Advancing Diverse Instruction Since 1878 — My day as a sophomore

By Bart Bronk
Head of School

Head of School Bart Bronk is shadowing a student in each grade level to experience the University Liggett School approach through the students’ eyes.

One of the most persistent educational myths of the last three or four decades professes power of individual “learning styles” to impact the educative process. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the notion that each individual had a learning style – be it auditory, visual, or kinesthetic – that worked best for him or her, and others that decidedly did not work, swept the globe. Incredible resources were poured in to helping teachers diversify their instructional styles and identify, and cater to, what worked best for each student. As recently as the mid 2010s, some 90% of teachers professed belief that this idea was indisputable.

Recent advances in neuroscience, however – chief among them the ability to monitor brain activity in real time, via MRI, during cognitive activities – and a wave of scientific reviews critical of flawed research that failed to meet the rigorous scientific conditions necessary to prove that such individual predilections exist have largely debunked this theory (see this terrific article from the April 2018 Atlantic if you are interested in learning more).

The reality is that our brain, which advances in neuroscience continue to prove is far more complex and interconnected than previously imagined, learns in all these ways. Each of us is capable, excepting those with diagnosed sensory processing issues, of learning through sight, sound, and touch, and we all employ all of those tools in learning processes in appropriate measure depending on the task at hand. A teacher catering to one exclusively and intentionally provides no tangible benefit.

The best teachers then, of course, use their own toolboxes of instructional strategies that cross these sensory boundaries and create learning opportunities that are diverse and engaging.

That’s just what I experienced in my day shadowing sophomore John K. Our day began in Ms. Kendall’s yearbook photography class, where John and classmates were engaged in the visual exercise of selecting and editing photos based on desired traits – composition, color, and tone – and learning about what makes a photograph particularly engaging to the viewer.

In Senor Carunchia’s intermediate Spanish class, we were immersed in an auditory/verbal learning process. Students mastered the future tense in small group conversations about their upcoming weekend. Interestingly, rather than give English counterparts for Spanish words he was using that the students had not yet encountered, the teacher used visual cues – hand motions – to indicate the word.  The exercise was both practice and performance – valuable skills for our students to have.

In Mrs. Galea’s chemistry class, we participated in a sweet – quite literally – kinesthetic exercise. To kick off their study of stoichiometry – the study of chemical reactions – students were using ingredients and their Bunsen burners to make S’mores and discovering what limiting reactants were (in this case, chocolate).

Continuing our experience in STEM, Mr. Hartigan’s algebra II class was a powerful example that visual learning itself can be diverse. Rather than simply relying on symbolic images – numbers and operators – to introduce the students to logarithms, graphs and real world examples related to velocity and distance were used to illustrate how logarithmic relationships work.

We ended our day in the Mr. Guedes’s U.S. history course, which focuses closely on the history of the city, state and region, where students were working in a team on projects to communicate their understanding of the reconstruction era in Detroit. Their final project was to create an Escape Room – in the upper school faculty lounge no less – which required demonstrated knowledge of the era to solve physical clues. In teams that ran the gamut from research to puzzles to refreshments, teams worked on creating a kinesthetic experience that reflected their deep understanding of the topic.

I regularly profess my admittedly biased belief to students that there is “no such thing as a bad day at University Liggett School.” This day, on which I experienced learning I could hear, see, touch – and even smell and taste – was a great one.

Advancing Flexible Thinking Since 1878 – My Day as a Senior

By Bart Bronk

Head of School Bart Bronk is shadowing a student in each grade level to experience the University Liggett School approach through the students’ eyes.

I found my guide, senior Maria P., in second period yearbook class in the school’s Mac Lab. She and her classmates dove right into the work, each finalizing a set of pages for the first submission of this student-produced annual publication, which was due in a few days.

As the advisor, Mr. Pangrazzi and the editor, Maria, checked in, team members were engaged in a variety of tasks, including writing, editing, photography and graphic design. I was struck both by how independent –and yet interdependent, as students sought feedback from peers throughout –their work was, and how the class demanded flexible thinking and problem solving in the pursuit of a tangible outcome in ways that mimicked the real world.   I could have just as easily found myself in a newsroom on deadline or corporate marketing department and seen the same traits and skills displayed.

Intellectual flexibility and dexterity were indeed the themes for the day. After community time, we attended ARP in which seniors worked on their individual projects. Maria benefitted from an extended dialogue with her instructor Dr. Larson in choosing which path her project on the role of neuroscience plays in criminal behavior and the criminal justice and corrections systems might take.

Mr. Butzu’s Shakespeare class featured an engrossing discussion on the motivations of Polonius related to his daughter Ophelia, her relationship with Prince Hamlet, and his own standing with King Claudius in which students capably drew support for their interpretations from two texts – the Bard’s original play and Kenneth Brannagh’s filmic interpretation. So compelling and well supported were their arguments that Mr. Butzu confessed to having his “weekend plans ruined” by the students’ challenging of his own longstanding interpretations of the play.

The power of student voice and intellectual risk-taking were equally amplified in Dr. Lam’s Eagle and the Bear course on U.S.-Russian relations. Student presentations on Russian’s information warfare tactics and recent aggressions against Ukraine in the Sea of Amoz were followed by team meetings on group research projects; Maria’s group is investigating the role of the Space Race in the 1960s as a proxy front for the Cold War.

The day ended with a standard deviation scavenger hunt in Mrs. Harris’s probability and statistics class, in which student teams of two (selected via random probability, of course) encountered and solved real world problems related to standard distribution. The level of movement – and enthusiasm – was certainly unlike the math classes I remember!

I ended my day as a senior heartened by Maria’s estimation that it was a “pretty typical day at Liggett.” If “pretty typical” means intellectually energizing, student-centered, and dynamic, we have a lot to be proud of.

The Academic Research Project: High-Level, Immersive Growth

Liggett graduates say they enter university head and shoulders above their peers because of the academic rigor and challenges they faced as students at Liggett. They are already experienced in critical reading, research assessment, and exploratory questioning – even more so if they completed an Academic Research Project, or ARP, while at Liggett.

The ARP is like no other high school assignment. For two years between 11th and 12th grade, Upper School students live and breathe a topic that springs from their own individual interests and passions. They dig deep, ask big questions, and consult trusted resources. Then, under the guidance of a Liggett teacher-mentor, they create a research proposal before diving in to immersive, research-intensive work.

“We teach the kids to start big, and then narrow it down,” explains Shernaz Minwalla, Assistant Head of Upper School, Dean of Student Life, and ARP director at Liggett.

Liggett students aren’t just Googling or wandering the library stacks — they are assessing existing research, validating resources and querying subject experts. “All 12th-graders make some form of contact with an expert in their field of study,” Minwalla says. “Some even do their own authentic research. One student worked at Henry Ford Research Institute under the guidance of a researcher. Another worked collaboratively with an orthopedic surgeon.”

The ARP subjects are a diverse as the students’ interests. Some are medically focused, while others embrace specifics of engineering. Some parse geopolitical movements, scrutinize the impact of historical eras, or dissect the implications of art forms on a specific population. Some students produce products or find solutions to challenging global problems. One student even obtained a U.S. patent on his design.

When a student can make a meaningful connection through the ARP, all students benefit. “We welcomed the National Theatre of the Deaf for a workshop for a dozen students after school,” says Minwalla. “What a great partnership. It’s fabulous.”

Collaboration allows current Liggett scholars to connect with grads who walked in their footsteps just a few years earlier. Last year, a student in his final few semesters of a physics degree from the University of Michigan supported a Liggett junior to help him create his final iteration of his research proposal. It was a beautiful connection between a mentor who has completed university-level research and a student embarking on a full year of hard work, strong-footed on a focused path toward discovery.

At the end of each academic year, graduating seniors participate in the Celebration of Research to showcase their projects and cap off the ARP. It’s an event that is well attended by Liggett graduates, and offers teacher-mentors the chance to mine experiences to better the ARP program.

“Those who have just graduated from college, in particular, are able to share what got them to where they are now,” Minwalla says, adding that teachers are able to continually evaluate the Academic Research Project program based on feedback from these Liggett alumni — the very first who have completed the ARP in 2013. What was then a voluntary opportunity for interested students, the ARP became a part of the Liggett curriculum in 2017.

“They value the program, and during the Celebration of Research, they will come back and see how the program has evolved,” Minwalla says. “It’s a meaningful event for both our students and our alumni.”

What’s Your ARP? We asked senior Abigail Hung

Your ARP is about orthopedic reconstruction of the equine distal limb, which refers to a break in one or more of the bones from a horse’s knee joint to its hoof. You describe this type of fracture as one of the most devastating injuries in horses. How do you see your ARP making an impact on horses and other equine animals in the future?
Repair procedures must allow for the horse to stand almost immediately following surgery, and the current standard is locked plate fixation. It’s fairly straightforward. Plates are placed underneath the skin, and screws or wires are fastened in place to stabilize the area. While successful, the use of metal heightens the risk for infection and rejection. I’m working to come up with a repair alternative, another procedure, or a product that makes it easier for the horse to heal. The injury I’m researching is so devastating to horses, in part because their skeletal structure is built so that horses can’t redistribute weight over the other three legs without causing damage. I’d like to decrease recovery time and fatality rates following this injury.

How do you expect to present your ARP at the end of the year?
I’d like to use the standard poster board method to share my results, but I would like to have a physical product as well. My goal for my ARP is to design and produce a product which would work with the body’s natural healing process, allowing for faster recovery time and, hopefully, fewer complications. I’m in the development stage right now since it’s the beginning of the year, and I’m mapping out my research plan now. There’s a long road ahead!

How did you connect with your expert mentors?
My mom is from Alabama and she went to Auburn University, and my dad taught there for a while. My godparents have two friends who are professors at Auburn in clinical studies and I took the chance to talk with them. Dr. R. Reid Hanson corresponded with me, even though he was in Germany at the time. Dr. John Schumacher also gave me some good information. We discussed some high-profile cases, in particular Barbaro, a horse that won the Kentucky Derby, but shattered his leg in Preakness. We talked about why the surgery wasn’t successful and he recommended a book called Equine Surgery, which was very helpful. A wonderful thing about Liggett, though, is that our teachers have experienced so much. Ms. Dann knows so many people who can help me, and those in my class. They really can connect us to a multitude of resources.

What skills have you gained as a result of your ARP?
Organization and research. I’ve learned how to research something, where to look, and how to reach out to professionals in a professional manner. That will help me in college and certainly if I decide to become a researcher some day.

What have you learned about horses that surprised you?
Thoroughbreds are genetically predisposed to develop the horse version of osteoporosis, and much of this is with breeding. They have a lighter, thinner frame, like a greyhound, which is more aerodynamic, but more likely to break a bone. With thinner bones or higher porosity, the horse is lighter, but more fragile.

Always thinking critically

The first of the five Curriculum for Understanding tenets is critical thinking.

It’s defined in the original document by Head of School Joseph P. Healey as “the elaborate process of examining what we encounter in our life and in our imagination and consciously embracing or rejecting  moving to another level of questioning. Critical thinking clarifies goals, examines assumptions, discerns hidden values, evaluates evidence, accomplishes actions and assesses conclusions.”

But the students aren’t the only ones who we want assessing and examining information; our Upper School Advanced Research Program teachers must do this regularly as they continue to shape the curriculum and, in particular the ARP.

This week, the teachers tried something new. Based on feedback from last year’s ARP students, who expressed a need for more opportunity to present their projects in front of a group.

“The practice in presenting the material forces the students to articulate what they have learned and where they will go from here,” said Shernaz Minwalla, who has been shaping the ARP for years. “Answering questions demonstrates understanding of the concepts and processes involved. More importantly, many of the questions asked by members of the audience can further enhance their research.”

The students were split up into three rooms with five faculty members in each room. They had no more than five minutes to present their work. This was strictly timed. Students presented their projects in PowerPoint using at max, 10 slides with no more than 10 words per slide and no more than 30 seconds spent on each slide. Then it was opened for questions.

“The students asked excellent, pertinent questions that reflected their interest in the work of their peers,” Minwalla said. “The teachers have modeled how to ask questions that will add to the academic conversation; it was great to witness our students engaged in this questioning practice.”

For their part, the students found the exercise to be a way to assess what they have done so far and where they are going.

“More than one of them said ‘Just when I really started to get really tired of the project, I realized how far I had come and how much work I had done.’ They found it reinvigorated them.”

Minwalla expects that the final projects will be stronger because of the feedback provided by last year’s students that led to this week’s mid-year check-in. And that next year’s ARP experience will be richer thanks to the feedback of this year’s students.

By Ron Bernas

C4U finds itself in the election process

Five candidates – four juniors and one freshman – laid out their platforms Wednesday, hoping to be elected president of the Student Commission.

Scott Pangrazzi moderates the debate for Student Commission President.

Scott Pangrazzi moderates the debate for Student Commission President.

The event, moderated by Upper School history teacher Scott Pangrazzi, had all the hallmarks of what we’ve come to expect in events like this. There was some silliness from the candidates – “I dress fairly well,” one said as a reason to consider him for the office – nervousness and various levels of preparation, but it was unique in the very fact that there was a debate.

“There was the sense that in years past it was a much more static process,” Pangrazzi said. “Students would get up and read a three-minute speech then the next one would do the same thing. But we wanted students to be more involved in the process.”

Last year Pangrazzi and Student Commission co-advisor Adam Hellebuyck realized what was missing in the process was student input. Keeping the student-centered concept of the Curriculum for Understanding in mind, they asked the students to come up with questions. Candidates could then address issues of most import to the students. Students wrote questions in their advisories, with the teachers trying to limit the questions to issues the Student Commission can actually do something about, he said.

“It also eliminates some of the repetition among the candidates, who often say the same things in their speeches,” Pangrazzi said.

Last year was the first year of the new system. Last year there were only two candidates for the post, but Pangrazzi said it worked better this year with more candidates.

“As one of the candidates said, part of the job is being able to present yourself, and the candidates presented themselves to the rest of the student body and they get to judge whether someone’s right for the position,” Pangrazzi said. “For the most part the debate was pretty straight forward, though it strayed a bit, but that’s telling, too.”

This year, issues revolved around lowering the cost of prom, getting students involved in picking assembly speakers, improving school spirit, fruit out all day in the cafeteria and increasing participation in clubs.

The process will probably evolve as well next year, he said, but will continue to keep the students and their issues at the center.

By the way: Voting was done online. The winner is junior Antonio Malkoun.

By Ron Bernas

Liggett’s business community

The Lower School was a hotbed of business today as the first grade, testing their knowledge of money and making change, created a business district in the hallway outside their rooms.

One store sold candy. Another sold sidewalk chalk. Still another stickers and tattoos. There were pencils for sale and fancy erasers and tops for them. And the prices were right. Pennies, nickels and dimes. All money and products were provided by teachers Anne McCauley and Kristen Kalmink.

The project fed into a couple units the students have been studying for a while. First, of course, was math. Students have been learning about counting and how five pennies make up one nickel and two nickels — or ten pennies — make one dime. They also learned what

Squiggly things were a big seller.

to do when  someone gives you a dime and they only owe you seven cents. It’s math on a simple level, but also on a real world level, letting students know that what they are learning will affect them every day.

But McCauley and Kalmink have also had their students studying communities. “A community is a place where people live and work,” reads a sign on the wall just outside the classrooms. The businesses were created by the students and they had to come up with a poster advertising their wares and a storefront they designed on large construction paper.

Mrs. Chaps was a good customer.

“We have been talking with the students about how businesses work and are part of our communities,” said Kalmink. To help the students think about how businesses stay in business, they asked the students to keep track of what they sold and how much money they took in from their customers, who were students in other grades.

It didn’t take long for some of the record-keeping to go by the wayside, and a few businesses tried to drum up customers with tactics they must have seen in the community: Yelling “Stickers, five cents!” and another store took a nickel off your total if you picked a particular tattoo.

This is the first time for this project, McCauley said, but it seemed to be pretty popular among both the sellers and the customers. Students spent time discussing what it was like to run a business after the morning of buying and selling. And they had a little candy, too.

By Ron Bernas

Looking to the skies

If you think life in outer space will look like E.T. — a freaky looking version of ourselves — you probably have another think (or two or three) coming.

Astrobiologist Margaret Race told students about how exploration is changing what we know about the universe.

That’s what Margaret Race told students this week at Liggett in a surprisingly down-to-earth talk. It could look like a worm, she said. Or perhaps a microbe. Maybe even a tree. Or none of the above. After all life on other planets is just life, not creatures. “Everything doesn’t always look like us,” she said.

That was part of Race’s mind-opening discussion with students this week. Her interest in extraterrestrial organisms is linked closely to her long-term ecological research on exotic and invasive species. She’s also actively involved in education and public outreach about astrobiology. In addition to her presentations Monday, Race also worked with students in the Academic Research Project Tutorial class — the preparation class for the senior ARP project — on preparing the questions they will research next year. She also agreed to serve as a resource for their research projects.

Race’s talk was organized by Upper School Science teacher Russ Glenn, and she talked to students in all divisions. It was eye opening in many ways and a validation of many of the tenets in Liggett’s Curriculum for Understanding.

“Our notion of our solar system has changed drastically,” she said. “Ask your grandparents how many moons are in our solar system and many of them will say ‘one;’ ours. But even Pluto, which isn’t considered a planet anymore has five moons.” The correct answer, currently, is 177 moons in our solar system. More are found regularly, she said. And how many planets in our galaxy? Well, it’s estimated at hundreds of billions, and we’re just one galaxy in the universe.

Research and exploration are the reasons for how our views of the universe have changed so drastically in so short a period of time. And in the search for other life in the universe, there are ethical, technical an legal questions that are being addressed by teams of scientists, even theologians, that weren’t thought of during the last great exploration boom 500 years ago.

“Columbus brought with him microbes that wiped out the native populations,” she said. “How do we make sure we don’t contaminate things in outer space. We don’t want to introduce anything anywhere else, and we don’t want to bring anything back.”

Recently, she’s done a research study on the environmental impact reviews and public communication associated with high-containment biosafety labs – the type that will eventually be used for the quarantine of returned samples from Mars.

Race says her work consists of research, research, research and encouraged students to understand that and embrace it as they study the hard sciences. “You are part of tomorrow,” she told them.

Being able to think critically about space exploration, addressing issues creatively, as part of a team, making plans that can be adapted as new information is discovered, opening us up to the universe of ideas is the very essence of the Curriculum for Understanding.

By Ron Bernas

Learning pains

“This has nothing to do with whether I like you or not,” Middle School science teacher John Bandos said with a smile before he poked a student’s finger with a lancing device.

The student seemed more surprised that it was over so quickly — he had asked Bandos to do it because he was afraid of needles. “Now squeeze it,” Bandos said. “Get a good drop there before you collect it.”

Other, less-squeamish, students gave tips to their friends: “Push it in slowly and it doesn’t hurt.” Another student still drew no blood despite several painful pokes. Bandos tried, still no blood. Then he figured out why: The boy had forgotten to take the top off the sharp. One boy, despite several pokes, couldn’t keep the blood flowing long enough to collect four  drops for the test. A girl couldn’t stop hers. “Wipe it with alcohol,” Bandos told her. “It’ll stop immediately.”

It was time for the annual blood typing lab, something that’s been part of Bandos’ seventh-grade science curriculum for nearly 30 years. And in that time, Bandos has seen it all. He works the room with good humor, poking students, encouraging them to poke themselves and reminding others that they do not have to do it if they truly don’t want to. There is synthetic blood they can work with, and a couple students without signed permission slips saying they could participate in the lab looked dolefully at their classmates who were shouting out “I’m O negative.” To which another responded, “Me, too! Woo hoo!”

It’s the first lesson in a unit on the circulatory system that then moves into genetics and includes, at the end, a mystery for students to solve using information learned in class.

Bandos said he often finds that the students come in scared or worried or with the notion that they can’t do this lab and they end up having fun while they learn not just about science, but about themselves, too.

And they also got a kick out of the Hello Kitty and Cinderella Band-Aids they got when the lab was completed.

By Ron Bernas


Anyone up for a tour of the lungs?

Spring Break starts next week and while many people may head to warmer, sunnier places, the ninth graders are creating guidebooks of their own, hoping to entice travelers to a much different destination: The human body.

The idea was first-year Liggett Upper School teacher Tiffany Meyer’s and what she was trying to do was to find a way to assess her students’ knowledge of the eight biological systems in the human body in a way that was different from testing.

“Some students, when it comes to a test, get nervous, and I wanted them to demonstrate that they have a deeper sense of understanding of the information, but in a creative way that I might not otherwise see on a test,” she said. The other biology teacher, Russ Glenn, is also doing the project with his students.

So students were grouped, though some chose to do their own project, and asked to create a brochure detailing a trip through the human body and its biological systems. The results are a fun mix of science and humor and a project informed by the Curriculum for Understanding tenets of teamwork and creativity, among others.

For instance: One group’s tour through the heart offers tourists a chance to get up close and personal with phagocyte cells. “We offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a real Phagocyte cell. Phagocyte cells are created to find and destroy cells that have been infected with viruses.” Of course, there’s a legal disclaimer: Please do not go near the phagocyte cell if you are ill. It is highly possible that the phagocyte  cell may mistake you for a virus-ridden cell. Insurance does not cover sudden death by phagocyte cell.

Another group takes you to the Digester Amusement Park featuring rides like the Esophagus Shoot and the Cooling Colon where you are “shot up, across, and down with the help of mucus.” As one might expect, you are dropped off in the gift shop.

Meyer seems as excited as the kids working on them. She says she’s truly seeing a new side of her students and she takes great pleasure from seeing the creativity — and knowledge — on display.

In the end, the students present their work and the winner is voted on by the other students.

As great as the kids make these trips sound, though, I’ll probably still choose someplace warm and sunny.

By Ron Bernas