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.

November Dilemma? December Opportunity.

Chanukah in Jacksonville gives “Festival of Lights” a whole new meaning for me!  This is the time of year when many rabbis and Jewish educators dust off their “Christmas Dilemma” sermons or lessons.  It isn’t difficult to understand why.  Advertising for Christmas begins before Thanksgiving these days and in Jacksonville, where the Jewish presence is (relatively) small, Chanukah rates barely a mention.  This is not the time to lament that Chanukah, a minor rabbinic holiday, has been elevated into a major holiday in order to protect the North American Jewish psyche against the annual Christmas bombardment.  It is appropriate, however – especially for a Solomon Schechter Day School – to take a moment to see what light this so-called “dilemma” sheds on how one deals with the dissonance between our shared cultural heritages.  Because like it or not, Christmas, is not (only) a religious holiday, but an American holiday, and as such it helps us refine our understanding of what it means to have an “integrated” curriculum.

Integration in the Jewish day school has been and continues to be a topic of which there is much discussion, but little consensus.  I agree with the late, renowned Jewish educator Joseph Lukinsky when he stated that “the opposition is not between Jewish and general studies, and that the first task is not how to find some way to integrate or synthesize them”.  His description of the status quo in 1978 remains apropos in that there remains two prevailing attitudes towards general studies in the day school curriculum: rejectionist (most applicable to the non-liberal day schools) and “Judaizing” – the felt need to apply a Jewish view to every general studies topic otherwise risk students will view general studies as the more relevant.  [A third attitude, not prevalent during the beginnings of the day school movement, one could call assimilationist—where Jewish studies as defined in the school’s mission clearly takes a backseat to the general and any clash between values is left unmentioned and unexplored.]

Christmas is almost an unfair example to take because regardless of which attitude a Jewish day school takes, it surely isn’t going to integrate the ideas and values of Christmas into its curriculum.  However, if you take one aspect of Christmas in America—consumerism—you can see how complicated integration can be.  Consumerism with its focus on individual material attainment is not consonant with Jewish values.  So what is a Jewish day school to do with Chanukah in today’s America?

Being “Jewish” and being “American” is not the same thing.  However proud we legitimately ought to be of both our identities, we are not being intellectually honest if we claim they are identical and never in conflict.  Please keep in mind that the choice not to choose between is itself a choice.   Celebrating the consumerist aspects of Chanukah without acknowledging their conflict with Jewish values is to claim that such a conflict does not exist.  Here at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a proud Solomon Schechter school, we are neither rejectionist nor assimilationist.  Nor do we feel so threatened by general society that we have to make everything Jewish.  We strive to be interactionist—our philosophy which can be seen in everything from our curriculum to our bulletin boards—seeks to allow the Jewish and the general to interact naturally as it does in the real world.

So please, celebrate the historical and religious significance of  Chanukah with joy, festivity, and yes, presents.  But this Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community).   Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to those less fortunate than ourselves.  By doing so we send a powerful message that there are times when our Jewish values command us to reject the values of secular culture and that not only is that okay, but sometimes it is both necessary and appropriate.

Happy Turkey Day & Chanukah from my family to yours!

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.

The Trouble with Transferability

I was proud to spend today (and yesterday) at the FCIS (Florida Council of Independent Schools) Conference, here in Jacksonville, having a chance to kvell at having the most teacher presenters of any other school and to do some good old-fashioned networking. Then during my last session, during a moment of smalltalk,  someone asked me what I thought is the greatest challenge facing Jewish education today?  And I said to myself, “Guess who wrote himself this week’s blogpost!”

Here’s my answer:

As an opening caveat, I must limit my discussion about issues facing Jewish education and the Jewish people to that of North American Diaspora Non-Orthodox Judaism.  That is the milieu of which I am both product and practitioner and is the only setting that I feel somewhat capable of speaking about with any measure of authority or credibility.  And even that limitation leaves a field too large for one person to see clearly, but having had an opportunity to work in a variety of positions and geographies, I am convinced that the single greatest challenge in Jewish education is identifying the vehicles of transferability from powerful experiences to meaningful Jewish choices.  Although I am partial to Jewish camping and Jewish day school as the two most likely candidates to produce said experiences, I have participated in amazing supplemental school classes, transformative youth group retreats and excellent adult education seminars.  There are opportunities abundant in Jewish education for creating connections – connections between people, connections to history and ideas, and connections to God.  What I consider to be the missing link, so to speak, is linking those experiences to an ongoing engagement with Judaism between and after the power of those peak experiences fade.

Havdalah seems to be a transcendent highlight for kids attending Jewish summer camps (I know it was for me).  It is amongst the most powerful events that take place at camp…and for many Jewish children takes place exclusively during the summer.  Same is true for daily/weekly prayer, Shabbat observance, kashrut (of some form or another) observance, etc. – for many Jewish children these rituals only exist during the summer months when they are not only viewed as normative, but as ultimate.    Similarly for (non-Orthodox) day school kids, kashrut, blessings, prayer, speaking in Hebrew, study of Jewish text, etc. – these activities are imbued with meaning and purpose within the confines of the school walls, but for many end with the closing school bell.  The power in these experiences and others lie in their ability to make normative, or even better “cool,” Jewish rituals and practices that are anything but in children’s regular lives of family, synagogue and Jewish communal life.

Havdalah with your parents at home on a Saturday night with your friends waiting for you to meet them at the movies cannot hold a candle (even a braided one) to havdalah under the twinkling stars in a redwood retreat, arm-in-arm with your newfound closest friends, and guitar strumming away.  Needless to say, the day school student who cannot use his/her Hebrew outside of school with friends and family will only find it so meaningful for the long term.  Not mention the difficulty of replicating a magical sukkah experience at a home lacking one.  The dissonance between what is preached and lived in Jewish educational settings and the family is well-known and is as difficult to breach now as it has been for the last half-century or more.

As the Head of a Jewish Day School, I consider myself to be on the front lines of this conversation.  Although there is a percentage (typical in a non-Orthodox school) of families whose primary concerns are Jewish Studies, many of our families are enrolled in our school because they are looking for a topnotch secular academic program.  The fact that it also comes with a high-quality Jewish Studies program and is housed in a Jewish setting emphasizing Jewish values is anything from “also important” to “nice” depending on the family.  So even in the Jewish educational setting where families are arguably the most invested, we still struggle to find the motivation and vehicle for transference.

For me it begins with admissions and carries through to graduation.  During initial family interviews, I am candid with parents about our school’s agenda for the inculcation of Jewish ritual and practice.  It is really no different than the agenda we have for the inculcation of any other facet of our program.  I want our children to go home from school excited about everything they are learning and seeking to find meaningful ways of incorporating lessons learned into lives lived.  Unlike math or reading, however, we need to reach into families’ lives to provide encouragement and education to bring the Jewish Studies curriculum to life.  Nurturing the relationships that allow that process to occur is, perhaps, the most important, fulfilling, and sacred aspect of my work.  Finding the way to sow the seeds for Jewish journeys is my work’s greatest challenge.

The Art of Difficult Truths

“Man was endowed with two ears and one tongue, that he may listen more than speak.”

Hasdai, Ben HaMelekh veHaNazir, ca. 1230, chapter 26

Boy that is hard to do!

I am not a natural-born listener.  Talking comes fairly easy and I have ofttimes been accused of enjoying the sound of my own voice (guilty!).  But listening is much harder. Listening – deep listening, not merely hearing – is a gift we only notice when we are lucky enough to be in the presence of someone who really knows how to do it.  The way they maintain eye contact – not looking at their watch, their iPhone, or over your shoulder to see if something or someone more important is coming along.  The way they make you feel that what you have to say has weight, that it really, really matters.  I always feel a twinge of envy whenever I hear someone describe that kind of experience because I recognize that I rarely am that someone – like most people, I am a work in progress.

In a prior blogpost, “A Palace in Time,” I mentioned paranthetically:

[I think a Buber blog on how the ideal teacher-student / teacher-parent relationship can be constructed just germinated!  Hint: It all begins when the students enter the class for the first time and the teacher seeks the Godliness in each and every one.]

I think, heading into our first round of Parent-Teacher Conferences, it is time to bring this idea to full flower…

Martin Buber was “was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of religious existentialism centered on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship.”

The basic idea (and I realize that I am butchering it for the sake of brevity) is that when we treat others as objects, we are in an “I-It” relationship; when we treat others with recognition of the divine within them – when we acknowledge that we are all created in God’s image and treat each other as such, we are in an “I-Thou” relationship.  Taking a deeper step (according to this idea) would be to say that when we treat each other with love, we invite God’s presence into our relationships.  Not merely as metaphor, but as an existential fact.

Now that takes a lot of energy.  So much so that it is perfectly natural to have “I-It” relationships or moments – sometimes I just want to pick up my allergy medication and go home; I am not seeking to have an “I-Thou” relationship with my pharmacist.  I do, however, want to have “I-Thou” relationships with my wife and children and it serves as a useful and sometimes painful reminder of how hard that can be when Jaimee and I (like many busy couples) are forced to use email to communicate because we are two ships passing in the night.  It is hard to invite God’s presence into an electronic communication…

Tomorrow our school will hold Parent-Teacher Conferences.  One way to measure whether or not they will be successful, I would suggest, will be determined by whether or not we see each other as “Thou’s” and not “It’s”.  Have we done the work necessary from the start of school to develop “Thou” relationships with our students?  With their parents?  We’ll know if we are able to identify the good that comes with each student and share it with his or her parents.  We’ll know if we are able to share the difficult truths which are our responsibility to share and have them received in the spirit in which we will surely wish it to be received.  We’ll know if we are able to hear difficult truths about ourselves in the spirit in which they will surely be given.  The spirit of genuine partnership where only the wellbeing of the child is important.  The spirit of seeing the best in each other, even when it takes a little more energy.  The spirit that exists when we see each other as a “Thou” and not an “It”.

Ken yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will.)

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!

Leap of Faith

What a week!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iJew

I have an iPad.  It is pretty awesome.

I use it for a variety of purposes – some of them are even work-related!  I carry it on my class walk-throughs so that I can write notes about what I am seeing.  I take it to meetings.  I can check my email and keep up with all the social media that I still sometimes find overwhelming.  It is an incredibly versatile tool.

I also use it for all sorts of other things – organizing books, staying on top of my fantasy football teams, movies, music, pictures, games, etc. – things that simplify my life and allow me instant access to the things that I am interested in.

There is little question that an iPad, like many of the other technological tools we now use without thinking, can serve an a means for connectedness.  I can use it to stay connected to people as close as the room next door or as far away as another continent.  I can interact with the blogosphere and twitterscape at a moment’s notice.  I am constantly connected.

But I have been thinking a lot about the quality of that connection and about the “i” in “iPad”.  That connection was made explicit to me last night at our Middle School Open House.  We had a wonderful Open House – parents had an opportunity to hear from teachers, view their blogs, watch some innovative student-created videos, etc.  The overwhelming message – as is that of the name of this blog – is that we are charged with the task of providing maximal individual attention.  We must know our students as individuals and lovingly inspire them to reach their individual academic (and spiritual, and emotional, and social, etc.) potentials.  I, I, I, I….

There is no “i” in “Jew”.

Judaism has strong communitarian leanings.  We are encouraged to see ourselves as a community, not as a collection of individuals.  That is why , for example, we are required to pray as a group – the minyan.  This can create tension in an American Jewish Day School, especially one such as ours, which seeks to be be a place of interaction, not assimilation or separation.

For us, as a Solomon Schechter Day School, we do not seek to subsume our Jewish values to American values (or vice-versa), nor do we presume we can live as bifurcated people, switching personalities and viewpoints depending on whether we are functioning as “Jews” or as “Americans” as a matter of context…as if that can be done.  No – we believe that children (and adults) are human beings who are capable of bringing their American and Jewish selves together in healthy holism.  As much as we focus on the “I” in “AmerIcan,” it is important sometimes to focus on the “we” in “Jew” (okay, you have to spell it backwards, but it is there).  Luckily just such an opportunity comes knocking on Monday…

I am headed off to Camp Ramah Darom in Atlanta next week with our Middle School on its annual retreat.  I am beyond excited – camping is in my blood and it will be a remarkable opportunity for us to take what we do here inside the walls and make it come alive in an awe-inspiring natural setting.  I look forward to sharing that experience with you upon our return.  For me, the Middle School Retreat will be important for restoring balance to the “i-centrism” I have been discussing.  This retreat is all about “we” – and we are going to have the times of our lives.

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…