Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
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
We don’t expect incoming kindergarten students to be reading when they arrive in September. But we do know, and research bears this out, that when children grow up in what we call a print-rich environment where pre-literacy activities abound, they will be more successful students. Furthermore, if a child has grown up with these advantages, and has difficulty in reading in early years, it is possible to identify learning challenges in order to remediate before these issues later cause challenges to the child’s sense of self. The advantages of early literacy experiences holds beyond kindergarten as well.
Reading is a complicated process that includes understanding the relationship of symbols to sounds (phonemic awareness), awareness of the target language’s underlying grammatical rules, the ability to make meaning from a series of sentences (comprehension), and the ability to produce written work using this symbol system. Young children who have been exposed to enjoyable experiences with language and literature will be generally eager readers and writers.
Children also have thir own timetable by which they assimilate all these aspects of reading so that they can begin to read on their own. Generally speaking, reading facility is attained between the ages of five and seven. Siblings who have had similar print-rich activities at home and in school may begin reading actively at very different times.
Children who come from multi-lingual homes have an initial disadvantage in learning the school’s target language, but they have a long-term advantage in understanding multiple systems of meaning. Because of this advantage, it is important that multi-lingual homes provide their children with rich literacy experiences in the home-language. The experiences of talking and reading the home language helps the child understand the symbol system that is foundational for a child to learn the school’s target language.
The most important, and easiest, early literacy experiences for very young children is that of speaking to and putting books in the hands of very young children. The importance of speaking to infants is so critical that research has born out that by three years of age, there is already a very large gap in vocabulary (several million words difference) between children who come from homes where they are spoken to and those whose parents assume that the child won’t understand so they don’t need to speak to them. Reading picture books with infants and toddlers, and making time for doing this regularly creates a positive connection to reading for children. Additionally, it models the activity that the child will ultimately want to imitate.
Young pre-literate children should also be encouraged to pick up books and “read” the story themselves. This means that they turn pages, look at pictures and “tell” the story that they think the page is “saying”. Similarly, a pre-literate child can “write” a shopping list or “read” a shopping list when going to the supermarket.
There are so many ways in which parents can partner with schools in helping grow their children’s literacy skills. Please join us on Thursday evening, February 2 at 7:30 p.m. as we learn from a panel of literacy experts about how “to raise a reader”.
Several times during a student’s journey through Wornick, s/he will be called upon to debate. Fourth graders learn the art of debate when they analyze the question of “Were Missions Good for California?” and recently seventh graders developed a debate about the question of “Does Our Country have a Responsibility to Resettle Syrian Refugees?”
Debates display a couple of important aspects of a Wornick education. They are interdisciplinary units where student learn to make connections among several areas that they study – language arts, social students and Jewish values in the above two cases. Students learn how to communicate clearly, to support their positions with credible evidence, to engage in inferential analysis, to work collaboratively and to develop empathy for both sides of an argument. Debate is just one of the powerful tools that we use at Wornick to give our students the skills and knowledge that prepare them so well for an uncertain future.
Here is the link to two parts of the seventh grade debate:
7th Grade Debate Speeches 2016 Refugee Crisis
Our second graders grappled with this question last week. They approached it by first observing toothpaste that was squeezed into a jar. Then they observed it when water was added to it, and again after shaking the jar. They depicted what they observed in their science journals. Finally, they held group discussions about the question. The discussion followed a protocol that required the students to state their conclusion using several points of evidence.
This lesson is part of the new science units that have been created throughout the school under the direction of our science coaches from Stanford, courtesy of the California PETALS (Partnership in Excellence in Teaching and Learning Science) grant that we received this year. Our teachers have participated in over 44 hours of professional development since late August and each general studies teacher has received one-on-one coaching by the Stanford professor assigned to our school. The rather rapid transformation of our science program is remarkable, and has been acknowledged by our coaches with the suggestion that our teachers should present their model lessons at a national education conference.
So, what’s the answer? I queried a few of our second graders. One said, “I believe that toothpaste is a solid because it is thicker than water and it doesn’t move like water.” Another one said, “I think it is a liquid because it is strong like a piece of wood and it stays in the same shape when squeezed out.” Both are terrific answers. They clearly understand the properties of a liquid and a solid, and they gave credible answers to the question. Soon they will discover that the question of classification is not always simple, and that substances like toothpaste are classified as neither a liquid nor a solid but as something else that most adults don’t know.
This is powerful learning that corresponds to our school philosophy – learners need to discover or uncover truths or patterns. Our youngest children, who don’t yet have fully developed writing skills, eagerly grab their science journals to record pictorially their observations of one phenomena or another. Children as young as five years old develop and share evidence to support their claims. This is the most engaging and most enduring way to learn, and yet, most of our teachers had not fully integrated this philosophy into their science units until this year.
As we approach the season of Thanksgiving, I am so thankful for the opportunities that the PETAL grant has afforded us and I am grateful for a teaching staff that so eagerly and thoroughly have embraced this initiative.
I’m not much of a sports enthusiast. Yet every year I’m drawn to the last few games of the World Series. My sons and husband know the details about all sorts of players and managers and strategies in several sports. My interest is simply to marvel at the artistry of game well played, and to cheer for the team that my family members are supporting.
As a leader of a different sort of team, I am also intensely interested in the various stories that circulate before and after a defining game about team management. As much as I want the game to be simply a game, I can’t help but want to consider some managerial nugget.
The last game in the World Series this year was one of the best I’ve ever watched – a nail-biter to the end. Like everyone else who watched it, I was on that roller-coaster of “We’ve got it sewn up”; “We blew it”; “It’s tied in the eighth”; “Oh, no, it’s raining”; “After 108 years, we did it!” When the nail-biting ended and the cheering began, explanatory commentaries followed.
There were three take-aways for me in the various commentaries that I combed. There was the obvious one about “it takes team work.” The Chicago Cubs used five different pitchers in the final game, and eight different players drove in their eight different runs. But I have to assume that the other team, as well as winning and losing teams in the past, could also point to the way that each player contributed to the “whole.” I’ll assume that was a necessary, but not sufficient, part of the equation.
The second piece – the role that Jason Heyward played during the rain delay - appears to be unique to this game. Jason Heyward had a poor post season. His batting average (.104) was low as was his on-base percentage (.140). Yet when the game was delayed for rain at the end of the tied 9th inning, Jason hustled his team players inside – no managers, no one else, just the team with Jason taking the role of inspirational leader. Following this 17-minute period, the game resumed and the Cubs won. Players commented on how his talk was pivotal.
What did he say? Players said that he looked at each of them and said how each had brought them to this point, how they would win if they continued to believe in each other and played for each other. He said, “These are your brothers here, fight for your brothers, lift them up, …continue to be us.” I believe that it was that message about team members ability to step out of personal fears, perhaps shame as well, to uplift “the other” that was key. It may also have been about who delivered the message. Not a hero, not an extraordinary player, just one of the players who struggled throughout the season.
There was one more nugget that tied it together for me and helped explain how an “ordinary” player might rise up in this way to inspire his team to victory. The Cubs’ President, Theo Epstein, has a management philosophy of building a team of “good people.” His overriding philosophy is that good human beings make good players. He charges his scouts to look for good human beings. He has them analyze the player’s capacity to deal with adversity, and he has a five-person mental skills team that works with the players continuously on mindfulness and meditation.
When I think about our practices and philosophy at Wornick, I see parallels to the take-aways in the Cubs’ win. Our chavurot and our social action activities teach our children that “we are brothers” (or siblings). Our purpose is to lift each other up. The emphasis on Jewish values – midot (character traits) - creates a community of “good human beings”. Taking time to step out of the busy-ness of life, to meditate, to be inspired, to be introspective is not “time off task” but rather the space needed to bring about success. Of course none of this would matter if strong skill development were lacking. It is the combination – skill, support for other, goodness and contemplation – that brings the defining “win”.
At the conclusion of 8th grade, our students produce and present a writing portfolio of the works they consider to be their best. Students have to write a justification for their choice, and one of their choices has to have a piece of work from sixth grade that was refined in eighth grade. Before their parents and their teachers and each other, our students have the opportunity to explain their reasoning, and to share the many drafts that went into making each work optimal. The portfolio is representative of the critiquing process that we introduce in kindergarten.
There is an interesting connection between our efforts at Wornick to teach the idea of critiquing work and the Jewish New Year concept of teshuvah. Both ideas promote the value of assuming responsibility – one for our work and the other for our actions, and both assume the possibility of improvement.
We intentionally teach children self-reflection. In kindergarten, we introduce the protocols of critiquing work. The general protocol is to acknowledge the positive, respectfully ask questions and make constructive suggestions. We use the language “I notice, I wonder, and I appreciate” in our protocol. This effort helps students learn to self-correct, to recognize that excellent work requires perseverance and refinement, and to support their peers in achieving their personal best. Above all, critiquing teaches students to consider what counts as “best” work and to assume responsibility for producing their own best work. At the same time, as students learn the value of helping each other, they are learning how to contribute constructively to a better community.
This concept of self-correction and the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur concept of teshuvah are interconnected. Teshuvah literally means to turn oneself around. It is frequently translated as repentance, but it really connotes the sense of evaluating oneself against a particular standard of behavior and then redirecting one’s efforts in that direction. According to tradition, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah (the month of Elul) and the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are times of introspection and, ultimately, for recalibrating…to reset our GPS for the journey of the coming year.
Just as our critique of class work culminates in the production and celebration of the finished work, so too there is a celebratory aspect to this holiday season. Both processes, while capable of degenerating into morbid seriousness, are actually acts of great optimism. Both proclaim that we do such work because we know that we are all capable of something better.
As we enter this holiday season, I wish you all a Shana Tova that brings us all to greater heights in work and action.
G’mar Tov (the traditional greeting on Yom Kippur)
Last week I saw a segment on the news about an initiative at Target to withdraw the child-sized shopping carts that the company had tried out in 72 stores in August. A Google search of “Target kid’s shopping carts” finds numerous articles and YouTube videos with titles that describe the initiative as a “Shin-bashing Menace…” (Fortune, 9/23/16), and “nightmare” kids' carts that are “vehicles of mass destruction” (Business insider, 9/22/16). The storyline in the various news outlets is about the power of social media to bring about rapid response and change. But I believe the story of the shopping carts is an interesting story about parenting and about setting expectations for a child’s behavior.
Among the viral communications that seem to have affected the abandonment of the initiative are one of a mom taking time to look at a product while her child continuously bumps her kid-cart into her, and another one where the children are zigzagging down aisles. There were other postings of moms (and it was primarily moms who posted) whose children were devastated when they needed to put back all the items that the child had accumulated in their kid cart, and those who lamented that their shopping time had doubled as they needed to direct and redirect their child.
When I viewed the various videos and vitriol that parents about this initiative, I was struck first by the rather shortsighted understanding of early childhood behaviors. I lamented the opportunity lost in the outcome.
How is it possible that neither parents nor those at Target who introduced the idea failed to take into account how children interact with new toys? Did everyone really believe that a young child with a shopping cart would walk calmly up and down aisles mimicking what their parents did? Actually, those children who filled their baskets and were upset that they couldn’t own all those items did a better job of acting like their parents. Perhaps their parents hadn’t told them about making choices and not being able to own everything they want.
The outcome - remove the object – is similar to the thinking behind censorship of books, movies, technology, and various toys. Instead of teaching children how to use something in a responsible way, many simply prefer to remove the object. The outcome was probably the right one for Target. There was probably a law suit in the making with some child recklessly knocking over a customer or a display. Nonetheless, the outcome is paradigmatic of how we often approach things that we perceive to be “dangerous” to children.
I tried to imagine another scenario. A parent with a toddler finds kid-carts at their local Target. At the outset, the parent engages with the child for a minute about how to walk with the cart making sure that the child doesn’t bump into anyone. In that same conversation the parent talks about putting some of her items into the child’s cart and some into her adult cart so that they are sharing the experience of “gathering the things that are on our list.” In future visits, they could generate the list together. Older children could practice reading the list or comparing prices, or develop their independence by seeking out an item on their own.
At Wornick, we provide children with scissors, glue-guns, and computers. Large groups of children walk through halls and up and down stairs. Children play with sand and water, they climb structures, they go on field trips to the city. Older children fly to far away cities, they participate in ropes course activities, hike over some challenging terrain. Every activity is carefully supervised and planned. But the most important reason that every one of these activities work, is that we spend the time teaching children how to navigate all of these potential dangers.
At Trader Joe’s and Lunardi’s supermarkets in our area, there are still kids’ sized shopping carts available. I would guess our children — and our parents — are up to the challenge!
If you’d like more guidance about how to parent in this way, I highly recommend Julie Lythcott-Haims’ recent book How to Raise an Adult.
“Dress Code is a NO” was the heading of the message that I received on Wednesday. It was just one of the shared Google documents that I received from our students this week. Often children wander into my office to share their ideas, but lately more and more of our communication has been taking place this way. I thoroughly enjoy this additional mode of communication – it gives me a window into our students’ ability to think, to use technology and to communicate.
Earlier in the week, the principals and I had a conversation about the school’s Dress Code. We were most concerned about consistency in enforcement, and in making sure that the staff were held to the same standard. It was a pretty typical conversation among adults – are yoga pants too revealing, bra straps slipping out of tank tops, etc. We spent a good few minutes on the question of yoga pants. One of our staff – a male – brought up the fact that we seemed to be only focused on the girls – are we unfairly legislating clothing choices for girls and not for boys?
The Middle School staff opened up the conversation with their students this week. The “Dress Code is a NO” shared document was fascinating in that our students were developing their argument in a written and collaborative way. Most importantly, they were applying the critical thinking skills that we so strongly emphasize. Several middle school students voiced their thinking about the dress code. Using sophisticated language, they provided cogent arguments that were well supported. They were most concerned that this focus could end up objectifying and sexualizing girls.
I shared an article with them that supported their contentions, and I pushed them to think about this issue in a different way. My “sharing” included the idea that maybe the dress code should be about the different understandings of appropriate clothing for particular settings. For example, one doesn’t wear beachwear to work or to a Bar Mitzvah party, nor work clothing to a beach. Should school be considered a “work setting”? I am awaiting their response.
We are still in the midst of the conversation, and the students and we still have much to explore about the multi-dimensional aspects of this topic. The 8th grade English teacher is making use of this issue to teach the students how to negotiate. I’ve been forewarned that I’ll be receiving more nuanced letters from the students who have been communicating with me about this. We plan to convene a small committee that includes staff and students to rewrite the dress code policy. The level of thought and collaboration represented in their conversation is commendable. I appreciate that a couple of girls recognized the gender bias inherent in so many of the conversations about dress code. Most of all, this particular picture from my week is a wonderful window into how our school develops thoughtful leaders who are willing to advocate for a cause in which they passionately believe.
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