Advancing Collaboration Since 1878: My day in 8th grade

By Bart Bronk

One of the great fallacies of 20th century education is that the middle school experience should look like “mini high school.”

While young adolescents are certainly ready for new academic challenges and structures at this age, too many schools fall into the trap of directly mimicking elements of the high school experience – a high degree of teacher control and required obedience, huge homework loads, long, make-or-break tests and exams – that are actually inimical to the healthy development of 11-14 year olds. This approach results – somewhat unsurprisingly – in the early onset of other, less desirable high school behaviors (social risk taking, for example) and issues like depression and anxiety.

More troublingly, this misguided approach also crowds out some of the natural instincts and dispositions that make this period of development so special.

The Middle School Journey

What I’ve appreciated, as the parent of a freshman who spent three happy years in the University Liggett middle school, and what I look forward to, as the parent of a fifth grader who will begin his own middle school journey next year, is that our program and its dedicated faculty and administrators treat grades 6-8 as a unique and treasured time in students’ lives, a time in which they are more open to and invested in learning and personal development than perhaps any other period.

Middle school shouldn’t be a transition that kids survive; it should be a destination in which they thrive. Our program gives students the space to safely explore their burgeoning identities, the context to explore their relationships with others, the tools to see learning as a journey rather than a task, and ample opportunities to continue to be, fundamentally, kids – to laugh, to play, to move, to enjoy.

My day with 8th grader Rachel served as powerful evidence of the value of this approach. Throughout the day, I was struck by how teachers capitalized on, and made room for, one of the most powerful instincts of young adolescents – the desire to collaborate and interact with peers – to create dynamic and engaging classrooms.


We began our day in algebra with Ms. Alles. After a 24-challenge game to warm up, students examined multiple ways of looking at, and describing, the slope of a line. I reflected on how different the approach, in which students worked backwards from graphs and diagrams and grappled with how to express what was happening mathematically, was from my own introduction to the topic which was something like “here’s the equation.

Now repeat it over and over.” In the space and time afforded for grappling, students commented on each others’ ideas. Even when my own traditional instincts were screaming “give them the answer!” Mrs. Alles calmly allowed students to navigate together to their own meaning.

This spirit of embracing and creating room for collaboration extended into second period Chinese with Mrs. Liang. Students grappled with weather words and phrases in all three phases of foreign language instruction – speaking, reading, and writing.

Movement was not only allowed, but encouraged through a fun game of Simon Says. Students checked in with each other frequently, working together to build understanding of the topic.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

In social studies with Mrs. Morgan, we screened part of the legendary film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as students studied legislative processes (including the noted filibuster). They were trying to answer the essential question, “Can one person affect change or does it require people working together?”

Collaboration was built into the exercise, as students took notes on the film not as individuals, but with assigned roles for the greater understanding of the group: roles like summarizer, or specific focuses on imagery, technology, and culture.

Continuing in the humanities, Mr. Shade’s English class focused on reading the Conan Doyle mystery “The Speckled Band.” In teams, they worked to find textual examples of literary elements like mood, theme, suspense, foreshadowing and the classic red herring and in character evaluation.

The room was bustling with learning and students cheered on a quieter classmate for a well-crafted response.

Ice skating and collaboration

In Mrs. Bachmann’s PE class, it was a skating day and the girls were playing hockey. (What a special thing it is to be able to skate in our own rink for gym!) Even though the competitive spirit was high, more palpable was the spirit of collaboration.

Players helped each other up, high-fived great plays, and stopped when someone fell down. The most advanced skaters, in particular, worked hard to get their less experienced peers involved.

Backstreet’s Back!

We ended our day in Ms. Kendall’s art class, where students worked on end-of-year projects including some bas relief carving and print-making.

Again, I was struck how the collaborative, social instinct was critical in their work. In addition to checking in with the teacher on skill questions, students readily discussed and shared their ideas and progress with each other.

The class, and the day, ended in perhaps the most middle school way possible; the entire group belting out a Backstreet Boys song.

Throughout the day, I saw ample evidence of the gifts of an expert middle school educator: recognizing that conversation and murmurs – “noise” to a more control-oriented teacher – are simply that powerful natural desire to collaborate.

Even when one student stood up and jab-stepped with an imaginary basketball (we were in the heart of basketball season), learning and contributions continued. I walked away from my day thinking how detrimental the standard “shhh” or “sit down and be quiet,” which we may recall from our own middle school days, would have been to a beautiful, social, and powerful learning process.

Advancing Skill Development Since 1878: My Day as a Freshman

By Bart Bronk

I recently received a message from a University Liggett School graduate, and now college sophomore at a Big 10 university, recounting an assignment in one of her classes in which students had to watch a “how-to” video on creating an annotated bibliography – a key piece of the academic research process. In the video, the professor exasperatedly expresses his dismay and disbelief that “they don’t teach you this in high school!” I responded with something to the effect, to use the modern parlance, of “ARP for the win!” Our alumna had first encountered this core research skill as a ninth-grader, in a variety of her courses on Cook Rd.

At University Liggett School, we believe that skills like these should be at the heart of the educational process. While content – the “stuff,” the materials, the facts and the figures of education – is a necessary medium for building those skills, our priority is to leverage that content to impart and grow in our charges the kinds of skills that will be useful across disciplines and subjects. We want our students to build the critical, transferrable aptitudes that we believe, and that our alumna’s anecdote suggests, will serve them in college and career beyond. Fifty years ago the purpose of an education may have been to give students a suitcase of content knowledge, but today we instead aim to give them a toolbox of skills. Simply put, we want to teach our students how to think, rather than what to think.

This vital process of skill-building was apparent throughout my day shadowing freshman Taveon C. We began our day in Mr. Homuth’s ARP 9 class where the class conducted a group reading of an advanced text, a scholarly book review of a new non-fiction work. Students stopped frequently to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary, to review key ideas, and to raise questions. They were practicing, together, a skill that will be critical for them to possess as individuals: the ability to grapple with, interrogate, and, fundamentally, deeply understand, a complex text (something we English majors know as “close reading”).

Our next two classes, World History with Mr. Pangrazzi and Core I English with Mr. Knote, focused on a similarly vital writing skill – the process of revision. History students conferenced with Mr. Pangrazzi on edits to their individual essays on “How to Rule an Empire” (written as putative advisors to an ancient throne). Those who finished began to work on annotated bibliographies for sources they would use on the midterm essays (and getting that six-year head start that our alumna appreciated!). In English, students met individually with Mr. Knote on revising body paragraphs of an analytical essay on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, part of a carefully scaffolded writing process in which they learn to build, piece by piece, effective, long-form academic writing. Mr. Knote reminded us of his belief that “there is no such thing as a good writer – only a good re-writer.”

In Honors Geometry with Mr. DeFauw, students conducted a variety of hands-on exercises with paper triangles. They drew a variety of converging lines from bases and vertices to create their own definitions of cicrcumcenters, incenters, centroids, and orthocenters. To cement this new understanding of these mathematically important properties of triangles, they then recreated the exercise digitally in a program called Geogebra. The skills on display in this exercise were agency and analysis, as students had to create their own meaning rather than having it simply provided to them for consumption, which is how many of us may remember math instruction.

We ended our day in biology, where students were reviewing, via fun electronic “Kahoot” quizzes, and drawing diagrams on personal white boards, as they prepared for a semester exam experience – their first in high school. This reminded me that the act of studying itself is a skill, and that students are best served when they are guided not just in what to study, but how to study – in this case, learning to “chunk” a large body of material in to manageable “bites” and mastering it over time, rather than “cramming” it all at once.

I finished my day as a freshman physically tired (boy they do a lot of walking!) but intellectually energized, as I contemplated the quality and depth of the intellectual activities they experienced and saw so many nascent, yet growing skills, which plant the seeds of rich, successful, and fulfilling academic lives to come.

Advancing Rigor Since 1878 – My Day as a Junior

By Bart Bronk

Head of School Bart Bronk is shadowing a student in each grade level to experience the

In forensics class with Dr. Muller and Ms. Fugitt, students performed a blood spatter lab, which mimicked the work forensic technicians do trying to recreate information about a crime from blood evidence. In our protective suits, we explored how droplets of blood create different splatter patterns based on height, and the students gained a deeper understanding of the science based on hands-on experimentation than could be achieved in the traditional lecture.

University Liggett School approach through the students’ eyes.

There was a time at University Liggett School when “rigor” was considered a bad word. As the school developed its signature approach, we eschewed the word rigor because it has been associated with so much that is wrong about traditional education: the memorization and regurgitation of content, hours of pointless busy work, practice by rote, learning tired old answers rather than creating new questions. Rigor in the academy has for too long been defined by the questions “how much” and “how fast” rather than “why?”

Recently, though, we’ve repatriated – and redefined – the term. Rigor, in the Liggett approach, reflects depth of understanding, creative expression, intellectual grappling, and original insight – the types of relevant skills that will make our students successful in elite colleges and universities and in careers beyond that may not yet exist.

This new kind of rigor was on display throughout my day with junior Gabby C.

In first-period orchestra, the group performed a full run through of its upcoming winter concert. Well beyond playing the right note at the right time, the practice was focused on nuance, expression of theme, and the interconnection and interplay of the various voices in the group. Ms. Helge frequently sought musician feedback on the expressions of particular motives on a number of pieces. As a group, they weren’t worrying about playing it right, they were focused on playing it well.

Long-period gothic lit comprised a writing session and individual conversations on writing with Dr. Moiles. The students were choosing and expounding on creative prompts to practice writing skills and extend their understanding of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. From a field of creative prompts that included “write a college essay in the voice of a character” to “create a eulogy for a character,” Gabby chose a prompt on narratology and explored how Morrison uses point of view to enhance the rich world she builds. Dr. Moiles conferenced individually with students and also commented in real-time on shared documents, employing Google classroom to provide timely feedback to each individual.

In forensics class with Dr. Muller and Ms. Fugitt, students performed a blood spatter lab, which mimicked the work forensic technicians do trying to recreate information about a crime from blood evidence. In our protective suits, we explored how droplets of blood create different splatter patterns based on height, and the students gained a deeper understanding of the science based on hands-on experimentation than could be achieved in the traditional lecture.

New rigor in the modern language classroom means, among other things, true immersion. University Liggett School’s program aims for 85% of instruction and dialogue to be in the target language. Even in an advanced Chinese class in which Gabby was taking a test, this commitment to immersive rigor was on display. All instructions, a few hints, and even a few student exclamations (about the difficulty of the assessment!) were in Mandarin.

Even in Gabby’s free period I saw evidence of new rigor in the Liggett approach. Gabby spent her free time working on a watercolor painting in the art studio, which represented her understanding of a novel about Malinche from her Latin American studies class. I asked who designed the assessment and she replied “me!” Students in the class were asked to design their own projects and evaluative rubrics to communicate their interpretations of this novel of the Spanish conquest.

My day as a junior ended in algebra II where students built automaticity with radical expressions and operations. Indeed, diligent and repeated practice still has a place in this new model, but only when that practice is necessary to build more complex understandings; the group was preparing to encounter radical equations. Even this exercise of rote was engaging: it was gamified, as students used their answers to compete to decode silly riddles.

Educational traditionalists become nervous when the quality and rigor of an experience can’t be defined by the number of pages covered or the number of hours of homework given or the number of repetitions accomplished. I’d hold my day as a junior as powerful evidence that the true measure of excellence is how deeply students are thinking and how creatively they are expressing their learning and understanding.

Internet for the World

George Gotfredson knows how the free flow of information can impact lives. He shared insight into his research on global Internet.

Your original thoughts for your ARP focused on the high cost of college. You decided against that in favor of a focus on the impact of wireless internet on developing countries.
Yeah, the first idea involved a lot of spreadsheets. So, I switched gears. Internet is integral to our lives, and I wanted to study how giving access to those around the world will impact their education, their health, their agriculture, their everyday lives.

I focused on viable solutions to providing Internet access, and analyzed four solutions. The first is Google’s Project Loon, which involves hot air balloons with mini cell towns that beam internet down. There are a lot of challenges with scale, and little way to monetize. The second is building infrastructure, which is difficult in unstable governments where land ownership isn’t as clear cut as it is here. Also, it’s not as appropriate for rural areas. A third is Aquila and its software arm, Aquila is a solar-powered, lightweight aircraft that flies for 90 days and brings Internet to the areas below. is code that people can download onto their phones and offers a basic version of the Internet, with no videos or images. Both are by Facebook. The final solution is probably the best one right now. It’s called OneWeb, and it’s a mass-produced satellite that could be launched and provide signals to user terminals. It’s being tested right now.

Wow. That’s comprehensive. How did you choose to go the tech route?
I’ve always been interested in technology and the tech that goes into these projects is important. It was great to compare the specifics of the technology, and the feasibility—who has the best solution? Will it be the most effective?

Here’s the question you are being asked a lot right now: next year?
I’m going to the University of Richmond in Virginia to study piano performance and business, and I might minor in organ performance. My life goal is to never have a boss, because I want to be the boss. I want to be an entrepreneur.

How has your experience at Liggett prepared you for your future success?
Liggett has a curriculum that can be morphed around students’ interests, especially with project-based study. Teachers give you the framework, and encourage you to dive into what you are interested in, and your learning builds on itself. In middle school, we learned the basics of how to do research, and rounded that up in eighth grade science. As freshmen, we learned about reliable sources and how to cite them. And there’s a real connection between the students and teachers; it sounds cliché, but it’s really unique. Plenty of teachers help students with their ARP, even if they aren’t the student’s teacher. Whether it’s math or engineering, they always help, and are interested and willing.

Any lifelong memories to share?
One thing I will remember is the Pleasant Lake outdoor education experience in sixth grade. As a junior you can apply to be a counselor, and you can go back as a senior. That experience is by far the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s a blast. You build relationships with counselors, and then it’s more fun going back as a counselor. It’s really, really cool.

The Bigger Picture of Liggett

Not long after his graduation in 1982 Kayvan Ariani began giving back to University Liggett School. To him, financial support is a very small way to give back the school community that offered him an authentic, holistic educational experience for the nine years he attended the school.

“I can only speak from my experience, but Liggett influenced me in many ways,” says Kayvan. Even from Middle School, the academic bar was suitably high to build strengths that served him well in the Upper School, and then onward through his undergraduate work at Stanford University. “It set a standard for me moving forward. When I went to college, I felt like I was well prepared academically.”

Liggett’s unique sense of community, richly steeped in tradition, also offered a level of socialization not found at every school. “It wasn’t just the school, but the students and their families. There was a history to the place and you feel part of that,” says Kayvan. “That was important to me because it gave me a sense of place, a belonging. I wanted to live up to the tradition there.”

Academics, combined with sports and arts, gave Kayvan many memories – he especially enjoyed soccer, baseball, the school newspaper and band. But it was the knowledge that the teachers and staff genuinely cared for its students that made Liggett feel like home for Kayvan. “It was a small school, so there was an intimacy…a certain kind of focus on each individual student,” he says. “I think on a number of levels, it really was a complete type of school, a complete place.”

Learning to sit comfortably in the face of challenge — and the time management needed to juggle many demands — are skills that helped Kayvan pursue several opportunities when he reached Stanford, including playing guitar with his band on the weekends, digging into research as early as sophomore year, and serving as a teaching assistant in a core biology class as a senior.

“It was all about multitasking, which I learned well from my preparation at Liggett. I remember getting out of class to hop on the bus for an away baseball game, but remembering to bring a book to study on the way. It was all about learning how to spend my time wisely.”

As he pursued his medical degree at Stanford, Kayvan worked alongside fellow Liggett alum Roger Wu ’82 in a medical school class of only about 80 students. He also recalls Hilary Feeser Bhatt ‘82, another Liggett alum, was a graduate student working in a laboratory at the Stanford Medical School at that time. “It was nice to see familiar faces from my Liggett graduating class at Stanford during that part of my life,” Kayvan says.

In a critical way, people completely unconnected to Liggett benefit from the personalized care Kayvan received as a Liggett student. He recalls many times teachers sat down to explain a concept or provide a larger context to the work he had before him. This support is something Kayvan harvested, and has given to others in his own life. It’s certainly something he shares with his patients at his Orlando-based private anesthesiology pain practice, where he treats individuals with spine and other pain disorders.

“I try to give individualized, attentive and supportive care to people,” he says. “My whole life, I have been lucky enough to have great educational experiences…and that kind of care people gave me, I have tried to transfer back to my patients.”

Tenth Graders Navigate Detroit’s Borders and Boundaries

The Academic Research Program develops the necessary skills, resources and knowledge for students to perform an independent project with the clear goal of contributing to an ongoing scholarly discourse. Across four years of study, students learn what scholarly research is and how it functions in educational conversations. They practice the research process in their coursework and acquire a broad spectrum of credible sources to tap during problem-solving. They create outcomes and share their results with peers and the community. Students graduate with a project they initiated and completed over the course of four years.

Tenth Grade students practice the research and writing protocol across the curriculum as part of ongoing sessions devoted to pragmatic topics situated in the landscape of Detroit. Moving beyond the classroom, students immerse themselves in local and contemporary situations, experiencing an environment ripe for investigation. Interactions with the arts, natural resources, city government, ethnic neighborhoods and other Detroit features train students to apply the skills and processes they possess.

The Sophomore class began their second session of the Academic Research Program (ARP 10) on Thursday, January 23 at The Detroit Historical Museum. Tours encompassed various exhibits: Frontiers to Factories, America’s Motor City, The Arsenal of Democracy, and The Underground Railroad. Students also participated in an activity to provide them with strategies for viewing artifacts as primary sources when conducting historical research. “It was a great day,” explains Jack Ninivaggi, “I learned a lot.” Rita Sidhu appreciated the Motor City exhibit “because it showed a lot of the history of a part of Detroit we know and take great pride in.” Alexander Dow thought “the exhibit donated by Kid Rock was really cool.” For most of the students, this was their first trip to the Historical Museum, which has preserved our region’s rich history through the collection and conservation of artifacts.

On Friday, January 24, the tenth-graders returned to The Walter P. Reuther Library to explore the borders and boundaries in and around Detroit and the advantages and challenges of these demarcations. Using a protocol designed to include time to read, collaborate, reflect, and summarize, students looked primary and secondary documents with maps, stats, articles, photographs, and literature. Isaiah Hines Bailey explained, “The question about borders lends itself to different ways of looking at it. Our group started out stating that race creates borders, but then Molly [Murphy] noted that religion also determines where a family might live. So, we came up with labels that define socio-economic status, way of life, level of crime, and friendships: money, neighborhoods, jobs, and education.” Groups presented their ideas on the most important border or boundary to a panel consisting of Mr. William LeFevre, reference archivist at the Reuther Library, Stacey Stevens, Freda Sampson, Theresa Tran, Jessica Best from The Michigan Roundtable, and Mr. David Nicholson a member of Wayne State’s Board of Governors and a trustee of the Detroit Historical Society. Associate Dean of Faculty, Mr. Bart Bronk, “liked that the students had to grapple with difficult questions posed by the panel.” The panel also provided historical and political contexts for further explorations to consider. Brett Abdelnour compared this experience to September’s when they were asked to identify Detroit’s three most important icons or institutions, “This time I understood the expectations so I chose to be more engaged and I found the question to be more interesting.”

Written by: Shernaz Minwalla, Director of the Academic Research Program

Sixth-graders rapt by mummies

Bright and early this morning our sixth-grade students visited the Penn Museum without leaving the Liggett campus. Students participated in a virtual field trip to the museum where they learned about the ancient practice of mummification through discussion with museum staff and an actual demonstration of the mummification process on a life-sized model.

Continue reading only if you are not faint of heart, and if an appropriate amount of time has passed since lunch!

The demonstration started with a very life-like looking model called, “Mr. Penn.” Students helped walk the museum leaders through the mummification process of Mr. Penn by answering questions like, “how do you remove the brain from a mummy?” The answer of course was a resounding, “through his nose!” Facts were shared throughout each piece of the process such as the history of mummification, a process devised to create a preserved vessel for one’s departed spirit, information on Egyptian culture and information about the human body’s organs.

Penn Museum put on quite a show! They had a camera set-up to demonstrate the mummification process and a separate close-up camera to demonstrate different principles of the process, such as a little experiment done with a raisin and a grape that showed how mummies shrink when the water is removed from their bodies. It was very interactive. Students were asked questions about what they were observing on the screen throughout the process, and slides were interspersed throughout the presentation to read and discuss.

Enjoy photos from the presentation below!

Yes, you can have two desserts at lunch!

Today the fifth-graders visited Middle School for an initial glimpse into the lives of their future sixth-grade selves. It was quite an exciting afternoon!

First, the students met with Mr. Brewer and Mr. McTigue for a presentation on student life in the Middle School. They spoke about the block schedule and advisory period, and all about electives, which you can imagine was a topic that caused a ton of excitement! There was talk of sports like volleyball, basketball and baseball, and questions on morning meeting.


Sixth-graders answer questions about the Middle School

After an initial overview of next year, a panel of current sixth-graders were asked to join the group for a question and answer session. This is where the real fun began as a flurry of hands swung all over the place with burning questions like “how many desserts can you have at lunch?” and “how wide is your locker?” For inquiring minds who want to know the lockers are 17 inches wide! Have no fear though, the topics took a more serious tone too as students shared which classes were their favorite and how many hours of homework they have each night. It was a fun and informative panel who left their new fifth-grade friends all the more excited about the transition to Middle School.


Fifth-graders raise their hands when asked, “who’s ready to start sixth-grade tomorrow?”

The last stop of the day was a 25-minute excursion to a real Middle School class. Students participated in language classes including Spanish and Chinese. They had a blast, and the proof is in the picture at the right. It was taken when Mr. Brewer asked, “who’s ready to start sixth-grade tomorrow?” We think the hands say it all!

The ripples continue

The community gathers for distribution of the filters

The community gathers for distribution of the filters

When Lower School Spanish teacher Vanessa Rivera started her service project with a small village in Guatemala, she never thought it would grow to what it has become.

“I thought small,” she said. “It’s growing and getting better and better.”

Rivera, looking to incorporate global consciousness in students, sold bracelets last year to raise money to purchase water filters for a small, rural village in Guatemala. The town has no safe water source and the filters are necessary to providing clean, usable water. Then, over the summer, she went to the village and worked with teachers, introducing them to new educational techniques.

The lines are long because the need is great.

The lines are long because the need is great.

But there’s more:

The community Rivera worked with is very invested in keeping the water filters and have created a mentoring project to help families that have the filters save money to purchase the parts that need to be replaced every three years.

An ex-colleague of Rivera’s, inspired by the project and how it teaches global citizenship to young students, is now working with an organization called Serving Soles to send good shoes to the same village.

Give and Teach, an organization that provides education to teachers in developing countries including Guatemala and with whom Rivera was working, recently added a link to its website where donors can purchase water filters to give to rural villages in the country.

Villagers with their filters

Villagers with their filters

In other good news, Ecofilter, the company that produces the water filters at a factory in Guatemala, is employing more workers as the demand for the filters rises.

One little pebble can make a lot of ripples.