Custom Class: post-landing-hero

On a Thursday in November, Susanna Mellor’s first-grade class was seated in a circle, ready to begin their morning meeting. That day, they started with a pinky greeting: everyone hooked fingers, forming a chain, and then Susanna turned to one of the students next to her. “Good morning, Thomas,” she began. The salutation passed around the circle, ending with a hearty, full-group welcome: “Good morning!”


Morning meeting is one of several practices recommended by Responsive Classroom, a student-centered approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) and effective classroom management. Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus explained that the division started utilizing Responsive Classroom in 2016 as a way to support Rowland Hall’s long-standing commitment to SEL, which is associated with higher academic achievement, improved teacher-student interactions, and higher-quality instruction.

Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms. More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning.—Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus

“Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms that help our students thrive,” he said. “More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning with their classmates.”

Morning meeting achieves this by engaging young learners in a welcoming atmosphere at the start of each school day. In addition to an inclusive greeting, the meeting includes a moment of sharing, a group activity, and a daily message. Whatever the day’s focus, teachers use the meeting to make sure each child is recognized and participating in the class.

“Responsive Classroom practices help build confidence and ease anxiety by fostering a sense of belonging and significance,” Susanna said. And, she added, as the school year progresses, its rewards multiply. “When they listen to each other, students feel that they matter. I see new friendships begin to bud, classmates work comfortably and easily together, and students take risks as they share ideas in class discussions.”

The Responsive Classroom Approach

Responsive Classroom, first developed by the Center for Responsive Schools in 1981, creates safe, nurturing learning environments through four key domains: engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmentally responsive teaching. Because Rowland Hall is focused on integrating SEL into our academic and co-curricular programs (we formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018), incorporating Responsive Classroom into the Lower School curriculum was a logical choice. And it has made a difference.

“It's given our teachers more clarity and alignment when they consider how best to support students, structure learning activities, and promote positive behavior expectations,” Jij said. “Students, in turn, experience more consistency and are clear on why their actions matter for their own learning and for the learning of others.”

Rowland Hall is focused on integrating social and emotional learning into our academic and co-curricular programs; we even formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018.

To drive student success, Responsive Classroom also emphasizes interactive modeling to teach the skills, strategies, and procedures that help kids thrive at school.

“Interactive modeling has made my classroom a more calm, efficient, and productive learning environment,” Susanna said. “When students watch and comment on what I do as I role-play a procedure, they actively deduce the steps by verbalizing them and listening to peers do the same. As a result, they have a firm and clear understanding when it comes time for them to begin the task at hand.”

Integrating Responsive Classroom into Established Practices

Responsive Classroom has helped Rowland Hall refocus many classroom practices toward the school’s overarching SEL goals. One example occurs at the beginning of each school year: developing classroom agreements. Unlike traditional lists of rules, classroom agreements are created in partnership, giving teachers and students buy-in on how their classrooms will run. While the agreements have been a part of the Lower School for many years, Responsive Classroom added another layer to the process.

“Using the Responsive Classroom approach has allowed my students to delve deeper into the process of exploring their own hopes and dreams, and how we can work as a group to help each other achieve our goals,” Susanna said. She explained that students become engaged, thoughtful, and passionate as they determine what will help them do things like learn how to read, try harder math problems, or even score soccer goals. “I notice students putting much more thought and reflection into this process, making it more meaningful and effective,” she said.

Collaborating on classroom agreements also makes it more likely that children will follow, and reference, those agreements during the school year.

“Students refer back to these agreements when obstacles arise and really demonstrate ownership of them,” said Susanna. “For example, when having a class discussion about erasers being damaged intentionally, several children commented, ‘That’s not following our agreement. We said we’d take care of our materials this year so that we could become better writers.’”

Susanna Mellor's class reads the morning message.

Morning meeting gives students an opportunity to revisit class agreements and reflect on how they can work together in support of classroom goals.

Classroom agreements are referenced regularly by instructors too. In Susanna’s morning meeting, for instance, students are asked which agreements they want to focus on and what actions they can take to make sure those agreements are honored. One student reminded classmates that they can meet their goal to keep calm in the classroom by walking; another observed that they can fulfill the agreement to try harder math problems by listening respectfully during instruction.

Using Responsive Classroom in New Ways

Responsive Classroom also inspires new methods to empower students. This fall, the Lower School used the foundation of classroom agreements in a new way: to create school-wide Winged Lion Agreements.

On September 6, 17 student delegates from grades one through five—one from each class—gathered in the McCarthey Campus parlor for the first-ever student constitutional convention. Delegates shared their classes’ newly developed classroom agreements with the group before beginning a discussion on agreements that could be applied to the whole school.

Student delegates created Winged Lion Agreements

Responsive Classroom helps educators look for ways to engage students in their school community. Above, the student delegates who helped craft the Lower School's first Winged Lion Agreements in September.

When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone.—Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer

Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer—who has completed all Responsive Classroom courses, including the Responsive Classroom for Leadership conference—led the discussion and was impressed by how the process unfolded. “When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone,” she said. “And because each student was a stakeholder in the convention’s outcome, they were serious about identifying meaningful goals.” She was also thrilled by the inclusion she saw in the room, especially by the way fifth graders mentored the first graders. “They really made connections and made them feel valued,” Linda said.

After thoughtful discussion, the group decided on five agreements for the year: 
    •    Be kind

    •    Respect

    •    Work hard and never give up

    •    Be safe

    •    Have fun


Each item was purposefully selected, down to exact words—for instance, the delegates chose the word “respect” because of its ability to encompass a wide range of areas, from personal behavior to how students should treat their surroundings.

Designing Better School Days with Responsive Classroom

Responsive Classroom further helps the Lower School team continuously reevaluate how to best meet students’ needs. One recent change to the school day occurred as a result of a February 2019 meeting with a Responsive Classroom consultant, who was sent to observe a full day at the school after Linda completed her training in the approach.

“One thing the consultant noticed was that our dining hall is very noisy,” Linda remembered. The consultant recommended a proven solution she thought would benefit the division: moving recess before lunch, an idea that the Lower School student support team had been considering for two years prior to the visit.

Lower School students on the playground.

In 2019, the Lower School moved recess from after to before lunch, resulting in school-wide behavior improvements.

“The change would have numerous benefits,” said Linda. “Children could focus on eating, noise would go down, and no one would be racing to get outside.” After presenting the idea to an enthusiastic Lower School faculty in the spring, Jij and Linda began working on making the change for the fall. When it was time to introduce the schedule adjustment to students during the second chapel of the year, Jij, Linda, and Chuck White, the McCarthey Campus emotional support counselor, were thoughtful in their approach, using a similar style students had already experienced in the classroom.

“We asked, ‘What should lunch feel and sound like?’” Linda said. The team also emphasized the why behind the discussion so students would understand both the reason for change and its related benefits. “We talked about how we can all follow agreements to make school more enjoyable for everyone,” Linda said.

Using a dining table that had been brought into the chapel, Jij, Linda, and Chuck then modeled for students proper lunch behavior: entering the dining hall respectfully, staying seated facing the table, and talking at an appropriate volume. Each child was also given the chance to practice at the table.

Children have adjusted well to the change, Linda said. It was, she explained, an extension of the discussions students have become accustomed to—and, importantly, it reminded them that they each play a part in creating a respectful, safe, and joyful school for all.

“I’m really proud of them,” she said.

Responsive Classroom Resources for Parents and Caregivers

Responsive Classroom has been an influential tool in helping Rowland Hall meet SEL goals in the Lower School. Because we are committed to partnering with parents and caregivers in their children’s education, we have made many Responsive Classroom materials available in the parent section of the McCarthey Campus’ Steiner Library for those who are interested in more information about the approach.

Academics

Three Years In, Responsive Classroom is Supporting Social and Emotional Learning in the Lower School

On a Thursday in November, Susanna Mellor’s first-grade class was seated in a circle, ready to begin their morning meeting. That day, they started with a pinky greeting: everyone hooked fingers, forming a chain, and then Susanna turned to one of the students next to her. “Good morning, Thomas,” she began. The salutation passed around the circle, ending with a hearty, full-group welcome: “Good morning!”


Morning meeting is one of several practices recommended by Responsive Classroom, a student-centered approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) and effective classroom management. Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus explained that the division started utilizing Responsive Classroom in 2016 as a way to support Rowland Hall’s long-standing commitment to SEL, which is associated with higher academic achievement, improved teacher-student interactions, and higher-quality instruction.

Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms. More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning.—Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus

“Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms that help our students thrive,” he said. “More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning with their classmates.”

Morning meeting achieves this by engaging young learners in a welcoming atmosphere at the start of each school day. In addition to an inclusive greeting, the meeting includes a moment of sharing, a group activity, and a daily message. Whatever the day’s focus, teachers use the meeting to make sure each child is recognized and participating in the class.

“Responsive Classroom practices help build confidence and ease anxiety by fostering a sense of belonging and significance,” Susanna said. And, she added, as the school year progresses, its rewards multiply. “When they listen to each other, students feel that they matter. I see new friendships begin to bud, classmates work comfortably and easily together, and students take risks as they share ideas in class discussions.”

The Responsive Classroom Approach

Responsive Classroom, first developed by the Center for Responsive Schools in 1981, creates safe, nurturing learning environments through four key domains: engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmentally responsive teaching. Because Rowland Hall is focused on integrating SEL into our academic and co-curricular programs (we formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018), incorporating Responsive Classroom into the Lower School curriculum was a logical choice. And it has made a difference.

“It's given our teachers more clarity and alignment when they consider how best to support students, structure learning activities, and promote positive behavior expectations,” Jij said. “Students, in turn, experience more consistency and are clear on why their actions matter for their own learning and for the learning of others.”

Rowland Hall is focused on integrating social and emotional learning into our academic and co-curricular programs; we even formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018.

To drive student success, Responsive Classroom also emphasizes interactive modeling to teach the skills, strategies, and procedures that help kids thrive at school.

“Interactive modeling has made my classroom a more calm, efficient, and productive learning environment,” Susanna said. “When students watch and comment on what I do as I role-play a procedure, they actively deduce the steps by verbalizing them and listening to peers do the same. As a result, they have a firm and clear understanding when it comes time for them to begin the task at hand.”

Integrating Responsive Classroom into Established Practices

Responsive Classroom has helped Rowland Hall refocus many classroom practices toward the school’s overarching SEL goals. One example occurs at the beginning of each school year: developing classroom agreements. Unlike traditional lists of rules, classroom agreements are created in partnership, giving teachers and students buy-in on how their classrooms will run. While the agreements have been a part of the Lower School for many years, Responsive Classroom added another layer to the process.

“Using the Responsive Classroom approach has allowed my students to delve deeper into the process of exploring their own hopes and dreams, and how we can work as a group to help each other achieve our goals,” Susanna said. She explained that students become engaged, thoughtful, and passionate as they determine what will help them do things like learn how to read, try harder math problems, or even score soccer goals. “I notice students putting much more thought and reflection into this process, making it more meaningful and effective,” she said.

Collaborating on classroom agreements also makes it more likely that children will follow, and reference, those agreements during the school year.

“Students refer back to these agreements when obstacles arise and really demonstrate ownership of them,” said Susanna. “For example, when having a class discussion about erasers being damaged intentionally, several children commented, ‘That’s not following our agreement. We said we’d take care of our materials this year so that we could become better writers.’”

Susanna Mellor's class reads the morning message.

Morning meeting gives students an opportunity to revisit class agreements and reflect on how they can work together in support of classroom goals.

Classroom agreements are referenced regularly by instructors too. In Susanna’s morning meeting, for instance, students are asked which agreements they want to focus on and what actions they can take to make sure those agreements are honored. One student reminded classmates that they can meet their goal to keep calm in the classroom by walking; another observed that they can fulfill the agreement to try harder math problems by listening respectfully during instruction.

Using Responsive Classroom in New Ways

Responsive Classroom also inspires new methods to empower students. This fall, the Lower School used the foundation of classroom agreements in a new way: to create school-wide Winged Lion Agreements.

On September 6, 17 student delegates from grades one through five—one from each class—gathered in the McCarthey Campus parlor for the first-ever student constitutional convention. Delegates shared their classes’ newly developed classroom agreements with the group before beginning a discussion on agreements that could be applied to the whole school.

Student delegates created Winged Lion Agreements

Responsive Classroom helps educators look for ways to engage students in their school community. Above, the student delegates who helped craft the Lower School's first Winged Lion Agreements in September.

When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone.—Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer

Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer—who has completed all Responsive Classroom courses, including the Responsive Classroom for Leadership conference—led the discussion and was impressed by how the process unfolded. “When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone,” she said. “And because each student was a stakeholder in the convention’s outcome, they were serious about identifying meaningful goals.” She was also thrilled by the inclusion she saw in the room, especially by the way fifth graders mentored the first graders. “They really made connections and made them feel valued,” Linda said.

After thoughtful discussion, the group decided on five agreements for the year: 
    •    Be kind

    •    Respect

    •    Work hard and never give up

    •    Be safe

    •    Have fun


Each item was purposefully selected, down to exact words—for instance, the delegates chose the word “respect” because of its ability to encompass a wide range of areas, from personal behavior to how students should treat their surroundings.

Designing Better School Days with Responsive Classroom

Responsive Classroom further helps the Lower School team continuously reevaluate how to best meet students’ needs. One recent change to the school day occurred as a result of a February 2019 meeting with a Responsive Classroom consultant, who was sent to observe a full day at the school after Linda completed her training in the approach.

“One thing the consultant noticed was that our dining hall is very noisy,” Linda remembered. The consultant recommended a proven solution she thought would benefit the division: moving recess before lunch, an idea that the Lower School student support team had been considering for two years prior to the visit.

Lower School students on the playground.

In 2019, the Lower School moved recess from after to before lunch, resulting in school-wide behavior improvements.

“The change would have numerous benefits,” said Linda. “Children could focus on eating, noise would go down, and no one would be racing to get outside.” After presenting the idea to an enthusiastic Lower School faculty in the spring, Jij and Linda began working on making the change for the fall. When it was time to introduce the schedule adjustment to students during the second chapel of the year, Jij, Linda, and Chuck White, the McCarthey Campus emotional support counselor, were thoughtful in their approach, using a similar style students had already experienced in the classroom.

“We asked, ‘What should lunch feel and sound like?’” Linda said. The team also emphasized the why behind the discussion so students would understand both the reason for change and its related benefits. “We talked about how we can all follow agreements to make school more enjoyable for everyone,” Linda said.

Using a dining table that had been brought into the chapel, Jij, Linda, and Chuck then modeled for students proper lunch behavior: entering the dining hall respectfully, staying seated facing the table, and talking at an appropriate volume. Each child was also given the chance to practice at the table.

Children have adjusted well to the change, Linda said. It was, she explained, an extension of the discussions students have become accustomed to—and, importantly, it reminded them that they each play a part in creating a respectful, safe, and joyful school for all.

“I’m really proud of them,” she said.

Responsive Classroom Resources for Parents and Caregivers

Responsive Classroom has been an influential tool in helping Rowland Hall meet SEL goals in the Lower School. Because we are committed to partnering with parents and caregivers in their children’s education, we have made many Responsive Classroom materials available in the parent section of the McCarthey Campus’ Steiner Library for those who are interested in more information about the approach.

Academics

Explore More Programs Stories

First grade teacher Lizbeth Sorenson chats with a student during writing workshop.

Upon entering first grade, students are just beginning their reading and writing journeys, with varying levels of literacy experience. By the end of the school year, thanks to the guidance of a dedicated team of teachers, these first graders have become confident, age-appropriate readers and writers.

Rowland Hall’s first-grade team—April Nielsen, Galen McCallum, Susanna Mellor, and Lizbeth Sorensen—puts their hearts and souls, and more than 70 combined years of experience, into the art of teaching first graders how to read and write. These teachers are the backbone of Rowland Hall’s uniquely engaging literacy program, a key educational pillar that serves as a launchpad for students’ love of reading and writing, which continues to grow throughout their time at the school. 

Our students leave first grade loving reading and writing. They feel empowered as word professors, readers, writers, and learners.—April Nielsen, first-grade teacher

“Our students leave first grade loving reading and writing,” explained April, lead first-grade teacher. “They feel empowered as word professors, readers, writers, and learners.”

During their first-grade year, students have a variety of opportunities each day to strengthen their skills and foster a foundation of empowerment. They practice reading, writing, and phonics, and learn about different genres and how to use authors’ techniques in their own writing. “Students feel empowered to take control of their own learning,” April said. “They’re excited about their progress as readers and writers.”        

What sets Rowland Hall’s literacy program apart from others? Undoubtedly, it’s the devotion and hard work of the first-grade teachers. The team uses the best research-based practices, as well as their combined years of teaching experience, to create joyful and engaging classroom communities of children who feel safe trying new things while actively learning. “The first-grade literacy program is highly engaging, developmentally appropriate, and thorough,” said Susanna. “It includes explicit, teacher-directed instruction, as well as many components that are discovery-based, requiring students to investigate and explore.”

The program also offers individual support for each student throughout their reading journeys—and this has been especially true during the pandemic. The teachers were proactive following distance learning in spring 2020, identifying students who would benefit from additional support over the summer to ensure they wouldn’t fall behind when they returned to school in the fall. These students were offered a two-week summer learning program where they could focus on reading and writing, as well as mathematics, in ways that would keep them excited about learning. Once students returned to the classroom, the teachers worked tirelessly to offer them individualized literacy instruction, while also being proactive about reaching out to families about progress and how to support children at home. Thanks to Rowland Hall’s small class sizes and administrative support, they used formative assessments to guide their instruction. “We meet with each student individually to find out exactly where they are and what they need instructionally,” explained April. “Then we are able to work with students individually and in small groups to practice the new skills being taught each day.”

Rowland Hall first graders in a writing workshop.

First graders practice reading, writing, and phonics skills during writing workshops throughout the year.

As the year progresses, the teachers use methods that encourage students to examine language and build meaningful literacy knowledge and skills. One of the most impressive aspects of Rowland Hall’s program is how they weave together reading and writing units to optimize student success and retention. “One nice thing about our program is when we’re reading nonfiction books,” April explained. “That’s when we’re learning how to write nonfiction, too, so students are really learning how these books are organized both during reading and writing time.”

The first-grade team is constantly hard at work implementing new and innovative strategies for writing workshops that make learning both inclusive and fun for students so that they want to explore those skills.

The first-grade team is also constantly hard at work implementing new and innovative strategies for writing workshops that make learning both inclusive and fun for students so that they want to explore those skills. (In fact, Galen highlighted how, during choice time, students often choose to do reading and writing activities. “I love writing workshop because I can use my imagination to write my very own books,” commented first grader Scarlett M.) Writing workshops allow the first graders to use a variety of skills to write and illustrate their own stories, building confidence and ownership of their own literacy learning. Students create everything from narratives to persuasive writing to nonfiction stories, and at the end of the year participate in an authors’ celebration where they read a story of their choice to their classmates and parents. This May, for example, student Ozzie S. chose to read his story about a “sushinami”—a tsunami made of sushi.

“It was fun writing my story and I'm excited to read it for the class,” Ozzie said. “I really liked drawing the pictures of the sushinami.”

The literacy program has been a longtime strength at Rowland Hall, and during an unconventional year, the program has been especially beneficial to students. Due to the consistent hard work and dedication of the first-grade team and their students, April is confident this year’s first graders will be well-prepared for second grade.

“I am extremely proud of our first graders and my team,” said April. “All of my students have made great reading and writing progress this year because they received intensive, systematic reading and writing instruction.”

Academics

Middle School students gather around the 1920s magazine project display on the Lincoln Street Campus.

It’s been 100 years since the 1920s, but eighth-grade American studies teacher Mary Jo Marker believes the nuances between then and now have never been more relevant. 

Close-up of one magazine cover from the eighth-grade 1920s project.

A close-up of one of the group's finished magazines.

An interest in the parallels in time inspired Mary Jo to create a centenary project for her eighth graders in which she broke students into small groups and asked them to create a magazine based on the 1920s. Each group was asked to choose an overall theme for the magazine—this could be anything from fashion to politics to technology—and, within that theme, to focus on one aspect, like makeup or the stock market in the 1920s. 

“I thought it might be interesting to have the kids explore the 1920s more in depth,” explained Mary Jo, “and to do that in a more creative way that gave them voice and choice in how they approached their research around the 1920s.” To the students, this concept of voice and choice is invaluable when it comes to learning—it not only empowers them to be independent but it also builds engagement and allows them to broaden their interests and skills. 

After deciding on their groups’ themes for the magazine, the students were instructed to each write a 1,000-word article on their particular topics, each of which would appear in the finished publications. “One thing they all did really well,” reflected Mary Jo, “was meet the thousand-word limit, which was really a challenge for them.” 

When students are granted creative and academic freedom, they can produce some truly wonderful results.—Eighth-grader Milo B.

When it came to the magazines’ details, Mary Jo asked the students to use the Library of Congress to find advertisements, letters to the editor, and political cartoons to add to their projects to round them out and create end products that looked like actual magazines. Eighth grader Milo B. excelled in this project and credits much of his success to the great deal of creative liberties Mary Jo allowed the students. “When students are granted creative and academic freedom, they can produce some truly wonderful results, like the magazine,” Milo reflected. “Ms. Marker did a fantastic job in managing this project.”

When all was said and done, the eighth graders delivered some truly impressive pieces. Upon perusing the display of their work on the second floor in the Middle School, it is hard to not be blown away by the variety of topics and the immense creativity each group brought forward in both their design and in their writing. 

“It was great to see the personality of all the groups come out,” said Mary Jo. “I was really proud of them. I set a high bar, and by and large the majority were able to meet the learning targets and goals of the project.”

Close-up of the bulletin board displaying the eighth-grade 1920s project.


And in doing so, the students were able to recognize how history can be reflected in our own modern world by highlighting connections between society 100 years ago and today. The work the students created reveals a lot about their work ethic, creativity, and the outstanding guidance they received from Mary Jo, but it also reflects the collaborative nature of the Middle School—both among students, and between students and faculty. 

“I think this project reflects the willingness to be vulnerable and take risks to really set a high standard and work to meet it,” reflected Mary Jo. “This goes across the board, in the Middle School for students and adults alike.”

Mary Jo also noted how it is worth remembering, when looking at this project and future projects, that kids will rise to whatever occasion you set for them, so we mustn’t forget to create challenging opportunities for them to aspire to.

Academics

Original artwork by Rowland Hall student Isabel Hill.

This spring, Rowland Hall junior Isabel Hill was awarded three Honorable Mentions in the 2021 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards (West Writing Region-at-Large) for the short story “Now You See Me” and two pieces of original artwork: the painting The Goat in a Suit and a handmade necklace. This work has been shared below with Isabel’s permission.
    

Now You See Me

By Isabel Hill, Class of 2022

Maybe things changed when I first cut my hair. Or maybe things changed when I refused to grow it out again. My parents loved my hair; I think that might have been one of the reasons I thought It had to go before I did. Mom and Dad never like the thought of me leaving home. We weren’t exceptionally close, but it was kind of a protective love that they gave me. They gave me their opinion, and they gave me what was best for me, and yet I cut away every line they roped around me. My hair seemed like one of those ties. It was long and flowing and beautiful, an altar to my parents' depiction of perfection. 

I think I scared myself when I looked in the mirror after setting down the silver-bladed scissors. The dark halo around my head had been reduced to something jagged and sharp, like messy broken glass. I just stood there, longer than I knew how to count, holding fistfuls of severed wavy locks, and holding my breath even tighter.

I learned my first magic trick with a deck of cards. I learned how to make things disappear and reappear, but I didn’t stop at cards. I taught myself when to disappear. To disappear from friends, from teachers, and sometimes my parents. But no matter how long I had disappeared for, I always came back. Not with a flourish, or a puff of mysterious smoke, but in silence, as if I had never left to begin with. But staring at this stranger in my own mirror was scary. I couldn’t make my hair reappear. It was really gone. I didn’t think I would miss it, and I was right. It was my parents who were furious. 

When I left home I stopped wearing skirts and dresses and switched over to dress shirts and ties. I sometimes annoyed myself when I insisted on wearing a tie. It felt too tight, too close, but it looked good on me. It looked refined and precise, just how I wanted to feel. I didn’t think my parents would approve, but the thought became numbed, like a dull headache that one can learn to live with.

My new friends seemed to like my wardrobe choice, and I built my demeanor around that knowledge. I stood straight, with my shoulders squared, and spoke kindly but firmly. Confident and calm, like a gentleman should be. So self assured, yet not self absorbed. The one thing past my appearance that everyone seemed to adore was my magic. 

I could perform acts with smooth fluidity. People could get as close as they wanted, they would never figure out how I did it. They wanted to know my secret and learn my spells, and I would always tell them the truth with a little wink. I told them that It's not magic, it’s misdirection.

They liked it when I deceived them, so I kept practicing magic. It became my signature, the thing that people would whisper about me with awe. I liked doing it, and seeing people’s faces melt with wonder at the thought that maybe, just maybe, magic really was possible. I continued to practice new tricks. If there was something I couldn’t figure out at first I knew I would master it eventually. It was only a matter of time. My performance was as important as the trick itself, but I soon came to realize that it wasn’t just my shows that I was performing in.

"The Goat in a Suit," original artwork by Rowland Hall junior Isabel Hill

The Goat in a Suit, acrylic paint on paper.

When I stood with my new friends it was like standing on a stage, only my audience was surrounding me. I would easily enchant them with my witty and friendly act. But it wasn’t magic, it was misdirection. Whenever I was in a group I was surrounded by companions, but a piece of me always felt hollow. I could thrive in the spotlight, the center of attention, but that was all an act of magic. I had taught myself how to disappear and how to go unnoticed, I didn’t know what to do with myself if I tried to show what was behind my expression instead of what was behind a spectator’s ear. 

My expressions hid an emotion, a kind of feeling that I couldn’t touch under my fingertips. I felt it crawling under my skin from time to time, but I couldn’t grab a hold of it and crush it. It was infuriating, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I wanted to cut away my confused pieces like the shriveled leaves in my mother's garden that the plants didn't need anymore. I tried to reshape who I thought I was, pruning myself into a beautiful rose. But no matter how many leaves I trimmed the thorns would always grow back.

I kept performing. It was only a matter of time before I met Adrien. The one with a soft smile and sharp eyesight, the one who was always too perceptive for my own good. Or maybe it was for my own good. He was very kind to many people, and I seemed to be one of them. Adrien’s eyesight was sharp enough to cut through a person’s skin and see what they were underneath. He could see people opened up like the petals of a flower. 

I was scared to open myself up, as if doing so would break myself as well, like a flimsy little piggy bank. He didn’t need permission though. He wasn’t invading, he was just too attentive. Adrien could tell the difference between my thoughtful silence and my upset silence and I had no idea how he did it. He seemed to take a special fascination with me and I found it almost alarming.

It took me a while to figure out that Adrien’s fascination was more of a friendship. I already had friends of course, it was something I prided myself with, but this felt different, more honest. And Adrien, he was like glass. He was transparent, but somehow he was not fragile. He could get angry, and act cold, and sometimes his accomplishments would go to his head and he would talk too much. 

He was more transparent than me at least. I found it charming. Sometimes I would see him fraying like a rope when it was pulled too tightly. But he never broke. He never shattered. I’m not sure many other people could see when he was fraying. I was attentive to detail, it was how I became such a good magician. 

I liked to baffle him with my magic. I still enjoyed doing it, and even more so when I believed I was fooling someone who seemed to see things so clearly. He never figured out the secret behind my magic, or if he did he didn’t find it important to mention.

Once he asked me to go perform magic at one of his parties, and I said no. Once he asked me to join him and his friends at a café one afternoon, and I said no. But once he asked me to go walking in a local park, and once, I said yes.

I was scared for days. I’m not sure what intimidated me so much about being alone with someone, maybe it was the knowledge that there would be no one else to help pick up the conversation. It was daunting, and the thought lurked behind me like a shadow.

A necklace created by Rowland Hall student Isabel Hill.

The necklace that Isabel created used stone, glass, and metal beads.

It followed me as a dark and transparent figure tugging at my heels. It pulled at me, but it couldn’t pull me back from the time Adrien had set. No amount of misdirection could change the advance of time. Yet when the time came, I performed again. Only this performance seemed different. I was only hiding my nervousness, for my sake of course, and eventually the theater mask fell away. 

It started to happen before I went to meet my friend, when I had chosen my outfit after fretting over it like a child. I looked at the person in the mirror, and I saw myself. I had a nice and relaxing posture, and I spoke softly; I no longer needed the confidence that dripped from my tongue as it had before. My short, dark hair haloed around my face, the tips curling upwards like the tendrils of a tiny sun. I wore a blue vest with little stripes, and a white blouse cuffed up to my elbows. I thought I looked beautiful. I didn’t wear a tie that day.

I met Adrien outside the park. The shadow was back, gripping at my ankles, yet somehow managing to take hold of my throat and close it up in the process. I managed to bluff my way all the way past the first fountain until we could manage to walk without needing to fill the cacophony of noise with our own voices.

He picked a flower at his feet and handed it to me to admire. It was a little purple clover. Its leaves were being nibbled away by some small insect, but it was just so pretty sitting there between my finger and thumb. Adrien smiled and said he thought it looked nice against my vest. He was right, it really did seem perfect. I kept the flower.

We only talked about neutral matters, or at least, I did. Adrien told me about what he had been up to, and what his parents were doing. We kept drifting back towards school, and the weather, and the national news. Once he asked me about my magic, and a smile crept towards my face. That was something I understood.

Later that day we promised ourselves we would meet again, probably at the same place, and perhaps on a similar time around a weekend. It was later that day when I realized something else about him. Adrien was like a mirror. He would take peoples images and reflect them back at you, but somehow you would only see the best frames. 

Maybe by watching him closely enough I would understand that trick, how he could see through our skins and see something pretty amongst the coiling veins and tendons. I would figure out the secret behind that trick someday. It was only a matter of time.

Student Voices

Rowland Hall biology teacher Rob Wilson watches his tank of jellyfish.

Teachers have many strategies to help build students’ excitement around science. If you ask Rowland Hall biology teacher Rob Wilson for one of his, he’ll say to give them access to living organisms.

“Over the years, I've become more and more focused on providing students access to the living organism,” he said. “I want my students to have a really sensory perception and experience of living things.”

Over the years, I've become more and more focused on providing students access to the living organism. I want my students to have a really sensory perception and experience of living things.—Rob Wilson, biology teacher

To do this, Rob is always on the lookout for organisms that can help simplify or solidify the concepts he teaches to upper schoolers. In a state like Utah, his students have access to a range of these resources, and Rob’s led them in conducting experiments on everything from birds to flower bulbs. But, Rob said, the state does have limitations.

“We don't have access to the ocean,” he said.

So Rob found a way to bring the ocean to Rowland Hall: in early February, he introduced three jellyfish, known as moon jellies, to his climate science and ninth-grade biology students. These small organisms—only about an inch in diameter across their upper bells—live in a two-gallon tank on Rob’s desk, where they’re serving as a powerful learning resource.

“My objective was to have a dynamic system that we could take care of, study, and use as a model for how larger systems work,” said Rob.

And for such a simple organism, the jellyfish are able to connect to loads of concepts around the life sciences. Since their arrival, Rob has led discussions around their tank environment, which lends itself well to topics like ocean currents and climate systems, and the jellyfish themselves, whose simple anatomy is easy for students to study. For example, said Rob, when the jellyfish arrived, his biology class was studying the respiratory system—how the body obtains oxygen and releases carbon dioxide—and the jellyfish provided an additional way for them to observe how other living creatures’ bodies process these gasses. They watched, amazed, as the jellies contracted their bodies to take in oxygen-rich water and then stretched to release carbon dioxide, causing a pulse that moves gases, nutrients, and waste through its tissues.

The tank’s neon lights help observers see details of the jellyfish anatomy. The mushroom-like bell is made of two tissue layers, between which are horseshoe-shaped gonads—the only part of the jellyfish that's not transparent—that produce egg cells in females and sperm cells in males. Adjacent to the gonads are the stomachs, which can be seen filled with brine shrimp larvae after a feeding. Radiating from the edges of the bell are tentacles, used to trap the food that the oral arms, which extend from the bottom of the bell, shuttle to the mouth at the bottom of the bell. A nervous system network can also be seen within the bell, which connects to poppy-seed-like eyes at the bell’s edges. “Symmetry, nerve networks, and multiple tissue layers are elements of jellyfish anatomy that provide evidence of shared common ancestry between jellyfish and other animals, including human beings,” said Rob.

In Rob’s climate science class, older students further benefit by helping to care for the jellyfish. “I wanted something that required us to monitor and maintain conditions within the system,” said Rob. “I've made sure that each class takes responsibility for it because it's way more valuable to them if they're participating.”

Students assist Rob with feeding the jellyfish brine shrimp larvae (hatched in a maze-like bowl referred to as the brine shrimp nursery) and monitoring water temperature and pH levels, which change as the jellyfish digest the shrimp larvae and produce ammonia, a toxin that builds up quickly in a two-gallon tank. “We want to make sure it's within a suitable range of pH and the metabolic products of the jellyfish,” said Rob.

Taking care of the jellyfish has put into perspective the actual scale and impact of climate change within our oceans. It only takes us one day of missing our chemical testing or transitioning water incorrectly to affect the mini-ecosystem in our classroom.—Katie Moore, class of 2021

At least once a week, students use a water-testing kit to examine ammonia levels, then condition the tank with a mixture of bacteria—one type consumes the ammonia and produces nitrite, a less toxic compound that a second bacteria then consumes, producing even a less toxic waste in the water called nitrates. Students help track these levels on a shared spreadsheet, an activity that’s helping them think about how variations in the environment can have far-reaching repercussions.

“Temperature, pH, nitrogen compounds—they fluctuate,” explained Rob. “Depending on what you add or take out, it'll push it in one direction or another. I use that as an analogy to better understand that the earth system works in similar ways. It builds the students’ ability to understand the flow of material through a system, and then how the balance of material in any one place affects how the system behaves.”

It’s clear when talking to students that these concepts are sticking. Senior Katie Moore, a climate science student, noted, “Taking care of the jellyfish has put into perspective the actual scale and impact of climate change within our oceans. It only takes us one day of missing our chemical testing or transitioning water incorrectly to affect the mini-ecosystem in our classroom. Now think about our ocean. How many days have we ignored the changes we've observed but not documented? How many days have our actions impacted the lives of ocean inhabitants with, or without, our noticing?”

It’s a significant way to think about the interconnectedness of all living organisms that share the planet, and a lovely reminder that those connections we share can bind us closer. Rob noted people only need a moment of observation before they start to feel a fondness for the jellies, and that many of his colleagues, as well as students who are no longer in his classes, like to stop by to enjoy them. “As soon as anyone comes in, I'll just sit back quietly and let them watch for a while,” he said with a smile.

Close-up of Rob Wilson's moon jellies, which he uses in his climate science and biology classes.

The jellyfish have charmed Rob Wilson’s students, who have even named them. In senior Katie Moore’s climate science class, the largest jellyfish (who, Katie said, has only three stomachs instead of the usual four) is known as Big Bertha, the medium-sized jellyfish is Gerald, and the smallest jellyfish is Bob.​​​​

It's fun to invite that kind of close observation—to go beyond glancing at something to taking a really close look.—Rob Wilson

“We are very concerned about their well-being. We absolutely love them like children and love to talk about their endeavors,” added Katie, who noted that the students, after many weeks of observation, can tell the difference between the jellyfish, have named them, and worry about their survival. “We have a full-fledged conspiracy theory about how they keep dying and Mr. Wilson keeps replacing them hoping we will not notice.”

Luckily, moon jellies can live up to three years if well cared for, and Rob and students are committed to making sure that’s the case at Rowland Hall. Rob even comes in on weekends and breaks to keep them alive, and he has designated a space in his home for them to live in during summer break, as he’s planning on bringing them back to school in the fall to continue to enhance lessons—and to inspire the kind of wonder that access to living creatures offers.

“It's fun to invite that kind of close observation—to go beyond glancing at something to taking a really close look,” he said. “There's so much to learn from watching the simple organism.”

STEM

You Belong at Rowland Hall