Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


The Season of Giving

Do you ever feel like your child is adding up the favors owed him/her? For example, s/he got ready on time, brushed his/her teeth and now has an expectation that you owe him/her something. Or do you feel that you’ve become your child’s ATM. What about your co-workers? Are they always expecting reciprocity? And/or are they always angling for their advantage? Do you know that rare child or adult who is a “giver” – that person who is more likely to give without any expectation of reciprocity or reward? If you know such a person, is s/he taken seriously or the brunt of derision?

Adam Grant, professor of organizational psychology at Wharton in his book Give and Take addresses these questions. His research divides people as givers, matchers and takers. He recognizes that at some times we each exhibit more than one of these behaviors, but he has found that usually one dominates. He links these characteristics to professional success. Givers are prone to give without expecting anything in exchange. Matchers expect reciprocity, and takers always look for their advantage. Most people have assumed that self-interest (characteristic of takers) and other-interest (characteristic of givers) are opposite ends of a continuum (with matchers in the middle). But an interesting finding about the success of “givers” motivated Grant to question if indeed a continuum was an accurate representation of these behaviors.

The most interesting finding is that the least successful and most successful people are “givers” while takers and matchers land in the middle all the time. Since this was an odd finding, Grant continued to probe to determine what separated the bottom “givers” from the top “givers”. He found that people could be both self-interested and other-interested. Givers who were successful scored high on both of these indicators. In contrast, takers consistently scored high on self-interest and low on other-interest, and unsuccessful givers scored high on other-interest and low on self-interest. Successful giver’s actions toward co-workers were motivated by other-interests. While they were willing to give more than they received, their self-interest determined the choices they made with respect to who, what, when and where to support others.

As we enter this season of giving, it becomes so important for us to model for our children the successful giver paradigm. Altruism must be a priority all the time – not just during Thanksgiving and winter holidays. But altruism needs to be balanced with self-interest too. Otherwise, we end up being that altruistic person who is worn out from helping everyone all the time – out of focus and thus not very successful.

Here’s to balanced giving!

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.


Why R.C. Wornick JDS?

It is recruitment time, and this is when we need to make the case for our particular school. My colleagues across the country in faith-based schools face a particular challenge in this period of history. All survey data points to the fact that the fastest growing religious segment of the population is the “nones” - those who designate “no religion” as their religious affiliation. So is there a place for faith-based schools?

I know that you expect me to affirm that there is – and I do, but perhaps not for the reasons that you’d expect. My answer is linked to the purpose of schools in the first place.

In the United States, schooling has rested largely on utilitarian values linked to the job market. That is, we need schools so that people can get the training they need in order to fill the job market. Many educators note that this thinking resulted in the “factory model” of schooling where children, like workers, learned to “put in their hours” working at often meaningless tasks in institutions that looked and acted more like factories than like places for children to grow, to discover and to explore. We can still see this in operation pretty universally in American schools across the nation – the worst examples of those schools serving the lowest income students in our country. The more moderate examples of such schools serve a majority of American students.

But there is a different model of education where another set of values takes precedence. These values still include the idea of becoming a productive member of society, but the definition of productivity is more layered. It includes the individual’s contribution to the economy, but it sets that contribution within another set of values and ethics.

R.C. Wornick Jewish Day School is that school driven by that other set of imperatives. There are three things that makes this not just “any school”. The first is engagement in active learning, the second is a recognition of the link to a past and to a present, and the third is the understanding that learning is for the purpose of serving or repairing society.

Deep engagement in learning comes from the opportunity to think critically and creatively while actively pursuing learning that matters. One learns basic skills and facts not as an ends, but as a means to solve real problems. The end result, or the utilitarian value if you will, of engagement is an adult who savors life and who knows the joy of discovery and of creating something out of nothing.

The awareness of the link from past to present happens in a school where ancient words, language and stories are valued as much as creativity and innovation. This sort of education opens a student’s awareness to universal and enduring questions that have inspired great work throughout history. Why does evil persist? Are there universal truths? The questions beg a child to think about these dilemmas in new ways. That cognizance inspires students to join the ranks of the giants who preceded them as it simultaneously fosters a healthy dose of humility.

The idea that learning is for the purpose of serving or creating a kinder, better society is one of the answers to the abuses that our society has suffered at the hands of those who have used their learning to serve only themselves. We know of many examples of well-educated scientists and philosophers who used their learning to destroy society. Well-educated people, guided by ethics of caring and concern for humanity, are our best hope for a more just and productive world. This is why we go to school at R.C.Wornick Jewish Day School. This is why children need a R.C. Wornick education.

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.


Are they Ready?

Sometimes when meeting parents, I hear the comment “but, will my child know how to live in the real world after being educated in such a small insulated environment?” When hearing this, I wonder about that parent’s definition of the real world? Isn’t any place (perhaps Disneyland is an exception) that we find ourselves the “real world.” Is the upper middle class neighborhood public school a real world? Or is the inner city public school a “real world”? What the parent is really asking is not about an illusive “real world”. The question asked to a head of a Jewish school or any other independent school is code for - will my child know how to interact with people who are religiously, ethnically, racially or socio-economically different.

What then is the “real world” of Wornick JDS? Our student body is more diverse than appears on the surface. In many ways it is more economically diverse than a neighborhood school that pulls students from a limited geographic area with relatively similar socio-economic status. There is also diversity of language groups and countries of origins of our families.

Nearly all Jewish values begin with the ideas of empathy and dignity for all. This means that our teaching actively engages children in understanding and in interacting with “the other”. This is why we place so much emphasis on not excluding others. As we teach peaceful communication, students must understand how to express their needs and how to understand conflicting needs. They are given the tools to deal with, and not walk away from, conflict.

Our graduates are the students who become leaders on high school campus programs with diverse student groups. They are the students who have the capacity to empathize, to understand and respect “the other.” This idea is further supported by compelling data from a study produced for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA that compared high school graduates from public and private schools on academic and personal indicators during their first year of college.

The study showed that independent school graduates were more tolerant of those who have different beliefs than they do, more able to view the world from someone else’s perspective and more likely to work cooperatively with diverse people. “This high degree of tolerance and open-mindedness extended to being more willing to have their own views challenged and more able to discuss and negotiate controversial ideas. (Amada Torres “Independent Schools: A Well-rounded Preparation for College and Beyond, in Independent School, Fall 2011, p.24)

Finally, the “real world” of an independent school addresses identity formation in a serious and methodical way. Along with our mandate to approach each subject seriously and well, independent schools spend time addressing individual student needs with the goal of helping each student formulate a winning personal identity. The identity includes the teaching of resiliency, compassion, humility and confidence. Those qualities,when taught well, lead to graduates who easily navigate any “real world” that they face.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Birthday Lessons

On Tuesday, three boys from third grade visited me during lunch. They were talking about how another boy in the class was excluding them from playing a game during recess. On Wednesday, a parent was telling me how another boy from that class excluded one boy from the class from his birthday party. Beyond the fact that this sort of exclusion is addressed as unacceptable in our school handbook, how should teachers and parents respond to a child who wishes to exclude classmates?

A very fine book, Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children by Michael Thompson, was published eleven years ago. I turn to this book periodically – when the sort of exclusionary actions described above occur. The book addresses the issue of the parental experience of pain about one’s children’s social lives. The author notes: “Being a parent means feeling helpless a lot of the time... I believe that there is no area in which a parent feels more powerless to make a difference than in relation to a child’s social life.” (p. 7).

Amidst this helplessness, what is the appropriate role for the school and for the parent? School is as much about academic engagement as it is about social emotional development. In the course of a day, all of the administrators and teachers attend to the hurt feelings that are part of the nature of normal human development. We work to create an environment of kindness, and we know that this develops over time and through the negative and positive experiences that children face in the course of a school day. We know that kindness and caring grow along a somewhat predictable developmental continuum.

We watch all sorts of imaginative play, pairings and unpairings, as children become best friends and then worst enemies. During all of this, the job of the adults (the teachers, administrators) is to keep it safe and to let the children develop the tools to decide outcomes for themselves. Yet, there are also certain nonnegotiable standards – and the avoidance of exclusion is one of those. Given this stance, it is essential that we give students a blueprint to articulate their own needs and to understand those of others.

It is this latter point that is really important – understanding the needs and feelings of the “other”. If a child is having difficulty “working things out” with another child, or their activity together tends to be toxic, then it is important for these children to separate temporarily from one another. But it is not okay to drag all the other kids into the class and pit a group against one child, and it is counterproductive to not give the other child a chance to become a better, kinder person. Demonizing and excluding the other will never help that child improve, and more significantly, it doesn’t give the child who is excluding the necessary skills to interact appropriately with the many types of people s/he will encounter throughout life.

In the case of chronic poor behavior, the school takes a proactive stance. This means that we identify the negative behavior for the child’s parents, we require the parents to seek appropriate therapy or help for their child and we work together with the therapist and the parents to assure a positive outcome. If that partnership breaks down at any point and/or if there is no improvement in the child’s behavior, then we ask the parents to find a school that would be a better fit for their child.

Our school subscribes to the idea that children have the capacity to grow and change. At the same time, we always keep front and center the requirement that all children feel safe at school. We give children the tools for positive friendships, and we recognize that for some children this is a bigger challenge than for others.

When a child presents a story of hurt or exclusion, then our first steps (following a brief cool-down) are: a) acknowledge the child’s hurt feelings, b) help him/her think about why the other person acted this way. It’s important to let it be known that whatever the other child did is not acceptable, but it is equally important to help a child begin to understand what motivates poor behavior in that other child. Sometimes it is simply that the other child really wants friends but doesn’t know the best way to engage another child and tries a mean comment as a way to connect.

If you are the parent whose child wants to exclude others from a birthday party, then you have an obligation to help your child understand what that must feel like for that child. The school maintains a policy that an entire class or all the girls or all the boys should be invited to a party. If cost is a major consideration or if there are a few children that you just don’t trust in your home, then invite one or two close friends, but please don’t leave one child out. When adults condone exclusion, we give permission to our children to be uncaring toward their classmates. More significantly, we deny our children important school values about developing resilience and practicing the idea of taking a moral high road.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Enduring Understandings

Do you ever wonder how a school decides what should be taught each day? Most people assume that state standards or Common Core standards list what should be taught and that schools determine how to deliver that curriculum. Some assume that the accrediting organizations set the curriculum. Neither assumption is correct. The story is actually far more complicated.

The state standards are stated in general terms (i.e. a first grade language arts standard is “uses illustrations and details to describe characters in a story” ) without designations as to amount of time or depth of understanding in any one area. Accrediting organizations don't prescribe curriculum, they want to see schools develop a robust curriculum in keeping with the school's mission.

For any given concept or skill, decisions have to be made about what to teach, when to teach, how long to teach. In most public school settings, these questions are usually answered in a scripted manner. The school buys sets of textbooks with teacher guides that lay out the entire year. Teachers may select from a few suggested activities, but the entire process is prescribed.

In Independent Schools, like Wornick, teachers continuously build and rebuild their units and curricula pieces. Why are Independent Schools so committed to this other approach? The answer centers around a commitment to sparking deep engagement in learning for each student. We believe that only teachers who are able to constantly create, reflect and edit their teaching can generate this level of student engagement. This is challenging work, and the teachers who are committed to it model a powerful process for their students. It also means that the students become partners in this process as teachers continuously rework their units and lessons based on student successes and challenges.

At our school much of this work is collaborative – teams of teachers have designated time together throughout the week to work together on curriculum. This week, all of our teachers engaged in additional work with one of our PIVOT coaches. The work was focused on making the grade-to-grade connections along the continuum of a teaching standard. Teachers shared the units that they’ve been working on in the past month connected to one particular standard. The checked to make sure that these linked from grade to grade and they helped each other refine their work. This is essential work that assures a strong academic program and distinguishes us from other schools.

Several years ago, our school adopted a cutting edge curriculum design model called Understanding by Design (UbD). What distinguishes UbD from other curriculum design models is that the work is focused on understanding and on the long term transfer of understanding. (for the research support for this approach see http://jaymctighe.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/A_Summary_of_Underlying_Theory_and_Research2.pdf)

I am sure some of you are wondering what is so new about a focus on understanding. Historically, American education has focused on knowledge acquisition and not on understanding. Knowledge is about facts. Many facts are important to know; however, facts are quite useless and are unlikely to be stored in long term memory when they are not imbedded in broader understandings. In the UbD model, we define understanding as the process of making meaning of, and of organizing, our facts. It is an inference from facts or a conclusion based on facts and prior experiences and beliefs. Using this curricula model, we begin all curricula work with enduring understandings.

In my last two blog entries, I mentioned that the core values that we emphasize at school could easily become enduring understandings. The UbD model begins with figuring out an enduring understanding. An enduring understanding is a statement that summarizes important ideas and core processes that are central to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom. They capture what students should understand – not just know or do. They are understandings that will be revisited over a lifetime and transfer to more than one field or topic. They are the places where students, throughout their lifetime, can connect new pieces of information and skills.

An example of an enduring understanding in social studies would be: Topography, climate and natural resources of a region influence the culture, economy and life-style of its inhabitants. This enduring understanding appears in the curricula units from fourth grade through middle school. An example from mathematics could be: numbers are abstract concepts that enable us to represent concrete quantities, sequences, and rates. An example from science could be: Living things have needs and must depend on and interact with resources in their environments in order to survive.

The route from an enduring understanding to an actual lesson is complex and iterative. Once enduring understandings are set, the teachers ask what questions does the understanding raise (called essential questions), what skills and facts would students need to have to answer these questions, what standards are met by studying these questions, what assessments will assure that students have grasped the understanding. At Wornick, each lesson that is taught everyday throughout the day develops through this process. The work that we are doing with PIVOT this year is to assure that we have tight connections from year to year. The work in teaching Judaic Studies texts has similarly gone through a school-wide process to assure connected units tied to standards grade by grade and we have begun similar work in Hebrew language.

I know that all of our staff find this work energizing. They are always looking forward to finding ways for every student to be challenged and engaged in the work of learning. As our teachers are inspired by their learning so too are their students.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom (Happy Holiday),
Dr. G.