Experiential/Service Learning

This last semester, I offered an optional “add-on” service learning (sometimes called experiential learning) component to my early American literature course. It was a great experience, and I want to share it with other instructors who might benefit from offering something similar. So, this post is going to: 1) explain why I did this, 2) discuss how I went about doing this, 3) tell about the experience for me and my students, and, 4) showcase my students’ work.

Why I Offered a Project-Based Service Learning Course

If you’re not familiar with service learning, a simple description of it is a method of learning in which students actively participate in the learning experience, usually through field work, study abroad, field work, internships, and other kinds of “hands-on” (or, dare I say, “real world”) activities. Students study a subject and then transform that knowledge into a new product outside of the classroom.

I borrowed this photo of the New Orleans East Vietnamese Market from the “YoBreaux” blog that talks about the market’s cultural importance.

During my undergraduate studies at Tulane, I took a service learning course that I’ve thought about frequently ever since. It was the Fall of 2007, two years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, and the city was still largely in tatters. Tulane took a lead role in helping to rebuild the city. One way of doing that (other than the wide array of service clubs and weekend volunteer activities) was through service learning. My class studied the Vietnamese experience in New Orleans, reading numerous pieces of fiction and secondary scholarship about the Vietnamese-American experience. We then traveled to the Vietnamese community’s public market in New Orleans East every other Saturday morning to experience the culture first hand- talking to people, trying different foods, listening to music, watching smokey 7 a.m. card games. With better academic, cultural, and personal understanding of the community, we began a project to help design a charter for a new, tri-lingual charter school in the area. We performed and transcribed interviews with community members on their priorities, preferences, and concerns with the new charter school- everything from music class to bus operations. By the end of the semester, we had organized our research findings into a document that would serve as a basis for the writers of the school’s actual charter. It was one of the most interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding classes I’ve ever taken.

With that in mind, I jumped at the opportunity to attend an event at Stony Brook’s Humanities Center last spring, in which English Department Alumna Michele Fazio spoke about her successful service learning projects at UNC Pembroke. I left the event feeling inspired to use my position of influence as an instructor to give students a meaningful experience that will benefit them and others. I decided to implement an optional EXP+ offering for my EGL 316 course on early American literature.

How I Went About It

The process for setting up a service learning course at Stony Brook is simple. Admittedly, my course itself was not designated EXP (experiential)- I only created the optional add-on “course” (EXP+) for interested students to enroll in. All that’s required is finding a partner institution or individual to act as the supervisor, sitting down with both that supervisor and interested students to discuss expectations, and filling out a contract with the student. The student then submits the contract to the departmental administrator, enrolls in the zero credit (and thus free) course. That’s it!

I chose the Long Island Museum (LIM) as a partner institution because of its relevant collections and its proximity to SBU’s campus, although a number of other organizations were eager to host our students. They also have an amazingly friendly staff (shoutout to Christine, Andrea, and Jonathan!) that was always willing to help make this a great learning experience for students. Two of my students enrolled, along with three of Professor Susan Scheckel’s students (the content of her course and mine overlapped, so we decided to work together in designing the structure, content, and expectations of the project). In the beginning of October, Professor Scheckel and I met with the LIM staff to make sure that we were all on the same page, and then a few weeks later we had an introductory session at the museum archive. After that, we had research sessions at the archive once a week for the rest of the semester.

The Experience

During our introductory session, the staff took us on a guided tour of the vault, which was amazing. Students got to see important works of American art and hear from the experts the stories behind each work. They also got to touch artifacts, which- for anybody who hasn’t yet had the experience- is a powerful experience. It was immediately clear that students were excited simply by being in the presence of so much historical “stuff.”

That excitement never really subsided, either. But there was also a noticeable anxiety in the students at first. I had experienced that anxiety myself in 2007- students are in a new, unfamiliar learning environment and they’re not sure what they need to do to success (or how to do it). Professor Scheckel and I tried to mitigate that nervousness by providing clear plans and specific steps for the students to execute.

Students began by choosing an item in the collection that they wanted to pursue. Their ultimate responsibility was to write social media posts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) for the LIM to use. This turned out to be a challenging yet rewarding lesson in writing. Students had to think about audience, they had to clearly, concisely, and meaningfully transform pages and pages of notes into a few sentences, and they had to revise numerous drafts. Once they began their research on their items, however, their anxieties diminished and they soon demonstrated confidence in their new abilities to perform research using a variety of primary, archived materials (letters, diaries, ledgers, sketches, etc). See below for one student’s blog post that narrates her findings.

If you’re an instructor and you’re considering incorporating service learning into your pedagogy, I have a few suggestions: 1) DO IT! It’s rewards provide a different sort of gratification than our normal academic work; 2) Begin small with an EXP+ optional add-on for students, rather than making it a mandatory component of your entire course. You’re bound for some trial and error as you first begin, and it’s a lot easier to manage things on a small scale. Once you’ve gotten the feel for things, then try out an entire class of EXP; 3) Prepare for some, but not a ton of extra work. I was able to rely on the amazing staff at the LIM to take the lead on a number of issues, but you will have to be there to guide students, to reassure them that they’re moving in the right direction, and to give feedback on (and grade) their work. Is it worth it? I say wholeheartedly: “Yes!” Will I do it again? As soon as I get the chance.

Student Work

Emma’s blog post, showcasing her research findings on William Sidney Mount’s “Girl with Pitcher”


End of Semester Assignment in Early American Literature

As a teacher during the final days of the semester, how do you help students to circle back around and think globally about the lessons and themes they’ve learned over the past fifteen weeks? You may use final essay assignments or final exams to help students connect the dots, you may close the last class session with a reflective discussion, or maybe you leave it entirely to your students to reexamine the overarching themes of a semester that has left them staring, zombie-like, into the distance.


That end-of-the-semester look.


I’ve tried a variety of strategies for the end-of-term reflection, but often we don’t plan for it until it’s already upon us—until one of the busiest, most hectic times of the semester. This time around, I planned ahead to give my upper-level early American literature class a short, low-stakes, fun assignment that would encourage students to think about the class’ content and about their own, personal takeaways from it. This post will explain the assignment, provide you with its instructions, and show some examples of the work that students produced. I was amazed at the results and at the amount of energy and conviction that students put into their work. It was one of the most enjoyable writing tasks I’ve given, and I’m sharing it with you so that you can incorporate it into your own pedagogy as well.

The class was “Early American Literature: The Individual and the Community in Early America,” and two of its most prevalent themes were rights and equality, specifically regarding race and gender. For anybody who thinks early American literature is boring, irrelevant, etc., guess again. For each class, my students were writing impassioned Blackboard posts about the injustice that figures like William Apess, Margaret Fuller, and Frederick Douglass spoke against. They came to class marveling at Whitman’s writings about sexuality and with their “blood boiling” (as one student often phrased it) at the disparate definitions and administrations of rights and equality for Native-Americans, African-Americans, and women. I didn’t want them to lose these feelings, lessons, and connections, so I modified an assignment that was shared with me at Nassau Community College’s IDEAS Symposium this year: a letter to one’s government representatives.

For a few reasons, I didn’t require the letter to be written to the president, as the original model did. There’s an entire website that publishes open letters to the president, and the teacher who introduced me to this assignment uses the website as a publishing platform for her students’ work. That’s a great idea, and I encourage you to check out the website and consider using it, but I wanted to give students the chance to address not just the national issues occupying the spotlight, but local issues as well.

The assignment directions are as follows:

Think about the foundational values and ideals of early American culture that we’ve been reading about all semester. You’ve had a rare opportunity to closely study the culture, concerns, values, etc. that America was and still is built upon, but many people, including our government representatives, may not have had the same opportunity.

Write a one-page letter to the American representative of your choice, teaching him or her an important lesson that you learned in this course. Structure it like a professional letter:

Include an introduction in which you actually introduce yourself (ex: “My name is X and I’ve been studying early American literature and culture, and I want to share something with you that you might not have known”).

In the body, teach him/her a lesson! Use specific examples (ex: “in Frederick Douglass’ famous ‘What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July’ speech, he states, ‘XYZ’”).

In the conclusion, influence change. Tell the representative what he/she could do better to honor those values (or what he/she is doing correctly). Is there something he/she did that contradicts (or supports) the values we’ve been learning about? Let them know!

This would make for a great longer or more formal writing assignment, but I kept mine low-stakes. Students had about 48 hours to write it, and it was to be graded as the daily Blackboard discussion post that it was replacing (there were about 30 discussion posts throughout the semester, totaling 10% of the students’ final grade, so it was worth very little). Grammar mistakes would not affect their grade, either. In the future, I’d consider making this assignment worth more points, but the products that students turned in were great without the pressure of a significant grade. In fact, I think that the low-stakes element of it was a key factor of its success. I even noticed that students who, in previous assignments, had saturated their writing with misused thesaurus words and illogically complicated sentences, now found a more natural writing voice that was far more effective.

I’m confident that my three goals for the assignment were accomplished:

  • To encourage reflection about the overarching lessons and takeaways from the course.
  • To provide a self-guided (not teacher-regulated) opportunity for students to connect their somewhat abstracted college/Humanities education to the current historical moment that they’re experiencing first-hand. This is one of the most important lessons for all of us to consider as academic professionals: How are we making sure that we’re giving our students a useful and meaningful education? How are we demonstrating to our students, to our administrators, and to the public that the Humanities are effective, important, and worthwhile?
  • To give students a personally meaningful assignment with a useful and concrete result—to give them an authentic writing assignment. They now have letters that they can actually send to their representatives, and hopefully they’ll be more confident about writing for civic engagement in the future. One student, who had been reserved most of the semester, emailed me the following message after the class responded to her letter with overwhelming applause and support: “It sounds silly but I really appreciate the encouragement in class today. It’s been a discouraging few weeks with the work load I have and it put me back the positive mind frame I needed.”

So, here are a few examples of my students’ letters to their government representatives:



McConnellZeldinTrump 2

Trump 1

Class Constitutions & Crossword Quizzes

The school year is started back up, and we’re already nearing the end of week two. I’ve been teaching online for the past year, and that can be fun and stimulating in its own ways, but being back in a physical classroom is invigorating. There’s something energizing about planning lessons and then physically putting them into action in a classroom. After classes #1 and #2, I felt feelings of accomplishment, success, and gratification (footnote: a philosophy professor once told me that gratification is one of the most powerful human feelings, and I often think back to that statement and consider the strong, motivating influence of gratification in my life- how about yours?). It feels good to create lesson plans that include unique activities that engage students, and I’m going to spend the rest of this post talking about two of those activities that I have planned for tonight’s class: 1) A class constitution, and 2)  A crossword puzzle quiz.

Class Constitution

My class spent the first week reading some of America’s founding documents- the Declaration of Independence, “Common Sense,” the Constitution, and “The Age of Reason.” We analyzed them as both literary and historical texts, and their ideas will provide a framework for many of the readings we’ll do the rest of the semester. In the spirit of democracy, I came up with the idea of a class constitution, complete with a list of rights for each student (from “the right to voice an opinion” to “the right to be absent three times before it affects one’s grade”). The key is that it will be the students who will create the document. My hope is that this will instill in them a sense of investment in their work and participation, a sense of accountability to the standards that they themselves created, and a sense of appreciation for the difficulties and complex thought processes behind the creators of America’s founding documents. I’ll be there to provide some scaffolding and to moderate, but I plan to leave the rest in their hands.

Similarly, I will have the class democratically create the rubric by which their oral presentations will be graded. The criteria, the point values, and the specific wording will all be created by students. This idea came from a course I took with Peter Khost for Stony Brook’s advanced graduate certificate in teaching composition and rhetoric. We did something similar in that class, and I can say from experience that it forces students to think in new ways. I’ll create a follow-up post in a few weeks to report how things went!

Crossword Puzzle Quiz

I was just cleaning out my little accordion-portfolio binder with all of my old teaching papers in it, and I found a quiz from a Writing 101 course I taught in the Spring of 2016. The course was mostly for international students whose first language was not English, and while that seemed slightly intimidating to me at first, it turned out to be a fantastic class. The students were eager to learn and improve and needed no help in the field of motivation- my office hours have never been so crowded. But the class was also fun, for them and for me alike. Their drive to learn made it possible for the class to be less formal without there being a concern of losing the pedagogical thread.

The quiz that I found from this class was in the form of a crossword puzzle. I had forgotten about the crossword puzzle quiz until this re-discovery a few minutes ago, and now I remember how enjoyable it was for the students. (It also made lesson planning more enjoyable for me). It was a simple quiz, assessing writing issues we’d been covering, and most students did pretty well on it.

Since I’m currently teaching a literature course with relatively easy daily quizzes to make sure students are reading the assigned texts, I’m going to bring back the old crossword puzzle quiz…early American style! I recommend you try it out as an assessment tool or reading comprehension check as well- it’s a good way to find out where your students are at without making them feel “quizzed.”


Transatlantic Walt Whitman Association Week

From June 12-17, I had the amazing privilege of attending the tenth annual Transatlantic Walt Whitman Association (TWWA) Week, held this year at the Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne in Paris, France. Each year, the seminar brings together scholars and students from around the world to study Walt Whitman in what I can only describe as an incredibly refreshing, energetic, and inspiring way. The event was powerful and motivating, and at the very least deserves a blog post.

The students of the 10th annual TWWA Week.

Each day began with four 15-minute presentations from a panel of Whitman scholars- Jeanne Cortiel (Bayreuth Univerität), Vincent Dussol (Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3), Karen Karbiener (NYU), and Peter Riley (University of Exeter). These presentations were one of the most valuable aspects of the seminar for me. They were, in a way, “mini-lessons” on different aspects of Whitman studies. On Wednesday morning, for example, Karen discussed Charles Hines’ 1860 colored portrait of a notably red-faced Whitman and how it related to “Calamus 29,” Whitman’s time at Pfaff’s beer cellar (and the introduction of lagers during this period), and the reflective, inward-facing 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, while Peter’s presentation examined the collapse of the body into the book (and vice versa) and issues of commodification and labor involved in Whitman’s poetry and publications. Jeanne analyzed “Earth, My Likeness,” in which Whitman “dares not” try to describe the earth, in comparison to his very unabashed descriptions of earth in “Song of Myself,” and Vincent wrote his own 15 line poem that summarized “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” which he suggests was influenced by Poe’s “The Raven.”

The four expert panelists during a Q&A session.

These were four presentations by four experts with distinctly different perspectives and teaching styles, and that’s what made each morning so rich. As somebody who teaches Whitman and previously did not feel adequately equipped to do Whitman’s poetry justice in my classes, I found these presentations to be stimulating models of lessons I could incorporate into my own classes. And, of course, by the end of the fifth day of these presentations, I felt confident in my now detailed knowledge of Whitman’s life, of the various editions of Leaves of Grass, and of the work that current scholars are producing on Whitman.

Each day also featured small-group sessions in which students would analyze the texts closely under the guidance of one or more faculty members (and when I say “small-group sessions,” I mean it— groups contained only 5-6 students). These sessions were an opportunity for students to bring their own literary expertise to the texts, to perform close readings, to ask questions, and to become exposed to even more perspectives. On two of the days, the small-group sessions centered on the students’ own translations of Whitman into their native languages, adding a new dimension of complexity to the corpus of Whitman’s works and my understanding of translated texts in general. I should pause to say that students were from all over the world- South Africa, Singapore, Kazakhstan, Syria, Venezuela, Germany, France, Italy, the US, etc. The result of this diversity was a potent fecundity of critical thought- varying world perspectives, differences in methodological and theoretical training, and subtle and explicit nuances in each language that affected translations and called for constructive dialogues and new ways of thinking about texts, translations, and language. Add to this the input and guidance of the expert translators, also from different backgrounds— Marina Camboni (Università degli Studi di Macerata), Mario Corona (Università degli Studi di Bergamo), Marta Skwara (University of Szczecin), and Éric Athenot (Université de Paris-Est Créteil)— and one can begin to imagine just how special these sessions were.

I’ll keep this from going on too long by concluding with a few notes about the general atmosphere of the week. Yes, it was intellectually stimulating and academically rigorous— that is certain. But there was a powerful energy that permeated every aspect of the event, and I think that this energy was the most central element of the week’s success. We started the week by holding hands (as strangers) in a large circle. By midway through the week, students and faculty alike were tearing up during readings and discussions. By the end of the symposium on Saturday, this group of individuals from all over the world had become a family that, appropriately enough, reflected the ideals that Whitman’s poetry propounds- the ideals of inclusivity, celebration, openness, and sharing. The UPEC students who hosted the international students were essential to this- they took us into their homes, they fed us, they showed us the city and immersed us in the magical nightlife (shoutout to my host, Duy, for making my week absolutely unforgettable). And finally, the week would not have been the week it was without the incredible, hard work of Marie Olivier and Éric Athenot, who organized the event.

Marie Olivier (out of picture) took a group of us students to the Jardin des Grands Explorateurs for drinks and snacks!

I don’t know whether I’ll be able to attend again next year in Dortmund, Germany, but I will certainly try to be involved in one way or another when the event comes to NY in 2019. Thanks again to all who made the event such a success (and, of course, in the true spirit of Walt Whitman, every single person who was involved contributed to and was an essential piece of its success)!
Post Script: Special thanks to the Stony Brook University English Department for covering my travel costs to get to such a prestigious and worthwhile event!

“I Love My Park Day”: English PhDs Take Walt Whitman Birthplace by Storm

By guest-blogger Katharine Perko, Ph.D.

The Walt Whitman Birthplace (Image courtesy of parks.ny.gov)

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood

(“Song of Myself” 52.11-15).

On Saturday, May 6, Scott, Julia Clarke—a friend and colleague from the Stony Brook English graduate program—and I met up at the house where Walt Whitman was born to participate in the sixth annual statewide event called “I Love My Park Day.” Of all the 125 parks we could have chosen to help out at, this site seemed the most poetic option for a trio of English majors.

Julia weeding the Whitman Birthplace garden beds.

Throughout the day, we mainly worked on the grounds where the Whitman family’s detached kitchen used to stand. Over the course of a few hours we cleared numerous garbage bags’ worth of weeds and what felt like a small forest of dead branches from behind a small building called the Gathering House. As we moved from one overgrown patch to another, we also covered a lot of conversational ground, discussing such topics as: parallels between gardening and writing, models of service learning in the humanities, the politics of art, and what civic engagement means to each of us.

Julia using a nineteenth-century toy that teaches children how to milk a cow.

Midway through the morning, the park director invited us to take a break and learn more about the site with a tour of Whitman’s birthplace. A guide led us through the two-story house that Whitman’s father built in the early nineteenth century, teaching us about not only the family but also what life in general was like when Long Island was farm country and Huntington a small marketplace. Walking around the large, sunny house where Whitman spent the first years of his life gave me a new appreciation for the poet I most often associate with Brooklyn.

After learning about Whitman’s childhood that day and revisiting some of his less popularly-known verses once I returned home, I was especially glad that we had volunteered at his birthplace for the “I Love My Park” event. Like the humanities, state parks play an essential role in creating and sustaining a truly democratic society. And here in New York, despite years of systematic underfunding, humanities programs and state parks continue to thrive thanks only to the extraordinary efforts of regular individuals working together on their behalf. It seemed most fitting that as literary scholars and teachers we would devote some of our time to beautifying this particular state historic site, where the self-identified “American Poet of Democracy,” was born. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with my current favorite Whitman poem.

“To the States”

Why reclining, interrogating? why myself and all drowsing?

What deepening twilight—scum floating atop of the waters,

Who are they as bats and night-dogs askant in the capitol?

What a filthy Presidentiad! (O South, your torrid suns! O North, your arctic freezings!)

Are those really Congressmen? are those the great Judges? is that the President?

Then I will sleep awhile yet, for I see that these States sleep, for reasons;

(With gathering murk, with muttering thunder and lambent shoots we all duly awake,

South, North, East, West, inland and seaboard, we will surely awake.)

This was a special guest-post by the one and only Katharine Perko, a former colleague and continued cherished friend of mine. Katharine is a writer in Brooklyn. She researched early twentieth-century gossip culture and British fiction for her Ph.D. in English. You can find her yelling about things on Twitter @Helen__Wills

Teaching Online & Authentic Final Essay Assignment

This winter break, I taught my first online course- EGL 260: World Mythology. In fact, I just finished grading final papers a few hours ago and thought now I don’t need to think about mythology or anything related to this course until I teach it again in the summer! Well, I couldn’t stay away very long at all.

I’ve spent the past few hours reflecting on the course. I’d been told ahead of time that it would feel very different than teaching face-to-face, but it was hard to understand that difference until I was fully immersed in the course. I won’t say that teaching online is better or worse than teaching face-to-face. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, and you can find tons of discussion about them across the internet and in the pedagogy journals, so I won’t bore you with an exhaustive list or a debate of any sort.

I’ll just say that teaching online made it absolutely necessary to consider different approaches to teaching content and leading a “classroom.” The course was run through BlackBoard, and I found myself extra conscious of scaffolding the posted discussion questions so that students weren’t suddenly slammed with complex questions requiring high levels of thinking. That’s important in a f2f class as well, but as an instructor in a f2f class it’s easy to monitor student levels of comprehension and engagement, and to warm up their minds at an appropriate pace. On a similar note, giving and receiving feedback was a different experience: neither my nor their verbal and kinesic communication was available as a tool (confused looks, “aha” looks, smiles, snoring, “I’m confused,” “That was interesting,” etc.) to help me gauge the success of each lesson or to help them gauge their own success and progress. Giving feedback in an online course is a much more deliberate act, and one that I believe is crucial to retaining student interest, building student confidence, and engaging students with the course materials/content at a higher level.  Now that I think about it, I think that I’ll incorporate regular surveys and progress/performance evaluations into the next rendition of this course

I’ll keep this post brief and conclude with a description of the final paper assignment, which I designed slightly differently than I have done in the past. I gave four topics to choose from: two were more traditional analytical options based on what I found to be issues that students most engaged with; one was a feminist analysis of the ancient myth of each student’s choosing; the fourth was a creative option in which the student would write a semi-autobiographical myth, with him/herself as the myth’s hero. In order to demonstrate their understanding of the stages of the hero’s quest (which was a major topic that we read about throughout the course alongside myths from across the world), the students were required to include each stage in their myth, mark it clearly, and (recommended) provide a metacognitive explanation of the myth- what they were thinking about when they wrote it, why they made the decisions they made, etc. I wasn’t sure what to expect from these essays…I knew there was a possibility that this could be a “cop-out” option for those who didn’t want to write a standard academic essay.

The results, however, were beyond what I could have wished for. About a third of the class chose this option, and each and every student demonstrated not just mastery of the concept of the hero’s journey, but an eagerness to bring the literature that we’d been studying into an even more personal realm. Some students whose other performances in class were “less than enthusiastic” turned in truly remarkable papers. I’ll point out that the instructions made it clear that students did not have to get any more personal than they were comfortable with, but after having read them, I can tell that they wanted to have a personal connection with their work…and the stories were powerful as a result. Students wrote about conquering deeply personal family issues, health issues, immigration issues, political issues, and social issues, and it was obvious in each paper that there was so much more investment in this assignment than would normally come in a standard analytical paper. And yet the essays weren’t simply a creative writing assignment- they were a valid way of assessing a student’s understanding of a critical theory of mythology. So they ended up being a great evaluative tool, an enjoyable and personally meaningful assignment for students, and an incredibly interesting and exciting set of essays to read and grade. I plan to use the assignment option again next time I teach mythology, but I can also see its application in a writing course for learning about how to write in a specific genre.

Most essays that we assign students won’t survive halfway through the next semester. I got the strong impression that these semi-autobiographical myth essays will be saved by each student for years to come.

Judging Poetry Performances

Today, for the fourth consecutive year, I judged the Poetry Out Loud contest at the Knox School in Nissequogue, NY. In Poetry Out Loud, high school students compete to deliver the best spoken performance of a published piece of poetry (not their own). First they compete at the classroom level, after which the winners advance to the school-wide level, then the regional/state level, and finally the national level. My involvement is as a judge at the school-wide level.

I love going to the Knox School’s contest for a few reasons. The drive itself is always enjoyable- the winding, wooded roads and antique north-shore homes along the Nissequogue River make for a therapeutic drive during finals week. It also seems always to snow on the day of the contest, so going there has become a tradition that always gets me in the holiday mood. The grounds of the Knox school are pretty awe-inspiring as well: stables and riding areas, expansive lawns, beautiful buildings, and access to Stony Brook Harbor. I once taught one day of a summer reading course in an almost church-like building at the Knox School and was encouraged by the headmaster to take a walk down to water during break- what a way to relax!

The main reason that I love judging the contest, though, is the enthusiasm of the students. The school has a notable tight-knit feel, and I think that gives the students healthy confidence in themselves. Their performances are unabashedly powerful- powerfully moving, powerfully funny, powerfully entertaining. Judging their performances is like getting a free, front row ticket to watch a lineup of Broadway headliners do one-minute skits.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to see the two winners of today’s contest at the next round, which will be held at Stony Brook on 2/24/17. If the rest of the performances are anything like theirs, it will be something an event to remember. Oh, and a huge congratulations to the two winners, who were also last year’s winners!