You Can Go Home Again

Forgive the brevity (for me)…

We got back late last night from a week-long vacation in Las Vegas and we are moving rental homes first thing Monday morning.  Between catching up at school and prepping for the move…

It was our first trip back to Las Vegas, our most recent home, after almost an entire full year here in Jacksonville, our new home.  As the plane was descending into Las Vegas, I was reminded of one those “only in Vegas” phenomena that I was finally on the right side of.  Living in Las Vegas and traveling for work was a singularly annoying activity because only in Las Vegas does everyone applaud when the plane lands.  You are simply returning home to your workaday life, but you are surrounded by people filled with desperate longing for the vacation of a lifetime.  Cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Miami are fascinating to work in because people move there to be on permanent vacation – there is a different mindset and a different energy.  Anyhoo, last week, at least, we were happily clapping along with the rest of the vacationers.

I have written a lot (for 11 months of weekly blog posts) about my personal Jewish journey, but very little about my professional Jewish journey.  That hasn’t been for any reason other than I don’t expect there is much interest in my prior stops for my present, primary audience – stakeholders for the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  As I have eased my way into the blogosphere, I have felt more comfortable occasionally blurring the lines between the personal and the professional, although always cognizant that this is a professional blog.  I try to write in my own voice and with my own particular sense of humor.  I try to share the things that I am thinking about and, thus, make my private process public.  And sometimes I share something personal when I am so moved because that’s how I understand the meaning of authenticity.  Consider me so moved (and so jet-lagged).

This was, as I have said, my first trip back to Las Vegas since we moved to Jacksonville last summer.  In addition to having an opportunity to visit my parents, it was our first opportunity to return to the school I had the honor of helping create as its founding head. Almost six years ago, with a two-week old daughter in tow, we landed in Las Vegas to begin what turned out to be an extraordinary five-year adventure in almost every sense of the world.  There is little doubt that when, years later, I revisit the twists and turns of my professional career, my five years as founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas will stand out as uniquely fork-turning.

 

This is not a picture from my Bar Mitzvah – it is from my second year in Las Vegas during Simchat Torah.  Ah…how young we all were once!

It was wonderful to have an opportunity to visit my former school and even though school was already out, we got to see teachers, parents, and many friends on our trip. Maytal, our three year-old, didn’t really recognize her teachers from last year, but Eliana, our almost-six year-old, got to visit with almost all the teachers she had had from eighteen months on.  It was very intense walking through the doors of a place you had spent so much time and energy, but no longer belong to.  Part of me felt like I had never left; part of me felt like I had never been.  A colleague put it in perspective by reminding me that although the past year changed everything for me, for those still there…

By my third year, I used to tell the story of how during my first year, when we gathered as a school we took up less than one row of the Main Sanctuary.  14 First & Second Graders. By my fourth year…

…our first graduating class – almost as many students as we had to begin with.

The full story of that school’s creation is one that I am more than just personally interested in; it is the subject of my doctoral dissertation.  I am heading round the final turn entering my ninth (!) and final year as a doctoral student in the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Trying to write a doctoral dissertation while founding a new school, raising two young daughters, and then relocating cross-country for an amazing job opportunity is probably not the textbook move, but life rarely goes according to plan.  I mention all of this because the story of my time in Las Vegas and the (professional) lessons to be learned from it is nearly written and will be available in one form or another for those interested sooner than later.  I’ll have more to say as publication looms closer.

In the meanwhile, it was good to know that Las Vegas will continue to be a home of sorts for our family.  It was good to see my parents.  It was wonderful to see our old friends.  It was fun to be back in Las Vegas.  It was dangerous to eat so much kosher meat.  It was satisfying to see the school I helped found doing so well under the tried and true stewardship of others.  We will surely be back for future visits.  But as our plane descended last night into Jacksonville, I must say that, in my mind, I quietly applauded.

It is good to be home.

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Self-Evaluation – The Ultimate Transparency

We had our final meeting of teachers and staff this morning to officially wrap up the 2010-2011 school year!  Woo-hoo!  School’s out…for summer!

But before we turn the page entirely on the year that was AND before we share some of the “Coming Attractions” for 2011-2012 (an upcoming, post-vacation blog post!), I thought I would take a final stab at transparency and share a reflection of how I thought I did this year in my first year as Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  [I reflected last week (here) about my adventures in 21st century learning this past year, but that is only one aspect of my role as head of school.]  What follows are actual excerpts from the self-evaluation I wrote and submitted to my “Head Support & Evaluation Subcommittee” as part of my overall evaluative process.  We have asked all of our teachers to post reflections of their years on our (closed) ning as part of promoting the value of shared reflection.  I want to do my part by sharing excerpts of my reflection for y’all (did that sound authentically southern enough?  It has almost been a year!):

Jon’s Self-Evaluation “Students”:

I think in this area we took a number of important first steps this year.  We created academic standards for each grade and subject by Winter Break and were able to disseminate benchmarks as part of the Admissions Process.  We created and disseminated a variety of survey instruments, failing only to send out and score an “Alumni Survey” for this year’s freshman class.

We have also taken great strides in our outreach to special needs families and in our current practice in putting together processes for dealing with the mechanics of delivering services.  We take it as a positive sign that KoleinuJax has gifted us (in collaboration with Jewish Family & Community Services and the Jewish Community Foundation of Northeast Florida) the monies necessary to expand our program next year by allowing us to hire and train additional support staff in classes where we have children with special needs.

One additional area I would like to improve upon for next year is my own personal investment in teaching and establishing relationships with students.  I taught First Grade Tefillah once a week this year; I may expand upon that next year.  I taught MS Tefillah once a week this year; I may seek to find additional opportunities to teach in the MS as well.  I take it as a positive sign that students have been sending me letters, emails and making appointments to meet with me when they have questions and concerns, but I would like to do a better job next year of working on developing meaningful relationships with my students.  It is a time management challenge (what isn’t!), but one worth solving.

Jon’s Self-Evaluation “Faculty”:

I think I have successfully implemented an evaluative process that has not been active in some number of years.  I believe we have created an environment where teachers have reached the higher bar we have mutually set.

My takeaway from the survey data from the faculty is that I have room for growth in providing more regular positive feedback.  I do not compliment as often as I would like to and because I am not shy about providing critique, it can create an imbalance.  My experience is that in time as we all get to know each other better it becomes less and less of an issue, but that does not mean I shouldn’t try harder to provide positive reinforcement.  Next year, I want to put up a bulletin board in the faculty room where we share positive thoughts with each other and then make it a personal goal to put one up a day.  That will create good habits.

I also want to make more of an effort to spend more time developing personal relationships.  It is so hard to find the time, but if I am serious about creating a family atmosphere it will be necessary.

We did a good job of providing professional development to our Jewish Studies Faculty.  We have provided more opportunities for teachers to teach each other during our Faculty Meetings which are now hosted by a different teacher each month in her classroom and has a theme.  I would like next year to try to send a few more teachers out to receive subject matter expertise that they can bring back – for example, Judy Reppert could attend a seminar and then lead a faculty meeting and share what she learned.  I would like our MS Faculty to serve more as “department chairs” for the Lower School in their areas of expertise.

Jon’s Self-Evaluation “Parents”:

Teaching “Parent University” and establishing a blog were two big goals for this year.  It takes a lot of time to keep up the weekly blogs and to prepare and teach the class, but it is worth it and then some.  The twice-yearly face-to-face meetings with parents yielded vital information and hopefully positively contributed to retention.

I also think I’ll be able next year to expand my reach into Shabbat and holiday programming which will better foster the school-shul relationship and the kinds of meaningful carryover we are all looking for.

I think, similarly to faculty, I could do a better job with volunteer recognition and appreciation.  I need to take the extra step to ensure that people feel appreciated for the volunteering they do.  I try hard now, but I think I can grow in making sure people feel they have my full attention whenever we are speaking.  My mind races a million miles an hour, but I don’t ever want a parent to feel that I am not keenly interested in their issue at the moment we are speaking.

 

So…that’s that!  I hope having an opportunity to peek inside my process from time to time is useful; it is for me!

I told the teachers this morning that I am typically as excited about summer vacation as they are…but honestly?  I am so enthusiastic about what is planned for next year that I almost wish we could skip to Pre-Planning…

Almost!

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A (School) Year in the Life…

Forty-one posts later…

…I have spent some time rereading the titles of the forty-one blog posts I have written this year and cherry-picked a few to reread so that I would have some sense of how to tie up in a neat bow my adventure in blogging this year.  Rather than regurgitate that which you are welcome to reread yourself, I though I would share an illustrative anecdote that took place last week:

I received an email a few weeks ago from the head of a community day school in the Midwest asking if I would be willing to Skype with her and her technology teacher about how our school began its path towards 21st Century Learning.  I went through some of my prior blog posts, did a little searching on Twitter, reviewed a chapter or two in Curriculum 21 and scheduled the call.  We had a lovely hour-long chat on Skype – during which I had occasion to reference, among other things, blogfolios, digital farms, back-channels, digital immigrants, nings, wikis and GoogleDocs.  It was a very nice call and I look forward to continued collaboration with our new friends.

When it comes to reflecting on my own work and having that reflection made transparent – one raison d’être for having a blog in the first place – my big takeaway from this school year that was, is that prior to July of last summer, I would have been utterly unable to define any of the words highlighted in red let alone speak of them intelligently. The idea that during the course of one school year, I have come from almost utter ignorance to presenting at conferences and fielding requests for consultation is almost preposterous.  And yet here we are…

There is nothing unique about me that allowed for this to happen.  I promise.  It took a village (and a book) to teach me basic skills and the (peer) pressure of trying to live up to the expectations already put in place by the school I had been hired to head.  I kinda had no choice, but to begin blogging and Tweeting or else I’d be left behind my own teachers!

My story is really the story of the last two years of our school writ small.  There was nothing particularly unique about our school that would have led you to conclude that it would one day stake out a leadership position in 21st century education.  We were, and are, a relatively small K-8 Solomon Schechter Day School in the relatively small Jewish community of Jacksonville, Florida.  And yet here we are…

It doesn’t take millions of dollars and it doesn’t take a surfeit of faculty.  It doesn’t require expertise in advance and it doesn’t require knowing the end of the journey before you take the first step.  You don’t need SMART Boards, iPads, and laptops to adopt a 21st century mindset.  It is not about the “stuff” (not that the “stuff” doesn’t help…it does)!

We have tried in our school to stop using “21st Century Technology” as a synonym for “21st Century Learning”.  Technology requires “stuff”; Learning requires “people”.  It isn’t that the technology is unimportant – there are certain minimum thresholds of technology necessary to walk the path.  But most schools can reach that threshold with creative budgeting and fundraising.  Harder than accumulating the stuff is changing the paradigm.  It doesn’t take an endowment to revolutionize your educational philosophy – it takes teachers, administrators, parents and students.  And every school has those.

 

We have exciting plans here at the school for this summer and the year to come.  I look forward to planting those seeds next week.  As I prepare to turn the page on this school year and begin writing the chapter on the next, let me pause to thank those who read this blog and even more those who comment.  I am frequently challenged trying to produce a blog post of sufficient quality each week to be worthy of publication.  I don’t know that I always reach the goal, but I am always grateful for the opportunity.

Let summer begin…


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And the winner is…all of us! (Part III)

Is it a cop out if I borrow an article I have already used this week to address the exact same topic if it is the final Friday of the school year?  I vote, “No!”

In Part I (found here), I made transparent and explained the results of our first Annual Parent Survey.  In Part II (found here), I made transparent and contextualized one important slice of our annual standardized testing results.  Finally, what I had intended for exciting conclusion in Part III (and shared already with our parent body) was to make transparent our faculty and staff assignments for the 2011-2012 school year.  This will be the team charged with taking all the data from Parts I & II to make next year the best year yet!

It is hard to believe that we are in the final days of the school year, but here we are.  It is time to take a peek at the future.  We don’t want to wish away our summer, but we are so excited at how next year is shaping up!  (The lineup is 99% complete and we will continue to work hard to fill the final two part-time positions in the upcoming weeks.) We are confident that the foundation built this year through all the hard work and love of this year’s faculty and staff will be carried on to the next level by the next year’s.  And so, without further adieu, be excited!

Here is the 2011-2012 Faculty of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School:

This is the team prepared to take on the next step of our school’s journey.  We are committed to partnering with parents, providing differentiated instruction, Hebrew language immersion, fostering Jewish identification, 21st century technology, and “a floor, but no ceiling” for each student in our school.  We will enjoy the last days of this school year, relax and prepare over the summer, and look forward to working with you when it is time to come back to school.  Next year is going to be something special!

 

 

 

 

 

 

P.S.  If you are in town, please don’t miss our Middle School Graduation this Monday evening at 7:15 PM!

P.P.S.  Please don’t miss out on a variety of creative programs here at the Center for Shavuot, but particularly don’t miss our first “Who’s Left Standing at Sinai?” contest on the June 8th during morning services!  I’ve been watching the kids practice their verses and its anybody’s guess who will win!

P.P.P.S.  Congratulations to our Third Grade for their wonderful end-of-year video and presentation of “Jacksonville Reads”!  Twenty-first century learning in action!

P.P.P.P.S.  Congratulations to our Fifth Grade for their wonderful end-of-year project “Facebook Profiles of the American Revolution”!  Even more twenty-first century learning in action!

And the winner is…all of us! (Part II)

It was wonderful to hear the positive feedback from both parents AND teachers to the publication of the results from our First Annual Parent Survey (found here)!

Continuing with the theme of transparency, I want to now follow up and share results and ideas about how our school performed on its standardized testing.  (We take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS)).  I actually find the Wikipedia description easier to understand than the company’s own website summary.)  I began this conversation here during the time we were actually taking the tests.  I strongly encourage you to reread (or read for the first time) my philosophy on test-taking and how we planned on both sharing the tests with parents and utilizing the data in our decision-making.

We have already gone ahead and done that which we said we would – mail out to parents all test results which fully resembled the children who took them AND met privately with parents whose children’s results required expert contextualization.  All conversations we have had with parents about testing have been fruitful.  All the data has been tabulated, filed, and prepared for dissemination with next year’s faculty who look forward to utilizing it to help each student in our school reach their maximum potential.

I wasn’t prepared to show grade and school results – not because I was concerned we might not have done well (but if I don’t show them again next year, you’ll know why!  🙂 ) – but because I really do believe that individual growth is the most appropriate metric for our school to use.  However, after our 21st Century Learning Consultant, Siliva Tolisano, put together a few infographics about our results, one was so striking that I changed my mind.  Here’s why:

My thinking has been influenced by conversations I have been having with colleagues about the different challenges Jewish day schools often have from their secular private school (and/or magnet and/or charter and/or suburban public school) neighbors.  I sometimes think biggest difference comes down to a philosophy of admissions.  Most Jewish day schools attempt to cast the widest net possible, believing it is our mission to provide a Jewish day school education to all who may wish one.  We do not, often, restrict admission to a subset of the population who score X on an admissions test and we do not, often, adjust birthday cutoffs to maximize academic achievement. However, the schools who we are most often compared to in terms of academic achievement often do one or both.  Then, if you factor in whether or not you exempt special needs students from the testing and whether or not you explicitly teach to the test, you may have quite an uneven playing field to say the least.

To reframe and reset the discussion:

Jewish day schools have an inclusive admissions policy, but are expected to compete equally with elite private (and magnet and charter and suburban public) schools who have exclusive admissions policies (or homogeneous populations).

In light of all of that – if a Jewish day school with an inclusive admissions policy, a non-exempted special needs population, and a commitment to “not teach to test” – if that kind of school could demonstrate that it was achieving secular academic excellence on par with elite schools; schools who advertise as “grade ahead schools” and often use the birthday cutoff as a means to achieving it, well to me that would be news worth sharing.  And so…without further adieu:

The bottom line of this graphic is…each grade in the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School is operating at least a grade and a half ahead in core secular academics.  There are grades whose averages are significantly higher than that, but let the boldface sink in for a bit.  Too much time dedicated to Jewish Studies?  Nope – a high-quality Jewish Studies programs enhances secular academics.  Too much time dedicated to Skyping or Tweeting?  Nope – a 21st century learning paradigm not only impacts student motivation, but leads to higher student achievement.

I can sense the tone of triumphalism in my writing and, although I am extremely proud of our students and teachers for their achievements, I do not wish to sound boastful.  But with state of Jewish day school education being what it is, when there is good news to share…share it one must!  Yes, this is just one isolated case of one Jewish day school at one moment of time – our school has to continue to excel year after year in order for the data to take on statistical significance.  [And there are amazing Jewish day schools achieving excellence throughout North America – I am a zealot to the cause and freely admit it!]

I firmly believe that Jewish day schools with dual-curricula and 21st century pedagogy and philosophy produce unmatched excellence in secular academics.  Here in our school, we will have to prove it year after year, subject after subject, and student after student in order to live up to our mutually high expectations, but what an exciting challenge it shall be coming to school each day to tackle!

So…in Part I we discussed parents and in Part II we discussed students.  Coming next week in Part III?  The teachers.  Stay tuned!

And the winner is…all of us! (Part I)

This will be Part I of making sure we keep the transparency promises we made back at the beginning of this extraordinary year…first up: The Annual Parent Survey!

A couple of months ago, parents in our school had an opportunity to provide anonymous feedback through an online survey.  We anticipate this being a yearly occurrence and an important one at that.  Beyond the opportunities I have had to meet collectively and privately with families all throughout the year; beyond the admissions and exit interviews performed by our Admissions Director; beyond the feedback picked up at Parent-Teacher Conferences; even beyond all the fun things that get discussed in the parking lot – it is important to also offer a totally anonymous opportunity for parents to share their thoughts and assess the school.  I look forward making this a yearly event AND to begin to chart our results over time to even better assess our performance.

Parents were asked to fill out separate surveys for multiple children in the school and we received back responses from 55% of current students in the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  Without further ado…let’s begin!

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, responses are skewed towards the younger grades not only because that’s were most of our students are presently located, but also because of the enthusiasm newer families often bring (not that we’re not all enthusiastic!).  OK – so we know who took the survey…how did we do?!

Let’s first look at the BIG PICTURE:

That’s pretty great!  On scale of 1-10, our average score wound up being 7.7.  We’d love to be a 10 out of 10 for every parent in each facet of schooling, but this both tells us we are doing pretty well and that we have some room to grow.  Let’s dig deeper.  Next up…Communication.

When it comes to communication, we have pretty high marks altogether – with the highest marks coming in communication via electronic means and the lowest marks coming in providing opportunities for parents to be involved in student learning.  We look forward to new ideas for improving parent partnerships coming from this data.   Let’s move on and look at our Administration.

You should know that I am engaged in my own evaluative process – this data along with surveys from my teachers and colleagues as well as my own self-evaluation are being compiled as we speak.  I appreciate the high marks, but recognize that I still have a lot of room to grow as a school leader and the candor many of you provided in your open-ended responses will be a useful tool towards that end.  Although it is still a fairly high number (7.62) [Don’t be fooled by the X-axis!], I will work harder next year to ensure there is even greater confidence in our application of the student code of conduct.  And now most importantly…academics!

This first part is non-subject specific:

(Hopefully you can read it or you can blow it up if it is a tad small…)

Our highest marks in this area came in 21st century technology…this is no surprise with the amount of emphasis we put on it.  I was pleased by the high mark (7.77) for individualized attention.  One area of (relative) concern and something I expect to be much higher next year is teaching in different styles (6.98).  Differentiated instruction is a core philosophy of our program and I expect this number to rise and rise each year.

Next up!  General Studies:

Overall, we scored very well.  Where public perception is slightly lower, we find one of those happy confluences where our own internal assessment mirrors the parents.  Our lowest marks in General Studies came in Math (6.71) and Science (6.87). With a move to Singapore Math next year, we fully expect that number to climb.  We also intend to provide more regular Science Lab opportunities to children in the elementary school next year.  This should help in that area as well.

We will be revisiting General Studies academics in next week’s Part II…when I will be sharing how we did in our standardized testing this year and now to best understand the results.  (Spoiler Alert: We did great!)

Here are the results for Jewish Studies, Resources and Extracurricular activities:

We are thrilled with high marks for Jewish Studies and our wonderful PE, Music and Art departments!  Field trips and service learning scored excellently as well.  Our lowest mark was in Afterschool Activities (6.19).  We are hoping that two new programs we are launching next year – an Enhanced Kindergarten Program and a new partnership with the JCA (that’s right…stay tuned!) – will help to even better serve this population.

And so there you have it.  Thanks to all the parents who took the time and care to fill out surveys.  In addition to the multiple choice questions, there were opportunities for open-ended responses.  They added an additional layer of depth; one which is difficult to summarize for a post like this.  But please know that all comments will be shared with those they concern as we use this data to make enhancements and improvements headed into next year.  By the by, we are pleased with how well satisfied our parents are with how the school is going…but be assured, just like with everything else, we fully expect these numbers to be (say it with me!) just “a floor, but no ceiling”!

Transitions

.ה.   מַיִם עֲמֻקִּים, עֵצָה בְלֶב-אִישׁ; וְאִישׁ תְּבוּנה יִדְלֶנָּה

.כא.   רַבּוֹת מַחֲשָׁבוֹת בְּלֶב-אִישׁ; וַעֲצַת יְהוָה, הִיא תָקוּם

Where has the year gone?  How can we only have four weeks left to this amazing year?

We had our final official faculty meeting this week.  (We will have some post-planning days after school lets out, but this was the last “faculty meeting”.)  As we are preparing to transition from one year to another; as graduates are preparing to transition to new schools, as some faculty are preparing to transition to new assignments or new phases in life – with all the anxiety, emotions and excitement that come with transitions, I thought I would pause for a week.  (Thanks to my friends and colleagues from DSLTI-Cohort 4 who I stole most of this from!)

Instead of sharing a new idea or trying to spark a new conversation or announcing a new project or innovation, I want to share the text study we did together as a faculty this week.  In upcoming weeks, I’ll share results form our Annual Parent Survey.  I’ll talk about how well we did on our standardized test scores (we really did!) or the new initiative we are launching next year in special needs education (thank you KoleinuJax, Jewish Family & Community Services, and Jacksonville Jewish Foundation!) or our new mascot for athletics (debuting next month!) or new faculty for next year, etc., etc.  We’ll pick up on all those kinds of things next week.

Let’s look at the above two quotes, as we did as a faculty in our last meeting (here translated into English):

Proverbs 20:5

The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters,

but a person of understanding draws them out.

Proverbs 19:21

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is God’s purpose that prevails.

 

We used these two quotes, juxtaposed in this way, and discussed how they fit together.

Or how they don’t.  Or what strikes you about each one.  What do you think?

 

And if you have more time, sit with someone you care about and discuss the following questions, as we did in pairs on Tuesday afternoon:

  • What kinds of changes do you find yourself experiencing presently?  Are these changes you’ve initiated or changes that you are experiencing?
  • What helps you embrace change?
  • What obstacles do you find to embracing change?  How do you handle these obstacles?
  • How do you embrace change while preserving your core values—your sense of who you are and your commitments?
  • How do the above quotes fit with this conversation?

We have had an amazing year in 2010-2011…and next year is going to be even more amazing-er.  I look forward to telling you more about it next week.  I’ll leave you, as we ended our faculty meeting this week, with a favorite quote of mine by Dan Millman:

“Teachers and books have their value, and sources of guidance and inspiration may enter your life in different forms.  But never forget that the treasure is already inside you; others cannot give you anything you don’t already have; they can only provide the lens to your own inner wealth.  So listen well to those who speak from experience and embrace wisdom where you find it, but always weigh external guidance against the wisdom of your own heart.”

A restful and relaxing week to all…

 

 

Yom Ha’Zikaron – Not Just the Day Before

Let me begin this week with a thanks to all those who responded via the blog, email or in person to last week’s blog post.  First of all, it is always nice to know someone is actually reading!  But that aside, it did seem to spark some healthy conversation in my Parent University class, the parking lot and other likely locales where parents meet and discuss issues of schooling.  Feel free to keep the comments coming!

Last Sunday was Yom Ha’Shoah – the day on the Jewish Calendar where we pause to remember the events of the Holocaust and the memories of all who perished therein.  On Tuesday, we will celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut – the day on the Jewish Calendar where we celebrate Israeli Independence Day.  In between, on the roller coaster of spring holidays and immediately the day before, is Yom Ha’Zikaron – the day on the Jewish Calendar where we commemorate Israel’s Memorial Day.

It is a remarkable juxtaposition of days – a complete 180 degrees of emotion that takes place with a click of the second hand and, in Israel, the siren’s call.  Unlike in the States where Memorial Day for many (although less and less the last ten years) is spent enjoying beaches, barbecues and sales; in Israel no one is untouched by war’s destruction and all pause to personally mourn.

Here in our school, we will for a whole host of appropriate reasons, place our emphasis on Yom Ha’Atzmaut.  We will celebrate Israel’s birthday on Tuesday with prayer, song, education, sport and food.  We will take time to acknowledge Yom Ha’Zikaron, but it will not have our fullest attention.  So I thought I would take advantage of this blog space to share a very famous Israeli poem appropriate for the holiday with some suggested discussion questions for families to discuss together.  I encourage you to spend a little time on Monday reading the poem and if you think your children are old enough, share it with them and discuss.  Let us use this an opportunity to remember all those who gave their lives to preserve our Jewish homeland and to thank all those who remain on the front lines to ensure its (and our) security.

 

The Silver Salver (Platter)

“A State is not handed to a people on a silver salver”

Chaim Weizmann, first President of Israel

The Earth grows still.

The lurid sky slowly pales

Over smoking borders.

Heartsick, but still living, a people stand by

To greet the uniqueness

of the miracle.

 

Readied, they wait beneath the moon,

Wrapped in awesome joy, before the light.

— Then, soon,

A girl and boy step forward,

And slowly walk before the waiting nation;

 

In work garb and heavy-shod

They climb

In stillness.

Wearing yet the dress of battle, the grime

Of aching day and fire-filled night

 

Unwashed, weary unto death, not knowing rest,

But wearing youth like dewdrops in their hair,

— Silently the two approach

And stand.

Are they of the quick or of the dead?

 

Through wondering tears, the people stare.

“Who are you, the silent two?”

And they reply: “We are the silver salver

Upon which the Jewish State was served to you.”

 

And speaking, fall in shadow at the nation’s feet.

Let the rest in Israel’s chronicles be told.

By Natan Alterman

 

Discussion Questions:

1.     Who do the boy and the girl represent?

2.     What do they mean when they reply “We are the silver salver upon which the Jewish State was served to you”?

3.     What do you think the poet is trying to express?  Is this an angry poem?  A sad       poem?  Something else?

4.     What do you think of this poem?  How does it make you feel?

5.     Why do you think this is an appropriate poem for Yom Hazikaron?

6.     How is Yom Hazikaron different from our own Memorial Day?  Have you ever celebrated either day?  How?

 

Empty Seats

I’m ready for the comments!

I am going to inch close to a third rail during this conversation even though it is not at all my intention to do so.  I am going to run the risk of appearing judgmental although I really do not hold families in judgement.  I am going to name the elephant in the room and point out the obvious.  I am going to ask some difficult questions.  I am going to make some suggestions.  And I will do all of this in the spirit of trying to spark a valuable conversation and furthering the mission of our school and community…and will hope that I have built up enough credibility so that because I believe it is part of my job to raise precisely these questions that the only outcome will be an honest exchange of ideas.

Interested?

I have been in our wonderful school at this vibrant synagogue in this warm community for a few months now…

Here is an observation:

When Jewish Day Schools close for Jewish holidays they do so with the presumption that families need to be free to fulfill Jewish obligations.  Yet so often, our school has closed for holidays such as Sukkot or Passover and the synagogue remains remarkably free of our students and families.

Blaming families is too easy.

The truth is, institutionally we have failed to bring the families of day school students along for the rides they have committed their children to, regardless of their motivations for doing so.  Parents who themselves are unobservant and often Jewishly uneducated enroll their children in Jewish Day Schools for myriads of reasons – seeking their own Jewish journeys may be one them, but surely not always.

However, without the family – Judaism’s primary and preeminent educational institution – we are too often expecting too much of the children we are educating.  It is not reasonable to expect children to be change agents for their parents.  It is reasonable to use enrollment as the means to reach out to families and help move them with love along the path being carved out by their children.

What is being done?

I have taken a stab at this phenomenon in my former and current position.  I teach an ongoing class for parents in our school with the stated purpose of helping parents understand and extend what we are doing in the Jewish Studies portion of our curriculum.  I have encouraged clergy at our synagogue to offer learner’s minyanim so that the parents who are equally interested and intimidated by what their children are now capable of doing have an address to start to walk in their children’s footsteps.  I have hosted many a Shabbat meal in my house for families to let them experience the beauty of Shabbat.  There have been successes to be sure, but not the large scale culture change I (perhaps naively) have hoped for.

What can we do?

We can and must offer families compelling examples of synagogue life.  Regardless of the age group being targeted, we have to provide appropriate, meaningful and spiritually satisfying experiences.  I believe in Judaism and its ability to inspire.  I believe if children and adults have an opportunity to learn and live Jewish lives, the positivity it generates becomes self-motivating.  We have the responsibility to try to create those moments.

We must make people feel welcome when they enter our doors.  We must learn the lessons of our friends at Chabad who do this so well – when you walk into their doors you feel valued and treasured, no matter who you are, no matter what you know and no matter where you are coming from.  I’m not suggesting we are cold and unfriendly – this community is warm and loving.  But we can always learn from others and strive do better. There is no worse feeling for an adult than to be made to feel uncomfortable and infantilized – we must ensure that those who muster up the courage (and yes, for some, it is a courageous act) to enter our doors that they are met with love and positivity so they want to come back.

This is our pledge.

The clergy, professionals, educators and staff at our school and the synagogue are dedicated to providing precisely the kinds of programming designed to achieve these goals.  We are committed to making it worth the sometimes struggle of getting your children to shul.  In this we are equal partners and can only achieve success by working together.  We cannot ask you to fight the good fight and not deliver a program worthy of the effort.  And so beginning this year with Shavuot we hope to blaze a new path forward. Stay tuned – We will be offering new programs and new ideas for experiencing this special holiday – targeted to different populations at different times.  We hope you choose a program that interests you and join us in making this holiday fuller and richer than it would otherwise be in your absence.

Have I gone too far?  I pray not.  I recognize the fatigue that comes with being in the same building day after day after day.  I am not naive to the ways in which life interferes in the best laid plans.  I know how important extracurricular experiences and family vacations are.  But I also know we can work together make Judaism come alive OUTSIDE the school – in shul and in homes – in powerful ways which only create more opportunities for sacred moments and lifelong memories.  It is work I look forward to engaging in with you as active partners.

Discuss.

Passover Potpourri!

“Spring Break” definitely meant something different years, children, and lifestyles ago than it does now!  What once were vacations and adventures for the unattached and unfettered have now become repapering the counters three or four times between the bookends of Passover Holidays.  So here’s to Spring Break 2011 – being home with my children while my wife works!  Let the good times roll!

But they do…now that our school’s six model seders, my daughter’s preschool model seder, and two actual seders are behind us, we are enjoying the first day of our true “Spring Break” in style – a little Nick Jr., some matzo brei, an annual visit to mommy’s classroom so our children remember that not everyone’s Jewish, and catching up on odds and ends…

Last week, I pulled the first of what I believe are the two greatest blog copouts – “The Top 10 List” and was rewarded by echoing silence from the world.  No comments, no retweets…and so, since I’m on vacation and celebrating a near-big birthday, I will double down with the other great blog copout – “Bullet Point”.

Yes…all those ideas that you haven’t had a chance to bring to full flower or may not be worthy of exposition…the “Bullet Point” post awaits…so here’s what’s on my mind…

  • After a lot of research, thought and planning we are going to go ahead next year and launch Singapore Math in Grades K-5.  You can read a blurb about it here. Kudos to Talie Zaifert our Marketing & Admissions Director for the cool ad:

  • Now we have a lot of work ahead of us – teacher training, linking to state standards or explaining why not, parent education, etc.  But this is one of those happy confluences where faculty opinion, parent opinion, and research all pointed in the same direction.  We think we have addressed perhaps our most significant academic and perceptual concern in one fail swoop.  I think way back in one of my original blog posts I discussed the powerful idea we learned from Heidi Hayes Jacobs back in our Preplanning Week about how wonderful it would be if we could approach the teaching of each subject like we did teaching ESL (English as a Second Language).  It is a powerful idea on its own, doubly so in a school already committed to teaching Hebrew as a second language.  Now, we plan to learn how to teach Math as a second language and cannot wait to see how this new math fluency impacts our students’ educations.  You can revisit Heidi Hayes Jacob’s message to our faculty this past August here:
  • Theoretically, the links to our school’s Annual Parent Survey are closed, but they really are still open (someone turned one in two hours ago).  So far we have over 50% accounted for – not bad for a survey!  I have taken a cursory glance at the results and there are no tremendous surprises.  I am pleased to see how seriously those who have filled them out have taken the enterprise and how well, overall, the school is grading out.  I will be sending out a report (not via blog) to parents after the break with the details.  Thanks to all who filled out the surveys!
  • Sometimes it is really awesome when nobody is at home to turn up the music really loud.  This is one of those times.
  • In addition to the Annual Parent Survey, I am also being evaluated by my teachers.  It only seems fair – I get to evaluate them; they ought to have a chance to evaluate me as well.  Thereto, I have taken a cursory glance and found both things to take pride in and work to do as well.  I will likely expound on this in a future blog post.  Stay tuned.
  • You may recall I went through a Wordle phase summarized in this blog post?  Well thanks to our amazing Art Teacher, Shana Gutterman, I now have a new toy, which I’ll end with.  She just sent me a link to Tagxedo, which is kind of like Wordle, but it uses a slightly different algorithm and lets you choose images to house the words.  Pretty awesome!  So, I ran this blog through Tagxedo and came up with this:

Yes, I know the colors don’t match the flag and the Star of David is hard to make out in the middle, but gymnastics class is almost over and my blogging time is just about up.  I do think it makes a nice summary of the ideas and topics we have discussed here weekly since we began last summer.

Off to enjoy the rest of my “Spring Break”, my almost-big birthday, and the rest of Passover.  We are back to school next week and I will be out of quick-fix, blog copouts.  A full blog post is forthcoming…

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