Before the Colonists


One of the key concepts for seventh grade history is to help students realize that the Americas were full of people before the colonists arrived. My own image from childhood– a handful of Native Americans eating dinner with pilgrims– is simply not an accurate depiction of the abundant and thriving cultures that were present here.

Our students had a chance to realize this– in a small but real manner– last week. New York requires site assessments for building projects, and the school’s green initiative of the solar array underwent an archeological assessment as part of the planning and site preparation process.

For a couple of days, a small team of archeologists dug test holes, on a grid, to determine if an “important” archeological site might be on our campus. Our students had a chance to spend a short visit on the site to see the work.


Skipping to the end of the story: we do not have an “important” native American site on campus. (We learned that those are much more likely to be found near streams and creeks, which makes sense.) The findings are still exciting for us! A few of the test holes did reveal that hunters had likely stopped, at some point, on a part of what has become our campus, and the archaeologists determined this from the shards of flint napping they unearthed. We can imagine them dressing the meat from their hunt, and leaving a little refuse behind, to fascinate us, hundreds of years later.

After the pieces of stone have been photographed, they will be returned to our campus. As the landowners, we will have them for seventh graders and others study for years to come.


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Build a Machine to Get to Know You

Because we prize community at PDS, we deliberately set aside time to gather in multi-age groups for an activity about once a month. We end our small group activity with a whole school gathering.

Septembers have “firsts” with great frequency, and this week brought the first All School Activity. The theme was “Getting to Know You,” and the activity was figuring out a way for the group to make a machine.

We had airport conveyer belts, candlepin bowling, ATMs, ice cream machines and more.

While seniors generally provided the leadership, every child had a part in making the machine– and often the younger children provided the key moving parts.

Here are some photos– showing conception, rehearsal and final, fascinating presentation in the gym.

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The Artist Barbara Beisinghoff Visits PDS

PDS, and the middle school in particular, were fortunate to have the internationally known artist Barbara Beisinghoff spend a day on campus.

Barbara was brought to Poughkeepsie by Vassar College through their Creative Arts Across Disciplines grants program. Silke von der Emde, a German professor at Vassar and parent of recent PDS graduate Lulu Wachsmuth, thoughtfully included the school in the grant so that Barbara might spend a day with us.

The thematic learning of grade 6 fit particularly well with Barbara’s concept for a fairy tale woods. Barbara came with screens prepared with words from tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. In science, the sixth grade students spend time learning about trees. In humanities, students study the middle ages– the time period when many of the fairy tales were first told in the villages in Germany around where Barbara lives. The trees and the tales came together as students screened with cotton pulp on the trunks of the trees.

We had a splendid day for the work. The students were lively and eager.

In the afternoon, grades 7-8 alternated reading their own books with a turn at screening.

Near the end of the school day, the sixth graders returned outside to meet some Vassar College students who read some of the Grimm’s fairy tales to them. All of the tales had trees as part of the story in one way or another. The Vassar students brought laminated translations so that anyone can interpret the German words.

The fairy tale woods will stay– the pulp on the trees will gently weather away as the season changes.

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Essential Questions: Starting the First Week off Right


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In a school like PDS, where teachers are advisors, and where we spend so much time getting to know students well, it doesn’t take long to “get down  to work,” in the subject areas. In all classes, teachers and students started to work with big questions this past week:

How many numbers from 10 to 99 have two distinct digits?  (Sixth graders are refreshing their work with whole numbers.) What happens if we heat baking soda? (Eighth grade students are learning about mass and volume.) What is the difference between autobiography and biography in the information and point of view? (Seventh graders wrote biographies of each other and autobiographies of themselves, and compared the results. What are square roots good for? (Seventh and eighth graders explore the pythagorean theorem and all the good things that follow from triangles.)

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Questions give us an entree to a subject. They are engaging. When a teacher writes a good question, one that encompasses a big theme of the course, we call it an essential question. The best ones are in straightforward “kid friendly” language.

What is a hero? Is Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea a hero? (Eighth graders tackle the themes in their summer reading.) How many drops of water will a penny hold? (Seventh graders encounter the unique properties of water.) The Roman Empire was awesome– How did it ever fall? (The sixth grade prepares to enter the Middle Ages.)

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Questions will be part of the students’ entire education at PDS. Some will be asked by the teachers and many, many will be asked by the students themselves. Some will be answered; others never can be.

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A Day on the Fields for Middle School

It’s a long tradition that near to the start of the year, the middle school students and advisors spend a day outside. Students work to solve game-like problems together, engage in some team races and basically just enjoy getting to know each other.

The lessons can wait: Taking some time to making students feel welcomed back to school is well worth it.

In the afternoon, the students listened to some short stories by Cindy Rylant from a collection entitled Every Living Thing. Then  everyone was up and over to an end-of-day advisory for some reflection.

Our Day on the Fields was organized by our PE department: Liza McVey and Jillian Walsh. Our grill master was Steve Mallet, with Tom Cosgrove, our PDS chef, packing up the ingredients for us.Many thanks for helping to make our day such a success.

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Opening Day, So Far, So Good!

We’re back! After our separate summers of action, our middle school learning community began to reform, today, for the new school year.

It was a day of getting acquainted and reacquainted. In whole group meetings, and in advisory, students learned about new aspects of middle school like new courses and teachers, a new cell phone routine, and a redesigned lunch program. They also had a refresher on standards like how to treat each other in large and small groups, how to be a responsible digital citizen, and how to have a fun safe playground that serves 3 year  olds as well as young teenagers.

Every student had a 15-20 minute class for each year long subject (except Spanish). We attended an All School Assembly and cheered each other on, heard a poem read by Head of School, Ben Chant, and clapped especially enthusiastically for the seniors.

So far, so good and lots more to come!

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Remembering Moving Up as We Start to Gear Up


The Class of 2020 photo op!

In June we celebrate each student moving up to the next grade, with a special emphasis on the eighth graders. As they finish the “grammar school” part of their educations, they have much to look forward to, and a tremendous bank of skills and experiences to draw from after completing the middle school program. Here are my remarks from that morning, retooled a little bit to fit a blog post.

It is well worth the pause to reflect about the care that families took in choosing a Poughkeepsie Day School education for their children. Our school was founded within the time that the progressive ideas of John Dewey were taking hold. Dewey believed in education as the foundation of participative democracy. He emphasized that students learned best through an education that provided experiences, and where the conditions were constructed such that students participated in learning– rather than an environment where students were considered passive receivers of content and information.

The number of ways that the class of 2020 participated in middle school are numerous. Some things I’ll remember about this class: camaraderie, music — and that our trip to DC had a particular cache because of the popular musical, Hamilton. As everyone knows now, especially since I write this well after the Tony’s, the musical Hamilton has taken the Broadway world by storm.

It has also taken some of the MS faculty by storm. I became interested in the show after Karl spent every spare minute on the DC trip writing a rap for the students, just to see if he could do it. He was inspired by the soundtrack. It easily won my ear over, and I’ve been listening to at least a few minutes of the show, every day since April. Both Karl and I are reading the Ron Chernow biography, (he’s on chapter  20,  I’m on chapter 16, Jake read it long ago. We are still working on converting Malorie, Emma and Shirley.)

So, I link some ideas about the class of 2020’s high school future to this particular work of art. These are much more inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda than by Chernow’s biography, and I am going to be skirting around the juicy bits, so let’s not worry too much about exact historical fact.

Write like you’re running out of time

This is not an invitation to procrastination. Rather, it is the advice that it is always easier to have more words and trim, than have too few words. Words let people know what you think. This makes writing hard, but it is also the reason why the people who command the words, command the ideas, Hamilton’s work on The Federalist Papers are going to be referred to for as long as our country stands. We know what he thought because he wrote it down. So, be bold and write.


Each eighth grader received a gift from a seventh grader.

History has its eye on you

Hamilton lived in an age where honor and reputation were exceedingly important. In fact, they were a matter of life and death in many cases, his own included. Imagine what he might think of this digital age, where in seconds, someone can write something that is available to everyone– and never be able to take it back. We know that Eliza burned her letters to protect her privacy– but this is not an option for anything that has been digitally written.

Always think of not just the immediate audience, but the potential audience as being vast in your own time, and lasting into the future. So, while you are writing like you’re running out of time, anything you write (texts included), needs to reflect well on you. Your generation is going to need to define what civility means in digital writing– not all of adults, even  in the public eye have grasped this yet, and I don’t think history will consider their writing to be honorable. But each of you has a chance to start fresh. Make your code of conduct strong.

Take a break

I said I was going to leave out the juicy bits, and I will. Hamilton had a reputation of being an incredibly hard worker, and in the Hamilton show, this becomes a downfall. He doesn’t take a break to spend time with his family, and then a break more or less takes him instead. The lesson here is that everyone needs breaks– and your mind and body are going to take them whether you make the decision or not. So, take charge of your own attention and make the breaks meaningful and helpful. When you have lots of school work, switch between subjects to get a fresh start. Don’t condemn yourself to only working while seated. Don’t let interruptions from devices make your school work take longer than your teachers intended. When you have school work under control, spend time outside, find a way to sweat and play hard, practice music or do something else with your hands. Spend face to face time with other people. Take a break, and make it be something that uses parts of your mind and body that school work may not always tap into.

If you feel your darkest hour has come, see if you can do something for others

For this last bit, we turn to Eliza Hamilton for inspiration. She lost a son and her husband; her daughter went insane, and with no source of income, she also lost her home for a period of time.  And yet, she is remembered for her works on the behalf of others. She helped found an orphanage, and served as its directress for 27 years. Today it is called Graham Windam and serves 4000 children in various ways.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator and the actor who plays Hamilton, and Philipa Soo, who plays Eliza in the show, have both become benefactors of Graham Windam. Eliza also took homeless children into her own home. She raised funds for the Washington Monument, and she compiled her husband’s papers in order to write his biography with one of her surviving sons. She lived well into her nineties– almost up to the Civil War. She does not seem to have spent much time feeling sorry for herself or hiding away.

Every year, we see students in high school (and college and beyond) figure out who they can care for. When you’ve been given a fine education, it does make you realize that many people have less than you do. Our school was founded as a Progressive school, and one of the key experiences of your education here is that we work to educate you to your own potential, and also to be able to go out into society and make the world better. We want you to know that you can do that, and that you can begin even while you are still a student.

Last of all–

As you move up to high school, please remember us in middle school. I often say that teaching MS is like having someone take the book away from you when you’ve read only the first half. We love knowing how you are doing in high school, and we love hearing about how the next phases of your educations connect to the years you were here with us. Congratulations on all that you’ve learned and accomplished.

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An especially musical group, we had several offerings from the class of 2020.


We will welcome the new 6-8 grade classes in a few more weeks. We will look forward to seeing the class of 2020 back too, as high schoolers.

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