Laura Reff, Director of Marketing & Communications
We are all excited that Bernard Zell’s very own Dani Steele has taken the reins as the new Interim Head of Middle School. Many in our community know Ms. Steele from her 13 years as a BZ teacher, her time as a BZ student (class of ‘98) and a BZ parent. We sat down with her to learn more about who she is, and what we can expect from her for the 2022-23 school year.
BZ: Ms. Steele, you have years of experience teaching Middle School at Bernard Zell. Can you tell us about the educational philosophy that guides you?
Ms. Steele: Education is the key to bettering our interactions with each other, our consumption of information, and ultimately, our society. Education should have a foundation in Tikkun Olam, morality and "life worthiness". In other words, in designing our curricula, we should aim to teach content that matters in our students' lives and nurtures the formation of their character. It is my hope that our students embrace their responsibility to help heal an imperfect world, and actively engage in Tikkun Olam as a matter both of habit and conscious decision-making.
Middle School is such a special moment in the educational journey of a student. From Early Childhood and Lower School, they carry with them a joy of learning and then apply it to a more rigorous curriculum that prepares them for high school and beyond.
BZ: As a leader, what is your guidance for your faculty as it relates to their approach to the students?
Ms. Steele: Teachers owe their students passion: in their content, and in their desire to help them understand and grow. Ideally, teachers find simchah (joy) being amongst their students, and fulfillment in knowing that through our students, we are helping shape a brighter future. I believe students learn best:
when their instruction is engaging, high-quality and rigorous;
within a calm, positive, inclusive setting where all students have purpose and a sense of belonging;
with teachers who know and appreciate the whole student; they respond to students' individual learning needs and backgrounds.
I feel so fortunate to work with teachers who share these beliefs and practices. Our Middle School faculty is incredible!
BZ: At Bernard Zell, our educators excel at executing cross-disciplinary projects. Is there one that you have spearheaded that you’re most proud of?
Ms. Steele: Yes, the first one that comes to mind is the Train Project from the 2018 school year. That year, the 8th grade curriculum was heavily centered around the theme of "unsilencing" hidden stories. We partnered with Northwestern Professor Danny M. Cohen and his organization, Unsilence, to expand students' knowledge of hidden stories and the roles they play in history and in the present. For example, in History class, we researched stories discussed in the book Train, authored by Danny M. Cohen, such as the treatment of homosexuals, the disabled, and the Romani during the Holocaust, while also continuing our studies by reading Night by Elie Wiesel.
In both my Reading Workshop and History classes, we created an educational website designed to help students and teachers from other schools learn and understand more about the book and events discussed. We even invited 8th grade parents to read Train alongside their children and participate in a Family Book Club.
We explored hidden stories creatively as well, through work with Northlight Theatre. As a culmination of that year-long project, together with the Northlight Theatre playwrights, our students wrote their own play inspired by hidden history and Train's enduring themes. It told a dystopian story set in the 22nd century where citizens aren’t allowed to talk or learn about history, yet a group of students secretly try to educate the public about history. The students performed the play at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
BZ: If parents have questions, how can they get in touch with you before school starts?
Ms. Steele: For Middle School parents interested in meeting with me, you can schedule a time through this link. I am also available to answer any questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We look forward to continuing the conversation with Ms. Steele, learning more about what to expect this year, how BZ prepares students for high school, getting her advice for parents of rising Middle School students and what unique skills she brings to her new role.