You Can Go Home Again

Forgive the brevity (for me)…

We got back late last night from a week-long vacation in Las Vegas and we are moving rental homes first thing Monday morning.  Between catching up at school and prepping for the move…

It was our first trip back to Las Vegas, our most recent home, after almost an entire full year here in Jacksonville, our new home.  As the plane was descending into Las Vegas, I was reminded of one those “only in Vegas” phenomena that I was finally on the right side of.  Living in Las Vegas and traveling for work was a singularly annoying activity because only in Las Vegas does everyone applaud when the plane lands.  You are simply returning home to your workaday life, but you are surrounded by people filled with desperate longing for the vacation of a lifetime.  Cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Miami are fascinating to work in because people move there to be on permanent vacation – there is a different mindset and a different energy.  Anyhoo, last week, at least, we were happily clapping along with the rest of the vacationers.

I have written a lot (for 11 months of weekly blog posts) about my personal Jewish journey, but very little about my professional Jewish journey.  That hasn’t been for any reason other than I don’t expect there is much interest in my prior stops for my present, primary audience – stakeholders for the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  As I have eased my way into the blogosphere, I have felt more comfortable occasionally blurring the lines between the personal and the professional, although always cognizant that this is a professional blog.  I try to write in my own voice and with my own particular sense of humor.  I try to share the things that I am thinking about and, thus, make my private process public.  And sometimes I share something personal when I am so moved because that’s how I understand the meaning of authenticity.  Consider me so moved (and so jet-lagged).

This was, as I have said, my first trip back to Las Vegas since we moved to Jacksonville last summer.  In addition to having an opportunity to visit my parents, it was our first opportunity to return to the school I had the honor of helping create as its founding head. Almost six years ago, with a two-week old daughter in tow, we landed in Las Vegas to begin what turned out to be an extraordinary five-year adventure in almost every sense of the world.  There is little doubt that when, years later, I revisit the twists and turns of my professional career, my five years as founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas will stand out as uniquely fork-turning.


This is not a picture from my Bar Mitzvah – it is from my second year in Las Vegas during Simchat Torah.  Ah…how young we all were once!

It was wonderful to have an opportunity to visit my former school and even though school was already out, we got to see teachers, parents, and many friends on our trip. Maytal, our three year-old, didn’t really recognize her teachers from last year, but Eliana, our almost-six year-old, got to visit with almost all the teachers she had had from eighteen months on.  It was very intense walking through the doors of a place you had spent so much time and energy, but no longer belong to.  Part of me felt like I had never left; part of me felt like I had never been.  A colleague put it in perspective by reminding me that although the past year changed everything for me, for those still there…

By my third year, I used to tell the story of how during my first year, when we gathered as a school we took up less than one row of the Main Sanctuary.  14 First & Second Graders. By my fourth year…

…our first graduating class – almost as many students as we had to begin with.

The full story of that school’s creation is one that I am more than just personally interested in; it is the subject of my doctoral dissertation.  I am heading round the final turn entering my ninth (!) and final year as a doctoral student in the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Trying to write a doctoral dissertation while founding a new school, raising two young daughters, and then relocating cross-country for an amazing job opportunity is probably not the textbook move, but life rarely goes according to plan.  I mention all of this because the story of my time in Las Vegas and the (professional) lessons to be learned from it is nearly written and will be available in one form or another for those interested sooner than later.  I’ll have more to say as publication looms closer.

In the meanwhile, it was good to know that Las Vegas will continue to be a home of sorts for our family.  It was good to see my parents.  It was wonderful to see our old friends.  It was fun to be back in Las Vegas.  It was dangerous to eat so much kosher meat.  It was satisfying to see the school I helped found doing so well under the tried and true stewardship of others.  We will surely be back for future visits.  But as our plane descended last night into Jacksonville, I must say that, in my mind, I quietly applauded.

It is good to be home.


Self-Evaluation – The Ultimate Transparency

We had our final meeting of teachers and staff this morning to officially wrap up the 2010-2011 school year!  Woo-hoo!  School’s out…for summer!

But before we turn the page entirely on the year that was AND before we share some of the “Coming Attractions” for 2011-2012 (an upcoming, post-vacation blog post!), I thought I would take a final stab at transparency and share a reflection of how I thought I did this year in my first year as Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  [I reflected last week (here) about my adventures in 21st century learning this past year, but that is only one aspect of my role as head of school.]  What follows are actual excerpts from the self-evaluation I wrote and submitted to my “Head Support & Evaluation Subcommittee” as part of my overall evaluative process.  We have asked all of our teachers to post reflections of their years on our (closed) ning as part of promoting the value of shared reflection.  I want to do my part by sharing excerpts of my reflection for y’all (did that sound authentically southern enough?  It has almost been a year!):

Jon’s Self-Evaluation “Students”:

I think in this area we took a number of important first steps this year.  We created academic standards for each grade and subject by Winter Break and were able to disseminate benchmarks as part of the Admissions Process.  We created and disseminated a variety of survey instruments, failing only to send out and score an “Alumni Survey” for this year’s freshman class.

We have also taken great strides in our outreach to special needs families and in our current practice in putting together processes for dealing with the mechanics of delivering services.  We take it as a positive sign that KoleinuJax has gifted us (in collaboration with Jewish Family & Community Services and the Jewish Community Foundation of Northeast Florida) the monies necessary to expand our program next year by allowing us to hire and train additional support staff in classes where we have children with special needs.

One additional area I would like to improve upon for next year is my own personal investment in teaching and establishing relationships with students.  I taught First Grade Tefillah once a week this year; I may expand upon that next year.  I taught MS Tefillah once a week this year; I may seek to find additional opportunities to teach in the MS as well.  I take it as a positive sign that students have been sending me letters, emails and making appointments to meet with me when they have questions and concerns, but I would like to do a better job next year of working on developing meaningful relationships with my students.  It is a time management challenge (what isn’t!), but one worth solving.

Jon’s Self-Evaluation “Faculty”:

I think I have successfully implemented an evaluative process that has not been active in some number of years.  I believe we have created an environment where teachers have reached the higher bar we have mutually set.

My takeaway from the survey data from the faculty is that I have room for growth in providing more regular positive feedback.  I do not compliment as often as I would like to and because I am not shy about providing critique, it can create an imbalance.  My experience is that in time as we all get to know each other better it becomes less and less of an issue, but that does not mean I shouldn’t try harder to provide positive reinforcement.  Next year, I want to put up a bulletin board in the faculty room where we share positive thoughts with each other and then make it a personal goal to put one up a day.  That will create good habits.

I also want to make more of an effort to spend more time developing personal relationships.  It is so hard to find the time, but if I am serious about creating a family atmosphere it will be necessary.

We did a good job of providing professional development to our Jewish Studies Faculty.  We have provided more opportunities for teachers to teach each other during our Faculty Meetings which are now hosted by a different teacher each month in her classroom and has a theme.  I would like next year to try to send a few more teachers out to receive subject matter expertise that they can bring back – for example, Judy Reppert could attend a seminar and then lead a faculty meeting and share what she learned.  I would like our MS Faculty to serve more as “department chairs” for the Lower School in their areas of expertise.

Jon’s Self-Evaluation “Parents”:

Teaching “Parent University” and establishing a blog were two big goals for this year.  It takes a lot of time to keep up the weekly blogs and to prepare and teach the class, but it is worth it and then some.  The twice-yearly face-to-face meetings with parents yielded vital information and hopefully positively contributed to retention.

I also think I’ll be able next year to expand my reach into Shabbat and holiday programming which will better foster the school-shul relationship and the kinds of meaningful carryover we are all looking for.

I think, similarly to faculty, I could do a better job with volunteer recognition and appreciation.  I need to take the extra step to ensure that people feel appreciated for the volunteering they do.  I try hard now, but I think I can grow in making sure people feel they have my full attention whenever we are speaking.  My mind races a million miles an hour, but I don’t ever want a parent to feel that I am not keenly interested in their issue at the moment we are speaking.


So…that’s that!  I hope having an opportunity to peek inside my process from time to time is useful; it is for me!

I told the teachers this morning that I am typically as excited about summer vacation as they are…but honestly?  I am so enthusiastic about what is planned for next year that I almost wish we could skip to Pre-Planning…



And the winner is…all of us! (Part III)

Is it a cop out if I borrow an article I have already used this week to address the exact same topic if it is the final Friday of the school year?  I vote, “No!”

In Part I (found here), I made transparent and explained the results of our first Annual Parent Survey.  In Part II (found here), I made transparent and contextualized one important slice of our annual standardized testing results.  Finally, what I had intended for exciting conclusion in Part III (and shared already with our parent body) was to make transparent our faculty and staff assignments for the 2011-2012 school year.  This will be the team charged with taking all the data from Parts I & II to make next year the best year yet!

It is hard to believe that we are in the final days of the school year, but here we are.  It is time to take a peek at the future.  We don’t want to wish away our summer, but we are so excited at how next year is shaping up!  (The lineup is 99% complete and we will continue to work hard to fill the final two part-time positions in the upcoming weeks.) We are confident that the foundation built this year through all the hard work and love of this year’s faculty and staff will be carried on to the next level by the next year’s.  And so, without further adieu, be excited!

Here is the 2011-2012 Faculty of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School:

This is the team prepared to take on the next step of our school’s journey.  We are committed to partnering with parents, providing differentiated instruction, Hebrew language immersion, fostering Jewish identification, 21st century technology, and “a floor, but no ceiling” for each student in our school.  We will enjoy the last days of this school year, relax and prepare over the summer, and look forward to working with you when it is time to come back to school.  Next year is going to be something special!







P.S.  If you are in town, please don’t miss our Middle School Graduation this Monday evening at 7:15 PM!

P.P.S.  Please don’t miss out on a variety of creative programs here at the Center for Shavuot, but particularly don’t miss our first “Who’s Left Standing at Sinai?” contest on the June 8th during morning services!  I’ve been watching the kids practice their verses and its anybody’s guess who will win!

P.P.P.S.  Congratulations to our Third Grade for their wonderful end-of-year video and presentation of “Jacksonville Reads”!  Twenty-first century learning in action!

P.P.P.P.S.  Congratulations to our Fifth Grade for their wonderful end-of-year project “Facebook Profiles of the American Revolution”!  Even more twenty-first century learning in action!


.ה.   מַיִם עֲמֻקִּים, עֵצָה בְלֶב-אִישׁ; וְאִישׁ תְּבוּנה יִדְלֶנָּה

.כא.   רַבּוֹת מַחֲשָׁבוֹת בְּלֶב-אִישׁ; וַעֲצַת יְהוָה, הִיא תָקוּם

Where has the year gone?  How can we only have four weeks left to this amazing year?

We had our final official faculty meeting this week.  (We will have some post-planning days after school lets out, but this was the last “faculty meeting”.)  As we are preparing to transition from one year to another; as graduates are preparing to transition to new schools, as some faculty are preparing to transition to new assignments or new phases in life – with all the anxiety, emotions and excitement that come with transitions, I thought I would pause for a week.  (Thanks to my friends and colleagues from DSLTI-Cohort 4 who I stole most of this from!)

Instead of sharing a new idea or trying to spark a new conversation or announcing a new project or innovation, I want to share the text study we did together as a faculty this week.  In upcoming weeks, I’ll share results form our Annual Parent Survey.  I’ll talk about how well we did on our standardized test scores (we really did!) or the new initiative we are launching next year in special needs education (thank you KoleinuJax, Jewish Family & Community Services, and Jacksonville Jewish Foundation!) or our new mascot for athletics (debuting next month!) or new faculty for next year, etc., etc.  We’ll pick up on all those kinds of things next week.

Let’s look at the above two quotes, as we did as a faculty in our last meeting (here translated into English):

Proverbs 20:5

The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters,

but a person of understanding draws them out.

Proverbs 19:21

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is God’s purpose that prevails.


We used these two quotes, juxtaposed in this way, and discussed how they fit together.

Or how they don’t.  Or what strikes you about each one.  What do you think?


And if you have more time, sit with someone you care about and discuss the following questions, as we did in pairs on Tuesday afternoon:

  • What kinds of changes do you find yourself experiencing presently?  Are these changes you’ve initiated or changes that you are experiencing?
  • What helps you embrace change?
  • What obstacles do you find to embracing change?  How do you handle these obstacles?
  • How do you embrace change while preserving your core values—your sense of who you are and your commitments?
  • How do the above quotes fit with this conversation?

We have had an amazing year in 2010-2011…and next year is going to be even more amazing-er.  I look forward to telling you more about it next week.  I’ll leave you, as we ended our faculty meeting this week, with a favorite quote of mine by Dan Millman:

“Teachers and books have their value, and sources of guidance and inspiration may enter your life in different forms.  But never forget that the treasure is already inside you; others cannot give you anything you don’t already have; they can only provide the lens to your own inner wealth.  So listen well to those who speak from experience and embrace wisdom where you find it, but always weigh external guidance against the wisdom of your own heart.”

A restful and relaxing week to all…



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.)

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!

“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.

A Calm Before…

…I was going to say “storm,” but that seems a bit pejorative.  Surely the return of teachers to their sacred work is anything, but a “storm”.  However, “calm”?  The week before school?  Well that isn’t quite accurate either…

I’m back for seconds!  Although the raw number of readers is appropriately super-small considering there isn’t much reason for anyone outside of my school community to read what I’m writing, the fact anyone who didn’t “have” to read it, did, still amazes.  It only took one blog for me to realize the power of this new (to me) vehicle of communication.  I found each comment I received in response affirming and instructive – and I appreciate the fact that anyone had a spare moment to send it.  To be part of an unpredictable, ever-changing community of people who share a passion for teaching and learning is nothing less than invigorating.

And so here I sit with a week of summer left before my teachers return and two weeks before my students (still largely unknown to me as I enter my first year as head of this school) fill the hallways with the magical noise that only a school can create.  Items have been checked off the list.  Rooms have been painted.  Handbooks have been edited and await printing.  Teachers have been slowly popping in to get a head start on their rooms. Parents have been slowly popping in to get a head start on being good parents, organized for another year of schooling.

I always find this last week to be a liminal experience – poised between wistful longing for all the things I hoped to do over the summer and the nervous excitement about all that is about to happen.  It is one of those experiences that only those of us who have spent their entire lives on a school calendar can appreciate.  Each year at this time, I feel echoes of my younger student self – only instead of worrying about which color Trapper Keeper to buy, I worry about which iPad app to download.

And so to my colleagues, teachers, parents, and students, I wish you a restful week.  See that last matinee.  Spend those extra minutes with your family before night meetings begin.  Go eat some ice cream and watch the sun set.  Finish that book you were hoping to read this summer (or to my teachers “required” to read!).  Another summer draws to a close and a new school year prepares to begin.  Another opportunity for us all to be better than we were the year before.  Everything is possible.

A question: I have opened a Twitter account…I am just not sure why!  To those who tweet and those who follow…what am I missing?  Discuss…

Southern Hospitality

This is not the view from my office…but it is a view of my new home city – Jacksonville, FL.

“A Floor, But No Ceiling”

In the spirit of practicing what one preaches, I have entered the blogosphere.  I am a month into my new headship at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School after spending five years as the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.

I didn’t know it was possible to leave Las Vegas and find somewhere even more uncomfortable during the summer, but it is. Differences in humidity aside, my wife, two daughters and I are slowly adjusting to our new home.  We are enjoying the southern hospitality and warm welcome we have received.  I am enjoying getting to know the staff, parents, students, and teachers of my new school.

We are a 21st century learning school invested in the continuity of a five thousand year-old tradition.  Our attempts to marry the past and the future into an engaging present will largely be the focus of my blog.  I have teachers better qualified than I already blogging about the specifics of 21st century learning, technological innovation and global learning.  Once I learn how to link to their blogs, I invite you to read them with regularity.

Most of my blogging will center on experiences here at school, but I hope to be of interest to anyone interested in Jewish day school, Jewish education, education in general, and in the kinds of stuff I think happen to be interesting and worth sharing.  I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

Why “A Floor, But No Ceiling”?  Because it represents what I believe the purpose of education to be – to ensure each child fulfills his or her own individual maximum potentials in academic, emotional, physical, and spiritual terms.  There are appropriate benchmarks to determine minimum standards for each grade level, but our aims are higher.  That is simply the floor upon which we build.  For there to be no ceiling has direct implications about what we teach and how we teach it.  I hope to use this blog to discuss these ideas and more.

I look forward to learning how to best use my blog to communicate and to be in communication with others.  Comments are welcome.