Excitement is in the air as we ready our classrooms to welcome Wornick students back for another year of discovery and growth. Wornick faculty and staff have spent the past week readying our campus, our classrooms, and our curriculum for another fantastic school year. There have been many moments of amazement as I have witnessed our building transform into a school filled with teachers and the promise of learning and becoming about to be realized. I have been most moved by the dedication and enthusiasm of our faculty. We, too, eagerly await the first day of school. One of our many blessings as educators is never losing those first day of school jitters; I still have butterflies in my stomach the night before school starts.
As we begin another school year anew, I ask that our children experience another year of growth and success, while trying new things and being open to the many lessons of exploration. I ask that our parents partner in guiding our children with love and an appreciation for the possibilities that await on the horizon, and I ask that our teachers’ expertise, passion, and unwavering commitment to honoring and educating our children permeate our lessons, our interactions, and our classroom walls. As we welcome our new students to Grow with Wornick with a Shabbat gift of Challah, candles, grape juice, and kippot, may all of us experience a wonderful year of growing and becoming at Wornick, together.
Interim Head of School
One of the things that I have most enjoyed in my work as a Head of School has been the diversity of activities and interactions that happen on any given day. A carefully made “to do list” can easily be upended. A couple of scenes from this year tell that story:
One day, I was sitting at my desk focused on a letter that I needed to write. All of a sudden a little robot rolled through my open door and landed beside my feet under my desk. A minute later a seemingly embarrassed second grader appeared and retrieved his errant robot. I’ll never know for sure if the student had programmed it to go into my office.
Another time, I was returning from a meeting with my Heads of School colleagues where we had a very deep conversation about the challenge of our young teachers and staff finding housing on the Peninsula. I walked through the gate and a small group of eighth grade girls rushed up to me asking me if I would endorse one of them for President of student council. I struggled with that one – could I endorse any one child?
Those interruptions ground me always reminding me of the real purpose of my work... really of OUR work. We – staff, parents, donors, trustees, community partners – are the community that makes this school possible.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, there are three different words for community in classical Hebrew – Edah, Tzibbur and Kehillah. Each signifies a different kind of association. Edah – refers to a group whose members have a common purpose. Tzibbur – comes from a root that means to “pile up” – it is a community in the minimalist sense – an aggregate – think of a group of people standing together at the same time observing a sunset. Kehillah – is a group whose members are different from one another but who are orchestrated together for a collective purpose – each one making a distinctive contribution.
When I think of the many successes over the past 9 years –
- Our Israel BASIS initiative
- Transforming the Middle School into a center for excellence
- Purchase of the campus land
- Creation of the Pelah lab and of the new playground
- Transforming the Hebrew language program into Shalom Ivrit
Each of these came about because of this Kehillah – united by a common purpose of creating the next generation of Jewish leaders through Jewish day school education . These successes occur through partnerships with the PJCC, the Jewish Federation, the Taube Foundation, the Levine Lent Foundation, the Wornick family, our many donors, teachers, staff, parents and most of all... the children. Each member of the community has brought his/her distinctive gifts to these efforts. This is the Kehillah that I joined 9 years ago, and this is the Kehillah – of common purpose with distinctive personalities that will propel the future of the school.
L’hitraot (See you soon),
What’s the purpose of religious holidays? Social historians say that holidays take us out of our mundane daily existence providing time for reflection, remembering significant events and reinforcing key values. For those who don’t observe a particular religion, there are nonetheless “civic” holidays like Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Memorial Day and Super Bowl Sunday that fulfill a similar function as religious holidays.
This coming Thursday is the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. It is a holiday little known by most American Jews that occurs on the thirty-third day of the forty-nine day period between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot. As the holiday is not Biblical in origin, there are no particular rituals associated with the day, and the actual origin of the holiday is somewhat obscure. Most scholars tie it to the time of Rabbi Akiva, a scholar and teacher who lived approximately during the years of 50–135. The understanding is that his students had been dying from a plague, and on the 33rdday (between Passover and Shavuot) the plague ceased. Some scholars interpret “the plague” as reference to Roman occupation of Jewish lands, and they attribute the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students to their resistance of the Roman legions perhaps in the Bar Kochba revolt in 132–135. There are also mystical interpretations of the holiday’s origin.
Whatever the origin, it is appropriate to reflect and to set aside a day between the time when Jews were freed from slavery (marked by Passover) and the time when those former slaves accepted the mantle of peoplehood with the receipt of the Torah (marked by Shavuot). These holidays – Passover, Shavuot and Lag B’Omer - remind us of the importance of freedom and of the transformative work required by each of us when moving actually and figuratively from slavery to freedom.
In Israel Lag B’Omer is a national holiday and it is celebrated with bonfires, barbecues and picnics. Our campus will once again hold a large Lag B’Omer festival this Thursday evening – complete with picnic food, campfires, and music. I hope to see you all there. To register, go to pjcc.org/lagbomer.
These are the claims that we make about Judaic Studies in our setting: Judaic Studies further supports our student’s critical thinking and literacy development as students are challenged to find supporting evidence for textual claims. Jewish social studies applies the same skills that are developed in general studies social studies – understanding of timelines, and the ability to look at contested theories of historical events. Similarly, we make claims about art and music classes. These are said to enhance student mathematical ability, and to show improvement in all academic areas.
Most of the research supporting these claims is noteworthy and well-documented. Though I make these claims too, I feel that an underlying assumption in them undersells their more significant value. That assumption is that Judaic Studies and the arts are important only because it maps to other General Studies goals and that music and visual arts are only significant, and encouraged because they make people “smarter” in a conventional way of thinking about intelligence.
Judaic Studies plays an important role, whether for a Jewish child or one who isn’t, in clarifying individual identity, in engaging in deep “I wonder” questions, and in learning and living enduring values. Additionally, the child learns to locate him/herself on a timeline connecting to an epic narrative about humanity. Judaic Studies along with the arts puts students in touch with experiences that give meaning to life and helps them find a language to express their emotions in those experiences.
Music, art and spiritual endeavors tap into the human spirit. We can see this in action as each child pours his/her soul into artwork, and that artwork - gracing our bulletin boards - lets us see the result of that effort as it further inspires us, the viewers. We see that same spirit as students continue to sing songs begun during morning tefillah as they walk to their first class of the day. All of these subjects help us see relationships and the world in unexpected ways. Students benefit from this rich education, and all the adults in the building are further inspired and moved emotionally by this work.
Wornick ArtFest takes place on Sunday, March 25th from 3-6 pm. Come ready to be inspired by our students’ artwork.
There was a lot of talk this past week about what costume everyone will be wearing on Thursday. That talk took place among staff as much as it did among children. Seasoned Wornick students know that Thursday will be so totally different from any other day of the year. We will all be playing – adults and children – in costume, singing silly songs, shouting during the reading of the Scroll of Esther. And there will be the Purim spiels – plays that evoke deep belly laughs from everyone.
While scholars debate the literal truth of the story in the Book of Esther, this book has set the central tone of the holiday of Purim. It is a farcical, whimsical tale. The Talmud referencing two central characters from the story, calls for celebration, such that participants cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. There are some serious expectations to the holiday – like giving gifts to the poor, exchanging gifts with friends (mishloach manot), and a celebratory feast. But the overall tenor of the holiday is one of playfulness.
In the spirit of the holiday, I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of humor in the education of children. Most scholars agree that humor involves the comprehension or production of “incongruities.” This means that the recognition of two items that do not typically go together engenders humor.
Children go through various stages of humor development beginning with awareness of word meanings. This is why first and second graders really like riddles where they can apply their growing vocabulary knowledge. Eventually, riddles become too predictable and children move into humor that represents their growing awareness of different personalities and different types of people. When this awareness emerges, the adults in their lives need to help them distinguish between humor and disrespect.
There are so many educational benefits to teaching and nurturing humor in young people. Humor requires creativity, high emotional intelligence, and the ability to perceive multiple meanings and perspectives in a situation. Retelling jokes calls upon memory, and memory provides the structure to retrieve information to make connections to new concepts. Much as an artist or a writer notices his/her surroundings in a way that most of us fail to see, the humorist too pays attention to what others miss. There is also the benefit of humility, for the child or adult who can laugh at his/her own foibles becomes more accessible and humble. Finally, the child with a healthy sense of humor can develop the ability to manage his/her emotional state as well as that of others.
Parents and teachers also need to be mindful of the usefulness of humor. A well-timed joke or a silly comment can diffuse a particularly tense moment or reframe a difficult situation. Let's keep laughing well beyond Purim.
Our school is an exciting example of how pluralism works in a faith-based institution. Pluralism in this context means a setting where people with different beliefs and backgrounds can find common ground for a particular purpose. Our purpose is engaging children in an education that is compelling, challenging, enduring and foundational. What are the values that address this context?
A few years ago, one of our thoughtful parents asked me to name four Jewish values that shape our school. Since that conversation, my staff and I have had some time to think and rethink which values best support our community. It has been an iterative process of thinking about what we do and linking that to a value, and then looking at the value and seeing how could we strengthen that in the education program. From my perspective, the how-to of balancing the differences that bear on our common purpose rests on four core Jewish values that shape both the curriculum and how we all interact on a daily basis.
The first and most easily seen value is that of kehillah (community). We have built an intentional community with opportunities for everyone in the community – children, parents, staff, alumni and donors – to know each other in multiple ways and in different roles inside and outside of school. Within the school, chavurot are a vehicle for every child and teacher in the school to know students who are in different grades, and for older children to assume leadership roles. The volunteer chai-hours that we expect our parents to complete actually serve the purpose of building community as parents get to know parents of children from different grades. Our ambassador programs for children and for parents connect the people within the community to those visiting or considering becoming a part of the community.
The Jewish value that best represents our academic efforts in a pluralistic school is t’vunah (wisdom/discernment). In all cases, this value supports our focus on critical thinking where children learn to find assumptions in different arguments and develop their own thinking knowing that it too is shaped by values and assumptions. In Judaic Studies, students are pushed to think about and to respect different perspectives, to understand “Jewish” in a global context and to see Jewish texts as inspiration for our moral commitments. Best examples of how this value occurs would be the fall harvest unit in kindergarten that begins with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and continues looking at other harvest festivals from around the world and the comparative religions units in the middle school. Similarly, our 8th grade Israel trip is designed to answer the question of “what are the different identities that make up Israeli society and how does that effect societal issues?” General and Jewish Studies are taught as a vehicle for discernment (t’vunah) not as doctrine.
Emphasis on Tzedek (social justice) has always been a commitment of our school that goes far beyond food drives and visits to senior centers. Our school is known (not only among Jewish institutions but also within the larger San Francisco Bay area) for the 7th grade Tzedakah program. This program is an interdisciplinary unit taught by several teachers – English, Social Studies and Judaic Studies. Students identify values that are salient for them and their families – for example, values about the environment, health care, hunger, homelessness, race, prison injustices and third world humanitarian issues. Students then locate a local non-profit organization that works in the area of their interest. They interview a representative of the organization, volunteer for the organization throughout the year and ultimately develop a public advocacy piece for their organization. Their research for their advocacy piece includes a dive into Jewish texts that address their particular value.
The value of Kedusha (holiness) permeates the school in the way we talk about and experience daily prayer, as well as in the way we interact as a community. The concept of kedusha implies that we elevate our interactions and our actions throughout the day to represent the best of humanity. Our prayer services emphasize gratitude, celebration and interpersonal values. They are spirited, introspective and joyous – and they set our intentions for the day. All communication among the different constituencies within the school is premised on the concept of b’tzelem elokim (the idea that godliness resides in every individual). The language we teach and use to help children and adults critique and edit their work – “I appreciate, I wonder, I notice” – fits into this value of kedusha.
Recently I’ve been reading about societal trends in the United States with respect to engagement with faith-based institutions. Rabbi Sid Schwartz of Kenissa, an organization that connects people and institutions that are leading efforts to re-define Jewish life, has written a book called Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. Coincidentally, he wrote about the same four values that I’ve identified above. Rabbi Schwartz is leading an effort to bring together forward thinking Jewish organizations to analyze and test his thesis about the impact of these four values on our organizations. He has reached out to me to join this national think tank, and I will be joining a group of other forward-thinking heads of institutions to analyze this thesis. I look forward to learning from the other participants and bringing back and sharing new insights from this experience with you.
It’s time to be a bit introspective as we enter the New Year of 2018 and as we conclude an intense period of time filled with celebration, family time and good cheer. I wonder how many of us ever have conversations with friends, family, or spouses about the meaning of life? Do people wonder about why we’re here and what our purpose is? Questions about meaning and purpose preoccupy philosophers and clergy. Yet, people often engage in meaning-making though they might not label it as such as they try to understand why things work as they do or attempt to follow logical arguments to gain clarity about experiences. Do we think deeply about the meaning of life in a way that creates a path of action and a sense of purpose for our children?
I’ve written before about the work of Denise Pope and Madeline Levine with respect to defining success, and I noted that the discussions about success are directly tied to “meaning of life” questions. Pope and Levine point to the large spike in stress-related issues (including depression, anxiety, suicides and addictions) among middle class adolescents as symptomatic of our simplistic definitions of success. They note that the definition of success for many students and families are admittance to “the right” school or the attainment of “the” athletic scholarship. If they fail to attain that goal, they are crushed, and if they attain the goal, they lack clarity about “what’s next?” They don’t have multiple paths of action nor a sense of purpose.
When I considered Pope and Levine’s work, I wrote:
School 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 nature? Why are there wars? Why are some people heroic? Why did my pet die? and they need to explore possible answers. Different responses to “whys”, present different answers about the purpose in life helping children think about the future that they might create.
Faith-based schools like Wornick have the means to engage in this sort of thinking. Our program is structured so that students have the content knowledge they need to find their vocation, and a language to express wonder and gratitude. Above all, a Wornick education sets students on a journey encouraging them to explore the “whys” of life. Our goal is to provide multiple paths through this journey as we open up a sense of purpose. Our answers are tentative since that is all that we can honestly offer, and that sense of purpose may change over time. But simply engaging students in thinking about purpose is an important goal. We relish the opportunity to work in partnership with our families in helping students along this journey.
I wish you all a meaningful 2018,
Last Sunday night, I received the following email from a first grade parent:
When your Sunday plans include a meal inspired by your daughter’s weekly library book...it looks something like this:
- She picked out a recipe she wanted to try.
- Made a grocery list of the needed ingredients, after searching the pantry and refrigerator for items she READ in the book.
- She convinced her mom to schlep her and her two younger siblings to the grocery store and navigated to find the items on her list...crossing off each one off of her list with a pencil in her hand!
- Counted the basil leaves, pine nuts and measured the “pinch” of salt (after a discussion of how much a pinch should be!)
- Ate a new food! Enjoyed it and felt proud too that her brothers and Ema all enjoyed it too.
Wow! What a return on a weekly library book choice.
The note generated a smile. It also offered a clear example of what educators call “project-based learning” replicating how our teachers structure many of their classroom units. Project-based learning entails an authentic (real-life) task, a series of steps that engage basic knowledge of language arts, mathematics, and/or science and a final useful product. But this story also demonstrates Wornick’s vision about homework.
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. Menand 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? The answer lies in our understanding of the purpose of education, as well as in balancing the role of school and home in controlling and prioritizing our time.
We have diverse interests with different expectations about the purpose of education and, consequently different understandings of what role homework should play in that equation. If the goal of education is continuous learning and discovery, then homework will promote that while teaching them the skills they need to do that on their own. If primacy is given to the need to cover and to know large amounts of information, then the homework will emphasize memorizing and practicing skills.
We also have different understandings of the home/school balance in educating our children. Some families want all school-work to take place during the time that children are in school, leaving families time to enjoy dinner and bedtime routines without layering homework into a busy family schedule. Others want children to continue doing schoolwork at home. Some want this because it offers the parent a window into the child’s work, and others because they believe this is good discipline.
Back to my traditional answer to the homework question, and why it is flawed. That answer doesn’t address differentiation - meeting each child’s unique learning style and capacity. It doesn’t account for the sort of education that our school promotes – continuous discovery. 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. That control should be balanced.
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 even as it is often framed that way. 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?
We value 21st Century learners who have command of different literacies, take initiative, and know how to create, communicate, and collaborate. We value an education where children have agency to choose to learn and to advocate for what they value. 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, there 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 replicate something they learned at school, or to finish reading a class book, to extend a science experiment, or continue writing in their journal. That is what was so precious about the story of the first grader. She couldn’t wait to get home and apply her learning in a pretty complex way. We know that our parents understand that this is authentic homework.
Today our students were greeted by a large temporary structure sitting in the middle of their rose garden. The structure - the sukkah - is reconstructed every year by a group of volunteer parents, and the children will decorate it over the next couple of days.
The sukkah is a flimsy outdoor structure designed to recreate the huts used during the fall harvest of Biblical times. The building, and the use of the sukkah continues as a central practice of this week-long celebration. Many people in our community will build their own backyard sukkot (plural of sukkah). People will eat their meals in the sukkah, welcome guests into their sukkot, study, and some will sleep in theirs.
Throughout the years, many meanings have been attached to the structure. The two that most resonate for me are stewardship of nature and welcoming guests. Both of these are replete with social-emotional lessons for our children.
In the first case, we leave the comfort of our homes to experience the beauty and vulnerability to the elements. One of the requirements of a sukkah is that the roof of the structure be open enough to see the stars and the full moon. Some wind, cool temperatures, or a bird swooping down near our table might interrupt our meal. Spending time in the sukkah reminds us to pay attention to nature’s bounty, as it also underscores our vulnerability to nature. In all of this, we are reminded of our role in protecting the environment.
The second aspect of the sukkah that I find particularly meaningful is that of welcoming guests. We are expected to welcome guests to enjoy the simple pleasure of being with friends, family and strangers. Included in this idea of welcoming is the thought that our lives become more meaningful as we connect to others. Not only that we connect, but also that we go out of our way to welcome others even if we have a rag-tag set of chairs and flimsy walls. It’s about valuing people over things.
There is even the tradition of “inviting” guests from the past. This is called ushpeizen. In this custom, guests at the table think about guests from the past who they would like to bring to the table. Typically, heroes from the past are invited and the guests then have a conversation about the questions they would like to ask that person and how they think that person might respond.
Wornick students will hear these different messages throughout the week. Embedded in the practice of sukkot, and overtly taught, are essential components of the social emotional learning that we espouse – gratitude, generosity, and anticipation of the needs of others.
Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday)
We live in a hotbed of creative thinkers – the creatives who have fueled the formidable Bay Area technology industry, or those numerous titans of Stanford and UC Berkeley who have received Nobel prizes for their work. Many people think that the creativity represented by such thinkers and tinkerers is innate or that their notoriety is result of the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Current research challenges these assumptions asserting that creativity can be cultivated.
Many of us grew up thinking that the “creative” part of school resided in the arts. But we know now that creativity crosses all disciplines. Visionary educators, like Ken Robinson, write compellingly about the need to re-envision schools as places that nurture creative mindsets. Adam Grant’s recent book, Originals (Penguin Books, 2016) similarly unpacks the creative process and offers advice to parents and teachers about how to develop creative mindsets.
Creativity is a disposition that generates original ideas. It depends upon, and simultaneously fuels, imagination and empathy. It is an iterative process that calls for questioning, experimenting, questioning again and refining.
Wornick is one of those forward thinking schools that leads the way in nurturing creative mindsets. We do it by teaching through questioning in all disciplines, by our emphasis on project-based learning where students dig into compelling topics of their choice and by teaching our students the practice of critiquing and refining work. Robinson points to the importance of opening up students to new experiences beyond the walls of their school. Our outdoor education trips do just that.
The most exciting development in our quest to nurture creativity is the new Peleh lab. The Peleh lab is a place where children have the opportunity to imagine and to test their ideas. Sometimes they will use cutting edge technology like 3-D printers, robotic and VR equipment and other times they will use very simple tools like hammers and nails or thread and cloth to create. Most importantly, since we know that creativity is a mindset, the Peleh lab supports the nurturing of creativity throughout the curriculum and in all grades.
The equipment that was chosen for the new playground also feeds the creative spirit in each child. It is filled with active and quiet types of equipment – all open-ended so that children of all ages can imagine whatever they wish. It should not be a surprise that the marketing group that has been working with us over the summer suggested the following tagline for the school – “Inspiring Curiousity, Sustaining Wonder, Growing Connections”. All three concepts point to a school that is in the business of nurturing creativity.
Choose groups to clone to: