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Rowland Hall is thrilled to announce that senior Ben Amiel was honored as the 2019 Outstanding Young Volunteer at the Utah Philanthropy Day luncheon on November 19. This annual award goes to one role model who’s under age 30 and demonstrates exceptional and sustained commitment to philanthropy and volunteerism in the community.

Ben’s nomination was spearheaded by Jewish Family Service (JFS), where he began volunteering in the food pantry at age 13 for his bar mitzvah project. Ben still serves in the food pantry today, and over the years has taken on more responsibility: in fall 2017, when JFS received a grant to enlarge the pantry, Ben helped reorganize the space. In 2018, he ran an iPod drive and fundraiser for Music and Memory, a program for people suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

It is a rarity to come upon such a young person with such an interest in responding to the varied needs of our clients.—Jewish Family Service

“Ben brings a kind, calming presence to the agency,” the JFS team wrote in their nomination letter. “He seems to recognize the value in each person, and also in what we do to support them.” And his work makes a difference—his dedication to Music and Memory, for instance, resulted in the most successful donation drive in JFS history.

“Ben’s willingness to commit to JFS, adapting and finding additional ways to support and further our work is exceptional,” the team said. “It is a rarity to come upon such a young person with such an interest in responding to the varied needs of our clients. Many of our volunteers opt in for a short time, often fulfilling a goal or project, or doing something they think will look good on a resume. Ben is a committed volunteer.”

His demonstrated devotion to JFS helped set Ben apart from other nominees in the Outstanding Young Volunteer category. “What’s superlative about Ben is his tremendous, and ongoing, commitment to JFS,” said Utah Philanthropy Day committee member Jessie Foster Strike. “Each year, Ben has found new ways to deepen his contributions to the organization, which has allowed JFS to deepen its service to the community. Whether he’s stocking shelves in the food pantry, organizing a fundraiser, or educating himself on a new program, he sees an opportunity, steps up, and take the initiative to help.”

Ben Amiel at the Jewish Family Service food pantry.

Ben Amiel working in Jewish Family Service's food pantry. Photo courtesy Darcy Amiel

Ben’s dedication to JFS, on top of his rigorous academic and extracurricular load, would be impressive on its own. But he has also chosen to dedicate much of his time to serving fellow students at Rowland Hall, where he’s attended school since third grade.

“Over the years, I have seen the development of a truly sincere mentor of younger students and a hardworking individual who values and contributes to his community,” wrote Rowland Hall’s Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund in one of the letters that the school contributed to the JFS nomination.

Ben’s commitment to leadership and service at Rowland Hall is best illustrated by his involvement with the school’s debate program. A successful debater himself (he’s an Academic All-American, a National Qualifier, and has won awards at tournaments all over the state and country), Ben has mentored Middle School debate students since his freshman year, happily giving his limited free time to tasks like helping students hone their research and argumentation skills and judging tournaments.

“Debate is Ben's life and he's naturally drawn to opportunities that let him showcase his experience and wisdom,” said Debate Coach Mike Shackelford. He explained that Ben played a major role in establishing the debate mentoring program, including setting the tone and expectations for those who want to help. And he doesn’t shy away from the time-consuming work required, Mike said, because he understands the benefits of mentoring. “Ben will go out of his way to give real coaching feedback. He'll write out comprehensive evaluations. He'll proofread student work. He's always pushing them to meet their potential.”

Ben understands that dialogue is the basis of a healthy democracy. More important than ‘winning’ any argument, for Ben, is the opportunity for ideas to be tested and exchanged respectfully in public.—Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund

This influence on middle schoolers is powerful, particularly because Ben has been in their shoes and serves as an example of where hard work can lead. “Middle School students can relate to Ben in direct and meaningful ways that I will never be able to,” Mike said. “They can see themselves on the same path. This gives them confidence and assurance that it will work out.”

Ben’s love of debate and, most importantly, to learning itself, also inspired him to establish a student debate group that meets weekly to discuss timely political topics. “Ben understands that dialogue is the basis of a healthy democracy,” Ryan wrote. “More important than ‘winning’ any argument, for Ben, is the opportunity for ideas to be tested and exchanged respectfully in public.”

Mike agreed. “He's always had a larger perspective on why he debates. For him, debate is a means to an end. He doesn't do it for trophies—he participates because he loves the challenge, the skill development, the knowledge he gains, and the people he meets. Setting up clubs and doing service is just a natural extension to this purposeful approach to activities.”

It is this natural drive to use his strengths to make a difference that truly sets Ben apart as a leader. Former Upper School history teacher Fiona Halloran summed it up when she wrote, “I believe that Ben is a person for whom puzzles and challenges are central to intellectual and personal engagement. He thinks the world ought to function smoothly. It does not. So he seeks ideas and actions that can make it a little better.”

Thank you, Ben, for your commitment to making the world a little better every day. From all of us at Rowland Hall, congratulations on this recognition.

Students

Senior Ben Amiel Honored as Utah Philanthropy Day’s Outstanding Young Volunteer

 

Rowland Hall is thrilled to announce that senior Ben Amiel was honored as the 2019 Outstanding Young Volunteer at the Utah Philanthropy Day luncheon on November 19. This annual award goes to one role model who’s under age 30 and demonstrates exceptional and sustained commitment to philanthropy and volunteerism in the community.

Ben’s nomination was spearheaded by Jewish Family Service (JFS), where he began volunteering in the food pantry at age 13 for his bar mitzvah project. Ben still serves in the food pantry today, and over the years has taken on more responsibility: in fall 2017, when JFS received a grant to enlarge the pantry, Ben helped reorganize the space. In 2018, he ran an iPod drive and fundraiser for Music and Memory, a program for people suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

It is a rarity to come upon such a young person with such an interest in responding to the varied needs of our clients.—Jewish Family Service

“Ben brings a kind, calming presence to the agency,” the JFS team wrote in their nomination letter. “He seems to recognize the value in each person, and also in what we do to support them.” And his work makes a difference—his dedication to Music and Memory, for instance, resulted in the most successful donation drive in JFS history.

“Ben’s willingness to commit to JFS, adapting and finding additional ways to support and further our work is exceptional,” the team said. “It is a rarity to come upon such a young person with such an interest in responding to the varied needs of our clients. Many of our volunteers opt in for a short time, often fulfilling a goal or project, or doing something they think will look good on a resume. Ben is a committed volunteer.”

His demonstrated devotion to JFS helped set Ben apart from other nominees in the Outstanding Young Volunteer category. “What’s superlative about Ben is his tremendous, and ongoing, commitment to JFS,” said Utah Philanthropy Day committee member Jessie Foster Strike. “Each year, Ben has found new ways to deepen his contributions to the organization, which has allowed JFS to deepen its service to the community. Whether he’s stocking shelves in the food pantry, organizing a fundraiser, or educating himself on a new program, he sees an opportunity, steps up, and take the initiative to help.”

Ben Amiel at the Jewish Family Service food pantry.

Ben Amiel working in Jewish Family Service's food pantry. Photo courtesy Darcy Amiel

Ben’s dedication to JFS, on top of his rigorous academic and extracurricular load, would be impressive on its own. But he has also chosen to dedicate much of his time to serving fellow students at Rowland Hall, where he’s attended school since third grade.

“Over the years, I have seen the development of a truly sincere mentor of younger students and a hardworking individual who values and contributes to his community,” wrote Rowland Hall’s Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund in one of the letters that the school contributed to the JFS nomination.

Ben’s commitment to leadership and service at Rowland Hall is best illustrated by his involvement with the school’s debate program. A successful debater himself (he’s an Academic All-American, a National Qualifier, and has won awards at tournaments all over the state and country), Ben has mentored Middle School debate students since his freshman year, happily giving his limited free time to tasks like helping students hone their research and argumentation skills and judging tournaments.

“Debate is Ben's life and he's naturally drawn to opportunities that let him showcase his experience and wisdom,” said Debate Coach Mike Shackelford. He explained that Ben played a major role in establishing the debate mentoring program, including setting the tone and expectations for those who want to help. And he doesn’t shy away from the time-consuming work required, Mike said, because he understands the benefits of mentoring. “Ben will go out of his way to give real coaching feedback. He'll write out comprehensive evaluations. He'll proofread student work. He's always pushing them to meet their potential.”

Ben understands that dialogue is the basis of a healthy democracy. More important than ‘winning’ any argument, for Ben, is the opportunity for ideas to be tested and exchanged respectfully in public.—Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund

This influence on middle schoolers is powerful, particularly because Ben has been in their shoes and serves as an example of where hard work can lead. “Middle School students can relate to Ben in direct and meaningful ways that I will never be able to,” Mike said. “They can see themselves on the same path. This gives them confidence and assurance that it will work out.”

Ben’s love of debate and, most importantly, to learning itself, also inspired him to establish a student debate group that meets weekly to discuss timely political topics. “Ben understands that dialogue is the basis of a healthy democracy,” Ryan wrote. “More important than ‘winning’ any argument, for Ben, is the opportunity for ideas to be tested and exchanged respectfully in public.”

Mike agreed. “He's always had a larger perspective on why he debates. For him, debate is a means to an end. He doesn't do it for trophies—he participates because he loves the challenge, the skill development, the knowledge he gains, and the people he meets. Setting up clubs and doing service is just a natural extension to this purposeful approach to activities.”

It is this natural drive to use his strengths to make a difference that truly sets Ben apart as a leader. Former Upper School history teacher Fiona Halloran summed it up when she wrote, “I believe that Ben is a person for whom puzzles and challenges are central to intellectual and personal engagement. He thinks the world ought to function smoothly. It does not. So he seeks ideas and actions that can make it a little better.”

Thank you, Ben, for your commitment to making the world a little better every day. From all of us at Rowland Hall, congratulations on this recognition.

Students

Explore More People Stories

Matthew Collins teaching by computer.

As we wrap up the third week of distance learning and head into a well-deserved April break, one thing is clear: the Rowland Hall community is strong, resourceful, and resilient.

From gathering online via Zoom to posting words of encouragement on a new gratitude wall, Winged Lions have come together in the early days of this new normal to learn from, lean on, and support one another. And even in the midst of uncertainty, the best of Rowland Hall is on display. With each passing day, the community finds new ways to support others, like our youngest learners and the elderly, as part of an ongoing goal to help students thrive.

“All this leads back to what we as a school value: relationships matter and learn for life,” said Associate Head of School Jennifer Blake. “Those are still the tenets of the way in which we're operating now.”

All this leads back to what we as a school value: relationships matter and learn for life. Those are still the tenets of the way in which we're operating now.—Associate Head of School Jennifer Blake

In fact, the school’s commitment to relationships seems to be strengthening through distance learning. For parent Ben Lieberman, who has two daughters at Rowland Hall, this focus has had a positive impact on his family during the COVID-19 crisis. He explained that our investment in building relationships has helped his daughters still feel connected to teachers and classmates, as well as kept consistency in their daily routines so they can focus on learning.

“My concern was that the kids were just going to be running amok, and that has not been the case,” he said. “Our kids have been focused and attentive to school matters.”

Ben has also found that distance learning provides ready-made opportunities for his children to discover their own abilities. “I think this has been a really positive exercise in independence,” he said. Speaking specifically of his seventh grader, Ashlyn, he noted, “She has really appreciated the time to do work independently, and she has actually thrived. I think she’s really enjoying that.”

Launching distance learning—and maintaining connections and engagement already in place—was the result of the significant commitment of all members of the Rowland Hall team. Preparations began as early as February, when Rowland Hall started learning how COVID-19 was impacting peer schools in Seattle, Washington.

“We realized, ‘OK, this is going to come to Utah and we need to be prepared,’” Jennifer remembered.

Wanting to give faculty and staff as much time as possible to plan, the administrative team made the decision to shift the focus of a March 9 in-service day—one of three professional-development days scheduled each year—to distance-learning preparation. Jennifer believes the work done that day was critical in ironing out many of the early challenges posed by distance learning.

“The fact that we have a whole day set aside three times a year to do this kind of work makes it possible for us to pivot when we need to,” she said.

Looking back, the benefits of that day are apparent: while many other schools were building in time for necessary planning as social distancing measures were announced across the country, Rowland Hall was fortunate to have in place a framework of what would become a distance-learning plan. And by the time remote classes began on March 17, there was a basic structure in place to support families.

“It felt like immediately there was a plan and I thought it was very well communicated to everybody,” said Ben. “That doesn’t mean that there aren’t hiccups along the way, but from day one I thought it was well organized and well communicated.”

In addition to preparing for regular communication with families, Rowland Hall also devoted these early weeks to ensuring that our technology—crucial to distance-learning success—was able to support students, faculty, and staff. The school began in a favorable position, as we had in place many of the items students would need to learn fully from home.

“The benefit of our technology program is that we’re a one-to-one school from first grade up, meaning each student has a device assigned to them,” said Chief Information Officer Patrick Godfrey. Devices were already going home with students in fifth grade and above each night, and those that usually remained at school were set up to be taken home by remaining lower schoolers.

I’ve been really impressed with our parents’ willingness to say, 'OK, this is a new environment—let’s embrace it and see what we can do to support our kids. No one knows what the future will bring, but we’re going to make the best of the situation.'—Chief Information Officer Patrick Godfrey

Rowland Hall’s Technology Team has also been available over extended hours to give students and families support, both during the transition to distance learning and as issues continue to come up. From joining iPads to home networks, to arranging special screentime privileges, to providing cellular access points for students without internet connectivity at home, “we’ve done everything we can possibly do to make it easy for parents,” said Patrick. Additionally, his staff is staying agile and responding to ongoing student needs: the team is continuously keeping track of the best tools that support learning and using the management tool Jamf to push apps, web clips, and other items to students remotely.

From the Technology Team’s perspective, Patrick credits all rollout successes, large and small, to relationships and support across our community.

“I’ve been really impressed with our parents’ willingness to say, ‘OK, this is a new environment—let’s embrace it and see what we can do to support our kids. No one knows what the future will bring, but we’re going to make the best of the situation,’” he said.

And whatever that future holds, Rowland Hall will continue to support students and families, remain flexible, and approach challenges in ways that will keep us nimble and responsive to their needs. No matter what lies ahead, we believe this is an opportunity to become stronger—as a school and as a community.

Distance Learning

Sarah Button with students

The annual Marquardt Award enables one or more members of Rowland Hall's faculty to pursue an in-depth professional development experience. The Marquardt Award was established in 2011 through a generous gift from Bob Marquardt, father of three Rowland Hall alumni and a former long-time trustee and board chair. This annual gift funds extraordinary professional development opportunities or learning experiences, proposed by faculty members, that will benefit the school as a whole. Recipients are chosen by school administrators.

Last summer, fifth-grade teacher Sarah Button was granted the Marquardt Award to attend Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators: An Intensive Residential Institute with Elena Aguilar. In the fall of 2018, Sarah began to lead a professional-development group based on Aguilar’s book Onward, and thus attending the retreat was a prime opportunity for her to advance her ongoing work in this area, which benefits our entire learning community. Read on to learn about how the experience impacted and inspired her.


2019 Marquardt Award Reflection
By Sarah Button

My four days at Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators: An Intensive Residential Institute were, in a word, transformative. Our time was made more intimate by grouping us into what they called home groups. My group consisted of three additional educators: an administrator, an instructional coach, and a specialist. Having home groups allowed the 46 participants—from all over the country—to know each other more deeply, and it enabled all to be vulnerable as we each shared stories, perspectives, and insights.

Building psychological safety happens when people listen, stay curious, are honest, and uphold confidentiality with one another.

I was prepared to be inundated with information, research, findings, and time to plan for the 2019–2020 school year. What I wasn’t prepared for was the gift of time to write, reflect, and truly practice how to bring resilience into daily routines—more specifically, learning and practicing the importance of sharing stories with others. When we build time for storytelling into our faculty meetings (a practice Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus has let me lead for each of our monthly meetings so far), we lay the foundation for building effective teams that contribute to psychological safety. Building psychological safety happens when people listen, stay curious, are honest, and uphold confidentiality with one another. We also learned to understand how the cycle of an emotion can be interrupted, and how when you understand emotions you have empathy for others and it is much less likely for you to oppress another. Lastly, as a participant, we practiced coaching for resilience using several frameworks. 
 
     ACE: a framework for coaching for yourself or others
     A: Acknowledge and accept emotions.
     C: Cultivate compassion.
     E: Expand the story.
 
     RAIN: for dealing with difficult emotions
     R: Recognize what’s going on; name the emotions.
     A: Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.
     I: Investigate with kindness.
     N: Non-identify with whatever is going on. You are not your thoughts, stories, emotions.
 
     REI: for addressing cognitive distortions
     R: Recognize.
     E: Explore the impact.
     I: Interrupt: Is there any other way to look at this? Is there any evidence to suggest that this way
     of thinking isn’t entirely true?
 
Each day at the retreat started with a choice of yoga or meditation under the redwoods. To begin, we each set an intention—a practice I’ve begun this school year with my students—and after each activity, we took time to envision how each practice/idea could be used in our individual places of work. Each day also consisted of must-dos—things we were encouraged to do no matter what during our stay, such as sitting by the fire pit with at least one other person. We were also presented with may-dos each day, such as watching the sunrise through the trees.

The work on how to cultivate emotional resilience in educators was the primary purpose of our time together. Most attendees had not led Onward professional-development sessions at their home institutions, and thus, I was called upon to share how we at Rowland Hall created our group last school year. People were appreciative of how we approached the work.

Ultimately, our hope is that increasing emotional resilience among adults at Rowland Hall will create a stronger learning environment for students, and we can model the skills and behaviors we hope to see from everyone in our community.

The retreat was also an opportunity for me to collaborate with colleague Lori Miller, who was a participant in our Onward professional-development work last year and my fellow ombudsperson for the Lower School faculty. As ombudspersons, we have served in the way the role has been written to be a neutral third party between faculty and/or administration when a problem has risen to a level that needs intervention. Over the years, our work has morphed into serving as a sounding board for faculty to see if they need a formal ombudsperson to sit in on a meeting. As a result, the majority of our work is now facilitating communication between colleagues. When a colleague approaches me regarding an issue, I ask if they just need to vent, want to practice what to say to a colleague, or if they need to have a formal ombudsperson meeting. This is why this retreat was so critical to our work: it gave us the tools to practice facilitating communication and coaching our colleagues around emotions and resilience.

At the conclusion of the retreat, I felt renewed in all aspects of life and prepared to bring this work back to our faculty and staff. Lori and I have collaborated with our third Onward co-leader, Jodi Spiro, to facilitate work during our three professional growth days this school year. In addition, Lori and I are participating in monthly Onward video conference calls with the other participants of the institute to share ideas, strategies, and questions as we each try to transform school culture at our respective places. Ultimately, our hope is that increasing emotional resilience among adults at Rowland Hall will create a stronger learning environment for students, and we can model the skills and behaviors we hope to see from everyone in our community.

People

Alan Sparrow and puppet greeting Lower School students.

By Max Smart, Class of 2022

In fall 2018, then-freshman Max Smart interviewed Head of School Alan Sparrow about his years of service to Rowland Hall for the Upper School’s student newspaper, the Rowland Hall Gazette. As part of our ongoing celebration of Alan, we’re proud to share Max’s piece with our larger community.

On November 27, 2018, I sat down with Alan Sparrow to discuss his upcoming retirement at the end of the 2019–2020 school year and his reflections on 28 years of service to Rowland Hall as the head of school. I wanted to know what words of wisdom Mr. Sparrow had to share. He told me that his real title, the title on the nameplate on his desk, is head learner. Mr. Sparrow recalled, “When I first got here, people asked whether I wanted to be called headmaster or head of school, and I said neither. I told them that I want to be called head learner.”

He explained, “If I’m the number-one learner in the school, then it sets up a model for everyone learning in our school, not just the students. That’s a culture I have supported at the school. It was here when I arrived, but I’ve continued to nurture it . . . and that’s something I’m proud of.”

Mr. Sparrow’s insights into education could be considered surprising because they come from a man who spent part of his youth sporting long hair, surfing, and running rock concerts for headliners including Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, and Taj Mahal, but Mr. Sparrow’s rock-and-roll surfing days and his current position are entirely consistent with one of the fundamental principles he told me he teaches and follows: “Don’t assume things about people.”

Alan Sparrow reading to a Lower School class.

Next, I asked Mr. Sparrow about his puppets, which were a cornerstone of my Lower School experience at Rowland Hall. Mr. Sparrow said he initially decided to greet students on the Lower School campus with a handshake every morning. However, in the winter months, “if 300 kids come in from the playground and shake your hand, guess what happens: your hand gets pretty cold.” When former board chair Peggy Olwell brought about 25 or 30 puppets for a school project, the kids loved the puppets. Mr. Sparrow asked if he could use them to greet the kids. It was great, Mr. Sparrow said. “The kids loved it and my hands were warm!” After returning Ms. Olwell’s puppets, Mr. Sparrow used his own Kermit the Frog and Winnie the Pooh puppets. He explained that this “started a tradition of people going off on spring break and seeing a puppet in the store or at the zoo they liked and bringing it to me.” Mr. Sparrow now has 110 puppets! All but two of them were given to him by students, their parents, or a local bishop. To this day, Mr. Sparrow has “alumni coming back asking, ‘Do you still greet the students with puppets?’”

Mr. Sparrow's top advice for students: live a balanced life and remember to enjoy the moment.

I was personally interested to hear what advice Mr. Sparrow has for students because he knows Rowland Hall better than anyone. So I asked Mr. Sparrow this question, and he said, “To live a balanced life and to remember to enjoy the moment.” Though this may seem surprising coming from the head of a competitive academic school, Mr. Sparrow truly wants students to enjoy their lives and not feel overly stressed by school. He said, “You’re not going to regret not going to one more meeting.” However, Mr. Sparrow said, “you may regret not spending as much time with your family or with your friends.” He believes that although one should “work towards the future,” it’s not good to place too much focus into any one thing, whether it is work or play. Mr. Sparrow believes that focusing on one's family and friends is a necessity for happiness.

Alan Sparrow with Upper School students.

To get a nice summary of Mr. Sparrow’s work at Rowland Hall, I asked him what he believed his greatest accomplishment at the school is. He replied, “A lot of people would see my greatest accomplishment as the building of the McCarthey Campus.” Mr. Sparrow also believes that is one of his greatest accomplishments. He is also very proud that he raised the teacher salary at Rowland Hall from “20% below [that of] the Salt Lake City School District to 100% of the Salt Lake District.” This has certainly helped the school keep its great teachers and get many new talented teachers.

Mr. Sparrow has spent his years at Rowland Hall building and nurturing a strong and kind community where learning flows freely among faculty, staff, and students.

But Mr. Sparrow actually believes his greatest accomplishment is the ombudsperson program. The ombudsperson program was Doug Wortham’s idea and was started by Mr. Wortham and Mr. Sparrow. To this day, it is still overseen by both of them. Mr. Sparrow explained the program as follows: “When a teacher is struggling, it’s a system to help that teacher in a very supportive way.” It is also used to “to help a teacher achieve and be able to become an excellent teacher.” The ombudsperson program helps teachers who may be in an uncomfortable situation by giving them a mediator and a safe space to work out any kinks in their daily life at school.

I’m sad to see Mr. Sparrow go, but I’m happy for him because I’m sure he will enjoy spending more time with his family and being an independent executive coach on the side. Mr. Sparrow has spent his years at Rowland Hall building and nurturing a strong and kind community where learning flows freely among faculty, staff, and students. Mr. Sparrow and his time at Rowland Hall will always be remembered.

People

Death of the American Teenager cast performing

Death of the American Teenager, an original musical about gun violence in schools, opens with some sobering statistics—like that there have been 408 school shootings in the last 10 years, or that in 2017 more school-aged children died from gunshots than did active duty police and military personnel.

For today’s students, gun-violence statistics have become too familiar. In addition to a barrage of news stories about shootings, students are reminded of gun violence during regular lockdown drills (Death of the American Teenager cites an average of 16 per school each year) and are aware of the role guns play in climbing suicide rates—in Utah, for instance, the most recent age-adjusted suicide rate is 22.7 per 100,000 people (compared to a national rate of 14.0 per 100,000). Suicide was also the leading cause of death for Utahns aged 10–17 in 2018.

It’s no surprise that the stress is taking a toll on young Americans.

Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember.—Noah Schiffman, Class of 2022

“Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember,” said Rowland Hall sophomore and Death of the American Teenager cast member Noah Schiffman. Junior James Welt, another cast member, added, “It's become a huge part of a lot of my day-to-day experiences. Every time I hear running in the hallways or loud noises, I can't help but fear the worst.” Along with Noah and James, Rowland Hall senior Connor Macintosh and alumna Ella Baker-Smith ’19 were in the musical's original cast. Sophomore Amanda Green joined the cast for the 2019–2020 school year.

In recent years, concerned students have channeled their fears through action—the most famous example is probably the organization of March for Our Lives protests and chapters around the country after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. For the Utah high school actors who make up the Youth Conservatory—a group housed under University of Utah Youth Theatre—that action was researching, writing, and choreographing Death of the American Teenager

Originally created for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an annual open access arts festival, Death of the American Teenager was written as a reflection of America. Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood explained that the Youth Conservatory, which is made up of 20 actors from 10 Utah high schools, chose to write a musical because it’s an American art form—and that they focused the musical on gun violence because of its prevalence in America today.

“It's a topic we've all been exposed to at a super young age, and it's something that is on a lot of our minds at every second,” said James.

Research and writing began in January 2019, only seven months before the show’s summer debut in Scotland. “The writing process was an incredible experience,” said Connor. The actors spent time researching topics like the history of school shootings and lockdowns, as well as suicide statistics in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where they would be performing the musical. The subjects were heavy, and the experience was emotional. But the process was also cathartic, giving the actors the chance to examine, confront, and discuss their fears—and helping them realize they weren’t alone in those fears.

“The most important thing that came out of it was the sense that we were all there for each other and the sense that we’re all fighting this fight together,” Connor said. “We all share the same collective fear, and as scary as that fear is, it’s comforting to know that I have people around me that know exactly what we’re going through.”

Death of the American Teenager cast in Edinburgh

The musical was cathartic for Fringe audiences too: attendees were so moved by the production that they sought out cast members to thank them and to share their own stories. Other American high school students inquired about performing it in their communities. By creatively addressing their fears through theatre—what Noah called an empathetic art form—the Youth Conservatory found themselves inspiring necessary conversation and action.

“The goal is to tell a story, yes, but also to make those watching believe it to be reality,” Noah said. “Gun violence is some people's reality, and that is not acceptable—but that won't change until everyone understands the extent of the fear those actually affected face.”

Rowland Hall theatre teacher Matt Sincell, who teaches the school’s Youth Conservatory members, agreed.

“Theatre can crack open conversation in a way that no other art form can,” he explained. “There’s something about watching live actors—it somehow becomes easier to put yourself in their place, to empathize, and it affects a person on a very visceral, kinesthetic level.”

Knowing this, Matt wanted to do something in the Youth Conservatory’s home state that would inspire more of the conversations that they started overseas—especially because he knew there was something special about this musical that the local community should experience. “It’s not a piece that’s written by adults trying to imagine what it would be like to be a student—this is written by students who have been born into this culture,” he said. “I really believed the show needed to have a life beyond the Fringe because of its message.”

Matt also felt that offering Rowland Hall’s Larimer Center for the Performing Arts to a community group—particularly one that creatively connected our students with their peers across the Wasatch Front—would be an important step in building other connections across Salt Lake’s vibrant theatre community. In many ways, bringing Death of the American Teenager to the school was a natural fit, as Rowland Hall values deep thinking and seeks to create spaces in which students can examine hard questions and safely express themselves.

Death of the American Teenager cast on stage

“At Rowland Hall, we believe by challenging students to think deeply, they will grapple with complex issues and recognize different points of view,” explained Associate Head of School Jennifer Blake, who was part of the team that welcomed Penny and her students to campus.

On January 29, Death of the American Teenager came to Rowland Hall for two performances in the Larimer Center. Like Fringe audiences, Salt Lake attendees were deeply touched by the musical. “I was blown away by the performance, which was masterfully written with great insight and sensitivity,” said Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson.

The performers were grateful for the chance to revisit the piece and to present it not only to an audience of peers, but to the adults who care about them. Often, they explained, it can be difficult to make adults understand their very real fear around the topic of gun violence and how deeply it affects them.

“I was so glad that my school asked us to share this piece with the public and gave us an opportunity to advocate for ourselves in the most politically unbiased way—just speaking from our emotions and how we feel,” said Amanda. That message was undoubtedly received, with most audience members staying after the performances to participate in talk-backs with the actors, further emphasizing the need for conversation around this difficult subject—something that Matt greatly encourages parents and caregivers to remember when supporting their teenagers through gun-violence anxiety.

Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue.—James Welt, Class of 2021

“Talk at dinner with them, ask them questions, continue the conversation,” he encouraged. “We need to have these direct conversations.”

Above all, the actors want Death of the American Teenager to help spread among their peers the feeling of empowerment the cast experienced when confronting their fears together—and for teenagers to understand that they can help spur change by exercising their voting power.

“Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue,” said James. “I want teenagers who watch the show to know that they have the power to be heard.”

“We can conquer gun violence if we all work together,” added Noah.


Update: Since performing at Rowland Hall, the Youth Conservatory presented a 12-minute version of Death of the American Teenager at the Musical Theatre Competitions of America in California in February 2020. It won first place in its division.

Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood has been overwhelmed with positive comments about the show and questions about packaging it for performance at other high schools and venues around the country. She is talking with local theatre organizations about how to make this happen. We will update the Rowland Hall community on any news we receive about the future of Death of the American Teenager.


Top photo: The Death of the American Teenager cast performing on stage. Photos courtesy Connor Macintosh

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