We welcome you to get to know our faculty better as they share their experiences working with students at Shady Side Academy. Each post is written by a different member of our faculty throughout the school year. Spanning our three schools and teaching a variety of disciplines to students ranging in age from 3-18, each faculty member brings a different perspective to the blog.
Karen DiFiore Junior School Physical Education Teacher
Karen DiFiore holds a B.S. from the Universoty of Pittsburgh and has taught physical education at the Junior School since 2008. She previously taught health and physical education for Pittsburgh Public Schools for 13 years.
In January, I began a ‘Walk ‘n Talk’ program with our third graders, and while it has been successful in the areas in which it was originally intended, it has also grown and had far reaching benefits to the rest of the population at the Junior School, students and teachers alike.
The program was created to increase student activity during the school day, which recent research states aids in improved academic performance. I chose third grade to pilot the program so that we could integrate it with their unit on the states. We are measuring the number of steps walked with a pedometer and tracking our progress on a map as we make our way across America. What I didn’t originally realize was how valuable and meaningful the ‘talk’ portion of the Walk ‘n Talk would be. As our students are walking with their friends and teachers you can hear conversations between them, discussing who they were rooting for in the Super Bowl, how they performed in a dance recital over the weekend or sharing a concern of something that was worrying them. It is reminiscent of the old days when children lived in neighborhoods where they were able to walk to school with their friends or parents. Our morning Walk ‘n Talk is allowing our children to get this same experience, but after they actually get to school!
Seeing this added benefit of building community among the students and teachers I wanted to grow our program to include other members of our school. We began by inviting the third grade's kindergarten buddies that they are paired with in the beginning of the school year. It is a wonderful sight to see these two groups of students walking and talking with each other, strengthening their bond! After seeing this positive result we wanted to share this experience with the whole school and have all of us walk together and learn more about each other, but due to space constraints in the gym we are only able to have two grade levels walk at the same time. Now we have each grade, K-4, come walk with the third grade one day a week. We can’t wait until the weather allows us to move our Walk ‘n Talk from the gym to the field so that we can have our entire community walk and grow together!
Adding additional community members to walk with the third grade is also helping them walk across America by increasing their daily mileage, supporting them and helping them reach their goal. Isn’t that what Shady Side Academy is all about?!
Mrs. Joseph has taught English at the Senior School since 2007 and has served as chair of the English Department. She holds a B.A. from St. Edwards College and an M.F.A. from the University of Pittsburgh. A former fiction instructor at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts, Mrs. Joseph has won teaching awards from the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts and from Humanities Texas, and has to her credit publications in literary magazines and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Before SSA, Joseph taught in Indiana, North Carolina and served as English Department chair at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin, Texas.
Hats. Sunscreen. Long-sleeved, light-colored shirts. Pants tucked into long socks, tucked into boots. Lip balm. Water.
Eleven Shady Side students, science teacher Aaron Ashworth, my husband and I traveled across the country to do battle with the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever that had swept through Native American populations in the Southwest via the ordinary brown dog tick. We knew we would be assisting the CDC. We couldn't imagine what we would do there, exactly. And, as we caravanned from the airport into the fantastic moonscape of Arizona, we were increasingly awed and mystified – the pink and brown mountains, the fingers and fists of rock formations thrusting skyward, the forests of ancient cacti just as the desert began to bloom. More than once, we felt compelled to pull our vehicles over in order to take pictures of ourselves against this movie set backdrop.
Our imaginations had not factored in the precision and discipline of the CDC. Monday morning, 8 a.m., we were seated in a gymnasium for a three-hour briefing regarding the history of the disease, the demographics of the population at risk and the logistics of our plan of attack. There were exacting specifications for the paperwork that would form the spine of the research that would be done throughout the summer and for the next two or three years. There were detailed safety guidelines and procedures. We would be privileged to work with Vince, whose name is enshrined in Geneva, Switzerland, for helping eradicate small pox from the face of the earth. And with Chris, the scientist with the tattoo of the tick on his forearm to memorialize his linking the Gulf Coast tick to a disease that imitated Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Just as the mountains and caverns awed and inspired us, the credentials of our CDC mentors left us breathless and intimidated, whispering among ourselves: eradicated smallpox from the face of the earth.
SSA students were divided into teams anchored by the CDC and graduate students in public health or science. The groups moved out into neighborhoods to categorize and document the status of households with or without pets. Dogs with anti-tick collars from the previous “RMSF rodeo” had their collars noted and then replaced; puppies too young for collars were checked for ticks and then sprayed with a mild pesticide. The keys to the entire endeavor were two-fold: sensitivity while conducting the interview and precision in the paperwork.
The trip itself was put together by seniors Paul Steenkiste and Noah Harchelroad, with advice from science teacher Aaron Ashworth and help from Jessica Parker. They researched, made contacts, created a budget and built in opportunities for side trips. We visited the Cultural Center and met with its brilliant director. We explored the ruins of ancient cave dwellings and frolicked across the Calvin Coolidge Dam. We learned that rickety dirt roads curving the outer edge of mountainside might be guard rail optional. We discovered the Apache burger and the Indian taco and that there is such a thing as too much authentic Mexican food. We became temporarily lost, but the weather was lovely. Our inside jokes became a sophisticated and hilarious subtext beneath every conversation.
But here is the most important part, the part I will always remember, the fact that our students – my students – were so brilliantly prepared by their experiences at SSA for a community service project that hinged upon a combination of social graces and scientific methodology. To a person, the credentialed professionals who led this project and who were quite vocal about their exacting standards – from the liaison for Indian Affairs to the heroes of public health – took me aside to exclaim over the quality of work our students accomplished. Thank you for this, combined efforts of teachers of humanities and teachers of math and science. Thank you, culture of civility and Guiding Principles that are shaping us into useful and caring citizens of this varied and beautiful world.
on Thursday April 18 at 12:57PM
Mrs. Messner has taught math and science at the Middle School since 2002. She holds a B.S. from Duquesne University and an M.A.T. from Chatham University. Messner has served as the Middle School's PAISTA representative since 2003 and the Form II head form advisor since 2006. During her time at SSA, Messner has coached basketball, softball and squash and performed tutorial duties. She also has been part of the Admissions Committee and Black History Month Committee.
A girl’s hand is already up and class has just started. The kids around her are giggling. “Yes Maya, what is it?” I say. Maya says, “We have something to tell you. A boy in our grade came up to me in the hallway and said ‘Mrs. Messner sounds like an owl.’“ I chuckle and respond, “I would like to know what this boy’s name is please.” Maya turns a light shade of pink and giggles with her friends. I ask again and one of her friends says to the entire class, “It didn’t work.” Then it all clicks - these students were trying to get me to say “WHO” and sound like an owl! We all laugh and agree that the joke would have been funny if it had worked, and then we promptly get to our lesson learning about taxonomy.
We have just finished our discussion of the Law of Definite Composition in Form II science class and Andrew comes up to my desk at the end of class with a very serious face. He says, “Hey Mrs. Messner, did you hear what happened to that chemist’s son Johnny?” I reply, “No, what happened?” with obvious concern in my voice. Andrew says, “Johnny was a chemist’s son, but Johnny is no more... what Johnny thought was H2O was H2SO4.”
These stories are absolutely true and not uncommon in a middle school classroom! I cannot tell you the number of times that the response to my career choice is one of surprise, confusion and sometimes true horror. The truth of the matter is that most people are afraid of “middle schoolers.” They are an unknown entity – like a variable in a mathematical equation (and we can all name one or two self-confident, strong and successful adults that quiver in fear at the thought of doing math!). But just like in algebra, once you perform the correct inverse operations in the correct order you find a solution. Middle school teachers have to do a lot of inverse operations in the correct order to help their students find the solution to who they are by the time they leave our building. In my opinion, this is one of the best parts of teaching middle school students. The challenge of doing “the math” correctly to help each of our students reach their potential academically, socially and emotionally by the time they reach June of their Form II year.
Middle school students are exactly what they sound like; in the middle of being dependent on the adults in their lives, like elementary students, but not quite as independent of those same adults, like high school students. They want to do things on their own, but need adults to guide them; to let them be fearless but fearful at the same time; and to let them be unpredictable until they find their way. I feel like I can confidently say that all middle school teachers find comfort in being that consistent force in our students lives, and that we truly do relish in their ability to be unpredictable but smart; unpredictable but funny; unpredictable but accepting; unpredictable but appreciative and above all unpredictable but always interesting.
Kristin Litster, Junior School Second Grade Teacher
Kristin Litster holds a B.Ed. and an M.A. from the University of Victoria. Mrs. Litster was a substitute teacher at the Junior School for a year before joining the full-time faculty in 2009. She taught in the pre-kindergarten program for three years before moving to second grade in 2012. Before coming to Pittsburgh, she spent a year as a special education teacher for grades 9-12 in Palo Alto, Calif., and two years teaching third grade in East Palo Alto.
As I sat and considered what to write about, I decided to share an aspect of school that has changed things for me both at school and at home. As you walk the Junior School halls this year, you’ll see blue wristbands on students, faculty and students. Stop even the youngest students to inquire about the jewelry, and they’ll happily share with you about The Shady Side Way. You’ll hear about the importance of being kind, respectful, responsible, safe and honest. These are weighty concepts, but students across the grades are excited to live by Shady Side’s Guiding Principles.
When it was my students’ turn to present at an assembly in January, I asked them to brainstorm ways they demonstrate The Shady Side Way in the classroom. They immediately began to share ideas, and we narrowed down their suggestions to a few key scenarios they felt portrayed the Guiding Principles in ways students of all ages could understand. They chose to act out a situation in which a student feeling frustrated by a tough problem is encouraged by peers, a skit about students helping and teaching each other, and a scene showing our popular author’s chair sharing time, during which students provide constructive feedback on their writing.
As I stepped back after this brainstorming process, I thought about just how excited the students were to demonstrate their kindness, honesty, responsibility, respect and safety for others. As the time neared, the students were abuzz with suggestions for how to get their message across, how to bring humor to their presentation, and of course, how to incorporate costumes! They did a wonderful job presenting their ideas, and most importantly, they were proud of themselves for sharing their positive message with the school.
The Shady Side Way has also found an integral place in my own household. As a mother of an SSA PK student, The Shady Side Way has become a key phrase in our house, and surprisingly, I was not the one who introduced it at home. My daughter began using the term to assess her own actions within the family (and, often, the actions of both myself and my husband). “Mommy, that was not The Shady Side Way!” is something I now hear if I tease her father or get frustrated with another driver during our commute. If I thank her for holding a door, sharing with her brother or cleaning up her dishes, she responds with a beaming grin, saying, “That’s the Shady Side Way!” It’s been fun to watch her generalize and apply such important principles both at school and at home.
This year, students seen living The Shady Side Way receive cards in the mail from teachers or staff. At the next assembly, these students’ names are read aloud and the entire school applauds their efforts. It’s a special moment. My daughter jumps for joy when she receives a Shady Side Way card in the mail, insisting she must call all of her grandparents to share the good news, and placing the card on a much coveted fridge door display spot immediately! In our classroom, my students act as observers, writing similar cards of appreciation for peers they see demonstrating The Shady Side Way in our room, placing the cards anonymously in the “Caught You!” box. The names and notes are read aloud at the end of each week. It’s a nice way for students to see that their peers notice and appreciate what they do, and they begin to notice just how often their classmates are kind, honest, safe, respectful and responsible.
I wanted to write about The Shady Side Way because it’s been interesting to see students, teachers and staff all using a common vernacular. The Guiding Principles have become innate and standards to which all students aim. Conversations about behavior and choices can be put in the context of The Shady Side Way, both at school and at home. At Shady Side Academy, we are kind, we are honest, we are responsible, we are respectful and we are safe . . . and that’s The Shady Side Way!
on Friday February 15 at 11:45AM
Jennifer Keller, Junior School First Grade Teacher
Jennifer Keller holds a B.S. in elementary education and early childhood education from Clarion University and an M.Ed. in elementary education with a reading specialty from Duquesne University. She taught for 10 years in various parochial schools in the Pittsburgh area before coming to the Junior School in 2000 as a first grade teacher. Keller was a 2011 recipient of SSA's prestigious Posner Award for Meritorious Faculty Performance.
Some teachers will say that the beginning of a school year is their favorite time… the feeling of starting fresh, new faces, and unpacking supplies (Is there any better smell than a just-opened box of crayons?). Other teachers claim that the end of the school year is the best time… the feeling of a job well done, the lure of a summer stretched before them. Me? I’ve always liked the middle of a school year.
After Winter Break, big things start to happen for first graders. I begin to notice huge improvements in everyone’s skills. Children who were previously struggling to read find themselves decoding words with ease, and the world of books and pleasure reading opens to them. In my classroom, there’s a couch in my reading corner. At this time of the year, it becomes the most popular place to be. In the fall, the couch was typically used as a stage for my students to prop stuffed animals or Pillow Pets, and act out impromptu skits. Now, in the middle of the year, you’re apt to find my kids curled up, shoes off, and engrossed in books. When I give my kids “free time” in the mornings, they used to flock to the block corner, or play board games. Now, they squirrel themselves away and read. Youngsters who once seemed to need me for every little thing, now suddenly become Mr. and Miss Independent. I find myself tying less shoes, helping to tuck in fewer shirts, and I don’t need to open glue sticks any longer. In fact, if I try to do any of those things, my hands are gently, but firmly pushed away. “I can do it, Miss Keller,” is the new mantra. It’s the middle of the year after all! Come into my cubby room any day in January, around 1 p.m. and you’ll see this in action. This is when we get ready for recess.
Outdoor recess in the winter is nirvana for a 7-year-old. At the Junior School we are fortunate to have great outdoor space right in the middle of a city neighborhood. The back door to my classroom opens right out to the playground. Often, my kids are the first to set foot on all that unblemished snow after a recent storm. In “kid world,” this is the ultimate. But first, they need to get dressed. You may think that getting 14 children clad in outdoor gear is the bane of my existence. Surprisingly, it’s relatively stress-free for me. After my initial reminder of “gloves or mittens go on last,” things start rolling along (Yes, a first grader always puts glove or mittens on first. Why? One of life’s great mysteries.). When I gather my courage, I enter the cubby room to offer assistance but am quickly turned away. “See you outside, Miss Keller,” or “I don’t need any help,” filter back to me. Soon, my kids are bundled up with snow pants, parkas, hats, gloves/mittens, scarves, boots, and for the fashion forward… earmuffs. They are wrapped up so tight, they can’t walk normally; they sort of lumber along. I’m reminded of Randy from the classic movie, A Christmas Story. Yes, some can’t put their arms down! My kids couldn’t do all of this in September. I send a silent prayer heavenward that there’s no snow then. I’d never make it.
During the middle of the year, we begin a month-long unit in first grade that focuses on the polar regions of the world. This high-interest unit is always a favorite, year after year. I can look around my room and see 14 children doing 14 different things. Some are researching Arctic animals, some are writing in response journals, some are assembling paper food chains, a few may be putting together a polar bear puzzle, and still others might be partner reading. As I move from group to group to check in, I realize how much my children have grown. One particular girl grabs my attention. This young lady was a reluctant writer in September. She would dictate everything to me, and I would have to write it down for her. Now, she’s working on an acrostic poem independently. She asks me how to spell the word “carnivore” and I put it on a Post-It note for her. When she takes it from my hand, she looks at it, furrows her brow, and says, “Is this right? You better research this to be sure.” It’s humbling to hear your words thrown back at you. However, here in the middle of the year, it’s just where I was hoping she would be.
One January day, a few years ago, I remember my kids busily working on their polar regions activities. Everyone seemed engaged and focused. I was looking for that lookfrom one of my students. That look that every teacher knows. The “come help me” look. I didn’t see it. So I said to the group, “Does anyone need me for anything?” After the sound of crickets died down, one of my boys said, “No, we don’t, but isn’t that a good thing? We’re second graders in training, right?” Yes, it’s a good thing. Yes, you’re “second graders in training” (Again… my words thrown back at me!). My kids can sustain academic tasks for much longer, they’re invested in their learning, and most importantly, they love that learning. That’s the feel of first grade here in the middle of the year.
I think back to all the shoes I tied, all the hands I held, all the pencils I helped sharpen, all the words I helped spell, and I realize that it’s led us all here. So you can have your fresh starts and brand new supplies, you can swell with pride at graduation and Moving Up Day. I’ll take those days in January. I’ll take the middle.
on Wednesday January 16 at 02:28PM
Ms. Garvey has taught English at the Senior School since 1991. She holds a B.A. in government from Harvard's Radcliffe College and an M.A. in English from Washington University St. Louis. She was a 2012 recipient of the Academy's prestigious Posner Award for Meritorious Faculty Performance.
When you work in a classroom building, you begin to recognize how the energy of the building shifts throughout the year. There’s the lethargy of a long break, when most faculty and students are gone. There’s the crazy energy that comes right before break, when the building can barely contain the vitality of people eager for time off. There’s the odd stillness that comes when the sophomore class has gone to the Public Theater to see As You Like It; though three quarters of the students are still there, a quietness tells you something has changed.
In November, February, and May, a special energy comes to the building. Classrooms are full, no matter what period. Glance in these classrooms and you’ll see students and teachers talking earnestly, or students bent over their work while an attentive teacher watches over them. In other rooms, you’ll see students gesticulating wildly, typing frantically, or writing in broad strokes across the white board.
What is going on? The end of the term is nigh, and the upper-form English elective courses are experiencing that exciting push to the finish. What are these students doing? Rehearsing scenes, writing radio plays, creating poems of pilgrimage, looking for the conjunction of nature and poetry, tracing the hero's journey, identifying forgotten societies. There is an impressive variety of upper-form English electives, and teachers in this program seek to create culminating experiences that enable students to synthesize what they’ve learned and go a step further in their understanding.
At the end of the fall term, students in my Austen and Dickens class worked in small groups to write radio plays. Sure, radio wasn’t around in Austen’s time, but a radio play allows students to create a situation in which characters from Persuasion, A Christmas Carol, and Great Expectations come together to face a challenge, fall for each other, and ultimately reveal how much my students understand about the novels’ themes. This year, students shipwrecked characters on an island to see if they could stop being selfish long enough to be rescued, sent Sir Walter from Persuasion into a bar to chat up Estella from Great Expectations (with Scrooge’s nephew Fred serving as Sir Walter’s wingman), and had Sir Walter trying to figure out how to pay back a loan from Scrooge without having to work for the money.
Angela Irvine’s classes were working collaboratively too, producing scenes from one of seven plays they read in class. After rehearsing all week, squirreled away in classrooms and locker pods, students in the Contemporary Drama class performed their scenes for their classmates. These scenes are often surprising, with students who may seem shy or uncertain stepping forward to bring a character to life with humor or intensity or unexpected skill. In a scene this fall from Superior Donuts, one student was so charming in her attempts to get the shop owner to go out with her that a member of the class audience called out, “I’ll go out with you!”
Then there are the more solitary journeys. The morning of the English exam, Paul Ejzak's Hero's Journey class was watching a movie. It wasn't just a pleasant way to end the course; it was part of the final exam. This year, the class watched The Wizard of Oz, then worked to identify the elements of hero’s journey as developed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. Mr. Ejzak takes this unusual approach to the final to help students recognize the universal elements of the heroic journey. By asking them to consider a new “text,” Ejzak hopes that students will learn to carry their understanding forward and apply it to other contexts, including their own journeys through life.
In Nature Writing, Buddy Hendershot asked his students to take a journey through their personal connection with nature. These students spent all term not just reading and writing about nature, but being in nature, on regular forays around the beautiful Shady Side campus and field trips further afield. For the final, students had to use their observations from their time outside, making connections between what they wrote in their journals during the term and the poems or descriptions they wrote at the end of the term. Students wrote essays that connected their relationship with nature to the poems they read over the course of the term. This is a final that is all about seeing – seeing nature and seeing themselves in nature.
My Medieval Poetry students took a poetic pilgrimage, writing a prologue to a more modern Canterbury Tales. Our pilgrims were neighbors who left Pittsburgh for Las Vegas to avoid the ravages of Hurricane Sandy and a group of fanboys and girls travelling to Comic-Con in San Diego to see their heroes; Mexicans travelling to the United States made a trip of hope, while New Yorkers made a pilgrimage of duty to the polls to vote in the presidential election. These students were not simply writing about these pilgrimages, but writing poetry about these pilgrimages, creating rhyming couplet after rhyming couplet as did Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. Though I have moments of concern when I hand out this assignment, wondering if I am asking too much of my students, I always find that they go beyond my expectations, thrilling me with their creativity and poetic skills.
It’s December now, and juniors and seniors in the upper-form English elective program have headed in new directions, entering the worlds of the hard-boiled detective and Shakespeare’s Henriad, of poetry and song and poetry in translation, even traveling as far away as the world of women in science fiction. The building is a little quieter as students settle into the day-to-day business of their new English classes. But come February, the building will again hum with creativity as final projects for these term courses begin anew. These final projects mark the beginning of a journey of engagement and understanding that we hope our students will continue throughout their lives.
Lindsay Rusnak, Junior School Pre-Kindergarten Teacher
Ms. Rusnak began teaching pre-kindergarten at Shady Side Academy Junior School in fall 2012. She holds a B.A. from Otterbein College and a master's degree in education from DePaul University. Before coming to SSA, Rusnak taught students in grades PK-6 in Powel, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; and New Orleans, La.; as well as serving as a substitute teacher in a variety of schools in the Pittsburgh area.
When people hear that I’m a teacher at Shady Side, they often have a lot of questions. Friends that are fellow teachers want to know about our academic program, or ask how we differ from other schools around Pittsburgh. Other people want to know what I like about my new job. Yet whoever I talk to, the essential question comes down to this: “How is Shady Side Academy?”
For me, this is a multi-faceted question. Yes, SSA has an academic program, facilities and opportunities for students that are extraordinary. That is easy to see, and even easier to tell anyone in a heartbeat. But to answer a question like this, I find myself talking about the personality of SSA. When I say personality, I’m talking about the attitude of our school, how the students and the teachers act and interact with one another, and the nature of the environment in which we work, learn and play almost every day. So when someone asks me, “How is Shady Side?” I see the question as, “What type of feeling do you get when you are at Shady Side?”
I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in a variety of schools in four different cities across the country. Every single school I’ve been in has a specific personality. I’ve been in schools where teachers have smiled at me in the halls, and in schools where I’ve been roughly asked why I’ve walked by their classroom door. I’ve taught in schools that have 35 kids in a room, and others with only eight. I spent two years at a school where students had to say “yes ma’am” after I spoke to them. The following year, I taught in a classroom where teachers and students were on a first-name basis. In short, every school has a personality that is truly their own.
In the education community, this school personality I speak of is referred to as “school culture and community.” Researchers continue to examine a variety of school cultures and values, the goal being to pin down the exact type of learning community that equates to student success. So, what kind of school community do we have at Shady Side? What do we value, and how do we see it within our students? Do we really follow The Shady Side Way by displaying kindness, honesty, respect, responsibility and safety? And, above all, is our school culture and community preparing students to think expansively, act ethically and lead responsibly?
One of the places I see the answer to these questions is at the Junior School’s Tuesday assemblies. Our Tuesday assemblies are a time where all members of the Junior School get together to gain a sense of community and share how we live The Shady Side Way. At an assembly for the After School Explorers program, one of my PK kids enthusiastically cheered on a fifth-grade student who was singing a solo in front of the entire school. My student yelled, “Yay! Go girl! You're gonna do a great job!” When I asked her how she knew this fifth grader, she said, “She’s my friend! She gives me hugs at After School and helps me and swings with me!” After the assembly, both my student and the fifth grader gave one another a hug good-bye before they went to their classrooms.
At the assembly during Homecoming week, Senior School athletes came to introduce themselves and encourage our Junior School students to attend Homecoming festivities and sporting events. Another one of my students asked if he could meet a football player. It amazed me that when I came up to this particular high school junior, he was absolutely thrilled to meet my PK student. After giving him a big high five, the football player said, “Thanks for coming to meet me, buddy. I hope you can come and see us play on Saturday. It would mean a lot to me if you would be there. Have a great day at school!”
One of the values that we try to instill in the students at Shady Side is learning through leadership. Fourth graders get a chance to work on these skills at least twice a month, when they participate in the PK Buddy Program. At the beginning of the school year, every fourth grader is assigned a special PK student “buddy.” We meet at least twice a month to participate in reading, art and other special activities. My PK kids always enjoy these times, and are so happy when they see their fourth grade buddies around the Junior School. For my students, it really makes them feel connected to the older students in our learning community. The fourth graders are always so proud that they get to lead and guide the young PK kids in various activities. The huge smiles, laughter and pride that I see on their faces speak mountains. It was wonderful to see the fourth graders help my kids select books from the library, and then sit down to read to them. When we worked on a Halloween art project together, you could tell the older students felt a sense of accomplishment when they got to lead their PK buddies through an assignment. I can’t wait to see how these special student connections grow throughout the year.
I could go on and on relating more stories – like how during the Homecoming assembly I spoke of earlier, three Senior School students embraced one another to sing our alma mater; or how I witnessed a fourth grader asking a teacher if she could help her serve lunches to younger kids, or after seeing me give directions to my PK students, a second grader went out of her way to tell me that “I’m great with kids” (and believe me, there’s nothing more validating as a teacher than to hear that from a 7-year-old!).
My point is, SSA is a special place. Yes, our school values honesty, kindness, responsibility, respect and safety, but how it manifests itself is something truly remarkable. We are not just a community of learners; we are a community of caring. And because we care, our children are turning into human beings full of character. Our kids are growing into people that display positivity, support and grace during small everyday moments in life. SSA is a place where kids are excited to come to school, not just because of what they are learning, but because they are learning with one another. It’s a place where leadership among the students does not equate to power; it equates to ethics, responsibility, kindness and compassion. People here really care about each other. And that is exactly what I say when someone asks, “How is Shady Side?”
on Monday December 10, 2012 at 12:09PM
Mr. Weiss has been teaching history at the Shady Side Academy Senior School since 2000. He earned his B.A. in American studies from George Washington University and his master's degree in social history from Carnegie Mellon University. Mr. Weiss also coaches ultimate frisbee and serves as Shady Side's Summer Programs Day Camp Discovery director.
I had a real Shady Side dilemma recently: I wasn’t sure if my floral print dress would be appropriate for the mock trial in Dr. O’Neill’s first period social studies class at the Middle School.
I should explain. A few weeks ago was my favorite one of the school year (except maybe Commencement) – Spirit Week. Spirit Week is the four day (darn you, Columbus Day!) dress-up festival that Student Council sponsors every year as a lead-up to Homecoming. Homecoming, itself, makes things special around here. Classes are often interrupted by alums knocking at the door to say “hi,” and I always love watching my current students as they take in these happy reunions. There are always hugs, high-fives and the 30-second answers to the “what’s new?” question, but what strikes our current kids, especially our ninth graders, is how excited the teachers and their former students are to see each other. Sometimes one will even ask me, “Will you be that excited to see me when I come back?”
I always tell ‘em, “Well, there’s just one way to find out,” and I hope they’ll take me up on it.
But back to the dress.
Not everybody loves the goofy get-ups of Spirit Week, but I look forward to them. What we lose in classroom decorum we get back in excitement and fun. Who wouldn’t want to come to school in his PJs, slippers and robe, as I did for pajama day on Tuesday, or in a bright red suit (bought from the ladies section at Goodwill for the first Color Bowl years ago), a kelly green bowling shirt, a tall felt hat with pink hearts and a bright green wig as I did for Wacky Wednesday? Okay, I guess I can think of people, but I’m happy to have the option, and I think the kids are pleased to see their teachers getting into the homecoming spirit, too.
Eventually, I will get to the dress.
Thursday was “Opposite Day,” which meant that boys were encouraged to dress like girls and girls like boys. Unfortunately for me, it was also “Take Your Parent to School Day” at the Middle School, and my seventh grade daughter was definitely not bringing a dad in a dress, so I behaved myself and enjoyed a riveting and very impressive mock civil trial before rushing over to the Senior School and enlisting help from Theater Director Dana Hardy-Bingham, who gave me the keys to the costume shop and the go-ahead to humiliate myself.
The photo says it all. I spent the rest of the day not as Mr. Weiss but as Mrs. Barbasol, lifted largely from Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire. She was a little batty but very outgoing, and in some ways more engaging than I could ever be. After all, while I can discuss the great Mughal emperor, Akbar, with my world history students, only Mrs. Barbasol actually knew him (and may have even briefly dated him – she was being coy). By the end of the day, my voice was tired and my shoes were killing me, but I considered the whole experiment a success.
In the middle of all this madness, I was able to exchange a few words in passing with a beloved alum, Laura Daigneau, who is currently working with Teach For America in Los Angeles. Her classroom baptism has certainly been a fiery one, and she marveled, having been away, at how it was possible for a bald, bearded teacher in a dress to maintain a learning environment, but that’s part of the beauty of Shady Side: Our students don’t respect their teachers because of what they wear or because they hold power over them; our students respect their teachers because of what those teachers know, the passion they bring to their work and their subjects, and because the kids know how happy we are to be here and how privileged we feel to work with them. This creates an atmosphere where it’s safe to take chances, whether that means teaching a class in one’s PJs or competing in a science fair or debate competition. I think we and our students also share a real joy in being part of our community. Learning and building skills is serious work, but it’s also joyful work, and every now and then it’s nice to celebrate that joyful work together, letting our (bright green) hair down and blending laughs with lessons.
Friday, I had to put on my grown-up clothes again. I had the honor of introducing one my former students – my very first friend at Shady Side, in fact – Angela DiGioia, class of 2002, who was awarded the Paul Pigman Prize for service to her community. Angela has done a lifetime’s worth of volunteer work in the field of health care in the short decade since she graduated, and watching her speak with such confidence to our students in assembly made me proud. Even better was the chance to go to lunch in the dining hall with her and talk together like two grown-ups. Being able to watch a smart and capable young person grow up to be a confident, accomplished adult isn’t listed in our benefits package, but it is definitely one of the great rewards of our work.
It was a remarkable week, from PJs to fright wigs to a suit and tie, but what held it all together and made it special was our students, past and present. Homecoming week was a reminder to me of how our kids always make coming to work feel, to me, like coming home.
on Friday November 2, 2012 at 04:28PM
Celeste Janosko, Junior School K-2 Science Teacher
Mrs. Janosko has been teaching science at Shady Side Academy Junior School since 1998 to students in grades K-2. She holds a B.S. in biology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. in education from the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching at Shady Side, Mrs. Janosko teaches elementary students in Carnegie Mellon University's C-MITES program and adults at Chautauqua Institute in New York during the summer.
In 1999, the Junior School was fortunate to be the recipient of the William Foster Garden. Named after alum William Foster, it was given in his memory by his family. The garden, nestled behind the gymnasium and next to the primary playground, presently holds a pizza garden complete with tomato plants, basil, oregano, onions and peppers; a small pond filled with fish; a few strawberry plants from a recent filed trip to a farm; a small lot of flowers for cutting; and 10 mammoth rocks that are embedded into a hillside, allowing amphitheater seating for children.
Students are ALWAYS excited when I share with them that we are going outside to work in the garden. To them there is nothing like raking leaves, finding worms and grubs in the soil, discovering red aphids sucking on tall yellow perennials, rubbing soft leaves of lamb’s ear on their cheeks, smelling the herbs rosemary and lemon balm or, joy of joys, observing and HOLDING one of the hundreds of tadpoles that populate our pond each spring. And for those who become avid “green thumbers,” they are welcome to join me in the garden each summer for an hour of weeding and planting. Yes, the children are enjoying the outdoors and learning.
What they may not realize is that their teacher is learning too. True, I learn something new about planting with each passing year, but unbeknownst to them, I learn so much more about them.
During our time together in the summer garden, I have discovered compromisers, travelers, dancers, actors, musicians and dreamers.
It actually all begins in the summer as the gardening students gather together. When simply asked “What fun things have you be doing during your summer vacation?" the answers are many. I have witnessed the original dance that a student composed while attending a dance class and taking harpsichord lessons (she now plays at weddings!) and have heard the excitement in a young boy’s voice as he shared that he was taking acting classes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
I have seen compromise at work. It all began when two second graders and good friends worked in the garden together. I had encouraged them to decide the location of each plant. At first, the one with more gardening experience took the lead and began placing the flowers in her choice of location. Then she quietly looked at her friend and realized that her friend wanted to be a decision maker as well. All at once, she began asking her friend her thoughts as to the best location and together they planted without a word from me. Diplomats in the making!
Then there was my world traveler who excitedly shared with me he had visited the Wailing Wall. Before I could ask him more details, a fellow student innocently asked if it was a large wall on which whales were painted. He then explained the wall to us and shared that he had placed a prayer with its rocks.
This past summer, with the excitement of the Olympics, one gardener who loved and excelled at weeding suggested that the next Olympics have a contest for gardeners. When asked to be more specific, she replied that whoever would weed the most in a given period of time would win! The sweetness of youth….
As fall comes to an end, our garden will be closing. I know, however, that next year will bring new crops, new students and new experiences that we will share together.
on Wednesday October 17, 2012 at 03:12PM
Ms. Girts is in her first year at Shady Side Academy, teaching 8th grade social studies at the Middle School. She earned her B.A. and M.A. in political science from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Education from Carlow University. Girts most recently taught at the University of Pittsburgh in the Political Science Department while pursuing her Ph.D. She decided to forego that degree, as the lure of the classroom proved stronger than the lure of research.
Look out, Shady Side Academy! President Obama and Governor Romney have entered the building! These cardboard cutouts reside in my Middle School classroom, and can be quite chatty on any given day.
I feel extremely fortunate that my first year teaching social studies at Shady Side Academy happens to be during an election year. The former political scientist in me believes it is crucial that young citizens follow the news and collectively deliberate and discuss politics in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable asking questions and disagreeing, at times, with their peers. So far this term, my cardboard friends have asked the students to reflect on several key components of a presidential election, including party conventions, primary elections, caucuses, and the Electoral College.
One day, after a spirited history lesson on “yellow journalism,” the candidates asked the Form II students about their thoughts on attack advertising during political elections. This led to a very passionate, though still respectful, discussion. I was extremely impressed with all of the insightful comments made by my students, and I am delighted to know that so many of them are paying attention to today’s political discourse! One student even remarked in his in-class journal entry, “I doubt that negative attack ads are very effective in influencing public opinion. If they do work, I suspect that they work the best on Americans who are not very informed.” Indeed, this is precisely what the extant literature in political psychology finds! I have a hunch that I have a few future scholars on my hands, and I am thoroughly enjoying picking their brains and assisting them in their political reasoning.
We have also very briefly discussed the deficit, health care, and why these kinds of issues can sometimes be confusing for many Americans. My sincere hope is that, through these types of discussions, my students walk away from my class understanding that these issues are both complicated and multifaceted. In order to fully comprehend them, they may need to look beyond traditional news sources, put in some research time, and organize their thoughts and beliefs through thoughtful reflection. Fortunately, for me, my students never fail to rise to a challenge. They are thinking critically, asking ‘big-picture questions,’ and even beginning to theorize a bit! In the weeks ahead, as Election Day draws near, I hope that our discussions and debates become increasingly exciting and enriching.
Last, but certainly not least, Governor Romney and President Obama left their partisan differences at my doorway in order to teach SSA students – and anyone else who happens to pop into the room – the importance of being a politically informed and civically engaged citizen. We strive to make sure that every opinion is not only heard here, but also respected. Tolerance is a democratic principle that makes our country special, and we cherish that principle in my classroom as well.
on Wednesday October 3, 2012 at 02:19PM