WinterMission Takes Off in the Upper School

From the clanging of tools to the dramatic rhythm of flamenco music and the whirring of stand mixers, the upper school campus was abuzz with the launch of the four-day WinterMission program.

“Watching the students and faculty delve into a new type of class experience has been inspiring,” said Peter Newcomb, head of upper school, who also helped teach a course on podcasting. “People have gone into this experience with an open mind, and that has helped make this week a success.”

WinterMission was also a time for upper school students to step outside of the classroom and explore the Hudson Valley or New York City, where they learned more about public art and studied new cultures through neighborhood eats. Some chose to scale unfamiliar heights by rock climbing, examine DNA in a professional lab, or test their comedic skills by writing and performing short comedy sketches.

Director of Learning Initiatives Jason Hult, who spearheaded the overall WinterMission planning process, co-taught a course called Creating a Just Housing Market. “It has been powerful to see the seriousness with which students have taken on this work,” he said. “Even without the extrinsic motivation of grades, we have students staying late to continue the conversation and working through breaks and lunch.”

Clara Nalle ’24 rolled up her sleeves for the Chemistry of Cooking, which was held in Estherwood with upper school chemistry teachers Andrew Young and Rene Hurley. “I’ve enjoyed getting to learn from teachers who I wouldn’t have had in my regular classes,” Nalle said. “We made zucchini and banana bread and learned how different leavening agents work and it was all delicious.”

Jeren Staber ’24 signed up for Podcasting 101 led by Newcomb, upper school math department chair Marianna Van Brummelen and upper school English teacher Stacy Van Beek. “I've listened to a lot of podcasts, so I was curious about what goes into making one,” Staber said. “We’ve been doing some audio layering and editing. We've also been learning how to keep up a conversation because with podcasting there is a lot of talking going on.” 

Gaining hands-on experience and exercising problem-solving muscles became the central focus of You Break It, You Make It with Darren Wood, upper school English teacher; Peter Wylie, theater technical director; Gilles Pugatch, upper school music teacher; and Paul West, upper school English teacher. The course tasks students with dismantling a bicycle and reassembling it.

“I think we’ve been surprised in many ways by how exciting the problem of taking apart a bicycle and putting it back together has been. It seems like the perfect problem because it really does require multiple hands and multiple kids,” Wood explained. “At this point, there are three to four bicycles that they have rescued from rust and years of abandonment and brought back to life.”

For Jem Furniss ’25, who enrolled in You Break It, You Make It, WinterMission was a chance to further explore one of his interests. “I’ve been mountain biking for about six years and I am very interested in the mechanics of bikes, so I thought it would be a fun idea to learn more about how they work,” he said.

Azariah Charles ’26 liked the idea of picking one topic to concentrate on more in-depth learning. She took Masters to Malawi: A Bicontinental Magazine with Ellen Cowhey, upper school history/religion and journalism teacher, and Cheryl Hajjar, upper school visual arts chair. The course offered students the chance to collaborate with students at Mzuzu International Academy in Malawi, Africa, to plan and create a magazine.
“Malawi is seven hours ahead of us. We had a time crunch but we feel like we can make an interesting little publication and hope to share it with both communities,” Hajjar said. “Our students have been creative and they have problem-solved quite a bit.”

“The most interesting thing I have learned is how even though we are in very different parts of the world, we still have very similar interests such as hip-hop music, reading books and playing sports,” Charles said. “It was such an amazing experience to bond and learn more about their everyday lives.”

The WinterMission week came to a close with smiles and joy. Curt Ebersole, upper school music teacher, and Ed Gormley, director of student activities, teamed up to teach Make ‘Em Laugh, a stand-up comedy workshop. Calling laughter “a universal power for good,” Ebersole and Gormley were thrilled with the student performances in the Davis Cafe to wrap up the course.

“I believe that learning to face your fears of stage fright in front of a crowd and developing an understanding of what’s funny are important life skills,” said Ian Stein ’23 about the comedy course.

“The students took on the challenge of writing a two- to four-minute stand-up routine very seriously,” said Ebersole, who has done stand-up himself. “The point is to create a memorable experience for these students to step over the line, take a big risk and be a true Power for Good.”