Ask anyone what makes Commonwealth, well, Commonwealth, and you’re bound to hear similar responses: the teachers, Hancock, recess, cubbies, the Jobs Program, Project Week.
Typically, our students interact with these cultural touchstones from their first day of school. But, given the pandemic, many of our younger students have yet to experience these things like they were meant to be experienced. While the underlying principles have stayed the same—community, personal responsibility, pursuing the thread of inquiry—the formats have changed dramatically. (Zoom meeting, anyone?)
Thanks to the COVID vaccines, the 2021–2022 school year seems to be bringing a return to a semblance of normalcy. This means our students—many for the first time—will get to see more of the “real” Commonwealth! But what’s the “real” Commonwealth, anyway? Read through this handy guide to learn everything you need to know about our untraditional traditions and uncommon community.
Our Cozy Home
Commonwealth’s building is the quintessential Boston Brownstone. It looks and feels like a home because it once was, renovated to accommodate classrooms, science labs, art studios, and more. In such a unique space, we take advantage of every nook and cranny. A common hangout is the Dartmouth Lobby, where students fill the benches and couches for conversation and homework.
More beloved spaces include the art studios. Year after year, graduates list time spent in one of our three art studios (for photography, painting/printmaking, and ceramics) among their favorite Commonwealth memories. Perhaps you’ll find your niche there, too.
And, of course, there’s the Cafegymnatorium. Everything happens here! As you might’ve picked apart from the portmanteau, it’s a cafeteria, gymnasium, and auditorium all in one. Just remember, before you leave: chairs against the wall.
A daily ritual. Every day at 10:00 a.m., the entire school flocks downstairs into the Cafegymnatorium for recess. From the podium, the Head of School rings the bell, quiets the crowds, and engages in our particular way of conducting school announcements.
Visitors to recess tend to be impressed by the spirit in the air: anyone—student, teacher, or staff member—can stand up and speak extemporaneously. They might recognize a birthday, ask for help with a project, remind the crowd about an upcoming event, or recite a poem. You’ll see hands raised and hear animated announcements for myriad club meetings taking place that day: Politics in 3E, Feminism in 4A, Chess Club on the Discord Server, newspaper in a virtual classroom.
Filled with side banter (whether in person or in Zoom chats) and the requisite playful “ooOOoohs!” when a teacher asks a student to come see them after class, recess is a place for gathering, for being on the same page, and for sharing good news, interesting updates, and your individual passions.
Few Commonwealth fixtures stand out more than assembly, where invited guests present on any number of fascinating topics. It’s a time to share knowledge, ask hard-hitting questions, and learn something new from experts in their field. And now assemblies can easily happen virtually, so guest speakers can join us from anywhere in the world.
Each year also brings the cherished holiday assemblies. The “Harvest Celebration” assembly before Thanksgiving break is filled with notes of gratitude, seasonal reading and poems, and, of course, a rousing rendition of “Bringing in the Sheaves.” The “Celebration of the Season” assembly before winter break features wintry-themed readings and music. And the Valentine’s assembly includes cupcakes, romantic readings, and short videos about all things love.
Related: See Past Assembly Speakers
Hancock is more than a twice-yearly camping trip. It’s discovering you have the same favorite author as the teacher leading your hike. It’s bonding with your new classmates as you crack 300 eggs. It’s laughing at your new friends’ gift of gab during the talent show. It’s twilight canoe rides and impromptu soccer games and chatting late into the night. It’s the whole school gathering to enjoy each other’s company and unplug from the busy pace of school life.
Talk to anyone who has come through Commonwealth, and they’ll point to these storied weekends as the time for community building, when you start to connect with those outside your grade and meet friends. And though we’ve adapted Hancock over the past year, offering virtual events and Hancock-in-the-CIty, it hasn’t been quite the same. Consider this: The incoming seniors of the Class of 2022 have missed half of their Hancocks. The Class of 2023 has only been to one. And the Class of 2024, none!
Fortunately, plans for a “traditional” overnight Hancock are underway—mindful, of course, of shifting public health needs. For the 2021–2022 school year, we’ll have a new venue and new memories to make while we return to the Hancock that we know and love.
Students and families get lots of detailed information before the events. In the interim, math teacher/“Hancock Czar” Mr. Paul—or really anyone else who has been to Hancock—can answer any questions.
Skate Into Vacation
Since 2001 Skate Into Vacation has been the perfect send-off into winter break, as the whole community walks to the Boston Common Frog Pond rink for skating and hot chocolate. For twenty years, former Head of School Mr. Wharton was famous for his signature “whoosh” motion to symbolize “Skate Into Vacation,” so don’t be surprised if you see students, faculty, and staff doing some nostalgic “whooshing” of their own.
Through our Jobs Program, students help clean the lunchroom, serve as head waiters, and do other essential chores that keep our building orderly and remind us of our shared responsibility. Students take pride in the work, eventually taking on leadership roles. The Jobs Program is also a huge part of what makes Hancock special, as the weekend is all student-driven and student-led. The current seniors, for example, were vital in a successful Hancock-in-the-City last spring, managing set up, lunch clean, and post-event breakdown. Props to them!
Questions? Seek out Chef Faye and math teacher/Jobs Program Coordinator Mr. Letarte.
An unexpected phenomenon occurred in the spring of 2021: On Fridays after school, impromptu flag football games started popping up. Suddenly, all four Commonwealth grades were involved in a battle for sporting supremacy. It all culminated in an epic showdown at Hancock-in-the-City, where even Mr. Wolff, Dr. Lasker, and Dr. Eagle got in on the action, while fans cheered from the sidelines. The whole affair captured Commonwealth athletics: deeply supportive and fueled by personal passion for the sport.
Although students are required to participate in athletics every year at Commonwealth, the flexibility of our programs means they get to engage in the sports that speak to them. As a result, we have a motley blend of dancers, fencers, soccer players, and more, as well as hard-working teams that compete in the Massachusetts Bay Independent School League. And, of course, our fantastic coaches lead the way, like beloved girls’ basketball Coach Craig Walker and fencing Coach Elif Sachs.
Commonwealth’s culture is rooted in peer-to-peer and teacher-to-student support. A perfect manifestation of this ethos is Homework Project, a lightly proctored study space where students can be and work together. Even if you’re not toiling on the same assignment, you might find doing your homework alongside someone else improves accountability and productivity, too. Our new Homework Project Coordinator is humanities teacher Mr. Conolly.
What’s that one museum you’ve been meaning to visit in Boston but have never found the time? Well, Museum Day is your chance! The annual event is pretty self-explanatory: students and teachers head off to a handful of museums for an afternoon of discovery and discussion. Boston stalwarts like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Science are perennial favorites, but don’t overlook hidden gems like the National Center for Afro-American Artists, or the Museum of Medical History and Innovation.
Astrophysics, state politics, antique violin restoration, computer programming, etymology, Italian architecture, chocolate-making: the possibilities are endless during Project Week.
Simply put, you can do whatever you are most excited about during this week, which falls in January. Start thinking now about possible organizations, companies, and mentors you want to partner with in and around Boston. Many alumni/ae frequently point to Project Week as a launching point for their careers and further studies.
InCommon Day is Commonwealth’s annual celebration of diversity and our community. With thought-provoking keynote speakers, and student- and faculty-led workshops, we as a school explore the various facets of diversity, equity, and inclusion and come to a shared understanding of why the work is so important. Read through this recap of a recent InCommon Day to get a better sense of what it’s all about. And be sure to ask the members of WeDiscuss, our student group devoted to examining identity, difference, and current events, about how you can get involved.
Passing the Clay
Commonwealth has an elevator now, but in the school’s earlier days, getting the annual shipment of clay up to the fifth-floor ceramics studio was quite the ordeal. To lighten the load, students formed a chain winding up all five flights of stairs, passing lumps of clay all the way up like a bucket brigade. The tradition continues today, a reminder of what we can achieve together.
Every year—under non-pandemic circumstances, of course—students travel and participate in cultural exchanges (often in conjunction with Project Week). Long-standing trips include France, Peru, Italy, and China, all of which bring language studies to life, produce lasting memories, and impart new global perspectives. Our loquacious language teachers can help introduce you to these opportunities.
Phones may be ubiquitous practically everywhere you go—but once you enter our building, prepare to put yours away and focus on the learning at hand. You might be surprised how freeing being untethered feels!
Commonwealth has a long tradition of student-run clubs and teams. They always enrich the atmosphere of social and community engagement at the school. Some student groups, like Debate Team, Model UN, the student newspaper, and Math Team are long-standing fixtures at the school. Others, like Feminism, Game Design, Architecture, and Philosophy Clubs, were created more recently to reflect growing student interests. Every year, new clubs are added to the list as students create spaces to discuss and engage in all their favorite subjects.
We believe our students have a social responsibility. Our community service program helps them realize they can make a difference and gives them the tools to do it, gaining practical experience along the way. Commonwealth students must also meet community service requirements to graduate, though many students far exceed the twenty-hour minimum.
...don’t exist at Commonwealth. Our students love learning—and they’re very good at it. Accordingly, we emphasize collegiality over hierarchy, encouraging our students to focus on the joys of intellectual inquiry instead of class rankings, end-of-year awards, or Cum Laude societies.
City of Boston
The city is our campus, and Commonwealth students graduate feeling like real Bostonians, comfortable traversing the city, tapping into its resources, and probing its history. Our immersive City of Boston class, required of all ninth graders, helps expedite that process. Filled with walking field trips across city neighborhoods and deep discussions, this course examines how cities change and who should decide how they do.
Imagine coming to school thinking it’s just another school day and being whisked off to a play, film, or concert instead of classes. You never know where you’ll end up on Impromptu Day.
Usually the day before graduation, and immediately following the seniors’ graduation rehearsal, the whole school piles into several busses and heads to Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts, for an afternoon of quintessential summer fun. No structure, no agenda, just quality leisure time together as we finish the school year and prepare to send our seniors on their way.
Open Door Policy (Really)
Students spend plenty of time in our Head of School’s Hogwarts-esque office when they take the required Head of School seminars during their first and final years at Commonwealth. (Our new leader, Jennifer Borman ’81, will draw upon her life’s work and discuss the role of education in society.) But students should also feel free to speak with Ms. Borman whenever those immense mahogany doors are open (and they usually are). Whether it’s discussing school policy or catching up on the Red Sox, Ms. Borman is eager to connect with students, faculty, and staff.
Typically held on an early Friday in June, Commonwealth’s graduation ceremony celebrates our senior class much as you’d expect—but we differ in several key ways.
Rather than deferring to GPAs to choose a valedictorian and salutatorian, our faculty and staff deliberate (usually for weeks!) in choosing two senior graduation speakers whose Commonwealth journey best represents the school’s mission. Invariably, they share wisdom and insights beyond their years.
Traditionally, and despite our being a secular institution, we hold the ceremony at First Church of Boston, a beautiful space only a block away from our main building. (Though we haven’t held a graduation ceremony at First Church since 2019, given the pandemic, we hope to return in 2022.)
No caps or mortar boards here; graduates may wear whatever they want—though we typically recommend choosing something they’ll be happy to see in pictures many years from now! Our entire student body also attends graduation, eager to celebrate their friends and classmates. And we end the year just as we began it: singing “The Spacious Firmament,” by Franz Joseph Haydn.
Commonwealth’s cubby spaces have been a particular loss during the pandemic. Usually, you would see students sprawled and squeezed into these alcove spaces, hanging out, doing homework, or puzzling their way out of some philosophical or mathematical dilemma together. While we will not be using the cubbies as long as social distancing measures are in place, we’re hopeful that we will again soon.
Sage Wisdom From Commonwealth Veterans
Don’t just take it from us: listen to the students who came before you! Every year, a small group of seniors are tasked with reflecting on their Commownealth experience during our Art Show and Senior Speeches. Whether they discuss the joys of failing, the interplay of STEM and humanities, or the challenges of embracing your true identity, these speeches demonstrate the myriad paths students take throughout their years Commonwealth.
While 2,500 words could never capture the whole of Commonwealth’s culture, we hope you found the summary above helpful. Now it’s your turn to explore. And the Commonwealth community is there to guide your way.