Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
Walking down the first floor corridor on Monday, I observed our kindergarteners cuddled next to their third grade reading buddies. The older buddies were reading to the younger children. I slowed down to listen to the conversation that was taking place between one such pair of children. The younger child made a comment about what she thought might happen next. The older child looked at her and flipped back to the few pages that they had already read, and said “I don’t think that we have gotten any clues from the author that this might happen.” The younger child turned back a page and pointed out something that she saw in the picture. The older child said, “maybe…let’s keep reading and see.”
This scene came into sharp focus as I listened to Dr. Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, addressing a breakfast meeting of local Heads of Independent Schools on Tuesday. She spoke about her research captured in her new book. At one point, she talked about the difference between robots programmed to read to children and the intimacy and spontaneity that occurs when a person reads to a child. The conversation that I observed in the hall was a perfect example of this idea.
Turkle claims that our largely unquestioned embrace of technology has led to an atrophy of the very qualities that define humanity – empathy, reflection, patience, intimacy, imagination and vulnerability. Dr. Turkle is a psychologist who has studied people’s relationships with technology. She is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and she makes her claims based on a substantial body of careful research. She is also someone who uses and values technology; however, her work is a call to action to understand the deleterious effects of technology on basic human qualities. She is calling for responsible, limited use of technology. It is provocative and somewhat counter-cultural for a Silicon Valley and an MIT audience.
Dr. Turkle shared so many vivid examples culled from her research that I’m still processing. Here’s a very brief list in no particular order of some of the tidbits that she offered in her talk:
- When we enter a meeting or sit down to dinner, and place our phones in front of us on the table, we’re essentially signaling everyone around us that our conversation might get interrupted because of an “emergency” call or text. Beyond the fact that if everything is a potential emergency, then nothing is, we are also devaluing the conversation taking place among the people that are sitting beside us.
- Filling gaps in time by checking emails, twitter feeds, texts and facebook postings on a phone can prevent children from learning patience and from learning how to fill moments of boredom with creativity, observation skills and/or moments of simple contemplation.
- The appeal of email communication is that one can edit and craft the “perfect” communication on one’s timetable. In this, one loses the social skills derived from the messy, unpredictability of face to face communication.
- Students who depend upon laptops for note-taking often become transcript writers - capturing every word spoken by the teacher - and failing to learn how to listen and how to distinguish the trivial from the essential.
Turkle called for schools to be places where we hold conversations with parents and teachers about the issues that she has identified in her research. If anyone in our community is interested in forming a group to read Turkle’s work and to discuss its implications for our community, please let me know.
See the two most recent New York Times articles about her work:
Life is full of ironies. Last week, I wrote about civil discourse because it was just one of those weeks where I heard too many communications that were surly and mean-spirited. But those communications were thankfully bookended by the unexpected visit by twelve of our graduates who represented the best in communication.
Sunday night, my thinking on this topic was further tested as I experienced a pretty horrific flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I was on that Sunday evening Southwest flight that was reported in the news the next day. It was supposed to leave Los Angeles at 7:10 p.m. and it was delayed first until 9:40 and then an additional half hour on the tarmac. By the time, we took off and cabin lights were dimmed, I had closed my Kindle and started to doze off. About ten minutes later, I, and the entire plane, heard a woman about four rows in front of me yelling “help, help, he’s strangling me, stop hitting me…you…x…I need to recline…help.”
Everyone on the plane was straining to see what was going on. Initially, I, and many of the people sitting near me, assumed that there was something wrong with the woman. Perhaps she was delusional. Then we saw the flight crew calmly move the woman to a front seat. A few minutes later as I looked out the window, I realized that the plane was returning to LAX. The pilot came on the intercom and announced that we were returning to LAX and we were to remain seated upon landing. As we landed, I saw several police cars, unmarked cars and a fire truck surround the plane.
Law enforcement personnel boarded the plane. By this time the people behind me were laughing and joking. Other people around me were just “wide-eyed” trying to figure out what was happening, and contemplating if we would ever get home that night. When the flight attendant opened the overhead bin to remove the woman’s luggage – an oversized gold lamé duffle bag – those same people behind me snickered “of course she would have that sort of bag” and “that bag was a dead give-away.” Some people were annoyed that this woman inconvenienced us.
About a ½ hour later, we were directed off the plane to another gate area for a new plane to take us to SFO once the police and the FBI completed their interrogations. People who had taken cell phone photos were asked to come forward and share them. Around midnight, we boarded the plane again and headed home arriving five hours later than our originally scheduled flight.
While this story in and of itself is interesting, what was most interesting, and disturbing to me (especially given the topic of last week’s blog) was the conversations that took place during and after the flight, the media coverage the next day and the social media snippets that it generated.
I was horrified that I initially thought, as many others did, that the woman was delusional. Though many of us thought this, we did not articulate it until after the ordeal when we were all discussing what had happened. In fact, she had inclined her seat backwards and the man behind her put her in a choke-hold and hit her. She was a victim and those who assumed that she was the instigator victimized her again. Those snickers and comments about her gold bag were mean spirited and clear examples of flaunting civil discourse.
Then there were the tweets, and the media coverage the next day. One such communication indicated that there was pandemonium on the plane and back at the gate. There was no chaos – in fact, it was impressive how calm and restrained all passengers and crew members were. I watched people find plugs for other people’s phones and computers. Everyone was weary, but everyone was decent. People watched each other's bags as some got up to use rest rooms or to question the gate attendant.
We eventually made it back home at 1:45 a.m. The woman flew back with us – seated by herself in the front of the plane, and the man had been removed from the flight. The majority of those involved in this ordeal were civil and kind. The person who assaulted the woman was the outlier. Those who made unsubstantiated claims about the woman, her luggage or about chaos were cases of poor civil discourse – exactly the sort of communication that tears apart the fabric of a kind and caring society.
On Monday, twelve of our recent graduates surprised us by showing up for lunch. These ninth graders who are now dispersed through different schools were so thoughtful and articulate. They bubbled over with enthusiasm and with their successes that they wanted to share with us. They wanted to thank and to connect to particular teachers and administrators, and they were particularly happy to have a “Rachel lunch”. Their eager and respectful conversation stood in such stark contrast to other conversations that often swirl around us at school, at home and in the media.
Everyday, we hear conversations that are hurtful and mean-spirited. This is especially pronounced during an election year. There are verbal attacks on television, at athletic events. Various news outlets display people interrupting one another and name-calling. There are political debates where hate speech is unchecked. I find it particularly interesting this election cycle that a number of candidates have said that they want to get away from “political correctness”. My understanding of “political correctness” is about being mindful in our communication about other people’s feelings, needs and perspectives. Getting rid of that is a slippery slope.
This intensely uncivil communication that we are witnessing spills over into other aspects of our society. We hear it and feel it in school. We hear students quick to blame another student for some action, teachers sending emails that assume something negative about the recipient of the note and parent emails that are equally mean-spirited. The good news is that these communications are not the norm at our school – indeed they are a distinct, and very small, minority of communications. But they are enough to be unsettling.
Mean-spirited communication and essays about it are not new, but the rapidity by which a message is broadcast and the far reach of the message are defining features of twenty-first century discourse. The concept of civility – or civil discourse - originates with Cicero in the concept of “societas civilus” (in Teaching Tolerance, Chapter I, “Teaching Tolerance in the Classroom” from the Southern Poverty Law Center). Cicero’s concept is not about “political correctness” or politeness. Cicero understood civil speech as that which is filtered through how it does or does not contribute to the good of the city (Ibid.). As we live in an increasingly me-centered society it is difficult to maintain that balance about the good of society overriding the good of the individual. But if we fail to, then the fundamental principals upon which our society was conceived are at risk.
School is the place where children get to hear multiple ways of interacting. Some children come to school from homes where interrupting one another and name-calling is normative. So many are used to hearing rather strong opinions expressed with poor evidentiary support. Many hear opinions stated as fact, leaving no room for the give and take of authentic conversation. Our challenge is finding a way to bring this melting pot of behaviors together respectfully. We aim to help all children maintain respect for their parents even as we sometimes have to say to some that “those words may be acceptable in your home, but not at school.” In the classroom, through the Responsive Classroom work that we do, and on the field, one of our most daunting yet important tasks is to hold our students to a respectful standard of communication even as they see other forms of communication outside of school. Respectful, doesn’t mean perfect. Children are very much in process and they must fall down and err in order to learn.
What should we be teaching children so that we might have a chance at “civil society”? Civil discourse is about expressing needs and hearing other people’s conflicting needs and perspectives. It’s about careful listening – listening without judging. It’s about remaining open to suggestibility – that your idea might in fact change as you take in new information. How unfortunate that political pundits currently refer to this so cavalierly as “flipflopping” rather than the careful reconsideration of ideas that it often is.
In our school, it is all of this and it is about teaching children to make distinctions between opinions and facts. We also teach children to support their assertions with evidence, and to identify the evidence and reasoning in someone else’s statement. There is a learning curve that has to take place between knowing this intellectually when one analyzes an essay, and knowing that this also represents a standard for behavior. This is a very long process with many bumps along the way. But I do know that when our eighth graders graduate, they are ready to carry a torch of civil discourse into an often mean-spirited world. I saw it for myself this week when our graduates visited. In the end, that is our value-added – assuring and demanding civil discourse.
Last year, an alumni parent said to me, “When I went to school, I was lucky if I had a couple of great teachers during all my years at school...the overwhelming majority of my kids’ teachers at Wornick have been outstanding.” We do have excellent teachers, and we know that excellent teachers inspire and engage children. It is no accident. There are three important factors that make this happen: clarity of purpose in hiring teachers, a rigorous hiring process and on-going professional development to keep teachers at the top of their game.
We search for teachers throughout the year. This takes many forms – we place advertisements in various education job lists and we network with colleagues at various colleges of education. Sometimes prospective teachers find us and ask to be considered. Some prospective teachers serve as fellows (interns) with the DeLet program. Our teachers, trained as mentors, together with field supervisors from colleges of education train the DeLet fellows based at Wornick.
We look for very specific characteristics and skills when we hire teachers. Content and pedagogic knowledge is essential. But we know that a teacher with terrific content and pedagogic knowledge who is incapable of connecting to students, parents and colleagues will fail. Connection means that a teacher has strong listening skills and highly developed empathy. A growth mindset which includes the ideas that everyone has capacity to learn and to grow, that failure is an opportunity to learn and that avoids assigning blame in assessing a setback is also essential for a Wornick teacher. Finally, we look for teachers who are creative, discerning and collaborative because we expect our teachers to model the skills and values we expect of students and because we require our teachers to create units, experiences and assessments that meet standards.
The hiring process includes an initial telephone interview. This is followed by one or more interviews with two administrators. Depending upon the position, a veteran teacher may also interview the candidate. Finally the candidate presents a sample lesson that is observed by administrators and one or more teachers. During the lesson, among the things that we look for are the pacing and sophistication of the lesson and student connection. There is a debriefing of the lesson with the candidate immediately following the sample lesson. This last step is critical in understanding several items – how does the candidate handle feedback, can the teacher articulate the next lessons that would follow, how would the teacher assess student outcomes and how does the teacher set pedagogic goals for differentiated instruction.
Once hired, new teachers are mentored either by a veteran teacher or by one of the administrators. This means that the two meet weekly to go over goals, review lessons, post curricula units, and assess each student in the class. That teacher also has common planning time each week with his/her grade level colleague, and the teacher has daily preparation time to work on his/her own. If the teacher needs help with a specific curricula area (i.e. technology, science, literacy, etc.) then the teacher on staff with expertise in this area will spend time with him/her or we will hire an outside coach to work with the teacher.
The final piece in maintaining an excellent staff is that of professional development. Just as we differentiate instruction for students, so too do we differentiate for teachers. Teachers set personal goals with their administrators at the beginning of the school year. Coaches are brought to the school for specific teachers (and substitute teachers are hired to free the teacher for the coaching) and for specific school-wide goals. Some teachers are sent to conferences or to other schools to observe “best practices” or new techniques. There are teachers who join colleagues in tackling a particular problem – these teachers are also given time, access to experts and materials to create strategies to solve a problem. Often these teachers provide workshops for the rest of the staff. To promote an environment where everyone is continuously learning, all staff read at least two education books in common each year, and they participate in a monthly learning circle to either debrief the books or to work on various staff projects.
Professional development also includes evaluation and feedback. Teachers are given clear teaching standards, and ample time to work on any standards that may be a challenge for them. Standards range from meeting each student’s educational and social needs, remaining current in the discipline of teaching, being colleaguial and effective parent communication. If mastery of the standards is not achieved within a reasonable amount of time, the teacher is counseled out of the school.
Our staff has been remarkably stable. As I have been preparing our accreditation reports, our data shows that we have several teachers who have been on staff for over ten years, a couple over twenty years, a few who are close to twenty years, a large group who have been on staff for 5 – 10 years and four who are in their first or second year of teaching. Teachers want to be at our school because the environment is educationally stimulating for them and because they feel that they can reach each one of their students effectively because of the class sizes. They also value the amount of prep time and mentoring time granted to them. In the final analysis, A+ teachers will always impact students in positive ways – that is the Wornick path to excellence.
My seven year old grandson, Rami, has a formidable Pokeman card collection. He comes from a family of “collectors” - my father (his great-grandfather) collected stamps and antiques. I used to collect stamps and letters from famous people. His father collected baseball cards. As we looked over each Pokeman card recently, I mused about the value of such collections, and I wondered how pervasive collecting is today.
The Pokeman cards all looked pretty alike to me. But Rami showed me the difference between energy, pokeman (pocket monsters) and trainer cards. He showed me how each of those cards can further be divided by the cards that “go” with which monsters, and he helped me understand that these distinctions mattered when “playing Pokeman”. Then I had my education “aha moment”. The distinctions that Rami were making were the similar to those that we teach children when teaching science and math.
When we teach young children mathematics and science, we usually begin by finding collections of things and helping children learn to sort them. First we look for similarities and differences in properties (thus all fruit in one bin, all animals in another and vehicles in a third). We might also encourage sorting according to color, or shape. Finally, we might sort by purpose.
There are several pedagogic goals in sorting items. Sorting develops the observational skills required for science. Sorting is also closely connected to many mathematics concepts - understanding of sets and subsets, quantifying (more or less), operations (taking away and putting together), and organizing and displaying data.
The area of educational development that on the surface would appear to be least likely to be developed by sorting and collecting would be creative thinking. Yet, there is a connection here as well. We might pair incongruent items and ask children to use their imaginations to connect them; thus, a song and a ball (perhaps both are bouncy), or a stapler and a basket (they’re meant to hold groups of things together). Imagining an entire game with all of its possibilities using pokeman cards also develops creative thinking.
As a child, I derived great pleasure from collecting stamps and letters from famous people. In both cases, my math and science skills were developed as described above, and, because of the specific collections, I increased my interest in, and knowledge of, social studies. Collecting and sorting also challenges one’s patience and encourages an almost meditative stance. These are qualities that are in short supply in our society and would be of benefit to all in our fast-paced society.
One of the names of the holiday of Sukkot is “chag he’asif” (the holiday of gathering or collecting). The connection in ancient times was the gathering of a harvest. Though most of us are no longer gathering a harvest, consider encouraging your children in collecting and sorting. It is worth using this holiday theme in developing something that is easy to do and has great pedagogic worth.
Chag Sameach (happy holiday) & Shabbat Shalom,
We always make the connection between Sukkot and harvest festivals because that is what Sukkot is. But Sukkot is also about symbols – the sukkah, the imaginary guests from history that we invite to the sukkah, the lulav and etrog. Symbols are a powerful, yet often unnoticed, part of a child’s education. Beyond the fact that a large part of education includes teaching symbols, symbols also develop creativity. As I thought about the many meanings attached to the sukkah and to the holiday symbols, it occurred to me that the symbolic systems that we teach in school seem often to be conveyed as “fact” rather than as “symbol”.
Young children enter a world of symbolic systems from the moment that they encounter language. In schools and homes where young children are allowed to freely play and create imaginary worlds, they again play with symbols (this chair is my car, and this block is my cell phone). I often think about how the very realistic toys that model real life cars, cell phones, etc. rob children of the chance to develop their imaginations fully.
Humans make meaning about the world through symbols. In school, children are introduced to letters that represent sounds and strings of letters that represent words and finally whole pages of letters that represent stories. When they learn numeracy, musical notation, they encounter over and over again symbolic systems – systems where something serves as a stand-in for something else. When they learn another language, children find out that symbolic systems take on a new dimension as they learn that there are multiple ways to name an object or idea. Teaching a foreign language to young child opens up this window early. As children grow, they learn the symbolic systems of scientific notation, geometry and of algebra.
The sukkah, modeled after the huts used during the fall harvest in ancient times, has taken on many meanings throughout the years. For some, it is seen as a temporary structure that reminds us that we are sheltered in this world by a higher power. Others note that this fleeting structure reminds us about the essential values of life – not man made edifices – but the enduring relationships of family and community. The sukkah is also associated with peace, and each week during the Shabbat service we are reminded of it as we ask for “the sukkah of peace to be spread over us”. Most years the weather also drives home another symbolic connection – humans are vulnerable to the vagaries of nature.
Contemporary educators have spilled quite a bit of ink about the need to redouble efforts in giving children chances to develop creative thinking. We often talk about developing creativity, by having children imagine different outcomes to stories, or to imagine a story written from the perspective of a secondary character. Creativity among other things, is the ability to see possibilities in things that others see in one way. As I think about the sukkah and all the different holiday symbols that we encounter throughout the year, it is clear to me that we are opening up our children’s minds to attach multiple meanings to one object in so many ways that are not even possible in most schools today.
Modim L’simcha (Sukkot greeting – Celebrate in Happiness)
We engaged in Torah study Tuesday morning during Rosh Hashanah services at my synagogue. We imagined what would have happened if either Sarah, Abraham, Isaac or God had engaged in teshuvah (the act of repentence – acknowledging one’s role in something hurtful to another person, asking that person for forgiveness and then not repeating the same hurtful exchange again). The discussions that followed included questions about who did what to whom and at what point in the process of these relationships would these conversations take place. We also thought about how our thinking about these relationships reflect our own involvement in the act of teshuvah. It was a lively and thought-provoking intergenerational conversation. But there was an aspect of it that was unsatisfying for me.
It occurred to me that often when we discuss this idea of teshuvah we tend to think in terms of two people. One person wrongs the other, and that person needs to do teshuvah. This is sometimes the case. I would argue that much more often, wrongdoing is multi-layered. Sometimes both people engage in hurtful behavior between them – both need to do teshuvah. The most frequent case of this happens on our school playground. One child says something hurtful to another and the other child retaliates by saying something nasty in return. In this case, both parties must do teshuvah.
There is a more common complexity, though, that is frequently overlooked in these discussions. – that of hurting another person to protect other relationships. Sometimes these scenarios arise within families. Examples that come to mind are the relative with an addiction that saps the resources and strength of the rest of the family or the sibling who might need to have his/her choice of activity take precedent over another one’s choice for the sake of “shalom bayit” (family peace). In the first case, the relationship with the addicted person might need to be severed for the sake of everyone else, and in the second case a more mature or forgiving child might need to patiently bear with his/her choice being overridden. Does anyone need to “do teshuvah” to respond to the “hurt” party?
My understanding of the “teshuvah” literature is that the one who is making the decisions in these cases still needs to “do teshuvah”. This would mean that the decision-maker acknowledges the feelings of loss and hurt that the other person experiences. It may not result in a restored relationship at the time, but it leaves that possibility open for a future time.
The act of Teshuvah that is front and center to the Yomim Noranim (the Days of Awe – from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) is an effective blueprint to grow our capacity for empathy. If everyone practiced it more regularly, we just might have a kinder more forgiving world. As we approach Yom Kippur, lets err in the direction of doing “teshuvah” (asking for forgiveness) even in cases when we might have also been wronged.
Shabbat Shalom & G’mar Chatimah Tova (traditional greeting before Yom Kippur),
I grew up with the family name “Ehrenhaus.” I knew that it was a German name, and the family was proud of that. In many subtle ways that name shaped my identity. My visit to Poland this summer and subsequent conversations with my father, challenged that identity. It prompted me to think about the values communicated by family names. Entering this season of Rosh Hashanah and engaging in the traditional practice of “heshbon nefesh” (taking stock), I have found that this entire reframing of my name-based identity fits into this practice. The question for me becomes, what prejudices and assumptions rest in our names and in the accompanying family folklore and how do we acknowledge this. Then, how do we renew ourselves with a letting go of the assumptions that divide us.
My paternal grandfather – Sam Ehrenhaus – emmigrated from Austria; his wife, my Grandma Rosie, from Russia. My maternal grandmother, Lily, was born in the United States and her parents emigrated from Russia in the mid-1800’s and my maternal grandfather, Charlie Silverman, had emigrated with his family from Austria. On the surface, it would appear that these families were equally matched – Austrian husbands married to women of Russian descent.
That is not how it played out in the two households. There was a striking contrast between the two homes. Dinner and visits to my paternal grandparents – the Ehrenhaus’ - were always formal affairs. The dining room table was set with fresh linens, china and glassware. Each part of the meal was visually appealing and cooked to perfection. Drinks were poured from crystal water pitchers; food was served on china platters. Desert was apple strudel made with homemade delicate filo dough or a seven layer chocolate cake. My siblings, cousins and I sat quietly at the table, and when excused, we played peacefully in the living room. Conversations were subdued. When I was in high school, we had family chamber-music gatherings at my paternal grandparents home – my father on flute, me on violin, my aunt on viola, my uncle on cello, a cousin on flute and another cousin on cello.
Dinner at my Silverman grandparents was a stark contrast to the Ehrenhaus dinners. We jokingly referred to those dinners as ‘mixed grill’. There would be a metal pan with an assortment of meat – some chicken, some strips of cut up roast, a couple of hamburgers, my grandfather would produce his standard potato kugel in another metal pan. There might be a salad or a bowl of vegetables and we often began the meal with a thick mushroom barley soup served at the table in a soup pot. Soda and seltzer bottles graced the table. Dinner and subsequent activities with my siblings and cousins at the Silverman house were noisy affairs.
My siblings and I always enjoyed those noisier gatherings and would always prefer our maternal grandparents babysitting over that of our paternal grandparents. At some point, we all internalized the idea that our paternal grandparents were “German” or “Yekka’s” and that this explained the difference between order and joyful abandon in the two sides of the family. There was a distinctly “uptown” vs. “downtown ” sensibility in this although no one ever called it that. The Ehrenhaus’ were considered the more cultured, the Silverman’s less so.
I recall one day when I was in high school, I joined my friends in polishing our nails with red polish. Later in the day, while visiting my Ehrenhaus grandparents, Grandpa Sammy took one look at it, and asked to see me in the living room for a private conversation. He sternly told me that “An Ehrenhaus does not wear nail polish….you are not a woman of the streets.” Of course, I removed the nail polish that night. There was no questioning or pleading with an Ehrenhaus.
My own parents adopted the sensibilities of the Ehrenhaus side of the family. Dinners were always carefully prepared and served on platters. We wouldn’t consider putting a soda bottle on the table, nor a tub of margarine. Margarine or butter would be served on a butter dish with a butter knife.
Thus, I grew up thinking that our family was German and that our name represented a type of cultural sensibility that was preferable to that of Jews from Poland and Russia. Though never articulated in such words, there was a clear sense in “how things were done” that German Jews were progressive, educated and cultured, and that Polish and Russian Jews were regressive poorly educated peasants.
This summer just prior to leaving on my trip to Poland, I asked my Dad about which cities or villages his parents had come from. He named his mother’s village which was clearly in present day Ukraine, and he said that Grandpa Sammy was from the district of Yaroslav, the town of Pruchnik. Checking the map, I said “That’s Poland….I thought Grandpa was Austrian.” My Dad responded that at that time Pruchnik was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, so his birth certificate was Austrian. My response, “But that was actually Poland.” At that moment my entire identity built around my family name began to shift.
When I returned from Poland I pressed my father for information about how we ended up with a German name. There were at least two ways that Polish Jews who were subsumed in the Austrian-Hungarian empire would have had a German name – either they had migrated to that area from Austria and Germany because of economic opportunity when the area fell under Austrian-Hungarian rule or they assumed the name in order to attain status. My father assured me that it was the former in my Grandfather’s case; however, I’m not so sure.
This whole episode, while seemingly trivial - humorous at times too - caused me to shift how I thought about the assumptions attached to names and consequently to identities. I became aware of how these can blind us from seeing “the other?” In coming to terms with this question, I recalled the poem “Every man has a Name” by the renowned Israeli poet Zelda. For me, that poem asks us to see the different facets of our identity – the many names that define us. Zelda’s poem also suggests balance between the names that are given to us over which we have little control and those names that we control. It is a call for us to understand each of these pieces of our identity, to understand this balance between control and freedom. My encounter with my name has been a very fitting reflective opportunity just in time to grapple with the related grand themes of Rosh Hashanah.
Shana Tova (Happy New Year)
Every man has a name... By Zelda
Everyman has a name that God gave him,
And his father and mother gave him.
Everyman has a name that his stature gave him,
And his fabric gave him.
Everyman has a name that the mountains and the sea gave him,
And his way of faith gave him.
Everyman has a name that his luck gave him,
And his path gave him.
Everyman has a name that his deeds gave him,
And his yearning gave him.
Everyman has a name that his hatred gave him,
And his love gave him.
Everyman has a name that his freedom gave him,
And his mission gave him.
Everyman has a name that the year gave him,
And his blindness gave him.
Everyman has a name that the day gave him,
And his way of smile gave him.
Everyman has a name that his life gave him,
And his death gave him...
On Sunday morning, I learned that Oliver Sacks had died. Sacks was a neurologist, a writer, and a professor of neurology. He was known for his published case histories - some were adapted for film and theater. I came to know him through his essays that appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times and from his interviews on NPR.
The previous Sunday, Sack’s last article appeared in the New York Times. It was entitled “Sabbath”. I read it just after I had jotted some notes for this week’s blog which were musings about how time defines our lives. Sack’s essay connected so well and so poignantly with my thoughts.
In the frenetic days that lead up to the opening day of school and the first week of school, I truly am thankful for Shabbat (Sabbath)…and not just the idea of a break and a rest, but the idea of switching from frenzied problem-solving and juggling to actually pausing to celebrate the joy that I get from my work and of having significant time to share good food and conversation with my husband and our Shabbat guests. Shabbat is my battery-recharger, and more significantly, it is a time of quiet and peace.
My Shabbat practices evolved over time. I grew up in a home where Shabbat was marked by lighting Friday night candles and having challah with our dinner. My Dad usually had to work late on Friday night and all day Saturday in our family business so it was rare for us to have a formal Shabbat dinner. When I began high school, because of my growing involvement in youth groups and Jewish summer camps, I started walking with my neighborhood friends to Shabbat morning services at our Conservative synagogue. After services, we frequently walked downtown to a local Chinese restaurant for lunch and then for an afternoon movie.
At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I met my future husband (yes, we are high school sweethearts) at a regional Zionist Youth movement (Young Judea) convention. He came from an orthodox home and day school. By my senior year of high school, I joined him as a youth leader for NCSY – the Orthodox youth movement while we still both served on the regional board of Young Judea. During those few years, my Shabbat practice became more traditional and has remained so since that time.
That traditional practice was never about the things that we couldn’t do (like cooking or driving) for the twenty-four hours of Shabbat. It was much more about the liberation that comes with unplugging for twenty-four hours. A memory of a conversations from my Hebrew school class with my Conservative Rabbi about Shabbat being a blueprint for a peaceful world fit this sensibility. The beautifully prepared and presented Shabbat dinner was, and is, a reminder of the abundance we enjoy. The quiet walks – first just my husband and I, and ultimately with our three children, and now with our Shabbat walking friends – was and is always seen as a way to really stop and notice our surroundings. It is also about celebrating the fact that we can walk – particularly appreciated after being immobilized by a broken foot last year.
I remember clearly when my oldest son began walking. Remember how new walkers stop and look at the flowers that are at their eye-level, and then stop to notice a bug on the ground, and the walk takes double the time that your solitary walk would take? That’s what happened on those Shabbat mornings. The difference, though, between our Shabbat morning walks and our everyday walks was that we were never in a hurry on Shabbat, there was never any coaxing and pleas to hurry-up – the time that we arrived at our destination wouldn’t matter because Shabbat is the only time that we get to control our time (within the boundary of sunset to sunset).
Shabbat afternoons with our children were either filled with visitors for lunch and/or lots of games of Scrabble, jigsaw puzzles and games of “Chutes and Ladders” and, as the children grew older, Scrabble again. At an NCSY convention, Shabbat would end with Havdallah and then a very noisy band and ear-splitting singing and dancing. At our home, Shabbat ends with Havdallah and then a return to our computers, television, and our to-do lists.
Oliver Sacks’ article referenced his Orthodox upbringing and the role that Shabbat played in his life. It was a time when his parents put away their stethoscopes (unless they were on-call) and they would share a carefully prepared dinner, visit with cousins and friends and go to services at their synagogue. As a young adult, because of a very hurtful incident – that was religiously based - between Sacks and his mother, Sacks abandoned his religious practice. He recounts that many years later, he visited his relative, the Nobel prize recipient, Robert John, who said to him, “the observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful….it is not even a question of improving society – it is about improving one’s own quality of life.” Reacting to this Shabbat experience with his family, Sacks says “the peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if…. What sort of a life might I have lived?”
His final paragraph – which was indeed his final paragraph - reconciles the above thought with this:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest. (O.Sacks “Sabbath” N.Y. Times, August 16, 2015)
I hope that you all have opportunities for deep, rejuvenating and celebatory rest – in your lifetime. As Sacks notes, Shabbat is the paradigm for that.
Many people think that teaching is a pretty “easy” job – afterall teachers only work ten months of the year. The reality is that most teachers don’t turn off their work during the summer, and our Wornick teachers definitely “work” throughout the summer. Some teachers were in and out of our building during the summer, others participated in professional growth opportunities. All read Mindsets in the Classroom and the Ethic of Excellence both of which we analyzed on Monday morning and applied main ideas from the texts to our teaching. Some teachers grappled with the best way to represent Common Core standards in our new Progress Reports. All worked on questions of collaborative units matched to their colleagues’ units. All spent significant time considering how science was going to be integrated in new ways into all classrooms, and how Hebrew was going to be an increasingly significant part of our school culture.
Since the book Mindsets by Carol Dweck (Stanford professor) and the book Mindsets in the Classroom figure prominently into our school staff culture and since we spent a lot of time considering how to apply insights from these books, I’d like to share with you some of the important ideas from that work. The basic premise is that the brain is a muscle that can grow with exercise; thus, children are taught that as they learn new ideas and make connections to earlier knowledge, they are strengthening neural connections. A growth mindset is one that understands that, though we may have certain talents, exercising our brains in many different ways helps us hone talents and discover other capabilities. The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. People who subscribe to this believe that talent is a fixed asset. Fixed mindset people tend to “give up” in areas in which they believe that they have no aptitude and/or they often do not push themselves in areas of strength because they falsely believe that they are not really that “smart” if they can’t master something easily. Fixed mindset people tend to blame others for their failures, while growth mindset people see failure as an opportunity to learn and are driven to overcome the failure.
Clearly, our goal is to develop growth mindset thinking. As the year progresses, our staff and your children will share more about growth mindsets. If you have the chance, please consider reading the Mindset books.
There is clear evidence that students are inspired to learn when they interact with teachers and adults who are also continuously learning. And it can’t be that the teacher’s learning is “because we have to”, but rather because we’re genuinely curious and want to expand our thinking. Just as it can’t be that parent’s main motivation to learn is so their children will learn. It must be because the parent is truly inquisitive and the children are brought along to understand that curiosity and the excitement in learning that accompanies that quest. I can confidently say that we have a team of inspiring educators – they are enthusiastic, introspective, creative and colleaguial. I know the same is true of our parent-body. It is a winning team and our children will all benefit from that enthusiasm.
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