Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


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.


Fall Holidays as Counter-Culture

It's beginning...the Jewish holiday season kicks in late this year. This season begins next Wednesday night (Jewish holidays always begin and end at sundown) with Rosh Hashanah (the New Year). This is followed by Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) beginning at sundown of Friday, October 3rd followed by the harvest festival of Sukkot starting at sundown on October 8th and ending with Simchat Torah - the evening of October 16th (where the reading cycle of the Torah begins again for a new year). Then it will be relatively quiet with respect to holidays until Chanukah in December. It is a difficult time for our working parents because it is so counter cultural. The rest of the world goes on, and we either have to deal with the inconvenience or opt out of “the rest of the world”.

When our oldest son was a freshman in a public high school, he missed the six days that we observed for the holidays in September and October. His English teacher took him aside and said, “do you really think you’ll be successful in life, missing all these days of schools.” When he related this to us that evening, we asked him if he wanted us to speak to his teacher. He said “no, I took care of it.” Months later the teacher related to us that she learned so much from our son about life and about herself. She said that our son responded to her with “our family, and indeed millions of Jews, do this every year. You will see that I will be successful because I really care about my education and I also care about my traditions.” During this conversation, the teacher apologized to my son saying, “I’m really sorry. I should have known better – I’m Greek Orthodox and my holidays and practices never fit in to what was going on around me. I didn’t always have the strength to stand up to others and assert who I was.” The end of this story is that my son is a successful physician today who always took off these days throughout his education. Additionally, he has maintained his connection to this English teacher.

My son’s response was a gutsy one and our family valued the strength that it took to be counter-cultural in this way. It is hard to do this, but it is also strengthening in so many ways.

This holiday cycle is counter-culture in ways beyond the calendar differences. Unlike Chanukah and Passover that line up with dominant Christian holidays, there is no equivalent to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Sukkot, though, does have strong parallels to Thanksgiving.) The synagogue-centric nature of these holidays is also counter-cultural. For non-Jewish spouses in an interfaith relationship, it is often puzzling that a Jewish partner who appears to care little about religion and prayer would want to attend the very lengthy synagogues services. For many Jews, services are more about connecting to a community than about the actual liturgy or philosophical stance of the holiday. It is often about asserting an identity distinctive from the mainstream.

For me, the most important ‘counter-cultural’ feature of this holiday season is about the foundational values of the holidays. The big theme is the concept of “teshuvah” – turning oneself around. It is a concept filled with promise and belief in the capacity of everyone to improve. Among the practices connected to this idea are asking others for forgiveness, taking stock of personal missteps during the year, and planning for a better new year. In the case of really heinous behavior, there is an understanding that change must be imbedded in a process that takes time, and there is a protocol for that as well.

The idea of asking others for forgiveness even if one isn’t fully aware of having wronged another person is powerful. The phone calls and emails asking for forgiveness from friends and family members began for me this week. The custom, when there is not a specific reference for hurting another person, is to say “if I’ve inadvertently hurt you in any way, please forgive me.”

We live in a society that is so quick to blame others and so slow to take responsibility for even a small slight that could negatively impact a person. The act of whole communities of people asking each other for forgiveness is unusual and powerful. Teachers and adults who asked me and my friends for forgiveness when I was a child during this holiday season particularly inspired me. It is a tradition that we continue at Wornick, and I encourage you to do at home as well. It is just one small step toward creating a more empathetic humanity.

As we enter this holiday season, I wish you all a Shana Tova that brings us all to greater heights, and if I wronged you in any way, please forgive me.

Shabbat shalom & Shana Tova Umetukah (A good and sweet New Year),
Dr. G.

Here’s an inspirational blog from the Huffington post about a unique way that one family spends the day of Rosh Hashanah http://www.huffingtonpost.com/galit-breen/another-jewish-holiday_b_3872009.html



What's Common Core?

If you read any articles about education or heard any new commentators speaking about education in recent weeks, you were bound to hear something about Common Core. The early articles about Common Core were about embracing this innovation and the more recent ones are about various states (most recently Indiana and Oklahoma as noted in the Sunday New York Times) that are considering repealing Common Core. What is this new political football? And how does it impact your children at Wornick?

The American education system has historically been locally controlled (neighborhoods and states). When you went to school, you were taught whatever the school selected textbooks dictated. When standardized tests appeared, you were then taught whatever facts you would need to master so that your school would “score well.” The states with the largest populations consistently determined the content of major textbooks since these books would be designed around received wisdom and/or the standards from those states. It wasn’t until 1990 when all states enacted standards. There was a fair amount of variation in standards state by state.

By 2009 there was consensus (a foreign political concept today) around the idea that there should be national standards – this was the beginning of Common Core that went into effect in some states in February of 2010. By now, forty-three states have adopted them.

What exactly are the Common Core Standards (CCS)? The standards are for language arts and mathematics. Some of the language arts standards apply readily to social studies and science. These standards were based on research regarding what students need to know and to be able to do in order to be successful in college. The biggest innovation in these standards is that from K-12, there is greater emphasis than heretofore on reading for information (as opposed to reading almost exclusively fiction). Students are expected to find and cite appropriate passages to illustrate a key idea. In the mathematics standards, there is a similar emphasis on deep understanding and analysis as opposed to simply learning an algorithm and plugging in numbers. In short, the CCS’s place an emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical thinking.

So why is there growing controversy about the standards? The standards call for the sort of teaching that has been the hallmark of Independent Schools like Wornick. Teaching children to think critically and to analyze means that teachers spend a lot of time of asking questions rather than giving children simple answers. It takes time and it takes teachers with particular mind-sets. Small class-sizes facilitate this as well. Additionally, this sort of learning does not lend itself easily to the classic standardized tests that are a major part of public education. These factors pose a challenge to large classrooms even in the best districts. Additionally, many teachers across the country have had limited professional development to really practice the type of teaching that Common Core demands.

Our school has embraced Common Core (http://www.corestandards.org). Our teachers frame their teaching units and lessons around the standards. This year, we’ve engaged a group of educators (mostly retired principals and superintendents) who belong to an organization called Pivot. The Pivot educators have been helping all of our staff connect the threads of Common Core through the entire K-8 curriculum. The week before school started we spent two intensive days studying the standards and selecting two standards to work on together to make sure they are properly aligned grade by grade. We will continue this work throughout the year during our in-service days.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


A+ Teachers

How do parents evaluate a school? Peg Tyre’s purpose in The Good School (2011) is to give parents the tools to evaluate a school based on current research about schooling. There are chapters on reading, mathematics, testing, class size and teachers. Wornick can check all the boxes to meet Tyre’s standards. We teach reading according to best practices, and we introduced three years ago systematic reading assessments by Fountas and Pinel in each elementary grade to make sure that each child is making clear progress. Tyre sings the praises of the Singapore mathematics system – we use this method of teaching. Our class sizes are appropriate; our testing is multi-faceted and used for frequent feedback.

The last chapter of the book discusses the importance of excellent teachers - “the best schools have come up with a school-wide process to develop and retain excellent teachers.” (Peg Tyre, 2011, p.193) This is indeed one of our greatest strengths and this is what sets us apart as a great school. That is why our teacher, Adam King, was selected, out of a pool of exceptional teachers throughout the bay area, to receive the Helen Diller teacher of the year (for early elementary education) award. The award ceremony that took place this past week was inspiring. Adam even stood out in his presentation among the four recipients.

We locate teachers in a rather unconventional way. We rarely post advertisements for jobs – we call Deans of College of Education and ask them to recommend their “best and brightest” graduates for us to interview. We do this early in the year – before the usual “job hunts” begin, and sometimes without being sure if we have a job available. Usually, we ask this prospective teacher to substitute so we can see them in action longer than the usual one hour demonstration lesson that we also require.

Another effective vehicle for finding teachers is by training our own teachers in partnership with teacher training programs (i.e. Notre Dame de Namur, SFSU and DELET). This is how Mr. King came to us. Teachers who are training are assigned an on-site certified mentor and are reviewed regularly by an outside field supervisor.

DELET is a very unusual and “cutting edge” teacher preparation program. Each year twelve promising college graduates are selected from a competitive vetting to participate in the West Coast DELET program based at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Those selected for the program receive free tuition, free mentoring and jobs as classroom fellows for one year. The program includes an intensive summer studying best practices in pedagogy (i.e. how to teach reading, mathematics, language arts, etc), a year working at a designated “DELET school” with two mentor teachers and an outside field supervisor.

In this state, all novice teachers have five years to clear their credential and receive a “clear credential”. New teachers with a preliminary credential who are working to clear their preliminary credential receive additional field supervision during their first years of teaching. This model mimics the medical model of education and is highly effective as teachers grow from novice to full professional by receiving extensive scaffolding from field supervisors and their mentors. We have four graduates of DELET teaching and several Notre Dame de Namur and SFSU trained teachers at Wornick.

Finding outstanding teachers is half the battle - the retention of great teachers is a hallmark of excellent schools. There are several different ways that our school assures this. The first is that our teachers operate in a culture that expects everyone to learn – teachers and children. There are bi-monthly “learning circles” where teachers study various aspects of pedagogy. Our professional development is not one-shot sessions, but rather deeply embedded with trainers working with staff throughout the year on particular initiatives. A few years ago, our focus for the year was aligning all class work with a particular curricula method called Understanding by Design. This year, all teachers are working with a group called Pivot Learning to make sure all aspects of the school are Common Core Standards aligned, and the Hebrew staff (thanks to a generous grant from the Levine Lent family foundation) will be spending the next three years structuring their lessons according to the proficiency model of foreign language learning. Additionally, there are ample opportunities to share best practices among colleagues, to walk into another classroom to support each other, to give and to receive feedback.

I know that we are a great school (which includes the idea that we are focused on continual improvement), but it’s awfully nice to have that thought validated by a well-researched current book.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.