Custom Class: post-landing-hero

Though the pandemic affected their plans for events, summer internships, study abroad opportunities, and athletic competitions, these students still found ways to learn, to connect, and to share joy.

The class of 2021 is a diverse and talented group of young adults. During their time at Rowland Hall, they have grown academically and personally by embracing challenges, pursuing their passions, and committing to productive, responsible, and thoughtful lives. They’ve also shown impressive resilience, particularly during their junior and senior years, which were greatly altered by COVID-19. Though the pandemic affected their plans for events, summer internships, study abroad opportunities, and athletic competitions, these students still found ways to learn, to connect, and to share joy.

Members of this class took opportunities to expand their learning. They explored careers through internships—both in person and virtually—at organizations like Better Days 2020, McNeill Von Maack, the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, the University of Utah, and Utah Spine Medicine. They attended programs at The School of the New York Times and the National Security Agency, studied abroad in England and Ireland, and immersed themselves in languages and cultures in China and the Dominican Republic. They expanded their studies at the college level, enrolling in courses like numbers theory, 1700s American civilization, and introduction to architecture, and they partnered with Rowland Hall teachers to craft independent study courses when COVID-19 canceled classes. The class of 2021 also includes several students recognized for their academic prowess. The group boasts several top-tier debaters, including six individual state champions, three national qualifiers, two Academic All-Americans, and the captains who led the team to its first overall 3A State title in school history. Multiple young women in this class received Aspirations in Computing awards from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Another took home first prize in the Federal Bar Association’s 2020 civics essay contest.

This class has no shortage of artists bringing beauty to the world.

This class has no shortage of artists bringing beauty to the world. Its musicians include a winner of the American Protégé International Competition of Romantic Music, a principal violinist for the Utah All-State Orchestra and the Utah Youth Orchestra, and a pianist who earned several superior rankings from the National Federation of Music Clubs. One actor is a member of University of Utah Youth Theatre’s Conservatory, and one dancer attends Ballet West Academy. A promising writer honed her skills at a Brown University creative nonfiction writing program, while others wrote editorials on topics like homelessness reform, the importance of grieving lives lost to coronavirus, and the number of women in leadership, all of which were published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Winged Lion seniors led our athletics program to top-five finishes in the Deseret News’ 2A All-Sports Awards each year of their Upper School careers. They captured 28 Region and nine State titles as teams, and four individual Region and State championships. Five seniors were named All-State, with one awarded 3A Swimmer of the Year; four earned All-Region honors; and one was selected to play in a postseason All-Star game. Fifteen Academic All-State and 25 Academic All-Region honorees led their teams to top-three GPA rankings among 2A schools over the past four years. All three seniors in Rowmark Ski Academy finished this season with career-best performances, including 10 Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) top-20 and two FIS top-10 finishes. In addition to school sports, this group pursued diverse athletics interests: they participated in rowing, figure skating, and club soccer. One is a national-championship-winning equestrian. Two are ski mountaineers, one of whom competed with the US National Team at the World Championships and Youth Olympic Games, and another who is a member of the Canadian National Ski Mountaineering Team.

This class has left their mark on Rowland Hall: they founded clubs like Mental Health Educators, created safe spaces for peers including the LatinX affinity group and the Queer-Straight Alliance, and helped drive necessary conversations via the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee.

This class has left their mark on Rowland Hall: they founded clubs like Mental Health Educators, created safe spaces for peers including the LatinX affinity group and the Queer-Straight Alliance, and helped drive necessary conversations via the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee. They’ve devoted countless hours to the larger community, supporting causes like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives, and volunteering for organizations including Circles Salt Lake, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Mission Math, the National Charity League, People's Health Clinic, Salt Lake Peer Court, the Sunnyvale Community Center, YouthCity Government, and YWCA Utah.

Many students held down jobs while in school, working as servers, referees, lifeguards, swim instructors, and babysitters; a couple entrepreneurs even started their own companies. And while balancing school, service, and work, these students spent time on passion projects, whether that meant joining the American Regions Mathematics League, examining area histories and geology with the National Outdoor Leadership School, earning a private pilot's license, or giving a TED Talk on microplastics for TEDxParkCity.

The future is bright for the 65 seniors in this graduating class. Our graduates earned admission to 131 different colleges and universities, and 74% of them received at least one merit scholarship to attend college. A few have chosen to take a gap year to work or pursue personal interests. Whatever their next steps, we know these experiences will serve as stepping stones on their journeys to living lives of purpose and impact.

Congratulations to the class of 2021. You have achieved many great things, and we are eager to watch you continue to change the world for the better.

Students

Achievements of the Class of 2021

Though the pandemic affected their plans for events, summer internships, study abroad opportunities, and athletic competitions, these students still found ways to learn, to connect, and to share joy.

The class of 2021 is a diverse and talented group of young adults. During their time at Rowland Hall, they have grown academically and personally by embracing challenges, pursuing their passions, and committing to productive, responsible, and thoughtful lives. They’ve also shown impressive resilience, particularly during their junior and senior years, which were greatly altered by COVID-19. Though the pandemic affected their plans for events, summer internships, study abroad opportunities, and athletic competitions, these students still found ways to learn, to connect, and to share joy.

Members of this class took opportunities to expand their learning. They explored careers through internships—both in person and virtually—at organizations like Better Days 2020, McNeill Von Maack, the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, the University of Utah, and Utah Spine Medicine. They attended programs at The School of the New York Times and the National Security Agency, studied abroad in England and Ireland, and immersed themselves in languages and cultures in China and the Dominican Republic. They expanded their studies at the college level, enrolling in courses like numbers theory, 1700s American civilization, and introduction to architecture, and they partnered with Rowland Hall teachers to craft independent study courses when COVID-19 canceled classes. The class of 2021 also includes several students recognized for their academic prowess. The group boasts several top-tier debaters, including six individual state champions, three national qualifiers, two Academic All-Americans, and the captains who led the team to its first overall 3A State title in school history. Multiple young women in this class received Aspirations in Computing awards from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Another took home first prize in the Federal Bar Association’s 2020 civics essay contest.

This class has no shortage of artists bringing beauty to the world.

This class has no shortage of artists bringing beauty to the world. Its musicians include a winner of the American Protégé International Competition of Romantic Music, a principal violinist for the Utah All-State Orchestra and the Utah Youth Orchestra, and a pianist who earned several superior rankings from the National Federation of Music Clubs. One actor is a member of University of Utah Youth Theatre’s Conservatory, and one dancer attends Ballet West Academy. A promising writer honed her skills at a Brown University creative nonfiction writing program, while others wrote editorials on topics like homelessness reform, the importance of grieving lives lost to coronavirus, and the number of women in leadership, all of which were published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Winged Lion seniors led our athletics program to top-five finishes in the Deseret News’ 2A All-Sports Awards each year of their Upper School careers. They captured 28 Region and nine State titles as teams, and four individual Region and State championships. Five seniors were named All-State, with one awarded 3A Swimmer of the Year; four earned All-Region honors; and one was selected to play in a postseason All-Star game. Fifteen Academic All-State and 25 Academic All-Region honorees led their teams to top-three GPA rankings among 2A schools over the past four years. All three seniors in Rowmark Ski Academy finished this season with career-best performances, including 10 Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) top-20 and two FIS top-10 finishes. In addition to school sports, this group pursued diverse athletics interests: they participated in rowing, figure skating, and club soccer. One is a national-championship-winning equestrian. Two are ski mountaineers, one of whom competed with the US National Team at the World Championships and Youth Olympic Games, and another who is a member of the Canadian National Ski Mountaineering Team.

This class has left their mark on Rowland Hall: they founded clubs like Mental Health Educators, created safe spaces for peers including the LatinX affinity group and the Queer-Straight Alliance, and helped drive necessary conversations via the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee.

This class has left their mark on Rowland Hall: they founded clubs like Mental Health Educators, created safe spaces for peers including the LatinX affinity group and the Queer-Straight Alliance, and helped drive necessary conversations via the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee. They’ve devoted countless hours to the larger community, supporting causes like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives, and volunteering for organizations including Circles Salt Lake, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Mission Math, the National Charity League, People's Health Clinic, Salt Lake Peer Court, the Sunnyvale Community Center, YouthCity Government, and YWCA Utah.

Many students held down jobs while in school, working as servers, referees, lifeguards, swim instructors, and babysitters; a couple entrepreneurs even started their own companies. And while balancing school, service, and work, these students spent time on passion projects, whether that meant joining the American Regions Mathematics League, examining area histories and geology with the National Outdoor Leadership School, earning a private pilot's license, or giving a TED Talk on microplastics for TEDxParkCity.

The future is bright for the 65 seniors in this graduating class. Our graduates earned admission to 131 different colleges and universities, and 74% of them received at least one merit scholarship to attend college. A few have chosen to take a gap year to work or pursue personal interests. Whatever their next steps, we know these experiences will serve as stepping stones on their journeys to living lives of purpose and impact.

Congratulations to the class of 2021. You have achieved many great things, and we are eager to watch you continue to change the world for the better.

Students

Explore More Features

Class of 2021 Cap Toss GIF Banner

Though the pandemic affected their plans for events, summer internships, study abroad opportunities, and athletic competitions, these students still found ways to learn, to connect, and to share joy.

The class of 2021 is a diverse and talented group of young adults. During their time at Rowland Hall, they have grown academically and personally by embracing challenges, pursuing their passions, and committing to productive, responsible, and thoughtful lives. They’ve also shown impressive resilience, particularly during their junior and senior years, which were greatly altered by COVID-19. Though the pandemic affected their plans for events, summer internships, study abroad opportunities, and athletic competitions, these students still found ways to learn, to connect, and to share joy.

Members of this class took opportunities to expand their learning. They explored careers through internships—both in person and virtually—at organizations like Better Days 2020, McNeill Von Maack, the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, the University of Utah, and Utah Spine Medicine. They attended programs at The School of the New York Times and the National Security Agency, studied abroad in England and Ireland, and immersed themselves in languages and cultures in China and the Dominican Republic. They expanded their studies at the college level, enrolling in courses like numbers theory, 1700s American civilization, and introduction to architecture, and they partnered with Rowland Hall teachers to craft independent study courses when COVID-19 canceled classes. The class of 2021 also includes several students recognized for their academic prowess. The group boasts several top-tier debaters, including six individual state champions, three national qualifiers, two Academic All-Americans, and the captains who led the team to its first overall 3A State title in school history. Multiple young women in this class received Aspirations in Computing awards from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Another took home first prize in the Federal Bar Association’s 2020 civics essay contest.

This class has no shortage of artists bringing beauty to the world.

This class has no shortage of artists bringing beauty to the world. Its musicians include a winner of the American Protégé International Competition of Romantic Music, a principal violinist for the Utah All-State Orchestra and the Utah Youth Orchestra, and a pianist who earned several superior rankings from the National Federation of Music Clubs. One actor is a member of University of Utah Youth Theatre’s Conservatory, and one dancer attends Ballet West Academy. A promising writer honed her skills at a Brown University creative nonfiction writing program, while others wrote editorials on topics like homelessness reform, the importance of grieving lives lost to coronavirus, and the number of women in leadership, all of which were published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Winged Lion seniors led our athletics program to top-five finishes in the Deseret News’ 2A All-Sports Awards each year of their Upper School careers. They captured 28 Region and nine State titles as teams, and four individual Region and State championships. Five seniors were named All-State, with one awarded 3A Swimmer of the Year; four earned All-Region honors; and one was selected to play in a postseason All-Star game. Fifteen Academic All-State and 25 Academic All-Region honorees led their teams to top-three GPA rankings among 2A schools over the past four years. All three seniors in Rowmark Ski Academy finished this season with career-best performances, including 10 Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) top-20 and two FIS top-10 finishes. In addition to school sports, this group pursued diverse athletics interests: they participated in rowing, figure skating, and club soccer. One is a national-championship-winning equestrian. Two are ski mountaineers, one of whom competed with the US National Team at the World Championships and Youth Olympic Games, and another who is a member of the Canadian National Ski Mountaineering Team.

This class has left their mark on Rowland Hall: they founded clubs like Mental Health Educators, created safe spaces for peers including the LatinX affinity group and the Queer-Straight Alliance, and helped drive necessary conversations via the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee.

This class has left their mark on Rowland Hall: they founded clubs like Mental Health Educators, created safe spaces for peers including the LatinX affinity group and the Queer-Straight Alliance, and helped drive necessary conversations via the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee. They’ve devoted countless hours to the larger community, supporting causes like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives, and volunteering for organizations including Circles Salt Lake, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Mission Math, the National Charity League, People's Health Clinic, Salt Lake Peer Court, the Sunnyvale Community Center, YouthCity Government, and YWCA Utah.

Many students held down jobs while in school, working as servers, referees, lifeguards, swim instructors, and babysitters; a couple entrepreneurs even started their own companies. And while balancing school, service, and work, these students spent time on passion projects, whether that meant joining the American Regions Mathematics League, examining area histories and geology with the National Outdoor Leadership School, earning a private pilot's license, or giving a TED Talk on microplastics for TEDxParkCity.

The future is bright for the 65 seniors in this graduating class. Our graduates earned admission to 131 different colleges and universities, and 74% of them received at least one merit scholarship to attend college. A few have chosen to take a gap year to work or pursue personal interests. Whatever their next steps, we know these experiences will serve as stepping stones on their journeys to living lives of purpose and impact.

Congratulations to the class of 2021. You have achieved many great things, and we are eager to watch you continue to change the world for the better.

Students

Rowland Hall Head of School Mick Gee chats with Lower School students at the 2021 science share.

There are unofficial rules a new head of school is expected to follow when arriving on campus: Listen. Focus on relationships. Learn the culture. And don’t make too many decisions while doing the first three. 

Of course, rules change if your first year happens to occur within a global pandemic.

This has been a year full of decisions. I've tried to get the balance right of making calls when they need to be made and listening when I need to listen.—Head of School Mick Gee

“This has been a year full of decisions,” said Mick Gee, who is completing his first year as Rowland Hall’s head of school this June. “I've tried to get the balance right of making calls when they need to be made and listening when I need to listen. That's been a bit of a dance.”

In fact, Mick’s input on Rowland Hall’s COVID-19-related decisions started before he officially did. Though his role was scheduled to begin on July 1, 2020, Mick began closely collaborating with former Head of School Alan Sparrow in March 2020, not long after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

“Every time there was a decision that the school was making that Alan felt would have impact beyond his tenure, he would run it by me,” said Mick. “He was open and enthusiastic about me being involved in conversations, because I was going to inherit the decisions that were made.”

Because of this, Mick was often doing double duty at Rowland Hall and Allendale Columbia, the Rochester, New York, independent school he previously led, and it became rapidly clear as the weeks passed that the pandemic would continue to be the focus of his first year at Rowland Hall. By the time he arrived in Utah in summer 2020—joining his wife, Amy, and daughter, Madeleine ’21, who had moved to Salt Lake City ahead of him—Mick had a good grasp of how Alan had been guiding the Rowland Hall community and was able to jump right into discussions about the probability of offering in-person learning in the fall. Much of those weeks, Mick remembered, were spent wading through a constant stream of new information about the virus.

“There was a new article coming out every week: kids can catch COVID, kids can transmit it; kids can't catch it, kids don't transmit it as much,” said Mick. “We had somehow to pick our way through that.”

Head of School Mick Gee chats with a student at the 2021 Lower School Science Share.

Mick chats with a student at the Lower School Science Share on May 7. A former physics and chemistry teacher, Mick relied on scientific data when making decisions for this school year, with a focus on student well-being.

It was a time marked by fear, and though the Rowland Hall community was hopeful that classes could be safely held in person, people understandably wondered if that was too risky. Faced with a flood of questions and opinions, and knowing that no decision the school made could be risk-free, Mick, a former physics and chemistry teacher, put his trust in science. Alongside his administrative team and a cadre of medical experts from the Rowland Hall community, he led the charge of weighing the many risks—from probability of spread to the harm distance learning was doing to students’ mental health—through the lens of the most recent sound scientific data, and with an eye toward what was best for students. He accepted that there was no way to make every person happy.

“It's a compromise. I can't remember a decision where everybody felt good. There's always risk and there's always uncertainty,” Mick said. “If we just made decisions based on what's best for COVID protection, we would have closed the school for a year. But we knew that was not going to be the best thing for the mental health of kids. It was not going to be the best way to support families.”

And while Mick understood and trusted in the science behind these decisions, he acknowledged that it was a challenge to ask people to make major changes to their school days—like filling out daily health screenings, wearing masks, and staying home with even mild symptoms—before he had a chance to get to know them.

“I didn't really have a relationship with people, and I’m asking them to do things that are far from normal,” Mick remembered. “I hadn’t had a chance to deposit anything in the goodwill bank, and I was making withdrawals.”

But the Rowland Hall community was willing to extend that credit to Mick, agreeing to adhere to the school’s health and safety guidelines to ensure that students could be on campus in some capacity. From the Upper School athletes who wore masks while competing to the families who chose to forgo holiday travel, Mick knows that every person in the Rowland Hall community played a role in the school’s ability to remain open all year.

We can plan the best possible protocols, but if the students didn't buy in, if the parents and community didn't buy in, then it really wouldn't matter. How we've responded as a school to create an environment where kids have been able to go to school every single day is pretty remarkable.—Mick Gee

“Every single person stepped up,” he said. “It's hard, but everybody fell in with the philosophy and made it possible.”

Mick knows how easily the year could have gone in another direction. He’s heard firsthand from administrators who struggled with families’ willingness to take precautions outside of school, leading to community spread and necessitating continued distance learning, with some schools unable to open until as late as April 2021. He remembered fully understanding these struggles while on a call with 100 other heads of school, where he realized that only 12 of the attendees were sitting in offices on campus.

“We can plan the best possible protocols, but if the students didn't buy in, if the parents and community didn't buy in, then it really wouldn't matter,” he said. “How we've responded as a school to create an environment where kids have been able to go to school every single day is pretty remarkable.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Mick is especially grateful for Rowland Hall’s choices, and the community’s actions, as each passing week seems to confirm how critically important in-person learning is to student well-being. By early April, Rowland Hall was fortunate to be able to end its hybrid-learning model, opening full in-person learning to all interested students (while continuing to support those who have chosen to finish the year learning remotely). And though things are still far from normal, this decision—alongside increasing vaccinations, which most faculty and staff, and some students over the age of 16, have received—has helped make a difference in students’ mental health. It’s also allowed for the careful reintroduction of certain spring events, which has benefited adults including Mick, who’s been able to safely increase his in-person interactions with students. During this year’s Battle of the Classes, for instance, Mick, a lifelong athlete, joined faculty and staff in a kickball match against seniors, then enjoyed a pick-up game of cricket with a group of middle schoolers. He said letting kids get to know him in these casual settings makes a difference.

Mick Gee playing kickball with students during Battle of the Classes 2021.

Mick enjoys a game of kickball against seniors on April 20. Rowland Hall has been able to carefully reintroduce activities this spring, benefitting students as well as faculty and staff.

“Being out there is probably worth 10 Zoom meetings,” said Mick. “You see students in the hall and you just played sports against them—it's different in the way they see you. It's a game changer, really.”

Moments like these are, of course, what Mick pictured during his first year at Rowland Hall, but he doesn’t let the pandemic demands that took their place bother him. Rather, he’s tapped into his lighthearted personality to find joy in the everyday and to keep this year’s challenges in perspective. “I never really take myself too seriously,” he said. “I think you can do all of this stuff—make all these hard calls—but you have to have fun doing it. That seems a silly thing to say in a year where so many people have suffered, but there has to be levity and joy in the work, and a sense of humor.”

Mick’s also using this year’s experiences to help him make decisions around the future of Rowland Hall, emphasizing the importance of understanding how schools’ decisions truly affect students—a skill that he believes schools have had to sharpen this year and one that shouldn’t be abandoned in favor of the education status quo.

“‘What's the best thing to do for kids? How is this decision going to impact students?’ That's the criteria for making decisions,” said Mick. “I think every school in the country will tell you, ‘Of course, we do that all the time,’ and they do not. That is one thing I think that we can do more of, and we've learned this year.”

I think it's a misconception to think everything was better before COVID. This year has taught many schools, including ours, that you can change quickly, and pivot, and make decisions that are extremely impactful.—Mick Gee

In addition, Mick wants to continue to encourage the ingenuity teachers showed throughout the pandemic. He noted that many have found ways of presenting a variety of subjects, from math and English to arts and PE, in ways that better serve how today’s students learn.

“I think it's a misconception to think everything was better before COVID,” said Mick. “This year has taught many schools, including ours, that you can change quickly, and pivot, and make decisions that are extremely impactful. And knowing that we can get through that and be successful where, frankly, not every school has succeeded, builds a bit of confidence.”

That confidence seems to be reflected in the larger Rowland Hall community, as evidenced by re-enrollment figures. Mick views families’ enthusiasm to sign on for another year as an indication that, though not everyone may have agreed with all of the decisions made this year, they believe in Rowland Hall’s capability to support students and families through crises, while still delivering a top academic program.

“Our re-enrollment has gone really well—that's a sign that people are reacting to what they've seen and experienced this year,” said Mick. “So that feels really good.”

But even with ongoing community buy-in, Mick won’t be taking it easy. He’ll be spending much of next year revisiting his pre-pandemic to-do list, especially when it comes to building relationships with students, families, faculty, and staff. “There's lots of people who don't really know me,” he said. “That's going to continue to be a work in progress.”

And even though he’s had to shift some of his year-one priorities to year two, Mick is excited about what lies ahead: he sees the 2021–2022 school year as a second chance to experience what traditionally makes up a head of school’s first year.

“I feel like I almost get a second lease of life because I get to do my first year all over,” he said. “I feel super lucky to be here and to be part of all we've done this year—and we're not done. I'm always like, ‘What's next?’ And, luckily, there's always plenty next.”

People

Middle School student reading in class.

Once upon a time in a middle school, an entire class was lost in the pages of other worlds…

In the front row, one student hunched over a glossy magazine, while another sat immersed in the thrills of a YA, or young adult, novel. Another, eyes closed and headphones in, listened to a rich voice narrate an audiobook bestseller. There were few sounds in the room: whispers of pages turning, the hum of a fan, the shuffle of getting comfortable in a chair. At that moment, thanks to the magic of reading, the students were both present and not—while in their chairs on the Lincoln Street Campus, they were also, somehow, far away, exploring new places, trying on new identities: Detective. Basketball star. Dragon tamer. Field biologist.

“Reading is often described as the keys to the kingdom of learning,” seventh-grade English teacher Jill Gerber recently wrote in an article for Middle School families. “Once someone falls in love with reading, they can go anywhere and be anyone.”

The benefits of reading are well-known. Independent readers are more successful across the academic spectrum—in arts and humanities as well as sciences and mathematics—and enjoy higher levels of empathy, reduced stress, and mental stimulation through their lives. But helping students discover a love of reading, and an internal drive toward it, isn’t always easy, especially once students enter middle school, a phase of life in which many stop reading for pleasure.

Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills. When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.—Pam Smith, Middle School principal

Knowing this, Rowland Hall’s Middle School English teachers have long focused on methods that help students rediscover the joy of reading, with one rising to the top: giving them more choice in what they read for school. With choice, teachers introduce students to a wide variety of genres, perspectives, and topics, and then let them pick what they want to read. Supported by research by teachers like Nancie Atwell and Penny Kittle, choice has become a popular approach because it works: by offering students a variety of texts, they’re more likely to find something they like, encouraging them to continue to seek out books that meet their interests.

“It’s so simple to give choice, and the benefits are so profound,” said sixth-grade English teacher Mary Lawlor. In fact, the benefits of choice are so powerful at this developmental stage that the approach is utilized across the Middle School, from student-led project collaboration in social studies to self-pacing opportunities in math and world languages classes.

“Choice empowers middle schoolers: it allows for autonomy, builds engagement, and develops students' interests and skills,” explained Middle School Principal Pam Smith. “When teachers give students choice, they allow a variety of perspectives, interests, and increased enthusiasm into the classroom.”

Chapter 1: A Seat at the Table

Student choice takes different forms within an English class, from the almost limitless options available for independent reading to the extension texts teachers pair with the all-class novels that headline their learning units. Whatever the form, choice provides teachers a way to support students wherever they are as readers.

“Kids are on a journey; they're not all at the same place,” said Jill. This means that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reading—while some students are ready for advanced texts early in the year, others are challenged by the first all-class novel.

“Choice allows me to target toward reading levels, giving me a lot more flexibility in terms of reaching readers and getting them engaged,” said eighth-grade English teacher Chelsea Vasquez.

Middle School students reading in class.

Seventh graders reading Show Me a Sign, the grade's first all-class novel of this year.

For instance, if a student is struggling with an all-class novel, the teacher can balance that challenge with an easier independent read, ensuring that at any given moment the student has access to a book they actually want to read and helping to avoid the frustration or resentment toward reading that can build when a student doesn’t feel connected to the all-class text.

“Having more choice allows kids to really get into a book and enjoy it,” Chelsea explained. “They get excited, and it builds excitement across the class.”

Choice also helps build students’ confidence when it comes to analyzing literature, an important aspect of the English classroom. For instance, graphic literature—including comic books and graphic novels—has become more common in English classes because of its ability to help students better understand literary terms like theme, symbolism, mood, and imagery.

By meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.

“For a lot of kids, it's easier to identify symbols and mood when it's a graphic image, before they jump to prose,” explained Jill, an authority on graphic literature (she’s been invited to share her expertise at places like the 2020 Comic-Con Books for All panel and co-authored an article about graphic literature in the classroom). “That switch from the concrete to the abstract, that's kind of the nature of middle schoolers—they're starting to be able to get those abstract concepts.”

Benefits like these add up in a powerful way: by meeting students where they are using books that are targeted to each person’s reading level, teachers are helping them feel seen and appreciated on their educational journeys. This is important, because when children feel valued, they’re more likely to believe in their own capabilities and engage on a deeper level.

“Everybody has a right to a seat at the table, and that's important—we're a community of learners,” said Jill. “I want my kids to see themselves as readers, writers, and thinkers, no matter their skill level.”

Chapter 2: Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors

In addition to giving middle schoolers a seat at the table, choice also helps them understand the importance of making room at that table for a variety of human experiences and perspectives. Through choice, teachers can introduce students to a wider range of books and voices, demonstrating to them the value in lived experiences that differ from their own, and helping to build their empathy and understanding of a diverse world.

“We really try intentionally in the Middle School to make sure we are incorporating all kinds of identities, and that includes both authors and characters,” said Chelsea.

Research shows that all students benefit from diverse stories, including both books in which they see themselves and books in which they don’t. Rowland Hall teachers utilize the concept known as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors when determining which texts to teach, focusing on books in which students can find reflections of themselves (mirrors), examine others’ worlds (windows), and step into new worlds (sliding glass doors). This approach has been especially important as students have been learning about racial justice movements and starting to explore how they can help create a more equitable world. Teachers play an essential role in guiding students through this process, and can use texts to help them make sense of current events and learn from the experiences of others.

“I can change my curriculum based on the culture of the time,” said Mary, who this year introduced sixth graders to a new graphic novel unit, Other Voices, that featured Jerry Craft’s New Kid, a contemporary story about a young Black student starting a new school, along with John Lewis’ civil rights trilogy March and George Takei’s World War II internment novel They Called Us Enemy. She, along with her fellow English teachers, said they appreciate the flexibility of working in an independent school, which allows them to more easily adjust reading options to meet students’ needs and to help them explore the top issues of the day. “I have the resources to get those novels to them, and parents really want that to happen,” Mary said.

Two eighth graders discuss All American Boys in class.

Eighth graders chatting about All American Boys during class.

Choice also helps students make connections across subjects. For instance, this fall eighth graders read the all-class novel All American Boys—which examines the aftermath of an act of extreme police brutality through the eyes of a young Black man and a young White man—while studying slavery and abolitionism in their American studies class, allowing them to examine the history of slavery in America alongside modern-day racism and racial justice movements. To help students further explore and process racial justice activism as they read the novel, Chelsea presented them with a variety of nonfiction texts featuring activism in poetry, sports, and arts and music.

“I wanted them to see that there are movements outside of this novel,” she explained.

This experience not only grew students’ reading skills and knowledge of these areas, but also helped them feel more confident about engaging in some of today’s most important conversations.

“The kids really became able to talk about race and racism in a way that I hadn't seen before in middle schoolers,” Chelsea said.

Chapter 3: Readers, Writers, and Producers

Helping students learn how to have, as well as to lead, constructive conversations is essential in preparing them to live lives of purpose in an increasingly interconnected world.

“We're a global society,” said Jill. “We have to be able to communicate to a wide audience.”

Middle School students writing in English class.

Studying how writers use language helps students sharpen their own writing skills.

Choice prepares students for this by getting them comfortable with thinking deeply, examining ideas, and seeking out information—habits that are built through reading. In the safety of class, students learn there truly is something for everyone, and they can experiment to find what works for them: physical or digital publications, novels or magazines, graphic novels or comic books. They can even listen to audio books, which build reading comprehension skills in the brain in the same way print books do, and are especially beneficial for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities (at Rowland Hall, these students have access to Learning Ally, an audio book resource, thanks to a generous grant from a family in the community).

“Students are moving through so many texts and making reading a daily practice, which is one of the best ways to grow as a reader,” said Chelsea.

And it’s not only students’ reading skills that are improving. The more language that kids are exposed to via books, the teachers said, the better writers they become.

“Good readers are good writers,” said Jill. “I'm starting to see the nuance of language emerge, and it's all organic: they're looking at the way writers write, and how they connect to it, and what it makes them feel.”

Books are human experiences, human stories. Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.—Jill Gerber, seventh-grade English teacher

In other words, students are beginning to connect the stories they read to what it means to be human.

“Books are human experiences, human stories,” said Jill. “Humans connect through books, and you can really see kids grow through books.” She pointed out that stories are the building blocks of our collective history—before we could write, we told stories around fires and painted the first comics on cave walls—which is why students who explore them are more likely to connect, and better communicate, with others, a skill that can serve any path they choose to take. After all, Jill pointed out, the best doctors are the ones who know how to connect with people. “To be a really good doctor you have to understand the human experience,” she said.

This connection to the human experience also might just spark the inspiration students need to become tomorrow’s producers: writers of the articles, the graphic novels, and the bestsellers that continue this long tradition of storytelling, that help connect us through our shared humanity, and that, perhaps, inspire the next generation of readers.

Academics

Junior Remy Mickelson presenting Deliberate Dialogue skills during an advisory class.

2020 may well be remembered as the year of overwhelming stress, and research shows that it’s not only adults feeling the pressure—students feel it, too, and it plays a big role in how they learn.

Schools have long known that they play a critical role in supporting students’ mental well-being. Even before 2020, a heightened understanding of how mental health initiatives contribute to students’ welfare and their ability to learn shifted curriculum and priorities at Rowland Hall. Today, a strong social-emotional learning (SEL) thread runs through all school divisions, and a variety of resources that support students’ mental well-being—from trained counselors, to grade-level advisories, to SEL-based curriculum—are in place. Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund explained that the shift toward this support structure began in 2010, as educators across the country began to better understand how an overly anxious mind affects learning.

You're not learning if your brain is engaged in worry and stress—learning is a higher-order thinking skill.—Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education

“You're not learning if your brain is engaged in worry and stress—learning is a higher-order thinking skill,” Ryan said. “We knew we needed to focus on the whole child, giving them tools to free their cognitive load so they can give greater attention to learning and social connections.”

Upper School Social-Emotional Support Counselor Dr. Mindy Vanderloo said that a good way to think about this approach is to remember the phrase “Maslow before Bloom,” which underscores the theory that human beings must have their basic needs met before they can take on higher-level desires or thinking.

“If you don't have your basic needs—home, security, food, mental health—then you can't do those things that are higher up on hierarchy,” said Mindy. “Research has demonstrated the relationship between academics and mental health. We understand the importance of identifying and treating mental health problems; we also know that incorporating SEL can improve mental health.”

And while this is true in any academic year, it has become even more important in 2020, when heightened anxiety around issues including COVID-19, the election, and social unrest can further impact students’ mental well-being—which was already concerning mental health professionals. Mindy pointed to American Psychological Association research released in 2019 that found that the percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders—serious psychological distress, major depression, or suicidal thoughts—has risen significantly over the past decade. Though there isn’t a clear cause why, she said, issues like social media, political divisiveness, and climate change may play a role.

“Mental health disorders have increased over time, and there isn't a known cause,” Mindy explained. “Prevalence rates are going up—and it could be we feel more comfortable talking about it now, and so we notice it more—but there is something categorically different that has changed over generations. Schools, appropriately, have responded and said, ‘This is a bigger problem than it used to be, for whatever reason, and we need to address it.’”


Resources that support students’ mental well-being are available in all Rowland Hall divisions, starting in the beginning and lower schools, where a supportive SEL foundation is first established. Guided by Emotional Support Counselor Chuck White, Rowland Hall’s preschool- and elementary-aged students begin building their social-emotional skills through programs like Second Step and Responsive Classroom. Faculty and staff also cultivate strong partnerships with caregivers during these years, providing resources that advise adults on how to talk to young learners about issues such as COVID-19 and social unrest or the election, as well as how to have healthy conversations around topics such as race.

As students move to the Middle School on the Lincoln Street Campus—and begin a phase of life known for a great deal of change—educators take even more action to help them understand and manage their own mental wellness.

“It's important to remember that in middle school brains are changing at a high rate,” said Middle School Social-Emotional Support Counselor Leslie Czerwinski. “Then on top of brain changes, hormones start to change.”

Middle schoolers on the Lincoln Street Campus.

The middle school years are an ideal time to practice health coping strategies.

At the same time, students are learning to navigate the world in new ways, with an increase in online time—including, for many, access to social media, which can add new layers of pressure, such as the need to present perfection. It is therefore important to help these students find healthy coping strategies that they can practice in Middle School and carry into their Upper School years, and beyond.

That notion of productive struggle is that if I'm not stressed, I'm not learning; if I'm overstressed, I'm not learning. What we really want to find is that yellow zone where I'm challenged. I've always used this canoe analogy: I want you to rock your canoe, but I don't want your canoe flipping.—Ryan Hoglund

“The goal is not zero stress; that's really important to emphasize,” said Ryan. “Stress is normal—it drives us to deadlines that keep us accountable. But how do you keep it productive?” To do this, he said, Rowland Hall focuses on productive struggle, also known as the zone of proximal development, a sweet spot for each learner where the student has found balance between being too comfortable and too overwhelmed.

“That notion of productive struggle is that if I'm not stressed, I'm not learning; if I'm overstressed, I'm not learning. What we really want to find is that yellow zone where I'm challenged,” said Ryan. “I've always used this canoe analogy: I want you to rock your canoe, but I don't want your canoe flipping.”

Productive struggle not only prepares students to build resilience and succeed under the pressures of life, but to learn how to head off more serious issues, like chronic anxiety, that can develop under too much stress. In the middle and upper schools, this skill is purposefully encouraged by faculty and staff in classroom conversations as well as in advisory, a program designed to help build community and promote student wellness. Advisory now plays a major role in the Rowland Hall experience—one that is so important that sixth graders’ placement into their advisory groups is a thoughtful process handled by the middle and upper school counselors, principals, and assistant principals, who understand that identifying the best advisor for each student can lead to strong relationships that support mental well-being throughout their years on the Lincoln Street Campus. This is necessary, Mindy noted, because research shows that one of the biggest ways to protect students against mental health problems is to give them access to consistent, healthy adult mentors.

“Individual connections to supportive adults is one of the best things we can provide for students as a school,” she said.


Healthy adult role models also help students discover their own leadership capabilities. During their time at Rowland Hall—particularly as they move from sixth to twelfth grade—students are given more autonomy and ownership of their learning and self-governance, which builds their confidence.

During their time at Rowland Hall students are given more autonomy and ownership of their learning and self-governance, which builds their confidence. This includes giving students opportunities to support their own and others’ mental well-being by letting them lead critical conversations, make essential connections, and even help to develop curriculum.

“In the Upper School, what we want to do is build self-efficacy and empower students to take care of themselves. They've learned skills in advisory through informal discussions with teachers—and so how do they take the next step?” Mindy said. “We shift from a focus on adults teaching students to what students can teach each other and take into their own hands.”

This includes giving students opportunities to support their own and others’ mental well-being by letting them lead critical conversations, make essential connections, and even help to develop curriculum. In support of this goal, in 2019 Mindy created a student group called the Mental Health Educators, whose mission is to help build awareness of and combat stigma around mental health issues. Since its founding, Mental Health Educators has played a vital role in normalizing mental health discussions on the Lincoln Street Campus—members address peers at chapels and morning meetings, and they build long-term relationships with students through advisory groups, where they lead discussions around topics like stress and anxiety, as well as offer tips on areas like healthy coping mechanisms.

“The school’s been doing a good job trying to reduce stigma around mental health,” said Samantha Lehman, a Rowland Hall junior and Mental Health Educator. “The Mental Health Educators are working to improve mental health resources, and I think we’ve already seen a lot of improvements and a lot of good feedback from the student body.”

Two students presenting Deliberate Dialogue skills in an advisory class.

Mental Health Educators Max Eatchel and Amanda Green presenting Deliberate Dialogue in October.

They’re also continuously finding new ways to bring their mental health training to their peers. For example, Samantha used some of the topics the group discussed—like motivation, relationships, and the importance of mental breaks—to create Instagram challenges that engaged and connected students during the long weeks of quarantine this spring. Senior Mena Zendejas-Portugal applies her mental health knowledge to her work as a member of the student Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Committee. And this fall, the entire Mental Health Educators group partnered with Dr. Carolyn Hickman, English Department chair, and Mike Shackelford, political science teacher and debate coach, to present Deliberate Dialogue, an initiative Carolyn and Mike designed to help reduce student stress during a contentious election season by giving them opportunities to practice civil discourse. Over two weeks in October, the Mental Health Educators taught the five skills of Deliberate Dialogue—open-mindedness, speaking, listening, responding, and reflecting—to all students in grades nine through eleven, as well as helped them practice constructive conversation techniques, which center around exchanging perspectives openly, challenging viewpoints respectfully, and building empathetic understanding. Samantha said the initiative fits in well with the Mental Health Educators mission “because you’re coming to the conversation seeking to understand, seeking to listen.”

We are making meaning, we are creating purpose, and those are the things that are going to help prevent us from being completely demoralized by stressors such as COVID.—Dr. Mindy Vanderloo, Upper School social-emotional support counselor

Mena added, “Once you learn how to have Deliberate Dialogue in your everyday life, that really helps you better your mental health and your relationships. The conversation turns toward building bridges and relationships, which then translates into how you perceive yourself and others.”

And this is a big deal, said Mindy, because by taking action to fight the stressors that affect their well-being—like a divisive election within a global pandemic—students feel a sense of purpose amid chaos.

“We are making meaning, we are creating purpose, and those are the things that are going to help prevent us from being completely demoralized by stressors such as COVID,” said Mindy. “If you can take a difficult or tragic event, take action, and decide to make change, it is so good for not only your mental health, but other people's mental health.”

Mena agreed. “You see students confront problems in such an elevated manner—they’re incorporating all these skills we’ve taught them, and they’re able to relieve themselves of so much stress,” she said. “It makes you feel a sense of joy and pride, not only in yourself, but in your community and in those students.”


Banner photo: Junior Remy Mickelson presenting Deliberate Dialogue skills during an advisory class.

Academics

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