Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


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.


More "Threes"

Last week, I wrote about three key Jewish values. I noted that empathy, study and repair the world were three that were connected to so many practices, rituals and texts. As such, they seem to me to be the ones that rise to the top as most worthy of our students’ attention. During the weekend, as I sat through many hours of Yom Kippur services, I came across another threesome in the Unetaneh Tokef – a prayer chanted both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I tried to see if the “three” in this prayer had parallels to the three from last week.

The Unetaneh Tokef is one of the oldest prayers in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. Historians believe that a form of it appeared by the 8th Century. On one level, the prayer seems to deny free-will and to paint a simplistic picture of reward and punishment. In the middle of the prayer, the question is raised ‘who will live and who will die...who by sword...who by famine...who by fire...’ The prayer concludes with the statement that tefilah (prayer), tshuvah (repentence), tzedakah (charity) – the threesome - mitigate these awful outcomes. The prayer is difficult for contemporary people when viewed as a simplistic statement of divine reward and punishment. Instead of dismissing it for this reason, let’s dig a little deeper.

One of the enduring factors in this very ancient religion is that there is an emphasis on an interpretative tradition where we can continuously re-interpret ancient documents and find new meaning in them. So my understanding of this prayer is that we acknowledge that death is part of the human condition, that we don’t have control over how we die and that we must get on with our lives. The threesome in this prayer is the formula for facing life and not allowing ourselves to succumb to despair because of the inevitability of death and natural calamities. As noted last week, this is a fundamentally realistic and optimistic view of the human condition.

What about the connections between this threesome and the three that I addressed last week? Recognizing that these three – prayer, repentence and charity – have their own integrity, it is still possible to make connections from last week to this week.

The first one – tefilah (prayer) – is easily connected to Talmud Torah (learning or study). Throughout the centuries, various commentators have equated prayer to study. I noted last week that synagogues are also called “betei midrash” (places of study). It is also true, that if we approached prayer sometimes as study – pondering meanings, challenging ourselves to think actively and not just recite robotically, thinking about the words in their context or as they connect to our lives – the prayer experience might be more meaningful.

The second one – teshuvah (redirecting oneself to do good) – connects well to empathy. The act of teshuvah begins with thinking about the impact of one’s actions on someone else, and then asking that person for forgiveness. Etgar Keret, a Tel Aviv based filmmaker and writer, expresses this idea so well in his recent article “It’s Never Too Late to Atone” where he speaks of his negative impact on a girl in his preschool and how, years later, he asked for her forgiveness. Teshuvah can also be connected easily to tikun olam (repairing the world) as it is a necessary condition for the envisioned utopian world of prevailing peace.

Finally, tzedakah (usually translated as giving money) is clearly a subset of tikun olam (repairing the world). Danny Siegel, a writer and poet, notes “Gemillut chassadim” (acts of caring) and tzedakah are the two basic Jewish tools for tikun olam (repairing the world).

So from last week to this week – my three values continue to provide a powerful lense for understanding a Jewish way of seeing the world. I’m pretty sure that they could be characterized as “enduring understandings”. What’s an “enduring understanding”? It is the basis for how we map curricula at Wornick. More about that next week.

Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday)
Dr. G.


Three Core Values

A few weeks ago, one of our wonderfully involved parents asked me if there were a way to distill Jewish values into three to five key values that were easily understood. My initial, unspoken reaction was that there was no way to condense this rich tradition in that way. My next thought was - how arrogant of me to think like that - our great Rabbi Hillel from the first Century was able to respond to a similar request with one pithy statement. The story is told in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) - a prospective student asks the great Rabbi to teach the whole Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replies “that which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary.”

Shortly after this encounter with the parent, I started thinking about what would be the three most important values. I created my own little filter – the value had to encompass or be connected in some way to many other expectations, rituals or mitzvot (expected behaviors). Here’s what I came up with – the value of empathy (deep understanding of ‘the other’); the value of repair the world (tikun olam); and the value of study (Talmud Torah) in the broadest sense.

The first one – empathy – applies to so many texts and mitzvot. The recurring injunction about treating the stranger (which appears 52 times in the Torah) with respect and compassion for “you were once strangers in a foreign land” is the quintessential Jewish way to think about empathy. The careful delineation of expected behaviors when visiting a sick person, or when giving tzedakah reference empathy – taking into account the other person’s feelings. Even the Talmudic statement that our animals must be fed before we feed ourselves is based on the premise that the animal can’t communicate his needs as well as we can so s/he must be accorded this level of care and concern. We must anticipate his/her needs.

The second one – tikun olam – the idea that our purpose in life is to “fix a broken world” captures a fundamentally Jewish way of looking at the world. It addresses the idea that repair is possible, that the world is broken but redeemable, and that we have the power to change things. The mitzvot about tzedakah, about protecting the environment and about caring for the elderly are the obvious ones connected directly to the idea of tikun olam. There is a thread of tikun olam in Jewish mourning rituals. Among these rituals are a series of practices designed to help the living gradually return to their routines and ultimately to giving back to the world. The idea of building a Sukkah as soon as Yom Kippur concludes also underscores the idea of “building” ...of moving from somber to hopeful. Judaism doesn’t allow for one to be lost in grief or despair. It really promotes the idea that each person is needed to get to work at repairing what is broken.

Finally, the value of study (Talmud Torah) is critical to Jewish thinking. The Rabbis of the Talmud, envisioned “the world to come” to be a time when everyone would get to sit at the feet of scholars and study. The idea that the Jewish people are referred to as “the people of the book”, that Torah study is central to a service, that text study where multi-vocal texts from different historical periods are constantly speaking to one another is the core of Torah study, that schools are expected to be built before synagogues, that synagogues are referred to as Betei Midrash (houses of study) point to the centrality of study as a value.

These three values – empathy, repair the world and study are definitely core Jewish values that are easily connected to each of the holidays, to Jewish texts, to ethical imperatives and to liturgy. This week as I listened to a presentation by a representative of Design Tech High School it occurred to me that these very same values are core principles in design thinking too. (Design Thinking is a 21st Century educational paradigm that our staff has explored). The first step in Design Thinking according to IDEO founder Tom Kelley is empathy (in The Art of Innovation). Kelley posits that that observing and understanding “the other” is key to excellent design. Second, design thinking is about solving seemingly intractable problems to improve the world – tikun olam. What about study – throughout the design process there is a continuous back and forth of testing and studying. This indeed the meaning of Talmud Torah in Jewish tradition.

In answer to the parent’s question – yes, there are three core values that are not only central to Judaism but that also have correlates in contemporary education initiatives.

Shabbat Shalom & G’mar Hatimah (the traditional greeting for Yom Kippur),
Dr. G.


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



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.