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…

Marching With Fruits & Vegetables

I love Sukkot!  Talk about “A Floor, But No Ceiling”!

This is absolutely my favorite holiday of the entire year.  There is nothing else like it on the Jewish Calendar – sitting outside in a sukkah

you built yourself (or in my case built by handier Jews than I…which is just about anyone), with handmade decorations from your children, enjoying good food with friends and family in the night air, the citrusy smell of etrog lingering and mixing with verdant lulav – this is experiential Judaism at its finest.

But here is a sad truth: Even though our school will be closed on Thursday and Friday for Sukkot, it is reasonable to assume that the majority of our students will not be found in synagogue enjoying what is known as zmn_wmctnv.gif or “The Season of our Rejoicing”.  But many or most were certainly in synagogue last weekend for Yom Kippur.  So when it comes to “atoning” we have a full house, but for “rejoicing” we have empty seats?

If our children – if we – only experience the Judaism of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not the Judaism of Sukkot, we are not exposing them to the full range of beauty and joy our tradition has to offer.  So why, in fact, is this what typically happens?

I’m not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with the exotic nature of the holiday.  As someone who did not grow up celebrating this holiday, upon coming to synagogue as an adult and watching a congregation march in circles waving fruits and vegetables – well this was not the Judaism I knew!  Truth be told, there are surely pagan accretions to the way that we honor the harvest roots of this holiday which may seem alien to the typical prayerbook service.  But for me, that is precisely what makes it so unique, special and not-to-be-missed!

No one likes to feel uncomfortable and adults especially are wary of feeling uneducated or unprepared.  I know how I felt encountering Jewish ritual for the first time as an adult – it was scary.  I, however, was lucky.  I was pursuing a degree in Jewish Education and, therefore, had all the support and resources I needed to learn and grow.  I realize that most adults coming at Jewish practice for the first time are not so lucky.  The amount of “stuff” Judaism asks of us to do – building the sukkah with precise specifications, shaking the lulav and etrog in the proscribed way, chanting less-familiar prayers, coming to synagogue on unfamiliar days – can be overwhelming.  (And why I am offering “Parent University” beginning next month…plug, plug!)  But don’t lose the forest through the trees…I’d simply ask you to consider this: When building your child’s library of Jewish memories, which memory feels more compelling and likely to resonate over time – sitting in starched clothes in sanctuary seats or relaxing with friends and family in an outdoor sukkah built with love and care?

You don’t have to choose just one, of course, that is the beauty of living a life of sacred time – there is a rhythm to the Jewish calendar, evocative and varied.  Come to synagogue for the High Holidays, to be sure.  But don’t miss out on Sukkot (or Simchat Torah or Shavuot or “Add Jewish Holiday Here”).  Let this Sukkot truly be the season of our great rejoicing.  I hope to see many students in synagogue this Sukkot.  I hope to see many parents push themselves out of their comfort zones and join the parade.  Pick up your fruit and vegetables and march with us in a circle.  Chag sameach.

“Teaching by Being”

Dear God,

teach me to embody those ideals

I would want my children

to learn from me.

Let me communicate

with my children – wisely

in ways

that will draw their hearts

to kindness, to deceny

and to true wisdom.

Dear God,

let me pass on to my children

only the good;

let them find in me

the values

and the behavior

I hope to see in them.

Those are words of prayer written by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov from his Likutey Moharan (2:7).

They feel particularly appropriate to me writing, as I am, the morning of what will soon be Kol Nidre and the beginning of Yom Kippur.  ‘Tis the season for the most personal of reflections and the most profound hopes for the future.  Mine are encapsulated in the words of Rebbe Nachman above.

I read those words of two minds – as a parent of two and a principal of many.  It serves as the reminder for why in each of my teacher’s Preplanning Week binders they found this quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (for more, please see my prior blogpost “A Place in Time“) saying that “We need to have more than textbooks, we need text-people”.  We can have the best books, most well though-out curriculum, and the most sophisticated technology – and hopefully we either do or will soon – but without the right people what does it really amount to?

Another of our traditions during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur includes the act of teshuvah – the complicated act of acknowledging past wrongs, correcting past mistakes, promises of changed behavior, etc.  For my part, here in the most public of forums, please allow me apologize to all those I have wronged or hurt, intentionally or unknown over the past year.  It has been a remarkable year in the life for me and my family as we have transitioned our jobs and locations; moved far from family and friends; and have tried to keep from our children all the stresses felt.  It has not always been easy on those around us.  I look forward to working on myself to be the best “me” I can in the upcoming year.  For me, my wife, my children, my family, my friends, my colleagues, my teachers, my students and their families – I hope this year to live up to the words of Rebbe Nachman and Rabbi Heschel.

Easy fasts for all who do so…meaningful reflections for all who feel the need.  I welcome your sharing the thoughts, prayers, and quotes that speak to you during this time.  I welcome you joining the brave few who do comment on these blogposts…I wager I learn as much or more from you than you do from me.  Join us.

“Shanah tovah y’all!”

Afternoon!

The Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening and is the most well-known of the Jewish “New Year’s” (we actually have four different ones, including Tu B’Shevatif you follow this link you’ll get an explanation on why we have four and what they are.).  Since most of us also follow the secular calendar, we’ll have an extra one each year on the eve of December 31st.  And if you are in the field of education, well, the start of school provides yet another “new year”.  Putting it all together, suffice it to say, we have ample opportunities each year to pause and reflect on the year that was and to hope and dream about the year that is yet to be.

I went into a Kindergarten class this afternoon to conduct an activity centered around the tradition of tashlikh – a ceremony in which we cast off the sins of the past with an eye towards improving our behavior for the future.  For this activity, I had the children draw a picture and/or write about a behavior they want to avoid doing again – mistreating a sibling, being disobedient to a parent, not being a good friend. etc.  After they made their project, they crumbled it into a ball and threw it into the trash.  Bye-bye bad behaviors! Were it only that easy!

All schools count “character education” as part of their mission.  All educators consider it part of their already impossible jobs to help children grow and develop as human beings. Part of what I enjoy about being in a Jewish Day School is that we get to make that part of our curriculum explicit.  We are in the business of making menschen and during the High Holiday season, business is good!

This season our Middle Schoolers, under the direction of our Vice Principal, Edith Horovitz, who has masterminded this wonderful program for many years, have already made lunches for those who are hungry and baked honey cakes for the holiday and delivered them to the elderly. Programs like this – call it “service learning” or call it a “Mitzvah Program” – are opportunities for us to get outside the walls of the building and put into practice what we preach.  It is not academic time lost, but rather life-changing experiences gained. Through programs like this, our students are reminded that there needs to be a proper balance between “study” and “action”.

(By the way, if you are interested in the Talmudic source for this dialectic, check this out and discuss amongst yourselves:)

So who will we become this year?  Beyond all our academic hopes and dreams, will this be the year we become who we were meant to be?  Will we live up to our own lofty expectations?  Will we be better children, better students, better teachers, better siblings, better partners, better spouses, better colleagues, better friends – will we be a better “us”?

As the eve of a new Jewish Year approaches, it is my most sincerest hope that this is the year we’ve been waiting for.  Personally, as I prepare to spend my first High Holiday season in my new community, let me express my gratitude on behalf of myself and my family on how welcome y’all (did that sound Southern enough?) have made us feel in such a short time.  To the teachers, staff, parents, and students in this special school – thank you for your enthusiasm and your hard work.  5771 is shaping up to be a quite an amazing year…from my new school family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

“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!

“A Palace in Time”

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

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

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

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

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

“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…

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!