On Friday, September 16 UAGC welcomed its freshman class and incoming students from multiple grades with a morning orientation around our core values - Intention, Collaboration, and Responsibility.
After a welcome from Assistant Principal Luke Janka and some words from our Health Center (all students may receive free health services from our on-site clinic, as well as free vision and dental from our partners at Mt. Sinai), the games began.
Student ambassadors, as well as three of last year's alumni, facilitated community-building activities designed to expose students to UAGC values.
Intention & Collaboration
Each ambassador invited a randomly-selected group of new students to meet a challenge:
Design the tallest tower you can to hold a marshmallow.
Your tools? Straws, masking tape, and a pair of scissors.
Alumni Jailine Estrella, now a freshman at New York University, commented that she had participated in a similar challenge as part of the competitive NYU scholarship program that she won.
However, at UAGC, we don't shy away from a challenge. We took the competition one step farther and made absolute silence mandatory. That's right - you had to be able to collaborate without saying a word.
It's rare for a room of a hundred teenagers to be silent, but all that could be heard was the tearing of tape and the snipping of straws while wild gesticulations were seen across the room.
In the end, everyone aimed too high - each group's creation ended slumped over, unable to support the weight of the jumbo marshmallows Assistant Principal Daphne LaBua-Stenzel had selected.
However, students reflected two fundamental lessons about learning:
Collaboration can be tough, but it makes us stronger.
In the debrief time, students reflected on how they had been dying to talk, but freshman Carlos Hall commented that "There was a lot of body language," saying you had to be able to "read each other's minds. New junior Jeremy Santana commented that "eye contact" was key.
Real listening that leads to true collaboration requires such skills. Each day, in every class, students are encouraged and expected to collaborate - to do so effectively requires some grit.
Mistakes can be tough, but they make us stronger.
To paraphrase Thomas Edison, students didn't fail, they just found multiple ways that didn't work.
At UAGC, the process is worth as much - and usually more - than the final product. Freshman Carlos Hall commented that "I looked around, and knew that most of the foundations weren't sound, and I thought we could just build a short tower and win. But my group wanted to go taller and so I didn't argue."
Another student commented, "That's why you don't just go with the flow." A strong lesson on intentionality if there ever was one.
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Collaboration & Responsibility
The second activity involve solving a real-world, close-to-home problem. In the Brandeis cafeteria, there are three bins marked for specific types of rubbish - compostable, recyclable, and landfill trash.
Unfortunately, most students campus-wide pay no attention to the designations and throw whatever into any bin. In the end, the janitors can't sort out the compost or recyclables, so all the garbage ends up in the landfill.
Students - this time they could speak - were tasked with presenting a solution to this perplexing problem to school administration and ambassadors. However, they only had 15 minutes to brainstorm a solution and design a presentation for it.
Right away, groups began sketching out both ideas and, with the help of the ambassadors, the many genres in which they could present those ideas. In the UAGC Genre Practice writing program, students need to do exactly that sort of work - develop an intention and choose the best genre(s) that will communicate to your intended audience.
Some groups created skits, proposed commercials involving garbage filling the halls of Brandeis and eventually consuming all of the city, or designed technological solutions involving shocks and flashing lights for misplaced rubbish.
They then presented these ideas to the group, to much applause and commendation.
Perhaps it will lead to a new program of sustainability on our campus. At the very least, students learned to collaborate, together, to solve a real problem in their immediate environment. It's the sort of work in which UAGC students participate - day in, day out - from reading groups studying segregation and discrimination to building science students developing the best sustainable structures.
In the end, we were all excited.
There is a strong community at UAGC, and this year's new students are a vital part of it. We can't wait to see what they have to bring, and what they will gain, from our community. Here's to another great year!