At FCS, we pride ourselves on the number of prominent scholars, authors, scientists, and artists – many of them alumni/ae – who visit campus during any given academic year. When COVID-19 forced the shutdown of on-campus learning in mid-March, one of the immediate potential losses appeared to be to our visiting lectures program. In fact, our Distinguished Visiting Humanities speaker, Daniel Immerwahr '98, had been scheduled to come to campus on March 18, followed by Distinguished Visiting Scientist, Helen White, on April 16. Both seemed unlikely to happen in person.
Along with many other aspects of learning these past few months, our Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series has had to change format temporarily; however, our school was fortunate to be able to move ahead with these programs. Although it remains true that there's no substitute for face-to-face interactions, with virtual technology, both Daniel Immerwahr and Helen White were able to visit and work with students. In addition to the Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series, Friends' Central teachers have drawn on the strength of their connections – particularly with alumni/ae – to coordinate a significant number of virtual visits to classrooms this spring, enriching the students' learning experiences during this time of much uncertainty.
Distinguished Visiting Humanities Lecturer
With the assistance of Upper School history teacher Grant Calder, Daniel Immerwahr '98 was able to meet with faculty and student members of the Humanities Core Team on April 22 for an online discussion. Daniel is an author and associate professor at Northwestern University, specializing in 20th century U.S. history within a global context. His recent book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, is described by the New York Times as "wry, readable, and often astonishing." Guided by Upper School history teacher Danielle Saint Hilaire, with some particular help from seniors Lindsey Schweitzer, Jane Whellan, and Ryan Jokelson, the Humanities Core Team had spent the previous six months studying Daniel's book.
"Having Daniel for an hour by video link was both wonderful and frustrating," explained Grant. "The session was great, but it made us realize how much more we could have done with him in person over a whole day and an evening.
"In addition to being a widely read historian – with a New York Times 'Top Book of 2019' out – and an outstanding professor, Daniel remains the only Friends' Central student in the roughly 25-year history of the 11th grade U.S. History Research Project to complete not just one but two of them," Grant continued. "Daniel's first FCS junior history paper was on a group of jazz musicians, but he set that project aside thinking it might not be 'serious enough.' He then wrote an excellent paper that was, as he put it, 'an analysis of the marginalization of black leadership in the 20th century.' In the process of gathering material for the first project, Daniel had already written to several jazz artists. Early that summer, one of them, Sonny Rollins – a towering figure in the jazz world – called Daniel to find out how the project was going. Suddenly, it seemed very important to finish it.
"One of the seniors, hearing this story during Daniel's Google Meet session with us, later said to me, 'Is it true that Sonny Rollins called Professor Immerwahr when he was a junior at Friends' Central?' I relayed the comment to Daniel, and his comment was, 'It's true. And it's still the coolest thing that's ever happened to me.'"
Distinguished Visiting Scientist
Helen White, this year's Distinguished Visiting Scientist, is Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science at Haverford College. Her work as a geochemist has focused on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in a collaborative project that examined what happened chemically to the oil and to the dispersants used in the aftermath of the disaster. She is the winner of Haverford College's 2017 Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award. For her virtual visit, Dr. White shared three pre-recorded videos she had made specifically for the students to watch (watch part 1 here), and then, on May 1, she held a live Q&A on the FCS YouTube channel with Upper School Science Core Team students and Upper School science teachers John Gruber and Anna Schall, which all Middle and Upper School students and faculty were invited to watch. Prior to the Q&A, the Science Core Team and its advisors had held a couple of meetings thinking about what questions they would like to ask Helen in preparation.
Anna Schall shared, "Dr. White has been generous with her time and energy throughout the yearlong process of our Distinguished Visiting Scientist program – collaborating with us about which areas of research she thought would be most interesting to our students, curating lists of her published articles and related research that our students can engage with, thinking about what knowledge about oceans she hopes they can carry into the future. Once it came time for the virtual visit, she really went above and beyond. The videos that she produced for the FCS community in lieu of the traditional lecture touched beautifully on her journey to being a marine chemist as well as her current and future research."
"We absolutely loved how much dialogue we were able to create between the Core Team students and Helen White," said John Gruber, Upper School science teacher and Director of the Distinguished Visiting Scientist Program. "Students stepped right into the space and asked great questions, and Helen was incredibly attentive and present to each of them individually. It was different from our normal in-person visit, but an unexpected benefit was that a significant audience got to participate as viewers and see the conversation that took place."
"The Q&A session that happens between the scientist and our students is always a highlight of our program," added Anna Schall, "and this year was no different. Dr. White answered some tough questions from our students with enthusiasm, expertise, and candor. She really shared her love of the pioneering and adventurous side of science with us. It was quite inspiring to me, and based on what our students have said, it was inspiring to many of them, as well!"
The Science Core Team student response to the meeting indeed reflected their enthusiasm for Helen White. "We are super thankful that Dr. White could take the time to meet with us," said Max Goldberg '21. "For me, I really enjoyed when she talked about her experience in her field of study and how she went from a high schooler like us who did not know what she planned on studying at the time to going into a very interesting field that she really enjoys today."
Distinguished Alumni/ae Visitors
In mid-April, coordinated by Middle and Upper School music teacher Carl Bradley, Jackson Greenberg '08 paid a virtual visit. Jackson is an LA-based composer and producer whose work has been featured in award-winning television and film and performed by ensembles and orchestras around the world. A group of young FCS musicians took full advantage of the generous offer from Jackson, joining him for an engaging and informative online film scoring workshop.
A former student of Grant Calder’s, Gabe Levitt ’96, visited Grant’s history class on May 27. The class has been studying the Vietnam War and reading several related sources. Gabe has been living in Ho Chi Minh City for a number of years. Initially employed by an NGO working with people living with AIDS in Vietnam, Gabe and his Vietnamese partner have in recent years been running a “social enterprise” (the equivalent of a non-profit) that helps young Vietnamese women lacking education to build domestic service job skills and gain employment with a solid living wage. The organization provides skills training, job placement, and ongoing observation and support for both employees and employers. Gabe spoke about his experiences as an American living in Vietnam and about his social enterprise – Dependable Progress Company Limited.
"The best part of the session,” said Grant, “was Gabe’s description of the extraordinarily effective campaign against COVID-19 conducted by the communist government. Gabe said the government did extensive contact tracing and that meant a knock might come on the door, and a person or family would have only a few minutes to pack up and be taken to a government site, tested and quarantined for at least two weeks. He said he could not imagine Americans agreeing to such treatment. On the other hand, he noted that there have been no recorded deaths from COVID-19 in Vietnam, a country of almost 100 million, people and they share a long border with China.”
Drama and English teacher Terry Guerin has remained in contact with a large number of FCS alumni/ae in the arts, and many regularly return to her classroom to share their experiences with students. This spring, if anything, the number of Terry's returning alumni/ae has increased, many perhaps seeking to help improve the current lives of students at their alma mater.
On April 23, Terry's drama class had a surprise visit--they were "zoom bombed" by none other than award-winning songwriter and composer Benj Pasek '03 (pictured below, bottom, third from right) from his office in NYC! Terry reported, "He spent an hour with us and could not have been more gracious--answering questions, cheering us on, and talking about a career in theatre. It was amazing." Among his myriad achievements, Benj recently helped organize Saturday Night Seder, a star-studded online Passover fundraiser for the CDC Foundation's Coronavirus Emergency Response Fund that has raised over 3 million dollars so far.
In early May, Michael Grinspan '05 (ICM Partners) joined Terry's zoom drama class to talk about working in the comedy, sitcom, and the television business in LA. In his role as a comedy touring agent for ICM Partners, Michael covers comedy clubs, colleges, casinos, and theaters across the US and Canada for ICM's full roster of stand-up clients.
On May 18, Terry's ensemble theatre and play making class had a visit from screenwriter David Brind '96. David, who teaches screenwriting at USC, spoke about and screened his Dare project for the students and shared his experiences working in the film industry. The students shared with him their own recent online film project, Nothing to Be Done.
On May 27, Tom Robson '98, Associate Professor in the School of Theatre and Dance at Millikin University, will be visiting with Terry's drama class to discuss how the lockdown has affected theatre and what the future may hold.
And, on May 28, author, critic, podcaster, screenwriter, and television producer Andy Greenwald '95 is also scheduled to meet with Terry's drama students via zoom. Andy produced, wrote, and was showrunner for USA Network's Briarpatch which just ended its first season. He is planning to take questions from students and discuss his career.
Other Distinguished Virtual Visitors
In addition to the many alumni/ae visits, in April, students in the Upper School Climate Fiction Class, led by Monty Ogden (English and humanities teacher) and Dwight Dunston '06 (Coordinator of Equity & Justice Education), received a virtual visit from Ashley Shelby, a prize-winning author whose work – read by the class – addresses climate change.
FCS parent Brian Gordon visited Grant Calder's U.S. history class (virtually) in mid-May. Brian served three terms as a Lower Merion Township commissioner and ran for Congress. He did not win a seat in the House but he learned a lot about politics. Brian led a discussion on the upcoming 2020 election. He asked the students what they thought motivated voters beyond party affiliations, what the many factors are that influence their choices when they vote. He also talked about the ways in which, as individuals, we can have influence on elections beyond the votes we cast.
On April 29, Matt Doebler, Associate Music Director of the Broadway production Jagged Little Pill, visited music teacher Michele Zuckman’s Upper School chorus class to talk about his career trajectory -– all the way from high school productions as Michele’s dance partner to conducting on Broadway! -– and the importance of being prepared when your big break comes along!
Michele also arranged a two-part visit for the chorus students –- on May 13 and May 20 -– from voice teacher and choral conductor Holly Phares. Holly discussed her local work with Parkinsingers and Healing Presence Singers, as well as the singing circles she offers the homeless community through her church music position. She challenged students to innovate ways to sing together while physically distant.
On May 7, composer and music teacher Suzzette Ortiz held an online workshop for Michele’s world music drumming class on a variety of world music percussion instruments – particularly those of Latin America.
Professional vocal percussionist Tiago Grade will be meeting with both Upper School chorus and world music drumming this week to teach the basics of “creating a drum kit with your mouth!” Tiago is part of the faculty of Bobby McFerrrin's annual Circlesongs workshop and a former Cirque du Soleil artist.
"While, of course, I miss being able to make music in person with the chorus students,” reflected Michele Zuckman, “remote learning has allowed for a unique opportunity to meet with wonderful musical artists who are doing amazing work both locally and internationally. They have reminded us how essential the arts are in maintaining community."
“Having video calls with guest musicians in chorus class has been a valuable way for me to keep singing in this uncertain time. Getting to sing with my friends over Zoom reminds me of how much I appreciate music making,” expressed chorus student Casper Hoffmann '21.
“The visiting musicians in chorus have been a wonderful opportunity for me to learn with people who have had real life experience in the field that I am interested in," added Kate Dewey '21. "I am so grateful for all of the opportunities that have been provided to me and my friends through these Zoom classes. It means so much to continue singing, especially during such an unprecedented time.”
It's a mark of the dedication, adaptability, and creativity of FCS faculty members that, in spite of the challenges of the current environment, they have been able to continue to connect and engage students with the wider world. FCS teachers have gone beyond to ensure that these important encounters with visiting scholars, scientists, artists, musicians, and writers have not been lost this spring.