By Erin Berg
Among the five core elements of The Harley School mission is showing students how to care for the world and the people in it. This sense of community involvement is deeply rooted in the origins of the School, from the time in 1917 when a group of women got together and started “The University School of Rochester” for four-year-olds.
These women, mothers who recognized a need for a different educational experience in the Rochester area, pioneered a school that was built around values of community, independence, and curiosity. Inspired by the Montessori model, they developed a preschool and kindergarten program that stressed the development of the individual at his or her own pace. Learning included unstructured work time where children could work on what interested them most.
Our philosophy has been to interpret and meet individual needs of students in order to prepare them for the future. With the goal of supporting a child growing into his or her best self, The Harley School has strived to produce a Progressive Educational environment in which “each child feels himself a stronger, more capable individual and gains courage to proceed with more difficult problems and to help others and cooperate with them along the way.”
In 1961, Rowland McKinley, former head of school, wrote: “Harley is cosmopolitan—cosmopolitan not by accident but by design. This student body spans a social and economic gamut almost as broad as that of Rochester itself. In this community boys and girls of varied economic and social backgrounds live and work and play together without awareness of the usual social barriers inevitable in a larger society.”
Just a few years after McKinley made this statement, Project North Star—named after Frederick Douglass’s newspaper—was born in April 1965. Project North Star had a two-fold mission: to continue to foster a cosmopolitan student body and to provide equal opportunity to a progressive education to include children in all areas of the Rochester community. This laid the groundwork for an institutional and cultural commitment by the School to attract and keep students from a wide range of backgrounds. Today, we are one community comprised of many. Our students come from many different races, religions, families and backgrounds. This priority is supported by the $3 million in financial assistance we provide annually.
Harley is working to create an environment that models, teaches, and practices caring communities by providing opportunities for empathy and fostering collaborative problem-solving and mutual support. This is deeply entrenched in the instructive programs Harley faculty design.
In Lower School, teachers have developed numerous projects over the years to build new communities among the children, giving them independence and lessons on collaboration while keeping learning interesting. Among a number of inventive, interactive projects, the Twoville Post Office, begun in 1982 as a one-week activity, is an annual student favorite. Tony Cinquino P ’06, ’10, a Grade 2 teacher, came up with the innovative idea of a Twoville Post Office project for his class. His goal? To give the students an enjoyable way to learn how to read, practice authentic writing, try new things, and hold roles of responsibility. How did he do it? He had the students construct a post office, where each student held a job. They had to learn how a post office works, design jobs, and determine salaries for each job. The final hurdle was to get the entire Lower School involved in writing and sending letters between classes.
The project was such a success, it has become a 35-year-old tradition that continues to engage the whole Lower School. As Cinquino explains, “It takes a village of Harley classrooms for Twoville Post Office to be successful because all the classrooms help to process and deliver the IN and OUT boxes for our postal workers. I greatly appreciate that all the teachers have accepted our post office project with open arms and plenty of enthusiasm. They all get their students excited about it. Even our head of school, Ward Ghory, sends mail to each student on Valentine’s Day. Teachers also send humorous packages to each other.” Such a collaborative project not only allows students to find joy in learning and sharing, but also provides the chance to witness authentic community among grownups.
From community building modeled through complex and engaging projects in Lower School, this same idea continues into Middle and Upper School. One major service project Middle School students participate in is Adopt-a-Grandparent, the brainchild of Grs. 7 and 8 English teacher Kirsten Allen Reader now carried on by Eileen Ferrari as part of her Grade 7 Health class. Students make five trips over the course of a trimester to the Rochester Friendly Home, a local senior retirement center. Students pair up with another student or two and connect with one resident who lives at the Friendly Home. Before meeting the residents, students work on brainstorming questions to ask them and what information from their own lives would be appropriate to share, particularly things that may interest the resident they visit. There are also meetings after the visit to debrief, where students describe their experiences.
At the heart of this project, teachers aim to provide opportunities for students to experience empathy with a person they might not connect to otherwise. Following a visit during the first year, Reader recalls one student starting her debriefing with:
“I thought I’d be talking to old people, but it turns out they are just people!”—middle school student
Moments like these may give an adult pause, but it is exactly what Harley teachers like Reader, Ferrari, and many others work hard to provide.Through interacting with communities beyond one’s normal environment, Harley students experience more complex ideas about people in our community.
Brightening Birthdays, a springtime project involving Grade 8 students, works with Volunteers of America to organize and throw birthday parties for kids who are in an emergency family shelter. This past year, the students ran a bake sale to raise $400 for the event, and they also held a collection drive for books and presents. Teachers Eileen Ferrari, Kirsten Reader, and Dan O’Brien helped the students organize committees to plan and prepare for the party. There was a cake committee, a music committee, a decorations committee, a birthday cards committee, a goody bags committee, and a committee for activities at the party. Once at the shelter, the students worked together to set up decorations, put out food, and display presents. Then it it was time for all to celebrate with food, drinks, conversation, and games outside.
Although not all of Harley’s students experience each of these various service projects and lessons, they are representative of the many ways Harley’s social and educational environment is unique.
In Ben Plotnik ’17’s final words of his Commencement speech, he shared his realization that community is the common thread through all of his experiences at The Harley School, from learning about human rights and responsibilities in Jocie Kopfman ’09’s Grade 9 course to seeing teachers’ doors always open—welcoming any student to walk in for advice or a good talk—to communal spaces. Plotnik left his classmates with this promise: “We leave the grounds of 1981 Clover Street, never again physically together as one. However, our status as members of the Harley community will remain, and so will our own drive to build community wherever we are.” Throughout the classes in the Lower School, students learn how to care for themselves through fun, engaging lessons and projects. We’ve seen how projects like Tony Cinquino’s introduced collaborative work early, so that our students realize that caring for oneself is a communal act. This continues into Middle School, where teachers strive to extend these lessons to communities beyond Harley walls. The hard-work responsibility for the larger community these teachers continue to inspire and nurture in Middle School is fundamental for the success and popularity of a unique one-year senior elective course in Upper School: Hospice.
“Don’t buy into this idea that you don’t have the strength to do this kind of work. Given the support—the love and the kindness—young people can do anything.”—Bob Kane
Kane, former English teacher and former director of the Center for Mindfulness and Empathy Education, founded the Hospice program in 2004. He did this to counteract the way death in our culture has become a taboo topic of discussion. We do not want our lives or those of loved ones to come to an end, like the extinguishing of a flame.
Our inherent fear of dying has led us to sidestep confronting death by hiding it away in places not easily reached. Yet, it is in these places—the places that are difficult, that most people shy away from—that Kane saw a teaching moment, and he lit a literal and symbolic flame that continues today.
Since its inception and integration in the Upper School curriculum, more than half of the Harley seniors annually elect the Hospice program.
At the start of each class, a candle is lit. The flame is a reminder to all students life is fragile, it can flicker out at any moment. It is also a reminder to the students that, when the candle is lit, it is time to share personal experiences—leaving judgment outside the classroom. At first, students are often hesitant to talk about death. Some have noted that when they had a parent or grandparent die, they tried to ignore and avoid the death for a long time. Hospice is a place where students bring personal experiences of grief and gain new perspective. One former student reflects, “I have always accepted death as a natural part of life, but I have never thought of it as something that requires work. It makes sense to me now, as it takes work to adjust to how your body is naturally shutting down, and it takes much spiritual and emotional strength.” Another student states, “Through thinking about death I also think more about how I want to live my life every day. In addition, Hospice has taught me how to cope with my feelings. It has taught me to release my pain by expressing it, like crying when I feel sad. I also learned to share my feelings with others.”
From students’ personal accounts, we gain access into the individual growth students experience working together and volunteering. Elfin Johansen ’04 and Caitlin Frame ’05 shared the impact their hospice work had on them, each expressing how caring for the dying emphasized the importance of community and bearing witness.
Johansen observed that, “Life occurs because of connections and the crossing of paths. We come to see that what we do has countless effects.” while Frame noted, “I want to expand my life and learn about other lives. . .what they have done, how they feel, or what they regret. To me, it is the people around us who can change the way we see ourselves.”