Spotlight: Debbie Bakan

October 25th, 2021
Category: Alumni News

Debbie Bakan, retired PMFS Primary Teacher, with her handknit Frog and Toad dolls

On a warm day last May, retired PMFS Primary Teacher Debbie Bakan came to see campus in bloom and talk about her memories of Plymouth. We were both vaccinated, and she gave me a big hug, my first from anyone outside of my family since Covid. Debbie’s career at PMFS spanned over 30 years, and former students remember her classroom as a place of security, exploration, and creativity. Her First and Second Graders enjoyed “Peoples of the World” and “Native American/Lenape” themed years, and knitting and finger-weaving also became an important part of classroom culture. Debbie was my teacher, and those years were very special to me — grinding corn in a giant mortar like a character from our story book, camping trips, popcorn Fridays, lots of time for creative writing, sitting in the loft full of yarn, playing math games for homework…

Reflecting back on her career here, Debbie summarized her teaching philosophy as perpetually asking, “How can I help them find their voice?” She remembers one student with an all-consuming interest in ants, and helping him pursue his passion in the classroom. She believes this curricular flexibility is one of Plymouth’s strengths. “We were on an intellectual journey together,” she said. Rather than telling a child that they got a math problem wrong, Debbie would ask them, “How did you arrive at that?” The classroom encouraged children to use writing as a reflective tool in all areas, even handwork and math.

Another of Plymouth’s strengths, according to Debbie, is knowing how to talk with kids about hard subjects. Sitting on a bench on the meetinghouse porch, she remembered the weeks after 9/11/2001, when her students played a game called “New York.” The children would build towers and knock them down. Debbie allowed this to go on for a while before redirecting them. “Children are constantly trying to figure out what the world is,” Debbie explained. She advises parents of littles and teachers to “be honest, and it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know why.’”

Debbie reached into her bag and pulled out the exquisite Frog and Toad stuffed animals she had knitted, complete with their own tiny clothes. Her mother taught her to knit at eight years old, and Debbie has been knitting ever since. She remembers when a student, Rachel Forman-Rubinsky (‘02), now a Researcher in molecular genetics, asked Debbie to teach her to knit. Soon all the students in her class wanted to learn. So Debbie researched some rhymes for kids (if you learned to knit in her class, you’ll still remember “In through the front door, down around the back, out through the basement, off jumps Jack!”) and ended up teaching her Primary classes to knit for another 17 years. Over time, knitting became so much more than making a kitty; it was students teaching one another, feeling empowered as their fabric grew, practicing math, learning about other cultures with Debbie’s “Fiber Around the World” unit, and knitting for service learning projects. Debbie became an expert at reading a child’s knitting like a barometer (Anxious, tight stitches? Distracted, dropped stitches?) and using what she saw to better serve the child academically.

Debbie was pleased to hear that some of our classes are “vertical” (two grades learning together) again this year, as her First and Second Grades always were. She always considered her Primary to be one class, not two separate classes merged together. Debbie is a follower of Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who said that children learn best through collaborative problem solving with more academically advanced peers than they do independently. In Debbie’s class, each student would get a chance to be mentor and mentee over two years. She can remember one student explaining to another during partnered reading, “Most of the letters are pretty okay, but some of them — I forget what they’re called, like ‘E’ and ‘A’ — you never know what they’re gonna say!”

Debbie is looking for her next challenge, probably having to do with literacy and justice. She enjoys walks with other retired PMFS teachers Megan Hess and Martha Wolf, and babysitting her grandchildren, Nico (6) and Greta (3). Every Monday night she reads them a story over Zoom. She keeps in touch with many of her former students, some of whom still have the same best friends as they did in Primary (and please reach out to alumni@pmfs1780.org if you’d like to catch up!). Debbie also spends time reading, writing, and collecting children’s books. She hopes to write a reflective book on her teaching experiences.

Whoopie
By Debbie Bakan

Whoopie cushions are perhaps
The most brilliant of inventions.
In its way so innocent and basic.
A noise we all laugh to hear,
Even babies laugh at fart noises.
Embarrassing, yes, but
Look at the glee on the face of the child
Who carefully buried the inflated sack in the fold of the sofa,
and waited
and waited
and waited
in anticipation
for some grown-up
to sit down.

Alumni Spotlight: Jay Craven (’62)

September 13th, 2021
Category: Alumni News

Jay Craven (‘62), is a filmmaker, activist, educator, founder of many community arts organizations, and founding producer of the touring youth circus, Circus Smirkus. During our interview, he alluded to episodes from a life lived in the zeitgeist, from organizing John Lennon’s rock tour against the Vietnam War, to moving in the same NYC Pop art circles as Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith, to making a film about literacy in Nicaragua after the revolution. Now toward the end of his career and writing a memoir, Jay reflects that his life has been “compelled by an activist instinct. The seeds of that really go back to my time at Plymouth.”

Jay, whose name was Jay Clark when he was a student here, attended PMFS for second, third, and fourth grades along with his brother Keith. Jay put himself through high school at The Hill School by working on the grounds crew there starting at 12 years old, claiming he was 13. 

At Boston University, he was elected student body president and selected to go on a student peace delegation to South and North Vietnam during the war. This resulted in the People’s Peace Treaty, outlining terms the students agreed needed to be met in order to end the war. Upon his return to the US, Jay travelled the country for six months as one of principal organizers of the now-historic 1971 May Day protest in DC. This protest would see more than 50,000 people camping in West Potomac Park in an effort to shut down the government. The demonstration ended with the largest mass arrest for civil disobedience in American history. Jay’s next job was organizing a national tour for John Lennon to raise money for the antiwar movement, but they were only able to play one concert before President Nixon shut them down.

As the war wound down, Jay moved to New York City and fell in with artists, poets, musicians, and dancers. There was “constantly an opportunity to discover something new,” he recalled. He took inspiration from the culture around him, and wanted to share the community-building power of the arts with others. Jay moved to Vermont where he became a high school film studies teacher and in 1975 founded Catamount Arts, an organization that screened movies around rural parts of the state that otherwise had no access to film. Jay soon expanded Catamount Arts into a performing arts center and attracted performances by the likes of Miles Davis, BB King, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash. After completing an MA in Media Arts from Goddard College, Jay followed his belief in lifelong learning and investing in his community by starting GRACE in 1979, a program helping outsider artists like nursing home residents create works of visual art “based on instinct.” Some of this art is now in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In 1987, Jay gave a friend the idea to start Circus Smirkus, a program that pairs students aged 10-18 with mentors for circus training and touring summer performances. Jay helped get the now-famous organization off the ground and produced its first two seasons and tours. Next, Jay started Kingdom County Productions, his own film studio, in answer to his question, “Why should Hollywood have a monopoly on the stories that get told?” He draws on the “historical imagination of place” to tell stories set in and inspired by Vermont, and has made over 15 feature-length films. Many of these films were created as part of his “Semester Cinema” project, where students from colleges all over the US collaborate with professionals to create a film over the course of a semester. Jay retired last year from teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, and will be taking Semester Cinema independent, with the next film being a multiracial narrative set in Vermont during the American Revolution. He is also busy curating film festivals and producing performing art series.

Jay’s years at PMFS were “crucial” in helping him through a difficult time in his childhood and exposing him to ideas that would shape his life. “[PMFS] introduced me to politics, reading, [and the] practice of the Quakers,” Jay said. “There were no Quakers in my family, but I was thrilled to go to […] Meeting every Thursday.” He has fond memories of being on the “Safety Patrol,” wearing a yellow belt and badge to help fellow students cross the street to buy root beer barrels at the corner store. Other highlights were experiential learning and field trips, things like making butter and cheese and going to see Listerine bottles being made at Diamond Glassworks. And like every Plymouth student, he remembers the great friends he made and fun times at the Strawberry Festival. 

“All my teachers I thought were mysterious and eccentric and cool in their own way, but also figures of authority,” Jay recalled. But there was one teacher in particular that made a big impact on his life: Librarian Mary Knowles, who was put on trial for allegedly being a Communist during the McCarthy era, and whom Plymouth Monthly Meeting hired and supported when many other institutions considered her “too dangerous.” Mary Knowles had once been a labor organizer for oil workers in Louisiana, but was not a member of the Communist Party at the time she was “named.” “I arrived as a second grader in the midst of all of this,” said Jay, “and became very aware very quickly of what was going on.” She eventually won on appeal, and had a 25-year career at the William Jeanes Memorial Library, which was housed in what is now the Music/Admissions/Development building. Jay says his weekly classes with Mrs. Knowles turned him on to books, politics, and especially civil rights during a time when schools were integrating. “I loved her,” Jay smiled, “She was fabulous.” Mary Knowles and Quakerism inspired Jay’s later protest of the Vietnam war, and lifelong activism through the arts. “My time at Plymouth Meeting Friends School was very important for me,” Jay said. “I’ve been a teacher myself for a long time in addition to making movies[…] That path really took shape as a result of going to PMFS.” 

For more about Jay and his films, visit the website of his film production company https://kingdomcounty.org/jay-craven-films

For more about PMFS Librarian Mary Knowles, read this article in Main Line Today https://mainlinetoday.com/life-style/the-case-of-the-gutsy-librarian/ and look at “The Plymouth Controversy” pamphlet, written in 1957 by the Civil Liberties Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting: https://pmfs1780.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/The-Plymouth-Controversy-pamphlet-1957-about-librarian-Mary-Knowles.pdf

Alumni Spotlight: Alex Berg (’99)

July 29th, 2021
Category: Alumni News, News

Alex Berg (’99) has already had quite an active and diverse journalism career that includes hosting and producing podcasts and video. She is currently hosting a podcast on LGBTQ themes, I’m From Driftwood, and producing a documentary series for LGBTQ Nation. She recently hosted and produced a pop culture series for BuzzFeed called The Buzz. Throughout her career in journalism, Alex has covered wide-ranging topics, from hosting a dating show in a taxi, to interviewing politicians and celebrities. “I love having a mix of everything,” she said.

After graduating from PMFS, Alex went on to Greene Street Friends School and then to Central High School. She earned her B.A. in English from Cornell, and her M.S. in Journalism with a specialization in Digital Media from Columbia. Alex was drawn to video as a medium for storytelling, and took up livestreaming when it was still a new technology. In grad school and at her first job at The Daily Beast, Alex, who identifies as bisexual, queer, and femme, started to write stories about feminist and LGBTQ issues. “People used to tell me [these subjects were] too ‘niche’, which is ridiculous because we know that there are so many people who see themselves in these stories. And everybody knows somebody who identifies as queer or trans.” She was out to prove that these topics are part of the human experience and should be important to everyone, and that “LGBTQ people deserve dignity, equality, and respect.” 

Alex continued to focus on stories that impact the lives of the LGBTQ community and women when she started reporting on national news for HuffPost Live. She covered the 2016 presidential election for HuffPost’s livestreamed interview series Queer the Vote, and traveled to Iowa to interview Democratic candidates for president in 2019 while hosting the BuzzFeed News morning show AM to DM. She says she was able to have real conversations with Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg. “I’m a millennial,” Alex said. “I’m not trying to be a stuffy TV reporter about all of this. I sincerely want to know what they think about things that are important to me.” You may also recognize some of her work for other outlets like Mic Dispatch on Facebook Watch, and The Issues on Sirius XM.

Though her film reel includes clips of her talking with the likes of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Alex described a memorable interview as one where the person opens up and tells a great story, whether they’re famous or not. She feels that she’s had some of her best talks with “people who don’t have some big shiny Hollywood platform to get to tell their story[…] The best time is when it’s just a conversation between two new friends.” Alex remembers an especially good exchange with actor Stephanie Beatriz who plays Detective Rosa Diaz on the TV sitcom Brooklyn 99. They discussed Beatriz’s bisexuality, and how her character came out as bisexual on the show. “She’s a total bada** doing amazing work,” Alex grinned.

At PMFS, young Alex’s worldview changed when a conscientious objector came to her class to talk about his experience during the Vietnam War. This encounter taught Alex to be critical of people in power, and showed her it was possible to be on the right side of history even if your position is unpopular at the time. PMFS encouraged her to think for herself, stand up for what she believes in, and “see the Light in everyone,” a philosophy that has stuck with her over the years. “Learning [that phrase] so early on has been really important in my work,” Alex said. 

She thrived with what she calls Plymouth’s “unconventional, fun, and exciting” approach to academics and with lots of time for outdoor play. One memorable experience was reading “Shade’s Children” by Garth Nix in Varley’s class and identifying with the strong female protagonist. Alex reread the book as an adult and found the themes just as powerful. “If you want to instill a lifelong love of learning, and put your child into an environment where learning is play, learning is fun, learning is creative, where different styles of learning are respected and met, then Plymouth Meeting is the place for you.”

Alex lives in Brooklyn with her wife, Lisa, and their three cats. She enjoys roller derby as a hobby, though during the pandemic it has been more skating in the park than a contact arena sport. Her message to LGBTQ students at Plymouth is, “I hope […you] feel so proud and unafraid to be who [you] are.” To read more about Alex’s career in journalism and watch some of her interviews, visit her website: itsalexberg.com.

Alumni Spotlight: Zack Smith (’03)

July 2nd, 2021
Category: Alumni News

Zack Smith (‘03) has always loved math, so it will be no surprise to any of his former PMFS teachers or classmates that he recently received his PhD in Operations Research, a type of applied mathematics, from the University of Texas. “I have to give Plymouth a ton of credit,” he said, “for building my love of learning and pushing me ahead of my grade level in math and every other subject.”

Zack has already found plenty of applications for his expertise. While earning his PhD, he worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, of Manhattan Project fame. The facility is so secure that Zack’s office was an underground vault. “Every time I wanted to go to the bathroom, there was a five-step security sequence to lock [the vault] and then [on my way back] I had to go through it again,” he laughed. “It was like going through airport security every day.” Zack was in charge of planning and acquiring inventory for the lab’s manufacturing, and the National Laboratory funded his degree. “It was definitely an interesting experience, but I’m not really supposed to talk about it,” he said with raised eyebrows.

Now Zack is living in Santa Fe doing a postdoc, and his first project would have definitely impressed his Sixth Grade self. Zack developed a model to help Austin, Texas’s new Major League Soccer team, Austin FC, decide which players to acquire and how to manage their salary cap. The team is now in their first season.

Zack’s postdoc continues through the summer at a different national lab, where he is immersed in a project on machine learning and decision making models. Somehow he still finds time to practice electric guitar two hours a day, a passion of his since his Plymouth days when he took acoustic lessons with Bill Alberts. When his postdoc is over, he and his fiancee Caitlyn hope to move back to the East Coast to be closer to both of their families. They are planning an October 2021 wedding, which will look a bit like a PMFS reunion. “Four of my groomsmen are from my PMFS graduating class,” Zack said. “I talk to those guys every day, basically.”

Along with fostering the close-knit environment that helped him make his best friends for life, Zack said PMFS “is the best educational institution [he’s] attended.” He even credited Plymouth with the lifelong love of learning that led him to get his PhD. Zack explained that PMFS’s culture of creativity, curiosity, and student-led learning made him want to push himself academically. “I was so devoted to learning in those early years,” he remembered. “It felt important to me. I wanted to do my best.”

Zack’s favorite PMFS memories are of class projects and the freedom he got to take things in the direction of his interests, like when he made “a whole papier-mâché model of the Aztec capital city, which is still hanging on my bedroom wall.” “When you do projects like that,” he said, “you never forget the lessons you learn.”

Soon-to-be-Alumni Luncheon

May 14th, 2021
Category: Alumni News

PMFS alumni RJ Edmonds (L) and Haven Arms (R) returned to campus to speak to the graduating Sixth Grade class

Soon-to-be-Alumni Luncheon

Sixth Graders were the guests of honor at the annual “Soon-to-be-Alumni” Luncheon on Thursday. For this special event, PMFS alumni who are about to graduate from high school are invited back to campus. They share their experiences of transitioning to middle school and answer Sixth Graders’ questions over a catered lunch, and everyone goes home with plenty of gifts.

This year’s alumni speakers were Haven Arms, who will be graduating from Germantown Friends School and attending Pratt Institute, and RJ Edmonds, who will be graduating from Penn Charter and attending University of Maryland, Baltimore. Haven and RJ both agreed that PMFS prepared them well academically and socially for their next schools, but RJ added that “asking for help is the greatest thing you can do” and an invaluable life skill. When one Sixth Grader expressed worries about making new friends, Haven advised, “Do what you love and the friends will come” and “Surround yourself with people who make you want to be the best you you can be.”

Echoing PMFS’s ethos of respect for childhood and feeling nostalgic, RJ and Haven hoped the soon-to-be-graduates would enjoy being kids as long as possible. “The world doesn’t end,” Haven reassured the class, “it just gets a little bigger.”

Circus article in the Times Herald!

May 6th, 2021
Category: News

Zoom on Zoom: PMFS students find a way to stage annual circus

By M. English For MediaNews Group

PLYMOUTH — In recent greetings to members of the World Circus Federation on World Circus Day, a Vatican spokesman called such productions sources of “pure joy”; circus artists and workers, “artisans of beauty.” The latter was coined by Pope Francis himself to describe for men and women whose “pastoral care…is among the tasks of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development,” noted Peter K.A. Cardinal Turkson.

Papal approbation aside, the annual Fourth Grade Circus powered by Plymouth Meeting Friends School’s young “artisans of beauty” has delighted hundreds of fans over the years. Sadly, COVID-19 put the kibosh on 2020’s circus mere hours before opening weekend. But this year – despite continuing pandemic protocols – fourth grade teacher Will Starr and his students found a way to keep “the spirit of the circus…alive and well” via a 40-minute video set to air on PMFS’s Facebook page May 7 at 7 p.m.

The show’s title – “Zoom on Zoom” – is a riff on a popular 1970s-era TV show called “Zoom.”

“When I was a kid, I loved that show,” says Starr, whose passion for circuses goes back just as far. “It was a huge part of my childhood. Basically, it consisted of kids putting on plays, reciting poems, telling jokes, singing…a whole bunch of different segments presented by these kids. So, following that format allowed the kids here to do a lot of different, really creative stuff at home in their own neighborhoods…or here at school.

“In a typical year, we would introduce them to a variety of new circus skills…unicycle riding, trapeze, tight rope walking, et cetera. This year, we, naturally, had numerous limitations, including keeping the kids six feet apart, not having any of our circus partners able to join us on campus and not even having access to the gym (which is being used as a classroom to allow for physical distancing) at all.”

Also problematic, creating acts that combined students attending school on campus and virtually as well as regrouped class “pods” that merged third and fourth-graders.

“By putting all of the kids in one big Zoom meeting, we were able to work with them in a new and unique way,” Starr says. “They all had their own little picture frame in which they could speak, sing or do an act. We also filmed a number of scenes together on campus, showing…how we worked with both live and online kids throughout the year.

“Each year, younger students…come to the circus and dream about when they will participate. Often, they assume that they’ll learn the same skills and have a somewhat pre-defined image of what their show might look like. This year was much different. None of us had any idea how to do this online, so we created a whole new approach that focused much more on the filming of individual and group acts than on the mastery of specific circus skills and presentation. The result is a very sweet and emotionally supportive collection of skits that don’t look anything like what we’ve done in the past.”

But might just redefine future PMFS circuses…

“I think the biggest thing is that it’s opened my mind to the possibility of doing things in a totally new and different way,” Starr says. “Instead of thinking about how the audience will see us, I’ve learned to think about ways to use the camera to create completely new experiences. It isn’t the same, and I do miss the actual performances, but I love what we’ve done. Moving forward, I wonder how we can combine the two.”

Bottom line, viewers “can expect a variety of skits that demonstrate just how playful, hard-working and resilient these kids have been all year.”

“In a time when all interactions have been severely limited, this group of kids has found a way to safely work together and create a wonderfully sweet and engaging show,” Starr continues. “Clearly, everyone had hoped that we would be live, but that wasn’t to be. By keeping an open mind and encouraging the kids to think the same, we have hopefully built a circus that will be remembered for its originality and spirit. That said, we all really hope to be performing in front of an enthusiastic crowd again next spring.”

Starr invites the public to view this year’s virtual circus by logging on to Facebook.com/PMFS1780 May 7 at 7 p.m.

“Anyone is welcome to join us,” he says. “They don’t even need to have a Facebook account.”

See this article on the Times Herald website