Leap of Faith

What a week!

I had the privilege of spending much of this week up at Camp Ramah Darom with our Middle School on its annual retreat. What an experience.  I certainly know my middle schoolers better than I did before the trip – and I may know a few of them better than I ever wanted to!  I cannot think of a more powerful and important experience to offer our teens than an opportunity to break out of the walls of the school to spend time together creating community, forging relationships, pushing comfort zones, and interacting with each other in ways we never could in school.

Is it worth giving up almost a week of school?  Without question.  The momentum and memories will infuse the quality of learning to exponential levels.  The ability to work more closely together and with greater trust will only enhance our ability to achieve.

Is it worth the personal and institutional expense?  I hesitate to speak for other people’s pocketbooks, but from the school’s standpoint: Yes.  Each dollar was well spent.  Any family who needed help received it and the energy that goes into raising those funds comes back to us tenfold.  Traveling as far as we do is necessary not just to provide the activities.  It is precisely the being-so-far-from-home-ness of the experience that lends it some of its power.

Risking sounding overly hyperbolic, this experience changes evermore the energy of a group.  Watching some of our exuberant eighth graders (literally) embrace some our shyer sixth graders simply would not happen if not for the retreat.  It validates the time and energy dedicated to inculcating Jewish values when you see it come to life before your very eyes.  Those moments stick.  They live on in the classrooms and the cafeteria. Yes, sometimes intimacy breeds contempt, but sometimes it breeds even-deeper intimacy and this was certainly the case for us.

We prayed together out in God’s grandeur.  We studying and explored Jewish values through creative, informal educational programs.  We sang around the campfire.  We engaged in ropes courses and other team-building activities.  We shared meals and cabins.  And yes, we went down the river and took a collective leap of faith as our boats went over the waterfall – there can be no more power symbol of our faith in each other than sharing those exhilarating 45 seconds together.

We trusted in each other and safely navigated our boats over the waterfall, through the rough currents and into calm waters.  So it was in Georgia.  So it shall be back at school.

We shall use this experience to catapult our year forward.  I, for one, will use this experience to better reach my students because now I know them much better.  The other teachers who were there feel the same way.

I am already thinking about next year’s retreat and how amazing it will be.  Fifth Graders beware, the waterfall awaits…but your middle school friends and teachers will be there with you ready to take that leap of faith together.  Hold on to your paddles!

“A Palace in Time”

In the beginning of one of my favorite books, The Sabbath, by my favorite Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel, he says, “Judaism is a religion of time (emphasis in original) aiming at the sanctification of time.  Later on, he refers to Shabbat using a similar metaphor – “a palace in time”.  Among the many things Heschel is describing (and I cannot recommend a book more), he points to the value of celebrating and cherishing moments in time.  That time can be sacred and holy.  For the purpose of his book, it is the Sabbath under consideration.  For the purpose of this blog, it is the idea of how important it is to stop and appreciate the everyday miracles of time all around us.  One of those miracles, to me, is the start of school – especially this year.

This week I had the blessing of welcoming my own daughter, Eliana, into school as her head of school.  If you already believe that there can be no more sacred responsibility than to be entrusted with the education of a child, the how do you calculate the exponent when that child is your own?  I realize I’m not the first teacher or principal to have his or her own child in class or school, but it does not change the surreality of it.  I would be lying if I didn’t admit that looking out into the group during our Welcome Assembly and seeing her face looking back at me wasn’t a thrill of a lifetime.  A moment to hold on to and cherish.

But this was a week of firsts for many in our school.  First days of school for our kindergartners.  First days of a last year (in our school) for our eighth graders.  First days in a new school for teachers (and head!).  First days for new families.  First echoes of laughter and rolling backpacks in hallways that were still and empty just a few weeks ago. First lessons brought to life from planning and imagination.  First hiccups of a school in transition.  First successes.  First mishaps.  First steps to an unlimited future.

I blogged earlier about the implied religiosity of teaching and the teacher-student relationship.  [I think a Buber blog on how the ideal teacher-student / teacher-parent relationship can be constructed just germinated!  Hint: It all begins when the students enter the class for the first time and the teacher seeks the Godliness in each and every one.]  How wonderful it would be if our students (and parents) viewed their school days as “palaces of time”.  What an extraordinary goal to reach for!

And so…congratulations to the teachers who worked so hard for a successful start.  Thank you to all the parents who trust us with your children.  Thank you to the students for your smiles and eagerness.  And as we move from the excitement of the first week into the routines of the first month, let us all cherish the everyday moments too often overlooked – a new skill mastered, a new friend made, a new year begun.

A Calm Before…

…I was going to say “storm,” but that seems a bit pejorative.  Surely the return of teachers to their sacred work is anything, but a “storm”.  However, “calm”?  The week before school?  Well that isn’t quite accurate either…

I’m back for seconds!  Although the raw number of readers is appropriately super-small considering there isn’t much reason for anyone outside of my school community to read what I’m writing, the fact anyone who didn’t “have” to read it, did, still amazes.  It only took one blog for me to realize the power of this new (to me) vehicle of communication.  I found each comment I received in response affirming and instructive – and I appreciate the fact that anyone had a spare moment to send it.  To be part of an unpredictable, ever-changing community of people who share a passion for teaching and learning is nothing less than invigorating.

And so here I sit with a week of summer left before my teachers return and two weeks before my students (still largely unknown to me as I enter my first year as head of this school) fill the hallways with the magical noise that only a school can create.  Items have been checked off the list.  Rooms have been painted.  Handbooks have been edited and await printing.  Teachers have been slowly popping in to get a head start on their rooms. Parents have been slowly popping in to get a head start on being good parents, organized for another year of schooling.

I always find this last week to be a liminal experience – poised between wistful longing for all the things I hoped to do over the summer and the nervous excitement about all that is about to happen.  It is one of those experiences that only those of us who have spent their entire lives on a school calendar can appreciate.  Each year at this time, I feel echoes of my younger student self – only instead of worrying about which color Trapper Keeper to buy, I worry about which iPad app to download.

And so to my colleagues, teachers, parents, and students, I wish you a restful week.  See that last matinee.  Spend those extra minutes with your family before night meetings begin.  Go eat some ice cream and watch the sun set.  Finish that book you were hoping to read this summer (or to my teachers “required” to read!).  Another summer draws to a close and a new school year prepares to begin.  Another opportunity for us all to be better than we were the year before.  Everything is possible.

A question: I have opened a Twitter account…I am just not sure why!  To those who tweet and those who follow…what am I missing?  Discuss…

Southern Hospitality

This is not the view from my office…but it is a view of my new home city – Jacksonville, FL.

“A Floor, But No Ceiling”

In the spirit of practicing what one preaches, I have entered the blogosphere.  I am a month into my new headship at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School after spending five years as the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.

I didn’t know it was possible to leave Las Vegas and find somewhere even more uncomfortable during the summer, but it is. Differences in humidity aside, my wife, two daughters and I are slowly adjusting to our new home.  We are enjoying the southern hospitality and warm welcome we have received.  I am enjoying getting to know the staff, parents, students, and teachers of my new school.

We are a 21st century learning school invested in the continuity of a five thousand year-old tradition.  Our attempts to marry the past and the future into an engaging present will largely be the focus of my blog.  I have teachers better qualified than I already blogging about the specifics of 21st century learning, technological innovation and global learning.  Once I learn how to link to their blogs, I invite you to read them with regularity.

Most of my blogging will center on experiences here at school, but I hope to be of interest to anyone interested in Jewish day school, Jewish education, education in general, and in the kinds of stuff I think happen to be interesting and worth sharing.  I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

Why “A Floor, But No Ceiling”?  Because it represents what I believe the purpose of education to be – to ensure each child fulfills his or her own individual maximum potentials in academic, emotional, physical, and spiritual terms.  There are appropriate benchmarks to determine minimum standards for each grade level, but our aims are higher.  That is simply the floor upon which we build.  For there to be no ceiling has direct implications about what we teach and how we teach it.  I hope to use this blog to discuss these ideas and more.

I look forward to learning how to best use my blog to communicate and to be in communication with others.  Comments are welcome.