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Day In The Life: Upper School
By Dylan Howlett

On this Friday morning in Kenan Auditorium, one thing is certain: A Durham Academy student is never too old for a sing-along.

The Upper School student body has gathered for its weekly assembly — the programming for which volleys between a variety of performances, clubs and causes. For this, the penultimate assembly of the school year, the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Affinity Group recognizes the beginning of May, and the beginning of AAPI Heritage Month. The group originally formed, Caleb Chen ’24 says in his opening remarks, amid fear over a spate of hate crimes during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our AAPI community has found ways,” says Chen, the Upper School student body president, “to move beyond hate.” The group uses its presentation as an occasion to challenge the “model minority myth,” a pernicious stereotype that inaccurately positions all Asian-Americans as nothing more than talented, polite academics. “Let’s challenge the narrative,” Riley Kim ’24 says, “and talk about some Asian athletes.”

They do, with names both household — two-way baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani, figure skating legend Michelle Kwan — and lesser known. There’s Phil Wizard, a Korean-Canadian breakdancer who will participate in the sport’s Olympic debut this summer in Paris. One of his highlights plays on the projector screen from the stage in Kenan Auditorium, and students gasp from their seats as they watch Wizard spin on his head. There’s Eko Yuli Irawan of Indonesia, who this summer could become the first weightlifter to win five Olympic medals. And then there are Cavaliers, the dozens of Asian student-athletes at DA who demonstrate excellence across all varsity sports. Their names and faces flash across the screen, and the audience roars its approval.

They’re even more excited to hear Chen’s invitation. “Who’s ready,” he asks, “for some karaoke?”

A gaggle of aspiring crooners gathers at stage left. It doesn’t take long for Josh Klein, an Upper School history and French teacher, to emerge from the throng with a wig that very nearly resembles a helmet. He launches, with no shortage of practiced showmanship, into a spirited rendition of “Baby” by Justin Bieber. A trio of Upper School boys reconstruct, with aplomb, the yearning harmonies of “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. And whenever technical difficulties arise, the crowd meets the moment. They provide backup to Chen’s impromptu version of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” when they discover the designated singer is absent. When the music temporarily freezes on another song, Chen turns to the crowd. “Kyla!” he says, looking for Kyla Newkirk ’24. “Tell a joke!” Newkirk obliges. “Why was the basketball player afraid to go on vacation? Because they were afraid to travel!” The resulting laughter is indistinguishable from the resulting groans.

The morning ends as it began: with community. Faculty members and students gather at centerstage in a “We Are The World”-style finale to sing the John Denver standard “Country Roads.” The song fades out a few minutes early to accommodate the rest of the day’s schedule, and those on stage let their arms rise and fall with a deep sigh. Nobody wants to break up the community. It is, after all, another day at the Upper School.

This year alone, we’ve already experienced the dynamic, real world-ready instruction of DA Upper School in math, language arts and fine arts. We return now for the fourth and final installment of “Day in the Life,” a glimpse into the everyday brilliance of DA’s four divisions that has already featured the Preschool, Lower School and Middle School. When they’re not dismantling stereotypes or belting out classics of the American songbook, Upper Schoolers are investigating ancient farming techniques, writing code, lifting weights, leading Spanish lessons, hosting retired Air Force pilots and separating DNA — all the while remembering the simple joy of singing aloud.

Welcome to the Upper School. We’ll take you to the place you belong.

 


8:15 a.m. — Advanced Placement Biology

Tara Eppinger, Upper School STEM and Humanities Center: Room 4218

Anyone who has ever eaten something unsavory has a genetic culprit to bemoan: TAS2R38. It’s the gene that determines sensitivity to the bitter-tasting compound Phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC. And it’s the gene with which Tara Eppinger’s AP Biology class has grappled over the course of a five-part lab that concludes this morning. “It could have gone wrong at any point,” Eppinger says of the lab. “You’re just hoping when you get to the end that nothing’s wrong.” Welcome to the joys, and perils, of advanced science.

The process began in ways more tactile and benign. Eppinger’s 18 students divided into pairs and collected a DNA sample from the inside of their cheeks. They used a restriction enzyme to extract the desired PTC gene and conducted gel electrophoresis to determine whether each sample indicated a taster, or non-taster, of PTC. Today, the partners huddle around whiteboards to model how far the gene traveled within its results — the farther it travels, the more likely it is that the test subject will experience a bitter taste.

Once every pair has successfully uploaded a photo of its whiteboard model, they take their place at bluelight filters stationed on lab tables along the perimeter of the room. An additional orange filter should allow the pairs to place their gel on top and better visualize the bands of their genes. Eureka-like cries rise from one table, and the rest of the class swarms the pairing to see several solitary bands poke through. Few groups, if any, can successfully take a photo of the bands. “All right,” Eppinger says as the groups return to their seats. “I know that was kind of disappointing.”

It was also a chance for rigorous scientific analysis. Eppinger travels from pair to pair to discuss plausible issues. “What is a possible reason for why you didn’t get any results?” she asks. It isn’t anything she wouldn’t ask of her own family. Eppinger laughs as she recounts to one group the time she did this exercise with her family as they sat around their kitchen table. It’s possible, she says, that they didn’t glean nearly as much enjoyment from the process as this particular section of AP Biology. Laughter filters through the room as the pairs tackle the final discussion questions on their lab reports. It’s the sound of those who feel safe enough to take risks, to fall short, to try again. “Is it a specific bitter taste?” one student asks Eppinger as she circulates. It is indeed, Eppinger says. “Do we need more here to explain why PTC makes it taste bitter?” another student asks. Eppinger nods.

“Y’all,” she says toward the end of class as the lab reports near completion. “These are so good. I’m very impressed.”

They continue to work like professional scientists: in frenzied concentration and ceaseless persistence, with limited but earnest support from an admiring Eppinger. Nobody leaves the classroom with a bitter taste.

 


8:45 a.m. — Cultural Themes in Spanish: Mexico

Cassie Loch, Hock Center: Room 813

¡Buenos días, clasé! Los profes at the front of the room do not include Cassie Loch, the Upper School Spanish teacher who, on a typical day, would lead Cultural Themes in Spanish: Mexico. This is not, however, a normal day. It is time for a tertulia, or a gathering of the minds.

On the day of a tertulia, two students plan, organize, teach and guide their peers through a subtopic of the class’ cultural theme, in this case the “rEvolution of the Mexican Woman.” Other presentations will focus on soccer players, Quinceñeras, Lucha Libre and a group of women fighters during the Mexican Revolutionary War. But this morning, Smith Hill ’24 and Oliver Guan ’25 are musically inclined: Como el vol de las mujeres en el mariachi ha cambiado con el tiempo, or “how the role of women in mariachi bands has changed over time.”

Hill and Guan begin — like any seasoned teacher would — with open-ended questions that students discuss at their table. They circulate throughout the classroom and engage their estudiantes. One prompt about sexism in the music industry (¿Qué sabes sobre el sexismo en la industria de música?) inspires a student to reference “el canción ‘The Man’ by Taylor Swift.” Guan provides “premios muy buenos” — great prizes — for anyone who contributes a substantive answer. He reaches into a bag of Ghirardelli peppermint bark and tosses packets of dulces (sweets) to his appreciative participants.

The lesson moves into direct instruction, and students take notes on the history of mariachi. They are also responsible for asking at least one question during the presentation. Guan and Hill inform one curious student that mariachi is played in countries beyond Mexico. Which instrument, Clay Meredith ’24 wonders aloud, would you want to play? Guan says he would prefer the acordeón (accordion), while Hill says he would happily play the arpa (harp).

A mariachi lesson would be incomplete, of course, without sampling its indelible musical fare. “Mátalas,” a song by Alejandro Fernández, plays through the panel at the front of the room, and Guan and Hill task their students with looking up the meaning of any word they don’t recognize in Spanish. Another song, “No Te Contaron Mal” (“They didn’t tell you wrong”) by Christian Nodal, begins with the same spirit that infuses today’s tertulia. Voy a contestarte ahora mismo todas tus preguntas: I’m going to answer all of your questions right now.

That is the job, naturally, of profes por el día.

 


10:30 a.m. — Developing Effective Leadership

Tyrone Gould, Learning Commons: Room 315

Long before the Air Force promoted him to lieutenant colonel, Nick Register was a trainee without a call sign. He wouldn’t have to wait long. On one of his early training missions, Register — who now serves as a pilot for FedEx — used up all of his missiles before he could complete his exercise. His radio crackled as he was forced to utter the required and reluctant codeword for a pilot without any weaponry: Skosh. He was, for the rest of his career, known as “Skosh.”

Register laughs as he shares this story with the seven students in DA’s inaugural Developing Effective Leadership course, which was offered for the first time this spring. Tyrone Gould, a dean of students and math teacher at the Upper School, first considered the idea while he was the head coach of the DA varsity baseball team. Gould still has the copious notes that he would compile to document, and determine, the selection of his captains. Those captains, he said, would perform their duties as ably as possible. But they would, as all young adults occasionally do, struggle with the complexities and responsibilities of the role. And they would do so without receiving adequate development. There needs to be a leadership class, Gould thought. And so he created one.

The course requires students to eventually craft their own model of leadership. Gould details with students the evolution of leadership over the last 100 years and delves into the two most common paradigms of leadership: vocal leadership and leadership by example. The instruction is illustrative, not proselytizing. Gould wants Upper Schoolers to inhabit the style of leadership that suits them best. But the heart of the class rests in a guest speaker series. Gould enlists former educators, coaches, DA alumni, athletic directors and doctors to share their respective journeys, stumbles and triumphs.

Students must identify three takeaways from each speaker and pinpoint the most valuable lesson they’ve extracted, along with an explicit connection from the speaker’s wisdom to their own journey. One guest speaker implored students to identify their “pit crew,” the treasured few role models in their life who will enthusiastically serve as sponsors — and will talk about you even when you’re not in the room — and not merely as mentors, or those who help along the way when asked. Gould still holds monthly Zoom calls with his college dean from his undergraduate days at Colgate University. He remains in touch with his coaches from middle school and high school. “That’s my pit crew,” he says.

Gould shared the scheduled list of speakers with his students at the start of the semester. “Is there anybody in your life, in your pit crew,” he asked, “whom you see as a leader that we can invite?” Max Albright ’26 asked Jon Lantzy, his former DA Middle School lacrosse coach and the current head coach of the boys’ varsity lacrosse team, to visit the class. Sasha Bilsborrow ’26 requested Lantzy’s daughter, Katherine Lantzy ’21, who has won three national championships as a midfielder on the Middlebury College field hockey team. And Evan Register ’25 wondered if she could possibly bring her dad, a former Air Force pilot with the call sign “Skosh,” to share his story.

She walks to the front of the class to introduce him. Nick is visibly touched. He starts to share the genesis of his call sign, and Gould is already writing furiously in his notebook. “There are moments when I’m listening to one of my guest speakers, and I’m a student,” he says. “I’m taking notes, and I’m learning just as quickly and as often as my students. It’s those little opportunities where I’m then able to apply and think and reframe what my view is of leadership. That, for me, has been the biggest impact as the teacher.”

The teacher, today, is Register. He refers to his PowerPoint presentation as a “briefing.” He covers his expectations, or “Rules of Engagement,” by reminding students that it’s perfectly fine to ask questions throughout his talk. A good leader, he says, is humble, approachable and credible — someone who pays attention and removes obstacles to allow their charges to do their best work. He points to the enduring photo of Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima. “To me,” Register says, “leadership is very deeply rooted in the context that you’re in.” The scenario presented to you informs your decision-making. You trust your people, you solicit their feedback, and you communicate a plan with confidence.

Even, and especially, when you’re skosh.

 


11 a.m. — Strength & Conditioning

Jordan Babwah, Kirby Gym: Weight and Fitness Room

Not five minutes into the warmup for this morning’s Strength & Conditioning class, Jordan Babwah laughs. The Upper School fitness director has led his four students through a variety of exacting circuits: moving their feet in a hopscotch-like fashion on markers taped to the floor, balancing one foot on a half-ball trainer that quivers and trembles with even the slightest movement. They’ve now moved on to diamond-shaped pushups. The gains — and pains — have already begun. “I’ve got you sweating already, Jonny!” Babwah says to Jonathan Jenzano ’24, who laughs. “I know,” he says. “It’s not good.”

But it is. There are few better venues for a mid-morning class period during a long school day than Strength & Conditioning, in which students learn the rudiments of lift technique, of devising a personal exercise program and of progression. It requires discipline and sweat. The day’s workout plan is displayed on two flat-screen TVs that hang on either side of a beam in the center of the room. On their own time, and at their own pace, students must complete each of the three stations. It is not for the faint of heart. Parallel squats. Nordic hamstring curls. Hex bar deadlifts. Kneeling unilateral shoulder presses. The students record their reps and results on individual trackers. Who wouldn’t sweat?

But there is joy, always, in fitness and movement. The class’s jointly curated Spotify playlist provides the day’s soundtrack, with offerings from, among others, J. Cole, Billy Joel and Childish Gambino. Babwah chats breezily with students as they rotate between stations. They talk about recent heat waves in Europe and about the basal metabolic rate, which represents the amount of energy the body expends while at rest. They discuss how much more difficult it is to see progress in their fitness once they’ve achieved a baseline level. Babwah says studies show that people who live and walk around steeper geographies enjoy a longer life expectancy. Mac McDonald, a member of the DA maintenance team, works out on a machine at the back of the gym. The mood is focused yet amiable, determined yet light.

It is the third semester in the class for Sarah Muir ’24, who arrived in the fitness room as a weightlifting neophyte and will leave this month a devotee. Muir says she could squat 65 pounds when she started her first semester. She now squats 185 pounds, and she’s working toward becoming a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Progression, sometimes, can be glacial and lightning-like all at once.

On her final rep on the bench press, Muir exhales sharply as she extends her arms skyward. The bar begins to tilt as Babwah walks forward, ready to offer a proverbial lift.

“You got it! You got it! You got it!” he says. And she does.

 


12:45 p.m. — AP Computer Science

Julian Cochran, Hock Center: Room 810

A chapter title of the e-textbook that appears on a panel at the front of Julian Cochran’s classroom betrays today’s focus in AP Computer Science: 14ACEHPRT. Chapter 14. It’s time to figure out how to best sort data that may have an item, or five, out of place.

Julian Cochran, the Upper School technology academic leader, writes an array of 10 integers in non-sequential order on the board. He models an algorithm called quicksort. “But in computer science, do we measure the best possible outcome?” he asks. Heads shake around the room. “No!” he says. “We measure the worst.” Cochran lobs a “quiz question” at his 20 students, a nod toward preparedness for their approaching AP exam. Of the four most common sorting algorithms, which one is the fastest when a dataset only has one item out of place? The class deliberates within smaller groups and unanimously, and accurately, identifies “insertion.” “I think this is the coolest part of computer science,” Cochran says. “You can move data around efficiently.”

That is the goal, among others, of the final project, on which students continue working in the final 20 minutes of class. Each student writes code within a database that contains indices of key indicators for dozens of countries: property rights, judicial effectiveness, government integrity, fiscal health. They must write their own algorithms on Java, the popular programming language, that would enable a user to sort the countries according to any index they desire. Cochran previously asked students on their final project to code a dataset from the Appalachian Trail — which Cochran has hiked — to determine the highest and lowest points of elevation along the 2,200-mile footpath. But he embraced the country database several years ago to bring a heightened level of equity, inclusion and awareness to the computer science department. He doesn’t want students to merely sort numbers as abstract, faceless arrays. He wants them to probe, to question, to wonder. Why does one country promote more business freedom than another? Why does a particular country score poorly in “government integrity”? “There’s a lot,” Cochran says, “to read into this data.”

That is, of course, the name of the eagm.

 


2 p.m. — Advanced (ADV) Ancient Technologies

Courtney Monahan, Learning Commons: Room 314

Upper Schoolers at Durham Academy are adaptable, and inventive, and resourceful. They are ready for the rapidly changing nature of the real world. Sometimes they belt out a Taylor Swift song when nobody else steps to centerstage. Sometimes they tell a joke to fill the space of technical difficulties. And sometimes they use a 44-cent ear of corn from Fresh Market as a microphone.

That particular innovation is the product of a group presentation from Milo King ’24, Evan Pfeil ’24 and Caiden Smallwood ’24 on the history of maize in Mesoamerica. The project was one of the culminating activities in Dr. Courtney Monahan’s ADV Ancient Technologies, which — as part of the internally designed, intellectually rigorous slate of Advanced coursework that will fully debut in 2024–2025 in the Upper School, following a successful pilot this year — introduces students to the great technological advances of the ancient world. If only Mesoamerica could have conceived of the auditory wonders of corn.

It is nothing short of “a scientific mystery,” King says at the start of the presentation, that corn appeared in its accepted form. Domesticated corn was likely the result of accidental cross-breeding in Mesoamerica, where maize was represented as potent deities. It was plentiful thanks to an agricultural method known as the Milpa System, or “Three Sisters,” in which corn, beans and squash form a symbiotic relationship — corn provides a supportive stalk for beans; the beans produce nitrogen for plants to grow; and the squash offers protective ground cover that blocks out excessive sunlight and suppresses weeds.

The depth with which King, Pfeil and Smallwood present is imbued with a lingering doubt, one that King voices rhetorically: “How do we know all of this?” The Earth, and the people of Mesoamerica, have an extensive ledger. Mesoamerican societies documented their affinity for maize through religious iconography, funerary urns and artwork, the remnants of which have been uncovered through archaeological digs and aged via carbon dating. “We have a lot of methods for figuring out what happened in the past,” King says into their handheld corn microphone. “Kind of what this class is all about.”

The audience offers robust, substantive questions after the presentation. They cannot speak, of course, until they have received the ear of corn to amplify their voices. Pfeil asks if anyone wants to shuck the corn and finds an enthusiastic volunteer in Neta Ariely ’24, who says she has never shucked corn before. She delicately tears off strips of the husk and delights in the simple pleasure of revealing the food of the Earth. Mesoamericans doubtless felt the same, Pfeil supposes. “As I always say: If it’s important enough to put on pottery,” he says, “then it’s important.”

The presentation concludes. There’s no better way to drop the mic. Or corn.