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Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes

Three People Walk into an Office...

What do a Russian Jewish immigrant, a Jew by choice, and an American-born Jewish educator have in common? Sounds like a beginning of a joke, but it’s not. This cast of characters was engaged in a very serious and animated conversation in my office a few years ago. The discussion was about making Passover meaningful for us and for our children. This has stuck with me because of our vastly different experiences and connections to the Seder. In that group, as I tried to distill my experiences, I was moved by the immigrant’s story, and I was both touched and saddened by the Jew by choice’s experience.

The Passover Seder, like lighting Chanukah candles, is among the most widely practiced Jewish rituals among American Jews. Yet, for a growing number of Jews, it holds little meaning. The stories that made up the conversation in my office open a window into our diverse community. They should compel us to challenge our personal assumptions and to reach out to “the other” to both support them and to enrich our own experiences.

For me, the Seder is a model of differentiated education – different parts of the Seder are meant to teach to different levels of understanding using different modalities to teach. The latter can be seen in the symbols that represent and connect to the five senses. Differentiated instruction can be seen in the repetitious songs for children and more serious theological questions for adults. That’s my “educator” appreciation of the Seder.

For me, the very personal connection to Passover is about “remembering you were once a stranger”. One of the central commandments is “telling the story as if you yourself went out from Egypt.” All the symbols on the table are meant to evoke that feeling of leaving the familiar. I have lived away from my hometown and my close-knit family for most of my life. Having lived in a few different places means that I can feel a community’s values by how they have treated strangers – in this case, my immediate family and me. Perhaps because of this awareness, my children grew up knowing that our house was open at any time to “outsiders”. As adults, my children live this value as well. The Seder is a call to action for our family to find ways to address “the stranger”.

The immigrant who participated in the conversation in my office recounted that her family received their visas to leave Russia on the first day of Passover several decades ago. Therefore, Passover and its theme of freedom is a reality that she personally experienced. As a result, Passover is a centerpiece holiday in her home, and she is profoundly committed to helping her children and others understand the nuances of freedom. She wants everyone to understand that freedom comes with responsibility – the responsibility to care about others, to appreciate the riches that we enjoy in our society. One of this family’s traditions is to begin their Seder sitting on the floor to represent oppression. The shift to the dining room table represents freedom.

The third person in this conversation is a Jew by choice. She discussed how traumatic Passover was for her. As a convert, she always felt burdened by the amount of work Passover preparation entailed. Adding to her discomfort was the fact that her in-laws always wanted to conduct a traditional Seder – reading every passage with no discussion. It was an alienating and difficult experience for her. I have recently read several different blogs about Passover, and I find this story to be representative of many contemporary Jews.

Our conversation provided this Jew by choice the permission and tools to own her Seder and create one that worked for her and her family. They filled it with questions and let her young boys lead using their school’s model Seder template. Their Seder has assumed a meaningful place in her family’s practices.

Each year, our Passover Seder evolves depending upon the ages and stages of the participants. As last year, we will be celebrating with our children, grandchildren and extended family – sixty of us in a camp that we are renting for two days. Children under the age of five will be the majority of participants so we intend to create an experiential Seder complete with sippy cups for our wine. Once the children are asleep, the adults will continue to have long conversations about strangers and freedom. I suspect we will engage in conversations about our personal Egypts and hopes for liberation.

Whatever you do during Passover, I hope that you have the joy of connecting in some way to the grand themes of the holiday... strangers, freedom, redemption and questioning.

Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday),
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Wednesday April 20, 2016
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Last week, I had the privilege of supervising the morning (7:30 a.m.) gesher program. I didn’t see it as a privilege at 6:00 a.m. when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to read my emails before I got to school. But by 7:40, I discovered what a gift it was. In the hazy, grey morning I was able to observe closely a small group of young children at play. There were so many interesting lessons to observe up close in these interactions.

The handful of children who first arrived ran around the play structure. Some followed, others led. Then they reversed the pattern. At times they seemed to crawl around pretending to be animals. At other times they climbed the structure and hid from one another. They didn’t exchange many words, their cues to change a pattern was conveyed through body language – a nod, wide-eyed grins, a hand gesture. They were living in an imaginary world, and somehow they were able to weave together a narrative that held the group together.

The experience drew me back in time to a memory of my oldest son, Avi, at age seven. He was playing in our back yard by himself. He was in full baseball regalia – a Red Sox helmet, gloves, Red Sox t-shirt. He was swinging his bat, running bases all by himself. At one point I looked out the window and noticed that he was sitting on the ground – bat on his side, head resting in his hands and looking a bit dejected. I walked over to him and asked him if everything was okay. His response, “The other team is up at bat.”

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. Creativity is at the core of imaginative play as children develop scenes and characters “de novo”.

One of the side benefits of imaginative play is the development of personal resources to cope with adversity. When confronted with failure, a child who has a developed imagination can entertain possibilities. S/he can understand that a particular failure is not a dead end. It is important when a child is growing beyond the early years of imaginative play, that adults encourage the older child to continue to imagine solutions and possibilities to all sorts of scenarios so that s/he can develop this coping mechanism. You can read more about the many advantages to encouraging imagination in this interview with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, professor of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the scientific director of its Imagination Institute.

At Wornick, we give children opportunity to imagine, to play and to dream. We draw from a tradition that encourages imagination. On Sukkot, children imagine heroes from the past as their guests in the sukkah, on Purim everyone plays dress up and, in older classrooms, we encourage students to engage with, and to create, midrash which are imagined textual interpretations. Ultimately our utopian image of “tikun olam” (a repaired world) is an exercise in imagining a perfect world. Shabbat is also understood in Jewish tradition as representative of a peaceful world.

Shabbat shalom – Imagine, play and have a peaceful Shabbat,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Friday April 15, 2016
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Last week, kindergartners learned about brains with a Wornick parent and her team of neuropathologists from UCSF. This was part of the students’ exploration of structures in the human body. They learned about how the UCSF team investigates different problems connected to the brain. Their teachers continue to challenge these five and six year olds to raise “I wonder” questions and to set out on quests to discover answers. About a month ago, our fifth graders completed their extensive artist projects, and then had the chance to study with a working artist. After learning how he approaches a project, they worked on an assignment of their own under his direction. Recently, Grades K-3 had a private concert with the Israel Chamber Project musicians. These exceptional musicians came to us through a partnership with Music at Kohl Mansion and the PJCC. Our students had the chance to figure out how each player plays the correct music without a conductor. They explored how stringed instruments produce sounds as an extension of studying vibration in science class. This time they heard how different combinations of vibrations create unique musical compositions.

These sorts of encounters aren’t stand-alone events. They are opportunities that our teachers embrace because of the way we think about learning in general and project-based learning more specifically. Encounters with experts are a “best-practice” in project-based learning. The rationale is that when students are able to see the applications of what they are learning to the world outside school; they grow to value and seek out experts. This practice also provides a window into future career possibilities.

These encounters require a particular type of teacher to make it happen. Teachers need to be flexible with regard to scheduling such opportunities, and always be on the lookout for good fits with their curricula. They need to prepare students before each new activity, as well as connect the learning to the required standards for that subject.

There is a new term gaining traction in the teaching world – teacherpreneur. This describes a teacher who actively makes these real-life connections happen. Teacherpreneurs are innovative, willing to go off-script to bring new ideas into the classroom, and possess a drive that pushes them beyond traditional teaching practices. They are constantly looking for, or creating, solutions to different classroom challenges. These teacherpreneurs are highly networked and they both seek and provide guidance among their colleagues.

We have a school full of amazing teacherpreneurs, and every student reaps the benefits. Our teachers are frequently dreaming up new ways to approach a particular unit of study. They are energized by the excitement of discovery. On any given day, one can walk into our staff lounge and overhear an animated conversation among teachers from different grades brainstorming new ways to approach a subject.

Every year in every class, there are multiple opportunities to observe our teacherpreneurs in action. One of our most inspiring examples occurs in the seventh grade tzedakah project. Due to the initiative of our teachers, Wornick offers our 7th graders an interdisciplinary project unique from any other school - one which has a lasting impact on our students, and the community that they serve.

Different components of the project are done in Social Studies, English, Technology, Judaic Studies and Advisory classes. The students begin the year learning about the history and textual tradition of Jewish values; eventually selecting the value they most want to enact in the world. In Social Studies, they learn about social issues (i.e. poverty, environmental destruction, at-risk youth) and select the social issue that they feel is the both most important to solve and resonates most with their chosen Jewish value. They research the social issue in-depth; while selecting a non-profit organization that enacts the value and works to solve the issue. The students interview representatives of the organization and volunteer there as well. They create a persuasive essay and a 6-8 minute presentation to lobby their classmates about the worthiness of their cause. While all this is going on, the seventh graders also learn different fundraising techniques for their projects. Last year’s class raised over $30,000, which was distributed to over twenty organizations. We welcome you to see the culmination of this project in our yearly tzedakah celebration that takes place in late May.

The spirit of our teaching staff, our teacherpreneurs, was one of the strongest commendations from the visiting accreditation team two weeks ago. They observed up close their collaboration, excitement about their own learning, flexibility, and desire to reach every student. Thank you to our dedicated and talented teacherpreneurs for showing us “best practice” teaching throughout the year. We couldn’t ask for better role models for our community of learners.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Friday April 8, 2016
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Forever Young, Forever Learning

There was a time when nearly every independent school’s mission statement included something like “promotes lifelong learning.” The desire for this is certainly positive. But those of us who sat on accreditation teams during that period of time would roll our eyes when we saw these mission statements. We would dismissively ask “what evidence can you show that would demonstrate that?” Most of us couldn’t point to graduates in their eighties or nineties who were still obviously learning. And if we could find such graduates, we couldn’t easily attribute that thirst for learning to their elementary years of education.

This past Sunday, I came across the following article about Sandra Day O’Connor, and I was reminded of those discussions about what it takes to ignite lifelong learning. At age 76, former Justice O’Connor created the nonprofit iCivics, an organization with the mission of teaching middle school students about the constitution and about U.S. government. While working on this project, she realized that animated games were the way to effectively reach middle school students. Justice O’Connor, now 86 years old, continues to lecture, to work on the middle school civics education, and has become a proponent of digital games.

My own Dad turned 92 yesterday, and he too is a lifelong learner. He retired from a family business more than twenty years ago, became a Chairman of a small Massachusetts bank where five years ago, at age 87, orchestrated a merger with another bank, the renaming and rebranding of his bank as well as the opening of a new branch of this bank. Last fall, he told me that he found my grandmother’s old pickling recipe and that he was pickling tomatoes from his vegetable garden. He started using an iPad in his eighties and recently upgraded to an iPhone 6.

As more and more of our population live as many years past traditional retirement age as the years that they were employed, we will begin to learn more and more about this sort of “forever learning”. If you google “lifelong learning”, you find plenty of universities and organizations trying to capitalize on this phenomenon. But the research on why some older people are so vital, engaged and perpetual learners while others are not is yet to be fully understood.

When I try to understand this sort of thirst for learning which my sister and I share with our father, I think about the home in which my father grew up. I remember my grandfather in his nineties busy reading everything he could about philosophy. I vividly remember him engaging my husband and I (both philosophy majors in college) about Spinoza.

Is my father’s forever learning a product of modeled engagement in ongoing learning by his parent or was it the frequent discussions that ranged over many subjects? Or could it have been an inspiring teacher or class? I suspect it was all of these things. I want to believe that the sort of education that we offer at Wornick fosters this quest for learning.

On Tuesday, a Wornick parent commented to me “my daughter comes home and needs to do science experiments to show us what she learned in class – not because it was homework (it wasn’t) but because she’s so excited about her learning.” I’m pretty sure that we are planting the seeds for “forever learning.”

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Thursday March 31, 2016 at 06:34AM
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Serious Silliness

I had my Purim costume picked out months ago – no doubt so had many of our students and staff. Our education is serious business, and seasoned Wornick students know yesterday’s Purim holiday is serious in spite of all its silliness. It is so totally different from any other day of the year as we – adults and children – all play in costume, sing juvenile songs, and shout irreverently during the reading of the Scroll of Esther.

Here’s what is serious about the holiday. Like Mardi Gras and the Hindu holiday of Holi that occur around the same time, Purim responds to a human need to confront the ambiguity of an in-between season. We emerge from the dark days of winter, but the weather is still unpredictable and lazy summer days are still on a distant horizon. Ski season is ending, and swim season is far off. Tax season is in front of us. High school seniors and prospective independent school students are making decisions about their school placements for the coming year. It is a time of deep anxiety that begs for comic relief.

Purim, Mardi Gras and Holi are colorful, joyful holidays meant to reset our compasses. Just as a well-timed joke or a silly comment can diffuse a particularly tense moment or reframe a difficult situation, so too these holidays help us to recalibrate. They ask us to stop taking ourselves so very seriously - to sift the chaff from the wheat. In the process, we learn to laugh at our own foibles, thus becoming more accessible and humble.

And here are some other things to consider about Purim: The sort of humor that encourages us to try on disguises and act with joyful abandon requires a safe community where everyone understands that this is play. What’s more, in order to “get” or to create the jokes running through the various Purim plays, one needs to be literate in the core subject matter. For the older members of our community, a close, serious reading of the Book of Esther - the text upon which the holiday is based - generates profoundly important discussions about civil disobedience, the treatment of minorities, stereotyping, acts of revenge and identities both hidden and revealed.

In all seriousness, when a particular tense moment emerges in the future, try to channel your Purim spirit. If you see me sitting at my desk in a very silly costume (it is extremely yellow this year), you’ll know that I’m working on sorting out what really matters.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach (Happy Purim!)

Posted by dizenson on Friday March 25, 2016 at 07:10AM
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Common Core or Extraordinary Core?

A donor who was about to be a judge in our annual fourth grade Mission Debate asked me, “Why are some politicians talking about eliminating Common Core Standards? What are the Common Core Standards anyway?” I gave her a brief explanation and assured her that she would see them in action during the debate.

A few years ago, there were attention-grabbing headlines in various cities across the country about “the rolling out of the Common Core Standards.” 44 states adopted Common Core and politicians on both the right and the left endorsed them. The standards were generated from surveying industry and business leaders, as well as university educators. The survey asked what tools they thought were needed for college and global economy success. These standards privileged 21 C skills like critical thinking and the use of cross-disciplinary real-world problems to teach basic skills. Many independent schools saw Common Core as representative of how we had been teaching for a long time.

Historically, United States education has been locally controlled. Each state, indeed each district, has set standards for education. In the twentieth century, the two states that were the largest purchasers of textbooks – California and Texas – often set the agenda for other states with respect to content standards, because the textbooks geared their content to the desires of these two states. Since the beginning of this millennium, several national groups coalesced to create national standards. In 2009, President Obama linked a state’s eligibility for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act to the adoption of the Common Core Standards, which were adopted by California and forty-three other states. Adoption of the standards meant that teachers needed professional development to implement the standards, textbooks and assessments needed to be realigned, and school compliance needed to be addressed.

This standards movement has sparked the usual spate of arguments that accompany any national education reform. But in this contentious election cycle, the arguments have increased in volume and in divisiveness. Most of the detractors raise concern about the role of the federal government in local education initiatives. They firmly believe that states need to have the autonomy to set their own standards. Interestingly, states are free to not adopt the standards, and some states with their own standards still received No Child Left Behind funding.

It is quite clear to me that the contested nature of Common Core is linked to something beyond the states rights issues and beyond resistance to all Obama initiatives. Common Core challenges teachers to create complex units. These standards do not easily fit into a scripted textbook system that has been the most expedient way to teach large groups of children in public schools.

Among the premises of the Common Core is that teachers cover fewer topics but take deeper dives into each topic, introduce mathematical concepts beyond addition and subtraction (multiplication, division, algebra, geometry, etc.) in younger classrooms, set lessons in real-life contexts, craft interdisciplinary lessons and place greater emphasis on informational reading. Wornick has been teaching like this for many years. The Singapore mathematics curriculum that we adopted in 2010 approaches mathematics this way. Our classroom projects – architecture in kindergarten, heroes in second grade, City of Embers in fourth grade, the artist unit in fifth grade, the Tzedakah project in seventh grade – are interdisciplinary deep dives into subject matter, rely heavily on informational reading, and are set in real-life contexts. Common Core standards are evident not only in these key projects but also in the everyday work that transpires in each of our classrooms.

We revised our progress reports two years ago, and, at that time, wrote the standards for mathematics and language arts in compliance with the Common Core standards. We’ve begun assessments to track progress across the school to make sure that all of our students are achieving mastery of the standards.

The real value of our education became clearer as the schools around us tried to adopt these standards. It takes particular teachers who are passionate about teaching analytically – who think this way all the time – who are not scripted but are thoughtful in their planning – to effectively implement these standards. When we hire new teachers that is what we look for. Additionally, school structure and scheduling matters in the effective implementation of these standards. Teachers who are given common planning time to collaborate with, and be challenged daily by their peers, will outperform their colleagues in schools that are not structured in this way. Above all, standards are only one dimension of education delivery. The ability to develop social emotional skills around resiliency, empathy, effective communication and the ability to work collaboratively are as important as the Common Core – we balance these two parts of the equation.

The end of the story – most fourth graders in California build model missions as part of their California history unit. Our talented fourth grade teaching team created a Mission debate unit that answers the question “Were missions good or bad for California?” In class, students first raise the questions that they will need to research in order to answer the debate question. They are required to study all sides of the question from the perspective of the different people living during this time. They look at environmental and cultural impacts. They are divided into two groups to develop their arguments. The formal debate takes place with every child presenting an argument, a counter-argument or a closing statement. Three outside judges (this year an attorney, a high school AP history teacher, and a scientist) had to decide which side had the most cohesive and compelling argument.

At the conclusion of the debate, the donor who first asked me about Common Core commented that she could not believe that these were ten year-olds who had been challenged to analyze this piece of history in this way. She was surprised by their facility with language, their ability to think and to respond to arguments and counter arguments and their inclusion of multiple perspectives. I noted “this is Common Core in action”. We both mused that some politicians asking for its repeal just don’t want people to think too deeply. In the end, she understood that a Wornick education’s core is extraordinary – beyond common!

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Thursday March 17, 2016 at 03:53PM
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Who Are "We"?

It all started with the question at a Heads of School meeting: “When a teacher addresses the class with the pronoun ‘we’, who is the assumed ‘we’?” My colleagues from the eleven Bay area Jewish day schools and I decided to organize our 2016 Jewish day school conference for teachers and staff around this question. We partnered with Be’chol Lashon - an organization that builds awareness about racial diversity within the Jewish community.

Diversity has been on the agenda for Independent schools for at least the past five years. Jewish day schools rarely have addressed this topic. Most of us assumed “it wasn’t our issue.” We have all continued the dominant American Jewish narrative of white Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jewry, even though Sephardic Jews (from Spain and Portugal) created and populated the earliest American Jewish communities, and even though about 40% of our own staff and families are not part of this narrative. Some of us have addressed diversity issues within our own schools as people of color and people of other religious origins have become part of our communities.

The conference this past Monday with 370 teachers and staff in attendance focused on questions of diversity – who are ‘we’? We explored how people within our community who do not fit the dominant Jewish narrative experience ‘otherness’. We talked about the multiple identities that we each hold, learned about demographic shifts, and experienced a very powerful documentary (The Little White Lie). At the end of the day, we all worked in our school groups to consider how to address these issues within our particular school. Some teachers and staff were ready to start working on curricula pieces and on programmatic ideas. And some shared the feeling of their colleague, who commented, “I don’t think this is such a big issue for our school since we do a really good job already in teaching empathy and perspective.”

That response reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks earlier with two of our first grade girls. They were experiencing some “mean girl” interactions. One girl was “bossing” other girls around. And in the words of those girls who were being bossed around, “I have a right to do what I want to do.” These sorts of interactions are pretty commonplace in a school. It’s how children learn boundaries and how they learn social skills. But the “diversity” piece was also part of this conversation even though I missed that in the moment.

In our conversation, we discussed what each girl was feeling, and about respecting one another. We role-played how we should respond when our feelings are hurt. In the midst of the conversation, one girl looked at me and said, “You know, she and I are cousins.” At this point, I was a bit flummoxed. I knew both families somewhat, and I wasn’t ‘sure how these girls would be cousins. With a very puzzled look, I tentatively said, “Are your father and her mother related?” (Knowing both the children and their parents; that would have been the most likely possibility). The child looked at me as if I were clearly clueless and said “Adam and Eve! We’re all related.” Searching for the thread that would connect that statement to the problem at hand, I asked “So if we’re all related – you and me, you two girls, what does that mean?” She said, “We need to treat each other like cousins.”

At the time, I took pride in the fact that this child was carrying value lessons from school into this conversation. But since the conference, I realize now that there was likely a “diversity” piece hiding in the interaction. Perhaps she was saying “Can’t you see that as different as she and I look, we are all human beings?” This is the point I was making, but she might have been experiencing another level of wonder around identity. Maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t, but my staff and I now have another pair of lenses with which to view such discussions.

One of the teachers who initially commented about how well our school addresses diversity, stopped in the next day to say “I just realized it isn’t about how I feel that we’re addressing things or whether we’re attending to these bigger identity questions, it is about how our students are experiencing these things and my need to be more mindful of that.” That was the point of the conference, and also my take-away from my interaction with these first grade girls: Even cousins (and sometimes, maybe especially cousins) need to remember to understand the other person’s point of view.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Friday March 11, 2016 at 07:27AM
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Values in Action

Every now and then our children and our students surprise us by exceeding our expectations. A couple of weeks ago, our seventh graders did just that by actively advocating for the wellbeing of their entire class. Their actions beautifully demonstrated their value of the dignity of each person, a profound regard for community, and a “take-charge” stance.

Their surprising act came on the heels of an incident of derogatory ‘name-calling’ among a few members of the class. The administration and teachers followed our usual protocol of interviewing members of the class to get a clear picture of the context in which the misbehavior occurred, we met with the offending students and their parents, invoked consequences and held whole class lessons on name-calling and on by-standing. We – the staff – thought that the incident had been addressed.

But our seventh graders felt that they needed to do more to fix the problem. I was returning from lunch on the afternoon after we had concluded all of our meetings and research about this incident and one of the seventh graders told me that she and her classmates had corralled the entire class during lunch and had a session together where they worked through these issues as a group on their own. They described their conversation as civil giving everyone a chance to speak and to reflect their feelings, and they committed themselves to being “a community” of support for both the victims and for the offenders. They drafted a document (shared with me in a Google document) that was a code of conduct for their class. Their code of conduct consisted of 29 items that listed and described offending words and actions that were unacceptable. Items on the list included sexist and racist talk, teasing and making someone cry. I was especially moved by items near the end of the list: “Be accepting to others! Be supportive to others. Be willing to help someone out with anything. We’re all one big family (and don’t forget it!). Keep in touch after 8th grade.”

The students worked really diligently on this document – sharing it, editing it, and making sure that I reviewed and signed it with them. Most remarkably – they took the initiative. One of the students pointed out to me that “we are really all friends, and have been for a long time and we can’t let this break us all apart.” This was truly one of those moments that affirmed our school mission – these students are on the path to leadership – they take charge and have internalized the values of community, of not standing idly by and valuing the dignity of all people.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Friday March 4, 2016
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Cup Half Full, Half Empty or Neither?

There’s a lot to be pessimistic about right now. We have an election taking place that has tapped into the most negative values in our society – name calling, unsubstantiated claims tossed around, arrogance, and a lot of anger and hostility. Throw in the random shootings that pop up every few weeks in the news, the march of ISIS and the like across whole lawless regions of the world, and the connections that some are making between this election and pre-World War II Germany. Pessimists will spend their days worrying about what will happen. They will busy themselves looking for causes, shake their heads in despair and many will be immobilized by fear.

The optimist will look at these same facts, and balance the negativity with positive events happening at the same time, and they will work for solutions to the seemingly intractable problems. Psychologists who study optimism and pessimism (i.e. Dr. Martin Seligman The Optimistic Child or Angela Duckworth of the Character Lab) note that optimism is not a Pollyanna “glass half full” disposition. Instead, they note that optimism is a hopeful stance about the future combined with the agency to shape that future. Optimists recognize horrible events but, unlike the pessimist, they see those events very differently in terms of their causes, pervasiveness and duration.

These scholars also note that optimism and pessimism are not personality traits but rather they are learned dispositions that serve as a person’s explanatory style. Pessimists tend to assign blame to bad events. They believe that these events will last a long time, and that the resulting consequences will impact everything subsequently. Optimists see multiple causes for bad events. They assume that bad events are temporary, and that the effects are limited to a particular sphere of their life.

How, then, do we help children develop an optimistic stance? First, we challenge any tendencies to “catastrophize” all negative moments. This means that we learn to separate trivial problems from more significant ones. Every negative event that occurs to a child – a friend who calls them a name once, a broken arm, a poor grade on a test – should not be given more attention than necessary. Each of these negative experiences should be discussed with an eye to how to learn from them and how to move on.

We also should strive to avoid negative feedback. The child who does poorly on homework or a test, should not be chastised for his/her struggle. His/her successes must be emphasized. Not only should the negative feedback to the child be minimized, but also we need to keep our negativity about other people and family members in check as well. Children do learn from the behavior we model.

Finally, in choosing books to read to children and news articles to share, we should emphasize narratives of hope, stories of people who have inspired change and those portraying people who have overcome obstacles.

The growth mindset that we teach and encourage at Wornick aligns nicely with this perspective on teaching optimism. Many of our literature selections and social studies units do so as well. The emphasis on social action adds that dimension of “taking control of the future” that is characteristic of optimists. For a Wornick student, the cup is neither half full nor half empty – it is an entirely different cup that expands with hope.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Friday February 26, 2016
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Boundaries and Bridges

Parents and teachers are allies and partners – both engaged in the important work of raising, guiding and teaching children. Professionally, I sit at the nexus of this relationship watching the many interactions between and among parents and teachers as they steer their charges through an often-frightening world. The alliance can be stretched, distorted and challenged as the adults bring to their encounters not only different goals but also layers of past experiences and emotions.

Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has written an important book entitled The Essential Conversation: What parents and Teachers can Learn from Each Other that unpacks the psychological and sociological factors that impact this relationship. She provides helpful insight about how “families and schools are overlapping spheres of socialization, and that successful learning and development of children depends, in part, on building productive boundaries between and bridges across them.” (p. xxiii)

I received two interesting phone calls this week from my adult children that drove this home for me. It was one of the first times where I wasn’t considering the parent teacher relationship within the context of my own school and thus didn’t sit in the middle of the relationship. Each call involved a parent teacher interaction – one from a parent to my daughter who is a teacher and the other from a teacher to my son and daughter-in-law as parents. Both sets of interactions illustrate how the parent-teacher alliance can be challenged and challenging; yet, with some careful thought and awareness of the factors that impact this relationship the alliance can be built.

The first call came from my daughter who has been a middle school and high school teacher for several years. She had sent an email to the parents of her high school students listing some of the topics that had been discussed that week in a history survey class she teaches. Her intent was for parents to use this information to spark conversation with their children during dinner. The next morning, she received an email from the father of a student. The father wrote a long “sermon-like” note questioning the logic of the teaching of the particular topics and discussed how he thought the subject should be taught. My daughter, somewhat indignant, called to ask for advice about how best to respond to the email. She noted that the father had made many assumptions about how she was teaching the material based on four sentences. If I were to attach emotions to both sides of the equation – my daughter was indignant and insulted and the parents appeared to be worried that their child was being misguided by the class.

The second call I received was from my son and daughter-in-law about a call they had gotten that day about the behavior of one of their children in class (during indoor recess). The teacher said to my daughter-in-law that their son and a little girl scratched each other in anger. She said that if he were to repeat this behavior, he would be suspended. My son and daughter were frightened and angry, and called for advice about how to respond to the information they received. The teacher who called them appeared bothered and overwhelmed.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot would rightly note that in each of these cases, the parties were feeling vulnerable and exposed, and they were all reacting to their vulnerabilities with very little information to help them understand the events. The communications that lead to each encounter would do little to relieve their respective anxieties. Each party had developed assumptions and reactions on very slim evidence. More importantly, neither initial communication would help build the understanding and the learning that they all desired for the students in question.

Channeling Lawrence-Lightfoot, I guided each of my children in how to conduct the next conversations. Before they could have the conversations, they needed to understand the context of the communications – how the parent could have reached the conclusions he did in the first case and how the teacher would have felt so beleaguered to have made the statement she did to my son. They needed to understand their own reasons for reacting as they did as well. Finally they needed to invite conversations with the other parties where mutual understanding and goals could be reached.

A day later, each child checked in with me to let me know the outcomes. In both cases there were the beginnings of successful resolution. While I was an outsider in these two encounters, they were familiar interactions. Over the course of a long career, I’ve seen each of these many times. Our school proudly sees one of its purposes as that of helping shape these relationships in reflective ways such that parents and teachers can truly be allies for the sake of the children that we are rearing together.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Friday February 19, 2016
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