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This blog explores, from multiple perspectives, gifted education in general and The Avery Coonley School experience in particular. Welcome to the conversation!


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Connecting: Online and On Stage

Posted By Adam Metcalf, Thursday, May 4, 2017

After filling up my water bottle, I make my way to the front of the large conference room at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.  Twenty minutes until “go time” and a steady trickle of attendees are already filling up seats.  I make sure my laptop and projector are in working order – always a huge relief.  Hit play on my custom “Boston-themed” playlist and post the QR code throughout the room so that people can scan and have access to my presentation and resources in real time.  Ten minutes to go and all but a few seats are full; clusters of comfortably dressed P.E. teachers find spots on the floor or stand along the walls.  I see a few friendly faces in the crowd, crack a few self-deprecating jokes, and thank them for taking the time to attend my session.  Five minutes to go, all the seats are filled and the floor and the walls are pretty well packed as well.  I take a quick lap around the room and informally ask a few questions to get a feel about the levels of experience with the topic. Thirty seconds until go time…full house…slowly fade volume down on Dropkick Murphys…deep breath. Here we go…

As soon as I became a Physical Education teacher, I was blown away by the lack of ongoing quality support and professional development for our content area.  Because everyone has their own experiences to draw from with regard to P.E., the norm of “happy, sweaty, busy” kids seemed to be good enough.  The bar has been set very low for Physical Education, and as a result teachers too often coast through the school day using teaching methods based on their own experiences, and then coach various athletic teams in the evenings.  Of course, this situation is often magnified by obstacles outside the P.E. teachers’ control, like very large class sizes, inadequate resources, or scheduling shortcomings.  This cycle continues throughout the school year and into the next.  Seeking constructive feedback is difficult for Physical Education teachers.  When P.E. teachers don’t know what they don’t know with regard to current best practices in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, the expectations for our profession will continue to remain low. 
In late 2012, I discovered an online community of Physical Education teachers sharing and exchanging ideas through 
Twitter.  These incredibly passionate teachers saw the same problems that I saw with regard to our profession and were actively looking to change.  As I grew more involved with this network of teachers, I saw how much it was improving me as a teacher and how the constant sharing and reflecting made for better learning experiences for my students at The Avery Coonley School. 

My continuous journey to improve led me to being featured on streaming webinars, online roundtable discussions, and video tutorials where teachers from all over the world could watch, ask questions, and request resources – all for free!  Through the connections I had made in the #PhysEd online community and a grant that I received from ACS, I was able to travel to Australia and Singapore in 2014, where I visited nine teachers in eight different schools.  Because of these connections I have gained an invaluable look at some of the most innovative schools, programs, and teaching methods in the world.

There was one problem that kept creeping up, however. Public speaking.  I had some pretty intense anxiety about being in front of certain groups.  Speaking in front of kids came relatively easy to me; however, speaking in front of adults was terrifying.  Presenting to parents during curriculum night or colleagues at a faculty meeting seemed to cause some serious fight or flight responses to take over.  It was something that I had to overcome if I wanted to help reshape the Physical Education industry. 

As I saw it, the only way to get better at public speaking was by doing more and more of it.  Despite my apprehension, I continued to do webinars, presentations for Illinois Physical Education teachers, and was even featured on several podcasts.  The feedback from those who attended or took part in my presentations reaffirmed that the work I was doing was meaningful and worth the amount of time, effort and – yes – the stress that I went through in the process.  Just as I was inspired by new ideas from my online colleagues, I was planting new seeds in the minds of Physical Education teachers and they were learning and growing as a result. 

 Last year, I decided to expand my reach and begin to give presentations on a national level.  I presented about Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment at the National Physical Education and School Sport Institute in Asheville, North Carolina last July.  In February and March, I presented at the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (San Diego) and the SHAPE America National Convention (Boston) about implementing technology to streamline student feedback. I also talked about how I enhance our Middle School sport units through the combination of two student-centered instructional models (Sport Education and Teaching Games for Understanding). The response to all of these presentations has been enthusiastic, which is of course rewarding and reassuring to me on multiple levels.

I am the product of the sacrifices of several immensely generous people.  My wife may think that I’m a bit on the crazy side, but she sees my passion and is wonderfully supportive to my cause and vision.  My parents’ hard work and strong emphasis on education paved the way for me to have the ability to choose my career path.  The encouragement and autonomy granted from The Avery Coonley School administrators, teachers, and families has allowed me to grow as an educator and reach students far beyond our community.  I have never and will never take these privileges for granted.  

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Reflections on My ACS

Posted By Archana Pyati '90, Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I was asked recently, as an alumna, whether I would be willing to participate in a survey about my time at Avery Coonley. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard.

Just yesterday I was telling another parent how amazed I am that I got to sing and receive such incredible music instruction at ACS. I have enrolled my kids in a chorus through a local church music program because they don't get that at their school and I know what an influence Mrs. Nelson, my ACS music teacher, had on me. Now they are singing “The Rainbow Connection” for their spring concert, which I remember was one of my favorite songs in chorus. We love to paint and move to all kinds of music, like “Night on Bald Mountain,” one of Mrs. Nelson's staples around Halloween, and I taught them to read music using her "around the world" game. I also tell them stories about Mr. Smith's shadow puppets from Bali, and developing photographs in the lab in the art room. I knew how important math, science, and writing were to academic success; despite that, or maybe because of it, my arts education at ACS had a deeply meaningful – even spiritual – significance for me. Whole parts of my being would not have been nurtured without it, and I would have had so little exposure to languages through which to communicate with the world around me.

Speaking of languages, because of the school's early language instruction I won a trip to Paris after high school. There I fed the insatiable curiosity for travel and other cultures that began in Mmes Reininga, Mole, and Van Buren’s French classes, and also learned to accept that I'm the tiniest fish in the world's grand ocean. I became fluent in French there and, years later, lived briefly in Zambia helping refugees from Rwanda and Burundi and translating for them in resettlement programs. I dedicated a decade of my legal career to serving African women who experienced domestic violence, FGM, and forced marriage, being one of the few French-fluent, free, trauma-informed immigration attorneys in New York. Clients always asked with surprise how I came to know French and could interview them seamlessly and respectfully during their moments of need. It was ACS.

I often think about Mrs. Kerhulas and how she cut me a lot of slack for writing some serious swear words into a short story that was supposed to be a riff on The Grapes of Wrath. Even though my adolescent rage about race and gender roles, and feeling like I didn't and would never fit in, were deep and growing, I felt like she could see that I was still a good kid with potential. I felt accepted.

I will also never forget the time that Mrs. Lenhardt selected me to be one of two team leaders in our archaeological dig. When I tell my kids – who are 6 and 8 – about that project, they have said “wow, is that how you knew you wanted to be a leader?” It was certainly the first time I ever thought that as an Indian girl, I could be. Last week I testified before Congress about the need for our government to continue to protect immigrant survivors of violence, and while some of the committee members tried to rattle me, I stuck to my guns. I have every right to be in those halls, shaking things up, and I know that because of the confidence I gained from that experience in 5th grade.

When I have faced tough times, my mother has reminded me that Mrs. Grussing once told her during a parent-teacher conference that I was a one-in-a-million kid. I don't know if she said that to all parents - she was so loving and generous that I'm sure she did. But for decades, her words have given my family reason to believe in me – and for me to believe in myself – whether celebrating small wins or pulling through difficult times.

My parents, siblings, and I now live in four different states, but we still come together around the dinner table and compare our stories of learning, traditions, and relationships at ACS. Not surprisingly, our grades and test scores never come up.

I know the academic rigor is unique, and I don't discount that. But what comes to me in flashes of warmth and reassurance are the softer things, the things that are harder to measure, the moments of support and kindness and care for children as whole beings. That is special, and is very hard to find anywhere else. I have looked for it for my own kids, and though I'm doing my best to give them what I can, I wish they could have my ACS.

~ Archi Pyati, ‘90


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Understanding the Whole Child

Posted By Barbara Cosentino, Friday, March 10, 2017

Kindergarten teachers Kristen Mitchell and Angel Van Howe and parents Archana Chawla and Barnali Khuntia recently sat down to discuss the ACS Kindergarten program. In this excerpt from that conversation, they discuss how Avery Coonley supports the needs of the whole child.

Kristen: Obviously, this is a school for gifted children and academics are very important. However, there is so much more than just the academic piece. One of our core principles is that we need to honor the way children learn, and not all children learn the same way. We work really hard to understand, as quickly as we can, how each child best learns and then apply that and give different options for learning.

Angel: There are different modalities of learning. We have our kinesthetic learners, our visual learners, our auditory learners. Through our observations and activities, we gather data and incorporate that into our instruction.

Barnali: It’s hard because when you think “gifted,” the tendency is to only think about academic ability. But there is so much more involved with being gifted than that, and a lot of it is challenging.

Kristen: Yes. For example, developing gross motor skills has always been a really integral part of what we do in Kindergarten because there is such an asynchronicity between gifted kids’ mental and physical abilities. We have several programs that we use, and we work in conjunction with the P.E. teachers, in order to take them through a series of skills that we want them to master by the end of the school year. Children need to learn to do certain things with their bodies before they can excel academically. One basic example – children need to be able to cross the midline of their bodies in order to be successful in reading. When you read, you start at the left and then you go to the right and then you have to cross back over, so you’re constantly going left to right and then crossing back over. You have to cross the midline of your brain to do that, so children first have to be able to physically cross the midline of their body before they can start reading. Likewise, in math you have to develop what is called an “inner voice” before you can be good at any sort of math problem. That’s why we have a kazoo band in Kindergarten – to strengthen their vestibular system. We will play a simple pattern, and they have to hold on to it in the minds and then play it back on the kazoo. That helps to develop that inner voice, which in turn is absolutely imperative for their future successes in math. We explain to parents that these are important skills in order for the students to be the best that they can be in the academic sense.

Barnali: You do a great job of communicating that to parents, that it’s not just about academics. I think people might come in the door thinking that’s all it is. I remember when we first started, I felt a lot of pressure to have my daughter in after-school activities every day because that seems to be what everyone does now. And you told me, it’s okay if she just goes home and plays and makes dinner with you. I think that’s something you might not hear in other places because there is so much pressure to achieve and get ahead.

Archana: Parents at first might think that my kid is going to learn every last math problem and will be doing algebra by the end of Kindergarten. Because conceptually they’re not that far off in some ways. But the longer that you’re at this school, the more you see the bigger picture in terms of understanding the whole child, and that support starts here and it carries through. You don’t necessarily see it right away, but I feel like for any parent who’s been here for a while, you definitely see it over time.

Angel: We get to know your children not as students but as people. I think that’s something that’s not always present in other schools. I look at each and every one of my students as little people and get to know them as a whole person. I sit down and talk with them and ask them questions. We’re not just here to teach them their academics. We’re here to create relationships.

Tags:  ACS  gifted education  whole child 

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This is What School for Three-Year-Olds Looks Like

Posted By Lauren Evans, Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Early Childhood Philosophy

Play is an important part of what we do in EC, but we are not a play-based program. We have a developmentally appropriate academic curriculum, designed specifically for our three- and four-year-old students. That does not mean that we hand out textbooks and assign homework. But it does mean that we have three experienced teachers who plan lessons, develop concepts, and use scaffolding techniques to move our students toward a deeper understanding and greater mastery of certain key skills. This distinguishes us from daycare centers and, although we fall into the “preschool” category because of the age of our students, we believe that this is what school should look like for three-year-olds.

Our daily routine is an important part of our overall approach. Providing clear transitions, and engaging the students as they move from task to task or room to room, helps them to adjust mentally and emotionally to the rhythms of the day. Having such a well-developed structure provides clear and attainable goals for students who may struggle early in the year managing their cubby or sitting quietly during circle time. As the year progresses, we are also able to adjust the routine – by having, for example, longer time in our small groups – depending on the children’s interests and development.

We are always cognizant of the fact that the Early Childhood Program belongs to the children; it is their world, not ours. We teachers are careful to show that we value them and want their input. We do not simply offer hollow praise – “What a pretty picture!” – but instead ask questions like, “What colors did you use?” and “What is this person doing?” Rather than imposing rules, like forcing the students to gather quietly in a straight line, we ask them to think about their choices and how their actions impact others. This approach empowers the students and establishes a sense of trust between teacher and student.

Because many of our students have perfectionist tendencies and heightened sensitivities, they can become frustrated, for example, that their fine motor skills cannot keep up with their active imaginations. If what they are able to draw on paper does not come close to the image that they have in their mind, they may become upset or even shut down completely. We are keenly aware of this and constantly look for ways to make the students feel valued and safe. When we teachers make mistakes, we make sure to acknowledge them and model appropriate responses in order to show that it is okay to stumble or struggle. Resiliency is a difficult life skill to learn, but it is important to start early, especially for our highly sensitive students.

Our small class size and low student-to-teacher ratio allow us to offer individual attention to each student. If a child shows interest and is ready for the next step, whatever that may be, then he or she is ready, regardless of age. Likewise, if another child needs some extra time, we can provide that as well. Each student is different but our goals are always the same – to provide a safe, happy learning environment for confident, well-adjusted learners. Children have an innate curiosity; we want to help develop that into a true love of learning. We are not in a race to finish first; we are on a quest to do our best.

It is always a joy for us to watch our former students progress through the grades at ACS and to know that their educational journey began in the Early Childhood Program!

~ Lauren Evans,
Early Childhood Teacher


Tags:  early childhood education 

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If These Walls Could Talk, They Would Sing

Posted By Jaime Surdynski, Friday, February 10, 2017

Can you imagine the stories held deep within the walls of The Avery Coonley School? How would those walls regale you after nearly a century of standing tall? If you listen closely, can you hear each brick mimic a treasured giggle from one of the many generations of students skipping from class to class?  Can you fathom, for even a moment, how many melodies linger in the air, forever preserved by this building?  If these walls could talk, they would most certainly sing.

Music is a staple at ACS. This is true not merely because science has proven that students involved in music and the arts score better academically, but because music is woven into the very tapestry that is The Avery Coonley School. Before the first bell is rung – a musical tradition all its own – students are in the building singing and playing.  And it’s not just a handful of children, but a plethora!  With more than half of Middle School students in choir and a sizable orchestra ranging from beginning to advanced, there is no shortage of sound before school.

This can perhaps be seen most clearly on Friday mornings when, after a week of experimenting, writing, reading, calculating, running, and self-expressing, a beautiful occurrence begins. Cars full of excited children pull up at the circle entrance, kids scamper up the ramp, through the building and, just before hitting the Cloister, take a left toward the music room.  There, with no regard to group or class, students mingle, share inside jokes – though it is hard to have an inside joke with a 60-piece choir – chat about upcoming events, and genuinely connect with one another in ways that many other schools simply cannot provide.  When the warm-up starts, without saying a word, these young minds work together to sing.  And for 30 minutes, they laugh and harmonize, singing worldly refrains, and fill the music room and surrounding walls with melodies from near and far.

But the music doesn’t stop there.  After early morning serenades, students bustle off to classes where they are frequently greeted with welcome tunes. Avery Coonley classrooms are far from quiet. Music is used as an instructional tool in the early grades and as a vehicle to learn French; the science walls could rap like Eminem about mitosis and the literacy walls might sing lilting strains of adolescent poetry. Each Group’s walls have a set of songs near and dear to them, permanently imbedded, some overflowing with circus themes, others with Native American chants. Select walls reverberate melodies without lyrics at all, such as Third Group’s, which resonate with the Japanese hymn Sakura. Kids play sports while music blasts from the speakers, giving their running feet a pulse or ramping up enthusiasm. Though the gym walls may be newer, they too hold memories of championship chants, encouraging words from teammates, and honored National Anthems. 

Perhaps the most musical of all the walls are those in the Performing Arts Center. They house the booming sound of a brass choir, the decadent ringing of chimes, and the hums of songs sung in reverence. These walls provide the backdrop for the Thanksgiving Program and undoubtedly know each verse of “For the Beauty of the Earth” by heart, but they have the Hallelujah descant rooted into their very foundation.  The PAC is home to the opening ceremony for World’s Fair, Heritage Festival, Shakespeare Fest, the Variety Show, and countless more celebrations.  Courageous Seventh Group students have their debut guitar performances on the stage in winter, and spring is marked with commencement songs as graduates become alumni. 

From the walls of the EC building echoing with the ABC’s to the majestic walls of the PAC, there are secrets only a historic building like this would know.  There are melodic memories encapsulated here as richly diverse and beautifully simple as every child that graces the halls of ACS.  In a school that cherishes music as much as we do, it is no surprise that if the Avery Coonley walls could talk, they would sing!

~ Jaime Surdynski
ACS Music Teacher 

Tags:  Fine Arts  Music 

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Why ACS?

Posted By Christopher Portman, Monday, January 30, 2017

Last week was National School Choice Week, and Student Council members, teachers, and staff – along with Freddy the Fighting Seahorse! – celebrated through dance!

Sue Gould, the parent of a recent graduate and a current student, also shared the reasons that she and her husband chose ACS for their children…

We made a choice 10 years ago to become a part of the Avery Coonley family.  My son started in Junior Kindergarten in December 2006, after we were disappointed in the educational experience he had in his previous preschool.  At the time we weren’t sure ACS was the right place for him long-term, but our decision was affirmed when he was admitted to Kindergarten, and it has been reaffirmed by our experiences year after year. 

The term “like-minded peers” is thrown around quite a bit, but it has true meaning in a place like ACS.  Both of my children (ACS Class of 2016 and Class of 2018) are surrounded by other kids who love to learn.  ACS is a place where it’s cool to be smart.  When gifted children are in the right environment, they realize pretty quickly that critical thinking is a lot more interesting than just memorizing facts and formulas, and ACS classmates learn from and push each other in the best possible ways.

And while it is important that my children are challenged academically, it is equally important that they remain with their social and emotional peers.  Gifted children are intellectually advanced, but that does not mean they are ready to deal with the same things older kids can handle. ACS understands and addresses all of the needs of our gifted children.

Having experienced ACS for so many years, I have witnessed hundreds of small differences along the way. At the at the end of their ACS journey, our graduates are a different kind of student compared to their peers at other schools.  But seeing it is not enough - I’m a big believer in external validation.  I knew that ACS was great, but then I discovered that the most selective boarding schools in the country actively recruit our students. No matter what school they choose after ACS, our students are prepared for the most rigorous academic programs available to them – and my son’s limited experience so far in high school has confirmed this.  Seeing and hearing about the amazing things our alumni go on to do provides additional confirmation – no doors are closed to them.

At the end of the day I believe that while both of my children would have done fine in another school, I truly feel that they are the best versions of themselves for having attended ACS – and for that I am grateful.  I know we made the right choice.

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Staff Spotlight: The Maintenance Department

Posted By Christopher Portman, Friday, January 13, 2017

Winter presents some additional challenges for the ACS Maintenance Department. Shoveling and plowing snow, keeping the walkways free of ice, regulating the temperature throughout the building and, knock on wood, making sure that no water pipes freeze and burst in the cold weather (like they did a few years ago on Martin Luther King Jr. Day).

But these seasonal tasks, on top of their myriad other responsibilities, do not discourage this good-tempered crew. Ask any parent, teacher, or staff member – Calvin Hogan, Jordan Lloyd, Alex Wiltz, and Andrew McCormick (the director of the department) are always willing to help out with any task, and they do so with a pleasant greeting and a smile. We have all come to depend on them not only for their hard work, but also for the positive energy that they bring to the school.

The feeling is mutual. Asked what their favorite part of ACS is, all four agreed that it is the community atmosphere. “Everyone here,” Alex says, “is part of the family.” “The people here are so nice,” Jordan adds. “That’s not always true when you work at other places.”

For Calvin, the veteran of the crew – he has been at ACS since 1999 – the history and traditions also make the job special. He especially likes it when alumni come back to visit. “They bring back with them all of those experiences, and for those of us who have been here quite a while, it’s a treasure when they remember the traditions and when they remember us. It’s a great experience.” Current students and recent alumni will agree – Calvin’s annual holiday rendition of “Can Santa Be Black?” has been a favorite memory for a generation.

It may surprise some given the amount of work involved, but for Andrew the special events are also a major highlight of the job. “All the events are great,” he says. “I love seeing everyone come together to support the school and support each other.” The biggest of all, of course, is the annual auction. “You get that feeling the week before – the auction is coming. It’s magic!”

It’s not all work for the maintenance crew. Because the department is small and because they work so closely together, there is a strong camaraderie among the group, complete with plenty of inside jokes. For example, Alex is the one to keep the group on task – “when he wants to get something done, he is laser-focused,” Andrew says. But Calvin adds, “We have to watch over him, though, so he doesn’t come out bleeding.”

On behalf of the entire ACS community, thank you for all that you do to make ACS special!


      Andrew McCormick, Jordan Lloyd, Alex Wiltz, and Calvin Hogan

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Making the World a Little Better Every Day

Posted By Ibrahim Ahmed '17, Friday, December 9, 2016

“What are you grateful for?” “What did you do today to make the world a better place?” These are questions that, for as long as I can remember, have been discussed regularly when our family sits down for dinner at home. Avery Coonley’s supportive and encouraging environment are parts of my life that I will always be grateful for, and being at ACS has given me many chances to do my small part to make the world just a little bit better every day.

Whether it’s sleeping outside on a cold winter
night or using our own spending money for a donation, ACS always has
something going on to inspire its students to make a change in our community. While several amazing fundraisers and projects have made a lasting impact on ACS for several years, there are new opportunities rolling through for everyone to help make a difference, one being Bridge Communities’ Sleep Out Saturday. When we first heard about the program, my brother and I met with Mrs. Lenhardt to see if we could bring it to ACS. She worked to get the project approved by the administration, and the newest Avery Coonley tradition was underway! I look back at how empowered our early years at ACS must have been to give us the confidence to approach our Middle School Head – when we were 10 and 12 years old – to ask if we could take on such a huge project. We were amazed that so many adults on campus enthusiastically supported the idea and worked with us to make it a reality. We couldn’t believe that teachers, staff, and even Mr. D. signed up to sleep outside!  

 Three years later, we have just wrapped up the third annual Sleep Out. I can honestly say that the drive and enthusiasm shown by the whole ACS community has truly helped the event to thrive for the past three years. Teachers and staff have encouraged the cause and generously donated alongside the students in order to make the whole project a success. Younger students have volunteered to take on the job of organizing future sleep out events so that this new tradition stays alive once the original organizers graduate.

 Seeing the whole community come together in such away has been inspiring. But is not at all surprising from the school that values thinking about things bigger than ourselves. What I have seen in the success of Sleep Out Saturday is simply a continuation of what the students, parents, faculty, and staff do all the time. Each year, it takes the Student Council a whole day to sort and pack all of the Ronald McDonald House donations. The Thanksgiving Program – an 86-year-old tradition that is central to my ACS experience – helps to provide warm meals to those in need through the work of the Salvation Army. The Mitten Tree overflows with donations and shows no green through the countless coats, gloves, hats, and scarves, all given to help less fortunate children stay warm throughout a cold winter.

 Through these and so many more projects that are both inspiring and unifying, ACS establishes itself as a community of giving, caring, and empathetic people. While many of us come to the school for the academics, we all graduate enriched by the traditions, the sense of community and gratitude, and the ability to see the many opportunities that we have to make a positive difference.

 I hope that future Seahorses will always step onto this beautiful campus every morning and ask themselves, “What am I grateful for?” “What can I do today to make the world a better place?” I am confident that ACS, and all of us within this wonderful school community, will continue to support and encourage their answers to these critical questions.

~Ibrahim Ahmed, ACS Class of 2017

Tags:  Empathy  Gratitude  Service  Volunteerism 

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Marshmallows and (Much) More

Posted By Katie Portman '10, Friday, December 2, 2016

At The Avery Coonley School, traditions reign supreme. Every year – practically every month – these events pop up as tangible manifestations of the never-ending quest to make learning fun. And they work—many of my fondest memories as a student are of projects and programs that have been around longer than I have. From Fall Fest to Shakespeare Fest, each tradition is insightful and educational. Native American Fair made indigenous cultures cool; Science Fair transformed middle schoolers into mad scientists; Book Fair encouraged the obsessive reading habits of my peers. Even Spring Fair prompted lessons of teamwork and patience as we stomped and galloped in unison around the Reflection Pool, year after year.

But every winter, as carols are sung and halls are decked, ACS prepares for a tradition that seemingly serves no educational purpose whatsoever: Holiday House. There’s no discussion of diversity, no production of Greek plays, no syrup manufacture. Instead, kids are actually taken away from class to go shopping. Hours are spent tromping on that weird blue stuff that covers the gym floor; time wasted throwing money at toys, trinkets, and treats of all varieties. Charlie Brown would surely disapprove of such blatant materialization of the holiday spirit.

From this perspective, Holiday House is nothing short of anti-mission. So why has it stuck around? As I sat down to write this piece, it occurred to me that I only remember a handful of purchases I ever made at a full decade of Holiday Houses. Chief among these is a marshmallow shooter for my grandpa. The toy itself was unremarkable – nothing more than a couple of pieces of PVC piping glued together and painted in 15 seconds or less. But my grandpa loved the thing. He made us dig out three-year-old mini marshmallows and spent the rest of the day terrorizing us with sneak attacks. Every year after that, I couldn’t wait to see what goofy gift I could get for grandpa at Holiday House. I learned how fun it was to give presents as well as get them. I actually got excited about finding the perfect presents for my family and friends. I may not have found the “true meaning” of the holidays, but my understanding of gift-giving broadened – and I had fun in the process.

Like all good ACS traditions, this annual shopapalooza goes in the memory bank and helps to fuel the collective conscious. My classmates and I bonded over the seemingly endless rows of items, sniffing Smencils and laughing at marionettes. In true seahorse spirit, we systematically worked together to tick names off of our shopping lists. Holiday House may not have educated me on world history or the inner workings of theatre, but it taught me the values of generosity and community, bringing us all a little closer and demonstrating that it really is better to give than to receive.

Find those marshmallows…and Happy Holidays!

~ Katie Portman, ACS Class of 2010

Tags:  community  Holiday House  Traditions 

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The Pilgrim Age

Posted By Blake Glidden '87, Monday, November 21, 2016

When the leaves start to crunch on the ground and Christmas lights rise in the streets, then it must be late August and time to start thinking about Thanksgiving. It’s a time to get ready for the greatest Avery Coonley tradition of them all: the annual Flubbed Attempt to Describe the Super Weird Thanksgiving Program. As a student I walked in eight processionals but my memories feel unreliable, almost bewitched, like that storybook kid who falls asleep in the woods and dreams of being whisked to a banquet of elves but then wakes up alone, in a breeze that sounds faintly like music, half-wondering if it had just been a dream. The Thanksgiving Program is a group dream shared by everyone in the auditorium. I’m not a cultural anthropologist and I don’t know why some rituals have such oomph—solemnity and symbolism can push buttons, but those words feel so clinical and adult, while the Thanksgiving Program is a mirage that belongs to kids.

For us students, the processional had a beginning, middle, and end that were held in three separate ecosystems. The first was a sideroom that the parents never saw. I don’t want to give away any ancient seahorse secrets but the brains of the program were the adult staff in charge of this room. Nowadays we would call it a staging area, but really it was more of a livestock holding pen where students were tagged and stacked before entering the auditorium. Imagine two hundred anklebiters, lined up from youngest to moodiest, all whispering and giggling and shushing and caping each other. Not capping—caping; this was the only place post-Zorro where a cape was a verb. They swirled from our backs like gusts of leaves as we galloped through a maze of tables piled with food: red ripples of apples toppling from baskets, sleek eggplants, oranges, berries, greens, bundles of pale wheat leaning like brooms, a bonanza of squash, pumpkins, and gourds as if those are really three different foods, and next to each item, a notecard with the name of the student assigned to carry it. The card was a potential bummer for the younger classes because no one trusted their stumpy doll hands to carry anything; for two straight years they gave me a potato.

There was only one door separating this mess from the second ecosystem—the dark yonder where all the parents and adults were waiting. An eighth grader might have forty minutes to kill in the first room before it was his or her turn to join the ceremony, which sounds like a long time but you could never really relax, because you belonged to a hobbit chain gang whose youngest end was getting gulped down the esophagus of the door. Then it was your turn—year after year, always suddenly your turn—your instant to shuffle to the threshold, where the weather seemed to gather and a teacher goosed you through.

We walked in our socks. For a week we had practiced leading with our left, but many young geniuses would disgrace Jamestown by choking and leading with their other left. No one really cared because it was way too dark to see feet. Leaving behind the jumbled first room was like opening a capsule hatch and floating into the ink of galactic space—in my memory we were being absorbed by oblivion. Which I think raises some legit questions about my memory, because really, oblivion? It was the gym. And not a big gym—big for a badminton court, indulgent for a garage, but a dark yonder? Sounds fishy, but such is the power of Thanksgiving.

And such is the weakness of eyewitness testimony. Over the years, I’ve accepted that the Rock Pond was never actually the sixth Great Lake, but I still believe our Thanksgiving Program was held in a proud and brave gymnasium that rose to the occasion every time. Each student walked deliberately down the aisle—we ferried that food like a kingdom of ants who had finally hit the jackpot. We walked past all the adults, who sat serenely in the dark because they loved us, and because they hadn’t brought their cellphones, since walking around with a vintage cellphone was like carrying a futon. The darkness consumed us. A hush rippled down like glitter in a snow globe. I don’t know if you could have heard a pin drop but I was gripping my potato tighter than a holy yam. It wouldn’t have mattered, there was only one sound in the room that anyone remembers: a curve of music that was unspooling itself from the farther corner of the gym. Pachelbel’s Canon, performed live by the music department. A perfect fit that always sounded fresh, because these were the days before the wedding industry had rebranded Pachelbel’s Canon into the chicken dance of classical music, back when every kid only knew the title and never questioned the odd image it evoked of Pachelbel, on a hill, raining thunder and doom from his world famous death cannon.

Halfway down the aisle we started to feel tractor-beamed towards our destination, a glowing shape at the front of the room. This was the Thanksgiving Display. And I realize that display is a pretty flimsy word, but good luck finding a better one because whatever that thing was, it glides through language like a ghost through a net. In my eyes it was more lovely than strange, but when you look at pictures, strange makes a strong comeback. We decorated the display during the processional itself: Each student walked the length of the gym and then up a few stairs to the stage, where for a few charmed seconds we stepped into the swaddled world of a Cezanne still life, before placing our food on a prearranged ledge and scramming stage left for the next student. This went on for an hour. It sounds simple but the result was not from our planet—it was from a groovier planet, a planet that cared deeply about drapery and wicker. Each year the adults watched in amazement as their children built a nine-dimensional salad bar out of mood lighting and the fall collection from Fruit of the Loom. It was weird but it worked: Yeats once wrote a poem about the Cloths of Heaven, but here were the cloths of earth, furled in the colors of harvest, a crescendo of fabric and food that crumpled and hived into a neo-Plymouth Rock. It was Picasso’s Farmers’ Market and Liberace’s Yard Sale. It was half elegant, half figment, and all ours: the Annual Incommunicable Seahorse Thanksgiving Noun.

And that was that. We left our food as an offering to the vegetable ziggurat. We nodded silently at each other in our brown capes, a secret society of pilgrim superheroes. The oldest girls hung the enchanted citrus frisbee somewhere near the cranberry harpoon, and we all sang to the adults. The music changed year to year but always included For the Beauty of the Earth, which had become kind of a theme song and swelled through the room like a hymn should. Each year the music teacher Ms. Martin tried to get us to sing the words flower and hour using only one syllable, so each year we sang our heads off praising flarr and arr like thankful pirates. When the ceremony ended, adults and kids together spilled out the front doors, squinting in the white sun.

Or at least I hope we did, I really hope that’s what happened. And I hope Mrs. Lenhardt isn’t reading this right now, glancing around a room and saying to no one in particular, “Well, I see a lot of words here, but not too many that describe any Thanksgiving Program can remember. But what do I know? I’ve only been running the thing thirty years. Now what’s this about a tiny room where we crammed all the students and food? For an imaginary room, that sounds like quite a fire hazard!”

She’d be right, so I can only shrug. As kids we couldn’t process half of what happened. We couldn’t appreciate how the Thanksgiving Program wasn’t merely beautiful, but that it tied a string around our fingers that would eventually help tether our idea of beauty to specific mature virtues. Gratitude and empathy. Fellowship. Love of nature. The food was donated to the needy. The capes were ejected from society—one day perhaps we will burn them for fuel. The Golden Rule will be our guide. 

But as kids, what we lacked in nuance we might have gained in grace. Everyone knows what it’s like to walk around a big city in the middle of the day and then to slip inside an old museum or cathedral. It’s a different realm, your footsteps clack, the world feels removed. When it’s time to leave and you step back outside, at first the sounds of the city seem muted and it takes a few minutes for your brain to catch up. You might be stuck at McDonald’s but your mind’s eye lags behind, still levitating through the cathedral like a balloon. Of course it deflates in a hurry—even for a monk it’s an impossible awareness to sustain. But for the adults and students of the Avery Coonley School, remembering the Thanksgiving Program offers a handy, permanent glimpse backwards into wonder. The details might be up for debate but the faraway feeling it revives is yours in your pocket. This morning I found some pictures of past programs, and what strikes me is how much the generations look alike. The lunatics of the 1930s are following the same recipe that the modern students used last November, same clothes and props, same body language, their faces could be my classmates or my sister. Soon it will be a hundred years. A long long line of curious great kids in that first room, peeking around their friends’ shoulders, waiting their turn.

~ Blake Glidden, ACS Class of 1987


Tags:  Thanksgiving 

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