Shofar so good!

[Cross-posted to the Schechter website and our last Constant Contact.]

unnamedThe Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah begins tonight and is the most well-known of the Jewish “New Year’s” (we actually have four different ones, including Tu B’Shevat). Additionally, since most of us also follow the secular calendar, we have an extra one each year on the eve of December 31st.  And finally, if you are in the field of education, well, the start of school provides yet another “new year”.  Putting it all together, suffice it to say, we have ample opportunities each year to pause and reflect on the year that was and to hope and dream about the year that is yet to be.

This is the time of year that schools engage in all sorts of creative ways to perform tashlikh – a ceremony in which we cast off the sins of the past with an eye towards improving our behavior for the future.  A common activity for our youngest students has them draw a picture and/or write about a behavior they want to avoid doing again – mistreating a sibling, being disobedient to a parent, not being a good friend. etc.  After they make their project, they crumble it into a ball and throw it into the trash. Bye-bye bad behaviors!

Were it only that easy!

All schools count “character education” as part of their mission.  All educators consider it part of their already challenging jobs to help children grow and develop as human beings. Part of what I enjoy about working with Jewish day schools is that we get to make that part of our curriculum explicit.  We are in the business of making menschen and during the High Holiday season, business is good!

This season, hundreds upon thousands of Schechter students will make lunches for those who are hungry and bake honey cakes for the holiday and deliver them to the elderly. Programs like this – call it “service learning” or call it a “Mitzvah Program” – are opportunities for our students to get outside the walls of the building and put into practice what they learn inside.  It is not academic time lost, but rather life-changing experiences gained.  Through programs like this, our students are reminded that there needs to be a proper balance between “study” and “action”, and we can see the “Schechter Difference” in action.

So who will we become this year?  Beyond all our academic hopes and dreams, will this be the year we become who we were meant to be?  Will we live up to our own lofty expectations?  Will we be better children, better students, better teachers, better siblings, better partners, better spouses, better colleagues, better friends – will we be a better “us”?

As the eve of a new Jewish Year approaches, it is my most sincerest hope that this is the year we’ve been waiting for.  To all the teachers, staff, parents, students, donors, supporters, and friends in this special network of schools – thank you for your enthusiasm and your hard work.  5775 is shaping up to be a quite an amazing year!  From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

Aren’t All Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mAren’t all Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

Extended preamble…

Some blog posts evolve into academic mini-treatises with ample hyperlinking both for proper crediting and to stimulate further learning.

Some blog posts are born from a passionate feeling and sometimes read like opinion pieces.

Other blog posts are confessional and lead to catharsis (for me) or humanizing (of me).

The blog posts that are the hardest to write – as we are about to discover – are the ones that are born from a genuine question and a desire to solicit a crowdsourced response.  Not to drive traffic to my blog or raise my social media profile.  But because I am sincerely interested in learning from my colleagues, stakeholders, readers and friends.  I am grappling with a difficult question and I am interested in serious, thoughtful, diverse and challenging answers to help me develop an authentic answer (for me).

The reason these posts are the hardest to write is that within the world of education, and the Jewish educational world even more so, the blogosphere is still largely populated by lurkers.  You are out there and you are reading blogs (which is great), but you do not (yet) feel comfortable contributing to the talmudic chain of commentary that makes blogging so wonderfully Jewish and potentially valuable. I learn some through the process of writing, to be sure, but I learn a ton through the process of collaborating with you through the commentary.

Let’s make a game of it and let’s aim big.  The 20th comment received will receive a prize from me.  That means you have to encourage others to comment as well so you can position yourself as number 20.  Let’s go for it!

End of extended preamble…


What is a “Community Day School”?

[NOTE: I am PURPOSELY NOT looking up and sharing definitions nor visiting RAVSAK (the Community Day School Network) for answers.  Not because I don’t think their answers are the correct ones.  They probably are.  But because how people – not just people, Heads of School, Board Chairs, Foundations, Donors, – understand what those words mean is at the crux of what I have been thinking about.]

Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • “Community” and “Pluralism” are not necessarily the same thing but they are sometimes used interchangeably.
  • Every Jewish day school thinks of itself in terms of creating community, being a community for its students and parents, being a healthy part of the larger Jewish community it lives in, and has an increasingly religiously diverse student population for whom it tries to craft an inclusive nonjudgmental religious community.
  • To say that a PARDES, Schechter, YU or Orthodox day school is “ideological” and a RAVSAK or Community Day School is “non-ideological” feels like a false dichotomy.

That’s probably controversial enough for now.

I know more about Schechter than anything else and I have firsthand experience heading a Schechter in a Jewish community where it served and serves as the non-Orthodox Jewish day school.  It has a diverse student population with levels of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, unaffiliated, secular Israeli, etc., that are commensurate to many other Schechter schools and, to my understanding, many Community Day Schools.

In terms of Jewish ritual and practice, it looks and feels very much in the “center”.  This, too, is similar to many “community day schools” where the “center” is the natural compromise between the various religious communities who make up its population.

Yes, in some cases the driver for Schechter’s center approach is a commitment to Conservative Jewish practice.  Yes, in some cases the driver for a Community Day School’s center approach is a commitment to compromise or accommodation.  But there are also cases where the reverse is true in both settings and lines remain ever-blurry.

More Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • There are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform day schools who are explicitly NOT Community Day Schools.  They typically thrive in communities with large enough Jewish populations to sustain multiple schools with more targeted religious purposefulness.
  • There are Orthodox day schools who are Community Day Schools (either by self-defnition or RAVSAK affiliation or both).
  • There are Reform day schools who are Community Day Schools (ditto).
  • If Orthodox and Reform day schools can be ideologically-identified and still labeled “Community”…why not Schechter?  [Fact: There are Schechter schools who define themselves as both.  There are already Schechter day schools who are Community Day Schools.]
  • There are also Community Day Schools who live and breathe a mission-driven pluralism that is clearly nondenominational or post-denominational or trans-denominational.  Whether you want to call “pluralism” an ideology in its own right is a fair question, but the point here is to acknowledge that there are absolutely Community Day Schools whose approach to Jewish living and learning is mission-driven and clearly not Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.  It wouldn’t be fair to leave that out.

Here’s why it matters to me.

It is no secret that in recent years there have been a number of Schechter schools who have explored changing their official affiliation status from “Schechter” to “Community”. In a few cases this has genuinely been about a purposeful, mission-driven decision to change the way Judaism lives and breathes and/or to change dramatically the rigor and commitment to Jewish Studies for whatever reason. In many cases, however, the exploration is born from a feeling or hope that by changing their external status it will somehow cause a spike in enrollment or fundraising because it is signaling that the school is now of and for the community in a way that it wasn’t or couldn’t be as a “Schechter”.

This perception remains despite the data proving that the former is not true and the fact that Schechter schools can be and often are as “of and for the community” as any other kind of school.

Changing one’s affiliation status without any corresponding change to mission does a disservice to affiliation by rendering it a business equation. It reduces “Schechter” to a caricature and “Community” to a strategy. It denies both the full meaning of their philosophies and confuses the marketplace.


It is also the case (see Jewish Montessori) that schools that don’t see themselves as “Schechter” by its narrowest definition are beginning to explore how they may fit in with “Schechter” by a more expansive understanding of what it means and has to say about Jewish education. And so the lines between schools and networks blur even more…

What does it all mean?  For our schools and for the field?  Aren’t all Jewish day schools “community” schools? And why does it matter anyway?

Don’t just talk amongst yourselves!  Talk to me and to each other.

COMMENT.  (Remember…20th comment gets a prize.  Spam doesn’t count!)

Schechter: Becoming the Adjacent Possible for Jewish Education

So…how was your summer vacation?

Passing the torch to my friend, mentor and new Head of MJGDS, Rabbi Jim Rogozen.
Passing the torch to my friend, mentor and new Head of MJGDS, Rabbi Jim Rogozen.

In June, I wrote my last blog post as head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS) and on July 1, I officially assumed my new role as Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  It has been an extremely busy couple of months and as I have been finding my way in my new work, I put my blogging on hold so as to give me time to decide how to repurpose and reimagine who I am blogging for and what I ought to be blogging about.

If you are regular reader of this blog (and “thank you” if you are!), you know that it was born out of a desire to lead by example.  I had inherited a school that embraced a culture of blogging and it did not seem fair to expect students and teachers to blog regularly if I wasn’t willing to do the same.  And so in July 2010, I wrote my first blog post and pushed it out into the world.

I chose to title the blog, “A Floor, But No Ceiling,” which reflects my belief about teaching and learning – namely that there should be a floor, but no ceiling on expectations, achievements or possibilities for learning.  I imagined my primary audience – if there was going to be an audience at all – would be the stakeholders of the school and I tried to find topics I imagined would be of interest for parents, board members, donors, supporters, etc., of this one Jewish day school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Perhaps it was the forced discipline of weekly blogging.  Perhaps it was my wandering attention span.  Perhaps it was the generous patronage of folk with a much greater online presence than my own.  Perhaps it was the timing.

Who knows?

Over time, it became clear that the blog had developed multiple audiences and I tried to shift both my writing style and my topics accordingly.  I could never predict when a post would resonate or with whom.  And since even today most blog readers prefer to remain lurkers rather than active commentators, it remains difficult to be really sure you aren’t just whispering into the wind.


…having come to believe in the power of blogging, I have every intention of resuming weekly blog posts, beginning with this one.


…who am I writing this blog post for and what will I be writing about?

History teaches that the accurate answer will more likely evolve in time than be what I am suggesting here, but I do have some thoughts to get me started.

As was the case before, this is a professional blog.  I am blogging as the Executive Director of a network of diverse Schechter schools throughout the world doing the critical and holy work of educating the next generation of Jewish children.  I would hope that those who are already stakeholders of their local Schechter schools and for the larger mission of “Schechter” will find this blog a valuable resource.  And I would hope that those who care passionately about Jewish day school, Jewish education and education will find this blog a useful read as I attempt to tackle important issues of the day, share perspective, answer questions, field feedback, and – in my own way – try to create a commonplace of exploration, discussion and celebration for the sacred task of educating Jewish children.

As was the case before, this is a professional blog written by a particularly personality…mine.  I am blogging as Jon Mitzmacher.  I don’t have dual identities and although I respect those who have both professional and personal identities, I neither have the time nor the interest in maintaining them.  My understanding of authenticity leads me to be me.  You will get my love for words you need to look up.  You will get my many ellipses, asides, and occasional snark.  You will get glimpses into my family when appropriate.  You will get the extra 400 words that a more parsimonious (see!) writer doesn’t need to get to the point.


My colleague, Andrea Hernandez, who I am thrilled will be one of my daughter’s teachers next year at MJGDS and continues to lead edJEWcon into a bright future, introduced me to a phrase that I loved so much that I both wish I had thought of it and toyed with the idea of changing my blog’s title to it…and that is “The Adjacent Possible”.

It is not a new concept.  A Google search will reveal lots of articles going back to 2010. Here is the definition that struck me from Steven Johnson’s fantastic essay for the Wall Street Journal called “The Genius of the Tinkerer.”

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.  The adjacent possible captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.  The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them.  Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

And so goes my “a-ha” moment from the Summer of 2014.

That’s how I see what is happening in Schechter schools – an adjacent possible for the future of education.  That’s what role I see for Schechter in the field – learning from and contributing to a larger adjacent possible for the future of the Jewish people.  Let our ability to serve as incubators of innovation catalyze the field.  Let our thirst for the new and the better stimulate and foster healthy collaborations with our sister networks of schools, foundations, federations, stakeholders, supports and friends, both in the Jewish world and beyond.

What do I hope to accomplish with this blog?

I hope – with your help – to make the adjacent possible.

We’ll start next week with a summer update of all things Schechter.  Your comments and questions on this or anything else are genuinely welcome and if offered, will be addressed.

It is good to be back.

Preparing to say good-bye…

[Programming Note: I regret that I need to delay my final “Transparency File” introducing the 2014-2015 MJGDS Faculty for one additional week.  We have been working hard on our budget and will need until next week to make it final.  I cannot issue contracts until that time…and so even though I do not expect much drama in the announcement, I do need to wait until teachers have signed contracts before I announce them!]


I posted this last night about an hour before Graduation.

And then I hit them up with one of these before diplomas…


I actually do not often speak with notes, but because I like to offer them some personal words, some inside jokes, some Jon-isms, I do occasionally jot them down.  Those that were there will understand the full context…those that weren’t…you might get a taste for how we do things here.  Or, I should say, how I used to do things here…

Last night really marks the beginning the of the end of my time as Head of School of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School and Head of the Galinksy Academy.  Although I will be here through June, with the last day of school with students next week and with teachers, the week after, my time is being spent winding down, trying to take it all in, and reflecting on what I have learned during my four years at this remarkable institution.

This is my 175th blog post.

I never blogged before coming here.

My blog is entitled, “A Floor, But No Ceiling” because that is what I feel our primary responsibility is to all the students entrusted to our care.  That if you place your child in our school, that we will know them better than anyone can and, thus, will have the ability to push them (with love) reach their maximum potential.  That although there has to be a floor (grade level) for each student, there should never be a ceiling on growth.  They should fly as high as their talent and drive can take them.

I hope during my four years we have lived up to that high bar…I know we have tried our very hardest.

My blog is also described as, “How one Jewish Day School Head marries 21st century learning with a 5000 year-old tradition”.  This is a reflection on my educational philosophy about Jewish day school education and probably makes up the content of the majority of my blog posts.  As we shall see in a moment, it is probably the case that I have written more towards the “21st century learning” pole than the “5,000 year-old tradition”, but it is the dialectic between them that is at the heart of my interest as an educator.

To test that theory, let’s look at a Wordle representing the 174 blog posts I have written to date:Wordle_-_Create

Not bad!  Outside of some miscellaneous words (we obviously spent a lot of time blogging about “Whack-A-Haman”!) that the algorthym picks up, this is not too far off from what I would believe is the appropriate content for a blog that has attempted to have the parents of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School as its primary audience and the larger fields of Jewish day school and education as secondary and tertiary audiences.

I am honestly not sure yet how the blog will transition when I transition.  I will have a different audience to be sure, but have not yet figured out what that means in terms of what I will be writing about.  I have a few weeks to think about it before the blog moves from this site to the Schechter Network site at which time I will reintroduce it (and me) and attempt to lay out what new shapes and directions this blog will take.

In the meanwhile, I will spend my final blog posts here continuing to reflect on my experiences and fulfilling my responsibility to communicate essential information and truths to our parents.

Thanks to all who came out to graduation last night.  It was a special evening for all. I am looking forward to our VPK “Moving Up” Ceremony at the DuBow Preschool next Tuesday and to teaching during Shavuot here at the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  I am also looking forward to honoring and saying our official good-bye to my colleague and friend Rabbi Jesse Olitzky on June 4th as part of our closing L’Dor V’Dor Donor Appreciation Event.


[Yes, I’m there too…but come to say good-bye to Rabbi O.!  We’re not going anywhere!]

Walking Through the Open Door

Jon & ElianaIt seems like only yesterday that Jaimee, Eliana, Maytal and I were on an airplane from Las Vegas to Jacksonville to begin this amazing experience of being part of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  And now, nearly four extraordinary years later, we know that my chapter in the story of our school will draw to a close at the end of this school year.

It was almost a year ago that I shared publicly that my next professional challenge was going to be the assumption of executive leadership for the Schechter Day School Network.  I wrote at the time:

Typically opportunity requires you to close one door so that you may open the next.  And sometimes, life is such that a door is closed for you and opportunity requires you to open the next.  Rarely does one have an opportunity to reach for the next open door while the current door remains (in some ways) open!  But that is the blessing the Schechter Network and the Jacksonville Jewish Center has afforded my family and we are humbled by it and grateful for it.

At this time last year, it was assumed that I would complete my contract here at MJGDS, which would carry me through the 2015-2016 school year.  I entered this year and spent most of it preparing for an additional year of transition.  But because we had the opportunity to begin the search process early, we have been blessed to find someone worth bringing in sooner than later – my friend, colleague and mentor, Rabbi Jim Rogozen!

I am filled with mixed emotions!

I am excited about pursuing my next opportunity with Schechter.  I am saddened to not finish my commitment to MJGDS.  Honestly?  I have not had very much time to process what is happening and have missed lots of opportunities to emotionally appreciate my final “this” and last “that”; my emotional transition will now be condensed to mere weeks. What I do know is that as the days begin draw down, I will find as I go about my regular routine that I will experience many moments of pride in what we have accomplished, sadness to say farewell to the many deep relationships I have formed with students, teachers, families and staff (at least in their present forms), but mostly gratitude for the opportunities we have been given here in Jacksonville…

None of this happens for me if I had not been blessed to wind up in this nurturing and special place.  My commitment to Galinsky Academy will not expire when my contract does!  In July when I become the head of the Schechter Network, proud to call MJGDS one our flagship schools, I will remain inspired to do my part – with you – to carry this dream forward into the years ahead.  Now that the transition is actually happening, I am still very grateful to Schechter for working with me to re-imagine what leadership can look like in order to allow me to continue to live in this amazing community and to send my children to this amazing school.

I will have more to say about this transition – as I walk from that one open door to the next – my reflections on my time here, and more, once I’veOpen Doors had more time to process.  There is so much yet to accomplish in the Martin J. Gottlieb’s and Galinsky Academy’s bright future, but I when I do leave, it will be with the confidence that the chapter of this school’s history that we have written together will carry this school forward to the next chapters to be written in the many years to come.  As it says in the Mishnah: “Lo alecha ha’mlacha legmor…” – “It is not incumbent on you to finish the work, neither are you free to exempt yourself from it.”  (Mishnah: Avot, 2.16)  I look forward to working closely with Rabbi Rogozen during this period of transition, but knowing him and our schools as I do, I know that in his capable hands we will only go from strength to strength.

The Transparency Files: Budget is an Expression of Jewish Values

We have a saying here at Galinsky Academy: “If you really want to know what we value most, you only have to look in two places – the schedule and the budget.”

And it is true; there are no more valuable resources than our time and our money.  How we decide to allocate them is, therefore, the truest test of our values.  All the rest is commentary, as they say…

I have spent the last couple of months working with our school heads, the synagogue’s executive leadership, and a variety of lay committees on the 2014-2015 budget.  It is as rigorous and exhaustive a process as it to be, because there is nothing more critical to our mission than ensuring the longterm financial viability of our Academy and its schools.  We cannot provide the extraordinary secular and Jewish education that we do from age 1 to grade 12 in our Academy’s four schools – the DuBow Preschool, the Bernard and Alice Selevan Religious School, the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, and Makom Hebrew High – if we become financially insoluble.

Why is it critical that there be a Galinsky Academy?

Ask them:

That video was created as part of this year’s L’dor V’dor Annual Campaign (LDVD).  This is the magical time of year where we are both working hard to close this year’s campaign to fulfill  our current budget expectations AND determining the expectations to satisfy next year’s budget with all it represents for our children and our community.  Why give?


Well, that is one reason.

In an average year, endowments and tuition cover only 80% of the cost to provide each student’s education at Galinsky Academy.  Annual giving provides the crucial margin of excellence that distinguishes education at the Galinsky Academy.

Here’s another:

The budget of Galinsky Academy essentially has four levers that matter: Tuition & Fundraising on the revenue side and Salaries & Scholarships on the expense side.

That’s the budget.

For our stakeholders, I can assure you that our budget has long been trimmed of fat.  We spend as little as necessary without sacrificing the integrity of our schools and trying (but not always succeeding) our best to compensate our teachers as fairly as we can.  As the economy’s impact took hold in our community, we have seen legitimate scholarship need skyrocket and have had to match it with increased fundraising to keep pace so that we do not have turn away students from families who desire a Galinsky Academy education and genuinely cannot afford the full tuition.  All four of our schools have seen this rise in scholarship need and all four of our schools have benefited from LDVD funds to meet it (and at MJGDS a critical annual allocation from Federation).

Any other reasons annual giving is so important?

Here’s a few more:

LDVD will allow the Galinsky Academy to continue building upon several important priorities…

  • Supports the efforts of our teachers, providing them professional growth experiences and ever expanding resources and curriculum.
  • Provides students a chance to experience the integration of technology in the educational process and to understand its relevance to life in the 21st century.
  • Provides a “silent scholarship” for every student by supplementing tuition dollars to develop bold and inspiring programs.
  • Provides meaningful experiential learning and character-building opportunities both in the classroom and in the community.


If we treat our budget as the most honest expression of our Jewish values, then it is critical that the above and more find its way in to all the schools of Galinsky.  As we approach the two-year anniversary of our Academy’s founding, perhaps it is worthwhile to remember who we named our Academy after and why…

Samuel and Esther Galinsky were, by all accounts, modest and unassuming members of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  They participated in synagogue life and were respected members of the congregation.  They cared about Jewish education, but had no children of their own.  They were, in many ways, like any other couple.  When they died, their friends mourned their passing.  And that should be the end of the story.  But it isn’t.  Because this ordinary couple did something extraordinary.  With no fanfare and no notice, Samuel and Esther Galinsky left the Center amongst the most significant gifts it has ever received – $3 million.  And it was given for one purpose – this childless couple gave their fortune to ensure that Jewish children would be able to have a Jewish education.  Has there even been a more selfless gift?  Have any people ever more embodied the idea of L’dor V’dor?

And so it is in the spirit of this gift – of that remarkable couple – that we officially announce the creation of what will forever now be known as “Galinsky Academy”.

To those who have given to help secure the Jewish future of Jacksonville, thank you.  To those who have not yet given, but plan to, thank you in advance.

To those who typically do not give, but are capable…

Let this be the year you are counted.  L’dor v’dor.


The Transparency Files: Homework Wars II – The Homework Strikes Back

home-work-close-up-1-1126726-mIn late November, I blogged about what was then a pending conversation our faculty was going to have in order to revisit and realign our school’s homework philosophy with our learning target.  In that post, I suggested some likely ideas that I imagined would make their way in based on all the work we have done these last few years making our beliefs about teaching and learning more explicit.

We introduced the project at the December Faculty Meeting in a really interesting way.  One member of our 21st Century Learning Team, randomly went onto class blogs and picked homework assignments that were then presented to the faculty to open the meeting.  The question was then asked: “How long do you think this assignment ought to take the ‘typical’ students in this grade?”

The results were clarifying to say the least.  Just about each assignment – regardless of grade level or subject – was estimated to take anywhere between 5-40 minutes!

So if our own teachers couldn’t agree about how long an assignment ought to take our students to complete, imagine how our parents and students feel!

This was a great introduction into a conversation about revising and articulating our school’s homework philosophy.  Unlike other decisions in our school, I made it clear to faculty that although they would have input, the ultimate decision would be mine.  [In our school we peg decisions on a hierarchy of decision-making.  Some decisions they make with my input.  Some decisions I make with their input.  Some decisions require consensus.  Some decisions are made democratically.  And so on.  I find it helpful to make this transparent to teachers so expectations are clear and there are no unnecessarily hurt feelings.]  They were given the month to provide me with feedback to a draft similar to that which was in my blog on this issue.  I was then to report back at our January Faculty Meeting what the new “MJGDS Homework Philosophy & Guidelines” were to be.

And so I did.

The following was disseminated to our faculty last week…

MJGDS Homework Philosophy & Guidelines

I.  Introduction

II.  Philosophy

III.  General Homework Principles

IV. Homework Guidelines in Elementary Grades

V.  Homework Guidelines in Middle School Grades

VI.  Characteristics of Effective Homework Practice

VII.  Parent, Student, Teacher, and Administration responsibilities

VIII.  Implementation Strategy [To Be Created]


I.  Introduction

The purpose of the MJGDS Homework Policy is to provide guidelines for teachers, provide for consistency through the grades, and to educate parents who have questions about homework.  A school policy regarding homework, along with clear expectations for teachers as to what constitutes good homework, can help to strengthen the benefits of homework for student learning.

This policy addresses the purposes of homework, amount and frequency, and the responsibilities of teachers, students, parents, and administrators.

The MJGDS Homework Policy is based on research regarding the correlation between homework and student achievement as well as best practices for homework.


II.  Philosophy

The philosophy at the Martin J Gottlieb Day School regarding K-8 homework is that homework should only be assigned that is meaningful, purposeful, and appropriate.  Most learning will take place during the school day (accept when utilizing an explicitly “flipped pedagogy”.  Homework will serve to deepen student learning and enhance understanding.  Homework should be consistent with the schools “Learning Target” and strive to incorporate creativity, critical thinking, authenticity, and student ownership.

Legitimate academic purposes for homework include:

  • practicing a skill or process that students can do independently but not fluently,
  • elaborating on information that has been addressed in class to deepen students’ knowledge,
  • enabling students to finish classwork that they were unable to complete in class, and
  • providing opportunities for students to explore topics of their own interest.

Non-academic purposes for homework, particularly in K-3, include:

  • developing better study habits and skills,
  • developing independent problem-solving skills and better time organization, and
  • greater parental appreciation of, and involvement in, schooling.

We understand today’s busy schedules and demands on parent and student time.  Most learning is done in school, but like learning a foreign language or learning to read, reasonable and age-appropriate practice and repetition is exceptionally beneficial in certain subject areas.  We also recognize that in a 21st century learning institution the barriers between bounded times and spaces for learning are ever-shifting and, so, we remain flexible to new ways to provide our students with authentic opportunities to learn and to explore.
III.  General Homework Guidelines for all Grade Levels

  • Homework is never to be used to teach a new skill (with the exception of explicitly “flipped pedagogy”).
  • Teachers are not required to assign homework.
  • Homework should not exceed more than 10 minutes per grade level per night for the average student (not including reading).
  • Homework should be purposeful and meaningful to students.  Legitimate purposes for homework include practicing a skill or process that students can do independently but not fluently, elaborating on information that has been addressed in class to deepen students’ knowledge, and providing opportunities for students to explore topics of their own interest.
  • Reading is an integral part of learning and is a consistent part of homework.
  • Practicing second-language skills is consistent part of homework in a bilingual school.
  • Homework will reflect the accommodations and modifications of curriculum that is stated in a student’s modified program.
  • Assigning homework over holidays is highly discouraged.

IV.  Homework Guidelines in Elementary Grades (K-5)

In elementary grades, with the exception of reading and being read to, there is little proven correlation between homework and achievement.

  • In the primary grades (K-3), homework should consist primarily of reading plus a limited number of independent exercises to reinforce previously taught basic skills.
  • Except for reading, homework at the elementary level should not be assigned over weekends, holidays, or extended school breaks.
  • At the upper grades (4-5), homework consists of completing, practicing, preparing, or extending core academic skills and is designed to build independent study habits.
  • Long-term assignments should be limited in number and duration.  Project based assignments should primarily be undertaken and completed in the classroom. These tasks should not require significant assistance from parents or costly materials.  These assignments should include clear checkpoints to monitor progress toward completion.

V.  Homework Guidelines in Middle School Grades (6-8)

  • Homework should be assigned during the school week on a regular basis.
  • Teachers should coordinate scheduling of tests and projects.
  • Long-term assignments at the middle grades should be limited in number and duration.  These assignments should include clear checkpoints to monitor progress toward completion.  All deadlines must be posted on the class blog.
  • When assigning group projects, teachers should allow in-class collaboration time with specific tasks to be completed independently; however, these tasks should not require significant assistance from parents or costly materials.
  • Except for reading, homework at the middle school level should not be assigned over weekends, holidays, or extended school breaks.
  • Bear in mind that middle school students preparing for their b’nei mitzvot are spending 10 minutes per night during the year leading up to their b’nei mitzvot and more than that in the month prior.


VI.  Characteristics of Effective Homework
This section addresses practices to help increase the benefits of homework while minimizing potential problems.  Homework is more effective when…

  • the purpose of the homework assignment is clear.  Students should leave the classroom with a clear understanding of what they are being asked to do and how to do it.
  • it does not discourage and frustrate students.  Students should be familiar with the concepts and material (unless it is taught in an explicitly “flipped” pedagogy, i.e. Math).
  • it is on a consistent schedule.  It can help busy students and parents remember to do assignments when they are consistent.  (Of course, it must be necessary and not just because “it’s Wednesday”.)
  • it is explicitly related to the class-work.
  • it is engaging and creative.
  • part of the homework is done in class.
  • it is authentic.
  • feedback is given.  Follow-up is necessary to address any comprehension issues that may arise.
  • it is differentiated.
  • it reviews past concepts to help retention over the course of the year.


VII.  Responsibilities

Students are responsible for:

  • ensuring understanding of the homework and asking for clarification or help when needed
  • regularly completing assigned homework in a timely manner
  • managing time by staying focused, on task, and planning effectively for long term projects
  • bringing home all necessary materials
  • putting forth their best effort to produce quality work
  • completing or making up missed assignments and tests if required by the teacher.

Parents/Guardians are responsible for:

  • being an advocate for their child, while encouraging the child to advocate for himself/herself
  • encouraging reading at all grade levels
  • providing an appropriate environment, including necessary supplies, for homework to be done
  • providing a healthy balance between homework, extra and co-curricular activities, and family commitments
  • contacting the teacher if their child is not consistently able to do the homework by himself/herself within the time guidelines, or if challenges or questions arise

Teachers are responsible for:

  • sharing expectations for homework with students and parents early in the school year
  • designing homework assignments that clearly articulate their purpose and expected outcome, allowing for student questions and planning
  • providing timely feedback to students
  • ensuring any homework assigned is directly related to the classroom instruction and consists of clear, purposeful, and authentic activities
  • assigning homework that is appropriate and differentiated as needed
  • teaching the skills necessary for the students to complete the homework and become successful independent learners
  • being careful not to assign too much homework or homework that frustrates or discourages the students

Administrators are responsible for:

  • monitoring homework quality and quantity
  • communicating homework expectations with parents


VI.  Implementation Strategies

And this section was – and still is blank.


Because this is the hard part!  It is easy (ish) to write out a philosophy and guidelines.  Putting it into practice in a way that is consistent and clear to all?  That is hard work!

This is why we spent the last hour of our amazing Professional Day last Friday (after our EdCamp) meeting by division (Lower School General Studies, Lower School Jewish Studies & Middle School) to begin to develop an implementation strategy.  Our goal is to finalize that implementation strategy in time for it to be included in all Parent Handbooks for the 2014-2015 school year.  The conversations so far have been especially rich and I am looking forward to seeing how the project comes to conclusion.

Watch this space…

Martin J. Gottlieb Day School Middle School Retreat 2013 Part I – The Storify

Martin J. Gottlieb Day School Middle School Retreat 2013 Part I – The Storify

Each year, we take our Middle School for a fall retreat at Camp Ramah Darom. We spend four days playing, praying, learning, adventuring and building community. This year our theme was "derekh eretz" and how to strengthen our Community of Kindness.

  1. It all begins with with a bus ride from Jacksonville, Florida to Clayton, Georgia!
  2. (The days and times for the Flckr images are not accurately labeled.  They are slotted appropriately.)
  3. We leave so early that we always stop on the side of the road for some “roadside davening”!
  4. A meal in a kosher restaurant is always a treat!
  5. We take advantage of driving through Atlanta each year to take educational field trip.  This year?  CNN!
  6. The final stop before Camp…Walmart!  Here are a few girls enjoying a creative “ice cream campfire”!
  7. Our theme was “derekh eretz” and we had three educational activities to explore it.  The first one divided our students into “Hokies” and “Pokies” – two cultures with many differences that had to learn to get along.
  8. Hokies and Pokies had to work together to cross the raging river!
  9. Later that day we hiked to Telulah Falls…there it is!
  10. Martin J Gottlieb DaySchool is on our way to zip-line…we are doing our best to balance visual updates with edited video and pictures…be assured that all is well! #MiddleSchoolRetreat
  11. Our second educational activity required Planet Kreplach, Planet Gefilte Fish and Planet Matzoball to identify which Jewish values they needed to barter from each other to resolve serious issues facing the Council of (Jewish) Planets!
  12. Our second major outing was tubing!  The best part was watching how many pairs of students who never really interacted prior to the retreat, sharing rides and enjoying the beautiful day.
  13. Our third educational activity was trust walks and conversation about how one builds trust and loyalty into our community of kindness.
  14. After a night of #Schnupencup dreams and a morning friendship circle, the Martin J Gottlieb DaySchool #MiddleSchoolRetreat is on the bus and headed home to Jacksonville!
  15. A final campfire, a night of final finding, and a final friendship circle took us onto the bus and back to school…and now the real test will begin.  Will the magic stay at camp?  Or will it come with us to school and help deepen our community of kindness – not just within the Middle School, but throughout the entire school?  We hope so!  But only time well tell.

    Watch this space!

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Empty Seats: Are We Asking Too Little?

No, this is not a picture from the most recent Jaguar’s home game!seats-1-803275-m

But there is a link between this picture, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and our school’s experience over Sukkot this past week…

I blogged about a year and a half ago about my observations of what happens when a Jewish day school closes for the explicit purpose of celebrating Jewish holidays and finds that a minority of families appears in synagogue.

I want to revisit that conversation, update it, and perhaps offer a provocative solution…

The Issue

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.

When Jewish day schools close for Jewish holidays they do so with the presumption that families need to be free to fulfill Jewish obligations and to celebrate the joy these holidays bring.  Yet so often, our school closes for holidays such as Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, etc., and the synagogue remains remarkably free of our students and families.

Blaming families is 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?

journey_thru_jewish_holidays2013.pdfLast year we launched an incentivization program that provided an extrinsic motivation designed to ensure sufficient attendance to allow for the much preferred intrinsic motivation of celebrating the joy of Jewish holidays with friends and community.  I admit that I had – and have – reservations about this program.  I worry that essentially bribing children to celebrate being Jewish is not a terrific message and in the long run may, in fact, be counterproductive.  But we had to do something and something we did.

What happened?

Well we had more students last year for the first two days of Sukkot than in recent memory.  And even if the momentum faded slightly for Passover and slightly more for Shavuot – last year’s “Journey Through The Jewish Holidays” was considered a success.  We had more students than ever before AND we offered more programming than ever before.  Lots of children got their Adventure Landing passes and their Jaguars tickets.  And so we decided that we would do it again this year…

Well, now this year’s Sukkot has come and gone…and, although, we did have better turnout than we had two years ago, we did not match last year’s success, let alone build on it.  And I would be naive to think that the fact that this year the holidays were connected to weekends did not contribute to this reduction in attendance…

Okay, so what else can we do?

Before I offer the provocative suggestion, I acknowledge the fatigue that comes with being in the same building day after day after day.  And I am not immune 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.

And so I still believe that first and foremost, 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 also have a responsibility to ask for more and not settle for less.

I have been inspired by my colleague Stan Beiner, the Head of the Epstein School, in Atlanta who this year tried something bold.  Despite the logistical challenges of not being housed or affiliated with any particular synagogue, he counted the first day of Sukkot as a day of school.  He recently blogged about this experience and how positively it impacted his students, his parents, his school and his community.

And so I have charged our Day School Community to take on this question during our year of work together:

What would it mean for the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School to count the first two days of Sukkot as half-days of school that included appropriate celebration and programming?

Would we have more kids?  Would we have more parents?  Would we have more programming?  Would it lead to the desired outcome – more families creating powerful Jewish memories?

I don’t know what we will decide.  I do know it will be a conversation well worth having.

Feel free to begin now in the comments…