Quaker Values in Action at MMFS

September 01, 2018

By Orla Dunstan, Director of Communications

Quaker values and MMFS’s educational program are inextricably linked. The Quaker tenet of the inner light within every individual underlies our fundamental premise that every student can learn, given the tools and differentiated instruction he/she/they needs. Quaker values inform how we choose our texts, music, and art. Our interactions with each other and how we let our lives speak (to quote George Fox, a founder of Quakerism) are guided by the Quaker Testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Service, aka the SPICES.

Quaker values are taught in the same way we teach all other subjects at our school – developmentally and explicitly, which means with direct, multimodal instruction that breaks up information. Every school year begins with a school-wide mini-unit that focuses on a Quaker testimony – this year, the Testimony of Community. Lower school students also learn about Quaker values through the life stories of the Quakers for whom their classrooms are named. In the middle school, teaching the values continues to be centered around each class’ namesake and the social activism associated with that person, and broadens to include the history and larger context within which these Quakers acted. Each lower and middle school classroom creates a charter of agreed upon values to support a positive and productive learning environment. “Quakerism is imbued in all of that,” says Middle School Dean of Students Jim Signorelli, “When we are talking about how we want to be treated and how we want to treat others, we are talking about the mission.” In the upper school, a year-long theme relating to Quaker values is chosen as a focus for advisory groups. It often lines up with the mini-unit focus, as is the case this year.

“The school-wide anti-violence walkout in April was an incredible example of Quaker testimonies on display: silence, peace, solidarity with the greater community, and student activism,” remarked Jim. “That event completely spoke to so many aspects of Quakerism. I was so impressed by students’ willingness to observe seventeen minutes in silence and by the messages of peace and anti-violence on their signs.”

In the upper school, all freshman take a Quaker History and Practice course that focuses on Quakers of historical importance and the core Quaker values. Students learn the history and roots of Quaker activism in Protestant England and throughout history up to the present. The Quaker tenets provide a starting point for a comparative study of other religions. Students find many similarities to their own religions or ethics. The intent is for students to engage with questions that Quakers (as well as many other religions and philosophies) have long addressed. “The inquiry and reflection required of students in the course develops skills that translate to other subjects – history, English, art, etc.” said John Keenan, Upper School Head Teacher. “The skills to articulate their feelings and beliefs and a deepened sense of empathy and compassion can sharpen critical thinking and strengthen their academics.”

The upper school Quaker Life Committee, comprised of students and faculty, is the central vehicle for Quakerism in the upper school. It provides another forum to discuss current events through a Quaker lens. Members decide on the queries for Silent Meetings each week. The committee designed and implemented Choice Silence two years ago in an effort to make Silence accessible to more students. Once a month, students are offered different options, such as walking, working with their hands, or listening to music, in addition to traditional Silence.

Silent Meeting is the most identifiable expression of Quakerism at our school. Students and teachers in each of the divisions gather to sit together for a period of silence twice a week, generally Mondays and Fridays. Silence takes place in the Meeting Room at the lower school and in the gymnasiums, where students set up chairs in a non-hierarchical format facing each other, in the middle and upper schools. Individuals stand up when moved to speak. Generally, there is a query. In the lower and middle schools, the query is introduced on Monday and often revisited on Friday. Silence can also include community news, announcements, playful skits, musical performances, and poetry readings. It also provides a means to come together for larger community events and celebrations. Silence ends with the exchange of a handshake. Every June, graduates, their families, and MMFS faculty and staff gather for Senior Silence the evening before graduation. Silence has been held by MMFS students and staff at Nature’s Classroom, in Costa Rica, Cambodia, and Germany.

The Testimony of Service is practiced in every division. Traditions, such as the school-wide Read-A-Thon that raises funds for nonprofit organizations selected by the student body, are carried on from year-to-year. Each division also takes part in service projects, i.e. the lower school collects food for City Harvest in the fall and the middle school creates care packages for guests at a Brooklyn Monthly Meeting Sunday dinner and spends a clean-up day at the Quaker cemetery (where Mary McDowell, Violet Longobardi, Norman Krisberg, and David Anderson are buried). In addition, many service projects arise organically from the curricula or are initiated by students:

  • A lower school reading group, inspired by an author study of Dr. Seuss that explored the themes of inequality and imbalance of power, produced four different Seuss-style protest PSAs, in which students channeled the Lorax and spoke up for an injustice that they felt deserved more attention.
  • After learning about the challenges Native American communities face, students in a middle school literacy group got agreement from the middle school student body to donate all the money raised from an annual bake sale to Native American education.
  • Every year upper school students come to a consensus on areas of interest and communities in need to plan service projects. Last year’s service sites included: The Battery Urban Farm, CHiPS, Sean Casey Animal Rescue, GallopNYC, Cobble Hill Health & Senior Center, and many more. According to Mary DeLouise, Dean and Upper School Head ASL and History Teacher, “Thinking about our skills and passions, and how we can use those to help communities in need is what makes our service program so special.”

Quaker values are also in action outside of the school. Upper school students join students from other Quaker schools at the annual Quaker Youth Leadership Conference, an annual three-day conference that brings together high school students from Friends schools around the country. Last year MMFS teams competed with other high school students in debates on ethics at the NYC and national Ethics Bowls. John, their coach, remarked that, watching them speak, it was clear that their Quaker education had served them well.

Quaker values are infused in all subject areas.

In social studies, literacy, and current events classes, issues are examined through the lens of the SPICES. Here are some examples:

  • Several student presentations during lower school
  • museums last spring focused on the theme of justice, such as equal rights for women, justice and subway fare, and the Peace Crane Project.
  • Middle school current events classes often address news stories by posing questions relating to Quaker values. For instance, global warming is discussed in the context of  justice, integrity, community, conflict and peace, and social justice.
  • Last fall, in response to Hurricane Maria, Spanish language classes galvanized the entire upper school in a fundraiser for the Hispanic Federation. Many members of the community came together to prepare a delicious luncheon that was very well attended. Students participated in a field studies day this September to raise awareness of the continuing struggles facing Puerto Rico.
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