Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog

Wednesday
May132015

When Folk Tales Come Alive

Two years ago, a group of second graders managed to create a “green club” that identified a need (mulberry leaves for the silk worms that the class were studying), figured out a solution (plant a mulberry tree in the school yard) and reached this goal with a little help from their teacher and their parents. That class couldn’t reap the benefits of the tree, but the current first and second grades are feeding their silkworms from that mulberry tree.

This real life story has a parallel in a classic Jewish folktale preserved in the Talmud about a character named Choni who actually lived in the first Century BCE. It relates that Choni, seeing an old man planting a carob tree, asks the man how long it would take until the tree bears fruit. The man answered “seventy years.” Choni mockingly says “do you think you will live seventy more years?” The man answers “My ancestors planted for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

Many of you know that storytelling has become a feature of our Monday morning Havdallah for kindergarten through fifth grades. Most of the stories are drawn from a very rich tradition of Jewish folktales – some are more than a thousand years old, others come from more recent Diaspora communities. The main characters include kings and queens, the familiar illusive Elijah, ordinary people and the silly characters like the Wise Men of Chelm. Every story provides an opportunity for a lesson.

This week the story was about a King and a very wise bird. The bird taught the king some lessons. Sometimes some of the lessons are straightforward and other times the stories create some tension around competing values. One of the lessons from the story this week – to avoid chasing unrealistic goals – created such tension. The question – how do we know that a goal is unrealistic - that was continued later in the day in a Judaic Studies class. For that class the question was what’s the difference between visioning or creating something of worth that no one ever thought possible verses “tilting at windmills?” It’s a great question and one that does not have an easy answer. Our school, with time for meaning of life questions like this and with such opportunities intentionally woven into the curriculum, is uniquely positioned to tap into this aspect of a child’s development.

Our own society seems to have marginalized fiction and folktales. Yet folktales are a valuable educational tool. The most direct value is that of teaching an easily applicable value. Folktales are also a window into a culture – their fears, their dreams, their values. The silly Wise Men of Chelm stories (attributed to the mid 1600’s and written and widely circulated in the 1800’s) might have been created to bring humor to a drab and frightening life or, as some speculate, to depict a rivalry among different villages. Whatever their source, we learn something about humankind and about history when we look at folktales with respect to their origin and setting. Raising ambiguous meanings, sparking the imagination and naming different emotions are serious benefits of encountering folk tales. As Pat Bassett, the former director of the National Association of Independent Schools, noted faith-based schools, like Wornick, are uniquely positioned to open up this avenue of thought and development for young children.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Thursday
May072015

The Question Is?

On Sunday, I heard a young man who is a graduate of Jewish day schools talk about the centrality of asking questions in Jewish practice and thought. He noted that at a recent seder with a motley group of his post-college friends, he raised the question about why do we put very young children through the experience of asking the four questions. Why would we have them ask such important questions and why does this play such a significant role during a seder? Only after finishing college, he realized how important this practice was. He realized that it was paradigmatic of a Jewish education in general and of his education in particular. He connected this experience of asking to the traditional Jewish study of text where questioning is the mode of study.

Parents of young children know that their two and three year olds tend to ask questions incessantly. It is how they begin to understand how the world works. Researchers note that by the time children reach middle school, they tend to ask very few questions. Most people who study this phenomenon argue that this is not simply a developmental effect. Instead, it appears that since so much of schooling is about “getting the right answer,” children learn to stop asking questions. Additionally, the feeling that there is not enough time in the day to cover all that must be taught increases the pressure for teachers to structure lessons by giving information rather than opening up possibilities for questioning.

What is it about asking questions that is so important to the development of a young person? A questioning mind is one that thirsts for learning. It is that impassioned learning that we talk about at Wornick – where students explore and become absorbed in their learning. Questioning permits a learner take control of their learning, and student initiated learning leads to the possibility of an increase in student’s linking pieces of information. This linking has lasting positive effects on retention of knowledge.

Student questioning challenges pre-conceived ideas. It gives children the confidence to advocate for their own views. When questioning as a mode of teaching is married to teaching respect for others then students develop that critical thinking skill of understanding and valuing multiple perspectives.

The give and take of questioning builds and strengthens relationships. Have you ever been in a one-sided conversation where you ask the other person questions and the other person simply answers. That other person never turns to you to ask you anything. The person who fails to ask, misses opportunities to understand and to connect to the questioner. When interacting with people – long lasting friends as well as new people – questioning is a valuable social skill.

Dr. Isidor Rabi, Nobel Laureate in Physics (1944), underscores the significance of questioning among young children when he was queried about formative influences on his career path. He said “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’… ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist.”
http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/19/opinion/l-izzy-did-you-ask-a-good-question-today-712388.html

Our curriculum places a high premium on student questioning. It is why all of our graduates find success in high school and beyond. Alumni parents universally report that they are so surprised by what terrific self-advocates our graduates are. Alumni notice that they are among the few in their classes who frequently raise their hands in class, never afraid to question a teacher, a text or a peer. It all begins when that very young child is given the honor of singing the four questions at the seder.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Thursday
Apr302015

Investing in Your Future

Some of you have heard me say that when my three children were young and we were considering independent schools, I kept thinking that we were about to spend the equivalent of a really great new car each year. I couldn’t understand how we were going to make that work. My husband, a graduate of an independent school like Wornick and a college professor, insisted that this was how our children were going to get the best possible education. When the time came to compare schools, I had to admit that he was right.

The independent schools were warm and welcoming, the education was uniformly more inspiring than anything we saw in our local public schools. Small classes meant that teachers throughout the school knew my children, and there was alignment around definitions of education and moral development. We shared values with the other families in the school. Independent schools weren’t perfect – no school is – but they were measurably superior to anything else around. Our local schools would have provided an adequate education. But adequate wasn’t good enough for us.

There were also so many moments during the years that my children were in school where a performance, a celebration, a trip or some milestone event evoked strong emotions that were awe-inspiring. There were the various performances and those unbelievably well written essays. Even more exciting to us were the moments when children joined us in stimulating conversations at home about lessons learned in school. They were well-informed and passionate about challenging us to think with them.

As the years went by and each child grew into adulthood, we saw many examples of how that investment paid off. Each child followed their passion and excelled in high school and college. Each won significant awards in college, and found rewarding careers. Those last two sentences could have been written even if they hadn’t attended an independent school. The value added for us was that each of these children found ways, and continue to find ways, to volunteer, to reach out to others even when they have extremely busy work schedules and one has a young active family. All three of our children are kind and empathetic, informed and independent. Each has found his or her particular Jewish identity – and each defines that identity differently. All of this was the measure of success of this education.

An independent day school education is the single most important investment that you will make. What I didn’t realize in those early years was that as we were paying for our children’s education, we were actually investing in our future. We were actually making sure that there would be another generation of young adults to uphold our values and to make a difference in this turbulent world. The other dividend for us is being able to sit back and enjoy interacting with these thoughtful young adults. There will be moments when you will question the worth of this education – as I did too. I wish that each of you will be able to see your children become the well-educated caring and engaging adults that my children are. It’s as much about your future as it is about theirs.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Friday
Apr242015

Navigating Your Child’s Social Life

A child’s self-esteem and social skills are a function of how we, the adults in their lives, react to their communications to us. This was one of the “takeaways” from parenting specialist Sheri Glucoft Wong’s lecture last Thursday night. Instead of writing a blog that captures the main ideas of her talk, I am including below Joel Scott’s very thorough notes from that night as well as this link to the video-recording of Wong’s presentation. Sheri’s presentation was filled with so many interesting tips and understandings about children’s social life. The notes capture the main ideas and the actual lecture has many examples drawn from her practice.

We hope to bring Ms. Wong back to Wornick in the fall.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Notes from Wornick Talk – Sheri Glucoft Wong
April 16, 2015 by Joel Scott

Raising children requires a combination of the right Attitudes & Practices

Parenting is a continuum of managing your kid’s life. The ultimate goal: if you’re really, really lucky, you end up with a seat on the advisory board of your child – that is, they will share with you what is going on with them and seek your advice. Your goal is to increase the odds that this will happen.

Peers are very important.

  • Peers offer more give and take required than vertical (parents). That is, parents will allow for a lot of things that peers will not tolerate. For example, if your child is acting out, you may tolerate this; a peer will not.
  • Peers offer a child an opportunity to try on different roles/personalities than the fixed menu role that the child adopts at home.

Kids are just trying to figure out how the world works. Even with misbehavior.

The optimal settings in which people coexist are those environments where people bring their best selves AND ENCOURAGE others to bring their best selves. It is not good enough to be a good role model for your child. You also need to encourage your child to exemplify optimal behavior as well.

Brain development is accentuated by short-term stress. Long-term stress is bad but short-term stress is actually helpful, so do not try to shield your child from stress in a given situation (e.g., having challenges with homework or a social situation) it will help them learn.

A child’s ability to get along well with others (collaborative, cooperative, ) are the best predictors of success, even more so than great grades.

Popularity and friendship are not one and the same. The key to success is the quality of one’s friendships, not their popularity. A couple of very strong friendships is far more important than being a “popular” child.

The medium is the message. How you relate to your child is very important. Your messages can be inadvertent. Example: your child tells you than another child was being mean to them and you reply that you will speak to that child’s parent. You are inadvertently giving a message to your child that you do not think that they can handle this situation on their own, even though your intentions were just to help. The key is to LISTEN to what your child has to SAY and to stay focused on what is going on FOR YOUR CHILD (and not turning your attention to the other children in the episode).

Rather than using “If (you don’t behave)… Then…” use “When (you behave)… Then…” The former sets your kid up to be led around by others who may have different motives from your benign ones. The former threatens your child that if they do not do what you tell them to do then they will face consequences. The latter positions that if they do do what you are asking, then they are able to continue to participate. It is a positive message rather than a negative one.

Inclusion cannot be legislated. It is fine to not include others and to say ‘no’ to another’s request to join but what’s important is HOW you say no. So if your child and their friend do not want to include a third child, that is ok. You cannot force them to want to play. The key is to teach them how to communicate with the third child. For example: “I would like to keep playing my game with X right now, but I would be happy to play with you later, once I am done.” This is the optimal way to handle such a situation for all involved and to communicate.

Tips:

  • Kids need 2 things to feel good about themselves: (1) that they are special and unique and like no one else and (2) that they are just like everyone else. The art of parenting is to figure out when to deliver which message.
  • Self esteem is having regard for yourself and others at the same time. Just the former is narcissism. Just the latter is being a doormat. The combination is the basis of intimacy.
  • Home is the training ground for the real world and how your children treat you will set the tone for how they will behave in the real world.
  • Seek and welcome feedback from other grownups about how your child behaves when you are not around. You only see one personality of your child. They wear other personalities when you are not around and it is critical to learn about and understand what is going on with them when you are not present.
  • Notice when your modeling does not align with what you want to encourage. Young kids think their parents are rational, so when you behave a certain way, they believe that you have thought through why you did what you did and that you behaved that way on purpose. When your modeling does not align with what you want to encourage, then you should observe that and call it out so that your child understands that your behavior does not reflect your intentions.
  • Recognize your own issues and how your own buttons get pushed. Be mindful of your own history. Your history can impact how you interact with your children. For example, if you were always shy and struggled with that, you might be inadvertently overly aggressive with your child about socializing. It is key to not transfer your own issues onto your child.
  • Be thoughtful about interpreting things through the lens of the child (e.g., when a child says “get your brown hand out of my lunchbox” the operative words there are “out of my lunchbox” rather than “brown hand” so while you can educate your child on the sensitivity to different races, note that their intentions are not the same as someone using this language when they are an adolescent or adult).
  • If your child tells you about an experience where they were upset by someone else, avoid the reflex to blame the other person and focus instead on what your own child’s experiences are.
  • Support kids finding the GOOD in things - support tolerance of others and themselves.
  • Teach the difference between Impact and Intention. You can take responsibility for your impact even if you didn’t have the intention. For example, if you do something and your child says that you are being mean, rather than saying “No, I’m not mean” you can respond that “It is not my Intention to hurt or upset you, but I am sorry that my request makes you feel bad/upset.” And likewise, teach your child to acknowledge the other’s apology for Impact.
  • Monitor interactions.
  • When kids mess up, help them make it right. Punishment does not work well. It is ok for you to impose Results for actions, but just punishment for punishment sake is not helpful. Giving a child a “time out” for cool down / reset purposes is fine, but giving them a “time out” just to punish them for bad behavior is pointless. So, for example, if your child ends up playing with toys in their room during a time out, that is fine. There is no value in trying to enforce the “punishment” by denying them the ability to play with their toys during the timeout. The key is to help them reset so that they can try again.
  • Teach the difference between tatteling vs reporting. There is no value in tatelling.
  • Help kids realize disappointment is just a feeling, not an Event. Don’t make a disappointment experience an event. Kids get through disappointment and all other feelings very quickly. It is good for them to experience disappointment. Adults tend to dwell on disappointment and that is not helpful. Do not assume that your child will dwell on the feeling the same way that adults do, because they won’t.
  • Entitlement: there is good entitlement and bad entitlement. Good is when you get what everyone else gets; bad is when just you get it (often at other people’s expense).
  • Children experience success when you recognize and praise with how they cope/deal with what they are dished out. Have an identity around ‘I can cope’.
  • Resilience: the key is that they are in a situation where communication is clear and open both ways. You should lead with empathy and yet set clear limits. Talk in a way to have them want to talk to you. How to make it safe: when your kid comes to tell you something bad that happened, just say ‘Oh’. Then they will talk more. Then say ‘Oh’. And so on. In sum, let them talk to you and give you as much info as possible. Don’t react.
  • There are no villains and victims in your child’s life; rather, there are just relationships and dynamics. Be sure not to reinforce a feeling in your child of being a “victim” of someone else. This has a huge impact on their self-confidence. Rather, help the child understand that the other person (the “villain”) has something going on inside of them that is driving their behavior and that the key is to not take the other person’s behavior personally.
Wednesday
Apr152015

Misplaced Emphasis: The Atlanta Cheating Scandal

This week, eight of the more than thirty Atlanta educators who participated in standardized testing tampering were sentenced to prison on racketeering charges.  They were part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to artificially inflate student standardized test scores. The prosecutors claimed that the educators were driven by personal gain, as improving test scores were tied to bonuses and job security. They also argued that the students were subsequently denied services because of the falsely inflated grades.

We have yet to hear the entire story. But the early reporting thus far has painted a picture of greedy teachers who cared little for their students. Yet, I remember reading an article last July that told the story from an entirely different perspective. The author of that article, Rachel Aviv, writing in the New Yorker about this very scandal (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/21/wrong-answer) depicted a story about civil disobedience.

In Aviv’s treatment of the story, the teachers were motivated by a relentless culture of fear and intimidation in a most inhospitable setting where there was little chance that students would ever succeed. Her essay focused on one particular school. Teachers and students at that school always felt like failures. Aviv notes, “There was litter in the hallways, and students urinated in trash cans.” Fourteen years ago, under the direction of a new principal the litter was cleaned up, children’s laundry was processed, meals were served regularly, after school and weekend activities grew and flourished and parents were brought into school events and planning. The school had begun to feel like a community that cared about each student. In spite of the progress in the school environment, there was a high probability that the school would close and the students would be sent to another school because they kept missing the education testing target goals by several points. Suddenly there was a relentless emphasis on meeting numerical goals (test scores) at any cost.

There is no disputing that the teachers violated the trust of the community in participating in the cheating scandal – yet that early reporting and debate around whether the judgment was too extreme is the wrong focus for this story. The story is really about the mistake of thinking that cultural and academic test scores can overcome social forces that profoundly affect the intellectual growth of youngsters. That answer poses a more complicated reality - quality education includes not only measurable educational outcomes but also obvious and measurable school environment indicators of success.

Our school is currently embarking on our yearlong self-assessment in preparation for our re-accreditation by CAIS (California Association of Independent Schools) and WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) in the spring of 2016. The process for measuring success is a comprehensive process where all stakeholders weigh in on various aspects of the school. The final document that is presented to the visiting accrediting committee includes academic measurement as well as school environment indicators (safety, governance, finance, human resources, etc.). This leaves me wondering – if the emphasis in evaluating Atlanta school success had been more balanced, would the cheating scandal ever happen?

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.