Teens from SF and Oklahoma City build bridges
Waking up on November 9th in San Francisco, I felt unprepared to teach that day. How were we going to move forward as one country with such a palpable divide? In a search for understanding, I posted a call for pen pals, one that read like a dating ad: "Blue State students looking for Red State pen pals."
With the help of some colleagues and handy listserves, we found a willing partner to begin a correspondence with Friends School eighth graders by winter break. Below is my window into the exchange.
The first letters from Oklahoma arrive. “She’s me!” a student calls out noting that her pen pal is also a dancer, loves Christmas, has a sister and is 14. We laugh as another shares a part of his letter, a letter that states, numerous times, that “nothing ever happens in Oklahoma.” We learn the names of far-away pets, names like Oliver and Ruckus. We hear sadness and anger at the loss of Kevin Durant to the Warriors and a bit of joy from one student who insists that he isn’t even any good.
They read on and the room sobers. Now our pen pals are dipping into serious topics; they describe their beliefs in their right to own guns and the necessity of the death penalty. They share their value of honesty, hard work and effort. Some talk about the importance of family.
Eighteen students gather in a circle to discuss. We note the shared values, but reflect on how those values seem different when looked through a conservative or a liberal lens. We are struck by how many are undecided as to whether they identify as conservative or liberal; how some even have one Republican parent and one Democrat. A student asks the class whether here, in this liberal school in the liberal city of San Francisco, they would be able to respect and to listen to a classmate who believed in President Trump and no one has an answer. Another worries that few of them can even explain why they believe the liberal things they do.
I feel gratitude to the teacher who answered our school’s call for pen pals. For the first time since the election, I feel some semblance of hope. We write back immediately.
One student cries on my couch at break. I am wondering if I was naive in thinking that teenagers could find a way through the country’s divide. It is a while before we feel ready to write back.
A second round of letters! This time, more individual personalities take shape. It is clear that the students from Oklahoma do not all think the same way. A Jehovah’s Witness admits that she lacks confidence and doesn’t like to discuss politics. One student writes about unborn babies and how he is “obviously pro-life” because he thinks “it is wrong to murder a child before it is born,” and how he also loves to watch “The Walking Dead.”
The pen pals share that they can relate to being nervous about high school but not to the stress. They, too, have to take tests to get into high school, but they are confused by the anxiety we feel about whether or not we’ll get an acceptance letter. There, in Oklahoma City, “everyone gets in.”
Some tell us a bit about Oklahoma City; it is clear that even though the one student continues to insist that nothing ever happens there, there is pride in their hometown. Some kayak on the river that flows through downtown, while others zip line over it. Another rock climbs. For many, a local pizza place serves as a Friday night hangout spot. We laugh, reading how one boy really just cannot understand how someone could be vegan or shop for used clothes for fun, and how he wonders what a zine is.
This same student, however, shares that their class recently had a debate about poverty, one that asked them to choose whether poor people are victims or losers. He is confident that poor people are losers and that “the government shouldn’t help the poor, if the poor are done with living poverty then they can work hard enough and get out of poverty.” He is not the only one to talk about this debate. The teacher clearly instructed each of her students to share a position from the day’s class debate, and the opinions weigh heavily.
Losers. Victims. Losers. Losers. Not sure. Losers. Victims. Both. Losers. Losers. One student cries on my couch at break. I am wondering if I was naive in thinking that teenagers could find a way through the country’s divide. It is a while before we feel ready to write back.
Carefully, we write back to them from San Francisco. We begin our letters with thoughts about the Warriors, descriptions of family, confessions of fears of being on stage, a shared love of Kiera Cass, and the inability to get a volleyball serve in consistently. There is the debacle of The Oscars to discuss. Surely, we can agree on that, can’t we? We include copies of our recent projects, projects meant to capture the spirit of the city of San Francisco in the style of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, projects that include photography, music, radio, oral histories, travel writing.
Niceties taken care of, it is time to address their poverty debate. Some start slowly, looking for shared political beliefs. “My family hunts, so keeping guns legal is a good thing for us because it is our roots.” One describes a fierce belief in equality for LGBTQ rights but admits that the “bathroom thing” makes him feel unsettled.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether they start slowly or dive in; all share confidently that they “strongly, strongly disagree” that they are “shocked” “horrified” and “surprised” by the poverty debate. “Labeling isn’t respectful,” they point out. Some write that they are working to use the phrase "people who are experiencing homelessness" rather than "homeless people" because “this way people who are experiencing homelessness aren’t being labeled, which is what they feel a lot of the time…they are more than just someone wrapped up in a blanket on the sidewalk.”
In some way or another, each student voices disagreement with the “belief that people in poverty are losers.” This consensus prompts one to end her letter, “At my school almost everyone is liberal, and everyone’s opinions are the same. That’s why I find these letters that our classes exchange so interesting, for the first time we actually are hearing about people who have different views than us. SF is a very diverse city, yet there is no difference in opinion…”
For a long time, we do not hear back from our pen pals. We wonder if the chain has been broken.
We are not cookie-cutter liberals, but a class of critical thinkers. Thank you, Oklahoma City.
The day’s lesson must be postponed. Letters have arrived! The pen pals do not start with musings on basketball or a book recommendation. Right away, we read that they enjoyed the projects we sent and have thoughts about the opinions we shared.
They share that they, too, did a project about the Great Depression, and recently they had another debate, this time arguing whether they believed in a safety net. Specifically, “Is it the responsibility of the national government to help its citizens from hard times during economic crisis?”
The word choice of the pen pals’ letters seems purposeful; they use new terms or introduce us to theirs or ask about others: “I found it very interesting that you had gone out and talked to and interviewed people experiencing homelessness...Your project was like something I’ve never seen before and it gave me more of an insight to the way they live.” “In Oklahoma there’s not as many homeless people...just a few panhandlers as we call them…”
Most are curious. One describes how he noticed that “San Francisco’s culture can be very independent but close together in the same way...I think that the world you live in is much more connected…I think you have a much different culture than Oklahoma’s; we seem to be very individual.” Another writes “I was very interested to read about the neighborhood called Castro. I really liked the idea of a neighborhood like that and wish the OKC had one.” Declaring the WPA projects interesting, one highlights the project “with the photos of the unique clothing of San Francisco citizens. They were all very different and something I have never seen. We do not have very many people wearing very unique clothing in Oklahoma.”
One pen pal’s statement produces a collective smile from the class: “We all came to the conclusion that all of you seem like really open-minded people.”
And then, the letters shift back into common experience of being a teenager: laughter at Westbrook and Curry’s shoving fight, a recommendation for Fanfiction, a complaint about a mom who only listens to Bon Jovi and Journey paired with a confession that he now likes both, a description of a walk and talk elective which is just what it sounds like, many pleas to contact them on Instagram and Snapchat with one apology that Snapchat has been taken away from her and a promise to let her know when she earns it back. And, yes, the Oscars were crazy.
A student asks me why we don’t ever do debates like they do. She tells me that we just assume that helping the poor is the government’s responsibility. She reminds me how often I talk about critical thinking. It is a good question.
Today, I have added a new lesson and they talk about abortion, leaving behind the labels of pro-life and pro-choice. Instead they are asked to wrestle with defining when (if ever) it is okay to have an abortion. At 1 week? At 15? At 20? At 25? They are given the standard visual comparisons—the size of pea, a kumquat, a honeydew melon. Flummoxed and frustrated at the lack of a clear answer, hesitant to mention that religion says it is never okay, absolutely convinced that it is a woman’s choice. We are not cookie-cutter liberals, but a class of critical thinkers. Thank you, Oklahoma City.
Today, we write back. We thank them for looking at our projects and ask for more details about what they mean when they say “safety net.” We try to answer their questions about our thoughts on the “Muslim ban.”
There are attempts to talk about race. Trying to explain how her sister is at the White Privilege Conference this week, a student struggles and ends by saying that she hopes she’s explaining it well, that she doesn't want her pen pal to think that “...it’s just a bunch of white people talking about how they have great lives.”
It is the student who tries to respond to her pen pal’s enigmatic question about Donald Trump and animal abuse who ends up reflecting on the project as a whole. “I haven’t heard much about that, but I agree that sometimes all of us, no matter our political affiliation, we can try to find a scapegoat and then blame everything on them...I eagerly await your reply and I’m glad we have been able to discuss our differences and hope that we can continue to find things we disagree upon (I know it’s sounds crazy, but I think it’s the only way that either of us will grow and understand the other side of the issues).”
Not all are serious. One laughs at his pen pal’s story about the thumb-biting monkey, and another suggests that her pen pal should listen to Enrique Iglesias. After asking what his pen pal would change about Oklahoma, one writes that if he could change one thing about San Francisco that he would make it “way hotter than it is because it’s freezing 24/7” and admits that “with the end of the year coming closer, I watch and play more sports than I do homework.” Many write about “13 Reasons Why.”
Our pen pals received our last letters and, according to their teacher, they loved them! Video hello to come.
We don’t receive a video hello, but they do send a class photo and a crowd quickly forms around it. Turns out that many know which one is their pen pal; in their free time, they have moved from our required medium of letters to their world of Snapchat and House Party. Still, they crowd around to see this group photo. “They are so pretty,” sighs one girl. “They are so white,” points out another. “No, I think that one might be Asian.”
I am told that there was a long group snap chat last night, but no one will give me specifics. They exchange looks that imply that the details are not something I want to know. I plead, and one student feels bad for me. She offers me the story of how, after sending a video of herself dancing, the pen pal snapped back, “No time for dancing. There’s a rat in my house!” The group laughs and dances and then fades away. They have another class.
Tomorrow, we’ll make a quick video saying “happy graduation” because they’ll be walking across the stage weeks before we do. Next year, we’ll open up a new set of conversations between two new groups of kids. Bit by bit, we continue.
(Thank you, Annie Gwynne-Vaughan and Ruth Ann Regens for being my colleagues of communication and to Guybe Slangen for helping bring us together.)
We're delighted to welcome a number of new faces to our team for the 2017-2018 school year. We hope you'll enjoy reading about these unique new members of our faculty and staff, and we encourage you to help us in welcoming in full force these new teachers and learners who will soon be joining us!
Kelsey Barbella, Middle School Math Teacher: Kelsey Barbella is a New Jersey native who followed her heart and moved to the city four years ago. While living on the east coast, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut. She then volunteered with AmeriCorps, where she not only served as an ambassador for the watersheds of New Jersey, but also educated over 2,500 students, pushing them to explore, analyze, and solve water issues themselves. This work sparked a love of teaching and a hunger for adventure outside of the program. As soon as the program ended, Kelsey moved to SF to begin teaching middle school math at Convent Elementary School. Kelsey strives to bring real-world, 21st century math into her classroom and integrates play as much as possible. She believes all students are able to learn math at the highest levels and views collaboration and values exploration as fundamental to learning. Kelsey lives in the Sunset with her boyfriend Shaun and two cats, Harrison and Patty Cake.
Anhvu Buchanan, Second Grade Teacher: Anhvu served for two years as a Bay Area Teacher Training Institute (BATTI) intern in both 2nd and 3rd grades at Friends before spending two years in the lead teaching position at The Berkeley School (TBS), where he has thrived in a combination 1st and 2nd grade classroom. Hailing from Virginia, Anvhu has two master’s degrees, one in Education from UoP, and one in Creative Writing from SF State. A published writer, he spent several years as a Writer’s Corps volunteer in the Juvenile Justice Center teaching poetry. Anhvu has been drawn to Quaker education for some time; while he was here, he committed himself to the ideals of the school by working with Horizons. While Anhvu has truly enjoyed his time at TBS, he describes Friends as a pull he could not deny. We are so happy to welcome him back to the team.
Victoria Bui, Teaching Assistant: Victoria was born and raised in Pennsylvania. She received her bachelor’s in international relations in 2012 from the University of Texas at Austin and her master’s in international studies in 2015 from the University of San Francisco. Most recently, she worked at the University of San Francisco as a grants assistant where she assisted professors funding their research projects as well as funding scholarships for students. Victoria is passionate about increasing educational opportunities for women and ethnic minorities. She has worked for two summers at the Summer Institute for the Gifted as a teaching assistant and resident counselor. In her free time, she works as clue staff in escape puzzle rooms; she also enjoys traveling, practicing improv and spending time with her family.
Nina Eckoff, Teaching Assistant: Nina started working with children in 2010, when she become part of the Glenridge Cooperative Nursery School community. Since then, she has worked at Pacific Primary School, and in 2016 joined SF Friends as a substitute teacher in the lower school. Nina lives in San Francisco with her husband and son, and enjoys camping and baking with her family. Most weekends, you can find Nina attempting new moves in a big dance class.
Eliza Kingsley-Ma, Teaching Assistant: Eliza is thrilled to join the SFFS community as the 5th grade Middle School Teaching Assistant. Eliza spent the summer working as the Program Coordinator at Horizons at SFFS, supporting students, faculty and program staff. For the past two years, Eliza taught at Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito as the 5th Grade Assistant Teacher. Before teaching at Prospect Sierra, Eliza gardened with students at Slide Ranch, taught writing at Breakthrough Collaborative and produced youth radio at WESU Middletown. Eliza earned her B.A. in American Studies and Latin American Studies from Wesleyan University. Born and raised in San Francisco, Eliza finds great pleasure in thick fog and hidden city trails.
Grecia Lacayo, Admissions and Lower School Assistant: Grecia was born and raised in Los Angeles. She initially moved to San Francisco to attend the University of San Francisco and majored in Biology where she discovered a passion for conservation biology. After working as a marine research assistant in Thailand, she went on to receive an MSc in Primate Conservation from Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom. It was during this time that she worked in Colombia on her MSc thesis and realized that she had a passion for both conservation biology and education. For nearly 10 years now, Grecia has worked as a tutor and as site coordinator for an afterschool program. She is excited to work in a school that teaches its students to engage the world with kindness and one that teaches the importance of an environmentally aware, just society. Grecia loves traveling, reading crime and science fiction novels, spending time outdoors, and is a film enthusiast.
Ben Lopez, Teaching Assistant: Ben is a Bay Area Teacher Training Institute student. He earned his B.A. in English at San Francisco State University. Ben was the caretaker of his grandparents for ten years, helping him to develop compassion, empathy, and patience. More recently Ben worked for six years as a bookseller at Christopher’s Books, where he found joy in community and art. Ben strives for balance within himself and the outside world, practicing mindfulness and meditation regularly. An avid reader and Giants fan, Ben lives with his partner Ema and their daughter Mika in Potrero Hill.
Adam Macalister, Teaching Assistant: Adam is a New England native, having spent most of his life living in the Boston suburbs before deciding to move to the West Coast at the opportunity to work at the San Francisco Friends School. After studying film photography in New York City, Adam transferred to Wesleyan University in Connecticut where he graduated with a degree in Government. In his free time Adam enjoys running, cooking, hiking, kayaking, photography, and gardening. In the past he has worked on a variety of different farms around the country, and he periodically packs up his bags to go camping in the wilderness. Adam first fell in love with teaching while working as an English language teacher in a fifth grade Dutch classroom during a semester abroad and hopes to one day lead his own classroom.
Nick McGrane, Kindergarten Teacher: Nick has been an independent school teacher for more than 12 years. He began in the early childhood classroom for grades K through second in Colorado at Stanley British Primary School, then taught a mixed age second and third grade class at The Friends School in Boulder. For the past six years, he has been serving as lead second grade teacher at the Live Oak School here in SF. Nick’s reputation among some of our faculty precedes him; he has practiced Clearness Committees, participated in Harvard’s Project Zero workshops, and dove into Structured Word Inquiry. Nick has been eager to return to the early childhood kindergarten classroom experience and has been drawn to our Quaker pedagogy and community for some time. He is a bright, progressive educator full of ideas and committed to developing a coherent program from it’s roots. He is also a Spanish speaker who is proficient in Japanese.
Sara Melman, Middle School Science Teacher: Sara is a native San Franciscan and graduate from University High School. She attended Cornell University and graduated in 2006 with a degree in geological sciences, teaching middle school science in NYC while earning her master’s in secondary science from City College of New York. In 2008, Sara took a teaching position at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning High School (WHEELS), where she taught high school earth science, started a drama program, a student government program, and developed an outdoor education program. Sara moved back to SF in 2015 and began teaching high school biology; recently, she’s been focused on integrating technology into science labs and projects as a vehicle for student thinking and problem solving. We are delighted to have Sara on our team here at SFFS teaching middle school science. Sara lives in the city with her partner and 8-month old son.
Veronica Oberholzer, Horizons at SFFS AmeriCorps VISTA member: Veronica was born and raised in Oakland, California. She has recently returned from a four-year sojourn on the East Coast where she earned her B.A. in Economics with a minor in Philosophy from Smith College. Volunteer work, especially in the fields of food justice and education, has always been her passion, and she enjoyed serving on the Student Executive Board of the Community Service Office at Smith. She has volunteered with children on both coasts and is excited to continue helping students realize their dreams as Horizons at SFFS’ first ever AmeriCorps VISTA Associate. When not at work you can find her reading, swimming, or playing the violin.
Max Raynard, Teaching Assistant: A native of San Francisco, Max grew up in the Mission and Sunset Districts. After receiving a degree in history from San Francisco State University, he moved to Japan where he worked as an English teacher in rural Japanese public elementary schools for two years. Later he moved to work at an international school with a heavy arts and project based learning focus, teaching at the kindergarten level. He is passionate about a career in education and returned to San Francisco in 2017 to pursue this dream. Max's interests include Japanese culture and history, baseball, and music.
Jasmine Redmond, Teaching Assistant: Jasmine is a San Francisco native beginning her first year with Friends as a Middle School TA. Jasmine graduated from International High School in San Francisco and went on to attend Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. Her academic interests include African-American literature, social-emotional development in early childhood, and contemporary social justice movements. In her free time she enjoys listening to podcasts and exploring local farmer's markets.
Carrie (Caro) Spring, Middle School Spanish Teacher: Caro grew up in SF and earned her bachelor’s degree in history at Dartmouth College. During a stint as a National Park Ranger guiding tours at the Statue of Liberty, she realized that she wanted to be an educator. Caro got her master’s degree in Spanish at Middlebury College School in Spain and taught Spanish for the next 12 years at the Julia Morgan School for Girls in Oakland. While there, she engineered a more robust Spanish program and shifted the pedagogy toward Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and started a flamenco dance program and a salsa dance team. For fun, Caro listens to podcasts, cooks (poorly), and teaches salsa rueda to adults in the Mission. Caro lives in the city with her favorite people: her partner Camilo (also a middle school Spanish teacher), her son Roque, and her daughter Belén. They love to spend summers at the beach and visiting relatives in Argentina, Spain, and Hungary, but during the school year they can be found most afternoons playing soccer in Golden Gate Park.
Courtney Wilde, First Grade Teacher: Courtney grew up in Columbus, Ohio and graduated from Tulane University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree. She began teaching elementary school in the New Orleans charter school system as a Teach for America corps member. Courtney then grew as an educator, union organizer, comedian, and meditator. A spiritual calling to focus on her meditation practice brought her to Green Gulch Farm in Marin for a year and a half of Zen practice. Courtney really impressed us with her intellect, intuition, pure joy, thoughtfulness, and her way with the children in her teaching practice. We a re thrilled that she has decided to join us and the first grade team at SFFS this fall, and she is excited to be of service to our school community and home.
With just days left in the school year, I wanted to take a moment to share with you our enormous gratitude for your support in raising critical funds for Friends this year. As you well know, tuition alone does not cover the cost of operating our school, and each year we look to our families and the larger Friends school community to support the teachers and programs that are critical to our mission and curriculum. Once again our community responded, joining together to steward our shared investment in Friends.
I’m thrilled to say that we’ve reached our financial goal for this year’s Annual Fund, to date raising more than $753,000. Parent participation in our Annual Fund this year is at 98%, a great showing of community support. With just days to go, we hope to make it to 100%.
This year, we were lucky to have an anonymous 8th grade family issue a Giving Challenge to their fellow 8th grade families and the Board of Trustees. This Giving Challenge raised more than $20,000 for the Annual Fund, and we hope it may be the first in a new tradition. We could not be more grateful for the generosity of all the families involved.
In addition to general support for operations, raising money for adjustable tuition remains at the forefront of our efforts. This year, we raised $186,863for adjustable tuition, including direct donations and money raised in the 2017 Blue Party. Equal parts fundraiser and community builder, this year’s Blue Party was only possible with the enormous efforts of a handful of creative, committed, and indefatigable volunteers: Beth Dye, Aggie Gettys, Jen Aldrich, Kevin Seidel, Soledad Alzaga-Gray, Chandra and Erich Ippen, Merritt Richmond, and many, many more. If you came to the Blue Party, you know the food and drinks scaled new heights—and how could it not, with so many amazingly talented food families in our midst! We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the families involved with BiRite, Cala, Franny’s Kitchen, Indian Bento, Jackrabbit, Kasa, Nopa, Nopalito, Outerlands, Pacific Catch, and Spruce/Saratoga.
A few weeks ago, members of the Development and Finance Committees of the Board of Trustees hosted an event called “Stewardship and the Financial Health of Friends.” If you were not able to attend the event, you can view it by visiting our Vimeo account (password: steward). While it may not be the most exciting 50 minutes of viewing you’ve ever had, it will give you helpful information about the board, our finances, and how the board functions in its role as financial steward of our school.
Thank you for your generosity to San Francisco Friends School, and your investment in the future of our students, teachers and school as a whole.