As part of its growing program to engage students, faculty-staff, and parents in learning and reflection, this year D-E extended invitations to educators, scholars, writers, journalists and some students to offer conversations in our community. Faculty-staff began the year with the leaders of Making Caring Common at Harvard University, and were engaged in a series of conversations designed to help them reflect upon the historical impact of race and racism as part of professional learning for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. In the fall, students across the divisions were offered a series of “Election Reflection” conversations in advance of the 2020 Presidential election. After the election, the DEfining series continued with guest speakers and panel discussions across a range of engaging topics. 

In anticipation of the 2020 Presidential Election, D-E sought to prepare our students by presenting them with a variety of election-related topics and conversations intended to engage them in critical thinking and respectful conversation. In the Lower School, teachers facilitated multimedia lessons and conversations in their classroom spaces teaching younger students about leadership, voting, elections, and the importance of honoring different perspectives. Knowing that the election would be fraught, as a school, we wanted to encourage our Middle and Upper School students to be in civil dialogue with each other across their diverse political beliefs while presenting them with perspectives from scholars, journalists, public figures, and their own history teachers to inspire intellectual reflection. The Election-Reflection events in the Middle and Upper Schools were as follows.

September 23, 2020

“A Bulldog’s Guide to Ideology”


Doesn’t it seem like we can’t talk about anything these days without it getting political? Everything is so fraught. You’re either on our side or their side. You’re either liberal or you’re conservative. Democrat or Republican. Black lives or Blue lives. These either/or categories trap our minds — once we accept them, we lose our ability to see anything else. But what if we zoomed out for a moment and considered the larger arc of history?

September 30, 2020

“The Cost of Free Speech”

Presented/facilitated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain, Georgetown University

During the fraught election season and in our historical moment of contention and inconsistency, we were asked to think about the true treasure of free speech—not dogma, not certainty, but the product of an engaged, intellectual process that emerges when conflict is not avoided but understood as the price of truly free speech.

October 1, 2020

“The 2020 Presidential Election Compared to Other Important Elections in American History”

presented by Mr. James Aitken and Mr. Jonathan Davis

Many adults were proclaiming that the 2020 election would be the most important in American history. Have we had contentious elections before? How do they compare to this one? What makes an election more significant than other elections?

Middle School Principal Jonathan Davis and 7th Grade Dean James Aitken presented a joint lecture using a comparative historical lens on the U.S.’s electoral system.

October 7, 2020

“Antisocial: How Social Media is Hijacking Modern Conversation”

Presented by Mr. Andrew Marantz, The New Yorker

How much of your life is online? Not just your social life, but your news, entertainment, and how you form your worldview? New Yorker staff writer and the author of Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, Andrew Marantz, traced how the unthinkable becomes reality: social media has hijacked the global conversation. With clarity and courage, Marantz shared how we got into this mess—and how we can get out.

October 13, 2020

“Election-Reflection, Upper School 1/2 Day of Learning & Discussion”


During the fraught election season, how did we consider the importance of honoring constitutional ideals, voting, democracy and nationhood?

Substance Matters: Why Policy Matters in Elections and How It Can (and Should) Bring People Together Hosted by Mr. Andrew Langer from the Institute for Liberty

Election 2020 showed America to be divided in ways never before seen, with issues never before politicized now being taken as “political.” Andrew Langer, a globally-recognized expert with 25 years working in politics and public policy, was invited for a discussion on the importance of substantive policy in the world of 2020. In this session students grappled with policies like Supreme court packing, the Affordable Care Act, and other contentious election-based issues.

The Continuing Fight for Gender Equality Hosted by Prof. Bryan Fair, University of Alabama Law Professor and Board Chair of the Southern Poverty Law Center

This discussion involved students thinking about how women were actively excluded from full citizenship in U.S. history. This was an opportunity to take a deeper dive in learning how advocates for gender equity chipped away at barriers and won important victories beginning in the late 1960s. (30-40 people participated).

RBG, The Film and Election 2020 Hosted by Ms. Carla Gutierrez, Film editor of “RBG: Hero. Icon. Dissenter”

This discussion led students in reflection upon Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and work in an up close and personal workshop with one of the filmmakers. They learned some of what happened behind-the- scenes in the making of the film, what it was like working with RBG, and the power of film in conveying knowledge about politics and society in our world.

October 22, 2020

“The Power of a Vote: With Power Comes Responsibility”

America’s system and history of voting

MS assembly presented by Mr. Bryan Kessler

Eighth grade history teacher and Middle School History Curriculum Coordinator Bryan Kessler presented the Middle School community with an overview and investigation into the U.S.’s history on voting and voting rights.

October 28, 2020

“The Presidency and the 2020 Election: A Primer for What’s Coming”

US assembly presented by Mr. Philip Swirbul

During this assembly, we explored the historical context necessary for understanding the importance, process, and possible outcomes of “the most important election of our lifetimes.” Upper School History teacher Philip Swirbul engaged us with a deepdive into electoral politics and the importance of the presidency. Among topics addressed were a broad overview of the office, how the Electoral College works, past controversial elections and possible lessons for today––– how identity impacts voting, and a few tips on how to stay informed and calm in a contentious period in our nation’s history.

October 29, 2020

“Hindsight 2020: Media and Journalism in Weird Times”

A MS assembly Panel Discussion

November 2, 2020

“Election Day and Beyond: Staying Connected as a Community”

with Dr. De Jarnett, Soham Bafana ’25, Sofia Bella Huie-Pasigan ’23, Aidan Hunter ’21, Jack Kobre ’21, and Georgia Unger ’25

A student-moderated Roundtable Assembly for the Middle and Upper Schools

November 18, 2020

“Jon Meacham, Pulitzer-winning Historian and Writer”

A Middle and Upper School Zoom Assembly

We were happy to host Presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning Author Jon Meacham who offered the D-E community some learning and reflection in a post-election “Election-Reflection” gathering. Mr. Meacham is one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals. Known as a skilled orator with a depth of knowledge about politics, religion, and current affairs, Meacham brought historical context to the issues and events impacting our daily lives.

Our school’s speaker series program DEFining Community through Conversation, sought to bring experts from a range of fields and experiences to engage with our students, faculty and staff. The series was designed to open conversation about academic endeavors and perspectives across disciplines, to engage students in critical thinking about pressing local, national and global issues, and to inspire social-emotional connection, self- and community-care. Some presentations were student-driven, others involved student moderators, and some were invited guests who presented to our community and answered questions. The following events were offered in the D-E community in the academic year 2020-2021.

January 20, 2021

“post Election Reflection”

An Upper School Assembly and panel discussion with Professors and members of Black Affinity and South Asian Culture Club

As the United States transitioned to a new Presidential administration, there was much celebration of and talk about President-Elect Kamala Harris as a “first” – the first Black VP, the first South Asian VP, the first woman VP, the first multiracial VP, etc. On Inauguration day, a panel of scholars and educators helped us learn about and contextualized the multiple identities that Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris embodies and the significance of her role as Vice President in our multicultural nation. We learned about some of the historical experiences of South Asian and Black folks in the USA, the complexities of racial-ethnic identities, relations between Black and South Asian communities, and matters of race and racism in 2021.

February 3, 2021

“American History and You:

A Conversation with Professor
Erica Armstrong Dunbar”

A Middle and Upper School Black History Month Zoom Assembly

How do we learn history? Whose voices and experiences do we explore? In 2021, how can we think in expanded ways about U.S. history, to have a full reckoning with the complexity of our nation’s path from the past to the present? In this conversation with a renowned historian, the D-E community had the opportunity to reflect upon some of the incredible triumphs of survival and the beautiful history of resistance found in the stories of Americans of African descent.

February 24, 2021

Upper School 

2nd Annual Connections Day, focused on wellness and well-being

Middle School

Building a Better Community: Engaging with Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

March 3, 2021

“The Stories Behind the Stories”

A Student-Moderated Conversation with Journalists

An Upper School Assembly Panel Discussion
in Honor of Women’s History Month

March 17, 2021

“Maria Smilios”

Educator and Author of The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis

LS assembly

We welcomed author Maria Smilios to our Lower School. Her book “Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped cure Tuberculosis” tells the true story of 300 Black nurses who helped prevent a public health crisis in New York. In 1929, when white nurses staged a walk-out at Staten Island’s 2000-bed TB sanatorium. Health officials made the decision to sanction a national call for “colored nurses”. We were thrilled to have Smilios share these untold stories of unsung heroes.

April 7, 2021

Richard Blanco Poet-in-Residence (Virtual)


The son of Cuban-exiles, Richard Blanco is known for his astounding poetry and prose. President Barack Obama selected Blanco in 2012 to serve as the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history––the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. We were honored to have such a decorated poet, writing fellow, and educator, come speak with all our divisions and community members with the:

  • Middle and Upper School Assembly
  • Upper School Creative Writing Classes
  • Lower School Assembly with 4th and 5th Graders
  • A professional development conversation for all faculty and staff,”Engaging Poetry Across the Disciplines”
  • A student gathering in the early evening hosted by Latinx Affinity and the GSA”

April 15, 2021

“Marilyn Nelson”

Award-Winning Poet

A Middle School Assembly in celebration of National Poetry Month

For National Poetry Month, we were honored to host poet, children’s book author, and professor, Marilyn Nelson. A former poet laureate of Connecticut and a winner of the Frost Medal and several other accolades, She is the author or translator of over twenty books and five chapbooks of poetry for adults and children. While most of her work deals with historical subjects, in 2014 she published a memoir, named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014, entitled How I Discovered Poetry.

April 15, 2021

Joseph Bruchac

Writer & Storyteller

Two Lower School Assemblies

We were delighted to host storyteller, Joseph Bruchac, to our Lower School. For over forty years, Joseph Bruchac has been creating literature and music that reflect his indigenous heritage and traditions. He is a proud Nulhegan Abenaki citizen and respected elder among his people. His best selling “Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children” series, with its remarkable integration of science and folklore, continue to receive critical acclaim and to be used in classrooms throughout the country.

April 21, 2021

Hanna Wechsler:

A Survivor Speaks

An Upper School Assembly in Commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance

We had the privilege of hearing from author and Holocaust survivor, Hanna Wechsler. Weschler is the author of her biography “In Spite of it All”. Born in a small town in Poland in 1936, Wechsler and her family fled Poland when Hitler invaded the nation in 1939. They escaped to Hungary with false papers, living in Hungary until she and her family were captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz. She survived Auschwitz, reuniting with her father in Krakow. She now has spent the last 45 years educating the youth on the horrors of the Holocaust, preaching that with resilience and hope, one can prevail.

April 29, 2021

“Paisley Rekdal and Danez Smith”

An Upper School Assembly in Celebration of National Poetry Month

Hosted by the English Department and Imperatore Library

We had the pleasure of conversing with two astounding poets, Paisley Rekdaal and Danez Smith.Through Zoom, they shared their poetry and the histories and stories that are interwoven in them. Poetry remains a crucial medium of hope, discovery, and collective and self reflection.

May 15, 2021

“NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal”

with student moderators Sarah Chun, Diya Daryanni, and Gabe Perez

An Assembly for the 4th & 5th Grade and the Middle School

In Celebration of Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month

We were incredibly grateful to have NJ Attorney Gurbir S. Grewal speak with us for Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Grewal was confirmed by the State Senate and assumed the office of New Jersey Attorney General on January 16, 2018. An accomplished attorney and Prosecutor, Mr. Grewal has had a wide range of experience in law enforcement, strengthening police-community relations, reducing violent crime and fighting corruption, terrorism, and the opioid epidemic.