Choreography of Writing

Last week as I made my commute from the farm to school on a day that I would be teaching a writing lesson, I thought of a metaphor for teaching strategic, organized writing. 

While we still have remnants of a teaching era that spoke of formulaic writing like it was sour milk on their upper lip, we have evolved from that era all the wiser. 

Our wisdom led me to create a  metaphorical anecdote that has resonated nicely, so I thought I would share. 

Someone who is a gifted, beautiful dancer will look good dancing no matter what.  But put that dance talent to choreography and the results are awe inspiring, professional grade. 

Someone who can’t dance at all repulses the observer with the Elaine Bennis-esque movement.  Yet choreograph that person’s movement, and it can be nice. 

Providing strategies for development does the same for writers.  Beautifully gifted writers transcend their talent with  organizational choreography, while those less talented can still dance on the stage when their phrasing is well organized by the choreography of strategic development.

Further, those who are exposed to expert choreographical strategies can utilize those strategies in creating their own original compositions. Even the less innately talented can take away strategies with which they have become savvy if not expert through practice and be more beautiful in their expression.

Supporting Needs

It is a central part of the human condition to have needs that can only be addressed with outside support.  As educators, we always seek to identify what each child needs and provide that support so that each can achieve, succeed, be happy,  and share their gifts with the world.  

Whether a bright child needs support in making good social choices, or the socially savvy child needs support with handwriting, it is incumbent upon us to support the needs of all our children. 

I am often asked by young students “Mr. Rothstein, what do you do here?”   Or I have children who think I am only there when someone gets in trouble. 

I wouldn’t have left the classroom and athletic environs I loved so much for such a drab existence.  Rather, as I often explain in response, my role
is to make sure all students and teachers feel safe and comfortable so that teachers can teach and students can learn.  

Each day, we look to ensure these integral Maslowian needs.  The actionables in this important endeavor take many forms. The consistent piece is the mindset that what we are doing is what is ultimately best for our students.  

Sometimes, the pursuit of this daily objective requires difficult conversations with students, teachers, and parents.  But we rest assured that as passionate and committed educators, the outcome, the end goal is worth tackling the challenging moments with optimism. 

In doing so, we likewise model for our students the importance of conviction, of having courage to know a challenge faces us, yet we proceed with energy and confidence that fearlessly charging forward offers opportunities for meaningful results for everyone involved. 

Does everything always work out? Not remotely.  Yet the growth minded, positive, student – centered approach always yields feelings of purpose and accomplishment regardless of outcome. 


So the word gibush loosely means “icebreaker”, which ultimately reflects the goal of our beginning of the year 8th grade retreat.

But this group, the Davis class of 2016 (holy shnikies 2016?), needs no ax or pick, nor thoroughly developed icebreaking activities.  They are a galvanized bunch as we confirmed over those 48 hours this week.

Being a chatty crew is both a gift and a curse.  But the gift of it far outweighs the curse.  They are tightknit, friendly, comfortable and fun.  They also know how to be serious in small groups, and how to show archetypal ruach as a whole.

While the whole group dynamic reveals their spirit, fun, and energy, the small group dynamic reveals that this is a group stocked with leadership, wisdom, and passion for Judaism, scholarship, and Davis.

While some were in the lake splashing, on the ropes swinging, or flat out competing in the Gaga pit, others were expressing creativity, discussing tefilla, and brainstorming CLIMB projects.  

The chochma and kavod displayed in the tefilla and CLIMB discussions were of such powerful quality, that the adults in the room talked about capturing the moment in a bottle for later use.  The kids were fabulous. 

When asked to either purposefully or randomly select a passage from the prayer book to discuss, the depth and courage that our 2016ers showed reflected the combination of their personal maturity and the foundational values we teach, practice and celebrate every day at Davis.  When discussing their 8th grade CLIMB project topics, once again, the passion for knowledge, creative verve, and values driven process exemplified what this group, the Davis class of 2016 is all about. 

The highlight for me, beyond the above mentioned moments was the campfire singing and dancing.  58 friends, led by Rabbi Micah and his guitar, accompanied by their teachers, danced, sang, hugged, high fived, fist pumped and laughed around the fire with such blind immersion into the moment that they were not aware of the iconic experience they were creating. Fortunately, I was able to capture a brief one minute video to share with them later.  Again, this is a tight knit group whose energy is infectious. 

When I arrived home after the retreat I found myself both exhausted and invigorated.  This group-their energy, their fun, their curiosity, their wisdom, their love of their kehilla- has our excitement for the year at a high level.

A Typical Friday

As I walked the halls past our youngest classrooms enroute to get the kids and head home, I briefly started my daily reflection on the days events.  It was a fairly normal Friday for me, but it occurred to me that fairly normal at Davis is likely unique at most schools. 

At most lower schools, having over 500 students, teachers, administrators, and parents all together as a community in a room, singing, sharing spiritual moments, and a guest storyteller with a guitar, would be a unique community event.  While uniquely special every time we gather, we do this every Friday morning.  Our kehilla (community) shares its collective ruach (spirit) with such genuine passion.

I then traveled to our middle school and enjoyed a similar, but adolescent age appropriate gathering where our ensemble led us in song, our teachers performed, and again we shared prayer, stories and anecdotes reflecting our values as a community. 

Following our weekly Kabbalat Shabbat, our Athletic Director took the opportunity to speak with our fall athletic teams to congratulate them on a terrific start to the season (4-1 overall on day one of the season), and to celebrate the importance of  sportsmanship and respect in competition.   This was not a planned assembly, but an opportunity we found to celebrate and teach our students.  The Kavod (respect) we inspire in our student athletes exemplifies our commitment to our values. 

While classes were in session, not all the learning was happening in classrooms.  In the middle school, our 6th graders were on a quest throughout the building using iPads to capture on video or in stills images that exemplify the multitude of prepositions in the English language.  Led by their lead pirate, @SteinatDavis who was attired in full regalia, their learning was authentic and unique.  But our buildings might as well be pirate ships, because this sort of learning happens daily.

Soonafter, I had one of my favorite impromptu conversations with one of our teachers about how he can better share his passion for talmud with his students.  While his energy and love of the content is immeasurable, and the mutual affection between him and his students unwavering- he seeks a deeper connection and experience for himself and his students.  An exemplar of what it means to teach at Davis.

Our teachers and students’ passion for chochma (wisdom) exemplifies who we are as a community of learners.

When I returned to the lower school, I happened past a classroom where a number of teachers were having lunch.  Laughing, sharing, enjoying each others company- surely they planned this meal together.  No- just another example of the beautiful chemistry of our community.  And while plans for the weekend after a week of back to school night events were part of the conversation, these educators spoke as enthusiastically about their love of the students and excitement for the learning that occurred during the week. 

Inarticlable energy in the classroom, fabulous collaboration and cooperation among teachers, administrators, and parents, creative learning experiences in the classroom and out, and a warm community feeling highlighted this day.  Everyone in our community is committed to the important Tzedek (righteous service) that is unifying a community and educating our children.

Today wasn’t the exception, but rather the norm at Davis. Nevertheless, each day feels like a special celebration of who we are as a community. 

Lenses of Discipline

A few years back, I spoke to a new group of middle schoolers on the first day of school and shared with them a message about discipline.

 I remember walking into the room with a seriousness in my gait, and a purpose on my countenance.   I announced to the group of adolescence with great drama that I was there to “Talk about Discipline”. It was my intention to show a theatrical sterness in large part to demystify my perceived role as disciplinarian.

As I garnered their collective attention, I proceeded to talk about the different meanings of the word discipline, depending on purpose.

We started with the one they expected that I was there to discuss- the verb.  The action of disciplining someone for a behavior that is not acceptable.   Of course, I only touched on this one briefly as I was there to inject optimism and excitement for the year, not to lecture on behavior.

Next I defined discipline as a noun- as in the various disciplines they would learn about, study, create for- and hopefully develop a passion for during their year. I allowed for many questions and comments about this form of the word.

Next, we discussed how it takes discipline to become an expert in a discipline. Both a nice epiphany and apropos segue into my central message.

Finally, we made the connection between the first two, and discussed the intangible of personal discipline. That we all have the ability to be disciplined in a way that we can channel energy, passion, and efforts in a focused process for the benefit of learning and growing represented a novel and compelling understanding of this word that had previously primarily conveyed a negative connotation.

Growth requires passion, effort, ability, and opportunity – no doubt. But ultimately, those who can add an unwavering discipline to the list stand the best chance of achieving and exceeding.


I taught Thomas Hardy ‘s serial novel  Far From the Madding Crowd for many years.  In it, the theme of the inevitable tragedy of life is significant to elements of the plot.  I always spoke to my students about this life theme.  Always with the focus on how we endure tragedy rather than the tragedy itself. 

Considering my conviction that one’s ability to interpret literature and to create it depends entirely on one’s own life experience providing a context, vocabulary, and empathy, I typically had to provide hypothetical anecdotes for my adolescent learners.  

Unfortunately, I had some experience with the inevitable tragedy of life as a 17 year old as I lost my grandmother, aunt and mother that year.  Certainly impactful on life.  My endurance of those losses was tumultuous at best. 

One week ago, I got the call  that my father had passed away of a heart attack while recovering from a “one for the medical journals” type surgeries to repair an abnormality usually detected in children before they are 12 years old.  He lived 75 years with the condition.   When I asked one of the doctors amongst the masses coming through to see the drawings of how this procedure was done, and to meet the man who had it done on him, she told me that the surgery never would have been done on a man my dad’s age.  She asked me what my dad’s goal was once he recovered.  I told her ” he wants to get back on a spin bike”.  She shook her head accentingly, “they wouldn’t do this so he could sit on the sofa clicking a remote”.  It was a massive risk, and my dad who was a surgeon for 40 years was scared. But he showed courage by going for it anyway. 

This is getting harder to write right now, yet the catharsis is so important to the enduring this loss. 

My dad and I were close.  More so in the last 10 years than before.  In the last week, when I have had a thought that would typically have me grab my phone to call him, I have found myself the most saddened. 

I spoke last week at my father’s funeral, and I wanted to share the thoughts I shared with so many who loved him that day. 

Sometimes death brings people to a realization that they loved that person more than they realized.   I’m not one of those people. I know exactly how I feel about my dad. 

This is bittersweet as he always had a quiet way of bringing people together, even though he was married twice to women who weren’t so quiet in anything they did.  So here we all are. I wouldn’t say it is wonderful to see you all, but often funerals are gatherings that bring long separated friends and families together.  The great paradox.  It is what I tried to tell Ryder and Juliette. Very sad people will be very happy to meet you. Give lots of hugs.  I am reminded of what Jeff Goldblum says  in The Big Chill.  They throw a great party for you the one day they know you can’t come. 

I hope one day far in the future my children will be standing in front of friends and family with the same love in their heart for me that I feel now for my dad.  He set the bar high for me, and everyday, I try to be the best man I can be for my family.  I learned that from him.

Thank you all for being here.  So many familiar faces, brings back such memories, evokes even more emotion than I already carry with me today.  But I am here today because of the man who raised me, a challenging task as most of you know, and the man who supported me through even the darkest times, celebrated with me during the happiest.  And became more than my dad, but a close friend in recent years. 

My dad was a scholar and a teacher.  Yes, he shlepped teeth, but I always felt he was the ultimate scholar and I learned so much from him that I likewise aspire to teach my children. 

I hope some of these thoughts will resonate with you and give comfort in the memories they evoke. He instilled in me a  love of food and that food is love. We shared a passion for sports, especiall football, the game he taught me which has had such an impact on who I have become. Just last week we had our  yearly guarded optimism conversation about  our beloved Eagles.

Scholarship was integral to my father’s life. He showed his passion for learning particularly in his pursuit of knowledge about the Holocaust. While a virtual expert on this topic, supported by an impressive home library, he always had an open mind when others suggested alternative ideas. He was more learner than expert.

His commitment to Judaism manifested itself not only in his teachings to me and my sisters, his conservative practices, and his scholarly pursuits, but in his leadership in organizations that supported Israel, synogogues, and American Jewery. Two synogogues benefited from his generosity in their building processes. In fact, as a surgeon in a lower middle, lower class community, he often encouraged those who couldn’t pay him to “make a donation to your shul” as payment.

Family first focus, hard work, resilience, goal orientation- all further set the bar high for me.

In times of sadness, children are such a blessing. When we learned of my dad’s passing, both my children were trying to figure out the “off switch” for our tears.

Our last talk was  on Thursday night. We made plans for him to come spend time with our 7th graders when they study the Holocaust. He was excited for that visit.

He won’t be there, but part of his legacy will as a portion of his magnificent library will now become part of our school collection. A tribute to his passion for the Holocaust, Jewish education and his grandchildren.

Many know that I drive quite a way to work each day. It reminds me of going to Flyers games with my dad as a kid.   There is something special about my 45-70 min commute from the farm to Davis each day.  I get to spend it with my kids. Those drives to watch our favorite hockey team were likewise special.

 For some, this is a particularly complicated time.  Dynamics make this so.  There is potential for regret, for anger- I chose not to feel those things because what is really important to feel is sadness that he is gone and happiness in remembering his part in our lives.  There is no room for anything else. 

I am comforted that he is now with his 2 best childhood friends, Mel and Barry.  Likewise Uncle Jerry, Arnie, Uncle Bill Lewis, my mom and Uncle Irv are waiting with open arms.

So thank you all for being here.  My dad was a very humble man- he would never have expected this, but he certainly was deserving. 

The inevitable tragedy of life affects us all. But how we choose to endure it further defines both us and those we have lost. My dad was loved by many. I take comfort in that. He set the bar high for me. I continue to pursue those heights and thus endure in a way that shows love and respect for him.

Culture Breeds Growth

The climate and culture at our school genuinely exists on an unwavering foundation of trust, respect, growth-mindedness, transparency, and passion.   There is no better manifestation of these components of our community than our approach to professional development.  First, it is important to note that we are truly a community of learners as exemplified by the universal thirst for knowledge among our faculty.  Within the last 14 months, large groups of  faculty and staff have attended MICON (Martin Institute for Excellence in Teaching), ISTE, GISA, AATEC (which we hosted), GISL (which we also hosted), GAETC, ASCD, and multiple EdCamps.  Further, in addition to our powerful presence as attendees, many of our professionals have also been leaders at these professional learning conferences as presenters.   (9 member of our community presented at MICON15). In addition, our community has a strong Twitter presence in the education realm of that social media universe.  Many of our teachers participate in multiple weekly educational twitter chats and once again, we are leaders in that realm as well, as many of our educators serve as moderators for some of biggest education chats in the world, including #TLAP, #COLChat, and #ENGChat.

Second, our approach to professional development during the school year is unique in that all offerings, which are GADOE approved PLU courses, are developed and led by our own faculty and staff.  Last year, we offered 8 strands that provided fresh, immediately applicable, relevant strategies for our teachers to continue to grow and improve the school experience for everyone in our Kehilla in real time.  Because the courses are developed and led by people who know and are invested deeply in our community, the relevance piece is never forced or ambiguous.   The courses are created with our school foremost in our minds.

Finally, our approach to whole group professional development reflects the first two approaches.   Our faculty meetings follow the model of professional education conference sessions both in practice and in content.  Since our faculty members choose one or two of the 8 strands, we offer each facilitator an opportunity to present to the whole faculty once a year so that everyone can get a taste of the course.   These presentations reflect good pedagogy in their delivery, often with some dissemination of information, followed by activities, discussion, creation, and collaboration.   We have these PD strand focus meetings every other session where the whole faculty is together.  For the sessions that are not PD strand focused, we develop programming that is fresh, relevant and once again Davis-focused.   Our first half-day of PD on October 31st, we held our first #Edcamp Davis.  Following the Edcamp model, our teachers posted and facilitated conversations about topics that were important to them.  We learned together and from each other.  Later in the year.  we had our “Things that Suck” meeting.  No meeting has exemplified the trust, respect, and transparency that exists here better than this meeting.   Members of our faculty had the opportunity to speak openly and candidly about some polarizing topics without any fear of reprimand.  This candor once again allowed all of us to learn from each other, for us as an administration to get some important “straight talk” from our faculty, and for everyone to once again model the respect for and embracing of different opinions. With our re-accreditation year coming up, we also use these meeting times to get our people in small groups to talk about topics relevant to our re-accreditation, and to gather from them meaningful feedback about our school.  Other meetings included an intro to Design Thinking and our annual Ted Talk afternoon when faculty and staff get to choose from a collection of relevant and meaningful Ted talks that had been selected by a small group of colleagues to share with the whole. Discussions followed each viewing.

Finally, an informal piece that is quite powerful is the steady flow of sharing that exists throughout the year.   Articles, videos, technology tools, etc- we are always sharing, receiving, discussing, and envisioning through a sharing process that keeps us connected, learning, and growing.

Ultimately, the vibrancy of our learning community rests on these pillars of trust, respect, passion, transparency, and growth-mindedness.  As such, our professional development philosophy and practices directly reflect these values.