Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


What is Academic Excellence Exactly?

When I began my work at Wornick Jewish Day School, I was charged with assuring academic excellence. That year, 2010, we convened focus groups to establish clarity around the concept of academic excellence. We ultimately based our understanding on the most current and most compelling education research. Our curriculum decisions have remained rooted in current research. Among the theorists that we have turned to are Tony Wagner (Harvard), Carol Dweck (Stanford), Ron Berger (Author of An Ethic of Excellence), and Alan November (Thought leader in Education Technology). During the summer of 2011 our staff read An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger, and we further refined our understandings about excellence.

Here are the standards of excellence we committed to in 2011:

  • explicit standards in all work (exemplars of excellence)
  • recognition that excellent work requires continuous improvement
  • knowledge that continuous improvement requires frequent feedback (formative assessment)
  • understanding that feedback must be specific and supportive
  • use of tools for self-critiquing and for peer critiquing
  • exploration of and the solving of authentic problems
  • summative authentic assessments that include performance assessment

Since developing those standards, our staff has developed clear rubrics to assess student work. We know that children need frequent feedback and that they should have the opportunity to rework their products until they achieve excellence. We’ve agreed that all feedback needs to be specific. For example, in place of weak terms like “well-written”, the child will see notes on their work that specifically explain what is well written and what specifically could improve the work. We’ve agreed to separate executive function from the attainment of academic standards; thus, a child will not lose points on an essay for turning work in late. If indeed the work is of superior quality it will be so noted, and if it were late, that will be noted in a separate grade. In 2012, we introduced new standards-based progress reports. These progress reports represented the above thinking about specific feedback.

Three years ago we agreed to abandon the classic standardized tests that do not accurately assess the complexity of the education that we promote in our school, and we piloted in the middle school new standardized tests that measure what we do teach – critical and creative thinking. Traditional standardized tests call for quick factual recall. Our new assessments ask students to use facts in the service of higher order thinking.

As we are embarking now on our re-accreditation where we take stock of our progress over the past six years and we engage in strategic planning for the next five to six years, we’ve begun to look at where we may have fallen short. We also look to other models of excellence that we want to emulate.

One area that we will be addressing more comprehensively in the coming years is “excellence” with respect to the social-emotional climate of the school. Somehow this whole category was missed in our initial thinking about excellence. We did introduce important schoolwide values, and conflict resolution protocols, but we have not shone a bright enough light on this area of the school. Somehow we missed the point that academic excellence cannot be separated from social emotional excellence. Indeed research claims that the latter actually drives the former.

We’ve come a long way in a couple of years – and have a distance yet to go. There are several ways that you can partner with us to encourage the excellence that we are promoting at school.

  • Share with your children things that you observe that reflect excellence – an outstanding ball game, a beautifully crafted sweater, an elegant science experiment, a well-written story – help them know in specific terms why the item you selected is excellent.
  • Talk to your children about the ways in which you must constantly edit or rework something at work or at home until you perfect it.
  • Support your children by encouraging them to take risks, to fail and to learn from their failures.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Anger Management 101

I’m sure that during the past few weeks, you experienced anger about something...a recalcitrant child, a nasty salesperson, a difficult business situation. If there are no vehicles for articulating the different layers of understanding in these disagreements, we run the risk of festering wounds that can create a toxic environment. This generally takes the form of people complaining and blaming rather than expending energy addressing issues productively.

What then is the best way to redirect anger? The conflict resolution protocols that we teach at Wornick are among the most effective. They help participants frame their conflict in terms of feelings and competing needs. In expressing feelings, children begin to develop empathy for others, and they learn to take a stand about their own feelings. They learn that it’s okay to feel angry, hurt, or disappointed. But it is not okay to act in anti-social ways because of these feelings. We teach children that there are productive ways to channel anger, hurt and disappointment.

Last Thursday afternoon, I observed two middle school students and a teacher help two young children walk on our peace path. The peace path is two parallel painted sets of footsteps on the cement between the lunch benches and the playground. Students having difficulty resolving a conflict find the middle school peacemakers – identified by their green vests – and walk the peace path. Each step on the peace path has an expected communication – I feel...when; I know that you feel...when; I need...; What can I do to make it right?; I know that the problem is over because...; The middle school students coach the younger children through this conversation.

This formula is a very effective teaching tool for so many reasons. First, it gives children the language that they need to express needs and feelings. So many conflicts are generated by competing needs and feelings. Sometimes we are unaware of our own and our friends’ feelings, and this protocol directs students away from the typical “blaming” by finding a way to communicate about the conflict in terms of needs and feelings. Just as it is sometimes difficult to express feelings in words, so too thinking about competing needs is challenging.

The peace path serves another important function. Because older children are trained as peacemakers and therefore are the ones to whom the younger children turn to help them work out their disputes, this becomes a powerful lesson in leadership. The student leaders are empowered by this process, and the younger children aspire to these leadership roles.

One of the most powerful Jewish values that speaks to the issue of conflict resolution is the traditional Jewish text from Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that says “Judge everyone on the positive side of the scale” (ve’heveh dan et kol ha-adam l’kaf z’chut). Basically, it is asking us to assume that most everyone makes choices with best intentions. It is this value – that separates intention from action - that underpins our peace path and allows us to set a conflict resolution in motion.

When you next experience anger, think about the conflict resolution strategies that we teach at school – what needs and feelings do you have and what needs and feelings is the other person expressing. Is there a way to address both? If not, is there a way to appeal to a larger, unifying “good”?

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Purim: A lesson in separating the Serious from the Trivial

I just returned from Israel, and I noticed that Purim in Israel seems to be a few weeks long. Costume shops pop up all over the country. Supermarkets are filled with hamantaschen (traditional Purim cookies) and baskets for sharing gifts of food. In Israel, I saw bankers, salespeople...nearly everyone in costume - sporting colorful wigs or capes.

At Wornick, Purim preparations began while I was gone. Lively emails flew among the staff about costume choices for this coming holiday. Wornick students know that Purim is so totally different from any other day of the year. We all play – adults and children - in costume, sing silly songs, shout during the reading of the Scroll of Esther. And there are games and spiels that evoke deep belly laughs from everyone.

While all this is going on, there are reports to write, budgets to juggle, staff evaluations to be completed and many, many planning meetings to attend. There are teachers who worry that some of their students appear to be more “ebullient” than usual. Seasoned staff all nod knowingly and smile. It’s sometimes difficult to hunker down and do serious work with all the Purim fun swirling around. But that is the point of Purim (and Mardi Gras and the Hindu holiday of Holi).

These holidays serve to help us deal with the ambiguity of an in-between season. We emerge from the dark days of winter, but the weather is still unpredictable and lazy summer days are still on a distant horizon. Ski season is ending, but swimming season isn’t here yet. Tax season is in front of us, and high school seniors and prospective independent school students are waiting to hear if they got into the schools of their choice.

Ambiguity of this sort often leads to anxiety and unrest. This is the time of year when complaints rise in schools, when children get into more arguments with one another, when parents become weary of dizzy schedules, when teachers wonder whether or not they will be able to teach all that they must.

Purim, Mardi Gras and Holi are colorful, joyful holidays meant to reset our compasses. Just as a well-timed joke or a silly comment can diffuse a particularly tense moment or reframe a difficult situation, so too these holidays ask us to recalculate. They ask us to stop taking ourselves so very seriously - to sift the chaff from the wheat. In the process, we learn to laugh at our own foibles becoming more accessible and humble.

Purim has some other important features – like connecting community through mishloach manot and giving gifts to the poor. A close, serious reading of the Book of Esther, the text upon which the holiday is based, reveals themes about civil disobedience, the treatment of minorities, stereotyping and identities hidden and revealed. In practice, the sense of outrageous silliness really distinguishes this holiday.

The pre-Purim activity in Israel underscored for me this thought. In a country where security is an ever present concern, and where life can sometimes be terribly serious, Purim puts everything in perspective.

So when a particular tense moment emerges in the future, try to channel your Purim spirit. If you see me sitting at my desk in a very silly costume (or any other day for that matter), you’ll know that I’m working on sorting out what really matters.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach (Happy Purim),
Dr. G.


From our Students’ Eyes

Teachers have the privilege and the opportunity to experience one of the greatest gifts of parenthood – that of viewing the world through children’s eyes. As we engage the world with our students and our children we see things that we may have missed in our own childhood and we rediscover things that we have long forgotten.

I have had the pleasure this week of experiencing Israel through the eyes of our eighth graders. Since Sunday, I’ve been traveling with our current 8th grade from San Francisco to Israel, and, through multiple experiences in Israel.

On our first day, after a rigorous hike, we began our encounter with “the other”. We visited a home in a Druze village. Our host served us lunch and spoke about her religion, lifestyle and connection to Israel. From there, we did a little grocery shopping in SuperSol (the Safeway of Israel) and then entered a nearby Israeli Arab village. There we spent the afternoon participating in a most unusual program – the Jewish–Arab Youth Circus of the Galilee. This decade-old program seeks to bridge the gap between Israeli Jewish and Arab children through the language of circus. Our students learned various circus acts from the youngsters in the program and then we became the audience for the circus. I posed the question to our students if they could think of a similar mitzvah project that they could take on that would bridge the gap between two groups of kids who don’t routinely interact with each other in the States. The answers not in – but it is a mitzvah project worth taking on by some Wornick student.

Our second day focused on security and Israeli borders – first we looked toward Syria from atop the Golan Heights and, later in the day, we climbed the hills of the upper Galilee to observe Lebanon from a kibbutz that sits on that border. In the first site, some of our students engaged some UN soldiers from Ireland in conversation, and at the second site, we heard from the Druze soldiers of the IDF who guard the Lebanese border. We also met, and heard the story of, one of the founders of the kibbutz who came from Holland.

So what were the new insights for me as seen through the eyes of our students? Our students were surprised by the borders – how close everything is, so close that they could see several villages on the other side, that they could see both the UN and the IDF patrolling the area. They were struck by the assumption that “everyone” serves the country, and that a minority group, like the Druze, serves as well. Even our guide, who expressed his distaste of carrying a gun, expressed his responsibility to serve. The students realized that we don’t have a comparable sense of service in the United States. Students noticed the different way in which guns are understood in our country and in Israel. They noticed soldiers stopping in to buy a falafel with guns slung over their soldiers. Students also noticed differences in neighborhoods based on socio-economic status.

On our visit to a Talmudic period archeological site, Katzrin, students realized how very old this area is. They also developed a new understanding of “synagogue” – open spaces with seating around the periphery, and they saw this again the next day in Sfat. They also were able to connect Talmudic stories that they’ve heard to this site. Later in the day they applied their fifth grade percussion lessons to a lively drumming circle on a boat ride on the Kinneret.

On Thursday, when we focused on art and spirituality in the city of Sfat, students heard about artists that are inspired by the mystical concepts in the Kabbalah. They learned that there are people who live their lives thinking about big philosophical issues of good and evil with an emphasis on a human purpose to spread “goodness”. They carefully and respectfully questioned the artist asking him to explain how he could believe in both free will and religious determinism. Great question – interesting answer.

There are so many more images, and so many more to come. I am thankful that I am getting to see this world through our students’ eyes. I am also so grateful to see a group of young people who represent our school so well – they are inquisitive, observant, thoughtful, caring towards one and another and towards others.

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.


Aligning School and Home Behavior

We’ve all been in settings where we are horrified by how another parent ignored what appears to us to be outrageous behavior.  The challenge of a pluralistic community like ours, or any school for that matter, is that the standards and methods among families can be widely variable, and consequently, the expectations for what the school should or shouldn’t do can also vary widely.

The first time your child misbehaves, how do you decide how to redirect - or recalculate in GPS lingo?  Most of us learned our parenting skills from our own parents – either following their lead or reacting to it and doing the opposite.  Many of us have read whatever the “Dr. Spock” of our generation was - hoping to gain insight from these wise psychologists.  

How nice it would be if there were a GPS for childrearing.

Educators and psychologists who study childhood behavior and the methods for shaping it note that there are broadly three different approaches to behavior that have dominated schools and homes in the United States: autocratic, permissive and positive (the latter sometimes referred to as “cooperative” or “responsive”).  Generally, society swings between the two poles – autocratic and positive. Permissive grew in prominence in the sixties and is still found in various subcommunities.

Many of us were reared with autocratic methods.  The statement, “I expect you to do this because I’m your parent (or teacher)” belongs to the lexicon of autocratic parenting.  So does the idea of punishment for poor behavior. While honoring one’s parents is a virtue, behaving solely in response to someone in authority fosters blind obedience.  Research has shown too that punishment that is unconnected to the misbehavior teaches some to avoid the behavior and many others to sneak, cheat and hide to avoid punishment.

The idea of “let the child decide what s/he wants to do when s/he wants to” belongs to permissive methods, as does the idea that we just need to talk out our issues with adults and children on equal footing in the discussion. Many children reared in permissive homes struggle with commitment and decision-making, for it can become immobilizing to make any decision when all sides of a story are equally compelling.

The positive discipline model which has been around since the 1930’s has grown in prominence among most educators and it is the one that is in effect at Wornick. It is embedded in The Responsive Classroom program that we use. Central tenants of positive discipline are that all children want “to belong” to their community, misbehavior is generally the result of a mistaken goal about how “to belong” and discipline teaches through logical consequences. The entire system claims to develop an inner locus of control. One of the main proponents of this method, Jane Nelson, writes that a positive/responsive method:

  1. Helps children feel a sense of connection. (Belonging and significance)
  2. Is mutually respectful and encouraging. (Kind and firm at the same time)
  3. Is effective long-term. (Considers what the child is thinking, feeling, learning, and deciding about himself and his world – and what to do in the future to survive or to thrive = inner control)
  4. Teaches important social and life skills. (Respect, concern for others, problem solving, and cooperation as well as the skills to contribute to the home, school or larger community)
  5. Invites children to discover how capable they are. (Encourages the constructive use of personal power and autonomy)

There are many other distinctions between the two methods – distinctions between what is understood to be the source of misbehavior and the difference between the treatment of misbehaviors that effect others versus those that only effect the offender.

Autocratic discipline belongs in settings where the educational goal is compliance; positive discipline of the responsive classroom belongs to schools that promote critical thinking. The former works when the authority figure is present; the latter helps children develop inner control so that their behavior is suitable regardless of the setting. I welcome future opportunities for us to engage in thoughtful, respectful dialogue so that we can be sure that we are speaking the same language and that our values are aligned.  In the meantime, use our staff as your GPS when you have a question about behavior.  We’re happy “to recalculate” for you.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.