Custom Class: post-landing-hero

By Ke’ea Ramirez, Class of 2021

In November 2018, then-sophomore Ke’ea Ramirez was one of six Rowland Hall students who traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). The SDLC takes place each year in conjunction with the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) People of Color Conference, the flagship of NAIS’ commitment to equity and justice in teaching, learning, and organizational development. As described on their website, the SDLC gives student leaders in grades nine through twelve opportunities to develop cross-cultural communication skills, design effective strategies for social justice practice through dialogue and the arts, and learn the foundations of allyship and networking principles. In addition to large group sessions, students join family groups that allow for smaller unit dialogue and sharing, as well as affinity groups, which gather people with common interests, backgrounds, and experiences. Each participating school is allowed to send up to six students to the SDLC, with conference attendance limited to 1,600 students.

Despite initial hesitation, Ke’ea quickly found herself inspired by the multiracial, multicultural gathering of student leaders and, since then, has sought out opportunities to engage with students from around the country—including by attending another SDLC in November 2019. She shares the story of her first conference experience below.


When my mom told me that she had signed me up for a diversity conference, I was very skeptical and hesitant to go. She told me that it was a good learning opportunity and that I would appreciate the experience. I did not want to do it, and as soon as I looked at the schedule, I decided that the conference would not only be a terrible time, but also that I would have no time for sleep or homework. The schedule was busy and consisted of me waking up at 6 every morning, walking to a conference outside in the freezing cold, getting 45 minutes for lunch, going back to the conference, and then returning to the hotel at 10 pm. Even though it was only a few days, I did not want to go.

On November 28, I got on the plane to Nashville with five other students from Rowland Hall. The next morning, when I got to the conference, we sat in a room with hundreds of other students from all over America. I felt very overwhelmed; I was in a different state on the complete other side of the country, surrounded by so many other kids and adults. I was amazed by how many students actually went to the conference, and, surprisingly, found myself inspired by the speakers. At that moment I remember thinking, “Maybe the conference won’t be as bad as I thought.” After the opening ceremony, my mindset changed a little bit, going from, “This is going to be the worst thing ever,” to, “Maybe I can tolerate this for a few days.”

I felt like I had known these other students my entire life. I made best friends in less than an hour and connected with so many people.

Next, we shuffled into our smaller family groups of around 50 students. If you know me, you know that I am not very outgoing and I tend to be shy. In addition, I was only a sophomore; I thought that I would be trampled by all the other junior and senior students. However, after the first activity (a classic ice-breaker game), I felt like I had known these other students my entire life. I made best friends in less than an hour and connected with so many people from around the country. I felt as though I had actually made a new family, despite my initial reluctance. My thoughts then changed again, from, “Maybe I can tolerate this for a few days,” to, “I am so happy that my mom forced me to go.”

Ke'ea Ramirez with her SDLC family group

Ke'ea's SDLC family group, which met several times throughout the conference to engage in dialogue and sharing.

We spent nearly eight hours in family groups, and then we moved on to affinity groups. I ended up going to the Asian/Pacific Islander affinity group; this group was at least three times as big as my family group. A lot of the students that went to the conference with me from Rowland Hall also attended this affinity group, and some of my new friends from my family group were present. Initially, I thought that affinity groups were where people got together and talked about problems that we could all relate to. However, there was a lot more than I had expected. While we did talk about serious topics, we also had a lot of fun, and, similar to the family group, I connected with people and, again, made best friends fast.

This conference was so important to me because all students were represented, and it is always important to hear the issues of others and to become aware of what is happening around the country.

The first thing we did the next day was to separate into smaller groups and have a singing competition. While it sounds embarrassing and silly, it was actually so much fun, and it allowed us to all come together, gain courage, and laugh. I realized that my preconceived notion of the conference was wrong. What I expected was not what was reality. It was at that moment when my mindset, once again, changed from, “I am so happy that my mom forced me to go,” to, “I never, ever want to leave this conference.”

After we left Nashville and the SDLC behind, I reflected on my experience and realized how much I loved the conference and how glad I was that I went. My favorite session was either family groups or affinity groups because of how many amazing people I met, all the fun activities we did, and how much we ended up feeling like a true family. I made lifelong friends that I am still close to and talk to all the time; I also became even closer to the Rowland Hall students who went to the conference. This conference was so important to me as well because all students were represented, and it is always important to hear the issues of others and to become aware of what is happening around the country.

Even though I wasn’t initially excited to attend, the SDLC turned out to be one of my best experiences in high school—and I immediately signed up for two more conferences when I returned: the 2019 Northwest Association of Independent Schools’ Student Diversity Leadership Retreat in Portland, Oregon, and the 2019 SDLC in Seattle, Washington. I will also be returning to Seattle this May in a leadership role: I’m going to help run affinity spaces and mentor middle school students at the 2020 Student Diversity Leadership Retreat. I am excited to be working with younger students and I hope that they will be just as inspired and motivated as I was.


Top photo, from left: Rowland Hall students Micha Nenbee, Ke'ea Ramirez, and Katy Dark took a break from the 2019 SLDC to explore Seattle's famous Pike Place Market. (Photos courtesy Ke'ea Ramirez)

Ethical Education

“One of My Best Experiences in High School”: Rowland Hall Junior Reflects on the Student Diversity Leadership Conference

By Ke’ea Ramirez, Class of 2021

In November 2018, then-sophomore Ke’ea Ramirez was one of six Rowland Hall students who traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). The SDLC takes place each year in conjunction with the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) People of Color Conference, the flagship of NAIS’ commitment to equity and justice in teaching, learning, and organizational development. As described on their website, the SDLC gives student leaders in grades nine through twelve opportunities to develop cross-cultural communication skills, design effective strategies for social justice practice through dialogue and the arts, and learn the foundations of allyship and networking principles. In addition to large group sessions, students join family groups that allow for smaller unit dialogue and sharing, as well as affinity groups, which gather people with common interests, backgrounds, and experiences. Each participating school is allowed to send up to six students to the SDLC, with conference attendance limited to 1,600 students.

Despite initial hesitation, Ke’ea quickly found herself inspired by the multiracial, multicultural gathering of student leaders and, since then, has sought out opportunities to engage with students from around the country—including by attending another SDLC in November 2019. She shares the story of her first conference experience below.


When my mom told me that she had signed me up for a diversity conference, I was very skeptical and hesitant to go. She told me that it was a good learning opportunity and that I would appreciate the experience. I did not want to do it, and as soon as I looked at the schedule, I decided that the conference would not only be a terrible time, but also that I would have no time for sleep or homework. The schedule was busy and consisted of me waking up at 6 every morning, walking to a conference outside in the freezing cold, getting 45 minutes for lunch, going back to the conference, and then returning to the hotel at 10 pm. Even though it was only a few days, I did not want to go.

On November 28, I got on the plane to Nashville with five other students from Rowland Hall. The next morning, when I got to the conference, we sat in a room with hundreds of other students from all over America. I felt very overwhelmed; I was in a different state on the complete other side of the country, surrounded by so many other kids and adults. I was amazed by how many students actually went to the conference, and, surprisingly, found myself inspired by the speakers. At that moment I remember thinking, “Maybe the conference won’t be as bad as I thought.” After the opening ceremony, my mindset changed a little bit, going from, “This is going to be the worst thing ever,” to, “Maybe I can tolerate this for a few days.”

I felt like I had known these other students my entire life. I made best friends in less than an hour and connected with so many people.

Next, we shuffled into our smaller family groups of around 50 students. If you know me, you know that I am not very outgoing and I tend to be shy. In addition, I was only a sophomore; I thought that I would be trampled by all the other junior and senior students. However, after the first activity (a classic ice-breaker game), I felt like I had known these other students my entire life. I made best friends in less than an hour and connected with so many people from around the country. I felt as though I had actually made a new family, despite my initial reluctance. My thoughts then changed again, from, “Maybe I can tolerate this for a few days,” to, “I am so happy that my mom forced me to go.”

Ke'ea Ramirez with her SDLC family group

Ke'ea's SDLC family group, which met several times throughout the conference to engage in dialogue and sharing.

We spent nearly eight hours in family groups, and then we moved on to affinity groups. I ended up going to the Asian/Pacific Islander affinity group; this group was at least three times as big as my family group. A lot of the students that went to the conference with me from Rowland Hall also attended this affinity group, and some of my new friends from my family group were present. Initially, I thought that affinity groups were where people got together and talked about problems that we could all relate to. However, there was a lot more than I had expected. While we did talk about serious topics, we also had a lot of fun, and, similar to the family group, I connected with people and, again, made best friends fast.

This conference was so important to me because all students were represented, and it is always important to hear the issues of others and to become aware of what is happening around the country.

The first thing we did the next day was to separate into smaller groups and have a singing competition. While it sounds embarrassing and silly, it was actually so much fun, and it allowed us to all come together, gain courage, and laugh. I realized that my preconceived notion of the conference was wrong. What I expected was not what was reality. It was at that moment when my mindset, once again, changed from, “I am so happy that my mom forced me to go,” to, “I never, ever want to leave this conference.”

After we left Nashville and the SDLC behind, I reflected on my experience and realized how much I loved the conference and how glad I was that I went. My favorite session was either family groups or affinity groups because of how many amazing people I met, all the fun activities we did, and how much we ended up feeling like a true family. I made lifelong friends that I am still close to and talk to all the time; I also became even closer to the Rowland Hall students who went to the conference. This conference was so important to me as well because all students were represented, and it is always important to hear the issues of others and to become aware of what is happening around the country.

Even though I wasn’t initially excited to attend, the SDLC turned out to be one of my best experiences in high school—and I immediately signed up for two more conferences when I returned: the 2019 Northwest Association of Independent Schools’ Student Diversity Leadership Retreat in Portland, Oregon, and the 2019 SDLC in Seattle, Washington. I will also be returning to Seattle this May in a leadership role: I’m going to help run affinity spaces and mentor middle school students at the 2020 Student Diversity Leadership Retreat. I am excited to be working with younger students and I hope that they will be just as inspired and motivated as I was.


Top photo, from left: Rowland Hall students Micha Nenbee, Ke'ea Ramirez, and Katy Dark took a break from the 2019 SLDC to explore Seattle's famous Pike Place Market. (Photos courtesy Ke'ea Ramirez)

Ethical Education

Explore Our Most Recent Stories

Tyler Dennis, PGA Tour executive

Utah Golf Association's Fairways magazine featured Rowland Hall alum Tyler Dennis ’95 in the November issue, spotlighting how the PGA Tour senior vice president and chief of operations has helped his organization efficiently implement health, safety, and scheduling changes in response to COVID-19.

Read the full story below. Republished with permission from Fairways magazine, the official publication of the Utah Golf Association, and author Kurt Kragthorpe, one of Utah's legendary sportswriters and senior writer of Fairways Media.

Alumni

From Social-Emotional Learning to Deliberate Dialogue: How Rowland Hall's Focus on Mental Wellness Supports Today's Students

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

Sophie Dau and Maddy Frech hold their Young Lawyers trophy while following social-distancing rules.

As the world of virtual debate has expanded this fall following a late-spring start, national tournaments have grown even more competitive than in pre-pandemic years; students far and wide can simply log on instead of hop a bus or plane to participate. And still, Rowland Hall students have thrived in these new conditions, with twice as many opportunities to compete, hone their skills, and accrue top accolades.

“Debate is as competitive as ever,” coach Mike Shackelford said. “Rowland Hall competed at 17 tournaments this fall, from New York to Los Angeles, local and national, occasionally at the same time.” Normally, that number is about half as high. On the weekend of November 6, for instance, Winged Lions competed in three different tournaments. One was the Utah Debate Coaches Association (UDCA) tournament—the most prestigious local regular-season tournament—where the team had its best showing of the fall. Rowland Hall won the sweepstakes award for the top school thanks to students’ impressive results:

  • Senior Calvin Barbanell won the varsity big questions championship.
  • Seniors Sophie Dau and Maddy Frech won the varsity policy championship.
  • Seniors Augie Bown and Ty Lunde placed second in varsity policy.
  • Juniors Lizzie Carlin and Casey Maloy placed second in varsity public forum.
  • Sophomores Layla Hijjawi and Aileen Robles placed first in JV policy.
  • Sophomore Iman Ellahie and freshman Regan Hodson placed first in novice public forum.
  • Casey, Iman, Layla, and Ty earned top speaker recognition for their events.

Calvin is a brilliant mathematician, he loves philosophy, and is a senior on the debate team. Everything lined up for his first career championship.—Debate Coach Mike Shackelford

UDCA marked Sophie and Maddy's second-straight tournament championship, following their October win at the Rowland Hall-hosted Young Lawyers tournament. It also marked Rowland Hall’s first foray into the newer big questions event, which started in 2016 and entails debating resolutions at the intersection of science and philosophy. This year’s topic: "Resolved: Mathematics was discovered, not invented.” It’s a fortuitous premise for senior Calvin—an accelerated math student who, for instance, took AP Calculus BC as a freshman.

“Calvin is a brilliant mathematician, he loves philosophy, and is a senior on the debate team,” Mike said. “Everything lined up for his first career championship.”

In addition to JV and varsity successes, Mike said our sharp underclassmen bode well for future years. “The program has possibly the most impressive freshman class I've ever coached,” Mike said. “Strong in all events, dominant locally, recognized nationally, and so resilient.” One of those speakers is freshman Logan Fang, who on November 7 earned an iPad for being the top speaker in novice policy at the Damus Hollywood Invitational. Logan said he was dumbfounded but pleased with his win: “I strive to make every round better than the last so it's exciting to see progress towards becoming a polished speaker.” And it’s probably due to close bonds, he explained, that freshmen are excelling. “We're all friends outside of debate so we're able to give each other advice on a more personal level,” Logan said. “We all push each other to be better.”

Juniors Samantha Lehman, George Drakos, and Emery Bahna have also earned national recognition lately. Emery, for one, said one of her biggest accomplishments this fall was being named third-best speaker out of 300 competitors in varsity public forum at Grapevine Classic, a national tournament.

I’m unbelievably proud of the Rowland Hall debate team for adapting to these unforeseen circumstances, and I can’t wait to continue a successful season!—Junior Emery Bahna

Naturally, debaters like Emery and sophomore Aileen Robles miss in-person events and the related social perks such as team dinners, hotel overnights, and mingling with students from other schools. But in all likelihood, students who are able to take advantage of this virtual forum will have an edge when in-person events return: “We gain all kinds of experience,” Aileen said, as the sheer number of events that she and her classmates can attend is much higher this year.

Both Aileen and Emery expressed gratitude for people like their coach who have been working diligently to launch virtual editions of beloved competitions. “Being able to continue interacting with members of the debate community has been extremely important this year, especially given the crazy state of the world,” Emery said. “I’m unbelievably proud of the Rowland Hall debate team for adapting to these unforeseen circumstances, and I can’t wait to continue a successful season!”


Top: Seniors Sophie Dau and Maddy Frech celebrate victory at arm's length, showcasing their Young Lawyers varsity policy trophy while following Rowland Hall's physical-distancing rules.

debate

A Rowland Hall lower schooler playing ukulele in music class.

Susan Swidnicki, McCarthey Campus music teacher, is passionate about the power of music—especially during a global pandemic.

There’s perspective in music. People use music both for celebration and for mourning—and for understanding life a little better: love and friendship and what is important.—Susan Swidnicki, McCarthey Campus music teacher

“There’s perspective in music,” she said. “People use music both for celebration and for mourning—and for understanding life a little better: love and friendship and what is important.”

For many, music has been a powerful tool for coping with the emotions that the pandemic has stirred up—and that’s true for all ages, Susan explained. During the early childhood and elementary years, music can help children process and express big emotions, as well as build their confidence. As a longtime music educator, Susan has seen this again and again: how a song can help a child work through a difficult experience, how the discovery of hidden musical talent can awaken a previously unengaged student, or how performing in front of classmates can empower a shy student. It was, therefore, more imperative than ever to safely provide music education this year.

“I needed to figure out a way that kids could have skilled, active music making together in community,” Susan said.

Susan spent the spring and summer immersed in professional development with music educators around the world, trading ideas and best practices for lessons that fit within safety recommendations and school guidelines. She acknowledged that this was tricky: Rowland Hall has a long tradition of active music making, and the Lower School curriculum uses the Orff Schulwerk music-education approach, which emphasizes play, and in which music and movement go hand in hand. But under the school’s health and safety guidelines, activities like singing, playing the recorder, working in small groups, and folk dancing were off the table. Susan didn’t let this discourage her, though. Like many other COVID-related challenges, she said, it just required a new kind of thinking and some creativity.

“We’re all learning that we can adapt and be flexible,” she said, “and that we are more resilient than we thought.”

For Susan, this meant examining the skills that music class has always built, and then finding new ways to teach them. For example, she’s developing students’ notation, rhythm, and patterning skills with sets of non-wind instruments—like ukuleles, bucket drums, glockenspiels, boomwhackers, xylophones, and hand drums—that are rotated among classes monthly. Additionally, she’s helping kids, who tend to think of movement as something that requires their legs, find different ways to express themselves with their bodies. “They’re learning there are other parts to movement to explore,” said Susan, like arms and torsos, and even facial expressions around their masks (she challenges them to do things like share feelings using only their eyes).

Rowland Hall Lower School students play instruments at their desks in adherence with safety guidelines.

And to continue helping students process 2020, Susan is also focusing on ways to further tie music education with school-wide social-emotional learning goals. She plans to expose students to music and expressive movements that don’t always reflect happiness, as well as to continue to introduce them to music from around the globe to illustrate how many cultures use music to make sense of the world. It’s clear that every choice she makes is thoughtful and designed to support students’ overall well-being, whether they are learning in the classroom or from home.

Despite the year’s limitations, Susan says students are still shining in music class, discovering not only their ability to create, but an understanding that they have something to contribute.

“My main goal, of course, is to keep kids healthy, but also to give them some sense of peace and calmness in their day,” Susan said.

And, of course, to empower them. Despite the year’s limitations, Susan says students are still shining in music class, discovering not only their ability to create, but an understanding that they have something to contribute, “which I think is one of the biggest messages we want to give to children right now,” she said.

Susan Swidnicki, formerly our Beginning School music teacher, took over for longtime McCarthey Campus music teacher Cindy Hall after Cindy retired this summer. Susan—also a professional oboist who has played with the Ballet West Orchestra and the Utah Symphony—was a natural choice and Rowland Hall is so grateful to have her. Read more about Susan in this 2018 profile.


The Many Benefits of Music

Rowland Hall has long embraced active music making, and each division offers opportunities for students to build musical artistry. On the McCarthey Campus, explained Susan, music is an integral part of the beginning and lower schools’ curricula for many reasons:

  • It builds self-discipline. In music class, students learn to control themselves within a group by listening to and respecting their peers when they perform.

  • It encourages bravery. Everyone is expected to contribute, which builds students’ confidence and performance skills—and sometimes even taps into undiscovered talent.

  • It helps students get comfortable making mistakes. Though all students are expected to contribute in music class, perfection is never expected. “You can still enjoy the process with mistakes,” said Susan.

  • It supports math skills. The skills built in music class, like patterning, can help contribute to students’ success in math.

  • It supports language skills. Music class helps build language skills in many ways, from exposing students to vocabulary and rhyming words, to helping build fluid reading skills with meter.

  • It exposes students to diverse cultures. A culturally inclusive music approach, like Orff Schulwerk, helps students understand and appreciate the diversity of cultures.

Academics

You Belong at Rowland Hall