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Improv Class

Improvisational theatre (aka improv) has been part of Dean of Teaching & Learning Gwyneth Connell’s life since she was a teenager. Introduced to the unscripted performance genre in theatre classes at Peddie School, she loved its positive vibe and emphasis on supporting fellow performers. She joined an improv troupe as an undergrad at Amherst College, performed in New York City with an improv team called Chemistry Grad School, and even wrote her master’s thesis at Teachers College, Columbia University on improv and teaching practices.  

Having coached an improv team at Millbrook School and developed an improv and teaching workshop for faculty colleagues at Packer Collegiate Institute earlier in her career, Ms. Connell shared her passion for improv with Blair students this semester in a new elective dedicated to the art form. “My goals were to teach students how to do improv and help them feel more confident and courageous onstage, of course,” she said. “But beyond that, I also wanted them to learn about listening to and trusting others and looking outside yourself to solve problems, all of which is part of the improv performance experience.”

Eight freshmen through juniors—none of whom had ever seen improv performed before the semester began—enrolled in the course. Class meetings typically started with an energy-building warm up to help students transition into “performance head space,” and continued with all kinds of exercises in listening, spontaneity, agreement and character development. These exercises challenged students to come up with ideas quickly and react authentically as scenes played out among classmates.

Improv appealed to Dylan Bentley ’22 as a performing arts elective because she knew she wouldn’t be required to memorize lines; she enjoyed her experience as part of the class. “I learned how to ‘yes and…’ things to support my scene partners and build on their ideas. I also learned how to be more creative in my thinking and less embarrassed by my mistakes,” she reflected. “I’ve really enjoyed being with the people in my class! We love to joke around with one another, and we are all very different, so it is always a fun time.”

In November, the class traveled to the Peoples Improv Theatre (The PIT) in New York City, where they experienced live musical improv that had actors turning scenes into musical numbers. Students showcased their own burgeoning skills in four on-campus performances held throughout the semester. The final show, their signature assessment, featured their first public attempt at long-form improv—a 30-minute play that the eight classmates made up as they went along. “That’s a much more complex type of improv than the ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway-style’ games students performed in earlier shows,” Ms. Connell said. “Long-form demanded much more of them as artists.”

As the semester drew to a close, Ms. Connell hoped her students would remember the skills they learned in improv throughout their years at Blair and beyond. “Improv feels like it’s high stakes, but it’s actually pretty low stakes. Nobody dies because they make a mistake onstage; everybody gets up the next day,” she said with a laugh. “By doing improv, though, you learn how to navigate the authentically high stakes situations you face at school, at work and in family life. We’re all improvising every day, but we’re not all equipped to do it well or to enjoy the ride. I’d love for my students to experience the life-altering paradigm shift that improv was to me.”

Rob Monz

Independent documentarian Rob Montz will talk about political correctness on college campuses at the January 8 Society of Skeptics in the Chiang Center for Innovation and Collaboration.

During his hour-long presentation, which begins at 7 p.m., he plans to take a unique “spin” on the pressures undergraduates are under to be politically correct, specifically examining the student experience at some of the most well-known elite universities in the United States. “I don’t think most Blair students think about that much—and, if they are like me as a teenager, they are blinded by the prestige associated with such institutions,” said Mr. Montz, whose work has attracted millions of views and coverage in major outlets including The Economist, USA Today, The New York Times, the Washington Post and "The Adam Carolla Podcast." 

If nothing else, the filmmaker hopes his talk will encourage Blair students to think more critically about what they want from a college education, not simply “see it as the next mandatory thing they are supposed to do.” 

Mr. Montz last addressed the Society of Skeptics in December 2017 about his documentary The Quarterlife User Manual, which focuses on how the American education system has kids emerging from college with no idea what to do and therefore experiencing "quarter-life crises." Other recent work includes a 2017 documentary “Silence U. PT 2: What Has Yale Become?,” published on We the Internet TV, which won the 2018 Reason Video Prize. This latest film is the second installment of a three-part series on controversies associated with free speech on college campuses. He also produced a documentary on the U.S. presidency that was published in November 2018. 

Mr. Montz graduated from Brown University in 2005 with a degree in philosophy and admits he left there with “precisely zero marketable skills.” He soon relocated to Washington, D.C., where he worked in public policy and communications before beginning to make his own films in 2012. He and his wife, their two children and “authoritarian corgi” Bronson still live in Washington. Learn more about Mr. Montz and his work at www.robmontz.com.

The History of Skeptics
The Society of Skeptics was established as a forum for students and faculty to discuss and debate important global issues; it has grown to become one of the premier high school lecture series in the United States. Each week, speakers from the political, social, scientific, economic and literary arenas share their unique perspectives with students, who are encouraged to engage with presenters, asking questions and debating points of view.  

The program was an outgrowth of the Blair International Society, begun in 1937. Forty years later, former history department chair Elliott Trommald, PhD, Hon. ’65, established the modern Skeptics program as a regular forum for student discussion and debate; history teacher Martin Miller, PhD, took over in the mid-1980s and molded the program into a weekly lecture series, one that has since continued without interruption. Under the tutelage of Dr. Miller, Skeptics has featured a wide variety of speakers who are engaging, accomplished in their respective fields and often controversial. For a listing of upcoming Skeptics programs, please click here.

2018 Christmas Vespers

The Blair community gathered at Blairstown Presbyterian Church for the annual Christmas Vespers celebration on December 7 at 4:30 and 7:00 p.m. Christmas Vespers is a longstanding and beloved School tradition that welcomes the coming of Christmas and the holiday season. Students, faculty, staff members, parents and local alumni enjoyed moments of reflection amid a candlelit setting, as they listened to scripture readings and traditional carols played and sung by the Blair Academy Chamber Orchestra and Singers.

As attendees entered the church, they were greeted by the sound of traditional carols, played by organist Alphons Gunther. Service readers, including Blair Trustee the Rev. David Harvey, Head of School Chris Fortunato, Nancy Beaujeu-Dufour ’19, Matthew Bottone ’19, Camille Clarin ’19, Bryson Garriques ’19, Tanner Humphrey ’19, Essie Pasternak ’19 and Nina Sigety ’19, recited meaningful verses that resonated the true meaning of Christmas. Between readings, musicians performed traditional pieces such as “Joy to the World” and “Carol of the Bells.” The service ended with a moving benediction to welcome the Christmas season.

To watch a video of the 4:30 p.m. Vespers service, click "play" below.

Slahta Art Opening

December 10 marked the opening of Deborah Slahta’s “Raku and Stoneware Ceramics” exhibition in The Romano Gallery. The Hellertown, Pennsylvania, native explores the vessel as a three-dimensional canvas, creating finely crafted Raku and stoneware ceramics with geometric constructions and patterned motifs on their surfaces. Ms. Slahta joined the Blair community at an artist’s reception on December 13, and her work will remain on display through January 12, 2019.

Known for her precise designs, Ms. Slahta underscores the spectacular nature of the Raku experience in her work, where colors sometimes develop and disappear in a split second. Because the firing is extreme, and, at times, uncontrollable, Ms. Slahta embraces the magic of smoke permeating the clay body and creating one-of-kind colors and designs, each step constituting a moment flash-frozen in time.

Ms. Slahta’s lifelong passion for clay began during her undergraduate days as a mathematics major at Moravian College. She has been a juried resident at the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Banana Factory since 2000, where she teaches ceramics classes for adults, summer camps for children and participates in after-school programs for at-risk youth. Her work has been exhibited in national and regional shows, including “PA Craft” at the State Museum in Harrisburg and “Area Artists 2017” at Lehigh University.

Alan Moskin

At age 92, U.S. Army veteran Alan Moskin travels the country to speak about his experience as a World War II infantry combat soldier who participated in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. He shared his compelling story with the Blair community at Society of Skeptics in the Chiang Center for Innovation and Collaboration.

An Englewood, New Jersey, native, Mr. Moskin was drafted into the Army at age 18 in 1944. He served in the European theatre for the next two years with the 66th Infantry, 71st Division, part of General George Patton’s 3rd Army. Mr. Moskin fought in France, Germany and Austria, and on May 4, 1945, three days before the war’s end, his company participated in the liberation of the Gunskirchen concentration camp. “What we saw there was so horrific,” he said in a recent interview with the Jewish Standard.

Mr. Moskin remained in Europe as part of the U.S. Army of Occupation until 1946, after which he returned to the States, completed his undergraduate degree at Syracuse University and continued on to New York University Law School. He received his JD in 1951, and his career included more than 20 years as a civil trial attorney as well as work in the private business sector until his 1991 retirement.

Having kept his wartime experience to himself for 50 years, Mr. Moskin began speaking publicly about it in 1996, after his local Holocaust museum asked him to share his story. He has since visited more than 100 middle schools, high schools and colleges across the country, giving witness to the grim and horrific reality of the Holocaust and urging students to work to overcome hate, prejudice and bigotry. Mr. Moskin has recorded videos for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City and the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Suffern, New York, and appeared in the PBS documentary “G.I. Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II.”

The History of Skeptics
The Society of Skeptics was established as a forum for students and faculty to discuss and debate important global issues; it has grown to become one of the premier high school lecture series in the United States. Each week, speakers from the political, social, scientific, economic and literary arenas share their unique perspectives with students, who are encouraged to engage with presenters, asking questions and debating points of view.
 
The program was an outgrowth of the Blair International Society, begun in 1937. Forty years later, former history department chair Elliott Trommald, PhD, Hon. ’65, established the modern Skeptics program as a regular forum for student discussion and debate; history teacher Martin Miller, PhD, took over in the mid-1980s and molded the program into a weekly lecture series, one that has since continued without interruption. Under the tutelage of Dr. Miller, Skeptics has featured a wide variety of speakers who are engaging, accomplished in their respective fields and often controversial. For a listing of upcoming Skeptics programs, please click here.
 

Chris Fortunato and Teddy Wenner at reception in Beijing
Peter Curran with prospective family in Shanghai

Blair Academy has been on the road this fall, both nationally and internationally! The trips, taken by Blair’s admission office and Head of School Chris Fortunato, allowed many opportunities for face-to-face conversation, reconnection with alumni, and introductory visits with prospective students and families.

Associate Head of School and Dean of Admission Peter G. Curran visited Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, China and England. He was joined by Mr. Fortunato in Hong Kong, where they welcomed 150 people to a Blair reception. Mr. Curran attended school fairs in Singapore and Thailand alongside 10 private United States-based schools and hosted a Blair-only reception for more than 125 people in Shanghai. In London, he attended a joint reception with the Mid-Atlantic Boarding School (MABS) group.

“Having the opportunity to personally connect with current families in Asia and see firsthand their love for Blair affirms just how much our School is impacting and shaping their children,” said Mr. Fortunato. “Parents and alumni continue to be Blair’s best ambassadors across the country and the world, and, while in Asia, I was gratified to meet with prospective families who came out in record numbers at our admission receptions and shared their enthusiasm about all that Blair has to offer.”

“The support and role our Blair families and alumni play in helping us find great students is tremendous, and they go above and beyond in promoting  the value and impact of a Blair education,” noted Mr. Curran. “By the end of the season, we will have held over 20 receptions, which we could not have done without this amazing support.”

Associate Dean of Admission Teddy Wenner ’96 visited Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China and South Korea. Mr. Wenner started his trip solo in Saudi Arabia, staying with Blair community members and meeting prospective families. After a stop in Vietnam, he was joined by Mr. Fortunato in Beijing and Seoul.

“Our current families are extremely happy with their students’ Blair experience, and they are proud to tell their friends,” Mr. Wenner said. “All in all, it was a fantastic trip, and I was so happy to be out on the international trail, speaking about our wonderful School and community!”

Blair admission counselors also traveled extensively domestically, interviewing prospective students, attending school fairs and holding numerous events throughout the United States. Their stops included Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Colorado, California, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Illinois.

As the admission travel season draws to a close, the team is looking forward to a few additional opportunities to meet prospective students and parents and reconnect with alumni during visits to Mexico, Bermuda and the Bahamas in December. To learn more about Blair’s travel dates, visit the admission travel web page.

 

 

Lian Wang in class

When Lian Wang arrived on Blair’s campus in 2007, together with her husband, language and history teacher David Facciani, she brought more than just a passion for education. Ms. Wang, who grew up in Tianjin, China, is a classically trained dancer who concluded a three-year tenure with the acclaimed Chinese Army Dance Troupe just before joining the Blair community.

Ms. Wang teaches Chinese 1, 2, 3 honors, 4 honors and Advanced Placement (AP), while Mr. Facciani teaches Chinese 1, 2, 3 and 4, as well as AP microeconomics. She was first hired as a full-time dance teacher. After the academic dance program was dissolved, she added the after-school yoga and dance activities to her schedule in addition to her role in the classroom teaching Chinese. Ms. Wang and Mr. Facciani, along with their daughter, Angela, live in Kathryn Hall, where they are housemasters to 40-plus upper-school girls.

This year, Ms. Wang is the faculty coach of Blair’s recently revived dance program. Now considered a team sport, the program fulfills the athletic requirement for freshman and sophomores and is offered during the winter and spring. Participants meet five afternoons each week in the dance studio in Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts or the studio in Hardwick Hall, where they practice a range of styles, including classical ballet, modern jazz and hip hop. Dancers of all experience levels are welcome to participate.

At Blair, Ms. Wang embraces the community and the impressive opportunities students have to express themselves. In what follows, she shares more about her background, her love for dance and the difference this program will make on campus.

Q. Why are you so passionate about dance?

A. I started dancing at a very young age as a hobby. I went to a regular elementary school until age 12 and was then selected to join an arts high school to become a professional dancer. As I grew older, I realized that dancing gave me the opportunity to express myself in a very unique way. When I came to Blair, I had just finished a three-year tenure with the Chinese Army Dance Troupe, where we focused on Chinese classical dance, folk dances of different ethnic groups and Chinese contemporary dance. I knew the joy that dance brought me, and I wanted to bring that love and passion to the students of Blair Academy.

Q. Why is dance at Blair a team sport now?

A. By making dance a team sport, it is easier for students to fit it into their busy schedules, which gives them a level of dedication to the art. There has been a growing demand for a larger dance program by current and prospective students, and we are so happy we’re able to offer it as a team sport. Currently, the team consists of 13 students, 12 girls and one boy.  

Q. What’s unique about the dance team at Blair?

A. I think what makes it so unique is the amount of collaboration happening in the studio. Not only am I leading the practices, but so are the students. Because we are a team, I want to give them the opportunity to take charge. We practice many styles of dance, and a few of the students are more experienced in particular areas. One of the students has been dancing competitively since she was young, so I have made her the assistant choreographer. Dance at Blair really provides the opportunity for teamwork and leadership.

Q. What does the average practice look like?

A. The team meets five days each week for about 30 minutes, and we practice a variety of styles. We usually start with a warm-up/stretching, followed by center floor exercises and end with combinations. There is a variety of experience on the team, from beginners to advanced dancers. I make sure each practice is as easy or challenging as needed for each person. Every combo can be made harder by adding in extra steps or turns. By doing this, the students all are dancing together, rather than separately in smaller groups.

Q. Why should students join the dance team? What are the benefits?

A. The dance team gives students the unique opportunity to work as both a team and an individual. The students are dancing as a group, working together as a team to perform a routine in unison. But, as you are performing choreography together, dancing provides a very personal experience as well. You learn more about your own body and its movements, and how to better express yourself. There are so many added benefits to dance that people don’t realize. This team is really for anyone who loves to dance, and anyone who would love to put in the hard work to learn proper technique.

Q. What do you hope for the future of the team?

A. As we continue to learn and grow together, I hope there will be increased formal opportunities for the team to perform around Blair’s campus. Next year, the dance team will perform during a Chapel in February. I hope that as we look to the future, the group will continue to grow and there will be more opportunities to see their hard work showcased.

Student and faculty

In an effort to spread the word to prospective teachers about the many rewards of teaching at an independent school, Blair has instituted two new on-campus programs: a three-week “Winternship” for competitively selected college students and a daylong Faculty Open House. Both programs will take place in January 2019 and offer participants a firsthand look at living and working in Blair’s welcoming and diverse community.

The Winternship is a uniquely Blair program that will bring Davidson College senior Bri’ana Odum and Lafayette College junior Emily Dentinger to campus during their winter breaks. Selected from more than a dozen applicants, Bri’ana and Emily will live with faculty members and experience every facet of Blair life, from academics and athletics to student life and professional development. Assistant Head of School and Dean of Faculty Lorry Perry is looking forward to the many ways in which they will contribute to the community as they assist teachers in class, help coach a team or run an activity, or just talk to students about life in college.

“I hope this opportunity helps Bri’ana and Emily begin to see themselves as boarding school teachers, especially once they experience all that’s involved,” Ms. Perry said. “As we continue the Winternship program in the coming years, I’d love to develop a pipeline of college students who know about boarding school teaching as a career option and who are enthusiastic about entering this very rewarding field.”

Blair’s upcoming Faculty Open House is another opportunity for prospective teachers to learn more about the boarding school experience. The event takes place on Saturday, January 19, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes a tour of the School’s historic campus, class visits, student and faculty panel discussions, and lunch in the Romano Dining Hall. College students, day school and public school teachers, and those who might be considering a career change are encouraged to attend. Preregistration is required; click here to register.

 

History Class

It has been 50 years since the tumultuous events of 1968, many of which shaped and continue to shape culture and politics in the United States. In recognition of that anniversary, one Blair history elective is taking a closer look at how the chaos and strife that occurred that year profoundly impacted the nation, creating a modern America fraught with distrust of government, generational divides, radicalization, and movements focused on civil rights and equality.

“In many ways, 1968 was a crisis of American identity,” said history department chair Jason Beck, who is leading students in their analysis of the Vietnam War, civil unrest, riots, student protests, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights movement and the election of Richard Nixon. “It was a momentous year in the creation of modern America, and all of these events had significant implications for how we view our country. Fifty years later, it is interesting to think about those issues in context of the world we live in today and to explore the echoes of this period of American history.”

As the fall semester winds to a close, students are hard at work on their capstone project: a research paper and presentation on what interested them most as they read fictional stories, news reports and historical analysis on the events of the day and discussed them with Mr. Beck in his Clinton 205 classroom. Project topics range from the 1968 student protest at Columbia University in New York City and the outcome of New York riots to black power protests at the Mexico City Olympics and media coverage of the Vietnam War.

Students have been most impressed by the many parallels between the events of 1968 and today. “We are connected to the things that came before us, and the past has implications for the way we live our lives, socially, politically and economically,” Mr. Beck said. “1968 is an important year that has broad impacts on our modern life.”

The notion that “everything is intertwined” is what Meredith O’Neill ’19 likes best about the course. Prior to enrolling in Mr. Beck’s class, she didn’t stop to think about the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement happening concurrently, but she has enjoyed learning about how the two influenced one another as they unfolded. Viewing the events of this period in context of one another and considering the relatively few sources of news available to the public at the time, Meredith decided to delve more deeply into how the media shaped public opinion about the Vietnam War in her capstone research project. “Today, social media, television and the Internet are things we use every day,” she explained. “Back then, television was a new way of conveying information across the country and the world, and the impact that had on people really interests me.”

The class’s targeted view of the year 1968 has allowed Meredith and her classmates the freedom to explore and analyze this period of history at a pace not possible in survey classes covering decades or even centuries of history over the course of a semester. But the timeliness of the issues at play in 1968 has been perhaps the biggest takeaway. “We are looking at pieces of history that are still very relevant to our everyday life, and there are people alive who we can hear from who lived through this,” Meredith said. “My grandparents are an example, and hearing about it from them really personalizes what we are learning.”