Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog

Thursday
Sep182014

Fall Holidays as Counter-Culture

It's beginning...the Jewish holiday season kicks in late this year. This season begins next Wednesday night (Jewish holidays always begin and end at sundown) with Rosh Hashanah (the New Year). This is followed by Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) beginning at sundown of Friday, October 3rd followed by the harvest festival of Sukkot starting at sundown on October 8th and ending with Simchat Torah - the evening of October 16th (where the reading cycle of the Torah begins again for a new year). Then it will be relatively quiet with respect to holidays until Chanukah in December. It is a difficult time for our working parents because it is so counter cultural. The rest of the world goes on, and we either have to deal with the inconvenience or opt out of “the rest of the world”.

When our oldest son was a freshman in a public high school, he missed the six days that we observed for the holidays in September and October. His English teacher took him aside and said, “do you really think you’ll be successful in life, missing all these days of schools.” When he related this to us that evening, we asked him if he wanted us to speak to his teacher. He said “no, I took care of it.” Months later the teacher related to us that she learned so much from our son about life and about herself. She said that our son responded to her with “our family, and indeed millions of Jews, do this every year. You will see that I will be successful because I really care about my education and I also care about my traditions.” During this conversation, the teacher apologized to my son saying, “I’m really sorry. I should have known better – I’m Greek Orthodox and my holidays and practices never fit in to what was going on around me. I didn’t always have the strength to stand up to others and assert who I was.” The end of this story is that my son is a successful physician today who always took off these days throughout his education. Additionally, he has maintained his connection to this English teacher.

My son’s response was a gutsy one and our family valued the strength that it took to be counter-cultural in this way. It is hard to do this, but it is also strengthening in so many ways.

This holiday cycle is counter-culture in ways beyond the calendar differences. Unlike Chanukah and Passover that line up with dominant Christian holidays, there is no equivalent to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Sukkot, though, does have strong parallels to Thanksgiving.) The synagogue-centric nature of these holidays is also counter-cultural. For non-Jewish spouses in an interfaith relationship, it is often puzzling that a Jewish partner who appears to care little about religion and prayer would want to attend the very lengthy synagogues services. For many Jews, services are more about connecting to a community than about the actual liturgy or philosophical stance of the holiday. It is often about asserting an identity distinctive from the mainstream.

For me, the most important ‘counter-cultural’ feature of this holiday season is about the foundational values of the holidays. The big theme is the concept of “teshuvah” – turning oneself around. It is a concept filled with promise and belief in the capacity of everyone to improve. Among the practices connected to this idea are asking others for forgiveness, taking stock of personal missteps during the year, and planning for a better new year. In the case of really heinous behavior, there is an understanding that change must be imbedded in a process that takes time, and there is a protocol for that as well.

The idea of asking others for forgiveness even if one isn’t fully aware of having wronged another person is powerful. The phone calls and emails asking for forgiveness from friends and family members began for me this week. The custom, when there is not a specific reference for hurting another person, is to say “if I’ve inadvertently hurt you in any way, please forgive me.”

We live in a society that is so quick to blame others and so slow to take responsibility for even a small slight that could negatively impact a person. The act of whole communities of people asking each other for forgiveness is unusual and powerful. Teachers and adults who asked me and my friends for forgiveness when I was a child during this holiday season particularly inspired me. It is a tradition that we continue at Wornick, and I encourage you to do at home as well. It is just one small step toward creating a more empathetic humanity.

As we enter this holiday season, I wish you all a Shana Tova that brings us all to greater heights, and if I wronged you in any way, please forgive me.

Shabbat shalom & Shana Tova Umetukah (A good and sweet New Year),
Dr. G.

Here’s an inspirational blog from the Huffington post about a unique way that one family spends the day of Rosh Hashanah http://www.huffingtonpost.com/galit-breen/another-jewish-holiday_b_3872009.html

 

Friday
Sep122014

What's Common Core?

If you read any articles about education or heard any new commentators speaking about education in recent weeks, you were bound to hear something about Common Core. The early articles about Common Core were about embracing this innovation and the more recent ones are about various states (most recently Indiana and Oklahoma as noted in the Sunday New York Times) that are considering repealing Common Core. What is this new political football? And how does it impact your children at Wornick?

The American education system has historically been locally controlled (neighborhoods and states). When you went to school, you were taught whatever the school selected textbooks dictated. When standardized tests appeared, you were then taught whatever facts you would need to master so that your school would “score well.” The states with the largest populations consistently determined the content of major textbooks since these books would be designed around received wisdom and/or the standards from those states. It wasn’t until 1990 when all states enacted standards. There was a fair amount of variation in standards state by state.

By 2009 there was consensus (a foreign political concept today) around the idea that there should be national standards – this was the beginning of Common Core that went into effect in some states in February of 2010. By now, forty-three states have adopted them.

What exactly are the Common Core Standards (CCS)? The standards are for language arts and mathematics. Some of the language arts standards apply readily to social studies and science. These standards were based on research regarding what students need to know and to be able to do in order to be successful in college. The biggest innovation in these standards is that from K-12, there is greater emphasis than heretofore on reading for information (as opposed to reading almost exclusively fiction). Students are expected to find and cite appropriate passages to illustrate a key idea. In the mathematics standards, there is a similar emphasis on deep understanding and analysis as opposed to simply learning an algorithm and plugging in numbers. In short, the CCS’s place an emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical thinking.

So why is there growing controversy about the standards? The standards call for the sort of teaching that has been the hallmark of Independent Schools like Wornick. Teaching children to think critically and to analyze means that teachers spend a lot of time of asking questions rather than giving children simple answers. It takes time and it takes teachers with particular mind-sets. Small class-sizes facilitate this as well. Additionally, this sort of learning does not lend itself easily to the classic standardized tests that are a major part of public education. These factors pose a challenge to large classrooms even in the best districts. Additionally, many teachers across the country have had limited professional development to really practice the type of teaching that Common Core demands.

Our school has embraced Common Core (http://www.corestandards.org). Our teachers frame their teaching units and lessons around the standards. This year, we’ve engaged a group of educators (mostly retired principals and superintendents) who belong to an organization called Pivot. The Pivot educators have been helping all of our staff connect the threads of Common Core through the entire K-8 curriculum. The week before school started we spent two intensive days studying the standards and selecting two standards to work on together to make sure they are properly aligned grade by grade. We will continue this work throughout the year during our in-service days.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Thursday
Sep042014

A+ Teachers

How do parents evaluate a school? Peg Tyre’s purpose in The Good School (2011) is to give parents the tools to evaluate a school based on current research about schooling. There are chapters on reading, mathematics, testing, class size and teachers. Wornick can check all the boxes to meet Tyre’s standards. We teach reading according to best practices, and we introduced three years ago systematic reading assessments by Fountas and Pinel in each elementary grade to make sure that each child is making clear progress. Tyre sings the praises of the Singapore mathematics system – we use this method of teaching. Our class sizes are appropriate; our testing is multi-faceted and used for frequent feedback.

The last chapter of the book discusses the importance of excellent teachers - “the best schools have come up with a school-wide process to develop and retain excellent teachers.” (Peg Tyre, 2011, p.193) This is indeed one of our greatest strengths and this is what sets us apart as a great school. That is why our teacher, Adam King, was selected, out of a pool of exceptional teachers throughout the bay area, to receive the Helen Diller teacher of the year (for early elementary education) award. The award ceremony that took place this past week was inspiring. Adam even stood out in his presentation among the four recipients.

We locate teachers in a rather unconventional way. We rarely post advertisements for jobs – we call Deans of College of Education and ask them to recommend their “best and brightest” graduates for us to interview. We do this early in the year – before the usual “job hunts” begin, and sometimes without being sure if we have a job available. Usually, we ask this prospective teacher to substitute so we can see them in action longer than the usual one hour demonstration lesson that we also require.

Another effective vehicle for finding teachers is by training our own teachers in partnership with teacher training programs (i.e. Notre Dame de Namur, SFSU and DELET). This is how Mr. King came to us. Teachers who are training are assigned an on-site certified mentor and are reviewed regularly by an outside field supervisor.

DELET is a very unusual and “cutting edge” teacher preparation program. Each year twelve promising college graduates are selected from a competitive vetting to participate in the West Coast DELET program based at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Those selected for the program receive free tuition, free mentoring and jobs as classroom fellows for one year. The program includes an intensive summer studying best practices in pedagogy (i.e. how to teach reading, mathematics, language arts, etc), a year working at a designated “DELET school” with two mentor teachers and an outside field supervisor.

In this state, all novice teachers have five years to clear their credential and receive a “clear credential”. New teachers with a preliminary credential who are working to clear their preliminary credential receive additional field supervision during their first years of teaching. This model mimics the medical model of education and is highly effective as teachers grow from novice to full professional by receiving extensive scaffolding from field supervisors and their mentors. We have four graduates of DELET teaching and several Notre Dame de Namur and SFSU trained teachers at Wornick.

Finding outstanding teachers is half the battle - the retention of great teachers is a hallmark of excellent schools. There are several different ways that our school assures this. The first is that our teachers operate in a culture that expects everyone to learn – teachers and children. There are bi-monthly “learning circles” where teachers study various aspects of pedagogy. Our professional development is not one-shot sessions, but rather deeply embedded with trainers working with staff throughout the year on particular initiatives. A few years ago, our focus for the year was aligning all class work with a particular curricula method called Understanding by Design. This year, all teachers are working with a group called Pivot Learning to make sure all aspects of the school are Common Core Standards aligned, and the Hebrew staff (thanks to a generous grant from the Levine Lent family foundation) will be spending the next three years structuring their lessons according to the proficiency model of foreign language learning. Additionally, there are ample opportunities to share best practices among colleagues, to walk into another classroom to support each other, to give and to receive feedback.

I know that we are a great school (which includes the idea that we are focused on continual improvement), but it’s awfully nice to have that thought validated by a well-researched current book.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Thursday
Aug282014

School is the Answer – What’s the Question

Summer is typically about lazy beach days, vacations, a profusion of flowers, juicy fruits and abundance of vegetables. It’s about time to catch up with friends and family, and it is about slowing down and savoring that slower pace. While this summer had all of this, it also presented so many intense events that generated a rapidly changing array of emotions for me.

A profound experience was our son’s wedding. Watching my 90 year old Dad and 86 year old mom walk nimbly down the aisle, followed by my children, grandchildren and the bride and groom was one of those moments that illustrated so well the phrase “l’dor v’dor” (from generation to generation). The word “pride” doesn’t do justice to the feeling that this image generated.

The broken foot also figured prominently in the summer panoply of emotions - from the despair of activity reduced to a couple of rooms in my house and my office to the recognition of the miraculous ability for the body to heal. Another profoundly positive experience was my return to Camp Ramah in Ojai where I have the pure joy of learning from and sharing insights with some of the world’s greatest artists, scholars and educators, where I meet so many inspiring campers and staff and where I can kick back and look at the stunning scenery that surrounds this special community.

But this summer also was the summer of gnawing anger, fear, anxiety and despair. The horror of the killing of three Israeli teens followed by the killing of a Palestinian boy, followed by the loss of so many lives in Israel and in Gaza. I kept thinking that there is no way out of this mess, and my anger at world-wide responses and lack thereof just mounted as the summer continued.

The world appeared to be spinning out of control. A month before, there was the kidnapping of Nigerian girls from their school, and later in the summer, there was the bombing of an airplane over the Ukraine. The bloodbaths in Syria and in Iraq were all part of the summer landscape.

Overt anti-semitism in so many places that heretofore has remained relatively dormant reared its head. For me this phenomenon became the biggest source of concern and fear. My outrage grew when it was clear that countervailing forces of sanity and civility were incapable of tamping this down. And my fear that once again we are being thrown into that narrative of “they hate us, no one else will come to our aid and we need to be vigilant about our safety.” Will my grandchildren face a world that my grandparents escaped?

Within this context, our school hosted a community-wide discussion for educators about how to respond to whatever fears and concerns our students would bring into the classroom from this summer. We followed this with a longer conversation with our own staff last week. As we struggled with these questions and thought about the age-appropriate ways to handle our conversations, I realized that school is indeed the answer for my anger and anxiety. Educating the next generation is an affirmation, a statement of hope. It is a declaration that we will not be brought down by the horrors that swirl around us. For me welcoming all of our students on Tuesday was the answer to the question of how to make sense out of mean-spirited world in chaos. With great relief and sense of purpose, I welcomed our vibrant students on Tuesday. It is going to be a great year!

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Here is the link for a very similar and far more eloquent blog post from a colleague – Michael Lapidus Lerner
http://avichai.org/2014/08/the-spirit-of-education-a-message-for-the-start-of-school/

Thursday
Jun122014

Charge to the 2014 Graduates

Let’s talk about final exams. What happens to you on the day of a final exam – I recall the week of my written Ph.D. comprehensive exams – I didn’t know what the question would be, I couldn’t bring any books or notes with me, couldn’t use the internet...I was shown into a room with a scrubbed computer, handed a blank disc...and the dreaded question. Would I be able to condense all I had read and studied over two years into a 5 – 10 page coherent written essay in 3 hours? I had it all - sweaty hands, dry mouth. Few of us enter a final exam setting without some sense of fear. What you may not know, is that any teacher who is excellent experiences those same emotions when she/he receives the completed exams...because those responses really measure how well the teacher has taught a concept. Teachers who care – take their student’s successes and failures as personal successes and failures to some degree.

A little over a week ago, I gave you my “final exam” ... only I labeled it an 8th grade questionnaire. I asked you to think about memorable experiences at Wornick, about values that inform your decisions. I had test anxiety – would I pass the test – would you express the values and the ideas that we claim our school teaches...or that I promise prospective parents?

So how did our school fair on this final exam?

Question #1 was: What was your most positive experience at Wornick...explain. For sixteen of you, Israel was your memorable experience. (Jake, Emily, Sean, Rosie, Talia, Max, David, Zachary, Evan, Paul, Alex, Tamara, Jessica, Emmett, Ella, Isaac)  For some it was Israel - because of the friendships and bonding with teachers and students. Many of you mentioned that in Israel you felt a spiritual connection that was much harder to feel in the U.S. Some of you mentioned the fact that the trip finally brought all your Jewish Studies learning together...that you saw places and experienced things that you had studied but now were able to put it in a new perspective. Two of you, Samantha and Sarit mentioned all the outdoor education experiences as memorable; Natan, our cross country champion 2 years in a row – spoke about our athletic program; Eli you referenced any activity that brought all your friends together. Alexandra, Maya and Joseph spoke about memorable teachers – that the teachers knew your names, knew your strengths and weaknesses. Jordan recalled the last few minutes in a basketball championship game against Hausner. He got a foul shot that tied the game. Joseph actually listed memorable experiences from every year at Wornick, and Noah painted a memorable picture about the tzedakah celebration – about being in a roomful of people who were all focused on bettering the world.

For me, we scored 100% on number #1

Question #4 What Jewish value will inform your life choices – chesed (loving kindness), kavod (respect) and lo ta’amod al dam reicha (don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor) figured prominently in nearly every response.

Question #6 Finally, I asked you what have you discovered about yourself as a learner and as a person. These were among the most insightful answers and the most divergent:

Alexandra: critical thinking skills and my Jewish identity
Eli: That I’m capable of doing well by becoming more seriously engaged
Jake: the importance of respect
Maya: I learn better if I can read it...I love reading
Emily: it’s a challenge for me to work collaboratively, not sure if I believe in G-d
Rosie: Self-awareness
Natan: I can succeed in learning when the classes are engaging and interactive.
Sean: Can-do attitude; work ethic and critical thinking help me get through life
Samantha: how to use critical thinking every day...if I try hard, I can succeed
Talia: I work better in groups than alone
Max: I’m not perfect
Noah: how lucky I am to receive a Jewish education while simultaneously learning everyday subjects like
        math and science
Zachary: I am good at teaching myself material...low tolerance for lack of fairness
David: discovered that I’m passionate about math and science
Evan: you can always learn from everyone...my teachers, my friends, everybody
Paul: the importance of critical thinking, connotative analysis, structured essays…personally the importance
        of Jewish tradition...of tzedakah
Alex: my Jewish identity; ...work hard and believe in your goals
Tamara: ability to interact with younger students
Jessica: abilities that I never thought I had...math...that I like little kids
Emmett: my Jewish values
Ella: my Jewish identity
Sarit: to be myself
Joseph: Jewish values Tzedakah...Lo Taomod al dam reiacha...God
Isaac: I’ve learned to persevere – never quit...

These students have discovered their Jewish identities, they know the value of hard work and perseverance...and they know the value of critical thinking...above all, they are self-reflective.

There were other questions about leadership, about what we should do to improve the school, etc. all useful to us for future planning...the answers that I’ve just shared indicate that we – the staff passed the test – our graduates know deep in their gut...the very things we promote – a love of Israel, a strong sense of friendship and community, Jewish values - particularly of kindness, concern for humanity, and the obligation to do something about human suffering; the importance of critical thinking and perseverance.

I bet that when you began your Wornick JDS journey, your parents had some degree of skepticism – would the school prepare you for “the real world” outside of this cocoon? Would your teachers “get you”? Parents, I know that you could never have imagined then that your adorable, inquisitive and wiggly kindergartener would turn into the poised, articulate and passionate - and still wiggly - young person that is before you today. You may have dreamed it, but I know you had no idea how this evening would tug at your heartstrings in a way that only a few transformative events in your life will.

And you...the graduates... there were times... some tearful, when you just didn’t know why your parents chose this school for you. For some of you that was this year – “I just want to move on to a big school…” You’ll be moving on to those big schools very soon.

All of those feelings are the “normal” feelings that happen in any school. But the outcomes...what you parents and guests will experience tonight...and the feelings that you, our graduates will express tonight, are the answers to all of those questions.

I am proud to launch you into your next stage of life – high school. You have learned the lessons of “community” – how to celebrate each others accomplishments and to care and to support each others weaknesses...how to take action against inequities in our society... I know that you will be experts at building new communities that have all these elements that you have learned here...only at Wornick! We excelled at our test!!! Go forth and spread that excellence!