Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
How many of you think of yourselves as “successful”? More importantly, I’m curious what you think contributed to that success. In what ways are your perceptions of your successes and failures fueling your standard of success for your children?
My questions stem from a recent lunch I enjoyed with Denise Pope, senior lecturer in education at Stanford and one of the founders of Challenge Success for educators and parents. Pope and her colleagues created CS after conducting research that suggested current mainstream definitions of success are creating undue stress among students - particularly among middle class and upper middle class families. The Challenge Success message is about redefining success. This message is resonating across the country in University departments of education, educators, and parents. Their agenda is pushing top universities to transform their entrance requirements, and prestigious independent schools to drop grading systems and to rethink assessments.
For many middle class families, the goal of attending “the right school” for college (or high school) can be applied to a very narrow band of schools. A majority of very capable students will not get into those schools because the applicant pool is so great, and the number admitted is so small in comparison. It’s not because they are lacking in talent, but because there are just too many other students similar to them applying for too few places.
There is no question that “right schools” are structured to maximize the chances for their students to be challenged and engaged. In addition, their students get to study with academically similar peers, and the alumni networks created among their fellow graduates often provide an advantage in locating work following college. Yet, even these privileged few often lack the very qualities that are proven indicators of long-term success: purpose, sense of self, resilience and interpersonal skills.
There are other serious problems associated with this goal – problems that are far too critical to ignore. Pope and her colleague, psychologist Madeline Levine, documented the large spike in stress related issues (including depression, anxiety, suicides, and addictions) among middle class adolescents. Students spend inordinate amounts of time doing homework, and/or participating in grueling hours of athletic training solely to achieve the illusive admittance to “the right” school or to earn “the” athletic scholarship. If they fail to gain admittance to their choice or don’t get that scholarship, they, and their parents, are crushed. Even if they achieve that goal, what’s next? Furthermore, students who either cannot, or do not, want to participate in this pressure-cooker environment see their interests and talents ignored and trivialized. (Madeline Levine, Teach Your Children Well, pg xiv)
When we look at the compelling data that Pope and Levine have gathered, it is clear that school needs to be more of a journey that opens up possibilities rather than a race to a finish line defined by a very narrow goal. While experiencing these possibilities, children need, now more than ever, the resilience that comes from experiencing failure and learning how to bounce back.
School also needs to be structured to engage meaning-of-life questions so children can develop their purpose. Children need time to ask “why” questions - (Why is there order in the universe? Why are there wars? Why are some people heroic? Why did my pet die?), and they need to explore possible answers. Varied responses to these questions present different perspectives on the purpose in life. This range of possibilities helps children in thinking about the future that they might create.
The measure of success for schools and families who understand this idea of school as a journey, would be the graduate who finds interesting work and balances the “joy of living” with the “obligation to improve the world.” Wornick JDS is a school that sets the condition for this sort of success. Our program is structured so that students have the content knowledge they need to find their vocation, the language to express wonder and gratitude, a year punctuated by celebrations, and ample time to explore the “whys”, while trying on different possibilities to create a better world. I look forward in June to sharing our graduates’ stories that reflect both their journeys, and the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.
A few years ago, I observed a frustrated second grade boy who was upset because he had to close his journal since “writing was over” for the day. I asked him why he didn’t take the journal home so he could continue writing? He answered, “Because my teacher didn’t give it to us as homework… our journals don’t go home.” That exchange sent me on a journey to look more closely at homework practices. One of the most frequent questions asked by prospective parents is “What is your homework policy?” I used to say “reading 20 minutes each night, never new material; and always meaningful review.” Even when saying this, I knew that there was something flawed in that answer.
The efficacy of homework has been debated among American educators, parents and students for as long as I’ve been in education. In an article in the New Yorker a few years ago, Louis Menand laid out the different sides of the debate. Those against homework argue that it creates undue stress and that it is either unrelated, or negatively related, to academic achievement. He notes that parents hate it because it makes their kids unhappy, or creates undue dinner-time tension. Students and teachers hate it for other reasons. Those who support homework argue that it creates useful work habits and has positive academic effects.
So what does the American ambivalence about homework mean? We have diverse interests with different expectations about the purpose of education. Some focus on values of happiness, others on discovery learning, while some emphasize the need for content mastery, and still others want to keep kids off the streets.
Back to my traditional answer to the homework question, and why it is flawed. The answer to how much time to allocate to homework is different for every single child. Children have different capacities and learn at different rates. One child may complete a particular assignment in 10 minutes while another might need much longer. The answer should be that time devoted to homework is usually a function of children’s learning differences, preferences and capacities. It is possible that a particular child is so engaged in figuring out a particular problem that s/he willingly devotes more time to that endeavor. His/her parent might be unnecessarily concerned about how long the child spent on this work. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there might be a child who completes an assignment in a few minutes, and the parent wishes that s/he had more work. These concerns are often about who gets to control “time” – the teacher, the parent or the child.
Time allocation is one issue. The other issue focuses on the assumptions behind the practice of never assigning new work for homework. That idea is premised on the belief that the child might make mistakes, or might become too frustrated because s/he is not learning the material first from a teacher. This answer is also connected to the desire to control rather than understanding how deep learning takes place. We know that sustained learning takes place through exploration, mistakes and revisions. So, why aren’t we letting children explore new material for homework? Why can’t they turn in something that is “in process” and is not perfect?
The homework debate is never really a question of too much or too little. It is a question about “to what end?” My new way to answer the prospective parent’s question is by sharing the questions and the resulting answers that drive our school’s position – What sort of education do we value, and how do we deliver that education?
The answers reflect the school we want to be: We value 21st Century learners who have command of different literacies, take initiative, and know how to create, communicate, and collaborate. Equally important, we value an education that teaches children how to listen, care, and act for the benefit of others. Given that, homework at our school could include hours of collaboration over a Google document on a project conceived by the students. It can also include a child interviewing his/her parents about a family narrative. To fulfill our mission of teaching students to communicate and to problem-solve effectively, at times there just might be a spelling list and some mathematic practice as well.
If we really want an informed citizenship that takes responsibility for their learning and for their actions, the best case scenario is learning without boundaries: Children who are so engaged at school that they can’t wait to get home to finish reading a class book, to replicate or extend a science experiment, or continue writing in their journal. We want parents who understand that this is also homework; and we strive to be a school that lets those books, science projects and journals come home.
When I was an Education Fellow at Hebrew University, I took an intensive Hebrew language class called ulpan in order to qualify for regular university classes taught in Hebrew. After the first day of class, I went directly to the ulpan coordinator’s office and said “I think you placed me in the wrong class. I didn’t understand most of what was said in class today.” She responded, “You’re in the right class. You Americans all think that you need to understand everything all the time in class. If you did that you wouldn’t be learning much would you? You will probably understand 20% of what is being said right now and in a few months about 40% and by the end of the year 90%.“
With that insight, I returned to class the next day and allowed myself to not understand much of what was said by the instructor. From that day on, it became a game for me to try to understand more and more. The coordinator was right. With time, patience, and perseverance, my comprehension continued to grow, and I ultimately passed the Hebrew entrance exam for the University.
I think about this story often when I see a student select a book that is easy to read rather than one that might challenge...or a child who gives up after a few minutes when a game or subject is difficult. Similarly, the college student who selects a class that might be an “easy A” as opposed to one that might be difficult but that would offer interesting new insight exhibits this same aversion to struggle...to persist.
Was that Hebrew language coordinator correct about Americans having an aversion to struggle? A few years ago, an excellent report on NPR explored this question. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning
It considered the idea of “struggle” in education contrasting American and Asian classrooms. The author, Dr. Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, was surprised by the practice in Japanese schools of teachers asking children who have difficulty solving a problem to come to the board to solve it there. The student’s classmates waited patiently and celebrated his success.
Stigler noted that in the United States, we call to the board the child who knows the answer. We see struggle as an indicator of “you’re not smart” (a phenomenon also noted by Carol Dweck in Mindsets), whereas struggle is understood as opportunity and part of the learning process in Asian societies.
We do tend to err in of smoothing the path to learning rather than in celebrating the struggle to learn. The news isn’t all bleak - the article also states that the East can learn much from us about teaching creativity and the West can learn from the East about “struggle”. Let’s encourage our children and students to persevere even when they feel challenged. It is one of the surest ways to success!
What would you do if your brother did something unspeakable to you as a child? You were not in contact with him for twenty years. One day you find yourself in a situation where you are asking a powerful person to help you out only to learn that the person is your brother.
That is the story line in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44: 18- 47:27). It is the conclusion of the Joseph story, and it is filled with suspense, pathos and interesting insight into the human condition. One of the take-aways connects to an idea that I frequently invoke when talking to children – the idea of “taking the moral high road”.
The context of the narrative is that Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to seek food because of a famine in their area. Joseph, who is now second in power only to Pharoah, is the person they need to meet to ask for provisions. He recognizes his brothers but does not reveal himself to them. Instead he tests them in several ways – framing them twice, threatening imprisonment and sending them back to Canaan to bring back their youngest brother Benjamin.
The parasha (weekly selection) opens with Judah - the brother who, years ago, suggested selling Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. Judah appeals to Joseph to imprison him rather than their youngest brother, Benjamin. He gives a litany of the trials that they have endured, and says that if he were to return to Canaan without Benjamin, their father would be deeply aggrieved and likely die from the pain of this loss. At this moment, the text says that Joseph is filled with emotion, he wails loudly, asks all of his servants to leave him alone with his visitors, and “makes himself known to his brothers” (Gen. 45:1)
Think about how Joseph was feeling at this point. What should he say to them? Isn’t this the time to admonish them, express his anger over past grievances? They tried to kill him many years ago, and their action led to his enslavement, false accusations, and imprisonment. Now he is one of the most powerful people in the land, and he has the opportunity to exact revenge, to express his anger. But he doesn’t. When he reveals himself, his brothers “recoil in fear” (Gen. 45:2) Joseph instead offers reassurance telling his brothers that all that has happened has lead him to be able to provide for them now. In this, he reminds me of Nelson Mandela who left prison and publicly chose not to seek revenge for his imprisonment. His goal was “to lead” to move toward a productive, healing future.
The go-to position for young children, and, unfortunately for many adults is to exact revenge when wronged by someone. The lesson in this parasha is that focusing on blame and anger immobilizes. Taking the moral high road of looking forward, not backward, leads to positive change. As we get another chance at a New Year, let’s all try to be more like Joseph and Mandela, not blaming for past grievances but improving the world by looking forward.
I wish you all a peaceful holiday season and a Happy New Year.
The weekly carnages that have become the new normal, leave us stunned, afraid, angry and speechless. The responses have become formulaic – prayer vigils, memorials decorated with flowers and candles and items posted on Social Media – “my prayers are with you.”
Sometimes “my prayers are with you” express heartfelt hurt and sorrow. But it also seems to have become a phrase used to dispense our duty to our fellow human beings who have suffered inexplicable loss. Send the tweet and move on to the everyday activities that demand our attention. Self-preservation does demand our ability to move on ...not to become immobilized by the very real fear that we could be the next set of victims.
In spite of the ambivalence that so many of us have about the subject of prayer, “my prayers are with you” is still our go-to phrase when talking to an acquaintance experiencing some horrible event. So what is it that “prayer” is supposed to do beyond being a handy phrase expressing “I’m really sorry for your loss”?
All major religions share the understanding that prayer serves the following purposes – opportunity for self-reflection, a way to express gratitude and a response to awesome or overwhelming experiences. All religions also have a place for solitary contemplation and opportunities for joining voices in communal response.
The Hebrew word for prayer (Lihitpalel) is a reflexive word suggesting that we pray to evaluate ourselves. There are prayers about qualities to which we might aspire – these prayers move me to consider if I’ve been my best self and to set intentions for the day for thoughtful behavior. These provide a daily opportunity to take stock and to improve.
Beyond indicating appreciation, prayers of gratitude are statements about human potential. In a world that seems to run at ever increasing speeds and with increasing violence, that speed and violence seems to control us. For me, prayer means that I take control of that time and space - even for a short time. I get to slow it down – to pause long enough to ‘smell the roses’. I get to step out of that violent space for a time and look at the places where humanity and peace prevails. It means that I make the time to notice beauty all around me. It means that I remember my humanity and that I can see that in those who care to alleviate suffering.
Sometimes there are moments so replete with emotion and feeling that we wish we had the right (the most beautiful) words to express those feelings. Prayer is the language for this. There are traditional prayers for such occasions, and there are so many new prayers that help us here.
I’ve often thought that prayer and an intentional prayer service can be likened to a great symphony or an awesome athletic event. For the participant or the performer in any of these arenas, that experience can be empowering, humbling and transformative all at the same time. ‘My prayers are with you’ doesn’t come close to those possibilities but it opens the door for us to consider the prayer possibilities beyond that phrase.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach,
Light plays a distinctive role during Chanukah as it does in so many other holiday traditions that take place during the winter solstice. We light our chanukiot (menorahs) with the addition of a new candle each night. In the Talmud, there is a famous debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shamai. Shamai argued that on the first night we should light all eight candles and on each subsequent night we should eliminate one candle until we light only one candle on the last night. Shamai claimed that this would best represent the decreasing light from the flask of oil in the Chanukah narrative. Hillel argued that we should begin with one light and add on each night to represent the increasing joy and increasing miracle of the oil lasting for all eight nights. We know that Hillel’s argument is the one that prevailed and is the tradition that we carry on today.
Last week, I heard one class discussing this debate. It coincided with a conversation that I had that day with our administration team as we prepared for our next admissions event. Once again, we were discussing the value-added of a Jewish education. We were looking at examples from our Jewish Studies curricula that support and enhance our overall academic goals.
The particular Hillel/Shamai debate is a really good example of how Jewish studies is a value-added. It fits so well with our core values and with critical thinking goals – different opinions matter, there is a protocol and an art to debating, all positions need to be coherent and supported, and when one side prevails, the other side needs to accept it, respect it and move on.
Additionally, the prevailing opinion in this particular debate is inherently optimistic with the idea of increasing joy and light as the holiday progresses. As we celebrate this season of light, let’s notice how our students glow with ideas, how our teachers shine with insights, how our administrators burn with the love of learning and how our parents kindle the light of community. As we celebrate this holiday of light, let us remember that our school is a powerful source of light to our community.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach (happy holiday),
As the threat of terrorism grows, as a political campaign whips up blatantly racist sentiments and daily news reports are so bleak, there seems to be so many reasons that challenge a celebratory holiday like Thanksgiving. Yet the markets are crowded, everyone talks about where and with whom they are celebrating the holiday.
Thanksgiving is a big deal for me. I grew up in Southeastern Massachusetts, about 40 miles from Plimouth Plantation where we assume the first Thanksgiving took place. Cranberry bogs were nearby and cranberry ice cream, cranberry crumbles, and cranberry sauces figured prominently in our cuisine.
As a child, I really enjoyed visiting Plimouth plantation – a 17th Century reconstructed farming and maritime community along the shore of Plymouth Harbor. At the Plantation, we could see reconstructed homes from that period, and we met costumed role players who portrayed actual residents of Plymouth Colony. They had adopted names and viewpoints and life histories of the people who lived and worked in the Colony.
A few years ago, I returned to Plimouth Plantation with my daughter. The Plantation had added another experience – the Wampanoag Village. Within walking distance to the recreated English Village, along the banks of a river, a Wampanoag village had been constructed. The village represents the Native community that preceded the Pilgrims on this land. Unlike the actors in the English Village, the staff in the Wapanoag village are Native people. On this visit, the people on the Wapanoag side as well as those on the English site speak about the disagreements between the two groups. They challenge visitors to see their conflicting perspectives. As I sat in one of the Wapanoag’s matt-covered wetu (house), one of the Native facilitators described his home and shook his head as he questioned the wisdom of the stuffy, dark narrow houses of his English neighbors.
As an adult, I know that Plimoth Plantation really tells a story of two competing views of America and of American history: the American past as an heroic account of the birth of freedom and democracy and the nation’s past as a tale of conflict and racism. The traditional picture of a peaceful Pilgrim and Indian Thanksgiving that emerges from this experience glosses over the strife between these two competing interests. I know this intellectually, and I also know that history is a dynamic process where new meanings are layered on previous interpretations.
I reconcile my desire to commemorate the noble intentions of democracy with a history of racism by celebrating the former and working toward eradicating the latter. As I hold this idea in tension, one of my dreams is that one day the racists and terrorists of today will sit together at a Thanksgiving type event – celebrating the best of human intentions while knowing that there is still work to be done to achieve mutual understanding.
I wish you all a restful and peaceful Thanksgiving and a Shabbat Shalom,
This past week, I was sitting with one of our first grade students who showed me his new Minecraft books. The process that he engaged in as he shared fascinated me. He thumbed silently back and forth through the book. He would hold different pages apart with his fingers, flipping through all the pages several times. A few minutes later, he would explain to me a sequence of possibilities that would occur with different combinations of the items. Then, he would repeat this process over again with new combinations.
This observation occurred just after I had read that morning an article in the New York Times. The article chronicles Albert Einstein’s “visual thought experiments” that were integral to Einstein’s way of working. As a young boy, he would visualize what it would be like to travel so fast that you caught up with a light beam.
He continued creating a series of thought experiments – all visualizations of “what if”, and eventually through this process, he claimed that space and time were not independent. And so, in time, his mind gave birth to The General Theory of Relativity. The author of the article concludes, “That ability to visualize the unseen has always been the key to creative genius. As Einstein later put it, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’.”
The line between imagining different plays in a Minecraft book at the age of seven to something as seminal as the Theory of Relativity is neither assured nor direct; however, the ability to take time imagining and engaging in ‘visual experiments’ is key to developing a creative thinker – someone who can look at a combination of factors, reimagine it in a new way and continuing taking it apart and putting it back to together again in his/her mind. I realized that this is exactly what this first grader was doing.
Psychologists, neuro-scientists and educators agree that imaginative play is a critical feature of a child’s cognitive and social development. Among the documented benefits are increases in language usage, perspective-taking, empathy, reduced aggression, problem solving and creativity. Unfortunately, we tend to encourage imaginative play among young children, and rarely appreciate the need for older children and adults to take the time to imagine.
One of the hallmarks of the Singapore mathematics approach that we use at Wornick is ‘mental mathematics’. Teachers read a mathematics problem to the class and, without pencil or paper, children visualize the problem and create a solution. Until I read the article about Einstein, I didn’t fully understand the importance of this practice. Feel free to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the general theory of relativity with a few visual experiments.
“All Children are artists, the problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” (Picasso)
If you’ve recently visited our school, you would see the explosion of the arts. Under Ginger Slonaker’s skilled teaching, colorful and inspiring artwork fills our bulletin boards. Children eagerly await each art class. Ginger engages children with stories, playfulness and careful unpacking of technique.
And if you happen to be on campus on Wednesday and Friday mornings, you would hear the animated music classes taught by Evie and, on Monday, by Meghan. You would hear the students practicing various songs and sequences using solfege – the method used to teach pitch and sight singing. You would also hear fourth graders playing ukuleles.
The arts are often the “afterthought” of education, and seen by so many in our society as a “nice” addition to the curricula. As so many schools and educators worked to keep the arts in schools during the recent recession, arguments supporting the arts focused on ideas like music training improves the ability to read, and visual arts enhance the ability to do mathematical calculations.
Some of these justifications may be correct. But they are concerning for two reasons. They suggest that the arts are only valuable for a very particular way of being “smart” reducing all education to reading and mathematics. Also disturbing is the reliance on a “utilitarian” value.
Historically, American education has privileged the utilitarian function over other purposes. But there are important benefits of an education that also makes time for learning for its own sake – for the pure enjoyment of an elegant mathematical solution, in the unexpected ways that we encounter the world through a piece of artwork, the deep joy of listening to a well-performed piece of music and for the emotions tapped in a well-written novel. This is an education that inspires graduates to live lives of meaning and engagement in the world.
In the words of one of my colleagues, Dr. Scheindlin, “we all need skills and knowledge, but we also need access to the reservoirs of meaning that varied cultural expressions can open within us. Any education, and certainly a spiritual education, needs to embrace the fullness of human endeavor and expression.” Please wander through our first floor halls to see how our students see the world using their artistic sense and pause to engage your senses in this experience.
I took a couple of board members on a walking tour of our school today. They saw engaged students, enthusiastic and inspiring teachers. But they also saw something that every prospective parent or guest experiences and comments on when they walk into one of our classrooms. An adorable student stops his/her work and walks over to the guest. S/he looks him in the eye, sticks out his/her hand offering a handshake, and says “Welcome to Grade “x”, my name is “y”, and we are working on our “z” right now.” This never fails to startle and impress visitors. Impressing guests is a by-product not the goal.
There is serious pedagogy in this greeting. The greeting, connected to the social-emotional objective of learning empathy, is also connected to a core Jewish value about welcoming the stranger “for you were once a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 18). The greeting is linked to another important pedagogic goal - attending (listening). The student needs to be aware of people entering their space, and then needs to listen to that person for cues about how to make them feel welcome in that space.
Every day our students say the “Shma” which I often call the “listening prayer”. This prayer asks us to listen...to be present and to attend to what we might hear if we just stop to listen. It is the one prayer that is universally known by Jews. The translated words are “Listen Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One”, and traditionally it is recited at every service, at night before going to bed and on one’s death bed. Irrespective of one’s theological position, the universal question raised in this prayer is about listening.
This seems like a simple task, but it is one that many contemporary educators believe is in short supply. Listening is a skill that we tend to assume happens naturally. Listening is not a major part of any curricula, yet, we know that listening in order to learn and in order to build relationships is critical to future success in school and in life.
Listening is in fact rather complicated. It is complicated because the words we hear are filtered by a myriad of interpretations. If we marry multiple interpretations to weak communication skills, we may never be able to clarify a puzzling or hurtful communication. When we hear something, the following is possible – what we heard, what we think you heard, what the speaker said and what the speaker meant to say. There are so many places for misinterpretation. The conflicts that emerge from failed listening are the grist of great literature and movies. They are also the fabric of children’s altercations throughout a typical school day.
At Wornick, we help children become skilled listeners through practicing the following: a) listening without judgement, b) listening empathically, c) listening for feelings d) listening for needs, e) and listening with maintained eye contact. Each of these has several dimensions, and each leads us in different directions in responding best to the communication we are receiving. This is what is really behind our student greeters.
Choose groups to clone to: