Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


Are they Ready?

Sometimes when meeting parents, I hear the comment “but, will my child know how to live in the real world after being educated in such a small insulated environment?” When hearing this, I wonder about that parent’s definition of the real world? Isn’t any place (perhaps Disneyland is an exception) that we find ourselves the “real world.” Is the upper middle class neighborhood public school a real world? Or is the inner city public school a “real world”? What the parent is really asking is not about an illusive “real world”. The question asked to a head of a Jewish school or any other independent school is code for - will my child know how to interact with people who are religiously, ethnically, racially or socio-economically different.

What then is the “real world” of Wornick JDS? Our student body is more diverse than appears on the surface. In many ways it is more economically diverse than a neighborhood school that pulls students from a limited geographic area with relatively similar socio-economic status. There is also diversity of language groups and countries of origins of our families.

Nearly all Jewish values begin with the ideas of empathy and dignity for all. This means that our teaching actively engages children in understanding and in interacting with “the other”. This is why we place so much emphasis on not excluding others. As we teach peaceful communication, students must understand how to express their needs and how to understand conflicting needs. They are given the tools to deal with, and not walk away from, conflict.

Our graduates are the students who become leaders on high school campus programs with diverse student groups. They are the students who have the capacity to empathize, to understand and respect “the other.” This idea is further supported by compelling data from a study produced for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA that compared high school graduates from public and private schools on academic and personal indicators during their first year of college.

The study showed that independent school graduates were more tolerant of those who have different beliefs than they do, more able to view the world from someone else’s perspective and more likely to work cooperatively with diverse people. “This high degree of tolerance and open-mindedness extended to being more willing to have their own views challenged and more able to discuss and negotiate controversial ideas. (Amada Torres “Independent Schools: A Well-rounded Preparation for College and Beyond, in Independent School, Fall 2011, p.24)

Finally, the “real world” of an independent school addresses identity formation in a serious and methodical way. Along with our mandate to approach each subject seriously and well, independent schools spend time addressing individual student needs with the goal of helping each student formulate a winning personal identity. The identity includes the teaching of resiliency, compassion, humility and confidence. Those qualities,when taught well, lead to graduates who easily navigate any “real world” that they face.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Birthday Lessons

On Tuesday, three boys from third grade visited me during lunch. They were talking about how another boy in the class was excluding them from playing a game during recess. On Wednesday, a parent was telling me how another boy from that class excluded one boy from the class from his birthday party. Beyond the fact that this sort of exclusion is addressed as unacceptable in our school handbook, how should teachers and parents respond to a child who wishes to exclude classmates?

A very fine book, Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children by Michael Thompson, was published eleven years ago. I turn to this book periodically – when the sort of exclusionary actions described above occur. The book addresses the issue of the parental experience of pain about one’s children’s social lives. The author notes: “Being a parent means feeling helpless a lot of the time... I believe that there is no area in which a parent feels more powerless to make a difference than in relation to a child’s social life.” (p. 7).

Amidst this helplessness, what is the appropriate role for the school and for the parent? School is as much about academic engagement as it is about social emotional development. In the course of a day, all of the administrators and teachers attend to the hurt feelings that are part of the nature of normal human development. We work to create an environment of kindness, and we know that this develops over time and through the negative and positive experiences that children face in the course of a school day. We know that kindness and caring grow along a somewhat predictable developmental continuum.

We watch all sorts of imaginative play, pairings and unpairings, as children become best friends and then worst enemies. During all of this, the job of the adults (the teachers, administrators) is to keep it safe and to let the children develop the tools to decide outcomes for themselves. Yet, there are also certain nonnegotiable standards – and the avoidance of exclusion is one of those. Given this stance, it is essential that we give students a blueprint to articulate their own needs and to understand those of others.

It is this latter point that is really important – understanding the needs and feelings of the “other”. If a child is having difficulty “working things out” with another child, or their activity together tends to be toxic, then it is important for these children to separate temporarily from one another. But it is not okay to drag all the other kids into the class and pit a group against one child, and it is counterproductive to not give the other child a chance to become a better, kinder person. Demonizing and excluding the other will never help that child improve, and more significantly, it doesn’t give the child who is excluding the necessary skills to interact appropriately with the many types of people s/he will encounter throughout life.

In the case of chronic poor behavior, the school takes a proactive stance. This means that we identify the negative behavior for the child’s parents, we require the parents to seek appropriate therapy or help for their child and we work together with the therapist and the parents to assure a positive outcome. If that partnership breaks down at any point and/or if there is no improvement in the child’s behavior, then we ask the parents to find a school that would be a better fit for their child.

Our school subscribes to the idea that children have the capacity to grow and change. At the same time, we always keep front and center the requirement that all children feel safe at school. We give children the tools for positive friendships, and we recognize that for some children this is a bigger challenge than for others.

When a child presents a story of hurt or exclusion, then our first steps (following a brief cool-down) are: a) acknowledge the child’s hurt feelings, b) help him/her think about why the other person acted this way. It’s important to let it be known that whatever the other child did is not acceptable, but it is equally important to help a child begin to understand what motivates poor behavior in that other child. Sometimes it is simply that the other child really wants friends but doesn’t know the best way to engage another child and tries a mean comment as a way to connect.

If you are the parent whose child wants to exclude others from a birthday party, then you have an obligation to help your child understand what that must feel like for that child. The school maintains a policy that an entire class or all the girls or all the boys should be invited to a party. If cost is a major consideration or if there are a few children that you just don’t trust in your home, then invite one or two close friends, but please don’t leave one child out. When adults condone exclusion, we give permission to our children to be uncaring toward their classmates. More significantly, we deny our children important school values about developing resilience and practicing the idea of taking a moral high road.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


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.