Upper School Students Explore “The Leavers” in Fall MAD

14 Nov 2018
ByKevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager

The first snow of 2018 is expected to fall tomorrow, November 15, but a quick look at the Upper School schedule shows that Thursday promises to be anything but a lazy snow day. Following a morning assembly with Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers, students will break out into a series of workshops inspired by the book, including two called “The Walls We Can’t See: Language Barriers in NYC” and “Life (or Death?) After Deportation.”

Gemmarosa R. ’20 looks forward to talking about current policy issues regarding family separation in the workshop she’s co-leading. “It’s Fieldston, so I have no doubt that those conversations will happen.”

The assembly and subsequent student-led discussions constitute one of ECFS’s Modified Awareness Days, known in the community as “MADs.” In the spring, a committee of students and faculty meets to decide on a book for all members of the Upper School to read over the summer; that book then becomes the central topic for the MAD that takes places in the fall.

Since September, students have met weekly to plan out the MAD program for The Leavers, this year’s summer reading. With its exploration of immigration, poverty, transracial adoption, and the experiences of Asian Americans in New York, the novel touches on many of the issues students at ECFS are engaged with inside and outside the classroom.

Dean of Student Life Nancy Banks, who oversees the entire MAD planning process, considers MADs to be a defining leadership program at ECFS because they require students to not only sustain a full commitment from start to finish, but also participate as equal stakeholders in a project at the core of the school’s values. “[MADs] model a collaborative, non-hierarchical cooperation, as well as — of course — one of the cornerstones of a Fieldston education: learning by doing. When these programs are really working, they challenge the community to question its assumptions, move out of its comfort zone, and engage in critical discourse about important issues.”

It’s Fieldston, so I have no doubt that those conversations will happen.

For Elisa O. ’21, Ko’s framing of the problem of the white savior complex was especially resonant. Through her workshop, which will draw on movies, literature, and personal anecdotes, Elisa hopes to prompt her classmates to think critically about their participation in service learning. “It’s important to make sure that when they’re going into service projects, they’re not playing the hero.”

Though it’s easy to assume that a day of programming built around a piece of literature would be grounded in the humanities, the MAD has the potential to bridge disciplines. Daphne Z. ’20 is working with two STEM faculty members to lead a workshop on the science of decision-making. “Within things like ethics, we can talk about science,” she says, “and within science, we can talk about ethics.” She hopes her workshop can give her peers a new lens through which to view the book when analyzing the decisions the characters make.

For ethics teacher Rachel Ehrlich, the MAD program represents a highlight of the curriculum at ECFS. “To be able to discern what kinds of themes in a novel feel mission-aligned and potent with the potential to edify and amplify the voices of people we don’t hear from — even if it’s just the first step in bringing awareness to this issue — I think that is ethical learning at its best,” she says.