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Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog

Friday
Jan312014

From Generation to Generation

This has been a multi-generational week – a week where students have had the chance to hear first hand accounts of some seminal historical events.  There were two presentations that I was lucky to experience.  Both were inspiring; however, the highlight for me was watching our students take it all in.  It prompted me to think about the value of our children hearing and mining the stories of people a couple of generations removed from them.  

The fourth grade has been presenting family narratives.  Some of the parents or grandparents accompany the student’s presentations.  The presentation that I heard was about a grandfather who, as a young boy, enlisted in the army to fight in Korea. When he returned to Boston after his time in Korea, he joined the Haganah (the underground army that was the precursor to the Israel Defense Force) and he set out for pre-state Israel to defend boats of refugees that were bound for Palestine.  When he returned to the States, he was involved in fundraising for the new State of Israel.  He was chosen by Ben Gurion to accompany him on his fundraising speeches in Boston.  

The students have read about Ben Gurion in Jewish studies, now they were meeting someone who was with Ben Gurion and could describe “the person.”   This very dignified and mild-mannered man before them had fought in a war and shortly thereafter left the comfort of his home to engage in the dangerous work of the Haganah.  He was motivated by his passion for justice and for the creation of the State of Israel. 

On the same day, the eighth graders heard a 92 year old Holocaust survivor who was an incredible inspiration. Dora Sorell was born in Romania.  At the age of 23, she was taken on a Hungarian transport to Auschwitz.  A year later, she was sent to work in a second camp – Weisswasser from which she was liberated two days before the end of the war. She returned to Romania in search for her family – they did not reappear as her parents and other family members were killed, but her boyfriend found her there.  She was reunited with her brothers some years later. Dora and her childhood boyfriend were married.  She went to medical school in Romania and, sixteen years later, she and her immediate family immigrated to the United States.  She retrained in the U.S. so that she could continue her medical practice, and she raised three children.  

In her narrative, Dora talked to the children about the living conditions in the camps, about her quest for shoes so she could continue to work, and about the liberation.  This diminutive woman exemplified the concept of “grit” that is a significant part of education discourse today.  “Grit” is often described as resilience - that ability to rise above the most adverse circumstances to take control of one’s future.  I don’t think any child in the room will be able to glibly say “I can’t do...” after listening to this strong woman who embraced a future, was a parent and a physician (in two different countries) not only at a time when few women chose to work in professions but also after surviving the horrors of the Holocaust. 

Jewish tradition places a very high priority on honoring the elderly (kibud Zekanim).  The emphasis is not simply on caring for their needs – though that is very present in the traditional literature.  The tradition emphasizes the importance of learning from our elders. (Exodus Rabbah 38).  In Pirke Avot 4:26 (The Ethics of our Fathers), there is a statement that “a person who learns from the young is compared to one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from a vat, whereas a person who learns from the old is compared to one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine”.  Maimonides (a key medieval scholar) connects honoring the elderly with honoring scholars – both are repositories of wisdom that must be considered.  

We are living in a time when the elderly are still quite vital, and even those who are more frail have valuable stories and lessons to share.  In our very impatient world, we must make time for our children to hear these stories and to value the learning embodied by these people.  Our children experienced that this week. They also get to experience it daily from our multi-generational staff. 

Last week, at a National Day School conference, our fourth grade team gave a riveting presentation on the integration of Judaic Studies, Science, Engineering and Technology.  The three teachers, Ms. K., Mrs. Seligman and Morah Kaylee opened their presentation with the following statement:  “We are a team who represent three distinct generations.  Each referenced key cultural events that happened the year they entered the teaching profession: for Morah Kaylee, 1972 – the first video arcade game, Pong, was introduced and ground troops were withdrawn from Viet Nam; for Mrs. Seligman, 1987 – the first email was sent from China to Germany and the number one TV show was the Cosby Show; Ms K. – 2009 – Twitter went mainstream, Barak Obama took office.  I am not suggesting that either Morah Kaylee nor Mrs. Seligman represent the elderly – but I am saying that our students get to experience reflective multi-generational experiences daily.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Wednesday
Jan222014

Living Pluralism

As a high school student, I entered the world of conclaves – large groups of young people from many different regions converging in some setting...drawn together by common interests...usually for a weekend.  I recall a magical gathering of the Massachusetts all-state orchestra where I played violin.  After two days of continuous rehearsals, this motley group created incredible symphonic music – well not as incredible as world class symphonies – but pretty awesome nonetheless. The excitement of being a part of that effort, and of being surrounded by awesome music made by a group of strangers still feeds my soul.  In my last couple of years of high school I attended many Jewish youth group conclaves...one where I met my husband.  Over the years, I saw my own children experience the same kind of exhilaration that comes from the power of groups of people from many different communities coming together in common interest even with divergent positions. I was most inspired by the passions that brought people together and by the ability of people who held divergent views and passions to work together toward some common good. 

I recalled all this as I entered the yearly North American RAVSAK (community day school network) Day School conference in Los Angeles this past weekend with a team of five members of our staff.  This was a gathering of lay people, board members, school administrators, funders, entrepreneurs and a select group of teachers (three of our staff were selected to present at this conference).  Because RAVSAK represents schools that are pluralistic (more about that in a minute), the attendees represent a diverse swatch of the Jewish community in North America and Israel – five hundred Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, LGBT and various other affiliations wove in and out of keynote speeches, intensive workshops and meals.  Ever changing clusters of people found tables in the lobby to chat about some school initiative, to debrief a workshop, to help solve a problem, to mentor, to be mentored. 

Most conspicuous about the conference is that this is a perfect example of the ideal pluralism – a commitment to engaging diversity.  Engagement is the operative word here.  It is not simply about putting everyone in one room – but rather, it is about speaking and listening.  It is about agreeing to not agree, but to respect the various positions.  Diana Eck, Harvard professor of Religious Studies, wrote an introduction for the Pluralism Project (1991) at Harvard which reflects well what happens at a RAVSAK conference.  She posits four points that define the term. Pluralism, she writes, “is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity... [P]luralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.” She notes that pluralism “is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments,” which means “holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.” The fourth critical component, in Eck’s view, is dialogue because “the language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening,...”  Eck’s institute focuses on pluralism in American society – a society of so many different religious points of view.  Pluralism in a Jewish context – like the Ravsak conference or at R.C. Wornick Jewish Day School - is but a small sample within the larger American context. 

I know that technology could have facilitated many of these conversations virtually, and that social media could give us the opportunity of ever expanding network connections much larger than five hundred attendees.  But there is something very, very powerful about seeing the variation in observance, and hearing and engaging with many people who hold divergent points of view.  The common thread for all of us was how to create the best learning environments for all the students that populate our Jewish day schools. While we can agree on some “best practices”, there are, and will always be, widely divergent ways to “do education.”  My big “take away” from this conference – above and beyond some new approaches to teaching subjects like Hebrew and how to bring design thinking into our schools -  is about living pluralism so that we can bring that back to our schools and to our local Jewish communities.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Thursday
Jan162014

What the Seahawks can Teach us About Caring

Last weekend, I happened to be in Seattle for a conference.  In spite of the rain, wind and cool temperatures, I appreciate what a great city it is.  Yet, when I returned home and heard the news about Seattle blocking the purchasing of game tickets by Californians for the Seahawks and 49ers game, I was first annoyed and then angry.  The first question that came to mind was – how can I teach children to be caring when adults don’t “play nicely”?  This just seemed so mean-spirited.  

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach children to care.  I define caring as the ability to understand other people’s feelings and positions, take responsibility for actions that might negatively impact others and/or the environment, and to be reflective and thoughtful - not accusatory.  It is about how we treat those near to us as we also care about injustices suffered by others who may not be in our immediate purview.  

It seems to me that we are surrounded by profound lack of caring – public discourse that is often dismissive and disparaging of others.  Add to that the fact that children are naturally self-centered.  If a friend misses a basket or a goal, a child’s natural reaction is to be angry at that friend for costing the game. It is our obligation as parents and teachers to teach our children empathy…to understand that the child who missed the ball probably feels awful for costing the team a point.  S/he needs a little kindness from her/his buddies, not further humiliation.  

Ages five to eleven are key years for character development (Madeline Levine.  Teach Your Children Well, p 75).  There are so many things that we as parents and teachers should consider - particularly during this early elementary time - to help our children attain high levels of caring.  We need to acknowledge the kind and caring things that a child does – no matter how small it may be.  We must also point out the uncaring words that they say whenever they do this.  The child who looks at another child’s lunch, makes a face and dramatically states “how can you eat THAT”  must be made to understand the negative impact that those words have on the object of this statement. 

In our school, we have the advantage of working with a system of mitzvoth which are designed to teach empathy.  Among the mitzvoth that are so easy to make part of regular practice at home are welcoming guests, Shalom bayit (a peaceful home), visiting the sick, care of the environment, care for animals and providing food, shelter and clothing for the needy. When guests visit your home, children can be charged with making welcome signs or place cards for the dinner table.  These seemingly insignificant tasks drive home the point to children that “the other” (the guest in this case) needs tending to when not in his/her own home.  Rabbinic literature about care of animals asks us to feed our animals before we feed ourselves – to help us have empathy for another living being.  A once-a-week grocery shopping trip can be an opportunity for a child to select one non perishable item to deposit in the school food bins.  

The good news is that as I walked into school this morning, a fifth grade child dropped a bag she was carrying filled with plastic cutlery.  Within seconds, a few younger children who were walking by bent down to help her pick everything up.  We are teaching our children to care.  We need to be vigilant in teaching it, and we need to spread it beyond the walls of our school.  

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.

Thursday
Jan092014

Vacation to Work

How hard was it to get up on Monday morning? So many of us had gotten used to sleeping in a bit later and lingering over breakfast during the break. That process of pushing ourselves out of a comfort zone, and diving into new unknown work and into a time that we no longer control that occurred on Monday morning is precisely what great education is about. Our students and staff happily reflected this spirit on Monday and on Tuesday and on Wednesday and so on.

Great literature often helps us think about human condition questions. For this week, the question might have been – how do I balance the comfort of vacation (I control my time and activities) with the usual workweek routines. Interestingly, the Torah portion (weekly Torah selection) for this coming Shabbat – Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 - 17:16) - provides an interesting lesson about this process. I am not interested in the veracity of the Torah narrative. Like all great literature, it provides a way of thinking about the human condition. This particular story represents well our first week back after vacation.

The narrative is about the beginning of the wilderness journey from slavery in Egypt to peoplehood at Sinai. The B’nai Yisrael, having left behind oppressive slavery, complain to Moses about food and water as they begin their wanderings. They ask to return to Egypt. Their complaints focus on the familiar foods in Egypt. After the children of Israel cross the Sea of Reeds, the text states; “Miriam …picked up a hand-drum and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums….”(15:24)

My understanding of this passage has changed over time. Years ago, I was shocked that people would want to return to slavery. The older me read this passage as comical – does it really come down to food all the time or I guess we’ve been a complaining people for a very, very long time. Yet the story is really a great example of how often we are drawn to want the comfort of the familiar no matter what might be the (sometimes negative) consequence of that. The desert wanderings in this narrative are a metaphor for the human condition wherein the unknowns and uncontrollable lurk in our personal narratives. The response in the narrative (by Moses, Aaron and Miriam) is the idea that we must continue on this journey of discomfort and the unknown as we build a better life. In Miriam’s response, we see a leader taking initiative, leading and celebrating.

A Jewish way of looking at life is pragmatic and optimistic. It is that life is replete with unknowns (the purpose of life, why were we born, how will our life end? etc.). It posits that rather than perseverating about these questions, we should celebrate “the moment” and strive to improve life on earth. Let’s celebrate the return to our work routines and the new learning that our young Wornick leaders are engaging.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Friday
Dec202013

I'm Open for Questions

In many schools, the week before a long vacation is often a week of limited learning as children begin to check-out or to dream of the lazy days ahead. The level of engagement in learning this week was as equally intense and powerful as it is every week. Vignettes from two grades illustrate the point.

Vignette #1: Second grade memento presentations

“I’m open for questions.” Said the 2nd grader to the audience of parents, peers and teachers. She had just finished explaining the significance of the fountain pen and the letter she held in her hand. Both were from her grandfather. As a twelve-year old, her grandfather and his entire family were deported to a concentration camp. His toolbox and skill saved his life. When he was able to board a boat to Israel, he wasn’t allowed to take the toolbox so he traded it for a fountain pen. He gave this pen with a letter explaining this journey to our second grader’s father. As she explained this to the class, she ended by saying that when she turned eighteen this would be hers.

A story about an Iranian prayer rug followed the fountain pen story. A grandmother used it to keep her son and grandson (another second grader) warm and comfortable. When this student announced that he was open for questions and comments, another second grader commented that they had Muslim prayer rugs in their home because her father too was born in Iran. This was one of more than two dozen stories that our second graders told to their audiences as part of their “Momentos Project”.

This project is impactful on so many levels. It served another point on the continuum of knitting together our community as families learned new things about one another. The idea of passing traditions from generation to generation was so apparent. For me, it was rewarding to see our responsive classroom in action. The entire staff was retrained in this during the summer. Students used the responsive classroom protocols of listening and responding in such a respectful manner. Finally, communication is one of the twenty-first century skills that schools are promoting today – our students clearly demonstrated their prowess in this domain.

Vignette #2 Fifth grade Judaic Studies Mindcraft

The fifth grade had been studying the texts about the structure of the Beit Mikdash (The Temple in Jerusalem or The Holy Temple). To demonstrate their knowledge about this unit, students needed to construct a facsimile using the very popular computer program “Mindcraft”. I had the pleasure of seeing the presentations of the finished products. They had figured out how to create ‘cherubim,’ an altar complete with fire and sacrifices, and chambers for the High Priest. In some cases, they superimposed stories (like the Chanukah oil story) into their work. One students even created a secret pool of olive oil under the structure that might have accounted for the 8 days of light from a small flask of oil. Another located Judah Maccabee in the Temple. Like the second graders, these students were supportive of each other, highly engaged and eager to show me all the details of their work. This project was a terrific example of our emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, and cutting edge technology.

There were so many magical moments like these in this last week before vacation. Most important significant work went on as always.

Have a relaxing and restorative vacation and a joyous New Year.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.