Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


The Value of a Wornick Education

As we approach the final stretch of the year, I begin my annual self-reflection. The big question that I seek to ask is did we give every parent and child the “value” that they deserved. Below are the questions that I ask in assessing this value.

Did every child have the chance to feel appreciated?
Did every child stretch to learn new things this year?
Were behavioral expectations high such that we created a reasonably peaceful school climate?
Did parents have the chance to air grievances and to find resolution?
Were subjects (all subjects) taught with integrity, with enthusiasm?
Did students feel safe to ask and to explore?
Was everyone kept safe?
Did we raise enough funds – both through tuition and development – to provide excellent teachers and resources for our students?
Did each child grow in confidence and in respect?
Did we make changes that needed to be made for the betterment of the community?
Did teachers feel valued and stimulated?
Did parents find “community” in our school?

The tricky thing about answering these questions is that schools and human beings are pretty complex entities. I am sure that all children felt appreciated at various times throughout the year and perhaps more or less when taught by particular teachers. What would be the number that would indicate success on this dimension – 90% of students felt this way 90% of the time?

Our classrooms and our school were far more peaceful than in years past. But many of us may hold different definitions of what peaceful looks like in a school. Animated class discussions, and normal (normal is also subject to interpretation) skirmishes on a playground might not be interpreted by all as peaceful.

All of this is to say that there is an ongoing struggle in the school world about how best to assess and to display our results about learning and school success. It is a simple matter to count up skilled-based learning (like mathematical solutions, grammatical understandings, and all manner of factual information). It is an entirely different thing to measure and to display our progress around the questions raised above.

Yet, I know that we must find ways beyond the anecdotal stories that we are very good at sharing to paint a clear picture of progress in the very things that are the real substance of our education. As a step in this direction, we began nationally normed testing of our middle school students on critical thinking. In the coming two years, I anticipate engaging our parents, staff and students in establishing Wornick indicators of success. We will then craft the appropriate instrument to measure our success student by student on these indicators. I look forward to working with the many wonderful minds that populate our community as we move forward on this initiative. In the meantime, please take the time to talk to me (by email or in person) about these questions. Let’s start the process of thinking about what sort of data matters to you.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Asked any Good Questions Lately?

Since our Passover seder almost two weeks ago, I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of ‘questions’ as a pedagogical device. The seder is replete with a variety of teaching devices – ‘hands-on’ learning, differentiation (answers tailored to different levels of understanding), multi-modality teaching (engaging different senses), reading, discussion, and many questions. During the seder, everyone gets to ask and to ponder questions. The youngest child is given pride of place in asking the “four questions”.

Research has noted that teachers use questioning during 80% of instructional time. We don’t know how much of that time includes children being encouraged to ask questions. Literature is replete with the misuses and uses of classroom questioning. I can recall many times from my own elementary education where misuses prevailed - including asking only factual questions, calling on the same respondent repeatedly, and asking ‘trick’ questions. Teacher preparation today includes significant learning about the effective use of questioning.

Prospective teachers are taught to use questions to engage students actively, to quickly assess understanding, to develop critical thinking skills and inquiring stances, and to nurture insights by uncovering new relationships between different pieces of information. The Socratic method, which challenges assumptions and exposes contradictions, is encouraged for middle and high school educators. Teachers are also taught to pace their questions, to mix types of questions to encourage children’s questions. Teachers are taught that questioning is also about listening actively.

Last week, I did a little informal and random interviewing of our Wornick students. From my non-representative sampling of our students, I found that they believe that they are encouraged to ask questions. In fact, they felt that they had a large amount of time available for asking questions. I’ve observed our kindergarten, first and second grade class meetings when students use a particular protocol to ask each other questions, I’ve observed Socratic seminars in middle school English and Social Studies. In the coming week, I intend to look more closely at our questioning techniques. My hunch is that we do a really good job at questioning and at encouraging questioning. I want to explore if we are equally skilled at listening actively.

Dr. Isidor Rabi, Nobel Laureate in Physics (1944), underscores the significance of questioning among young children when he was queried about formative influences on his career path. He said “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’… ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist.” (http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/19/opinion/l-izzy-did-you-ask-a-good-question-today-712388.html) I believe that our encouragement of student questions sets our students on a path for all sorts of careers.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Personal Stories

If someone asked you to tell a story about yourself, how would you answer? And if that same person asked you why do we tell people our stories, what would you say? Our sixth graders were asked these questions this week during one of their classes. Their answers about themselves were pretty predictable – a student, a brother, an athlete. But their answers to why we tell stories were very thoughtful - we tell stories to connect to each other, to share an awesome experience, to remind ourselves about that experience, to illustrate a particular point.

During the second part of the lesson, the students engaged in a close reading of a Biblical text where God speaks to Moses and then Moses addresses the children of Israel about the observance of the antecedent of contemporary Passover. One of the key texts is “you shall explain to your son (child) on that day, ‘it is because of what the Lord did for me.’” (Exodus 13:8) The students then looked at interpretive sources that tried to explain the statement about telling the story in the first person. Students too entered into this conversation with their interpretations. What is the effect of that, what are the limitations? They ultimately returned to their original personal stories to consider similarities between telling their personal stories and the requirement of telling the story of the Exodus in the first person. Like their personal stories the injunction to tell the Passover story in the first person offers connection, community, illustrations of particular values, the sharing of an awesome experience, etc.

Whether or not one believes in the efficacy of the Biblical narrative or in particular holiday practices, the tradition of story telling in the first person is quite powerful. It provides opportunities for deep empathy. We can imagine the life of slaves and then ultimately look at people who struggle under various forms of oppression with profound compassion. We can think about walking in the shoes of Moses – a reluctant leader who was frequently beset by his complaining followers, and we can imagine the mixture of fear and exhilaration that accompanied liberation at the Sea of Reeds.

First person storytelling also gives us an entry point into a chain of history - I stand on the shoulders of inspiring and ordinary people and I have a responsibility to uphold that chain for my descendants. Seeing oneself connected to that chain of history offers an optimistic vision of a brighter future.

If you are observing a Passover seder, consider telling the Exodus story in the first person. Invite participants – especially children – to tell the story as if they were eye-witnesses to the events. Not only is this considered the noblest form of conducting a seder, but it also creates so many wonderful opportunities for imagination and empathy.

One of the strengths of a Jewish day school education is this “value added” of using some time-tested ways to think about pedagogy. The first person storytelling that is connected to the Passover seder is a case in point. It has use well beyond the seder and the Jewish community. Let’s not limit first person storytelling to a seder. Find opportunities throughout the year for your children to retell favorite children’s stories in the first person.

I wish all of you a chag sameach (Happy Holiday) and a relaxing vacation time.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Bake Sales?

It looks like we’re training a bunch of salespeople – selling matzah, Chanukah candles, books, pastries. Nearly every day or afternoon, when parents are dropping off or picking up students, or at large family events like math night, those friendly seventh graders are selling something. A parent of two young students mentioned this to me this week. She said she knows that somehow these sales are connected to the seventh grade Tzedakah project, but she had no idea what the rest of the project is.

When I came to Wornick five years ago, I had heard about this 7th grade tzedakah project. I approached the experience that year with a good deal of cynicism. I wondered about the value of turning 12 year olds into fundraisers. After watching the entire process unfold and after interviewing several graduates that first year, I knew that this project represents the very best in project-based learning. Not only that, but the Tzedakah project is so very appropriate for seventh graders from a developmental perspective.

The tzedakah project is an integrated unit of study in which the English, Social Studies and Judaic Studies teachers each play an essential role in learning. Students begin the year by considering their personal values with respect to solving a social problem. Students are asked to consider values around saving lives, caring for the environment, caring for animals and rescuing people in oppressed places. Once the students have unpacked their thinking about this, each selects a nonprofit organization that addresses their personal value preference.

The students study these organizations very carefully. They interview the CEO of their organization asking questions about the organization’s volunteers, mission and vision and fundraising strategies. They spend significant class time understanding what an effective nonprofit budget should look like. If the overhead is too high, they need to select another organization to support.

Each student ultimately becomes an advocate for their particular organization. Their English teacher takes them through the process of creating persuasive essays and speeches. Their Judaic Studies teacher locates Jewish sources connected to the values represented by their particular organizations. These understandings from Jewish texts are woven into their presentations. The students bring together all of this learning in a speech accompanied by a powerpoint presentation. Parents, staff and fellow students attend these Tzedakah presentations, and students are graded on the effectiveness of their writing, speaking and research.

Parallel to this research and presentation work, the students learn about fundraising. They establish their class fundraising budget, they learn about different fundraising strategies. They hear presentations from philanthropists and from people who work in the field of fundraising. Their various sales (matzah, candles, used books, etc.) are all student planned and implemented. They also learn how to directly ask for support of their cause, and they usually include an “ask” during their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In the past few years, the seventh graders have raised around $20,000.

The last two steps in the process are allocations and celebration. During the allocation process the students are forced to make tough value decisions about how to distribute their funds. They are given three rules – every student agency must receive some money, the money can not be equally distributed, and they must reach consensus. These rules are difficult enough for adults – it is spectacular to see students figure it out. The discussions to determine distribution are heated and important. Students are guided to consider what their class most values (i.e. human rights, healthcare, animal rights, etc.) Once the values are established, the distributions are set. Last year, we added a reflection piece connected to Kohlberg’s hierarchy of moral decision making. Students wrote about their own place and their class position on that ladder.

The last part of the process is the celebration. The students plan with their teachers how to celebrate and distribute their checks to their organizations. On the afternoon of the celebration (this year it will be May 27), all the CEO’s of the student’s organizations are present to receive their checks. Each student invites their CEO up as the student describes what compelled him/her to support the particular organization. This is always a very memorial event.

This entire project is valuable because it is developmentally appropriate.

Seventh graders are developmentally quite me-centered. This project asks them to look beyond themselves – to own the idea of tikkun olam (repairing the world). It helps them distinguish the significant from the insignificant. We also ask them to develop a multi-dimensional plan to raise funds collaboratively. In so doing we teach them money is not so easily attained and asking others to part with their funds can be challenging.

The tzedakah project also represents “the best” in teaching and learning. Students learn perseverance and they learn about connected learning. We ask seventh graders who lead a rather fragmented life to sustain this project throughout an entire year. Additionally, education research points to the importance of connected learning – that the best learning happens when students are encouraged to make interdisciplinary connections (see Connected Learning Network from MacArthur Foundation). In this project, we ask the students to connect their learning in language arts, social studies and Judaic Studies.

The tzedakah project is much more than the “bake sale” that most of us see. It is challenging work and a transformative experience. It is why Wornick graduates are social action leaders on their high school and college campus and beyond.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


The Bulletin Boards Speak

On rainy Wednesday, I wandered down the upstairs corridor stopping to read the bulletin boards.  Bulletin boards are a window into how a school approaches education, and I was curious about the story that our boards told.  Our boards spoke of opportunities for deep and high level thinking and of differentiated instruction. 

When we speak of high level thinking (or critical thinking), we mean the expectation that education will engage facts and not simply require memorization of decontextualized facts.  Critical thinking also means that students can develop well-reasoned arguments, they can determine what evidence is effective in building an argument, and they know how to determine different perspectives. 

The third grade bulletin boards demonstrated data arrays.  Students learned different ways to display data (about siblings, about colors, about gender preferences for different colors) and they used data that was relevant and interesting to them.  They conducted surveys of students and faculty.  (Now I know why a few third graders stopped me on the playground last week to ask me about my favorite flavors and colors!).  Our third grade displays clearly gave them a chance to experiment with different types of data and to think about the displays that best suited their data and their presentation goals.  

The fifth grade bulletin boards exhibited projects about famous women who made their mark in STEM.  In this exhibit, students presented information (facts) about their chosen character and then they had “to evaluate” (one of the highest orders of thinking) their character.  The evaluation couldn’t be a simple “I liked person x because she did y”.  They responded to this section with multi-paragraph statements and with careful support for their evaluative statements. 

What about differentiated instruction?  Differentiated learning means that the pace, level, or kind of instruction is responsive to individual learners’ needs, styles, or interests.  All the bulletin boards showed this to some extent.  The depth of some student’s essays or the topic selections showed differentiation of output.  The most stunning example of differentiation appeared on a sixth grade bulletin board that displayed the sixth grade science unit on the Life Cycle of a Rock.   Students were asked to depict the cycle using a cartoon story-board.   There were a variety of ways in which students told this story.  One student chose to tell her life cycle in a poem rather than a narrative storyboard.  I’m including her poem below because it represents all that is described above:  high level thinking, and a perfect example of differentiated instruction.  It also represents the sort of excellence that we promote.

My Life on Planet Earth
By: Lea

Lying on the earth, lying in the soil
That is my life
I watch the earth move around, constantly moving, pushing
Pushing me into the ground
When pressure occurs, I am pressed with my friends
into a life underground

Years will pass
decades in my eyes
but alas, I am not to stay
My magma swimming to the surface
caught in the excitement

As my home erupts, I am spewed
airborne, through the clouds
I come to a jarring stop
cooling slowly into hard rock

Over years, decades, centuries
an era passed
slowly, my body floats away
as I erode

I continue to erode
I am losing myself
In a world where I am disappearing

Pressed Down
deja vu
I meet my past
Looking into my future
I will sit and wait
For my path to reveal itself

Tectonic plates shift
sounding like a haunted house
Life waits for no one
I am following a new path, a volcano

I begin to heat, then cool
Magma crystallizes
I am looking in many directions
at myself
a crystal.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G