Liberated Integration

Like a seed in a hotbed of tropic intensity, the idea of integrated units of study have been germinating in our building. Last spring we decided that we would dive into a commitment to develop our first iteration of grade level integrated units this winter.

Utilizing what would be identified as design thinking strategies, we began meeting as grade levels to grow these projects.

The evolution from end of the year meetings (with fatigued and perhaps creativity – sapped teachers), to August meetings with rejuvenated creativity – rich teachers was inspiring.

In those August meetings, we explored the next steps of the process with 6-8 grade teams in that order. We framed the meetings with a few important philosophical nuggets:

1. This is the first iteration. It can and will be great because of the people in this room. They will be flawed and have areas for great improvement. Get excited but be okay when it gets messy!

2. All about (growth) mindset! When we roll out with the kids, if the teachers get excited and bring the passion, the kids will respond to that stimulus.

3. Model the collaborative spirit we want our kids to learn.

4. Model the resilience and creativity we want our kids to develop.

5. Have fun.

At that point we talked about length, timing, themes, launch, and integration strategies.

The 6th grade meeting started where the spring meeting left off considering a novel as the basis. But upon deciding on a week long process, that lost steam, so we shifted to the story, Through the Tunnel, that has tremendous potential for integration, and that is likewise grounded in our core values as a school. In an instance the meeting became one of the most passionate, creative, intellectual collaborations in my 20 years in independent school education. Sitting back and listening to the talented group learn and build their vision together had us feeling tremendous optimism.

At the same time, we knew lightning would never strike twice as we moved on to the 7th grade meeting.

We were wrong. With the same framing, we had a different group of people in the room who directed their own process leading to the core being the movie Life is Beautiful. A thematic unit revolving around looking at different disciplines through different lenses and from various perspectives is a perfect fit for this group of deep- thinking, intellectual, learning- journey guides.

Unfortunately, we were certain that 8th grade wouldn’t find the same spark 6th and 7th found. Sparks that had the bunch of us walking around in a stunned euphoria at what had transpired in those gatherings.

Again, we were happily proven wrong as this team went in a different direction entirely, basing their unit on the simple questions What is valuable and what is value?

So while we all agreed on a thematic unit in winter based on some core element with planned launch activities and a liberated mindset, we now stand on the precipice of our first iteration.

There have been other steps in the interim, some lukewarm conversations at times when teachers were too focused on the present to think about a project 3 months away, some logistical tweaks and twiddles to bring vision as close to manifestation as possible, and some hiccups and ahas that will most certainly make the experience more meaningful for students and teachers, alike.

After this first pass, we will do what we always do.

We will celebrate

We will reflect

We will seek feedback

We will revise

We will make it better for the next iteration

In essence, we will be the learners we want our students to be, and model the processes of learning we want them to embrace and emulate.


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.