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Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


Line Leaders

Do you know what a line leader is?  In early elementary classrooms throughout the United States, it is the child assigned each day to be at the front of the lines when the class exits their classroom or lines up after recess.  We need line leaders because if we weren’t to assign it, there would be a scramble for “first place” throughout the day.  Without line leaders, the toughest, pushiest child would always lead the line.

The bigger question around this idea is – why do some kids feel compelled to push their way to the front?  Renowned educator, Alfie Kohn argues (in No Contest) that this is the result of toxic competition in our society – of the race to win or to be first.  He argues that the emphasis on competition makes us all losers trying to “beat out our friends.”  He acknowledges that his stance sounds un-American, but he feels that his earlier position of qualified support for competition is wrong.  He argues that competition is inherently destructive in that one person succeeds only if the other person fails, and he believes that there is no place in schools for this sort of thinking. 

Kohn represents one side of the debate about competition, and he brings solid research to support his argument.  The other side of the debate argues that competition drives people to perfect their skills.  But does it?  Research argues the opposite.  Setting objective standards and having a person reach it is motivational, but pitting a student against another generates hostility.  Studies have shown that children who compete frequently are less empathetic than others and are less generous. 

So how do I reconcile this thinking with the fact that we enter our students in the school, county and state Science Fairs, or that we run a competitive athletic program.  I would argue that competition in and of itself is value neutral.  It becomes negative or positive by the way we “use” it – how we talk about it to our students.   If our children’s sense of self-worth is connected to “winning” then competition does become a destructive force in a person’s life.  If competition narrows a child’s ability to try out different activities just for fun, then it is does have negative connotations.  Some recent studies have noted that competition with cooperation (i.e. team sports) has a beneficial impact on children’s social emotional well-being. 

In October when I discussed the common thread among the Noble Prize Winners, I noted that none of these people worked ceaselessly on their various projects in order to win the Noble Prize.  They clearly were just plain passionate about and absorbed in their work.  It is passion and grit that drives success, and this may or may not be acknowledged by a prize or a win.  I think the focus on competition is a red herring.  Instead we should be finding the ways to inspire and to drive passion.  It is about finding that growth mindset – that inner locus of control. A competitively won prize might be the by-product of that passion but the prize should never be the ultimate goal -  and we are really proud of our passionate young scientists who really placed at the County Science Fair.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G


What to Teach?

Do you ever wonder how a school decides what should be taught each day? Most people assume that the state standards or the Common Core list what should be taught and that schools determine how to deliver that curricula. Some assume that the accrediting organizations set the curriculum. Neither assumption is correct. The story is actually far more complicated. The state and Common Core standards are written in general terms without designations as to amount of time or depth of understanding that needs to be achieved in any one area. Accrediting organizations don't proscribe curriculum, they want to see that a school develops a robust curriculum in keeping with the school's mission. In many schools, the curriculum gets built as it is enacted every day in a classroom – as teachers write and plan their lessons with a nod to state or Common Core standards.

Three years ago our staff engaged in the process of mapping our curriculum using a cutting edge design model called Understanding by Design (UbD). In mapping the curricula, we designate lessons, assessments, timing to meet grade level standards. We also look at a subject area or objectives from kindergarten through eighth grade making sure that items spiral year to year. We are lucky to be living at a time when excellent software makes this all so transparent. We can easily see duplications and unmet areas. What is most exciting about curriculum work is that it challenges everyone on staff to become reflective, continuously justifying the teaching of any particular unit.

What distinguishes UbD from other curriculum design models is that the work is focused on understanding and on the long term transfer of understanding. 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 how we make meaning of and organize our facts. It is an inference from facts or a conclusion based on facts and prior experiences and beliefs.

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 are understandings that will be revisited over a lifetime. 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. An example from mathematics could be: numbers are abstract concepts that enable us to represent concrete quantities, sequences, and rates. This would be an enduring understanding in kindergarten and first grade. The social studies example is the enduring understanding used in third and fourth grade social studies at Wornick.

The task of our staff is to go from an enduring understanding to something we call essential questions. These are generative questions that are raised by the enduring understanding. Using our social studies model, essential questions might be: what is topography, what are natural resources, what do we mean by “influence a culture”, how is life-style affected by climate, natural resources, etc. Parents see the result of this particular set of essential questions in the Ohlone project in third grade and in the Missions project in fourth grade.

The next step in curriculum development is to figure out what skills and knowledge need to be accessed in order to answer the essential questions. As the teachers look at these items, they also look at which of the Common Core standards are met by these questions. In the social studies example, the students would need to have rudimentary knowledge about topography, climate and natural resources. It is possible that a grade level may have one or two enduring understandings for the entire year for a particular area of the curriculum. Embedded in the lessons connected to the few enduring understandings for the year are dozens of Common Core standards that need to be taught a) to meet the standards, b) to clarify the enduring understanding, and to answer the essential questions.

The third step in this process – assessment – has conferred the affectionate title of “backwards design” on UbD. This step answers the question “how do I know that the students have mastered this enduring understanding for this class?” The “backwards” nickname derives from the fact that in typical classroom and traditional curriculum planning, lesson planning precedes assessment. In UbD, the lesson is the last item created. First we need to know what would qualify as evidence that the enduring understanding has been mastered.

Curriculum work at Wornick takes place all the time – during in-service days, after school, in staff common planning times and during the summer. It is a very long process and it does require yearly rethinking. It is the lifeblood of a school. And the way we do it means that our teachers are always reflecting and rethinking.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G


I Appreciate, I Wonder, I Notice

How is it possible for a thirteen year old boy – who is a good student, an athlete, a comfortable communicator, a great friend to his peers – to address a couple hundred people about “Radical Amazement?”  The Wornick Bar Mitzvah boy from this past weekend did just that.  He carried the congregation through a very deep and moving theological speech, complete with references to A.J. Heschel’s idea of “radical amazement.” He was analytical, humorous, calm and poised.  

Wornick JDS can hardly take full credit for this awesome young person.  But I now know that my incessant worrying about the unbridled arrogance that our school has the potential to unleash is probably unwarranted.  We empower young people to have the courage to create.  We discourage blind obedience.  The downside of these wonderful stances is that a child can grow up to be that all too familiar twitter creature who believes that everything s/he says or thinks is priceless and worth sharing with everyone. That is what keeps me up at night.  Our real challenge is developing children with social emotional intelligence required to become a positive contributor to community.  

It is about getting the balance right between empowerment and humility.  Empowerment gives a person the temerity to take risks and humility gives him/her the awareness, and even fear, of his/her limits.  It is this latter quality that is the driver for continuous searching and questioning.   

One way that we address this at Wornick JDS is by teaching children a protocol of critique.  Our staff studied this a couple of years ago using the work of pioneering educator, Ron Berger. (See Ron’s excellent digital lessons on critiquing in the following video: In short, the protocol creates a classroom culture that is kind and considerate while also being honest and open to suggestibility.  The language that we use for this is “I appreciate, I wonder, I notice.”  You may have seen posters with these phrases in some of our classrooms.  

Here is how this protocol works.  When a child presents a first draft of a drawing or a piece of writing to teachers or to his/her peers, the response from the recipient might be “I appreciate your opening sentence, I notice that there is only one adjective in the entire first paragraph, I wonder what would happen if you added some more description to the paragraph.”  The child then returns to his draft and edits it based on the comments.  Using this protocol, students hone their listening skills, develop authentic appreciation of their peers’ work and learn the need to refine work until it meets a standard of excellence.  

We are still refining our use of this protocol, and some of us use it more naturally than others.  But this is indeed one of the sure formulas that creates a culture that produces our Bar Mitzvah boy.  To be sure, our signature Tzedakah project and the overt teaching of Jewish values also play significant roles in this outcome.  But I believe that the critique protocol may be the most impactful.  Ironically, the words that we use for critiquing are the very words that our Bar Mitzvah boy referenced in his speech – they are Heschel’s way of seeing the world – appreciation, noticing and wondering.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


To Censor or Not?

Midweek, I was engaged in a conversation with a parent and a staff member about the appropriateness of a particular book for the parent’s sixth grade daughter. The child wanted to read the book. The staff member thought that the book, though well-written, was too “adult” (because of sexual references) for the child. Earlier in the year, another parent expressed her concern about the references to death in a book that an upper elementary class was reading. I can empathize with parents wanting to shelter their children from the misery that engulfs our world, and I respect a parent’s right to decide such things. Yet, as a parent and as an educator, I’ve always chosen a different path.

My position is that I would rather talk about these controversial subjects with my children before the need arises. It does not mean that I played the role of lecturer teaching all things about life in some systematic way. Neither did I introduce topics that they were not yet ready to consider. Instead, I let the topics arise organically as my children read particular books that they chose or as they listened to songs that were filled with “adult” topics. Sometimes those conversations took place in unlikely places – often in the car, sometimes walking through a mall and sometimes when we read books together.

I recall driving my youngest son to high school his freshman year and listening to some awful misogynist lyrics in a song that he was listening to. Rather than shut off the radio, I engaged in a conversation with him about why these lyrics were so awful. A short time after that morning, he put on a selection of music saying “eema, I know these are songs that you will really like.” And I did – he was becoming a more discerning consumer of music and we continued to have deep conversations about the values embedded in popular lyrics.

In short, rather than censor, I prefer to read questionable books with my children so that I can shape the subsequent conversations. I prefer to engage in conversations about terrible things that they may have heard on the news. K J Dell Antonia, in her New York Times parenting blog (Motherlode), captures my sentiments so well in her February 4th entry:

Every time there is a national tragedy or a big anniversary, how we talk to our children about it (or how we shouldn’t) becomes a topic, and the question of how and when to talk with your children about lynchings, racism, the Holocaust, internment camps and the rest of the worst moments of our recent past is a perennial parent dilemma. The “choice of how and when to tell” is a luxury we should appreciate and seize. Why ruin a beautiful day with talk of horrors? Because we’re lucky enough to have the beautiful day to put some distance between our conversation and ourselves.
If you take opportunities to talk to your children about difficult topics when they arise, then when circumstances push those conversations on you, they flow more easily.

I would argue that not only do they “flow more easily”, but also they are placed in perspective – they are not given inordinate “special” attention. They are part of everyday discourse. My advice to the parent this week was to read the book with her daughter, and use this as an opportunity to discuss the “adult” topics in an age appropriate way that appear in the book.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Meet the Skeptics

Two fifth grade boys politely knocked on my door during lunch on Tuesday asking if they could ask me a question. I invited them in, and, after settling into seats, one of them said, ““We were wondering how what we learn in J.S. (Judaic Studies) is going to help us in life when we get older?” Great question – a question that I know many of our fifth through eighth graders entertain at various points during their journey at our school. It is the question that so many parents ask when considering a day school education for their children. It is the question I asked many years ago when my own children began their day school journey. Within the answer - and the answer is layered - lies the “value-added” of a Jewish Day School education.

There are several answers to this question, and I only had a half hour in which to frame it and explain it to two very precocious fifth graders. In the half hour that we had, we talked about specific skills and about the purpose of religion in general. We also discussed their experience of the school’s Judaic Studies curricula. What follows is a summary of that conversation.

Text study (Torah, Talmud, and Rabbinic writings) introduces profound literary analysis training that translates well into many familiar professions. Throughout the grades, standards of textual analysis introduce skills as close reading of a text, the ability to infer ideas or situations from a text and facility in locating supporting evidence for a textually derived assertion. This aspect of our curriculum lays a foundation for careful literary analysis, for sharp focus and protocols in developing arguments and assertions, and for the critical thinking skills of synthesis, analysis and evaluation. I pointed out to my two visitors that these are skills that lawyers use daily. Doctors and mathematicians must draw on these skills too in thinking logically and in looking for evidence to support their conclusions or decisions. Our students get training in this everyday in progressively more complex ways.

The second aspect of their question that I addressed was that of the purpose of religion. I discussed how an understanding of a religious system provides a window into all humanity. This appears paradoxical, but it isn’t. I asked them to step out of “living Judaism” and to think about all that they’ve learned about Judaism as a system. First we talked about the “why” questions that all people ask at one time or another. Why do we even exist? What is our purpose? All religions attempt to make meaning out of these questions. Judaism provides an array of answers, and so do other religions. Similarly all religions find ways to celebrate time and to create rituals. I pointed out that the Super Bowl which we all experienced last week belongs to American civil religion – it has a set time, it has connected and expected rituals, it is observed by most Americans in some way. We talked about the driver’s license as a rite of passage like a Bar Mitzvah. Whether or not they ultimately hope to celebrate or live any of the traditions that they have learned at school, these two boys will have keener insight into humanity because of their studies. They will understand their peers and adult colleagues who come from other traditions in a way that people who have never experienced a systematic way of thinking and practicing a religion may not understand as fully.

Finally, we had a conversation about what had worked for them in J.S. classes and what hadn’t. They discussed specific teachers who had a profound effect on their connection to J.S. and they discussed lessons that were more engaging than others. We agreed to continue our discussion at a later date and that I would come into their class to share these lessons with their peers and to continue the dialogue around this.

I look forward to more visits from my skeptics – this sort of engagement with individual students is always a highlight of my week.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.