book for yourself or others — teachers and librarians have filled out registries for items they want in their classrooms — come on by. It’s for a good cause: The Parents Associations use the proceeds to fund other events for students.

And there’s nothing gray about that.

By Ron Bernas


Dig It If You Can

The Archaeology Dig has long been a staple of the sixth-grade curriculum: Students, studying ancient civilizations, learn about excavating, what can be learned from a dig site and even write their own paper in the voice of an archaeologist from the future looking at one of our common, everyday items.

But the dig — unearthing artifacts, getting their hands dirty and getting out of classes for a day — is what they look forward to. And they had a great one today at a family farm in Brighton Township.

The Warner Family Farm has been owned by the same family for 170 years and the current owners have been digging up their family history for the last six. Tim Bennett, a descendant of the Warners, opened up the site to Liggett for a second time. They’ve only allowed one other school to have the experience of working the site, but they were so impressed with Liggett last year that they allowed us back.

After a few preliminaries as to how to dig and sift, the students were given units — 30-inch square plots of land — and told to go ahead. Students were to keep records as to where in the unit they found items, but the excitement of the finds, which came thick and fast, was too much for them. “I found a nail!” “Is this piece of glass important?” “What’s this?” The artifacts, many of them more than 100 years old, Bennett guessed, were only inches below the grass.

The red and orange groups, digging in adjacent units, discovered a curved band of metal fairly early. They kept digging and digging and digging, all the time finding other items — a piece of chain, an item that looked like a railroad spike, plow parts. It wasn’t until after lunch they fully unearthed — with hoots and hollars — the relic, which Bennett believes is the band from an old wagon wheel. Bennett’s wife said it was the largest artifact unearthed at the site to date. Other metal pieces nearby had to be left, as they couldn’t be fully unearthed by the time the little archaeologists had to leave. One of the volunteer mentors looked like a kid in a candy store as the students held the band over their heads. “This is so cool,” he said.

 By Ron Bernas


The Companionship of Long Distance Runners

Runners seem a solitary lot. When running, they’re often alone and even when they’re with a couple running buddies, they drift into themselves after a little chit chat during the warmup and the early stages of the run.

Liggett’s small but determined cross country team has a lot of fun with each other, even during practices that separate them along ability and personal motivation. Two recent early Saturday morning practices in very different places show how.

A cold, rainy morning saw nine runners, led by coaches Trey Cassidy and Lindsay Bachman, take to the dirt paths and hills of Stony Creek Metro Park. As we pulled into the park, the rain that had been spitting on and off for the nearly 60-minute trip out  turned into a full-on shower. But the grumbling was minimal. And magically the rain stopped. As we gathered our courage, a shout rang out and a group of the runners took off  toward a small growth of brush then  disappeared behind it. They returned after a few minutes talking animatedly about how cool it was to see a beaver up close and how much fun it was going to be to run in the metropark if that was the kind of surprises it had in store. Hats on, coats on, water and potty breaks done and we were off, all in a pack.

Groups gradually split off from each other, some going for hillier terrain, others needing or wanting less of a workout stuck to the wider paths. And even these groups got smaller as slower, but no less determined, runners fell behind. And even during the workout, when they had to work to keep breathing, the runners found a way to exclaim in amazement when three deer crossed the path in front of them, or shout greetings when they came across one of the other groups. Late fall flowers kept the landscape interesting and the trees hinted at the colors they were about to reveal. As they came to forks in the trail, the runners gathered around the maps to determine which way they would take: “We’d better go this way; it’s longer and we still have 20 minutes before we’re supposed to be done,” they reasoned. As the run progressed, the sun nudged the rain away and by the end of the 70-minute run, the sun shone and the runners had a good sweat to show for their efforts. And it was snack time, which the runners seemed to look forward to most.

This past Saturday a smaller group of runners set out for Stony Creek again but not long into the ride decided to turn around and run on Belle Isle, which was for years the site of the Liggett-hosted Wayne County Championship cross country race. This run was on pavement and the wildlife was a little different — geese, seagulls, a stray dog — but there is as much beauty to be found in an urban sunrise as there is in one over the forest. The island, despite its setting, seemed almost quieter Stony Creek had been. A bell tower chimed 8 a.m. as we ran past; a private concert. Again, it wasn’t long before the runners paired off, doing the loop around the island in their own time. But when they got back to the car, so returned the easy camaraderie and support they give each other at all times. Good-natured teasing and jokes at each other’s expense punctuated the car ride to school. Danielle pointed out a tree she planted along Jefferson Avenue as part of a Liggett day with the Greening of Detroit. And back at school, the runners didn’t seem to want to leave each other, though there was homework to do and lawns to cut and the other family obligations that fill students’ weekends.

There are few better ways to start a weekend than being among a group of people who genuinely like each other and make you feel part of something bigger, even as you go it alone.
By Ron Bernas