Everywhere you look, art

The word of the day at school was “art.”

Teachers started their day — when there’s an all-school late start like today, the faculty and staff generally take part in meetings or training — in a mini seminar on Artful Thinking. It’s a program developed by Harvard’s Project Zero, with whom we are working to develop and implement the Curriculum for Understanding. It addresses several points of the C4U all in the service of helping students develop thinking routines that help them think deeply and flexibly about, to start with, art. But once those skills are learned, they can be transferred to all disciplines.

The six thinking routines are collected on what Harvard calls the Artful Thinking Palette; they are Reasoning, Questioning and Investigating, Observing and Describing, Comparing and Connecting, Finding Complexity, and Exploring Viewpoints. Teachers use these concepts to get students to think critically about anything from a story in English class to a problem in math to an experiment in science. Students can use each of these different thinking routines, or dispositions, in various ways, connecting and overlapping their techniques, to come to a deeper understanding of anything.

This theory has been used across the country and it seems to help students create meaningful connections between disparate subjects and come to a deeper understanding of those subjects and of themselves. It has been used enough to show that thinking skills can be cultivated, just like artistic skills, by practicing them often. It’s something we work on every day with the C4U, Developing critical thinking is important as we ask students to — in the words of the C4U — examine what they encounter in their lives and imaginations and embrace or reject it as they move to a higher level of questioning.

Art was also the subject of presentations made by artist Dennis Orlowski to the Upper and Middle School students. Orlowski is the artist whose works are on display in the Manoogian Arts Wing through the end of the year. Orlowski, a muralist and portrait painter,  discussed his work that adorns, among other places, the walls of St. Anne Church on Mackinac Island, a restaurant in Detroit and the Clinton Macomb Library. He explained the works — and how he got the opportunity to paint them — to the students then demonstrated his skill by drawing a portrait of a student.

He showed them the basics they need to make realistic drawings. They have to know the skeleton and how the muscles fall on it; that when drawing eyes, they must start with a sphere, an eyeball is, after all, a ball. They need to know the proportions of a face — for instance, did you know the ears fall between the eyebrows and the bottom of the nose? — to make it look right. And all these things must be second nature to an artist.

It’s those skills, Orlowski said, that must be cultivated, before you can take your art to the next level. It’s the same with thinking skills that must be developed to take understanding to a higher plane.

By Ron Bernas

Superheroes and supervillains of chemistry

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… the Chalcogen Charger?

Um, who?

The Chalcogen Charger, healer of mankind who’s able to fly in space and see great distances with his laser eyes and, if he needs to, freeze time. He got his powers in 1916 after a fateful encounter with the radioactive element Polonium.

The Chalcogen Charger is one of many new superheroes and supervillains created by Adam Beck’s tenth-grade chemistry students. There’s also TriMetallia, who can throw balls of fire at her enemies; the Degenerizer, whose powers include creating electromagnetic fields to repel metal bullets and bombs, and the Mad Cad Mercury Man, who was once a good guy, but can now kill people with his zinc oxide breath.

The idea for the project, says Beck, was for students to look at a specific group (column) of elements on the periodic table. The properties of each element in the group must be used to create either a superhero or supervillain.

The heroes and villains are in groups similar to the better-known Justice League and the Legion of Doom, but for purposes of this class, they’re called The Mendeleev League or the Legion of Newlands after the two men who were the first to organize the periodic table into something like what we know today.

This is the third year Beck has done this project and the idea is that students get to understand periodic table group trends, because all elements in a group behave similarly. It also individualizes the learning and students get a real in-depth knowledge of at least a portion of the periodic table.

The Chalcogen Charger, for instance, uses oxygen to heal and polonium to fly, wears a heat-resistant tellurium outfit and sulfur to preserve or freeze time.

The project works, Beck says, because students are encouraged to be creative, synthesize the information they know about the elements and turn it into a backstory that relates information from the periodic table to their character’s history, and teamwork because the project is done in teams of two. All are tenets of our Curriculum for Understanding.

This is the third year of the project and what Beck finds fascinating is that every year the students’ creations are completely unique. “None of them have been anywhere near any others,” he said. He has similar experiences earlier in the year with a project in which students must create ads for elements.

And hey, can’t we use a few more heroes these days?

By Ron Bernas

Keeping in touch

In the last few years, Liggett has invested a lot of time and effort reaching out to its alumni across the country. Our directors of alumni relations have organized mini reunions and receptions in Chicago, New York, Florida, Washington, DC, and California, where there are large concentrations of Liggett alumni.

Head of School Dr. Joe Healey usually attends and maybe one of the other members of our Department of Institutional Advancement does too, and it’s this personal contact that is so beneficial to our school and, as we have heard, our alumni. They seem to enjoy getting together — even if they didn’t know each other or went to one of our predecessor schools decades earlier. They all have in common the Liggett experience and they say they enjoy reliving it by sharing memories. They also enjoy hearing, from someone in charge and not just from former classmates through the grapevine, the plans for the school, our impressive enrollment increase, the Curriculum for Understanding and all the other successes our school has experienced in the past couple of years.

They also share their stories about Liggett. At a recent New York event one man told about how the extra help he got in French here after school led him to work in French-speaking African countries as part of the Peace Corps and later in his career as an attorney.  One alumna was excited to see the name of her first-grade buddy on the attendee list.

But this isn’t all we do for our alumni. We’ve created an Alumni Reunion Weekend (the next one is May 17-19, 2013), bumped up our offerings on Homecoming, hosted alumni sports games and created an Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame. Our Alumni Board of Directors now includes members from across the country. This year we even took a group of Liggett ladies on a tour of the former school on Burns Street in Detroit.

There are several reasons for our increased efforts. First, our alumni have fascinating stories to tell about their time at Liggett. They helped make the school what it is today and they are an unparalleled source of information about the school.

They are also an important resource for our current students. Our alumni have served us as mentors for our senior project in the past and are helping our Academic Research Project students with their major project that is the capstone of our Curriculum for Understanding. One alumnus, after meeting with a member of our staff, agreed to return to campus to talk with the students about his career with Google.

We also have the pleasure of personally thanking people from far away who have made donations, both big and small, to the school. Hearing why they give is often heartwarming and always inspirational.

But what we want to let alumni know most of all is that they may be far away and they may be a long time gone, but they’re still, and always will be, an important part of the Liggettt family.

By Ron Bernas

A blog for all seasons

Long gone are the days when students are asked to write a paper or do a project for class in which the only person who sees it is the teacher. And the days of displaying an especially good test or drawing on a refrigerator with a magnet are going away, too. Today’s students, and especially those here at Liggett, are putting their work out for the world to see.

Last year, Upper School writing students in Dr. Jane Healey’s class created a blog for their work called Insert Blog Name Here where they shared their essays and creative writing for others to read and comment on. This summer, rising sixth-graders blogged about the books they read during the break. Even the first-graders in Mrs. McCauley’s class are in on the act, writing about what they learn about dolphins and Mrs. Coyro’s parents get information from a blog dedicated to just their classroom. (All these blogs, including Head of School Dr. Joseph P. Healey’s, can be found in under “Other Liggett Blogs” to the right.)

Sure, blogs can be entertaining but, frankly, they can also be a major time suck. (How many times have we clicked on something and found ourselves knee-deep in a well-written, snarky series of posts about everything from sports gossip to political maneuverings? Or is that just me.) But teachers find many benefits from classroom blogs and it’s much deeper than “gee whiz, look what we can do!”

To begin with, it’s a tool for collaboration, one of the five tenets of the Curriculum for Understanding. When a student sees another’s work and compares it to their own, it often encourages them to put forth a little more effort. And if someone comments — with a question or an opposing viewpoint — a student is put in the position of defending or reexamining his ideas from another angle. Comments also allow students a way to express their questions or thoughts they might not feel comfortable saying in class.

In some classes’ blogs, students are asked to link to articles or information that pertain to the class and add their two cents’ about the link they provide, creating something like a crowd-sourced textbook for their classmates and a series of real-world stories and issues that can lead to lively discussions.

Student blogs can also be something of a digital portfolio for seniors applying for colleges and a way for parents to see what’s happening in class with their kids, especially those who only say school was “fine” on any given day.

Our Academic Research Project volunteers have recently updated their project blogs with a summary of what they have done so far and a reflection of how their project is progressing. The ARP is the capstone of the Curriculum for Understanding and the students who volunteered to participate this year are laying the groundwork for the students who come after them. These blogs should serve as inspiration for future students and for parents of future students who want to see their children do work like this.

Take a moment to read these blogs and you’ll be impressed with your children and with what’s going on in the school. You must be invited to read some of them, that’s for privacy, so if you click on one and it doesn’t come up, that’s probably why.

Share them with friends and family — it’s a great way for distant grandparents to keep up with their grandchildren — and let everybody see what good work is being done by students at Liggett.

By Ron Bernas

Giving thanks

Sure, it might be a little trite, but that’s what the holiday season is for, taking stock of what we have. So here’s what we’re thankful for at Liggett.

A full school: Enrollment has risen every year for the last five years and this year Liggett opened with 615 students, our highest enrollment in about 12 years. We have waiting lists in most grades and already people are lining up to apply for next year.

A united campus: Sure there have been growing pains — that’ll happen when you add 120 students to one campus — but the feeling of unity is one that can’t be beat. It’s opened up all sorts of ways for students to interact. Watching the students from different divisions interact in the hallways is heartwarming, as is seeing the seventh-grade students teach Chinese to the the fifth-graders. Plus the Middle Schoolers seem to enjoy scooting through the courtyard as they head to classes in the arts wing, or go to lunch.

Engaged students: More than 80 percent of our students participated in a fall sport in the Upper School, with an equal representation from our Middle School students. Even the fifth graders got into the act on the cross country team. The Upper School play saw only seven or so people onstage, but dozens more building sets, creating costumes, working lights and sound and doing the other technical work that let the actors shine. About 20 Middle School actors brought their play to life, with more behind the scenes. But the fall is behind us and the athletes have moved to new sports and the actors are completing auditions for the spring musical today. Students also give of their time giving tours to students interested in Liggett and spend many hours helping in the community. At times it seems as though the students don’t want to leave here, and that’s a good thing.

Involved parents: Our parents help in so many ways, it’s hard to keep track. They help in the classrooms with projects and feed the hungry sports teams after school. They share their expertise with students. They plan and staff Homecoming events. They attend our Parents Association meetings and organized the book fair and bake sale. They spent months ensuring our recent auction, Liggett Knight, had exciting items to bid on, looked elegant, was well attended, ran smoothly and raised a lot of money. It had all those things and more.

Dedicated staff and faculty: There aren’t many schools at which faculty and staff know the names of so many of the students. That’s because they care about them and work with them on many levels — with curriculars and extra-curriculars, helping the students understand the importance of reaching higher and trying new things. It’s a big part of what gives Liggett its family atmosphere.

Alumni: Our alumni are still connected to their alma mater and come back often to talk to students about their lives after Liggett and their fond memories of the school. They are a dedicated bunch and — along with our parents — are the school’s best ambassadors.

Generous friends: The school could not do what it does so well without the generosity of our donors. A major recent gift of $4.25 million from the John A. and Marlene L. Boll Foundation helps us make plans for new sports facilities and better playing fields for our athletes. The recent event raised nearly $200,000 for the school and our most recent annual fund collected more than $1.1 million, our biggest figure ever.

These are just a few of the many reasons we take the time this weekend to give thanks. We hope you have as many reasons — and more — to celebrate at this time. We are truly blessed.

Leave a comment here to let us know what you are thankful for and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

By Ron Bernas

Why athletics are important

Last year, University Liggett School created the Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame to honor its storied athletic past. Thirteen people — athletes and coaches — have been inducted, the second group in early October. These athletes come from all our predecessor schools, Detroit University School, The Liggett School, Grosse Pointe University School and Grosse Pointe Country Day and their accomplishments date back more than half a century.

Haleigh Ristovski, Connor Fannon and Mark Evan Auk.

Our current student athletes have been making their own history in recent years. Our girls basketball team went to the state finals two years in a row only to suffer heartbreaking losses. Our baseball team won the state championship in 2011 and made it to the finals again in 2012, but came up short. Also in 2012, senior Madison Ristovski was named Miss Basketball, an honor given to the best all-around basketball player in the state and signed a national letter of intent to play at the University of Michigan. Senior Alex Daar was named Mr. Baseball, an award that recognizes the top players in the state.

This year, even more success. In the last week, three seniors — surrounded by teammates, friends, family and coaches — have signed national letters of intent to play sports at the college level.

Last Thursday, Connor Fannon signed his letter to pitch for Oakland University, and today Haleigh Ristovski signed to play basketball for the University of Detroit and Mark Evan Auk signed to play hockey at Michigan Tech.

Athletics is important for many reasons and at Liggett all students are required to participate in at least two seasons each year in the Upper School. There are more than 40 sports teams offered here, from the Middle School on up. Why are they so important? It’s because, as Head of School Joseph P. Healey said at the hall of fame induction last month, when students find success in one area, it can lead to success in others. Students who may not lead in the classroom find they rise to the top on the field. That’s why there are no cuts in our sports programs: If you don’t experiment with something, you’ll never know whether you will like it.

The three students who signed letters of intent this week found their passions on the baseball diamond, the basketball court and the ice. Others will follow in their footsteps, as they followed in the footsteps of athletes like those inducted into our hall of fame. But as nice as it is to have the prestige that a stellar athletics program brings our school, we always keep in mind that it’s not the athletes that make the athletic programs, it’s the athletic programs that help the athletes find themselves.

By Ron Bernas

A Little Knight Music

Middle School arts students were treated to a chamber music concert first thing this morning by one of the top clarinet soloists in classical music. They heard the music of Poulenc, Bernstein and Saint Saens and, wrapped around that, heard about the importance of finding and following your passion, something we work hard to encourage students here to do.

Arthur Campbell is a world-renowned clarinetist who also happens to teach at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University. He says he loves performing for students because he enjoys introducing music to students who may not have heard much classical music before and almost certainly never have seen a live classical concert before. Campbell, accompanied on the piano by his wife Helen Marlais, talked to the arts students and helped them understand the importance of practice. They talked privately to a couple of the more serious Upper School musicians about their work.

Actually, the two make a distinction between what is “practicing” and what is “rehearsing.” “Practicing,” they say, is learning the music; “rehearsing” is what they are doing when they put the two parts together. Practicing is the nuts and bolts; rehearsing is the making of music.

Campbell said he knew early on that he wanted to be a clarinetist. His father, a businessman who played the jazz clarinet for fun, paid Campbell to learn piano accompaniment to songs so the father would have someone to play with. Campbell switched to clarinet and said he knew he would have some kind of music career. What he has, he says, is the perfect career for him.

He and his wife, also a pianist and teacher of note, tour the world as the Campbell-Marlais Duo, playing in the world’s most famous concert halls, and earning rave reviews. They were recently nominated for the 2013 International Classical Music Awards. It’s one of the most prestigious distinctions for classical musicians today. They both also teach music. In addition to playing the the classical clarinet canon, he is also widely known for his interpretation of contemporary classical music, and composers from across the world have written music for Campbell to perform. It’s a career that has allowed him to play music he loves and see the world at the same time. Not bad.

Campbell told the students that practicing makes rehearsal more fun: “If you get up at home plate and haven’t practiced how to hit, you’re going to hate playing baseball.” And learning to practice while you’re young makes it easier later in life. (They might have bought that, but then he said he’s “only” practicing three hours a day now.)

He told students they can follow their musical dreams, even if they have other aspirations. Campbell encouraged a former student of his who loved playing the clarinet and wanted a business career, too. Today that student is the director of operations for one of the country’s top orchestras, enjoying the best of both worlds.

It’s good, said instrumental music teacher Dr. Michael Palmer who arranged the concert, for students to see performers like the Campbell-Marlais duo because the exposure is good. And it’s also good to hear that if you follow your passion, you’ll make beautiful music.

By Ron Bernas

Music to our ears

In the hallway of the Manoogian Arts Wing sits a 1905 Steinway. It was donated to the school years ago and has been at the Middle School for decades. When we closed the Briarcliff campus in the spring, the piano came over with the grandfather clock, books, shelves, busts and myriad other things that gave the Briarcliff campus its charm.

It’s in the hallway because a piano without someone to play it, is a sorry thing indeed. Students have treated it with respect and some plunk out the tunes to popular songs or things they learned years ago before they stopped taking piano lessons.

Sophomore Jonathan Valente plays the piano after school and at times when he’s not in class, but it’s more than just simple tunes. If you’ve been to one of our art show openings, he’s the one at the piano improvising. He also has played for the school’s spring musicals. He brings the piano to life with Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu and, more recently, with his own compositions. He’s also been put in the role of caretaker of that piano and the other piano, a Boston, in the Studio. It’s a job he seems to enjoy.

Valente started playing the piano in 2007 and he began composing in 2009. He was a quick study and it’s been recognized. He has spent two summers studying piano at Interlochen and, if he goes again this summer, he wants to study composition. And just to present a fully rounded picture of Valente, we should say he was recently named MVP of the JV tennis team.

Valente recently shared his compositions with the entire Upper School at a presentation. He told how he composed his pieces, where his inspirations came from and what he hopes to do with music in the future: compose music for films.

Valente’s film scores are written on the computer, where he can orchestrate easier and hear the results instantly. Because he didn’t have a film to score, he put his music to stock footage of scenes of nature. It was a beautiful pairing. He gave the presentation because Dr. Michael Palmer, the Middle and Upper School instrumental music teacher, wanted to show the rest of the student body how creativity — one of the five tenets of the Curriculum for Understanding — works. It was an impressive show for someone so young. And it proved that you’re never too young to find and follow a passion.

By Ron Bernas

Bringing the outside in

Two very different presentations to students today had one thing in common: One person can make a huge difference.

Students in grades 4-6 were treated to an hourlong interactive talk about how energy is made and how they can do simple things to reduce energy use. The Think! Energy program was presented by members of the National Energy Foundation and sponsored by DTE.

“This fits in with our ‘greening’ program,” said Upper School Science teacher Russ Glen. “We try to reduce electricity usage around here by participating in the Green Cup Challenge and this is a way for the students to take this outside the school.” The Green Cup Challenge is an annual contest among schools who try to reduce their electricity usage during a particular time period.

Students learned the difference between a windmill and a wind turbine, used their bodies to make a closed circuit that turned on a light, saw how coal becomes electricity and got to handle a piece of coal. The two presenters, who have been doing this for years, had one main rule: Don’t lick it. The students easily followed that rule, though all tried many ways,  unsuccessfully, to break it.

The students returned home with a kit designed to help them move their families toward preserving our resources. Included were light bulbs, a shower timer, aerators for faucets and a book of tips on how to save energy and, therefore, money. Parents can find out more about this program at www.dteenergy.com/kids.

In the Upper School, the talk was much more serious. Representatives from Invisible Children, the group that brought African warlord Joseph Kony to the world’s attention earlier this year through a viral YouTube video. People watched it and shared it on their Facebook pages and soon people around the world were watching a short documentary on the Lords Resistance Army, which has been abducting, killing and displacing civilians in east and central Africa for more than 20 years.

The video, which has more than 93 million views so far, was the subject of news reports around the globe that asked whether YouTube was the new face of activism, seeing as it went viral so quickly. The success of the video also led to its downfall. Filmmaker Jason Russell was first interviewed about the success of his effort and shortly afterward, about the backlash that accused his film of being inaccurate, lies and a scam. It wasn’t much later that Russell was hospitalized following a very public breakdown.

The entire story of the video and the reaction to it was presented in a pretty frank video shown to the Upper School students. A young Ugandan man who had lived in fear of Kony’s army asked the students to keep up their interest in apprehending Kony. A meeting Saturday in Washington, D.C., will bring high-ranking officials to the table to see whether they can work together to find and arrest the man being called one of the world’s worst mass murderers. Millions of people are expected to march in D.C. Saturday during the meeting to show their support. Students purchased T-shirts and other items to support the cause and sent emails to world leaders urging them to send representatives to Saturday’s meeting.

The people from Invisible Children also talked to Upper School English classes, where students view everything they study through a lens of an essential question that addresses the ethical nature of human beings.

One representative of the group discussed the ethics of what they do. The group Invisible Children has made the world aware of the atrocities being done by Kony and his army, but “Awareness without action is meaningless.” Just one person can make a change for good.

In fact, that’s why Invisible Children was at the school today: One student, Ania Dow, asked them to come. Dozens more,  upon hearing the information, made donations and purchased items to help the group fund its mission. They took signs for their lawns, hoping to inspire that one other person.

It’s all about the power of one person.

By Ron Bernas


A unique class and its work

At Liggett, we encourage students to find their passion and follow it to an academic discipline. We also allow our faculty to do that, and it shows in the types of electives Upper School students have to choose from. There is a class on Post-Soviet Eurasia, a look at anti-heroes in literature, a playwriting class and, as offered by history teacher Brad Homuth, a class called Historical Persuasive Writing.

History, Homuth says, is the study of conflict, and he has carefully chosen five historical movies as the launching points for his course. As his class’ webpage explains, “History is an ongoing, continually evolving debate. Historians examine historical evidence and then discuss their interpretations with colleagues. We commonly participate in these discourses when we read the many books published on endless historical topics, but this dialogue also occurs within the classroom as we think, interpret, theorize, hypothesize and debate. We are a part of historical discussion; we define it, refine it, and push it into new directions. Our work is the work of historians; we are developing the ideas and thoughts surrounding history’s topics.”

In the class, students explore the conflicts in each film they see and during the process, they form questions, research sources, and craft a discussion that contributes to the study of history. The carefully selected films are “The Last Samurai,” “King of Hearts,” “Motorcycle Diaries,” “Argo” and “Blood Diamond.”

The films were chosen for many reasons, they are various styles — a big Hollywood sweeping epic, a comedy, a true story, a fictional story based on fact — but mostly because they deal in conflict. As they watch each movie, students post questions and comments on a webpage from laptops — each student’s comments appear in their own identifiable color — so the conversation begins as the movie unfolds. The students and Homuth can comment on each other’s questions and ideas as they are posted.

“The technology aspect is very important to the class,” Homuth said, “because I want the students to be able to see the movie without me interrupting it. I could literally stop the movie every couple of minutes to comment on what’s happening, but this allows them to experience the movie and raise their own questions. It’s not about ‘is this film historically accurate,’ but ‘what did you find interesting in the themes it raises?’ We want much more academic thought.”

When students write papers based on the movies, the topics are as diverse as the four students in the class. After watching “King of Hearts,” a student researched the critical reaction to the film in France, where the movie was made, and the United States. Homuth said the student found that the anti-war message played better here in 1966 when we were embroiled in Vietnam than it did in France, which was enjoying a time of peace and prosperity.

“That’s what’s great about this class, the questions are the students’ and their papers reflect that,” Homuth said.

The other technological aspect of the class is that students post their papers, in progress, to a wiki site and the other students must review the work and comment on it. “It’s important to see what others are writing and that we see how students are forming their questions and theories.” Long gone are the days when students’ research projects are for an audience of one, the teacher.

Homuth is so proud of the work that he wants the Liggett community to read it. Click on the link above and you’ll see why. Then leave a comment for the students if you wish.

By Ron Bernas