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Fall Family Weekend Reconnects the Emma Community

By Melissia Mason
As Mount Ida’s colors turned to rich reds, oranges, and yellows, we welcomed families to campus to reconnect with the Emma community through receptions, speakers, conferences, and class visits. Our special guest speaker for the weekend was author and bridge-builder Mónica Guzmán, who shared in conversations about how best to engage others across differences.
Fall Family Weekend was marked by conferences with teachers and advisors, joining students for Morning Reports with a welcome message from Head of School Jenny Rao, visiting classrooms, enjoying meals together, and visiting open office hours. For students, the weekend began with Speaker Series guest Mónica Guzmán. For families, the Parent EMbassador Program (PEP) meeting and reception was the first stop, featuring remarks from Director of Curriculum Innovation Peter Hatala, followed by their own evening with Mónica Guzmán.

Guest Speaker Mónica Guzmán

Ms. Guzmán spent time with students and parents separately, joining Head of School Jenny Rao in two “fireside chats” followed by question and answer sessions. With a background in journalism, Ms. Guzmán has made a career out of having curious, courageous conversations. Her current work with Braver Angels centers on bridging political divides.

“We don't see with our eyes, but with our whole biographies,” Ms. Guzmán asserts in her book, I Never Thought of It That Way. Exploring this premise in her own personal story, her dual citizenship in Mexico and the United States has resulted in a life lived with feet in two worlds. “The contrast has helped illuminate things that matter to me,” she shared.

When confronted with a viewpoint different from their own, Ms. Guzmán encouraged the Emma community to ask themselves: What am I missing? What story or experience led this person to believe what they do? She suggests that judgment and curiosity can coexist. Although we don’t want to prevent ourselves from making judgments about another person’s perspective, we can also respond productively to that emotion. She explains, “You can use judgment to get you to curiosity. When a judgment comes up, the trick is to turn that judgment into a question—tell me more about that. How did you arrive at that opinion?” Ask questions, share your own story, and explain how you arrived at your beliefs, including the emotions you are feeling and carefully observing the emotion of the other person. Ms. Guzmán doesn’t suggest that this practice comes easily; it takes time and a dedication to maintaining and preserving trusting relationships.

In exploring the impact of social media on our current climate, Ms. Rao and Ms. Guzmán discussed how conversation with other individuals differs from the “performance” of posting an opinion on a social platform, where likes and views can be more important than genuine connection and exploration of ideas. “Change the ratio,” Ms. Guzmán suggests. “What proportion of your conversation is happening in a one-to-one space? How much of it is happening in a safe space for you to be who you are? Can you increase the ratio of these one-to-one conversations in relation to the ones where you participate in a dialogue online where performance plays a role?”

Insightful questions covered an array of subject areas—from being an advocate for a misunderstood culture to dealing with the fatigue of mediating meaningful conversations to remaining open-minded when others have no interest in an exchange of ideas beyond their own. The Emma community shared their challenges, and Ms. Guzmán shared her insights.

Across the question and answer sessions, both students and adults expressed a desire to find the right formula for sharing perspectives across generations—both as listeners and as ones who desire to be heard. Consistently, Ms. Guzmán points back to the relationship: start with a story. Learn about the lived experience of the other person, and ask questions to understand rather than to convince or persuade. She says, “Envisioning and imagining somebody’s story and experience is far less judgmental, because everyone is an expert in their own story…When people tell their own story, your brain will do this beautiful thing where it will relax and you’ll be able to imagine yourself in your parents’ (or grandparents’ or child’s) position.”

Ms. Guzmán continued her conversations with students in the classes she visited and in a book-signing session after her talk. 

PEP with Peter Hatala

The Parent EMbassador Program hosted an opening reception, led by parents and featuring a presentation from Director of Curriculum and Innovation Peter Hatala. Mr. Hatala, who also teaches history, shared his own journey to Emma, presented an overview of the current state of academics, and closed with insight into exciting new projects on the horizon. He addressed the core of the academic program: our mission statement and the program pillars of Intellectual Flexibility, Purpose & Community, and Equity & Justice.

Mr. Hatala explained school-wide curricular initiatives, which deliver a consistent experience of experiential learning, reflective practices, history seminars, and the READY program for each Emma student. In addition to these initiatives, students have the option to pursue Advanced Studies courses through a unique curriculum designed to go beyond Advanced Placement™ programs and exams.

As part of our Leading with Purpose strategic plan, the Center for Teaching & Learning (CTL) is an exciting next step in the further development of Emma faculty. Mr. Hatala shared the current programming that is already underway—from learning groups and peer review to external professional learning opportunities and the curriculum innovation project. In addition, he outlined future initiatives, which include the development of a mini-mester curriculum set to launch in the spring of 2024, certificate programs, additional experiential learning opportunities, and expanded offerings and initiatives from the CTL. In short, the future of pedagogy and curriculum at Emma Willard School is infinite!

Following Mr. Hatala’s presentation, Kelly Lanahan P'20 '23, who serves as the social chair for PEP, shared opportunities for parents to get involved in the life of the school. From attending social gatherings to acting as ambassadors for the Admissions program, parents are invited to join in creating the Emma community they want to see. Fred and Laura Galt P'18 '25, who serve as co-chairs of the Parent Fund, shared their own stories of connection to Emma through their daughters’ experiences. 

Families had the opportunity to ask questions, visit with Mr. Hatala, and talk with other parents and PEP leaders. Those who would like to get more involved are invited to sign up for PEP here.

Friday’s Festivities

After a busy opening Thursday, Fall Family Weekend hit full stride with Morning Reports, where Head of School Jenny Rao shared welcoming remarks, students leaders (Proctors, PLTs, Wellies, and Student Diversity Leadership Group) were introduced, announcements were made, and the theatre department shared a scene from The Crucible. 

Ms. Rao shared her reflections on this point in the school year, saying, “I always refer to this time in October as the end of the beginning. We've had a good amount of time to settle into our routines and explore things outside of the classroom that may be intriguing to our students. The structure is in place and true learning is about to flourish." 

She encouraged students to take this long weekend to do two things: rest and reflect. “You've put an enormous amount of energy into establishing this year as a good one. As we heard from Ms. Guzmán, work, work, work all the time is not productive for artistic and learning pursuits. I hope that this weekend you take time to decompress, to rest, to recharge, and to come back ready to re-engage.”

For parents, she offered this day as their opportunity to get a true feeling for what life is like for their student at Emma. “I hope that what is ignited at home is a series of conversations, fueled by curiosity about one another,” Ms. Rao concluded.

The crowd headed out for a busy morning of attending classes—all classes in one morning, with 20 minutes allotted for each. With class meetings, conferences, and office hours for College Counseling, DEI, AWAY trips, Health and Counseling Centers, Learning Support, Technology, Student Life, READY, and PEP, families had a full day of absorbing the Emma experience. 

College Counseling ended the day’s activities with a workshop for families interested in learning more about the process of finding their student’s college match. (For those who were not able to attend in person, a College Counseling program will be held virtually on Thursday, October 13, at 7:00 p.m. (ET) via Zoom. Register here).

As faculty and families finished out conferences on Saturday morning, the Emma community departed for a well-deserved rest over the long weekend. 

For continued reading, in addition to her own book, Ms. Guzmán suggests: for writers, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and for those looking to bridge divides, Why Are We Yelling, by Buster Benson, as well as the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
    • Beautiful fall weather welcomed families back to Mount Ida

    • Head of School Jenny Rao addressed students and families at Morning Reports

    • Kelly Lanahan P'20 '23 presented PEP opportunities to fellow parents

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Honoring its founder’s vision, Emma Willard School proudly fosters in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world.
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