Notions from #NAJDS

What a week!

I flew back from Los Angeles on Tuesday after having participated and presented at this year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference [#NAJDS for those inclined to Twitter].  It was a wonderful conference from every perspective.  As has been our experience at each conference our staff and I have had the privilege to present at (PEJE, FCIS, JEA, etc.) or to host at our school, you come away invigorated at having met other trailblazers treading a similar path towards the future and excited by how far along that path you, in fact, are.

And let me unabashedly state for the record: We Are.

The story of how a (relatively) mid-sized K-8 Solomon Schechter Day School in Jacksonville, Florida stumbled into the eye of the 21st century learning hurricane continues to inspire all of us – parents, students, faculty, donors and community supporters – to keep the ball rolling.  We are onto something special here and I grow ever-confident each day that is only a question of when, no longer if, that will translate into all the dreams dreamt once upon a time nearly 50 years ago by those who birthed this school into existence; dreams nurtured with love and care by generations of administrators, clergy, teachers, parents and students; dreams that a Jewish Day School would not only offer outstanding Jewish Studies, but could be a model of rigorous, future-thinking (now “21st Century Learning/Curriculum 21”), and the highest-of-quality secular academics; dreams on their way to coming true.

Those dreams have not yet been realized; we are not that school yet…but each day we work our hearts out to grow one day closer.

Here’s a fantastic example of our team at work:

How awesome is that?  I can talk about “Curriculum 21” and what it means to be a school dedicated to “21st Century Learning,” but nothing beats seeing it with your own eyes!  [If you want to add a “quality comment” of your own click here!]

So…what else is going on?

If you have visited my blog before, you will see that I have added my latest obsession, Shelfari, to the blog.  What a gift to librophiles!  But beyond love of books, it actually allows me to begin to share with teachers and parents (and students) some of the foundational Jewish, Jewish educational, and educational books that have shaped my personal Jewish journey, that impacted my thinking about education, and as an added bonus, serve as the source texts for my weekly Parent University course here at the school.  At least parents can be reading along as we go along.  [My long-awaited “Parent University” blog post is coming soon!]  In the meanwhile, I have created a (largely) professional Shelfari profile you are welcome to peruse.  (NOTE: There are some number of fiction novels on the shelves.  I have been careful about the appropriateness of titles, but there are books that deal with mature themes and may include mature language.  Be forewarned should you let your child browse.  I realize I have made this sound so much more interesting that it actually is.)

Happy reading!

My Ningdom for an Eighth Day of the Week!

What a whirlwind the last few weeks have been!

I successfully avoided the blizzard that hit the Northeast weekend before last by skipping out a tad early from the Jewish Educators Assembly 59th Annual Conference.  This conference, for Conservative Jewish educators, was titled  “From Sinai to Cyberspace” and I had an opportunity to present on “21st Century Learning” to my colleagues.  The whole conference was enriching and validating – it is always nice to see the excitement from your colleagues for the work you are doing.  It was a positive experience all around. [Check out the Twitter feed from the conference here!]

I beat the snow and was rewarded by the unique opportunity to watch my Fourth & Fifth Grade students sing with Barry Manilow!  How fantastic is this:

My reward?  The flu!

And at the WORST possible time because I missed our Professional Day!  Thank God we had done the prep work and one of our 21st Century Learning teachers, Andrea Hernandez, stepped in to facilitate a great day of reflection and collaboration for our teachers.  The topic of the day was “Putting Your Cards On The Table”…which if it sounds familiar, was the topic of a prior blog post of mine.  Teachers had their opportunity to reflect and share their personal educational philosophies as a means towards developing a consensus moving forward.  Many teachers utilized our school’s ning as the vehicle for sharing.

The ning is a private, closed conversation, but I wanted to share with you my [edited] comments to the teachers from my “ning blog post” (confused yet!) because it will help you understand why it will have been well worth closing school for a day…

“Shalom Chevre!

I just spent the last hour reading through the blog posts many of you have put up about your own individual teaching philosophies and the comments that have been flowing back and forth.  How wonderful it is to read your words and see your passion for children, for learning, and for this profession we have all chosen to dedicate our lives to!  To say I wish I had been there, is an understatement.  I was devastated to have missed it and indebted to Andrea for taking the lead on what from all accounts was a nourishing and meaningful day of reflection and sharing.

I take to the ning blog not to share my vision or philosophy of education because I have done so already on my professional blog.  I take to the ning blog for the purpose of connecting some dots…

We have worked hard together these few months together, so hard, and it is both appreciated and making a real difference in the lives of our students and school.

Dot #1: Benchmarks & Standards

Our most tangible achievement has been the first drafting of “Benchmarks & Standards”. This is what we believe our children ought to learn/know/be able to do by the end of each year.  Next steps?  Pulling out strands (Mathematics, Science, etc.) and ensuring they truly flow vertically from Grades K-8.

Dot #2: Educational Philosophy

Beginning with our school’s mission statement, my initial blog post, and now with all your entries and comments, a consensus of sorts is forming.  We believe in differentiated instruction.  We believe in individualized attention.  We believe in “A Floor, But No Ceiling”.  We believe in the dignity of children.  We believe in the dignity of teachers.  We believe in building bridges with parents to form partnerships.  We believe in depth over breadth.  We believe a Jewish Day School can offer a rigorous, private school secular education through a 21st century mindset while still providing the highest-quality Jewish education available – all during one very action-packed school day!


Let’s connect some dots…

…we now know what we want to teach and we know how we (ideally) want to teach.  We now have to decide which materials and books are the best ones to do this.  Recognizing that no textbook is perfect and that ANY substantive change in curriculum is likely to REQUIRE teacher training, this is the time to have that conversation, do some research, and make…decisions.

The cards truly are on the table…and now they are waiting for you to pick them up and play a hand.

Kol tuv, Jon”

And so the next couple of months will continue our exciting adventure as we make sure that the books and materials we use in our school are the right ones to teach what we say we are teaching in the way we say we believe children learn best.

And we could all probably use an eighth day of the week to get it done!

I’m off to Los Angeles on Sunday for the North American Jewish Day School Conference. The topic for the conference is “The High Performance, High-Tech Jewish Day School of the (Very Near) Future” and I am thrilled that I will again have an opportunity to present on “21st Century Learning” and some of the exciting things we are doing here in our school.  As always, I will do my best to tweet from the conference.  I am taking fistfuls of echinacea so that when I get home from this conference, I’ll be right back at it!



Leap of Fact

There they are…these are some actual members of our current Class of 2023.  All the talk and rhetoric about what we could be, what we ought to be – it is all for these children. They are not an educational theory to be debated; they are flesh and blood children to be educated.  What we do now matters not in the abstract realm of philosophy, but in the practical realm of whether these girls and boys will be prepared for success in the 21st century in all the ways academic, social and Jewish that can be defined.  They – and all of the children in our school – are what it is really about.  They are the reminder and the inspiration; the goal and the promise.

January this year brings us a wonderful confluence of events – the publication and mailing of enrollment materials for the 2011-2012 academic year and the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat – a holiday celebrating, among many things, the planting of seeds and the harvesting of fruits.  I always marvel when the rhythm of Jewish living intersects with the rhythm of school life – it never fails to create meaningful and new connections.

And so the time has come to see how well we have sown the the seeds of confidence and competence; love and caring; rigor and renewal; energy and enthusiasm – have we begun to deliver on the rightfully lofty academic, spiritual, emotional and social expectations our children and parents have for us?

Those who study the phenomenology (I hear I am supposed to include at least one word per blogpost that requires being looked up.  I linked it for you this time.  This time.) of religion often refer to Kierkegaard‘s (OK, I may be showing off now) so-called “leap of faith” describing what is necessary for someone to become a believer.  The “leap of faith” is predicated on the notion that one cannot really know (at least in scientific terms) religious truth and so in the end it is a matter of faith.

As enrollment packets find their ways into parents’ hands all across America, all of us involved in the sacred and holy task of educating children look to this time of year and hope we have nurtured the seeds we have sown with success.  We are not looking for parents to make a leap of faith and enroll their children in our schools.  We are looking for parents to make a leap of fact and enroll their children in our schools – confident that our school is the right place for their children to receive the education they want and deserve.

The seeds were planted during the summer.  They were watered and nurtured during the fall and into the winter.  As winter moves on (even in Florida!) and slowly moves towards spring, the faculty, staff , lay leaders, donors, supporters and administration of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School look forward to a rich and satisfying harvest.

We look forward to many, many leaps of fact.

[Want more facts?  Check out this podcast with Alan November, interviewing our teachers and students!]

Wordle Up!

The smell of crispy latkes and sugary doughnuts is starting to slowly recede from the building as another Chanukah has come and gone.  We are now in that unique window between Chanukah and Winter Break – when both student and teacher eagerly anticipates a much-needed vacation after all the hard work and effort that has been poured into a most exciting and successful beginning to our year.  A few interesting threads are coming together at a moment when our secular calendar affords us an opportunity for reflection. (The nice thing about a shared identity is that we have plenty of holidays, new years, and chances to reflect!)

Under the leadership of our 21st Century Learning Team of Silvia Tolisano and Andrea Hernandez we hosted a conversation of local (and not-so-local) Technology and Curriculum Coordinators this past week at our school.  [The meeting grew out of our recent experience at the FCIS (Florida Council of Independent Schools) Conference of having so many of our teachers present on how we are utilizing a 21st Century Learning approach at our school and receiving such positive feedback.]  We are proud, especially for a school our size, to play a leadership role in our local community.  So…the thread of “21st Century Learning” and “Curriculum 21” was made more explicit for me this week.

Another thread has been the beginning of our formal observation period.  I am in the midst of observing and conversing with all our teachers about the work that they do.  It is amongst my favorite (and, yes, time-consuming) tasks because we get to focus in on what we all are here for – teaching and learning.  So far I have been pleased with what I am seeing and enjoying the opportunity for dialogue.

I am also finishing up the first “semester” of my “Parent University” class for parents of students in our school.  It has been a wonderful first experience and I promise that I am learning at least much as I am teaching.  I am looking forward to continuing to study with my two groups and hopefully adding some new people after Winter Break.  Another thread…

What I will use to tie it together will be a Wordle

I realize that I am late to Wordle, but having seen a few teachers make use of it during their observations, I’m discovering it for the first time and loving it.  In a nutshell, Wordle (through an algorithm only it knows) takes any piece of written text and represents it graphically in a way which highlights frequently-used words.  It is a fantastic device for visually summarizing the essence of a written text.  What is great about it, is not only can you cut-and-paste in any written document, you can type in blogs, websites, etc., and it will go back and search them for content, add it all up, and spit out a Wordle representing the sum of  all its written content.

So…as an experiment in the spirit of reflection, I created a Wordle of this blog:

How awesome is that?

Is it a perfect reflection of the blog?  Probably not (mine has “Christmas” larger than “Chanukah”!), but it hits most of the high notes.  It helps me realize what I’ve been emphasizing (or over-emphasizing) or what is missing that perhaps I thought was there.  Either way it really gets you thinking…

Of course, I immediately thought of a thousand fun ways to use Wordle – should I check every classroom blog that way?  My dissertation?  The Torah?  Our school’s Behavior Code of Conduct?

How fun!

So…let’s Wordle Up!  Find a text that is meaningful to you, create a Wordle, and find a way to share it.  The wordle is waiting!

Postscripts from PEJE

I just spent the last few minutes scrolling through my “handwritten” notes that I emailed myself from my iPad from this year’s 2010 PEJE Assembly for Advancing the Jewish Day School Field.  Here, for example, is a page of handiwork:

Besides serving as evidence as to why my “Handwriting” grades in elementary school were always poor and why I failed “Board Writing” in grad school, this particular page of notes served as a reminder to something that seems obvious, but actually requires a lot of planning – and at our school both a paradigm shift and an investment in faculty.  The reminder is that schools that are serious about teaching students how to work well in teams need to dedicate time to allowing (and sometimes coaching) teachers to work in teams.  Like so much else of what we preach, the message is best received when we practice – in Hebrew we say we are serving as dugmaot, exemplars.

The third part of my rudimentary equation deals with the financial ramifications for committing to such a philosophy.  They say your budget is your most honest reflection of your values, putting your money where your mouth is and all.  In our school where the majority of teachers are less-than-full-time, this is a very significant issue.  If we believe that our students ought to participate in high-quality cooperative learning experiences and that in order to do so our teachers need the time to plan high-quality cooperating learning experiences by planning together cooperatively, then we need to dedicate time for our teachers to cooperate.  (How’s that for a sentence?)  Time that cannot come out of their teaching time.  Time that cannot come out of their prep time.  Yet additional planning time – and that time will cost money and that money has to be reflected in the budget.  And so the circle of life continues…this is a challenge we shall be exploring in the future months.  Stay tuned.

And that was from one page of my twenty-seven handwritten notes!

I have twenty-six other pages of thoughts and doodles that sparked or will spark other thoughts and ideas that will find their way into the lifeblood of our school through the conversations and programs they will generate.  Ideas about alumni programs, development issues, effective communication, team-building and more.

In addition to the new ideas and people I was exposed to at the conference, it was also an opportunity to reconnect to old friends and colleagues and to take stock of where I am in the field and where our school sits in the marketplace.  Since this is a professional blog and not a personal blog (God bless those who have the time to do both!), suffice it to say that I am in a happy place.  More importantly for this forum, our school seems to be in a happy place as well.  There is so much more for us to do and to be – and I think the group of us who went together all came back similarly validated by what we do well (21st Century Learning, Website Marketing, and Governance for examples) and energized for the challenges ahead (Alumni Relations for example).  We are heading upwards and onwards into the future.  We, too, have a firm floor, but no ceiling on hopes and dreams.

I tried to make good on my promise to explore the power of Twitter by both tweeting on a much more regular basis and by lending my voice, through Twitter, to the general conversation that both was and is taking place through the #pejeassembly “hash-tag”.  If you follow that last link you can view the collective wit and wisdom of all those who had something to share from the conference and if you have a Twitter account you can join in the fun.  As I began to explore in my last blogpost, these conversations are part of the public record, as are all the tweets ever tweeted on Twitter (say that five times fast!).  As always, I invite your comments and contributions to that and any other conversation in whatever way you find most comfortable.

In the meanwhile, I will enjoy a well-deserved restful Shabbat and will try very hard to care about the Florida-Georgia game, even though I left my heart in UC Berkeley.

Go Gators?!  (Go Bears!)

Transparency as Pedagogy

“A Floor, But No Ceiling?”  Sure…but what about walls?

I had an interesting conversation this morning with our Admissions & Marketing Director and one of our 21st Century Learning Teachers…

We believe we are striking out on a relatively uncharted path when it comes to 21st Century Learning because we believe it is the (only) best way forward to improving the quality and relevance of what we do.  There are many facets to this approach which have been blogged about by me and certainly much better and with much more detail by others (start with our own school’s blog for 21st century learning and dig as deep you wish).  One important component of the paradigm shift is the emphasis on transparency. What does it mean to be transparent?  Transparency can mean more than one thing, but you cannot tear down the walls and expect that people will only peer in.

This came up because we are struggling to apply a 20th century media release to a 21st century school.  It was simple to know which students could be included in newspaper and bulletin articles and which could not.  It was simple to know which names you could publish with a photo and which had to be left nameless.  When “media” was exclusively print, it wasn’t complicated.  And even when websites were created, they were largely static and so it wasn’t much different.  But now?  What happens when a student wants to comment on a teacher blogpost?  What happens when a student’s voice is captured in a podcast?  What happens if in order to participate in a 21st century learning experience you have to be part of a global conversation?

What I think it boils down to is this…transparency is no longer an expression of customer service or an opportunity for savvy public relations.  Transparency is now pedagogy – and that is where the paradigm shift occurs.  When you tear down the walls, you encourage interactivity not just because it is fun to know that other people may see or read or hear or watch what you are doing, but because their feedback to your work becomes part of the process of doing your work.  Transparency becomes pedagogy.

There are implications and they are not all easily resolved.  Take for example the digital portfolio.  We are piloting a digital portfolio program in all of our grades, but focusing in particular in Grade K, 5, & 8.  In each grade, however, the emphasis is on allowing students (in a developmentally appropriate way) to be co-creators of their digital footprint – they help decide what are the authentic artifacts of their best work that should become part of their permanent record.  Those artifacts will look dramatically different for different students at different grades for different subjects.  But if one goes all the way, they also become part of the public record.  Are we ready to honor the moral imperative of sharing?  Are we ready to view the authentic work of children not our own and not worry about how it compares to our own?  (Am I as a Head of School ready for all the unintended consequences of such a thing?)

The reason why the answers should be “yes” is because it is inevitable – this is where the world is heading.  The reason why the answers should be “maybe not” is because we are human – change is scary.  And so we continue to talk and share and read and teach and ultimately to lead.  The future is coming and it will be a transparent one whether we think it is a good idea or otherwise.  The schools which will ultimately viewed to be successful will be the ones who were ready for the shift when it occurs.  Let’s be ready.

In other news, I am off with members of our leadership team to the PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) Assembly in Baltimore on Sunday.  PEJE brings together every strand and flavor of Jewish Day School education and its Assembly typically draws the best and the brightest from education at large.  I am looking forward to a stimulating conference and to sharing the new ideas I am sure will impact my thinking moving forward.  I plan to take advantage of the opportunity to explore how to best utilize Twitter so for the tens of you following me @Jon_Mitzmacher don’t be surprised if my tweeting activity suddenly mushrooms.  Let the twitterscape be forewarned!

“Insert Subject Here” as a Second Language

A few blogposts ago, I was swooning (and admittedly probably bragging a bit) about our Skype call during Preplanning Week with Heidi Hayes Jacobs, editor of Curriculum 21.  I am pleased that with her permission and with a lot of time and effort from our 21st Century Learning Teacher, Silvia Tolisano, we are able to share with you here an edited version from that call.  I encourage you – whoever you are who may be reading this – to watch it (it is just under 20 minutes).  If you are a parent, student, or supporter of our school, this will be a wonderful peek in behind the curtain of all the “Curriculum 21” and “21st Century Learning Technology” activities we have been so proud to advertise and talk about here.  This is why we believe we are changing the paradigm of what a Jewish Day School should and can be.  These are our hopes and dreams for our children.  This is why we are convinced our graduates will be eminently prepared for their next schools of choice.  This is why we invested in the physical and human resources necessary make it all come alive.  And boy is it alive – but don’t let the blogosphere and twitterati overwhelm the essential point.

That point, of course, is that what this really is about is teaching and learning – what good schools have always been focused on.  So I encourage anyone who is passionate about education and schooling to watch as well.  Schools who are invested in this movement do so not to promote themselves through social media (though we do); we do it because we believe it is how children need and deserve to be educated in a global 21st century world if they are going reach to their maximum potentials.  But enough of me, let Heidi tell you herself…

If you have stuck around this long, you are probably ready for a break, but I did want to pick up the thread of one “a-ha moment” I picked up from the call.  In it she went out of her way to describe how in other cultures (Singapore for example) Math is taught as a “second language”.  This is why those students are often more easily able to articulate critical mathematical thinking skills rather than simply demonstrate computational mastery.  They have been taught how to speak “Math” as a second language and have become literate in “Math”.  Amazing.

She next drew the analogy to “Music,” but my “a-ha” moment was to imagine opening up every subject to this approach.  What if we had to teach each subject in our schools as second languages?  Our students would become as fluent in Math as they were in English; equally as capable of being a patron of the Arts as of the Sciences.  They would speak History, write Music, and think Engineering.  What other metaphor so aptly describes our goal of inculcating in our students the ability to think in the disciplines we value?

In many schools, of course, a second language is being taught and for a Jewish Day School that language is Hebrew.  Here it is not just metaphor – Hebrew is being taught as an actual second language.  But the larger goal is not for them to be merely fluent Hebrew speakers.  In the same way we might describe the ability to read music as a prerequisite to musical literacy, the ability to read (and write and speak) Hebrew is for the Jewish Day School a prerequisite to speak Jewish.  It is not “Hebrew as a second language,” but “Judaism as a second language”.  Viewing our Jewish Studies in the same lens we view General Studies, with equal rigor of both academic expectations and teacher preparations, is part of what it means to be an integrated Jewish Day School.  It is why we have “Jewish Studies” and not “Hebrew”.  The difference is not mere semantics.

I could go on…and I probably will.  But not for here and not for now.  If any of this sparks anything in you (even healthy dissent), please don’t be shy.  I invite you into discussion on this or any of my blogposts.  I enjoy writing them and they are definitely a valuable reflective tool, but I enjoy dialogue about education even more.  If you are presently engaged in this type of work or know of examples, I would love to know.  So feel free and jump in!

“We shall do; We shall understand”

What a week!

We are at the tail end of what has been the most exciting and enthusiastic Pre-Planning Weeks I have ever been honored to lead.  We have been studying Curriculum 21 as a school for almost half a year and experimenting with nings, wikis, Google docs, Skyping, etc.  As the new head of school, coming into this so recently, the credit for much of this goes to the visionary lay leaders who brought the program to us and to our primary 21st Century Learning Specialist Silvia Tolisano.  I have been impressed at the level of buy-in from all our teachers (regardless of age or stage!) and we have spent much of our week collaborating and planning for an amazing year.  The highlight for many was a Skype call with Curriculum 21 editor and author Heidi Hayes Jacobs.

I have been inspired by my teachers to jump into 21st century learning as well, with this blog, a twitter account, a Skype account, etc.  Each week I hope my sophistication with all these new vehicles for connection and communication deepens.  So too, do I look forward to being enriched by those kind enough to enter into feedback loops with me.

Part of my desire to keep this blog is precisely to reflect on the relationship between 21st century learning and 5,000 year-0ld traditions.  This week was a good week for this kind of reflective practice.  While studying from the Book of Exodus with my Jewish Studies Faculty, we focused on a curious phrase.  When God prepares to give the Torah to the People of Israel, the people respond by saying “We shall do; we shall understand” (Exodus 24:7).  We will do all that God will ask of us and we will (then) understand.

I am greatly paraphrasing and somewhat loosely interpreting, but it is an acceptable translation and understanding to conclude that one can oftentimes gain understanding through action.  This is as true as keeping kosher as it is as learning addition.  You want to know why it is valuable and important to keep kosher?  Try keeping kosher for a while and see how it might enrich your life.  You want to learn how to add?  Take these manipulatives and play with them.  Then you can learn the formulas.  Jump in.  Get your hands dirty.  Experiment.  Play.

In many ways this formulation from the Bible is one of the earliest advocacies of experiential education – we learn best through doing.  It may not be only way of learning, but it is certainly a valuable tool.

These ideas collided during our week-long study of 21st century learning.  If we as a faculty want to see the power of collaborative working through wikispaces and Google Docs…we need to commit to doing it.  If we want to see how podcasting can impact student learning…we need to podcast.  If we want to see how using interactive whiteboards can lead to a paradigm shift in teacher preparation and student achievement…jump in.  Get your hands dirty.  Experiment.  Play.

Our teachers are ready.  I’m ready.  The parents are certainly more than ready!  The students?  We’ll see them on Monday.

A restful weekend to all…