Welcome to Hogwarts on Zoom

I open at the close quote from Harry Potter “I open at the close,” says Dumbledore’s golden snitch. The same could be said for this Harry Potter online class: It opened after the schools closed, which has made some 15 kids of Amherst faculty and staff (and their grateful parents) as happy as Ron Weasley at the Hogwarts Express sweets trolley.

The class is the brainchild of Tessa Levenstein ’22, a double major in math and history who grew up in the town of Amherst, and her friend Michayla Robertson-Pine, a theater-major/education minor at Wesleyan. The two had been re-reading the series for comfort. Each has been a camp counselor and is considering a teaching career. Why not combine the passion and the pedagogy? “Doing a class played to our skill-set, but the larger part was we genuinely wanted to talk about Harry Potter!” says Levenstein.

They now offer two Zoom classes per week for kids ages 7 to 13 who enrolled, featuring discussion prompts, art projects and guest lecturers. “But the kids are so excited, we just run with whatever,” says Roberston-Pine. “Michayla and I make Zoom ‘eye contact’ throughout the class and we can’t stop smiling,” adds Levenstein. Who can blame them? One child has appeared in his Gryffindor robe, holding a toy owl to the screen each time he talks. Another pointed solemnly to her head and said “Harry Potter is in here.”

These two local Professor McGonagalls note that there are Potterian parallels to our present time: “In the second book,” says Levenstein, “Harry spends his whole summer locked in his bedroom and is not able to see any of his friends.”

Vanessa Walker (Morgan Assistant Professor of Diplomacy) says her son Asher, age 9, is delighted with the class. “One of the wonderful things about the Harry Potter series is that it doesn’t neatly resolve every conflict, and the characters have real flaws and face real problems that they can’t simply resolve or ignore. I think it is helpful, with our world feeling particularly scary and uncertain for kids (and adults), to have a place to explore those ideas of fear and loss, and at the same time, have some fun connecting with other kids and nerding out about Hogwarts houses and wand types.” 

Asher gave her this quote, which she relayed verbatim: “I learn about how other kids think about Harry Potter and then I can compare it to what I see and think about what J.K. Rowling meant for us to see. My favorite part is being with new friends.” 

David Jones, associate professor of geology, calls the class one of the highlights of the week for his third-grader, Margo. “This week after the discussion was over, Margo and a few of the other kids stayed on the call together and wrote up their own ‘Which house would you be in?’ quiz,” says Jones. “Teamwork and writing practice, all kid-led — how great is that? I'm really appreciative to Tessa and Michayla for setting this up and devoting their time and energy. It's a real gift for us.”

—Katharine Whittemore

Teaching Poetry, Peer-to-Peer

A man stands on a stage giving a TedX talk at Amherst College Haoran “Henry” Tong ’23 has initiated a poetry seminar for his peers, as they’re separated by the COVID-19 crisis. Once a week, six to eight Amherst students connect through Zoom or chat. To start off, each person recites a favorite poem and explains why they chose it.

“Then, the conversation might focus on [a topic] as microscopic as a word and punctuation, to as macroscopic as ‘Why poetry?’ or ‘Why living?’” Tong says. “We take poetry as a vehicle of expression, but we don’t stop there. We share our personal stories and how we cope with the pandemic mentally.”

He doesn’t assign homework or require regular attendance: “This is not meant to be a rigorous comparative literature class but a space to rediscover values and rebuild the community.”

The seminar grew out of an on-campus poetry recitation group led by Emily Merriman, writing associate and adviser for multilingual students at the College’s Writing Center, earlier in the semester.

In partnership with the Center for Humanistic Inquiry and Creative Writing Center, Tong hopes to assemble an informal anthology of short poems by Amherst students, faculty, staff, families and friends that reflect their experiences during the pandemic. He also plans to work with the College’s radio station, WAMH, to broadcast one poem per day.

Tong’s passion for poetry is nothing new. As a teenager in Beijing, he was named a Young Poet Laureate of China and joined Poets Unite Worldwide, whose anthologies he’s gotten permission to use in the seminar. In December 2019, he delivered a TEDxAmherstCollege talk on “Poetry’s Rebirth Through Social Media,” in which “I drew examples from poetry’s growing popularity in the wake of ‘uncertainty and chaos’ to emphasize poetry’s ‘healing power,’” he says. “What demonstrates poetry’s power more profoundly than the help and support it gives to the people in the pandemic?”

—Katherine Duke ’05

Thousands of Gloves, Hundreds of Masks

Protective N95 mask When it became apparent that campus labs would go unused this spring, and when a serious need emerged among local emergency workers for gloves and N95 masks, the College administration and several academic departments--including chemistry, biology and neuroscience, as well as the Beneski Museum of Natural History--stepped up to donate increasingly scarce personal protective equipment.

To date, the College has now donated 21,600 gloves and 290 N95 masks to the Amherst Fire Department; 11,000 gloves, 10 Tyvek suits and 30 N95 masks to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass; and 1,200 gloves and six pairs of goggles to emergency personnel in Whately, Mass.

In addition, George Qiao, assistant professor of history and Asian languages and civilizations, helped the College purchase a supply of surgical masks from China, a number of which will also be donated, says John Carter, chief of police and director of public safety.

Plus, staff at the Mead Art Museum gathered crafting supplies to donate. “For example, eye masks. Elastic has been hard to come by, so I was able to donate all of our leftover eye masks, which could then be used for the elastic” needed in making face masks to cover the mouth and nose, says Danielle Amodeo ’13, public programs and marketing specialist at the Mead, who coordinated the effort. The museum donated fabric to a group of local artists who are making face masks. The museum’s goggles, gloves and face masks, usually reserved for building work, went to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Mass.

Anyone at Amherst who wishes to donate personal protection equipment may do so by contacting Rick Mears at ramears@amherst.edu.

—Bill Sweet


CISE Spotify List “Music is a huge part of the in-person CISE community experience,” says Gabe Hall, assistant director of Amherst’s Center for International Student Engagement. “Whenever you come to Keefe [Campus Center] 103, there’s always something playing. In fact, sometimes there are even people dancing along.”

Earlier in the academic year, CISE began compiling the most frequently played tracks into monthly playlists to share on social media, “so that other students could see what international students are jamming to the most,” says student staff member Arzoo Rajpar ’22.

Now, even though COVID-19 has dispersed most students and staff from campus, the jamming can continue all over the world with #MusicMondays on CISE’s own Spotify station. CISE staff share a spreadsheet for international students to recommend music, and then they string the most popular songs into themed Spotify playlists.

The first playlist, called Afro-Wave Amherst, features tracks by the Kenyan band Sauti Sol, Nigerian singer-songwriter Adekunle Gold, Tanzanian duo Navy Kenzo and more. Rajpar says the next playlist will focus on her fellow students’ favorite Latin American music.