Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


Look Up

In the past week, I’ve come across the command “look up” in two very different contexts. Both are connected in an uncanny way. The first was this YouTube video that has been circulating for a few weeks. The second context was a dinner honoring an inspirational philanthropic leader in the Bay area Jewish community – Barbara Rosenberg.

The video is a visual statement about “unplugging” with a story about a marriage and a deeply fulfilling life that would not have happened if the main characters had remained with eyes down, focused on their phones. It is a message about moderation and not about abstinence. It is not so very different from earlier cries that permeated my childrearing years to moderate children’s television viewing. When I watched this video, I connected to the wisdom of traditional Shabbat observance that has included for centuries an “unplugging” for twenty-four hours. For those that embrace this practice, Shabbat is a time to talk, to take long walks, to entertain friends, to tell stories, to read, to imagine and to play silly games.

Some may see the observance of Shabbat practice as “limiting” - as an opting out of society. Indeed it does include this. But Shabbat observance can instead be understood as a “freeing” from our everyday obligations. It gives us a very thoughtful way to say “no” even as we may miss a particular Facebook post, tweet, game or show. This practice gives observers the opportunity to confront priorities. Is carpooling and rushing to another sport activity, followed by everyone retiring to their various electronic devices more meaningful than a day spent as a family engaging each other throughout the day in conversation? Perhaps the former scenario (the sports scene) is an overdrawn red herring – but you understand the point.

The second time that I heard that “look up” injunction spoke to the above idea about priorities with respect to character qualities. This time, Rabbi Ed Feinstein (Valley Beth Shalom, Los Angeles) recounted a biblical interpretation about Moses’ leadership and linked it to Barbara Rosenberg’s approach to life. In the “midrash” (interpretive story), when the children of Israel faced the Red Sea, they looked down and were frightened to cross. Moses, on the other hand, looked up and forward. Because of this, the story suggests, Moses was a real leader. The midrash answers the question (midrashim are intended to answer big questions) of what constitutes a great leader. The answer: someone who looks up and forward. The connection between the two examples of “look up” is that a leader and a person who engages life deeply is someone who looks beyond what everyone else is looking at. In our day, smart phones is the something that everyone else is looking at.

Shabbat Shalom (Here’s to looking up this Shabbat!),
Dr. G.


A Small World of Peace

I’ve begun to think about this year as a year of peace. Overall, the school year ran peacefully. I was analyzing this peacefulness as I was reading a memoir by a friend of mine (Rabbi Ruth Sohn; Crossing Cairo) where she recounts her family’s 6-month sojourn in Egypt. In this memoir, she, her husband and her teenage children navigated their way through a society that teaches the idea that Jews and that Israel are evil. Ruth and her children worked hard to learn Arabic (her husband is an Islamic scholar and was already fluent in Arabic) so that they could engage people in conversation. They sought out opportunities throughout their stay to speak in order to build relationships and to challenge unfounded stereotypes. They also questioned some of their own prejudices in this process.

A few years ago I learned that Walt Disney’s vision of peace captured in the “Small World” ride at Disneyland was inspired by a peace conference that Disney attended in the 1950’s. The conference promoted the idea that through world travel the world would seem smaller and people would learn to appreciate each other. The twelve minute ride set to a catchy tune presents us with a colorful display of animated dolls representing all the different countries of the world.

It is ironic that Disney, who created this memorable ride promoting peace, engaged in activities that were antithetical to peace-making. He actively supported and testified on behalf of the “witch-hunts’ of the McCarthy era where many Hollywood artists were falsely accused of anti-American beliefs. Disney’s political activities represented distrust of people whose beliefs and practices were different from his. He also engaged in unsubstantiated tale-bearing – the sort of activity that destroyed careers and undermined community.

Considering what we know about Disney, the man, it is probably understandable that his vision of peace actualized in his ride oversimplifies peacemaking. He created a robotic peace, where people observe other peoples’ quaint costumes, but never really engage their beliefs or thoughts. It is a vision where the riders are passive observers.

In contrast, our small world at Wornick actively pursued peace this year through careful engagement.  Much like my friend and her family in Egypt, we have created the conditions for peace through relationship building.  We continued to learn that peace-making is hard work. This year, children and teachers used the conflict-resolution techniques that we have been studying and teaching. As a school, we became better listeners. We worked hard to substantiate our positions and yet to remain open to suggestibility. We learned to hear other perspectives and to appreciate the possibilities and the feelings and passions that were behind those perspectives. We learned to bounce back respectfully when our position lost out to an equally compelling position. We learned to suspend our beliefs sometimes so that we could understand “the other”. We learned to face conflict and not to run away from it.

We have much still to learn and practice. Yet everyday when I observe young children seeking out our middle school peacemakers to help them resolve a playground conflict, I feel that we are moving closer to peace. This week, as I listened to some of the seventh grade tzedakah presentations where understanding and addressing poverty were dominant themes, I heard twelve and thirteen year olds making commitments to understanding “the other”. I heard them connect their thinking to the Talmudic statement “Don’t stand idly by…the blood of your neighbor…” During the fifth grade poetry tea, I heard ten and eleven year olds talk about peace in their “If I were in charge of the world” poems. In a world where peace continues to elude us, I believe that in our little corner of the world we trying our best “to give peace a chance” and to do it with all the complexity that it requires.

Shabbat shalom (a peaceful Sabbath)
Dr. G.


The Day After and The Day After That

We began this week commemorating the fallen soldiers of Israel and then celebrating Israel independence. This followed on the heels of the failed Peace Talks orchestrated by Kerry. Our school has a particular way of teaching about Israel and it is this potent formula that holds the promise of achieving lasting peace in the Middle East – ambitious perhaps, but a possibility.

Six years ago, our school was part of a special project funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and coordinated by Jewish Learning Works to weave Israel education into the school from Kindergarten through 8th grade and to move it from the exclusive domain of the Judaic Studies faculty. The initiative was named BASIS (Bay Area Schools Israel Synergy Initiative) and eleven Jewish day schools in the Bay Area participated. The evaluation of the project in 2012 recognized our school as the paradigm that the funders were hoping to achieve (read pages 11 & 12 of the report).

What was it that happened at Wornick to make this teaching more organic and deeper than typical in most schools and where are we now two years after the funding ended for this project? Nearly all of our teachers – Judaic and general studies (Jewish and not Jewish) have been to Israel. The Jim Joseph Foundation funded those trips before I arrived at Wornick. Since that funding is no longer available, newer teachers have joined our 8th grade trip and three of our teachers have been sent to Israel for science education training through the CIJE foundation.

Another factor was that we built into our curricula units at each grade level that use Israel as a comparison case to a core curricula item (i.e. the land configurations of the San Francisco and Haifa bays; or demographic data from Israel and the United States; or a comparative literary piece). This stance, which launched our curriculum mapping efforts for the entire school curricula, means that our students have broader and deeper knowledge about Israel developed over nine years. Some of these units still live on and others have been edited.

We have also created a ritual whereby each grade charges the 8th graders with a task to bring back from their 8th grade trip. One grade may ask for samples of rocks from different parts of the country, another grade asks for water samples, and still another for pictures of animals and plants. This connects our youngest children to the trip as they anticipate the return of the 8th graders with their class gifts. And then it sets off another lesson in each of the classes as the younger students study these artifacts. This part of BASIS continues.

Throughout the year, students in each grade exchange information with their counterparts at REALI. Every fall, we welcome our 8th grade friends from our sister school, the REALI school in Haifa. Students look forward to meeting those that they’ve been writing to over several year. Families host these students and long time relationships grow during these yearly encounters.

Finally, one of the items of which I am most proud is that we have made sure that our Israel education is nuanced to encourage critical thinking. Our 8th grade Israel trip this year focused on the many different “Israeli identities”. Our students met Ethiopian Jews, Arab Israelis, Druzim, a Reform Rabbi, Orthodox Jews, settlers, Bedouins, etc. Our goal was for the students to hear their different stories and perspectives and to process current issues in Israel from these different perspectives.

Last week, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel wrote a piece entitled “The Day After the Negotiations Fail” anticipating the failure of the peace negotiations that did indeed fail days later. He listed many things that we must do “the day after” – not to blame, but to take control, to understand, to treat our own citizens (Israeli Arabs and Jews representing a range of beliefs) with serious understanding and compassion. He notes,

The success of Israel has lured us into believing that if we will it, it will become a reality. As a result, we articulate our aspirations but have difficulty holding onto them in the midst of our imperfect reality. If aspirations for peace, justice, and compassion are going to continue to define Jewish identity, we must learn to talk about them, write and sing about them, dream about them, despite the pain and disappointment which accompany our inability to as yet fulfill them.

I know some day, it will be a Wornick student that will be a thought leader like Donniel Hartman. Our students will be the ones to talk, write and sing about our aspirations, our pain and disappointment in our struggle to fulfill our dreams of peace...and just maybe, it will be a Wornick graduate who will lead us to peace and to prepare us for the day after peace is achieved.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.  


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.