Habits of Kindness: “Synergize”

paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mFirst of all, it is hard to believe that we are already introducing the SIXTH Habit, “Syngergize”, because there are only seven…where did all the time go!

When our school introduces a new Habit of Kindness, I take it upon myself to blog about the new Habit.  (Last month was “Seek first to understand, then to be understood“.) Beginning with the fifth Habit, we have been enlisting our Middle School to prepare and present the new Habit at a monthly spirit day assembly.  (You can stay on top of all our Community of Kindness activities by checking out its blog.)  They have been very creative! Each month’s introduction has typically come with a song or dance that tries to explain the Habit in a catchy way that will stick.  Here’s what they came up with for “Syngergize”:

unnamed copy

MJGDS Syngergize

I don’t have video so you will have to supply your own tune (hmmm…that could be a fun contest for the future), but I can assure you that it was appropriately catchy!

Here’s what it says from the “Leader in Me: 7 Habits for Kids” page:

Habit 6 — Synergize

Together Is Better

I value other people’s strengths and learn from them.  I get along well with others, even people who are different than me.  I work well in groups.  I seek out other people’s ideas to solve problems because I know that by teaming with others we can create better solutions than anyone of us can alone.  I am humble.

What I would like to do is take this line by line and offer a little midrash via hyperlink about why I think “synergize” has such great…ummm…synergy for a school like ours.

“I value other people’s strengths and learn from them.”

As we have documented our 21st century learning journey over the last four years, one thing that has consistently been borne true, has been that learning is no longer (if it ever was) about transferring knowledge from an adult to a child.  One thing that I treasure about our school is the commitment our teachers have to lifelong learning and the willingness they have to learn not only from each other, but from their students.

“I get along well with others, even people who are different than me.”

Before we had chosen “Community of Kindness” as the initiative to ensure students feel welcome, protected, and loved within (and without) our walls, we had already made quite clear our desire to be an inclusive Jewish day school.  Each student, of course, is different from every other student because each is unique.  But we know that we – not just our school, but each of us – should be ultimately judged by how we treat “difference”.

“I work well in groups.”

One of the critical literacies for the 21st century is the ability to work well in “groups”.  It is why we jumped early to adopt ideas from Alan November about the “digital learning farm” back in our earliest Skype-ortunities (thanks for the coinage Seth Carpenter!) we had students grouped to take ensure that everyone had a meaningful role to play and that students would have authentic opportunities to learn how to work together.  It will be the rare job our students will grow up to perform, where working well with others will not be a key to success.  It isn’t a skill you master in Kindergarten and then revisit in adulthood…it is an art form to be practiced daily so mastery ensues.

“I seek out other people’s ideas to solve problems because I know that by teaming with others we can create better solutions than anyone of us can alone.”

So unlike the above, which is ensuring that everyone on a team has unique role, here we really see collaboration in action; that by working with each other and learning from each other we will come up something better together than we could on our own.  I cannot think of anything that reflects collaboration – between students, between students and teachers, and between schools and other organizations – better than our recently completed “Whack-A-Haman” project that reached its goal of 1,250 downloads ahead of Purim.

“I am humble.”

We teach our children that each is made in God’s image and that we ought to remember that when we interact with each other.  Humility is critical to collaboration because it assumes an attitude that one does not know it all and that there is wisdom to be found in each and every one of us if we are only willing to look and to listen.  One way we have embraced humility is in the transition from Parent-Teacher Conferences to Student-Led Conferences and from Teacher Observations to Teacher-Led Evaluations.  In both cases we put the onus of responsibility on the learner to share growth rather than on the authority figure to ferret it out.

Next month we will finish up with “Sharpen the Saw”!

Habits of Kindness: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”

“Man was endowed with two ears and one tongue, that he may listen more than speak.”  – Hasdai, Ben HaMelekh veHaNazir, ca. 1230, chapter 26

unnamedWe introduced Habit #5 this week at our monthly “Habits of Kindness” assembly: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Our 8th Graders introduced the habit through skits and song and the essence of the habit seems to boil down to the ability to be a deep, active, empathetic listener.  Therefore, many of the activities we will engage in this month will be to educate and encourage our students (and our teachers and our parents) to practice the skills of being better listeners.

This is actually something I blogged about a long time ago with regard to thinking through how we prepare our teachers for challenging conversations with parents.  More recently, however, it is a topic that I actually have had the privilege of teaching to exceptional leaders in the day school school field through a program called YU Lead (part of the Yeshiva University Institute for University-School Partnership).  It is the second year I have taught this module and each time, I have used similar prompts to facilitate fascinating conversations.

So what I thought I would do to inspire conversation here is to share the prompts and see what it…prompts!

The part that I want to share here was the part that was the most impactful to the students and was borrowed completely from a professional development session we did here with our faculty with Dr. Elliott Rosenbaum in preparation for an early round of Parent-Teacher Conferences in which he showed us the following examples of ineffective and effective communication:

This led, with our faculty, to a very productive conversation about listening that opened our eyes (or I guess, ears!) to a better way of interacting with the parents in our school.

When I use it for YU Lead, I ask the following question:

Compare and contrast “The Ineffective Physician” and “The Effective Physician”.  What can we learn about the art of communicating difficult truths?

And to be fair, I ask the school people to read an article from a parent’s perspective called, “Help!  I Can’t Talk to My Child’s Teacher!” by Domeniek Harris.

And then I ask the following questions:

  • What new ideas about parent-school partnerships has this conversation raised for you?
  • How will these new ideas impact your current practice?
  • What new ideas about parent communication has this conversation raised for you?

And I then spend the rest of the week, mediating a conversation between these rising professionals on these topics and wherever these topics take us…


So…I invite you to check out the clips, read the article, and share how you think our school – its teachers, students and parents – can do a better job to embody the habit of “seek first to understand, then to be understood”!

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…

Habits of Kindness: “Think Win-Win”

This time we will let our 8th Grade introduce this month’s habit:

Like others of the 7 Habits, I am struck by the paradox of simplicity the habits create. “Think win-win” seems so simple, right?  Yes, there are developmental examples where that not might be the case (thinking of my 5 and 8 year-old daughters) and, yes, there are issues that perhaps are not so easily resolved with two winners (someone has to win the basketball game).  But as a philosophy?  Sure – of course things are best if we viewed challenges as opportunities for everyone to win, not with an inevitable outcome of a winner and a loser.  We might not always achieve a full “win-win”, but striving towards it will always yield a kinder result than “winner-takes-all”.

So instead of using this blog to highlight a personal or professional “win-win” of my own, I want to make a brief comment on the power of transferability utilizing the Habits of Kindness between home and school…

Our leadership team is presently reading The Leader in Me, which is the book that helpsbooks schools begin the journey of bringing the 7 Habits into the school. And as we have been reading, we are realizing the broader impacts, particularly the opportunity to strengthen the relationship between school and home.  From Chapter 3,

“…observe that the same principles and approach being taught at these schools can also be taught at home. One of the great things about the leadership approach is what it is doing to enhance the parent-school partnership.  For starters, it is bringing more parents into the schools to volunteer and support school and classroom activities.  But even more important is what is occurring as students apply the principles to their daily tasks and behaviors at home.  In other words, it is not just teachers who are reporting better behaviors and reduced discipline issues. Parents are reporting the same kinds of positive results. This is particularly true in families where parents have come to know the principles for themselves and have made conscious efforts to reinforce and teach them…If you are a parent, I promise that if you open your mind to it, you will have endless ideas of how you can apply what these educators are doing to your home.”

Excerpt From: Stephen R. Covey. “The Leader in Me.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/NPFVw.l

Now that we are a few months in, I do actually see – as a parent – my children beginning to use the language.  Eliana will say that she is “being proactive” or that she is “putting first things first” which has definitely allowed her to be better organized.  Because we are currently working on “think win-win”, I am hopeful it will have a spillover to our family because I think this attitude could only help siblings navigate the everyday challenges of sharing time, people and stuff in a busy 21st century family.

I have shown examples from our school of how we are putting the Habits of Kindness into effect…

…if you are a parent at MJGDS or Galinsky Academy and you are seeing the impact at home, please offer a quality comment!

…if you are a parent or educator at another school who utilize the 7 Habits, please share your experiences with us so we can continue to improve our implementation here!

We’ll keep sharing our successes and struggles…and if you keep offering advice and feedback…well we just might achieve a “win-win” of our own!

Go to the Principal’s Office! You’ve Been “Caught Being Kind”!

Community_of_Kindness____The_best_portion_of_a_good_man’s_life._His_little__nameless__unremembered_acts_of_kindness_and_of_love.__William_WordsworthYesterday was a milestone “Community of Kindness” day at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with two parents of students who had been sent to the principal’s office because they had been caught in the act of being kind.

We had our monthly faculty meeting earlier in the week and I reminded teachers that although I have often requested students be sent to me for committing acts of good behavior, no one had taken me up on it!  Perhaps I had not explained myself well enough; perhaps people thought I hadn’t really meant it; or perhaps we had not yet evolved past the reactive putting out of behavioral fires to the proactive inspiration of behavioral lovingkindness.  For whatever reason, something must have struck a cord because yesterday two different teachers referred students to my office who had been “caught being kind”.

The first referral came early in the day.  A lower school boy had performed above and beyond during Art and so a note came down to my office letting me know.  The teacher had to scribble over our typical referral note which only has a way for teachers to indicate misbehavior.  Noticing that was a useful wakeup call.  If we are going to take it seriously, then we have to institutionalize it.  If we use referral notes for misbehavior…maybe we need referral notes for kind behavior.

How often to principals or heads of school get to call parents with good news?

I can assure you based on the parent’s reaction that the correct answer is, “Not often enough!”

If each time the school calls it is to inform the parent that their child has misbehaved (or is sick or forgot their lunch), one imagines that when the phone rings and the school’s phone number comes up in the “caller ID”, the parent is not exactly excited to pick up.  But if just every now and again we are calling to let them know how proud we are of their child?


The second referral came near the end of the day from a Middle School Math Teacher.  I received a note that a student in her class had acted with “extreme kindness” towards another student in the class.  I managed to catch the student in carpool to shake his hand and let him know how proud I was of him before he headed home.

If every time you were sent to the “principal’s office” it was because you were in trouble, you probably wouldn’t want to be hanging out in that part of the building.  And if a principal only spent his or her time with students referred for misbehavior, there would be a significant gap in relationships.  That handshake in the parking lot meant as much to me as it did to the student I can assure you…

From our Fifth Grade:

“Caught Being Kind”

In 5th grade, we have two student “kindness ambassadors.”  This is a job students for which students apply and receive a salary.  The jobs switch approximately once a month.

Currently, our Kindness Ambassadors are Jagger and Jeremy, and they are doing a great job noticing kindness, as well as alerting teachers to issues so they can be nipped in the bud.

Here are two “caught being kind” photos taken and shared with me by the Kindness Ambassadors.

raising hand before speaking

raising hand before speaking



As part of developing a spirit of leadership in our school as part of incorporating the 7 Habits, how wonderful would it be if each of our students – and our parent and teachers – held the additional title of “Kindness Ambassador”!

So I look forward to more students being sent to my office for the right reasons, to ensuring we focus on positively rewarding kind behavior as much, if not more, than applying consequences to unkind behavior, and that when the phone rings in the home of an MJGDS parent and the school comes up in the “caller ID” that the emotion it triggers is excitement and not dread.  Pick up the phone when we call…your child may have been caught in the act of being kind!

Habits of Kindness: “Put First Things First”

paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mIt is a new month at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School and that means…a new Habit!

Habits of Kindness has become our shorthand for how we are utilizing the “7 Habits” to approach our “Community of Kindness” initiative.  As part of the first Habit, “Be Proactive”, I blogged about my commitment to blog each month about that month’s Habit and we spent August & September on the first Habit.  October had us spending time on the second Habit, “Beginning With End in Mind”, and like many of our teachers and students, I created my own personal mission statement.  (For ongoing information about our “Community of Kindness” program, please visit its blog…or even better, subscribe to it!)

November and December has us exploring the third Habit, “Put First Things First”.

There are 525,600 minutes in one year.  However, when you consider that approximately 175,200 minutes of that time will be spent sleeping, 16,425 minutes spent eating, and if you’re a student, 72,000 minutes spent in school, you have less than half that total to spend on the rest of your life. Therefore, it is essential to do the important things first—if you leave them until last, you might run out of time.

You know how something is so obvious that you dismiss it?

That’s how I feel about this habit.

You have likely heard that song and/or seen that video numerous times in the past and you know that the moral of the story is to remember that your big rocks are your family and friends and to not get bogged down in the sands of workaholism.

So why did I get to work yesterday at 7:00 AM and come home at 9:15 PM?

Why do so many of us struggle with finding balance when we know where our true priorities lie?

I don’t have an answer…but I do have an opportunity!  It just so happens that the theme of this year’s Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) Alumni Retreat – which is this Sunday-Tuesday – is on issues of health and wellness.  I welcome the opportunity to share and reflect with colleagues about how we try to keep ourselves spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically prepared to passionately pursue our profession while remaining loving and present spouses, partners, parents, children and friends.

I look forward to updating this post next week.

And in the meanwhile, feel free to share your secrets via a quality comment on this blog!

UPDATED 12/13/13

I wish I could say I came back with a secret success to wellness.  But I did come back with a commitment to take my wellness more seriously and that the only way to do that is to schedule wellness into my day.  Exercise, sleep, eating well…we all know these are among the keys to wellness.  Making them a priority is the trick.  Here’s hoping when I re-read this blog post in a few months that I have put my time where my words are!

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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Habits of Kindness: “Beginning With the End in Mind”

paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mLast month I blogged about how our school had decided to attack “Community of Kindness” through the “7 Habits” – which is how I have come to the appellation “Habits of Kindness” as a shorthand for ongoing kindness activities.  August & September were spent on the first Habit: “Be Proactive” and I committed to blogging each month about that month’s habit.

October has us spending time on the second Habit: Beginning With End in Mind. Students, teachers, and classes have all been charged with creating individual and class “mission statements”.  I invite you to tour the MJGDS Blogosphere for examples.  [For one excellent example, check out Kitah Dalet’s latest blog post.]

So…what is my “mission statement” as a head of school?  I realize that “mission statements” are supposed to be brief.  Any reader of my blog knows that I don’t do “brief” all that well.  So let me be a bit more creative and supply a mission/vision statement…here’s my crack at it:

Statement of Educational Philosophy & Practice


There is no theory or idea that when put into practice works equally well in all or even many situations.  My experiences in the field coupled with my experiences in academia have lead me to conclude that pragmatism is truly the best philosophy.  As I have moved on in my career – from different kinds of jobs (informal Jewish educator/congregational educator/day school head) in all kinds of different communities (Los Angeles/New York/Las Vegas/Jacksonville), I have taken that pragmatism with me. I believe that every educational situation is different, and that to be successful one needs to be willing to try anything and everything to fulfill one’s mission.

Overarching Goals for Jewish Day School Students

  • Students will be academically prepared for advanced and rigorous study at the next school of their choice.
  • Students will see education and Jewish education as life-long endeavors in which they are active participants.
  • Students develop a sense of independence, positive self-esteem, and are encouraged to reach their truest and highest potential.

Pedagogy – Na’aseh V’Nishma

This quotation from the Torah, “Na’aseh V’Nishma” (Exodus 24:7), has been interpreted in many ways in Jewish tradition.  The meaning, which speaks most deeply to me, is: “We will do and then we will understand.”  I believe strongly that children learn best by doing.

In addition, I believe the following:

  • Children learn best through experiences in which they are able to construct personal meaning.
  • Jewish children deserve the opportunity to experiment with authentic Jewish ritual practice.
  • Students learn in different ways and have varying needs.  It is our responsibility to provide a wide array of learning experiences to meet those needs.
  • Each student is unique and benefits from the freedom and responsibility involved in developing his or her own identity.
  • Jewish tradition provides a wealth of wisdom and insight that contributes to one’s whole life; therefore, Judaic and secular curricula are treated with equal respect (if not always time).
  • Family and community are critical partners in a child’s education.
  • An experiential approach to learning compels one to aim not only for students’ minds, but their hearts, bodies, and souls as well.
  • 21st Century Learning – technology, second-language acquisition, global connectedness, collaboration and transparency – is an essential pedagogy for today’s school.

Jewish Education

American values are not necessarily Jewish values and vice versa.  Integration cannot be imposed by the school; it is constructed by the student.  Jewish education does not reflect a synthesis of the secular and Judaic, but rather an interaction.  Academic excellence within the disciplines only serves as a prerequisite.  Schools have a responsibility to let students struggle with authentic examples of these interactions, as they exist in the world around them.

Jewish education has a stake in the choices students make.  Schools must make clear which choices are considered more preferable than others and why.  What those desired choices are and why they should be so desired will naturally differ from school to school. The basic pedagogic principle, however, ought to be consistent.  Students learn best by doing.  Jewish students learn best to make Jewish choices by choosing.

Vision of How to Lead a School

To be a Head of School is to have primary responsibility for enacting the mission of his/her school as determined by its primary stakeholders: board, parents, professionals, students, donors, and community partners.  Being a Head of School requires infinite pragmatism and the ability to actualize a varied set of skills across ever-shifting contexts. One has to see both the forest through the trees (focus on the mission) and the trees through the forest (focus on the details) in order to be successful.  The job requires one to be comfortable functioning as a bundle of contradictions – knowing when to listen and when to speak; when to inspire and when to be inspired; when to act and when not acting is the best course of action; when to lead and when to allow others to lead; etc.  Context – and the ability to recognize contextual cues – is paramount.


Do you have have a professional or personal mission/vision statement?  If you want to begin with the end in mind, you’ll need to create one!

A Sukkah for Orly

[This was originally published on September 18th, 2013.  In honor of Esther Ohayon’s first yahrtzeit, I am republishing with an update on Orly’s progress and important information about how you can support the family and continue to keep Esther’s memory alive.  If you are inspired…please give.]


esther ohayon-1By now it is likely that you have heard, read or seen the news of the traffic accident that took the life of our beloved DuBow Preschool Teacher Esther Ohayon and placed her daughter, Orly, an MJGDS graduate, into stable, but critical condition as they attempted to simply walk to attend Kol Nidre services at Etz Chaim Synagogue last Friday evening. There are no words to describe the loss of a teacher as sweet and beloved as Miss Esther and a world where a child as kind and loving as Orly must endure such tragedy. The shock has not yet worn off and the sorrow is only beginning…

By now Esther’s body has been returned to Israel for burial and Orly remains hospitalized with a long convalescence ahead.  For those in our local community, we will share information about possible memorial services once they are decided and, for now, despite the multitude of fundraising vehicles that have been created to support Orly and her family, we are honoring Etz Chaim’s Rabbi Fisch’s request that those looking to help make their donations directly to his discretionary fund.  (You may contact Etz Chaim directly for more information.)

Teachers, parents and children returned to school on Monday and we summoned the courage to comfort when appropriate, to shelter when necessary, and to love with ferocity. Our faculty met with Jacksonville Jewish Center Senior Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner for the purpose of providing information, planning communication for parents and especially children, counseling the bereft and to take a moment as a faculty to mourn the loss of a colleague and a friend.  Clergy and social workers have been available to meet with parents and students in the Preschool and the Day School to offer counseling and to answer any questions.

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Miss Esther was my younger daughter Maytal’s teacher a couple of years back and Orly was in my first graduating class.

My initial message to families ended like this:

I wish there was something more hopeful, more encouraging I could add to lessen the blow, but I, too, am both at a loss and feel the loss.  It is in such times as this, that I feel blessed to work and live in a community such as ours. The collective strength and love it possesses will be relied upon by us all as we do only what we can – to ensure Esther’s memory everlasting, to pray for Orly’s recovery, and to finally learn the lesson of life’s fragility and ensure we treat each day as if it could be our last.

And it is in the spirit of wishing I had something more hopeful to add and in the spirit of recognizing life’s fragility that I am moved to share what our students are doing today – on a rainy afternoon headed into what is supposed to be the joyous holiday of Sukkot.

The sukkah itself is a symbol of life’s fragility.  We are commanded to dwell in these temporary structures as a physical reminder of that fact.  As frustrating as it can be to deal with rain and wind while trying to enjoy meals on Sukkot, I actually appreciate the tangible opportunity to remind my children, and myself, that we are at the mercy of a life unpredictable.  To remind ourselves that there are those less fortunate for whom a sukkah would be a step up.  To remind ourselves that when we return to our homes and our lives when the holiday concludes, there are many who cannot and do not.

And so I cannot imagine a more fitting symbol than the sukkah as I think about Orly Ohayon.  No one knows more about life’s fragility than she.  And as we return to our normal lives after Sukkot, Orly upon recovery will never know normal again.

As hard as it is to find something hopeful in a situation such as this, I must share that as a principal I am inspired by an act of lovingkindness that the Middle School of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School is performing today.  Recognizing that holidays come whether we feel like celebrating them or not and recognizing that those staying in the hospital with Orly would be without, our students, under the leadership of our Middle School Vice Principal Edith Horovitz and with the additional help of students from Torah Academy (housed at Etz Chaim Synagogue), are on their way to the hospital to build a sukkah for Orly.  And even though she will be in no condition to dwell in it, it is in her honor and the honor of her mother’s memory that it is being built.

Esther Ohayon was a teacher of young children.  She loved, nurtured and protected them. She was their sukkah.  And so we will build a sukkah in her memory so that, in some small way, she can continue to love, nurture and protect those who now care for her own child.

This is what it means to be a true community of kindness.  This is what is means to be a true community.  This is what happens when students grow up in a school where learning about things is not sufficient.  This is why we do weekly mitzvah trips.  Learning must lead to action.  Learning must inspire us to make the world a better place.  Learning must make a difference in the lives of others.

So on a rainy Wednesday in Jacksonville, Florida, we will build a sukkah for Orly that she will never dwell in.  But by doing so we will honor the memory of Esther and demonstrate our love for Orly.  I pray this Sukkot that even as our joy is tinged with sadness, that we take the time to celebrate this happiest of holidays with loved ones and friends and as a result of a tragedy unfathomable, to finally learn the lessons of life’s fragility.

Chag sameach.


October 7, 2014 – Update

As I was getting ready to walk to synagogue this past Erev Yom Kippur, I was thinking about Esther and Orly and revisited this blog post.  It struck me how easy it is to be motivated in the moment, when the emotions are fresh, and how hard it is to stay motivated when the moment passes, and we – the lucky ones – return to workaday concerns.  So when the holiday ended, I reached out to Edith Horovitz, the Middle School Vice Principal of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, where Orly graduated from and to Shereen Canady, the Director of the DuBow Preschool, where Esther worked, to see how Orly is doing, how the family is doing, and most importantly, what we can keep doing.

From Edith Horovitz:

Orly is looking great!  She is here with her sister for her senior year of High School.  All of the schools dedicated all tzedaka on Friday in Esther’s memory.  The Day School collected over $300.

From Shereen Canady:

I saw Orly and Ilana recently and both look well.  Ilana will be here a couple more weeks and then will go back to Israel. Orly’s other sister, Simi will be coming mid-October to stay for a while with her.

We dedicated our preschool Shabbat in memory of Esther last Friday.  Rabbi Lubliner spoke about her and joined us.
All 3 schools collected tzedakah and we collected over $600. 

Chabad had a nice event planned in Esther’s memory.  The Megah Challah Bake was well attended by women from Chabad, the JJC and Etz Chaim.  We advertised it to our folks and several of our moms and some teachers attended.

By the way, Orly’s birthday is Oct. 13.

I was pleased to hear the news and look forward to more updates as time goes on.  But now I would suggest that as Esther was always there for her students, her colleagues, and her family, let’s continue to be there for hers…now and forever.

In honor of Esther’s memory, in celebration of Esther’s life, in support of Orly’s journey, in the spirit of community, let’s join our schoolchildren in the act of giving tzedakah.  

Please contact Shereen Canady (scanaday@dubowpreschool.org) if you are interested in making a donation or contribution.