Heather Sugrue, who this past summer became the new Upper School academic dean, has witnessed two decades of Milton Academy as a math teacher, a house head, and most recently, the math department chair. She replaces Jackie Bonenfant, whose role has transitioned to dean of academic initiatives. In a recent interview, Heather discussed the joy of teaching math, her excitement about her new position, and what makes Milton students so special.
What was it about the position of academic dean that interested you?
As math department chair, I found it rewarding to use my math knowledge to collaborate with the adult community here. I really enjoyed that. I also felt that I was creating some new habits as department chair, as opposed to following expectations or guidelines. There were challenges and exciting parts. That made me think a lot about how we can make other department chairs feel supported as they step into their roles, which was a big draw to this new position.
The other piece, and the thing that’s kept me at Milton since my arrival in 2001, is the students, because they’re amazing, unique, and interesting in so many different ways. I have loved the opportunities to get to know my advisees, the students in the dorms and in my classes, but this new position gives me the opportunity to get to know even more students while we’re helping them to navigate this place.
What does the academic dean do?
It changes from day to day. This office oversees attendance, and I work closely with the class deans to make sure we’re supporting students. I’m at the helm, but a lot of other people are involved. Another part is making sure faculty know what is expected and helping new members. I work closely with the other deans and the Upper School principal, and I’m involved if there are academic integrity violations and discipline committee issues, as we help students in those moments where there’s been a misstep.
I work closely with Kate Collins, the director of academic support in the Academic Skills Center. If a student is struggling, we’ll meet together with their teachers to make sure we’re all on the same page. This helps, because if one person sees something a little off, they won’t dismiss it because they’ll know we’re seeing it across that student’s classes. I talk to students one-on-one about how things are going, and try to help them if they hit a bump in the road.
What are some of the ways the math department has changed since you started at Milton?
A number of teachers were hired while I was chair, and it’s been exciting to see how great they’ve all been and how much they enjoy Milton. I also did and continue to do a lot of close work with Chris Hales in computer science. It’s his love but something I’m interested in too. That partnership led us to create this mini-unit exposure to programming that’s in all the geometry courses, which has been a great addition.
Math can be intimidating for some people. How do you make it more accessible and exciting?
A lot of fear about math is from people being told they are not good at it, either explicitly or implicitly, for a long time. It begins in elementary school, where acquiring math skills requires being a fast processor. If you do take more time, there’s an assumption made that you’re not getting it or it’s not making sense. Things start getting hard in fourth and fifth grade, maybe even in third. I am in awe of elementary school teachers who are teaching every subject in a classroom with the same group all day. That’s such a gift and such a challenge. There are a lot of people who say that they’re scared of math, or bad at math. It is not unlikely that there are elementary teachers who put themselves in that place. It’s hard to share the joy of math if you’re actually a little scared of it yourself.
But we can all find joy in math. That’s the culture we’re working to build at Milton. We may not all choose to be mathematicians, and that’s fine. In my classes, I find ways to invite more students into the joy that is “playing with math.” I love low-floor, high-ceiling problems that everyone feels like they can at least try, and where there really is no limit to where you can go with a solution. I also try hard to ask questions to which I don’t already know the answer, and focus on listening to my students.
Was there someone or something that inspired you to become a teacher?
My dad was a math teacher, so it was definitely on my radar. I grew up at a school that’s in some ways similar to Milton: Westtown School, in Pennsylvania, another K–12 school with boarding and day students. I always liked math, so it wasn’t anything new or surprising that I might study it in college, but I wasn’t planning to be a teacher. I majored in math and minored in French. When I came out of school, I started working at a French library in Boston, which was fun, but also a little boring on a day-to-day basis. The first day that I looked for a new job, I saw an opening for a calculus teacher at St. Paul’s School, in New Hampshire. I interviewed, and that’s where I started teaching.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a teacher?
I’m a very different teacher now than I was when I started, and even than six or seven years ago. The thing that makes teaching challenging is also what makes it so much fun: You can always do it better, and you have do-over moments every year, or even every day. I’m always planning, thinking about what we’re going to do, and knowing that I’m probably going to change the plan because someone’s going to ask a good question, or an idea will come up that we want to explore. I’ve also really prioritized getting to know everyone in the room very well. I love the math, of course, but knowing who the students are makes a big difference.
When an act of legislation ends legal discrimination, it does not automatically end oppression or abuses of power, said scholar and activist Jamal Grant at an assembly hosted by the student clubs Students Interested in Middle Eastern Affairs (SIMA) and Amnesty International.
“It’s not enough to change bad laws and bad leaders,” he said. “We have to change the systems that keep bad leadership in power.”
Grant worked with three other African American scholars and activists to create a film exploring the topics of wealth inequality, race relations, and progress in post-apartheid South Africa for the Ase [Ah-SHAY] Research Film Project. He was the lead producer for the film, Ubuntu Rising, a documentary covering the legacy of apartheid: continued social inequality, corruption, infrastructure failures, and poverty.
Filmmaking was a new venture for Grant, a first-generation American who was raised by Trinidadian immigrants in Boston. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and has worked as a mechanical and aerospace systems engineer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. He is the founder and director of the NET Mentoring Group, a nonprofit focused on closing the achievement and opportunity gap for minorities and young women in STEM fields. He has held international human and civil rights fellowships in Rwanda, Detroit, and Atlanta, where he studied colonialism, resistance, and social progress.
Grant is a public policy master’s degree candidate at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he is a fellow at the school’s Center for Public Leadership.
Two birds in flight, a swimming shark, and a fanged fish are just a few of the sculptures that make up the Creatures Great and Small exhibit outside the Art and Media Center (AMC). Each of the eight pieces is done by a different artist in materials such as bronze, granite, steel, and resin. Pamela Tarbell of PR Tarbell Fine Art curated the exhibit, which will be on display throughout the 2019–2020 school year.
One of the pieces, “The Understudy,” by local artist Bob Shanahan, is housed inside the AMC. The sculpture, built out of natural materials such as bark and twigs, depicts a Diatryma — a dinosaur that roamed New England millions of years ago.
The other pieces line up in front of the AMC. Morris Norvin’s “Piscator II” is the largest — a steel structure, painted gray and bent into the shape of a swimming shark. The smallest is the sleek “Epoxy Cheetah” by Wendy Klemperer. Shirin Adhami, a new visual arts faculty member and Nesto Gallery director, says a favorite of the younger students on campus is “Toothed Fish,” composed of granite and quartz by Thomas Berger.
Shirin’s art history class discussed the pieces; she said many students are really responding to the exhibit’s “creatures” theme. In past years, outdoor installations focused on abstract work, so Ian Torney, chair of the visual arts department, asked the curator to think of a figurative theme, and from that came the idea of finding work that represented creatures.
The installation took place at the start of this school year, when all the artists brought their work on the same day. Some pieces required tricky lifting and heavy bases to anchor them. Milton’s facilities team helped with the installation. One of the artists, Beverly Benson Seamons ’46, passed away in 2012, so her son did the installation of her “Osprey,” a bronze sculpture.
Rapper and singer Jidenna Mobisson ’03 returned to campus as part of the expanded Transition Program (see page 32), serving as the keynote speaker for new students of color and international students, and as a panelist in a conversation with their parents. The events preceded programming throughout Labor Day weekend for all students new to Milton.
“It’s the first day — I know you feel a little bit nervous, but I want to say congratulations to each and every one of you,” Jidenna said. “I sat in the same seats you’re sitting in right now, with students who were just like you. Some of the people here that you don’t know yet will be your best friends for life.”
Born in Wisconsin, Jidenna moved to Nigeria with his family and lived there until the age of six. Upon returning to the United States, the family settled in Massachusetts. Throughout his youth, he encountered racism from children and adults that made him question his sense of belonging in certain places. His family lived in the working-class Boston neighborhood of Mattapan, which borders Milton but felt like a world away from campus. Jidenna recalled feeling embarrassed by his mom’s car, asking her to drop him off at the edge of campus on the days he didn’t walk from the train station.
Jidenna offered tips for rising to the challenges of a rigorous environment like Milton. First, he advised students to work closely with the faculty, because teachers are invested in student success — he remains in touch with teachers who have become friends over the years. He also advised students to embrace the diversity of the School and to get to know students with identities and backgrounds different from their own. As well as sharing their lives with faculty and peers, he said, students should follow the School’s motto.
“I’ve never forgotten ‘Dare to be true,’” Jidenna said. “It takes courage to find your vulnerabilities. It takes courage to embrace them. But when you do, you become a mighty person, and you’re able to walk on your own.”
Students should expect to grow in their understanding of identity during their time at Milton, Jidenna said. Through his African American history course, he learned about leaders who helped shape his understanding of what it means to be black; through his peers with different identities, he learned the importance of finding — and using — one’s own voice.
After graduating from Milton, Jidenna attended Stanford, where he studied ritual arts. He is signed to Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Records, and his song “Classic Man” received a Grammy Award nomination in 2016. In the summer of 2019, he released the album 85 to Africa, which showcases his influences of African and Caribbean music, hip-hop, and soul.
Poor air quality, asbestos dumping, and lack of green spaces are just a few of the environmental issues that residents in lower-income city neighborhoods face on a daily basis. Twenty-two students from the Activism for Justice in a Digital World class and two sections of Science in the Modern Age went on the Toxic Tour of Dudley Square in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury to learn about environmental justice initiatives.
David Nolies, from Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), a nonprofit based in Dudley Square, was their guide. “We are the voice for the people that don’t have a voice,” he told students. Nolies grew up nearby in a government housing project and has been involved with ACE for 22 years, since he was 15.
As he walked students around to different spots, he explained that Roxbury’s childhood asthma hospitalization rate is nearly six times as high as the state average, that developers would raze buildings and leave behind toxic debris, and that the neighborhood train to downtown Boston was replaced by an inefficient and polluting bus system, making access to jobs more difficult.
History faculty member Andrea Geyling-Moore started taking students on the tour almost 10 years ago when Dave Jenkins ’99 worked as an organizer for ACE. Dave video-conferenced with students the day before the tour and talked about how one of the group’s big successes was an eight-year battle to get the subway system to offer discounted youth passes. Although he is no longer at ACE, Dave continues to work on environmental justice issues.
Back at ACE’s offices, the students had lunch and wrote their reflections on the morning. Nolies talked more about how important it is for young people to be engaged in environmental justice. On the way back to Milton, the group made a quick visit to the Urban Farming Institute in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston. Some Milton students are regular community engagement volunteers on the farm.
Nick Morton ’02 was a few weeks into his senior year at Milton when the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, stirred in him the need to serve. Before graduating from Milton, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve — and began a lifelong military career.
Now an army captain, Nick was the 2019 Veterans Day speaker.
“We spent the days and months trying to process what had happened” after the 2001 attacks, he said about the many conversations he had with classmates. “I can’t speak to what my classmates felt at that time, but for me, it began to synthesize this sense that I wanted to become part of something bigger than myself. I started wondering if I had something to give, if I could be of value.”
As a soldier, Nick has served as a weapons troop commander, infantry company commander, air operations officer, platoon leader, and civil affairs sergeant, with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. His military education includes graduation from the Army Ranger School, where he finished in the top 15 percent of students that completed all phases of the grueling program on the first attempt. Nick has been awarded the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Joint Commendation Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Joint Service Achievement Medal, and the Army Achievement Medal, among others.
He received his bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Maryland at College Park and his M.S. in organizational leadership from Columbus State University. He is currently working toward his master’s degree in public administration at Harvard Kennedy School.
It’s one thing to learn how a bill becomes a law. It’s another thing entirely to step into the shoes of a lawmaker.
American Government and Politics students spent a morning in Boston last fall at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where they shed their student personas and became U.S. senators, poised to act on a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
“It’s helpful for them to have hands-on experience with the process,” said Perin Gokce, a history and social sciences faculty member who arranged the trip. “It gives them a better understanding of all the competing demands that senators grapple with before they go into a vote: their party’s interests, their state’s interests, and their personal viewpoints.”
Milton students joined students from Mansfield High School in the institute’s senate chamber, a nearly exact replica of the U.S. Senate chamber in Washington, D.C. The student senators broke into subcommittees, where they had the opportunity to ask institute staff experts about various provisions they could attach to the bill, or to interview and vote on presidential appointees. They then caucused with other members of their parties to decide on proposed amendments to the bill. Finally, student representatives from each party spoke on the senate floor to defend their amendments. The bill was defeated by a vote of 51–39.
Each student was given a profile that included their randomly assigned party affiliation and the top political priorities for the state they represented. They weighed various options according to factors such as job creation, government spending, civil liberties, and national security.
Perin is interested in creating more hands-on opportunities for her students, including mock Supreme Court hearings and debates. It’s a worthwhile challenge for students to try on a position that they may be personally opposed to, she said. “It’s a good exercise to have them argue for the other side sometimes.”
The late Massachusetts Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy ’50 envisioned the institute as a place where visitors could learn about the legislative process. During their visit, the Milton students toured a replica of Kennedy’s Washington, D.C., office, most of which was transferred to Boston after his death.
They also viewed an exhibit dedicated to the late New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first black candidate to run for a major-party presidential nomination. Representative Chisholm’s famous quote “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair” is represented throughout the Kennedy Institute by folding chairs decorated to honor people who have been historically underrepresented in U.S. government.
For Yoshi Makishima ’11, animating a story is a way to put your stamp on every aspect of it. The animator is a director, a writer, a designer, and an actor, making choices that affect everything from characters’ personalities to the overall tone of a film.
Yoshi’s short film Night was an official selection at the 2019 San Diego International Kids’ Film Festival last August. She submitted the four-minute piece after completing it for a class at the Harvard Extension School.
Yoshi, a performing arts faculty member in Milton’s Middle School, began animating when she was a student in the Upper School. For her senior project, she worked with former modern languages teacher Mary Jo Ramos to animate Spanish stories for Middle School students. After Milton, Yoshi attended Smith College, where she majored in English, and took animation courses at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Night follows an unidentified figure through a city covered in darkness to a forest. Yoshi made the character genderless, ageless, and without other identifiers so that viewers could relate to the figure. The inspiration came from a summer with repeated electrical blackouts; Yoshi found the sudden plunges into darkness and quiet to be isolating.
“I spent a lot of time in the dark, which made me think about light, and the absence of it, and how lonely that can feel,” she said. “It was a major inspiration, and something I thought a lot of people might relate to.”
Being an official selection at a film festival means being screened there. At the San Diego Film Festival the screenings happened in small groups, and the film that won in Yoshi’s category was in her group. Yoshi couldn’t attend the festival because it was held when teachers were preparing for this academic year.
Yoshi was able to share Night with a special audience of tough critics: her students. Many of them showed genuine interest in the film and in animation in general. Yoshi is thinking of ways to incorporate animation into the School in some way — perhaps through a workshop, if scheduling allows. And she would love to see more girls get into filmmaking.
“It does seem like there’s a real hunger for it, especially at this moment in time,” she said. “The kids are so comfortable with computers and they’re also media literate in a way that is astounding and exciting. Making films used to be so much more of a niche interest. It used to be something you’d have to go out of your way to learn about. But it’s a language these students are so comfortable speaking.”