Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
Today our students were greeted by a large temporary structure sitting in the middle of their rose garden. The structure - the sukkah - is reconstructed every year by a group of volunteer parents, and the children will decorate it over the next couple of days.
The sukkah is a flimsy outdoor structure designed to recreate the huts used during the fall harvest of Biblical times. The building, and the use of the sukkah continues as a central practice of this week-long celebration. Many people in our community will build their own backyard sukkot (plural of sukkah). People will eat their meals in the sukkah, welcome guests into their sukkot, study, and some will sleep in theirs.
Throughout the years, many meanings have been attached to the structure. The two that most resonate for me are stewardship of nature and welcoming guests. Both of these are replete with social-emotional lessons for our children.
In the first case, we leave the comfort of our homes to experience the beauty and vulnerability to the elements. One of the requirements of a sukkah is that the roof of the structure be open enough to see the stars and the full moon. Some wind, cool temperatures, or a bird swooping down near our table might interrupt our meal. Spending time in the sukkah reminds us to pay attention to nature’s bounty, as it also underscores our vulnerability to nature. In all of this, we are reminded of our role in protecting the environment.
The second aspect of the sukkah that I find particularly meaningful is that of welcoming guests. We are expected to welcome guests to enjoy the simple pleasure of being with friends, family and strangers. Included in this idea of welcoming is the thought that our lives become more meaningful as we connect to others. Not only that we connect, but also that we go out of our way to welcome others even if we have a rag-tag set of chairs and flimsy walls. It’s about valuing people over things.
There is even the tradition of “inviting” guests from the past. This is called ushpeizen. In this custom, guests at the table think about guests from the past who they would like to bring to the table. Typically, heroes from the past are invited and the guests then have a conversation about the questions they would like to ask that person and how they think that person might respond.
Wornick students will hear these different messages throughout the week. Embedded in the practice of sukkot, and overtly taught, are essential components of the social emotional learning that we espouse – gratitude, generosity, and anticipation of the needs of others.
Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday)
We live in a hotbed of creative thinkers – the creatives who have fueled the formidable Bay Area technology industry, or those numerous titans of Stanford and UC Berkeley who have received Nobel prizes for their work. Many people think that the creativity represented by such thinkers and tinkerers is innate or that their notoriety is result of the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Current research challenges these assumptions asserting that creativity can be cultivated.
Many of us grew up thinking that the “creative” part of school resided in the arts. But we know now that creativity crosses all disciplines. Visionary educators, like Ken Robinson, write compellingly about the need to re-envision schools as places that nurture creative mindsets. Adam Grant’s recent book, Originals (Penguin Books, 2016) similarly unpacks the creative process and offers advice to parents and teachers about how to develop creative mindsets.
Creativity is a disposition that generates original ideas. It depends upon, and simultaneously fuels, imagination and empathy. It is an iterative process that calls for questioning, experimenting, questioning again and refining.
Wornick is one of those forward thinking schools that leads the way in nurturing creative mindsets. We do it by teaching through questioning in all disciplines, by our emphasis on project-based learning where students dig into compelling topics of their choice and by teaching our students the practice of critiquing and refining work. Robinson points to the importance of opening up students to new experiences beyond the walls of their school. Our outdoor education trips do just that.
The most exciting development in our quest to nurture creativity is the new Peleh lab. The Peleh lab is a place where children have the opportunity to imagine and to test their ideas. Sometimes they will use cutting edge technology like 3-D printers, robotic and VR equipment and other times they will use very simple tools like hammers and nails or thread and cloth to create. Most importantly, since we know that creativity is a mindset, the Peleh lab supports the nurturing of creativity throughout the curriculum and in all grades.
The equipment that was chosen for the new playground also feeds the creative spirit in each child. It is filled with active and quiet types of equipment – all open-ended so that children of all ages can imagine whatever they wish. It should not be a surprise that the marketing group that has been working with us over the summer suggested the following tagline for the school – “Inspiring Curiousity, Sustaining Wonder, Growing Connections”. All three concepts point to a school that is in the business of nurturing creativity.
Two very different experiences from this past week sharpened my thinking about Wornick’s mission and about our goals for the year ahead. The first experience was living through the images and discussions about Charlottesville, and the second was a prideful moment where I watched a Wornick alumna assume a leadership position among a roomful of formidable adult leaders.
Our mission states that we “develop students who are socially and academically prepared to meet their full potential as engaged leaders committed to a life steeped in Jewish ethics and values.” In every grade we develop units that assure that we can deliver on this mission. It starts with young children knowing how to welcome an adult by looking them in the eye, shaking their hand, identifying themselves and sharing insights from the class. It continues through yearly, and ever increasingly difficult presentations and debates culminating in the 8th grade capstone portfolio presentations.
Each one of these “leadership development” units focus on both academic skills needed to accomplish the goal and social-emotional skills to understand and work with other people. Each is also layered with core Jewish values like the dignity of each person (btzelem elokim).
When I observed the rhetoric surrounding the horrific events in Charlottesville and when I connected that to the talking points and actions on all sides of the political spectrum over the past year, it was clear that we, as a nation, need to double down on the “people skills” critical to effective leadership, and on core values about human dignity. It is what we do at Wornick, and it’s what we need to assert.
All week long, commentators, politicians and ordinary people spoke in binary terms – either for or against, either winners or losers, either right or wrong. I’m not so naïve to think that there are no boundaries – hate speech is reprehensible and needs to be marginalized, if not shut down. But shouting at each other will never work. We seem to be curdled in positions that allow no room to build common cause and no room for nuance. We really don’t know our neighbors on any deep level. We often judge “the other” hastily and dismissively and we are sure that our side is the right one. Into that vacuum rides the most heinous, ossified emotion – hate. The only antidote to hate that I know is captured well by Steinbeck, “Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.”
On Wednesday night after having heard the frightful rhetoric of the Neo Nazis days before, I was attending a dinner for the Jewish Muslim leadership group. The Jewish and Muslim community have had a very long productive history over many centuries. That relationship shattered in the last century as positions about Israel and Palestinians hardened. Small groups of Jewish and Muslim leaders in the Bay area (and in many other areas across the country) have been working aggressively in the past two years to reclaim our relationship with one another. It is difficult work for groups who may have seen each other as “enemies” to come together in friendship - willing to learn each other’s narrative, willing to understand nuance.
And at my table on Wednesday night sat Sophie B. along with other leaders from the Jewish and Muslim community. Sophie was one of two young college-aged students in a room of about 80 adult leaders. I was filled with great pride, as Sophie, this young thoughtful leader, participated in our conversations that a mere year ago might never have been possible. At our table were Muslim women in hijab – one originally from Saudi Arabia, one from Egypt and another from Pakistan, two Rabbis and a President of a local Jewish organization. The evening was inspiring as we discussed our next steps as a grass roots organization.
Sophie is a Wornick graduate who just completed a gap year in Israel on Kivunim and left this weekend for her freshman year at Wesleyan University. She is one of many examples of the success of a Wornick education. She is a leader who is thoughtful, respectful and an effective questioner and listener. All of these skills were set at Wornick. That night was the antidote that I needed to process the events from the beginning of that week. It was about relationship building and about the promise of a Wornick education.
I wish us all a successful 2017-18 as we prepare the next generation of leaders to repair our broken world.
Did we pass our test? Our school promises more than high levels of literacy and numeracy.
We promise graduates who know how to:
- think – analyze, weigh evidence, understand multiple perspectives.
- advocate for themselves and for social betterment.
- collaborate to create something greater than what one person could accomplish.
- express gratitude.
- celebrate their accomplishments.
- speak more than one language.
In grades K-7, we can see those promises budding. But the ultimate evidence that we’ve met our goals appears in the accomplishments of our graduating class.
The graduates’ final assessment to proving that they met these objectives began in earnest last year when they presented their Tzedakah projects. It continued throughout this year as students assumed leadership in Chavurot, as they demonstrated their understanding of the Civil War, as they created their models of atoms, and when they presented to the sixth and seventh graders their analyses of various social/political/ economic trends that they studied and observed in Israel, and when they communicated with their Israeli peers. The final steps in this assessment process is the portfolio presentations that took place last week.
I want to linger for a moment on the portfolio assessments. The eighth graders are charged with creating a portfolio that provides a glimpse of their best self as a reader, a writer, and a critical thinker. Each student selects four artifacts drawn from three years in middle school and from core subjects and electives. In their reflective writings about these artifacts, they consider a quality, trait or practice that had become important in their growth in middle school. Their portfolio reflections demonstrated how that quality was exemplified in the artifacts they selected. Each student presents their work both in written form and in a public presentation.
The clarity of thinking and writing in the reflections, and the quality of the artifacts this year were astonishing for thirteen and fourteen year olds – A credit to our teachers and to the students’ hard work. The range of artifacts was also notable – science fair projects, a carefully wrought ceramic vase, a“TED Talk”, a dance video, a 7th grade Islam Documentary, a bridge project, an English poetry slam poem, a Tzedakah project, a Hebrew dictionary, and so many more.
In each portfolio, we could see clearly each student’s pride in finding his/her voice and passion. Each 8th grader talked about the skill or value that became most important in realizing success – eight chose critical thinking. They spoke about critical thinking in terms of collecting and knowing one’s evidence and digging below the surface to be able to analyze that evidence. Other students focused on perseverance – the importance of pushing to some goal even when struggling with that goal. Three students selected the skill of advocacy, while four others attributed their successes to having learned time management. Collaboration, growth mindset and creativity were also chosen.
The portfolios demonstrated all that we promise – critical thinking, collaboration and advocacy. The portfolio experience holds lessons for each of us – it serves as a paradigm for the sort of life that we hope our graduates will live…a life framed by these four ideas:
- Look back – to consider where you came from…what you began with....so you can see how far you have come.
- Seek public feedback for your work – allow yourself that vulnerability and trust in others to help you become your better self.
- Reflect honestly about what you’ve accomplished and ask yourself about what you still need to do.
- Remember to edit – get to the essence of life, let go of the extraneous…and let the successes rise to the top.
I wish you all a refreshing summer break.
A few weeks ago, I walked into a fifth grade Hebrew class and one of the students asked me “What are we doing today?” The question was unusual because it was asked conversationally in Hebrew – with correct grammar, syntax and accent. Just a year ago, I would not have expected the question in perfect Hebrew nor would I have expected a student to engage me in a conversation in Hebrew.
This story is a result of the Shalom Ivrit initiative that we have engaged in for the past three years. This initiative has included intensive professional development and coaching in second language learning and assessment for our Hebrew language staff, a rewriting of our expected outcomes and grade level standards, a commitment to an immersive approach focused on language production and in increase in the use of Hebrew language throughout the school. This year, we also initiated a standardized assessment in Hebrew language to gauge school-wide progress.
From time to time, parents ask, “why the emphasis on Hebrew?...shouldn’t we consider teaching another more widely spoken language?” We do offer Spanish as an elective in the middle school, and there are several profound reasons for teaching Hebrew in the younger grades. The two most obvious reasons resonate instinctively for some of our families. Hebrew mastery connects students to the soul of Jewish history, culture and tradition; and Hebrew is the international and cross-generational Jewish language.
Not everyone finds these arguments persuasive. Yet there are other compelling reasons that have less to do with Jewish life and more to do with 21st century learning. There is substantial research about the efficacy of learning any second language – there are benefits in cognitive development, problem solving, executive functioning, and creative thinking.
There is also substantive research claiming that the more complex languages (such as those with very different alphabets and syntax) like Hebrew offer more cognitive benefits than learning a language closer to one’s mother tongue. Additionally, children who master a complex language well are highly receptive to acquiring multi-lingual proficiency in the years to come.
Our school is part of a very small, but growing number of schools across the country that are promoting research based second language learning for young children.
Children who study an additional language in elementary school perform well in divergent, creative and higher order thinking. Knowing more than one language ultimately opens up more opportunities in the global marketplace.
Jewish day schools have historically taught a second language, with a focus on synagogue literacy skills. While our students will have synagogue literacy skills, our teaching of Hebrew is based on best practices recommended by the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages with a focus on speaking and comprehension. Our goal is for our graduates to attain proficiency at a level that will allow graduates to converse with Israeli peers in simple conversations. From the conversations that are blossoming in every grade across the school, we are well on our way to achieving this goal.
I learned this week that a few of our current eighth grade students have made arrangements to continue their Hebrew for credit in their public high schools next year. That too is a positive outcome of the Shalom Ivrit initiative.
The countdown has begun for Jews to prepare for Passover, for Christians to get ready for Easter and for Muslims to plan for Ramadan. Most of us have little familiarity with anything but the most superficial trappings of each other’s traditions. Yet the overlapping themes, and practices that focus, among other things, on values—on becoming our better selves—are rarely engaged.
These holidays mark a defining moment for each religion. For Jews, Passover is the central motif of liberation from slavery and the beginning of a period of self-determination. For Christians, Easter is the core resurrection narrative. Ramadan in practice and theme is more closely aligned to the Jewish preparation and introspection connected to the fall Jewish High Holy Days.
For so many Americans, religion has played out in a private sphere, among family within faith communities. People often comment “I’m not religious…but I was born…a ----------- (insert religion)” And religion is often seen as something that divides us or something “I’m not.”
It seems to me that, now more than ever, understanding of religion could be the platform to unite rather than to divide. Our society could benefit from understanding the epic narratives of various religions along with key values of empathy, care for those who suffer, and service, that are promoted so strongly in each religion.
The human condition is fraught with big questions: Why do we exist? What is our purpose in life? Why do we die? Why is there hate and evil? Religions try to address these questions. In addressing these questions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam share common sources, common values while maintaining different orientations to the world.
Up until today, I knew little about Muslim traditions and their connection to Jewish practices and Jewish texts. On Sunday I participated in the annual (third year) Muslim Jewish seder. It wasn’t so much a seder as an enactment of parallel Torah and Koranic texts about the exodus narrative. Sitting around tables equally populated with Muslims and Jews, I engaged in conversations about the similarities and differences expressed in these narratives. I spent two and a half hours beginning to build relationships with my Muslim counterparts.
At Wornick, we teach comparative religion in our middle school, and have begun planning to build relationships between our students and those from a Muslim school in Sunnyvale. The large banner that adorns the landing between our first and second floors is a gift that was given to us by those students. Their school received a banner that our students decorated and signed. Building relationships of understanding is key to understanding ourselves, and to creating a society that cares and is responsible to each other.
Last week, fourth graders arrived at school in their dress clothes. They quietly filed into the ulam gadol and sat themselves in their designated seats on the right side of the room. On the opposite side sat two judges – a social studies teacher from another independent school, and one of our middle school teachers. Between the two sides was a podium and microphone. On the left sat their parents. This was the fourth grade mission debate that seeks to answer the question, “Were the missions good or bad for California?”
The ensuing debate was the culmination of a month of research, writing and practice in the art of persuasive communications. Each fourth grader stood up and spoke with conviction, and with researched facts defending their side of the debate. There were opening comments, responses to the opposing side, and final arguments. The judges spent considerable time deliberating, and each of the past few years that this debate has taken place, the judges are challenged in determining the winner as both groups are so well prepared and so very articulate.
At this time of year, major projects from all of the classes at Wornick are completed and presented. Last week, fifth graders held their Artist Gallery Walk, which was the culmination of their research about artists and the factors that influenced their work. Soon seventh graders will celebrate the outcome of their Tzedakah projects and eighth graders will assemble their capstone language arts project.
These projects differ in so many ways from the projects of a generation ago, and from the projects at most schools even today. We derive our understanding of projects largely from the work of Ron Berger in The Ethic of Excellence. Our projects include the following:
- Students are exposed to exemplars of excellence.
- Students engaged in authentic, substantial research.
- The project is meaningful for the student – answering a question about which the student is curious.
- Student work goes through multiple drafts/iterations as they learn that excellence requires reworking until a standard of excellence is achieved.
- Students are trained in the art of critiquing and in receiving constructive feedback.
- Projects are assessed through a public performance assessment (i.e. the tzedakah project presentation; the fourth grade debate; the fifth grade artist gallery…).
As we move forward in introducing design thinking to our curriculum in a carefully considered way next year, we will be adding another component to project based learning. We will be asking children to solve real problems in some of their projects.
Nearly a year ago, I joined a group of clergy, educators and lay people on the Peninsula that has been structured to build engagement among Muslims and Jews. The conversations have been important and inspiring.
They remind me of the inspiring conclaves I attended as a teenager, and of the collaborative, deeply thoughtful Jewish Day School conference I attended two weeks ago with other Wornick educators and board members. With more than a thousand people in attendance, the conference brought together a diverse swatch of the Jewish Community in North America and Israel. In each instance, I was most moved by the passions that brought people together and by the ability of people who held divergent views to hold important conversations that led to greater understanding.
One of the most startling outcomes of the Jewish Muslim Partnership occurred a month ago. At the end of the day upon which we received the threatening phone call that lead to the school’s evacuation, my email box began to fill up with over a dozen messages from the Muslim community on the Peninsula. Among them were:
I write to you to express my solidarity and prayers for what the school staff, admin and students went through yesterday. I would like to extend my hand in friendship and let you know that my community and I are there for you.
We are sorry to hear that some cowards have chosen to create a climate of fear and divisiveness. Know that you are in our thoughts and prayers. We pray for the safety of your staff, students and families. People across the Muslim community in the bay area are praying for you.
I thank God that the threat was not materialized, at the same time recognizing the agony and fear that it instilled in the hearts of staff, parents and children alike. No one deserves to feel scared about going to school.
As American Muslims with children attending an Islamic School in South Bay, that has been threatened this past year, we can understand the fear and apprehension you must be feeling. We offer our support during this confusing time. Please know that we stand with and respect our brothers and sisters of the Jewish community.
These are all examples of living pluralism, a commitment to engage diversity.
They manifest Diane Eck’s definition of pluralism (The Pluralism Project, Harvard, 1991) “energetic engagement with diversity… the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference...the encounter of commitments…holding our deepest differences in relationship to one another.”
Most critical in Eck’s view, is dialogue because “the language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening,…”
Creating ways for these sorts of encounters to proliferate is one way to restore civility in a divided nation.
The next chapter in these exchanges occurred last week, when I received a note from a principal in a Muslim school in San Jose. She and her students have created cards and a banner expressing support to our school.
Our art teacher Ginger Slonaker is working with our students to create a similar expression of support. Next week, some parents, staff and children from that school will be at our school so that we can exchange our banners and notes of support.
This is the beginning of an intentional “reaching out” to engage people who live different worldviews. Just as I was inspired as a youngster, and continue to be today, by encounters among diverse groups of people, our students will be able to draw upon these experiences to heal a broken world.
You too can participate in this exercise if you are interested. The Jewish Muslim Partnership is holding a solidarity gathering on Sunday, February 26 from 3-5 p.m. at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. It will be an afternoon of solidarity between Muslims and Jews, and an opportunity to engage in conversation with people from different places, all of whom are committed to the restorative idea of living pluralism.
“Good morning, how are you?”
“How about you?”
How often do we look at another person’s weary or cheery facial expression and dive deeper in our perfunctory morning exchanges? Are we able to say, “You look really tired!” opening the door for the person to respond with a “Yes, my two year old was up most of the night” or “I’m not really tired, just thinking about what’s ahead of me today.”
The above example of responding with an attempt to read the other person’s body language is crucial to building strong communication skills and consequently powerful relationships. It helps the recipient of the communication to name and clarify his or her feelings, and it facilitates opening the sort of communication that builds sturdy relationships.
I know all of this theoretically, and I’m pretty good at practicing it in my life and my work. But a couple of weeks ago on that difficult day when our school received a threatening communication, I was the recipient of that relationship building through empathetic communication in a surprising and uplifting way.
The morning was a difficult one for us. The staff and I had drilled so often on the scenario that took place so that our response and actions were practiced and accomplished as planned. But I was surprised by my own feelings of isolation, hurt and anger that surfaced by late afternoon.
After the children and teachers were all safely home, and the campus leadership team had completed our debriefing, I opened up my email to the most unexpected set of emails. First, there was an email from an imam from San Jose, saying:
I write to you to express my solidarity and prayers for what the school staff, admin and students went through….I would like to extend my hand in friendship and let you know that my community and I are there for you.
Then it was from a Muslim mother in San Jose who wrote:
I am so very sorry to hear about the threats made to your school recently. As a mother of two sons, my children's public school and their teachers and staff were big parts of our daily lives…..I thank God that the threat was not materialized, at the same time recognizing the agony and fear that it instilled in the hearts of staff, parents and children alike. No one deserves to feel scared about going to school. Nonetheless, I would like to cheer all of you on, with prayers, support, encouragement, and diligent work hoping that the trauma would pass….discrimination and hate has no place in our society, one that values deeply our togetherness in diversity.
Similar emails continued throughout that day and for several days after. In all, I received a dozen notes from the Muslim community. In the days that followed and continuing, I’ve received hand written notes from members of churches locally and in different parts of the country. I’ve made it a point to respond to each communication, and I now have had several longer exchanges with a few members of the local Muslim community. In contrast, I received communication from two of my fellow day school colleagues in the Bay Area (out of twelve in the Bay Area and hundreds across the country), from two Rabbinic colleagues in the area and from the CEO of the Jewish Federation.
Initially, angered by the silence of my Jewish community colleagues relative to the outpouring of response from others, I asked myself when was the last time that I reached out to them when they were “hurting.” I also realized that as Jewish tradition has created a literature of protocols for dealing with death or illness, we have no apparent script about how best to approach someone who has endured the fright of being threatened and disrupted. The script is there in a tradition that asks us to approach all relationships with empathy – a tradition that describes at great length how to approach a poor person, a thief, an ill person, a mourner and a stranger.
The second take-away for me was something that I’ve felt acutely since the recent election, which surfaced a deeply polarized society. No matter where I stand politically, I, as a member of this society, need to know “the other” genuinely and not in dichotomized or dismissive categories. I need to know that person in another state, in my neighborhood, in my community who may see and may experience the world in a very different way from me. And that person also needs to know me – my values, my priorities, my needs. I cannot be dismissed by others because of a strong attachment to Israel, and I can not ignore the fact that parents of color are treated differently from me when walking or shopping in particular neighborhoods. I need to work on building relationships with “the other” around our common ground of shared humanity. Prior to the threat, I and a group of my local Jewish colleagues and Muslim leaders had started that work. I need to do that with all “the others” in our community.
This work of community building is daunting, yet it must be done. There is a poster on the wall in my office that quotes a famous rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon who lived between 70 C.E. and 135 C.E. It says, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” That quotation guides me now more than ever and I ask every member of our community to use it as a guiding principal to build the relationships that will lead to more a caring world.
The following is an article written by Dr. Barbara Gereboff and Larry Kligman which will appear in an upcoming issue of HaYidion, a publication of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network.
A quick search of Jewish day school websites around the country shows that about one-quarter of the schools use the word “inspire” as a descriptor either on their main page or in the their mission statement. Most of us in the business do see our purpose as that of inspiring our students, our staff and our families. What exactly does “inspire” mean in a school setting? Is there a way to make inspiration happen? Why should we make sure that we are peppering our open house speeches and our websites with the verb “inspire”?
The word inspiration is rooted etymologically in divine influence, but commonly it is understood as that “aha!” moment when an experience, an idea or person evokes an awareness that propels us to see something in a new way. The leading researchers of inspiration, Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot, find that “inspiration involves both being inspired by something and acting on that inspiration.” In this understanding, there are two sides to the equation—the inspiration stimulus and the disposition of the person to act on that stimulus. Thrash and Elliot’s studies show that people who report being inspired frequently are more open to new experiences, have high rates of absorption in tasks, are less competitive, less extrinsically motivated, are more creative, and more self-reliant than peers who rate low on their inspiration scale.
Schools have some control over both sides of the inspiration equation—over the stimuli and in shaping the stimulus recipient’s receptiveness to inspiration. We create inspirational opportunities by hiring and cultivating teachers who are inspiring and by creating learning opportunities that touch the souls of our students. Scott Barry Kaufman notes that inspiration is not a passive experience, as “it favors the prepared mind.” When we create the conditions that promote intrinsic motivation, resiliency and decreased competition, our students should be positioned to “receive” inspirational stimuli.
As we thought about the concept of inspiration and we listed examples from each of our schools that qualified, we realized that the first examples that came to mind were rather similar. Both schools have created regularly scheduled, well-planned opportunities for older students to engage with younger children. Most of the time the older children are the leaders or “teachers” in these events, and sometimes younger children are given chances to lead. Not only are all students engaged throughout the activities, they take initiative in suggesting and assuming leadership roles within the school independent of the original activity. The stimulus is the “inspiring” mentor student, and the conditions that have been structured foster receptiveness to inspiration in all children. The outcome of creating new ways to be a leader in the school is the creative output of inspiration.
At Heschel, mixed-aged groups of students share the tradition of Tashlich, building their own fountain together and sharing the meaning of casting away their sins. Older students help the younger ones understand the importance of making mistakes, of accepting their errors, and of repenting for them during Tashlich. In secular studies, a similar dynamic occurs as the 3rd and 7th graders share science experiments, with the younger students teaching the older ones about crayfish, for example. In robotics, which includes students in 3rd to 8th grades, the mentorship opportunities occur in an afterschool robotics program. Heschel has created a K club, where older students serve as teaching assistants in the transitional kindergarten class. Mentorship opportunities are also structured outside of the formal school program. For example, middle schoolers at Heschel are charged with sitting with younger children during bus service to build relationships, teach bus etiquette, and create “one large family.”
The “one large family” idea is apparent at Wornick as well in the chavurah program. The entire school is divided into 22 chavurot. Each chavurah has representatives from each grade, and all teachers and administrators are assigned a chavurah as well. Students remain in the same chavurah over the course of their tenure at the school; as an eighth grader graduates, a new kindergartner takes his/her place. Chavurot meet once a month to tackle a design challenge or a game created by a particular class, and students sit by chavurot during schoolwide Thursday morning tefillot.
Both schools have created intergrade opportunities around their 8th grade trips. At Heschel, as 8th graders leave for Israel , they are blessed under the school’s rainbow tallit with all grades delivering Tefillat HaDerekh, the Traveler’s Prayer, and the transitional kindergarteners presentation of letters to the travelers to put in the Kotel . Similarly, at Wornick, when 8th graders leave for Israel, there is a schoolwide ceremony in which each class presents an eighth grader with an assignment for their trip. For example, a second grader might say, “Our class is studying different species of animals. Please bring back photos of the different animals that you see on your trip.” When they return, each 8th grader teaches the younger class what they discovered about their assigned topic.
At Heschel’s step-up ceremony in June, each grade demonstrates their work in Project Chesed, a yearlong project in which they select a community organization to support and work with during the year. For example, kindergartners work with the local fire department, 4th graders choose Guide Dogs of America, 2nd graders are guardians of the earth, building a garden and growing produce. Serving and giving are woven into the fabric of both schools and cut across grades.
The evidence of inspiration from these projects is clear. The sense of community in both schools is palpable. It is not uncommon to see older students and younger students “high-fiving” each other on the playground and at various all-school events. Older children often reach out to the younger students to sit with them at sports events to listen to and to help them solve a social problem on the playground. At Wornick, younger students frequently propose and carry out significant tikkun olam projects of their own. This year, because the projects had become so numerous and so well designed, the school has created a “mitzvah shuk” (similar to a non-competitive science fair) to take place in the spring. Younger grades (K-2) will each present one project per grade, and older grades (3-8) will propose and execute group projects.
The inspiration phenomenon is much more than simple role modeling. An inspirational role model may be necessary, but not sufficient. In fact, a receptive person could be inspired by an awesome event—a spectacular rainbow or an elegant mathematical solution. The structured experiences and the cultivation of receptiveness to the stimuli are key to inspiration in such cases.
In so many ways, the conversation about the possibility that inspiration can be structured echoes the keva vs. kavannah debates about prayer experiences. These discussions and the subsequent outcome in how prayer services are structured focus on balancing the structured (keva) with the spontaneous (kavannah) in prayer. There is an understanding that without keva, kavannah might never happen. Additionally, among the hoped-for outcomes of that perfect balance is a prayer experience that inspires one emotionally to perceive the world in new and wondrous ways, and to conduct oneself with greater empathy and concern for others. Like the inspiration continuum, the awe-inspiring prayer experience that motivates one to engage more deeply with oneself and with community is dependent upon structure and dispositions of receptivity. Inter-grade opportunities provide an effective structure to generate the inspirational dispositions that build a community with a deep sense of shared purpose among all members of the community.
We discovered that intergrade opportunities are the core of inspiration in our institutions. The well researched benefits of mulit-age activities in the literature on multi-age classrooms include older children developing the patience and verbal skills to communicate effectively with younger children, or younger children honing their listening skills. Greater cooperation and empathy are also documented outcomes of mulit-age experiences.
We found an additional benefit. The pervasiveness and intentionality of the intergrade experiences addresses a basic human need “to belong” to a community. Our students and our families develop a profound sense of attachment, ownership and enduring commitment that comes from being part of a community where each member has a sense of responsibility to the whole.
These seem to be compelling reasons for our schools to pay attention to inspiration. There is one more reason. In a competing landscape of schools where we can all tell pretty similar stories about the “what” and the “how” we teach, one factor that will both distinguish us and drive people to us is how well we can touch hearts by creating a community where everyone belongs and everyone matters. Mindfully creating the intergrade conditions for inspiration makes that possible.
Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot, “Inspiration as a Psychological Construct” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Scott Barry Kaufman, “Why Inspiration Matters” in Harvard Business Review.
Dr. Barbara Gereboff is head of the Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, California. firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Kligman is head of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, California. email@example.com
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