Putting Your Cards On The Table

We have our first Professional Day coming up in January and our team is preparing for a wonderful day of reflection and collaboration.  As this day approaches, we also find ourselves in the middle of our first round of formal observations.  This is my opportunity to formally visit classrooms, observe teachers in action, reflect with them about their lessons to deepen the dialogue on what we are all here for – teaching and learning.

In the meanwhile, our students are busy working on our digital portfolio project – with a heavy emphasis in Grades K, 5 & 8.  In the older grades, as part of the project, they are beginning to identify and express that which is most important to them at this age and stage.  They are learning to label and share their core beliefs.

There is an exciting conflation of ideas between these activities – reflective practice and digital portfolios – that will serve as the foundation for our upcoming Professional Day. We are going to spend some time identifying our own core beliefs about education – what do we really believe is at the heart of teaching and learning?  Before we can move forward with a shared vision, we have to be clear about what we presently believe to be true.  I am looking forward to candid conversations and surprising connections as we collectively make explicit our implicit beliefs about education.

I am certainly part of the equation and in the spirit of being the first one to jump in the pool, I thought I would use this opportunity to share my vision (at least of this static moment).  To stimulate my thinking, I tried to make explicit my vision of an “MJGDS Graduate” and my vision of “How to Lead a School”.  There could be other prompts, but these were the ones that spoke to me.  Let me share mine first and then provide some closing thoughts after…

Vision of a MJGDS Graduate

I believe that Jewish Day Schools, including the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, should strive to achieve three overarching goals for its graduates:

  • 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 lifelong 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.

MJGDS with its commitment to differentiated instruction through an integrated curriculum is uniquely qualified to provide its students with the critical thinking skills necessary to be successful in their high schools of choice upon graduation.  With a proven track record of placement into independent high schools, magnet high schools, and a variety of honors and gifted programs, MJGDS demonstrates that not only does a high-quality Jewish Studies program not hamper students’ secular academics, but rather it provides a unique opportunity to enhance them.  The ability to integrate critical thinking skills across multiple disciplines helps ensure that MJGDS graduates possess a foundation for future academic success and a lifelong love of learning.

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 to make Jewish choices best by choosing.  MJGDS’ commitment to bringing Jewish values and repair of the world to life for our students is reflected through formal Jewish studies, living Jewish ritual practice, and hands-on social programs.  This surely sets the stage for future Jewish connectedness and communal participation on behalf of its graduates.

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.

The context of MJGDS is unique and leading it will be different from leading any other school.  Active listening, an important skill in any school, will be particularly important when coming into an established school with a track record of success and institutional memory.  I  will look to bring all my passion and enthusiasm for education and Judaism to bear in order to maintain all that is already excellent and to explore all that may be possible.

So…for teachers and staff, the questions might be “What would a graduate of your your class and program look like”?  “What is your vision for a Third Grade Jewish Studies Teacher”  “What is your vision for a Librarian?”

For parents, it would be fascinating to know what their vision for their children’s educations would be.  It would also be fascinating to have parents share their “Vision for How to Be a Day School Parent”.

For students, it would be a exciting to hear their visions for their own educations and how they envision what it means to be a student.

Our teachers and staff will have their opportunity to work on these vision statements come January (hint, hint!).  But I encourage everyone and anyone – parent, student, lay leader, donor, community stakeholder – to spend a few minutes thinking about your dreams and hopes for the school and for your role in the school.  And then take that extra step and SHARE it – post a comment, send me an email, pop by my office for a cup of coffee, raise a flare, anything – because the first step in sorting and organizing our cards into a shared vision of the future is to put them on the table.

Does it matter what school a student attends?

Last night we had a wonderful first recruiting session for the 2011-2012 school year! Woo-hoo!  We had a nice turnout from prospective parents as well as current parent ambassadors and teachers.  It was our first opportunity to tell the good news about all the exciting things going on in our school.  The primary focus was on Kindergarten and we were proud to be able to premiere two exciting new items:

Thanks to the hard work of our Admissions & Marketing Director, Talie Zaifert, we debuted a brand new video of a “A Day in the Life of Kindergarten”.

We also debuted the first of what will be a nine-part rollout of complete benchmarks & standards for each grade in our school.  Our teachers have been hard at work and the first one, Kindergarten, is now available!

Martin J. Gottlieb Day School Kindergarten Benchmarks & Standards

The rest will be ready to hit enrollment packets in the next few weeks.  We are pleased to be able to begin to live up to the high bar that has been raised for us – we consider this under the category, “Promises Made; Promises Kept”.  Hopefully, it will be the first of many.

During my spiel last night, I found myself repeating something that I say often to parents during recruiting events: that the research indicates that the most important factor in determining a child’s future academic success isn’t the school, but the fit between the child and the school.  That’s why it is so important for parents to really get the feel of the different schools they are considering for their child(ren).  I say this year after year, and I wholeheartedly believe it is true.  I also believe it is one of my more convincing talking points which resonates with parents.  Of course it would be useful if it was in fact empirically true as well!

Well, it just so happens that as I was going through some old files, I found a paper that I wrote in 2003 while finishing my doctoral coursework entitled “Does it matter which school a student attends?”  Who knew?  (Apparently not me!)  At the time, I was taking advantage of the consortium between the Jewish Theological Seminary and Teachers College and took a class in the “Sociology of Education”.  This is long before I ever considered working in Jewish Day School!

I wonder if it somehow stuck in my head all these years (as things tend to do in this head of mine), but it is nice to know that there is some actual research to back up what I’ve been telling parents all these years.  I would never inflict an old academic paper on anyone (I cannot find the grade, but I suppose it was least passing!), but if you would like to see for yourself the proof behind the anecdote (or just some light reading to help you fall asleep), by all means enjoy!

Does it matter which school a student attends?

In the meanwhile, we are excited to think about all the wonderful new faces we are meeting and will be meeting as parents go about their due diligence to discover which is the right school for their child(ren).  We are always honored to be included in the search and we are confident that for many children, we will be that right choice.  We are confident that no one will know your child better than us and no one will be better able to ensure that there truly will be a floor, but no ceiling for your child.

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!

The Business of Making Memories

I have more than my share of educational degrees and consider myself a lifelong learner.

I have not the slightest idea what I learned in Third Grade.

That is not a slight at my Third Grade Teacher, whoever she may have been.  I am quite confident I had an excellent Third Grade Teacher and learned all that I should have in Third Grade.  But I have no recollections of the experience.

In Jewish Education, we speak often of the necessity for “creating Jewish memories” – that layering memorable Jewish experiences one on top of the other leads to deeper identification, higher affiliation, and greater participation in ritual and practice.  The science of how that happens, of course, is somewhat inexact.  No one knows the exact combination of experiences required for the desired outcome – probably because it is entirely idiosyncratic.  For me, it was some combination of summer camp, strong peer identification, supportive parents, Israel experiences, positive supplemental school experience, etc. that has guided me down my Jewish journey.  [I strongly (hopefully not preachily!) suggested in my last blogpost that the holiday of Sukkot represented one such powerful opportunity for creating lasting Jewish memories and have been pleased to see many students and their families enjoying the holiday.]

But the roller coaster of Jewish holidays reaches climax this weekend as we move from Sukkot to Simchat Torah, after which we’ll come back down to earth and the reality of full weeks of teaching and learning.  And with that will come the weighty expectations of moving each child along his or her own unique path of potential – there is serious work ahead…

This school does not belong to me.  It belongs to us all and requires a shared vision to successfully accomplish all its hopes and dreams.  Putting some of these themes together along with my ongoing desire to juice the level of interactivity, leads me to ask a series of semi-connected questions to which I encourage you to respond in whatever manner suits you best.  If you are ready to dip your toe into the blogosphere and respond right here, please do.  If that seems too public for you, please feel free and email me at jon.mitzmacher@mjgds.org.  And if even that seems intimidating and you are part of our local community, feel free and actually talk to me!  (I still do believe in face-to-face interaction!)  I will report back on your collective wisdom and how it can and should shape the direction our school takes moving forward.

What are the educational memories (good, bad or otherwise) that contributed to make you the kind of learner you turned out to be?

What are the Jewish memories (good, bad or otherwise) that have shaped your Jewish journey thus far?

What memories do you wish for your children?

How can (our) school help contribute to making the memories you wish for your children?

I look forward to hearing your voice…

All Teaching is a Sacred Act

One of my favorite books is Teaching & Religious Imagination by Maria Harris.  It is a wonderful book and I am grateful to my doctoral comps for forcing me to become familiar with it.  What I love about it, is how it describes secular teaching in religious language.  The very act of teaching – regardless of subject or location – is a religious act.  This is not just beautiful imagery, which it is, but an important truth to acknowledge as we head back to school.

Those of us who have been charged with the sacred task of providing a child with an education recognize and are humbled by that holy responsibility.  It matters not in a school whether we are the teacher of prayer or the teacher of tennis.  Education is interactional and God can be found in the quality of our relationships.  How we treat our students and each other matters.

Teachers officially report for duty come Monday morning.  The sun rises on a new year.  I am as anxious and excited as anyone to see how it will all play out.  “Man plans; God laughs.”  We’ll see who’s laughing next week…

…a restful Shabbat and weekend to all!